Posted by: patenttranslator | July 30, 2014

A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Great Ocean


There is a well known Japanese proverb (originating in an old Chinese fable) that says exactly what is in the title of my silly post today, namely: 井の中の蛙大海を知らず (i no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu). A Chinese idiom, 井底之蛙 (jǐng dǐ zhī wā), which translates as “a frog on the bottom of a well”, is a synonym in Chinese for “an ignorant person”.

A link to the entire Chinese story about a turtle who visited a frog who used to be living happily at the bottom of his dark and cool, full of sweet water and tasty squiggly warms and buzzing insects, until the poor amphibian found out from the turtle about something called the ocean, is below:

I am sometime reminded of this Japanese idiom when a translator is speaking with authority about this or that issue having to do with translation, usually on a blog or on social media, but also in publications on paper.

So many of us know so much about so little! Or is it so little about so much?

This would of course include also this little froggy in his comfy patent translation well, full of squiggly and tasty technical translation terms from Japanese and other languages. But this little froggy at least knows that the little bit of knowledge that he may possess is limited only to his little well.

So many people would like to create hard-and-fast rules about translation in general. Here are a few examples of these universal and immutable rules about “translation”:

1. All translators must use computer tools (called CATs). CAT Refuseniks are insane and should be locked up in asylums for the mentally ill.

2. Translators can only translate into their native language. People who translate into another language than the one they learned from their mother are laughable imposters who need to be exposed as such and shunned by real translators, e.i. those who can rightfully call themselves native speakers.

3. The going rate for translation is [fill in the amount]. It would be futile to charge more than the going rate, and a translator who would like to attempt to do that will inevitably fail.

4. Based on the natural order in the universe, translation agencies are in charge of supplying work to translators and liaising with clients, while translators are only in charge of translating. It would be nice to be able to work for direct clients, but for a mere translator, this is an unattainable goal.

5. Translators who want to make more money must increase their productivity. There are several “language tools” in the form of software enabling diligent translators to do just that: they can increase their translating speed for example with voice recognition software, or with Trados, and they can “incorporate” machine translation in their software, etc. Since any of these tools, when used properly, will double, triple, or quadruple translators’ output, they will finally start making real money if they start using these tools.

Etc., and so on, and so forth.


There is a grain of truth in all of those statements, of course. But most of the times, most of these statements are mostly false.

1. While no statistics are available, I think that most translators in fact do not use CATs and never will. Although these tools may be very useful for some kinds of translations, namely extremely repetitive text provided in MS Word format, they are essentially useless for other types of translations, such as patent applications provided as PDF files. It makes sense for some translators to use these tools, and it would make no sense for other translators to use them.

2. It is true that most people can translate only into their native language. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of people on this planet who can translate very well into their non-native language. And how do we define “nativeness”, this natural prerequisite for fluency in a language summarized by the term “native language”? Wasn’t George W. Bush a native speaker of English? (Yes, he was).

3. The going rate for “translation” can easily vary by a factor of 10 or more depending on things like the language combination, the subject, whether the translator is working for an intermediary or a direct client, where the intermediary or direct client is located, how badly the translation is needed, etc.

In other words, there is no such thing as “the going rate” for translation. But to froggies who live in their small, dark well, the well is all there is and nothing else exists.

4. There is a natural order in the universe, but translation agencies do not seem to be a part of this natural order. While some of them provide real value both for their customers and their translators, usually small agencies specializing in one or a few fields, many of them are useless parasites who do not understand the first thing about translating. A translator who only works for translation agencies is living in a particularly deep and dark well, where the food is not very tasty or plentiful, and the water smells bad and is scarce.

5. We can increase our productivity and various software-based tools can be used for this purpose. But there is a limit to a translator’s “productivity” because our brain can only process a certain amount of words per day so that the words would still make sense to us. In my case it is between 4 to 5 thousand words. If we try to go beyond this limit, instead of relying on our own brain, we have to allow the software to take control over the translating process. The results of such an approach will vary.

It is OK when a plane’s crew allows software to fly a plane on autopilot so that the crew can get some rest during a night when nothing unusual happens. But when a translation is processed by software to triple or quadruple the translating speed, the chances are that the translator will not even notice how many times his plane has crashed because as I already said, the human brain has only a limited capacity to process a certain amount of information. And this limited capacity of human brain to make meaning of things is the real limit to how many words can a human translator translate per day, not the capacity of a software package that by definition does not understand what the words in a translation mean.


At the end of the Chinese story about a frog and a turtle, the frog became much less enthusiastic about his comfy well when he realized that there is something out there called “the ocean”, and that this ocean cannot be even described in terms that a frog who has been living all his life in a tiny, dark well can understand.

Whatever it is that we translate, we can only know a few things about a few drops in the vast ocean of what we call “translation” because regardless of the many limitations of human brain, anything and everything that a human brain can think of can be also translated from and into another language.



  1. Re point 2), I’d argue that CAT tools can be very useful for patents translators who receive their source documents as graphical pdf files. For many years (around 15 now), my wife and I have OCR’d just about all the source documents we receive for translation and have carried out the translation in DéjàVu (the OCRing obviously takes time, but this is easily offset by the subsequent greater efficiency of working (we’ve kept careful records of hourly earnings to make sure we’re not kidding ourselves)) . As a result, we now have a huge database of previous translations and, most importantly, of well researched terminology which is at our fingertips whenever we translate, even if a particular client with his or her idiosyncratic preferences only comes back once every few years. For our regular clients, we often invoice on an hourly basis as a way of providing a “discount” (it seems unreasonable to us to charge a full word rate for all the members of an entire patent family which share a largely identical first few pages). However, we neither offer “fuzzy” discounts and nor share our databases, so the translation memory system remains under our control. It is the issue of control which, for us, is the most important factor in whether a translator is happy making use of a TM system and it is precisely this control which is missing from many translators’ relationships with translation companies.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. @Paul

    I would prefer not to argue with you.


  3. Very true, Steve.
    I’m usually very wary of those who speak as if they hold the absolute truth, and act as if their perspective is the only perspective.

    Information is readily available (and today arguably more than ever before), but it is important to understand that information by itself is just chatter. One should seek knowledge, not just information.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “One should seek knowledge, not just information.”

    Especially since what is ostensibly offered as information by modern means of communication is mostly advertising and propaganda, political and commercial, whose main purpose is to entertain, titillate and manipulate gullible masses rather than to inform them about what is really important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly.
      This also applies to social media and online community forums.

      Furthermore, many translators took the path of least resistance to the profession. Any business imitative with a chance to succeed is backed up by some kind of due diligence and experience. Charting the water, so to speak, so one can navigate them to safe harbor. This experience can be obtained while working for others first, by hiring someone, or otherwise, but this is completely lost on so many newcomers, or so it seem, who take the backward approach. First they jump into uncharted, shark infested water, and then they try to make sense of things and navigate their way almost aimlessly, while all along also fighting to stay afloat. This makes them very susceptible to adopting harmful mindsets (like treating their business endeavor as a job and not a career) and subscribing to the propaganda of other stakeholders who have identified this information asymmetry and use it as a leverage.

      Knowledge is the key to eliminating (or at least reducing) the information asymmetry. Everyone starts somewhere (and usually at the bottom), but those who seek knowledge ultimately graduate to find their comfort(-ish) place in the world. Those who continue treading the path of least resistance usually find themselves taken advantage of by the cynics of the world.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody else’s plan.

    Terence McKenna.


  6. Hi Steve,

    Something I have noticed on online forums/fora is that even translators are talking down their profession. Not necessarily directly as such, but by sending out the message that ‘translation is not enough’, we must aspire to be the all-hallowed copywriter.

    I love translating. That is enough for me. I will do proofreading when asked – but I do not love it. Translation is a great career for the inquisitive, puzzle-cracking mind.

    We should be raising the status of translating instead of saying, ‘well, of course, but it’s not as difficult as ‘transcreating’ or copywriting’.

    Yes, it is (at least if you are translating meaty enough material), and if we translators don’t value this fact and spread this message, then who on earth will?

    Yours, Jane, fed up with copywriter worship.


    • First, talking about translation as inferior to copywriting is an absurd that only shows how little to no understanding those who claim it have of translation.

      Translation is all about (human) communication, and to be able to communicate effectively translators are writers. This is one aspect of the expertise bundled into the translation service and so often overlooked. Translation is not language transformation (the fallacy that some work hard to promote); take the writing skills out and even if you master the subject field the translation is likely to come out less-than-ideal. The adaptation process is also why even two great translators are likely to produce a different translations of the same source, and why one of these version might be more effective in a specific context and for a specific purpose than the other. So basically, a good translator is already a copywriter.

      And on a side note, copywriters deal with very similar (almost identical) issues and challenges to those translators do when it comes to the profile of their profession and how the importance of it is perceived. The grass is only greener…etc. only for those who fail to truly master one (or few) set of skills.

      The classification of translation into broad ‘big box’ type of fields, such as Legal, Medical, Technical is yet another (although quite amusing at times) manifestation of how clueless and misguided people can be, yet they speak so confidently. This is exactly what (I think) Steve meant in this article, the fallacy of putting everything into boxes and restricting one’s perspective to a predetermined way of thinking (usual dictated by others who stand to benefit from it in one way or other). These definitions are so broad that it is laughable to think that they hold any meaning in the real world, as if everything is a clear-cut case of black-and-white. On an average week I work on documents that are a combination of technical and medical, with a hint of legalese and some “creative content” in them. Other times I might get a document that falls under the broader category that I’m specializing in, but after looking at it and it looking at me back, I understand that this specific subject requires knowledge, expertise, and experience that I don’t have.

      Therefore, I’m always wary of those who speak in statements and universal truths.


  7. Let me tell you, Jane, translating for example a simple but poorly legible Japanese utility model about a few electrical circuits from the seventies is infinitely more difficult than copywriting.

    The characters are only partially legible and better copies don’t exist. The sentences are long and so poorly written that they are often incomprehensible. You can’t find any references on Google because the technology is too old. It takes a real mastery of the original language as well as a lot of knowledge about the technical subject to translate something like that.

    Copywriting is what I do about twice a week when I write my silly blog posts because I am bored. There is no comparison in terms of how difficult is the former and how easy is the latter.

    BTW, I also noticed that translation agencies try to use the world “translation” on their websites as little as possible. Sounds too pedestrian. They mostly use newly created terms like language technology, linguistic solutions and other propagandistic terms in their commercial propaganda. But in a way it is understandable – they don’t really know anything about translation.


    • You’ve reminded me about something else that is parroted on these forums/fora as a given – that technical translation is not as difficult as marketing translation.

      This, again, is taken as gospel – a gospel preached by people who have next to no knowledge of anything scientific or technical.


      The marketing gurus denigrate the technical translator (again, not directly, but by implication), spreading the misinformation that technical or scientific translation is a matter of finding one term and substituting for another cleanly, which we both know is nonsense. All this publicly-asserted assumption does is highlight their lack of scientific knowledge. Not that my saying this here would bother them, as they also seem to assume that such knowledge is beneath them. Why is this beneath them and not their holy grail of marketing? No entiendo.

      Why don’t I say something in defence/defense of tech/sci translators on these fora? Well, you’ve seen the way they turn nasty on people not following the consensus opinion…


  8. I know, they often call translation of marketing texts and advertising “creative” to distinguish it from translation of technical and scientific texts which is totally non-creative and very simple.


  9. “Knowledge is the key to eliminating (or at least reducing) the information asymmetry”.

    I hate to say it, but the paucity of critical knowledge (also known as ignorance 🙂 among many of our colleagues, particularly about the the translation services ‘market’, the translation ‘industry’ and even about the ‘profession’ itself, is self-evident from many of the comments on various fora.
    Since anyone can call themselves a translator, this is hardly surprising.

    The damage this does to our image and our status, and the consequences thereof, are difficult to overstate, and yet it appears to be blithely ignored by even some of the best qualified (translators).
    The perceived status of a professional translator has been declining dramatically in the past decade or so. This is even true among translators themselves, many of whom appear determined to portray themselves as the helpless victims of the status quo, rather than as independent, confident professionals instead.

    Most professions deal with this issue by making it mandatory that a new entrant into their profession to serve a period as a ‘trainee’ under supervision of qualified and experienced professionals before being allowed to practise (in Australia, for example, two years for a CPA, one year for article clerk in the law, 5 years for a hospital registrar in medicine, etc.) .

    During this time they learn how to protect and advance the interests of the profession (and by extension the interests of their clients/patients).
    The dominance of intermediaries in the translation ‘market’ appears to serve the interests of such intermediaries AT THE EXPENSE of both the translators AND the clients in many cases.

    It is in our hands to change the current situation, because no one else will do it FOR us. A good start is to change the terms we use to express ourselves. For example, calling ourselves free-lancers, is not very helpful, unless we want to work for intermediaries (carry a lance for another). Since there is no barrier to entry into the profession, we should create our own by differentiating between free-lancers and independent professionals.
    This does not mean the the latter cannot do a bit of free-lancing as well, it’s a matter of creating positive perceptions.

    I believe we should start referring to ourselves as independent (certified) practising/language/translation professionals’, or something similar, to start with. I am open to suggestions 🙂
    I dedicated a whole article to this subject on my blog last year:

    Liked by 1 person

  10. i completely agree. whatever the human brain can conceive can be translated from and into any lg. i have been saying this all along. Cognitive legibility entails translatability. Steve Vitek is the man to follow.


  11. […] Probably not. It is also true that I did not want to have to learn something new because I see myself mostly as a translator. Yes, the typical translators with blinders on, who sees only what he wants to see and a who knows nothing of the real world, just like the frog in a dark well in a Chinese fable. […]


  12. […] Curriculum for Translation Studies 5 lessons I’ve learned during my first year of freelancing A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Great Ocean Interview with Marta Stelmaszak & Sara Colombo Legal translation…Why faster isn’t […]


  13. […] frog in the well knows nothing of the ocean’. It basically means an ignorant person. See here for more information. ²The ‘name’ Feng Lao is written and pronounced exactly […]


  14. Reblogged this on alchymie.


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