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.

Posted by: patenttranslator | September 8, 2017

Welcome to the Jungle of Translation Industry 2.0

Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on the bizarre concept of the so-called ISO certification process, one of the modern features in the jungle of translation industry 2.0, for example this one in 2014, this one in 2015, or this one in 2016.

The concept of certifying a translation by a translation agency, which is to say a certification of a translation by a middleman or a broker rather than by the actual translator who translated the document, is seriously weird.

Unless the broker in question is also an experienced translator who knows both languages and is familiar with a specialized subject, which happens extremely rarely, he has basically no idea whether the translation is very good, or whether the entire translation is more or less just one huge typo.

This means that the one person who in fact could certify a translation — although not on the basis of ISO standards, which were originally designed for industrial products and therefore cannot be applied to intellectual property, i.e. activities occurring in the human brain — would be the translator who translated the document in question.

Most translation agencies in translation industry 2.0 are extremely reluctant to allow translators to certify their own translations, because the person doing the certifying needs to be identified. Many translation agencies are afraid, and with good reason, that if the agency’s client should find out who the actual translator is, she might try to establish a working relationship directly with the translator to save money.

At times translation agencies play an important and useful role and sometimes do add significant value to the entire transaction, for example when they coordinate translations of long, ongoing complicated projects from or into several languages at the same time.

But in many cases, for example when the direct client is a patent law firm that is only interested in patent translation from or into a certain language, the translation agency is typically unable to add any value to the translation project, beyond matching a suitable translator with a given project (assuming they can do that).

To make sure translators remain anonymous, hidden and unfindable, translation agencies in the 2.0 version of the translation industry have been busily designing longer and longer so-called “Non-Disclosure Agreements” (NDAs), that specify among many other highly restrictive and at times plainly illegal clauses that translators may not approach the actual client who ordered the translation under any circumstances, except with written permission from the translation agency, and in particular under penalty of death.

Well, no, not under the penalty of death, not just yet, that was just a joke, of course, intended to illustrate the current thinking trends and methods popular in the jungle of the modern version of the translation industry.

Although who knows, since translation industry 2.0 has been getting away with so many clearly illegal practices, it might just be possible that future contracts for translation industry 3.0 will in fact in a few years spell out that the penalty for talking to a direct client is DEATH!

As I wrote some three years ago, while the concept of applying industrial and commercial standards to industrial production of duffel bags, dog food and diapers makes very good sense, applying the same concept used for industrial and commercial standards to the intellectual activity called translation is something that only an inspired translation agency advertising manager could come up with.

ISO certification of a translation is simply a clever marketing gimmick because the certification says absolutely nothing about the education, qualifications, credibility and experience of the actual translator.

Even if the translator is an inexperienced newbie, and incompetent imposter, or just another cheap warm body cobbling together something from machine translation for another back office without understanding the subject, such translations can still be certified by a translation agency that is dutifully following all of the principles of ISO certification in the translation industry.

After all, these principles only spell out the procedure on the agency’s side, which is to say how the translation is supposed to be shuffled among desks of a translation agency by people who typically don’t understand the languages used in the translation.

ISO certification of translation is simply a big lie. But because it is a big lie that is useful for marketing purposes, hundreds or thousands of translation agencies have jumped on the ISO-certification bandwagon.

At this point, there are many versions of ISO (and also various other, equally insane versions of non-ISO translation certifications), none of which has anything to do with the accuracy or quality of a translation.

In fact, when I receive offers of “collaboration” from outfits in far-away countries who are eager to become a “back office” of my eminently specialized translating enterprise, shady “back office” operations that invariably pay translators peanuts, partly because they are located in countries where the cost of labor is very cheap, and partly because the “back office” concept adds yet another level of middlemen who need to be paid — one in a Western country, plus a secret middleman in another country — many of these shady operations proudly announce that they are “ISO-certified.”

And many of these “back-office” agencies, who specialize in working as subcontractors for other translation agencies, proudly list the large translation agencies in Western countries that are already using these outfits as clients of their “back office”. The list reads like a veritable who’s who in the translation universe (or jungle): all the mega-agencies are of course there.

I recently found out from a discussion on Facebook that there is yet another a new wrinkle in the ISO translation certification process. One translator started the discussion on Facebook when he wrote the following:

“Client [meaning a translation agency, Mad Patent Translator] suddenly asks me to include the following statement on every future invoice as “part of their ISO process”:

“I (Insert name) can confirm that I have deleted all audio files and word documents that I have received and created on behalf of XYZ from my personal computer and/or any other storage device I might have held these files within. I further confirm that I have also emptied my trash folder on my personal computer. This was checked as accurate on (insert date).”

While in the prehistoric times of translation industry 1.0, which is to say before the advent of the internet, translation agencies invested a lot of time and effort in trying to identify the best, most honest and trustworthy translators for projects, because they understood that their reputation depended on the kind of translator who would work for them. In translation industry 2.0, the translator is an afterthought – an unimportant, anonymous cog hidden somewhere in a “back-office” of a big machine word-producer.

Translation agencies in the jungle of version 2.0 of the translation industry don’t worry about the qualifications or character of the translators they use. Instead, they add another nonsensical and unenforceable clause to an NDA that already has more than three thousand words.

In translation industry 1.0, an agency person, usually a former translator, might have called me and said something like this: “Steve, we have this client who is paranoid about confidentiality. Could you please destroy all the printouts of the translation and delete all the files from your hard disk and also from floppy disks to keep this client happy, once you get paid for the work of course?”

I seem to remember that something like that did happen to me, but not more than once or twice — in thirty years — because I don’t remember the details.

If I got a call like that from an agency I knew well, I would agree and would then do exactly as asked … once I got paid, of course.

But that was translation industry 1.0, when people who were running translation agencies could still trust the translators who worked for them because they knew them well from a working relationship that often lasted for many years, sometime even decades.

In translation industry 2.0, translation agencies that proudly announce they have 3,000 “professional translators” obviously don’t know and don’t care about the scores of translators who may be working for them through a secret back office somewhere on the other side of the world.

And they again add another weird and unenforceable clause on page 14 of the “Non-Disclosure Agreement”.

I am just guessing here, but I think that it is very likely that a back office operator somewhere on the other side of the world, upon reading such a clause in his contract, might be thinking to himself:

“Wow, it looks like this translation is about an important secret.

There could be big money in it for me too. I wonder who could I sell it to.”

Many people who have never translated a patent have the wrong idea about what patent translation involves.

They often think that every patent is pretty much the same kind of very technical, dry, and boring document, a relatively simple thing from a language standpoint if the technical terms are known, that should be ideal for processing with Computer Assisted Tools (CATs), or even for “translating” with machine translation, which can then be “post-edited” by a human translator.

Put your CAT to work, or “translate” the dry, boring and highly repetitive uninspiring piece of technical writing with machine translation, and then you should be able to edit it with the CAT or machine translation product relatively easily.

That is what some people think, including translators, although only translators who do not translate patents, which is the majority of them.

I am not surprised that project managers working for translation agencies in translation industry 2.0 misunderstand what patents are and how they can be translated, because let’s face it, most of these PMs don’t know anything about translation, especially those who work for large predatory translation agencies intent on maximizing their profits ad infinitum at the expense of translators.

What I find surprising is that even translators who translate other fields seem to think that patents are eminently suitable for processing by machines and software. There are some patent translators who use CATs, and some swear by their darling CATs, but I am not one of them.

I don’t trust CATs to not make major errors that I may or may not be able to catch if I try to “produce more words per day”, and I happen to know that my customers don’t want me to use them. In fact, although many translation agencies love it when their translators use CATs because they are such convenient tools to control translators, most direct customers would stop sending me work if they thought I trusted a software tool not to mess up a patent translation.

Although I use machine translations of patents frequently, more or less every time when I can use them, I am aware of the many pitfalls of machine translations of patents.

Machine translations of patents have been available on the websites of organizations such as EPO (European Patent Office, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office), or JPO (Japan Patent Office) for about two decades now.

I usually try to locate a machine translation of a patent document and when it is available, I print it out and look at it, especially as I start translating the document.

But I happen to know that trying to edit machine translations of patents, namely the kind of “post-editing” the translation industry 2.0 recommends and believes in with all of its greedy heart, would be tantamount to committing professional suicide for human translators.

Although a machine translation of a patent may look like a real translation that has been done by an experienced human patent translator, it is nothing of the sort.

It is important to keep in mind that machine translations are simply matched segments of translations that were originally provided by human translator, which is why they look like real translations. These segments are matched based on a text that is produced by the machine translation software, but they are not actual translations of real human translators.

And although large segments of the original patent document may be translated seemingly well by the software, every single word that was processed by a software package would still need to be validated by a human translator to avoid the many pitfalls of machine translations.

Because this is extremely time-consuming work, the “time savings” loudly celebrated in the propaganda of what I call translation industry 2.0, are only a propagandistic illusion.

Some errors due to mismatching or other glitches and errors of machine-translated segments would be easily identified by a human translator during “post-processing” because they are simply too ridiculous given the context of the document.

But mistranslations that seem perfectly or somewhat plausible in the context of the document may be very difficult to detect, even by an experienced and qualified human translator, even though they may be completely wrong.

For example, I have noticed on many occasions that the machine translation software that is used on the European Patent Office or WIPO Office websites sometimes mismatches entire segments of documents, or the machine translation may be based on the wrong version of the documents when there are several versions of “the same document.”

This does not happen that much in the main text of the patent application, called “Description” in English. Machine translations of the segment called “Description” usually only contain the mistakes that we generally associated with typical machine translation software glitches. But it does happen quite frequently with the section of the patent application called “Claims”, which is the section that basically identifies what is new in the patent based on existing technology, or what is called prior art.

The reason for this is simple. When a new patent application is filed, it is first examined by patent office examiners who accept the new invention as “patentable”, but only with the provision that the claim section needs to be changed and the application must then be resubmitted to the patent office, usually when the claims are overly broad, or not clear enough.

This means that some claims are deleted, some may have to be rewritten, and new, more restrictive claims are added.

And because the patent application may be returned for new formulation of claims several times, the software used by the patent office could then be using an older version of the document which still contains the claims that were rejected by the examiners, but which are no longer relevant.

The content of the new claims will then be completely unrelated to what the machine translation spits out and even the number of claims is usually different.

Translation industry 2.0 likes to celebrate new tools such as CATs and machine translation as revolutionary, “disruptive technology” that will completely change the way translations are produced and delivered so that eventually, these tools may for the most part replace human translators, the way video streaming replaced DVD rentals, or the way Uber is slowly replacing traditional taxi services (and self-driving cars may eventually replace Uber and Lyft).

But they either don’t understand or pretend not to understand that translation tools—wonderfully helpful and exciting as they are, especially for us, translators—will never be able to replace the minds of human translators.

The only “tool” that, unlike software, is able to be actively engaged in intellectual activity that can create real translation is the human mind. And this is true not only about literary translation or financial documents, but also about translations of the dry, highly technical and sometimes boring documents called “patents”.

It so happens that tools, including software tools, are and always will be only tools.

And no matter how helpful, useful and innovative these tools are in the hands of translators, despite what the many smarmy vendors of snake oil in translation industry 2.0 with big dollar and Euro signs in their eyes try to make us believe, these tools will never amount to a suitable replacement for intellectual activity that is required for a real translation, and especially for translation of patents, which are also referred to as intellectual property.

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 24, 2017

The Toxic Environment of Translation Industry 2.0

The “translation industry” environment, which I will be calling in my silly post today the translation industry 2.0, is very different from the translation industry environment that I got to know as a newbie technical translator 30 years ago in San Francisco.

Even as a beginner working for translation agencies back in the 1980s, I soon began to feel like a professional whose work was valued and appreciated by most of the agencies I was working for, even though I was pretty green, had a lot to learn and a long way to go.

Some people who were running the small, mom-and-pop type of translation agencies, typical of the translation industry 1.0 back then, eventually became friends of mine who were able to give me a lot of good advice because they were older, more experienced, and because they meant well.

They made money from my translations too, of course. But the idea was not to wring out all I had to give in order to maximize their profit in the 1.0 version of the translation industry. It was much more of a two-way street back then.

I’m afraid all of these people I used to know in version 1.0 are dead now, and I mean that literally.

How many people do you know among the translation agencies in the translation industry 2.0 (if you work for it now), that you would consider friends who would give you valuable advice because they understand your job, have a lot of experience, view you as a professional and care about you as a human being?

Things changed for the worse, much worse, after the year 2000, the approximate birthdate of the translation industry 2.0, that places so much emphasis on “technology tools” such as Computer-Assisted Translation tools (CATs), nearly miraculous (to believe the industry propaganda machine) machine translation, and various other computer programs and tools including expansive databases containing thousands upon thousands of data about anonymous, faceless, far-flung translators called “vendors” in the newspeak of the translation industry 2.0.

There really is no place for highly educated and experienced translators, who regard themselves as professionals and experts in their own right, in the dog-eat-dog marketplace reality of the translation industry 2.0.

Which is why experienced translators were for the most part replaced by “vendors”, picked more or less from these bulging databases containing hundreds or thousands of entries describing the capabilities of newbies arranged mostly by how much (which is to say how little) they charge and what kind of discounts they are willing to offer on top of rock bottom rates for things like “full matches and fuzzy matches”, and whether they are willing to wait at least 60 days, preferably longer, to get paid for their work.

Uppity professional translators who expect to be paid sooner than in two or three months need not apply as far as translation industry 2.0 is concerned.

Considering that the new breed of movers and shakers in the translation industry 2.0 are monolingual entrepreneurs who know precious little about translation, if anything, the shift of emphasis from reliance on live, experienced professional translators to relying on young, inexperienced beginners and inanimate “tools” of modern technology put to work in the hands of newbies is not surprising.

It is therefore perfectly logical that one of the important goals of the movers and shakers in the translation industry 2.0 is to try to figure out how to make translators “more productive”, i.e. how to make them translate more words, which are typically used in the translation industry as units of production, per day.

The industry already achieved part of this urgent task more than a decade ago when it coerced new, inexperienced translators into using CATs, and Trados in particular, for every translation while promising gullible translators they would then be able to double, triple, or quadruple their output of production units called words and thus to increase their income commensurately.

Although poor naive translators might have thought they would be able to double, triple or quadruple their income in this manner, their rates are now lower than they used to be in the translation industry 1.0, lower by at least 30% compared to rates paid 20 years ago, because the opposite of what was promised happened thanks to cutthroat competition and also thanks to an ingenious invention of the industry called “fuzzy matches and full matches”.

The invention of the concept of “full and fuzzy matches” means that the most predatory segment of the translation industry now insists that some translated words are worth less money than others, and some translated words are simply not worth any money at all. The actual matching and assigning of zero value to translated words is to be done fairly and impartially by the CAT software prescribed for translators by the translation industry 2.0.

As George Orwell might put it, all words are created equal, but some words are more equal than others.

This dirty practice is of course nothing but a fairly successful attempt at wage theft, and therefore it is an illegal practice, although to my knowledge, no translators or associations of translators, who are supposed to be representing translators’ interests, have so far sued the predatory actors in the translation industry for this immoral and on its face absurd practice.

In addition to CATs, the two other major miracles of technology that vendors formerly known as translators are encouraged to use in order to “increase their productivity” are computer programs replacing keyboard input by voice input, and editing of machine translation to make it look like a real translation.

All the technology tools I am mentioning in my silly post today of course have their legitimate uses, in addition to the illegitimate ones, designed to put more money into the pockets of translation agency owners by deftly removing it from the pockets of already typically quite impecunious translators.

Some translators use these tools and they are able to profit from their use … unless they accept the Shylockian bargain of the translation industry 2.0 demanding discounts on top of discounts from poor translators, so that the exact number of the pounds of flesh to be extracted from them are dispassionately counted by a computer program.

CATs, and probably even Trados, can be very useful with highly repetitive translations … although not with the kind of translation that I specialize in. As a Chinese translator pointed out to me in one of his comments on my blog, his CAT makes it very easy to update printer manuals that he regularly translates from German to Chinese, and even though he is forced to allow a translation agency to count only certain segments as new words, he still makes plenty of money in this manner.

But the question is, should the final discount for such repetitive translations, which I think would be a perfectly legitimate practice, be determined by a software package wielded by a greedy translation agency, or should this discount be determined by the actual Chinese translator who is doing the work?

Speech recognition software programs, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, are another wonder of technology that is supposed to greatly facilitate our work and increase our translating speed. And I am sure that for some translators it does exactly that, especially for those who are already suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and thus can’t really use a keyboard without their hands hurting.

In the translation industry 2.0, speed is not the only thing … speed is everything!

I remember an interesting session at a IAPTI translator conference two years ago in Bordeaux, France, where a patent translator specializing in translation of Japanese patents into English was explaining the system he designed to maximize his daily word output.

In order to maximize his daily word output, this highly educated and highly capable and experienced translator (I remember that he graduated from Harvard) designed and manufactured a special vehicle that looks like a hammock on wheels, in which he can sit and dictate his patent translations into speech recognition software at breakneck speeds, while migrating between different rooms in his house, without having to use a keyboard or suffering from a sore back after many hours of sitting in not very comfortable positions while typing, as I do when I have to work for long hours on a rush translation.

I don’t remember the exact title of his presentation, but I think it was something like “How to make millions of dollars by translating”.

About 10 minutes into his presentation, which I found fascinating, the translator sitting in the chair next to mine leaned over and whispered in my ear “It’s clear to me already that I will not make millions dollars based on what I hear”. That was also my thought at that exact moment.

One problem with the translation industry 2.0 is that unlike the translation industry 1.0 (which fewer and fewer translators in the 2.0 version remember now because to a large extent, the translation industry 2.0 is able to use only inexpensive newbies), is that in the new, 2.0 paradigm, translators are not really considered people who have necessary limits to their endurance levels of physical and mental exertion and fatigue, which mere humans normally have.

The 2.0 model sees translators more or less in digital terms, as if they were no different than a useful app that can be downloaded from the internet, rather than individual humans who are made of flesh, blood and bones, and not zeroes and ones like computer applications.

If only the translation industry model 2.0 could turn human translators into a cool downloadable app, the industry’s business and profits would take off like wildfire! That’s why the 2.0 model is trying so hard to teach translators, newbies in particular, how to “increase their daily output” with tools such as CATS, machine translation, and voice input.

Alas, few newbies are likely to understand at this point that if they do manage to learn how to double their output, the industry will slash their compensation by 50% and keep the extra money for itself, as it did after the introduction of CATs by insisting on obligatory discounts for “fuzzy matches and full matches”.

Even most direct clients probably don’t realize that there is in fact a limit to how many words a human translator can produce per day without making too many mistakes, even if it is a good and experienced translator, or without creating complete garbage if it is an inexperienced newbie, the equivalent of typical cannon fodder for the translation industry 2.0.

Most translators would agree that the limit to how many words a translator can produce per day is around 3,000 words.

I believe this is a good average number of words that most translators can translate, including myself.

While a higher output than 3,000 words per day is on occasion possible for a highly experienced human translator in a familiar field (I have been able to translate up to 5,000 per day for a few days in a patent field that I know well, although never more than that), depending on the type of text and other factors, there is a pretty awful price that human translators must pay for a high speed.

And a speed that produces more than 3,000 words day after day is not sustainable for a long period of time, at least not in my case.

The price that humans pay in these cases that the 2.0 model does not pay any attention to are health problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, hemorrhoids, bleeding spots in eyes, high blood pressure from the high level of stress induced day after day by this kind of work, and other syndromes that over the long run are likely to put us in an early grave.

And don’t translators have the right to have a normal life, including being able to spend some time with their family and kids, for example?

Sometimes the client is under the gun and there is no other choice than to translate large amounts of text as quickly as possible. In these cases, I believe that we should try to do what needs to be done, regardless of the toll this kind of exploitation of humans called translators takes on us … but at a much higher rate than our normal rate. I usually add 50% to my usual rate if I work for a direct client.

Most of the time, the result is that the clients suddenly become much more flexible about the deadline. Sometime they do agree to the higher rate, in which case I just put my life on hold and do it, killing myself while going at it at about 5,000 words per day for a few days and trying to preserve my sanity by thinking about the pile of money I’ll make.

However, such a high rate is generally accepted only by direct clients. Translation agencies in the 2.0 model will generally only pay a couple of cents above the usual rate, if that, while they will of course try to double the rate they charge to their client.

As I wrote in another post years ago, since translators are generally paid by the word, our clients think that they are only paying us for the words that we have translated for them.

But the words are just a convenient counting device that is used instead of measuring the time, or the fleeting moments of our lives.

Our clients are not paying us for words.

They are paying us for precious moments of our lives that we will never get back.

Posted by: patenttranslator | August 10, 2017

The Market Prophets with Big Dollar and Euro Signs in Their Eyes

I have recently read a number of blog posts written by translators who live on three different continents about the rates being paid in the translation business nowadays to translators.

They all agree that there is a big difference between the rates paid to some translators and the rates paid to other translators that are easily at least ten times higher depending on which part of the translation market the translator works for.

Which I agree with too, of course. There is no such thing as a “going rate” for “a translation”. There are many, many different rates for translation, depending to a large extent on two important variables:

  1. What kind of translation it is – or the famous “specialized niche”.
  1. Who is paying for the translation – which mostly means whether the translator works for a broker, (although it also depends on what kind of broker), or whether a lucky translator has been able to attract direct clients who are willing and able to pay much higher rates, partly because there are no commissions to be paid to a broker.

What I do not agree with are the nearly astronomical translation rates per word that the prophets with big, golden, shiny dollar and euro signs in their eyes quote in their posts and podcasts as feasible. Twenty cents per word is ridiculously low, they say, 30 cents is not enough either, 50 cents might be enough, but not really because a dollar per word can be done too, unless one aims even higher, which one definitely should.

It is certainly possible that on occasion, a translator can demand and extort from a customer a very high rate when the poor customer is under the gun.

But how long is such a customer likely to patronize a very expensive translator? No translator has a monopoly on a certain type of translation, regardless of how smart and good he or she is, and unlike certain industries, such as private health insurance companies or drug manufacturers in the United States, translators are not able to create monopolies and cartels and operate like gangsters, the way private health insurance and the pharmaceutical industry operate in the United States.

A certain wunderkind by the name of Martin Shkrelli, who also goes by the moniker “pharma bro”, was recently in the news because he purchased the rights to an old but important medication and then jacked up its price by 5,000% from $13.50 to $750 per pill (this according to Scientific American).

This is what Big Pharma (whose ingenious business motto is “Your Money or Your Children’s Life”) has been doing for decades in the United States with the kind approval of both Democrats and Republicans – who could easily make this illegal. For those living in other countries who may not know this, the mighty US government does not even have the right to negotiate drug prices with drug manufacturers. The mighty US government simply has to accept the prices, dictated to it by Big Pharma, at which pharmaceuticals are sold to it, to be then distributed to tens of millions of people covered by medical insurance programs such as Medicare.

Something like that ought to be illegal of course, and it also ought to be the job of our politicians to make sure that this kind of shakedown is and stays illegal, but the Ds and the Rs won’t do anything about the murderous business model of the pharmaceutical industry because then they would lose the money that pharma bros are feeding them.

Our highly principled politicians want to retire in comfort as multi-millionaires – and who can blame them, right?

But there’s a right way to jack up prices of life-saving pharmaceuticals, and a wrong way to do it. The right way is to do it over a period of several years so that most patients don’t notice it – until their house is up for foreclosure.

Poor pharma bro Martin Shkrelli did it the wrong way – overnight, which gives a bad name to pharma big and small (if something like that is still possible).

But let’s come back from hedge fund managers and pharma bros to earth, to lowly translators and to their pitifully low rates in the real world.

As of right now, I have seven patents on my desk awaiting translation with an (estimated) total of 42,500 words and a firm deadline for completing the last one no later than 16 days from now.

This means that I will have to sit on my ass seven days a week in front of my computer and finish at least 2,700 words a day to make sure that I will indeed deliver the translations on time, no matter what. Some days I translate quite a few more words, but then again I have to spend long hours proofreading long patent translations, which means that the number above is only an obligatory daily minimum. Plus I also manage other projects done for me by other translators.

And there have been months, like the last one, when the daily minimum number of words to be translated by yours truly was about 3,500. But if the number goes higher than that, I have to turn the work down, although I still do accept work that I can subcontract to other translators.

(Some translations of new patent applications are so confidential that I am prevented by some of my customers from subcontracting them.)

I have been religiously practicing this form of self-flagellation, I mean working at this pace, for about a year now.

I am not going to disclose how much I charge per word on my blog, but I will say that I consider what I charge a good rate for me … while still a bargain rate for my customers.

If I could raise my rates by a few cents to 30 cents (so now you know that what I charge is less than 30 cents), or 50 cents, or even a dollar per word … hell, I would do it in a split second!

I would then probably be only able to work five days a week like normal people and instead of an old Mazda with 112,000 miles on it and an even older Chrysler Town & Country (old, but it still looks good and it is very spacious and comfortable and the mileage is ridiculously low because we mostly use it just to go to the supermarket), I would have a brand new Audi and a gleaming BMW SUV beast in my garage.

As I said, if I thought I could jack up my prices and retain all of my customers and keep gaining new ones, I would definitely do it.

But unlike the pharmaceutical companies and private health insurance rackets in this country, there is this awful thing called competition in the translation market in the real world that I live in and I just have to live with it.

I know that competition is alive and well in the market for translations because most of my clients, mostly smallish and medium sized patent law firms, ask for a cost estimate when they have a new translation for me. They need my cost estimate because they too have to get it approved first by their clients, which is how competition works in the patent translation market.

I always add about 50% to the cost I usually charge, but I only offer it as a higher priced option for rush translation, which means that I will set everything aside and rush translate a document in half the time that I would normally ask for with a regular turnaround time.

Sometimes I get lucky and get to charge the higher rate for basically the same work.

But not very often, which shows how sensitive my customers – and their customers – are to higher rates.

Despite what the translation market prophets with the shiny dollar and euro signs in their eyes say about high rates in “specialized upmarket niches”, and my “niche” is certainly both specialized and upmarket, translators in highly specialized fields too have to be mindful of their competition when they set their rates, even those of us who have been able to eliminate the middleman and thus are able to charge higher rates to direct customers.

We patent translators get to charge maybe up to 30 cents, if we’re lucky, on occasion, for rush work, when the customer is in a pinch.

But if we want to have a constant supply of work for a long period of time, we can’t even think of charging 50 cents a word or more as the prophets are telling us.

I myself have been wondering why these prophets keep saying that the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to rates for translation in specialized markets.

So I asked another translator for his opinion, someone who runs his business the same way that I have been running mine for the last two decades – he mostly translates himself, but he also occasionally subcontracts work to other translators when he works as an agency.

You know what he told me?

He said (summarized): Oh, well, they just want us to admire their genius and envy them.

I suspect he is not very far from the truth.

Here are a few completely useless but generally harmless and enjoyable activities I highly recommend because they will instantly make you feel better about yourself:

  1. Deleting a bunch of files on the hard disk.

Deleting files can be so addictive!

I try not to delete too many files that I think are now irrelevant and useless … because how can I possibly know for sure which ones I will never use again? Plus there is so much space on the hard disk for word-processing files that it does not really make a whole lot of sense to keep deleting files that may or may not be needed again.

But every time I liquidate files it feels so good that next time when I feel lonely and unappreciated, which, sadly, is most days, I just go ahead and delete me a bunch of files again.

It’s an even better mood booster if I delete a bunch of files from a removable storage medium, i.e. a thumb drive, because unlike on the hard disk, the space on the thumb drive is in fact quite limited.

  1. Checking out spam emails at frequent intervals, generally at least every ten minutes.

 This is a very popular pastime for people who work in isolation on a computer and who need to come up with something to break the tediousness of the current moment of their hopelessly boring and uninteresting life. Even if we receive a somewhat important email a few times a day, it would clearly be sufficient to check email every few hours, or definitely no more than  every hour or so.

But it is so satisfying to find out every few minutes that no important message is awaiting me! This knowledge gives me an important boost because it feels like I am doing something productive, even though the more I do it, the more I am wasting my time.

But who cares?

Deleting unnecessary emails every few minutes makes me feel like I am doing something useful and important, which results in a feeling of elation that I can induce in this manner without having to resort to alcohol or legal or illegal drugs to feel good about myself.

  1. Checking emails not just on one, but on a plurality of different computers to have backups of emails one will most likely never need again.

Most emails that people receive these days (something like 99% of emails that 99% of people receive), are unsolicited garbage from spammers who send unsolicited garbage and viruses to people who might be careless and/or dumb enough to open such emails.

On the other hand, how can we possibly know how many legitimate, non-spam emails that were received today could be crucially important for us a year or two from now?

To play it safe, the best solution is to download emails that look like they kind of might be important at some point in the future to at least one desktop and at least one laptop (the more the better).

Even if for instance my house is destroyed in a hurricane, earthquake, or goes up in smoke as a result of an armed insurrection, one of the machines might survive the devastation, with all important emails preserved and intact.

This of course means that I have to keep deleting stupid and malicious emails from several machines many times every day to make sure that I will be able to find the important, preserved emails a year or two from now.

But this time-consuming and somewhat frantic activity also makes me feel so productive that I feel it’s totally worth multiplying it via several computers and highly recommend this frantic activity as one of my favorite productivity and self-esteem boosters.

  1. Keeping detailed records of all requests for price quotes, including those to which I know I should not even bother responding.

I suppose I could just send a price quote when somebody who looks like a serious potential customer sends me a request to quote a price for something, such as a patent translation, and then forget about it if there is no response.

Especially if the potential customer only has a hotmail address and lives in China or India, I know I should probably not even bother responding. I must have received hundreds of these over the years from Chindia, but I have never actually received a single job from them, even when I used to respond to these somewhat frivolous requests years ago.

So I no longer respond to requests from Chindia (because I know I’m way too expensive for those guys), but I still keep a record of each request, regardless of the origin of such request.

Otherwise, I would feel that I’d behaved like a damn racist if I completely ignored people who live in developing countries. It’s not their fault they can’t afford my expert services, is it?

The fact that I take these people seriously enough to keep a record of them makes me feel better about myself, and that is important to me. 

  1. Constantly checking the bank balances of all of my accounts every day.

I have two business bank accounts, a joint checking account (with my wife – so I can put money in it and she can take it out), and a PayPal account, which is a total of four accounts whose balances I generally know. But still, the good thing is that I can keep checking them at least once a day when I get bored working on my computer.

Since I am also already on Social Security, I can also check when exactly the next wire transfer is scheduled, as well as the amount I can expect.

The actual amount does not change because the government determined that there is no inflation (according to the US government there has been no inflation in this country for quite a while, at least when it comes to paying out Social Security to old folks who are on a fixed income.)

But the actual date changes because the wire transfer is made every second Tuesday rather than on a certain date, which gives me the opportunity to ascertain the actual date for the incoming wire from the US government as many times as I want to.

It is so satisfying to know that the money will be in my account on the 9th rather than on the 14th because the third Wednesday falls on the 9th this month!

I think I need to buy some stock, even if it is just a few shares, as long as they fluctuate in price, so that I can keep checking what is going on with my investment!

Most people who waste time every day on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and other popular social media platforms might not know that there are so many other creative ways to waste time for those of us who waste our lives, working or pretending to be working while sitting in front of a computer.

My hope is that my post today will give my blog readers some food for thought, and perhaps also a pointer or two that will result in inspiration leading to further creative and highly satisfying activities for which no social media platforms are needed.

We don’t need no stinkin’ Facebook!

There are a wealth of generally useless but highly enjoyable activities that one can engage in while sitting in front of a computer as important managerial activities that have the power to instantly make us feel important and good about ourselves.


Posted by: patenttranslator | July 21, 2017

The LSP Model and the Anti-LSP Model

Despite two decades of ferocious attacks by the translation industry on our profession, there are many of us who do not subscribe to the corporate mass-production model laid out for us by the translation industry. We refuse to work for it and instead are doing our own thing, independently of and differently from LSPs (also known as Language Service Providers, or Lame Service Providers).

I am going to call the non-LSP model the anti-LSP model and practitioners of this model anti-LSPers in my post today.

I don’t think it’s even debatable that most of us anti-LSPers are much better off, financially, emotionally and otherwise, than translators who obediently serve the LSP model and long ago gave up on the dream that is at the heart of every small business: the dream of becoming an independent, professional specialist who is free to pick his own customers and to determine rates and conditions under which he is willing to work, instead of capitulating to the translation industry and just doing as he’s told.

The financial aspects of what we do for a living, although they are not everything, are kind of important in this world too, wouldn’t you agree? As Woody Allen put it, “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”

Based on what I hear, the anti-LSPers among us are doing quite well. Not all of the time of course, but more than just some of the time.

I have friends who translate various languages and subjects, who live in different countries and who almost never (or never) work for corporate translation agencies, or for the LSP model.

When I hear from translators who are working for direct clients, I mostly hear them complain in person or on social media that they are too busy and find it difficult to keep up with the demand. I certainly have this problem myself as I am currently forcing myself to work seven days a week and hardly have time for anything else.

When translators who work for the corporate translation industry’s LSP model are complaining, sometimes I do hear them complaining about too much work too, but mostly they are commiserating with each other about low rates, unreasonable demands on their time, and translation agencies (LSPs) disappearing without payment, only to appear later under a different name.

From a historical perspective, the LSP model is quite recent. It was created as a result of technology and globalization about two decades ago, while the translator-direct client system has been around for millennia.

What I am today calling in my silly post the anti-LSP model in fact has a very long tradition behind it.  St. Jerome for example, the patron saint of our profession when it was still considered a real profession, (before the LSP models started calling us translators “vendors”), worked as a freelance translator 16 centuries ago for approximately 30 years on his translation of most of the Bible from several languages into Latin for only one direct client, namely the Pope.

As there was no internet in St. Jerome’s times (not even fax machines!), he had to deliver his translations to the Pope in person, although it is possible that he had friends who were helping him with timely delivery, unless he saw the walking as a welcome break from his sedentary and solitary profession, which is likely, I think.

Did St. Jerome work for a medieval intermediary, an equivalent of a modern corporate LSP? I don’t know the history of the Middle Ages that well, but I sincerely doubt it. Most translators probably worked directly for their clients in the dark and backward Middle Ages when money was not yet speech and corporations were not yet persons … when in fact there were no corporations yet.

And we still have anti-LSPs in our enlightened modern times, although the LSP model is also very common, and some translators may even think that it’s the only game in town.

So how does the modern LSP model work, and how is it different from historical and current anti-LSP models? The LSP model is a system that is quite efficient at what it does – namely creating large numbers of translated words in a relatively short period of time based on a strict division of labor.

This is how the LSP model works:

  1. Owners of the LSP system are almost always thoroughly, proudly and defiantly monolingual people (especially in English speaking countries), who specialize in the fine science of buying low and selling high, or at least in buying as low as possible and selling a little higher. The great majority of the LSP owners actually don’t understand anything about “translation” per se and they therefore logically see very little difference between the division of labor at a McDonald’s franchise, for example, and at the new type of translation agency called an LSP – let’s not forget that large LSPs are also franchised now, just like fast food restaurants.
  1. Employees or freelancers working for the owners of the LSP model, usually called project managers, who sometimes know something about foreign languages, but usually very little and almost always absolutely nothing about the languages they are handling. In their defense, this is really not their fault because they are asked by their monolingual employers to handle any language, something that not even St. Jerome himself could do. These workers could also be described in the pyramid of workers supporting the LSP model as managers or overseers of the actual workers, who are called:
  1. Translators, namely the people who, although they are in fact generating all of the profit for the owners of the LSP model, and thus also paying the mostly meager salaries of managers or overseers employed in the LSP model, are at the very bottom of the system and typically have absolutely no say about anything.

The image of plantation slaves working on cotton fields somehow always comes to mind when I think about the role of translators in the LSP system.

Although a system with this kind of division of labor and separation and segregation of work and workers makes sense up to a point in the environment of a fast food restaurant, the system clearly does not work in the context of translation business.

The LSP systems works quite well when it comes to generating large amounts of texts with many words in a short period of time.

But the Achilles heel of the system is that it is designed in such a way that the people running the systems (LSP owners and managers employed by them), can’t tell whether the large amounts of texts with the many words generated by the worker bees called translators are translated accurately, reasonably well, or mostly incorrectly.

The system cannot work as well as a fast food franchise because unlike flipping of burgers at a fast food chain, translation represents a highly knowledge-intensive labor that cannot be divided into a few simple, interchangeable steps (such as making fries and flipping burgers), and then distributed efficiently among several or many far-flung translators toiling in respective countries on different continents.

Although this feature is precisely what the translation industry is very proud of and likes to boast about on LSP websites, I think that Pope Damasus II would have clearly recognized even 16 centuries ago that this would be an unrealistic way to go about to get long translations done when quality is paramount, as was the case with the first translation of Bible scriptures into Latin.

Why else would the Pope give St. Jerome 30 years to finish one job, when he could probably have found five St. Jeromes in and around Rome, parceled the job out to them and then have had the Bible translation done in six years, especially since what is now called the Bible was written in several different languages?

Another reason (in addition to the need for speed to keep customers happy) why the LSP system does not work very well is that translators are completely powerless in a system in which all decisions are made by people at the top, i.e. owners and managers who are not translators and who often know very little or nothing about translation.

Whether the creators of the LSP model realize it or not, the model they created, with its emphasis on maximum speed and the lowest possible cost of a production unit called a word unfailingly keeps generating lower and lower quality final products, frequently resulting in what is referred to with the technical term “total crap” or by the acronym “FUBAR”.

The final product created by this system does consist of production units called “words”, but the final product that is actually desired by the customer is not the same thing as the maximum number of words that can be created in record time at the lowest cost of the production unit.

Based on the LSP model, a larger, possibly somewhat urgent project – although who knows whether the project really is urgent, or whether the urgency is the result of a somewhat capricious decision of a mid-level manager in a widget-making factory – is typically organized by an LSP coordinator in the following fashion:

An LSP model project manager who needs to have several long documents translated on a very short deadline, (which is often completely unrealistic), dips into a database of translators conveniently available for example on the Proz or the ATA website and fires off an impersonal email to a dozen or more translators, such as the following email that I received a few days ago, as I am listed in the ATA translator database.

“Dear Translators

 Would you please confirm how many words you could take on from the attached?

Word count: see file overview

Deadline: 10 am, 2 days from now.

Thank you!

 Natasha P., Just Another LSP, United Kingdom.”

Natasha included for my convenience several files for translation in four attachments in PDF and Excel files. I took a quick look at the files and saw that there were many thousands of words to be translated per each file. I should add that I received the email one day before a major holiday in the United States.

I wonder whether Natasha realized that 10 AM in the UK is 4 AM on the East Coast and  1 AM on the West Coast of the American continent, which means that each of the translators that she “reached out to” (that’s how project managers in the LSP model like to put it because it sounds so dramatic!) in the United States would in fact only have about one day to translate thousands upon thousands of words during a major holiday when most people naturally want to be with their families.

Maybe not, because why would she set such an impossible deadline for delivery? Or maybe she simply not give a damn, which seems to be more likely.

But this is the way the LSP model works. Little details like this are completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of the LSP model. And if Natasha sent the same email to Japanese translators (this was a translation of medical documents from Japanese to English) who live in Europe, the United States, as well as in Japan, Canada and Australia too, how could poor Natasha possibly know which country has a holiday on any given day?

Did Natasha get the job done, I wonder? She probably did. There are so many translating worker bees in this world and they all need work, so they’ll just grab as big a piece of a job as they think they can handle and these worker bees in the end will get the job done, by hook or crook.

As I said already, the LSP model is very good at generating large numbers of words in a record period of time.

I used to be happy grabbing as many thousands of words as I could handle when times were slow while working for the LSP model myself for many years. There were so many bills to pay, I felt I had no choice.

Fortunately, eventually I did work my way up to being a practitioner of the anti-LSP model, and although this model also has its disadvantages, I am much, much happier as an anti-LSPer, and not only because I make quite a bit more money than the worker bees trapped in the LSP model.

I believe that now is a very good time for other translators to enter the translation market as anti-LSPers simply because the LSP model creates so much crap that direct clients are actively looking for alternatives to the FUBAR products that are so typical of the LSP model.

Although I did not realize it or give a name to it then, the anti-LSP model was the concept on which I instinctively based my small translation enterprise by trying to identify my own direct clients, which in my case are mostly patent law firms, starting about 20 years ago.

The fact that after so many years this little anti-LSPer is still here and busier than ever, while completely bypassing the LSP model, indicates to me that the anti-LSP model is based on a sound concept. I also think that, unlike the LSP model which aims to maximize profit at all cost by generating as many words in the shortest possible time, the anti-LSP model is applicable not just to patent translation, but to just about any field of specialized knowledge where expert translations of highly experienced translators are sought after, frequently required and reimbursed in accordance with their perceived value.

It is so much more fun working for the anti-LSP model, which is to say working for yourself. You still get to translate, and you can get much better rates than what you can hope to receive from the modern LSP model.

Are you happy in the LSP model?

If not, may I suggest that you concentrate on creating your own version of your own anti-LSP model that will work better for you?

Are your direct clients going to find you and are you going to find them?

I certainly hope so.

Good luck to you.

My obsession with mystery novels started when I was 16.

My sister had a friend, a sweet, chubby girl named Marcela, whose mother was addicted to mystery novels. Addictions were generally much more benign half a century ago than they are now in our modern, addiction-riddled society, especially in the little backwater town where I lived, behind the Iron Curtain.

Although Marcela and her mother, (there was no father, I was told), lived in an apartment less than 100 meters from our place on the same town square dominated by a big plague column surrounded by a fountain in the middle of the little medieval town of Český Krumlov in Southern Bohemia, I was too shy to visit them despite my sister’s frequent exhortations. (For those who don’t know, plague columns were built in Middle Ages in many towns in Central Europe to thank God for ending plague epidemic.)

Come to think of it, I was probably too scared to be alone in an apartment with three women for an extended period of time. It sounds a little intimidating even now.

So anyway, when Marcela’s mother, who I never met, found out from my sister that I liked to read, she started sending me books from her extensive collection of mystery novels. Every time my sister returned after a visit to Marcela’s place, she would bring new books for me to read and return the ones I had finished reading.

Marcela’s mother had a subscription to something called “Edice Smaragd (The Emerald Edition), a series of famous mystery novels, all of which were printed on special emerald-green paper – a revolutionary concept I found fascinating. The green color itself was the promise of an interesting mystery to be solved at the end of every book, a promise that, unlike most other promises, was never broken.

The special edition included some books by Czech writers. I remember for example “Smutek poručíka Borůvky (The Sadness of Lieutenant Borůvka) by Josef Škvorecký, but most of the books were translations from other languages: English (Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton), Dutch (Jan de Hartog), and French (George Simenon), among other writers of mystery novels in various languages.

My fondness for mystery novels has never really left me. One of the first things I did after I moved to Japan in the mid eighties was buy a mystery novel in Japanese in a bookstore in Chiyoda-ku near Tokyo’s Central Railway Station and read it.

After I returned to California, I continued buying mystery novels (always on sale), and I still do here in Virginia, although this time only with books in English. I don’t like to borrow books from the library, nor do I enjoy reading them on my tablet. I tried it, but it didn’t work for me. You could say that the pages of a book have the power to touch me only if I can touch them too.

Somehow, with tablets, PDF files and other intangibles, I have the impression that my feelings are not reciprocated, unlike with pages that let me touch them.

My house is full of books now—at least half of them mystery novels—so many of them that when I move next time, which will probably be quite soon, I will have to get rid of most of them, even if it breaks my heart.

Still, we hoarders of books have an easier life than hoarders of cats and dogs. We don’t have to buy food for our books, nor do we have to walk them, they don’t bark, don’t piss on the carpet when they get mad at us, and if we simply decide to dump them because we need to move and don’t have the space for all of them anymore, they don’t really mind.

At least I hope they don’t mind.

But enough talking about me and my obsession with mystery novels. Let’s talk instead about me and my obsession with patents.

What do patents have in common with mystery novels?

At first glance, nothing. But appearances can be deceiving. I see many interesting similarities.

Unlike other types of technical translation (device or software manuals, for example), every patent is a story with a beginning, main theme, and an end, and sometimes the story is as touching as a country music song.

Just like the authors of mystery novels, patent application authors work in an environment based on certain rules that must be adhered to. In a mystery novel, the rules can sometimes be broken in a creative manner, for example when the author identifies the murderer in the first few pages. But it hardly ever happens because that is not what readers want or expect.

Just like readers of mystery novels expect the novel to be guided by specific rules, national patent offices in different countries expect patent applications to be based on specific rules.

The application starts with a description of existing technology, usually called prior art, the problems with existing technology (and there are always so many problems with it, none of it is basically any good!), and how the new patent is going to improve the old technology, usually by saving us all a ton of money, improving the environment, and generally making this world a better place to live in!

Then there are patent claims that are supposed to specify exactly what these new improvements are and how they work. In Japanese and Chinese patents, the patent applications start with claims; in European patents, the claims are at the end.

Placing claims at the end of the document makes much more sense from the viewpoint of a patent translator (or just about anybody else) because claims are often written in such impenetrable language that one can understand them only after all of the concepts have become clear from the previous text, and all the equivalent terms in a different language, English in my case, have been identified.

The claims are sometimes harder to figure out than a really complicated whodunnit especially with patent claims in languages that use a very different word order than English and place the verb at the end of a very long sentence. While in English the verb comes just after the subject, the verb is at the end of the sentence in German and Japanese.

Patent claims also often contain what in mysteries is called a ‘red herring’ – false clues that writers of mystery novels use to distract readers, confuse them and send them in the wrong direction.

The red herrings in patent writing are anticipatory, all-encompassing definitions of practical examples called ‘embodiments’ that include for example ridiculous ranges of boiling points, melting points, temperatures, angles, materials and constituents, components and just about anything else. The ranges and many different possibilities are intended to cover the next potential inventions in which for example only a boiling point of a certain chemical is changed by one or two degrees in comparison to existing technology.

I am not kidding. At one point I was translating dozens of Japanese patents and articles dealing with pharmaceuticals, on and off for more than a year, where my client was mostly interested in one thing and one thing only: the boiling point of the chemicals.

So a really good patent application writer needs to fill the patent with a number of red herrings that would make it possible to claim a few months or years later, when somebody comes up with another minute improvement, that this improvement has already been covered by a previous patent, and therefore the new patent should not have been granted, or that it must be invalidated if it has already been granted.

And if the patent is not valid, there is of course no need to pay royalties to the owner of the patent.

Part of the fun of reading mystery novels or patents is looking for red herrings in mysteries and their equivalents in patent applications.

Patent translation is not for beginners. But if you already are a fairly experienced translator, possibly a technical translator who is staying away from patents because they have a reputation for being difficult, you may want to give patent translation a try.

Start with something simple – a patent that one can clearly understand right away, because those exist too. This is in fact the only way to find out whether you are patent translator material.

If you happen to be somebody who enjoys well-written mystery novels, you might be able to add patent sleuthing and translation of  patents from foreign languages as one of your valuable skills.

The problem with mystery novels is that, unfortunately, nobody pays us for reading them, while on the other hand, patent translation tends to pay a little bit better than most other types of translation.

No matter how enjoyable mystery novels are, in this respect, patent translation clearly beats reading mystery novels.

“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

– George Orwell

“This is a man’s world”, sang James Brown in one of his songs filled with honesty and emotion back in the sixties.

If he were still alive today, he might write a song with the title “This is a fake world”, because we are now so surrounded by a fake reality that it is almost impossible to tell real from unreal.

My caller ID displays completely fake, made up names of people who don’t exist. The phone numbers sometimes begin with an area code from right here in Virginia, but that does not mean the caller really is calling from Virginia because all you have to do is to pick a phone number for any area in any country with a desired area code on the internet.

The result is that we no longer answer our phone when it rings. At least I don’t, unless I recognize the caller’s name and number.

I even hesitate to describe the people behind telephone marketing scams as callers. Scammers would be a more accurate description – why would they use a phony name and number, if it is not a scam?

Although there are real persons hiding somewhere behind a computer program who are somehow connected to a fake name and phone number, we are now being called by computer programs instead of by real persons – computer programs designed to call dozens or hundreds of people at the same time because the telemarketing peddlers of whatever it is they are peddling know that most people do the same thing I do: they only answer the phone if they recognize the name and number as legitimate.

My email inbox is filled with fake messages sent by other computer programs under more fake names. This morning I scrolled through 83 emails from email marketers before I found an answer to an email I sent yesterday to a translator.

The answer was there – I saw that she did accept the translation, but only after wading through all the deceptive junk. I need to figure out how to switch to a new email from my current one, the one that I have been using for the last 17 years, without losing contact with people who still use that email. Since I try to delete the spam as soon as possible, sometimes I inadvertently delete important messages without realizing it, and sometimes, important message are routed to the spam folder automatically by my anti-virus software.

This is something that must be happening to millions or hundreds of millions of people every day in a world that is almost completely fake. Young people don’t seem to use email much anymore, and most of them don’t have a landline either. My sons for example almost never email me, they use apps (app me?) instead.

Among the fake emails and marketing emails that I receive constantly, some of them asking me to click on a file with a virus hidden in it, are also marketing emails from translators sending me their résumés in the hope that I will send them some work.

Some of them may be sent by real people – usually people who have no skills and no experience in the kind of work that I do, but some of them are résumés of translators who seem to have real skills and experience.

But here again, there is a minor problem – they were stolen from real translators by predatory outfits created by people who live in Gaza, or maybe Hyderabad or Chisinau.

I was introduced to the concept of stolen identities two years ago in an interesting presentation of a speaker who was showing us samples of stolen résumés at a IAPTI conference two years ago in Bordeaux, France.

“This guy here”, said the speaker, “is a real person, he really is a translator, and he really has a PhD in nuclear physics”.

“But the person in this résumé does not exist because, although it originally was the résumé of a real person, it was stolen from a real translator and modified slightly, usually so that only contact information, such as an email address, was changed”.

Hijacking résumés of real translators of course already has a long tradition in the translation industry. Translation agencies, who now prefer to be called be “LSPs” (Language Services Providers) because it sounds as if they themselves are providing the language services, and not translators, have been soliciting résumés of experienced and well established translators for at least two decades to use them for their own purposes, usually to deceive their customers and make them believe that the people who translate their documents are educated, experienced and well qualified translators, and not the cheapest warm bodies listed among another 3,500 warm bodies in the agency’s database (although some of them are probably dead already).

I remember that about 15 years ago, I stupidly sent my own résumé and a copy of my diploma to an agency in the UK that was bidding on a big project and needed translators like me.

I never heard from them again, of course. Maybe they didn’t get the job, but even if they did land a major project, the résumés they solicit are used only for the bidding part and the job is then parceled out to much cheaper translators who may not be very qualified, but are cheap enough for the translation industry.

I never did it again. It is not a good idea to send information like that to people I don’t know.

The résumés that I delete daily from my spam folder are probably real if they are written clearly by people who have no relevant experienced (from my viewpoint), and if they seem to be from experienced and capable translators, lowering the chances that they have been stolen for nefarious purposes by outfits operating as “back offices” of the translation industry from low-wage countries.

In a world where everything is a lie, to tell the truth is a revolutionary act, as George Orwell put it.

In this world, even the relatively new means of communication that used to work for quite a few years, such as telephone and email, have been compromised to such an extent that we can’t trust them anymore.

The best and possibly only way to find a good translator now is to completely ignore these compromised means of communication and rely instead on what people have been relying on for centuries – recommendations from friends and people we know.

Nothing else can be trusted.


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