Posted by: patenttranslator | September 2, 2015

“See how well we take care of our customers?”

When I walked into the local branch of my bank yesterday to get my hands on a little cash for my upcoming trip to Europe, (I will be leaving for the IAPTI III Conference in Bordeaux tomorrow), I saw that while there were no other customers in the bank, four people were doing something behind the counter. So, obviously, I cracked a joke about it and one of those people behind the counter deadpanned by saying ”See how well we take care of our customers? There’s four of us waiting to serve a single customer in our bank”.

It is accepted wisdom that robots and smart machines armed with sophisticated software eliminated many well established professions and that the bank teller is one of those professions. But this is only partly true. I know that two of the people who were behind the bank counter yesterday were what one could call bank tellers, one of them was the bank manager, and I think that the one who had the presence of mind to quickly respond to my joke must have been a regional manager, although she seemed younger than the rest of them.

Robots and software in ATM machines did eliminate many bank teller positions, but few people realize that the same technology has also created many other positions in the same banks. The typical teller whose job it was mostly just to shuffle around checks is for the most part history. But many “bank tellers” are needed to look at checks deposited over smartphones and reconcile daily statements of customers who bank mostly through Internet.

We now have at least ten times more banking outlets compared to we used to have because there is a “bank” in just about every Starbucks, FarmFresh or 7-Eleven store, and the transactions from these ATMs must be supervised by human tellers, just like the millions of transactions going through non-banks such as PayPal, Western Union or TransferWise. There are probably more “bank tellers” employed in this and other countries now than 30 years ago, except that their job description has changed dramatically and only a small fraction of them deal in person directly with customers.

Technology does not simply destroy jobs. It does that, but it also replaces them with other, newly created jobs.

People have been predicting how technology will do this or that for a very long time now, sometime by prophecizing that it would free us from having to work for a living. The British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would replace all work by 2028: “For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.”

Marxists and Leninists were in fact predicting that exactly the same thing would happen in their version of perfect society for decades, and they were just as wrong is JMK. Neither capitalism nor socialism liberated people from work. On the contrary, both of these systems made most people work more, and increasingly for less so that more would be left for the one percent on top.

The truth is, nobody can possibly know what will happen 10 years from now, let alone a hundred years from now. Ten years ago, everybody was using a flip phone. Ten years from now, smartphones will probably look very different from the way they look now, but nobody knows now what the new look will be.

Nobody knows what will happen to the translating profession in ten years. Will computer assisted translation tools (CATs) still be around by then, or will they be simplified and incorporated into word processing software, along with machine translation, encryption and a slew of other function that will be used just like any other function in Word, WordPerfect, or free office suites like Libre Office?

Unlike merchants of predictions of future who claim to be able to predict future trends based on what they would like to call common sense, even to be able to create future-predicting software (because software can be sold!), I know only that I know so little, even about the past and the present, that what I do know really amounts to nothing (scio me nihil scire, as Socrates allegedly put it in a dialogue with Plato).

But I think I do know one thing: just like bank tellers of two or three decades ago, who only needed high school education and a pretty smile, were replaced by ATMs, and ATMs were then in turn rendered mostly idle by software for smartphones that now makes it possible to read and deposit checks and pay from the phone, translators who may only have a high school education and a pretty smile may too be replaced by hardware and software, especially since they mostly interact with customers through computers, and computers don’t care whether we are smiling, frowning, or spilling tears on the computer keyboard.

I also know that translation cannot be automated, mechanized and robotized like assembly operations at a car assembly plant. Translation is one particular product of human thinking, and human thinking requires human attributes such as creativity, compassion or the lack thereof, sense of beauty and aversion to ugliness, in addition to an understanding of a whole range of subjects depending on translator’s specialization.

Translation also often takes a long time because humans cannot be ordered to translate for hours and days on end. There is a relatively short time window during which human brain is willing and able to translate before it gets too tired and the stone of Sisyphus consisting of seemingly untranslatable words and concepts starts rolling back down the hill.

Unfortunately, most of our clients don’t understand this as they are led to believe by so-called translation industry that translation is just another moving belt assembly operation that can be organized to produce record numbers of translated words in record time by a clever production manager.

Yesterday I received an e-mail from a large law firm with a request to quote a price for translating ten Japanese patents within three days. Several of these patents were more than 10 pages long. So I offered to translate one of the shorter patents before I leave on my trip to Europe. Just as I thought, I never heard back from the law firm.

I was tempted to respond by saying that machine translation would be perfect for this job, but I bit my tongue, kept my cool and remained polite.

Just like the bank branch where four human tellers were waiting yesterday to help a single human customer, I need to take good care of my customers, even potential ones, and being polite to customers who have unreasonable demands is just part of the service.

Being polite to customers who have unreasonable demands is part of good service, but chopping up a long patent to divide it between several translators (who are probably not very good because what kind of translator would agree to work under these circumstances?) is a typical component of bad service masquerading as good service, often prominently advertised as excellent service by many translation agencies today in the brave new world of so-called translation industry.

And I don’t want to be part of this so-called translation industry.


  1. The chopped-up texts sometimes come with the delightful: “can you edit this for me?” and then the even better: “we’ll need you to write an affidavit stating that it is all correct because our translator stepped out for a day [or more honestly, because computers can’t sign stuff]”.

    It’s leading me to wonder how to phrase my policy about editing other people’s translations. I’m quite happy to edit a good translation, but unwilling to touch the machine garbage or the “I think I can do this, hand me a dictionary” variety.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I had a similar problem with a large patent law firm whose client was a large Japanese corporation.

    I translated a long patent for the law firm, but the Japanese corporation wanted me to change some terms. Since I was in the middle of working on another project, I asked them to let me finish it first. But the corporation did not want to wait two days and instead had their own translators, or somebody, anyway, change something in my translation.

    Then, months later, the law firm asked me to certify the translation in which something (I did not what) was changed (I did not by whom) because you can only use certified translations in court.

    So I simply refused to do that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Refusing (although not simply. We explain why we’re doing so) is exactly our process.
      It generally takes more than one round of emails to get the explanation understood.


  3. I went back and forth with the law firm about three times who were trying to communicate with their client. I don’t think the client of the law firm, a major Japanese corporation, could possibly understand how a mere translator could tell no to them. But I stood my ground. The law firm is still among my customers, and that was the main thing for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • We’ve retained most of the clients who asked for this. Not all. I tend to believe that if they won’t understand, it’s not because they can’t but because they’re looking for a different sort of thing than what I conceive of as proper translation.

      And those? They can go play with Google Translate, they’re not part of my market.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Enjoy your travels PT! And don’t forget that a warm welcome awaits you in Kutná Hora :). (If your plans change we’d be almost as happy to meet you in Prague :)!!


    • Thanks. My plane was diverted to a different airport yesterday and I had to stay overnight in a hotel in Atlanta. A day later I am finally waiting for me flight to Paris at Atlanta airport 3hours from now.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks so much.

        I had Kung p chicken lunch at the aiport and the fortune cookie said “Your luck will change from today”.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That settles it, then. Fortune cookies are *always* correct. It is the rule!


  5. Wishing You the Best of Luck despite your tricky start!

    Liked by 1 person

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