Posted by: patenttranslator | January 11, 2015

A Good Time to Be in the Translation Business


When everyone is looking for gold, it’s a good time to be in the pick and shovel business.” – Mark Twain –

As Mark Twain put it, when there is a gold rush going on, it’s good to be in the shovel and pick selling business. That was in fact how a sleepy, foggy little town called San Francisco was suddenly transformed into a bustling metropolis when gold was discovered near what is today the city of Sacramento, as San Francisco happened to have everything that the gold diggers were looking for: picks, shovels, booze, and hookers.

Information is a resource that is even more precious than gold, and unlike gold, it will never run out if you know where to find it. That is in fact why Google became one of the largest companies in the world within a few short years, bigger, more omnipresent and more powerful than established companies such as Microsoft and other companies that are incidentally also based on the concept of providing access to information with certain kind of software.

Both Google and Microsoft quickly realized that the precious resource called information can often be hidden in foreign languages (hence GoogleTranslate and Microsoft Translator).

A casual observer, uninitiated into the many mysteries taking place in human brain during the process of translation, might think that the translation process is simply about replacing words in one language by words in another language …. which should really be no big deal!

Well, it is not such a big deal for human brain, or at least for some human brains …. until you try to translate information by using an incompetent translator, or even worse, machine translation.

The problem with this approach is that even though the result will undoubtedly still contain a lot of information, this information will be also mixed with misinformation in the form of mistranslations to such an extent that one can no longer tell where information ends and misinformation begins, and this tends to turn the gold of information into a toxic waste product of gibberish produced by machines or humans who are not quite up to the no-big-deal task.

Unfortunately for most gold diggers in the modern version of the gold rush in what is referred to as “the translation industry”, combining the two methods by using machines and humans, based on a concept or a model in which machine-translated texts are subsequently “post-processed” by humans who can’t quite make it in the real worlds as real translators, is likely to result in a waste product that is only slightly less toxic.

Fortunately for some of these modern gold diggers, some versions of this waste product probably will be, or perhaps already are “good enough” for human consumption in the opinion of bean counters in corporations devouring large amounts of expensive translated information.

Unfortunately for some of these corporations, the toxicity of long-term consumption of such a waste product may become fully apparent only after several years, or even decades, at the point when a living organism, and companies and businesses do represent a certain form of living organism, may no longer be able to survive.

In the middle of the second decade of the twenty first century, the gold rush for access to information hidden in foreign languages is taking place at an even more feverish pace than during the last century, let alone during all of the preceding centuries, partly because the appearance of new technologies and techniques made it possible to unleash enormous amounts of untranslated data through the Internet.

Some people think that as the mechanical means are continuously improved, hardware and software based solutions will eventually render most human translators irrelevant and for the most part unnecessary.

It is true that human translation is very expensive, especially given that the cost of machine translation is very close to zero.

It is also true that it is not even possible to translate everything that needs to be translated by competent, human translators. It probably never was possible to do something like that, but in a world that is interconnected on so many levels and in which there are very few competent human translators, most of the translating work may have to be done mostly by incompetent humans and non-thinking machines because there is simply no other viable choice.

Which brings me back to Mark Twain’s famous quotation about being in the pick and shovel business during a gold rush.

I am not very optimistic about the prospects of various aspects of what is called the translation industry, because many of the tools sold to people who are looking for gold in the form of information are made of wood and thus not very suitable for digging purposes.

The tools that in my opinion have little chance of working in the long run include for example post-processing of machine translations by hapless, underperforming, undereducated and underpaid humans, “translation certification systems”, such as various attempts at application of industrial certification standards (ISO, EN, etc.) to translation, fittingly referred to as “automation of incompetence”, translation of huge amounts of texts by hordes of anonymous “crowd translators”, fittingly referred to as “clown translators”, who are willing to work for nothing or next to nothing, or outsourcing of translations to third world countries where labor is very inexpensive, although generally also very incompetent in a knowledge-intensive such as specialized translation. These are just a few of many ingenious ideas of peddlers of mostly useless and counterproductive tools, and new ones are sure to be invented in the coming years.

But I am optimistic about the future of competent, experienced, educated, hard-working human translators in the middle of the second decade of the twenty first century because these are the people who, unlike many merchants of fake tools in what is called the translation industry, are in the business of selling high-quality picks and shovels, the best tools for anybody who wants to unearth the gold of information that is hidden in a foreign language.


  1. “anonymous “crowd translators””
    Why anonymous?

    “outsourcing of translation to third world countries where labor is very inexpensive”
    What do you know about outsourcing, Steve?


  2. Yes. I too wish to be selling a quality product so that others can prosper.


  3. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the Earth. Matthew, 5:5.


  4. Thanks you Steve! Loved the last passage!


  5. Nice thoughts, but, er 22nd century?

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Frank, thank you for correcting the century.
    (I was never good at math, but at least I used to get the century right).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on Translator Power.


  8. Great post. I am optimistic in the sense that people who are after a quick buck and quick wins tend to get bored soon and move elsewhere… passion for the job is what is needed to hold ground.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. This is a wonderful post. Being optimistic about the future of the translation industry in the midst of all that automated, robotic, machines that give sup par translation compared to those of humans should be the mindset of translators and interpreters. Professional translators aim to deliver good quality output, and educating clients about the benefits of translators and how to look for quality translators will certainly be giving them better tools to finding golden professionals who only strive to improve the industry.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. “outsourcing of translatios to third world countries”
    Typo or pun intended?
    Leon Hunter


  11. Typo.

    I fixed it, thanks.


  12. A superb post Steve – one of your best IMNSHO 🙂


  13. Thank you so much, alchymie.


  14. Very well said, Steve.

    I particularly liked the analogy to the gold rush era. The “information rush” is what is more commonly being referred to today as Big Data — which is “an all-encompassing term for any collection of data sets so large or complex that it becomes difficult to process them using traditional data processing applications” (from Wikipedia).
    The massive data stream is claimed to carry some coveted gold nuggets in the form of “insights” and “analytics” that hold the power of transforming raw data to meaningful information. This relates to translation in two ways: First, the potential of the aforementioned insights and analytics is quite limited if you focus only on one language considering so many brands have a more global presence these days; And second, the MpT (Machine pseudo-Translation; a term coined by Kevin Lossner) technology is more of an exercise (or should I say experiment) in Big Data than it is about translation.
    Furthermore, the mere involvement of some “human” in the process (usually cleaning after the machine) is not a guarantee of quality of course. I see more and more references to “hybrid” processes in which a human is advertised to tale some part of the process as if this in and of itself guarantees any level of quality. Ridicules.

    And one more comment before I stop rambling. MpT is very expensive. The resources and skills required are not trivial, and therefore even Google and Microsoft – with their deep pockets — offer their (generic) MpT engines for free up to a limit; partly because they can (deep pockets), and partly because there are no free meals, and when you get such a service for free, you are likely to be the real product of the transaction. (And as a side note: depending on their Terms of Service, even when one pays for the service, they might be still mining one’s data).
    If you peel the layers of marketing fodder and (amusing) claims of altruism you expose a game, and this is a simple game of making a (preferably quick) profit. The goal of some players is simply to take over some segments of the market by shifting the perception of the skills involved from traditional skills to IT (that of many of them don’t even have). The clients of these profiteers are likely to discover over time – in my opinion at least – that did not really save money, especially not when weighing in the hit on quality and effectiveness that have accompanying costs not directly written under the “translation” clause.

    I therefore agree with Steve, when there is a rush, don’t be tempted to cater to the masses or lower the standards just because some don’t know enough to immediately tell the difference.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: