The Translator and Interpreter Self-Help Industry

Written by Leonard Morin

Rational people, when deciding whether to become translators and/or interpreters, will assess their own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps they now live in a country where a language other than their native tongue is spoken, they have taken foreign language classes, or they grew up bilingual; and they have excelled in both languages. Whatever the case, succeeding as a freelance translator or interpreter is not something that even the most talented linguist can take for granted. Globalization and fragmentation of the industry and the worsening labor conditions in the overall economy play an important role, but starting a business is a risk in any economy.

Many capable translators and interpreters reach a point when they have doubts about their chosen career path and ask themselves about other ways to make money with their language skills. One such way is to found an agency, catering to direct clients and taking a cut of the earnings of other freelancers who work for you, becoming a bigger fish in the food chain. Yet even this route is not without problems since the downward pressure on rates is also felt by agencies, especially the smaller ones.

The demand for our services paradoxically continues to grow. This constellation of factors has fueled the growth of a translator and interpreter self-help industry at an even quicker pace than the industry it thrives off of. To a certain extent, of course, this side industry is useful and necessary. For example, the emergence of so many translator and interpreter training programs addresses a crying need for qualified professionals. Rigorous academic training for these careers is a prerequisite whose recognition has been a long time coming. And even the most seasoned and skilled professionals do not know everything; the requisite knowledge and skills for our professions are dauntingly extensive. Continuing education is indispensable. Yet what happens if your fancy degree or certificate does not translate into employment with commensurate remuneration?

Faced with inadequate return on your investment, you may now turn to the trade literature to devise tactics to boost your productivity or find high-paying direct clients. Once again, self-education is a necessary component of any successful career in this field. There is a lot to know about our jobs and about different approaches to achieving success. But the self-help industry has a pernicious side-effect: it tends to put all the blame on the individual translator or interpreter. Since the topic is taboo, we have barely scratched the surface of some of the structural issues that stand in the way of success in this industry beyond not being good at your profession. What happens when all this continuing education, strategizing, reference material, and translation technology exhaust your precious time and money?

Although this potentially lucrative side-industry is not the product of malicious intentions that feed off of our misfortune, I believe that sometimes we have to be able to see through the hype to make the most intelligent career decisions. While we’re at it, we can contemplate the future prospects of a side-industry that, in part, thrives off of luring people into exhausting their resources.

About the author: Leonard Morin is a staff Spanish interpreter at Manhattan Criminal Court. He also translates chiefly legal documents and cartography articles from Dutch, Spanish, and German into English. He formerly served as president of the New York Circle of Translators.Leonard Morin

NYCT Literary Translation Conference

NYCT Literary Translation Panel

On Saturday, March 14, the NYCT held its first-ever literary translation conference. In the morning session, we heard from three experienced literary translators: Russian-to-English translator Antonina Bouis, Spanish-to-English translator Gary Racz, and French-to-English translator Lee Fahnestock.

Antonina Bouis discussed her preference for translating living authors over dead ones. The main advantage she sees is that translators can ask living authors questions about what they meant. She emphasized that translators shouldn’t feel as if they have to know everything; authors will be flattered to be asked for their help. However, she acknowledged that there are some disadvantages to working with living authors: they may have their own ideas about how passages should be translated, and they will receive some royalties, so the translator’s share of royalties (if included in the contract) will be smaller. Yet, in any case, most translations will not sell enough copies to recoup the translator’s advance and trigger the payment of royalties. Bouis concluded by asking if we truly need a fifth translation of a classic like The Brothers Karamazov, or if it’s better to hear a new voice. Miniscule changes in books that have already been translated will be of interest to critics and translators, but not to the general public.

Gary Racz spoke about translating the 17th-century Mexican author Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s play Los empeños de una casa. Racz, who is currently at work on The Norton Critical Edition of The Golden Age of Spanish Drama, laid out a central dilemma for translators of verse: very often, translators choose to render poetic forms in rhyme and meter as free verse. There’s a perception that contemporary readers will only accept free verse (despite Shakespeare’s unflagging popularity), and thus translators’ choices have been limited. Racz bucked this trend when translating Sor Juana’s play, and his translation has been performed on several occasions. He shared his translation of the mad, comedic ending of the play, in which he used poetic elements such as rhyme and assonance in order to mimic the author’s style. Racz also pointed out, during the question-and-answer session, that there are many works by dead authors that have yet to be translated, such as eight plays by Cervantes that aren’t available in English.

Lee Fahnestock related her experiences translating French poet Francis Ponge (1899-1988), whom she met several times. Ponge was from a Protestant family near Nîmes, and this gave him a sturdy independence. He’s been described as a “chosiste,” focusing on objects, particularly how the word matches the object it describes. For instance, he was fascinated by the sound relationship between the words “pré” (“field”), “près” (“close, near”), and prêt (“ready”). He saw this sound as the preliminary to everything. Fahnestock translated his book of prose poems, Le Parti pris des choses, as The Nature of Things, an English title that Ponge approved of (he was inspired by the Roman author Lucretius and had considered using “The Nature of Things” as his French title). She also translated work by Ponge for an exhibition devoted to him at Paris’s Pompidou Center in 1977. Fahnestock told a cautionary tale about overzealous copyeditors: a copyeditor inserted a mistake into one of her translations which she didn’t discover until after publication.

Adventures in Literary Translation

Panel of Literary Translation Seminar

Photo: A. Zucker

The New York Circle of Translators held its first-ever conference on the topic of literary translation this past March. The Saturday event, held at NYU SCPS’s space in the historic Woolworth Building, featured a two-hour morning session of presentations by three professional literary translators, an hour-long lunch and networking break, and a two-hour afternoon roundtable discussion with a panel of five experts discussing the field from an editing and publishing perspective. Some attendees came to earn the four continuing education points offered by the American Translators Association, and all of us were there for the wealth of inspiration everyone had to offer. It was a dreary, rain-drenched, mid-March morning, so the fact that we packed the room with people coming from as far afield as Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Connecticut, and even Rochester and Pittsburgh says a lot about our collective dedication to this curious and challenging field.


NYCT Literary Translation Panel

Photo: L. Jennewine


“Trotsky’s house in Mexico smelled like a dacha.”

NYCT Program Director Kate Deimling introduced the morning speakers. First up was Russian-to-English translator Antonina Bouis, who spoke about translating contemporary writers. The straightforward subtitle of her presentation, “The Many Pros and a Few Cons,” told only half the story: she not only addressed some of the perks and pitfalls of starting out in the field, but did so with refreshing enthusiasm and delightful anecdotes—like how surprising it was to walk into Trotsky’s house in Mexico, only to find that the books and other objects gave the place the scent of a dacha so familiar from the time she’d spent in Russia. It was both amusing and depressing to hear that, invited to represent one of her authors at a major international prize ceremony for contemporary literature in English, it became clear that the award committee wasn’t even aware that all three titles up for the prize that year had originated in other languages. Another interesting point she made was that professional writers don’t interfere, because they know that the translator is their greatest resource and ally, whereas unprofessional or inexperienced writers are the ones who tend to run to the dictionary and question every decision. As a translator, you have two main options: if you have the time and energy, you can educate the writer; alternatively, you can stop taking on that type of client. Speaking for myself, as someone who still does a fair amount of client education even with relatively experienced writers and editors, Bouis’s observation really resonated. She also addressed cons like work-for-hire agreements and the common practice of splitting royalties when working with contemporary authors. While working on classics or other texts in the public domain carries the advantage that—if a reasonable contract is negotiated with the publisher—all royalties go to the translator, that kind of work doesn’t offer the potential of rich experiences that working with a living author can. Ultimately, Bouis opted for the adventure of working with living authors and bringing new voices into English over the purely economic advantage of (re)translating classics by dead authors.

“Authors—the deader, the better.”

Which brings us to the morning’s second presenter, Spanish-to-English translator G. J. Racz. The entire audience erupted in laughter when he recalled what another translator had once said to him: “Authors—the deader, the better.” Racz’s talk covered his experience retranslating Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s Los empeños de una casa. Decontextualization is always an issue when brining a text from one language, place, and culture to another, and Racz cited Venuti’s considerations about it as well. Decontextualization has both spatial and temporal effects: geographic, sociopolitical, and other space-related differences come into play, and with Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz’s text the time-related difference is key as well. Models in the receiving culture necessarily affect the translator’s choices. One specific example Racz mentioned was poetic form; tightly structured meter was the norm when Inés de la Cruz was writing, but most contemporary English-language readers are more accustomed to free verse. Also, the text in question was originally written to be performed, whereas his translation will likely only be read. He had thought-provoking reflections on how to navigate such factors.

The morning’s third and final presenter was French-to-English translator Lee Fahnestock, who spoke about her work bringing French author Francis Ponge into English. Her author was born in 1899 and lived until 1988, so she hand a chance to meet him after she’d already begun working on his text. Fahnestock was one of the first translators of Le parti pris des choses, first published by Gallimard in 1942, and her version was titled The Nature of Things. She also discussed their related book, The Making of the Pré, which was her English rendering of La Fabrique du pré, first published in French by Skira in 1971, and issued in English by the University of Missouri Press in 1979. Because her text involved a lot of word play and potentially playful misreadings, she emphasized the oral and aural aspects of translation and the role of the reader as hearer. She caught my attention by mentioning the role of the copyeditor, as copyediting and proofreading are key stages where, especially with linguistically unusual or challenging texts, things can go very wrong. Luckily her author was amused by the misguided “correction” to their text that made it into the final book, but not all texts are so flexible, and not all authors so understanding. My personal solution to that problem has been to step out of my translator shoes and temporarily don the editor’s hat, submitting a style sheet outlining any quirks particular to the text in question. Yes, it’s extra work that clients don’t always want to factor into the per-word rate, but it can save a lot of strife later on, and repeat clients quickly learn its value. You probably don’t want to spend countless hours on e-mail or the phone defending choices you already spent a lot of time thinking through, and nobody wants to pay for changes once the project has gone to proofs.


The catered lunch let us all maximize the hour-long break to forge new connections, as longtime circle members got a chance to meet new members, chat with some of the presenters, and greet some of the non-member guests as well. After refueling both body and mind, the audience returned to its seats as I took the stage with five colleagues to discuss translation from a publishing point of view. The panelists were: editor Peter Blackstock from Grove/Atlantic; editor Tynan Kogane from New Directions; editor Alessandra Lusardi, formerly of Penguin and Rizzoli International, now running her own editorial consultancy; publisher Chad Post from Open Letter Books / Three Percent; and editor Sal Robinson, formerly of Melville House and co-founder of The Bridge Series. Some of them speak multiple languages, others find their career rewarding enough working solely in English, and each had a lot of experience to draw on, so I felt very fortunate to bring them all together under one roof.

Chad Post at Grove Atlantic

Tynan Kogane

We began by looking at the big picture—how each of them got into the field, and how they choose texts to translate (or whoever at their company makes the final acquisition decisions does). Their backgrounds ranged from retail bookselling to working as an agent to just being avid readers, and I think a lot of translators in the audience could relate when many of the panelists said they came into their positions almost inadvertently, via fortunate coincidences and a lot of hard work. Many said that, to varying degrees, their backlist shapes their frontlist. Kogane mentioned the formative role Ezra Pound played in the early days at New Directions, and how much they continue to value writers’ recommendations. Asked whether they feel there are country/language/cultural mandates, most panelists agreed that it depends on the publisher’s track record and readership, but the main goal is to get superb writing into the hands of English speakers who would otherwise have no access to it. Market factors came up all afternoon, and sounded particularly important here: Americans have an easier time relating to the umpteenth book about the natural and cultural beauty of Italy, say, than they do to a book by an undiscovered writer from Albania with a hard-to-pronounce name: those countries are fewer than 70 miles apart, but in many respects exist in separate worlds, so both translator and editor will have to make a strong case to a publisher for why such a text needs to exist in English and how it might best be presented. I have repeatedly heard fellow translators recommend getting a story published in a literary journal (usually done on spec, of course), so as to build the author’s readership in the US and thereby make getting a full book deal easier. Although this approach certainly can’t hurt, and has perhaps worked for some, it might not be super effective for translators just starting out: when I asked the panelists whether they read lit mags scouting for content, not a single one said they do. But they do discuss what they’re reading with their networks of authors, editors, and fellow readers, so simply maintaining ties and staying interested in what your colleagues are up to is always a good idea.

Alessandra Lusardi

Alessandra Lusardi

The source language is an obvious factor in what books get placed with US publishers, especially when the acquiring editor or publisher can’t read the original. It was an almost even split between the panelists when it came to who relies on reader’s reports and who reads the originals. Some occasionally work with literary agents (who, by the way, are perceived very differently from country to country), but most rarely do, and Lusardi brought up an interesting point here: she recommended translators cultivate relationships not only with editors working in their target language, but also and especially in their source language. Even without delving into what digital technologies are doing to it, publishing is still a bit like the Wild West, and oftentimes there are many obstacles between originating and acquiring publishers. If translators are able to position themselves as cultural ambassadors who can bridge the divide and help not only bring a new text over into English but also detangle differences in approach, customary practices, etc., they can potentially be invaluable allies.

Chad Post

Chad Post

Next we tackled the nuts and bolts of the trade, which might sound boring but wasn’t, because everyone had so much to say. Although I can’t cover it all here, the panelists were very generous in discussing what they look for in a translation proposal, how they choose a translator, how they edit a translation, and their idea of the perfect publisher/editor/translator relationship. Notably, Post mentioned that he almost never bases a decision on a translator’s cv, but that a 15–20 page sample carries the real weight. This varies from house to house: some publishers only ask for 2-page samples, so translators should definitely ask the editor what to send. Everyone agreed that a cover letter contextualizing the book is essential, and including a list of what houses in other countries are publishing the same book/author is helpful, too. The keys to a successful collaboration were fairly uniform across the board: be punctual, communicate, give the project your best, and be nice.

Moving on to address the business side of things, the clear message was that translators, editors, and publishers are ultimately allies, not adversaries—although when you get into nitty-gritty details like pay rates, royalties, whose name goes where, production schedules, etc. that might sound a bit kumbaya. When it comes to contract negotiation, the larger houses have entire legal departments, whereas many of the smaller houses make it the managing editor’s responsibility (as if they didn’t have enough to take care of already). Although I hadn’t given territory much thought, the panelists emphasized how key it can be. How much give-and-take there is in contracts really varies, too. The PEN Model Contract came up here, as some editors have used it as a template, and others have received proposals based on it that ultimately weren’t feasible for their publisher. If ever I do another panel like this, I’d love to pick apart a publisher’s P&L, as few translators ever get to see one and it’s an eye-opening experience. But for now I can point you to a related podcast from Three Percent that looks into who really earns what. We touched upon: how are fees set (usually per word or flat rate); what percentage of any given publisher’s projects are work-for-hire (hint: from a translator’s perspective, way too many!); who holds the copyright, and whether their standard contracts include a reversion clause—most editors agreed this was an important thing to secure, so that if the publisher of your work goes under, the work can find a new life elsewhere; and who, if anyone, earns royalties (in theory and in practice). Cover art came up as well—many people do judge books by their covers—and we could have a whole other conference on that topic.

We then considered the post-partum period. After your book is out, what happens? All too often, not much—meaning yes, it might sell okay, it might get a few reviews, but it must be said that after the author, translator, editor, and publisher have invested so much time and energy into a project, their expectations must remain realistic. Most panelists agreed that the translator can play a role in helping promote a project—by writing about it or having colleagues write about it in magazines and online, tapping into their various communities (based on language, genre, location), etc. All publishers have a marketing or PR department of some sort, even if it’s only one person, so it behooves the translator to be as available as possible to provide additional info. I then naïvely asked whether any of the editors’ houses bring their authors on tour or organize other events: the short answer was no. It sounds like this practice is rapidly becoming a relic of the past even for native English-speaking writers, and the language and geographic distances can make it even harder for writers published in translation, but it isn’t unheard of—especially for authors coming from countries whose governments actually support the arts. Foreign government funding or underwriting from private grants sounded more possible than a publisher ponying up enough to cover author/translator appearances.

Peter Blackstock

Peter Blackstock

I had a few fun random questions I’d have loved to ask—like what panelists’ favorite translations are, or what the most egregious line from the worst hatchet job one of their projects has ever received is—but time was running short. I ended by asking what advice everyone would give to an aspiring literary translator, and was surprised when the answer was not only unanimous, but took us back to an earlier point: be nice. If you’re pitching a project remember that, if the editor is open to considering your proposal, that editor will likely in turn be in your same position as they pitch it to their publisher, so there’s more empathy and solidarity out there than many translators often think. If a publisher has already acquired a project and is coming to you, they might be considering several translators for the job: it’s an honor to be in an editor’s stable of trusted translators, and diligence and trust will get you far, but being a pleasure to work with is often what sets someone ahead of the rest.

Sal Robinson

Sal Robinson

The panel had a few more tips. Sal Robinson gave a great answer “straight out of 1998”: have a website. Peter Blackstock reminded us that the reader is king, so an awareness of what and how people are reading helps. Chad Post recommended engaging with your readers and colleagues on social media; he couldn’t prove that tweeting and re-tweeting book-related stuff actually boosts sales, but he did say it feels good.


The audience had some great questions. One participant asked about Babelcube and whether it might be a useful resource. Tellingly, none of the panelists seemed to have ever heard of it, and an award-winning literary translator in the audience recommended we all tread cautiously: a lot of crowdsourcing platforms for translation are popping up online, and we all need to do due diligence in evaluating who we work with under what terms, because there’s always someone looking to get something for nothing.

While most of the attendees work into English from other languages—Spanish, French, German, Korean, Czech, Chinese, Russian, Italian, and others were represented in the room that day—we were also fortunate to have a few translators in the audience working from English into their native language. As mentioned earlier, publishing-industry dynamics vary from country to country, but the vast majority of pointers the panelists gave us are equally applicable outside US borders.

My spirits were buoyed when some of the panelists mentioned that they’d learned a lot from one another and from audience members, and I was grateful to have had the opportunity to moderate the discussion. All in all, it was a great conference, so we’re considering organizing more events like this in the future. As always, we’re open to hearing your feedback and ideas (

I’d like to extend particular thanks to NYCT Administrator Louise Jennewine, Program Director Kate Deimling, President Valeriya Yermishova, Secretary Melissa Mannis, and Treasurer Osei Prempeh for making this event possible. Extra thanks to Margarite Heintz Montez for her excellent work compiling the Gotham Translator. Updates on this and other events are available on our Facebook page as well. A networking evening with CLMP is already in the works for later this spring, so we look forward to seeing many of you again soon.

Written by Alta L. Price

NYCT Literary Translation Seminar

Photo: Valeriya Yermishova


Reprinted with gracious permission from the Patent Translator, Steve Vitek

In my last silly post, I described how based on my own case and the experience of almost three decades, a translator can go about finding direct customers for a small translation business and over time become independent, or at least mostly independent, of translation agencies. This was just one example of how something like that can be done – there must be many other methods that can be used for the same purpose.

I would also like to stress that I see no reason to stop working for translation agencies when a translator works for direct clients, provided that it is a translation agency with a human face that is run by people who understand translation and appreciate translators. Unfortunately, the modern, corporate type of translation agency is based on the ruthless, ultra-crapitalistic concept of profit über alles, i.e. maximum profit at all costs, mostly at the expense of the people who do the actual work, but ultimately also at the expense of its own customers who are expected to simply get used to a much lower standard of quality of the product being provided with all of those wonderful “language technology tools”. This corporate, crapitalist model is deeply hostile and clearly detrimental to our own interests as independent translators.

The term “language technology tools” would make George Orwell proud. It includes many new glorious inventions of the modern “translation industry”, such as machine translations that are post-edited by humans. This is no science fiction anymore as “the translation industry” has already reached the stage when machines are assisted by humans instead of the other way round. Instead of translators it employs invisible, underpaid or simply unpaid crowd workers and thinks nothing of the evisceration of the beauty and the soul of translation, which is no longer be present in texts that have been processed by algorithms that may easily run amok when computer-assisted tools dictate to humans what is and what is not correct translation.

I think that it makes a lot of sense to ignore the version of reality that the “translation industry” is pushing as a legitimate model of what translation should look like and instead to try to create a different model, a model that would be more fair both to the translators and to their clients.

An alternative model is based on working only with the traditional model of translation agency and, as much as possible, with direct clients.

In this post I will try to briefly describe how a transition from clients, who are mostly just ignorant brokers who know next to nothing about translation, to clients who are the actual customers for your translations, is likely to change the character of your small translation business – because that was what happened in my particular case.

Finding direct clients is no easy task, but it is only the first step. Once you find them, you will also have to figure out how to keep them.

The problem with direct customers is that many of them have the nasty habit of insisting on taking a poor translator out of his or her comfort zone. You can always turn down a job from a translation agency, for example if you don’t know the subject well enough, or even you are feeling lazy. The chances are that the agency will come back to you next time anyway because agencies are used to working with different translators on different projects.

But if a direct client asks you to translate something that you can’t do yourself, can you tell them sorry, I don’t do that? Sure, you can, but will they come back to you next time again when they have a job for you that is more along the lines of what you prefer? Would you continue using the services of a plumber who can fix your leaking sink, but not your leaking bathroom? Probably not if you could find a plumber who can fix both of these eminently important fixtures in everybody’s house that tend to develop a leaking problem every now and then.

I don’t think that translators should try to be all things to all people, which is exactly what most translation agencies try to do. The fact that most translation agencies specialize in “all languages and all subjects” is one reason why they often do such a horrible job. Their motto might as well be: “If we don’t specialize in it, it does not exist”.

But even when a business is specializing in something, in every field there are many sub-specializations. Although initially I started out as a patent translator specializing only in Japanese patents, after about 5 years I started translating myself also German patents, and later I added also French, Russian, Czech, Slovak, and Polish patents, although it was and still is much more work for me than if I simply concentrated only on Japanese.

It took me a while before I was able to “grow” the same connections between the idle neurons in my brain for the same terms also between German and English, and then also for terms in French and other languages that I have been studying for many years. I am still faster when I translate Japanese patents, at least compared to patents in any other language, although German is now a close second.

But what should I do if I translate only one or a couple of languages and the clients start sending me work in other languages as well, you might say?

Well, my suggestion would be to allow the customer to take you even farther out of your comfort zone by learning how to shamelessly exploit other translators who can do the work that you can’t do by yourself – if that is what your client needs. In other words, I am suggesting that if you want to keep your customers, you may have to become a part-time translation agency, or a broker, in addition to being a full-time translator.

Although some translators consider all translation agencies to be inherently evil, becoming a broker does not necessarily mean joining the ranks of the highly exploitative agencies because one can also try to be an honest broker. There clearly is a reason why different kinds of brokers and agencies exist: translation agencies, employment agencies, and real estate brokerages provide services that mere individuals may not be able to provide, unless and until they too become brokers.

Things are a little bit different and more than just a little bit scary when you actually are in the broker’s shoes, but not really that different. Once you establish which translators can do a given job really well, all you have to do then is pay them what they ask for on time. If you do that, they will try very hard to fit in your translation next time even if they happen to be very busy.

Although I sometime ignore requests from potential customers if they look flaky (I don’t even bother to quote a price for instance if an individual who only seems to have a Gmail address wants me to give a price quote for a project that would cost a lot of money), I almost never say no to an existing customer.

And then there are also ways to turn down a project that takes you completely out of your comfort zone without in fact saying no to a customer. If you ask for a rate that is on the upper end of what might be an acceptable price range for something that you really don’t want to do, a prospective customer will most of the time go somewhere else.

If he does not go somewhere else, just do it. You will make good money and maybe you will learn something useful that you can then add as a new skill to your arsenal of skills.

There are all kinds of tricks that a translator needs to learn when the tables are turned and the translator is now the agency. But I believe that all of that will only make you a better translator, especially when you realize the enormous amount of work that a good agency has to do, and the considerably risk that is often unavoidable.

Have you ever watched a movie and found the performance of one actor or actress in it so moving and amazing that every time when you surf the channels on your TV and see the name or the face of this actor or actress that you fell in love with, perhaps many years ago, you find it impossible to continue surfing?

Most of us have had this kind of experience. And not just with movie stars. If a carpenter builds a bookcase for me exactly according to my specifications and it looks just the way I imagined it, he is also a star in my mind when it comes to carpentry skills, and I will almost certainly ask him to build another bookcase next time, or maybe a pergola or a new staircase. But if you work only for translation agencies, you can never be a star translator for your clients, even if in fact you are quite a star in your own right based on how well you translate. When you only work for an agency, your clients will never even learn who you are.

As far as translation agencies are concerned, to many of them, translators are the opposite of a movie star or a star carpenter. To them we are only interchangeable, unimportant pieces in an intricate and complicated machinery designed to maximize their profit. How could they possibly see us as creators of anything of real value when in the new “translation industry”, it will be apparently our job to simply “assist machines” by proofreading whatever it is that a machine throws at us to just get rid of the most blatant kinks and mistakes?

They say this is “a new skill” that we need to learn. I say it is a slow and painful way to die.

I hope that translators will not fall for this new hoax the way they fell for the hoax of computer-assisted tools, which were sold to us as a way to increase our income, and then instead used to further reduce translators’ remuneration by forcing translators to accept reduced payment for “fuzzy matches” and no payment for “full matches”, which is nothing but a greedy and extremely dishonest scam.

I believe that the new skill that translators need to learn instead is the ability to find direct clients, perhaps in addition to translation agencies with a human face, but definitely so as to become independent of those who no longer appear to be quite human.

It will be a better world, both for translators and for their clients, if more and more translators start working directly for the people who in fact use their services. You are a better translator if you know exactly what it is that your client wants from you, and if you want to know what it is, you simply have to be able to communicate directly with your clients, who need to know who you are.

Post-Processing of Machine Translations, the New Money Maker of “the Translation Industry”

Reprinted by gracious permission of Steve Vitek, the Patenttranslator

Translators are supposed to be, almost by definition, intelligent and educated people.

After all, they must know at least two languages and many of them know more languages than just two, while so many people can barely speak one language, including quite a few heads of state.

Some translators have graduate degrees in languages, and sometime they have degrees in other subjects that generally pay much better than translating, such as law or medicine. I don’t know why would such people choose to become translators, unless they are convinced that this is something that they were born to do. In my case, at least I have a good excuse – life experience has shown me that translating or managing translations is the only thing that I can do well enough to get paid for it.

But intelligent and educated people are not necessarily terribly smart, and many translators provide a perfect example of this interesting fact.

Exhibit A: How could translation agencies get away with the monstrosity that they call “fuzzy matches”?

This is an ingenious concept that was clearly designed by brokers, namely translation agencies who sell translations originally created by other people, called translators, in order to minimize what a service broker pays to the service provider and to maximize the profit. Is the lower cost in this case going to be passed on to the customer? Do most customers even have the same software that would make it possible for them to determine the extent of these “fuzzy matches”? What do you think? I think that in most cases, they have no idea about the clever machinations in the background.

The entire concept of fuzzy matches is entirely illegitimate, deceitful and extremely dishonest, and its purpose, mentioned above, is completely transparent. Is there is a legitimate reason to give a client a discount when large portion of texts are repeated in a translation? Yes, in some cases, although it is very doubtful that for example the lawyer who created the text that is being translated gave the client a break on the price because large portions of a legal template were simply copied into a contract.

Is my accountant going to give me a discount for “fuzzy matches” based on a software package that I can force him to buy because every year, he simply copies the same template with the same words in it and only changes the numbers that I supply to him every year to prepare my tax return? If I even mentioned something like that to him, he would quite justifiably think that I have gone completely insane, not just slightly mad as some patent translators tend to do.

Even when a discount is warranted, the decision to give a discount and to what extent should be up to the actual service provider. This is not something that should be determined by a software package that is sold to gullible translators and then skillfully operated by a broker to maximize broker’s profit.

I do sometime slightly discount my translations, for example when two long, similar patents are filed by the same company, if a long description of “prior art” is simply copied in the second patent application. But whether or not I will give a discount is completely up to me, not up to a broker armed with software, or up to the whim of a customer.

We know that translations are not about words. If they were about the translation variable called words, machines equipped with nifty software packages would surely have replaced translators by now because machines can translate words much faster than humans, in almost unlimited numbers. The problem is, translations are about a different variable called “meaning”, and while the variable called “words” can be easily calculated, multiplied, or deleted and manipulated almost at will, there is no way to calculate or multiply the variable called “meaning” with a machine. You can only delete, distort and destroy meaning with a machine because machines are very good at distorting and destroying the real meaning of words that only a human being can understand. Only a human brain can determine this variable, as machines can only understand the meaning that has been pre-programmed into them by humans.

Exhibit B: Reanimation of the dead detritus left by machine translation for humans to pick over it during “post-processing” of machine translations.

After the translating community fell for the hoax of “fuzzy matches” and other atrocities brought to us courtesy of certain cats o’ nine tails and perpetrated by translation agencies on translators, Exhibit B is now presented as further evidence of a new hoax that is being perpetrated on the translating community as I am writing these words.

Will translators fall for this trick just like that they fell for the hoax of “fuzzy matches?”

It is hard to tell at this point. Agencies certainly did a good hatchet job on the translating community with certain CAT features, so convenient for the agencies. First, they promised translators that if they bought and used a predetermined CAT as instructed, instead of being able to translate a mere two or three thousand words a day, they would easily be able to translate well in excess of ten thousand words and thus double or triple their income. That sounded so good, how could translators possibly resist, even though the price of this wonderful tool was quite steep! Once credulous translators did as asked, they were hit with requests for obligatory discounts for various kinds of “matches” and other scandalous schemes designed to reduce the compensation for translators in order to increase the compensation for the brokers.

Not all translators fell for this trick. Some managed to retain their independence, even those who work mostly for translation agencies, because not every agency is built on the shylockian principle of wringing as much blood as possible from everything and anything as long as there is a buck in it. Some agencies are run by professionals who are not out to cheat translators out of their money. In fact, whether an agency requires the use of a prescribed tool along with obligatory discounts is a very good indication of what kind of translation agency it is.

But many translators certainly did fall for the trick and then came to bitterly regret what they have done once they realized that they have invitingly contributed in this manner to stagnating or decreased rates per word, while the demands for translation volume per unit of time are going through the roof.

The new scheme, relatively new since it has been aimed at the translating community already for several years, is the great, innovative tool of machine translation. We are told that editing of machine translations is just another cool tool in our tool box, a tool and a skill that translators need to acquire to be able to compete in the translation market.

Machine translation is an excellent tool and most translators are probably using it by now. I certainly use it when it is available. Because most relatively recent patent applications that I translate, whether it is from Japanese, German, French, Russian, Czech, Slovak or Polish, can be machine-translated with a few clicks on the Japan Patent Office, WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) and EPO (European Patent Office), I automatically print out a machine translation and look at it before I start translating and while I am translating, especially during the initial stage.

Although the technical terms supplied by the machine are obviously not always reliable, machine translations do help with terminology research, and they also help me to avoid skipping a sentence or two in highly repetitive paragraphs, a common mistake of human translators that machines are unlikely to make.

But I happen to know that trying to edit machine translation would be counterproductive, as it would be even more time consuming than translating from scratch, especially with languages such as Japanese. Even more importantly, if we let a machine dictate the translation to a human being and the human being is only asked to “fix” and “clean up” the pseudo-sentences supplied by a machine that has no understanding of the real meaning of the original text, the result will be always inferior to a real translation created in the brain of a skilled and experienced translator, even if it may look like the real thing. Moreover, the result is also likely to contain a percentage of complete mistranslations flying under the radar of a person who has been turned from a real translator into a “post-processor”. This person is no longer an independent and highly skilled artisan. Instead, her job now resembles quite closely the job of a school janitor who is pushing around a vacuum cleaner, picking up garbage and sweeping the floor.

That does not seem to matter to people who are trying to sell post-editing of machine translations as an inexpensive solution to the conundrum of machine translations, namely the fact that these things are not really translations, only suggestions of sentences generated by hardware and software based on algorithms, suggestions of sentences that must be often completely retranslated because otherwise they would make no sense. And of course, sometime they make make perfect sense and be completely wrong.

None of that matters to the “translation industry” because the point of the exercise is to do away with the profession of a human translator and replace it by another profession called “post-processor”. Very high requirements are placed on the translating profession if we are talking about translations of highly complicated texts in any of the fields in which human translators are specializing at this point of development of human knowledge, knowledge that has been acquired over many centuries by human beings, requirements for post-processors would be much lower.

Unlike real translators, post-processors do not necessarily need to know that much about anything. And since just about anything can be quickly found on the Internet, even a partial knowledge of a foreign language should be acceptable (as long as the post-processor accepts a low hourly wage combined with a high minimum hourly output).

The new, very useful skill that translators are enthusiastically encouraged by a certain segment of “the translation industry” can thus be also described as the skill to dig your own grave.

I could be wrong, but I have a feeling that this time around, most translators will not fall for the new hoax of post-editing of machine translations. There are so many people on this planet who are desperate to make some money, and some can translate, or think that they can translate. These are the people who are now being trained by “the translation industry” to dig a grave in which most of the translating profession is to be laid to rest for all eternity.

I could be wrong, but I do have a feeling that the scheme is not going to work and that translating will survive as a real profession. I believe that most translators, those who specialize in translations that are too important to be left to machines and janitors pushing around vacuum cleaners and brooms, will be doing just fine for another century, or two, at least.

The real question is: Given the inherent inferiority of the resulting product, is the concept of the machine post-processing profession economically viable, and if it is economically viable, how long can such a pseudo-profession last? While post-processors may have no choice but to accept being fed peanuts for their mind-numbing drudgery, the brokers will definitely not be happy with peanuts. This question can be only answered by translators themselves. Are they going to cooperate with “the translation industry” in their own demise? They can cooperate if they think that such cooperation will make it possible for them to survive these turbulent times.

But it is also in their power to refuse to dig their own grave if they realize that they were  born to translate, not to “post-process” garbage that has been left for them by machines.