Posted by: patenttranslator | June 19, 2015

How Many Translating Turkers Are Hidden Inside The Box Of Language Tools?

The Mechanical Turk, or Chess Turk, was a fake machine that played chess against human players who almost always got beaten by the ghostly machine. The ingenious contraption, constructed in the late 18th century, was very popular in Europe for about eight decades until people finally figured out that the desk behind which the formidable Chess Turk automaton was sitting had enough empty space in it, camouflaged by useless gear, to hide a human chess player there. If you click on the introductory Youtube video, it will tell you the story of the Mechanical Turk in dramatic and authoritative German accent.

But if you Google the words Mechanical Turk two centuries later in early 21st century, the first few entries that you will find will not be for the old fake machine that had a sly chess master hidden in its entrails. Instead, you will see several entries for the term “Amazon Mechanical Turk”, described in Wikipedia as “A crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables individuals and businesses (known as Requesters) to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do” …. “Employers are able to post jobs known as HITs (Human Intelligence Tasks), such as choosing the best among several photographs of a storefront, writing product descriptions, or identifying performers on music CDs. Workers (called Providers in Mechanical Turk’s Terms of Service, or, more colloquially, Turkers) can then browse among existing jobs and complete them for a monetary payment set by the employer (emphasis mine).

The concept of Turkers is similar to the concept of online portals for translators who can on a good day (but is it really a good day?) find work on these portals, mostly at incredibly low rates, although these rates are still higher than what crowd workers who work for companies such as Amazon, called Turkers, are being paid. Turkers earn on average about 2 dollars an hour, typically about 0.001 dollars per task, but unlike translators who must pay if they want to find work on poorly paying translation portals, Amazon Turkers do not need to pay a membership fee to a portal. All they have to do is create an Amazon Turker account and they can start bringing home the bacon immediately, although it will be only a very tiny piece of bacon that will still leave them hungry for more food.

There are many very simple things that machines, no matter how incredibly fast they may run their calculations, cannot understand. That is why we always have to prove online that we are humans and not just robots, called web crawlers, looking for information. Our genuine humanness is now mostly tested when we are asked to identify a string of numbers or letters in which some of them may be in a different font or askew. Even the dumbest human can notice something like that right away, while even the fastest and most powerful computer will fail at this easy task.

The tasks that Turkers perform are very simple. Provided that you are in fact a human rather than a machine, you will be able to quickly conclude that green grass looks better on a real estate ad than yellow grass, you will be able to easily find contact information hiding somewhere in a web page, determine that a telephone number or zip code has too many or too few digits, or tell which girl is pretty and which one is a dog (although different humans will have differing opinions when it comes to the last task).

There are many people who are willing to work for such a pitifully low remuneration in this world, as they have plenty of time on their hands, typically because they cannot find a better job.

And in quite a few countries in the this world, 2 dollars an hour is nothing to sneeze at.

According to, the minimum hourly wage is below 1 US dollar in the following countries: Sierra Leone ($0.03), India ($0.28), Afghanistan ($0.57), the Philippines ($0.61), Mexico ($0.66), China ($0.80) and Russia ($0.98), while the minimum wage in Brazil ($1.98), corresponds roughly to the average hourly wage of a Turker who may be working for Amazon, Target, or Walmart or another corporation from anywhere in the world (the numbers are from 2013, but I don’t think they budged much since then).

The way translation industry, or at least a certain segment of it, sees the arrangement of the natural order in the world, the task that translators perform, for example during post-processing of machine translations, is not very different from and typically not much more difficult than what non-translating Turkers are doing, when certain tools, called language technology tools, are employed.

That is why the translation industry is so excited about what it calls language technology!

Language technology, or processing of human language with computer tools such as spell checkers and word counters, computer assisted translation (CAT) tools, optical character recognition (OCR), machine translation, speech to text conversion and many other computerized tools has been with us for many years, some of them for decades.

One relatively recent language technology tool that I absolutely adore is called telephone voice caller ID. I bought two Panasonic phone systems with several extensions, a black one for my business and a white one for my home, both with the same phone voice caller ID system. Unlike last year when I still had to get up in order to look at the call ID displayed on the phone, now I don’t have to get up from my chair or sofa when telemarketers in vain attempt to disturb the serenity of my day.

But the translation industry, for lack of a better term, is not interested that much in language technology tools such as spell checkers, or speech to text conversion. Maybe a little bit, but not that much.

The translation industry is mostly interested in the one language technology tool that looks the most like the Mechanical Turk that was invented at the end of the 18th century, namely machine translation combined with post-processing of the result of machine pseudo-translation, once it has been fixed and straightened up by translating Turkers.

But there is a problem with the concept of replacing a human translator by machine translation, so that a fast but still not quite human-like machine is then assisted by humans having the function of translating Turkers. While Turkers who work for close to nothing on very simply tasks as they fix computer errors for large corporations do not need to know much about anything as long as they have a pulse, a computer and Internet access, translator-Turkers would need to know something to be able to fix machine translation errors.

A lot, in fact, because they would need to know basically as much as a human translator must need to do good work.

We keep hearing from what is called the translation industry that machine translation is being constantly improved, which is true as far as that goes. The way machine translation, or pseudo-translation to be more precise, is described by merchants of language technology, the only, relatively minor problem with machine translation is that “it is not perfect yet, or “not as elegant” as human translation.

The way results of machine translation are described by merchants who are so excited about their new language tools, all that is needed is to hook up online with a bunch of idle translator-Turkers, who will then be able to fix little details that machines don’t understand yet.

Post-processing of machine translation is not that different, according to this theory, from determining the correct number of digits in a telephone number, or whether something is in green or yellow color, or which girl is pretty, and which is not.

That is the version of post-processing operations that is being sold to translators who might be interested in becoming post-processing Turkers in the current version of what is called the translation industry.

The reality, however, is something else altogether. The real job of post-processors of machine translation is to identify and fix mistranslation, not just to look for careless, stupid, but relatively minor computer mistakes in order to make the text more elegant, more idiomatic, or just slightly better.

And every translator knows that machine translations are full of mistranslations. In other words, their job, most of the time, will be to retranslate just about everything.

Their job could be compared to what in the home remodeling industry is called “a gut job”. If you ever saw one of the reality TV shows about home buying and remodeling, you know that a gut job is what you are left with when you buy a house because of the famous location, location, location, because it has “good bones”, and because it is really cheap.

Let’s say that you buy an old and decrepit house for a hundred thousand, you remove everything from the kitchen, the bathroom and the bedrooms and invest another forty thousand in upgrading everything that was taken out. After a few weeks or months during which you are kept very busy working on your gut job, you may end up with a house that is now worth two hundred thousand, at least according to what they tell us on teevee – if you know what you’re doing.

That, rather than just fixing minor errors, is also how post-processing of machine translation looks in reality.

Coming back to our original analogy of Mechanical Turk, or Chess Turk, there would need to be many invisible translating Turkers hidden in the magical box that is being built for translators by the translation industry, in which the translation industry would love to marry computer technology with post-processing humans. And most of these translating Turkers would need to be as good as the sly chess master who, hidden in a desk behind which a scary figurine of a Turk was pretending to blink, shake his head and move his hands, was busy moving chess pieces with magnets under the desktop.

Since the magical machine of the translation tools will not work unless great multitudes of translating Turkers can be hidden inside the box that the translation industry is busy building for them now, the interesting question is: how many translators will fit into this box?


  1. “How Many Translating Turkers Are Hidden Inside The Box Of Language Tools?”

    A more interesting question is: Why are translators hidden?

    Indeed, why don’t the agencies (the intermediaries) connect the two parties that are looking for each other (clients and translators)? Standing as a barrier between clients and translators is detrimental to both translators and clients. Anybody care about clients? At least about clients, if not about translators?


  2. The humans must remain invisible to make it look like the chess game is being played by the magical Mechanical Turk machine.


  3. The Turk Chess Playing Machine was a hoax.

    ” The hoax was exposed 50 years after Kempelen’s death and three years after the Turk itself was destroyed: a chess player was cleverly disguised inside the cabinet. The Turk spawned numerous imitators, most famously Ajeeb and Mephisto.” As well as translation agencies nowadays. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Well, this is the whole concept behind Unbabel and others (machine translation + post editing). I agree with your thoughts, but I definitely think there’s potential in certain cases for this type of translation, most specifically in those where there’s no requirement of producing an “elegant” text, such as when translating user generated content (support tickets, emails, reviews, even product descriptions). These companies are targeting at those type of clients, clients that produce a lot of short content that needs to be translated quickly —and as cheap as possible—. In those cases, I really do think that MT + PE is the way to go.

    But, if we are talking about translating other type of documents, like research material or publications… that’s a different story, and no company in the translation industry has been able to crack the hole to produce a solution innovative enough to leave human, professional translators behind (“unfortunately!”, a few will say). At least not yet.


  5. I agree with you, there is a market for these kind of services that can be performed by translating Turkers instead of translators. It is probably going on already.

    But I also think that the so called translation industry will try to apply this approach to all kinds of translations to drive down the rates that are paid to all kinds of translators, the way the translation industry did it by using CATs with the concept of fuzzy matches and full matches, etc.


    • “But I also think that the so called translation industry will try to apply this approach to all kinds of translations to drive down the rates that are paid to all kinds of translators, the way the translation industry did it by using CATs with the concept of fuzzy matches and full matches, etc.”

      It is currently happening unfortunately. These services, and other online services like OHT, Straker and more, are moving the conversation towards translation as a commodity rather than as a service.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Steve, nothing wrong with the price going down. The problem is that agencies (intermediaries) swell up the end-client price with their commissions. There are too many agencies, mostly micro-sized (staff below 10). They fiercely compete to lower the price somehow.

    The only way for them to lower the price, however, is by forwarding the translation task to the cheapest possible translator. Often, via a couple of other agencies, way away up to the other end of the globe. You have written about that. The result? The client gets low quality at high price. Too many cooks …, remember?

    So, ironically, clients get much worse service today than years ago – thanks to technology and globalization 🙂 And “competition” 🙂 🙂

    Good news: the other day a client suspiciously asked on the phone, are you an agency? We said, no, we’re translators with a firm under the Company Act. And he said, oh, good, I want a translator, NOT an agency. Well? What do you think? Harry’s book seems to have started tipping the balance here. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I always stress to my direct clients that I am a translator rather than an agency, and that I do most of the translating myself, although I also add that I can find translators for them for languages that I cannot translate myself. Currently, about 30% of my income is from translation done by other translators and 70% from my own translations.

    Not all translation agencies are mostly useless and incompetent parasites, although many certainly are.

    The worst parasites are usually those that proudly call themselves “LSPs”.


    • The only role of agencies is to connect clients with translators. That is exactly what intermediaries do.

      In the present situation, clients are deprived of a basic right: the right of choice.

      You’d say, there are agencies galore, and clients are free to choose whichever they want. Yes, there are, but they all make the same claim: “We have all you need – thousands of highly qualified, experienced translators, editors, consultants, etc.”

      Where is the choice here?

      Can you imagine a world where a GP, a small clinic and a large medical institution with thousands of salaried medical staff and equipment worth millions, claim – each of them! – they have everything you need: thousands of highly qualified, experienced medical professionals, consultants, etc.? That’s madness, isn’t it?

      You know that most translation agencies have few or no translators on their staff, don’t you? Typically, they consists of 2 or 3, up to 10, people with poor language skills and little knowledge of labour law, or any law, who “manage” a ghost army of invisible, anonymous translators.

      Who are those translators? Where are they? Whose are they? Are they movable property shared by all agencies?

      Because of the notorious invisibility of allegedly qualified translators and their feudal subjection to agencies translators who are really highly qualified are deprived of fair competition. They are demotivated to work as translators and either leave the profession or register their own agency to join the competition between the commanders of ghost armies. This is the only feasible competition in the field of translation services, anyway.

      Sooner or later they realize what sheer madness that “competition” is and start a blog to share their insights and embitterment. They are losing the battle because they have been trying to emulate the parasite but aren’t as skillful as them at telling lies about armies of non-existing translators.


  8. I wonder if perhaps all this talk about computers replacing translators isn’t helpful in the long run, at least in some language combinations. If everyone believes translation has no future it will keep people from entering the profession, which in turn will drive up rates as the pool of available translators shrinks.

    Most native Anglophones I know see translation as a profession with high barriers to entry which can be easily outsourced to low-wage countries. It never seems to occur to them that the vast majority of non-native translators (present company excepted, Mr. Vitek) are not able to write in English at the level required by well-paying clients.

    The majority of native English speakers see little ROI in truly mastering a foreign language. I’m guessing that this will work to my advantage in the future.


  9. I agree with you, but I also think that most native Anglophone are wrong about the rewards of a translating career.

    I am making a pretty good living given that I enjoy my work, I can sit on my ass at home, I don’t have a boss, nobody can fire me and I can move any time anywhere I want to.

    Most of my neighbors, who mostly work as senior officers for US Army or Navy, would kill to have a job like mine.

    Agencies have recently done a lot of damage to our profession, but I still find it very rewarding – as long as one can avoid a certain type of agency.


  10. “So, ironically, clients get much worse service today than years ago – thanks to technology and globalization 🙂 And “competition” 🙂 :)”

    Very true, but isn’t it, at least partly, due to the fact that translators like you refuse to become agencies (because they are too pure for that), and it’s mostly the ignorant and exploitative parasites who are running them now?


    • Look what I found at

      “A traditional approach with a modern face
      TCI offers only ‘personalized’ translation services where each language professional is in direct contact with clients. TCI believes that it is important to bring back the invaluable and efficient translator/interpreter-client relationship that so few agencies provide these days.”


    • “translators like you refuse to become agencies (because they are too pure for that)”

      There’s nothing dirty in the idea of registering an agency in order to facilitate connection between clients and translators, and I’m sure most translators “become” agencies actuated by the best intentions. However, in an environment polluted by malpractices it is very hard, if not impossible, for an honest agency to survive.

      The worse malpractice is concealment of translators. It’s actually a hoax. A hoax greater than the Chess Playing Machine because there was a brilliant human chess player inside the machine whereas “inside” the agencies are hidden low- or unqualified self-proclaimed translators from the global black market.


  11. This is why translators must tell end-customers about the TIME it takes to translate or proofread, in order to counteract the brainwashing of end-customers by translation agencies.

    We can keep rates per word, so that customers have a basis for comparison, but we should always link them to the TIME it takes to perform the requested task!

    Freelance translators will keep on being cheated again and again if we continue to stick to purely per-word rates!

    Even end-customers play on this. I recently had to work for 50 unpaid hours for a direct customer who played on the fact that I was being paid per translated word, not to figure out how to convert files from their unknown CAT tool to the most popular CAT tool, with incomplete or erroneous explanations from the said direct customer…

    Even end-customers sincerely believe that they are legitimately entitled to a substantial rebate on the ground of total or even partial segment analogies, when they work directly with translators! Totally brainwashed by intermediaries, who “forgot” to mention that the said CAT tools often make a translator’s work much slower.

    It is always IMPLIED that repetitions should, logically (?), make a translator save time.

    I am struck by the fact that no study supports this allegation… not even a study ordered by the CAT tool industry, if only to support their (implied) allegations…

    This is called MANIPULATION.

    I strongly believe that the translation market has been largely taken over by pervert psychopaths running companies like SDL and websites like, and the like…

    It is high time we, translators, refresh the brains of end-customers!

    Because the next step in indecency will be when end-customers also impose PEMpT to their direct translators!

    If we do not react right now, this is awaiting us, I fear!

    For them, it is only a matter of buying the right software and filling it with their company literature…

    God protect us from this glooming prospect!! 😦

    So, please, always emphasize the TIME it’s going to take when dealing with direct clients!

    Lawyers and even accountants are less stupid: they are also freelancers, but they are paid per hour!…

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Totally brainwashed by intermediaries, who “forgot” to mention that the said CAT tools often make a translator’s work much slower.

      It is always IMPLIED that repetitions should, logically (?), make a translator save time.

      I am struck by the fact that no study supports this allegation… not even a study ordered by the CAT tool industry, if only to support their (implied) allegations…

      This is called MANIPULATION.”

      Couldn’t agree more! I’ve waiting to read something like that by Steve… Anyway, thank you very much, legalandbusinesstranslator!

      In search of who you are, I encountered a wonderful site: SLBT. Hope it’s yours, but even it is not, it’s worth citing:


      In an attempt to be “all things to all people,” many translation companies accept projects in languages ranging from Afrikaans to Yiddish. Yet these same firms, often lacking the internal language skills to judge the quality of work returned by subcontractors, are left to “pray for the best” about the translation’s accuracy.



      We don’t translate all languages – only the ones we speak ourselves!

      Four Compelling Reasons To Choose SLBT Over Other Translation Competitors
      Most other translation companies boast of their capacity to translate from or into “any language” through their “worldwide network” of language professionals. In our opinion, this approach is fraught with danger because language professionals scattered throughout the world often feel little responsibility or accountability towards the language companies that hire them. In our over fourteen years of doing business, we have seen how other companies routinely struggle with uneven quality, missed deadlines, and even potential breaches of confidentiality. For this reason, we categorically dismiss this approach, and instead prefer to focus solely on the languages that we speak (Spanish, German, Italian, French, Portuguese and English) while completing all work on-site.”

      Great! Superb! Ingenious! Genuinely professional! Hat off!


  12. I enjoyed the video on the Chess Turk. I love your comparisons. Enjoyable read, thank you Steve!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Another thing that I find very useful when dealing with direct clients is to give them two options: one for expedited translation at a surcharge of 40 to 50%, and one for non-rush translation, also at a good rate, competitive with respect to what most agencies are charging, but not too low.

    It works in my field because translations of patents are often not very urgent, and when they are urgent, the client will pay the rush rate without quibbling too much about it.

    I wonder whether the same strategy would work well also in other fields.


  14. […] low, so low that it only makes sense to look for work on them if you live in one of the countries, mentioned in a previous blog post, where the minimum hourly wage is no more than 2 US dollars, In most states in US, it is $7.50, in […]


  15. […] for large corporations such as Amazon or Microsoft in part-time jobs as I wrote in a post titled “How Many Translating Turkers Are Hidden Inside a Box of Language Tools?” eighteen months […]


  16. […] other low-wage workers called Turkers, a term I discussed more than two years ago in a post called How Many Translating Turkers Are Hidden Inside the Box Of Language Tools?, depend on a management system created by a corporation […]


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