Posted by: patenttranslator | July 14, 2015

There Is No Smartphone Application for Moving Meaning from One Language to Another

Yesterday I deposited for the first time a check to my checking account by signing it, snapping a picture of the front and the back of it and pressing on the button that said “Deposit” on the screen of my phone. When I checked my account balance on the same smartphone this morning, I saw that it grew by 80 dollars and 50 cents, the amount of the check I deposited as a test yesterday.

And then, when I was checking the balance on my other checking account (I always try to have a plan B for everything), the dumb machine refused to recognize my password (although it was correct) and threatened to lock me out after a third unsuccessful attempt. I will have to go to the bank and ask them to straighten the stupid machine out.

Ah, the mysteries of processing by silicon-based intelligence.

But still, I am amazed at the progress in the technology of moving money around, amazing technology that somehow passed me by as I simply did not realize that there was another alternative to depositing a check through an ATM, other than paying a visit to a human teller in the bank. Since this technology has been around for more than five years and it is very convenient, both of my children must be depositing checks in this manner now, on the rare occasions when they still deal with checks.

While people of my generation still somehow manage to live a meaningful life outside of a cell phone, our children’s cell phones are their whole life. That is where their friends are, as well as their music, directions for getting from one place to another, gossips and petty fights on Reddit and Facebook, cool photos of cute puppies and girls in seductive poses on Instagram – in one word … just about everything that matters to them.

Since there is an application for (just about) everything on a smart phone, including ways to move money from an antiquated piece of paper called check to your bank account, people naturally expect that there would be also a smart phone application for moving meaning from one language to another.

And most people believe that there is a smartphone application like that, of course. Except that there really isn’t. It only looks that way. There are applications for moving words automatically from one language to another. Some of them are quite good, most of them are free, and all of them are very convenient.

But there is no application for moving the meaning of these words from one language to another. In order to create meaning, a human must be somehow involved in the creation of the new meaning in another language, just like a human must be involved in the creation of new human life.

Two humans, in fact must be involved in order to create new life, one of each sex. Various technical means exist to modify to an amazing and to my mind slightly disturbing extent the manner in which either of these two humans of different sex may participate in this creation of new life; but still, two of them are needed for something like that.

In the interconnected and transparent world, which is now full of new dangers, there is a way to move within a few seconds exactly 80 US dollars and 50 cents, which is what was written on the check that was delivered by snail mail to my mail box, for a translation of the Polish text of information on the website of Polish embassy in a European country about a certain civil procedure. OK, if you must know, it was about what kind of documentation is required for marriage. I suppose I can say that since translation of an Internet page is not really a confidential matter.

Embassies of different countries have all the information that people often need conveniently provided on a website page, usually in at least two languages. But since this embassy did not have this information on its website in English, and it was needed in that language, a human translator had to translate it.

I am sure that the two people who ordered this translation first used machine translation to “translate” the words into English. It is just a text file that can be easily translated with GoogleTranslate, which does a pretty good job when it comes to translating words.

But the problem is, it does not always do a very good job when it comes to translating meaning, because machine don’t understand meaning. They understand numbers better and faster than humans, but without humans, they have no idea what these numbers, or anything else for that matter, in fact mean.

If the application for depositing checks through a smartphone sometime interpreted a check amount being deposited as 80 dollars and fifty cents, and sometime as 805 dollars and zero cents, it would be completely useless. Several safeguards are employed to prevent errors like this. The amount is written both in numbers and in words, and the smartphone will reject a picture if the words and numbers are not distinct enough for the machine to read it. Everything is done automatically without any human intervention, until the point when a human at a bank somewhere makes a decision about the meaning of the transaction, namely that the entire transaction makes sense and is probably legitimate.

Which brings me back again to the magic word “meaning”.

It is relatively easy for a bank employee to determine within a few seconds that the check that I deposited yesterday with my phone was genuine and that the amount is correct. The amount of the check is clearly visible in the photo, both in words and in numbers, and the bank’s computer must also have the information that I generally deposit a check from this particular customer of the bank’s customer, a small translation agency that pays me incredibly fast (within a week) every couple of months.

But it is very difficult to determine whether a smartphone application that “translated” words from one language to another managed to move the actual meaning of the words in one language into the other language as well.

You cannot do it by simply looking at the text in the source and target language only for a few seconds to make sure that this particular transaction makes sense.

You have to look both at the source and the target language, and you have to understand the meaning in both of these languages to determine whether the result makes sense. Sometime it does, but often it does not.

And when it does not make sense, which is likely to happen about half the time, sometime less and sometime more than that depending on the complexity of the text and which languages we are talking about, you have to retranslate the entire text from scratch by using a human brain for this particular task. Which is expensive because it takes a long time and a certain amount of knowledge and expertise that not that many people are likely to have.

Although there are smartphone application for just about everything now, moving meaning through a human brain is the only way to make sure that the original meaning will be moved safely, intact and in good shape to another language.

And I doubt very much that this will ever change.


  1. As a digital immigrant myself, I enjoyed reading your very inciteful commentary on silicon-based intelligence!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I really like the word “inciteful”, Chris. Good job!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Agree completely. I do not believe that flawed creatures such as human beings can create machines with a perfect artificial intelligence. We still do not know enough about the human brain to be able to create an electronic
    version of that organ and I do not believe that we ever will, any more than I believe that will ever be able to travel at speeds approcahing that of light.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “Although there are smartphone application for just about everything now, moving meaning through a human brain is the only way to make sure that the original meaning will be moved safely, intact and in good shape to another language.

    And I doubt very much that this will ever change.”

    I cannot agree more, Steve. I am absolutely convinced of that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I liked your comparison with machine translation (MT), also called automatic translation :

    “If the application for depositing checks through a smartphone sometime interpreted a check amount being deposited as 80 dollars and fifty cents, and sometime as 805 dollars and zero cents, it would be completely useless.” !

    That being said, automatic translation to and from the English language seems to be getting better every day, as the various systems are fed with more and more corpus…

    And it looks like computers can be programmed so that they take context into account…

    And from what I read about SDL’s promotion of their latest version of Trados Studio (i.e. the 2015 version), they admit that “PEM(p)T” (post-editing of machine (pseudo-)translation) is not too great for translators, and have improved it with “AutoSuggest 2.0”.

    I let you read their product description at×60 : it is well written and, for the first time, I really understand what their new Trados version is all about – like:

    “AutoSuggest 2.0 (…) offer(s) machine translation results ‘as you type’. (…)

    ***It has proven more useful than having to post-edit a segment.***

    It felt (…) less ’intrusive’ with many parts of segments and words being proposed to me that I did not have to type in full.”.

    SDL Trados Studio 2015 even has the AutoCorrect macros now, just like MS Word!

    AutoCorrect was initially designed to replace usually misspelled words by correct words. Some words have already been entered in the system, but you can add your own.

    So you can tell the system (presented in 2 columns) to replace ‘accordingto’ by ‘according to’ and ‘acheive’ by ‘achieve’.

    But also ‘letter of request’ by ‘lettre rogatoire, commission rogatoire, demande d’entraide judiciaire (IATE)’.

    And also codes like ‘dom adcobeer’ by:

    ‘Administration communale de Beersel
    Alsembergsteenweg 1046
    1652 Alsemberg
    tél. 02 359 17 17
    fax 02 359 17 18‘,

    “dom” being for “domicile”. A seasoned sworn translator taught me all these codes, mainly used in legal translations for the judiciary system, but you can create your own for recurring strings of text or expressions, so you don’t have to type them: it is MUCH MORE EFFICIENT THAN THE F… AUTOSUGGEST, which suggests you too many terms, thus you have to select them, which takes time…

    Beware of systems that were invented by non-translators!…

    So translators can also save their terminology in AutoCorrect, much faster than in MultiTerm !

    For years, I have used AutoCorrect as a terminology database, as a template database, and as a typing accelerator – using the saved terminology for my area of specialisation, but also using codes replacing strings of text – THAT really allowed me to get (very) rich with (very) low rates! Not those f… CAT tools… !

    The SDL guy says they have reduced terminology encoding time in MultiTerm, their associated terminology software: it’s about time…

    He also starts by saying that from now on, any revised translation saved in an MS Word file can be re-entered into Trados as the target text – thus allowing it to be (re-)entered into the TM (translation memory) file!

    Thus since (good) revising is impossible in Trados, translators will now have to LOSE EVEN MORE TIME re-entering the target text into Trados, and saving each segment, one by one, back into the TM file!

    On top of their own admission that PEMT does not work, this is also an admission that their CAT tool system DOES-NOT-WORK either!

    Yet they persist (!) in their intent to extort huge rebates from freelance translators (i.e. texts revised in MS Word should be re-entered in Trados, so as to be (re-)entered in the TM file, so as to be the pretext for extorting huge rebates from the next translation invoice !!).

    Because they (CAT tool builders, in particular SDL) invented the per-word rate, allowing them to pretend that some words should be less paid than others.

    Whereas, for centuries, translators have always invoiced LINES of text of 50, 55 or 60 characters and spaces, according to each country’s habits…

    Many translators still invoice per line in many parts of Germany, in Belgium, and probably in other countries.

    Conversions from word-invoicing to line-invoicing can be done via the online tool (where “units” are either words, or characters with spaces, or characters without spaces).

    If translators all go back to invoicing (or continue to invoice) PER LINE, no customer (intermediary or direct client) will be able to pretend that some words supposedly have less value than other words.

    Invoicing per word is a 21st-century invention by non-translators, psychopaths, perverts, translation brokers, monolinguals who know nothing about translation !

    Translators can easily invoice per line with direct customers, for example.

    It’s up to translators to educate end-customers.

    It is certainly not the role of monolingual, pervert, psychopathic, non-translating brokers – who will never know what translation is all about (!) – to educate end-customers…

    (Hope this is not too long, but CAT tools + PEMT are quite a subject…)


  6. “Invoicing per word is a 21st-century invention by non-translators, psychopaths, perverts, translation brokers, monolinguals who know nothing about translation !” Ha, ha, ha, good one … I agree.

    I believe that this concept was created by translation agencies in US, probably in seventies or eighties.

    When I was still working for customers in Japan, I had to charge them based on a double-spaced page of Japanese source text (called genko yoshi). So the per page concept makes sense also in Asia.

    I would not mind charging by the line or by the page as long as I set my rates myself and as long as I am not forced to give obligatory discounts to greedy middlemen and middlewomen.

    The CAT discounts for “fuzzy” and “full matches” are obscene. I don’t understand how translators could have fallen for this trap. I hope they learned from their mistake.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Both per word an per page are proxies for the amount of time it takes. But no-one wants to pay for my time at the rate it would come to per word (or per page).
    I think the problem lies therein: the skill I have is deemed to be one for low hourly rates, so if I want the monetary reward I need for maintaining that skill (or set of skills), I must shroud the hourly wage in mystery.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. That is one part of the argument against hourly wage, and I agree with it.

    The other part is that since different people work at different speed, an hourly wage would be less fair (all lawyers and accountants presumably work at exactly the same speed), plus some people would cheat and try to inflate the number of billable hours (which is something that lawyers and accountants would never do).


  9. And charging per word adds to the perception translation is just a commodity. We buy x kilos of coffee, or get xx words translated. It’s simply a matter of volume. Charging by the hour would indicate brain work is involved, like your lawyers and accountants. If translation was perceived as a specialised skill rather than something anyone can do, we wouldn’t have to “shroud our hourly rate in mystery” – well said Shunra.

    I really like the distinction between transferring words and transferring meaning, Steve. Very useful way of explaining it to non-translators.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. “And charging per word adds to the perception translation is just a commodity.”

    Exactly. I suppose to most people, including in particular our clients, it is a commodity, and there is not much we can do about it.

    One thing that has been working for me is charging much higher rates for rush work, which I sometime define flexibly depending on how busy I am. If something cost significantly more when it has to be done in a hurry, perhaps it is less perceived as a commodity and more as a service.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Yes, we charge/quote +50% for “normal” urgency, and +100% for “super” urgency. Sometimes it’s to not get the job, but it’s amazing how often clients accept the higher rates. And we pay the same added %s to our translators, which helps offset the additional stress/pressure in the job.

    I think everyone should charge more for urgency.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. “…to most people, including in particular our clients, [translation] is a commodity, and there is not much we can do about it.”

    Yes, there is. Don’t worry that translations are seen as commodities. Just oppose the sale of translations of unknown origin. You know what I mean, don’t you? Remember the Know Your Translator movement?


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