I am in the process of digitizing my paper files so that I can take all the information with me—easily and without a moving truck this time—if we decide to move.

Or rather when we decide to move. The house is way too big for us now that the kids have left, which happened a decade ago. I have to admit that it felt nice to suddenly become what is called “empty nesters”. I luxuriated in the amount of space available to me. Once the kids left, I naturally claimed the entire second floor with four bedrooms and two bathrooms for me alone.

My wife spends most of her time on the first floor anyway, so I let her keep that floor. We do visit each other frequently, but it’s clear who owns which floor. As I learned in Latin classes, Clara pacta, boni amici (Clear agreements, good friends).

I started digitizing my fascinating (even if only to me) past and current professional existence almost  two years ago, first by scanning files from manila folders on my translation clients into my computer – mostly invoices with notations in red ink when they were marked paid. I finished most of that scanning as well as occasional correspondence and other printed information with the exception of the last section of files on current clients because I keep adding new files to this section and will continue to do so for a while.

Whenever I have some free time and feel like reminiscing a bit, I scan pages from my highly treasured Letts of London Diaries, which I have been using for 28 years in lieu of accounting ledgers. I tried several desktop diaries for this purpose in the early years, but switched to the familiar format of Letts of London Diaries in 1989 and have never regretted my decision.

For a small operation such as mine, there is plenty of space in this large, desktop type of diary for entering invoices with customer names, amounts owed and invoices in blue ink. When the invoice is paid, I enter the amount in red ink in the space for the proper date, which is usually more than a month after the date when the invoice was first entered, and I circle the blue invoice information in red so that I can tell with one glance at the two pages of the diary covering one month which invoices have been paid and which are still due.

I also record invoices as MS Word and PDF files on a hard disk in subdirectories for each year, which means that I have created my own, highly innovative and sophisticated version of a triple book keeping record going back to the late eighties. Not to mention that I can also find relatively recent invoices in my email if I know the approximate date when I emailed them, which makes it a quadruple book keeping record.

I also put yellow stickers on the pages as special notes to myself, such as how much work I received in a given month from major clients and in which languages, while projects translated for me by other translators are written in green ink. On the bottom of the page I note the amounts paid to translators who worked for me and how I paid them (check number, PayPal, etc.).

I know there are several software packages that some people use for exactly this kind of book keeping, but I don’t think I would feel the same emotional attachment that I feel when I view and touch the colorful information stored in the desktop diaries as I would for some silly software package.

There are many advantages to recording one’s financial information on paper in this time-tested manner.

First of all, although I am digitizing this information now, even if somebody hacked into my computer, it would be impossible for the hacker to make much sense of the information.

The information is entered in my handwriting, which is perfectly legible, but generally only to me.

And I use abbreviations for names of law firms because some of them have very long names when they have numerous partners and the amount of space in my desktop diary is limited. So I know exactly for example which patent law firm is MDK, and which one is BST, but nobody else can know for sure what the letters mean since dozens of firms could in fact be hiding behind these initials.

I’d say my encryption method is pretty solid.

If I am too busy, I have to pause my scanning activity, sometimes for several weeks, but then I pick up where I left off again, as I did today.

I started scanning pages from this year and now I am at August 2005. I find it hard to believe that translation projects that reside stored in my mind as something that happened very recently are actually from more than a decade ago.

This one, for instance, I remember very vividly, although it is 12 years old now. An elderly Japanese engineer who was translating patents for the corporation he was working for found my website, called me and then sent several long Japanese patents which he did not feel doing himself to me instead.

It was the middle of a very hot summer with temperatures in the nineties, August or July, and because my office is on the second floor, it gets too hot in the summer even when the air conditioning is on full blast. So I put my laptop on the cool vanity counter in one of the bathrooms, the one that has plenty of space for a laptop, a mouse and external keyboard, because that’s the coolest room in the house, and I finished one of the translations there. Most of one wall in the bathroom is made of thick plate glass and there is a big window next to the vanities, so there is perfect light in there for translating.

And then my brother called me on Skype and I wasted an hour talking to him despite the tight deadline.

As I scan the pages, I see how much has changed over the last 12 years in the field of patent translation.

In 2005, almost all the patents I was translating were in Japanese. I see there were a few German ones in July, but not nearly as many compared to Japanese. And I see some other languages there too, but not many. I translated some Russian, some Czech and some French.

In contrast to that, last month I translated 11 patents from German for three different law firms, and although I was also translating Japanese patents, it was only for one project: I was asked to translate the claims sections of 12 Japanese patent applications because these applications were originally filed by US and European companies in English in the United States or Europe and then translated to Japanese, so only the claims were changed in the Japanese version.

Twelve years ago, I was translating mostly Japanese patents and only a few patents from German. The situation is completely reversed at this point.

Twelve years ago, about 30-40% of the work I did came from translation agencies who paid good rates, relatively speaking. As a result of the progress of the corporatization of the translation industry, only about 10% of my work now comes from translation agencies.

When the agencies that had kept me busy on and off for many years (more than a decade in some cases) started lowering their rates, I had to stop working for them. Most of the time I am unable to work for new translation agencies that approach me for the first time because most of them are based on the repulsive, predatory corporate model that I have been describing in my posts on this blog for many years now.

I can’t work for these people!

Fortunately, although I have also lost many direct clients, often represented by the patent departments of large corporations over the last decade or so, smaller law firms have stayed with me and I have been able to keep replacing the direct clients that I’ve lost with new ones.

Had I been content to work only or mostly for translation agencies, which is how I initially structured my translation business 30 years ago, I would probably have to work for significantly lower rates at this point.

Fortunately, I realized early on that I needed to avoid working for the corporate translation industry model at all costs, and through all the ups and downs, that was what I did, by concentrating on keeping my existing clients and also finding new ones.

So these are some of the thoughts that are going through my head as I scan the pages of my Letts of London monthly diary into my computer.

Incidentally, 2005 was a pretty good year for me in terms of receivables, as were 2006, 2007 and 2008.

2016, on the other hand, was not a good year for me, especially compared to 2005-2010. But now that the children have been on their own for almost a decade, I don’t need to make as much money as I used to, and it looks like this year will be very good again for my translation business, perhaps even better than the very busy years from a fondly remembered period of time more than a decade ago.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 21, 2017

I Can Offer You 20 Dollars for This Work

So much about the translation industry reminds me of the telemarketing industry. A big part of both these industries can be described with a four-lettered word: SCAM.

I don’t answer my phone when it rings. At least not the one that used to be my main office number – that one I cannot answer because whenever it rings, it is either some kind of outright scam, for example somebody pretending to be the Internal Revenue Service requesting urgent payment of past-due taxes, or somebody trying to sell me something I don’t want or need, which is not illegal, although it ought to be.

It was ringing many times a day when I still used to answer it, with messages from scammers and peddlers of things unwanted and unneeded. So now I have a new office number which is a closely guarded secret, as it is only communicated to existing clients on my stationery when I send them an invoice, and in emails to them. And my cell phone number is of course another closely guarded secret.

I still monitor my old number, but as I said, I only answer if the caller ID shows a legitimate number, which it almost never does.

The telemarketing industry pretty much destroyed what used to be called “the telephone”. Alexander Graham Bell must be turning in his grave. Most younger people no longer have what is still called a telephone line, and use a cell phone for everything. I think there is a law that telemarketers cannot bother people using cell phones, and so far it seems to be enforced. And most older people do what I do and only answer the phone if the caller ID shows that it is somebody they know, to avoid scammers.

Because of its incredible lack of scruples, the telemarketing industry is very quickly destroying its own business model, and despite the fact that it embraced new technology to be able to call hundreds or maybe thousands of people at a time to make up for the fact that people can’t trust their phones anymore, it is probably circling the drain at this point.

I certainly hope so, although it may just be wishful thinking on my part.

The damage inflicted by telemarketers on the technology called the telephone, which was invented in 1876 and worked pretty well for almost a century and half, is so horrendous that it is becoming increasingly impossible to get somebody on the phone if you are calling out of the blue. Even lonely senior citizens who are hungry for any kind of human contact, refuse to answer the phone or hang up quickly once they realize it is a robo-call, that is not really a call, made by the telemarketing industry as opposed to a real human.

The translation industry does not use phones much for its scams. It mostly uses emails because a telephone call is much more labor intensive than an email.

The last translation industry telephone call that I remember getting was from over a year ago by an actual person who left a message on my old number’s voice mail. I still monitor this number, usually online and just for messages, which is very easy to do on the Internet with the Ooma telephone service that I use, because it is much cheaper than traditional telephone companies.

It was a woman from a translation agency who was offering me a “copy editing job”. When I called her back out of curiosity, I discovered that what she was really offering was post-editing of machine translations for 1 cent a word.

Ha, ha, ha, so that’s what she meant by “copy editing”.

But as I said, the translation industry mostly just sends emails, because making phone calls is too much trouble for them.

I received an email just yesterday offering me a juicy job that looked just like a cheesy offer from a translation agency, but it wasn’t actually from the translation industry, it was from the film industry.

After the introduction, which contained the usual clumsy attempt to suck up to me “I know that you are (quite famously!) a patent translator, but I thought you might be interested in an offbeat project, and since you are familiar with both Czech and Japanese, your name came to mind”, the email said. “I am in need of a Czech linguist to transcribe one line spoken in Czech in a Japanese movie. […] Our actor will use your transcription & notes to speak this line in Czech in the United States dub. What we will need is a transcription in Czech of the line and advice from you on:

  1. Whether the Czech spoken is grammatical, and if not, what would be the grammatically correct way to say it, and
  1. Whether it really means exactly what it’s supposed to mean. I can offer you $20 for this work.”

So that’s what I’m worth to them, all of 20 dollars!

The email had two attachments, one called “Production Consultant Contract” and one more called “Work Assignment Sheet”. The “Production Consultant Contract” was pretty hilarious, it had the word “WHEREAS” (in capital letters) five times on the first page, although I saw only one instance of “NOW THEREFORE” on the same page, which was kind of disappointing. The total word count was 1,773 words.

So that’s why dialogues in languages other than English spoken by actors who are native English speakers in American movies are completely incomprehensible to people who actually understand those languages, I thought to myself.

It’s because the people tasked by the film producer with making the actors speak in a foreign language in American movies are monolingual, incompetent, and although they don’t have a clue how to do their job, they can get away with murder, as I wrote in this post entitled The Incredible Inauthenticity of Fake Foreign Accents in American Movies.

There is a way to do this job right. But making an actor speak even a short sentence in a foreign language with an accent that is actually understandable is a lot of work.

It is a job that cannot be done for 20 dollars.

But since the target audience for American movies is English speakers, why not spend only 20 dollars on making Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie sound like total idiots when they pretend that they are so smart that they can even speak a foreign language?

American audiences will never know the difference anyway, and who gives a damn about the rest of the world!

Sadly, there does not seem to be much difference at this point between the telemarketing industry, the translation industry, and the film industry.

They all seem to have somehow morphed into a giant monster of an industry in which lack of scruples combined with the absence of any real skills and a propensity toward dishonesty are the main prerequisites for the job.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 16, 2017

I Am Also Very Picky When It Comes to Choosing My Clients

As I said in my previous post, I am very particular about translators who I decide to work with.

I usually find translators by asking for referrals from people I know. I think this is the best way to find a good professional – be it a dentist, a lawyer, a plumber, or a translator.

I don’t often look for new translators. My operation is very small – mostly just a one-man band, although I occasionally work with about a dozen translators on a yearly basis. So, unlike the translation industry, all I need are a few good men or women.

But I am generally always on the lookout for new clients. Even when I am not looking for new clients because I have too much work, I really still am because at some point the work I have now may and probably will dry up.

There are two kinds of clients that one can work for: direct clients, and translation agencies, which prefer to be called “LSPs” or “language services providers”. If you want to know what I think about the acronym “LSP”, you can run a search of my blog. I’ve written half a dozen posts on this subject.

In my silly post today I will say a few words about translation agencies, and I will save direct clients for a future post to keep this one reasonably short.

The worst type of translation agency to work for is the big corporate type of agency that has many offices in different locations, including abroad. They pay the lowest rates and have the worst, extremely repulsive working conditions, spelled out in great detail in their deceptively named “Non-Disclosure Agreements” (I call these agreements deceptively named because they are about much more than just confidentiality, which was their original purpose), that are usually at least three thousand words long, sometimes much longer.

When these agencies contact me, as they do quite frequently when yet another new, young and clueless project manager finds my website or my entry in the ATA database, I simply ignore them. I believe that at this point, it has become basically impossible for established and experienced translators to work for the business model that large agencies created, a business model that treats translators so savagely.

Some smaller agencies use the same kind of predatory business model and I ignore these outfits too. It’s easy to identify who they are when they contact you because they use the same boilerplate for all their emails. The email often starts with the words “I am reaching out to you”.

It sounds dramatic, as if they were trying to tug on your heartstrings by using this language. When they put it like this, accepting a translation job from them could seem almost as noble and praiseworthy as adopting a sad, lonely pit bull from a shelter for abused animals who is in danger of being “put to sleep” because nobody loves him or wants him.

You can also tell that an agency is one that you don’t want to work for by the fact that they don’t even bother using your name in the greeting line. The reason for this is also obvious: they send the same mass email with the melodramatic words “I am reaching out to you” to a number of translators, often a large number. So to save time (time is money to them, except when it’s our time, which they don’t value very highly based on the rates they want to pay us), they simply address each prospective translator with the greeting ‘Dear Linguist’.

Maybe they think that ‘linguist’ sounds better or more distinguished and better educated than just ‘translator’. But, personally, I consider the words ‘Dear Linguist’ a major insult and I never respond to this kind of an insidious insult.

These outfits usually hit all ‘Dear Linguists’ with incredibly short deadlines for the translation jobs offered, although the jobs tend to be smallish, and the coordinators often stipulate in advance how much they want to pay for the smallish, extremely urgent job.

The payment offered is another major insult, even a bigger insult than the words ‘Dear Linguist’. Imagine that you emailed a plumber and offered this person a job, for example a clogged toilet, for which you would be willing to pay no more than 150 dollars.

The plumber would naturally think you were crazy. Nobody would dare dictate the price to a plumber because plumbers are perfectly capable of determining their own rates and fees. But when a translation agency says to a prospective translator “Our budget for this” (that’s how they usually put it) “is 150 dollars”, it’s not crazy, I suppose, because it happens all the time.

I still sometimes do accept jobs from new, smaller agencies if they seem to have a human face, once I check them out online. But not very often because I have been so busy for the last little while with work from my regular clients that it seems that all I do is work, because that’s pretty much true –all I do is work.

I occasionally still work for a few small agencies, some of which have been sending me jobs for a long time, and I plan to continue working for them for as long as they need me. Incidentally, all of these agencies that I still work for have one thing in common: they pay right away.

In contrast to what a certain blogger said on her blog some time ago, namely that there is basically no difference (I am paraphrasing her statement) between working for an agency and working for a direct client, I happen to think that there is a world of difference between working for a translation agency and working for a direct client.

I think that a single good direct client is worth a hundred translation agencies, even good ones.

What kind of business equity do you accumulate as a highly experienced, highly educated and extremely skilled translator if you have been working only or mostly for translation agencies … for a decade, or two, or three?

It’s great if the agencies keep you busy working for them, hopefully at good rates, and some of them do pay decent rates, although these rates are still likely much lower than what one can make without an intermediary. They made it possible for you to pay your bills, and for that, they shall be praised.

But as far as I can tell, a translator who has been working only for translation agencies has not accumulated any business equity at all, regardless of for how many years or decades he has been making his knowledge and skills available to an intermediary between a translator and the actual customer.

This translator does not really have a business, because one characteristic of a business, even if it is an intangible asset such as a translation business, is that it is an asset that can be bought and sold.

It is possible to sell a translation business if you work only for direct clients, depending on what kind of clients you have and what you want for your business.

But if you work only for agencies, you don’t really have a business at all. You are just a temp, and temps generally own nothing, except their ability to work.

Temporary workers usually want to be hired for a full-time, permanent position. And if they are good, persistent, and smart, they can achieve their goals after some time, and other temps will step into their shoes, temporarily.

Temps who have no ambition to rise above their temporary situation are usually considered losers. It may be cruel to think about people in this manner, but we live in a cruel world. If I had a daughter, I would be very unhappy if she married a permanent temp.

Just like temps, translators who work mostly for agencies, especially the big ones, can after some time figure out how to graduate to direct clients. This is, in my opinion, the best way to keep the translation industry from interfering with our profession, especially since the translation industry is doing its best to destroy this profession.

If more translators take business away from corporate agencies, the balance of power between corporate translation agencies and the little busy bees called “Dear Linguists” may start changing.

I will try to address the topic of working for direct customers, which I have dealt with a number of times on my silly blog, soon again, I hope in my next post.

Posted by: patenttranslator | April 6, 2017

I Am Not Choosy – But I Am Particular

It’s not that I’m choosy – but I am particular”.

This was what a Japanese woman who was looking for a prospective husband in San Francisco told me once, more than 30 years ago. Incidentally, she did not find the man she was looking for and returned to Japan, although she would have preferred to stay in America. A few years later I heard that she got a really good, well-paying executive job with a Japanese company in Tokyo, partly thanks to her fluency in English.

She is probably better off without an American husband. I certainly hope so.

It’s not that I am choosy when it comes to who I pick to help me with my translations, but I am definitely very particular. I believe the same principle that applies to husbands and wives also applies also to translators and their work.

Despite the fact that I am bombarded by dozens of resumes on a daily basis, I know from much experience that it is very difficult to find a suitable translator for my small (but potent) patent translation operation.

Although I could sometimes use help from other translators, 99.99% of the resumes that I receive I instantly eliminate, usually without even looking at them, after a brief glance at the accompanying email.

Here are some of the elimination criteria that I personally use for this purpose, in addition to obvious criteria such as how well the translator can write even a simple introductory email in the English language.

  1. The translator has a free email address (at yahoo.com, hotmail.com, or even gmail.com)

I have a few free email addresses myself that I use for various purposes, but for communication with clients, including prospective ones, I use my own, custom-made, distinctive and paid email address.

A serious real estate agent would never drive a piece-of-junk car because clients who see it would probably think that this particular real estate genius does not sell a whole lot of houses and thus cannot afford a better car.

A translator who uses a free, throw-away email is in my opinion no better than a real estate agent who has no choice but to drive an old, scratched, dented and rusty car.

  1. The translator has a free page on a blind auction site such as Proz or Translators Cafe, but never bothered to create her own website.

I know this translator is trained to charge very low rates, and I am not particularly interested in taking advantage of people like that.

It’s one thing to have a page on one of these sites if the same translator also has a well functioning, informative and good looking website that took some time and effort to put together, generally with some professional help along the way.

But to be listed only on Proz or other free “portals” for translators, where translators are forced to bid against each other until the cheapest guy gets a job means to me that the translator is either a total beginner, or not very smart, and I am not interested in beginners or people who are, how does one say this in English … not exactly the brightest bulb in the chandelier.

  1. The translator emphasizes the fact that he uses CATs, and Trados in particular, as a sign of professionalism.

Some people use CATs, and some don’t. Since plumbers generally don’t advertise the tools that they use for their important and highly specialized work to prove that they are highly skilled professionals. I am astonished that so many translators would think that mentioning Trados might make them appear more professional.

In fact, the exact opposite happens because it is well known that many shady translation agencies use CATs, usually Trados, to eliminate “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” from the word count for which the translator can expect to be paid full rate.

Translators who announce to the world that their tool of choice is Trados are clearly announcing to translation agencies that they will be amenable to this kind of extortion and cheating that amounts to wage theft, quite common now in the modern form of the “translation industry”, and that they don’t mind being treated in this way.

To me this means that they are desperate for work, and I am not interested in people who are desperate for work.

  1. The translator claims to be able to translate just about anything, but in fact does not really have a specialty.

Beggars can’t be choosers, and since beginners are pretty much in the same position as beggars, it is understandable that they may not have a specialty yet.

But when people who have been translating for many years advertise themselves as being able to translate anything in any field, from the “hospitality industry” to patents, to me this means that this person is fated to remain a beginner forever.

The specialty “hospitality industry” makes me particularly suspicious about a translator’s qualifications, perhaps because I worked in the “hospitality industry” myself for several years before it dawned on me that I was wasting my life in a superficial industry and that I would be working for peanuts forever unless I started doing something else.

I know I am being unfair to the hospitality industry. On the other hand, since I don’t remember a lot of patents about the hospitality industry (not a single one), it’s not really a very helpful field for my line of work, which is translating patents from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, German, French and other languages into English.

The translator takes forever to return my email on the rare occasion when I do respond.

Some people who look promising to me on the computer screen, at least when it comes to patent translation, don’t respond to my email for days, or never.

Maybe they have their own rejection criteria and somehow I inadvertently disqualified myself by responding to their email. But if that is the case, why did they bother to contact me in the first place?

I can’t figure out why this happens relatively frequently, especially given that I respond to unsolicited emails (which is, by the way, a definition of junk email), extremely infrequently.

  1. The translator has already advertised a low rate in the introductory email.

The reasons why I distrust people like this are similar to how I view advertising Trados, having a free email and not having a professional-looking website. In fact, would-be translators who have these characteristics never have a professionally looking website because they do all the (in my opinion) stupid things I am mentioning here, either because they are beginners, which is forgivable, or because they are not very smart, which is unfortunately not curable.

On the other hand, peeps who are willing to work for low rates probably have no choice but to work for peanuts, so it makes sense to advertise their willingness to do so from the get-go, as the saying goes.

They may not have much choice and I am not judging them. I’m just saying I don’t want to work with them.

  1. Being a member of a “professional organization of translators” does not count for anything in my book.

I am sorry if I offend some of my esteemed colleagues by saying this, but I know what I am talking about because I myself am and have been a member of the American Translators Association (ATA) for almost 20 years.

The only condition to become a member of this organization is to pay a membership fee, which at this point is 190 US dollars. You don’t even have to know a foreign language, and many members, usually people who run or work at translation agencies, are 100% monolingual.

So how could it possibly mean anything?

I understand things are not much better in other countries when it comes to “professional” organizations of translators either.

The ATA has some kind of accreditation, but all you have to do to become accredited is to translate a few sample texts from one language to another in one session that may take up to three hours, I think.

You do have to know a foreign language to be able to pass a test like that, but that’s all. You don’t have to have a college degree, in languages or in chemistry, or mechanical engineering, or anything useful for patent translators, which would take many years and a lot of intelligence, drive and perseverance to accomplish.

So I’m afraid I can’t really take this particular test very seriously either. In the absence of a college degree, it is better than nothing, but to me it is only an aspirational characteristic of a beginner.

But if you have a degree in languages or sciences, or both, plus years of experience as a patent translator, please send me your resume – I promise I will take a look at it, and I might even respond.

And if I do respond, I hope you will have the courtesy of not letting me wait for your next email forever because I get really angry with people who do that to me!

Posted by: patenttranslator | March 27, 2017

How Much Does an Average Translator Make?

This is a question I often see asked on social media, usually but not always by beginning translators or those who are relatively new to the profession.

I of course don’t have an answer to this question because the answer depends on many variables. It’s like asking the question: How much does an average writer make? Well, from nothing, to millions. And if you can sell the captivating plots of your books to Hollywood, it will be many more millions. So what is the average between zero and many millions?

There is no such thing.

How much does an average adult person weigh? Well, from about a hundred pounds, to maybe five or six hundred pounds. If you weigh more than that, you will probably not live for much longer.

The most important variables when it comes to a writer’s income are how many books said writer can sell and what cut the publishing house will take. We also know most of the variables determining how much people weigh: they depend mostly on how much and what we eat, drink, and move around, but also on our genes and metabolism, which in turn depend in part on our age, etc., and so on and so forth.

Although there is no answer to the question in the title of my silly post today, the variables determining translators’ income can be identified to some extent.

First of all, people who live off their own work will probably never make as much money as parasites who basically live off other people’s work, without really creating anything useful except a lot of money, mostly for themselves, by using a system that was custom-made for people like that, such as banksters on Wall Street.

A banker at a community bank may be doing a very useful and important job, unless he is a fraudster, and some of them are. As far as I can tell, Wall Street bankers mostly destroy value instead of creating it, as we saw in 2008 when they destroyed so much value that it resulted in a worldwide crisis from which they were then promptly bailed out by taxpayers, including translators.

As I said, it’s a system custom-made for them. The way they see it, they would be stupid not to use it for themselves, which means against us, regardless of how much damage they cause.

And they may be and are a lot of things, but stupid they are not.

Let’s turn now our attention to how much make people who live off their own work and do something useful, namely translators.

Some associations of translators regularly publish average rates and average incomes of translators who are members of these associations and who respond to regular questionnaires about incomes.

If I remember correctly, according to the ATA (American Translators Association) income surveys, the average income of an ATA member is about 40 thousand dollars, while a translator with ATA accreditation makes on average about 45 thousand dollars. (Please correct me if I have the numbers wrong).

I don’t know how sound and impartial ATA’s statistical methodology is. What I do know is that in 30 years of private practice as an independent translator, if I dare call it that, not a single direct client has ever asked me whether I was an ATA member, let alone an accredited one (I have been a member for 20 years, but I never bothered with certification).

So I would say the value of ATA certification for me personally is approximately zero because based on my personal experience, direct clients don’t even know there is something called ATA, which must be why they never ask me about it.

Personally, I would also hesitate to draw many conclusions from ATA’s statistics about our average incomes for a number of reasons. Apart from the very questionable definition of the term “translator”, which means that we may be comparing apples to oranges based on this term, not every translator is an ATA member, relatively few of them are ATA-certified, and not all ATA members respond to questionnaires about how much they make.

For example, I don’t participate in this survey because I don’t want ATA to know how much I make. It’s none of their damn business. I’m sure they say that the results are anonymous … yeah, right.

And if it turned out that non-accredited  ATA members made more money than their accredited colleagues, would the ATA publish these results? Maybe, maybe not. I think the American Translators Association has a few conflicts of interest when it comes to the results of this particular survey of average incomes.

So far, ATA-accredited translators have been consistently ahead of their non-accredited brothers and sisters (in this survey) when it comes to how much they make, year after year, after year. I doubt that there will be a year when non-accredited translators are going to make more than their accredited counterparts. It would be really bad for the morale of accredited members.

I don’t think that in reality, being a member of ATA or being accredited or certified by this particular or another august organization of translators in another part of the world has much to do with how much translators make in real life. Other things are in my opinion much more important.

I think that such certification is useful if you want to stand out from the competition, but generally only if you translate a common language that has a lot of competition, such as French or Spanish, and only if you want to work mostly for translation agencies.

Because as I said, direct clients don’t even seem to know that the ATA exists.

Having said that, I still am an ATA member, have been for 20 years, partly out of inertia since there does not seem to be another organization for me in the United States, partly because I think that ATA does some (limited amount) of useful work, and partly because I do receive a (limited amount) of work based on my listing in the ATA database of translators; usually from Czech, Slovak, or Polish to English, albeit so far only from translation agencies.

So what other evidence do we have, other than statistics, for how much translators make? (Whenever I use this word, I hear Ronald Reagan’s immortal, although not original, quip in my head about the reliability of statistics: “There are lies, big lies, and then there are statistics”).

Well, we also have anecdotal evidence.

I know, for instance, that about twenty years ago, I was more than mildly surprised when a Japanese patent translator to whom I was sending work sometimes when I had too much of it from my own direct clients to do it all by myself, told me that he had made 137,000 dollars that year.

137,000 dollars is a very nice income even now, especially for a translator, and due to inflation, twenty years ago it was worth almost twice as much as it’s worth now.

This translator, who passed away a decade ago, worked for a few select translation agencies so that he wouldn’t have to worry about being paid on time (or paid at all). He had no direct clients, and because I was one of those few agencies that he would work for, I know he was charging 12 cents per English word to translate Japanese patents.

He must have been incredibly busy most of the time. He was very, very good – better than me at that time, partly due to the fact that he was translating the same kind of material that I was also translating, but had been doing it for much longer than I had.

I did learn a few things from him as I was proofreading his translations, back in the pre-internet times when there were very few precious resources from which one could learn anything.

Let’s fast-forward 20 years to the future.

Last week, a translator posed the question in the title of my silly post today on Facebook. She said that last month she had made 7,000 dollars, and asked: “How much do you guys usually make?” Nobody really told her much, translators are a reluctant bunch when it comes to talking about how much they make.

Except for yours truly, of course, because Mad Patent Translator has a penchant for getting unnecessarily into tricky discussions on social media, although nothing good can come out of things like that as we all know.

As I understand it, this particular translator works mostly with direct clients and has in fact very cleverly created her own niche for highly specialized translations and ancillary services: she translates documents for her direct clients that a certain country requires to have translated from and into English in order to apply for a second passport in a certain European country, (without giving up their US citizenship), and also walks them through the steps of the naturalization procedure.

Two heads are better than one, and so are two passports. To have a second passport is a very popular trend these days, made even more popular by recent phenomena such as Brexit and the selection (by a medieval torture instrument called “The Electoral College”) of the current US president.

Much as she dislikes Donald Trump, he must have been and continues to be very good for her translating business.

The next piece of anecdotal evidence is also from Facebook: a few weeks ago a translator said on a discussion group for translators on Facebook: “Last month I made 20,000 Euros. I must be doing something right.”

Another translator commented to me at the time, on Private Messenger, that she thought what he said was very inappropriate. So I agreed with her, but truth be told, mostly just to stay on her good side.

I think it’s a good thing when translators know that if they stay away from the “translation industry”, have a good plan for how to run their translation business, and do what they are doing very well, at least some of them can expect to make pretty good money after a while.

Although there is no average income of an average translator, it may be true that certified ATA translators make a little bit more than their non-accredited colleagues. But it is also true that your translation income does not depend at all on whether you are a member of a translator association. It’s even quite possible that translators who are non-members make more money than translators who are members.

It’s not a bad thing to make pretty good money if one creates something important and valuable, and I believe that a good translation is very valuable.

The thing about money is that it is a great motivator. That’s why people often ask themselves “how much money is in it for me”, and “how much money can I make if I do this, as opposed to doing something else?”

As Woody Allen put it: “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons”.

Posted by: patenttranslator | March 20, 2017

For Sale by Owner and For Sale by Translator-A Tale of Two Industries

Over several decades as a home owner, I have been following trends in real estate and comparing them in my mind to another industry that I have also been part of and have gotten to know quite well over the last several decades: the “translation industry”.

If you want to buy a house here in the United States, you basically have three options to choose from:

  1. If you know what you are doing, you can simply do it on your own, without a real estate agent. Although this option could save home buyers a lot of money, very few people do it this way, probably because the logistics and risks inherent in a transaction involving a great deal of money are simply too intimidating.

Very few people, around 1 percent of home sellers, choose this option.

  1. You can buy (or sell) your house through a cut-rate type of real estate agency called For Sale by Owner. Unlike most real estate agencies, For Sale by Owner charges a much lower flat fee of only a few thousand dollars that is independent of the sale price of the house, in exchange for providing limited support.

Although the logistics are basically taken care of, the homeowners have to sell the house on their own, without the assistance of a real estate agent. Relatively few people, less than 10 percent, decide to choose this option.

  1. You can sign up with a real estate agency providing the full range of services that real estate agencies offer, including the assistance of a sales agent who gets paid only if the house is sold.

However, the commission that you have to pay for this service is fairly substantial, between 5 and 6 percent of the price for which the house eventually sells. Since the average price of an average house in an average neighborhood (assuming there is such a thing) in Virginia is about 300,000 dollars, while in Northern Virginia it is about 500,000 dollars, homeowners have to pay a lot of money if they sign up with this kind of traditional real estate agency.

A few years ago, many real estate agents were fearful that it was only a matter of time before the internet would put them out of business, and this is precisely what the internet did to many other professions, such as travel agents and bank clerks.

The real estate industry was in a panic. All the information they used to rightfully (in their mind) own was now on the internet and anybody could access it.

When a new internet-based business model was created for selling real estate represented by firms such as Realtor.com, Trulia.com, Redfin.com, or Zillow.com, many in the industry expected that commissions would be slashed in an era when buyers suddenly had instant access to all the information that only real estate agents could access a decade or two decades before.

But it turned out that these fears were unwarranted – there are even more real estate agents now, who are finding, selling and buying houses for their clients than there were a decade ago, and the most common commission in the industry is still 6 percent of the sale price, half of which goes to the agent, and half of which goes to the real estate agency.

Prices on the real estate market collapsed in this country after the real estate bubble artificially created by our friends on Wall Street popped. Wall Street made out like the bandits they are from the crises they themselves created, in 2006 – 2008. But in most of the country, prices are now right back where they were around 2006 (which may or may not mean that another real estate bubble is about burst – I do wish I knew the answer to this question, but I don’t).

So one could say that the real estate industry, and real estate agents in particular, survived the boom and bust cycle typical of the industry, aggravated by the danger of threats to the industry from the internet, quite well.

Most buyers still prefer to pay tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of being assisted by a helpful real estate agent who will hold their hand and whisper sweet nothings in their ears – such as the high prices of “comps” (similar houses) in the neighborhood and advice on how to stage the house for a sale, as I did on two occasions when I bought and sold my house.

The Sale by Owner method is just too scary for most people. The internet did not disrupt the traditional method of selling real estate – on the contrary, most real estate agents take advantage of the new capabilities that became available to them, using the internet for marketing purposes, such as creating virtual tours of houses for sale and tempting buyers to part with their hard-earned money.

If what you need is a translation rather than a house, there are also three main ways to go about it:

  1. A company can create its own in-house translation department and employ people called in-house translators, who receive a salary for translating. This is exactly what some companies, mostly large ones but also some smaller ones do, and I was employed for a while as an in-house translator, once in Czechoslovakia and once in Japan.

But relatively few companies do that – only those that need to translate large amounts of material, generally on a daily basis.

  1. A company or an individual can also contact one of hundreds or thousands of businesses, mainly translation agencies advertising translation services on the internet. Some companies create an in-house department staffed by people who are not translators themselves, but instead work as managers, multilingual and specialized managers of freelance translators. I used to work for a major manufacturer of chemicals as a freelance translator in this manner and from a New Year’s card which had pictures of all of the translators working for the company, including mine, I saw that the company worked with 94 freelance translators.
  1. A company or an individual can contact one of hundreds or thousands of individual translators who, theoretically, should also be findable on the internet, without the intermediary of a translation agency.

While the internet did not cause major changes to the real estate industry, it certainly changed the “translation industry” and from the viewpoint of individual translators, definitely not for the better.

Three are of course many important differences between these two industries, so many in fact that they are not directly comparable. But I also see some commonalities.

I see the real estate industry as a legitimate industry providing an important service in a much more honest manner than the “translation industry”. The “translation industry” does create important value, but only in the sense that it brings together somebody who needs something to have translated with a translator who can do the work.

Unlike in the “translation industry”, everything is out in the open in the real estate business. The clients have direct contact with the real estate agents, and because they know them more or less on a personal basis, they can rely on their instincts and intelligence to make a personal decision about whether they want to trust an agent who provides a direct, personal service.

The last time I worked with a real estate agent, she and her colleague offered to walk our three dogs when we did not have the time to do so and the dogs had to go. Both we and the dogs were very grateful for the offer.

Clients buying a house are also perfectly well aware of how much they are paying the agency and what the real estate agent’s cut will be, as well as the real estate agency’s profit. There are no secrets there.

While real estate agencies encourage their agents to advertise directly to potential clients, translation agencies specifically prohibit translators under the intimidating threat of hefty penalties or a lawsuit, from trying to contact direct clients (I just read on LinkedIn that a Czech translation agency is forcing translators to sign an NDA specifying that the penalty for breaking any of the clauses in the NDA is 20,000 Euros).

The fact that the “translation industry” is trying so hard to make sure that clients never come into contact with actual translators is an explicit admission that translation agencies realize perfectly well that if clients knew how to contact translators directly, many would prefer to do business directly with them because they understand that a translation agency generally does not create any additional value.

That is why so many translation agencies try to force translators to sign very long “Non-Disclosure Agreements” whose main purpose at this point is usually not maintaining the confidentiality of the client’s information, which used to be their original, legitimate purpose. Instead, NDAs now try to make sure that the translator cannot communicate about anything related to the translation agency (such as translation rates being paid to the translator, or how long it takes to pay) with other translators, and most importantly, that the translator will not dare  compete for direct clients with the translation agency.

The “non-compete clause” is currently formulated in many contracts, which are called misleadingly “Non-Disclosure Agreements”, to prevent any possibility of a contact between a translator and a direct client because these contracts are clearly meant to prevent any potential competition on the part of translators, which is in fact an illegal request, at least based on antitrust laws here in the United States.

Translation clients have no idea how the payment is split between a translation agency and a translator; in fact, many probably never even consider the fact that the agency and the translator are not one and the same.

I wonder how it’s possible for translation clients to fall so easily for the other half-truths and misinformation frequently used on websites of translation agencies, how they can be taken by the transparent verbiage about three highly-experienced translators perfecting the translation, and complying with quality assurance standards. Quality assurance standards that are similar to industrial quality assurance standards applied for example to diapers and toilet paper (obviously, there can be no such standard applicable to “translation” – this is again a marketing trick). Marketing propaganda works wonders!

And the “translation industry’s” marketing propaganda does seem to work.

Real estate agents have been able to use changes brought about by the now nearly omnipresent availability of Wi-Fi to their advantage. Just about every real estate agent has a beautiful website that can be easily found by potential clients, and the rates paid by real estate agencies are still 6 percent of the sale price, at the same level where they were 20 years ago. But the rates that many freelance translators can expect to be paid by translation agencies has taken a serious nose dive.

Even without taking into account the effect of inflation, the rates that “the translation industry” is now paying to those translating for them are much lower than what they used to be 20 years ago.

I think much of the blame for why the results for those doing the actual work in the real estate industry and in the “translation industry” differ must fall squarely on the shoulders of translators themselves.

Many did not seem to realize early on, and still do not realize, that if they if they fail to make the internet serve them (by choosing a suitable domain name that will be found by search engines, and creating a professional-looking website that will induce direct clients to cut out the middleman and dump a translation agency), the translation industry will continue using the internet against translators and treating them as poorly paid, indentured servants.

Few home owners are interested in selling their homes without the assistance of an experienced real estate agent because there is so much work and a lot of risk involved in something like that.

On the other hand, many direct clients would be only too happy to cut out the middleman and work directly with the translator … if they could only find a suitable one on their own.

If you run a Google search to determine the current prices of houses in your neighborhood, Google will list on the first page not only large real estate agencies eager for your business, but also impressive websites of individual real estate agents who specialize in your regional market.

But if you run a Google search for a translation service specifying precisely your subject and language combination, almost invariably only translation agencies will be listed.

Relatively few translators are findable, on the internet or otherwise, as too many translators, even very good and highly experienced ones, continue to sell their skills and labor for the most part to the “translation industry”, regardless of how poorly they are paid and how much they are being abused by this industry.

I don’t know how to explain the differences between what is happening in the real estate industry and in the “translation industry”. But I do know that unless things change, translators will continue to be abused by the industry even more than they are now.

Posted by: patenttranslator | March 14, 2017

The Curious Phenomenon of Instant Guruism

The curious phenomenon of guruism reflects so many contradicting facets of modern life that it would be impossible to even touch upon most of them in this relatively short blog post.

Guruism it is not exactly a new phenomenon. Gurus of various kinds preaching various theories, teachings and beliefs have been with us for a long time already, and like most people, I ‘ve fallen under their spell to some extent from time to time.

When I lived in San Francisco in the eighties, I once, out of idle curiosity (the same curiosity that killed the cat), went inside a building just off Market Street that sported a huge sign with SCIENTOLOGY written in big letters. I stopped there once and bought a paperback written by Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard for five dollars from an enthusiastic young man. I took it home, but after reading through about 30 pages decided that the whole thing was pure humbug.

Although I haven’t had any more contact with the Scientology crowd since then, after more than three decades they still somehow found me – even though I’ve moved about seven times since then – and last week I received junk mail from them.

So Scientology hasn’t given up on me, they still want me!

Several other gurus have briefly attempted to show me the path to absolute truth during what I might call my early San Francisco period. (If one day I write my memoirs, that’s what I’ll call it).

In the early eighties I became friendly with a guy who was a mid-level leader in a cult called Moonies, named after Reverend Moon, a wealthy Korean who founded something called the Unification Church in the seventies. Incidentally, Reverend Moon founded and still owns a Washington daily called The Washington Times, while the other Washington daily called the Washington Post, the one that I subscribe to, is now owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and owner of another cult called Amazon.

I once went hiking with a guy who was a mid-level leader in the Moonie organization in the Point Reyes area in Marin County, all the way to a spot overlooking the rocky shores of the Pacific Ocean where Sir Francis Drake came ashore in 1579 on his ship called Golden Hind to claim California for England.

We were both fascinated by our respective life experiences, so different and yet similar, and hiking was the perfect medium for discussing what we had been through. I still remember the sweet fragrance of the trees on that hike. The Moonie guy came from a wealthy family in Marin County, one of the wealthiest counties in America, full of Democrats and faux liberals, but detested his parents’ life so much that later he married his Korean wife (who spoke three languages: Korean, Japanese and English) in a mass marriage ceremony in Korea in which Reverend Moon married hundreds of couples in a single ceremony, mostly Western men to Korean women.

I spent one Sunday at a gathering of Moonies in wine country near Napa. About a hundred young people in their teens and twenties were there, talking about all kinds of subjects, playing music and putting on a short theater play – no alcohol, no drugs, no sex, or at least I saw no signs of any of that.

But although I was as young and impressionable as the rest of the young people surrounding me at the Moonie house I visited once or twice in San Francisco and at their retreat in the Wine Country, I did not become a Moonie.

I think the main problem was that at heart I’ve never been a joiner.

Later I was taken by several other gurus who tried to mess with my mind or at least influence my thinking through books they wrote for people like me to read and believe in what they were saying in those books. Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock is an example, which was published in the seventies but which I read only around 1984. I don’t remember anything about the book anymore, which probably means that it was about nothing.

I remember a little more about the descriptions of near-death experiences from a book by another influential guru: Edgar Cayce, a mystic and spiritual guru who himself had more near-death experiences than any other person. A lot of people who have had near-death experiences have described them mostly in the same way – as a journey through a long, dark tunnel toward a brilliant light. If you get to the light, you don’t go back.

Cayce not only collected the experiences of other people, he also could, when hypnotized, leave his body and recall many of his past lives going back to ancient Egypt if I remember it correctly, which is something that I would so dearly love to be able to do myself!

I know that Edgar Cayce lived in a house on Atlantic Avenue in Virginia Beach, not too far from where I live now, but so far I have never been to see the house, which is now an Edgar Cayce museum.

I’ll try to remember to do it this summer on my way to or from the beach.

A kind of  guruism is at present also a very popular trend in the field of freelance translation. Many new translators who don’t have much, if any experience, and who don’t know much about anything are establishing themselves as gurus of translation.

One big difference between the gurus that were popular when I was younger and those that are popular in what one might call the modern global translation village is how young and relatively inexperienced these new gurus are.

The new gurus in our profession, or what’s left of it at this point after the unrelenting assaults of the “translation industry” on what not so long ago used to be a fairly profitable and safe job, of course don’t call themselves gurus, that would be laughable. The preferred professional term that is generally used as a designation of an instant translation guru is a professional translation coach.

Some of these professional translation coaches, or instant gurus as I call them, usually propagate their teachings via internet seminars, and many also participate in translation conferences organized by various bodies, such as translator associations, schools and universities, but also entrepreneurial individuals, as is the case in many other professions.

I remember how I was listening to one of these professional coaches at a conference – I will not name names or places to keep my readers in suspense, although many people will probably easily guess what I mean.

A guru, or professional coach if you will, who seemed young enough to be my daughter – and some of them are young enough to be my grandsons and granddaughters, started her presentation by describing the dire state of affairs created for us by what is called the “translation industry”.

From what I could gather from her explanations, she saw translators simply as an integral part of the “translation industry”. There is nothing else but the “translation industry” in this world for us translators, since it is very unlikely that as translators we would be able to find out how to get work without relying on the “translation industry” model and work for direct clients instead. Our job therefore is to try to figure out how we can best serve the hungry “translation industry”.

She came armed with charts and graphs expertly prepared in PowerPoint in beautiful colors, which showed among other depressing things almost equally depressing graphs demonstrating how exponential and rapid the progress in machine translation has been over the last few years. According to her, it is this unavoidable and inexorable progress that is pushing us translators farther and farther from our goal – namely making a decent living from an important, useful and interesting occupation – and closer and closer to total extinction.

Her conclusion was that if we want to survive as translators in a new, digital environment that is hostile toward translators and similar occupations, instead of fighting “progress”, by which she meant improvements and major achievements in machine translation, we need to “embrace change” and incorporate machine translation into our work, by which she must have meant becoming poorly paid robot-like humans, or maybe human-like robots, cheerfully post-processing machine-translated detritus.

Impressionable relative newbies surrounding me (and I must have been the oldest person in the audience) seemed entranced by her reasoning. Given how young and inexperienced they were, quite a few of them probably told themselves that it might be best to give post-processing a try, without realizing that “embracing progress” the way it has been crafted for us by the “translation industry” is in fact tantamount to committing professional suicide en mass.

Many instant gurus, most of whom, from my perspective, have very limited experience, give seminars on the internet on the always popular topics of how to find clients.

Initially I felt very positive about the fact that young translators are willing to share what they have learned during a few years of freelance work, (and in the real world, a decade of on-hand experience as a freelance translator is just a few years), with their even younger and less experienced colleagues.

I try to promote this kind of experience exchange among translators by putting links on my blog to innovative approaches of communicating with other translators through Youtube and other media. On my blog I wrote reviews of publications of instant gurus when asked me to do so, where I tried to emphasize mostly positive aspects, etc.

After all, there is so much out there in the digital universe that translators who are much younger than me understand much better than an old dog like me possibly could, and it’s a good thing if I can learn a thing or two from budding translator gurus.

But it has finally started dawning on me that most of these instant gurus are not sharing what they have learned, and some of them presumably did learn something worth sharing with other translators, out of the goodness of their heart, or because they care about the far-flung community of translators.

They are simply doing it to make money, possibly because they can’t make enough money as translators.

Although most instant gurus nowadays give paid seminars on the internet, I believe that most of them don’t know much about anything. The term “translation” encompasses dozens of different languages and dozens of specialized fields. If you translate only one language, work mostly in one field, and most of your experience is based on working for translation agencies, the only people who can learn something really useful from you are clueless newbies who translate from the same language as you do and who believe that it is best to work for agencies because finding direct clients is just too damn hard, (although even this kind of instant guru would probably feel the need to include a chapter on direct clients to make the seminar look more promising).

Making relative newbies shell out a lot of money, relatively speaking, for the privilege of learning something they would eventually learn in due course on their own anyway reminds me of the slick TV evangelists on American teevee who promise viewers that Jesus will bless them and their family if they send at least a hundred dollars right now by calling a toll-free number in Virginia or Texas.

Nobody has a ready-made, generally applicable recipe for how to make it as a freelance translator.

Our success or failure in a chosen profession depends for the most part on aspects such as our language and subject combination, where we live, and how able and willing we are to learn, especially from our own mistakes.

An instant guru will not help much when it comes to the choices we have to be able to make on our own, because nobody knows us better than we know ourselves.

We may be able to learn a thing or two from instant gurus, but they cannot do the hard thinking that is required from each of us, no matter how much we pay them.

Thirty years ago, people were relying on L. Ron Hubbard and Reverend Moon to do the hard thinking for them and shelter them from the cruelties of life.

But the truth is that we have to do the hard thinking and make the hard choices all on our own.

In 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first humans to land their lunar landing module on the Moon, it appeared that humankind has entered a new era, the era of interplanetary travel. Surely, if we could make it to the Moon, we would soon be landing on Mars and then also on other celestial bodies, which should be more interesting than the rocky Moon landscape. Perhaps it would take a decade or two, but definitely not longer than that, most people thought. Maybe we’ll even meet some cute and friendly aliens along the way if we get lucky.

Some people maintain to this day that the Moon landing never really happened and that the whole thing was a hoax, just a movie, not unlike those that are made in a Hollywood basement, as Red Hot Chili Peppers put it in one of their songs.

I tend to think that this conspiracy theory is probably incorrect – although who knows these days.

Other people say that the Moon landing did happen, but that it was only a tour de force designed after the sneaky Russians managed to launch the first human into space, and that the United States did the Moon landing largely for propagandistic reasons to prove the continued superiority of American technology. Skeptics say that this feat, spectacular as it was, did not bring back to Earth anything that would be particularly valuable for science and R&D. In other words, that just like launching the first human into space, the Moon landing was also designed mostly for propagandistic reasons.

I tend to think that this conspiracy theory is probably correct.

The fact is that almost half a century later, interplanetary travel, a dream that seemed so close that one could almost touch it in 1969, still remains what it was almost half a century ago – a beautiful, but elusive, improbable and unrealizable dream.

Unlike the Moon, those planets that humans would dearly love to reach now are so far and such an incredible amount of energy would be needed to power a space craft for interplanetary travel with humans on board, not to mention the years that it would take to get there, that at our present stage of technological development, we are simply unable to do anything about interplanetary travel, except to write sci-fi novels and make movies about it.

Vendors of various customized machine translation packages will never admit that the other dream mentioned in the title of my post today, machine translation that is as good as human translation, another popular feature of sci-fi books and movies, is also just a dream that remains unrealizable at our present stage of technological development.

Of course they can’t say something like that out loud, although most of them must know it by now. Because if they dared to say what they know in their hearts must be true, they would be instantly out of a job, just like the alchemists from the 15th century would have been immediately out of a job had they dared to reveal to their rich and greedy sponsors that, unlike Rumpelstiltskin, they cannot turn straw or lead into gold.

The alchemists of old made sure to wring out as much money as possible from their credulous sponsors before admitting the obvious. Some three hundred years later, machine translation alchemists of our era are merely following in their tracks when they say that machine translation may not be perfect yet, but if you wait just a few more years, perfect translations, or at least translations that near perfection, are just around the corner.

Legend has it that when a primitive machine translation system was put to a test decades ago with a structurally very simple sentence (although not really so simple when it comes to content), namely a sentence from the New Testament, (Matthew 26:40-43, New International Version) that says “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak”, it was allegedly “translated” into Russian as “the vodka was good, but the meat was rotten”.

It’s possible that this particularly revealing mistranslation is just a myth, and maybe another famous example of an alleged mistranslation, when “out of sight, out of mind” was allegedly translated from English into Chinese with machine translation as “invisible insanity”, is also only a myth.

But translators who use machine translation on a daily basis know that not only both mythical mistranslations, which may or may not be real, but even much, much more hilariously nonsensical mistranslations are indeed quite plausible because they are produced now by our present-day machine translation system every day.

When I tried to put machine translation to a test a few months ago on a translation of a Japanese document which you can see it for yourself right here in this post to counter the constant drumbeat of machine translation propagandists, the result was pretty unbelievable…

“But what about GoogleTranslate and Google’s new “neural” statistical machine translation model?” some people are bound to object. “Isn’t it already sometime almost as good as human translation?”

Well, no, it’s not, not by a long shot. It looks in parts as good as human translations because it is based in part on translations that were done by real human translators. But the software sometime incorporates unrelated human translations, and sometime aggregates different pieces of different translations together the wrong way, which means that the machine translation cannot be trusted. If it could be trusted, I would already be out of job, but it so happens that I am so busy that I’ve hardly had any free weekends since November and it is already March.

This weekend, for example, I have been translating nine sets of claims from nine examined Japanese patent applications. These patent applications were filed in Japan in Japanese, but originally they were filed in different countries and in different languages – in English, French and Portuguese.

I found a lot of information about other versions of these patents that exist in other languages than Japanese, most of which I can read, and when I was looking at this information, I was thinking, it must be very difficult for a patent lawyer who does know Japanese to figure out what really was filed in those Japanese patents in Japan.

I don’t know how many good translators are there who can translate French and Portuguese patents to Japanese. I doubt that there are many translators like that in Japan, but even if there are some or quite a few, my guess would be that in a pinch, a patent law firm would simply use a translation from English for translation to Japanese if they can’t find a translator for the original language. Which would mean that I may have been translating to English something that was translated from French or Portuguese to English, and then from English to Japanese.

Combined with the fact that there are many differences between different versions of the same invention depending on whether these documents were filed as unexamined patent applications, as examined patent applications, or as issued patents in different countries, and depending on in which language these different documents were filed, there is basically no telling what really is in the Japanese version unless one can read Japanese, or unless one can pay somebody to translate the Japanese version, although the Japanese version might be the result of two other translations, for example from Portuguese to English, and then from English to Japanese.

And how does one know which differences are due to the different rules for filing patents in different countries with different patent systems, and which ones are due to potential misunderstandings and mistranslations? If a text was translated several times between different languages, there must have been a mistranslation or two involved somewhere in there, right?

I did print out machine translations of the Japanese texts, which I did find confusing. Basically, only machine translations of very short sentences made sense, the rest of the machine-translated output was usable basically only by a translator as a dictionary.

Which means that the machine translations were very helpful to me, but only because I do understand Japanese.

There is no denying that machine translation technology has come a long way since the times of good vodka, rotten meat and invisible insanity. It is much, much better than what it was 50, 20, 30 or even 10 or 5 years ago.

But the amazing and very significant developments in machine translation technology over the last few decades have basically only covered a distance that is approximately equivalent to landing on the Moon. This was a major accomplishment, but an accomplishment that, contrary to expectations, was not followed by traveling to faraway planets for a simple reason – this is presently impossible at our level of technological development.

Creating software capable of producing machine translation that is as good as human translation is about as easy creating a robot that would be indistinguishable from a beautiful woman who can play a hauntingly beautiful melody on a piano, with all of the feeling that only a human being who happens to be an experienced and accomplished concert pianist can put into a command performance.

Yet, I don’t think that practical magic of this  type is impossible, and I even think that I know when something like will become a reality.

It will become a reality one day when humans finally meet cute and chummy aliens who will land on our planet and generously share with us technology that will enable us, humans, to do the same things that have been possible for centuries or millennia already on faraway plants that are much more technologically advanced than what we have here on planet Earth.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 28, 2017

Please Abuse Me, I Am a Translator/Interpreter (Part II)

Translators and interpreters are abused all the time, mostly by translation agencies as I wrote in Part I of my post with the same title. But sometimes we can fight back … although we usually have to use furtive, clandestine methods, because the first rule of the game is that we have to make sure we’ll still get paid by the client.

Once I made one of several lawyers who hired me for an interpreting session blush. It was not the proudest achievement of my short-lived career as an interpreter – that would have been when I was interpreting the nearly incomprehensible mumblings of an immigration judge in San Francisco so well that the client I was working for was granted his permanent resident visa.

But it was still enjoyable.

This lawyer, young and eager to show off his linguistic acumen, in an obvious attempt to test my knowledge of the English language and have some fun at my expense at the same time should my vocabulary be less extensive than his, asked me in a deposition about the person being deposed: “Is the gentleman ambidextrous?” while looking at me with the clear hope that what he thought was an inept interpreter would need an explanation of what that word meant.

So I inserted a dramatic pause into my performance and after a second or two of faked hesitation, I said: “Oh, you mean whether he can use both hands the same way?”

The guy turned red in the face like a tomato as he realized that the lowly interpreter was seeing right through him and daring to make fun of his client.

There were no more language tests after that one.

It so happens that English has many Latin words, or words introduced directly from Latin, and many interpreters know much more Latin than most lawyers, which is logical enough since unlike most lawyers, most interpreters are interested in foreign languages. As far as translators and interpreters are concerned, Latin happens to be just another foreign language and the fact that it is a dead one only adds to its mystique and appeal. I now sound like somebody who suffers from necrophilia don’t I? Which, incidentally, is another English word derived from another dead and extremely desirable language, namely old Greek.

I have been told by several female interpreters who work for lawyers that some lawyers like to abuse them by addressing them as “Miss interpreter”, while pronouncing it as one word. (Note: a good retort would be “it’s MIZ”.)

That is just so funny and original, no matter how many times it is used!

Once, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, I was interpreting for a Czech government delegation whose job was to purchase some wonderful American technology urgently needed to update major parts of the crumbling Czechoslovakian infrastructure that was back than in an even worse shape than the US infrastructure is now after decades of neglect, almost rivaling the mismanagement of communist regimes.

When the guy who hired me saw that some members of the Polish delegation who were also there with the same job were intently listening to my translation, he asked about it. So I explained to him that since the two languages are to some extent mutually intelligible, like for instance Spanish and Portuguese, he told me to raise my voice so that the Polish delegation would be able to hear me too.

But the Poles, about half a dozen of them or so, were sitting at the end of a very long table in a very big room. “Am I supposed to shout at them? It would be very disturbing” I told to my client. “No”, said the guy, “speak loud enough so that they could hear you, but not so loud that they would be disturbed by it.”

It was just like an episode straight from Dilbert’s comic strip.

At this point, my interpreting days are fortunately long over and part of the reason for that is that I don’t want to put up with the abuse that interpreters have to take like a man (although most interpreters are actually women). I’m just too old for that stuff.

Based on my very limited experience, it’s rare when an interpreter can defend himself or herself effectively.

The problem is that we don’t want to antagonize our clients, who might decide not to hire us next time, or even not to pay us for work already done, which, although it would be indescribably despicable, has been known to happen on occasion.

The abuse that translators have to put up with is different from the kind of abuse that our interpreting brothers and sisters have to put up with—or not, as the case may be—and is not as bad as what interpreters face, because translators don’t deal directly with people, only with documents. And I believe that independent—or freelance, if you will—translators are in fact less abused then most interpreters, and much, much less than most employees.

I still remember the subtle but persistent and nearly omnipresent abuse I received when I was an employee. I was an employee in several countries, and in every one of them, as an employee I had to do whatever I was told to do, without questioning anything, pretty much the same way as when I was wasting two years of my life in the army.

The only possibility open to employees to express their disagreement about the way a company is run is to quit. And because it may take a very long time before an employee finds another employer, especially a better one, it is very hard to quit a job when you are an employee.

It has often been said that many people stay on at a job they hate, despite the abuse, living a life of quiet desperation for decades until they die because they see no other way to pay their bills. And it is probably true, most of us have experienced something similar; in fact that is often the main reason why some of us are no longer employees.

All things considered, in most cases translators and interpreters are not nearly abused as much as regular employees, thanks to the fact that we don’t have an employer.

Losing a long-time client hurts if it is a customer who kept us busy at good rates for years. But unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about it, because clients don’t last forever.

And even when we sometimes do have to put up with being abused by a client, for example by having to wait months before we finally get paid, once we do get paid for our work, we can put an end to the abuse by no longer accepting more work from a tainted source, which is called firing a client.

As long as we can figure out how to hook the next fish in the sea, and there really are plenty of other fish in the sea, and provided we also learn how to stay away from the red ocean and yellow ocean where all kinds of pretty disgusting fish may be swimming, one of the advantages of our job is that we are much less likely to be abused than employees.

Posted by: patenttranslator | February 21, 2017

How Good Translation Agencies Go Bad

If I remember correctly, it was in 1995 when my friend Alan called me from New York about a nice gig he was working on involving a few weeks of on-site translation from Japanese to English. He was wondering whether I would also be interested in the job. I remember he said, “It’s a new company, but it’s a really good agency. They pay well and treat us well.”

I was interested, partly because I had never been to Manhattan, but in the end I decided not to go. I was enjoying my cozy new downtown Santa Rosa office in a restored Victorian mansion in Northern California’s wine country. Plus we had just gotten a new dog from the SPCA shelter in San Francisco, a big German shepherd-beagle or maybe something else mix, to go with our two dachshunds, and we were about to add an Australian bearded dragon lizard to our little menagerie at home. Our two small kids were so excited about the dog and the lizard, although not nearly as excited as my wife.

So I could not leave because there were just too many things going on where I was. Manhattan would have to wait.

That translation agency, brand new back then, has been in the news quite a bit recently, in particular in translator groups on social media. The mega agency is owned by a couple locked in a terrible (and somewhat hilarious) court battle, while the fate of their company and thousands of employees hangs in the balance.

Even though I did not go to New York a quarter century ago to help that translation agency, (a tiny one at that point), with the avalanche of Japanese documents for translation, eventually I started translating for it. They had quite a lot of work for me in the nineties, and as I remember, they paid good rates and on time back then. I did enjoy working for them for several years.

Once when the agency did not pay me on time, I complained about it on Compuserve, a predecessor of social media for translators in the nineties. The next day, one of the owners called me to let me know that she was sending me a check by Federal Express. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember that I did get the check the next day. Early in the morning, by Federal Express! So I continued to work for the agency after we moved from California to Virginia at the beginning of the new millennium because they had a lot of work and they were still paying good rates.

But problems started creeping into the routine that eventually becomes established between a translator and an agency. They would usually call or email me late Friday afternoon, and the translation would be due on Monday. So basically, working for them meant not having any rest days, and not being able to go to the beach on hot humid weekends with our kids, back when they were still small and loved challenging the Atlantic Ocean with their boogie boards.

I remember that I got really angry at the people working for them when once somebody called me from their office in London to inquire (or enquire, I suppose) whether I would be available to translate a long patent (which he pronounced “paytant”). I generally like nothing better than when somebody asks me whether I would be available to translate a long patent, regardless of their accent.

But this guy called me at 3 AM on a Saturday (yes, I have a phone in the bedroom; I probably shouldn’t).

My friend Steve, who translated Chinese back when there were not many Chinese translators around, at least not good ones like he was, (I use the past tense because he passed away), hated this agency with a burning passion for the same reasons for which I eventually started taking a strong dislike to it, and for many other reasons as well.

He said that they would always call him in the evening in what he called “my bourbon hour”.

Disturbing the perfect serenity of the evenings was bad enough, but the main reason why he hated the agency so much, (he basically ordered me never, ever to work for it, and I eventually complied with his wish), was that the people working for it lied about the jobs they were sending him, in particular by underestimating, clearly on purpose, the number of words in rush jobs that he would blithely accept in the healing haze of his bourbon hour, only to find on Saturday morning that instead of mere two thousand words, he had accepted five thousand words for delivery on Monday morning.

Later, when I was no longer working for this agency, I found out from discussions on social media that just about everybody who was working or used to work for the agency hated it, and that most people who had a choice eventually dropped it, just like I did, following the example of my friend who liked to sip a bit of bourbon in the evening.

When a small company starts growing, its nature starts changing and once it reaches a certain size, it will change so much that eventually it will become a completely different kind of animal.

Instead of sending a check by Federal Express when the payment is a week or two late, the agency will make translators working for it sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that stipulate that payment is due 60 from the end of the month, which means that translators have to wait from 60 to as many as 90 days to get paid.

Who cares how translators will pay their bills in the meantime? It’s their problem, no need to worry about that.

I also read on social media that this agency has or had an arrangement with project managers who were encouraged to haggle with translators to lower their rates as low as they were able to, so that below a certain rate, they would be able to keep the money left over for themselves.

One of the results of the influence of the internet on the “translation industry” is that translators are no longer real human beings to many people who run translation agencies, especially the bigger ones, including in many cases the project managers.

The “translation industry” could not care less whether we will be able to pay our bills at the pitiful rates it is paying us now, after two or three months of waiting for the check.

To the modern “translation industry” we are only assets to be exploited as much as possible.

How the modern “translation industry” perceives translators is not all that different from how people working in translation agencies feel about consumable products – mere human consumables that need to be purchased for as little as possible and used until they are used up, just like the toner cartridges or paper that is loaded into printers.

These human consumables can be acquired cheaply and quite easily. All you have to do is send to a great number of translators (most of whom are listed in various databases of translators) an e-mail such as this one, which I have received several times already today, the last time about two hours ago:

Hello [no name],

My name is Rachel and I am reaching out from XYZ translation, a global medical and pharmaceutical translation company.

Due to new exciting opportunities, we are currently increasing our pool of French to English medical translators with senior experience in fields such as clinical trials, regulatory affairs, market access, or medical devices. We are also urgently searching for translators for an ongoing collaboration to translate medical cases.

If you are interested, kindly fill in our online Translator Form at your earliest convenience. This shouldn’t take more than a few minutes of your time and will enable us to contact you for projects matching your areas of specialization.

Thank you and we look forward to receiving your information.

Best regards,


Project Coordinator

(Reaching out sounds so dramatic, doesn’t it?)

Well, Rachel, I am not interested in being in one of the consumable items listed in your database.

I do business the fashioned way, both when I work as a translator, and when I work as a translation agency with other translators.

And my old-fashioned way of doing business, which oddly enough is very similar to the way the big, bad translation agency described above, nowadays universally hated by translators, used to do business a quarter century ago when it was a new kid on the block, for a while, anyway, before it became one of the biggest and most hated translation agencies in the world, is absolutely not compatible with the way you want to do business with me.

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