Oct 27, 2012

I dream of human-assisted machine translation

Reading in bed has a number of hazards, particularly for those who require some assistance to maintain their oxygen supply during sleeping hours and are prone to nodding off, book in hand. And woe to those whose choice of reading may cause uneasy stirrings of the mind, leading it down paths best untraveled. Since purchasing a Kindle just over a year ago I have had many unrestful nights as I read classics neglected in my youth, Dracula and Frankenstein being two of the happier examples. But little did I expect that reading a retrospective review of Paul Verhoeven's 1987 film Robocop would prove my final undoing....

They say that only two things are inevitable: death and taxes. They are wrong.

In the wake of the euro's collapse following the final meltdown of the Greek economy and its last government, German banks were faced with the problem of recouping their losses from people able to offer little more than a moderate supply of transplant organs for the ravenous Chinese market, and concerns among tour operators at the sudden increase of menus offering "long pig" indicated that international medical markets were in a state of oversupply and savory alternatives were too often the order of the day - and occasionally served as unasked-for appetizers.

Clearly, more sustainable engines of value were needed to drive the economy and extract returns from those who benefit from the strength and protection of the state. Fortunately, the persons closest to our enlightened, modern governments are ever active in the pursuit of advances in efficiency to enhance the return on the great investments made in the citizenry.

My life, or more precisely my economic utility after life, was saved by the wondrous results of a joint research project of governments, university medical centers and TAUS members determined to eliminate the exorbitant and unnecessary expense of human translation and post-editing. Although enormous progress had been made in convincing people of the progress of machine translation in its 70 year history, throughout that time the actual perfection of the results remained a maddening five years distant, the gap never quite closing as the faithful knew it should.

Some apostates among MT believers claimed that the technology could never achieve its full potential without the collaboration of qualified linguists, but these specialists remained stubborn for the most part in their resistance to using their brains for linguistic garbage recycling. Resistant, that is, until their brains became part of the recycling effort, offering value-added new "life" for the benefit of bottom lines.

A little-noticed provision of the 2014 tax reforms introduced by the Merkel government in the Germany and emulated by its subjects and acolytes around the world was conditional relief based on the reversion to the state of corporeal assets after the cessation of autorespiratory processes. And those who noticed... well, the comforting comparison with reverse mortgages and the lesser associated asset risk usually put their minds at ease.

The first indication I had that something was different was when I reached for my Kindle and found that it was no longer beside me, that in fact I could discern no "side". After a few moments' confusion, my vision cleared, and I was presented with a screen of text:
Crucial for the occurrence of a merger is the cross section, the measure of the probability that the colliding nuclei react. Sufficiently large, the cross section is usually only when the two cores with high energy collide. Which is necessary to overcome the Coulomb barrier, the electrical repulsion between the positively charged nuclei. However, the cross section is also less impact energy due to the tunneling effect is not zero. Reach the nuclei at a distance of only about 10-15 m from each other, they bind together the strong interaction, the nuclei have merged.
WTF? A timer appeared above the text, accompanied by a message to begin postediting. Huh? I stared at the jumble of words with no little confusion, wondering what their purpose could be. Colliding nuclei? Merger? Something to do with nuclear fusion perhaps, but hard to tell from this gurgled mess. I continued to stare at the text as the timer counted down. The message to begin began to flash, slowly at first, then more intensely. The countdown reached zero, and the message changed: target not achieved.

As I felt the electric surge convulse my body, I realized that I had no mouth with which to scream. But every part of my not-present body screamed for me as nerve centers received their reinforcing, teaching stimulus.


flashed briefly before my eyes, and the text reappeared.

My unseen fingers moved across an unfelt keyboard. The cross section is critical for determining the probability that colliding nuclei will react and fusion occur....

Oct 22, 2012

Another translation jobs portal? No thanks.

After I published my recent note on online proZtitution and the race to the bottom on commercial translation portals, I received a polite e-mail from someone who is working to build a better "jobs board" for translation projects. I've received quite a few messages like this in the past four years since I started this blog.

But I fail to see a compelling case for yet another intermediary site for job auctions or anything of that sort.

There is certainly good sense in professional associations with a vetted membership upgrading their directory sites and making them easier for potential clients to find and use, and for some time now I have felt that the leaders of major organizations like the ATA, ITI, IoL, SFT, BDÜ, etc. ought to link their directories and allow better international searches as a counterweight to the less than optimal listings one finds on PrAdZ and other sites.

There's even more sense in individual language service providers improving their online presence in ways that helps prospects find them and recognize a good fit.

The largest commercial portal for translation job auctions has become increasingly irrelevant to all but the low-end commodity market that is probably better off with Gargled Translate given its expectations. The predominance of Indian, Chinese and Eastern European language sausage purveyors (LSPs) on ProZ has driven many serious brokers and service providers elsewhere; a decade ago, even five years ago, a number of interesting inquiries came through that channel, but today they inevitably find me via the BDÜ directory or other channels I more or less control.

So I wish all the aspiring intermediates success with their planned sites and hope they can in fact make a difference in some useful way, but for the most part, translators should look to "home remedies" for curing what may ail their businesses.

Oct 21, 2012

Put OCR in Your Business Model

This article originally appeared on an online translators portal four years ago and was long overdue for removal there. Here is an update.

Optical character recognition (OCR) software is discussed often online and at translators' events, usually in the context of how to deal with PDF files. Hector Calabia, Peter Linton and others have made a useful technical contributions on this subject in articles and forums and at various conferences. However, it is useful to consider OCR software in a broader translation business context. Document conversion is often very useful for translation purposes and greatly facilitates automated quality checks of the draft, for example, but OCR can also generate additional income for your business and reduce quotation risk.
OCR for translation
There are a number of programs available for this purpose, and which one is best for your purposes may depend on the language combinations you deal with and other factors. For years now I have used Abbyy FineReader, because years ago it gave the best test results for the particular set of European languages one of our clients offered. It is also relatively inexpensive (I paid about 100 euros for FineReader 11) and easy to use.

Many OCR conversions of TIFF, JPEG and PDF documents which I receive from agencies are difficult to use for translation purposes and require significant modification - if they can be used at all. Particularly in cases where TM tools are to be used or target texts differ significantly in length (especially when they are longer) there may be problems. The best ways to avoid these problems are
  • avoid automatic settings for OCR conversions; use zone definitions instead
  • avoid saving the converted texts with full formatting in most cases
  • use a suitable post-OCR workflow to clean up the converted document by joining broken sentences, removing superfluous characters, fixing conversion errors, etc.
If the idea of doing individual zone definitions on each page of a 100 page document is intimidating, take heart. Programs such as Abbyy FineReader often allow you to define layout templates, speeding up the work considerably. One translator I know became so skilled at the use of these OCR templates and was so good with his conversions that agencies hire him just to do high-quality OCR work for them. Which brings me to….

OCR as an income-generating activity for the translator or agency
Hardcopy, scanned documents, faxes and PDF documents generally require more work for translators than electronically editable documents and require different, sometimes more fallible quality control measures than a typical workflow for a translator using original electronic documents in a translation memory system. If no conversion is performed, it is more time-consuming to check terminology or use concordances during the translation, and it is also unfortunately too easy for eyes to skip over bits of text. Under time pressure this can lead to very serious problems. Even with conversion, the OCR text requires careful checking against the original document to identify and correct any errors introduced (and there will be some at times with even the best OCR software). So it is not at all unreasonable for a translator to charge a higher rate for dealing with hardcopy, scanned documents, faxes and PDF documents.

There are a number of ways to incorporate these higher charges into your business model. The two obvious ways are a premium (surcharged) word/line/page rate and hourly service charges. I usually offer both options to my clients, with the word/line rate surcharge representing the “fixed” rate and the hourly rate the “flexible” rate where I make an non-binding estimate and they may end up paying more or less according to the actual effort. For pure OCR conversion jobs where I am not doing the translating, I charge a typical proofreading rate or a bit more, because I go through the entire document and see that it is correctly formatted for translation work and that obvious errors are fixed (i.e. basic spellcheck, etc.).

Sometimes I hear that “the client doesn’t want to pay for that”. Well, that’s OK, too. The client has the option of doing the work and doing it right and saving me the effort. The recognition that there is additional effort involved and that this effort should be compensated is important. But usually there is a way to sugar-coat the "bitter" cost pill, and this is where your marketing savvy comes into play. Some win-win arguments you might present include:
  • the availability of an editable source text the client can use for future versions;
  • the ability to create TM resources using the OCR text (which can save time/money later);
  • potentially better quality assurance, especially with tight deadlines. 
Returning a clean, nicely formatted OCR of the source document is often good "advertising". End clients may appreciate how this saves time and allows them to use the original text in a variety of ways (attorneys may like to quote arguments from the opposing side, and copy/paste beats retyping). Discriminating agencies may recognize your skill at creating documents that don’t go crazy when edited (because of screwy text boxes, bad font definitions and other format errors) and offer you more work. If your language pair is in low demand or is very competitive, this may be one more way of distinguishing yourself from the pack.
I got started doing OCR work and charging for it after suffering through the conversion of several long PDF documents by more manual methods. I finally wised up, bought FineReader and started to use it with most of the hardcopy, scanned documents, faxes and PDF documents I received simply because it enabled me to use my TM tools and do better quality checks. I started sending the cleaner-looking source texts converted with OCR along with the target text translations, and soon I started getting requests for paid OCR work. A number of my agency clients then began to buy OCR tols and use them with varying degrees of success. Even if they do all the conversion work, I still win if they do it right, because I save time for what I enjoy more – the translation.

OCR as tool for quotation
Some people I know still haven’t learned to do a high-quality OCR (or they don’t care to), but they still use the software effectively in a very important area of their business: quotation and risk limitation.

There are lots of good tools out there for text counting, which is important to many methods of costing and time planning in the translation business. Some people even still do it manually, which, though time consuming, is not a bad way of checking the numbers from an electronic estimate. A number of factors can result in text counts being too low – embedded objects, such Excel tables or PowerPoint slides in a Microsoft Word documents, or graphics with text - or even too high (as is the case with at least one CAT tool counting RTF and MS Word files). Keep using whichever method you prefer - I won't try to persuade you that any one approach is best. I use a number of methods myself.

When translating larger documents, however, or documents with a complex structure, it is often useful to have a “sanity check” for your text counts. On a number of occasions I have received translation jobs from agency clients where the text count was given a X words, where in fact there were quite a few more words embedded in Excel objects, bitmap graphics, Visio charts, etc. which had not been measured by the method used. In a few cases these clients had to take a loss on the job after giving a fixed price bid to the end client. Using OCR to check your estimates can prevent such an unfortunate scenario.

To do this, print the document (whatever it is) to a PDF file. Then run the PDF file through an OCR program with automatic settings (to save time – you don’t need to translate this OCR). Save the text and count it. There will probably be a bit more text due to headers or footers or perhaps garbage from graphics, but the results should be close to your other estimate. (You can always subtract an appropriate factor for the text count in headers and footers to improve your OCR estimate.) If there is a major deviation, this is a clear sign that you should take a much closer look at the document(s) before quoting the job.

Searchable scanned documents
Another use I have found for OCR in recent years is creating searchable "text-on-image" documents from scanned PDFs, TIFF files and other bitmap formats. Although I have used these searchable PDFs mostly for reference while I work (searching for bits of text while viewing the original, unadulterated context) and supplied them to clients on only a few occasions, the potential for an additional value-added service is fairly obvious in this case.

OCR software is an essential tool for the work of many translators today, even more so than CAT software in many cases. Not just a tool for recovering “lost” electronic documents or making legacy typed material more accessible for translation work, it also offers possibilities for generating additional projects and income, differentiating one’s services and reducing risks when quoting large jobs. Key features of whatever OCR you choose should include the ability to select text areas for conversion and to determine their sequence in the converted text (using user-defined zones). Various options for saving the converted text (full page format, limited text formatting and no formatting) are also very helpful. Most important of all, though, is a good quality-checking workflow for your OCR documents (possibly including formatting) to avoid difficulties in the translation process and ensure that your work has a polished, professional appearance.

OCR software is another good tool for improving your visibility with clients and making your work processes easier in an age when many archiving and ERP systems are focused on the retention of PDF documents or TIFFs and even actively discourage saving original formats. The major providers of this software often have free, functional demonstration versions to use before making a purchase decision. Try several options and choose the best one for you. You won’t be sorry.

Oct 20, 2012

Do proZtitutes make translation easier than ever?

It's surprising how some are surprised when certain online language service auction portalZ hit new lowZ all the time. The latest controversy arose when a German colleague clicked an advertising link (ka-ching for the King, more ad revenue) which displayed something like the following:

This took him to the site of a service provider in India offering to convert and machine translate a variety of file types, creating formatted output, and doing OCR conversion for what some might assume were "reasonable" prices. To convert and machine translate about three scanned pages of double-spaced, typed text (about 1000 words) costs a mere USD 7. Ramalamadingdong, what a deal. Let's forget for a moment that OCR is often a no-brainer job with professional or even second-tier OCR software, and Google Translate and other garbage engines are free or nearly so, and let's not even think about potential issues of confidentiality that too many forget to consider. And then, of course, one can ignore the fact that it sometimes helps to understand the language of the text you are converting if there are decisions to be made about blocks and sequences or corrections to deal with.

The German colleague, who runs a small agency, commented that at the rates quoted, he would have done nicely with the 1.2 million words he converted last night. But he was more worried about other things:

I'm not sure I understand the concern with Ze Zite's reputation; in many eyes it has been disreputable for some time now. That ProZ is now advertising services for low-end garbage services like this is hardly much of an insult on top of the record of its past injuries. This is also entirely consistent with phoax at the commercial portal "certifying" bottomscraper agencies and other amusing stunts.

I don't think he has to worry much about Ze Zite trashing his reputation by association. I'm sure, like any good businessperson, he has developed a number of better channels for acquisition and collaboration and prefers to work with professionals.

Some time ago, I wrote about discussions of a "translator's dream site". I had intended to follow this up with a review of various alternatives I have seen develop in recent years. I don't believe that there is one ideal "site" for all needs. Where you troll for quickie assignments might not be where you feel like a serious technical discussion about your CAT tools, and I hope it's not where you would discuss truly sensitive business matters.

Abandoning the illusion that a for-profit portal with a history of exploitation and pandering to interests at odds with those of freelance translators and other small service providers is a good first step.

After that I would look for the right mix of public and private platforms, both virtual and in the real world: local or national translators associations, Yahoogroups and other online list servers, local business associations or organizations associated with your major areas of interest, regular conferences and trade fairs, private online forums - whatever works best for you as you like to work and interact with clients and peers. I won't presume to say how to go about this, as we each have our own unique strengths, and my way might not work well for you. Some days it doesn't even work for me ;-)

I've found that my personal mix of networking at professional conferences and trade fairs of interest to me, Twitter, Facebook groups like Networking Translators (where a lot of German peers seem to congregate in a chaotic cluster), the forum for BDÜ members and the private forum Stridonium give me a richer, more diverse professional experience than one typically enjoys with PrAdZ.

If you want to support a Zite willing to proZtitute itself with any and all promiscuous promoters of Gargled Translation (however well formatted), be my guest. You are free to choose your market segment within the limits of your abilities. But should you opt for the compelling deal from "Imaginary Solutions" to machine translate your texts, I'm sure your competitors will have kind words for you.

Oct 15, 2012

Would you certify sewage?

Good afternoon, Mr. Lossner,
   We have received the attached document from a patent attorney. An English translation of it has already been prepared by the attorney's office, but it must be certified. Thus in this case it would be necessary to check it in order to issue the certification.
  Could you please inform us of the cost and time required to certify this translation? The customer has also informed us that there will be further translations in the future, particularly for patents. Thus we would be interested in working together long-term. Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

Best regards,

Your Expert Translation Agency
I always get a sinking feeling when the customer thinks he's able to translate a document himself and get me or some other court-sworn translator to rubber-stamp it as "true and correct". Any certification would require a very careful word-for-word review of the translation, comparing it against the source text. Anything else would be unethical. Of course there are colleagues who don't care about such niceties and send stacks of pre-stamped paper to their agency customers for use with God-only-knows-what-translations. On their heads be it. My stamp and signature put my reputation, such as it is, at stake, and I don't see the need to do that in support of work by King Louie & Co.

In twelve years of commercial translation work, I have yet to see a single patent translation submitted to me for review that could pass without heavy editing. Even the best translators can have a bad day, but it seems that the patent translators some of my clients and prospects use never have a good one. I assume that the translator who did this particular piece of work had just had his dog run over by a steam roller.

The first line gave me a bad premonition of things to come. It started out like this:

Huh? A quick look at the original text revealed the monkey's tail:

OK... well, anyone can substitute a word by accident when distracted, but... the rest of the first paragraph wasn't much better. It read a bit like Tarzan's first, painstaking steps with the English language, learning from picture books and guessing at words. The second paragraph continued the tour de farce:

I'll let you, Dear Reader, take a wild guess at that one. A quick scan at the remaining 13 pages showed the same level of expertise in every paragraph my unfortunate eyes glanced upon.

My response to the inquiry was perhaps less patient than it could have been, but the day was rather a hectic one, and if I am to embark on a long-term collaboration with a service broker, I expect this broker to be able to tell liquid manure from drinking water. I figured it was time for a lesson in colloquial American English, so I opened with

No way, José!

(in normal font color and at ordinary size for courtesy) and suggested that a retranslation of the patent might be advisable, as there was not a single sentence I saw worth recycling as text. Alas, I fear the client prefers British colloquialisms or insists on "saving" money with his fine translation skills, for I heard not a further word in response to my proposal.

I feel sorry for the inventor. The poor fellow put his trust in an attorney who surely is not cheap, and said attorney probably charged him a fortune for that dog's breakfast "translation". In this case, it's obvious that machine translation played no role; Google Translate would have offered an improvement of the mess I was given.

These days, it doesn't take a lot of effort to find a qualified translator to translate a text like this. Professional associations like the BDÜ, ITI, SFT and the ATA offer directories of translators and their special skills or qualifications, including those able to prepare sworn translations. Or there's always Google and relevant keywords. Often, the worst thing that can happen is to put your trust in an attorney or other agent who in turn passes the text elsewhere, and from there on further it goes and ends up with a cranky guy like me who is likely to have a stroke trying to patch the holes in that moldy Swiss cheese.

Those who need translations for important purposes should do themselves a favor by hiring a professional to to a professional job. It's almost always cheaper to get it right the first time.

Oct 14, 2012

Who's afraid of the BDÜ?

A recent publicity stunt by the German Association of Translators and Interpreters (BDÜ) has provoked some interesting responses, most of which, I think, reveal the personal agendas and prejudices of the respondents and miss the point entirely. In a brilliant bit of political theater, financial translation wizard Ralf Lemster was pitted against The Machine loved and feared by many: Google Translate.

Well-known MT pundits like Kirti Vashee know this isn't "fair" and uttered the expected objections and protests. I imagine the details of their criticisms are correct, or largely so. But they are also largely irrelevant. They are all too aware of the Imperial Elephant in the room: public perceptions and how too many private individuals, corporations and - to their great shame - language service brokers apply machine translation in ways that are entirely inappropriate.

All the talk of controlled language, fit-for-purpose, quality-is-what-the buyer-thinks-it-is and "it's here to stay, so deal with it" and all the other noise generated by MT's sycophant choir reminds me a bit of the old carnival shell game, except that the ones taking your money there are a bit more honest in their game than ones who tell you now to "get on the MT boat or drown".

Off-hand comment? Bollocks. It was a prepared keynote speech at memoQfest 2012 and carefully calibrated to play on the fears, uncertainties and doubts of listeners and drive them down the drain of the post-editing sewage cycle. It is a far cry from the restrained, responsible approach to machine translation promoted by technologists I know who understand the extremely limited scope of MT and never oversell its performance or potential (at least not within my hearing).

The MT carnies know instinctively why the ludicrous BDÜ "case study" is brilliant. It is short of fact and science and follows a familiar lightweight format we all know from modern "news" reporting. And however much better custom, optimized MT engines are said to be, it is Google Translate more than any other which casts the biggest shadow across the translation landscape.

I remember a few years ago how Kilgray once objected on ethical principle to officially supporting a Google Translate plug-in for memoQ, because of the very real violations of confidentiality and often law which occur when translators send their clients' content to Google for processing. This promiscuity with the intellectual property and privacy rights of others is not excused by the frequency of its practice any more than the widespread practice of unsafe sex in countries devastated by  double-digit AIDS infection rates makes the risk of illicit mingling any less.

But SDL, long an ethical "innovator" in the world of translation (remember how the Trados gang brought you the Big Lie of how translators prefer to give fuzzy discounts - long before most translators had CAT tools or even knew what a fuzzy match was), apparently had no such reservations and made the tools to facilitate breaches of confidentiality more accessible to translators and wannabes, so Kilgray as well as many others gave in to popular demand and indifference to the law and released its own Google Translate plug-in officially. (Of course I support the right of SDL, Kilgray, Atril and any other company to make such tools freely available. A Google Translate plug-in no more violates intellectual property rights than guns kill people. We all know and accept that it is humans and their weak nature which are at fault, and we can do nothing about that but let things take their course, right?)

Reactions from translators who understand German were fascinating. Some pointed out that the New York Times had already "gone there" (not really - the translations of literature snippets are even less relevant I think... I want to see real-life risks shown with electrical repair instructions and instructions for surgery or the use of pharmaceuticals), others criticized the BDÜ for not showing side-by-side comparisons of the machine's erroneous spew and Ralf's correct text. But I think the Devil's distraction is in the details.

The BDÜ is generally rather hidebound and out of touch with many aspects of modern translation practice; the pages of nonsense in the online registration for their recent conference in Berlin tried my patience to the point where I decided to stay home and make jam for the second time. But this time they got it all right I think.

A good guerrilla knows that the battle is about hearts and minds, and since most of the public is a bit short in the latter capacity, it's best to go straight to the heart of the matter with an entertaining show. A week after watching the "report", few will remember the details. But they will remember the emotions evoked and the air of authority projected. MT will lose every battle of fact on the fields where its carnies pitch their tents and the public crowds gather, but the shysters have a very sure advantage and exploit it at every opportunity: the naive confidence of the scientifically illiterate that "progress" will continue and things will always get better, MT included. I hear this all the time from colleagues. The less they understand the technology they use, the more they are willing to be used by it, and the greater their confidence that it will inevitably infiltrate their necessary professional activities.

A similar confidence once existed for the impending discovery of the Philosopher's Stone to turn lead to gold, occupying even the greatest minds like Sir Isaac Newton. Skeptics like me were most likely laughingstocks to go against such wisdom.

The way to win this "war" is not with facts to be forgotten in a day. The path to the victory of good sense and the human spirit lies in a bit of theater like the BDÜ has offered and perhaps some good jokes like the late Miguel Llorens so generously shared at the expense of dishonest MT promotion.

That is something which the carnies have good reason to fear.

Oct 9, 2012

The future of translation now. In Warsaw.

Beautiful crowdsourced Warsaw.
This year’s Translation Management Europe conference was held at the Hotel Mercure Warszawa Grand, short walk from the reconstituted Olde Towne of Warsaw. This pleasant district is said to have been built in large part by non-professional crowdsourcing after some of Poland’s neighbors had repurposed too many of the qualified builders as fertilizer and pulverized the original city structures. This magnificent recovery from nothing should put into perspective the widespread sense of doom about the future of translation, which was in fact the theme of TM-Europe this year.

The road trip to get there was an adventure with German to English financial translator Susan Starling, Kilgray’s Gábor Ugray, Stridonium founder and Dutch to English legal translator and interpreter Christina Guy (my copywriting partner),  Ajax vom Bernsteinsee, Csővárberki Jámbor and myself packed into a minivan with luggage and provisions for the week and hurtling down the new EU-funded superhighway that crosses Poland. Due to a few delays we missed the Kilgray reception the evening before the conference, but we were able to chat with a few straggling colleagues for a bit before turning in to rest for the start the next day.

Thursday morning, after a brief greeting by the conference organizers, Mark Childress of SAP gave his keynote talk unplugged, sans microphone and slides. Goed zo, as the Dutch say: he needs no props for his message.

After the conference, one participant expressed a bit of puzzlement about the choice of terminology for a speech to open a conference on the future of translation. Too specific she said. I disagree. Terminology is a general problem in most translation and localization projects, and getting it right before you get started cuts costs and time overall by about a third according to figures Mark quoted (which I have encountered elsewhere – EU data I think). Cost savings like that are very, very important to the future of translation.

A lot of specifics were in fact presented, but these merely emphasized the universal importance of terms and intelligent management of terminology. He spoke of synonyms used to help potential customers to find the right product in a search, branding and semantic influences. The dark side of terminology was presented, how “term criminals” use words to distort and deceive, but how this is also becoming harder with better access to information through the Internet.

"New" languages are emerging in the commercial arena as economies around the world develop. There is a great need for proper localization in the countries of Africa and elsewhere to bridge the communication gap between Western-trained doctors with their English and Latin terminology and those who understand only the local lingo these medical experts disdain. This is not just a problem in emerging nations; in my host country Germany I often see the alienation of older citizens who cannot understand modern advertising communication in Denglish. To the localizer will go the profits as now “unimportant” regions grow and flex new economic muscles.

Localization consultant Stefan Gentz (who kindly supplied the pictures used in this post) followed with a lively talk on change management, the motivations of companies that introduce it and how to get it right. This is an easy subject to get me snoring, but Stefan failed miserably in that regard; the talk was too well presented and interesting to allow me to catch up on my sleep deficit.

Stefan is a unique individual, a German brimming with optimizing and a humility that is all the more surprising given his great competence. I met him earlier this year at memoQfest 2012; he introduced himself as the author of a blog post that had drawn a few scathing comments from me. I don’t remember what it was all about, but I suspect that if Stefan was in fact wrong about whatever irked me at the time, his graceful way of dealing with matters probably puts him on the right side of most things. He is an enormously creative problem solver whose infectious enthusiasm is probably just what the doctor should order for companies needing a guide to effective change management with their language technologies. I found his lecture fun and inspiring and the occasional phonetic stumbles just added a bit of pleasant spice.

Stefan’s most important point, I think, is that change management is not crisis management. If you wait until you are in a crisis, it may well be too late.

Reinhard Schaler followed with a talk on trends in localization that was interesting but not necessarily relevant to the commercial world I and many of my colleagues inhabit.

"Social localization" represents the greatest growth opportunity, he said, but many of the examples presented involved harnessing the free time of those who have their living secured in other ways. There were a few contradictions in the presentation that were never resolved to my satisfaction: on one hand, the short shelf-life of information and its loss of value before traditional translation processes can be applied effectively was emphasized, but a few minutes later he spoke of vast archives of old wisdom in urgent need of recoding for other languages and cultures. Not a contradiction, really, as I think I probably agree with him on the specific examples he’ll cite – I think we’ll both agree with the opinion of the late Miguel Llorens that the content tsunami has less a wave of valuable content than my puppy unleashes on the sidewalk on a typical walk, and his observation that the Common (Non)sense Advisory has not reported on community translation because it is not yet of obvious commercial interest and they cannot sell reports about it is probably an accurate observation despite any intended humor.

Reinhard commented that a trillion hours of free time is up for grabs each year… I wish someone would spread a bit of that wealth my direction. I work for a living and have little desire to be spending my bit of free time doing more of the same work for nothing. Reinhard does not see this use of unprofessional translation as a threat to the pros, and I largely agree with him. And when it is, I think of the likely result in many cases and remind myself that these are good times for those who have studied tort law.

The case he cited of drug companies selling pharmaceuticals around the world with labels and directions for use only in English is appalling and morally criminal. When he talked about this point I wondered about the viability of recorded phone messages with directions in local languages and how these might be accessed using codes on a package. I was disappointed at Reinhard’s failure to offer viable paths to action for working language professionals, but I do care about many of the matters he touched on.

He delivered one of my favorite lines at the conference: The Titanic was built by professionals, the Arc by amateurs! A very good point, but Noah was a pro at manure management. Most crowdsourcing companies have yet to master that skill.

A panel on standards followed, with interesting background on the EN 15038 standard, its development and politics and future incarnations under discussion. Various national standards in Canada and elsewhere were discussed, and there was a good exchange between the audience and the panel members.

Chris Durban with her book, The Prosperous Translator. Photo: Stefan Gentz
Chris Durban (in the audience) pointed out that the need to purchase copies of the EN 15038 standard posed a barrier  to its adoption, and she described how her French association (SFT) had negotiated a bulk purchase deal to help overcome this.

After lunch I was full of excellent Polish food and tired from the effort of concentrating on the morning’s presentations. A colleague in the US once suggested to me that breaks at these conferences should be long – much more than the short hour here. I agree. Two or three hours would have allowed for a refreshing, much-needed nap or more networking time with interesting international colleagues.

Though I was desperately tired, Paul Filkin’s talk on migration issues from SDL Trados 2007 to the latest versions of SDL Trados Studio – “Making the Leap” – kept me alert and interested. It was a competent overview with relevant test data on leverage differences, compatibility strategies and more. A good time for an extra coffee break if you stay well away from the Trados Jungle, but a valuable guide for those in it who prefer to avoid the snakes, quicksand and tigers. Paul is one of the best explainers of the cabbalistic secrets of SDLarcana that it has been my pleasure to meet over the years, and the great services he has done to user communities with improved customer service and support as well as the SDL Open Exchange and his excellent tips blog even make things look easy sometimes.

Gábor Ugray followed with a talk on the Kilgray constellation of tools. It was a useful overview for those unfamiliar with the suite, but the focus on server solutions was a bit aside from my personal needs, and I was having a terrible time understanding parts of the talk, because his microphone was defective. I did, however, manage to extract some useful information regarding development plans with Kilgray’s terminology tools that will affect development and publishing plans of my own. When asked about plans for possible further web-based offerings (because Paul had mentioned various SDL plans) there was a deadpan pass on mentioning anything specific or interesting. Praiseworthy caution perhaps, but a little disappointing, because the rumors of things ahead are quite encouraging.

There were further presentations that afternoon from Plunet and others, but a severe need for caffeine, fresh air and a walk for the dogs caused me to miss it. That’s always a problem with conferences – not enough time and/or caffeine to take it all in. Thus ended the first day of TM-Europe 2012.

A loaf of bread, a jug of wine and a vigorous debate on the language "industry". Photo: Stefan Gentz
Not quite, actually. A few hours later, after a suitable break for rest and relaxed chats, we met again at the conference hotel and walked to the venue for the event’s gala dinner at Pod Gigantami. It was a smaller gathering than last year, but the food and the atmosphere were better than last year’s rather nice evening. I had the pleasure of sitting with colleagues from Russia, Germany, France, Sweden, the US and the Netherlands among other places (with some overlap) and hearing them share their thoughts on marketing strategies and the challenges of the profession. I was pleased that Chris Durban was at the table to share her thoughts, particularly as problems related to an illness the next morning caused me to miss her keynote speech and most of the other presentations that day.

The program the next day was quite a good one, but illness and the need to prepare for my own presentations caused me to miss the talks I had looked forward to most. I was to take part in the panel discussion of whether machine translation, a 70-year old technology that always seems to be five years short of perfect implementation, is perhaps overrated as a technology of the future. The other panel members, Doug Strock and Michal Tyszkowski, are credible technologists with a clear understanding of the practical limits of MT and the honesty to state these limits and warn against their abuse, but the member of the panel who was unable to make it at all due to his untimely death at age 41 of a heart attack spoke most entertainingly and clearly through insightful and irreverent quotes projected in the background and the memories many have of his vigorous defense of real common sense. I stumbled in late, a bit disoriented, and shared a few of my skeptical concerns about the mind-numbing and warping effects of machine translation post-editing on a good human brain and as well as my thoughts on research data presented last year at TM-Europe by Indra Sāmīte discussing Latvian MT experiments which clearly showed an increase in serious errors after editing machine  translation supported work. I'm not actually sure that what I had to say was relevant to the preceding discussion, but damage to one's professional writing skills through exposure to linguistic garbage has been a concern of mine for many decades, which is why I don't watch much television or correct crappy human translation work either.

My afternoon rant on responsibility for the future of translation was originally scheduled for the morning, but Doug had kindly agreed to switch times, and I explained as best I could my cautious optimism that things can in fact work out better than many of us expect - if we remember that there are people behind all our "processes". I'm not sure the point really worked, because in the Q&A afterward, one fellow chided me for my pessimism, telling me that translation agencies should do everything for freelance translators so we all can just type. Oh well. In his future perhaps.

The final Warsaw Pact Debate for the meeting of 87 delegates and two dogs from 21 countries saw Doug Strock, Chris Durban, Reinhard Schaler and Mark Childress summarizing and dissecting each others' visions of the future of translation and localization. Just as there is no single translation market, there is no single future for our profession, and listening to these colleagues and others discuss their thoughts and fears for times ahead is a great help to me in choosing my own future rather than accept one that others might choose for me.

The Buck Stops Where?

When I was asked last summer to speak at TM-Europe 2012 in Warsaw, I discussed possible topics with the organizers, Peter Reynolds and Monika Popiolek. There are so many challenges facing us in the future of translation, not all of them having to do with machine translation. These include:
  • ever shorter project cycles
  • rising cost pressure in many segments
  • a greater than ever need for business savvy to survive
  • increasing use of technology in many areas: it's not enough to be a good translator; one must often be an IT expert or have access to such expertise
  • radical "scoping" policies, i.e. discounts based on match scales
Solutions to these and other issues may be technical; often they are matters of policy.

It is hard – impossible, really – to look ahead and see with any certainty the technical shape of the future. But I believe that the most important elements of the future are known and knowable.

The title of my talk is taken from a well-known saying of former US president Harry Truman: the buck stops here. What does that mean? It's about responsibility.

But responsibilities in many areas of our profession are often not clear, or the lines are becoming blurred.

More and more, stakeholders – I hate that word – in translation processes try to pass that buck, making others, such as individual translators, responsible for technical preparations which lie outside their areas of expertise.

Really, this is not a technical problem. It is a human issue.

I said that the key elements of the future of translation are known or knowable. I believe that these are the elements of our human nature. How we choose to work with others. How we decide to train the next generation. How we share responsibility.

In our drive to optimize our processes we must, if we are to recognize the solutions for the complex challenges of our future, allow a certain inefficiency in which our subconscious minds are given scope to process these challenges and find solutions. Often, we need to sleep on it.

You know the old saying: work smarter, not harder. Not like a hamster on a wheel. But this requires space. And quiet. Time to talk, and negotiate, and understand our partners and customers and help them understand us.

The buck stops where??? Who is responsible? We have to think about this, talk and decide.

An example of a critical decision for the future came out in a discussion with Doug Strock and others as we prepared for the panel on MT and its role or lack thereof in the future. When I mentioned to Doug how few specialists there were in my areas, how difficult it is to find a research chemist with an understanding of patent law and high-level translation skills, he commented that this is why we need machine translation. I'm sure he was joking. He said that we are the last generation of real subject matter experts translating in such areas. After we die out, there will be no choice but to rely on machines to understand the texts we translate today. Bollocks.

Let's forget the question of quality and the impossibility of achieving the necessary accuracy of translation with machines and post-editors ignorant of the subject matter. Why can't we simply develop the human resources we need instead? We did it after the launch of Sputnik. The United States and other countries transformed their education systems.

I have a lot of personal ideas for how to solve specific challenges facing us now and in the future of translation.

With regard to the technical qualifications and competencies for using technology in translation, I have been carrying on a private campaign to persuade tool vendors, professional associations, translation agencies and others to develop outcome-based testing and certification of basic problem-solving skills for translation using technology, to determine, for example, whether a translator truly understands how to work with embedded objects in a compound document or translate tagged formats such as HTML or an XML for which the tags containing translatable content must be specified.

But it's not my ideas that are important and offer the best solutions for our common future. Nor are they yours most likely. It is the ideas and solutions that we develop together in discussion and negotiation, with as little "noise" as possible.

Therefore I would like to close this rant and send you all off to the coffee break early to talk and decide for yourselves how to share responsibility in a sustainable way, to decide where the buck should stop – now and in the future. 

Photo by colleague Valerij Tomarenko: TM-Europe 2012 in Warsaw, Poland

Oct 2, 2012

Update on the OTM integration with SDL Trados Studio

Since I learned earlier this year about plans to integrate's Online Translation Manager (OTM) - the workflow solution I use for secure data transmission in my projects - and SDL Trados Studio I have kept track of the progress of this effort with some interest and satisfaction. Although it is unlikely to be of immediate benefit to me, an occasional user of SDL Trados desktop applications, I have followed the combinations of business process tools with their translation implementation counterparts for many years, and this seems to be one of the few efforts that really deserves the label "integration". Too often that word is used to describe reading a text file with an analysis of files and applying a scoping grid to ensure that one's profits remain suitably modest or non-existent.

When I contacted OTM's architect this week to get the latest news before heading to Warsaw for the translation management conference, he described the development and testing over the past month and the probable completion of the middleware component next week. By the end of October, the OTM workflow system should have a new range of features to complement the Trados workflows for analyzing and testing the viability of files for translation processes, applying customer-specific weighting tables to matches and more.

The release of the new version of OTM and the SDL Trados integration features is expected in November after testing with a pilot group is completed. Given the good record of for releasing stable versions of its software over the past three years, I expect a well-tuned, useful advance of functionality. The integration will be available for testing and use free of charge for some months in its rollout phase to ensure that potential users have every opportunity to master its application to their business processes. Several licensing models are being considered afterward to allow users flexibility.

Contact for further details on this product. When the test phase is completed, I hope to interview some of the current group of companies working with this solution and find out the best and the worst of its implementation.