Posted by: patenttranslator | February 17, 2014

Translation Is Not Just About Words


On surface, it would seem that unlike translation quality, translation quantity can be measured quite easily: you can measure it based on the number of words, lines, or pages.

From the viewpoint of the corporate translation agency model, translation is just another commodity that can be bought and then sold at a higher price, for example based on a unit called word count. It is important to keep the price of these words low at the point when they are purchased from workers called translators, and high at the point when they are sold to clients.

Among new tricks in the arsenal of ploys used by some translation agencies are computer-assisted  translation tools (CATs), which instead of being used to facilitate processing of largely mechanical and routine operations can now be used also to deny payment to translators for what is called in the industry “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, i.e. similar or identical words.

Because the world is seemingly full of translators, and translation is a largely an unregulated business activity in many countries, some translation agencies became experts at finding would-be translators, often in third world countries, whose main if not only strength is that they are much, much cheaper than their more qualified and experienced colleagues.

These translation agencies then ask qualified and experienced translators to “edit” at a low hourly rates the disastrous results of the work of such would-be translators. I started calling them zombie translators in my posts, and to my delight, this new term is now popping up on blogs and in discussions of translators on social media.

Some agencies believe that machine translation, which can be used to obtain a rough simile of human translation at an even lower price first, namely usually for free, can then be then edited and licked into shape by a human processor of words “translated” by a machine.

All of this is just a natural result of the concept according to which translation is just another commodity that can be easily measured in units called words, words that can be bought at a low price, the lower, the better, and then sold at a higher price. The greater the margin between the price at which this commodity is purchased and the price at which it is sold to a user, the better, of course, for businesses selling these words.

It is easy to measure commodities, such as bananas or sausages. All you have to do is weigh them in kilograms or pounds.

But translation is a very different type of commodity, if we want to call it that, because translation represents a type of a particular commodity called information. Information is something that may not be easily measured based on the number of words or lines contained in it. One could also say that information is the most important commodity in the world, because it is the lifeblood of our civilization. That is why information is being hoarded, usually in secret, because an unlimited amount of information provides an almost unlimited power to those who possess this information. Cardinal Richelieu said it best almost four centuries ago:”Give me six lines written by the most honorable of men, and I will find a reason in them to hang him“.

Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by trivial and mostly useless information, often in the form of advertising that is packaged as information by our wonderful media. Mistranslated and incomprehensible information is like blood that is infected with a virus that will eventually kill us.

There are no full or fuzzy matches in translation, because translation is not about words. Words, lines, or pages are just a convenient quantifier that can be used to simplify the buying and selling process.

Some people think that as a profession, translation is doomed because most or possibly all translators will be eventually replaced by computers, which is something that happened to many professions in the last few decades. If it was possible to replace most human bank clerks and travel agents by machines and computers, the same fate must inevitably await also translators.

But machines and software can only replace humans who perform routine, repetitive operations that can be broken down into many individual steps and replicated by a software programmer who can then write a software package seamlessly simulating these operations.

Human thinking includes many operations that can be described as routine and repetitive. But the result of human thinking at the point where things actually make sense is never a routine. For some reason, new information is often discovered at the end as a result of human thinking when two contradictory ideas are being considered. At end of the processing of two contradictory instructions by a computer, the computer crashes instead of arriving at new information.

This new information is something that cannot be easily quantified, for instance in words, lines, or pages, or replicated by software.

In fact, it is one of those ephemeral things that cannot be really measured at all.


  1. While I applaud your lonely voice speaking out against the tyranny of Trados and its imitators, I would like to speak up myself in defence of machine translation. Of course you are right about the ‘zombie translators’ and the tactics of agencies, but macine translation is much maligned. Obviously you would not translate Proust with it, but for certain kinds of text it is now an indispensable tool. One thing I have noticed is that machines now read strings of numbers more accurattely than humans – more accurately than I do, anyway. So if I have a job with lists of numbers – a table of gene markers, for instance, recently – I naturally use a machine translation programme to generate it and cut and paste it. Is there some kind of reason I don’t know about why copying the numbers out by hand is better? Honour to labour or something? That may seem like a trivial example, but it is the thin end of the wedge. Routine translations include the majority of legal documents, for instance, and Google has bought huge databases of legal texts which have been expertly translated by the best available human translators. Why not take advantage of this? And what about pages of dull technical data? Specifications of a computer system, say? Back in the stone age I used to do a pre-translation routine translating all the occurences of ‘and’, ‘the’, ‘of’ and so on, simply to save time typing. Then I discovered that you could automate this with a Word macro. As I had written all the text myself, I could see when it hadn’t worked, but basically this is a very simliar procedure to using machine translation. It saves time typing, and even iif as often happens, you need to rewrite a passage completely, at least it has put it all into paragraphs and done the layout for you. But that gets me on to a real pet hate of mine, namely the fact that agencies now universally expect you to do complex formatting as a free additional service. But let;s not get on to that subject.


  2. @Christopher

    I use machine translation all the time. I love it because it can be used to do things that can be quite difficult for human translators, especially when we are talking about languages as radically different from each other as Japanese and English.

    For example, because Japanese counts large numbers in units of ten thousand (a million is hundred times ten thousand), translating prices in financial budgets from Japanese to English is a major nightmare. But MT never makes mistakes in these cases. MT can also estimate quite correctly the likely pronunciation of a Japanese name, which is another horror for human translators. Since there are many potential variants for character combinations in names, MT simply picks the most like one, which can be in some cases difficult even for a native Japanese speaker. It also saves me a lot of time for example when I translate chemical patents from Japanese because MT almost always gets the names of long chemical compounds right, and there are many other ways to use MT when you are a translator.

    But I don’t think that MT will replace human translators the way ATMs replaced most human clerks in banks, or that editing of MT is the way to go when what you are looking for is a really good translation.

    It is just a tool, a tool that is much more sophisticated than a macro, for example, but nevertheless, only a tool that will never replace human translators, with the exception of simple, highly repetitive translations, especially if accuracy is not a major concern.

    And remember, the reason why GoogleTranslate is something so incredibly good is the fact that it shows you a translation that was originally done by a very good human translator.

    But when GT does not have an exact match from a human translator, it often gives us incredibly bad, absurd and hilarious “translations”.


  3. I can’t find a single idea to disagree with.
    Perhaps I’m just experiencing an overly-mellow day :).


  4. As a one-time chemical patent translator and chemical patent attorney, I note Steve’s delicate qualification “almost” in the middle of “MT almost always gets the names of long chemical compounds right”. I’d lower “almost always” to “frequently”, but YMMV, depending on the material you’re translating.


  5. @Derek

    To be sure, MT of course also sometime guesses wrong the correct pronunciation of Japanese names based on the characters, and so do native speakers of Japanese. The only way to make sure that we have the right pronunciation is to ask the person about it.

    And chemical compounds can be sometime identified correctly in two ways.

    Nevertheless, this translator of Japanese patents still considers MT a major blessing.


  6. Hello, I’ve been following your blog for some time now but have never commented. I felt prompted to today when I stopped by to check for any new posts from you and saw this recent one, “translation is not just about words”. I found it funny, even synchronistic :-), because I had just finished up and posted my very first blog post on my new website, and I was writing just about this, that “translation is not just about words”. And then I came here. No, translation cannot be quantified. There is something intuitive, or unconscious about it, just as there is something intuitive or unconscious when people generally write.


  7. @ Phyllis

    Thank you for commenting.

    Yes, synchronicity makes the world go round, although some think that it’s mainly money.


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