Machine translation… revisited

This week I received my very first machine translation project (10,000 words) – and I had to decline because of the envisaged deadline.

Specifically, I decided a couple of weeks ago that it is not entirely normal to work every single weekend, and that clients, especially agencies, should not automatically assume that you’re available just because you’re a freelancer i.e. a sucker. I noticed something strange: I am less stressed and more concentrated on my 9-5 projects now. I also have extra time for home life, coffees, reading, etc.

The interesting thing is that I could have pretty much named my price. So I offered what I felt an appropriate rate for weekend/rush work and am waiting to hear back (i.e. whether there is some other sucker out there willing to take the job at the lower rate).

I wonder if I did the right thing. I would have loved to accept it in order to gain experience with post-editing and also to test the MT waters. It was for a well-known computer game, and games are my favorite thing to translate. But, one has to have (new-found) principles. Indian Summer walks without so much as a telephone, here I come.

Time warp

I have a client for whom I handle customer correspondence. Not exactly translation work, but work requiring good writing skills in my target language nonetheless.

Customers are located in Germany for the most part (timezone CET), while I usually work from Virginia (timezone EST). Can you see where this is going? When I get up on a beautiful East Coast morning they’re already more than half-way through their work day. Consequently, I need to check emails at night in case anything requires early morning attention.

I’ve been travelling in Germany for a couple of weeks now, taking my mobile office with me, and it’s the strangest and most wonderful thing to take long lunch breaks and finish my work day (for this client, that is) around 5. I can’t remember the last time I had several relaxing evenings off in a row. Wonderful!

I cannot believe I fell for that

Just recently, in September, I was offered a large translation project by an agency that appeared to be located in either India or Singapore. After a bit of ping pong regarding my rate I finally accepted and dropped everything to deliver by a very ambitious deadline.

I delivered the project in several batches, received reasonable feedback, and had no reason to believe that anything was wrong. Payment terms were 30 days, I agreed; so far so good.

30 days passed. No contact, no payment. Needless to say that I was unable to get in touch with them and, surprise surprise, really only had an email address. And here was me wondering about their pretty good rate (India is not exactly known for paying high rates).

It was only then that I started doing some research, and I have now come to the conclusion that I’ve been led on by a fraudster. Who, me? Sensible me? But I’m always careful! I never forward chain mail! I never open unsolicited email, never mind unknown attachments! I fell for the oldest trick in the book, and I’m out of pocket by a few thousand euros because of it.

The company name is Tarin Translation, and my contact was Kelvin Marks. So, if you receive an email offering you a nice big project… just treat it as spam and delete.

Here are a few lessons I learned:

  • Make sure you have a telephone number (that works)
  • Make sure you have actual company details, including a full address (and not just a PO Box)
  • Make sure you ask for a PO and don’t get started without one
  • If the rate sounds too good to be true… it probably is! Ask for 20% down payment
  • Trust your instincts. If it feels off, it probably is!

On a related note, I discovered this website:, that allows translators to talk about, er, payment practices of translation agencies. You get a 7-day free trial, and it’s about $20 thereafter. You know what to do!

The only constant is change

I love languages, linguistics, and the art of translation. I also love computers, the Internet, video games, Wired magazine, web design, und the science of technology.

I always felt that it was impossible to successfully and elegantly combine the two, but I didn’t know how – especially when it came to my website or how I use Twitter. My translation clients are vastly different from my web design clients. I didn’t/don’t cater to this but instead used/use one blog, one website, one Twitter feed.

Well, no longer! This morning I decided that it was/is time for a change and that I will completely overhaul my website to give my (potential) customers the customized content that they need. I might also scrap Joomla as it’s just too slow and doesn’t give me enough flexibility. Change is good! Also, I met a graphic designer this past weekend, so it’s all coming together… Stay tuned!

To Adobe or not to Adobe?

As a small business owner, I find myself having to supply various documents in PDF format, such as invoices or references. Adobe being the expensive tool that it is, I have found a few *free* and open source tools that make life so much easier!

Convert to PDF

These tools convert your Word doc (or whatever) into a pretty, professional-looking, non-editable PDF. It’s like printing, only you print to PDF instead of to a printer. Various options by different vendors are available, e.g.

Merge PDF’s

Have several PDF documents and need to merge them all into one? This is a headache without shelling out for Adobe’s PDF suite, but there’s help! PDF reDirect allows you to do just that – merge PDF’s. Nothing else – no removing of pages, no inserting an external image. But it does merge PDF’s (and you can add encryption if you want):

Annotate PDF’s

How many times did you need to add a comment to a PDF doc but couldn’t? With PDF-XChange Viewer you can! For free.

So, do you need to pay for Adobe? If you’re big into DTP, journalism or graphic design, then maybe you do. But if you’re just a small business owner in need of a couple of features, then these free tools provide all you need. Enjoy!

PS The above tools have been tried and tested by me, and the views expressed here are my own personal opinion. I am not endorsing any particular company, I am merely sharing my experience with some everyday tools I find useful.

I feel the need, the need for… machine translation

Following an interesting late-night discussion with fellow linguists, I feel the need to chat a little more about MT. The argument was that you cannot translate unless you understand meaning. I don’t believe that’s true. I believe the number of possible word and letter combinations is finite – very large, but finite nonetheless. So, all you need is a computer system that can handle an incredible amount of data – say, billions of lines of text – plus some kind of a clever AI engine that calculates probabilities. If we can eloquently translate the weather forecast – and I have not cross-checked this, so let’s just say that we can – then why should a system not be able to tackle a much more complex text?

Enter Google. A recent NYT article states that Google is using a so-called statistical approach and a few hundred billion words to create a model of a language (Source). This sounds very plausible to me. Now, there are some obvious design flaws with this. If the system checks thousands or millions of passages and their human-generated translations, who is to say that the human translation was flawless to begin with? But if I read this MT translation of The Little Prince, it is almost – eerily – better than its human equivalent! To be fair, the other MT translations in that same article did not impress me at all – but The Little Prince did.

So, in conclusion, I believe that decent-quality MT translation is not that far off, maybe in the next 10-15 years. But don’t quit your day job just yet – a sophisticated or literary text will always need to be proof-red and fact-checked by a human. Only change is constant – we just need to adapt and change the way we, as translators, work. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The EU overhead

With a large number of resident translators approaching retirement age, the EU is as of today actively recruiting translators for some of its 23 languages. While I think this is great news for young (or not so young, such as myself) translators, I do wonder how much effort it takes to keep all these EU documents current, never mind in a current translation.

At the risk of shooting myself in the foot here, I do think that a common European language is highly desirable, necessary and ultimately inevitable.

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