Baloneydar for Translation Consumers: Learning to Doubt the Extraordinary

The plethora of information in cyberspace has placed extra burdens on people seeking information and services. At a distance from consumers, it is easy for a translation seller to exaggerate or simply lie about capabilities and expect to get away with it a reasonable percentage of the time.

When the subject matter is widely understood, people who take liberties with the truth can be quickly discovered. When a non-specialist encounters narratives spun in totally unfamiliar fields, however, things get more difficult. This often happens with translation services.

Carl Sagan warned people to doubt extraordinary claims and to demand extraordinary proof for extraordinary claims. He proposed what he called a baloney-detection kit. Something of that should be useful for translation consumers as well. Here are some claims made by translation brokers that a well-tuned, sensitive translation baloneydar should pick up as being suspicious or simply deceitful.

We have 10,000 vetted translators! This is clearly nonsense. No translation company “has” anywhere near that number of translators. In fact, most translation is sold by translation brokers that “have” no translators. One translation broker, however, recently claims to have 194,000 vetted translators. Vetting even a tiny fraction of that number (or a tiny fraction of even 10,000 translators) is simply nonsense.

To start with, translation companies rarely have any more than a few translators themselves as employees, and even those translators might not work in the languages you need. As noted above, many have no translators, since they purchase and resell translations as opposed to executing translations.

The above claim is almost certain to be wrong in another way, because agencies claiming to have that many translators don’t even have the capability of vetting translators and evaluating translations themselves, these also being services that they must outsource.

We translate 150 languages! A translation seller making this claim might only rightly lay claim to undertaking to find translators of all those languages after they receive an order. Why after? Because translation sellers are not going to have or even know many translators working in that many languages.

The reality is that translation between about ten languages accounts for almost all commercial translation activity. The remaining languages are not commercially important enough to invest in human resources—or even outside contractors—to handle them.

Our linguists can handle any field of translation! This one is wrong in two ways. A claim of having linguists do your translations is simply wrong. It shows either a serious misunderstanding of what a linguist is, or a desire to inflate the title translator, which needs no inflation. Just as many translators might have taken courses in linguistics (in addition to language courses, which are totally different) but are not linguists, very few linguists are capable of meeting the needs of commercial translation. These are two completely different knowledge domains and skill sets.

In addition, claims of having translators at bay ready to translate subject matter in any field are not believable. If you doubt that claim—as you should—call the translation company and ask to speak to the translator specializing in your field. You will almost certainly not be put in touch with a subject-matter expert translator and, unless you are dealing with a small, specialized translation provider, you very likely will not be able to interact with anyone who is even a translator in the language pair you require.

We provide translations in 24 hours! There might be a grain of truth here. In fact, there might be more than a grain, but what kind of translation are we talking about? Achieving any two of the three goals of speed, quality, and low price is not that difficult or astounding; adding a third is extremely difficult and usually quite expensive.

The above are just a few examples of unbelievable claims. Similarly incredible claims are not at all rare. The key is to be vigilant and, perhaps more importantly, to actively engage with the entity you intend to purchase translations from, and remember that the low-tech telephone is an excellent tool to use in qualifying a translation vendor making extraordinary claims.

Resumption of Depositions in Japan?

The US Embassy in Tokyo and Consulate in Osaka have been unavailable for depositions for over two years.

Sometime back, the US Embassy hinted that very limited video depositions from the Embassy deposition room might be possible, but only with special Japanese government approval. It appears that this led some people to be unjustifiably optimistic about the resumption of depositions in Japan.

We have had a small number of approaches recently for deposition interpreting in Japan, but we have not seen any evidence that depositions are actually being scheduled for and taken in the deposition room of the US Embassy in Tokyo or US Consulate in Osaka, either by video with the usual participants present, or with the deponent alone.

Even as tourists are returning to Japan, US depositions still have not resumed here, and there is no sign as to when the new deposition normal will start.

A check of the website of the US Embassy in Tokyo reveals that it is still saying:

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related travel restrictions, in-person depositions have been suspended until further notice. Video depositions of witnesses located in Japan may be available on an extremely limited basis and subject to prior approval of the Japanese authorities. Japanese government approval is not guaranteed.

(From the US Embassy website)

Orthographic Diversity in Japanese: SNS and More

Just over a month since I left social media platforms (except for Microsoft’s LinkedIn, if that can be called social media), I find myself writing about the most commonly used Japanese word for social media, SNS.

Claims of the complexity of the Japanese writing system often cite kanji and the two sets of phonetic characters, katakana and hiragana. But the adoption of Roman orthography to write a limited set of elements in Japanese makes things even a bit more complex. SNS is a good example.

Yes, SNS is now a Japanese word that just happens to be written using Roman orthography. It is pronounced esu-enu-esu and means social media. To be fair, SNS is, of course derived from the English social networking service, but that phrase is much rarer in English than SNS in Japanese and is not understood by nearly as many native English speakers as Japanese who understand the Japanese word SNS.

The pronunciation of SNS as esu-enu-esu is now accepted, is used in countless media, and can even be seen on government websites. For example, on https://www.soumu.go.jp/main_sosiki/joho_tsusin/security/kids/sns/index.html, we find “SNS(エスエヌエス)を使うときの注意”

In its usage as a Japanese word, however, SNS is quite divorced from (and often not glossed by) its English origin, which is probably not understood by most Japanese speakers and users of the SNS as Japanese. It is used almost exclusively to refer to not the systems that provide social media, but to social media platforms themselves. I suspect that, asked about the meaning of SNS, many Japanese people would merely offer examples such as Facebook, Twitter, or TikTok, rather than providing the expansion of the underlying English expression or even offering ソーシャルメディア as the meaning.

You can find the Japanese term SNS sprinkled about in countless print/online news stories every day in Japan and hear it pronounced as noted above by news presenters.

The understanding here in Japan of SNS to be what is called social media in English is fairly well established. That said, Nikkei might not trust that understanding, as they gloss SNS with 交流サイト at almost every first appearance in news articles.

Another twist is that the adopted foreign (now Japanese) expression SNS finds use in a wider range of categories than the collective noun social media occupies in English. For example, people are regularly reported as having said things on “their SNS,” referring to their social media account. This use of the name of the whole to represent a part thereof is somewhat similar to the use of メニュー to mean an entire menu and also the individual items in/on a menu. An example is メニューが多くて迷う in a restaurant review website or 表示させたい画面のメニューをクリックしてください in a website, referring to single menu items corresponding to screens you might wish to display.

Upon its arrival in Japan, the initialism SNS was probably not sufficiently questioned by the authorities at its port of entry and has apparently stepped into Japan with its shoes on and been issued permanent residence status, although it arguably lives in the lexicographical Nishi-Azabu ghetto of borrowed foreign (and now Japanese) terms.

Japanese is rich in elements that look like borrowed English initialisms, which come in a variety of classes.

  • Totally bogus, in that they are romaji initialisms of purely Japanese expressions; for example, KY for 空気読めない, from which the essential negation of the ability to read (the room) is not even indicated in the initialism.
  • Initialisms created from single English words by Japanese imagining them to be two separate words; examples are IC for interchange and IF for interface).
  • Arguably valid English initialisms in Japanese that find use in real English but that are either rarely used or poorly understood by native speakers of English. SNS is good example of this class of Japanese initialism.

A Japanese-to-English translator needs to decisions when encountering such initialisms in a Japanese text. Knowledge of everyday Japanese (as opposed to what is taught in Japanese classes for foreign learners) and knowledge of what actually is used and works in English are essential in making those decisions.

Since new examples of these often-problematical initialisms pop up all the time and are often short-lived, vigilance on the part of the translator is essential. Keeping a constant eye on what is actually being used in both source and target languages will avoid errors in translations and confusion on the part of readers of translated texts.

Other articles directed at colleague translators at various stages in their development can be found on the parent website.

Would you hire this translator?

Imagine you have some important Japanese documents to translate into English. Further imagine that you have searched for a translation provider, and you have found one that boasts of having a translator who can handle your documents, who we will call Translator X.

Translator X is claimed to translate from Japanese to English with high quality and absolute consistency. But in the vetting process, several reasons for concern were identified.

One is that Translator X’s native language is neither Japanese nor English. In fact, because of X’s upbringing, X can claim no native language at all.

Another is that Translator X, as amazing as it might seem, has never lived in a country in which either Japanese or English is spoken as the native language and has never communicated with the natives using that language.

Yet another cause for concern is that Translator X has never held a real-world job other than translation of received documents.

And, as if the above-noted concerns were not enough, there is reliable evidence that Translator X has absolutely no understanding of the subject matter of the documents you need translated and is totally incapable of catching errors in a document being translated.

Perhaps, as the ultimate deal-breaker for mission-critical translations, Translator X is not legally competent to attest by a declaration to the accuracy of the translation they produce.

Would you hire this translator? Probably not. But if a translator such as this is acceptable, look to machine translation, because all the characteristics noted above are those of machine translation.