Posted by: patenttranslator | September 12, 2014

The Big and Shiny Moving Object in the Sky Is Language Technology


About 6 years ago while sweating bullets on a treadmill during my cardio workout in my gym, I noticed that a big and shiny moving object was advancing with jerky movements at great speed on several monitors mounted above the front row of exercise machines. When I started reading the text underneath the picture of the moving object which looked like a flying saucer, I found out, along with more than a dozen girls, boys, men and women who were somewhere between 17 to about 77 years old and who just like me were fascinated by the moving object, that a husband and wife in Colorado filled a gas balloon with helium and while they were not looking, the balloon took off with their 6-years-old boy possibly still in the balloon.

We were all watching it as if in trance. It was not clear whether the boy was in the balloon, the announcer said, but it was quite possible, and as the balloon was traveling at altitudes of several thousand feet (a couple of kilometers), he could freeze to death if he was still there, the announcer continued. When the balloon finally landed, it was empty, but the police and National Guard had to look for him for hours because the boy could have fallen out …. until to everyone’s great relief he was found several hours later safe and sound: it turned out that he was hiding the whole time in the attic.

If I remember it correctly, it was only the next day on a morning TV show where the father and mother of the boy were answering reporters’ questions when a reporter asked the boy why was he hiding, and the boy answered :” … um, we did this for the show”, that people finally realized that the whole thing was a hoax, a spoof designed to attract attention to the business of the boy’s father who was in fact inspired by American “reality TV shows” such as Wife Swap, a pretty stupid show that I myself was addicted to for quite a while, after I became addicted to “The Osbournes”, a reality show about the many tribulation in the highly entertaining domestic life of the rock singer Ozzy Osbourne and his family in a tacky mansion in Florida which I used to watch every time it was on MTV with my sons, and before I started watching “Home Hunters” and “Home Hunters International”, my current addiction.


Dumb and fake as these shows are, they are still much, much better than the rest of the stuff that they put on American TV these days, and often quite realistic, although the viewers presumably know that everything is staged and scripted to the last detail.

Just like there is an entire industry specializing in making profit from fake reality turned into scripted sagas portraying life as it is not, there is an entire industry in the so-called translation industry specializing in new concepts called “translation technology” and “language technology”.

The terms “translation technology” and “language technology” are often used on the websites of many translation agencies who generally prefer to be called “Language Services Providers (LSPs)”, although the translations are of course not provided by the translation agency but by individual translators who may be located anywhere in this world.

If you look at the commercial propaganda on the websites of these brokers of translation, you would not even notice that translations are in fact provided by translators because if the word “translator” is mentioned at all in their verbiage, it is hidden, always in plural, in a single sentence, such as “We have 15,000 highly qualified translators listed in our comprehensive database”.

You just have to take it on faith that all of these translators are highly qualified.

The fake reality of translation brokers emphasizes other, much cooler words than the concept of a human translator, words such as: platform, content, server, manager, portal, quality assurance, workflow, software application, global solutions, digital revolution, qualitative data evaluation, hybrid communication modes and models …..

This gobbledygook serves an important purpose. It looks really cool when you put words like this on your website. When these words are well put together by a crafty marketing manager, who may know nothing about translation but who knows a lot about marketing, the client may accept as entirely legitimate the notion that the many sophisticated processes advertised on the websites of many translation agencies guarantee a high quality of the final outcome of these processes, which is for the time being still called “translation” although the word “translator” has been somehow lost during all of these sophisticated processes.

Digital revolution did in fact happen in so-called translation industry. But in reality it works like this:

A large translation agency located in a “rich” country, for example in Western Europe or in North America, subcontracts a long and complicated translation project with an impossible deadline to a much smaller translation agency located in a “poor” country, for example in Moldova or Egypt, while the agency located in a poorer part of the world may still further subcontract the complicated translation project with an impossible deadline to a cut-rate translation agency located for example in China.

Since every link in this chain of the “hybrid communication model” participating in this kind of digital revolution is entitled to a substantial profit, very little money will be left for the actual human translator, for example a bunch of Chinese guys and girls who kind of understand Japanese (it’s similar to Chinese, right?), well enough to translate it into a certain kind of English that may need to be eventually “fixed” by a monolingual editor so that the resulting product could be sold to a client as the real thing, namely a translation that was done by an educated and highly qualified translator who knew what he was doing.

The potential profit for the language brokers is very substantial because of course, the less you have to pay to the person who does the actual work, the more you get to keep for yourself, which is the revolutionary principle and driving force behind globalization.

About 6 months ago, a large translation agency landed a major project – translation of several million words from Japanese to English. The catch was that everything had to be finished within a few weeks, about a month if I remember it correctly.

My phone was ringing off the hook for about 2 weeks (I just let everything go to my old-fashioned answering machine), and my e-mail box was filled with offers of work on this project from agencies around the world – as many words as I wanted to take on within a limited period of time. Because the large agency, which is based in this country, subcontracted the job to many other agencies, different rates were offered to me depending on the location of the subcontractor.

I remember that I was offered work on the same project by translation agencies in California, Georgia, on East Coast, in Singapore, Egypt, Holland, and several other countries (I don’t remember all of them), at rates ranging from 10 to 18 cents, depending mostly on the geographical location of the agent.

I did not accept any of the offers because about 10 years ago I decided never to work for this large translation agency again as I felt that they were treating me like a piece of garbage. I am no longer one of the thousands of obedient hamsters running on the spinning wheel in a cage secured by creative “Non-Disclosure Agreements”.


 Language is not about technology. Technology has been used for close to six centuries to record and disseminate written word. You can use technology to record spoken word, in vinyl, on tape, on CDs, or as MP3 files. Technology is used as a tool by people who work with language, but technology by itself does not have the capacity to create language or translation because it has nothing to do with language.

The term language technology is in fact an oxymoron.

Leo Tolstoy did not even have a typewriter and Mark Twain was writing in longhand too. Both of them would probably have problems had they been able to use a word processor: there are too many dialogues in French in War and Peace, which would be flagged in red by the Russian spell checker, and the kind of English that Huckleberry Finn spoke would definitely not be accepted by MS Word as proper English.

Language, and its close relative called “translation”, are about little understood processes taking place in human brain, processes best described by words such as thinking, loving, hating, understanding, and misunderstanding.

If and when the big and shiny moving object in the sky called language technology finally makes a landing, people are likely to find out that the balloon was in fact empty and that the truth was hiding the whole time somewhere in the attic of scam artists who were doing it for the show in order to create juicy advertising for their businesses.



  1. I love how you tie it all up in your last paragraph – and in your opinion, what segues from the crash landing and subsequent realization you are predicting?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. @Elizabeth.


    Once people realize that there’s nothing in the shiny balloon, the scam artists will simply come up with a new scam that will be even better.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Bravo, Steve! I love your healthy skepticism. There will certainly be a new scam, a better one. For now, though, we are still looking up at the floating balloon. When the big and shiny moving object in the sky called language technology finally makes a landing, people are likely to find out that the balloon was in fact empty and that there wasn’t even a child in the attic.


  3. @ Rennie

    That’s even better than my ending.

    Why didn’t I think of that?


    • Steve, are you sure you really got my point? Or shall I explain what I mean by “there wasn’t even a child in the attic”?


  4. Maybe I did not get it.

    So what did you mean?


  5. Steve, you wrote “That’s even better than my ending. Why didn’t I think of that?” What didn’t you think of?


  6. So who doesn’t get it now?

    First you should explain what was it that you meant and that I did not get


    • I didn’t say you didn’t get it. I just asked you if you were sure you got my point. OK, I do love you …oops, your style … well, translators are not LSPs’ children.That’s as simple as that. What else should I mean?


  7. I saw a really weird movie called “Flowers in the Attic” and it was about children being hidden by an awful mother in the attic, so I thought there might have been some hidden meaning implied in your comment.

    And thanks for translating my silly post into Bulgarian – I saw it on your blog.

    Counting Bulgarian, my silly posts have been translated into at least half a dozen languages now.


  8. Steve, have you ever been reflecting on the hidden meaning of “translation industry”?


  9. I have.

    That’s why I always call it “translation industry” or so-called translation industry.


    • Freelance translators are horizontal competitors to translation firms. You can’t claim that your competitors are part of your team. Also, you can’t re-sell your competitors’ translations presenting them to your customers as your own production.


  10. And many members of the translation ‘profession’ watch the balloon float away, knowing that the boy is hidden in the attic. They fear that if they say anything, they will never again be invited for a trip in the balloon.
    Wonderful sketch, Steve.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “They [translators] fear that if they say anything, they will never again be invited for a trip in the balloon.”

      You mean they fear not ever being hired on demand?


      • Yep, the Oslo syndrome 🙂


  11. Here’s an article in answer to yours, Steve. Author: Harry Stoyanov, a Bulgarian translator (Serbian & Croatian), my boss and husband. The article is in Bulgarian. Summary: Translation agencies do not have employees-translators; they only have lists of translators. The agencies are like shiny balloons, full of hot air.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. You liked Harry’s article? Did I tell you I love you, Steve? 🙂 But be careful, when MT-ed by google, it says “translation agencies have the most important: translators”. This is just the opposite. Changing negative into positive and vice versa is google’s favorite trick (xutspaah)


  13. I know how to read MT. It also said that Mr. Vittek’s article was witty and witty, which I thought was witty.

    I can understand Bulgarian a little bit, I went through a Bulgarian textbook when I spent a month there one summer in 1979 and I conversed a lot with locals using creatively the few words that I learned.


  14. Language technology is usually related with Computer-aided translation tools, Computational linguistics or Natural Language Prossesing. Siri – is a language technology. It’s a way more about engineering than linguistics and translation, if sites do use the term it’s really a word mingle and coercive confusion.

    I can’t agree with the antinomy of technology and language, technology and thinking. These processes are entertwined and cocreative. There were philosophers, scientists and writers who actually created certain pars of language or languages in it’s institutionlized form. And most linguists deal with language as a technology or a mental tool. Language technology is a part of Artificial Intelligent studies and though there are peole who consider it as a hoax, progress slowly winding our notions and representations underneath it’s tracks.

    But translation technology is a good metaphor in a sense like Political Technologies or Social Technologies – terms mostly unknown in Western World, but in postSoviet countries they mean tools of manipulation 🙂


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