Just an Interpreter

Several years ago, when interpreting in a deposition in Osaka, the lead interpreter was having problems entering the US Consulate. It seemed that his name was not put on the list of people to participate in the deposition. While cooling my heels in the waiting area, the deposition-taking attorney brought the problem up to a Consulate person at one of the service windows. The exchange was an interesting look of the view of interpreters held by some people.

Attorney: “We have someone who has been told they cannot enter the Consulate and has been waiting for more than 20 minutes to get in.”

Consulate: “Which side is he representing?”

Attorney: “It’s not an attorney, just an interpreter.”

Right. Well, there you have it. Naturally, the attorney in question could not conduct his deposition without the interpreter, who was just an interpreter waiting to enter the Consulate.

You get what you pay for, and sometimes other people also get to keep what you pay for.

Law firms ordering translations from large translation brokers in the US should remember that they have essentially no control over who does their translations and in what country the translations are done.

Yes, the Internet is convenient and brings together supply and demand separated by great distances. But do you want your sensitive litigation or patent prosecution documents to be sent to China, to be translated by entities and people you (and often your US-based translation broker) can never know? I would think not, but many law firms using US companies purporting to do translations probably have no idea where their documents are being sent to be translated.

You might be receiving letters of accuracy certification attached to translations, but these are very often not signed by a translator and, when you see a translator’s name, we have discovered in numerous cases that it is a translator who had nothing to do with the translation or is a totally fictional name. In general, the person signing the certification letter is often a non-translator who has no ability to know or attest to the accuracy of the translation you were sold. It’s best you know what is going on after you place a translation order.

Avoiding the above-noted risk is not that difficult. One way is to engage with a translation company that actually does translations; most translations are done by a few large translation brokers that don’t do any translations. Your translation provider should also commit never to sending your documents to high-risk locations or to places that use translators that they cannot identify.

Don’t Interpret, Just Translate: Familiar Terms of Art for Some are Not so for Others

One day many years ago, I was interpreting in a deposition of a Japanese witness in the US Embassy in Tokyo. A question was raised about an expression I used in interpreting a response from the deponent. The expression I used was ultimately accepted, but during the discussion I happened to explain that “I had interpreted the expression ABC as XYZ.” Someone piped up in the room to say “Please don’t interpret, just translate.” This is a seemingly lost battle on the part of language service providers to have people understand the difference between translators and interpreters (and sometimes linguists). More on this elsewhere.

Depositions in Japan Remain in a Holding Pattern During the Pandemic

A recent check of the website for citizen services at the US Embassy in Tokyo and consulate in Osaka shows that reservations of deposition rooms are still suspended, with rooms unavailable until further notice. This has been the situation since the pandemic struck here and shows no sign of changing any time soon.

Options for parties wanting to take depositions of personnel normally resident in Japan include having the witness(es) leave Japan to be deposed, in which case attorneys and support personnel such as interpreters and reporters can either be at the location with the witness or participate online.

We provided interpreting services in just such a manner last year after the pandemic struck. Prepping was done online before the witnesses left Japan, after which the witnesses travelled to the US and the attorneys and support personnel were spread over several locations in Japan and the US. It worked quite well and eliminated concerns about having to be tested before leaving Japan (a non-trivial issue) and concerns about the return to Japan being troublesome because of possible quarantining.

Why Translation is not a Commodity

Some translation clients and many translation brokers, those companies that sell the bulk of Japanese-to-English translations outside Japan, appear to mistakenly treat translation as a commodity; step up and order 100 pages, much as you would order 100 barrels of crude petrol or 100 tons of wheat. Numerous translation brokers say that they have thousands of translators; one even amazingly boasts of having 194,000 “vetted” translators, whatever that might mean. Not much, I am afraid, beyond their expectation of a high level of credulity on the part of their target client demographic.

If the world of translation were to be like that, things would be much simpler. Alas, they are not, and things are not at all simple. The reasons are various, but let us focus on the ways in which translation is not the commodity it is too-often treated as.

There are no generally applicable metrics to judge translation quality. Unlike commodities, translation quality cannot be judged by standard evaluation methods. Whereas the chemical properties of petrol are definable and measurable, translation requires highly skilled translators, not only to execute the translations, but also to evaluate the quality of already-executed translations, be they the products of other human translators or the output spewed from a machine translation system.

Lack of ability to stockpile reserves. You can stockpile petrol. With translation, however, when highly skilled translators are not needed for one particular translation demand, they will migrate to other assignments. And companies positioning themselves as translation companies and claiming to “have” translators at the ready are guilty of more than just stretching the truth. In almost all cases those companies are merely purchasing translations from translators not under their control and will usually need to scramble to find a translator when they receive an order, because they do not and could not “have” a reserve of translators; and, of course, most have no translators of their own at all.

The translators producing translations for you are not interchangeable.  It takes many years to become a skilled Japanese-to-English translator; studying Japanese language in a university can be very valuable, but is rarely sufficient.

The translator not only must acquire familiarity with the source language far exceeding textbook learning, but also must acquire field-specific knowledge. That process usually takes years, and the above-noted 194,000 “vetted” translators have surely not embarked on journeys that would lead to such knowledge.

One translator cannot be dropped into a position of another to translate something outside of their field of expertise without risking serious quality problems. Translators are simply not interchangeable components in the translation process. They, like translation, are not commodities.

There is no manual defining the process of producing a high-quality translation.  People aiming at being translators can go to a university to learn a foreign language and even participate in a translation program and graduate with honors, but still be quite unable to master the skills required to produce high-quality translation.

As impressive as fluency in two languages might be, it does not make someone a translator. Translation is an essential skill separate from language fluency and must be acquired by translators, who are certainly not replaceable with translators who only know the two languages they purport to work between.

There is no assurance that a particular individual aiming at becoming a translator will have what it takes to succeed. Some people acquiring a foreign language will never succeed at translation. With due respect to professionals in fields such as law and medicine, the risk of failing is surely greater with translation than in those fields, particularly since, as noted above, there is no manual to describe definitively how to produce good translations. And, of course, there is a good amount of nature mixed in with nurture in the development of a skilled translator.

Translation is people.  It is as simple as that. There are myriad paths into the field of translation, but none of the ones followed by skilled professionals lead to—or should lead to—the position of being a commodity or producing commodity translations. Translation is much more complex and fraught with uncertainties than the translation brokers boasting of owning all the translators in the world would like you to believe. In short, translation is not a commodity.