Mar 4, 2019

What evil lurks in the results from your language service provider?

Let me start by disclosing that although I have a registered limited company through which I provide translation, training and technical consulting services for translation processes, I am essentially a sole trader who is not unreasonably, though not correctly, referred to as a freelancer much of the time. I have a long history of friendship and consulting support with the honorable owners of quite a few small and medium language service companies and of a few large ones. I vigorously dispute any foolish claims that there is no such need for such companies, and I see a natural alliance and many shared interests between the best of them and the best of independent professionals in the same sector.

But as Sturgeon's Law states so well, "ninety percent of everything is crap", and that would apply in equal measure to translation brokers and translators I suspect, though of course this is influenced by context. But what context can justify this translation of a data privacy statement from German to English? Only the section headers are shown here to protect against sensory overload and blown mental circuits:

The rest of the text is actually worse. This is the kind of thing some unscrupulous agencies take money for these days.

Why, pray tell, was the section numbering translated so variously into English? Well, if you know anything about the mix-and-match statistical crapshoot that is SMpT (statistical machine pseudotranslation) and its not-as-good-as-you-think wannabe alternatives, it's easy to guess the frequency of certain correlations in English with German numbers followed by a period.

And clearly, the agency could not even be bothered to make corrections, and the robotic webmaster put the text up, noticing nothing, where it remained for about a year to embarrass a rather good company which I hold in high esteem.

What's the moral of this story? Take your pick from the many reasonable options. "Reasonable" does not include doing business with the liars and thieves who will try to sell you on the "value proposition" of machine translation to cut costs.

A skilled translator knowledgeable in the subject matter and trained in dictation techniques paired with a good speech recognition solution or transcriptionist can beat any human post-edited machine translation process for both volume and quality. And a skilled summarizer reading source texts and dictating summaries in another language can blow them both away as a "value proposition".

One thing that is too often forgotten in the fool's gold rush to cheap language (dis)service solutions is - as noted by Bevan et alia - exposure to machine-translated output over any significant period of time has unfortunate effects one the language skills (reading, writing and comprehension) of the victims working with it. This has been confirmed time and again by translation company owners, slavelancers and other word workers. Serious occupational health measures are called for, but to date little or nothing has been done in this regard.

And when human intelligence is taken out of play or impaired by an automated linguistic lobotomy, the results inevitable gall in the lower quartile of the aforementioned 90%. Really crappy crap.

As another of my favorite fiction authors used to comment: TANSTAAFL. There ain't no such thing as a free lunch. And trust is always good, but these days you need to verify that your service providers really give you what you have paid for and don't pass off crap like you see in the example above.


  1. Very wise words, Kevin. So glad that I finally found 5 minutes to check our your site for the first time today and to read this...

    I also spent a few years consulting for clients and suppliers, and there is certainly a need for such service from experienced people - and I saw first-hand such atrocious levels of mess that I feel that this industry has be bastardised too much, with exploited slavelancers, while fat cat CEOs pump out useless tech, over saturating the situation even more.

    The biggest problem with this industry is the cascading of services through multiple layers of small agencies who don't really know what they are doing, and purposely cut corners.

    Clent A sends to LSP B, who sends to smaller LSPs or small agencies or monolingual/market specific agencies C, D and E. They then contact other smaller agencies, F to H, who then contact crowdsourced slavelancers Z to ZZZ.
    Each time it cascades down, 20%-30% of the value is removed as their overhead/profit. So if the original budget is $200/1000 words (just as an example) the slavelancer only gets $20/1000 words, $10 if MT is used.

    That's why many slavelancers claim to complete 4000 words translation per day with "teh gratest qulties".

    The companies who are complice to this exploit low paid services and generally use the cheapest MT conduit and the cheapest translator, with the "project managers" reviewing the text before sending it back up the chain: and as everyone wants to save some cash, either the text never gets reviewed, or is only pumped through Xbench or Verifica with the basic settings.

    And when the top level LSP run it through their TQA/LQA etc, again, usually Xbench or Verifica, or sometimes a human reviewer, it then dumps downwards again with ISO non-compliance complaints...

    I am sure there must be some benefits to Machine Translation, but I am more in favour of accurate translations and a well maintained translation memory, in conjunction with suitable translation software that actually works in favour of the linguist.

    (Another oversaturation - how many more CAT tools to we need? Isn't memoQ enough?!)

    I still keep thinking back to a certain Readers Digest advert of many moons ago: "Are you retired and in need of a hobby? Why not become a translator. With a dictionary and a computer its so easy..."

    1. Did Reader's Digest really have an advertisement like that? My God.

      I think that most end clients have no idea just how bad the "food chain" situation in translation is and just how badly everyone gets screwed by companies like Kern AG, thebigword, TransPerfect or Lionbridge. They often pay fat rates, only to get some useless monkey doing the actual work because only 5% or so of the payment reaches the actual worker and the bottom of the linguistic sewer line. Often a top-notch translator or team of specialists could be had for the same or less money than is paid to the fat cat slimeballs.

      All the process in the world means nothing if the wordworkers themselves are unskilled. A few years ago I heard about a notable fuck-up by Lionbridge on an important Finance Ministry job. The delivered product was perfectly consistent, beautifully formatted, clearly the results of a process well under control. But the actual content was unusable garbage because not enough money was allocated to hire a translator who actually knew what s/he was doing. There is a lot more of this sort of thing going on than any monolingual company manager can imagine.

      One German agency I know used to brag about their "high quality". I like the CEO very much; he's a decent fellow with healthy social attitudes, and he treats his employees well. But... the one thing they really can't do is quality. How do I know? I've seen the TMs. Wrong words are wrong, but they tell the truth. However, the "quality criterion" there is "no complaints" from the clients. Yeah, right. From your mostly monolingual domestic clients (there were no clients outside the country) who trusted you to get things right so they won't look stupid. Some day those chickens may find their roost at home.

      Regarding CAT tools: it's not the number you "know" that matters, but rather the depth of your knowledge with a good, full-featured tool. A good translator will go much farther understanding the interoperable interfaces between platforms and working in one good tool than in trying to be a JOAT and mastering none. Note that I did not say "use memoQ" here. Yes, I know it is the most generally useful, interoperable platform available for the widest variety of technical challenges in translation, but if you are a deep master of SDL Trados Studio, for example, your main benefit from memoQ might be preparing certain projects to translate with SDL Trados (which lacks many of the filter options, for example) or better term extraction work or better QA, and you won't want to deal with the unfamiliar translation ergonomics (until you just can't stand the lack of context in your concordance lookups and switch to memoQ to have the full document context for everything with LiveDocs!).

    2. Yes - will have to try and plough through Dr Google to find a copy that advert.

      Re CAT tools: my comment is that everyone and their dog seem to have launched CAT tool, a TMS portal, or website APIs, etc. I started out with macros in Word and SDLX, then got trained in Trados Studio once SDL bought Trados. I've used both Trados Studio and memoQ side by side for many years, but my preference, for project management, engineering and translation purposes, is clearly memoQ. But of course, each to their own.
      (There was an article in the Financial Times when SDLX was released saying something along the lines of "SDLX is great, if you want to work with SDL...")

      Re fat cats: no, the do not always know the true extent of the cascade, even the smaller exploitative agencies don't comprehend that they sometimes cause long-time professionals to need to accept the proverbial peanut, being paid in mere crumbs.

      And it's in these smaller companies who are skimming the top where I have unfortunately I've seen near criminal activity, including seeing the managers coming in high, bleary eyed and with powder still round their noses, screaming at their overpaid staff to release translations that have errors, because for them it's just a case of running a spell-check and basic Xbench checks.

      There was once an article comparing the translation industry to prostitution and it's easy to sometimes see the parallels of pimps, Madames and brothels...

    3. Adverts/articles - for example....

    4. Ah, well I've been using red light analogies for many in the translation sector for years. It upsets some people, because the truth hurts :-)

      Shai Nave has an interesting perspective on what constitutes the "translation industry". For him it doesn't exist. We aren't talking the usual argument about the "premium market" vs. the median market and the bulk market bog where the worst of wordsleaze in translation is found, but rather his belief that we should consider translation to be a specialty within a given domain, belonging to that domain. At first I thought that was clever but a bit daft, but I am not-so-slowly coming to the conclusion that he's right. And I'm not alone.

      A couple of years ago I was pleased to give a guest lecture in the translation program of the law school at Buenos Aires University. Translators there receive essentially the same education as lawyers, and many graduate with full qualifications in law and legal translation. And right now I am reading Andrew Hammel's superb translation of Uwe Kischel's Comparative Law text - there is a whole section there on legal translation, essentially treating it as a sub-discipline of law.

      For some years I have been arguing for a similar approach to translation in schools of medicine, engineering, etc. And one of the reasons for this is that - especially these days - translators are essentially useless in such domains if they do not already have extensive professional experience and/or contacts with them. Taking bulk market bog projects from bottomfeeding brokers does not count, but there are too many "financial" or "legal" or even "scientific" translators who operate this way. One such even got into a big argument with me some years ago when I said we needed to contact the end client about an obvious flaw in a chemistry text. She said the text was correct, because that was the way it had been approved, and I kept trying to explain why it was utter scientific nonsense. Finally, bursting with frustration, she screamed in my face that "oxygen is trivalent!" Stuff that. I may not have been inside a non-medical lab for a few years, but I'm a research chemist, and that's just not the way things work, honey.


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