Tag Archives: machine translation

The awkward departure of a former ATA media representative

The American Translators Association, a non-profit professional organism with a membership of approximately 11,000 in the United States, Canada, Europe and other countries around the world, is undergoing another set of growing pains. Its Board of Directors is made up of volunteers, most of whom are independent translators or small business owners like the readers of this blog.

Established in 1959 by a small number of New York City translators, ATA grew almost exponentially in the following decades. It currently has strong programs to reach out to novice translators and schools. Its media and public relations program has achieved important milestones in the last 15 years, thanks to driven people such as Chris Durban, Lillian Clementi and Kevin Hendzel, the latter becoming ATA spokersperson.

However, the ATA PR machine has undergone some painful internal motions in recent years, which culminated with the sudden resignation of its spokesperson, Kevin Hendzel, in 2012. He was replaced by Dr. Jiří Stejskal (no the ice hokey goaltender), a small businessman, owner of CETRA, with main offices in Elkins Park, PA. Mr. Stejskal is also a former ATA president.

A recent article published in the online site of The Economist quotes Mr. Stejskal thus:

“Machine translation” is the next step. Computers learn from huge databases of already-translated text to make ever-better guesses about how to render whole chunks from one language into another. Translators used to scorn this, seeing their human judgment as irreplaceable. Now, says Jiri Stejskal of the American Translators’ Association, it has won respectability.

This seemingly innocent statement caused a firestorm in the Yahoo! ATA Business Practices forum and in LinkedIn’s ATA discussion group this week, initiated by Mr. Hendzel:

Hendzel 1

When I first saw it, I assumed that it was sharing a link to an article about the ATA. Many translators did just that. It wasn’t until days that the reactions began to appear. Some commented on the outrageous quote, which many took as the ATA’s official position on MT (machine translation) having gained respectability. Mr. Hendzel, as it is his custom, rehashed his past role as ATA spokesman for a decade and how the ATA and translators in general had gained greater recognition during that time. At least, until 2012, when he resigned as spokesman. He further recited well-worn lamentations about the sad state of ATA in the field of public relations and the overall mismanagement  perpetrated by members of the current ATA Board. The initial posting collected a thread of about 45 comments, some thanking Mr. Hendzel for bringing up the topic and others disagreeing with him.

I also participated in the discussion. Full disclosure: at first, I complained about the misquote and asked that Mr. Stejskal offered an explanation:

My first comment on the matter.

My first comment on the matter.

A second reading of the quote in question changed my mind. The quotation marks surrounding Machine Translation had thrown me off, and I erroneously attributed them to Mr. Stejskal. It was time to call for a step back. Is it possible that the writer’s stile was at fault here? I concluded that the article required a second or third reading.


I was confused, and doubts about blaming this “PR disaster” (according to Mr. Hendzel) on Mr. Stejskal deserved further analysis and cooler heads:

Hendzel 6 - My doubts about the quote

Hendzel 4 - Mi admission of error and trying to strike a moderate tone

The discussion was boiling and not resolving anything. However, commenters were civil toward each other, despite the fact that clouds of doubt and something more, undefinable as yet, were mounting and hovering over the debate.

There were many sensible comments and I added what usually drives me to discuss things. I also sensed an agenda after carefully rereading the initial posting that started the thread: Why is Mr. Hendzel criticizing the ATA spokesman for saying the wrong thing? Why is he making Mr. Stejskal responsible for “killing our primary message”?

Hendzel 5-mod - Keeping cool heads

Before the reader arrives at wrong conclusions, this is not about the nice and sensible things I said. Since the thread includes 45 comments and due to the impracticality of quoting every single one of them, I’m using judgment to insert the ones that I think are necessary for my discussion on the matter. Nor is it my purpose to rant against anyone involved in the long conversation. I want to present the most salient facts for those interested precisely because it touches on the public image of the professional entity I belong to as a translator. From my exchanges with Mr. Hendzel since 2011, I knew him to be a consummate self-promoter, a superb presenter and a very articulate spokesperson. Behind all that, however, I could sense a tendency to indulge in hyperbole and extreme comparisons bordering on demagoguery. I pointed that to him on several occasions, both in public and in private exchanges. Therefore, that exposure cued me to some purpose in his carping against the current ATA spokesman. I considered the discussion another exercise in futility and kept my thought to myself.

First, upon Mr. Hendzel’s resignation in 2012, ATA had to find a new spokesman and Mr. Stejskal stepped in. Media interviews don’t always go the way the interviewee intended and it’s up to the journalist or editor what comes out as the final version in print (or on the air). That’s what seemed to have happened with The Economist paragraph. The portrayal of machine translation (MT) as given in the article does not represent ATA’s position on the matter. Second, ATA lost its paid media adviser when it defunded the media outreach effort.

Finally, some light at the end of the tunnel. Some much-needed clarity reached my thoughts and I thanked Ms. Clementi for the facts and her comments. The discussion was not going to end like so many others, however. It was not going to be another event blown out of proportion by hyperbolic statements. A fellow translator, James Kirchner, known for his sharp mind, wrote what he considered to be the motivation behind the whole thread by Mr. Hendzel. Summarizing his words, Mr. Kirchner said that Mr. Hendzel had misrepresented the Stejskal “quote.” Mr. Stejskal clarified the matter in the BP list that the paragraph in the article was not accurate and proceeded to repeat what he actually said to the journalist.

In Mr. Kirchner’s view, Mr. Hendzel is being unjustly critical of Mr. Stejskal and the whole argument is pointless: there is no crisis. Finally, Mr. Kirchner indicated 3 common threads in Mr. Hendzel’s press-related pronunciations in the past: 1) Mr. Hendzel and his team did a superb job as ATA liaisons with the media; 2) any other ATA media representative is incompetent, and 3) Mr. Hendzel prefers to criticize those in ATA who are working in his old position as spokesperson.

James Kirchner said what I was thinking, but with much more force and determination. The interesting thing about this is, I had said similar things to Mr. Hendzel in the course of other discussions in the last year and a half, with little consequence. So I started to ignore his postings. The ATA moderator for our discussion group reminded everyone of the netiquette rules: don’t attack anyone, be courteous, etc. Inside, I was a tad indignant because I didn’t want this uncovering of a self-absorbed individual go unnoticed. So I wrote this:

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I was courting a reprimand, I know. I said what was on my mind without naming names, but it was clear who I was referring to. Being reprimanded was not a present worry for me, though. Then Mr. Hendzel did the unexpected: he said he would resign from ATA this week. He further claimed the dangers ATA was facing due to the lack of real leaders and improper management. He lamented over the years he served to promote ATA, adding, rather puzzingly, that ATA was like the Apple computer going the way of Radio Shack. He promised to keep active in his blog and his parting words made reference to pursuing better options to head media efforts at other translators organizations.

Kevin Hendzel announced, with his hallmark pomp and circumstance, that he was leaving the ATA. He shared his conviction that the ATA is on a downward spiral to ruin and irrelevance but that he was going to be better off elsewhere.

So it seems that Mr. Hendzel had been smarting from his resignation as ATA spokesman, burning with desire to keep working in some media capacity but still harboring a deep resentment, contempt and disdain toward other ATA officers and marked animosity against Mr. Stejskal for reasons unknown to us.

I used to respect Mr. Hendzel precisely for the PR achievements he scored for the ATA. I remember the occasions that I would hear about the ATA and its spokesman, Mr. Hendzel, on some radio or TV interview. He did provide a great service to our organization. Then, the assumption of a new board of directors in the second decade of the 21st century changed things for public relations and for Mr. Hendzel. The Board and Mr. Hendzel didn’t see things eye to eye, the former later defunding PR and media efforts and the latter resigning in the aftermath in 2012.

Kevin Hendzel says that it was a sad day for him. Well, it was a sad day for me and for many others who witnessed how this otherwise intelligent and highly skilled professional decided to tear down his own legacy by tearing apart the current ATA spokesman and whatever other PR initiatives were started and achieved after his departure. It is a very grey and dull epilogue of his own making, a bland departure for a heretofore sterling man with an ego to match and who couldn’t bow down with grace and dignity.

The main problem for most was the misquoted ATA position on machine translation. Mr. Stejskal, fully aware of the commotion caused elsewhere in LinkedIn, wrote a candid, calm and complete explanation on the topic, which is now considered closed. As a result, ATA is requesting a clarification on the misquote from The Economist.

In the larger horizon of news events, we can be sure that ATA spokespersons will be quoted, misquoted, underquoted in different media. Other bloggers will comment on the issue, not all of them connected to the translation activity. And ATA will issue clarifications and gain more recognition and stature in response, I surely expect. That’s basically what the cooler heads in the LinkedIn discussion thread were asking all the time.


Filed under Advertising, ATA, Machine translation, Public image of translators, Public Relations, Public relations in translation

Back with a vengeance

There are many a translation-related blog out there, all competing for your eyeballs. While experts will tell you that keeping a successful blog requires regular (i.e. daily or weekly) postings, I believe in writing meaty and insightful comments on topics that I feel very interested in and that, hopefully, you also share.

Having said that, apologies are in order for my prolonged absence.

In early 2013, as I was preparing my first online technical translation course for New York University students in the Spanish-to-English pair, I thought that I could easily handle the class, the task evaluations, my blog and my day-to-day translation projects. Soon afterwards, in May 2013, I was retained by a premier Internet security company to translate their technical documents, glossary entries and other material for their overseas partners. The contract stipulated 40 weekly hours, which I was able to meet consistently until the end of the contract last February, 2014.

Ten months working on shaping the Spanish terminology on Internet security, handling an untested workflow with LingoTek engines and a machine-translation component, linked to a CMS (content management system) web portal, was quite a challenge, which I welcomed with open arms. I learned a great deal, especially because we worked in a team fashion with Korean, French, German and Chinese colleagues. The experience, far from being just a regular telework contract, left me with a taste for more about Internet security, what with the snowdening of NSA classified information, weekly cybersecurity challenges and now, the Heartbleed event (Canada mounties seem to have aprehended one culprit).

Getting my life back in order to resume blogging for you, my devoted reader, took me a bit longer since February, as I was readying my Spring English-to-Spanish technical translation course for NYU (now winding down) and preparing the preliminary syllabus for the second edition of my Spanish-to-English technical translation course this summer. On top of that, I started working with an IRB (independent review board) for medical translations and I attended a SecureWorld event in Valley Forge, PA, last week. More about that later.

I have many things to share, all in due time. Some events are part of my website at http://www.wordsmeet.com and others will be penned right here.

Thank you for reading!


Mario Chávez, Spanish translator

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Filed under Translation as writing

Thoughts on machine translation

You run a small or medium-sized business. You understand that your website, marketing collaterals and some or all of your documentation needs translating. Your language service provider of choice takes care of that. Years of work bless this fortunate relationship…until a bigger language service provider knocks at your door. It’s a large company with offices in several nice-sounding cities offering to reduce your translation costs by percentages in the double digits. With fancy names like global, enterprise and localization, they try to lure you into giving their software “solution” a try.

Yes, it is a proprietary package which requires an annual outlay to pay for some maintenance contract and customer support, but it has tons of features and it can handle all kinds of file formats! Plus, the PowerPoint-cum-Flash presentation is so pretty. Then they talk about a new module for machine translation and fill the air with words such as translation memory, leveraging previous translations and fuzzy matches, as well as automated QA. Again, another serving of fancy names. In closing, this vendor throws in some technology-friendly predictions for good measure. Machine translation or MT is touted as the panacea to address your translation needs, its advantages whispered by the Pollyannas of the industry.

Binary collage at Computer Museum in Mountain View, CA

But other language translation service providers are not so optimistic. Liz Pascaud, of EJP Translations, sounded a tone of alarm in a posting in Linkedin’s Localization Professional discussion group a week ago. “Will Machine Translation with Edit take over in 2012? I believe it will…but how will freelancers adapt?” —she ventured. The 24 comments that followed went from similarly worried to unconcerned to cheerleading MT. In 2011, Google Translate made a splash among industry pundits with some amazingly accurate translations. CAT translation software vendors worked to include a Google Translate API to address this opportunity. An opportunity for some, a challenge for others. The arguments for and against MT raged over discussion groups at Linkedin and elsewhere, some of them as old as the first attempts at MT back in the 50s.

The best way to weigh the value of a solution is to hear different arguments made by different people with experience in the matter, and not just the sunny reasoning given by the software vendors or LSPs (language service providers) with a vested interest in promoting an MT solution or workflow for your company. Jeff Kent, Manager of Professional Services at Sajan, a prominent LSP, recognizes the high expense of implementing MT:

The upfront costs of machine translation can be significant, having to train and develop engines specifically for your content. So in order to achieve return on your investment, you need to process a high volume of content. From legal documents to products guides, the more you translate and the higher frequency you translate at is going to make you a better candidate for the cost-effective results of machine translation.
(Source: http://www.sajan.com/blog/?p=454)

While it is fascinating to read about advances of technology to address the ever-increasing burden of multilanguage translation needs in a company, your business common sense should help you see through the fog of sales pitches and find the translation solution of the right size for your organization. Of course you want to rein in translation costs. On one hand, you have low-cost translation services performed by people you never meet (in the case of services outsourced overseas). On the other hand, at the end of the price spectrum, you see the slick lure of ever-perfectible machine translation software packages, expensive to implement at first, but with the promise of higher returns if your company happens to handle large amounts of content. As in any other worthy investment for your company, price is just part of the equation.


Filed under Machine translation

In search of the holy grail of non-human translation

In Slate, Jeremy Kingsley writes about Google Translate. The tagline reads It already speaks 57 languages as well as a 10-year-old. How good can it get? (Read the article here).

My answer: not that good. How can a 10-year-old be a good writer, unless he’s a prodigy? More to the point: you may be fluent in German, but that doesn’t mean you can write in German appropriately in a given situation, like an educated native would. Most proponents of machine translation (MT for short) are enamored with having software produce translations after learning foreign languages. Here’s the problem: translation has little to do with learning a foreign language, and a lot to do with the craft of writing, acquired after years and years of practice and error.

I was intrigued, however, by Mr. Kingsley’s article, to which I responded in the following fashion:

Mr. Kingsley is evidently enthusiastic about technology marvels that may or may not replace some activities of the human brain. I don’t blame him, he’s just a writer.

Even though the article brings together different views (Bello and Wittgenstein), it struggles to be neutral…and fails. There are so many aspects that pop up in a well-informed conversation about machine translation that my comments cannot possibly touch on all of them, but here’s my attempt:

a) Orality (the speech part of language) informs but does not shape all forms of written expression in a language.
b) Most languages have a written form, some never had one. Where would Google Translate (or MT) find the copious amounts of data to mine? Nowhere.
c) Human knowledge and activity show themselves in thousands of domains, not just EU documents, not just webpages. How many books are NOT in digital form? The Internet’s corpus is minuscule by comparison.
d) Different domains (law, financial prospects, discovery documents, material safety data sheets, voting instructions, and so on) have different registers, different formulas for expression. Some languages handle similar situations in different ways, with a different tone in writing form.

Translation is an act of written and visual creation. Before we get all enthused about how technology tools can “translate”, we should ask ourselves “can software write something cogently?” Or, “can software create?” If by creating we mean “doing something from scratch”, we already have robots that can perform such tasks. Obviously, there’s more to it than meets the eye.

To me, a created thing has to bear a meaning given by its creator. No, I am not talking about god or religion here. There’s meaning, intent, focus, tone, a sense of beauty or a tinge of ugliness, contradiction, coolness or fervor, a human imprint.

Of course, there are translation users who can’t be bothered with these disquisitions. As Mr. Kingsley said, their bar is low enough that they can achieve software-enabled translations to meet a need. Here’s a question: Who will bother to ask for input from the reader? Isn’t that the purpose of having a text translated?

There’s more. When you write, you decide what words to use based on a number of circumstances. Some words come to mind more easily than others, some phrases and references pop up more freshly or apt than others. In short, what you write is the sum of your decisions. What you translate is no different.


Filed under Artificial Intelligence, Cultural awareness, Machine translation, Software-enabled translation, The craft of translation, Writing skills