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.




  1. Here is my first comment (as far as I recall)on this blog spot.

    I have appreciated all the articles and posts that Rosene and Bernie have published on this topic, to date as I have long felt that the CAT method of calculating payments is flawed for all the reasons that have been suggested thus far.

    Counting words is merely a device and while quick, easy to grasp and convenient, a poor one. Forced to use it, I bid jobs using my own system and then transliterate them back into a per-word cost in my proposal to the client for the given project at hand. Thus, I have no standard per-word or per-segment/repetition rate and that does pose a dilemma for those with a CAT mindset.

    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'. That commoditization, Orwellian in some senses, has contributed to translators (especially new ones) viewing themselves as glorified clerks.

    Naturally, when one characterizes oneself as a mechanistic drone, it is hard to justify charging a princely sum for one's work. The entire profession has become degraded to something akin to line-work in an underdeveloped economy.

    Accordingly, our voluntary accession to the dominance of CAT tools has added to a decline in our perception of our own value, the skills required for the translation task, and the wages we expect to earn.

  2. Liz Lyons, I don't believe that anyone could put it better. Your statement is absolutely fantastic in its truth, in its accuracy, in its honesty and in every other aspect. I am envious only in that I did not incorporate the same thoughts and observations in my own series of articles on the subject. Brava! Brava! Brava!

  3. would like to add that in some translation fields, CAT tools are not used because they are considered useless or even counterproductive. For example, the main reason why I never even tried to use one in my work is the fact that as far as I know, you cannot use them with PDF files. I specialize in patents and most of patents in foreign languages are available only in the PDF format.

    Also, no patent lawyer or patent agent ever asked me whether I use Trados or another tool.
    I think that this is because my clients prefer real translations to words "processed with CAT tools".

    CAT tools thus seem to be used mostly in the low end of the market. Translators who want to specialize in this market segment should probably use them to ensure constant supply of work from brokers who demand that they use Trados or something like that, but many other translators simply don't need them and it is doubtful that they ever will.

    Steve Vitek

    P.S. Your sign out process will not let me use my wordpress profile for some reason, which is why I have to use my Google profile.

  4. Perhaps you are interested in visiting Transopedia, a collection of translation industry related terms. This glossary provides an explanation of many of the terms frequently used in connection with translation and other linguistic services. Please click the link below

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