Is There a Market for Post-Editing of Machine Translation in Your Field?

Greater than 7 minutes, my friend!

The argument that “GoogleTranslate” translates more words per minute than all human translators in one year is much bandied around as a rationale for why human translators must adopt machine translation (MT) as a tool for their own work not only in PR materials (commercial propaganda) of “the translation industry”, but now also on some translators’ blogs, usually blogs of former translators working for “the translation industry”, or of those who use their blogs as a marketing tool to attract newbie translators to their paid webinars and other offerings. 

This argument is usually accompanied by statements like these:

  1. The market for human translation and for MT is worth X billion dollars already and it is growing by X percent a year.
  1. Translators and “the translation industry” have already lost 99% of our market opportunity to Google and Microsoft.
  1. We, human translators, must embrace technology instead of stubbornly resisting it and use it to work faster because that’s what clients want.
  1. Technology is progressing so quickly that MT will be “almost as good as human translation” within (fill in a number of years). MT will be just as good (or almost as good) as human translation very soon (although estimates vary, from three to 20 years from now; there has not been not much change in this respect in the last two decades or so).

Et cetera, and so on and so forth – this kind of philosophical prognostication and prophesying has been going on for quite a while now.

All of these arguments are somewhat valid, as far as they go, at least from the viewpoint of “the translation industry”, i.e. the people who buy translations from translators and sell them at a higher price to their clients. “The translation industry” would obviously love to be able to gorge itself on a bigger piece of the pie, especially since it is such a huuuge pie, as Bernie Sanders would put it. (I think that it is important to make the distinction between actual human translators and “the translation industry”; that is why I always use quotation marks when referring to this particular industry.)

Like many other translators, I have been using machine translations as a tool for my own purposes – mostly to give me an idea of the material that I am about to translate – for more than a decade.

But based on the experience of this human translator who has been trying to figure out whether I can use machine translation to supplement my own income, namely income derived from my own human translations and from the work of translators who kindly work for me in exchange for the money I pay them (which also makes me part of “the translation industry”), none of the arguments listed above really makes a whole lot of sense.

First of all, it is clear to me that nobody can put a number on the “value of the market for translation”, whether it is human translation or machine translation.

If one looks at the constantly growing global population of people who need strong headache medicine because their life is constant suffering and pain, the market for Percocet, a strong, combined opioid/non opioid pain reliever, would be certainly on the order of several billion people, and thus could be valued at many trillions of dollars. And although different pharmacies and stores charge different prices, according to an answer that I found on Yahoo, Percocet costs about 300 dollars (I assume this is per bottle, not per pill, at least not yet). Unfortunately, this means that 99% of the people who might want to use it because their life is constant agony, torture and pain cannot afford it. In third world countries, it would be more like 99.99% of people who are unable to purchase this wonderful drug.

The high price of Percocet and other opioid and non-opioid drugs is thus probably why most people simply opt for booze.

The estimate of the monetary value of the worldwide market for human translation is similarly nonsensical if 99.99% of people who might benefit from translations can’t afford to pay for them. Since human translation, especially human translation obtained from highly educated and highly experienced translators, is very expensive, even many people who could afford human translation decide to do without it and opt instead for machine translation, or no translation at all.

And even though what passes these days for human translation, namely the stuff “the translation industry” is selling to initially unsuspecting clients, is somewhat less expensive, it is still expensive and will remain so no matter how many trillion words “must be translated”, supposedly because they are simply there.

The high cost of human translation is also one reason why “the translation industry” has been telling us for quite a few years now that the market for machine translation is worth X billion dollars and that Google and Microsoft have already captured 99% of this market while both translators and “the translation industry” were asleep.

But there is a good reason why Google and Microsoft have quasi-monopolized this market: the MT service provided by Google and Microsoft is free, unless you need huge quantities of MT, in which case the cost is still quite miniscule.

So how do we as translators compete on price with a service that has been free already for more than a decade as “translation industry” entrepreneurs?

I remember that about 20 years ago, when machine translation that almost made sense, at least some of the time, was still a new-fangled invention, a patent lawyer who found my website online called me to inquire how much would I charge to edit a machine translation of a Japanese patent for him. He insisted that the machine translation was “pretty good”, but that it still needed some editing. I remember that he said the words “pretty good” two or three times.

I declined to help him because I did not want to downgrade the value of my services to such a low level at that point, and also because I did not know what else to say and how much to ask for.

Ever since then, or for about 20 years, I have been intermittently trying to figure out how to use MT to actually make money by editing it as a highly experienced, human translator, knowledgeable in the field of patent translation, given that I have been working in this field for almost three decades. Specifically, I have been trying to figure out how to make money from MT not by working as a slave for a “translation industry” intermediary, but on my own, when I work for a direct client.

As you have probably guessed by know, even though I would find this kind of work quite distasteful, I will do just about anything for money.

But although I must have offered this kind of service dozens of times, so far there have been no takers. I don’t offer post-editing of MT detritus very often. But if I feel that the client is very “price-sensitive” (cheap, looking for a bargain), in order to get my foot in the door, so to speak, I sometimes offer several options to a new potential client:

1) A full translation (option A), which might be for example a thousand dollars,

2) Translation of claims and the text describing figures, which might be for example a hundred and fifty dollars (option B),

3) Post-edited machine translation (option C) for the same price as option B, usually if it has been a slow month.

This sometimes results in takers for option B, but so far, there have been no takers for option C. The problem is, basically all of my clients and even potential clients not only know how to get a free machine translation of the text of a patent, but they also know that edited machine translation would be of such a low quality that it still will not really be worth the money that I am asking for it.

Which does not mean that there is no market there for edited (post-processed) crap, which will still be crap, although on an improved level – we could call it high-grade crap.

But since my experience is basically anecdotal, it may be applicable only to the relatively narrow field of patent translation. There must be some materials that do not really need to be translated, but that could make managers of some enterprises look very sophisticated, value-conscious and forward-looking and all that if they could show graphs and flowcharts and other props showing how much information they have been able to obtain with translations at a very low cost.

Translation of materials that do not really need to be translated, but that might make management look good if these materials were translated, is probably the prime market for post-edited machine translations.

But is there a market for post-edited translations of patent applications? My experience so far seems to indicate that the market for post-edited translations of patent applications does not exist because these post-edited translations would need to be highly accurate.

For better or worse, there just does not seem to be a market in the field of patent translation for what one might call high-grade crap, or slightly less inaccurate crap, which would be the logical result of applying the MT post-editing approach to patent translation.

So since there does not seem to be an easy way to monetize post-editing of machine translations in my field, I don’t think I will worry about the fact that I am leaving 100% of the MT market to Google and Microsoft.

What about your field, dear fellow-translators? Do you think that there is a market for post-editing of machine translations in your field?

Steve Vitek

About Steve Vitek

Translation of patents from Japanese, German, French, Russian, Czech Slovak and Polish since 1987. Blogs at, website at

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