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.



 About me

Over more than twenty years as a freelancer and a few extra years as an in-house translator with clients and agencies, I have translated and edited more than twenty million words in the fields of oil & gas, energy, legal, and IP from Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German into English. Originally from the backwoods of Salzburg, Austria, I now reside in Querétaro, Mexico, after many years in San Francisco, California and a short stint in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Whenever I am not translating, I like to take off to explore the more remote corners of the world.

Albert Rieger – Allingua Expert Translations & Language Consulting
Spanish – Portuguese – French – German
Querétaro, México

Have CAT tools had an impact on the overall pay of translators? Certainly, in case one blindly accepted the oversimplified rationale of the new agency model of full vs. fuzzy matches. Did they impact rates per se? I don’t think so.

At the same time, I am quite certain that computer-assisted translation tools did have a great impact on the earning potential of translators because CAT tools are just so symptomatic of what Steve routinely calls the “new agency model” or what I refer to as the “industrialization” of the business of translation.

I still do remember the times when translation agencies/firms were usually run by people who were either translators themselves, or non-translators who still had some foreign language background, or at the very least people who had more than just a superficial appreciation for what translators actually did or what translation actually involved. In other words, people who were aware of the “qualitative” aspects of translation.

Those were the days when I first moved to the States, and as a German speaker, what immediately struck me as sort of odd was the fact that the term Branche, as in Übersetzungsbranche, would be rendered as “industry” in English, as in “translation industry”, even back then. A business, yes, I thought by myself, but there was clearly nothing industrial about the activity, in my mind. This was nothing like car manufacturing or steel production, I mused. But hey…

But if the translation industry wasn’t an “industry” per se back then, it did not take a long time to become one in the truest sense of the word. Now, it’s an entirely different ballgame. By now, the “translation industry”, at least the mega-agency part of it, is run by people who don’t seem to have the slightest clue about translation, about translators, to say nothing of having any background in foreign languages. Needless to say, they would not know a thing about the “quality” of translation, and truth be told, they could not care less. Seems like this new corporate CAT/MT universe is entirely populated by business people, software engineers, mathematicians, and whoever not… anything but language professionals or, God forbid, actual translators.

And while there weren’t any industrialists in the good old days, there sure is no shortage right now.

And what these self-anointed translation industry leaders all do care about are the “quantitative” aspects of translation, which is really the only relevant aspect when it comes to “selling high and buying low”. With this mindset, it is really the only thing they can care about, even if they really wanted to care about anything else. The pressure of shareholders certainly doesn’t help, either.

So, for the quantity aficionados, things are actually very simple: a text is nothing more than a quantity of “translation segments”, which can be stored and then recycled as necessary. For them, the fact that a translation segment is already in memory simply means that it doesn’t have to be translated anymore, it just needs to be inserted, and voilà, that’s not translation, right, so why should the translator be paid a second time? And if something similar has been translated, well, according to this logic, that’s a “fuzzy match”, which should not be paid in full, because, in their non-translator world, it does not require the same translation effort as a full match. Simple as that.

When I am talking about the loss of quality, I am not only just talking about the aspect of whether a translation is good or bad. I am also referring to aspects which greatly affect how long it takes a translator to properly translate something… like extensive formatting, readability of the text, or translatable text interspersed with non-translatable English text which needs to be reproduced, anyway, or pre-translated elements which may or may not be correct in a new context. For the new breed of agencies, unless they are “translatable units”, none of these qualities or elements seem to matter… at least not when it comes to payment to the translator who has to deal with them.

For the translation industrialists, there are also no longer any words with shades of meaning and register, just “units”. Just like there are no translators, just “vendors”. I have yet to be actually called a “translation unit vendor” by any of them, but I know the time can’t be far off.

And with their extremely near-sighted view (if one can even call it “view”) of what translation actually is – for them, this simply means an assembly-line production of translation units, which unfortunately still requires translators as some sort of at best semi-skilled labor, hopefully to be rendered obsolete in the very near future – it should not really comes as a surprise to any of us that they have been pushing very hard to impose this concept of theirs, not only as the best one, but as the only viable one, really.

Nor should it come as a surprise that the ones they have been able to convince of this outlandish statement are mostly newbie translators who simply do not know any better, who believe that “CAT tools are the norm now”, which is a myth the new agency model is all too happy to perpetuate ad nauseam, despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.

Whenever agencies ask me why I don’t use CAT tools, I personally always respond the following, in this order:

  1. Stability issues with CAT tools: I am not looking forward to unexpected software conflicts and computer crashes with CAT tools, which have been very well documented, so by not using them, I avoid the risk of being unable to complete a project on time, which is paramount for me.
  2. Based on many years of experience and actual try-outs of different CAT tools, they offer no time savings for me for the kinds of projects I usually work on.
  3. Through “segmentation”, they interfere with my personal “creative flow” when translating and actually decrease both my translation output and quality.

All of these caveats actually do reflect my real-life experience with CAT tools, so it’s not like I did not try. And it’s not like I am making things up.

Curiously and fortunately, after mentioning these shortfalls to agencies, I have never had any agency probe any deeper into any additional reasons and motivations I might have, so I never had to mention the other serious concerns I have about CAT tools. It is probably a good thing that they don’t really know what projects CAT tools are actually helpful with and for which ones they are a waste of time (my point 2) and what the creative process of a living and breathing translator actually entails (my point 3). Something like that would require some knowledge of how a translator ticks, and that is simply not something which characterizes the new agencies.

In summary: CAT tools may have directly cut down on translator’s earnings in some cases and not in others.  But that’s not the whole story, and certainly not the most significant one.

I do believe that, indirectly, but much more significantly, CAT tools have certainly had an adverse impact on translator pay because, rather than being used to enhance the productivity, consistency, and thus the income of translators, which is how they were initially marketed to translators, they were quickly hijacked by the emerging corporate LSP model to line the pockets of a new breed of translation business operators (almost exclusively non-translators) and their shareholders for which only “quantitative” aspects of translation exist to the exclusion of any “qualitative” issues.

And while translators were and are still debating the pros and cons of CAT tools under different scenarios and circumstances, CAT tools immediately made perfect sense to the new operators: segments which had already been translated did not need to be retranslated, regardless of how inaccurate or outright wrong they were in any given context, period. More crucially, they did not need to be paid again, under any circumstances, and similar translations did at least not have be paid in full. And as long as this new business model could be strictly imposed on translators, or most of them, there was almost unlimited potential for increasing profits… those of agencies, mind you, not those of translators.

Keeping this in mind, I firmly believe that CAT tools were the actual killer application for the emergence of the new agency model, just like Lotus 1.2.3. and WordStar were the killer apps for the IBM PC. And in the process, everything else that was incompatible with this approach was stripped from the translation process, and the art of translation was downsized to a mere production of “translation units”, something that could simply be measured and then hopefully be multiplied, at best ad infinitum and into ever greater riches.

Unfortunately, as “killer” as CAT tools might have seemed in the beginning to translators, especially the way they were presented to them by CAT tool vendors, I can see that it is just now that many translators start realizing who is making a killing… and who is getting killed.

And that is something that has impacted all of us, whether we are actually using CAT tools or not.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 19, 2017

What Is the Proper Etiquette for Using Posts of Other Bloggers?

Is there a proper etiquette for using posts of other bloggers?

And what are the rules for translating online articles and blog posts and using them as examples for university courses? It seems there are no rules for something like that.

Shouldn’t there be a proper etiquette for profiting from somebody else’s intellectual activity? Some people, university teachers, for example, don’t seem to think so.

I was originally trained as a language teacher, first for Latin, and later for English and Japanese after I defected to modern languages. I have always earned a living by translating and interpreting several languages, but have never actually had the pleasure of teaching languages, except to individual students for pocket money when I was living in Prague as a carefree lad in my twenties.

So far I have never received a penny for my hundreds of articles and posts, most of them on various issues relating to human and machine translation, compensation of translators (or the lack thereof) and related subjects that I have been writing about over the last two decades in a number of publications, both on paper (Translorial, New York Circle of Translators, ATA Chronicle), and online (Translation Journal, and finally my silly blog).

I like to spend my time in this manner because I enjoy the feeling when my creative juices are flowing, and also because I want to have some impact, even if a very limited one, on my chosen profession and on what for lack of a better term is called the translation industry.

I thought that since I was writing articles without any monetary compensation – my only compensation is when a post gets a lot of views – my articles belonged to me and nobody could appropriate them for themselves, for example for money-making purposes.

But about 10 years ago, I found out from a phone call that some of the articles I had been writing for many years and for many publications, both online and on dead tree media, were being used for teaching language students at universities.

The phone call was from a young woman who told me that one of my articles was used by somebody at the University of New York in courses taught to students. She was one of these students at NYU who had recently graduated with a degree in French language and because she lived in the same city in Virginia as I did, namely Chesapeake, she wanted to meet me.

I don’t remember what the article was about, perhaps it was about machine translation. I only remember that it was one of several articles that I wrote for Gabe Bokor’s Translation Journal over a period of several years before I started writing my own blog.

So we met at a Starbucks near my house and decided to start a translators’ group in Chesapeake, and although the young woman eventually got a job in France and moved there, the idea of a translators’ group in Eastern Virginia survived when another young woman interested in languages somehow found out about me, probably from my articles online because this was before I had my blog, and contacted me to start a local translators’ group through the Meetup app.

Incidentally, this was the same person who told me that I should start writing a blog. Without her, who knows whether you would be wasting your time reading these lines now?

That group met here regularly for several years until this person, who was from Germany and lived in the US for only a few years, moved back to Germany.

Of course it is a major ego boost for me when a pretty girl, at least three decades younger than Mad Patent Translator, calls me and wants to meet at Starbucks (because I am such an interesting person!)

The timing is a little off – it would have been a much more appreciated side benefit for me a few decades ago when I was young and single, but what can you do. There was no internet then anyway, the only thing we had back then were … blind dates.

Another ego boost for me is when my silly posts are translated by bloggers who want to post them on their own blogs in their languages.

This has also happened to me quite a few times and my posts have been translated into at least half a dozen languages, including several times into Russian, Spanish and Portuguese. I seem to remember that there were also some translations into Arabic and Chinese.

The posts that were most frequently translated were a series of posts in which I explained the difference between real translators, subprime translators, and zombie translators, and the one about a translator’s disease that I call translator’s dementia – a very popular post a few years ago.

The more I make fun of translators in a post, the more popular the post usually is. Unlike interpreters, translators seem to be a forgiving bunch in this respect. But based on my experience, it’s not a very good idea to make fun of interpreters.

Here again, although of course I like it when people want to translate what I have written into another language, I don’t understand how they can do it without getting my permission first, or at least letting me know about it, preferably in advance.

Since even these rude translators generally always identify the author and include a link to the original post, which is how it should be, I eventually find out about the translation when the link appears on my WordPress dashboard. Some people ask for permission in advance, which is always granted, and then they send me a link to their translation.

That is in my opinion the proper etiquette, and I appreciate it when people do that.

But some translators simply ignore me as if I were dead already, as one Russian translator did last week when she translated an older post of mine and put it on her blog for other translators to comment on it.

Well, I’m not dead yet and it so happens that I read Russian! I consider this kind of behavior churlish and uncivilized, and I naturally have the same opinion of the people who do that.

I think that the New York University professor who was or still is using my blog posts, or the blog posts and online articles of other translators to teach classes to budding translators, should at the very least have informed the authors of the posts and articles about his or her idea for what to include in the curriculum for translation students.

And so should translators who translate the blog posts of other translators and put them on their own blogs to get some eyeball exposure and clicks.

That’s all I’m saying, and that’s all I want.

Is that too much to ask for?


Is Trados at least co-responsible for the wage theft known in the translation industry lingo as “full and fuzzy matches” and the resulting reduction of at least 30% in the rates being now paid by translation agencies to translators?

That is the question that I would like to pose to readers of my silly blog today.

Whether you like Trados and other assorted CATs and use them or not, or whether you find them counterproductive as I and many other translators do, I think that your answer would have to be “yes” if you take an honest look at what happened in the “translation business” over the last decade or two.

Almost seven years ago the spirit moved me to write a post titled “Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Trados or any other Translation Memory Tool”. When I wrote it, most commenters somewhat forcefully disagreed with me, many gleefully denounced me as a technophobe, luddite, or worse and proudly pronounced their undying loyalty to their beloved CATs in general and to Trados in particular.

As a positively mad patent translator who, inconceivable though it may seem to some, believes in the superiority of human brain over software packages and as a result refuses to use Trados or any other translation memory tools, I was the odd man out when I wrote the post. This is a position that I am quite used to and in fact enjoy due to my inherently contrarian nature.

There clearly must be something very wrong with me.

But that was seven years ago and things are not quite the same now as they were then, judging from the continuing popularity of this post and some of the views expressed more recently in the comments. At this point the post has had over 20,000 views and dozens of comments; at least half of them agreeing with my position that was fairly unusual and audacious seven years ago. It is one of my “evergreen posts” – every now and then somebody links to it for instance on Facebook and the old post starts piling on new views again. It had 276 views yesterday (out of a total of 475 views on my blog yesterday).

I think that even seven years ago, many people did not like Trados but were too intimidated by the translation industry to dare to express a negative opinion about this computer tool, a conditio sine qua non (an indispensable tool) in the minds of many, and in the minds of all inexperienced newbies for sure, given how conscientiously, diligently and assiduously the translation industry was pushing this tool.

The reason why translation industry was and still is so eager to insist on obligatory use of Trados is not exactly a mystery.

I used to work for more than a decade, since the late nineties, for a really good translation agency in California translating long Japanese biomedical and medical patents and medical studies for them at fair rates.

Then one day about 15 years ago I received a new translation order that I was supposed to sign and send back. The last paragraph of the translation order had me baffled because it specified the exact percentages (fractions) of the actual rate that would be applied from now on in every translation to something called “full and fuzzy Trados matches.”

So I called the person who sent me the job, somebody I used to enjoy working with for about a decade, to ask her what was this thing called Trados and what where those “full and fuzzy Trados matches”, because honest to God, I did not know.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “If you don’t have Trados, that’s fine” she added and proceeded to explain to me what these fuzzy and full matches, that I was told not to worry about, were.

But this formerly very nice agency that used to have quite a bit of work at fair rates for me for many years then completely stopped sending me work within about a year, presumably because they did find somebody who obediently agreed to be shortchanged based on the larcenous concept of “full matches” and “fuzzy matches.”

Fortunately for me, I was at that point already working mostly directly for patent law firms, and so far, patent law firms have not been pushing obligatory use of this particular tool that the translation industry is so enamored with (knock on wood).

Direct customers, at least those that I work for, never, ever ask about Trados or CATs, probably because they don’t know and don’t care what these things are. And why should they? What they care about is:

  1. How much I charge for my translations (because their customers understandably don’t like to spend a lot of money for translations),
  1. Whether my translations are accurate enough to be used as evidence in court, and
  1. Whether my translations are suitable for filing new patents based on translations of patent applications that were originally filed in another language.

I never asked, but I have a feeling that if they did know what these things called CATs and Trados are, they would demand that I don’t use them because they need translations that are the product of the brain of an educated and experienced translator, not the product of algorithms that by definition cannot take into account the different contexts of the patent documents.

How do you for example defend a translation as evidence in court if the translation is to a significant extent the product of an algorithm?

It is one thing if a translator uses CATs, even Trados, because he genuinely likes it and finds it useful, not only for generating as many “word units” per hour as possible, but also for maintaining consistent terminology.

Even I can see that, as long as the translator is in charge, as opposed to the software being in charge, CATs can be a useful tool for this purpose, although I personally prefer not to use them because I also see that these software packages have too many disadvantages for a translator specializing in the patent field, while in many other fields these tools are completely unusable.

But to demand that all translators use them for all translations, and then to refuse to pay for certain words in the text because they have been already mentioned in the text, which is what the translation industry is doing, has been doing for more than a decade, is theft of labor, plain and simple.

I think that if our associations of professional translators, and I am talking about the ATA (American Translators Association), UK’s ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting), Germany’s BDÜ (Federal Association of Translators and Interpreters), or IAPTI (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters), want to be worthy of the designation “professional” that they all like to throw around so much, they should make clear their position on the use of CATs public, and in particular their position on the use of Trados, which is so assiduously being pushed by the translation industry on us all, and which renders the official rate being paid to translators essentially meaningless for the reasons I have outlined in my post today.

Otherwise, I don’t think that our esteemed translators’ associations deserve to use the words “professional translators” in description of which profession’s interests they represent and serve.

For that matter, I think that it would be a good idea for the company that sells to translators the CAT tool that is now called Trados SDL Studio to also make public its own position on partial payment or non-payment for translated words that have been creatively identified by the translation industry with the aid of Trados as “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”.

I for one would like to know whether the company is on our side, or whether it is firmly on the side of the translation industry.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 4, 2017

In Praise of Healthy, Wholesome and Holistic Laziness

A few days ago somebody called me to ask how much would I charge to translate what the caller said was a police report about the death of her mother in a certain European country. I was trying to concentrate on proofreading a long patent translation I had just finished the previous day and although I felt sorry for the caller, I did not feel like tackling a translation on this particular subject.

So I quoted a relatively high rate in the hope that the potential direct customer would keep looking so that I could concentrate on finishing the stack patents and then take a break.

And the caller probably did find somebody else, probably cheaper, because I didn’t hear from her again.

Yes, I am sometimes particular when it comes to what kind of direct clients I want to work for, although in comparison to translation agencies, usually not nearly as choosy.

Yes, I am definitely getting lazy. After working in the salt mines for 30 years, shouldn’t I be entitled?

Now, at the age of 65, (for some reason I almost wrote 35), there is no longer that much to play with in my free time…

I can’t really practice sports anymore other than chess, which I don’t play (too complicated for me), and romance went out the window decades ago when I weighed half as much as I do now and had twice as much hair.

What I’m basically left with are books & teevee when I enjoy an occasional protracted period of wholesome, soul-nourishing laziness. Oh, and thank God for Netflix, the Russian Probe (into a potential collusion between Donald’s election campaign and Russia), and other highly entertaining highlights of American politics!

Limited though my options may be, they are still better than work, I think. I do enjoy being lazy tremendously.

In fact, I’m so lazy now that I frequently behave like a prima donna just to avoid laboring for long hours on a long-term project that only a few years ago I would have literally killed for.

After I finished those patents I was proofreading, when there was in fact a longish period of little work, somebody called to inquire about my services. The call was not from a client or a translation agency, but from a headhunting agency.

The headhuntress, who kept calling me honey and sweetie, was so excited that she found me! She was looking for a translator to tackle a continuing translation job for an FDA (Federal Drug Administration) project in one of my language combinations.

Right off the bat I asked for a rate that was 3 (three!) cents higher than the rate I saw in one of about a dozen questionnaires to fill out and sign that she sent me. Oh, well, that should be OK, she said, since yours is a “limited diffusion language”.

I started filling out the numerous forms, but the headhuntress, who continued calling me sweetie and honey, kept mercilessly hitting me with new demands.

The check marks indicating my acceptance of the conditions must be in blue ink, she said. So I had to redo the whole damn thing in blue ink.

Your résumé does not show enough experience with medical translation. Can you do something about it?, she wondered. So I redid the damn résumé too to emphasize my experience with medical translation, in particular my experience with good manufacturing practices (GMP) for pharmaceuticals and with double-blind medical studies.

I have been translating these subjects from several languages for the last 30 years, but that still was not enough for her. She kept asking for more and more information.

She asked for and obtained my social security number, as well as consent to obtain my credit report from several credit reporting bureaus, and she also had to apply for security clearance for me because the translation project was for the government.

I was kind of wondering whether the blasphemous and heretical content of my blog might make me ineligible for “gobmint work”. I was also wondering whether the government understands the difference between a government employee and an independent contractor who works only when he is needed and when he has time to work because he also has other clients.

I tend to think that the government and headhunting agencies working for the government see this as a difference without a distinction.

At this point, I was getting majorly annoyed by all this paperwork and a continuous barrage of new demands on me, an independent contractor who, unlike an employee, has no guarantees of any work in the future whatsoever, not to mention employee benefits.

At the end of the process during which I was filling out numerous questionnaires with many items that should naturally be inapplicable to an independent contractor, the headhuntress had one more request.

She told me that I needed to pass an evaluation test administered by a translation agency that among other things makes money by administering such tests.

I know the agency because I have been working for them for more than 20 years, and in fact I am occasionally still working them. So I responded that I would do the test, but only if I got paid for it. But the headhuntress misunderstood me: “Yes, of course, you don’t have to pay for it, we will pay the agency for the test”, she said.

“No, no, you have to pay me”, I said. What I meant was that although I am willing to fill out a battery of forms, one of the principles that I live by is that I translate for free only for family members or friends and I do not consider a headhunting agency, or the government, to be family or friends.

I also said that I consider such a test to be a joke, which is why after 30 years of being in business as an independent translator, I don’t work for free and why I would waste my time on it only if I wasn’t getting paid for it.

The headhuntress was stunned that a mere translator would be so incredibly rude, sassy and cheeky as to call a translation test a joke and demand to be paid for it. Most of this negotiation was done by emails, and I was downloading the various assorted forms, filling them out as best as I could, signing them in blue ink, scanning them and emailing them back, modifying my résumé to better fit the job requirements, etc.

But when I refused to do a free test, she called to try to twist my arm and make me agree to do the damn test for free. I told her that I would be happy to work for her if she found a way around this particular requirement as it is contrary to my principles. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be asked to serve in the armed forces of any country, and experienced translators should not be asked to work for free, that’s what I think.

I seem to remember that she was no longer calling me “honey” or “sweetie”.

When I would not budge, she said during the phone call that she would call me again on Monday to see if I had changed my mind (this was on Friday). I might in fact have changed my mind had she called on Monday depending on how skilled she is at twisting arms, and she is probably very good at that. But either she did not call or I managed to miss her call on Monday.

So since I did not get to work on this new continuing government project, I blissfully lazed during the sunny afternoons, as the Kinks sang one of my favorite songs that is about 50 years old now.

I got busy again within a week with my usual bread-and-butter kind of translations, basically patents, patents, and more patents, which pay significantly better than government projects obtained through translation or headhunting agencies. I got so busy that I longed again for the blissful time when I had nothing to do all day for several weeks.

Few things are as enjoyable as turning down work, being lazy and refusing to take on new responsibilities when it is pretty obvious that somebody will come with new demands on my time soon enough – and if not, that I can live from my savings, meager though they are, for several months.

During those weeks when I was not doing much of anything, I finished three books. In the last one, Escape Clause by John Sandford, one of my favorite authors narrates a complicated saga about two Amur tigers who were stolen from a Minnesota zoo to be turned into highly prized products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

The male tiger is unfortunately killed at the beginning of the book and then dealt with accordingly by being processed into various medicinal products, while the female tiger, whose name was Katya, was kept alive to simplify the logistics of the gruesome process.

Three other people connected with this loathsome act were murdered in the book, including the elderly Chinese millionaire who placed the order for tiger body parts.

Throughout the entire book I was hoping that Katya would somehow find a way to get out of her cage and kill the murderous sociopath who was the mastermind behind the entire disgusting operation.

On page 272 Katya finally escaped from the cage, crushed the skull of the sociopath—who had been keeping her hungry for such a long time—in her mighty paws, and ate him.

There is nothing better in life than being able to savor a long period of healthy, wholesome and holistic laziness, when one finally gets to enjoy a meaningful book with a profound message, without being constantly interrupted by people who want to make us work for them.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 24, 2017

What Is a Translator’s Means of Production?

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson


I sometimes receive despondent comments from discouraged translators in my blog’s comment section, who don’t know what to do because the translation business is no longer what it used to be.

Like this one I received only last week: ” … The yearly income of a veteran Japanese>English patent translator has been converging with that of an experienced American English high school teacher. This wasn’t the case in 1990 or even in 2005.”

Most people feel for laid-off workers who after decades of work in the automobile industry suddenly find themselves unemployed and unemployable, at least when it comes to their former profession.

And when a burrito vendor who used to make $300 an hour for many years selling fabulous burritos from his food-cart to Washington lawyers (who also make $300 an hour), cannot do so anymore, some of the burrito man’s customers will even cry as per an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “How Washingtonians killed a perfectly good burrito cart.”

As the article puts it: “It wasn’t just one dagger that killed the burrito entrepreneur. It was one after another, after another.”

“Back in his heyday, from about 2007 to 2011, Rider [the burrito maker and vendor] says his one-man cart might bring in $1,000 in an afternoon. In 2007, Washingtonian magazine reported that Rider—who is notoriously tight-lipped about his finances—made enough from his burrito cart to afford a vacation home and then some.”

But now, he can’t pay the rent on his house.

It so happens that a burrito place, a hole-in-the-wall kind of thing, opened about three years ago next to a tiny Foodmart and a rather desolate looking gas station where I sometimes stop to get gas for my car.

So I stop there now and then to get gas and a burrito, and sometimes only a burrito. The last time I tried to do that was a Sunday, but then I went for a burger instead because a line of about twenty people was snaking throughout the entire store and I did not want to wait.

The guy who owns the restaurant works there with two young, Hispanic looking dudes. On weekdays when the place is not that busy, he sometimes works there by himself. His prices are not low, higher than most other burrito places, I would say. But he uses fresh, organic ingredients and free-range chicken with special hot sauces and he knows a lot about how to make the perfect burrito, salsa and quesadillas because he spent years in Central America perfecting his foreign language skills and his chosen trade.

So in contrast to the article from Washington Post, what is happening in my neighborhood seems to contradict the notion that the days of burrito carts, stands and restaurants are over. You can read reviews of this tiny restaurant that opened recently near a rather ugly looking gas station on Yelp here.

Millions of manufacturing jobs have been sent to low-wage countries, because capital always has and always will follow low wages and lower manufacturing costs like a salivating dog will always follow the wonderful aroma of a piece of bacon.

The translation industry, inspired by the example of the manufacturing industry, has been trying to outsource as many translation work as possible – work that used to be performed by highly qualified, experienced translators in Western countries, to low-cost countries in Europe, Asia and Africa for many years now.

This is one reason why the profits of large translation agencies have grown dramatically over the last two decades, while incomes of freelance translators have been falling precipitously.

But unlike the car industry, the translation industry has a big problem when it comes to outsourcing translations to poorer countries: it is much easier to train blue-collar workers in Vietnam, for example, to manufacture car parts while using the latest car manufacturing technology, than to train Vietnamese, Chinese or Moldovan translators to translate for example complicated German, French or Japanese patents into English.

Although the translation industry has been trying to do just that for many years, the main result is that the market for specialized translations is now drowning in what I call “subprime” translations because these translations can be provided (with a few exceptions) only by highly educated and experienced translators who are native speakers of Western languages, English in particular.

In the field of patent translation, subprime translations are translations that are not reliable as they contain unnoticed mistakes due to the manner in which these translations were created: either with “language tools” such as machine translations that are later edited by cheap, unqualified hired help, or by using an equally cheap labor force of “translators” who have no business translating highly complicated technical and legal documents.

One reason for the falling quality of translations is that many translation agencies located in low-cost countries in Asia (collectively known as Chindia), or in Europe (such as in Moldova) now specialize in working as subcontractors for translation agencies located in Western countries.

I know this because these sub-sub-(sub?)-contractors regularly send me offers to ‘cooperate’ with me as they put it. They proudly list agencies that are already ‘cooperating’ with them, and the long list of large translation agencies attached to their emails reads like a directory of who’s who in the translation industry.

These big agencies, the movers and shakers of our beloved translation industry, are the ones who have been paying lower and lower rates, while making translators wait at least two months to get paid based on demeaning and unfair agreements containing many thousands of words. They are the ones who use Trados so that translators are not paid for repeated or similar words (called in the creative agency lingo ‘full matches’ and ‘fuzzy matches’), and who also force translators to sign away copyright to an intellectual product called translation, which is then supposed to become the inalienable property of the agency intermediaries, without the knowledge or consent of the actual clients who paid the agencies for the translations.

But the good news is that this sad situation (sad from the viewpoint of the clients of such translation agencies, the clients who are, perhaps unwittingly, paying for subprime translations), also creates new opportunities for individual translators who want to work for direct clients without the intermediary of mega agencies.

Nobody cries when another translator hits the dust because the rates paid to translators by the translation industry have been slashed in the “bulk translation market” during the last 10 or 15 years by about a third. Nobody will even know about it, outside of the family and perhaps a few friends of a previously busy and prosperous translator.

But there is no reason to cry if we realize that we don’t have to continue working for this new incarnation of the translation industry.

Just like there will always be a demand for good and well priced (and not necessarily cheap) Mexican food, despite sad human interest stories so frequently published in our newspapers, there will always be a demand for good (and not necessarily cheap) expert translations.

In that respect, translators have a major advantage over blue collar workers. Times are changing, but then again, they have always been changing and they will always keep doing that.

If we are able to change with the times, we should be ok, whether we translate patents or sell burritos for a living.

If we can’t change, or refuse to do so because we are too busy complaining about how unfair it is (even though it is unfair), we will bite the dust just like the American automobile industry workers (or should I say the workers of the former American automobile industry?), except that nobody will feel sorry for us when we lose our jobs.

But if we can figure out how to market ourselves to direct clients and make contacts with new clients who are looking precisely for the specialized translation services that the translation industry is unable to provide, and that we have been offering for years, but only to translation agencies, we will survive the conditions created by the current form of the translation industry.

To do that, we have to become specialists in our translation field, not just word mongers selling word units to intermediaries—some at deep discount—which is how the translation industry sees us.

The former American automobile industry workers cannot work without a means of production that is owned by somebody else – a plant with lots of robots and costly machinery in it.

But translators don’t need a means of production that is owned by somebody else because our means of production is called … a human brain.

It is up to us whether we will let ruthless intermediaries use the means of production that we possess for their own purposes and at the lowest possible cost for them, or whether we will use it for our own purposes independently of the translation industry.


After more than a year, I went to Burrito Perdido today for lunch. It was a weekday, not very busy – there were only three other guests there besides me. But the owner no longer works there, not even on weekdays. Instead, he had three other workers handling the business, one Mexican woman who takes care of cooking, and two pretty teenage girls who take care of the customers, all three no doubt working for minimum wage.

I also thought that unlike in the past, the chicken burrito was much skimpier on the chicken.

In terms of the translation industry, I think it could be said that the guy became the equivalent of a small, specialized translation agency, successfully competing with a whole bunch of fast-food joints (McDonalds, Hardee’s, as well as with the franchise chain of Mexican restaurants called La Cantina),  located within two or three minutes from the restaurant (by car), which can represent the equivalent of large translation agencies for the purposes of this post.

This is probably the second most popular subject discussed by translators on the internet, right after “What actually is the going rate?”

And for good reason because the consequences of cash flow problems can be deadly, even for a busy translator who has enough work at good rates.

But just as there is no such thing as a “going rate”, there is no perfect recipe for marvelous universally applicable payment terms, because everything depends on your personal situation, which involves a number of variables. I will try to give a few elucidating, practical examples of what these variables are.

The Situation Thirty Years Ago

Although I did not know anything about anything when I started my illustrious career in freelance translation thirty years ago, I did know that most translators set thirty days net as a payment term on their invoices. So that was what I was going to put on my invoices too. In those days, I was working only for translation agencies and most of them paid in more or less thirty days, give or take a week or two.

Because I had many bills to pay, it made me very nervous when an agency that owed me quite a bit of money took longer than that, which did happen once in a long while, even back then.

When agencies owe you a lot of money and keep sending you new translations, it creates a dangerous situation because you don’t know what’s happening at the agency. Should you accept new work and keep your mouth shut? What if they are about to go bankrupt? If this is the case, your ship will go down with theirs. A translation agency is much more likely to go bankrupt than for example a law firm, but this can of course happen in either case.

I remember that in one situation, I was working for a small agency that had a lot of work for me for many months – a constant stream of Japanese patents to translate into English. From what I later found out about them, they had so much work because they had a contract for translating Japanese patents for the US government.

Although they usually paid in about five to six weeks, at one point they owed me about five thousand dollars for more than two months. Five thousand dollars was a lot more money thirty years ago than it is now, especially in San Francisco. The studio I was renting on lower Nob Hill, with incredible views of the financial district, downtown and Mount Sutro, especially at night, cost 500 dollars, and a three bedroom apartment in the Richmond District, two short blocks from the Golden Gate Park and two short blocks from the Asian restaurants and Green Apple Bookstore on Clement Street, was renting for 750 dollars a month. They must cost four times as much now.

So I called this agency’s number, with my heart beating in my chest as fast and hard as when I ran up Hyde Street from Fisherman’s Wharf to California Street. I used to chase cable cars like this every Saturday morning when I lived in San Francisco thirty years ago. From Joyce Street it took me an hour to get to the Golden Gate Bridge, and an hour to get back.

Lydia, the person who called me before she would send another FedEx package with a bunch of Japanese patents, (that’s how things were done in the pre-internet era), answered the phone when I called. I liked working with Lydia – she was pleasant and obviously knew what she was doing, not like the clueless kids who work for translation agencies nowadays.

But the question of when I was going to get paid was above her pay grade and she passed the phone to her boss, the owner of the small agency.

And the owner, who died a few years ago, was anything but nice to me. I remember in response to my timid question of why I hadn’t received my check, he said, “What are you talking about. We sent you the check already. What are you insinuating?

Well, I was “insinuating” that I did not receive the check and that I needed it to pay my bills. He did not seem to believe me. Or so he said. He called his bank, and then called me to concede that to his surprise, the bank had confirmed my perfidious insinuation. (He did not use this adjective, but he as well might have).

Because not receiving the payment was obviously my fault, he made me pay a check cancellation fee and a FedEx fee for issuing a new check to be sent to me as a condition of sending me a new check.

I held my tongue and stoically accepted the unfair, absurd and demeaning conditions.

Two days later I received a FedEx package with the payment for my work from the agency owner  generalissimo for the last two months of work, minus about 45 dollars.

The day after that, I received the original check by regular mail with a date stamp on it that was more than two weeks old. I was so angry at the agency that I just ripped up the check without letting them know anything.

A few days later, sweet Lydia called me to let me know that she was about to send me another batch of Japanese patents, as if nothing happened. When I told her that I would never work for her again because I did not like how her boss treated me, she was surprised.

But she understood, she said.

I am of course only guessing, but I think I know exactly what happened. The agency owner, whose main source of income was the US government, was waiting for Uncle Sam to pay him and the government was taking it’s sweet time as it often does.

So he printed my pay check envelope on his office postage machine with a date that would be only a few days later than usual, but then he was sitting on the envelope for a few more weeks until he finally got paid himself, which was when he actually mailed it with the check in it.

But he could not have told me that of course! His big ego was demanding that the translator who dared ask for his money be treated like a stupid dog who pissed on the carpet in his immaculate house.

The Situation Now

Why am I boring you, gentle reader, with this ancient history? Well, for one thing, it felt good to get it off my chest, even after all this time. But I also think this sordid story shows that things have not changed that much in the last thirty years when it comes to how we translators are treated if we insist on our payment terms. And if things have changed, they’ve only changed for the worse.

It is becoming more and more difficult to make clients respect a reasonable payment period of thirty 30 days net – much more difficult than three decades ago.

Although I always put “thirty days net on my invoices ” as the payment term, I would say that perhaps a third of my most important clients, by which I mean patent law firms, pay me in about four to five weeks with the rest of them taking six to eight weeks to deliver the payment.

Once, about two or three years ago, I dared ask a patent lawyer (after just four weeks) in an email when could I look forward to receiving a check. He got so mad at me! How did I ever dare ask such an insolent question!

I used to send inquiries about late payment quite frequently to speed up the cash flow process for many years, and the usual response from patent lawyers or paralegals would be, “I will check with (or forward your inquiry to) the accounting department.” So though an inquiry presumably would sometime cause the check to arrive a little earlier, other times it would have no effect.

But the sudden, naked rudeness in the response of this particular customer made me understand that his law firm was waiting for payment from its clients much longer than 30 days, which was most likely why he felt the need to vent his frustration on a convenient target, in this case a lowly insolent translator.

The crux of the cash flow problem that most of us are only too familiar with is that as important clients, especially large corporations, kept stretching payment terms for providers over the years and decades to extract more profit from the “float”, most of our customers, both direct ones and translation agencies, simply put the burden of having to wait twice as long as before (or longer) to get paid on us.

Problem solved.

Fortunately, not all of my clients believe in solving their problems by making them our problem.

Some customers, both direct clients and agencies, pay quickly because they want to make sure we will always find time for their projects and because they understand the old saying that, “who pays fast pays twice” has never been more true than now.

Although my official payment policy is still thirty days net, instead of adopting an iron-clad rule not to work for customers who take significantly longer than this, I try to be flexible, depending on who the client is.

If the customer (for lack of a better word) is a translation agency, in the future I no longer accept another translation from them if they take too long to pay. I am not seeking a confrontation, I just tell them I am busy, and eventually they go away.

Since translation agencies are making profit directly from my work, I believe they should set aside their own independent capital to pay me on time. This solves part of my problem, but only if I have enough work from other sources. Fortunately for me, I need to make much less money now that our children live on their own, so quiet periods are not as scary for me as they used to be, especially since I do enjoy being lazy once in a while.

Although most of my income is generated from my own translations, I am an agency too. But because I don’t believe that I have the right to make my cash flow problem the problem of people who work for me, I always pay translators who work for me within thirty days, often well before I myself get paid.

Paypal makes this very easy for me. If I don’t have money in the bank, which happens, I just put the payment on a credit card. It means that I have to pay a little bit more, but not much more, because I am always able to pay the credit card bill in full when it arrives in about three weeks.

But it also needs to be said that some translation agencies are very considerate when it comes to payment terms. Three agencies that I work for generally mail me a check when they receive my invoice, and one agency pays me with a bank transfer on the first and sixteenth of each month (during the months when they have work for me).

I think the solution in the jungle of a system of rules used in corporate financing, which is based on the general principle of squeezing the little guy as much as possible, is to have a flexible policy that distinguishes between valuable and less valuable clients. I do insist on being paid on time, but generally only with clients that I perceive as not terribly valuable.

Valuable clients get away with more than less valuable ones, although I also try not to get into a situation where an important client would owe me so much money that his firm’s bankruptcy could drag me down with him. But one also needs to have in the mix clients who pay quickly, if there are also other clients who take a long time to pay, to make ends meet.

And I also think that clients who bring little value to me (agencies paying low rates, for example), are best eliminated.

Like I said, I can manage with fewer clients since I need much less money now than I used to.

I do enjoy reading my books, binge-watching Netflix series, and following the pretty incredible stories about the latest scandal du jour happening just about every day in the White House on American teevee quite a bit.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 11, 2017

Look What They’ve Done to My Brain

The last twelve notes from music that I was listening to on my radio today, just before I went to sleep, were hidden deep down in my subconscious all night long while I was sleeping.

Until they emerged again, unexpectedly, the next morning.

It was not the music of spheres, resonating throughout the universe all the way to my bedroom. I eventually recognized them as the first twelve notes from a movement of Dvorak’s “In Nature’s Realm”. I could not remember the rest of the music, only the twelve notes that were floating around and around in my brain for what seemed like hours.

I could not get rid of them until I turned on the radio to chase them away with other music.

It happens to me every now and then, for instance when I drive my car and listen to a music station – hours later I sometimes start hearing the last oldie that was on the radio just before I turned it off. It’s usually just a tiny fragment of the song that somehow does not want to let go of my ears hours later until it is finally chased away by a different tune.

The Germans call it “einen Ohrwurm haben” – to have a worm in one’s ear, and that’s exactly what it feels like.

Just like fragments of music can infect our ears with well hidden music worms, invisible messages containing fragments of information, misinformation, and propaganda can infect our conscience without our knowledge or approval.

This is basically what modern marketing is based on, and that is precisely why we are subjected to a marketing overload from the moment we wake up in the morning and look at our smartphone: the idea is to keep planting worms inside of us until we fall asleep so that the worms can keep working on us overnight as we sleep.

The worms of yesterday’s information, misinformation and propaganda that were planted in our brains the day before must be reinforced and re-inserted every day.

Otherwise, in the absence of the last twelve worm fragments of information in our mind, combined with another dozen squiggly maggots of what appears to be information, we might start to think for ourselves.

And when people start thinking for themselves, what they often demand is CHANGE.

The tragicomical Brexit fiasco, the undemocratic selection of Donald by the Electoral College Trump (as opposed to a democratic election) to the office of US president despite his loss to an almost equally unpopular presidential candidate by millions of votes, and the recent victory in the French presidential election of a young candidate who is so new (relatively speaking) that he has yet to form a political party as I am writing another silly post, coming on the heels of a win by an equally young politician in Canada, who like so many other politicians coasted to victory on the strength of a famous name, clearly show that the whole world is hungry for CHANGE.

Most people may not be quite sure what kind of change they want, but the one thing that people living in different countries and on different continents know for certain is that they do want a change from the current status quo because they see that things don’t work for them the way they used to.

One of the most powerful catalysts for change is technology. From the technology of the printing press, which after more than a thousand years canceled out the monopoly of the Catholic Church on the interpretation of the Bible, to streaming, which made mighty cable TV companies irrelevant to millennials, it is clear that no matter how well established and powerful a government or an industry may be, it better keep a watchful eye on what is happening in the technology sector.

The translation industry is certainly eager to embrace technological change by promoting what it calls language technology. It constantly demands that invisible peons working in its entrails (that it refers to as “Dear Linguists”) adopt as many labor-saving language technology tools as possible and use these tools in their daily work.

The reason for this demand is clear: the more “Dear Linguists” use this language technology, the less money they will make and the more profit will thus be left over for the movers and shakers in the translation industry, the rightful owners of “Dear Linguists.”

The push for obligatory adoption of so-called language technology tools started about fifteen years ago with the demand for obligatory use of CATs, Trados in particular, because these tools made it possible to reduce the word count by a large margin, and word counts are the basis on which most translators are paid.

This particular wage theft scheme was perpetrated so successfully by the translation industry that most translators who send me their résumés, and all newbie translators, proudly and prominently list their mastery of Trados software as evidence of their professional qualifications, along with a statement that “rates are always negotiable.”

Instead of providing proof of professionalism based on their education and experience, translators advertise their willingness to be cheated out of remuneration for their work by the way CATs are used by the translation industry. They are so desperate for work that they are begging the translation industry to abuse them as much as possible, in exchange for a promise of work.

The next chapter of technological change in the translation industry is likely to be based on editing of machine translation by invisible human beings who, although they are not quite translators, should theoretically be able to edit the raw output of machine translation systems that are riddled with well hidden mistranslations so as to remove most mistranslations from this output.

These people, not quite translators, called post-processors or editors (or even copy editors!) of machine translations, would be paid even less than translators who are forced by the translation industry to use the larcenous scheme of how language technology tools ought to be applied by the obedient peons.

The last time I was contacted by a translation agency to become a machine translation “copy editor” I was offered the princely sum of 1 cent per word for “copy editing” of machine translations.

The changes resulting from new technology can be beneficial to us, but they can be also harmful, depending on whether we are able to use new technology for ourselves, or whether we allow other people to use it against us.

Some people swear by CATs and say they could no longer translate without them. Some people, myself included, never used them and never will because they find them too constricting and unsuited to their particular field of translation.

Many translators, myself included, use machine translations, but only use them for their own purposes rather than for the translation industry’s purposes.

When I have access to machine translation, which is most of the time because most patent application can now be easily translated for free from just about any language into English with a few mouse clicks, I print out a machine translation to use as a resource listing technical terms that I may, or may not, use in my own translation.

But what I would never do with machine translation is what the translation industry tells me that I should be doing with it – namely edit out the hidden mistranslation worms from it to transform it into real translation.

Even if translators were paid hourly rates commensurate with their education, skills and experience for post-processing of machine translation, which they most certainly will not be, most translators understand that to edit machine translations is the wrong way to go for the myriad reasons I keep mentioning on my blog.

In my field of patent translation, probably the most important reason why such a practice must be avoided is the fact that precisely because the machine translations may at first glance look very good, many mistakes that are unlikely to be caught by a post-processor will necessarily creep into the final translation.

It is relatively easy to banish the nuisance of an unwanted ear worm of music from our consciousness. All we have to do is turn on the radio and listen to different music.

It is much more difficult to resist the worms that are being planted in our consciousness by the translation industry, an industry that is celebrating technology tools and equating them with a valid replacement for human brains.

But tools are only tools. They cannot replace human brains. They can be very useful to us, but only if we use them for our own purposes.

But they can also do a lot of damage to translation, the product of our work, and to our profession, if we allow the translation industry to use these tools against us.


The consequences of a nuclear war are difficult to predict.

Difficult, but not completely impossible to prepare for and anticipate.

In fact, the world has been preparing for nuclear Armageddon for about 70 years now. Regular people were being prepared for just such an eventuality by being instructed by their teachers from an early age to duck and hide under the desks in their classrooms, or by running in an orderly fashion to take shelter in the school’s basement. This was by far my favorite part of atomic bomb drills when I was a kid because the basement of the old school, which was built in 1886, was dark, spooky and totally awesome.

Not that running to the basement would help very much, of course, depending on how far the bomb would fall and the extent of the radioactive fallout.

Important people, such as presidents of various governments, have been preparing themselves by having huge anti-atomic bomb shelters dug, for themselves and their families, so that they can continue waging nuclear war from a safe underground location until the glorious victory.

In the long run, this would probably not help very much either, but building anti-nuclear shelters for important people has been a nice and constant source of income for the nuclear bomb shelter building and maintenance industry since the 1940s.

One good thing about a nuclear war is that since it can anticipated, it is possible to make preparations for something like that, although the preparations will probably be inadequate.

The consequences of the coming Armageddon and the fallout from machine translation are much more difficult to anticipate. As a result, nobody seems to be giving much thought to the bleak future that humankind is facing as a result of excessive reliance on machine translation, which the translation industry now prefers to call “language technology tools”, and I don’t see any individuals or organizations making any preparations for the havoc the machine translation Armageddon will most likely wreak on our civilization in the very near future.

One thing about a nuclear bomb is that is likely to fall on us only once, and although the consequences would then remain with us for a very long time, we would know that it had already happened, and we could then try to figure out what to do next.

But the bad thing about machine translation is that we simply can’t know anything for sure about it because it works like a slow-acting, invisible virus that may have no cure.

We kind of know that there is a lot of machine translation out there already, and once we know that what we are dealing with is machine translation, we are already pretty safe because most people at this point understand that machine translation is not really translation, even when it sometimes kind of looks like a real translation.

Sometimes, machine translation is immediately identifiable as such because it sounds as very poor translation, even worse than a really horrible human translation.

But sometimes it is very difficult to distinguish one from the other.

For example, is the text below the product of machine translation, or of human translation?

(I saw a photo of this translation of instructions on Facebook, so this is a genuine set of very helpful instructions in English that came with a phone case.)

This is the PCV Mobile phone Case of easy shlepping and more function. This case is made with import and defended radialization materials. And the appearance is so beautiful.

The main characteristic is easy schlepping, it can be hunged up at the waist, hunged up at the cervix, and free holding.

Hang up at the waist: This case has steel button and high strength PC clip. The mobile phone can be hunged up with the case at the waist. And it can be went round and round for 365° .

Hang up at the cervix: This case has high strength and defended snap soft fibre sling. The sling will defend hurt to the cervix and defend breaking.

Free holding: If you will put the mobile phone into your placket, or hold in your hand, you can twist off the button of the case. Because it is so easy.

I think this translation is most likely a sample of the carnage that can be inflicted on a relatively simple text by a human translator (for lack of a better word), who is probably using machine translation for inspiration. But the responsibility would in this case rest squarely with the human who thinks he is a translator, because the machine translation tool would in this case be completely innocent of any wrongdoing.

After all, it is clear that what the text means is that the phone case can be attached to something like a lanyard and worn around the neck. If you know some Latin, you would also know that cervix is Latin for neck. So a moderately educated and intelligent person would probably realize what the word cervix means neck in this case (although most men might have to look up the word cervix on Wikipedia to make sure what and where it is.)

So even a highly entertaining translation like the one above would be easy to figure out and would also be quite easy to edit, even without having access to the original text in the original language.

On the other hand, it is a very different story when we are dealing with machine translation.

Because machine translations have improved over the last decade, unlike in the recent past, it is now often very difficult, if not impossible, to identify mistranslations in them because those mistranslations sound logical and plausible.

After all, machine translation operating on the basis of the statistical model (as opposed to the grammatical model) is based on real translations of the same kinds of texts that were produced by human translators, usually very good ones.

I have been translating applications of German patents that are to be filed in English in the United States for several patent law firms for quite some time now. Some of the law firms send me a Microsoft Word file with the original German name, which is what I prefer because there is no room for error in this solution.

But some of them use a machine translation to translate the title of the patent because it is easier for a legal secretary to keep track of titles she can understand.

Since nobody has told me how the titles are translated into English, I used to think that I should try to incorporate the words in these titles into my translations, since those are the words my clients are using.

But eventually I understood that I should not try to do that. The titles are sometimes so clearly wrong that the only reason for such incomprehensible mistakes must be that the source is a machine translation.

At the same time, when I start translating a patent, the translated words helpfully supplied by a specialized machine translation program, although they are completely wrong, sound plausible even to me, an experienced patent translator who has access to the text in the original language.

I sometimes even use the wrong words for several pages before I realize where the problem is and correct the misleading English title.

Can you imagine what would happen if high ranking politicians, the ones who have had deep underground bunkers dug for themselves so that they can survive a nuclear attack, decided in their infinite wisdom that one way to reduce the government’s deficit would be to eliminate human translations and replace them instead with machine translations, perhaps only lightly edited by human post-processors, who would be paid much less than actual translators?

The actual meaning of this communication might no longer be identifiable.

And what about things like product instruction manuals, patents, laws and legal ordinances, or even novels, for example – what if big corporations and publishing houses decided to save money by switching to machine translation, lightly edited by poorly-paid humans called post-editors?

Based on what this patent translator knows about machine translation, namely how difficult it is to identify mistranslations in a text that was translated by a machine with a software package, I believe that the impact of such an unwise decision would be tantamount to nuclear war.

Better in some respects – we would not be dying in millions right away, for example, because the results of the machine translation Armageddon would take a long time to seep into the fabric of society.

But because it would take such a long time to identify what the problem is (politicians and CEOs of multinational corporations would of course not tell us they had switched to machine translation to save money), the consequences of such a switch for human civilization might be even more dire than an all-out nuclear war.

Personally, I think that this world could probably recover from a major nuclear conflict, although it would take a very long time.

But I don’t know whether recovery from an insipid shift in society that would take place very slowly, while most people might not be realizing it, if communication between humans were replaced by communication that is automatically carried out by machines operating much more efficiently on the basis of algorithms, would be even possible.

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