Posted by: patenttranslator | November 19, 2017

Intolerance of Others on Social Media Is a Sign of a Small Mind

Unlike most of the posts on this blog, today’s post will not be about translation, or only marginally so.

Instead of creating another ferocious diatribe against the translation industry, I thought it might be a good idea to write a post about the music videos I put at the beginning and end of each post.

Some people really like my videos and even thank me for the art accompanying my posts. But some people don’t understand why I have videos accompanying my posts. Quite a few, actually. And some react to the music videos with aversion bordering on disgust when they don’t like either the music or the content.

Some people look for connections between the videos that I use and the things I say in my posts. We can find connections between almost anything in this world. But since I have about 600 posts on this blog, there are links to about 1,200 YouTube videos, and the connections that we may form in this manner are mostly in our minds.

Which is as it should be. People who read poetry also create connections and associations in their mind with the words on paper, and every single one of them will be different from those of other people.

“Why does he uses videos, when his blog is supposed to be about translation?” some people ask.

My blog is not really about translation, or at least not only about translation. The name of the blog is Diary of a Mad Patent Translator, and mad as I am, my daily thoughts are naturally not only about translation, but also about all kinds of other things – some of which I keep to myself because I have not gone completely mad yet – and some of which I share with people who read my blog.

As a patent translator, I have no choice but to spend many hours per day sitting in front of my computer and translating patents. Some people might find my life boring, but daily translation has been the rhythm of my life for about three decades now. I have gotten used to this rhythm and for the most part I like it.

It’s an easy way for me to pay my bills, and as those of us who are not trust fund babies know, to find an easy and at least semi-enjoyable way to pay the bills is the most important thing in life, right after good health.

One privilege that we translators have, unlike most people who do something else for a living, is that we can listen to music when we work, basically as much as we want to. So listening to music when I translate is a special perk that has been another part of the rhythm of my life for about three decades now.

Just like I want to share my thoughts about translation with other people and anything else I want to write about, I also want to share music videos that I like with people who read my blog.

You can disagree with what I am saying, and if you have something worth saying and discussing, you can leave a comment, and I will either respond to it, or let other people respond, if they so choose.

But I do not believe that anybody has the right to call what I am saying “inappropriate”. And by the same token, nobody has the right to call the videos that I like “inappropriate” either.

Did somebody make you the king of the world? Who gave you the right to decide what is and what is not “appropriate?”

You are free to ignore the thoughts and music videos that I share with my blog’s audience. Simply don’t click on the videos. And if their content, or even the very idea that a blog that in your opinion should be only about translation uses music videos upsets you, why don’t you only read blogs that have no videos?

You can decide which videos are “appropriate” and “inappropriate” for your children to watch (although they are not very likely listen to you.) But I am not your child, so stay out of what is only my business and none of yours.

I have noticed how intolerant many people are of other peoples’ opinions who they might disagree with, often on Facebook, but also on blogs, if these opinions do not follow precisely the groupthink du jour. Intolerance of others, a sign of small-mindedness, is a disease that is also very visible in some translator groups on Facebook.

Some translators consciously try to form cliques of people who enjoy fighting against other groups, not always because they have much to disagree with, but sometimes simply on principle, to show whose side they are on.

It can be entertaining to watch these fights, which often turn into a feeding frenzy, similar to what happens when hungry sharks attack a tasty, injured fish. But the problem is, entertaining though the spectacle may be, this kind of trolling makes it impossible to discuss anything, when even a minor disagreement with another person’s opinion or taste is interpreted as a horrible attack ad hominem that must be responded to in kind.

In North Korea, the police have the right to inspect the cell phones of North Korean citizens to make sure that they don’t have any South Korean or Western songs stored in their phones. Only North Korean songs, proclaiming the genius of the Chubby Leader, are “appropriate”, everything else is “inappropriate.”

Watching movies that are not officially approved as “appropriate” (for example South Korean and American movies), is considered so “inappropriate” in North Korea that people who are caught doing so are sent to labor camps for reeducation.

Those among us who think they have the right to determine what discussions or videos are “appropriate” and “inappropriate” for a translation blog are in my opinion creating an atmosphere of intolerance that is more suitable for North Korea than for thoughts and videos that can be freely shared on social media among translators living in free countries.


Relative newcomers to what is now called the translation industry may not realize that what used to be thought of simply as “translation” or the “translation business” rather than the translation industry has been turned upside down and inside out in the last two decades, especially after the 20th century turned into the 21st century.

By relative newcomers I mean people who have been translating for a living for less than two or three decades, because that is how far back in time one would need to go to be able to make a meaningful comparison between what freelance translation used to be in the pre-industry period, and what it is now.

That is what I have been trying to do in many of my posts, although some people might say that what I am trying to talk about in posts in which I doggedly criticize the current practices of the translation industry is pretty useless and mostly a waste of time because I am fighting an 800 pound gorilla. And up to a point, I would have to agree with them.

My posts are not going to make any difference to how the current translation industry model sees the role of translators. The industry sees us as unimportant and interchangeable busy bees whose job is to keep bringing more and more sweet honey in the form of translations to the industry, which is in the role of a beekeeper who consumes the honey.

The more honey we bring to the beekeepers, the better for them, and any method the industry can think of and that can be used to achieve the goal of “higher productivity” is thus obviously legitimate, especially since all of the new tricks in the industry’s book are in the end obediently legitimized by translators’ associations (such as the ATA, but not only the ATA).

The illegitimate methods popular in the current version of the translation industry include industry tools such as so-called confidentiality agreements, now often stuffed with illegal clauses, which include illegal and disgusting conditions, such as that the industry has the right to install spying software on our computers to take advantage of technology that makes it possible to better control the busy bees, just in case the bees might be getting improper ideas.

There are many other immoral and illegal tools the translation industry uses to keep more of that sweet honey away from hungry, hard-working bees, with a greater share for itself, even if it means the bees doing the work starve to death. These new tools include “full and fuzzy matches”, i.e. full and partial repetitions, for which only partial or no compensation is to be provided to translators who do the actual work based on fuzzy thinking prevalent in certain segments of the translation industry.

Another “tool” the translation industry is currently pushing is post-editing of machine translations.

Although the translation industry is very excited about this new tool, most translators for some reason keep refusing to use it.

I see machine translation as a powerful and very useful tool, especially since it is available for free to translators and non-translators alike.

But the fact that the translation industry is incapable of understanding the difference between a tool (machine translation) and a product (actual translation) shows how little the industry understands translation, which is what it is supposed to be producing.

Translation as a product has been with us for many centuries, long before tools such as pens, typewriters, the internet, and machine translation were invented.

But up until now, the tools that can be used for writing (and translation is just a special subcategory of writing), have not been mistaken for the actual product, i.e. writing or translation. It took the chutzpaw, so typical of the modern translation industry, to attempt to erase the difference between a tool like machine translation and a product of the human mind called translation.

New tools are created all the time. Especially in the last few decades, many powerful new tools have been created that are very useful for translators.

For the first 10 years in my freelance translating career, I was working without the tool called the internet, although I can no longer imagine working without it.

For the first 15 years in my freelance translating career, I was working without the tool called machine translation, which is alternately available and not available to me.

I don’t see the fact that translators use this tool as a dirty secret that should be hidden from prying eyes.

As I wrote in my last post, I recently read a corporate blog in which the author of the blog post said that post-editing of machine translations is “something that everybody is doing … the dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about.”

It is true, as the post says, that everybody is using machine translations. The translation industry is using it, and individual translators are using it too, including myself. But it is not true that, as the post says, everybody “is doing some sort of post-editing” of machine translations.

Translators for the most part stopped using dictionaries in the form of expensive and heavy books that are already obsolete by the time translators pay for them, and replaced these books with online databases and machine translation. Although I have more than a hundred specialized dictionaries, I generally use them only a few times a day, and I have not bought a new one in more than a decade.

The fact that translators have been using machine translation programs instead of dictionaries for some time is not exactly a secret, let alone a dirty secret. Many posts on my blog are dedicated precisely to this subject.

The fact that the translation industry claims that everybody is “doing post-editing of machine translations” and considers this claim a dirty secret is another piece of evidence as to how little the translation industry understands its own product, i.e. translation.

I do not doubt that the translation industry does a lot of post-editing of machine translation by using translators, probably newbies or “bilinguals” who are preferably located in countries where labor is very cheap, who edit the machine translation detritus for the equivalent of 1 cent per word or something like that.

The industry either does not understand, or if it understands it, simply does not give a damn that editing machine translation is in fact an impossibility. As long as the text to be translated is at least moderately complicated, it needs to be retranslated to remove major mistakes that machine translation creates, regardless of how good the software might be.

Machine-translated texts can be used by a translator as an excellent source of information. But because editing such a source of information is so laborious and time-consuming, and no amount of editing is likely to remove the mistakes that mechanical processing that any type of machine translation is based on, I doubt there are many actual translators whose work includes post-editing of the product of a software package.

Machines will never be able to understand the source text, only humans can do that. Would it make sense to post-edit a poorly written book? I don’t think so. Although some parts of the plot might be reused, it makes much more sense to write a new book, and the same is true for translation.

No software or computer is capable of what is a simple act for a human mind, but an impossibility for artificial intelligence: actually understanding anything other than how to carry out instructions based on mathematical formulas.

Although the translation industry is very aggressively pushing the idea of post-editing of machine translations by slave-like quasi-human translators, and will be probably doing this for many years to come, I think that a strategy based on greed and misunderstanding of what translation actually means is bound to backfire.

The industry assumes that its clients are so dumb that they can’t tell the difference between what it calls “the dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about”, and the result of post-processing of machine translation, and a real translation, which can only be created by a real human translator, as opposed to what is created when an underpaid post-editor who tries to save what has been generated by a machine using software, so that the industry can then sell it as real translation.

For some purposes, such a product might be good enough, especially since it is significantly cheaper than real translation.

For some purposes, unedited machine translation is already good enough, especially since it is free.

But for most purposes, neither edited not unedited machine translation is good enough. One purpose for which machine translation cannot be used is patent translation, especially of patents for filing, which is mostly what I am doing now.

The industry’s clients are not happy with what the industry is trying to sell them. That is what I hear from recent clients, mostly patent law firms, who don’t understand why the quality of translations is suddenly so poor now, in part probably because they don’t know about a “dirty secret that nobody wants to talk about.”

The generally low quality of translations characteristic of the current form of the translation industry thus creates an opportunity for highly specialized and experienced translators who are able to offer real translation in specialized fields to clients who need it, but only if we are able to bypass the translation industry and connect directly with the actual users of our service.

Since I don’t work for the modern form of the translation industry, I am very fortunate to have been able to take advantage of this opportunity for quite some time.

I think that the fact that I have never been as busy as I am now is is not a coincidence. I think it is due, at least partly, to the fact that the translation industry is mistaking a tool – machine translation, for the product – real translation.

The more the translation industry continues trying to push its “dirty secrets” such as edited machine translations to sell them as real translations, the more work there will be for specialized translators who can provide what the clients really want.

In its ignorance and greed, the translation industry is thus creating new opportunities for those of us who refuse to work for it and who are able to sell our skills directly to the people who need them.


Posted by: patenttranslator | November 3, 2017

Don’t Let Anybody Know If Your Productivity Is High

My post today is about why rates for translation are stagnant or falling despite increasing translator productivity.

Translators are hardly the only workers who have not been able to earn higher incomes as a result of higher productivity enabled in the last few decades by relatively new technologies (computerization, quick access to information on the internet, and most recently, machine translation.)

For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades. Even though worker productivity has risen dramatically since the 1970s, people are now making less than they used to about half a century ago.

In the United States, a high-school education and the single income of one worker per family generally guaranteed a decent standard of living in the 1950s and ‘60s, up until the ‘70s.

But things changed for the worse for the people doing the actual work. Workers in many professions now have to work harder, faster and longer, only to make less money than they used to half a century ago.

There are many reasons for this, of course. Distribution of income has never been more unequal than it is now in the United States, and whether the Ds or Rs are nominally running the country has made no difference, since both parties are controlled by the same money.

As the late, great Gore Vidal put it, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently . . . and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”

How much did healthcare cost half a century ago? It costs so much more now, at least in the US, that even those of us who make a decent living may not be able to afford it anymore.

This is how Pew Research, a highly respected a nonpartisan American “fact tank” (even I respect it, and I don’t see much to respect around me these days), based in Washington, D.C., put it in a recent article:

“After adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today”.

One major reason why translators are among workers who make much less money in today’s economy than they used to, is the insatiable greed of the translation industry.

The translation industry already pulled off a major coup d’état in the last decade when it comes to how little the industry now pays to translators thanks to the creative invention of the concept of “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, a greedy concept that is nothing more and nothing less than illegal wage theft that should be vigorously prosecuted and banned in a society that is ruled by the law instead of by greed.

But the translation industry is not done with cutting our wages yet. Far from it. This is what the corporate blog “matecat” expressed in June of this year on the industry’s expectations of how quickly translators should be translating and at what rates (the blog is not about mating cats, or how to make cats mate as the name suggests. Cats generally need no encouragement for what is a favorite pastime of theirs – the last three letters that spell out the word CAT are the keyword here.)

“700 words per hour is actually the norm nowadays in many sectors. There’s no need to wait for 2022. It would be pretty difficult to run a profitable freelancing business with less than 500–700 words per hour. For most common European language pairs, the average rate per word is around €0.05. To make a decent €30–35 per hour, a translator needs to reach (and exceed) the 700 words per hour threshold.”

So if we want to make an equivalent of 35-40 US dollars per hour while working for our bosses in the translation industry, we would have to bang out at least 700 words per hour. After taxes, we would have some 20 dollars left to splurge on things like rent, food and utilities. This of course without any guarantee that we will have work at all if the industry’s leading thinkers are able to find somebody willing to work for them for a few dollars less (preferably for quite a few dollars less.)

It is in fact impossible to run a profitable freelance business for translators living in Western countries who work for today’s version of the translation industry, regardless of how fast we are able to translate. Even if we were able to double, triple or quadruple our output of words per hour, (I don’t want to call something like that “translating”, because translation is not the same thing as continuously spitting out a record number of words in the shortest possible period of time, in fact, this has little to do with translating), we would still not be able to run a profitable freelance translating business as long as we were still working for the translation industry.

Even if we were able to translate for example 1,500 words per hour, the leading minds of the translation industry would simply come up with another fuzzy scheme, similar to “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”, that would make it possible to knock our income way below the level of even US$30-40 per hour.

After translating daily as a freelance translator for more than 30 years, I can sometimes translate at the speed of about 700 words per hour, without using any other tools than my computer, the internet, and my brain.

But I can do that only if I am in an inspired state, called  translator’s high, in which I finally perfectly understand everything I am translating, and I can translate on an auto-pilot as if I were taking dictation from God. It generally happens to me a few times week … although there are no guarantees.

But there are also many less productive hours when I am too tired to translate at such a high speed. I know I will make mistakes if I keep pushing myself to crank out more words, so I generally take a break. And like every translator, I have to spend considerable time researching terms and concepts I am dealing with in specialized databases on the internet, including consulting machine translation programs, which to me represent just another specialized database available for free on the internet.

But I have to be very careful when it comes to how I use so-called language technology, because most of my clients would dump me if they thought I used CATs or edited machine translation to translate the patents and patent-related Office Actions that I translate for them. For some reason, they are only interested in actual human translation. Maybe they are Luddites, which is the term the translation industry hurls at translators who for example refuse to participate in “post-processing” of machine translations.

In this and other respects, my direct clients, who are mostly patent lawyers, are very, very different from the great thinkers in the translation industry.

The other respect in which they are different from the “translation industry” is that they pay me on average four times what the translation industry would pay me for the same work, and still more for rush translations. I’m sure they would not mind at all paying me the same as the translation industry, but they know I would not be willing to work for them for less.

Here is what I think about the idea of increased productivity: unlike the great minds in the translation industry, I don’t think that increased translation speed is the same thing as increased productivity for translators.

Increased productivity to me means making more money, not cranking out more words per hour, until my brain can no longer process the words I see on a computer screen and on a sheet of paper.

In any case, I don’t think the magic number of how many words a translator can produce per hour is a measure of productivity when it comes to translating, or a measure of accomplishment for individual translators.

There are so many different variables hiding behind this magic number.

When I start translating a patent, my speed is quite slow because at that point I am still trying to establish the terminology I will be using and this can be quite time-consuming.

When I am translating the claims at the end of a patent, I can fly … or I believe I can fly, as the song says. But even though at that point I understand everything, I have to make an effort to slow down and pay close attention to the details in my translations, like numbers, or I will be making stupid mistakes.

So I have to try not to go too fast. Flying through translations at a high speed can be very dangerous.

One thing’s s for sure: to increase my productivity, instead of increasing the number of words I translate per hour, I need to keep working on my ability to find and keep clients who appreciate what I do for them and pay me accordingly.

And most importantly, increasing my productivity means staying away from the translation industry.


Posted by: patenttranslator | October 29, 2017

What Would I Do If I Were ATA President

It came to my attention two days ago, (via Facebook Messenger), that somebody penciled me in for ATA treasurer at the ATA (American Translators Association) Conference in Washington, D.C.

Ha, ha, ha, it ain’t gonna happen, I thought to myself and had a good laugh. But I wondered, who might have committed such a rebellious act without running it by Mad Patent Translator first?

I am just guessing, but I think that what prompted the Unsub (UNknow SUBject, an abbreviation familiar to viewers of crime shows, frequently used by detectives who are trying to identify a shadowy criminal who despite their efforts remains at large), to nominate me at the ATA Conference that was taking place in Washington, D.C., was the shared memory of a post that I wrote a year ago, called What Do Translators Associations Want from Us and What Do We Want from Them.

It might be a wee bit presumptuous of me, but I think that the Unsub penciled me in because he or she agreed with the silly post linked above. It was only after I took a better look at the picture of the votes received at the ATA Conference in DC that I saw that I was proposed (presumably by the same Unsub) for three positions, not just one: ATA President, ATA Secretary, and ATA Treasury.

I am not very good with numbers, so I would probably not make a good Treasurer.

I don’t think I would make a good Secretary either – too independent …., some people might even call me too wacky, or worse.

But I believe that I would make a damn good President, if I say so myself. After a year or two, the ATA would be unrecognizable.

Here are a few basic, and in my view very necessary changes that I would propose if I had the bully pulpit of an ATA President. I would use the position to try to change this august organization in meaningful ways that would be in my opinion helpful to our profession, if I still dare to call it that after so much damage has been done to our profession by the “translation industry”, while the ATA either stood silently by, or even actively supported the pernicious agenda of the “translation industry” by allowing the industry to publish its propaganda materials in the ATA Chronicle.

  1. I would make it more difficult to join the ATA.

Currently, anybody and their grandmother (and possibly even her pet rabbit) can join the ATA upon payment of the membership fee of US$190. How can it possibly be called an “association of professional translators” if anybody can join it without having to show any credentials or evidence of anything relating to translating or interpreting experience?

What has happened over the years, partly due to this policy of doors that are open to anyone who is willing to pay, is that the ATA membership is now mostly valuable to “newbies” who may find it difficult to get any work if they have no experience, no university diploma or specialized certificates, etc.

At present, ATA has these main membership categories:

  1. associate member in good standing, and
  2. ATA-certified translator.

Based on the current ATA policy, “ATA Membership is open to anyone with an interest in translation and interpreting”.  This means that anybody can become an ATA member in good standing by paying $190, no questions asked. On the one hand, it is a good thing for budding new translators. But on the other hand, it is clearly also a bad thing when anybody can call himself “professional translator” or “professional interpreter.”

I would create a new category for newbies who have no college diploma in translation, or credible evidence of translating or interpreting experience. Perhaps it could be called a “candidate category” instead of the current category of “associates”, (which is incidentally the same term that is used to describe Walmart greeters), so that the ATA candidates would be able to be promoted to a better sounding category later, for instance if they received a university degree, or if they could prove relevant experience in translating and interpreting, obtained for example during the course of at least two years. The details would need to be worked out and I would be open to suggestions.

I do believe that newbies are entitled to receive help from ATA and guidance from its generous members, but I don’t think it is a good thing when ATA currently makes no distinction between members who have advanced university degrees and decades of experience, and total beginners who don’t know anything about anything …. yet.

After all, we were all total beginners at first.

ATA has some sort of an examination that is supposed to validate a member as a translator. If you are an ATA member, show up for a written exam during which you prove that you are able to translate several paragraphs of a text from or into a foreign language, and an ATA proofer says that you did a pretty good job, you become an ATA-certified translator, regardless of your diplomas and/or certifications and experience, or the complete lack thereof.

I would propose to keep this ATA exam, suitably tailored for specialized and clearly specified fields such as literary translation, or financial or patent translation, because it is arguably better than nothing. But again, the exam is probably useful only for people who have nothing else as proof that they are in fact what they say they are, i.e. translators.

On top of that, the ATA certification remains valid ONLY if you continue paying ATA membership fees and participate in further ATA-approved seminars and educational activities. The seminar can be given for example by somebody who looks and sounds like a teenager and imparts wisdom to seminar attendees seeking what is called “continuous education points”, for example on the subject of how to use Facebook or Twitter to find new clients.

If you attend an ATA conference, you have basically satisfied most of the requirements for maintaining your ATA-certified status.

Although I have not gone to an ATA conference since 1998, I am sure that one can find a lot of useful information at every single one of the ATA conferences, not to mention the opportunities for networking and meeting new and old friends.

But given that attending the yearly ATA conference will set a translator back at least $2,000, probably more if one includes airfare, hotel and a very high conference fee, especially if you wait until the last moment because your finances are kind of shaky, I  would try to get rid of this extortionary requirement.

I believe that translators should attend a conference because they want to do that, not because they will be awarded points for it.

The real purpose of the requirement for maintaining the ATA-certified status is so evident that I don’t want to waste any more time on this subject.

So I would get rid of these requirements. Either the ATA exam can stand on its own as proof of some sort of an achievement, without demanding more and more money for it every year from translators who take it, or it’s a joke.

I received my diploma in Japanese and English studies (from Charles University in Prague) in 1980. The diploma, which is is still valid, prepared me quite well for a long and fairly successful career in technical translation on three continents over the course of more than three decades, and I never had to pay my old Alma Mater another penny for it after graduation.

  1. I would propose that only actual translators be eligible for membership in ATA.

This means that translation agencies, the CIA, the NSA, the FBI and other alphabet agencies would no longer be able to join ATA as “corporate ATA members”. I am sure that there is no shortage of other associations for corporations that non-translators can join, for profit and companionship.

An individual representative of a translation agency or of one of the alphabet agencies would still be able to join the ATA under Mad Patent Translator’s presidency, but only as an individual translator. A believe that monolingual people who know nothing about foreign languages or translation should not be members of the American Translators Association, just like people who know nothing about accounting cannot be currently members of the Association of Certified Public Accountants.

  1. I would propose that ATA start issuing publicly its official positions on issues that are important to translators, such as post-editing of machine translation, obligatory discounts for “fuzzy matches” and “full matches” and other creative inventions of the “translation industry.”

I know that ATA frequently issues its positions on numerous issues such as gender discrimination, or the plight of refugees. And why not, it does not cost anything, and it looks good on paper?

But does the ATA believe, for example, that post-editing of machine translation is the way of the future and that it is a “useful tool” that its members should add to its inventory of professional tools?

I am not sure, but from reading articles published over the last five years or so in the ATA Chronicle, it would seem that it does. All the articles in the Chronicle that I have read were written by proponents of post-editing of the machine detritus, so as to lick it into a shape that would almost resemble a real human translation.

It must be a mere coincidence that all of these articles were written by representatives of translation agencies. Although some of the articles written by these representatives of the “translation industry” who were former translators, not a single one was written by a current translator who would dare to propose a different view, namely that post-editing of machine translations is just another greedy scheme, which in addition to further lowering our rates, (generally miserable rates that have been lowered by the “translation industry” already by at least 30 percent in the last decade or so), can only result in clearly inferior translations and further destitution of translators.

Not to mention that forcing translators to have to do something like that is tantamount to inflicting cruel and unusual punishment on humans who have committed no crime.

That is my position, and I have been very public on what my position on this issue is.

But if ATA really believes that post-editing is the way to go as the articles in the ATA Chronicle suggest, it should issue its official policy statement on an issue that is very frequently discussed by actual translators on social media.

  1. I would also propose that ATA issue its official policy statement on the subject of “fuzzy and full matches”.

Does ATA have an official policy on the legitimacy (or illegality) of a scheme that the “translation industry” calls “fuzzy and full matches”, which means that for some words and/or formulations, translators are paid much lower rates, or nothing at all, if these words or formulations have been used previously in the text of a translation.

Sadly, unlike when it comes to ATAs position on discrimination based on gender, I don’t know what the opinion of the ATA board is on this issue either. But if I were ATA president, I would try to push ATA to adopt an official policy on “fuzzy and full matches” too. Of course, if it were up to me, I would call it as an ATA President a transparent scheme at wage theft by the worst elements in the “translation industry”, which, as well all know, has a lot of pretty bad actors in it.

Just imagine what would happen if I were to tell the guy who does my taxes that I will reduce the amount I pay him for “fuzzy numbers” (numbers on my tax return that are similar to numbers that he was working with last year), and nothing for numbers that he just copied from the last year.

He would have a good laugh at my account and I would have to look for a new tax accountant.

But although this is precisely the logic that the “translation industry” is applying to translations, as far as I know, the American Translators Association” has no problem with this kind of fuzzy thinking, and no official position on this issue either.

If I were an ATA president, these are some of the changes that I would be fighting for. Therefore, there is  clearly no chance that somebody like me could become a president of the American Translators Association, at least not at the current stage in the pretty long history of the American Translators Association.

Which may be the actual reason why somebody in frustration penciled me in, instead of voting for one of the officially sanctioned candidates.

This morning I had two emails from an “LSP” in China in my email folder:

” Hello,

I need translation of a ~30,000 english [sic] word PATENT application PCT/IB/2016/051969: [link to a patent application]      

 This highly technical patent application relates to computer memory protection units, memory management units, and translation look aside buffers. 

Immediate start. 

Deadline for English to Japanese Translation is 12th of November, 2017.
We need to ask the following questions of the translator assigned to that job: 

          Do you have experience translating low-level computer architecture patents?
          Do you have experience translating digital electronic patents?
          Are you familiar with computer memory architecture?
          Are you capable of translating this document accurately? 
          Are you available to complete this translation in time? 

          How much would you charge for this translation?

          Please provide an example of your earlier translation work, in a field as close as possible to this patent application. 


(Please confirm receipt of this email.)



Project Manager

Xiamen Butterfly House Translation service Co., Ltd”

Right below the email inquiring about my availability for patent translation to Japanese was another email from the same outfit in China about my availability for translating the same patent to Korean:


“I need translation of a ~30,000 english [sic] word PATENT application PCT/IB/2016/xxxxx69:

This highly technical patent application relates to computer memory protection units, memory management units, and translation look aside buffers. 

Immediate start. 

Deadline for English to KoreanTranslation [sic] is 12th of November, 2017.        

We need to ask the following questions of the translator assigned to that job: 

          Do you have experience translating low-level computer architecture patents?
          Do you have experience translating digital electronic patents?
          Are you familiar with computer memory architecture?
          Are you capable of translating this document accurately? 
          Are you available to complete this translation in time? 

          How much would you charge for this translation?
          Please provide an example of your earlier translation work, in a field as close as possible to this patent application. 


(Please confirm receipt of this email.)



Project Manager

Xiamen Butterfly House Translation service Co., Ltd”

Out of curiosity, I tried to go to the website of the Xiamen Butterfly House Translation Service for more information about them …. but fortunately, my anti-virus prevented me from falling into the attack page trap when the following warning was displayed:

“Reported Attack Page!

This web page at has been reported as an attack page and has been blocked based on your security preferences.

Attack pages try to install programs that steal private information, use your computer to attack others, or damage your system.

Some attack pages intentionally distribute harmful software, but many are compromised without the knowledge or permission of their owners.”

Translators, beware!

Even if you are only interested in obtaining more information about a translation intermediary, to use the terminology of one of the frequent commenters on my silly blog, it is quite possible that a shady translation agency just wants you to click on their email to install an attack page to steal your private information, such as information about your clients, rates, and who knows what else.

“Saving one dog may not change the world, but for that one dog, the world will change forever.”

 From the TV show “Pit Bulls and Parolees

When one translation agency buys another one, it is always bad news for translators who are working with the company that was just acquired by another “LSP”.

Especially if it is a small agency being bought by a big one.

Mammoth translation agencies with numerous branches in a number of cities and countries are always on the lookout for suitable acquisition targets, but these kinds of acquisitions are particularly bad news for translators who work for small agencies that become acquired by a bigger one.

This is because some small, or at least moderately-sized translation agencies still operate based on business principles that had guided translation agencies until the end of the 20th century, before the term ‘translation industry’ was even invented.

In the last century, translation agencies were forced to compete on the basis of quality, and they made an effort to establish long-lasting alliances with individual translators who specialized in a certain field. Because these translators knew their specialized niches very well and their knowledge and translating skills were in turn the basis upon which the agencies were competing, they were able to charge above average rates.

In the last century, translation agencies were often quite small and were mostly owned by former or current translators, who understood what translation is about.

I used to work, even in this century for close to another decade or so, for quite a few former or current translators who eventually started their own small agencies.

I remember working for a number of years for several German patent translators who found me on the internet and started sending me Japanese patents to translate, because many patent law firms sending them patents in German also needed translations of patents from Japanese.

You would have to be extraordinarily stupid to say no to a client who needs a translation in a language that is not your own, if the client is willing to pay enough to have the job subcontracted. Although I know quite a few translators who maintain that this is precisely what translators should do … presumably because agency work is too dirty for them.

I have already written several posts on this subject on my silly blog.

Unlike in the corporate model of the translation industry, many of these small agencies were owned and run by people who were not translators, but had expertise in specialized subjects and therefore were able to tell good quality from bad, unlike many clueless project managers (PMs) working for translation agencies in the modern version of the translation industry.

These specialized agencies also often used to pay generous rates to translators because the people running them could tell the difference between good and bad quality and they genuinely appreciated the translators who worked for them.

I vividly remember a small agency that was owned by an elderly husband and wife team specializing in pharmaceutical translations. The husband, who had a PhD in chemistry, handled things that had to do with translation issues and liaising with clients, mostly pharmaceutical manufacturers, while the wife was in charge of accounting.

Once when they were a couple of weeks late with payment on a big invoice, I called to ask about my money. I could tell that the guy did not know what to do because his pride was not going to let him admit they didn’t have money because their client was taking too long to pay.

In the end, I felt sorry for putting him on the spot like that.

Between 2005 and 2007 the husband and wife duo sent me a lot of GMP (Good Manufacturing Practice) manuals to translate out of Japanese. Back then people used to call translators and talk to them in person, shooting the breeze for a while before hitting the translator with another job, instead of sending “Dear Linguist” mass emails to as many potential victims as possible to see which one of them will make the lowest bid.

When the guy called me once with another job and I told him that the previous year was the best year for me in terms of income in about 20 years, he said with evident pride in his voice, “Well, I would like to think we had something to do with that, too.”

So I thanked him because they sure did. I remember they paid rush translation at a surcharge of 1.5 times my regular rate, which was not particularly low. These days, most translation agencies are more likely to be proud if they manage to push the rates they are paying to their ‘vendors’, formerly called translators, to a new low, in addition to paying nothing or next to nothing for ‘full and fuzzy matches’ instead of being proud that they are able to pay us good money for good work.

That would be so twentieth century!

After I was informed that this agency had been bought out by a large agency, I received my first mass email from the new outfit inquiring about my availability for a new translation project. Except that the email was addressed to a “Dear Linguist” rather than to “Dear Steve”. Even though I responded within about 10 minutes, the project manager told me that the job was already ‘placed with a first responder’. She evidently didn’t give a damn which ‘first responder’ would translate the complicated material as long as it was out of her hair as soon possible.

And why should she care who would be doing the translation? As far as she was concerned, all those “Dear Linguists” are pretty much the same, and there are hundreds of them. The only difference is basically in how much they want to charge for the same thing.

I never did work for the new owners and I told them not to bother me with “Dear Linguist” emails in the future.

The corporate translation agency model is so much worse for translators than the old model of mom-and-pop companies because it’s based on one thing and one thing only – greed.

That’s why the acquisition of a small company that you are working for is probably going to be bad news. If the new owner is a very large company, the news almost certainly means that it’s time to say goodbye to an agency that may have been keeping you busy for years, because the working conditions will be bad, and the remuneration will now be lower, probably much lower.

Fortunately, there are still a few old-timer agencies whose business model is not based on greed for the most part, and I would like to think that my tiny operation is one of them.

An even better choice than working for an intermediary is to mold your translation business so that it’s ready and able to find and attract direct clients who, unlike a project manager working for a mega-corporation, can tell the difference between a good translation and the kind of garbage that mega-corporations specialize in these days.

In fact, I think that making this choice is the best way to survive the modern form of the corporate translation industry because it is the only way that makes it possible for translators to ignore it.

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 12, 2017

Do You Have a Secondary Career Path as a Plan B (Just in Case?)

Translation blogs these days are chock-full of posts about how important it is for translators to specialize in a highly valued translation niche.

And I agree with these blog posts. For the most part.

One way to escape the quagmire, defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a soft wet area of low-lying land that sinks underfoot”, of what is now called the “translation industry”, as opposed to translation as a profession, is to become an established expert in a lucrative niche and thus be able to simply ignore offers of work from translation agencies in what I call translation industry 2.0, exemplified by so many venal “LSPs” such as those that have been lovingly nicknamed by translators as Crapita, thepigturd, the Lying Bridge”, etc.

There are still some translation agencies that pay decent rates, quickly and without suffocating translators with demeaning and often illegal “Confidentiality Agreements”, because they are run by people who really appreciate the translators who do the hard work for them, and do it well.

But it is an uphill struggle for these agencies as they have to compete with the numerous Crapitas and thepigturds of this world.

Another advantage of specializing in a relatively narrow field is that when you are a specialist and really know your stuff, you are in a much better position to identify and target direct customers, who are generally able and willing to pay much better fees than even the most decent translation agencies that have (so far) managed to survive the dog-eat-dog reality of translation industry 2.0.

Join us, magnificent elite translators, and become a recognized professional in a specialized field. Be like us – we’ll tell you how to do it (usually in a paid-seminar).

Do it quickly or you will have to accept low rates and toxic conditions of the so-called translation industry. That is what some bloggers are saying, many of whom know so much about so little, as I wrote in this post three years ago.

And I have to agree with them again … for the most part.

This is in fact what I have been trying to do in my field of patent translation (without the paid seminar part) for most of the last three decades. Although I did not use to think about it in these terms, because for a long time I assumed that most translators were doing more or less the same thing, namely trying to specialize and target direct clients … which, unfortunately, is not really true, as only some translators bother to do that.

On the other hand, as every translator has different strengths and weaknesses, “moving upmarket in a specialized niche” as the slogan goes cannot possibly be a panacea in any case for each and every one of us.

Clearly, not everybody can be a member of a super-smart and exceptional elite, since the very concept of “elite” is based on the premise that only a few chosen ones among us can reach the exalted position on the top of the pyramid of translation rates.

Although I agree to a certain extent with the strategy that places so much emphasis on specialization, I also believe that the old proverb about not putting all of one’s eggs into one basket is as true today as it was centuries ago.

Even as we specialize in relatively lucrative, but usually by definition relatively narrow fields, at the same time we have to keep our eyes open and our ears fine-tuned to other options – because we never know when the bottom is going to fall out from our precious niche market.

My own work experience over the last three adventure-filled decades in the la-la land of “translation business” proves, at least to me, that a narrow focus on a lucrative specialization may not be the best policy.

For a long time I thought I had such a brilliant idea when I decided in my early twenties to learn Japanese, which I eventually did, to the extent possible for a foreigner.

Japanese has a reputation for being one of the languages that are so maddeningly difficult to learn that St. Francis Xavier, a missionary who was tasked with introducing Christianity to Japan, famously declared in the mid 16th century that Japanese was invented by the Devil to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan (although at first he actually thought it would be an easy language to learn, probably because the phonetic structure of the melodic language is quite simple, at least compared to Chinese.)

He might have had a point – to this day, there are not many Christians in Japan. Incidentally, St. Francis Xavier also said this about the Japanese opinion of foreigners:

“They are very polite to each other, but not to foreigners, whom they utterly despise” (the Life and Letters of  St. Francis Xavier). This xenophobic attitude did change over the centuries to some extent – although the Japanese still for the most part utterly despise foreigners, especially those who want to settle in Japan, they are usually outwardly polite to foreigners now, often exceedingly so.

But I should probably get back to the main topic of my post today before I drown in peripatetic and completely unfounded speculation about Japanese, Chinese and other languages or cultures.

Inspired by the example of another Japanese technical translator I met in San Francisco, in the 1980s I started translating technical Japanese, mostly Japanese patents, and I was able to make a pretty good living in this way for about 25 years.

I was able to support a family of four, including my wife and two children, on a single income of a freelance translator for more than two decades.

But about five years ago, for a reason I don’t quite understand, at least not completely, I started receiving fewer and fewer Japanese patents for translation, until they all but disappeared. For example, this month so far I have only received two requests for Japanese patent translations (but no orders so far), and last month I only translated one Japanese patent.

Fortunately for me, although translating is basically the only thing that I am moderately good at and my specialization is relatively narrow, not all of my eggs were placed in one basket when the bottom fell out of it.

As the demand for Japanese patents decreased, it was suddenly replaced by a high demand for Chinese and Korean patents, Chinese patents in particular, about five years ago.

At this point in my life, I am a little too old to start learning Chinese or Korean. But since I know several excellent Chinese translators, I became a translation agency, handling a lot of Chinese translations through translators specializing in Chinese patents, in addition to my own translation. Fortunately for me, instead of relying only on Japanese patents, I was able to also translate German, French and Russian patents and started taking on projects involving translations from English into these languages, mostly involving patents again.

Although I think of myself as a translator rather than an intermediary, some months I made more money as an agency than as a translator.

The Chinese market seems to have cooled off a bit compared to the situation about five years ago, probably because low-cost competition in mainland China drove the rates so low that my fees, that I need to split with the actual translators, were no longer competitive enough.

I still mostly translate patents, but instead of translating them from Japanese to English, which is something that I do myself, I now also translate them from and into other languages, sometimes by myself, sometimes through other translators.

And now that I am a small translation agency, I translate not only patents, but basically any materials in fields that I think that I can handle well, while I stay away from fields that I don’t think I can handle well, such as financial translation, literary translation, or even some types of patents, such as complicated biochemistry patents …

As Clint Eastwood put it in his role as Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

For the last two or three years, I have been translating German patents, as the demand for Japanese patents was replaced by a strong demand for German patents. I do most of the work myself, although at times I find myself in the role of a translation agency intermediary.

But I believe I can do a much better job as a proofreader of patent translations done by other translators than a typical project manager working for a typical translation agency.

It is quite possible that on the seesaw of languages in high demand, and translation of foreign languages is the only thing that I am moderately good at, another language will replace German on top in a few years again.

But in any case, as I am getting ready to finally retire, or at least work much less than I have been for the last three decades, I don’t really care that much anymore what might happen in a few years.

Now that the kids are out of the house and on their own, I don’t need to make that much money anyway. It’s nice to be what is called ‘an empty-nester’ in this country.

But before this empty-nester slows down his somewhat frantic pace when it comes to translating patents basically every day, mostly from German instead of from Japanese as used to be the case, he will still try to make as much money in his secondary career path, which does not have much to do with Japanese, at least not at this point.

Oh, and before I forget, I should probably mention that this year, I will almost certainly make in my secondary career that does not have much to do with the Japanese language, namely translation of German patents, at least as much money as I used to make before the market fell out of the red hot Japanese patent market, probably even a little bit more.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 24, 2017

My Advice to Bill and Melinda Gates

There was an article titled “Melinda Gates Decries ‘loss of U.S. leadership in global aid'” last week in Washington Post.

At the top of the article is a picture of Bill and Melinda Gates, probably still the richest couple on this planet. The picture is from a ceremony in France where they were given an award in recognition of their philanthropic work.

Poor Bill looks in the picture kind of like he doesn’t really want to be there at all, while his wife Melinda is looking at him with a sly, triumphant smile from the side, as if she’s really happy that she got her way as usual and managed to drag him kicking and screaming to a ceremony where the super-rich are given awards for their tax-deductible philanthropy.

According to the article, Melinda Gates is complaining that “the Trump administration has recommended that the United States — which contributes $12 billion out of the $34 billion spent on foreign assistance for health each year — reduce its support in almost all areas, including infectious diseases and family planning.”

I’m with her when it comes to rich countries needing to contribute more money on foreign assistance. Fighting infectious disease and family planning are definitely worthwhile causes in my book too.

But given that “America First” Trump is not very likely to listen to her, I would like to let her and Bill know that there is a highly worthwhile philanthropic activity that she and her husband can engage in, right now, right here as well as in many other countries, a philanthropic activity that although it is not tax-deductible, does not depend on Trump at all, only on the good will of Bill and Melinda Gates.

I am talking about the fact that Microsoft, the company that made her husband and herself so incredibly rich, is in the habit of selling people in many countries the same thing over and over every year in order to remove as much money as possible from the pockets of as many millions of people as possible, including those who are suffering from infectious diseases and those who could use some help with family planning.

Some three decades ago, Microsoft still behaved more or less like any other corporation that, reluctantly, had to compete for customers by trying to deliver better product at a better price.

But then Bill Gates realized early on that since thanks to what can only be called IBM’s stupidity (when IBM contracted Microsoft to create an operating system for its computers), once the Microsoft’s operating software was installed on most personal computers, this provided an excellent opportunity for the company to use its monopolistic position in the area of operating systems for PCs to eliminate competition not only in the market for computer operating software, but also for other software products, such as a browser, a word processor, a spreadsheet, etc.

“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers” says Shakespeare in the words of Dick the Butcher in Henry VI, Part II, act IV.

The first thing Microsoft did to further leverage its monopoly position was killing in the early nineties a hugely popular, sleek and for its time revolutionary competing internet browser called Netscape Navigator by including its own browser, called Internet Explorer (IE) for free with the Microsoft operating system. Since everybody had to pay for the operating system, Internet Explorer was not really free, but it seemed to be free to happy consumers.

Because Netscape had to charge a modest amount to its users rather than giving it away since unlike Microsoft, it was not in a position of monopoly, Microsoft did manage to kill Netscape within a few years.

By the year 2000, Internet Explorer had 95% of the market. That meant that if you wanted to create a new software package, you had to write it in such a way that it would work seamlessly with Internet Explorer.

But then Microsoft made the mistake that most monopolists usually make – by relying on the brutal force of its monopolistic position, it neglected the further development of Internet Explorer, which was and to some extent still is quite clumsy and inflexible.

The result was that when companies realized that having access to millions of eyeballs to keep hitting them with advertising was the new way of making money, several new and better browsers were developed, such as Opera, Safari, Firefox and Chrome and because these browsers were not only better, but also  just as free as IE, compared to the heady days when Microsoft ruled the internet, relatively few people are now using the latest version of IE called “Edge”, although it is still included for free with every version of the Microsoft Windows.

According to, an older version of Microsoft Explorer is now installed on 12.7% of computers, and its new version called “Edge” is installed on only 4.61%.

After killing Netscape Navigator, Microsoft set its sights on exterminating a word processing software package that was very popular in the eighties and nineties called WordPerfect. Back in the eighties and nineties, writers and translators, myself included, and lawyers in particular, loved their WordPerfect software. I remember endless discussions on what passed for social media in the nineties in which one Microsoft Word user succinctly expressed the unwillingness of WordPerfect users to abandon their software by stating:”WordPerfect is not a word processor – it’s a religion!”

Nevertheless, within a few years, Microsoft for the most part eliminated WordPerfect as well, by simply starting to include a DOS version of Microsoft Word again for free with the versions of its operating system.

To put this in perspective with the prices of other word processing software packages at the time, and there were quite a few of them 30 years ago, I remember that I paid 200 dollars in 1987 for WordPerfect, while my first PC, an IBM clone that was called Leading Edge Computer and was manufactured in Korea, set me back that year 1,000 dollars.

Since everybody had to pay, and pay, and pay for the Microsoft operating system, the cost of Microsoft Word was again included with the operating system, although to happy consumers it again appeared to be free.

Despite the legendary support by team WordPerfect that I still remember fondly – when you had a problem, all you had to do was call and within a few seconds you were talking to a friendly, knowledgeable human being who spoke native English, because WordPerfect did not make you go through endless automatic menus, only to put you on endless hold back then – the fate of WordPerfect appeared to be sealed with the switch from DOS to Windows in the early nineties.

Unfortunately, WordPerfect was designed for DOS, the original operating system developed by Microsoft, and it took a long time before WordPerfect was able to redesign the word processor to take advantage of the new Microsoft operating system called Windows in early nineties.

Although fewer and fewer people were using WordPerfect by the end of the nineties, since there was still some value left in what later became a WordPerfect Office Suite, which included also other programs just like Microsoft Office Suite, the software suite was over the years sold to several companies and it is now owned by Corel, which must still be competing successfully at least to some extent with Microsoft Office because I can still find it at Office Depot or Best Buy.

There are several reasons why Corel’s WordPerfect office is able to compete with the 800 pound gorilla called Microsoft Office, which is the indisputable king of the software jungle when it comes to word processors and office suites.

First of all, unlike Microsoft Office, for which its users must pay about a hundred dollars that are extorted from them every year by Microsoft under the pretext that it is a “subscription fee”, if you buy the WordPerfect Office, which I bought for less than 50 dollars several years ago as I wrote in a post on my blog called “WordPerfect Is Alive and Kicking and in Many Respects Beat Microsoft Word Hands Down”, you actually own the WordPerfect office for as long as you care to use it, the way things used to be before Microsoft decided to charge us money for the same thing over and over every year.

I usually start every translation in the WordPerfect format to avoid the hassle of the Microsoft Word formatting setup, which is rigid, complicated, and unintuitive to the point of being infuriating, and then continue writing my translations in an old version of Microsoft Word to make sure that I see the exact formatting that my customers will see.

For that alone, I am grateful that there is an affordable and well designed alternative to Microsoft Word.

Will WordPerfect and free office suites and eventually be able to force Microsoft to stop extorting money from us every year for something that we may have bought many years ago?

I don’t know, but I have a feeling that if Microsoft adopted a more honest business model for its Office software, it would be worth much more than all of the tax-deductible philanthropic work of Bill and Melinda Gates.

Given how Microsoft has been managed for so many years when Bill Gates was the company’s chairman, namely as a giant, brutally ruthless and oppressive monopolistic entity, to mercilessly exterminate its competitors and enter and conquer new markets not on the strength of a superior product, but merely on the strength of its massive power, I think that Bill and Melinda Gates, as major shareholders of Microsoft, have no moral credibility to present themselves to the world as philanthropists.

Trying to gain a measure of moral credibility must be why so many rich people work so hard on creating an image that is not an image of a rich and privileged individual, but that of a philanthropist. It is probably good not only for major tax deductions, but it may also help them to sleep better at night.

As a recent article in The Guardian put it “As long as the wealthy can distance themselves from images of “bad” rich people, their entitlement is acceptable. In fact, it is almost as if they are not rich”.

So here is my advice to Bill and Belinda Gates: If you really care about us, the little people, stop making us pay you money in the form of a “yearly subscription” to Microsoft Office at about a hundred bucks, year after year, over and over again.

The word philanthropy consists of two Greek words that combined mean to love people or to be generous to people. What Microsoft Corporation is doing with its Office software is the opposite of philanthropy. To charge a yearly subscription fee for nothing because you can get away with is rapacious misanthropy, the opposite of philanthropy.

Bill Gates, a major Microsoft shareholder, whose net worth of $426 billion equals the wealth of 3.6 billion people, can probably afford to make Microsoft management stop charging us money every year for nothing while calling it a “subscription fee.”

Unless he does that, his tax-deductible “philanthropy” will be extremely morally awkward, as awkward as the expression on his face captured in the photograph in the article in Washington Post linked above.

For it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a super-rich monopolistic “philanthropist”, who insists on making people pay him money for nothing every year, to be seen by the same people as a good, honest and moral person.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 18, 2017

Translation: An Intellectual Pursuit

Today’s guest post, originally published in the September 2017 issue of the ATA Chronicle, is republished on my blog by permission of  Jesse Tomlinson, a Spanish to English translator and interpreter. She is currently the administrator of ATA’s Literary Division and lives in Guadalajara, Mexico.

The nuance involved in translation ties into the intellectual element of considering the meaning of the source text. What does the text mean? What is it trying to convey?

Well-executed translation requires more nuance than simple word replacement—shades and levels of meaning that machine translators can’t deliver. Creating this nuance is what makes translation an intellectual pursuit.

Translation is often considered a commodity, and it’s referenced in the language of commodities with words such as “vendor” and “translation services provider,” or, more recently, “post-editor of machine-translated output” and “machine translation copy editor.”

In some circles, the translation enterprise is seen as a service that can be produced or manufactured entirely using machine-based processes. For example, computer-aided translation (CAT) has been marketed as a tool that increases speed and accuracy when performing automated repetitive tasks in the translation process.1

These tools have become a way for agencies to pay translators less, with nonpayment or partial payment for “full matches” (words in a document that are already translated in the translation software database) or “partial matches,” where “a sentence or a segment in a source document for which the translation memory tool can match some of the words in the target language […]” already exists.2 Paying by the word is not a reflection of what translators do, as it suggests word for word replacement, and detracts from what translators actually do, which involves editing (including the words in full and partial matches) when bringing the translation together.

This increasingly popular reductive thinking is based on an assumption that machine-driven translation can deliver a quality product simply by substituting words in one language for words in another. In reality, translation is a complex undertaking involving languages that are innately connected to the cultural ecosystems in which they are spoken. The core processes of translation operate in the mind of the translator, not in the bowels of a machine. True translation is an art that involves the translator understanding and appreciating the culture behind and reflected in the language. It’s the art of exercising an intellect.

Machine translation can play a productive role in assisting the translation process (e.g., as one of several tools a translator uses). It’s when computer-assisted translation becomes computer-only translation that the process becomes corrupted. Words are more than scribbles on a paper to be deciphered by a mechanical algorithm. A word can reflect a whole culture.

A Machine Does Not Consider Cultural Nuance

Take, for example, the word patria in Spanish. Will we translate it as Motherland? Homeland? How about borrowing terra nostra, a word from a third culture (“our land” in Latin), to describe what the word means for English readers? We could also go a different route and translate patria as “country.”

A translator has many questions to consider. How does the target culture refer to its own country? What implications does the word’s target culture have in its distinct cultural context? This is just a small taste of the intellectual work of translators.

Let’s look at the word “homeland” and its implications and history. In the U.S., the word came into mainstream use after 9/11 with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security—a powerful government organization charged with protecting the country from terrorist threats. “Homeland” was once a word used by the Zionist movement in the 1920s and 1930s to refer to a Jewish “homeland” in the Middle East.3 Later, Hitler expanded its interpretation to advance the idea that people needed a tribal-like devotion to land and country to create a sense of racial superiority.

Josh Marshall, editor and publisher of, notes, “The phrase really got into the public vocabulary with the release of Transforming Defense: National Security in the 21st Century, a report on the future of the U.S. military by something called the National Defense Panel.”4 “Homeland” became related to “homeland defense,” which was inherently related to National Missile Defense.5

This word from worlds away would not be my choice in reference to Mexico. It simply doesn’t fit the history and context of the Spanish word patria. This patria refers to Mexican history; to mestizaje, the blending of Spanish and indigenous peoples; to two revolutions; to the intrigue and trickery of Mexican history; and to the blood spilled on Mexico’s earth. Even in this sense, the boundaries are blurred, because America was Mexico, Mexico is America, and borders change. The Mexican Cession of 1848 ceded the territories comprising present-day California, Nevada, Utah, most of Arizona, half of New Mexico, and part of Wyoming and Colorado.6 Most Mexicans living in these areas decided to stay and become Americans. But Mexicans are Americans in the same way everyone living on the continent of America is American.

So, how will a machine translate patria? As it’s been translated before or as it’s been translated most frequently? The machine uses what it knows, and what it knows are words and word combinations that have been published previously or uploaded to the internet, or that are in machine-translation databases. But will those translations even be relevant to the Mexican concept of patria? And what about when the translation database software comprises texts from Spain? Or Cuba? Or Argentina? Will it translate the idea of patria as it is uniquely felt in each of these countries?

The Importance of Objectivity

Translators obsess over what is behind and within words when they use them. A text’s flavor is soaked in associations attached to styles of writing, vocabulary selection, and collocation use. Translators must consider historical implications inherent in words while also being objective in their work. A product description, for example, might say a product is “the best.” But in English, that kind of language is subjective. It’s someone’s opinion, not a proven fact. Using this kind of language could give your text an unwanted or unwarranted commercial or advertising slant.

Barry Ritholtz, an American author, newspaper columnist, and equities analyst, in an article entitled “Two Rules Underpinning Intellectual Pursuits,” wrote that people need to “[g]et intimately acquainted with all doctrine, theory, ideology, and dogma, but refuse to allow these ideas to govern and shape your thinking.”7 Translators need this objectivity to translate well.

Literary translators might feel like the opinions of the authors they are translating are the translator’s own views, but they are not. The translator is a chronicler, a participant-observer who rarely “steps into” the text, and does so almost exclusively to address concerns of word order and logic in the target language.

But what do I mean by classifying translation as an intellectual pursuit? Let’s take a look at the essence of the translation process to clarify this idea.

Translation as Research

Translators are researchers. For each new document, translators create glossaries of words, concepts, and ideas to become familiar with the topic and as a reference. Translators become experts in general and in specific fields.

Translators have to keep up with translation. Being current and knowledgeable in the profession involves dedicating time to learning more about translation and areas of specialty. New word usage and vocabulary, new ways of translating, current events that change perspectives and ways of understanding the world—translators must study constantly to improve their craft.

Cultural Expertise in Translation

Translators use language to convey an idea from one culture so that it can be understood in another, seeking semantic equivalence within cultural contexts. And the best translation isn’t always clear-cut.

For example, if a text mentions the name of a volcano in Spanish, should you adapt it, translate it, or explain it? How about the name of a canyon? Would you translate Canyon del cobre as “Copper Canyon” or “Del Cobre Canyon”? What if another Copper Canyon already exists? Will you take its name and apply it to a different geographical area?

In Mexico and many other parts of the world, organizations and places often have multiple names. In Guadalajara, for example, a large canyon abuts the edges of the municipalities of Tonalá, Zapotlanejo, Ixtlahuacán del Río, and Zapopan.8 This canyon-park is known both as Barranca de Huentitán (Huentitán Canyon) and Barranca de Oblatos (Oblatos Canyon). While Huentitán and Oblatos refer to the canyon, on the side that abuts the Guadalajara Metropolitan Zone’s municipalities, each name refers to a different entrance to the canyon.

What about translating cultural events? Will you describe the event, create a new name for it, or use its original name, trying to bring readers closer to the target culture? Would you consider translating quinceañera as “sweet-sixteen birthday party,” a concept familiar to Americans, even though a quinceañera is a celebration of a girl’s fifteenth birthday in Mexico? Words belong to their cultures, but how do we describe the reality of one culture using the language of another? Is a “spice-infused roasted goat meat” stew the same as birria? How about adapting carne asada as “barbecue”?

Déjà vu, a French expression, has been seen and felt so much that some native English speakers consider it English. Is English other languages? Every word we use slants the resulting message. Words associated with places and societies give clues to readers about where and how a text fits into a language and its culture.

Writing in Translation

The translator is first and foremost a good writer. The translation of a text into another language involves the actual writing of it.

There are many steps to translating a document: reading it, understanding it, processing the information, expressing it in a different language for a different culture, and then editing it. Even if a document is poorly written in the source language, the translation in the target language should flow naturally and be well written. This necessitates having a conceptual understanding of how to balance culture with language.

Editing Translations

Editing is the elucidation of the text, bringing it into the light where it can be seen clearly and its fine-tuning appreciated. Editing a translation is what finally places it squarely in its own culture, bringing another culture alive for those who don’t know its language.

What Is the Intellectual Side of Translation?

The nuance involved in translation ties in to the intellectual element of considering the meaning of the source text. What does the text mean? What is it trying to convey? Words are here, there, and everywhere, but it is the meaning behind and within them that carries significance and tells us about origins, wars, and history as written by both the victors and the vanquished. History books, critical essays, and research published after major events attempt an objective accounting about what really happened.

When translators delve into what words mean in a historical context, they bring objectivity to translation, literary and otherwise.

What exactly is the intellectual side of translation? Which stage of reading-understanding-conceptualizing-writing-polishing is the intellectual part?

All of it. All of these efforts contribute to translation as an intellectual pursuit carried out by humans—research, cultural expertise, writing, editing, and learning. All this intense critical reflection is focused on making meaning for the benefit of those who want to understand and fully appreciate written texts in another language. It’s the human computing and processing that is intellectual. The most human part of translation is cognitive activity.

When machines can be thoughtful and intellectual, they too will be able to complete the operations of the translation process, matching each intellectual process needed to mold together the figure of written language. Until then, they’ll only be helpers (and excellent ones) to the actual brains doing the thinking.

  1. SDL,
  2. Net-Translators,
  3. “Time for the U.S. to Dump the Word Homeland,” Truthout (September 23, 2014),
  4. Marshall, Josh. “I Read An,” Talking Points Memo Editor’s Blog (June 5, 2002),
  5. Ibid.
  6. Mexican Cession,”
  7. Ritholtz, Barry. “Two Rules Underpinning the Intellectual Pursuit,” The Big Picture (December 8, 2008),
  8. “Barranca de Oblatos,”

Jesse Tomlinson is the administrator of ATA’s Literary Division. She is an interpreter, translator, and voice talent. Originally from Canada, she now lives in Mexico and translates from Spanish into English and interprets in both languages. She is currently translating Latin American authors born in the 1980s into English for Proyecto Arraigo. See her essay on uprooting (“La vida sin limones”) at

Jesse would be interested to hear from you. Contact: jesse[at]

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 13, 2017

Good Feng Shui Rotates Every 20 Years

“When we say, ‘Good fengshui rotates every 20 years,’ the sentence is still incomplete. It should be ‘二十年輪流轉,十年河東,十年河西’’ (Good fengshui rotates every 20 years – 10 years in favor of the East Riverside, 10 years in favor of the West Riverside)”.

(From a comment left on my blog by a Chinese translator several years ago.)

For some reason I was thinking this morning about how everything in my life has changed. Events have suddenly shifted and moved in a completely different direction approximately every 10 years. Then in the afternoon I was Googling something and an old blog post I wrote came up in which the Chinese proverb above was left in the comments section about how Feng Shui works, or is supposed to work for us, or for somebody else, every 10 years and and how the good and bad part of it reverses itself every 20 years.

I do believe in strange quotations and proverbs. Proverbs are among the few things I still find for the most part believable, despite the fact that there is usually at least one proverb in every language that says the exact opposite.

The starting age for how Feng Shui has impacted my life began at the age of eight, with a very different 風水(Feng Shui, or Wind and Water) impacting my life differently every 10 years or so.

The things I remember vividly from the young age of eight have to do mostly with celebrations of communism in the little town in what used to be called Sudetenland where I was growing up in the 1960s.

As a kid, I thought of official communist celebrations as important dates to be celebrated with Chinese lantern parades in the evening, fireworks and free black-and-white movies shown on a huge screen in the main town square after dark, which were the coolest things ever because even though little kids like me were supposed to be in bed, we were allowed to stay up late for the movies and fireworks.

I especially loved fireworks with the tiny rockets that were slowly being parachuted down with little silk parachutes attached to them to make the effect last longer. A bunch of kids always ran after them and sometimes, when I got lucky and found the rocket with a little parachute on the ground or stuck in a tree, I found a perfect toy for the next few days.

Every May, a big podium was erected from wooden boards in the main square for important comrades to give speeches on May 1st and May 9th (May 9th was the date when Czechoslovakia was officially liberated from Nazi occupation by the glorious Red Army.) The podium was perfect for us little kids, to play tag and hide and seek on, under and behind the wooden planks that smelled pleasantly of resin and sawdust.

My hometown was actually liberated by the US Army, not by the Red Army, but comrades simply pretended that it never happened like that. We did get liberated by the glorious Red Army about 20 years later in 1968, not from Nazis, but from our own government, such as it was.

The first YouTube video, above, shows the enthusiastic welcome of der Führer by Sudeten Germans, who as it happened were citizens of a small, multinational country called Czechoslovakia, in 1938 in the town of Karlovy Vary.

The second YouTube video below, shows the much less enthusiastic welcome for Russian tanks when they rolled into Prague in 1968.

Both of these events meant a rotation of the Feng Shui with the bad kind on top for me, I suppose, even though I was not even born at the time of the first event. But I think both of them also eventually resulted in the good Feng Shui for West Riverside and bad Feng Shui for the East Riverside, because some 20 years after the second occupation of my country, this time by the Soviet Union instead of Germany, people finally got tired of listening to the speeches of important comrades in East Germany and, just like that, the Berlin Wall and East Germany were no more.

But when I was 28, it looked like the same comrades would be giving the same wooden speeches from the same wooden platforms for at least another 20, possibly 50 years. So I decided to find a way around the Berlin Wall and get to the other side, or die trying.

I planned my escape for a about a year, without being able to tell anyone about it, including my family, with the exception of a few friends, most of whom were pretty sure that I did not really mean it. Most people who said they were considering leaving and were talking about it in the end never actually did it.

But I did mean it, although I was so surprised when my plan worked in the end! I shouldn’t have been surprised – the good Feng Shui was on top and in my favor that year and that was why the plan worked. But back then I did not even know what Feng Shui was and how it worked, all I knew were the characters.

The good Feng Shui must have been the deciding factor that also determined that I would be moving to San Francisco rather than to New York, which was where I thought I would be moving to when I was waiting for my visa in Germany.

Because San Francisco in the early 1980s was inundated with many Japanese tourists who spoke no English, it took me less than a month to find a job there in the tourist industry because in addition to English, I could also speak German and French as well as Japanese. As my boss Nancy put it to me, “We thought we had to hire two people, a European guy for European languages and a Japanese guy for Japanese. So instead we hired you to save money.”

The story of America in the 20th century can be basically summed up by what Nancy said to me all those years ago: one new immigrant who does the work of two.

A few years later when I started my translation business, being based in San Francisco was again a major advantage for me because in the late 1980s, the internet did not exist yet in the form in which it exists today, and physical presence near my major customers – patent law firms in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, which is about an hour south of the City, was very important.

Sometimes I would be asked to go a patent law office in downtown to sort out Japanese patents and translate selected passages right there. I remember how hard it was sometimes for me to concentrate on the translation because from my corner of the office next to the “war room”, I could see young and stunningly beautiful Asian secretaries through the glass door walking in high heels and tightly fitting skirts in the hallway, smiling at me encouragingly.

The good Feng Shui was on top for me and working in my favor in the 1990s too. I remember the first time I was asked to name my price for a day’s work on site for sorting out documents in a triage and translating them at the office downtown, I told a legal secretary that my price was going to be 800 dollars a day.

She looked at me quizzically, and said, “Come on, everybody else is charging 1,000 dollars a day.”

So I charged 1,000 dollars a day too. That was an easy decision for me. But because the other translator who was working there with me was sent by an agency, he probably made only half of that, or maybe even less.

But things started to change for the worse in my business about five years ago. A few years ago, it looked like the really bad Feng Shui was for a change working against me, big time.

Old customers who had kept me busy for 10, 15 or 20 years started disappearing one by one. I was still able to replace some of them with new ones, but not all of them. Some kind of really bad Feng Shui was happening in the so-called translation industry and I did not quite understand what exactly it was and how to fight it.

I still don’t quite understand exactly what happened. After translating mostly Japanese patents to English for more than two decades, I had many clients who kept me busy. But then, within about three or four years, most of them disappeared.

How could the Japanese patent translation market suddenly disappear? I could not believe what was happening to me.

When bad Feng Shui hits you, there is only one way to fight it: change the way you do things, because otherwise you might have to wait another 20 years for the good Feng Shui to come your way again.

And you may not even be able to live that long.

So instead of translating patents for prior art (information about existing technology), I now translate patents for filing (publication of a patent in another language).

And instead of translating mostly Japanese patents, I now translate mostly German patents, and sometimes manage translation projects as a translation agency for about a dozen translators who occasionally work for me, mostly projects that also involve patent translation.

As long as we are able to figure out what is going on and how to deal with new problems, we don’t need to wait 20 years for the next rotation of Feng Shui that will change it from a bad one to a good one, and that will be working for us again, instead of working against us.

It usually does take about 20 years before the good Feng Shui rotates from East Riverside to West Riverside (and vice versa), and 20 years is a very long time to do nothing about it.

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