When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill


There are countless ways to mess up your business, but here is one sure-fire method: just base your decisions on presumptions and disaster is sure to follow. There are various degrees of presumption, of course, and to be honest I’ve been guilty of a few.

An example of the mildest form of presumption is the mistakes you make when you’re learning a new language and confidence skips merrily ahead of skill.

When I had been living in the US for about a year, I was introduced by my friend Peter to someone he had told me about a few times. Casting about for a conversational opening I remembered something about her loving the outdoors and said “Oh right, Peter told me you used to be a yahoo!”* I thought a Yahoo was a kind of Girl Scout, but the awkward beat of silence followed by Peter’s horrified “No I didn’t!!” clued me in that it very definitely was not, so I backpedaled with Olympic speed, although the rest of the details are blurred by the overwhelming mortification of the moment.

Don’t judge me though. I mean come on; if this was a test question asking you to “select the word that is not a boy/girl scout rank” are you telling me that “c” is the one that really stands out?

  1. Webelo
  2. Daisy
  3. Yahoo
  4. Brownie

I think not. Still, innocent mistake or not, I had been presumptuous by thinking I was more fluent in English than I was, and I paid the price.

You’d think I had learned my lesson after that incident, but no. A few years later, my husband and I were visiting one of his great-aunts in Berkeley, and after a while she brought out a stack of old photo albums to show some pictures of her late husband. He apparently belonged to some social group that organized a lot of fun events, and when I saw a picture of men wearing fez hats and robes with a caption referring to one of them as “Imperial Potentate”, I assumed it was a costume party and burst out laughing at the preposterous title — until I caught the look on great-aunt’s face and had to pull a screeching vocal U-turn along the lines of “HAHAHAhaooooo wow that is so interesting, we don’t have this group in Holland, Shriners you say? yes fascinating…”

I still get sweaty when I think about it. Still though, these bloopers, bad as they are, were committed in the privacy of my own social circle. Professional presumption is a whole different ball game.

Novelists, for example, are paid to imagine, but most of them do a lot of research to get their facts straight. In spite of this, facts fall between the cracks sometimes, when the author presumes there is simply nothing to know about a topic like oh, say, translation, for example.

Michael Connelly, one of my favorite authors, made a rare slip in one of his novels when he had an attorney tell his associate to find some student who had taken Spanish to translate these documents that might be crucial to their case. Oh, good move! I wrote Mr. Connelly a letter in which I pointed out, humorously and graciously, I thought, that he might want to have his character hire a professional translator next time. He has yet to respond or thank me in the foreword to his next novel or create a translator character and name it after me, which I am still bitter about if you must know. (If you read this, Mr. Connelly, it is not too late!)

Then there was this other novel I started reading recently, in which an interpreter at a trial before the International Criminal Court in The Hague not only summarizes the speaker’s words using the “he says that…” form instead of rendering everything verbatim, but also speaks ungrammatical Croatian-sounding (I assume) English rather than idiomatic English — like all highly paid United Nations-level interpreters are trained to do, I’m sure. (Professor teaching an upper-level interpretation course: “And when you speak, always make sure to use the accent and odd grammar you think your client would be using if he or she were to speak English”).

This imaginary interpreter was so patently ridiculous that the book went on the “nope” pile right then and there.

In both cases, the presumption is that there is nothing to know about translation or interpretation, ergo nothing to research, and you end up alienating some of your audience.

To be fair, everyone is subject to presumption at times and translators maybe even more than most. In a profession without formal professional requirements, all it really takes is the conviction that you can do it and the gumption to go for it. Ideally this confidence is based on education, training and experience and backed up by high-quality work, but we all know that this is not always true, in which case the confidence is really more of a presumption.

But even legitimate translators are tempted many times a day to make decisions that are presumptuous:

  • It’s not my field but close enough
  • I know that term; I don’t need to look it up
  • This first edit is wrong so this editor doesn’t know what she’s doing; I’m rejecting all her changes
  • I’m in a hurry but I’ve worked with this client many times before; I’ll accept real quick and look at the document later

Every time I presume that there is nothing to learn, nothing to research, nothing to verify, I risk alienating my audience, i.e. my clients.

It’s a fine line; you can’t question every single thing you do or you’ll never get anything done. But I’ve learned the hard way that it pays to listen to that persistent, nagging little voice when it tells me to check something, because 9 times out 10 that will be the exact issue addressed by the editor in her comments. A little bit of OCD goes a long way if you don’t want to end up looking like a yahoo.


* yokel, hillbilly, rube


Translation: the Business of Belonging

belongingOne of the more awkward moments in my life was dealt to me inadvertently by a close friend many years ago. We had dropped in to admire some handcrafted jewelry in a shop here in California, and she discovered that the owner/artist was Dutch like me. So she called me over excitedly to “speak Dutch” with him, and then left us to it while she stood there, beaming expectantly. The thing is, it was pretty obvious that we both felt put on the spot but we didn’t want to be churlish either, so we performed a forced little conversation about how long have you lived here, where in Holland are you from, do you like it here, can we gracefully wrap this up now.

Why was this so awkward? Granted, I’m an introvert who doesn’t like to be the center of attention, but it would have been fine if we could have conducted the conversation in English. Part of it is that it takes a second for the unprepared brain to switch gears and whip out flawless Dutch at a moment’s notice, and there is the fear of looking like a doofus, standing there all struggling with your native language.

But it’s more than that; it also has to do with belonging. Most immigrants want to fit in at least to some extent, and it’s not that enjoyable to have your “otherness” put on public display, even when it’s done with the best of intentions.

This relationship between language and belonging takes many different forms. When I go back to Holland, I invariably get comments from people who feel it’s their duty to evaluate my Dutch for the existence (and if so, the severity) of an American accent, complete with helpful imitations of perceived imperfections. Over the years I’ve learned to take these reports with a grain of salt, since they range from confirmations that I still sound 100% Dutch to firm conclusions that I have a Texas drawl even though I live on the West Coast. It’s all in good fun, but underneath the jokes there is an actual question: you no longer live here, so are you still “really” Dutch?

The same thing happens here in the US, for that matter. There are people I have known for years who are surprised to learn I wasn’t born here, because they never noticed any accent. And then, just when I’m feeling all smug about my ninja language skills,  I walk into a Starbucks and I get out no more than three words before the barista asks me where I’m from. Or worse, they mention how “heavy” my accent is.  That really bugs me, because even though I know I have an accent, I want to sound like I was born here — like I belong.

The only reason I’m admitting all this is a) because I’m pretty sure the need for belonging is universal, and b) because this has some interesting implications for us as translators.

When I translate an article from a medical journal into English, I’m not just transposing words and meaning. What I’m actually doing is giving its Dutch authors a place in the international medical community. Physicians may be an extremely smart and skilled bunch, but that doesn’t mean they are immune to the fear of looking stupid. I was talking to a doctor the other day who was preparing for a Grand Rounds presentation, and she was stressing out because she did not want to appear incompetent in front of her peers.


Magnify that fear by several hundred decibels if the presentation, article, or research has to be communicated in a language you haven’t fully mastered. No one wants to be exposed as a fraud, as someone who has no business being there, wherever “there” is. So my business is not words, as such, but belonging. I enable doctors to present a perfectly fluent English version of their skilled, knowledgeable, confident Dutch selves and to participate in international scientific discourse like they belong.

And of course this applies not just to medicine but to other translation specialties, as well. It goes along with the standard sales advice of speaking to the client’s needs rather than your own technical qualifications. Direct clients assume we’re going to be accurate, punctual, and won’t run with scissors, and they couldn’t care less about the CAT tools we use. They want to know if we can help them make the sale, win the case, get the research grant. And the answer should be: yes we can. It’s what we do.

SDL Trados Support Part II — In which I Reap the Whirlwind

technically correctIn my last post, I expressed my frustration with SDL Trados over unresolved problems with my new Studio software. The cathartic but perhaps somewhat unwise title of my post (see below) immediately unleashed the whirlwind in the form of SDL technician Paul Filkin, who valiantly defended SDL’s honor in the comments to my post, on Twitter, and on the SDL forum. If we ever need another Winston Churchill to fight the enemy on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields and the streets, I nominate Paul.

We had a lively discussion in the comments, which I like to think was productive for both of us. I learned that the SDL team actually puts a great deal of thought and effort into making help available, and it is just as frustrating to them as it is to us if people are not finding the help they need. It is still true that I was very confused about the whole process and I think there is room for improvement, but the blanket judgment I issued was unfair.

Paul pointed out that the simplest solution is to have a maintenance agreement in place. The thing is that I was not even aware of this option until he mentioned it.

I don’t remember any  message offering a maintenance agreement when I bought the software, but someone else told me that you do have that option at the time of purchase.  Still, judging from the fact that so few users apparently have a maintenance contract, my guess is that many of us get so caught up in the (often complex) purchase/upgrade/licensing/activation process that we don’t have much thought for anything beyond getting the software up and running. A very explicit prompt in big red letters at the end of the process would probably result in more contracts, something like: “Congratulations, software successfully installed! Click here to buy a maintenance contract for continued worry-free enjoyment.”

Also, for those who miss that first opportunity, information about the agreement is not easy to find even if you are looking for it. I went back to the Help section in Studio and spent a lot of time searching for info, preferably with a link to sign up, but I couldn’t find anything*. I even asked a colleague who is a long-time Trados user to look for it, but she came up empty as well. I finally discovered a link in a different location by signing into my account on the SDL website. However, most people who are looking for help are not going to think to sign into their account; they are much more likely to search the Studio Help section like I did, and I think it would be helpful to have a link there.

(* Except for one pdf with detailed information about three levels of support: Essentials, Enhanced and Elite. However, there are no prices and no button for signing up. It is also inconsistent with the two levels of support offered in My Account, which is confusing.)

And even when you find the link, assistance is not exactly imminent. When I clicked on the link, I got a “Sorry, the page you were looking for does not exist or is not available” message. It looks like the only way to get information is to submit a request for a quote. If you are panicking because the software doesn’t work and you have a deadline to meet, this is not going to bring your blood pressure down. It’s also quite pricey at $249.00 for the cheaper of the two options

However, on a positive note: I love the user account Support page itself. It offers a perfect, brief overview of the four types of help that are available, i.e. Community, Knowledge Base, License and Activation Support and Maintenance Agreement. I think it would be great if SDL could consolidate all four options in the same way under one big green “How to Get Help” button on the Help ribbon in the software itself.

And while I’m making a wish list: based on my own confusion about how the forums work, I think it would be helpful to see a message at the top of the forum that if an issue remains unresolved it will get escalated to a technician for further assistance. I stopped short because I did not know this; I figured that anyone who had any insight to offer had already done so, and that there was no point in coming back again. I thought the well was dry, so to speak. I’m happy to report that my software problems did get resolved thanks to Paul, who looped in on my thread and was indeed able to fix the issue.

Another great resource I highly recommend is my colleague Emma Goldsmith. Her blog Signs and Symptoms of Translation is a treasure trove of information about anything Trados-related, including reviews, detailed how-to’s and troubleshooting posts. For a fee, she also provides personalized assistance for users who prefer working with a real person to slogging through tutorials or manuals. She does not deal with software malfunctions, but for anything user-related these sessions are money well-spent.

So long story short: help is available at all times, but unless you have a maintenance contract it may be anywhere from a few minutes to a few days to resolve the issue, so the safest bet for immediate support is, indeed, a maintenance contract. Which is why it is so important, I think, to have that information front and center — with a sign-up link — when you buy the software and when you click on Help.

Dear SDL Tech Support Team,

Your support system is not perfect but much better than I gave you credit for, and I hope we can be friends again. Discussions are all well and good, but I do know better than to risk the wrath of an irritated engineer…




SDL Trados Why is Your Customer Support So Bad?

Dear SDL Trados,

bad-customer-serviceYou have created a wonderful product. It makes my life easier, ensures consistency, and increases my translation speed. Sure, there are agencies who try to turn its awesome powers against us translators by using it to lower prices, but that is not your fault and I’m perfectly capable of handling my own rates.

You have also made a lot of money off of this wonderful product; according to the preliminary statement published on your website, revenue for 2016 was 264.7 million, up 10% from 2015. That’s a lot of software. And at its current price of $825 a pop, that comes out to a lot of new users in 2016 alone.

Now most of us are about as proficient with the technical aspect of the software as most drivers are with the mechanics of their car. We know how to use it, not how to fix the rotary camshaft unicorn converter or whatever if it gives out before we drive our new car off the lot.

And out of so many software packages sold, little glitches like that are bound to happen. I’m not going to hold that against you. But is there any reason why you’re not using some of those millions to set up a simple, straightforward support process for when stuff like that happens?

I recently bought the new 2017 Studio upgrade, and shortly thereafter discovered that the software would not open documents for translation in single-file mode. New software, had only used it a few times for projects, had not messed around with any settings. So here’s what I did.

Step 1: click the Help button. Read all remotely relevant sections of the manual in Help Topics. Nothing.

Step 2: Check the online Knowledge Base. It offers four links:

  1. Knowledge. Promising! Nope, just general info.
  2. Perhaps Technical Docs. No, more general technical info for all SDL products.
  3. Support, then; sounds good, I can get someone to help me. I scroll to the right product as instructed, click on the button to create a support ticket and … I am routed right back to the previous page. After wading through many more random pages I finally read somewhere that support tickets are for license and installation issues only. GREAT.
  4. Okay fine, Community. Click. A labyrinth of information and new options. I finally find a promising group, figure out how to join, and ask my question. Several people do their best to help but alas, the problem is not solved.

So as far as I can tell, your customer support consists of:

  1. Have customer figure it out herself
  2. Have customer ask other customers to figure it out

I understand there is an option to buy a support contract, but forgive me if I don’t think I should pay for fixing a bug in a new, expensive piece of software straight out of the box.

And that is the end of the line for Joe customer, because unbelievably, it’s impossible to connect with a live human being. Your website does not list a single phone number. Or e-mail address. If your staff is too busy to deal with constant phone calls, would it kill you to use some of that stash you made last year and pay some high school geniuses to staff a simple customer support line? I’ll even listen to stupid elevator music for however long it takes to be on hold.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending, no thanks to you: a wonderful colleague from Argentina happened to see my question weeks later and e-mailed me out of the blue with a solution she had discovered when she had a similar problem: the document will open if I specify the languages manually, and the source language before the target language instead of the other way around. Random but effective.

I suppose you could say that this actually proves your system works (see customer support step 2). This is true in the same way that United had the right to drag that passenger off the plane last week. Technically justified, but do you really want to be known for “We Do the Bare Minimum to Get You There” or “After You Pay You’re on Your Own”?

I hope not. When I bought my first Trados Studio software years ago I had no problem reaching tech support by phone when I had software problems, and two human beings — paid by you — spent hours helping me fix the issue. What happened to that company?

Badsplaining,the Translator’s Curse

Writer James Fell recently shared a Reddit challenge on his Facebook page to Badly Explain Your Profession. The responses are inventive and hilarious, but they made me think about how we translators explain what we do. Hang around any translation forum or group long enough, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to complaints about the misconceptions people have about our profession, like the notion that any high school kid who’s taken a year of French can be a translator.

But really, whose fault is that? I have a nagging feeling that there aren’t any translator contributions to the Badly Explain Your Profession thread because we’re already using all the bad explanations as actual descriptions of what we do.

Here are two examples of another popular meme a while back, where people explained their jobs as seen through different eyes.

Note how these two translators depict the “reality” of their work. According to these helpful images, not only do translators have a simple job that anyone could do, we are incompetent boobs who get overwhelmed by the type of simple job that anyone could do.

“Badly explain your profession”? Please, we badly explained before badly explaining was cool. For people who are supposed to have a way with words we’re remarkably expert badsplainers.

I know, I know, these memes are just meant to be funny, and they are. But it would not be remiss to balance the scales every now and then. So to that end, allow me move to the opposite end of the spectrum for a minute and take a page from Donald Trump, uber-promoter in-chief:

Make Translation Great Again

Translation is a tremendous profession, tremendous. It’s projected to outgrow all other sectors by 2020, because we think bigly and we act bigly. We also have huge support, people love us. They’re standing in line to join. But you gotta have what it takes. It’s about words, of course, huge, huge amounts of words, millions of words a day. But mostly it’s about action. Build that wall of words and make the client pay for it. Because there is money in it. Believe me. Big, big money. Most professions don’t even make a fraction of the money we spend on printer ink alone. It’s sad. But mostly it’s about winning. Winning so much your competitors get tired of you winning. And we’re winners.  Believe me.

A tad heavy on “alternative facts”, perhaps, but I think we have a good start here, yes? So let’s open it up to suggestions. Colleagues, let’s break the badsplaining curse. How would you describe what you do?

Missteps and missed opportunities

pebbleRunning your own business feels like a steady jog uphill. There is no finish line (unless you retire or sell out I guess), only a view of the next mountain when you’ve reached the top. It’s been an enjoyable run so far, and I love what I do. This is the time of year when it’s traditional to count your blessings (for Thanksgiving, if you live in the US) and think about goals for the coming year. First, though, I need to sit down and shake some of the rocks and twigs out of my shoes that slowed me down and caused a few missteps this year.

I missed out on gaining a corporate client

That is, I missed out on corporate-client rates because I wasn’t paying attention. An acquaintance referred a friend of hers to me, saying she had been translating some materials for him as a favor but she didn’t have time for it anymore and she thought he needed a professional. I assumed it was an individual who just needed some personal papers translated, and because I was busy I said “sure” without asking any further questions. The client contacted me via a personal email and I gave him the rate I charge to private individuals and agencies.

Turns out he is a CEO and the work was for his company.

I suppose none of the parties involved here communicated very clearly, but since it’s my business the burden was clearly on me to ask more questions. Great client, great relationship, but I want to kick myself really hard every time I think about it. Fortunately there have only been a few projects so my shins aren’t too bruised.

I wasted the biggest networking opportunity to land on my doorstep in years

One of my goals for the past few years has been to attend a translation conference, and this year the ATA conference was in San Francisco, only 4 hours from where I live. As fate would have it, though, I had been on the road almost constantly for family reasons during the months before and I was travel-weary. So I figured I would sign up for the Saturday only and make it a one-day trip.

Big mistake. Saturday was the last day of the conference, and there was definitely a tail-end feeling to the place that day. The vendors were supposed to stay until 2:00 p.m., but by the time I walked in at noon a good chunk had already packed up and left.

Also, because my mind had been on so many other things I had failed to prepare properly for the day by contacting people beforehand and setting up appointments to meet and say hi. The ATA had a fantastic app for just that purpose; you could find a fellow attendee and then connect via twitter, for instance, but I had just bought a new phone, had not installed twitter yet, and found out I couldn’t do it there because didn’t know my password by heart.  The people I did meet on the fly were all very nice, but clearly tired from days of networking and ready to go home.

So one suggestion for the conference organizers would be to not make the one-day option the last day of the conference, but my most urgent suggestion is to myself: please go prepared next time. Even the one-day option is not cheap, so if you’re going to do it, do it right.

I spent too much time on the wrong projects

This one is partly a matter of personal preference, so just humor me if you can’t relate at all. I’m starting to become leery of editing offers. I don’t like editing work to begin with, and since agencies have a pretty low ceiling for hourly rates I make much less on these kinds of jobs than I do translating (part of the reason why I like charging per word). Generally, I only take editing jobs if it’s a new client and I want to get in the door, or if it is a very good client and I don’t want to reject too many offers.

However, I’m starting to suspect that some agencies simply don’t want to pay my translation rates (anymore) and are trying to save money by having me edit the work of cheaper translators. On top of that, it seems like these types of jobs are becoming more and more complicated and time-consuming, with endless last-minute questions during my nighttime hours or being asked to re-enter my edits in the agency’s intranet software. It’s annoying, and a missed opportunity in the sense that I could have spent my time more productively on more enjoyable projects.

So these are some of my missteps this year. Is there anything you regret or would have done differently? In any case, I my shoes feel better now and I’m ready to start thinking about next year’s mountains.

“Treasured Guests” and Other Trials

I love Disneyland. It’s hopelessly uncool, I know, but the irony-free “Happiest Place on Earth” is a refreshing change from the cynicism required for survival in the rest of the world.

So it was a bit of a “what?” moment when a friend told me that Disney employees have a special code for referring to difficult or unpleasant visitors. So FIY, the next time you send back your burger at the Galactic Grill for the second time and ask to have a sandwich from the Blue Bayou sent over instead, do not be flattered when the waiter calls in a special request for a “treasured guest”; you’re being marked as a certified jerk.

On second thought, though, it makes sense. Disney employees work hard to create this happy bubble for over 40,000 visitors a day, and it’s impossible to keep this up if you don’t have a way to blow off some inconspicuous steam every now and then when fantasy and reality collide. It’s also a heads-up to colleagues so they can mentally prepare for said treasured guest or hide behind a Mickey keychain display until you’re gone.

Come to think of it, I’ve had my share of “treasured guests” as well.

Interactions with project managers are usually fairly painless, because both parties know what to expect. A PM from an agency I have a long-standing relationship with may send me the following e-mail: “Marie, I have CaliClinical project of 6,000 words; can you take care of it for Thursday morning?” There is no need to explain that I will have to use the CaliClinical terminology glossary and style guide, that the document is a pdf so payment is based on the final word count of the translated document, and that Thursday refers to Central Standard Time, which means that I will actually have to deliver by Wednesday night my time.

difficultl-clientsSo any problems that arise are usually due to inadvertent communication mix-ups. Case in point: last week I was asked to do the final “reconciliation step” on a very small (70 words) back-translation project. At first I declined because I had never done the reconciliation step before and I was going out of town so I didn’t want to deal with it. The PM was desperate to place the job, though, and the instructions sounded simple enough so eventually I agreed to help out and completed the job that same day.

I didn’t give it another thought until a few days later, when I started getting calls and e-mails with further feedback-on-my-feedback in the middle of the night and during my trip when I was frequently out of cell-phone reach and could not respond right away. Mutual frustration finally came to a head, and I told her I would not have accepted the job if she had told me beforehand that I would have to be available 24/7 for a week afterwards. That’s when I found out that she had been under the impression, based on another PM’s recommendation, that I had done reconciliation jobs before and knew what to expect, and that it was my lack of availability that was a puzzle to her. Since it turns out I was as much of a “treasured guest” from her perspective as she was from mine, I guess this ended up being more of a “treasured learning experience”.

Communication can be even more of a challenge when the person you’re dealing with isn’t a project manager but an individual client who is instructed by some institution to have his official documents translated, but who really thinks that anyone could do the job — for free.  A few weeks ago I was contacted by a young man who needed his grades and diploma translated so he could submit them to an American school he was applying to.

The first “uh oh” bubbled to the surface when I asked to see the documents and he assured me it would only be a tiny job because he had “already translated most of it.” The pdf file turned out to consist mostly of numbers and complicated formatting, all of which would have to be reproduced and re-keyed to meet the requirements of the institution in question. The only words he had translated (in a separate Word doc) were the course titles, i.e. about 5% of the actual work that needed to be done. As politely as I could, I explained that

  1. I could not use his translation and pass it off as my own, nor would I certify any translation I had not actually done myself, nor would that be in any way acceptable to the institution;
  2. Re-keying the numbers and formatting the pages was not a “tiny” job but rather a time-intensive undertaking and that it was going to cost a lot more than the minimum charge he was envisioning.

Up to that point he had simply been speaking from ignorance, not ill will, but then, instead of listening to me or hiring a more affordable translator (which would be fair enough and more power to him), this treasured guest asked if I had ever heard of those programs that convert pdfs to Word docs, and if he couldn’t just do that and paste in his translation.

[Long baffled silence]

In a last-ditch effort to shake him out of his dream world I converted the pdf for him myself and sent him the crap conversion full of spelling errors, missing text and crazy text boxes, pointing out that trying to salvage that disaster would be much more expensive than translating the thing from scratch. And that was the last I heard of him, so for all I know he did just copy & paste his own translation into this monstrosity and sent it off to be wondered at by the university officials with the power to accept or deny his application.

I’ve been very fortunate that 99% of my clients have been a pleasure to work with, but after this last incident I’m tempted to order “Treasured Guest” t-shirts and keep them on hand for those special people you run into now and then. Then again, that would make me the jerk and I’d have to wear it myself. I need another day at Disneyland.

You Get What You Pay For — a Myth?

pennypincherPrincipled decisions usually have no immediate pay-off except knowing that you did the right thing, but sometimes life gives you a sweet little taste of poetic justice.

About six months ago one of my best agencies asked all its translators to lower their rates to help them keep up their profits (paraphrase mine). I passed on this opportunity to take one for the team, worked a little harder to cover the shortfall with new clients, and chalked it up to sad experience.

Fast-forward to last week, when I got another mass-email from this agency:

Recently, a significant number of projects have been returned to us by our client  […] and our failure to provide accurate documents has not only resulted in immense financial expenses for [our agency], but has also harmed our relationship with them. […] In my review of the returned projects and a random sample of projects from the past six months, I have found there to be a consistent pattern of projects with a high number of corrections needed per page.

During the past 6 months, you say? Immense financial expenses, you say? Is someone going to do the math and compare the losses they suffered with the money they saved by relying on cheap labor? Of course not. The e-mail went on to lecture the poor incompetents about quality and demanded that they start checking their work more carefully or they would be removed from the database.

I have nothing against agencies; on the contrary, I am fortunate to work with many excellent ones and I appreciate all their hard work in finding clients, taking care of negotiations, holding their hands through the process and generally freeing me to do what I love, which is translating.

But why do those with quality problems so steadfastly refuse to acknowledge the crashingly obvious, i.e. you get what you pay for? Perhaps they haven’t been around the block and they still think it’s a myth perpetuated by greedy translators. Or perhaps they spend so much time wooing corporate clients and keeping them happy that they develop a weird sort of Stockholm syndrome and start seeing corporate, product-based QA systems, rather than better, higher-paid translators, as the answer to poor quality and client unhappiness.

Exhibit A: Another email I received last week, inviting me to join a team of translators to work on a large project. The email explained we would be using something called the “Scrum method”, which sounded like it involved  frequent 7 a.m. online meetings to “discuss progress”, decide on further “objectives” and “commit” together to meet these objectives. My level of excitement about meetings, objectives and early-morning anything can be measured in negative numbers anyway, but it dropped to a new low when I discovered, after doing a little digging, that this Scrum method is actually designed specifically for software development.

The Scrum website is very instructive, but after careful study it’s still not clear to me what “defining potentially shippable product increments” or “live demonstrations of the working product increments” have to do with translation. Whoever pitched this to the client deserves the salesman of the year award, although I suspect it’s the client who insisted on using this system and the agency figured they’d make it work somehow. I didn’t start my own business so I could be rerouted right back to Dilbert-type meetings, so I passed on the project.


Collaboration is great; in fact, it’s absolutely necessary when multiple translators work on the same project. But what is happening here is that the client thinks, or is made to believe, that the result depends on the quality of the system rather than the quality of the translators.

To give the agency the benefit of the doubt, another possibility is that they simply saw this Scrum system as a way to organize the collaboration. But even so, by choosing a system that is manifestly not designed for the task at hand they are saddling their translators with all kinds of additional tasks and checkpoints that are useless and burdensome. Why not just give all the translators the e-mails of the other team members and trust that they will put on their big-boy pants and figure it out?

Professionals don’t have to be nagged into checking their work and they don’t have to be patronized into collaboration. No doubt there are project managers out there who could tell me a horror tale or two about translators who claimed to be professionals and proved to be anything but. My question is, were those translators the best you could afford or the cheapest you could find? Anybody can say anything, but you can only get away with charging higher fees if you actually deliver. Cheap labor is expensive in the end; you might as well take the shortcut and pay for quality in the first place.


Translator: Rise of the Machines?

mountain roadTranslating when you’re in the zone is like driving a Maserati through the Alps. It’s not always like that, but I know I know I’m not the only who has experienced times when words zip into place without effort and hours fly by in minutes. In his book on work satisfaction, psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to this experience as flow: a state of relaxed, enjoyable engagement when you’re immersed in a task that is neither boring nor too difficult.


traffic jam

Now imagine you’re trying to get to an appointment during rush hour: it’s stop-start traffic all the way, you hit nothing but red lights and other drivers keep switching lanes and cutting you off.

That’s what post-editing raw machine translation output is like.


If the topic of machine translation tends to make tempers flare, this is why. Nobody wants to give up mountain roads for rush-hour hell, and you can’t blame people for getting a wee bit defensive when they’re told that resistance is futile and the last one on the MT bandwagon is a rotten egg. It reminds me of this “Fry and Laurie” skit where a minister deflects any critical questioning of his proposal by shouting that it’s “a GOOD deal for Britain! A GOOD DEAL!”



As in politics, any rational discussion of MT tends to degenerate into two extremes (Hell No I Won’t Go versus MT or Die) trying to shout each other down. Unfortunately this heartfelt frustration on both sides also obscures some interesting ideas that might be worth pondering.

As you have probably discerned by now I am not a fan of MT, so I decided it was time to take a closer look at the arguments of the pro-MT camp. I’m happy to use technology but reading about it puts me to sleep, so my impressions of “the other side” had always been limited to whatever I managed to pick up through osmosis. I figured Jost Zetzsche’s GeekSpeak column in the ATA Chronicle would be a good place to start since I knew he had written extensively on MT, so, fortified with extra-strong coffee, I delved in.

The first thing I discovered is that Zetzsche is a translator first and foremost, that he promotes technology only to the extent that it benefits translators and that he is not, in fact, an MT-industry flunky. So Jost, you have no idea who I am but please accept my apologies for misjudging you.

I also learned that there are actually two ways to use machine translation.

The obvious one we all know and hate is post-editing, i.e. fixing the raw MT output produced by someone else’s MT engine. In this scenario, the MT is the active agent and the translator cleans up the mess. I did quite a bit of post-editing during my first year as a translator, as I was unaware at the time of any controversy surrounding this issue and as a new translator I was happy to get any work at all. After a few months I stopped accepting these assignments, though, because the work was so mind-numbingly boring and frustrating, plus it dawned on me that I was getting paid less money for more work that was exponentially less enjoyable.

What was new to me is that it is also possible to use MT technology for our own purposes in combination with our own CAT tools. Two of the possibilities suggested by Zetzsche are:

  • Using MT to correct fuzzy TM matches, thus increasing the match percentage of the segment
  • Using MT as an autosuggest tool, where you do your own translating but the MT offers suggestions as you type.

In this scenario, the translator is the driving force and the MT just one of many tools at his or her disposal. As Zetzsche reiterates in his August 2014 column, “There really is no place for post-editing in that kind of environment”.

He also emphasizes that even this personalized use of MT is not for everyone and not suitable for every type of document. Software strings obviously lend themselves much more to tools that take advantage of repetition than, say, a marketing text or a case history in a medical journal. By the same token, translators who specialize in IT and technology are much more likely to enjoy spending lots of time customizing their CAT tools and tinkering with fuzzy matches. Their “flow” experience is the challenge of modifying their tools to create ever closer matches.

There are valid uses for MT, for example in informal settings (Facebook) or emergencies (“Please call a doctor!”). It can also be useful, as Zetszche shows, as one of many tools at the translator’s disposal.

But MT engines are still very far from the utopian ideal expressed in the 2009 White House policy paper of “automatic, highly accurate and real-time translation”, hence the need for human post-editing. I can’t blame MT coders for coding; it’s what they do and they are no doubt motivated by a communication-related higher purpose that is very similar to ours. But that doesn’t mean we have to do their job for them.

So what can we do?

Refuse post-editing jobs. There is no basis for claims that increasing numbers of translators are turning to post-editing and that eventually we’ll all have to bite the bullet if we want to survive. First of all, there are no data on how many of us currently accept post-editing work and whether or not this is an upward trend. I also read somewhere that it’s becoming harder and harder for PMs to find takers for post-editing projects because everyone hates doing it. This is certainly closer to my own experience, because PMs who offer me post-editing jobs usually come back several times to try and renegotiate rather than give this prized job to one of the other eager takers. The point is that we are under no obligation to turn doomsday claims into self-fulfilling prophecies.

Advocate for our interests. In many of his articles, Zetzsche expresses the need for ongoing dialogue with MT developers. They need to make a living as well, and if the only market they can see consists of non-translators, the product will meet the needs of non-translators only. Translators who are into technology should talk to developers and suggest features they would like to see. This would indirectly benefit all of us, as every translator-friendly feature is one more step towards transforming a post-editing tool into a translation environment tool.

This is closely related to PR, another hot-button topic. In his article on machine translation (NY Times, June 2015), Gideon Lewis-Kraus relates a conversation with a computational linguist at an MT conference about the tension between MT developers and translators. “`Go to the American Translators Association convention’, one marathon attendee told me, ‘and you’ll see — they hate us.’” This is probably pretty accurate, to be honest, but it’s not a good thing. Being known for what we’re against rather than what we’re for is a good way to relegate ourselves to the “haters gonna hate” corner, where we’ll have exactly zero influence on the very issues that affect us most. We can do better than that.


The Seven-Year Itch in Translation

The most dangerous drivers, statistically, are those who have had their license for about a year. They start feeling comfortable and relax their vigilance even though they are actually not that experienced yet, leading to a higher accident rate. Similarly, the seven-year mark is reportedly a tricky time in a relationship. The thrill of conquest and romance has worn off and gradually gets replaced, it seems, by bills, annoying nose-blowing habits and demanding in-laws.

Translation careers go through phases as well, some exciting and some not so much, and it’s good to be aware and prepared so you don’t wreck your career through misplaced confidence or throw it all to the wind when difficult times (inevitably) arrive.

I have no evidence to back this up, but I’m guessing the “misplaced overconfidence” phase first rears its head after about the first year of translating for a living. These are some of the signs:

Hypersensitivity/argumentativeness when a client or proofreader comes back with comments on the text. The other day I read a complaint on a forum from a translator whose client was not happy with the translation. She was baffled, she said, because she had been extremely pleased with her own translation when reviewing it before submission. I get it, it’s hard to hear that someone is not totally in love with your beautiful text and it may feel like a personal attack on your competence. But language is not a closed system with a finite amount of black-and-white knowledge. It’s alive, always evolving with infinite variations, and it’s impossible for one human being to always have the best take on everything. In language, it’s hardly ever “my way or the highway”.

We also have to remember that it’s not about us; it’s about creating the best possible text for the context it will be used in, and it’s a sign of maturity, not to mention a matter of retaining your sanity, to let go of disputable matters after you have made your point and the client or the proofreader still doesn’t see it your way. Emphasis on disputable. Some things are not disputable and you absolutely need to stand your ground in those cases, because you don’t want your name associated with an objectively ungrammatical, unidiomatic text.

Taking on assignments that are outside of your area of expertise. This temptation can be especially strong when work is slow and there are bills to be paid. After all, you’re a paid professional now, so with a bit of research you should be okay, right? Let me join the chorus here and entreat you to not engage in this type of unprofessional conduct, no matter how strong the urge. You may get lucky and skate by once or twice, but in the end you will hurt yourself, the client, and ultimately the profession by perpetuating the misconception that translation is a hobby-type activity that anyone could do.

Now fast-forward about 6 years or so, and let’s look at the more seasoned translators. They have established a specialty, a solid core group of clients and a steady income. Except for occasional slow periods, the scramble for survival is a thing of the past and the challenge is mainly to keep growing and learning. It’s all smooth sailing from here, right? Well, there are a few pitfalls to keep in mind.

Mistaking your own habits for required usage. One of the nice things about having years of experience in a particular specialty is that a lot of the terminology becomes second nature and there is less and less you need to research (although, like an asymptote in math, the time spent on research should never actually reach zero). However, a small but noteworthy danger is that a certain term sounds natural, not because it’s the right one, but simply because this is how you have been translating it for years. This just happened to me the other day. I had been writing “acetyl salicylic acid” as three words for years, which seems to make sense because English doesn’t like to combine words like Dutch or German. So when a Trados TM suggested “acetylsalicylic acid” I was a little huffed, until I looked it up and lo and behold, I was the one who had been wrong all these years. This is closely related to the second pitfall:

Unnecessary arrogance/harshness when proofreading a colleague’s work. I confess I get irritated sometimes when I see basic mistakes or sloppiness in a translation supposedly done by a qualified specialist, but I have learned to double-check any terminology I am certain is wrong, because there have been times when the “incorrect” term was actually an acceptable or even commonly used alternative.

Going back to the comparison with relationships, it is very human and common to start seeing the other person as an imperfect version of ourselves, rather than a unique individual with their own perfectly valid, and yes, different, ways of folding laundry and putting the dishes in the dishwasher. As an inveterate rearranger of dishes I confess I’m still working on that one, but in the same way, we need to remember as we become more experienced translators that different is not necessarily wrong.

There is a time for boldness and self-promotion, but we had better make sure continually that we have the goods to back it up. Humility and teachability go a long way towards making sure that confidence does not overtake skill and crash a budding or thriving career.