Where the devil…

by Translation Guy on January 27, 2010

Translation is a glamour business. I mean, language service providers have it all: easy money (so my clients tell me), the groupies (lots of resumes), hot linguist babes (by that I mean hot babes like my wife, who works in the next cubicle over and may even occasionally read this blog) and party central. Right, I’ve never seen such a bunch of drinkers as translators.

But despite all the high living, there is a fly in the caviar…


We have to check our work before we turn it in, just like homework. And then it gets graded, just like homework (if you are doing good validation).  We then have to fix it or argue about it. Definitely cutting into my jet-setting time. What can you do? That’s where the devil is, with the details. So that’s what keeps me up at night, because one mistake and you look like a dumb-ass.

So all too much of my glamorous lifestyle must be sacrificed to the search for error. Bummer… and double-bummer now that scientists are telling me that the fewer mistakes you make, the harder it is to find them. A recent study published in Current Biology found that when people looked for things that were rare, they weren’t all that good at finding them. It also turned out that the reverse was true: when people looked for something common, they often thought they saw it even when it wasn’t there.

“We know that if you don’t find it often, you often don’t find it,” said Jeremy Wolfe of Harvard Medical School. “Rare stuff gets missed.” People do send false alarms when looking for common items, but they don’t say “yes” faster; they say “no” much more slowly.

“When nothing is there, they don’t give up on the response,” Wolfe explained. “It’s all terribly adaptive behavior for a beast in the world. If you know berries are there, you keep looking until you find them. If they are never there, you don’t spend your time hunting.”

But that adaptive inclination in nature can cause problems when people start looking for rare things, like guns in baggage or breast cancer. Airport screeners know there probably isn’t a gun in your bag, and radiologists know that a tumor probably isn’t going to be there, but they really want to catch it if there is. “We aren’t well-built for that and make more errors than we’d like.”

I think it is a bit worse for words because identifying problem words is a lot more subjective than picking raspberries. Find a bad word, or two, and pretty soon all those words start to look bad, as the reviewer begins to develop a bad attitude towards the translator’s work; it begins to read like a machine translation by ‘bad’ word number three.

I am a beast in the world, looking for a needle(s) in a haystack(s). Get me Rewrite!


  1. Salem Alaton says:

    Into all this, I assume, you must also add a maddeningly elusive middle ground where the word or phrase is neither unambiguously error nor correct but subject to interpretive analysis on which client and translator may reasonably see matters differently. At the highest academic levels of linguistic erudition, after all, we come up with noticeably different translations of literary content. Surely some element of this difficult ambiguity pertains to the translator’s task when agreement on the mot juste is no less important to the job.

  2. Randal G says:

    Interesting thoughts Ken, I like your style

  3. Jenny says:

    Agreed, this isn’t the first post that I’ve read from you – you’re all over the net! I don’t mind though, your stuff is thought provoking and very intelligent. Kudos.

  4. Pat Berls says:

    Simple yet deep, I need some time to think about the devil in translation :-)

  5. Mark Demanno says:

    Yes, you translators are a rowdy bunch. I used to room with a NATO peace translator and he was an alcoholic…granted he was russion…

  6. Sasha says:

    You mean russiAn, ugh!

  7. Patrick says:


  8. Lucas says:

    Devil at a midnight mass…great song

  9. Hannah says:

    Agreed it’s a hit right noe, but has nothing to do with the post…I don’t think

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