Posted by: patenttranslator | May 17, 2015

Unreasonable Expectations for Machine Translation Are Based on Blind Faith in the Infallibility of Technology

Even the best, almost miraculous modern technology, has its limitations.

I love the way the GPS system can guide me to my destination through my iPhone because I no longer have to study a paper map before I start my car.

But the GPS sometime picks the wrong route for me, a much longer route than a local would choose because it generally picks the main roads, even if I try to exclude highways. It took me and left me near an airport, but not at the airport where I wanted to go, while insisting that the destination was on my left. It wasn’t.

Once when I was looking for a UPS (United Parcel Service) store, it directed me to a parking lot of a high school and insisted again that the destination was on my left. It wasn’t. On my left was a parent directing other parents to the few remaining free parking spots left in a high school’s parking lot. After I managed to find another UPS store, 15 minutes away from that school, the store’s clerk explained to me that the other UPS store was in a shopping mall that was quite familiar to me, but not to GPS, about a mile south from the high school. Somehow I never noticed that the store was there.

“Proceed to the route, proceed to the route, proceed to the route”, the voice in the machine keeps admonishing me if I dare to ignore its instructions because I know better that to trust a machine.

Yet, many people have an almost fanatical belief in technology, they trust it completely and unquestioningly, the way hardline communists used to believe in the righteousness of their own system, or the way religious nuts believe that their version of religion is the answer to everything.

“The translation industry” is shamelessly exploiting this belief in omnipotence of technology.

The industry posits as an irrefutable fact the highly nonsensical proposition that as machine pseudo-translation is constantly being improved, human translators will eventually, perhaps quite soon, become an unnecessary, expensive appendage that can be simply removed completely with the scalpel of cutting-edge “language technology”. According to the industry’s credo, the only way forward for translators is “to embrace technology”, by which they mean that translators must incorporate machine pseudo-translation into their own business model, preferably by becoming post-processing factotums ready and willing to be exploited by “the translation industry”.

The problem is, this line of reasoning simply ignores reality.

The reality is that machine translation has been around for more than half a century and that it can now be accessed for free with a few mouse clicks by about a billion people as I am writing these words.

Reasonably good machine translation, within certain limits, has been available to this patent translator at official websites of the of the European Patent Office, Japan Patent Office and other websites containing digital libraries with millions of patent applications in dozens of languages for at least the last 15 years. When I was translating a patent ten or fifteen years ago, I only had a single file on my computer’s desktop. I now need to have a folder on my desktop for each patent that I am translating, not just a file, and one of the files in that folder, which contains a number of reference files, is usually a machine-translated version of the same patent that I am translating.

All of my clients have had access to the same machine-translated reference files for at least a decade. But although machine translation, or more precisely speaking, machine-pseudo translation, has been available for free on the Internet for more than a decade, it has not been able to replace me and thousands of other human patent translators. Fifteen years ago, I was afraid of it, and I thought it possible that the day might in fact come sooner or later.

About five years ago, a troll on my blog told me that machine translation would put me out of business within five years. He kept repeating the same thing over and over like a mantra, evidently drawing comfort and some kind of pleasure from a statement that was based again on nothing but wishful thinking. After a while I got tired of trying to reason with him and instead started deleting his comments. He went away for a while, only to come back under a new pseudonym, but after I pointed out to him that I can see through his most recent sock puppet reincarnation, he finally went away, hopefully for good.

Well, I am still here, doing the same thing that I was doing 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and 5 years ago, and I will still be here doing the same thing 5 or 10 or 15 years from now, unless I die or decide to retire.

All of my clients have had access to machine-translated files for at least a decade now. And yet, they still keep me busy, even in the midst of the worst economic depression that has been with us for at least the last 8 years.

Machine pseudo-translation is not going to change my line of work that much. It is useful for many things, for example for identifying patents that do not need to be translated by a human. But its capabilities seem to have reached yet another a plateau. The statistical method developed by Google is much better than the decades-old, rule-based attempts to use software to simulate human thinking. But why is Google’s approach so much better? Because it is based on human thinking. A sentence that is so cleverly translated by software sounds perfect only because it was originally translated by a clever human.

An algorithm will sometime find a perfect or almost perfect match for another sentence in another language. But often, perhaps due to a difference in one word, or a misplaced comma, it will say the opposite of what was in fact meant in that other language. How do you overcome this dilemma?

The same way that I found the location of a UPS store that was invisible to the GPS in my iPhone when the wrong location was for some reason associated with its address by the software.

When the software is wrong, you need to ask a knowledgeable human being for directions. That is why “the translation industry” needs translators to fix errors created by software. The truth is that it needs them to retranslate the whole thing, but not as translators. Once translators are reclassified as post-processors, they will be inevitably paid a low hourly rate to help to drive the profits of “the translation industry” into the stratosphere.

Some translators, the most vulnerable among us, will no doubt fall into this trap, without realizing that they are digging their own grave in this manner if they accept this greedy scheme as their own, unavoidable fate.

I could be wrong, but something is telling me that most of us are not that stupid.



  1. “something is telling me that MOST OF US are not that stupid”

    Too optimistic … and yet I like it! I’ve always liked optimistic views. NOT saying I believe them …

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Another real humdinger PT! Even when reading it after midnight on what turned out to be a very complicated day. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. OK, so I looked up humdinger, but what’s PT? Personal Transportation?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Apple Acquires Coherent Navigation, a GPS Start-Up


  5. I recently had a frequent customer ask me to consider a review based project, which I don’t normally do, to check and fix an existing translation. I took one look at it and it was immediately apparent that they had used machine translation so I passed. Sorry, not interested in taking reduced rates to redo it from scratch.


  6. […] Even the best, almost miraculous modern technology, has its limitations. I love the way the GPS system can guide me to my destination through my iPhone because I no longer have to study a pa…  […]


    • Love the comments about GPS! Sometime way back in the mists of memory (i.e. at least 30 years ago) the end of the road I’m currently living in was blocked off, presumably because it had become a rat-run, so there is now no way through onto the main road from here. Nevertheless, I still see large construction lorries gingerly making their way down here, squeezing between the parked cars, and they never come back, so I can only assume they end up turning down the side road and getting back onto the main road eventually. One time when we got a cab back from the supermarket to here, the driver ignored the turning we expected his satnav to take, and carried on, so it was clear that at least one make of satnav’s programming has some details which are at least 30 years out of date!


      • PS: Any idea why I have to log in to WordPress in order to be able to Like something, despite the fact that I can post on here easily enough?!


  7. “When I was translating a patent ten or fifteen years ago, I only had a single file on my computer’s desktop. I now need to have a folder on my desktop for each patent that I am translating, not just a file …”

    Just out of curiosity, I’m wondering why this is? Admittedly, I often have loads of files per folder, but in my case that was a deliberate choice on my part to replicate my former firm’s document management system, so now I put items of prior art, job sheets, invoices, instructions, possibly the US version of the EP for comparison purposes, and if it’s an opposition or appeal then the various submissions etc. in there.


  8. “Any idea why I have to log in to WordPress in order to be able to Like something, despite the fact that I can post on here easily enough?!”

    So they could spy on you better. They catch more terrorists that way.

    I now need a folder instead of a file because I have several reference files for each patent that I am translating, especially with Japanese patents. In the folder I have an English summary, the original PDF file from the client, a text file in Japanese or another language if it is available on the Internet, and a machine translation file for a rough word count estimate and for possible terminology. These things come in handy – for instance when something does not seem to make sense, I go to the text file in Japanese or German or French and run it through GoogleTranslate for inspiration. Since I work at 2 different workstations in two different rooms, this makes it easy to move everything to another room.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. How do you find this description of a translation company? I wish agencies were like the one described in this book – be it using CAT tools or not. If only they were manufacturers…

    From Translation as a Profession by Daniel Gouadec, 2007, p.122-123:
    “Strictly speaking, a translation company is defined as an entity whose SALARIED STAFF carry out translations (or other services) in-house or on the client’s premises.

    Translation companies employ a number of translators, technical writers, revisers or terminologists, plus a number of experts in other areas who keep the wheels going. The latter will generally include sales staff (who “win” the contracts), IT experts (because language services are now entirely computerized and because all but a handful of translation companies offer “localization” services involving complex “value-added” operations, a finance department, a technical department, a publishing (or desk-top publishing) department, Đ° Web master department and, in some cases, a human resources manager.

    … and the company will frequently include a terminology-managements department and a documentation service as well as a “quality control” section with a number of proof-readers and revisers, one of whom acts as quality manager for the whole company.

    It has to be stressed that bona fide translation companies do NOT make a habit of resorting to sub-contractors.

    [Translation companies] may also do some brokering, but this generally remains a secondary or peripheral activity.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Well, I think that he is describing a certain part of “the translation industry”, the part that has about the same relationship to translation as is the relationship of a canning factory for sardines to seafood.

    To me it also sounds like the description of hell in Dante’s Inferno.

    This translator has nothing to do with this part of “the translation industry”.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Not if it was really staffed with real medical professionals. Then it would be a real hospital.

    I think that “translation companies where translations are done by salaried staff” exist mostly in the imagination of the writer of the excerpt above. Or maybe there are a few on this planet, but not very many.

    Most of them just organize the drudgery and most or all of the translating work is done offsite by subcontractors.

    The last time when I actually saw such a “translation company” was when I was working as a translator of news from various news agencies for the CTK News Agency in Prague in 1980-81, although my official job title was “journalist”.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I also think that “translation companies where translations are done by salaried staff” exist mostly in the imagination of the writer of the excerpt above”

    You remember the 1980s when there were only a few agencies. Harry does, too. There were only two in Varna. He worked for one of them. The commission was 7%. Now there are over 70 and commissions have soared up to 70%, with agencies often not paying at all.

    In the 80s I was a young nurse and stayed a nurse until 2003, for 25 years. The last 16 I worked in a large university hospital, in the Haemodialysis Center there. Being part of the staff, I enjoyed regular workload (with some peak moments, of course), regular holidays once or twice a yeas, decent salary and social contacts with a great team. Medical professionals are far from perfect, as you correctly hint, but then, so are any other kind of professionals. We’re all humans, after all, not angels.

    I did my bachelor’s in English language and Literature part-time while still working full-time and left the medical profession full of ambitions to start a successful translation company – you know, office in the city center, list of translators, billboards with the name of my company, etc.

    For some reasons, my ambitious plans failed before even tried. I started working for agencies. Meanwhile, literally within months, the translation market was changing. New agencies popped up like mushrooms after rain. Some thrived, others went bankrupt…

    The year of 2012 turned out to be the end of the translation world as we had known it in this country. What happened in 2012 and what’s been going on since then in this East-European country, is the topic of Harry’s book Translators and Agencies published free online on May 11 this year in Bulgarian language.

    The last chapter in the book presents two possible scenarios for the future of translators and translation “sardine industry” – a black one and a happy-end one… Then he says, nobody knows what might come next, and finishes on an optimistic note.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Would anyone like to comment a statement I share? Here it is:

    “I have stated many times that technology will not replace translators and interpreters. Other translators and interpreters USING technology will. The writers and intellectuals of the 20th century who refused to use computers were left out of the market and with the exception of some “genius”, all of them are using computers and social media, sell their books in markets for tablets, etc. You get the line of thought. Translators and interpreters are in two camps: tech savvy and not tech-savvy. The first group might survive. The second group, I believe, is doomed to disappear.”


  14. Machine translation will never fully replace human translators. Machines are not capable of seeing context and the tone of a piece of text. I think that MT will only be useful in the form of mobile apps to help tourists communicate with natives, and maybe service workers to communicate with foreigners. Beyond that, it will not be useful.


    • “Machine translation will never fully replace human translators.”

      Of course it will not! But “[o]ther translators and interpreters USING technology will.” Just as “[t]he writers and intellectuals of the 20th century who refused to use computers were left out of the market”. MT will never replace qualified human translators, it will only help them, and only sometimes. On condition it’s them, not the agencies, who use it.

      Actually, the real problem is exactly this: agencies send MT to translators asking them to do “post editing” at half the standard price or even less. That’s preposterous! It’s me, the translator, to decide whether to use MT or not. Honestly speaking, I use it whenever possible, which means, in fact, only occasionally.

      Like Steve, I translate specific, complicated texts (medical) so I’m not afraid of being replaced by MT. Recently, however, the agencies here haven’t sent me any materials, because they find my price of about $7 per 300 words too high (mind, it’s medical texts, and often urgent!). Clients pay at least twice as much. I’m sure, agencies send “my” medical translations to school-students who do any kinds of translation, indiscriminately. And this is I think the second real problem, the first being the so-called post MT editing.


    • Would anyone like to comment on this: “Global Lingo has grown dramatically and now boasts a highly-skilled full-time team of over 50, in three countries, supported by over 6,000 FREELANCE STAFF”

      The question is: What do you think, are freelance translators STAFF of this agency?


      • A suggested answer:

        Yes, the 6,000 freelance translators are staff of Global Lingo in view of their (supposed) continuing relationship with the agency

        “Worker is Employee if Worker has a permanent or extended relationship with the business”
        Source of citation:

        The question is, does GL provide its employees (freelance translators) with due holiday benefits, pension plan benefits, sick or maternity leave benefits? Also, does GL pay due taxes to the state for all of its 6,000 employees or does it evade taxation by treating a continuing relationship between as a short-term relationship between a business and independent contractor?

        “Worker is Independent Contractor if relationship is for one project or a limited duration”

        Source of citation:

        Note: Most translation agencies engage the services of other translation agencies and believe that their relationship is of the type Contractor – Subcontractor. It’s a fact that most translators have their own agencies and enter of business contracts with eac other.

        So what’s wrong here? Nothing, at first sight. A business may employ another business as a subcontractor. This is done when the workload is too heavy or time-frame too short. However, a business needs to be able to perform the work itself given enough time; otherwise it falls in “The Gynecologist and Orthopedist Scheme”.

        The Gynecologist and Orthopedist Scheme

        A doctor, say, gynecologist, has put a sign over his office. The sign, however, does not read: “Dr. Johnson, specialist in gynecological diseases”, but “All kinds of medical services!”

        Now let’s imagine that a man with a broken arm comes to the gynecologist. The gynecologist telephones an orthopedist and tells him: “I need you urgently, I HAVE A CLIENT with a broken arm.” The orthopedist provides the treatment, the gynecologist gets the money, and pays the orthopedist half or one third of the amount.

        Generally speaking, this is what most agencies do. Typically, the owner is a translator, who has rented a small office in the city center and put a sign “All kinds of translations!”


  15. You rang? 🙂


  16. Yes, I meant you, Jeb. So you’re still here? Give it up already, man.

    You know that if you say something that pisses me off, I will just delete it with smile.


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