Monday, December 20, 2010


Anger, or the absence thereof, is in the news a lot these days.  Supporters of both major political parties are angry (for different reasons, of course), and the general public is angry.  Oddly enough, much of this anger is directed at the man in the White House, who does not seem to be angry at all.  Speaking of President Obama in a recent New York Times article, Ishmael Reed said that it is “risky for a black man to express anger…he’d be dismissed as an angry black militant with a deep hatred of white people.”  Nonetheless one can only wonder what would have happened had he expressed even a teeny-tiny bit of wrath or outrage.

Shortly after I posted part 3 of Bernie Bierman’s article, I received emails from a couple of followers.  Both said that, while they agreed with Bernie, they felt that he was “too angry”.  While this seems to be a matter of degree (how angry is too angry?), it certainly raises some important questions.  For example, how do we as translators feel about ourselves and the work we do?  Are we happy about “selling words”, new words, repeated words, recycled words?  Should we not be angry that those who “purchase” these words are trying to tell us how much they will pay for them?  And, should we not be angry that many of our colleagues have been seduced by vendors of technology into acting counter to their own best interests? 

It seems to me that we should be very angry about what the rush to embrace translation memory tools and now machine translation has done to the translation profession.  We should be angry that this was done “with the blessing” of ATA and other translators’ associations.  We should also be fearful that the “real” translators (mentioned in a comment to part 2 of Bernie Bierman’s article) are becoming extinct. 

Not all that long ago, translation was regarded as a writing profession and translators were “ghost” writers of sorts.  They “transformed” a message in the source language into a message that could be readily understood by target-language readers.  They were communicators.  To do this well requires knowledge, skill, training and, yes, talent.  It goes beyond just matching words.  Translators needed a broad background of knowledge, an insatiable curiosity, and the general ability to learn new things.  A “real” translator crafted each document with care, constantly searched for le mot juste, and was unhappy if a heavy-handed editor made stylistic changes.  The author of the translation felt a sense of ownership. 

All of that changed drastically with the advent of CAT tools.  The new breed of “translators” (also known as CAT operators) no longer works with documents.  Instead they are working with segments that come from many different sources.  They are now doing what one of my colleagues calls “fill-in-the-blank” translation and are only being paid their full rates (if they are lucky and the client doesn’t set the rate) for the words in the blanks they fill in.  However, for CAT operators, this is not a real issue because the fact that they only have to fill in the blanks allows them to accept translation projects or assignments which, in the past would have been beyond their abilities. Because they are “recycling” so many words, they can sell more words for less.    

While this may not be a financial issue for CAT operators, it certainly gives rise to questions about translation quality. In Denver I overheard a couple of agency owners grousing about problems with translation memories because “translators” do not update them.  What in the world do they expect?  If CAT operators are being paid next to nothing for repetitions and so-called 100% matches, and only slightly more for so-called “fuzzy matches”, there is no incentive to check for accuracy and they move on.  In spite of the fact that some members of our community would like to equate the word “professional” with behavior, the truth of the matter is that the “professional”, unlike the amateur or dilettante expects (or should expect) to be paid for his/her expertise.       

Only a few short years ago, translators were making their own decisions about whether or not to use a CAT tool.  They made this choice based on the type of work they do.  All of that has changed because many agencies require that a job be done with Trados or some other CAT tool.  It goes without saying that the overall emphasis on technology has had a deleterious effect on the translation profession, and this goes beyond declining rates.  A steady diet of “fill in the blank” translation can affect the translator mentally as well as financially.   As Gabriel Fairman points out in the June 2010 issue of MultiLingual:

The most tacit [sic] and perhaps most important issue takes place at an emotional level when the translator’s feeling of authorship over the document gets impaired.  As a translator’s work is reduced to translating segments rather than documents, power and responsibility get dimmed as well.  The translator who inputs segments ascribes [sic] more clearly to a machine metaphor, while a translator who crafts a text corresponds more to an artistic metaphor.  The more clearly a translator, or any professional for that matter, has sight of the overall purpose and art of the work, of his or her ownership of everything that lies within a certain realm, the greater the chances of self-improvement and self-satisfaction.

In other words, if you don’t use it, you lose it.  As linguists are pushed (and they are indeed pushed) to embrace technology as a means of making a living, they focus more and more on the selling of words, new words, repeated words, and “fuzzily-matched” words .  The idea of the translator as someone who communicates a message is being replaced by a technician who “processes” words.  Many of these translators cum CAT operators now call themselves language engineers. 

Ah, but all those CAT operators should beware because things change quickly and CAT tools are quickly becoming retro.  The prediction is that in the not too far distant future, they will be replaced by SaaS (software as a service), translation “in the cloud” and, yes, machine translation.  Well, if we thought that CAT tools had a deleterious effect on human translation, the effect of machine translation will be infinitely worse because the decline in compensation will be even more pronounced as translators become post-editors of machine translation.  Language Service Providers (also known as translation agencies) that are pushing post-edited machine translation (PEMT) as a viable alternative to human translation are telling their prospective clients that they can save more than 50% of the cost of human translation.  Post-editors will be trained to work in two modes:  light (cleaning up grammar and spelling in the target language) or heavy (adding some elements of style where some knowledge of the source language will be required).  Translators will be asked to work on jobs with machine translation, multiple translation memories, and even “new” words.  With so many translators’ associations discouraging or forbidding any discussion of rates and economic matters, translators have nowhere to turn except perhaps to the internet.

Since CAT has become the signifier for computer-assisted translation, perhaps HAT (human-assisted translation) would be a good descriptor for pre- and post-editing.  With all due apologies to Dr. Seuss, I wonder what the CAT in the HAT would think about that.   And, even more importantly, what do human translators think about these trends?  After all, “real” translators know that human language is idiomatic, idiosyncratic, and constantly evolving.  They know that it is wishful thinking on the part of MT enthusiasts who say that “we are not there yet, but we are getting closer”.  Yet, many are taken in by this talk.  After all, language is the thing that separates us from the beasts of the field.  While those beasts may communicate on a primitive level, there is no evidence that they attempt to persuade, dissuade or otherwise manipulate their fellow creatures in any way.  That is a particularly human characteristic and there are lots of human beings who are making lots of money “persuading”. 

We should all be very angry about the present state of affairs.  We should be angry that some of our colleagues think so little of their skills that they are willing to work for peanuts (cf.  We should be angry when clients attempt to set the rates THEY will pay.  We should be questioning the practices involving translation memories and who owns them, and a whole host of other things.  Ideally, this discussion should be opened up and led by our translators’ organizations but, if what I observed at the ATA gathering in Denver is any indication, it is not going to happen.  So, it is up to the “real” translators, the ones who are in danger of becoming extinct, to make their voices heard, to use their language skills to persuade others to take a long, hard look at what is happening in our profession and then make their voices heard.        





  1. And for a different perspective and angle on automation take a look at


  2. Here's just one comment from Dr. Vashee's website which to me is quite representative of the mindset of the new breed of translation technologists. The comment was made by a person answering to the name of Monica Oliveira:

    "Thanks, Vashee, for sharing. I'm confident that the fast growing information need around the world will create a new category of translators that will take from making information widely available the thrill professionals take from their jobs. The usefulness of translations will take priority over the well written translation because the good enough translation that, bring down the number of death from diarrhea, will have more value. The value will be in making a difference in people's life".

    Wow Wee. Gibberish and flawed communication will somehow triumph over death, misery and poverty. I find it oftentimes very amusing to see the gurus of translation technology (such as Dr. Vashee) and their disciples and followers so utterly eager to have themselves replaced by machines and the programs that drive those machines. Yes, why think when you can have a machine think for you?

  3. Dear Mr Bierman

    The need for automation is driven by urgency and the need to get information out quickly and is and has never been meant to be a complete replacement for human beings. When MT is "properly' used it can accelerate the production of highly repetitive translation work like user manuals and documentation.

    Humans will always be necessary where quality matters.

    MT will play a bigger role in getting information out where humans are not available, too expensive or just not accessible to get something translated.

    Cars don't replace walking but they get you to places you want to go to faster - however you do need a road.

    There is simply too much content to translate to do it all through humans ONLY.

    I am not sure why this causes such a strong reaction. In most cases the people who speak out base this only only on what they see on Google (which by the way many translators are finding very useful in some languages).

    Computers can make some processes much more efficient - they do not replace human discrimination and judgment.

    And for the record, I am not a Dr in anything.

  4. Angry? Why should we be angry at the entertaining spectacle of companies self-destructing by jumping headfirst into the deep, dry well of automation quality? On the contrary. Those of us who enjoy legal translation or better yet the practice of law can look forward to ever better times and interesting cases.

    One of my favorite translation jobs of the past decade was several hundred pages of highly complex instructions for CT equipment to be produced in China for Siemens. The German sources were, as far as I could tell, written by Chinese engineers with no concept whatsoever of German grammar. Or maybe that was the current standard of writing at German universities and the authors were recent graduates enjoying opportunities abroad as they are encouraged to do. Now I can imagine that same work enhanced by machine translation of the unintelligible source text, post-edited in English by someone whose native language is Urdu and then given to a new technician who has to set one of these things up to work in a hospital somewhere.

    The spectacle of the legal actions to result from such practices will be the finest entertainment the world has known since the best days of the Roman Coliseum.

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  7. Dear Rosene

    (Sorry, I hate to write on these tiny text boxes!)

    I'm not English native speaker and I'm quite ignorant for my age... but I dare to think you write beautifully! And I surely would not spend 2 seconds reading any Machine's written opinion about anything.

    Technology is challenging and sometimes shocking everyone, everywhere!
    I can't tell you how sad (and angry) I feel when I see the inside of a quartz watch! For me, what I see there is nothing, compared with the eternal beauty of a balance wheel movement, winded up by my living body!...
    And that is why I use an old mechanical wrist watch.

    And I use CATs, and I'm very interested in MT, because I am a software localizer, not a "rich-languaged" writing translator.
    Sometimes I do have to translate marketing stuff as complement of the products I localize, and of course CAT isn't of any assistance... but so what? I use it as a text processor and deliver on the required format.

    I use an old mechanical wrist watch and love CAT and MT. This is my set of options. Maybe in these times everything is happening too much at the same time, but each one of us must choose/refuse what to wear and use, and experiment. And not get confused by others, even if they are a crowd! Prevail!

  8. Kirti Vashee writes:

    "The need for automation is driven by urgency and the need to get information out quickly and is and has never been meant to be a complete replacement for human beings".

    Really? You don't say? Mr. Vashee, I would most respectfully suggest that with particular respect to computerization or robotization of translation, you return to the history books and read a wee bit about what the early pioneers of automatic translation, i.e., MT had in mind. Now then, with respect to automation being driven by URGENCY, may I respectfully inquire on what planet you live? Here on this planet, automation is driven for the most part by economic considerations. Inquiries about one's telephone bill or credit card bill or utilities bill are today more and more handled by robots (voice-recognition I believe it is called), thereby helping to lower labor costs (quite considerably). The rail cars that ply the undergrounds of major airports throughout the world are propelled through automation, thereby also helping to reduce labor costs (indeed, the owner of Ryan Air in Europe was most serious when he talked about eliminating pilots from the flight decks of his aircraft. I don't believe URGENCY is a motivating factor in the plans of Ryan Air's CEO to fully automate his aircraft). I could easily list several thousand examples where automated systems have replaced human beings and human labor, and URGENCY has not been a motivating reason in any single one of those examples.

    The computerization of translation has been driven by economics (at least here on this planet) and very much indeed it has caused a veritable economic revolution in the (written) translation industry (there are already plans afoot to apply automation to the oral translation industry). Perhaps not in your country, which has been the undisputed leader in helping to lower translation prices to 1940 U.S. levels and 1950 European levels, but in a major portion of the industrialized world, thanks to automation (and globalization), translation prices have dropped into the proverbial toilet.

    Now here comes the fun part: Google's latest breakthrough in translation technology is a sure-fire bet to send computer-assisted translation (CAT) to a very early grave. Google's latest piece of technological wizardry addresses an issue that the MT folks and the CAT folks have continually ignored. Looks to me as if one type of "machine" is getting ready to eat up another "machine" or "machines". And us poor humans? Well, we'll always have a few crumbs. Alms for the human. Alms for the human.

  9. Mr Bierman

    Today, millions use the free MT translation services to translate a web page, an email or a sentence they want to understand, because it simply makes no economic sense to hire a human translator for the fleeting need. Apparently this happens tens of millions of times a day.

    Even though the history of MT is marked by repeated failure,we have already reached a point in time where more human language translation is done by computers (as bad as it is) than is done by humans. Even though it is hardly equivalent in quality, for many this is adequate and timely, and we live in age where speed and efficiency are often more valuable than quality.

    Automation will continue mostly, because it makes sense for the key players concerned i.e the content creators and the content consumers.

    I understand that when MT is equated with HT in quality and value you would react in anger but to me it seems reasonable to want participate in new production models, understanding that the objectives have changed.

    For very routine repetitive corporate content MT (especially SMT) is increasingly showing that it can deliver quality that fulfills the business purpose. In most of the MT cases I have been involved with the sheer volume and timeliness factors were the driving factors behind the use of MT. Many projects would simply not be undertaken were it not for MT, and some in fact create new opportunities for translators. Most of us who aggressively use the technology understand that using MT to do exactly the same thing that a human does is generally not a great strategy. MT makes most sense where there is too much data and too little time and the content is relatively predictable and repetitive. I am not sure how you further the interests of professional translators by fighting this. It is rational and legitimate behavior for enterprise to use automation where it can work and where it does make sense.

    I also think that some translators will engage with the technology and learn to add value in new ways. A lot of business content (which is the stuff that many translators are involved with) has a very short shelf life and it simply does not make economic sense to produce translations for it all using the historical TEP approaches.

    You can of course choose to dismiss these facts and resist the changes that are inevitable or you could potentially explore what role there is for competent translators in this new order.

    There are still many fine tailors around the world but most of us buy clothes that are mass manufactured because it makes both economic and fashion sense. Not so long ago documents were typed in stenographer/typist pools. This has evolved and this is done in new ways and the best typists learned to use word processors, spreadsheets and presentation software.

    I think that you also miss the fact that in an increasingly connected world, my country vs your country mean less and less. The fastest growing markets in the world today do not have enough translators so global enterprises will use technology as the old models simply do not make sense or cannot work in these new opportunities.

    I think that there is a role for skilled translators in the world of automation but the role will change. We are still in the early stages of defining what this means and I hope that some of the energy currently invested in anger is redirected to finding new value-adding roles for translators with the new technology.

  10. I am, Mr. Vashtee, somewhat amused by the so-called arguments set forth in your latest piece; amused because you appear to be arguing not against me or what I have said, but rather against (a) what you perceived I have said and/or (b) what has been said or may have been said by others whom you have already labeled "Luddites".

    It is so crystal clear from the language you use in your writing that assumption is the driving force; assumption that your "adversary" does this or that or doesn't like this or that; assumption that in my case I am angry and railing at technology and technological progress. I would say, albeit with due hesitation, that you are so in love with your own words, thoughts, ideas and theories that it is manifestly impossible for you to understand what others are saying (and what they are not saying). Indeed, you appear to be so enamored of your own thoughts that you have shown yourself totally tone-deaf to the message embodied in Rosene Zaros' article and the multi-part article which I wrote previously. Indeed, the principal focus of my article is economic, namely that translation has moved - in respect of prices or rates or fees - from a communications service based upon knowledge and intellect to a mere purveying of a commodity, i.e., words. And that theme is also echoed in Ms. Zaros' article. Regrettably, you have not offered a counter-argument to that principal theme, but rather a veiled accusation that the writers are frothing at the mouth at having been replaced or made obsolete by technology.

    Finally, on a slightly more personal note, you say to me , "Today, millions use the free MT translation services to translate a web page, an email or a sentence they want to understand, because it simply makes no economic sense to hire a human translator for the fleeting need. Apparently this happens tens of millions of times a day", and "MT makes most sense where there is too much data and too little time and the content is relatively predictable and repetitive", and "For very routine repetitive corporate content MT (especially SMT) is increasingly showing that it can deliver quality that fulfills the business purpose". Mr. Vashtee, try to understand one thing, if you understand anything at all. I already had at least 20 years of experience in the translation business when you were still banging university cheerleaders. Show some respect.

    As to your other comments of like purport and tenor, I would respectfully suggest that you cut out the patronizing. I sincerely hope that you will at the end of your career have been at least one-half (repeat, one-half) as successful (materially and intellectually) as I have been in my career.

  11. Mr. Vashtee - Please be good enough to stow the condescending remarks about what is happening today in the world of translation. Try to show at least a modicum of respect. I had already at least 20 years of experience in the translation BUSINESS when you were still banging university cheerleaders. And also please be good enough to cut the patronizing. I sincerely hope that you will at the end of your career have been at least one-half (repeat, one-half) as successful (materially and intellectually) as I have been in my career. Clearly, if you want to have a meaningful and constructive discussion with me, then stick to the issues that both I and Rosene Zaros have raised, which simply put is the that translation has moved - in respect of prices or rates or fees - from a communications service based upon knowledge and intellect to a mere purveying of a commodity, i.e., words.

  12. "To be proud of knowledge is to be blind with light."

    Benjamin Franklin

  13. Listening to the comments of the obviously pro-translators complain about MT leads to the obvious conclusion. You don't really care about need, application or even quality. What you care about however is your own money. I can't blame you but if you're smart, it seems like you should embrace and adapt because like everything else before it, if you don''re done.

  14. My point of view: Translation is an art -- or a knack, to say the least -- and it takes a lot of talent, knowledge, study and practice (constant practice, I would say) to make a good translator. No clunker-cum-junkpile-hard n'soft ware could ever reach the quality level of a good translator, however hard their inventors would try. This Machine-Translation or Computer-Aided-Translation nonsense is just good for the illiterate and the uneducated dummies who come out of slot-machine universities like ground meat comes out of the grinding machine...raw, coarse and full of air in between!!! Pity is that these uncouth savages want to boss over the translation market, turning it into a sort of hamburger joint operated by chain word-churners who think they can translate., software vendors are king...but I hope that in a not-so-far future, the human race would regain its intelligence and once again, bow to talent and the talented.

  15. Bernie, I doubt if Mr. Vashtee is condescending and think he merely makes the point that Translation is a lot larger and multi-variant business today than ever before. It sounds like you are the one tooting his own horn. And furthermore, if Kirtee was banging university cheerleaders, I would have to put him at least 3 rungs higher than you on the credibility list without knowing anything else about him or you.

  16. Luis, you are living in the past. Do you really think Technology is like fashion and that it will go out of style? If you think MT is crude then maybe you should sell your car and ride a horse to work, bake your won bread, grow your crops, cut off the electric....oops, can't do that. No Internet.

  17. Mr. Bierman,

    Having read your exchange with Kirti Vashee, and in particular your comment of December 22:

    "Please be good enough to stow the condescending remarks about what is happening today in the world of translation. Try to show at least a modicum of respect. I had already at least 20 years of experience in the translation BUSINESS when you were still banging university cheerleaders."

    it seems to me that you would do well to follow your own advice. For, objectively speaking, there is nothing in Mr. Vashee's remarks that warrants such insults. Your age, experience and material success are no excuse for this. If you are incapable of engaging in a civilized diagogue, kindly keep your invective to yourself.

  18. Dear Mr. Precaryus: I am painfully aware that technology disciples care little about the rules of English grammar, syntax, orthography, punctuation, etc. All things being equal, I would make a deal with you: I'll keep my "invective" to myself and you learn and apply some basic rules of English orthography, such as capitalization of nouns (save for so-called "common" nouns). Nouns such as "translation" and "technology" are not written with an initial upper case letter. But since things are not equal, I shall endeavor to maintain what you describe as "invective" as a private affair after you have completed the required courses in remedial English. (Incidentally, I believe you wanted to write "multi-faceted", not "multi-variant".) As was said in those days when ordinary nouns did receive an initial upper case letter, "I remain Your Mst. Hbl., Dvt. & Obt. Svt.

  19. Mr. or Ms. Elliott: Your friend Mr. Vashee is evidently still reeling from what some may describe as the verbal spanking he received; and if he is still reeling, he is likewise still railing. He has “called out the troops” on LinkedIn and invited them to view the “anger spewing from Translation Commentator”. It more than appears that the principal issue in Mr. Vashee’s mind is not just “anger”, but also “anger directed at technology”. The latter in particular speaks volumes because it conclusively demonstrates that Mr. Vashee and so many others, you included, never carefully and analytically read the numerous articles which so clearly spelled out not just the target of that “anger”, but equally the reasons therefore. The contention of Mr. Vashee and others that this “anger” is directed at translation technology is based at best upon perception, and at worst upon some variant of paranoia. Finally, in the second of his comments, Mr. Vashee took the liberty of literally lecturing me on the exigencies of today’s translation industry, obviously ignorant of who I am, how long I have been in the industry, what I have done or accomplished, what I have written; indeed it was clear to many that Mr. Vashee was laboring under the assumption (or perception, if you will) that I was some kind of novice or semi-novice. I found that most INSULTING, and I responded in kind…with a paraphrase of a line from the film “The Godfather” (but slightly “cleansed” for the occasion). Go back and re-read all of those articles. You might possibly change your own attitude.

  20. I no longer translate. From time to time, I'll be contacted by some agency through ProZ, wondering if I'll work for 3¢ per word, with concomitant reductions for various percents of match. By the dessicated skull of Mogg's grandfather, I'd rather go out with a piece of cardboard and stand by WalMart begging for spare change - it would be less degrading.

    Every word that I put on paper goes through my own black box - my skill and talent - multiple times. I don't care what tools I use to get there. I don't tell my auto mechanic that I'll only pay him $5.00 for a tuneup because he used a socket wrench to pull my plugs instead of his teeth. I charge a fixed rate to each client, per word - and they pay it, or they go to India for their cheap work. They won't get it from me.

  21. Quality ALWAYS matters and you know it, Kirti. Stop the "newspeak" and admit that people who seek to make huge amounts of money by trying to turn translation into a "commodity" (if the shoe fits...) are part of the problem and that problem has a huge effect on translation quality at a day to day level. Like when you buy a new home appliance and find out that the user manual is unintelligible in a dozen languages.
    @Bernie: Thanks for speaking up and speaking out.
    @Rosene: Thanks for being another voice that says it's okay to be angry. In 2012, many real translators are having to fight tooth and nail for rates that are lower than the ones I was averaging back in the 1970s. Why shouldn't they be angry? That's thanks to unscrupulous wholesalers who commoditize translation at the expense of quality and clarity and at the expense of the profession. (Don't try to embrace the role of peacemaker, Kirti, when you're clearly part of the problem). Remember the movie "Network"? Well, I'm damn mad, and I'm not gonna take it any more!