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Sunday, August 01, 2004

Native Language

It used to be a "golden rule" of the translation profession that a translator should only translate into his or her native language.

Is this rule still valid? And what is "native language" anyway? What is the native language of the individual who was born in Germany to an American father and French mother, moved to Brazil at the age of 10, where he attended an English-language school, speaks English at home, Portuguese almost everywhere else, but has no foreign accent in French or German either?

And how about interpreters who routinely translate in both (or more) directions during the same session?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This "golden rule" still holds and is supported by all major associations of translators and interpreters (ATA, ITI, CTTIC, AIIC, etc.).

What is a "native language"? That's a good question, because, despite this "golden rule", defining an individual's native tongue is difficult.

I prefer the term "dominant language", because even a bilingual or trilingual person has only ONE dominant language at any given point in his or her life. ATA, for example, uses the term as well.

Accent, by the way, is no indication of native status or competence, as you suggest in your original question. For example, there is a group of people in Montréal that are native English speakers, but for historical reasons, they speak English with a strong Italian accent (and most of them don't even speak a single word of Italian). I also remember one Swedish girl who grew up in Toronto (she moved there when she was about 9 years old): she had a beautiful Canadian accent, but her grammar, spelling and style were godawful. Apart from her impeccable accent, she could not have passed for a native speaker of English.

For interpreters, this issue is much clearer: unlike translators that have active and passive working languages, interpreters are classified according to A, B and C languages, with A being the interpreter's mother tongue and/or dominant language. All major international organizations (EU, UN, etc.) will let you interpret into your A language only. Period. Under AIIC standards, you may also interpret into your B language, but most professionals advise against this practice. You would normally interpret into your B language only if the situation involved consecutive interpretation (because you are the only interpreter on site for your language pair, and most clients are too cheap to pay for a second consecutive interpreter).

As for simultaneous interpretation, the situation is always clear-cut: you have a booth for each target language, and only A-language interpreters are assigned to these booths (i.e., interpreters with an English A to the English booth, those with a French A to the French booth, etc.).

Finally, to answer your question about that poor mixed-up soul, chances are that his dominant language is Portuguese; in other words, given the circumstances you describe, Portuguese is probably his "strongest" language, and that's the language he should translate into.

Werner George Patels Translator Blog

3:57 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

Even "language of habitual use" is a relative concept. My language of habitual use at home is Hungarian, but my Hungarian education stopped at early high-school level, and I'd never translate any technical text into Hungarian. At work (and everywhere else), my language of habitual use is English, but I've never gone to an English-language school at any level. Most of my higher education was in Portuguese, but my conversational Portuguese is dated after having lived outside Brazil for the past 28 years.

"Language" for a translator is not only English, German, Portuguese, etc., but also the language of medicine, law, patents, and other sublanguages, which the translator must dominate in order to use actively (translate into).


12:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right, but you have to combine these two "languages" (= your dominant language and the language of whatever field it is you specialize in).

The thing is, you cannot translate a legal, technical, medical, etc. text correctly and properly if the target language is not your dominant language. While the information may be there, the text itself will be full of nasty mistakes (style, grammar, idiomatic use, etc.).

In other words, all the technical or specialized knowledge in the world won't help you if you don't know how to use the target language.

Werner George Patels

3:13 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

So you assume that any given individual can only master ONE language without his or her text written in a second language being "full of nasty mistakes (style, grammar, idiomatic use, etc.)" regardless of how this language was acquired?

I suggest this is a gross generalization refuted by my acquaintance with dozens of individuals perfectly capable of writing on a native level in more than one language. BTW, I also know people who cannot coherently express themselves in writing or verbally in ANY language, including their own native one.


4:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Remove your "everyday-sort-of glasses" for a moment. We are not talking about people that are functional bilinguals. We are not talking about the "average guy" in the street.

For translation purposes, there is only one dominant language at any given point. As a translator you must be able to produce a document that "reads like an original". As a rule, only native speakers of the target language can achieve this.

So far, I have always been able to identify translations done by non-natives of the target language - EVERY SINGLE TIME! English, in particular, is a language that cannot be mastered fully by non-natives, because it is highly "intuitive" (for lack of a better word).

In other words, when a "non-English person" translates into English, people will know - and the client will know.

Professionally, I have no respect for "translators" that translate INTO a number of languages, including "from foreign to foreign" (where neither language in the pair is your native or dominant language). As ATA, ITI (in the UK) and many other associations point out, translating into a foreign language (or "acquired language") is the height of unprofessional behaviour.

Werner George Patels

4:28 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

I repeat: In my experience, being a "native" speaker is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for producing a translation that "reads like an original." This is especially true for translations in specialized fields. Instead of throwing around arbitrary labels like "native," "of habitual use," or "language A, B, ... Z," what you should consider is whether the individual is qualified to do a specific job and judge his/her competence by the quality of that particular job.


5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are right. Native competence is just one of the many factors that make or break a translation.

The fact that someone is a native speaker of language A does not make him a translator yet. He will also need talent and training.

Of course, we all know native speakers in our various languages that could not even write a single sentence, without making tons of mistakes - especially in the US and Canada, where you find a lot of functional illiterates.

Let me try to summarize the most important skills and qualifications a translator must have:

- highly educated (post-secondary - at least!)

- analytical thought

- good writing skills in his/her native/dominant language (= target language)

- ability to convey "meaning"/information

- excellent command of the source language(s)

Werner George Patels

6:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quick add-on:

Yes, the translator should be judged on the quality of translation, and his/his degree of specialization is certainly a very crucial factor. But, again, if you are not a native speaker of the target language, your translation will always fall short - another translator with the same qualifications and specializations will do a much better job than you if the target language also "happens" to be his dominant language.


Peter specializes in legal translation (he's even got a law degree); his dominant language is English.

Pedro specializes in legal translation (he's even got a law degree); his dominant language is Spanish.

Mark is a "generalist" translator. His dominant language is English.

Project: Translation of a contract (very complex, very technical) from Spanish into English.


Peter will do a better job than Mark.

Pedro may do a better job translating this contract into English (which is not his dominant language), because of his specialized knowledge (but his English translation will require serious editing in terms of style, etc.), than Mark, but given Mark's experience as a translator, this is highly unlikely.

Both Peter and Mark will produce "good" (=native) English - unlike Pedro (despite his specialized knowledge).

Werner George Patels

6:53 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

Your fictitious examples of Pedro, Peter and Mark don't match my experience with dozens of real-life translators.

You have also stated that ATA (among other translators' organizations) supports the "into native language only" rule. I'm unaware of any official position of ATA in this matter. Its "Code of Professional Conduct and Business Practices," which happens to have been adopted during my term as Ethics Chair and at my initiative, only states: "I will be truthful about my qualifications and will not accept any assignments for which I am not fully qualified." You'll find a number of translators in ATA's on-line directory ( listed as translating into (and often certified in) more than one language.


9:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You should read their little booklet, then, called "Translation - Getting it right". They (and ITI in the UK) distributed it to members and potential clients.

In it, for example, they clearly state (under the heading "Professional translators work into their NATIVE LANGUAGE"):

"As a translation buyer, you may not be aware of this, but a translator who flouts this basic rule is likely to be ignorant of other important quality issues as well."

So, working into one's native language is a "quality issue", and, according to this, a translator who flouts this rule is not a professional.

(Straight from ATA and ITI).

Werner George Patels

11:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I will be truthful about my qualifications and will not accept any assignments for which I am not fully qualified."

You are absolutely right: that's what it says in the ethics rules. But don't you understand the meaning of this clause? "Not fully qualified" includes translation projects with a target language that is different from your native language. As such, you are not qualified to handle such a project - and you should refuse it.

Werner George Patels

12:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Give it a rest. As long as a person states up front he or she is not native there is no ethics breech. The person should state clearly experience or lack thereof if venturing out into non-native languages. It would be unethical to lie about degrees, native language, etc. But if the two parties are aboveboard, then... "let the translations begin!"

[It is very difficult to do an excellent translation if not a native speaker,but I have seen it done. And the person requesting the job may not need perfection.]

5:19 AM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

Let's stick to the facts. The brochure "Translation - Getting it Right" is not an ATA publication, and the fact that ATA has distributed it doesn't mean that it endorses each and every one of its statements. Just as the editor of the Translation Journal doesn't agree with each and every statement appearing in the Journal's articles (and even if he did, that still wouldn't make those statements Holy Scripture).


6:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When a text is written by a member of the ATA board and when ATA puts its logo on such publication, it's an endorsement. In all other cases, they simply would not publish it (for example, Steve Hanley's article on "splitting the ATA", which ATA rejected - but I published it for him).

Werner George Patels

9:15 AM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

The brochure was written by Chris Durban, who is not a member of ATA's Board, and Antonio Aparicio, who is not even a member of ATA. Its original version, which you'll find at the ITI site (, does not carry ATA's logo, but only those of ITI, SFT, and CILT.

The only document that states ATA's position regarding translation ethics or business practices is the Code I mentioned before.


9:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wrong again: Chris, at least at the time she wrote this, was a member of one of the ATA boards.

When you follow the ITI link, of course you are not going to see the ATA logo (duh!!!!!!!). The ATA version, however, has the ATA logo displayed on it all over the place.

Werner George Patels

1:06 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

Chris was never a member of *the* ATA Board (there is only one Board). Being a resident of a foreign country, it would be difficult for her to be one, although she's eligible as an Active member. She's a member of the Public Relations Committee which, however, is not a policy-making body.

The *original* version of "Translation - Getting It Right" was written for the ITI (it's still there at their web site) and had no ATA logo, which was added when somebody at ATA (not necessarily the Board, since this was no major policy decision) decided to distribute it to members.


1:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The brochure is also available through the ATA website.

Werner George Patels

2:39 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...



3:10 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi guys,
I've read your comments with interest and since my name came up would like to make point or two.
Werner quotes the ATA/ITI brochure (which I did indeed write; Antonio Aparicio produced the fine layout) but leaves out a very important phrase -- "OK, there are exceptions".

Which means the page you are batting back and forth reads, in full:
*Professional translators work into their native language*

If you want your catalog translated into German and Russian, the work will be done by a native German speaker and a native Russian speaker. Native English speakers translate from foreign languages *into* English.

As a translation buyer, you may not be aware of this, but a translator who flouts this basic rule is likely to be ignorant of other important quality issues as well.

OK, there are exceptions. But not many. If your supplier claims to be one of them, ask to see something he or she has done. If it is factually accurate and reads well, and if the translator guarantees equivalent quality for your text--why not? Sometimes a translator with particular subject-matter expertise may agree to work into what is for him or her a foreign language. In this case, the translation must be carefully edited--and not just glanced through--by a language-sensitive native speaker before it goes to press."


My approach in writing this page was the same as in the rest of the brochure:

1. This is a series of practical tips for non-linguists who are buying translations (perhaps for the first time). A primer. An A,B,C. That's important, because....

1. The aim is for clients to actually read it, and experience has shown me that the longer a text of this type gets (no matter how fascinating translators find it :-)), the less likely non-linguists are to slog on to the end.

3. In devising the list of tips and writing up the anecdotal stuff to bring them home, I drew on points that come up again and again in the Onionskin articles I've been writing since 1996. Translation by unskilled non-native speakers is a big problem; the perpetrators and their clients simply do not realize how slippery the slope is.

4. So I presented this basic information in a readable format while (and this is important for your debate here) providing *enough wiggle room* for suppliers who feel the advice doesn't apply to them to be able to pitch their services, too.
Hey, you work into a non-native/non-dominant language and you think your work is the bee's knees? Fine, be an exception. But if you are convinced this applies to you, please also follow another golden rule of best practice (in my book, that is) and *sign your work*. Put your name and reputation where your mouth is, and all that.

Not to be unkind, but I'm convinced that if all translations carried the name of either the agency serving as broker (and presumably conducting essential QC, right?) or the translator who produced the job (and thus guarantees its quality, right?) for, say, a two-year period, the entire "quality in translation" debate would be radically different.

Gabe, I'd like to publish this other than "Anonymously" but can't figure out how to sign in (?).
But it is me writing it :-)
Chris Durban

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


"Not to be unkind, but I'm convinced that if all translations carried the name of either the agency serving as broker (and presumably conducting essential QC, right?) or the translator who produced the job (and thus guarantees its quality, right?) for, say, a two-year period, the entire "quality in translation" debate would be radically different."

That's a great idea. I am sure it would change certain "translators'" behaviour.

Werner George Patels

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Translation by unskilled non-native speakers is a big problem; the perpetrators and their clients simply do not realize how slippery the slope is."

I know of one agency in Japan that refuses to hire *native speakers* because there were apparently too
many errors with Americans, Canadians and Australians.

Another large agency explained to me that two thirds of their translators are Japanese who translate into English.

I think many clients *do* realize how slippery the slope is but are willing to take chances with cheaper translators. Sometimes this results in failure, but often the job is "good enough" for the client. If lucky, they get a high quality translation even from a non native speaker, although this is almost always edited by a native speaker before submission.

This may be different with other language pairs, but quite a few freelance translators have a Japanese spouse translate into English where the translation becomes an editing project by the native speaker. If the native Japanese level is *very* high, this can produce good translations.

Native Japanese translate into English for two main reasons: 1) There are not enough native English speakers with an excellent command of Japanese (the most difficult language to learn how to read) 2) Sadly, many Japanese feel that a foreigner can't grasp their language. Fortunately, this attitude is fading.


7:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A few quick comments as I'm working to deadline today.

Werner commented "That's a great idea [everybody signs their output so we can see who does what]. I am sure it would change certain "translators' " behaviour". >>

Actually I think it has the potential to change other behaviors, too -- to everyone's benefit.

Take clients: imagine if customers looking for a specific type of work (subject matter specialization, or particularly good flow or whatever) could quickly identify *who* produces just that. Or if they were able to readily consult standard output by supplier A, B or C, to get a feel for what they were getting into, glossy brochures notwithstanding... :-)

Speaking of which, you may have noticed that the brochure you guys were referring to earlier goes out of its way to speak of "translation provider(s)" without getting mired in the freelance vs agency vs company debate, which was not the main issue. I'm sure we can get into a shouting match on that one, too, if you like:-), but would like to use it to ease into my second point, which is recycled from discussions with a good friend and colleague here in France.

His view is that translators have been very poor at circulating information on the market to the outside world, even when they themselves could benefit directly from greater public awareness of what they do.

Why is this so? Well, because...

1. There is hardly a single statement about translation or the industry that applies in all situations (e.g. dearth of Japanese to English translators reported here; same appears to apply for Finnish to English as reported in an article in TJ a while back (transcript of a round table at the Vancouver FIT conf a few years ago; excellent reading if I don't say so myself:-))

2. (related to this)... the response to just about any question you wish to raise about the translation industry is something like "the spectrum of answers extends from D to X, possibly even from A to Z."

3. Since virtually no generalization holds, people (clients) have tremendous difficulty getting a handle on the basic concepts. This problem is compounded by translators making categorically opposing statements/claims (each one usually being valid or partially so... if only they'd tell us precisely which section of the market and which market conditions they're referring to...).

I think he's hit the nail on the head.

One last remark: press coverage of leaps and bounds in MT processing should be taken with a grain of salt, since the teams doing this work are keen to win new funding (that is the sub-text of many of these stories). Breathless reporting on the marvels of technology are staple summer fare; more often than not the journalists, when contacted, will admit that they simply took the info provided by these outfits (whose very survival depends on convincing the powers that be to bankroll their research programs) and running with it.

That said, I have no doubt that MT, in very carefully defined contexts, can be extremely helpful. But I am also surprised that so few translators target the top end of the market, which is wide open from what I see (image-sensitive work, for example; all things for-publication). To cite another example, my colleague Bob and myself have seen a sharp rise in demand for "revision"/editing of texts written by subject-matter experts here in Europe who are not native speakers. (hmm, we're back to non-native speakers! :-)).

My (meandering) point here? That "the market" is made up of many many segments. That translators have to keep their eye on the ball, keep honing their skills and getting out to see where demand in their sector is heading. Position themselves. Produce good work, of course. Not rest on their laurels. You're only as good as your last job. Etc., etc.

But prospects are not gloomy at all for people with the skills and commitment to do this. The problem is, you have to go at it proactively and most translators are simply not used to that.


4:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Chris makes some good points with respect to the segmented transation market and being suspicious of MT leaps. But I would say first, many translators are not firmly in one segment with respect to demand for theior services. I know outstanding Jap/Eng translators with no formal translation schooling. They have a high proficiency in both languages. Most I know translating patents have history or lit. degrees and have never had a college sciene course in their lives.

I agree that like any technology, MT can by hyped, yet in the translation world it is treated as a joke,and this is a danger. There may be funding incentives for exagerating MT (global warming ring a bell?); however, there clearly has been a jump in research in the past few years due to ne methods. Pasting from the other forum:

"Yarowsky said he hoped to have working translation systems for as many as 100 languages within five years. Although the grammatical structures of languages like Chinese and Arabic make them hard to analyze statistically, he said, it will only be a matter of time before such hurdles are overcome."

I think the New York Times journalist actually interviewed Yarowsky. and Yarowsky as a team leader at John Hopkins is likely not a joke. He may be off on "100 languages in 5 years" but there is a major effort to have much better MT with European languages for starters. 5 years may be quick, but is 10 years so different in the life of a translator? Serious MT is coming, and we should be aware of how this willshake up the industry. Chris adds as well that many non -native speakers are being used as editors, so it looks like things could be even more fluid in 2010 than today.


5:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Chris adds as well that many non -native speakers are being used as editors, so it looks like things could be even more fluid in 2010 than today."

Sorry, Yamishogun, my initial post was unclear.

I meant that an attractive and quite lucrative new market has appeared for us (Bob and I are both native speakers of English; both professional translators, too): our European clients are increasingly writing their texts in "English" themselves, then submitting these documents to us for revision and editing.

The process makes sense if they have, say, management teams with members from Germany, Belgium, Sweden, France and Spain, and all speak English at meetings. NB: Thanks in large part to various EU programs, there are a lot of business people who can participate quite happily in meetings in languages not their own. But their writing skills are not at the same level. Enter Bob and Chris (and many other translators, I imagine):-).

Along the same lines, a French bank recent confirmed to me that translators are far better at these "rewriting/editing" tasks than monolingual bankers or journalists, since our fluency in foreign languages allows us to understand and reformulate uneven English more effectively. It's up to us to charge appropriately, of course.

Sorry I was unclear.


7:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your final line raises an important point I have made with respect to MT as well. Setting aside MT for the moment, there will be many cases with the German drafted English text is going to be quite good and editors charging lower fees will be hired to fix mistakes and improve on the flow. I'm sure tranlators who understand the original would be better, but as the German writing invariably improves over the years, there will be less reason to pay a translator a much higher rate. The exception would be for documents where the original German written English is worse than average or the document is so important, a very high rate of accuracy is essesntial.

Translators get squeezed as they vie for the shrinking pie of documents (likely legal) where our services are mandatory. It is also probable that firms would hire only lawyers who are native English speakers to ensure the best translation. Not necessarily always, because their fee may be too high for some jobs.

I have a friend in Tokyo who is a lawyer currently working two part time jobs, both in companies which need legal translation. I have seen a few of his non-legal translations, and there is no question with my higher level I would do a better job than he would. Yet there are also jobs where he is better because of his legal background.

5:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As my local policeman said, when a boat
had been stolen:

"All traces testify that the boat has
been transported via water."

You just about can make the divisions in
water. No fixed borderlines apply.

- Seppo Hovila

1:24 AM  
Blogger Zebulon Diode said...

As the great Zebulón Diode once said, translation is nothing more than reading, understanding and writing. So, no, MT will never be really good because machines cannot understand. What is happening, though, is that falling expectations make it more and more economically viable to offer human translation that differs little in quality from MT. The gap is shrinking not so much because MT is improving but because the norm for HT is constantly falling.

The very fact that the “native speaker” issue is being debated so seriously is illustrative of this decline. If failure to understand disqualifies machine translation, then failure to write excellently will automatically disqualify the vast majority of non-native translators. Yes, there are exceptions. But not many.

An interesting point though: when I write in French, my style changes completely as I try to work round my deficiencies. Sometimes, I might actually prefer the French, produced resourcefully with few skills, to the English, produced wastefully with many.

3:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The insistence that MT needs to "understand" to be very good is the fatal fallacy so many translators make. Just because WE translate with understanding does NOT mean a computer has to. A computer does not understand chess at all but can beat any human. Wouldn't you need to say "you need to understand how to play chess in order to win?" MT won't understand either but will be able to get many times more sentences correct in 2014 than 2004. I have said before: Babelfish _does_ translate tens of thousands of sentences perfectly. The computer did not understand in order to do this. But as many point out, Babelfish is primitive. As translators, we are in for a rude awakening if we insist on the fundamentalist line "MT will never be good because computers can't think."

I guess it doesn't matter since this will be apparent in a few years. TJ already has several articles on MT. If MT were such a joke, why bother? Within a few years MT will be _the_ major point of discussion. Apparently, this is not obvious.


6:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Chess, which is by nature a mathematical/strategic task, cannot be compared to translation, an intuitive (and intangible) human activity.

As a physicist, you should have learned never to compare apples and oranges!

A lot is being written about MT, because it is such a joke (and will always be a joke). It's entertainment for the "translating classes".

Werner George Patels

7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Im not a physicist. The point was that people have been saying for years that a computer would NEVER beat the best human at chess. Why? because "it requires thinking." The computer tries an incredible number of moves at very fast speeds, just as a computer would determine what translation of a text is most important based on extremely fast statistical methods.

I can only assume that you do not understand this new statistical method if you assume MT will always be a joke. If "always" means 5 years, I agree.


9:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I caught you in a lie, then. You claimed to have degrees in physics and economics. Liar, liar, pants on fire ...

When people said "thinking" in the case of chess, they used the wrong word. Translation, however, requires "human thought", which chess does not.

For someone with two degrees, you're not exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree ... If people like you keep singing the praises of MT, we don't have anything to fear :-) (which we don't anyway - us, professional translators, that is).

Werner George Patels

10:25 PM  
Blogger Zebulon Diode said...

The chess analogy is not a good one at all. Chess is perfectly addressable algorithmically. Language isn't. Why not? Because language is a tool for expressing ideas. I see nothing algorithmical in the way ideas work, and nothing algorithmical in the mapping between ideas and language.

Understanding is necessary to language because understanding is by definition necessary to the effective transfer of ideas.

1:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have degrees in physics (and mathematics) as well as economics. Do you think everyone who has a physics degree is a physicist? No, I didn't lie. Try using elementary logic.

Both chess and translation have been "done" by computers without "thinking." You refuse to answer how Babelfish manages to produce a perfect translation of easier sentences if translation requires understanding. You play a sementaic game by stating it is "transliteration." But in the end, the company wants to see a product and doesn't care if you call it "transmorgifying."

Until translators get a handle on what STATISTICAL MT is capable of, they are going to be shocked when the technology comes out in 2010 or 2015. But they will have a few years of warning as we will continue to see increasingly better MT that people laugh at as "not at all perfect."

"For someone with two degrees, you're not exactly the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree"

You simply can't write one post without a personal insult. Why would that be? Do insults support your argument? Is it something so engrained at a young age, you can't resist the urge? Too many people kicked your sand castles as a kid? Too little time interacting with people? What?


7:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If fools like you are behind MT, it'll never get off the ground (it never will anyway).

You are a physicist, period. Is that the kind of "precision" you apply to your translations? I think somebody should warn your clients.

Werner George Patels

8:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Finally a second voice of reason. Thank you. That Jap who claims to be a physicist, then denies it, does not know anything about professional translation and how language works. Perfect example of why non-translators should never dabble in translation. He should stick to his physics and economics and not fool around with stuff he does not understand.

Werner George Patels

8:54 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"If fools like you are behind MT, it'll never get off the ground (it never will anyway)."

I have nothing to do with MT, although I translate and have had enough statistics to understand the simple concepts being used in the latest MT labs. Every time I see translators making arguments against MT it is invariably with non-statistical MT and 1990s technology.
If you think the John Hopkins group is wrong about powerful MT by 2009 as they predict for European languages, then tell _them_ how stupid they are. I'm not part of that team.

"You are a physicist, period."

Why would I possible lie about this? I am not a physicist nor an engineer, although I do have a physics degree. I do both translation and another line of work. This is not so uncommon among J/E translators. Since you don't understand the technology that will soon be in front of your nose, you choose to comment on my degrees, my spelling, my goldfish. At some point would you wish to make a logical comment? How about another rant on how "language is alive!!" and how "Computers are not alive and so can't translate!!" But the insults are sort of humorous even if pathetic. Much more enjoyable than the rants. Stick to those.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You still don't understand, you poor thing. How can you work as a translator (which requires understanding) if you don't even understand simple concepts.

You have a degree in physics, and that makes you a physicist. You have a degree in economics, which makes you an economist. I am a translator and a political scientist.

I understand the technology that will be "before me", and I am fully aware of its shortcomings. Just as two plus two will always equal four, MT will always be bound to fail. Language and translation are human activities that no machine can ever reproduce or even copy. Chess is not a human activity, but one of mathematics.

This comparison alone shows all of us that a) you don't know anything about professional translation (I really pity your clients - somebody should go public with this information about you!)and b) that you are in no position to assess the capabilities of any MT program (to do so, you'd have to be a professional translator - i.e., with proper training in translation - but, alas, you are not).

Werner George Patels

4:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't get paid to do physics, so I do not consider myself a physicist. I do get paid to do several translations a year, so I consider myself a translator in addition to other work I do. Not that this has anything to do with the discussion of MT, but my friend who only translates Japanese into English made $120,000 last year. He has no degree in translation yet you would say he is not a professional translator either.

I pity your clients because you have proven to be so childish. But if your clients are happy, who am I to judge? Maybe there are times you act like an adult. Unlike you, I don't judge with so little information.

You never explain how Babelfish is already successfully translating thousands of sentences despite the computer not understanding. I mentioned chess (as did the TJ columnist) because it illustrates what a computer can do *without thinking* with millions of trials per scond. You assume technology will not advance in MT despite supposedly understanding statistical techniques.
Go ahead and assume progress just froze in 1997, but translators who specialize in Spanish, German, French and English (among several others) are going to find their profession turned upside down within a few years. I have no doubt some translators will still work translating novels and those with a law degree will be translating legal documents (likely with MT). There will be editing work to do as well. Lots of editing.

Translators need to understand that very good MT is not "decades away" but only years away. MT will continue to produce errors, but it will forever change the translating profession.

- yamishogub

6:54 PM  
Blogger Zebulon Diode said...

I agree that MT will be radically changing the translation industry, and have been saying so for at least a decade. But the change will come as part of a broader phenomenon of falling expectations for written communication. I expect humankind to become globally less literate as a result of an increasing emphasis on short-term expediency, which is often mistaken for efficiency.

11:52 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

I'm surprised no one commented on the need for "native level" understanding of the source text by the translator. Overlooking or misunderstanding a "between the lines" cultural or historical reference, slang expression or idiom in the source text could do more harm to the translation than a grammatical mistake in the target text.

12:37 PM  
Blogger yamishogun said...

You rarely get native fluency in both languags, so native fluency in the target language is more important. If already a competent translator, it usually isn't difficult understanding a new idiom and then expressing it well in the native target language. Problems arise in expression more often than in understanding. I'm not sure about other language pairs, but there has been a long standign bias against native English speakers translating Japanese into English. Both Japanese and too many Americans, etc assume if you aer not Japanese you cannot really understand Japanese. The majority who translate Japanese itno English are Japanese.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

It seems to me that you're contradicting yourself. If "native fluency in the target language" is more important, why are most translations from Japanese done by Japanese? Or are you just stating the fact without approving of it?

1:39 PM  
Blogger yamishogun said...

Right, just stating a fact. The Japan/English pair may be rare with respect to natives of both languages oftens assuming an American, Brit,etc cant really understand Japanese. And of course there are poor translators out there who do lower the reputation of Western trnslators. Finally, since there are few native English speakers who translate Japanese into English well, Japanese are used to fill the gap and many work for cheaper rates. Leagal/patent firms in Japan will often have a staff of japanese translate into English where a few native English speakers edit. The good ones (I am guessing half) often feel a need to redo the poorer translations.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

I can see that you are justifying translations being done by native speakers of the *source* language. Which dovetails with my comment about the translator not understanding cultural references or idioms being more harmful to the translation than grammatical mistakes or poor style. If the meaning is there, the latter can always be corrected by an editor who is a native speaker of the target language. But the same editor will probably not catch misunderstandings of the source text.

While most western languages may be more explicit (and therefore easier to interpret) than Japanese, there are languages and texts that are almost impossible for a non-native to understand. Are you familiar with British Cockney rhyming slang? It is based on words or phrases being replaced by other, rhyming, words or phrases. Take the sentence: "Got to my mickey, found me way up the apples, put on me whistle and the bloody dog went. It was me trouble telling me to fetch the teapots." How do you translate that? It actually means "Got to my house (mickey mouse), found my way up the stairs (apples and pears), put on my suit (whistle and flute) when the phone (dog and bone) rang. It was my wife (trouble and strife) telling me to get the kids (teapot lids)" ( How many native Japanese (or Americans) would get it right?


9:05 AM  
Blogger yamishogun said...

Wow, talk about a rare example! Would all British be able to translate your example? For the sake of the argument it seems best to stick with examples at least one of the two could understand, not examples where both translators would be at a loss and would need to ask for help to figure out the slang.

But I'm not sure why I Japanese who was used to translating British English into Japanese would have a harder time than the Brit. I still bet it would come out far better in japanese if a native Japanese translated that (assuming she also knew British English) than if the Brit tried to translate into Japanese. There are rare cases where maybe the Brit could pull it off, but almost never to a level it would sound completely natural.

11:06 AM  
Blogger Gabe Bokor said...

Are you now saying that a Japanese translator is better suited to translate from Japanese because he understands the source text better, but he is also better suited to translate into Japanese because his writing skills are better in his native language?

The example of British Cockney rhyming slang may be an extreme, but I suggest that most (non-technical) texts contain cultural references and idioms that will stump the non-native speaker. The number and importance of these references will, of course, depend on the location of text on the technical-literary continuum.


6:52 AM  
Blogger yamishogun said...

Are you now saying that a Japanese translator is better suited to translate from Japanese because he understands the source text better, but he is also better suited to translate into Japanese because his writing skills are better in his native language?
No. But I am adding that there are quite a few cases where the Brit/American have insufficient Japanese skills and simply can't translate the meaning at a passable level (critical grammatical errors) whereas the Japanese writing in English may sound unnatural but at least meaning will be preserved. Since their Japanese level is insufficient,they should not be translating, but there is a niche for poor translators in the J/E direction.

The example of British Cockney rhyming slang may be an extreme, but I suggest that most (non-technical) texts contain cultural references and idioms that will stump the non-native speaker.
I thought the example was too extreme since most native English speakers would not understand it. But taking a less extreme case , you would expect only the Japanese who were quite fluent and lived in Britain long enough to get the feel for the language to be translating that type of fiction. Still, at least with the J/E pair, I would argue that due to the extreme language differences, it would be better to have the Japanese translate into English and perhaps ask a native English speaker to clarify certain parts.

I suspect with much closer language pairs like English/Spanish you have more Americans whose Spanish is so close to native level that they could pull it off. Yet there are so many Spanish with outstanding English that they could translate nearly all of the lingo. If a translator could not, the job would go to another Spanish speaker who could.

9:18 PM  
Blogger mtpostediting said...

This thread has been quite an interesting one, and I'd like to join in.

Comments on Machine Translation (MT) technologies:
I am a long-time (past 10 years) advocate of translation technologies (much indepth experience on all types of MT - Example Based MT, Knowledge Based MT, Statisical based MT, Rule Based MT, and all the hybrid forms), as well as having developed, tested and helped enhance and implement both MT and Translation Memory tools, Speech based systems, etc in environments ranging from multinational industrial organizations with a workflow for a dozen or more languages with several hundred writers and translators (inhouse and vendor suppliers), to translation agencies, to freelance translators.
Yet, I also have 15 years of experience in the field of language teaching, professional human translation (many fields including: heavy-machinery/construction equipment, automotive, aerospace, telecom, computer technologies, legal, theology, and more), language acquisition strategies, etc.
In general, the professional translator community misunderstands the history and purpose of MT technologies, which lead to misconceptions about it. I've spent the past few years helping explain this to the translator community on several translation lists (LANTRA, Proz, etc). Much of this is organized thematically through my website (
I suggest that readers of this blog look up and read my articles "Thinking about MT", "Translation Speed vs. Content Management", "Why Online MT portals?", "What about Statistical MT?".
Also see my published evaluations of several MT software products (it is possible to go directly to
I have a brand new article coming out in MultiLingual Computing & Technology with a step-by-step procedure of how to show novice translation technology users start with an online MT portal like Babelfish, and then use a trial evaluation version of a professional MT software program to improve the translation quality. That article should appear in the next published issue.

Native language:
There is no black and white reply to this. I'll set up a page at my website on this topic (putting links to my many previous discussion list threads on the topic) and publish it to this blog.
Best, Jeff Allen (

1:35 PM  
Blogger agile_webdesign said...

I believe the target language = native language is a good rule. But when there is no native fluency in the source language, the native speaker may miss the fine points as well.

I noticed that inspite of that Brits having studied German in England and aggregating here in Munich will fiercly bar any non-native English speaker from their network of translators into English, even if they were bilingual. So there is a money side to this view as well.

Beyond that there is absolutely no awareness for or recognition of the phemomenon of bilingual people having a right to make a living at translating.

With ever more professionals settling down and having children abroad as well as intermarrying this must change.

Gisela Strauss
Technical translations and localizations
target language German, native fluency English

1:48 PM  
Blogger Tiina Kinnunen said...

I've read all of your comments with interest, and I'm pleased to tell you that you can discuss this issue in depth in the FIT 2005 World Congress in Tampere next August. There will be a round table discussion on "Translation the Wrong Way", which will tackle this difficult issue. If you would like to have more information on this or be on the panel, please contact me at
See you all in Tampere next summer!
And more info on the FIT World congress at

3:46 AM  
Blogger translationfound said...

As a German native speaker I will tell you that I will yield any translation in say ... specialized European law ... to a French person who is fluid in German and an expert in that field.
She will do a better job. Any time.

9:27 AM  
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5:56 AM  

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