Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Hamster Who Translated 10,000 Words a Day (and Other Urban Legends)

(Before you say anything, I am fully aware that writing the word “hamster” and “urban legend” in the same blog post is simply asking for it. I can just picture the flood of misguided visitors, but what the hell…)

Whenever translators huddle around a campfire and toast marshmallows, there is an oft-heard urban legend:

I have seen translators deliver 10,000 words of post-edited MT a day (provided that the MT is high quality). At $0.05 a word that’s $500 a day or $10,000 a month. Not a bad salary for a freelancer.

I, personally, would like to meet this character. I’ve heard so much about him/her. Is he bathing in the glory of his $500 words a day? Does she spend nice, long vacations in the Caribbean? Is he stress-free and high on life? Are her dimpled cheeks rosy from the daily kiss of the Mediterranean sun on her complexion?

I suspect not. And you know why? Because anybody who spurts out 10,000 words a day (leaving aside the eternal quality issue for one second) has to actually proofread those 10,000 words before submitting them. That in itself would take me a good chunk of a normal work day. Just editing the dreck I write (with the dreckiness compounded by the fact that it was originally gobbledygook) is an Augean task in itself.

No, this translator has to desperately spin his little wheel to churn out 10,000 words a day. No time for sunbathing, thank you very much.

Our mythical 10K hamster may exist, but I can guarantee his output is crud and his working life is miserable. His wife hates him and his kids are afraid of him. He works 12 hours a day and doesn't take vacations because his clients think he provides a commodity service and he can be replaced easily with the click of a mouse. He is the translating world’s equivalent of those Americans who place an “o” after every word and think that makes it sound Spanish. If he charges $0.05 per word, it is because he can’t charge much more than that. Regardless of where his first draft came from.

Miguel Llorens is a freelance financial translator based in Madrid who works from Spanish into English. He is specialized in equity research, economics, accounting, and investment strategy. He has worked as a translator for Goldman Sachs, the US Government's Open Source Center and H.B.O. International, as well as many small-and-medium-sized brokerages and asset management companies operating in SpainTo contact him, visit his website and write to the address listed there. Feel free to join his LinkedIn network or to follow him on Twitter.


Jordi Balcells said...

Well, I guess you are hoping to hear back from that person. If I was able to track that quote back to its source, anyone can. I'm not going to tell on you, of course.

I know you are not afraid of the pundits and gurus, so maybe your post will spur a nice conversation here in the comment section.

Jost said...

I read your blog post earlier this afternoon and I've been thinking about it since. I think we need to be careful not to be too dismissive of each other's work. Our "industry" is made up of a lot of different kinds of jobs and interests and, I'm going to say it: qualíty standards. And someone who prepares text for mere usefulness rather than other quality criteria can still have a happy life. Jost

Curri said...

I agree with you, Miguel.

Of course it is not impossible to deliver 10k in a day if you wake up very, very early and you go to bed very, very late. But you cannot do that every single day of your life. You cannot even do it for a month! Yes, any of us have done something as stupid as this once or twice in our career (or even three times, if you want).

But I feel $0.05 per word is not enough for such task. Not even with the best of MT creating the best automated translation possible. If many times is hard to edit a translation made by other translator who, maybe, didn't have a good day, and you feel that your work isn't worth a proofreading rate, imagine how it may be with an automated translation. At least not in my specialisation, which is very creative (I doubt a machine can be creative if I have many days in which I am not creative myself).

PS: Let us know if you find the translator who did that statement ;) It would be very nice to meet them and see if it's wearing a blue tight legging-suit with red underwear and a red cape.

Jordi Balcells said...

Curri, a hint: he's not a translator, or at least he's not one any more. That's why he finds it perfectly reasonable to deliver 10,000 words / day.

Financial Translator said...

Regarding Curri's point, I think that she is right. 10K per day is feasible, but to do it 20 days a month for 11 months a year is a sure-fure recipe for burnout, not an acceptable career path.

Regarding Jost's point, I wrote out a really long response, but I handwrote it and now I have to transcribe it. The problem is that I'm very busy today, so I'll just leave you with one quick thought. As in most debates on economic choices, it boils down to the consequences of freedom. Steven Levitt talks about the "daughter test." For instance, let's say for argument's sake that you believe prostitution should be legal. However, if you had a daughter, would you think that it's cool for that daughter to be a prostitute? Analogously, would you want her churning out 10,000 words a day, or would you steer her toward different career models?

Joan Parra said...

Hi Miguel. I'd rather sell my body than make a living editing the output of certain MT systems. Check a couple of 'translation plugins' and you'll see what I mean.

DavidGrunwald said...

Hi Miguel, it was me you quoted. I am happy to take credit for those words.

In my quote I added the words "provided that the MT is high quality." If you have a good TM and a custom-trained translation server, then the MT comes out at high quality which requires a light edit (similar to a fuzzy match).

I was not referring to a hypothetical case, but to real life situations that I have encountered in my work. We have our own MT system and it is trained for various tasks. It is not suitable for all work scenarios, but it does exist nevertheless. I was making a point, that translation prices in a project like that could be $0.05 or less per word and the translator can still make a nice living. So dropping prices are not necessarily bad for a translator.

As far as prostitution: every job requires some degree of prostitution. Even though a whore gets no respect from anyone, she can enjoy her work at times and get paid for it. A translator that post-edits MT does not lose any respect and gets paid for the work. Does she/he enjoy it? Maybe not. Is anyone forcing you to do this kind of work? No, and if you don't like it then don't do it. But nobody has the right to make fun of a legitimate form of work and income.

David Grunwald

Financial Translator said...

Dear Dave,
I read your blog regularly and I am acquainted with your "quality" philosophy, which is, as far as I can tell, “the cheaper the better.” The term “quality MT” might sound a little oxymoronic to some ears, but okay. (“Oxymoron” is a word that means a contradiction in terms, not an insult, BTW.) It also sounds a little hollow in the mouth of a man who auto-translates everything he writes into a gazillion of languages using MT to boost his website ranking. But fine. You have a place in a free market. That is incontestable. However, there is also a marketplace of ideas. In that marketplace there is also room for my little satirical piece, which doesn’t name any names, does not include any personal attacks, and just pokes a little light fun at an occupation that is really a parody of another one. So your claim that “nobody has the right to make fun of a legitimate occupation” sounds pretty dumb. Ever heard of doctor jokes, Dave? Moliére wrote an entire play about doctor jokes under a repressive monarchical regime. (Moliére was a seventeenth century French playwright, BTW.) (For that matter, have you ever told a translator joke, Dave, at the end of the day, when the lights were low and the hamsters had gone to sleep?) So I don’t really see what the damage is. Just as I do not question your legal right to wring a few more wheelie turns from your hamsters, you cannot come here and tell me what I have a right to write or not to write. So stick that in your MT engine. See how it sounds in Swahili.

Ricardo Souza said...

A question, Miguel. Have you actually tried to do that, I mean, translate (or post-edit, whatever) as much as possible in a day, using a properly "trained" MT?

Financial Translator said...

Hi Ricardo,

My relation with MT, both free and private, would require more space and time than I have right now (a deadline looms). Suffice it to say that I'm less than impressed. Jost Zetzsche recently wrote about an MT system he trained for a large project and claimed that a 20% time savings (excluding the time spent training the system) was achieved. 20% is impressive, but still very far from a leap that will bring professional translation prices down to the cellar level in which Mr. Grunwald lives. For better or for worse, MT is synonymous with low rates and lower quality, at least for the time being, and the MT Crowd should just learn to live with that. The fact that they don't indicates to me that they are ever scheming to rise in the quality ladder toward areas that have fatter profit margins (because their own are getting ever leaner). That is the source of their frustration (and some of the insanity of the debate).

DavidGrunwald said...

Hi Miguel, my comments were in no way personal. I admire your work, and mentioned you very favorably in a blog post last year: see http://bit.ly/cwfArW

As a translation business owner, sure I want cheap prices. And some of the jobs we do at GTS, like patents and clinical trial documents, require very high quality. But there are some documents, like technical system tenders for example, that are needed in a huge rush. The language is prosaic, rife with boring terminology that repeats ad nauseum, and MT is very suitable for that job. We found that post-editing MT is the best process for that type of work. It can be used profitably for translation of technical manuals too. And for many other tasks.

About the GTS Translation plugin: I started that venture about two years ago at considerable expense. If you think I did that to just boost our website rankings then you are wrong. I have a much more noble vision in mind: tons of content is being published by millions of bloggers. Some of the content, such as your own Financial Translation blog, is very good. But it remains local due to high translation costs. Our system is designed to allow publishers like yourself to translate their content at low costs. And make more money from their content while doing so. Our system supports an integrated post-editing process which enables human quality translation. I am using my own GTS blog as a test system but lack the resources to post edit in all the languages. Having said that, I can report that the blog is getting LOTS of traffic in other languages even though the quality is not very good. Our plugin has been installed in over 300 websites and some of them have reported a significant boost in international traffic. And about 30 websites have used our plugin to create their own translation community for the post-editing, which yields good quality for them.

I am a true believer in MT. Will it replace human translators? Of course not. But when I met the President of ATA (Dr. Hartmann) in Denver last year, even he acknowledged that more and more translators will have to associate with MT in one way or another. And that that trend will accelerate in years to come.

Financial Translator said...

Dear Dave,

Thank you for the message. All your points are reasonable, but they are profoundly misguided. You are wrong not in the way 2+2=5 is wrong, but in the sense that many of your unspoken assumptions are simply uncritical and not an accurate reflection of reality. Unpicking them one by one far exceeds the limits of a blog comment, but I feel I do it somewhat in my regular blog work.

Suffice it to say for now that, in my experience, even the most repetitive and boring text contains language whose complexity far exceeds the capability of current MT. To say an MTed version gives you at least an idea of its meaning is, in my view, tantamount to claiming that if someone never listened to Beethoven, I can give them an idea of what the Fifth Symphony is by whistling a few bars.

Aurora Humarán said...

Great post, Miguel! Nagging hamsters thank you for it (mostly those who plan to work as translators till the end of their lives). Au

Aurora Humarán said...

Another great post. Thank you, Miguel!

Wandering cloud said...

Great post.This made me think of the game "hamster ball", which is a "dangerous" experience for the little hamster inside a glass ball. I think translating so fast is also a risking business for the translators. There is a Chinese saying literally translated as "slow worker produce excellent work". It may not be so absolute, but time is always of great value for translators.

My experience told me that rushing means absolute lack of thinking, which directly equal to unsatisfying piece of work. A translator can never forget the translation work doesn't include alone translation, but also research beforehand and editing afterwards. So I never dare to rush. Plan ahead and take your time is necessary.