December 2008

My gripes about translation memory

I recently tweeted that I was experimenting with OmegaT, a translation-memory tool. When asked by one of its proponents how I liked it, I responded

@brandelune do not like omegaT. really only works with plain text. ugly. burdened w/ typical java on mac shortcomings. not customizable.

That barely begins to cover what I don’t like about OmegaT. I’ve been thinking about what I would like in a translation tool for a while now. My desires break down into two categories: the translation-memory engine, and the environment presented to the translator.

Unreasonable expectations

Yesterday morning I was contacted by a large, well-known translation agency about a very large job. About 250,000 words spread out over about 60 documents of various types, due this afternoon—about 30 hours after the initial inquiry was sent.

Obviously they didn’t expect one translator to do all of this. In fact, very large jobs on very short deadlines are the MO for this agency—let’s just say their name rhymes with “trance perfect”—but this is an extreme case, made more extreme in that the job is due Christmas Eve.

I’m not an especially fast translator. I’m faster than some, slower than others. I can do 2,500 words in a day without breaking a sweat under reasonably good conditions, and I can manage 4,500 if I’m highly motivated and working with good source material. Let’s say I’m around the middle of the bell curve.

I didn’t accept this job and didn’t see the source material (not because of the time of year, mostly because I knew the job would be a rathole), but I can make a few guesses about it. It’s discovery material for litigation. It’s internal company information containing a lot of insider lingo that is not explained anywhere and will often pick up where another document left off. The job is being parceled out willy-nilly to a lot of different translators, by a coordinator who quite possibly does not read Japanese, so there may be no attempt to give each translator a cohesive package (assuming that would be possible at all).

In short, not great source material.

As to motivation, this agency pays OK, but not magnanimously. They do nothing to cultivate personal relations with translators. So there’s no special motivation for a translator to go the extra mile in terms of quality or quantity. If anything, the reverse. Although I don’t know much about the agency’s inner workings, I get the impression they do not have much of a translation-checking process. And for a job this big, on such a ridiculous deadline, it would be impossible to enforce consistency across all the translators, so even a translator inclined to do a top-notch job would know that the work would wind up looking like a hodge-podge anyhow.

So all around, I’m guessing they’d need 100 translators who are available on Christmas Eve. If they’ve got a checking process in place, 20 or more checkers. It takes a hell of a lot of chutzpah to get a call from a client who asks for 250,000 words in a couple of days and say “OK.”

I wonder if they’re trying to compete against machine translation. That’s a chump’s game. I wonder what it would take for them to say “no” to an unreasonable request from a client.

Finally, I wonder why the client was making this unreasonable request in the first place. It is possible that there really is such a short window between when the client received the documents and when they need them translated, but I’m doubtful. It’s possible that the client has been trained to have unreasonable expectations through previous contact with this agency. It’s also possible the client said “as soon as possible” just out of habit, and the agency has responded by treating it as an urgent request.

Pros and Converse

'Red Chucks' by Purploony on Flickr

Growing older has its pros and cons. Most of the pros are mental, most of the cons are physical.

When I was a little kid, I desperately wanted a pair of “high-tops” (I didn’t know what else to call them). When I was in second grade, my parents indulged me, but only once. I wore those out quickly enough, and didn’t get another pair.

Until I went to college and was living on my own (and, for better or worse, buying my own clothes). Chuck Taylors were the only shoes I wore throughout my college career, and for a long time after.

As I got older, I found that my feet had less and less tolerance for the complete lack of cushioning and support in Chuck Taylors. It wasn’t that the shoes had changed (although aficionados will always say “they don’t make ’em like they used to”), it was just one of the cons of getting older. I visited New York City in 2001 and did a prodigious amount of walking in Chucks. After a couple of days, I damn near felt crippled. When I got back to Austin, I broke down and bought a pair of “cross-trainers,” and have worn some variety or another ever since.

But I miss wearing Chuck Taylors. I still have a few pair, and trot them out for parties when I know I won’t be doing a lot of walking. I miss the simplicity and utilitarianism, the personality and playfulness. If they came out with a line of Chucks with modern soles, I would be all over them.

True fans would complain they weren’t real Chucks. Whatever. It’s a compromise my feet would gladly make. Converse no longer exists as an independent entity anyhow. It’s owned by Nike, which treats Chuck Taylors as a fashion brand and sells them for a premium.


Imagine you are the governor of a fairly large state. After a historic election, a Senator from your state and member of your party has just been elected President. The incoming Senate will be close to—but not quite at—a cloture-proof majority. The incoming President will be facing a historic crisis, is enjoying unprecedented levels of goodwill, and ran as a transparent, clean-government candidate. It is your job to appoint his successor. Do you:

  • Appoint a caretaker who will step down in two years when the term ends, to avoid giving an appointee the advantages of incumbency (which, as it turns out, may not be such a big deal)?
  • Appoint someone who will be a strong candidate able to keep the seat for your party?
  • Attempt to shake down the President-elect, creating an aura of guilt-by-association for him, threatening the ability of the incoming administration to get work done, and weakening your party in your state?

If you picked #3, congratulations, you’re Rod Blagojevich. You’re also a fucking moron.

The fact that Blago did this over a phone that he knew was being bugged speaks not only to his obvious corruption, it is a sign of his deep, deep stupidity. The idea that he’d try to wring some mean little personal advantage out of the situation is obviously corrupt, but also shows his inability to see beyond his own nose: wouldn’t it be better all around to be in the good graces of the President? My former classmate (and let me tell you, it is very weird seeing her on TV) Lisa Murray Madigan is seeking to have him removed from office on the grounds that he can’t serve.

Forget about corruption. This guy is too dumb to breathe without assistance, much less serve the people of Illinois.

Custom key commands for Gmail

If you use Gmail and have a keyboard with a numeric keypad, try turning on the Labs feature, and then turn on the “Custom keyboard shortcuts” gadget.

This will create a new tab under settings for your keyboard shortcuts. Following is a proposed set of shortcuts allowing for faster browsing and sorting, with what I consider a logical organization. Note that I’m not showing shortcuts for every command, only the ones I propose changing.

Action Key(s)
Back to threadlist 4
Newer conversation 8
Older conversation 2
Select conversation 5
Star conversation +
Report as spam *
Move to trash
Open conversation 6
Previous message 9
Next message 3

Characters per word

In Japanese-English translation, it’s useful to be able to estimate how long the English translation will be based on the number of Japanese characters in the source document. If you bill by the output word, you want to be able to give the client a cost estimate upfront, and if you estimate your productivity by the output word, you want some idea of how long a job is going to take.

Early in my career, I arrived at 2.2 Japanese characters per English word as a rule of thumb; I get the impression that a lot of JA-EN translators use a number around this. If a client asks me for an estimate, I’ve used 2 characters per word just to cover my ass.

Back when I started out, most jobs arrived by fax, so it was a lot of work to get an accurate character count on the source text. These days, most of my work arrives in some sort of live text, so it’s a lot easier. For the past year, I’ve been tracking the length of both the source and target documents when possible (my desire to track data like this is part of the reason I’m dissatisfied with every job-tracking app out there), and have come up with some average values for characters per word that surprise me.

  • Client A (newspaper articles, corporate communications): 2.66 characters per word
  • Client B (press releases): 2.92 characters per word.
  • Client C (discursive programming documentation): 3.10 characters per word
  • Client D (verbose corporate procedures): 3.16 characters per word
  • Client E (variety): 2.28 characters per word

There are a few jobs in my archive with more than 4 characters per word. I’m not sure if I’ve become a more economical translator with age—I’d like to think so—but perhaps I need to rethink my rule of thumb. I’d like to know what numbers other translators come up with.