Monday, January 31, 2011


“I know that you believe you understand what you think I said, but I'm not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”

--Attributed to Robert McCloskey, U.S. State Department spokesman, by Marvin Kalb, CBS reporter, in TV Guide, 31 March 1984, citing an unspecified press briefing during the Vietnam War.

“Counting words is merely a device and while quick, easy to grasp and convenient, a poor one…Turning texts into segments, calculating repetitions, quantifying the value of those segments based on so-called repetition, has directly contributed to what I believe has been referred to here as ‘commoditization’.”

            --Liz Lyons


Previous articles on this blog have addressed the issue of “selling words” to refer to the way most freelance translators price their work.  While this concept has always been flawed, it represented a way of negotiating prices with purchasers of translation services which, with the advent of CAT tools, became even more problematic because translators found themselves faced with demands for discounts on previously translated words or “repetitions” and words that were “close to” words that had been previously translated or what came to be known as “fuzzy matches”.

All to no avail, I have tried to determine the targeted user of these “CAT tools”, a term which is used for software programs consisting, in their simplest form, of a translation memory and a terminology database.  My gut feeling, based on what I have gleaned from those who are pushing their use, is that these programs were designed to help the individual translator, who would develop an ongoing “translation memory” consisting of matched source- and target-language segments.  This translation memory would work in conjunction with a terminology database which the translator would constantly update.  The translator was led to believe that he/she would “never have to translate the same sentence again”. 

For many translators, it was a rude awakening to discover that translation agencies were developing translation memories for all their clients and that they, the translators, were expected to give discounts for previously translated words, whether or not they agreed that those previously translated words conveyed the meaning of the source document.  Sadly, most translators simply complied.  After all, there was no financial incentive to make changes and the only way to survive financially was to produce more words albeit at a reduced rate.

Texts were turned into segments that were matched with previously translated segments, previously translated source-language words were matched with target-language words to arrive at a “translation”, which supposedly conveyed the meaning of the source-language text.  The translator became a “language engineer” who manipulated segments and marveled at the way the software could reproduce formatting and put all those segments back together in a way that seemed to produce a target-language document that was identical to the source-language document. 

Machine translation, which incorporates some of the same technology, also works with words.  This technology may be based on rules of grammar and dictionaries or it may be statistically based on natural language usage, but ultimately it is based on words which have denotative and connotative values determined by context. 

All well and good were it not for the fact that writers in the real world use language that is not only idiomatic and/or idiosyncratic, but rather is language that I have come to call Humpty Dumpty language, a language characterized by the concept “a word means exactly what I choose it to mean”.  So, what does the human translator do when he/she encounters a word in the source language for which any of the possible alternatives in the target language would be somewhat bizarre?  I tend to think that the human translator would opt for the intended meaning.  No automated language program is capable of making that determination, and it is not something that can become part of a translation memory or a terminology database. 

In reality, what seems to have gotten lost is that the role of the translator is to communicate meaning.  While that meaning is of necessity couched in words, there is no direct correlation between the words in one language and the words in another language, nor can we be sure that the words used by a writer in one language convey the meaning that he/she intended to convey.  We are all aware that it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a document that is well written in any language.      

So, in the end, meaning is not a commodity.  It cannot be reduced to words to be sold to the highest (or lowest) bidder.  Although meaning is expressed in words, those words are constantly changing.  Any attempt to automate the expression of meaning is bound to fall short.

The automated language industry is actively trying to involve human translators in the machine translation process.  In reality, they need the work of human translators to provide the matched segments that is the basis of statistical machine translation.  However, they seem to ignore much of the advice that comes from translators.  In discussing the role of translators, Fred Hollowood of Symantec Corporation said:  “I relied heavily on the quality assessments of translators. They were not always favorable.  It was some time before I learned to temper these evaluations with automatic metrics and user evaluation of MT output.”

Automatic metrics will be the subject of a future article, but user evaluation of MT output is something that can be compared with user evaluation of human translation.  Oftentimes it is not the end-user of the translation who evaluates it but the entity contracting the translation.  This entity is not always capable of determining how it will be understood by the end user.

There is no doubt that the translation industry is in a profound state of change.  We cannot cling to the past, neither can we ignore it.  The merchant translator that Bernie Bierman mentioned in previous articles is gone forever.  The freelance translator has no “knight in shining armor” to protect his/her interests.  But we do know that our profession is not and should not be based on the sale of words.  The role of the translator is, has always been, and hopefully will always be the communication of meaning and that is something that defies commodification. 

I personally believe that CAT tools (Trados, etc.) as we know them, like the 8-track, will soon be part of the past.  This is not true of machine translation, and it is a force that all human translators must reckon with.  Dealing with the automated language sector (their term) is not easy in that they have their own “language”.  Navigating their websites and discussion groups involves constant googling to determine the meaning of acronyms and arcane language.  Nevertheless, I feel that only by attempting to come to grips with their goals, whether or not they are achievable given the idiosyncratic nature of human language, can we achieve a balance in human communication.

Right now, though, what we need is a real dialogue about post-editing, what it is, how it fits in with traditional translation, and how it should be remunerated. Ultimately, that is the bottom line because if translators are expected to contribute to the machine translation process, they should be compensated for their efforts.            

Sunday, January 9, 2011


(with apologies to George and Ira Gershwin)

“You like potayto and I like potahto, You like tomayto and I like tomahto
Potayto, potahto, Tomayto, tomahto, Let's call the whole thing off”

While George and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics have more to do with pronunciation than with meaning, communication is certainly facilitated when there is a common or shared language, and that is where translators and interpreters enter the picture.  If I had to pinpoint one thing that distinguishes serious translators and writers from those who are, shall we say, less serious, it would be the indefatigable search for le mot juste, the word that conveys the exact nuance of the meaning of the concept in the source language or in the mind of the writer.  Thought, after all, is abstract and only becomes concrete through its expression in language. 

In general, human communication is involved with conveying meaning and exchanging ideas.  Although this can be accomplished in a variety of ways, it is our ability to do this with language that separates us from the creatures of the fields and forests.  Writers know that language is a powerful tool.  Words have denotative and connotative meanings that often depend upon context and, if there is to be communication, which incidentally is (or used to be) the main role of the translator, (who also used to be a writer), there must be a “language” that is shared by the writer and the reader.  In the case of Translation Commentator, that language is English, or more specifically, Standard Written English (SWE, for those who prefer acronyms). 

That said, some of the responses to the articles that have been published lately make me wonder whether some of our readers do indeed share this language.  Some of the commentators remind me a bit of politicians who, when asked what they would do to accomplish this or that, go off on a tangent about the mistakes (real or imagined) that their opponents have made.  In other words, some commentators are not commenting on the article at all.  Not only do some of them seem to have completely missed the point of the article they are commenting on, they have picked a couple of words from the article and used them as a bridge to a completely different topic.  I think the time has come to “clear the air”, so to speak.

Those readers who have been following this blog since its beginning almost a year ago will remember my first post wherein I gave its raison d’être, which was to provide a forum for the discussion of issues affecting translators, issues that were verboten in other forums.  For those who have not read that post, I quote a sentence from the first paragraph:   “Clearly, one would think that at the top of the list of issues that would be omnipresent in today’s translation publications would be the precipitous decline in rates and translator earnings, along with the resulting out-and-out exploitation of translators.”   Since that time, almost every blog post has dealt with economic issues.  The articles that have dealt with translation technology have focused primarily on the financial impact it is having, and will continue to have, on the freelance translator.  I say “primarily” because I did mention in one article that use of this technology seems to have a negative effect on the creativity of the translator.

Be that as it may, the new translation technology is here and it is here to stay.  Over time it will doubtless be improved and perhaps even perfected to a point where its current state will be viewed as somewhat crude. The series of articles written by Bernie Bierman and this blogista do not in any way constitute some kinds of mindless “rants”, “raves” and assorted “diatribes” against technology.  We have both acknowledged that this technology certainly has a place in the translation industry.  The clear fact is that the focus of the articles in question has been economic:  the impact on the translation marketplace by just one form of the new translation technology:  computer-assisted translation.   Indeed, nowhere in those articles was there any reference to the economic impact of machine translation on the translation marketplace.  However, that will soon change as I am currently working on an article on machine translation and its impact on the translation marketplace.

 Now, a word about anger:  Anger is a natural human emotion that comes in a wide variety of forms, shapes and levels.  Anger is not a “sin”.  Anger, irrespective of form, shape or level, is a manifestation of displeasure and/or frustration.  Anger is one way of expressing one’s desire to see what is displeasing and/or frustrating changed or eliminated.  Anger can be benign or malignant.  If there has been anger expressed on the pages of this publication, it has been clearly and conclusively benign.  No one is out to shoot anyone or decapitate anyone or put poison in their coffee or tea or favorite beverage.  And, most definitively and assuredly, those who take sharp exception or who are in diametrical opposition to the opinions expressed by this blogista and any guest blogistas are free—and shall always be free—to express their thoughts with anger.  There are no language police patrolling the pages of this publication.

Translation Commentator is not a classroom filled with young children.  Translation Commentator is a publication and forum for adults.  It does not need any condescending lectures from any quarters about anger being “inappropriate” or “demeaning” or “immature”.  (See my February 2010 blog entitled “Professionalism Revisited”.  Anger is more effectively defused by facts and logic, rather than condescending lectures).

Translation Commentator exists to provide an open exchange of ideas, thoughts and opinions on what is happening in today’s rapidly-changing translation industry. This publication openly and eagerly solicits the ideas, thoughts and opinions not only of would-be bloggers, but also of its readers. There are no censors here; there are no editorial boards here; there are no thought police or language police in this community.  What you say or what you write is your responsibility.

If you disagree with what is stated on these pages, then air your disagreement.  You can do it in basically three ways:  write a blog piece or write a comment or provide a link to a site where your words of disagreement have already been written.

However, if you disagree with something written here, do not think for a moment that you can provide a link to a site where you have written something that has absolutely nothing to do with the article or piece with which you purport to disagree.  That tactic is called self-promotion and Translation Commentator does not exist for those solely interested in marketing and promoting themselves.  There are a sufficient number of media outlets for that endeavor.

Although my guest blogistas and I do our best to respond to all questions contained in comments, there are occasions when something “slips through the cracks”.  A reader named Jari submitted the following comment in respect of Bernie Bierman’s multi-part article entitled “Words for Sale”:

I hope I did catch your drift. ;) I would like to raise one question:  are CAT tools and their algorithms the problem, or is it just that word prices are very low nowadays?  (And of course they are being continuously pressed down by various actors in the field.)

Bernie’s answer to that is “No, neither computer-assisted translation nor the various forms of what we call machine translation constitute the problem.  In fact, I would go one small step further by adding that because CAT and MT are inherently different processes, if there are indeed any problems or “problems” arising from the two processes, those problems would likewise be inherently different.  The problem is rather what Jari suggests, namely the very low word prices that are continually being kept low by the various actors in the field”.

Finally, I would like to reiterate that the working language of Translation Commentator is English.  It can be American English or British English or Canadian English or Australian English or New Zealand English or Indian English or South African English or Fiji Islands English or any other brand of English spoken or written where English is the native or dominant language.  Those for whom English is an acquired or second language and who wish to make comments or write a letter-to-the editor or even write a blog piece will be accorded nothing but the greatest respect for attempting to express themselves in an adopted or acquired language.  There will be no remarks regarding grammar or spelling or syntax or idiom or anything like or close to that.

However, those for whom English is a native tongue may not receive such an exemption, for one of the problems facing our industry today—never forgetting that ours is an industry of language and communication—is the invasion by native speakers of English who have absolutely no clue as to the differences between “it’s” and “its” or “advise” and “advice” or “effect” and “affect”, or who labor under the belief that all nouns begin with an upper case letter, or that the pronoun “I” can equally be written as “i”.  Those who have no respect for their native language and claim membership in the community of translation (either as translators, translation technologists or ordinary CAT operators) may find themselves the subject of derision.  Double so for those bereft of respect for their native language who stand on soapboxes and espouse “translation quality”. 

In reality, regardless of which language is the target language, anyone who is translating into or writing in that language has the obligation to use it correctly.



Sunday, January 2, 2011



By Bernie Bierman
One positive thing that can be said of the American Translators Association (ATA) is that it has a propaganda machine that works 24/7.  In fact, I would say that the ATA has a propaganda machine that is by far the best of all of the propaganda machines of all of the translator-interpreter organizations in the world.  Of course, one must always remember that propaganda and the dissemination thereof is what trade associations do best. In fact, one can say with a good deal of cogency that propaganda is the very raison d’être of a trade association.

But there are a couple of problems with propaganda, especially pristine pure propaganda.  One is that propaganda (and propagandized information) has (have) little connection to reality, and the other is that propaganda (and propagandized information) can place the members of a trade or profession in a light that isn’t too complimentary.  Dangerous stuff this propaganda.  Mishandling may cause injury.

“U.S. News & World Report” is a weekly news magazine published in the United States (where else?).  In its hey-day, it held third-place behind “Time” and “Newsweek” among the weekly news magazines.  With 24-hour cable TV news , which is also disseminated over the internet and a more than a discernible decline in reading (especially reading more than a few hundred characters a la Twitter), the three above-mentioned magazines along with their daily newspaper brethren have become almost creaking relics of a journalism past. 

On the eve before the eve of the new year, the propaganda machine of the American Translators Association loudly proclaimed to the ca. 10,000 faithful that translating and interpreting “were among the 50 best occupations projected for 2011”.  Do you think I’m joking?  Well, the proof is not only in the pudding, it is equally in the eating.  So here, have some ATA pudding as served up as an end-of-the-year dessert:

“U.S. News & World Report has rated translation and interpreting as one of the 50 best careers to pursue in 2011. The magazine’s annual review of high-opportunity professions has become a go-to resource for school guidance counselors, college students, job-seekers, and anyone who is considering a career change.

To come up with this year's top jobs list,
U.S. News considered job-growth projections, salary data, educational requirements, and market demand. Labor and industry experts also weighed in with stats on employment prospects and job satisfaction.”

Now then, folks, I would like you to focus in on that sentence “Labor and industry experts also weighed in with stats* on employment prospects and job satisfaction”.

* For those of you for whom English is a second language, please do not take it as an act of condescension or patronization if I explain to you that millions upon millions of native speakers of the language are afflicted with what may be called aggressively-malignant linguistic laziness, to wit:  “Congratulations” is a word said only by those born before 1955.  The word in 21st century English is “congrats”.  The only time that the word “application” is used is when one speaks of a job application.  What is used in your computer or iPod or iPad or mobile phone are “apps”.  And those “abdominal muscles” that so many of us are trying to keep firm are called “abs”.  And all those figures that we see in connection with all sorts of endeavors are called “stats”, since no native speaker of English would ever say “statistics”, except those doddering, incontinent soon-to-be-dead citizens.

And in the case of ATA, this is how these industry experts weighed in:

“Salary varies greatly depending on language and subject matter. Interpreters and translators who speak languages that are in high demand or underrepresented in the field often have higher earnings, as do those who communicate about complicated topics. In 2009, the median annual salary was $40,860, and the median hourly wage, $19.65. Interpreters and translators in the bottom 10 percent earned less than $22,810, while those in the top 10 percent earned more than $74,150”.

The first thing we ourselves might want to weigh is that these figures are not figures culled from the records of the United States Department of Labor, which statistically-speaking are much more accurate and reliable than those obtained from industry sources.  Rather, these figures are taken from ATA’s own bi-yearly compensation surveys, which for the most part are participated in by ATA members.  The response rate was 11.2% according to the 2007 ATA compensation survey report. Excluded from the survey are the association’s members who are not U.S. residents.  Therefore, the figures given above are based upon the responses of some 1000 translators and/or interpreters, utilizing survey methods that do not provide for the usual ±3% or ±4% accuracy margin. 

But let us say just for the sake of the argument (and also to stop some readers from complaining that I am being terribly unfair to the poor American Translators Association) that these figures do fall within the acceptable ±3% or ±4% accuracy goal.  Yes, let’s say that.  (See how fair I am being to the poor ATA?)  OK, now I would like all of you not to lose sight of the fact that the figures given by the ATA and published in “U.S. News & World Report” are in U.S. dollars and apply to translators (now more than ever CAT workers or operators) living in the United States.  Clearly, for those of you who reading this article from the comfort of your homes or offices in Mumbai  or Novosibirsk or Kobrin or Algiers or Cairo or Abidjan or Lima or Buenos Aires or Punta Arenas, a figure such as US$40,860 per annum may look like a king’s ransom.  Indeed, in Mumbai, if such an annual salary is not kingly, it is certainly princely.

But if you happen to live in the U.S. or even western Europe, then US$40,860 (ca. € 29,200) is not exactly the kind of “bread” that will allow you to buy a first-class airline ticket to see your family over the Christmas holiday.  Come to think of it, it may not even buy you a ticket in the plane’s cargo bay.    You see, in today’s United States, earnings of US$40,860 would not be bad at all if you were living rent-free at momma’s house, contributed about $25 a week towards meals and had free use of daddy’s car to run your errands.  And if you were still under momma’s and daddy’s medical insurance policy (with momma and daddy paying the premiums), your US$40,860 might even entitle you a nice 10-day vacation somewhere in the Caribbean. 

However, let’s change the venue and conditions somewhat.  Suppose you are a translator earning US$40,860, have a spouse who earns the same amount, live in an urban area and have two children.  And let’s say for the sake of the argument that this US$40,860 is the gross amount that you earn as a self-employed freelance translator (or CAT operator), from which first you must deduct your business expenses.  Well, the first thing you better hope for is that your spouse’s annual earnings of US$40,860 comes from salary or wages, and that his or her employment also provides full family healthcare benefits (including dental care.  And if those two children are of college (university) age, you better start hoping that your parents or your spouse’s parents are amenable to opening their pocketbooks.

In other words, gross annual earnings in the United States of US$40,860 from self-employed translation activities is plain chopped liver (to use an American idiom).  For “U.S. News & World Report” to categorize translation (and/or interpreting) with its mean annual earnings of US$40,860 as one of the best 50 jobs in the U.S. in 2011 is understandable; for their purpose is to sell magazines, and if the purveying of (economic) nonsense sells magazines, well that’s part of the business of selling magazines.  But for an organization such as the American Translators Association that purports itself to represent an industry or profession and further purports itself to be the guardian and protector of translator good & welfare in the United States, to be in direct partnership with this shameless purveying of economic nonsense, i.e., that translation with its median hourly wage of US$19.65 somehow constitutes a “great occupation” or a “growth occupation”  or “the occupation of the future” (particularly when one takes into account that a common rural postal carrier in the U.S. earns an hourly wage of US$18.50 (plus a package of social benefits, including healthcare insurance), is to me cynicism  at  best, and something indescribable at worst.  Indeed, while I had no problems categorizing ATA’s so-called “certification program”  as intellectual fraud, I do find myself groping for a descriptor for this latest act of sheer unadulterated cynicism and snake oil salesmanship by one of the largest if not the largest translator-interpreter organizations in the world.     

And then there is another side to this statistical story which neither the ATA nor “U.S. News & World Report” (fed with its ATA-generated statistics) appear disposed to mentioning.  And that side is about translators-interpreters who may earn as much as US$240,000 per annum. Of course, one of the qualifications for earning that princely amount is that you have to speak and/or read and/or write one of what former ATA President Marian S. Greenfield unabashedly called “the languages of terrorism”.  And you have to be prepared to earn those dollars in one of those countries where one of those “languages of terrorism” (Greenfield’s words, not mine) are spoken and/or written and/or read.  And you equally have to be prepared to sacrifice perhaps one limb or maybe two, or perhaps an eye (no big deal, you’ll still have another one), or be prepared to shoulder a “slight” concussion that will make your brains resemble scrambled eggs.  And of course, you’ll have to find the right government contractor to whom to render your translation and/or interpreting services. 

Now even at the risk of boring some of you, permit me to add just a couple more wee elements into this cauldron of statistics…er, excuse me, “stats” (I really don’t want any of you to think that I am doddering or incontinent or on my way to The Big Dictionary in the Sky):  Unless you have been living in a deep cave for the past five years (at the very least), you are aware, perhaps even painfully that more and more translation is being done by or with the assistance of computers.  Indeed, Mr.Kirti Vashee, who claims expertise in this area, said precisely that in a comment made here to one of Rosene Zaros’ articles.  And Mr. Vashee additionally implied that this volume of computerized or computer-assisted translation will increase.  And all of the translation technologists and machine-translation gurus and gurettes are telling us that in the coming decade, the bulk of translation activities will be one way or the other in the hands of computers.  And since machine translation and any of its mutations are far more “cost-effective” (in plain language, cheaper) than human translation, do not we wish to ask the question as to what kind of effect will this have on those median annual earnings of US$40,860?  Patience. Read on:

Many of those same translation technologists and machine-translation gurus and gurettes are also telling us, nay, firmly predicting that the future of translators (and CAT operators) is in post-editing et le cas échéant pre-editing of the detritus issuing from the translation machine.  Good.  At least there is a rosy spot in our employment picture.  We will go from that not-so-prestigious job title of translator (or interpreter) or the absolutely non-prestigious job title of CAT worker, to the prestigious-sounding title of translation editor (with emphasis on editor).  I like that.  “I’m a translation editor”.  Hell, it sounds almost as good as “I’m a newspaper or magazine editor”.  But what about the earnings figures from all that pre- and post-editing?

One of my correspondents recently wrote the following to me:

“I recently attended an online Webinar entitled "Machine Translation in the Real World:  A Dell Case Study".   The webinar was conducted by an outfit called Applied Language Solutions and the "Dell Case Study" seemed to be nothing more than an attempt to give credibility to Applied Language Solutions.   Part of the session included a history of machine translation from its early beginnings to what presenters described is now approaching a state-of-the-art application.  They did admit that while machine translation is not yet fully a state-of-the-art application, its status as such is clearly on the horizon. Some of the attendees did ask about price; e.g., how would machine translation with post-editing compare to having a document translated by a human translator?  The answer was that, initially it would be about 50% of the cost of human translation but that would decrease as more and more corpora (another buzz word) was/were (not sure if its singular or plural) added.  The corpora (at least 1,000,000 words) consists of translation memories, glossaries and documents that have already been translated.  .

While the presenters acknowledged that MT is not really suitable for idiomatic and idiosyncratic texts, they clearly downplayed those aspects of translation and stressed the fact that post-edited machine translation offers major cost savings.  Therefore, there would be a discernible need for post-editors.  And where would these post-editors come from?  The response was that they might come from the rank and file translators whose responsibilities would include the insertion of nuance into the final translation, along with any cultural implications, idiosyncratic language, etc.  In the overall scheme, these post-editors would function at a relatively low level”.

Since the cost prediction for the machine translation process is 50% less than that of human translation, one might want to ask whether this new corps of post-editors will receive 50% less for their endeavors than what today’s translator (in the U.S. … to keep us focused on the “U.S. News & World Report” crystal ball) receives.  Clearly, that 50% would be 50% of what are already depressed prices for human translation services, particularly in North America and western Europe.  That is not an exactly a rosy picture.  Yet even in the light of (1) the continued replacement of human translation by robotic translation and (2) a current median annual income of just under US$41,000 in the United States, an organization like the American Translators Association is proudly and loudly telling not just its members but the public-at-large that translation is not just coming up roses, it is roses.  According to the snake oil marketers at ATA, translation is one of the most economically-attractive occupations and one with a truly promising future.  I seem to smell the pungent aroma not just of bovine and equine excrement, but also of porcine excrement.

Welcome to 2011 and a Very Happy New Year!