Posted by: patenttranslator | December 5, 2016

A Few Misleading Terms and Curious Notions Popular in the Translation Industry

I have written quite a few posts on my blog about a number of misleading terms and notions that have been custom-made for the general public and for translators in particular by the giant PR machine of what has become known in the twenty-first century the “translation industry”. Some turned out to be quite popular, some seem to have mostly fallen on deaf ears.

The very term “translation industry” is misleading because no distinction is made with this term between translators and interpreters, namely between the persons who provide translating and interpreting services, and brokers who buy these services from translators and interpreters in order to sell them to companies and individuals, i.e. the actual “translation industry”.

That is also why I try to discourage translators from using the term “language services provider”, or LSP, in online discussions among translators. This acronym, still a complete mystery to people who are not working in or for the industry, appears to have been designed by industry experts to simply make the profession of translator disappear into the numerous hungry mouths of translation agencies who would love to swallow us translators up by creating a handy abbreviation.

And it seems to be working because this is what is now in fact already happening with the help of our so-called professional associations, most of which work for the “translation industry” these days instead of working for translators.

If translators accept terms in their naiveté that have been recently invented and coined, especially for us by the “translation industry”, they may be galloping toward extinction within a few short decades, or perhaps even sooner.

The “translation industry” would love to turn translators into subservient, obedient drones who would be grateful to the mighty and magnificent industry for any kind of work at any level of compensation. And although this goal has been on the industry’s agenda now for at least two decades, not a word has been written about this taboo subject so far for example in the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, which proudly and somewhat ironically calls itself “The Voice of Interpreters and Translators”.

As far as the ATA is concerned, we are all one big happy family because both translators and translation agencies are “stakeholders” pursuing the same noble goals. To say that our interests are in fact often opposite would be blasphemy, which is why no criticism of the industry is allowed on the pages of the ATA Chronicle.

Fortunately, we have blogs and social media where a lot of information is available for those of us who want to understand what is happening and how and why things are changing for translators.

If most younger translators don’t know at this point that some 15 years ago, there were no “LSPs” or “language services providers”, only translation agencies and translators, it is quite possible that 15 years from now most younger translators will not know that the notion of “post-editing of machine translation” was at one point a practice that was disparaged by most translators because it was literally killing them, both intellectually and financially.

After more than half a century of impressive, albeit very slow and only incremental progress, the fact remains that machine translation, no matter how much editing is wasted on it by pitiful persons formerly called translators and recently renamed “post-processors”, is an exercise in futility and will always result in slightly less repulsive garbage instead of resulting in real translations equivalent to the translation humans do.

Machine translation kills the spirit of human communication. It does so by default because machines do not have the capability to understand the concept of communication among humans and an algorithm will never be a suitable substitute for human thinking.

And because machines are not very likely to grow a brain inorganically, on silicon, the “translation industry” needs to appropriate the brains of persons formerly called translators whose formidable task would be to revive the spirit of human communication that has been mercilessly put to death by an unthinking machine.

Google Translate has attempted to circumvent the carnage that “rules-based machine translation” can inflict upon translation of communication among humans by identifying previous human translations that are very close or almost identical to new texts that need to be translated.

It is a very clever idea and this approach indeed works much better than the older approach that is based on marrying dictionary definitions of words with rules and myriads of exceptions in the grammar of various languages, because such an incredible witches’ brew is created from these rules and exceptions that only a human brain can make sense of it.

However, the problem with the approach of Google Translate is that a translation that was previously supplied by human translators and that seems to be almost identical to another document in a foreign language may in fact be completely inaccurate, although it may seem to be perfect.

If for example the closest translation of a text about a real estate transaction says, “The property on 1234 Sunny Lane is definitely not worth one million dollars”, reflecting the considered opinion of an expert on real estate values from the previous year, but the current expert opinion of the same person says, “The property on 1234 Lane is definitely worth one million dollars”, Google Translate could easily substitute the old expert opinion for a new translation … because it is the closest existing human translation and a new translation has not been provided by a human brain yet. And it may appear to be a perfect translation.

I happen to know that this kind of thing happens all the time with Google Translate.

Very often when I print out a machine translation of a patent I am translating for a client, the machine translation is impressive and looks almost like a real human translation, while it seems to contain only a few blemishes here and there.

But then, when I compare it to the text of the patent application that I am translating, it sometimes has for example a different number of claims and other differences, which means that it is not really the actual translation of the text of the patent application, but instead only something that is very similar.

But very similar is not the same thing as … the same thing.

To file a machine translation of a patent that looks perfect, but says something different from the original document could lead to disaster. To rely in court on a machine translation that looks perfect, but does not correspond to the original document, would also likely result in disaster.

Let me try another dramatic example.

If an intercepted command from Army Headquarters issued by a general from an enemy’s underground bunker from ten minutes ago was translated by a human as, “We must not launch a nuclear strike at this time”, but since no human is available on the spot, a Google Translate substitute is used instead of a human translation for a new command intercepted that only a minute ago said, “We must now launch a nuclear strike…” there could be a minor problem if the machine translation was used to take or not take action, instead of a real translation.

Nevertheless, similar is good enough for the “translation industry” and the industry simply loves the concept of selling machine translations, “post-edited” or not, because it could be an extremely profitable line in the “translation business”.

If the industry could make its concept of post-editing of machine output by humans really work en masse, translators could be reclassified as workers who are simply processing and replacing words in the same manner as the many thousands of “freelancers” called “Mechanical Turks” who work for a dollar or two an hour.

The concept of mechanical Turks describes humans who are often located in impoverished countries and who work 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 ago.

The difference between the concept of the “crowdsourcing mechanical Turk workplace”, to quote Wikipedia, and the concept of a crowdsourcing workplace for translators who would be replacing words or even sentences at a very low rate, hopefully for free for the sheer fun of it, for the mighty industry, is that people who look for example for mismatched numbers or mismatched colors in an Amazon order do not need to have any substantial knowledge of anything.

They only need to have a pulse and a human brain that works reasonably well.

But translators looking for mismatched words in machine translations need to know at least two languages as well as a lot about the materials that need to be translated. In fact they need to know so much that only those who have not only a very good knowledge of more than one language, but also a degree in a certain field of human knowledge, are likely to produce good work.

Good translators of literary works need to have a flair for creative writing. Good legal translators usually need to have at least some legal education and good patent translators usually have technical education. It is possible to become a good legal or technical translator without specialized education, but it usually takes several decades of hard work to overcome the handicap of lack of education.

But educated and specialized, highly experienced translators, that is not exactly what the modern “translation industry” wants or is interested in. That was so twentieth century!

The modern version of the “translation industry” in the twenty-first century is much more interested in figuring out how to get newbie translators to post-edit machine translations.

After all, how hard could it be to replace a few misplaced words by a few other words that would sound better?


  1. Thank you as always…I benefit greatly from your blogs. I am a translator, and also own/run a translation company…in our company I prefer to speak of translation as an art, a craft…translators as artisans and craftsmen, and a project as a commissioned work of art…The challenge is to keep that sort of focus in the midst of the “industry” paradigm that so many clients approach me with. I find that I spend a good deal of time and energy attempting to help the CLIENT see their role as a patron of an art form…to see their own work as an original piece of art as well (granted, since our niche is the NGO and religious world, we deal with texts that are more easily seen this way…BUT, even patents and legal forms and medical records could perhaps be helpfully framed this way…as could any production of the human species).
    Kevin Caldwell

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you so much for your comment.

    You do need inspiration and creativity to translate a patent, for example, if you want to do it well.

    Not as much as one would need to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but we can’t all be as talented as Michelangelo.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You are too modest, Steve. Translating well, i.e. accurately and with a nice style, requires genius. This is why there are so many bad translators. Indeed, translating means creating a new masterpiece. As if it had been originally written in the… target text!

      As to Michelangelo, he is known for having merely improved previous creations. So don’t let yourself be too impressed by his relative ingenuity! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • I meant: in the target language, of course.


  3. As to LSPs, you might want to read question nr 6 of this recent study on the translation market and be completely reassured:

    the translation market is so fragmented, good translators hard to find, and usually faithful to their agencies once they have found good ones, that the 10 top money machines (sorry, LSPs) have a very hard time expanding! 🙂

    “Q6: The top 10 Language Services companies have combined revenues that represent less than 10% of the market.

    Why is the Language Services market so fragmented? (check all that apply)

    A1: The industry has a natural, ***long tail (*) of buyers*** that is difficult to reach

    A2: Most enterprises do not have a good handle on their translation processes and costs. This fragmentation inhibits market consolidation and fast growth

    A3: Buyer-vendor relationships in the translation industry ***are built on trust*** and are difficult to disrupt

    A4: Language Services companies cannot grow easily beyond $100M in revenues. ***They do not provide sufficient differentiation*** to steal business away from other competitors.

    A5: ***No credible high-quality, low-cost, fast turn-around translation provider has emerged to date.*** (!)

    A6: ***The talent pool required to meet the needs of the industry is limited*** ***and loyal to the service providers they work with***”

    (*) The “long tail” refers to a statistical notion: a statistical curb has a head (i.e. top values) and 2 tails (i.e. the very low values). It looks like a bell.

    A normal (or Gaussian) distribution has a high head and short tails.

    When a tail is longer than in a normal/Gaussian distribution, it is called a “long tail”. Cf

    In short, I believe it means that there is not just one nor just a few profiles of buyers. So buyers are difficult to find.

    This reminds me of another recent poll in which, under the pretense of getting other kinds of pieces of information, they were in fact trying to get the profile of the typical translation buyer: gender, age, function title (!), seniority in their companies, etc. I gave them 3 different profiles and no function title… 🙂


  4. Yes, the talent pool is very limited, Isabelle.

    I have too much work at this point and could use some help, but although I receive resumes from “translators” every day, about a dozen a day, I can tell right away that 99.99% of them are not able to translate with competence, at least not in my field.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It is indeed unfortunate that agencies and translators often have terrible communication and very low levels of trust and respect for each other. I can imagine it is not a great work situation when you don’t trust the people you work with. Clearly, when it really matters (nuclear weapons) MT should not be used at all or only with great care and supervision.

    However, MT is often used on relatively low-value business content – not on nuclear weapon management. Given the volume, the low value and turnaround time for a lot of business content – words whose only intent is to describe products that the corporation wants you to buy – MT makes a lot of sense. Much of this business content is thrown away e.g. printer manuals, even Windows OS — who cares anymore for Windows 95, XP, NT etc… ?

    MT is a fact of life for a modern translator and it makes more sense that they learn to tell when it is worth engaging and when it is not than to just simply dismiss it. Like any tool it can be used with skill and often not.

    This is a different viewpoint for those readers that may care to hear an alternate view on teh MT issue at least.


    • Steve, I see there are enemies of the translation profession infesting your blog now… :-/

      Liked by 1 person

      • Is it possible that at least some of the problem lies in this view of Us vs Them?


  6. Well, not everything that some people call translation is in fact translation.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. To me the question is not whether MT is usable in certain contexts or fields. It is whether I can survive on the MT post-editing rates that agencies pay…and the answer to that is a resounding “no.”

    Like most technology, MT isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s just a tool. But translation agencies are increasingly using that tool to create what basically amounts to virtual sweatshops in order to increase their profits. They do the same thing with fuzzy matches and repetitions.

    I no longer work for anyone who employs these tactics and they are a big reason why I am setting myself up to switch careers in the near future. I believe that the golden days of translation are long gone and the only thing we have to look forward to is a race to the bottom as more and more jobs get outsourced to translators residing in countries with very low costs of living. There will probably always be a niche market which demands the highest quality translation, but I’m not going to waste my time scrambling to compete against all of the other halfway-decent translators for those jobs when I can simply transition to another field where expertise is still valued and skill is paramount.


    • It is unfortunate that some and even many agencies use MT as a way to lower pay rates, often unreasonably. The translation business is still amazingly a cottage industry, so, many unscrupulous agencies can actually survive unnoticed, except by those who work directly with them. There are some agencies who do try to create fair work/compensation scenarios and hopefully, these kinds of agencies will eventually prevail as the market becomes more transparent. But at this point in time many of us are aware that “bad MT” is being used to strong arm translators to reduce rates. If more translators could easily discern this it would happen much less, but while MT will proliferate at less than perfect levels there will always be a shortage of competent translators and perhaps at that point a lot of these kinds of agencies will fail and disappear.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I so agree with what you say – and have been thinking about changing my “job”. I enjoy what I do but the quality level of “LSP’s” in terms of professional (mis)treatment has just dropped so dramatically over the last months (at least the ones I work with) that I find little motivation to carry on. The agency I mostly work(ed) with has given me very little work as they’ve decided to turn to a specific CAT tool (which is incompatible with my OS, and with the lack of work I could not possibly invest on software, new computer and training to MAYBE get more work from them) as their main work tool, and most of what they have sent me lately is post-editing of atrocious translations, but even that has dwindled (I guess I am “expensive” and they don’t like me to point out how rubbish the translations I have to deal with are). I am clutching at straws at the moment, my few direct clients don’t suffice to cover my expenses and for me to keep a healthy cash flow, I don’t know where else to turn as all the “precious” tips given by “translation gurus” (those who seem more involved in marketing themselves as providers of marketing solutions for translators than in actually translating) seem very hit and miss. What depresses me the most is that what I perceive isn’t only a disregard for real translations but for the use of language in general. Very few people involved in the communication as well as in the translation sides of business seem capable to write well, to use grammar and punctuation correctly and worse – nobody seems to care.


      • Yes, things are pretty bleak in the “translation industry” at the moment.

        I always suggest to translators to try to figure out how to work mostly for direct client and stay away from “LSPs”.

        I have been doing it for about 25 years. It takes a long time before one sees results, but it is worth it

        Liked by 1 person

  8. If what you are saying is true, OC, then how is it possible that I have to work seven days a week just to finish what is on my plate already at very good rates and if more work comes, I will have to hire somebody to help me with it?

    Hint: I don’t work for agencies much, I mostly translate myself for direct customers, and I also am a one-man agency, mostly when I need to have patents translated from and into languages that I don’t know myself.

    The key, I think, is to stay away from the “translation industry”, do your own thing, specialize and go after direct clients. I have been doing that for at least 25 years now and I plan to keep doing that for a few more years until I retire.


  9. Because you are already well established. The amount of effort that it would take for a relative newcomer like me to create enough of a base of quality direct clients to have steady work would be better spent in developing my other business, which has the potential to make me a whole lot more money than translation ever could.

    If I had been translating for 25 years then obviously I would see things differently, but as it stands now I can see the way the wind is blowing and I’m going to get out before it is too late for me to get other irons in the fire.

    I’m not saying that it is impossible to succeed in the translation industry, even for new translators. But if nothing else, globalization has shown us that companies will do just about anything to shave pennies off their operating costs. Too expensive to manufacture in the US? Move to China. China raises minimum wage and enacts more regulations on working conditions? Move the factories to Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand.

    This is happening in the translation industry as well. As economies flounder, companies (i.e. direct clients) will look for ways to save money and one of those will be translation. At least interpreters have a leg to stand on, since their work is generally location-restricted and they are only competing against other interpreters in that specific area. I’m not going to waste my time trying to compete with people who live in countries where you can survive on USD 0.02 per word.

    Patents are a nice niche and I’m guessing not a lot of translators (even good ones) can tackle those effectively. I agree that sort of specialization is the way to go, it just isn’t worth the time investment for me personally as I said.


  10. You know what, OC, based on what you are saying, reading my silly blog may be a total waste of your time too.


  11. Maybe so, but I can afford to waste 2-3 minutes every week or so to read an entertaining and enlightening blog post. Our corporate overlords may not think so but I do believe we are still allowed some small pleasures in this life.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. I am with you 100 %. As a native Japanese translator I have always believed that translation should be a form of art. It has been my creed and the key marketing/selling point for me to be creative in the art of translation and to produce translated sentences that “sound good” if not “beautiful” because Japanese that is written well is also written beautifully. Unfortunately though, this way of mine, as you can probably imagine, does not work in dealing with the today’s translation world in which CAT tools/TM software prevail and ONLY those who use them get the jobs. The industry in which agencies don’t care about the differences that the human translation and the human mind can make and even most translators don’t care any more either and in any case very few know that translation is really a form of art.
    I have to say that I have over the years finally succumbed to this weakness and stopped working. (Of course the plague of ridiculous going rates have never been motivating, either.). But my love of the art of translation seems to have never died in me. After all these years I still find the translator and writer in me tickled at times. I have by chance come upon this site and been inspired by the thoughts of the blogger and couldn’t help but express my response when I read the comment by someone who said he/she is a translator and the owner of an agency as well. I am so happy to have found people who share my views of translation. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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