Monday, November 29, 2010


Part 3

By Bernie Bierman

CAT tools themselves are not to be regarded as our enemies.  They didn’t do anything.  But the supposed translation specialists did it to themselves and the “real” translators let them.”

The above comment made in response to Part 2 of this series certainly has merit, and I would be hard-put to dispute it.  Indeed, I would say that in respect of the economic impact of computer-assisted translation, the CAT operators or workers (né[e] translators) are not the sole source of the problem, although their complicit behavior has certainly been a contributing factor.  From where I sit or stand and from my keen observations, it has been the language service providers (more commonly known as translation agencies) who have used CAT in an exploitative manner and at the same time have converted translation from a communications service into a commodities business, i.e., the selling of words.

The ability of the various CAT programs currently on the market to undertake “precise” computations consonant with their own (computational) parameters and formulas as to how many “new” words, “repeated” words, matches of phrases or passages or segments, percentages of matches, and so on and so forth down a whole line of esoteric calculations, has resulted in among other things the formulation of a rigid pricing structure that one would commonly find in the sale of goods or commodities.  But given the particular structure of the translation industry, the biggest impact of this pricing rigidity has fallen upon the so-called “low man or woman on the totem pole”, i.e., the independent CAT worker (who has manifested over and over again his or her willingness to accept such rigidity and consequent commodification of the service).

About two years ago, a CAT operator née translator named Ronnie McKee decided to take a much closer look at the computational methods used for determining what a translation agency would pay her for her labors.  She wrote, I was asked (by a translation agency in Spain) to translate a large document, namely, a 20,000- word corporate governance report, with a TM (translation memory) provided.  I had heard about rate scales having to do with number of repetitions, etc. etc., but I never really understood what it meant.  Well, now I do.  And for those who are interested, I'm going to share:”

And Ms. McKee did share, as others have subsequently done, and her findings evidence beyond a shadow of doubt that this intellectual service known as translation has become nothing more than the sale of commodity-like units, which see:
* * * * *
The following table represents the analysis undertaken by the Trados software of the document which Ms. McKee was asked to translate.  The data shown in this table has a direct relationship to the data shown in the immediately-following table, for that table shows what the translation agency will pay the CAT operator when it provides the latter with translation memory (TM) .
Match Types

Context TM



95% - 99%         

85% - 94%         

 75% - 84%         

 50% - 74%          

 No Match          


In the case of the translation agency involved in this transaction, a segment is defined as a sentence; it is what the system joins together into one translation unit.  In line with that, the subject document for which a translation was ordered from Ms. McKee contained (according to the computation undertaken by the agency’s Trados software) 149 repeated segments, and those segments included altogether 415 words.  The 100% line means that there were 909 segments in the source-language (SL) document  that have an identical match in the translation memory   The next group indicates that 67 segments have 95% to 99% matches. Accordingly, this agency determined that it would pay the CAT worker a different rate or amount based upon the degree of the match.
The subject SL document contained 284 segments of “brand new translation” (i.e., “No Match”), and those segments constituted 6055 words.  Therefore, the agency paid the CAT worker  the highest rate for those and paid the lowest rate for the 100% matches.
The table below was used by the translation agency for determining how much it would pay Ms. McKee for her work based upon the data embodied in the above-indicated table:
Match Types

* * * * *
A cursory glance at these figures indicates that for the entire project of 19,818 source language words, Ms. McKee was paid a total amount of € 701.96, which we’ll round off to €702.00, or approximately US$990.00.  That breaks down to €0.036 per SL word or US$0.05 per SL word. 

It would be tempting at this point to undertake a full, in-depth analysis of all of these figures to determine such things as how much Ms. McKee made on an hourly basis, how much efficiency did she achieve by using robotic translation tools, along with numerous other compensation-related aspects.  However, that is not the purpose behind the writing of this article, although it would certainly make good fodder for a future article.

Rather, the purpose behind the writing of this article is to point up not just the commodification of translation, but its total and complete commodification.  But not only does this total and complete commodification elicit comments (especially in the compensation-related area), but also raises numerous questions, questions that both translators and CAT workers have raised and continue to raise, such as how the particular CAT program (Trados, WordFast, DejaVu, et al) determines what is a 72% match or a 48% or a 12% match or a 91% match, and whether there isn’t some kind of interpretive element at work in such determination.  Many CAT operators have expressed and continue to express puzzlement over such determinations (made not by them, but by the translation agency), and even more puzzlement over the methods employed for arriving at such determinations. 

And another equally striking question is how a computer or computer program can determine that two segments in a source language document are identical without having a clue as to whether the target language will demand a somewhat different or very different translation because of that very naughty word context.  Admittedly, however, this is drifting slightly from the main thrust of this article, which to repeat is the commodification of translation.

The pinpoint breakdowns and classifications indicated in the tables shown above demonstrate beyond any discussion and beyond any doubt that the communications service once known as translation has become nothing more than a robotic selling of words…with certain words being the most expensive, other words being a little less expensive, and some words being bargain-basement cheap or in some cases given away for nothing (or if one prefers, given away in the most charitable manner).

And to support and otherwise propagandize this commodification, CAT workers and CAT operators are told that they will attain heights of efficiency and productivity never dreamt of just ten short years ago, and that this efficiency and productivity will double, triple or even quadruple their earnings.  How this will come about in the context of ever-falling translation prices and rates, of more and more competition and of more and more “memorization” of vocabulary, terminology, phraseology, etc., is never explained. 

Not surprisingly, the world community of CAT workers and operators has cheerfully accepted this commodification of their work (perhaps because many never knew better and/or never knew what preceded this commodification) and, in many cases, they have joined their translation agency clients to become the champions, the salespersons and propagandists of Words for Sale.

Yes, indeed, today one can easily tell when CAT workers and operators are gathered in one of their very numerous periodic meetings or conventions or conferences: there is a long line of chauffer-driven limousines, a small but obvious congregation of pilots and flight attendants for the numerous private jets waiting at the nearby airports, and of course a parade of the latest fashions in dress that warms the hearts and pocketbooks of the most elite designers of Paris and Milan

* * * * *

Postscript:  Some time in late January or early February of every year, I prepare financial data for my personal accountant, Smiley.  The data is neatly laid out so that Smiley does not unnecessarily have to call me for any explanations.  Now, I know and Smiley knows that I know that he does not sit down at his desk and spend literally hours upon hours with an adding machine and calculator filling out all sorts and manner of tax forms and declarations (as my late brother-in-law, also an accountant, had to do for many years). 

Nay, I know and Smiley knows that I know that he takes all of the data I provide him with, inputs it into a computer and in a matter of minutes, yes minutes, out come all of the completed tax returns and declarations.  However, when Smiley sends his bill, it does not reflect 12 minutes or 22.4 minutes, or even 1 hour and 7 minutes of work.  So you, the CAT worker out there who might be reading this article, may want to ask “Then what precisely does Smiley’s bill reflect?”

OK, I’ll tell you what it reflects: It reflects his knowledge, his skills, his expertise, his unique and singular talents, and I am more than happy to pay him for that knowledge, skill, expertise and talent, It provides me with a sound sleep at night.   I trust, or at least hope that the readers of this piece (whether they are CAT workers or translators or even translation agency executives) will get my drift, if not the message.


I don’t use CAT tools, but nevertheless I feel that it isn’t fair for a translator to charge for passages that are repeated in a document.  If I can cut and paste a passage, then I’ll charge only once for the words in that passage”
   - Statement by Eve Hecht, a translator and instructor in German legal translation at New York University, made at
       the 2010 convention of the American Translators Association.

If there is any one statement among literally hundreds of thousands of statements by translators (and their 21st century successors, CAT workers or CAT operators) that so perfectly reflects their economic attitudes, it is the one by Eve Hecht quoted above.  Unfortunately and indeed most regrettably (at least unfortunately and regrettably as I see the world of translation), Ms. Hecht’s beliefs and attitudes are not just widely accepted, they have become unquestioned conventional wisdom.  In this past decade more translators and their CAT worker successors have come to believe and accept the attitude expressed by Ms. Hecht.

I have said “unfortunately” and “most regrettably” only out of politeness and what I with some hesitation would call “good taste”.  But I hope that the reader will allow me the indulgence of setting aside the politeness and “good taste”, and allow me to express myself in the terms that would be more deserving of Ms. Hecht’s economic or commercial viewpoints.

Ms. Hecht’s statement makes me want to vomit!  It makes me want to scream. It makes me want to yell out, “Is that all that you think of yourself, of your unique skills (as a translator), of your talents?  Is that what you think of yourself and the work that you do…nothing more that some clerk-like endeavor, nothing more than an extension of the clerical furniture?  Is that all you think of the value of your time?  Is that all the self-worth you have?  Is this what you teach your students, namely that translation is nothing more than typing words, “NEW” words? 

You say, Ms. Hecht, that “it isn’t fair for a translator to charge for passages that are repeated in a document”.  It is not fair to whom?  Surprise me, Ms. Hecht, and tell me precisely why it is not “fair” for a translator to charge for a “repeated passage”.  Surprise me, Madame, and defend your position.  You claim that you are a translator of legal texts.  OK.  Suppose you have a passage like this:

Pursuant to the provisions of §12, section b.2 of Article 719 and §23, section d.1 of Article 793 of the Civil Procedure Code, as amended, the plaintiff can claim…” and two paragraphs later, the text reads, “But in the case before us, the provisions of §12, section b.2 of Article 719 and §23, section d.1 of Article 793 of the Civil Procedure Code, as amended, do not apply to a plaintiff who is unable…

As I understand it, Madame, the second time that the passage the provisions of §12, section b.2 of Article 719 and §23, section d.1 of Article 793 of the Civil Procedure Code, as amendedappears, you do not charge for the translating of that passage.  According to what you say, even if this passage appears ten times within the text, it is a “freebe” to the client, because as I understand your thinking, all you did was “cut and paste” or make a macro, and that in and of itself has zero value…to you (and to all other translation practitioners whom you believe should follow your “benevolent” and “self-sacrificing” attitude).

Tell me, Ms. Hecht, if the words “pursuant to” cropped up 75 times in a text, would you also eliminate those words 74 times from your word-count and attendant invoice? After all, according to you, the only thing you did was to make a little macro and push a button 74 times, and that certainly is not worth anything. Not a single Euro cent.  No a single penny.  Not a single centavo.  Not one single Turkish Lira.   Right?  After all, Ms. Hecht,  according to what you state and believe, it would not be fair for a translator to charge for pushing a macro key 74 times, or 174 times or 374 times.  Indeed,  Madame, why charge for words like “and”, “but”, “in”, “out”, “from”, “to”, “you”, “they”, “he”, “she”, etc., etc., etc., that repeat over and over and over again within any text?

If indeed, Madame, this is in fact what you believe and what you implement in your work, then I have absolutely no hesitation in expressing my opinion that you are precisely one of the many who have wittingly or unwittingly urinated upon the profession of translation, loudly proclaiming that it has little value and what little value it has is about on a par with the most menial clerical endeavor. 

You, Madame, in my most considered opinion are precisely why the translation-buying and translation-using public views and continues to view translators as nothing more than little language clerks and extensions of the clerical furniture.  Yes, Ms. Hecht, you truly want to make me vomit.  Now, really and truly surprise me and defend your position.

* * * * *


  1. You make a very good point, and this is exactly why I rarely work for agencies that insist on Trados rates. However, you really didn't need to go into the name-calling and attacking one individual for a single statement like that, because it detracts from your argument. I don't know her either, but I am going to assume that there are also instances when she charges full rates for each word as well.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Note: deleted and reposted to correct minor error.

    In my experience, the phrase "pursuant to" would be too short to be any sort of match. The same follows for your rather silly examples of "but/in/out" etc. Now, if my helpful CAT tool found two examples of "Pursuant to the provisions of §12, section b.2 of Article 719 and §23, section d.1 of Article 793 of the Civil Procedure Code, as amended, the plaintiff can claim..." You are darn right I would charge only a token rate. In fact, I would probably giggle a bit as I confirmed the translation.

    The sticky bit for me has come with the discounts for "fuzzy translations." Sometimes these matches are so fuzzy as to be nonexistent. The choice then is to either follow @bonnjill's lead and refuse to work for these agencies or adjust rates accordingly. My answer so far has been to do a little of each. I am not saying it's perfect, but at least I understand the problem.

  4. I would suggest that Wanderjenn go back to my Special Comment and re-read it carefully, just the way any true professional translator would carefully read a source language text before committing it to translation. My Special Comment is about a woman who unabashedly says that she does not charge for REPEATED PHRASES. I gave several expressions (including but not limited to "Pursuant to") as examples of so-called "repeated words". In my Special Comment, I WAS CLEARLY NOT REFERRING TO REPEATED WORDS WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF CAT; indeed, if Wanderjenn had taken the time to read the entire Special Comment carefully, he/she would have seen that the point of reference was a person who openly says that she DOES NOT use CAT tools. However, since Wanderjenn agrees with Ms. Hecht that repeated phrases should not be charged for, whether or not CAT tools are employed, then obviously my words about translation being an intellectual communications service have fallen upon blind eyes and deaf ears. Evidently, Wanderjenn believes that commodification of translation is good.

  5. Ms. Bonjill – Just like Wanderjenn, you read not my words but rather the words you thought you read or wanted to read. You accuse me of “name-calling”. That is clear, unadulterated, pristine-pure bullshit! I did not call Ms. Hecht any names. Not one single name issued from my pen (or keyboard). I remained at a clear distance from argumento ad hominem. Yes, I was vehement and vociferous in my criticism of Ms. Hecht’s comment about charging for her services. I clearly disagreed (again, vociferously and vehemently) with Ms. Hecht’s notion (obviously shared by many) of charging for a translation service on the very same basis that one would charge for supplying a set quantity of nuts or bolts or screws or washers. I said that her concept for charging for her translation work brought me nausea and in my very considered opinion that concept was tantamount to urinating upon a profession that is supposed to by marked by special knowledge and some very defined and unique skills and talents. But I did not call her names and I did not engage in name-calling. Finally, all of us must bear full responsibility for what we say and/or write, and if you or Ms. Hecht or anyone else do(es) not wish to be criticized or “attacked” for your (their) statements, then I would respectfully suggest that you/she/they THINK before writing or speaking, or else keep the pen in the pocket and a piece of Velcro on the mouth. That's the way the cookie crumbles, Ms. Bonjill...for you, for Ms. Hecht, for me and for everyone else.

  6. Bernie, if you're in Berlin some time, drop me a line and we'll meet for a beer and I can tell you a few stories about your MBA whiz-bang business wonder translation brokers stereotype. They aren't extinct yet; some still stalk the earth, and your sharp-tongued portrayal of them is in fact a dead-center heavy caliber hit.

    As for your description of Ms. Hecht's comments and your reaction to them, I would find other excreta more appropriate perhaps, but the basic principle of your objection is correct. We do need to move away from robotic idiocy driven by over-simplified programs created by simple minds and consider quite soberly the value delivered and show it whatever respect may be due. There is a certain well-known, self-destructive posture often found in today's translation key-pounders which plays out stereotyped roles which I think have largely disappeared from the normal world of work in Western countries over the past few decades. I'll leave off the details, as they would lack the descriptive restraint you've shown here.

  7. Bless you, Kevin, bless you, not necessarily because you agreed with some or much or all that I stated, but rather for having taken the time to read my words and remain focused on the issues I was attempting to address.

    And I thank you for your invitation to have a few beers in Berlin. Regrettably, the closest I will get to Berlin in 2011 are the various towns and villages along the Franco-German border. However, if you want to have some beer in Basel instead of Berlin, the pleasure of imbibing that beer in your company will be all mine.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your views. My faith in at least a small segment of translatordom has been restored

  8. Hi Bernie,

    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.)

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  11. Hi Bernie... I truly never realized... thank you for this article....this machine assessment of ease or difficulty in expression sounds hair raising, machine interpretation is famously poor at context. I am new to this field and was hell bent on learning the CAT tools, as they are so often requested... not realizing these very tools would be used to whittle away at my earnings, till all those years spent learning German and washing dishes count for nothing, and I may as well do ESL the very bottom of the language practitioner's I had to translate a lab report using terminology from sector of farming I'm unlikely ever to work on again...with very highly developed specialist terminology, and this was embedded in a legal and commercial wrangle about food quality. If I were to exclude all repetitions, this work which will be of no future use to me, in which I had to look up every 2nd word, not just in a dictionary, but in scientific articles to check for contextual implications, this work of days would have earned me 2 dollars an hour.

  12. I may life in a 'developing' country but we all have to eat !

  13. Modification is a normal step to edit anything.