Some Misconceptions about the Japanese-to-English Translation Process

The other day we introduced a blog post about myths some translation users believe—and are led to believe by translation providers—about the translation business. Today we will focus on the translation process, particularly as it affects translation quality, pointing out some misunderstandings about the process. Some of these misconceptions are related to the highly vaunted MT (machine translation) capability sold by some companies, but others apply as well to translation done in the conventional way, using human translators.

Misunderstanding One: Machine Translation Has Taken over from Humans.

I recall a day in the mid-1980s when a company developing MT here in Japan (Bravice International) apparently convinced Mainichi, one of the three largest daily newspapers here, to run a substantial article announcing that automatic translation had finally been developed. Well, translation of a sort.

The article was very similar to a press release from the company, and at least people in the translation business realized that MT was not even close to being poised to take over from humans just yet. But shortly thereafter I did have some people comment to me that I might be out of work shortly, what with machine translation taking over. That was 35 years ago. Not much has changed, MT has not taken over, and we don’t yet feel threatened. We are amused, however, by some misconceptions about MT harbored by a small portion of potential clients, but those are easily overcome. Our existing clients are a bit wiser.

Misunderstanding Two:  Well, at least machine translation has eliminated the need for human translators to do the actual translation; humans can just fix what the MT got wrong later.

The prospect of eliminating expensive and slow human translators has long been implied by people selling MT. Alas, that has not yet been achieved. Humans (and more importantly, human translators) are still required to rescue the low-quality output of machine translation systems (and to rescue the people who thought they could rely on MT). More on this below.

Misunderstanding Three:  A translation that is 95% accurate, be it from a human translator or a machine translation system, only requires a small additional investment to make it a 100% accurate translation.

People who believe this should try machine translation and tell their human editing/rescue team that, to find and correct the translation problems, they have been allotted only 5% of the time that they would have needed to translate the Japanese-language source text from scratch, without the “aid” of machine translation. That clearly will not work. In fact, it probably will fail even if you give the human rescue team 50% of the from-scratch translation time to fix the MT output.

Often the rescue team (made up of people who are optimistically referred to as post-editors) will need to spend nearly as much time fixing a poor translation from an MT system (or a low-skilled human translator) as they would have spent in producing a translation from scratch. And even then, because of the desire on the part of the human repair team to give the benefit of the doubt to the machine translation (or poor human translator), the finished product is still likely to fall short of the quality of a translation produced from the ground up by a qualified human translator. There are several problems at work here that might not be obvious to a first-time user of MT.

The above misunderstanding has three aspects, related, respectively, to translation quality metrics (or, more precisely, the lack thereof), the ability of a human translator to find errors, and the questionable advisability of using a translator—human or machine—capable of only 95% accuracy.

Metrics.  How does one quantitatively assess the accuracy of a translation to start out with? And what does 95% accuracy mean when even five percent of the words mistranslated can make a translation totally wrong and unusable.

What’s more, finding even small parts of a translation that make it a bad or unusable translation is a decidedly non-trivial task. There are no automatic methods that obviate human intervention in either assessing a percentage of mistranslation or evaluating the usability of a translation, regardless of whether the translation was done by software or by a human, or to find the N% that was incorrectly translated, let along correct the errors.

The most commonly cited standard that has been established specifically for translation, ISO 17100, addresses only the translation process, dealing with the administrative processes of executing and providing translation. It lacks guidance regarding either how to assess the quality of a translation or the definition of a good translation. Addressing those tasks continues to require a human translator. To be sure, the above-noted process-directed standard apparently calls for a translator’s work to be checked by another translator, but the issue of the abilities of those translators remains unaddressed, as does the definition of a good translation.

Finding errors.  It is highly unlikely that a non-translator (i.e., inexpensive) “post-editor” (a distinct misnomer in most cases) is going to easily find the “mistranslated 5%.” That is a task for a translator. And even a human translator will have to go through both the source document and the translated document carefully to find errors. This is certainly the case when using machine translation, but it is just as true when checking and correcting a translation done by a poor human translator.

The result of that effort might very well be that the errors found would be of no consequence to some particular purpose of the translation. But learning even that ultimate outcome will require a full check through the source text and the translated document by a qualified human translator. Ultimately, if you need a high-quality translation, you are very unlikely to gain much in speed or economy by having a poor translation done first, whether the translator is made of flesh and bones or of software code.

Should you even consider using a 95% accurate translator?  Is a translator, human or machine, only capable of producing 95% accuracy usable? People in the translation field know the answer is a resounding no, and I know no human translators who boast of only 95% accuracy or who think that 95% accuracy (whatever that might be taken to mean) would be sufficient. Regardless of the oohs and aahs that an MT system gets when it reaches that level, being impressed with an MT system reaching 95% accuracy merely demonstrates that the bar has been lowered to allow or promote use of technology. The lowering of standards to make use of wonderful modern technology is not unique to machine translation, of course, but that is a topic for another day and another article.

Because the next two misunderstandings are somewhat interrelated, I will discuss them together.

Misunderstanding Three:  If a document is only something like an email, it can be translated satisfactorily by an MT system.

Misunderstanding Four:  MT systems cannot translate literature, but can handle non-creative documents such as found in industry.

Over decades of observing the marketing of MT, we have repeatedly heard that MT can’t, of course, translate a novel, but (sometimes left as an unspoken implication) it can translate non-literary texts.

It is certainly correct that you should not attempt to use MT to translate a novel. But that in no way should lead you to conclude that MT can be generally used without ill effects to translate texts that are not literary or creative in nature, and it is just such non-literary texts that make up the overwhelming portion of commercial Japanese-to-English translation.

The notion that Japanese-language texts produced in the business and technical/industrial domains are not informed and influenced by Japanese culture is far from being correct. The very act of writing a message to someone, even in a business or technical/industrial domain, is influenced by the context and the culture shared by the writer and the reader. Neither a machine translation system nor a human translator who has not lived in one of the source- and target-language cultures (commonly the case these days with discovery document translation) is up to the task.

Take, for example, the case of email exchanges that need to be translated in an antitrust matter. Some common expressions used in everyday business and normal life in Japan, when placed in the context of people accused of antitrust behavior, can take on (or be purported to take on) a significance far beyond their common use as boilerplate formalities in everyday email exchanges. The translation of such communications without taking context into consideration could be misleading at best.

In such cases, even humans have difficulty translating the source texts. Machine translation systems, totally unable to understand culture and not caring about context, are breathtakingly bad at handling such translation tasks. I have seen this time and time again, including with documents presented to witnesses in depositions. And a non-translator human rescue squad is also in serious danger of failing if they do not both know the languages and understand and apply the appropriate contextual and cultural clues. The bottom line is that these texts should be translated from the start by qualified human translators aware of and able to understand the context of such communications. The need to know and consider context has been with us since people started translating foreign languages; the appearance of machine translation has not changed that. The blinding speed of MT and ostensibly low cost of MT should not blind translation consumers to the pitfalls.

As noted in a recent article, a human translator with neither the source language nor the target language as their native language is almost as limited as a machine translation system when confronted by texts written in the real world.

Misunderstanding Five: Translators are Linguists.

Translators are sometimes characterized as linguists. Some translators are indeed linguists. But many good translators are not linguists, and many linguists are not translators and would be poor translators, even if they wanted to be translators, and many do not. Additionally, merely being fluent in two languages does not give one the ability to translate well. Translation skills need to be acquired separately from (and can be acquired without) formal training in the field of linguistics, although linguistic knowledge is often acquired in the process of learning a language and learning translation, these being two processes that are essentially separate from the process of learning the formal discipline of linguistics.

Misunderstanding Six: Machine Translation is Very Fast.

Here, finally, is a misunderstanding with a bit of truth in it. Fast, yes. The questions remain as to how much quality you need, how tolerant you are of serious errors, and whether you need accountability for the accuracy and appropriateness of the translation.

Quality.  If the level of quality produced by machine translation is “good enough” for your application (for example, a quick gist translation, followed by a proper translation done from scratch by a responsible and accountable human translator afterward if the content is judged to be important), then it is perhaps “good enough.” But it is foolishly optimistic to hope that quickly produced MT output can be brought in a short amount of time up to the quality needed to trust its accuracy. And who could attest to even 95% accuracy of a machine-produced translation, when we don’t even have a definition of 95% accuracy?

Risks.  Anything worth spending money to have translated warrants translation to some expected level of accuracy and suitability.

The largest Japanese-to-English translation demand in the US is for civil litigation involving Japanese entities. Litigators need to assess just how bad a translation could be and still be acceptable as a translation of a Japanese discovery document, and should remember that both machine translation systems and low-quality human translators are quite capable of producing unbelievably bad translations. If we extend the discussion to translations in the medical and pharmaceutical fields, the risks extend to the health and wellbeing of many persons not involved in the translation process.

Accountability.  Placing a machine translation system in the translation loop, even with an after-the-fact human damage control team, blurs the chain of accountability. And, of course, it is folly to think that anybody would be foolish enough to declare that a raw machine-produced translation is reliable and usable to N% (where N is even a low number) accuracy.

Although a human translator that is identified can be deposed and examined about a translation they did, you are not going to be able to depose a collection of computer code, and the people using the MT system cannot but trust as an act of faith that the translation it produces is usable. That is a misplaced belief in almost all cases, based on observing a large amount of machine-translated texts.

Summing up, unless you have a high tolerance for serious errors and the damage they can cause, a human translator is still very much an essential part of the process of producing the translations you need. And the humans executing translations need to be highly qualified, with subject expertise and real-world knowledge, two areas in which machine translation has yet to make a sizable dent. In a future article, I will discuss the making of a translator, something about which there are also some misunderstandings, including misunderstandings by some people aiming to be translators or already working in the field.

Ten Japanese-to-English Translation Myths Believed by Some Translation Users

It is difficult for people outside the translation business, and particularly for users of translation services, to distinguish between comfortable beliefs and the realities of the providers they are using to translate Japanese documents. Myths abound, and translation providers often allow clients to believe those myths. Let’s look at some of them.

Myth One:  The translations you order are done by the translation company receiving your order. This is most likely false for most translations ordered in the US from large translation companies, and certainly from the few large ones that sell translations to law firms, because they are no more than brokers, purchasing and reselling translations. Most major translation brokers used by law firms in the US do no translations themselves, their business model being to subcontract to uberized precarian individual translators who are not and never become their employees.

Myth Two:  The translation company you order work from understands the documents you send them. That might be true if you avoid mere translation brokers and order translations from true translation companies with identified and disclosed translators. It is highly likely to be untrue for almost all the Japanese-to-English translation ordered in the US from large translation brokers. Such companies not only do not understand the subject matter of your documents, but sometimes cannot even correctly identify what language they are in. We have seen major US translation brokers mistake a Chinese or even a Korean patent for a Japanese patent. The reason is that the people purported to be their “project managers” generally lack basic literacy about languages.

Myth Three:  The place you order Japanese-to-English translations from uses translators they know. This might be true if you use a relatively small translation company. It might be arguably true for even the high-volume US translation brokers (until recently, anyway; see Myth Seven), if “knowing” the identity of the translator means knowing their email address and knowing that they will do the work by the required deadline for the required price and that their work has not (yet) been complained about by the translation broker’s clients. But even that minimal level of knowledge about the translator is slipping away, as noted in Myth Seven.

Myth Four:  Each translation you receive has a letter of certification attached to it, attesting to its accuracy. Attest the letter might, but for several reasons, this is an unwarranted level of confidence. Most of the certification letters from the major translation brokers in the US are signed by an administrative employee of the broker, who (1) is not a translator and (2) has no ability to judge the accuracy or other quality of the translations they sell, beyond undertaking an act of faith that the translator (or other translation broker—see Myth Seven) executed the translation properly with the required quality. For reasons noted in Myth Seven, the person signing the translation certification letter these days will often not even be able to learn the name of the translator who has translated your documents.

Myth Five:  The place you purchase translations from is ISO-certified, so you can trust the quality of the translations they do. First, they likely don’t do any translations at all (see Myth One). Second, the ISO quality certification demonstrates nothing more than the translation broker having filled out the ISO paperwork correctly, and having reported therein that they have a system of quality assurance procedures that they follow. And they indeed might follow those QA procedures. The problem is that, while this might work for processes that have well-established and understood quality metrics, it falls apart when applied to translation. The broker can tell ISO, for example, that they have a second translator check the translation done by the original translator, but there is no assurance that the second translator is qualified to do so, nor is there to start with a clear-cut metric for translation quality. It’s basically a process amenable to the use of smoke and mirrors.

Myth Six:  The name of the translator cited on the certification letter is that of the translator who translated your document. In the best of worlds this would be true. Sadly, however, we have seen and verified cases in which it is not. For example, we have personally witnessed a case in which the translation broker purported to disclose the name of the translator in a certification letter, but used what appeared to be a false name in English orthography, totally different from the name signed as a Chinese name by the Japanese-to-English translator. In another, more egregious betrayal of trust of both the client and a translator, the translation broker used the name of an existing translator who had nothing to do with the translation. This was discovered during a deposition, and the quality of the translation of that discovery document being used in witness examination was so poor that it raised suspicions about the claimed identity of the translator. The interpreter knew the purported translator personally and immediately emailed the translator only to discover that he had neither involvement with that translation nor knowledge that his name was being used without his permission. Additionally, he mentioned that “they’re doing it again,” revealing that the translation broker was a repeating offender.

Myth Seven:  The translation company you use knows the names of the people doing your translations. In recent years, the major translation brokers operating in the US and providing Japanese-to-English translations to law firms have become power users of translation brokers in China, to which they subcontract work received from their US law firm clients. It is likely that this has reduced the frequency of disclosure of specific translator names in certification letters, since the Chinese translation broker will not necessarily disclose or disclose properly the translator’s name, even to the US broker. This places another veil of mystery that hides the identity of the actual translator, and the use of Chinese translation brokers presents several other concerns, including language ability and security.

Myth Eight:  Chinese language is similar to Japanese, so there is no problem with—and there is even an advantage to—sending Japanese documents to China to be translated. First, although Japanese has borrowed a subset of its writing system from China, the two languages belong to distinctly different language groups and are mutually unintelligible, eliminating any imagined inherent advantage to the use of a Chinese native speaker in translating from Japanese to English. Although shared orthography might sound like an advantage to Westerners viewing the writing systems of both countries as exotic and impenetrable, it should be remembered that French, Polish, and Turkish share a larger proportion of their orthographies than do Chinese and Japanese but are mutually unintelligible. If you would hesitate (as you should) to have a Polish native speaker translate from French to Turkish, you should think twice before you give a Japanese-to-English translation assignment to a broker who will send your document (usually unbeknownst to you) to a broker in China that uses native Chinese speakers for that Japanese-to-English translation task.

Having a human translate between two languages that are both foreign to the translator is perhaps only very slightly better than using a machine translation system, which has no human language as native and actually understands nothing beyond use of an algorithm designed to mimic translation as done by humans, and those systems are not even good enough at that task.

Myth Nine:  But the Chinese translation brokers surely use translators educated in the West who speak fluent English. How do you know? How does even your US translation broker know (see Myth Seven)? It is much more likely that the translators used by the Chinese brokers subcontracted to by the major US translation brokers for Japanese-to-English translation have scant opportunity to even travel to an Anglosphere nation or to Japan. That, combined with the inherent vast distance between Chinese and Japanese languages spells trouble, and we have seen that trouble arise in some horrific translations of discovery documents that have been spirited away by US translation brokers to China for Japanese-to-English translation. The poor quality of these translated documents often comes to light in depositions. For example, when an attorney presents a document to Mr. Tanaka and asks “Mr. Tanaka, when you wrote XYZ, …” but it turns out that Mr. Tanaka wrote—and the document says—nothing of the sort, the attorney is likely relying on a mistranslated Japanese-to-English document. But quality is not the only problem with allowing US translation brokers to subcontract to Chinese brokers.

Myth Ten:  Your translation company signed an NDA or a subscription to a protective order, so you need not be concerned about security. In cases in which not only the primary party bound by the NDA or the like but also entities it subcontracts to are disclosed and accessible to you, this might work. But the presence of two layers of overseas parties (the Chinese broker and a translator they use) beyond your US translation broker seriously hinders the effectiveness of such an NDA, which becomes nothing more than a security blanket. If something goes wrong, remedies are going to be difficult, short of not using that broker again. But why do you need to be concerned about security regarding Japanese discovery documents for litigation translated into English in China? People wondering about this should look at the considerable number of Chinese entities involved in litigation with Japanese entities.

The above should make it clear that a bit more thought needs to be given to selecting and believing the claims, implicit or explicit, made by translation providers. In general, a smaller translation provider will more likely involve fewer of the above surprises than a high-volume translation broker of the type that does most of the discovery document Japanese-to-English translation in the US. The buyer still needs to beware.