Posted by: patenttranslator | February 12, 2018

So Many Gates and No Qualified Gatekeepers

We live in capitalism. Its power is inescapable. …. So was the divine right of the kings.

Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

Ursula Le Guin

According to popular imagination, when we die, we are going to be stopped on our way to Heaven at the Entrance to Heaven by St. Peter, who will do a short but rather crucial entrance interview with us before deciding, based on some pretty detailed paperwork that he keeps there for each and every one of us just for this occasion, whether we will be allowed to enter a vibrant, heavenly city, kind of like San Francisco when I lived there thirty some years ago, before it was ruined by the likes of Google and Facebook.

If the paperwork has too many negative comments from St. Peter’s HR (Human Resources) Department, instead of hanging out forever with other nice, fun and interesting people in a lovely city surrounded by high walls made of precious stone, we will be denied entrance and then we will have no choice but to spend eternity in Club Inferno, a suffocatingly hot and horribly boring place that is supposedly even worse than most such horrible places on Earth.

It is highly likely that in Club Inferno, translators will be forced to work for eternity performing post-processing of the worst kind of machine translation detritus, as this is the worst punishment imaginable for persons who used to be translators while they were still alive.

I definitely do see the usefulness of the concept of a gate that is guarded by a qualified and well informed gatekeeper.

Such gates are often used for the purposes of various professions and occupations. To be admitted by a qualified gatekeeper to a profession is mandatory for instance for lawyers, doctors, accountants, dentists and many other professions. Only persons who graduated from an accredited university or college in a specialized subject can work as lawyers, doctors, accountants or dentists, because it would be too dangerous to allow somebody who lacks specialized education and experience to work for instance on a root canal.

Although a very similar gatekeeper function has been created in some countries also for the profession of a specialized translator, this function seems to be almost completely missing in other countries, including the United States.

In some European countries and in Latin America, one can become a qualified and registered translator only upon graduating from a college or university in a specific language combination, and only this kind of a properly educated translator can produce officially accepted and certified translations.

This makes eminent sense to me, and not only because I myself can proudly claim that I do have a degree in translation.

Unlike in other countries, however, in the United States the profession of a translator is unregulated, which basically means that if you say you are a translator …. well, then, that’s what you are.

You still have to officially register your business, but upon the payment of a small fee, you will be automatically issued a generic business license from the City Hall every year, provided that you pay the yearly taxes required in your local jurisdiction. So the City Hall is not a gatekeeper that would be qualified to allow real translators to pass through it; it is only a gatekeeper making sure that everybody pays some kind of tax also for translating.

This kind of also makes sense to me too on one level, although from another perspective, it does not seem to make a whole lot of sense.

If you want to become a hairdresser, for example, you have to satisfy a number of pretty strict rules and requirements, including working hundreds or thousands of hours as a trainee under supervision before you can obtain a professional license.

But if you want to translate patents from German, Japanese, French and other languages to English, which is what I have been doing for a living for more than 30 years, all you have to do is say that you can do it and the “translation industry” will trust you on that, provided that your rate is low enough to guarantee a healthy profit margin for the middlemen.

To deal with the lack of qualified gatekeepers in the translation business, the “translation industry” decided to appoint itself as the ultimate gatekeeper endowed among other powers with the power to decide who is and who is not a legitimate translator.

About 30 years ago, Berlitz Translations certified me as an immigration interpreter qualified for the language combination of Czech and English after I passed a test administered by Berlitz Translations.

This is how the test was conducted: I was told to come to the Berlitz offices on Market Street in San Francisco where I was given a piece of paper with a short excerpt from immigration court proceedings and instructed to “translate” the short excerpt from English to Czech into a tape recorder.

So I mumbled something in Czech into the tape recorder, while deftly making up equivalents of English legal terms relating to immigration, which I did understand, but had no idea how to say them in Czech. But I did not worry too much about this minor detail because I had a pretty good idea that nobody would ever listen to that tape anyway. A monolingual Berlitz employee then ejected with evident professionalism the tape from the tape recorder, labeled it and put it away in the bottom drawer.

And voilà, I thus became a newly minted, Berlitz-certified court interpreter. Incidentally,  the court proceedings were  in Slovak rather than in Czech (close enough, right?), but the Slovak client of Berlitz did get his permanent visa status approved anyway based on my somewhat halting but good-enough interpreting performance. It was quite a memorable experience for me.

I should add that when I received the check from Berlitz, the amount was so ridiculously small that I decided never to interpret again, not for Berlitz and not for any other agency either, which is how I became a patent translator instead.

Because the profession of a translator or interpreter is unregulated in the United States, many translation agencies are using their own systems for “certification” of their own translators. As far as I can figure it out, all of these system are basically a kind of scam that is similar to the one I experienced myself.

I understand that some courts created their own systems for testing court-accredited interpreters in some states in the United States, which is probably the only accreditation that is in fact a real accreditation rather than the scams of the “translation industry”, which are designed mostly for advertising purposes and otherwise have no real value.

About a decade after my interpreting debut at the immigration court in San Francisco, which is to say about 20 years ago, the “translation industry” started conferring the powers of a qualified gatekeeper on itself in a different way: by jumping on the bandwagon of  so-called “ISO certified translations” or “EN certification”, etc.

This ISO scam is also a very interesting racket. It is again only an advertising and propagandistic tool, because the ISO (International Standards Organization) method only sets rules, which are probably not followed every time anyway, about how paperwork should be shuffled around the desk of a translation agency, while these rules have absolutely nothing to do with the education, experience and suitability of a translator for a given task.

As I wrote in another post several years ago, the ISO or EN certification models is a set of rules originally designed for manufacturing industrial products.

“It is possible to design a set of techniques and rules for manufacturing products, such as cars, or even of meals such as hamburgers … but the product called translation is created in the brain of a human being. An educated and highly experienced translator will most of the time produce a good translation. An inexperienced and poorly paid one, who is much more likely to be used by a large translation agency due to the low cost, is likely to produce a poor translation, possibly containing many mistranslation that can never be detected with methods that were designed for mass production of industrial products.

Certification for thinking processes taking place in the heads of people called translators, who may or may not know what they are doing, is obviously nonsense. However, since so many clients don’t know much about translation, it is a popular and useful advertising gimmick, although it is a gimmick that is in my opinion dishonest in the extreme.”

Most customers who ask me for a “certified translation” don’t really know what the term “certified translation” means in the United States, because nobody seems to know that unlike other professions, translators do not have legitimate gatekeepers in this country.

Or, to put it another way, although we have a lot would-be gatekeepers here, unfortunately for customers, none of them is legit.

The capitalist system is not a very good system, except that it still seems to be mostly better than all alternatives known to man so far. And one of the things that it is very good at is supplying fake products, fake quality, and fake gatekeepers. So we have a lot of ways for potential certifications of translations in this country, and almost none of them means anything.

I think that trying to change the system would probably be a futile effort and a total waste of time on my part.

I wonder whether Ursula le Guin, who recently passed away, would agree with me on this.



  1. Steve, you know something? I am afraid that the Capitalist Translation Industry will most probabily invent an automated gatekeeper to grant anyone who want to be a post-editing translator to enter the profession of translation.

    That is what I foresee as the future for translators.

    We don’t want it at all. But “we live in capitalism. Its power is inescapable,” right? “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.” Communism is gone, but you bet, Capitalism will never go away. Forcing translators to post-editing automated translations suit the purpose of the capitalistic system very well. Its power is inescapable! Ursula le Guin would agree with me, I am pretty sure.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. None of the systems that we know from human history: slavery, feudalism, communism, socialism, fascism, is really gone.

    Different parts of these systems are embedded in different types of capitalism.

    For example, Chinese capitalism in mainland China is a capitalist economic system that is run by a Communist Party and in some respect it is more capitalistic than American capitalism. Would the Chinese Communist bailed out Chinese banks with taxpayers money had they perpetrated fraud on an almost unimaginable scale the way Democrats and Republicans bailed out Wall Street?

    I doubt it.

    The capitalist system in Scandinavian countries has a lot of socialism built into the system, and the system in the United States still has a lot of feudalism built into it – that is why we still use a medieval instrument from the 18th century called “Electoral College”, to put in place presidents, even if those who may have lost an actual election by millions of votes.

    It’s how you arrange together the different parts of the systems that we know from history in the modern capitalists systems that gives the systems in different countries very different characteristics.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Agencies’ translation tests can be total scams, indeed, as you denounce it. I recently took a technical translation test for a Chinese agency. Out of habit, I activated my machine translation tool, because you never know what might come out of it, even though it considerably slows me down. Sometimes it digs out really nice solutions out of its huge corpus, in the middle of a lot of detritus, as you call it. So it does slow me down, and I have taken the habit of being totally paranoid about what comes out of it, and to double check it, but it is a terminological source too. After a couple of sentences, I realised that the results were so perfect that the test must have been translated previously… and poured into the machine’s corpus. I had a look in the corpus directly and indeed almost the entire source text had already been translated by a very qualified translator, who had negligently let his superb translation be saved in the machine’s corpus! So I corrected a few details whenever I felt like it, but the text I delivered was mostly that person’s translation… A few weeks later, the agency asked me if I was available for a translation… So a test that is not changed regularly in the age of CAT tools coupled with machine translation apps is a sure sign that the middleman is totally clueless about the translation industry!… For some practical reason, I did not accept the job and rejected them as a client for the future – so it’s very fortunate I did not spend too much time on their “test” anyway! 🙂


  4. What machine translation tool was it? Not GurgleTranslate?

    I did not know that the entire human translation is saved in the MT tool. Not sure how that works.

    I started using DeepL translator a few month ago for European languages, mostly German (it does not have Japanese), and sometime it is better than Gurgle, especially for German.

    But sometime it of course offers totally ludicrous translations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • An MT tool is trained using a corpus of existing translations. If you ask it to translate a text from that corpus, there is a high possibility that the original translation will come up, even though it is not stored verbatim.

      Liked by 1 person


      At the bottom of search screens, it says:

      “Search 3,938,866,769 human translated sentences

      Credits – Computer translations are provided by a combination of our statistical machine translator, Google, Microsoft, Systran and Worldlingo.”

      So its corpus is HUGE.


    • I have compared the results of a few English to French searches in DeepL and MyMemory (‘MYM’) and have kept MYM.

      The difference must come from the fast that MYM’s corpus, made of several corpora, is MUCH larger.

      Besides, Linguee (of which DeepL is made) is far from having a perfect corpus. Only the sentences coming form well-known international and national institutions and maybe a few large multinational companies are reliable, but there is a LOT of detritus. That combined to a much smaller corpus makes the difference… And you can’t correct that corpus, contrary to MYM! And contrary to SDL’s corpus, you don’t have to pay for spending your time correcting/completing the corpus (deleting incorrect entries, correcting them when useful, entering new ones to suit your own purposes, so that it will come automatically next time).

      It’s owned by a terrible translation agency (PMs are dishonest amateurs), but you have to create an online translator’s profile in order to be allowed to make changes in their corpus.

      Don’t be impressed by the rates they mention in the rate section: you can choose the highest rate in their drop-down menu and still get job offers!

      But I find their PMs unbearable, I have tried 3 translation and revision jobs: always at very short notice, with impossible clients.

      E.g. using a source file already saved by the customer in an amateur CAT tool that does not allow for a word count:

      a) the PM tried to force me to accept a job order for 600 words, whereas there were over 3,000 source words; she was just too lazy to copy each source sentence into a Word file to get the exact count;

      b) the irony is that she could not understand why I had not delivered my translation after 2 or 3 hours, so she CANCELLED my job;

      c) with no compensation for the undone work, contrary to the Terms & Conditions I had sent them!

      For the translation job and the revision jobs I did on other occasions, the deadline was VERY short – and ALL their job ads (polluting my Inbox at the time: I have put a stop to this) requested very short deadlines, mostly same-day (or even same half day) deliveries!

      I have complained about them in Translators Café, then on my website with a tweet linked to it, and then I received an email from supposedly their “lawyer” accusing me of “damaging their commercial image” and threatening of cancelling my profile (they are not polluting my Inbox with impossible job requests any more, I don’t know if it’s since I asked them or since that “lawyer’s” intervention). I just did not reply.

      But I have learned the lesson: from now on, each and every time a fucking middleman/intermediary/agency “DAMAGES THE COMMERCIAL IMAGE” of us, freelance translators, I accuse them of doing so and I threaten to sue… 🙂

      For example, some Ukrainian agency was advertising on its website that “usually translators translate at the speed of typing” and that their translators were “ready to start translating whenever their customers fired an order” as if we were inhouse employees: I had them change that asap, as it was damaging OURRR IMAGE! 🙂

      I encourage you all to do that kind of thing too: those CLUELESS, INCOMPETENT and DISHONEST middlemen are DISINFORMING OURRRR CUSTOMERS and thus DAMAGING OURRR COMMERCIAL IMAGE, which is a punishable crime! 🙂


      • Erratum: “The difference must come from the faCt that”. Sorry.


    • I have just used DeepL for German to French as MyMemory was giving extremely poor results: DeepL is indeed far better for German! You were right!


  5. : when you fill it in, you get the message:

    “Thank you for filling in the **self-certification** survey.

    We are happy to inform you that ****you have successfully self-certified for**** Life Sciences projects.”!! 🙂


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