Oct 25, 2014

Translators Without Borders: cui bono?

For years I have felt growing unease at the calls for translators to donate their services to "good" causes like Translators Without Borders. It's not that I'm opposed to pro bono work; I have engaged in it often enough myself over the years in translation and other professions. But with the exception of sustainable projects like the development of sustainable translation capacities for the Maa language in Kenya, with technology support provided by Kilgray and instruction time donated by colleague Marel Pawelec, I have not found the appeals particularly convincing.

It was at the IAPTI 2014 conference in Athens that I heard the concerns I had been able to articulate presented in another's convincing words, with many more ethical issues to consider. About halfway through Attila Piroth's talk, the slide above summarized the greatest of my misgivings in a rather humorous way. My first reaction to the "new Board" for "Report Without Borders" was rib-breaking laughter and no f-ing way! But really, does the composition of those calling the shots at Translators Without Borders look much better?

Not really. We have the Silvio Berlusconi of translation and a host of others representing companies with significant interests in the commoditization and sometimes hampsterization of the translation profession and markets encouraging their service providers to work for free instead of for the usual bag of peanuts. As the presenter expressed it, large buyers of bulk market translation, some of the largest translation companies, agenda-setters for the bulk market and providers of related services. What's wrong with that?

Climate change affects not only our planet but the character of charity in its landscapes. In the territory of traditional charities, material profit motives are considered not to be part of the works and the charitable acts typically involve either in-the-moment services or goods to address immediate needs or fixed-long term assets usually managed under strict guidelines and localized in communities. Examples of the former are food, medicines and medical care, the latter might be hospitals, schools, clean wells or power facilities. Transparency in many cases serves to encourage donors with the expectation that the gifts will be used for good, non-profit purposes.

With translation, the picture is a little different. The work donated to TwB not only covers short-term needs and frees up funds to pay for administration, information technology services and other more professional, compensation-worthy needs, it comprises long-term intangible (language) assets which are not localized to the charity recipients but which can be stored, replicated and perhaps transferred to commercial applications by its curators, those who control the organization. There is no special legal regime to regulate the use of such assets; translation work which is given today in good faith for disaster relief might tomorrow find its way into the resources for paid pharmaceutical projects ordered from one of the large companies represented on the TwB boards.

In a series of posts to follow, I'll examine some of the issues and ethical questions raised this year in Athens with regard to Translators Without Borders, so you can decide for yourselves cui bono?

Oct 20, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day seven: free will

The choice of subject for the last post reflecting on things for which I am grateful was delayed by what my German friends sometimes call die Qual der Wahl, the agony of choice. As I grumble my way through the daily routine, feel the sore muscles from last Saturday's hunt with the dogs in the mountainous terrain of an enormous Eucalyptus forest plantation and the mild indigestion burn from one too many spicy calzones for lunch I am not particularly conscious of gratitude. What I do notice, however, is a relaxed optimism about a very unknown future in a country and a culture that will take me several decades at least to understand in the depth I wish to. There are days when the decision to leave Germany might seem as daft as some of my German friends considered it, particularly on days when I have to have anything to do with monolingual medical office personnel in Évora, who do not understand that faster repetition of what I did not understand the first time will not lead to quicker understanding. There are more than a few things missing in my present life, which I used to take for granted; sometimes hot water for washing and fire for cooking are among them when I fail to understand the trick for connecting a new tank of butane to supply my water heater and stove. But although friends in the UK and elsewhere have often expressed great admiration for the quality of public utilities, water pressure and bathroom fixtures in Germany, I find less satisfaction in these than in the feeling that I am among reasonable people of good will who treat others with good, basic respect. If the state of household technology is sometimes not much above that of a primitive campsite, at least I am camping with people I would be pleased to call friends.

Coming to Portugal was a choice. A good one I think; many of the choices in my life have certainly been less good or at least less satisfying, but they were mine to make, and I am grateful for the control over my own life which enables me to make a very wide range of choices and act on them. One of the greatest difficulties I have with German, Germany and German cultures comes down to a single word: muß. Or "muss" after the not-so-new spelling reform. Must. Some days it seems to be part of every spoken sentence in that language. When I used to hear that word too much, sometimes I would reply acidly that to live I must breathe, eat and drink, and some day I must die. Everything else is optional. Until they go abroad for a while or make the acquaintance of many people from other cultures, a great number of Germans seemed to feel that there was really only one way to do anything. Former neighbors of mine in rural Brandenburg certainly felt that way about feeding chickens, a task which must occur on a regular schedule at specific times of the day and always include boiled potatoes. Without those potatoes the best quality poultry feed will fail to meet a chicken's fundamental nutritional requirements.

I think it's a sad life for those who feel their choices are determined by others. Made with the finest cloth and decorated with masterful embroidery, a straightjacket is still an article of clothing of no good use to one wearing it with a healthy mind. The sick, crazy ones may indeed derive benefits from the straightjacket of social or political convention, but I prefer to let my own free will make the final decision after evaluating the consequences of action by my own standards.

Even in risk-averse cultures like that found in Germany, there is some acknowledgement that success often has many failures as its prerequisite, and many failures - or success - require many choices.

I am also grateful to have lived my life in political environments where the consequence of my choices are generally less critical than they might be more repressive, less stable parts of the world. But in these places the ones who often sacrifice themselves for things that I and my readers take for granted probably have a deeper understanding of why the exercise and defense of their rights of free choice are so important, perhaps more important than their lives.

As a freelance translator I have opportunities to exercise my free will with great scope in business, market my services or not and pursue my own visions of service and quality. And when the nattering nabobs of false positivism tell me I should be grateful for the chance to use Vaseline in my business relations with Linguistic Sausage Producers (LSPs), I gratefully exercise my free will and ignore this stupid advice and choose to associate myself with other service providers instead. You can choose to do the same, and I hope you do.

This is the last day of my written reflections of gratitude for the many blessings in a sometimes subjectively difficult life. I am grateful to my friend Teresa, a young veterinary behaviorist and fellow dog trainer, for the challenge to take the time to think in a more structured way about what constitutes the real wealth in my life. In the time I have lived in Portugal, becoming ever less a stranger in a strange land and more one discovering a heart's home, she and other friends have provided many occasions for such reflection. And in a poor region of the country, in an economically distressed city where I have often seen people dumpster diving for food or making complex life compromises to survive, much less thrive, I am often comforted by observing how Portuguese people respect their rights of choice and choose to live.

So on this seventh and last day of gratitude I choose to express mine for free will. Because I can.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Six – Hands

Oct 17, 2014

Seven days of gratitude, day six: hands

By Sardaka (talk) 09:54, 10 September 2008 (UTC) (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Aboriginal hand stencils in Red Hands Cave, Australia
The sixth day post in this series was delayed by a day as my attention was absorbed by medical tests of the nerve responses in my hands. Many translators have chronic issues with strain injuries in their hands; although I complain a lot about mine, they do not even approach the misery of experience for some colleagues I know. I also cannot say that my hand troubles are due to my work as a translator, because they predate my current choice of profession by many years.

I take too many things for granted, things that seem small, not so important, until something goes wrong with them. I never gave my left thumb much thought until I cut it off one day when a donkey nudged my shoulder to remind me that she wanted some of the zucchini I was free-hand slicing for my sheep. After it was sewn back on I remember needing assistance buttoning my shirt and performing other minor tasks, but as the nerves slowly regrew in the years after and the numb sensation subsided into something approaching normality I forgot the experience.

My health classes in school covered a lot of subjects, among them the need for exercise, good nutrition (the definition of which keeps changing, but an experiment with rats in the sixth grade showed me clearly that man should not live by cornflakes alone), how metabolism works and how not to get syphilis, but I don't remember any discussion of occupational health and the need to protect our bodies from the consequences of work. Later safety instruction in the laboratories where I studied and worked emphasized short-term protection against accidents, such as chemical spills, sprays and gas releases, but ergonomics were never really a topic. I hope that has changed now.

As readers of this blog know, I have many disagreements with the promoters of machine pseudo-translation and especially with those pushing HAMPsTr processes. Aside from the fact that I cannot abide profiteering liars who overpromise and underdeliver with a technology that will never live up to its sales pitch except on the broken backs of the disposable human labor assigned to cover up the inadequacy of six- or seven-figure engineering investments, I am mostly concerned with the physical and psychological consequences of disastrous work ergonomics in the post-editing of machine pseudo-translation. Time and again I have presented data to show how dictation processes routinely far exceed the best productivity currently claimed for trained post-editors on optimized machine pseudo-translation systems. Some MpT researchers like John Moran are aware of these productivity issues and helpfully point out that there are ways in which these different technologies can be usefully brought together (by the use of speech recognition to reduce strain injuries for keyboard-using post-editors, for example), but so far I see little willingness on the part of capital investors to invest in human health protection as long as custom and the law allow cheap laboring humans to be tossed like coal and wood scrap into the furnaces that fire their profit engines.

I feel a little sick sometimes when I read discussions of speech recognition for translation which emphasize possibly greater speed of production. I've started a few of these, and my little video demos on YouTube which show some rather impressive translating throughput in three-minute tests certainly promote that topic of discussion. But the best value in this alternative or complementary technology to the keyboard is the potential for improved digital health... the "digital" in this case referring to the digits on one's hands.

When that digital health is degraded to the point that holding a small dictaphone up to catch some important words from a conference speaker becomes unbearably painful after a few minutes, it is easy to focus on the disability and the disadvantages of it. These can be fixed or not, by therapy, surgery or perhaps even time. But what I cannot forget is how lucky I am to have these numbed hands, and while they do not always do my bidding, they do enough. I have met people who have lost their hands or parts of them in accidents or have been born without them, and while I would of course adjust to the loss of mine, I am grateful that this is not my present need.

When I was 15 I had an experience that I remember often when facing some incapacity. I lost my sight. For a week I was blinded after an accident with a hot nitrating mixture in the lab ate my face and sealed my eyes in the swelling of burns. I accepted quickly that my sight was lost, there was nothing to be done about it after the 3:1 concentrated sulfuric and nitric acid mix did its work. I sat in bed for most of the Easter holiday, listening to the television and wondering how I would go about learning to read Braille. Somewhat uncharacteristically, I wasn't thinking all that much about what had been lost, but when, after a week, the seal on one eye dissolved, fluid ran down my face and I saw light - just a little and nothing in focus, I felt a gratitude that I will never forget for that gift of limited sight.

And so, whether they serve me well or with difficulty, I am grateful for my hands, which serve me well enough and which I hope will always have enough strength and dexterity to serve others in some useful way.


Day One – Teachers
Day Two – Storytellers
Day Three – This Old Frying Pan
Day Four – Dogs
Day Five – Dissidents
Day Seven – Free Will