Posted by: patenttranslator | June 16, 2014

Why Do People Want To Do Away with the Translating Profession?

Certain professions, while they may be necessary, are not very popular. Politicians, tax collectors, or executioners, for example. The reasons why these professions are not very popular are pretty self-explanatory. We hate politicians because the slimy bastards keep lying to us, tax collectors because, directed by politicians, they steal our money, and executioners … because they have such a scary occupation.

Some professions are considered by some people to be redundant to the point of being silly. For a profession, anyway. Taxi drivers, for instance. Is that really a profession? Somebody who does not think so invented a new “app” for smart phones called “Uber” (is that name derived from the Zarathustrian and later Hitlerian concept of “übermensch”?), which simply replaces taxi drivers by regular, non-professional civilians who can drive each other to where they need to go in their own car.

Taxi drivers in London and Paris and other places felt it necessary to go on strike last week to defend their livelihood and the dignity of their profession, while people all over the world who don’t need to take a taxi anywhere were watching it as just another kind of entertainment on their otherwise extremely boring teevee.

I don’t know whether taxi drivers can be replaced by a phone app. It is probably possible that they will be, since just about anybody who can drive a car also has a smart phone. And it is also quite possible that the “Uber” phone app will be replaced by driverless cars within a few years.

Other professions that are not very popular include for instance dentists, lawyers, and some types of medical doctors, such as proctologists, but also psychologists. The reasons for this are again quite evident – we tend not to like people who stick their hands into our body orifices, or who mostly just talk for a living, especially if they can charge us a lot of money for it.

But why do people dislike my profession to the point that they would want to do away with it, I wonder? Although most translators don’t make a whole lot of money, never did, and probably never will, several generations of people have been trying to get rid of our profession for more than a half century now.

First they thought that they would get rid of human translators (HT) with machine translation (MT). Many people still think that the days of human translators are numbered because of MT. But it turns out that the more people use MT, the more they need HT for real translation that actually makes sense.

Although MT is already good enough for some applications, albeit only to a limited extent, human translation is here to stay for the time being, at least for a few more decades, probably forever.

So if human translators cannot be replaced by machines, at least not in the foreseeable future, can they be replaced by a phone app combined with non-translators who can translate, in the same manner as taxi drivers may be ultimately replaced by a phone app combined with people who can drive although they are not taxi drivers? There are attempts to achieve exactly that. As I wrote in a post 3 months ago, the new efforts to eliminate human translators are based on the concept of crowdsourced editing of machine translation, namely the idea that the minor imperfections of machine translation, such as when they make no sense whatsoever, can be corrected by humans who don’t really need to be translators at all as long as they have some knowledge of two languages, and who should be able to make these corrections on their cell phones for something like 1 or 2 cents per word.

This may sound like a good idea to somebody who knows nothing about translation, such as the geniuses who create these new concepts of translation a distribution system that is used to assign editing tasks to amateur non-transaltors who then check the translation for “errors and stylistic inconsistencies”. It may even sound like a good idea to poor suckers who will invest in these new applications whose purpose is to replace translators by “people who can translate”.

Are these new systems, which are based on the concept of replacing relatively expensive translators by much cheaper non-translators, going to work?

One difference between the concept of replacing taxi drivers by non-taxi drivers and the concept of replacing translators by non-translators is that most of the non-taxi driver replacements, who are much cheaper than real taxi drivers, in fact do know how to drive.

Even I could become one of the non-taxi drivers. I am not a very good driver, but I do have a driver’s license and although I drive every day, I was involved in a traffic accident only once when an inebriated senior citizen was pulling his car off the curb where he was parked in front of his favorite Irish pub without checking first for oncoming traffic. He was smart and sober enough to flee the scene in a car that was almost as ancient as himself, but his insurance company eventually had to pay me for the damage.

But translating is not driving. Translating is a little bit more complicated than driving.

Last week I was working on two German patents describing an automated system for distribution of pallets with an industrial truck in a warehouse, today I am working on translation of a German patent involving a method for detection and correction of errors during transmission of data between a base station and a mobile station, and two days from now I will be translating a Japanese patent about complicated chemical processes that can be used to create a new synthetic product at a lower cost.

Translating is a little bit more complicated than driving. Translators who could be replaced by amateur non-translators relatively easily probably have been already replaced by MT because the texts that they were translating were probably not very complicated, and the accuracy of the translation was probably not very important.

But even though machine translation of the patents that I am translating now in the year 2014 has been available for about two decades now, and MT is already so good that I can use it basically in the same way that I use dictionaries, this human translator of patents is still here, and so are thousands of other highly specialized human translators.

I don’t see new innovative applications aimed at eliminating relatively expensive human translators by combining a phone app with thousands of cheap human amateurs working on their laptops as much of a thread.

It turns out that it is not so easy to do away with human translators. I would not invest a penny in one of these brand new and incredibly innovative concepts. I think that these new companies will eventually go bankrupt, and my guess would be that it will not take very long.


  1. Uh Steve, I think that almost certainly should be “pallets” and not “palettes”. I’ll assume that is your spell-notchecker thinking it’s being helpful, rather than you, though.


  2. @Derek.

    Thanks. This is what happens to people who learned French before they learned English.

    What would I do without you?


  3. Once again, thank you for your article. I had noticed this new trick myself, and I must acknowledge, I almost fall for it. Anyway, receiving so many different projects and working on such relatively distant topics from one moment to the other is a huge reward for professional translators. One of many.


  4. As you have shown, Steve, the main problem is one of differentiation between translation and ‘converting text from one language into another’.
    In many, if not most cases, the model driven by agencies will delivery a product of ‘fair and average quality’, using a mixture of professional translators and bi-linguals of variable capability, without a client’s knowledge.

    However, part of that $4 Billion dollar market for translation requires translation that can be trusted to be expert, reliable and safe. Your field of expertise is a good example, Steve. We don’t consult a nurse when we think we have a serious medical problem, do we?

    The contradiction between the claims by large LSPs of ‘only employing highly qualified professional translators as part of the team’, and the reality of often using casual free-lance operators who happen to respond to their blind auction with the cheapest offer, defines the problem only too clearly.
    Of course, WE know that, and the LSPs know that, but does the client?

    The response to my enquiry sent to the EU contracting agency for translation services, suggests they either do not know or do not care (“it is up to the tenderer to ensure that the professionals listed in their tender offer, do the work”). Yeah, right!

    The problem today, promoted by companies with a vested interest, is that a translator is a translator is a translator…., whereas you and I, and the companies themselves, know that this is not the case.

    Everybody knows the difference between a doctor and a nurse, a bookkeeper and an accountant, a lawyer and a para-legal, etc. for any true profession.

    It is up to us to develop and promote a clear distinction between professional translators and free-lance bi-linguals pretending to be professional translators, rather than leaving it up to the translation ‘industry’ to keep everyone thoroughly confused about this issue.


  5. […] Certain professions, while they may be necessary, are not very popular. Politicians, tax collectors, or executioners, for example. The reasons why these professions are not very popular are pretty …  […]


  6. In my opinion, those who declared war on our profession came and are coming from within.

    The thing is, the world is transitioning. People are still riding the whole social-technological wave, but it is starting to fade. Even the more established (anti-)social networks are starting to notice this shift. The next evolutionary step is people starting to understand that they don’t really need middlemen (or women), but this is a process that will take time. People are still holding on to their old habits, the technology and social mechanisms are still not there yet, and there are no “rules” or conventions, there are issues of trust, etc. and a lot of confusion. This is partly because the web as a platform is quite broken and would be better off redesigned – but this is a topic for another discussion.

    This void is filled by middlemen who try to mask the fact that they are the same good-old middlemen by wearing a new technology suit. Uber is a good example of the damages a technology can cause by disrupting the market not because it offers a superior solution or improves lives, but simply because there are people who are willing to fund this idea to short-term benefit of its proponents, and support it from the social-technology tribe(s).

    Crowdsourding is nothing new, it used to serve as a mean to get one’s community involved. Nowadays it is also used to get something for nothing (or next to nothing). The quality of service is not important, the joy of using technology (and for some the feeling that they are big boys, who can also do a meaningful work out of the comfort of their own toilet without investing in education or facing the real world; for others it is the feeling that they are screwing the system; that they are living on the edge – completely unaware that they are actually the most conformists of us all).

    The common denominator? They are all startups (although the definition of startup today has changed, as every unemployed kid that managed to print a some cheap business cards and has “an idea” is now the CEO of new and exciting startup). Indeed, some are a joke, but those who manage to cajole funding are now playing with other people’s money, so they don’t care. Not their money, not their risks. If they fail? They will move on to their next “startup” and they will continue to play with other people’s money. When trying to schmooze people for money there are several tiers. One of the first tiers (before going to suck to VCs, incubators, etc.) is called in the startup circles “friends, family, and fools”. This sums up pretty well what they think of their investors; although they will never dare to say this to a VC, private or institutional investor, of course.

    Technology trends come and go in waves. Each wave lasts about 5-10 years. Nobody is trying to do away with the human translator because they are unnecessary, they do it because they see an opportunity to squeeze the social-technology wave to their benefit. The financial benefits are short-term (i.e. good for them), and the long-term damages to society and translators? Who cares if by then they will be ruining other people’s lives. Translation is a lucrative enough low hanging fruit, and therefore is targeted.

    Many of the technology hoaxes that are going on today are very similar to the Y2K bug hoax that took place just 15 years ago and gave the Cobol programmers their last hurrah. Apparently, no one wants to learn from history. This was (not incidentally) also close to the burst of the .com bubble. This is how technology abuse and trends go. Creating an artificial problem and growth, just to burst it after a while, leaving the careless fools who put the technology before the human expertise to pay the bill. Money was made in the short-term, but the damages are long-term. Translation technology abuse is no different.


  7. “This was (not incidentally) also close to the burst of the .com bubble. This is how technology abuse and trends go. Creating an artificial problem and growth, just to burst after a while, leaving the careless fools who put the technology before the human expertise to pay the bill. Money was made in the short-term, but the damages are long-term. Translation technology abuse is no different.”

    And this is also exactly how it worked in the real estate bubble, which burst after a few short golden years in 2007.

    Seven years later, we are still recovering from that particular bubble, and God knows whether we will be “made whole” seven years from now.

    The people who designed that particular bubble, mostly the banksters, made out like the bandits that they are, leaving the rest of us to hold the bag. Tthere were 3 foreclosure on my block, and my next door neighbor is still seriously “under water”, which means that his mortgage is way more than what he could get for his house.

    Fortunately for us, we bought our house 13 years ago, but people who came here more recently are still in trouble.


    • It all usually starts by allowing people to play with other people’s money and take risks on other people’s – sometimes people who are not even involved in the decision making – behalf.

      What pisses me off with the technology tribe in the translation market is that the developers have recruited (I probably need to use the word bought) people from within the translation profession, sometimes from its dark allies, and use them to pretend to speak on behalf of the translation, and spin professional information just to share it as an “insider secret” for the purpose of portraying professional translators as greedy, lazy bastards who steal money from their honest, hard working clients. Their campaign fits the economical climate, and this is not a coincidence either.

      I just don’t understand how these people fail to understand that they are being played, being used, and as soon as the translation fruit will become a little stale, they will be left behind to start dealing with the mess that they are left.

      The web exists about 20-years now, but it was really started to gain traction in the start of the millennium. Only now researches into the damages of the poor “internet” language and its affect of expression and comprehension ability are starting to be made. 15 to 20-years from now we will have researches examining the damages of the electromagnetic radiation, and its indirect effects on costs. Once this translation-technology craze will pass, there will be assessment made to the damages and costs of technology-based translation (one can already gather some information on the cost of poor-human translation, which the technology just replaces). Costs and damages don’t just disappear, they are shifting. The game here is not about creating a utopian world, and these people don’t act out of altruistic motives, it is all about shifting costs.


  8. There is a relatively new word in Czech that can be translated directly into English as “tunneling”.

    Tunneling is what has been happening in the economies of Russia and former Soviet block countries for about the last two decades. It is one reason why economies in many of those countries are in bad shape.

    Many people became millionaires in these countries by tunneling their way into taxpayers’ money.

    This is how it works: you come up with a great idea, for example how to turn around a moribund factory that urgently needs financing.

    You then go to government officials, pay bribes if you have to, get financing from taxpayers and start your new project, the bigger, the better. Even though it is clear from the beginning that the whole idea is a joke, if you get the money and keep the project alive for a few years while paying yourself a few million every year, you will become very rich very quickly.

    Once the project collapses, you just walk out with the money in your pocket.

    Here in the West, only some sectors of the economy get to play with taxpayers’ money, no strings attached, such as the war machine, or the “intelligence” apparatus.

    In other industry sectors, including the translation industry, the “startup originators” need to find private investors first to tunnel their way towards the millions.

    It has been working like this here for many decades. One of my favorite TV shows, called “American Greed”, which explains how tunneling works here, actually describes what happened in the nineties. It is mostly about pyramid investment schemes, also known as Ponzi schemes.

    It will probably take another twenty years before there is a new series on TV here called “American Greed” featuring people who invested in great new inventions in language technology.


    • Startups, at least in today’s definition, are a type of hoax. They do exactly that, playing with other people’s money while getting rich (or at least earning a living) in the process. True, their funding is not directly tunneled from the taxpayer’s money; still, its kind of is, only indirectly.

      There are three best practices to success:
      1) Be good at what you – this includes natural “talent” for it as well and education, continued education and hand-on experience to refine one’s skills.
      2) Respect and appreciate what you do, and how it solves problems for your customers and in general – including adapting as needed from a skillset point-of-view.
      3) Grind at it. Establishing a business takes time and effort – a lot of them. There are no shortcuts, and startups are in essence a well designed shortcut to achieve a very specific financial goal.

      A lot of the “truths” of digital age are now starting to get debunked. The world is changing and adapting. If things will continue to go in this direction, people will gradually sober up from their technology addiction and will start putting things into context. This is a process and the translation market is tied to those larger processes whether we like it or not.

      Despite the best of efforts, you can’t just fool all the people all the time.


  9. Anyone who is concerned about what happens to countries run by oligarchs like Russia and the USA, should watch
    The evidence is overwhelming, yet very few see it because of the propaganda spread by the media controlled by the same oligarchs.


  10. Somebody posted this link here already about two years ago.
    I’m pretty sure it was Wenjer from Taiwan.


  11. @Shai; as I have said elsewhere, a shake-out is coming and when the excreta hits the rotary oscillator, we must be sure to be in a different room.
    It will be the ‘industry’ that causes the shake-out by price cutting and the resulting decline in quality of translation. The ‘industry’ will bear the initial brunt of it, however, true to their nature as intermediaries, they pass the blame and the hurt on to ‘the translators’.

    The only way to avoid drowning with them when their ship goes down, is to ensure that we are NOT on THEIR ship.

    We must work towards differentiating the ‘profession’ from the ‘industry’.
    If we succeed, the fall-out suffered by the industry and their unqualified minions, will in fact benefit the ‘profession’ as clients start looking for profession translators and agencies owned by professional translators.


    • Louis, as you know, I agree with you. I’m even using some of the terminology that you have coined in this context when speaking about this subject.

      I think that tremors are already felt. I don’t know if the “industry” will collapse; at the moment I think that it will change, but largely survive and even keep its market share. However, with time the divide and distinction between the industry and the professional (that some refer to as the premium market) will increase. The divide will occur naturally, but the distinction is something that we should work on. We should take a page or two out of the technology lobby book about being vocal and spreading the word.
      We certainly need to position ourselves and create awareness to the existence of the industry and premium market, and the difference between the two. Those who are happy to work with the industry, fair enough (some will graduate with time). But we should enable those who do care about their content (for whatever reason, even if it is just to cover their behinds against unnecessary risks) to understand the fundamental difference between translation and language transformation, and help them find a professional service provider and avoid the toxic cesspool that is the industry.

      They speak for themselves but dare to pretend to speak for the profession. They spread false claims and attempt to alter perception in common, usually business-oriented, media channels that potential buyers read. Their voice is loud and clear, ours less. Maybe we should take some of the fight to their own court.


  12. @Shai; purely from a strategic point of view, “taking the fight to their court” is probably not the best option. As you said, “their voice is loud and clear”, and it is a lot more powerful than ours. In any case, fighting them provides them with a target to vent on and lends them a certain legitimacy ‘conferred on them by debating the profession on equal terms’.

    It is a well-established tactic used by (propaganda) media to create a ‘false equivalence’ between two points of view by facilitating a debate between the two sides, even if one point of view is without merit.

    I think it best to ignore the ‘industry’ as much as possible and forge our own path to the future by carefully cultivating our own nomenclature, standards and professionalism in general.

    A loud voice does not fit this image. A measured tone and careful consideration, is the way to go, even though it may take longer. As someone wiser than me once said: war does not decide who is right, only who will be left.


    • You are probably right.
      However, I didn’t mean to start playing the blame game or start debating with them publicly calling them lairs, I agree this helps more because it gives them legitimacy. Rather, I though to something like writing opinion pieces that describe those lies, expose some of their motives, talk positively about our profession etc. Not directly as a response to anything that they have wrote/said, but on somewhat of a parallel path.

      Sooner or later, we would have to address the “industry”, even if only to distinct ourselves from it.


  13. […] With Keith Swayne What the future did to translation … a note about tech-savvy translators. Why Do People Want To Do Away with the Translating Profession? How to Localize Your App – Be a Roman Boss, Not a Viking Raider Translation: When […]


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