Posted by: patenttranslator | November 15, 2014

Translation As Therapy Or Torture


Contrary to the infamous German words Arbeit macht frei (Work Makes [You] Free) that used to welcome new arrivals to concentration camps, work does not exactly have the power to make us free. These words mostly just reflect a certain kind of humor, or even philosophy, one could say, of what was supposed to be the master race.

Work does have the power to make us who we are. Interesting, useful work requiring our best manual and intellectual skills distinguishes what humans can sometime do so well from what animals are usually not capable of, if we discount a few notable exceptions in the animal world, such as how birds can use their tiny beaks to build complicated nests for themselves and their young, or how beavers can combine their sharp teeth with advanced engineering skills to build formidable dams.

Rote and useless work, work that demeans us and turns us into human robots of the kind that Charlie Chaplin poked fun on already almost a century ago in his film “Modern Times”, has the opposite effect. Instead of liberating us, it enslaves us. To this translator, so called post-processing of machine translation (“a useful skill” in brand new concentration camps for translators) comes to mind in this context.

Under the right kind of circumstances, the act of translating can be therapeutic and healing. Under the wrong kind of circumstances, the act of translating can be pure torture.

The problem with any intellectual activity is that it is not necessarily available to us on command. A bricklayers can probably mix mortar and put layers of bricks on top of each other until his muscles ache and the entire body becomes too tired, generally regardless of his mental state. But translating is different. Whether we are doing a good job or not such a good job depends to a significant extent also on our mental state.

I don’t know whether a chef in a famed four star restaurant must be in a creative mood to create culinary masterpieces in his kitchen. I suspect that it is in fact a necessary preconditions for chefs too, although cutting up celery and onions can probably be done while daydreaming about something else, such as getting another raise in pay, or reuniting again with a long-lost love.

It is not a good idea to daydream while translating. Teenagers should not be texting while driving, and translators should not be daydreaming while translating. They must clear their mind of all unnecessary ballast and concentrate on the task at hand, which may be simple at times, but quite often unexpectedly formidable.

We need to be in the right kind of mood to translate, or at least to do it well. When I am ready to work, I love it when I can start hitting the keyboard to transform words written in Japanese characters or in Cyrillic into words that will make sense in another alphabet to people speaking another language.

And I hate it when somebody is telling me that I have to start translating right now to finish the translation as soon as possible.

That is when translation becomes torture. Unfortunately, when so many people want to have our translation yesterday, torture is often a part of life for most translators. Some translation agencies emphasize and praise their own amazing capability to do the seemingly impossible when hundreds or thousands pages are translated “by teams of translators” in record time to the full satisfaction of a grateful client.

It is not that difficult to organize agony en mass by dividing a long document into smaller portions in order to feed them to hungry translators, and then cobble together a linguistic sausage that resembles a real translation from the tortured pieces of texts produced by people who may or may not be very good translators.

The results of this approach to translation or to any kind of other creative work do not vary. The results are always really bad. But in the corporate translation agency model for mass production of units called words, this does not matter very much. It may take years before a client realizes that a translation agency is constantly producing mostly garbage.

Although torture through translation may be the new normal in the bulk translation market of the corporate model for production of translated words, there are things that we as translators can do about this problem.

The best thing is clearly to try stay away from a business model in which translators are thought of as a multitude of interchangeable cogs in machinery designed to maximize profit for the owners of the machine.

The next best thing is to refuse to accept work from clients who are constantly hitting us with unreasonable, inhumanly short deadline.

And if a very short deadline is unavoidable in a true emergency, translators need to charge significantly higher rates.

If we dare to do that, we will be tortured much less frequently, and we will probably also be healthier and may even live longer.

Work does not necessarily makes us free. Nazis pretended that this was the case, and so did the Communists, although it was clear to everyone that it was just a joke. The lack of respect for privacy, dignity and creativity of workers may be one of the reason why the Thousand-Year Reich lasted only a few years and Soviet Union only a few decades. Which makes me wonder how many years are there still left for corporatism. Not too many, I hope.

Some type of work may make us feel free, but everything depends on what kind of work it is and in what kind of environment we are working.

Because work does have the power to make us who we really are: free people who are doing willingly something that they are really good at, or slaves.


  1. Infamous as those words are, the correct phrase was “Arbeit macht frei” – only the noun beginning with a capital and the third person singular ends with a t. As a German translator I just have to mention it.


  2. I know that verbs and adverbs are not capitalized in German, dear anglogermantranslations. It so happens that German is one of the languages that I translate.

    But my post is written in English, and in English it is a common practice to capitalize words that are emphasized.

    Mind you, I am not saying that anglogermantranslations should be written as AngloGermantranslation or Anglo-German translation either, although the words Anglo and German should be capitalized in English.

    If you are free to treat these words any way you want, why not let other people enjoy the same kind of freedom?


  3. Just feel free to delete my comment, if you don’t like it. 🙂 Thank you for adding the missing t to “mach-“, though. It looks much better now.

    In my line of work quoting correctly is very important, that’s why I’m always grateful for hints from colleagues, because we all make mistakes. I certainly didn’t mean to offend you in any way. Keep up the good work, I enjoyed reading your entries so far.

    As far as nicks or names for websites go, we all have to choose those that aren’t taken yet or what domain hosting companies prescribe, hyphens or none, dots or none.


  4. “Just feel free to delete my comment, if you don’t like it. :-)”

    Oh no, I will keep it, and thanks for catching the missing “t” typo.

    I just wanted to make the point that everything and anything can be looked at from a different angle, including German grammar, incredible as it sounds.

    And thanks for commenting and liking my silly posts!


  5. Be in the right mood, and of course be in the position that you like and believe in what you are doing!


  6. I struggle a bit with some of your examples and comparisons, although I think the overall thrust of your article is probably right.

    Just as an example, I think that sharp knives and daydreaming probably don’t make a happy combination! More seriously, having grown up in Germany, I will never not struggle with any comparison that invokes the Nazi regime, although I recognise that’s my trigger, it may be perfectly acceptable and kosher for you.

    Whatever our respective aesthetics, I agree that machine translation and piecemeal work are an insult to quality translation, one we should fight with everything we’ve got.


  7. “I think that sharp knives and daydreaming probably don’t make a happy combination!”

    Good point.

    On the other hand, whatever our respective aesthetics, as you put it, who are we to deny cooks and chefs a basic human right such as the right to daydream.


  8. The issue is the general climate today where things need to get done faster + cheaper and quality is not that important. Especially with translations the client doesn’t even recognize the difference between an average translation and a top-notch translation…

    I agree but pretty everything you have a deadline for or must complete is a chore / torture / whatever.

    Greetings from Austria,



  9. “… and quality is not that important.”

    True, to some extent, but with a qualifier. Quality is important for some clients in certain segments of the market.


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