Monday, September 27, 2010


Several people sent me emails about my last post rather than making comments here. Two in particular had to do with Bernie Bierman's email to his clients, and I passed them along to him. So that the discussion can continue, I am publishing his reply below:

Dear Jodi and dear Aliza,

Rosene Zaros, the publisher of this blog and journal informed me that both of you disagreed with me – in slightly different ways - on the matter of charging on the basis of target language words. I would be truly shocked if there were more than ten persons in the entire world of translation who agreed with me, not just on this issue, but on any other translation-related issue.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have even written my “letter to my clients”, for it was based solely and totally upon erroneous thinking, and worse upon truly dinosauric concepts. In a phrase, I should have listened to the voices bellowing in unison, “Hey, Bernie, get with the program”. Stupidly, or unwisely, I chose to ignore those voices and proceeded along on my hind legs. If someone called me a slang term denoting the egress of the rectal canal, he, she or they would have been absolutely correct..

You see, my very dear ladies, when I wrote my letter to the client, I was still cemented into the thinking and attendant belief that there are still more than a sufficient number of translators in this vast world who perceive of themselves as writers, as specialists in communications, as persons having knowledge (profound or peripheral) of certain or many subjects, or for the very least the terminology, the phraseology and the writing styles of those subjects. Indeed, as I was writing my words, I kept laboring under this very antiquated notion that in the ultimate the fee of a practitioner in this business – whether an individual translator or a translation service company – was really based upon some very unique skills combined with knowledge and other gray matter components, and all wrapped up in a package labeled “communications service”. And I further kept laboring under the equally antiquated notion that the word count was merely the best of all of the other inadequate methods (e.g., per line, per stroke, per hour, per coffee break) to be used as a mere reference upon which this fee for a communications service could be based. I really don’t know what possessed me to keep thinking in a period of time that now seems like at least one thousand years ago.

Incidentally, the reason that gave rise to the writing of my letter to my (ever dwindling number of) clients was US$4.80. Yes, that’s right, US$4.80. No, not US$48.00 or US$480 or US$4800, but US$4.80. If you yourselves don’t see the picture, I do believe you see my drift. (At least I hope so).

There are at least two (2) facts of the matter that I should have paid more attention to and carefully considered before writing my letter to my clients. While I have every reason to believe that both of you are fully acquainted with these particular facts of the matter, permit me to address them merely for the sake of the few fellow dinosaurs who may read this tract, and whose understanding of the ways of modern translation need remediation. The first is that there are fewer and fewer translators involved in the translation industry. Translators, as we knew and defined them once upon a fairly short time ago, have been replaced by a genus called CAT workers or CAT operators (a genus somewhat akin to the now-defunct keypunch operator). The second fact of the matter is that with the ever-growing dominance of CAT, it is the computer that undertakes a so-called “scientific” analysis of the text to be translated, comparing it to texts that have been previously translated and stored in its memory, an analysis that includes not just the exact number of words to be translated from “scratch”, but also the number of words that may be similar to those already in the memory; this process is called “matching” and the computer undertakes all sorts and manner of calculations to determine percentages of this “matching”. All of these analyses and calculations of matching percentages are done on the basis of the text to be translated, i.e., the source language text, and the CAT worker or operator is told right from the get-go precisely how many (SL) words he or she will have to “translate” and how much he or she will be paid for those “translated” words. And there is no arguing by the CAT operator with either the computer or the translation agency. (Of course, this latter aspect raises some interesting questions of independent contractorship, but that’s another story for another day.)

Anyway, arguments/discussions/debates/discourses about TL-SL counts are now meaningless; the computer has become and is unquestionably the undisputed master and sole arbiter of this aspect of the translation process, and both the translation agencies and the hordes of CAT operators who labor for those agencies now worship fervently at the altar of this omniscient and omnipotent deity.

If my letter to my clients said anything, it said that I am of the age of the quill pen and parchment paper. And now I shall take leave of you to get into my horse-drawn carriage and repair to the blacksmith.

Always your Most Hbl., Dvt. & Obt. Svt.,

(Hell, if I am to be classified as a dinosaur, I just as well write like one, eh?)

Bernie Bierman

Friday, September 17, 2010


After years of working with the Oxford English Dictionary and Webster's international Dictionary, I recently purchased the American Heritage Dictionary because I had been led to believe that this dictionary looks to the future, that it is descriptive rather than prescriptive and offers advice on appropriate usage. So, when I looked for the word commoditization", I was surprised to learn that the preferred term is "commodification". No matter, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet" or, depending upon your point of view, as foul.

Ten, even five years ago, I would never have imagined that translation could become a commodity in the way that it has. Now, overwhelmingly, it is sold on the basis of price, a price that is based upon the word count in the source language (before we even take into account TM, with repetitions, fuzzy matches, etc.), which assumes that translation is nothing more than matching words. This is a far-reaching topic and it deserves our attention.

Yesterday my friend and colleague Bernie Bierman copied me on an email he sent to his clients. This was an eye-opener for me in that I had just gone along with the general switch in the industry to payment being based on the target language. I had never even thought about how truly "unprofessional" those odd-ball amounts are.

I am posting Bernie's message because I feel that it is indeed an important message. The things that he points out are things that we should all be thinking about. The idea that translation is about words and numbers of words is taking us in a direction that I believe is dehumanizing. There will be more on that topic in future posts--and I promise that they will be forthcoming. In the meantime, I offer Bernie's message and invite everyone to comment on it.

Dear Client:

I am sending you this message not just to explain or re-explain my fees for translation and how I bill for them, but also more importantly to apprise you of a certain business philosophy which you yourselves might want to consider as applicable to your own clients.

The fees I charge for my translation services are based upon a TARGET LANGUAGE COUNT. The source language count means absolutely nothing to me except as a rough guide to the volume of the particular job or project. Indeed, source language counts are meaningless to me, both from the point of view of the end-product and the invoicing for that product.

Permit me at this point to impart some philosophy (or perhaps "philosophy") about translation and the translation process, and in an effort to catch your attention - which I hope will be undivided - I shall write what follows in larger, bold-face characters:

Translation (and) the translation process, is (are) not about words...big words, little words, short words, long words, whole words or particles of words. It is equally not about numbers or names or formulas or equations. Translation is about writing and communication. Indeed, before the so-called "wizards" of technology came long in the late 1990's or early 2000's, translation was viewed by many as one branch of the communications arts. Indeed, from any clear point of view, whether objective or subjective, translation is about writing and communication. It is not about word-matching, as some if not many of today's technologically-obsessed translators, CAT workers and CAT operators believe.

As a translator I am a writer and communications specialist. I think and write in the TARGET LANGUAGE (which in my case happens to be English). Indeed, what can be said with 10 source language words, oftentimes needs 15 or 16 or 17 target language words, and conversely what sometimes can be said with those same 10 source language words might require just a mere 5 or 6 target language words.

Thus, the end-product which you receive from me is a TARGET LANGUAGE product, and that precisely is the product which your client will read, use and act upon. In more than a manner of speaking, the source language text is merely a reference text. It is not the end-product of the service that I am rendering to you, and which you in turn are rendering your client.

Some of you may counter the foregoing by asking, "OK, How do we provide our client with an exact, down-to-the-penny quote?" If you would like an answer to that question, please feel free to write to me, and I'll be happy to provide you with an answer based upon my 35 years of experience as a successful translation service company owner and executive and that of literally hundreds of my former colleagues and competitors in the business.

Finally, permit me to reiterate another important aspect of my invoicing. You will never receive an invoice from me for so-called odd-ball amounts like $67.31 or $283.94 and $1,131.76. Why? Because on texts over 1000 target-language counts, I round off to the nearest 100. Hence 1234 words = 1200 words and 1278 words = 1300. For texts having less than 1000 words, I round off to the nearest 50. Hence, 724 words = 700 words and 832 words = 850. But in the final analysis, you are not paying me for words (the word count is used merely as an equitable basis for billing). You are paying me for a unique communications skill and my attendant knowledge and experience.

I thank you for your attention to this message, and should you have any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me.


Bernie Bierman