It would make it the 28th year; man, that is such a long time!!! The fact is, this is the first time that I am seriously wondering whether it still makes sense paying them about 200 dollars a year …. for what?

I did pay them a lot of money over the years mostly because I used to believe in the ATA.

In any case, I believed that it was better to have the ATA than nothing. I wrote several article for the ATA Chronicle about 10 years ago, and I was mildly surprised when they published them in spite of my anti-corporate-agency streak (only a mild one, I tried to control myself back then).

I was also one of the authors of the Patent Translators Handbook which was published by the ATA in 2007. I did all of that in my free time without any compensation, of course, because I thought that I was doing something useful, although some of it was obviously crass self-promotion. But every time when I receive a new copy of the ATA Chronicle, as I did today, the only real benefit of ATA membership for me, I just keep turning the pages looking for something worth reading and I consider myself lucky if I find a single article in it that I am interested in reading.

Lots of ads from SDL Trados, every translator’s favorite computer memory tool. Lots of offers of job openings for translators with the National Security Agency. Lots of cute graphics taking up half a page. Not a lot of interesting articles.

That thing is definitely not worth two hundred dollars a year.

Maybe the problem is that after almost three decades, I finally outgrew this organization as it seems to be more and more geared only toward people who those of us who already are translators, or at least who have been translating for a while, refer to as “newbies”.

Just look at the promotional video from the last ATA Conference. Newbies, newbies, newbies …. and buddies. Tool bar with vendors of tools – here’s your chance to buy SDL Trados if you don’t have it yet – and we’ll give you a great discount if you buy it right now!

Or I could do yoga right there at the conference, or something that looks like yoga. They seem to be calling it “chikan” (probably Chi Kung in Chinese) in the video, which incidentally means “groper” in Japanese. I remember “chikans” groping petrified Japanese “office ladies” in crowded metro trains from the time when I used to ride the metro to work in Tokyo in mid eighties, one and half hour each way.

The fact is, I hate yoga or anything that even remotely looks like yoga. I tried it once in Prague, I think it was in 1979, to please my then-girlfriend who was crazy about yoga. She used to stand on her head for 15 minutes to get the right amount of blood circulating through her brain. Her face was flushed and looked so lovely after the exercise! But when she saw the expression on my face after my first session where there were only like two men among like 30 women, she wisely never mentioned yoga to me again. Standing on her head like that must have been really good for her brain.

Or I could do a Latin dance called Zumba at the same conference for translators. How exciting! Maybe that’s what I need to break the tedium of my unfulfilled life of a lonesome translator. They even showed a couple of guys with a moderate beer punch in the video not to discourage male translators from attending the next conference, I suppose. A guy with SDL Trados sign around his neck describes “Zumba” experience thusly:”I zig when I am supposed to zag, and I zag when I am supposed to zig”.

Lot of invaluable information for translators, both about Trados and zigging and zagging.

Towards the end there is a “brainstorm networking session” about a fictional guy called Ernesto, (wasn’t there an Ernesto in Sesame Street too? Maybe they could try using Cookie Monster at the next conference, he was by far my favorite), who has a big problem because he can’t finish a translation on time? OMG, that sounds so interesting!

And they end the highly educational video with this joke “What do you call a fish without an eye?” (It’s fsh – OMG, that so funny)!

No mention of a single issue that translators who are not necessarily newbies might be interested in throughout the entire video. Judging from that fact that things like corporatization of the so called translation business, predatory agencies, commodification of translation, pressure on rates from machine translation, “fuzzy matches” and “repeat words”, competition of near-slave labor from third world countries …. none of that was even hinted at in the video, these subjects probably did not exactly feature prominently in the discussions.

After watching the video, I am glad that I did not go.

The only other benefit of ATA membership is that you get listed in the ATA database of translators. Most years I used to get a few small translation jobs from that listing, but I cannot remember a single job coming from the ATA database this year. I did get some offers, but only from agencies that wanted me to take a test or some such nonsense. So I did not bother replying. In any case, since only translation agencies know about this database, it is really only useful for translators who aspire no higher than to work only on the translation agency plantation until they die of old age or starvation, whichever comes first.

I have noticed that many if not most old timers that I met over the years in this country were not ATA members. Being an ATA member does not seem to be a very cool designation if you are an experienced translator, with some exceptions. Some hate the organization for reasons that I can understand, some for reasons that I don’t quite understand, and some just gradually gave up on it.

Maybe it’s finally time for me as well to say goodbye to the ATA after 27 years, especially since being listed in their database is unlikely to have any effect on my income. But I am not sure yet what I will do, that is why I wrote this post. Old habits die hard and inertia is the most powerful force in the universe. I think I have until the end of January of next year to send or not to send in my 200 dollars. It’s like Social Security, if you miss a year, you can just reenroll next year if you want to.

What do you think I should do? Is the ATA still relevant to translators who are no longer newbies and/or who don’t necessary want to be buddies to translator newbies?

If you let me know what you think, I promise that I will consider your advice very carefully, provided that it is offered sincerely, with good intentions, and with no malice in heart and mind, either towards me, or towards the American Translators Association.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 22, 2014

If Necessity Is Mother Of Invention, Simplicity Is Father of Common Sense

As I keep reading about nifty and inexpensive accounting software and translation management software packages, perfectly integrating the workflow of tasks and invoices in a small translation business, which are developed with small translation enterprises in mind and cost only a few hundred dollars for a yearly subscription, I thought I would the let the world know about my secret weapon in the daily battle for management of incoming and outgoing invoices of my translation business.

For about 20 years now I have been recording incoming and outgoing jobs in a slim, yet quite spacious daily diary called THE ORIGINAL DIARY (since 1812) from Letts of London, product code 11Y, the cost under 30 dollars. They come in three colors, black, brown, or if you are feelings frisky, you can also order burgundy. Last year I went with burgundy, this year I think I will go with brown. I never order black, although they did send me a black diary once by mistake and I hated them for it a whole year.

I note checks that I am sending to translators at the bottom of the page in my Letts of London diary, and of course I also print out invoices and keep them in file folders, plus I have copies of all invoices on my hard drive on several computers.
So that’s the classic triple-entry bookkeeping method that has been used by the greatest minds in the accounting profession for several centuries right there.

I generally have to correct customers who use expensive accounting software when they send me the wrong amount several times a year. Last month, for example, one customer who paid me 1,074 dollars for a whole bunch of small translations, although according to my Letts of London daily diary, product code 11Y, they should have paid me 1,247 dollars. Oh well, somebody entered the wrong amount into the software package, hence the error. I charge 3 cents more per word for Japanese, and they entered my rate for European languages. They will reimburse me next month, as they generally have quite a bit of work for me most months.

Due mostly to accounting software errors, some customers sometime miss an invoice, sometime they pay me less, and sometime they pay me twice. And sometime they pay me in Euros instead of dollars … and sometime I let them know about it – if I like them. Hey, it’s not my fault if they use some stupid software that can’t tell Euros from dollars!
It has been my experience that people who use sophisticated accounting software are prone to making mistakes like this … mais moi, jamais!

I realize that my accounting system is not ideal for the corporate type of translation agency, but then again, Gott sei Dank, I am not a corporate translation agency.

I am certainly aware that a simple system such as mine has its limitations. A few months ago I was working on a project involving translations of dozens of sets of patent claims from 4 languages into English. I was translating the German and French claims while working with translators who were translating Chinese and Korean claims that I was then carefully proofreading.

The problem was, the client wanted to have a separate invoice for each family of documents, and as I said there were dozens of families – some with only 1 document, some with as many as 5 documents in 1 family. At first, I messed up the numbers of the families of documents on my invoices and also in the file names.

The client was really mad at me, and justifiably so. When he called me on the phone after the first batch of translations was delivered, he was practically livid! Listening to his complaints, I felt like a retarded child who almost set a house on fire, although in my defense it is only fair to say that every of the documents that was sent to me was delivered simply as an e-mail attachment (the law firm evidently never heard of zipped folders), so that there were many such e-mails that I had to fish out one by one from the rest of the stuff in my mailbox and then save while making sure that I don’t delete accidentally a precious file along with numerous junk e-mails.

I felt pretty bad …. until he ended his almost completely uninterrupted complaint with these words (and I am quoting him word by word):”The good news is, the translations were very, very good” (he used the word “very” twice).

Fortunately for me, I got the hang of it and found the right procedure for proper identification of documents from the second batch of the documents.

As long as I printed everything out, copied all the relevant information on top of the page, and then put physically each family of the documents in a separate vanilla folder where all the relevant information was correctly recorded on the jacket of each file, I was no longer making any mistakes because everything was triple checked. A second batch of documents came and went to the client without an angry customer’s phone call, and then a third and a fourth. And then another lawyer from the same firm called to inquire about my rates saying that I was recommended to him by this client who was at one point very, very angry at me (but apparently only at first).

Simple, inexpensive solutions are often more effective and always less expensive than flashy, complicated ones.

My cell phone is another case in point. I have been using iPhone for 2 years until my contract with the phone company expired in January of this year. I really liked the phone, but I stopped the phone services because I realized that I don’t need to pay over a hundred dollars for a phone that I use only occasionally outside of my office since most of the time I am stuck working in my office. The phone was promptly confiscated by my son whose own iPhone had a cracked screen.

Instead of an expensive monthly plan phone iPhone, I now keep my old Blackberry in my car so that I would never be stuck without a cell phone. It came in very handy for example when I needed to call my insurance company when I got a flat tire a few months ago. But my current phone plan only costs a few dollars a month as I add dollars to it every three months when I need to add more calling minutes.

If I need data, mostly to check my e-mail out of the office, I use my iPad with the first 200 MB of data that is offered free of charge by T-Mobile to customers on its network. So far I had to purchase additional data for my iPad only once because things like e-mail and car navigation do not eat up a lot of data provided that you download the map of where you want to go while you are still connected to WiFi before you leave.

I believe that is important be a discriminating customer when it comes to extremely sophisticated and very cool technical solutions that are offered to us by people who are so good at selling stuff to other people that they could sell refrigerators to Eskimos and sand-making machines to Bedouins in Sahara.

The simplest solution often works the best and it is always cheaper once we realize what it is that we actually need.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 18, 2014

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Corporate Translation Agency Model


In an exchange of messages on LinkedIn in which several translators and owners of small agencies were expressing their opinions about why is it that low rates for translation seem to be more prevalent these days than just a few years ago, people mentioned factors including low barriers to entry both for translators and agencies, the fact that translators in Third World countries are happy to work for what would be considered starvation rates in countries with a high cost of living and high taxes in the Western world, negative influence of fraudulent concepts called “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” brought to us courtesy of greedy agencies wielding “indispensable tools” like Trados, etc.

Disadvantages of the Corporate Translation Agency Model

One owner of a small translation agency, who had many interesting contributions, said the following:

Steve – I’m guessing if you’re paying just over 10, let’s say 11, you’re then proofreading those translations yourself, right? I’m only asking, because proofreading usually costs at least an additional 3 euro cents per translated word, or is charged at a rate of at least 30 euros an hour (for German), so then you’re onto at least 14 as your variable cost. Now, I assume you don’t have a team of project managers to pay, plus rent, plus upkeep on dozens of machines, and software systems, plus electricity, telephone bills and – very significant – cost of sales (i.e. marketing-agency costs, website maintenance plus a business development manager’s salary to pay), not to mention a management team, because if you do, you will then need to charge the end client at least 25 euro cents per word (and more like 30 if you want to make a decent profit) – and, if you can charge that, and still get plenty of business, all I can say is “congrats”.

I believe that this particular participant in the discussion identified in her short contribution, (168 words if I don’t count my name), several of the main disadvantages of the large, corporate translation agency model, when we compare it to the traditionally small translation agency or to an individual translator who also frequently functions as an agency, which would be my case.

Of course I proofread myself translations that were done by other people for me. I don’t need to hire a proofreader because unlike most translation agencies, I only deal with languages and subjects that I understand, at least to some extent.

I mostly subcontract to other translators translations of patents in languages that I don’t translate myself. But even when a customer sends me a patent in a language that I don’t know myself, for example in Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, or Chinese, I believe that I am a much more competent proofreader of translations of patents from these languages than a proofreader who would be paid 3 or 4 cents by a typical translation agency.

For one thing, I know a lot about patents because I translated my first Japanese patent more than 27 years ago, and in addition to thousands of Japanese patents, I translated over the years also many patents in different fields from other languages, including German, French, Russian, etc.

Anybody who knows several languages can understand to some extent text in a related language, which means that if you know French, you can follow a translation from Spanish or Italian if you already have an English translation, if you know German, you can do the same with Dutch, etc.

I can also read to some extent Chinese because I studied it, as well as classical Chinese, which is really how classical Japanese was written, when I was very young and thought in my youthful naïveté arrogance that I would be able to learn both Japanese and Chinese at the same (it took me a few months before I realized that I’d better concentrate on Japanese only if I really want to learn it), etc.

One of the advantages that multilingual translators who handle project in multiple languages have over non-multilingual translation agency owners and project managers is that they don’t have to rely on other people because they know exactly what they are doing. And when they do rely on other translators, they know ho to pick them.

It might be perceived as an unfair advantage from the viewpoint of a corporate translation agency that handles every language and every subject, as well as interpreting, subtitling, transcreation, sign language (maybe even exotic escorts if the price is right?) …. but, hey, nobody said that life was supposed to be fair!

As far as the other expensive items mentioned by this commenter in the discussion are concerned (a team of project managers to pay, plus rent, plus upkeep on dozens of machines, and software systems, plus electricity, telephone bills and – very significant – cost of sales (i.e. marketing-agency costs, website maintenance plus a business development manager’s salary to pay), not to mention a management team) – small agencies and translators such as myself are not burdened with a team of people who need to be paid, usually a pretty penny. They generally do not have a team of sales reps, management consultants, accountants, lawyers, business plan developers, marketing propaganda specialists and other necessary ingredients of what the corporate translation agency model is based on these days, as it is a business model that is based on everything else but knowledge of languages. People who run a small and highly specialized translation business only have to pay translators, albeit often before they get paid themselves, and sometime even if I they don’t get pay at all, for instance if a company goes bankrupt on them.

Careful as I try to be, it did happen to me a couple of times already.

I think that the biggest disadvantage of the corporate translation agency model, if we compare it to the traditionally small translation agency model, is that most of the money that clients pay for a translation project goes to completely monolingual people who do not in fact participate at all in the translating or proofreading work. It was also mentioned in the same online discussion that in the typical corporate translation agency model only about 25 percent of the cost of the translation in fact represents the remuneration of the translator, the rest of the cost is due to all of the extraneous expenses mentioned above. Extraneous, but very necessary in a translation agency model in which the actual translator is considered less important than the other constituents of the business model, which is why the translator is paid so little.

When an agency says on its website “We have 3,000 (5,000, 15,000, the numbers keep going up) translators in our database”, they are probably not lying. They really do have that many people captured in their database, although they probably have no idea how good these translators are – how could anybody possibly know that about so many  translators? But they do know which ones are willing to work for half of what other translators would charge because that is what people are willing to pay them in a different model in which the emphasis is on the translator who is perceived as the actual creator of the value.

In other words, in the corporate translation agency model, the ancillary, and in my opinion mostly parasitic occupations, parasitic because they were not needed until the emergency of the large, corporate translation agency model, do very well in this arrangement, while the compensation of translators is cut to a half or less.

Advantages of the Corporate Translation Agency Model

Just like McDonalds, Wendy’s or Ruby Tuesday restaurants have advantages over family restaurants, the corporate translation agency model also has some advantages over smaller enterprises. The main advantage of the corporate model is that it can tackle mammoth projects that must be translated within just a few days or weeks.

I described a project like that in this post a few months ago. This is probably not something that a small agency could do on its own, although many small agencies are often also drawn into these projects as I write in my post linked above. You do need a network of many project managers who can activate dozens of translators to start working immediately on these Kamikaze missions.

On the other hand, the quality of such translations will generally vary in the range from OK to really bad, and quite a few “translators” will just try to run everything through machine translation and then edit it so that it would look like human translation. In fact, one of the clauses in a contract related to the Kamikaze mission linked above, which was sent to me several times although I did not ask for it, prohibited the use of machine translations and stipulated that if such use is detected, no payment will be provided.

Large companies of course have a lot of advantages when it comes to financial resources available for things like advertising on Google, but that does not mean that a small, highly specialized service cannot compete in this area.

If you have a well chosen domain name and the content of your site is clearly relevant to a search on Google, your site will be probably listed among the first few hits on Google and other search engines even if you don’t advertise at all. Even a modern behemoth like Google must serve its customers relevant information instead of just advertising propaganda if it wants to survive.

The example often cited to buttress the alleged superiority of the corporate translation agency model is that of a manual that needs to be translated into 24 languages. This is something that is in fact suitable for the corporate translation model. But if a corporation needs to translate a lot of manuals into many languages, constantly and on an ongoing basis, would it not make more sense to create a specialized in-house translation department for that purpose?

Call me biased, but I can’t think of many advantages of the corporate translation model when it comes to the value that customers get for their money.

Nevertheless, some people working in a large corporation may be more comfortable working with a similar model also when it comes to translation. But not all, because I myself have been over the years and still am working also for several large corporations.

At least when it comes to technical and patent translation, I believe that working directly with translators and ignoring the large corporate translation model is a common occurrence, probably because the customer, usually a patent lawyer in my case, realizes that the success of his mission is quite heavily dependent on the quality of the translated materials.

The quality of translation has everything to do with how competent is the translator in a given language and field, while it has essentially nothing to do with any of the necessary elements of the corporate translation model such as a team of project managers, advertising managers, a team of sales people, marketing-agencies, website maintenance specialists and various other business development managers, which is where most of the budget is spent in the corporate translation model, instead of spending most of it, or at least half of it, on a highly educated, highly competent and highly experienced translator.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 15, 2014

Translation As Therapy Or Torture


Contrary to the infamous German words Arbeit macht frei (Work Makes [You] Free) that used to welcome new arrivals to concentration camps, work does not exactly have the power to make us free. These words mostly just reflect a certain kind of humor, or even philosophy, one could say, of what was supposed to be the master race.

Work does have the power to make us who we are. Interesting, useful work requiring our best manual and intellectual skills distinguishes what humans can sometime do so well from what animals are usually not capable of, if we discount a few notable exceptions in the animal world, such as how birds can use their tiny beaks to build complicated nests for themselves and their young, or how beavers can combine their sharp teeth with advanced engineering skills to build formidable dams.

Rote and useless work, work that demeans us and turns us into human robots of the kind that Charlie Chaplin poked fun on already almost a century ago in his film “Modern Times”, has the opposite effect. Instead of liberating us, it enslaves us. To this translator, so called post-processing of machine translation (“a useful skill” in brand new concentration camps for translators) comes to mind in this context.

Under the right kind of circumstances, the act of translating can be therapeutic and healing. Under the wrong kind of circumstances, the act of translating can be pure torture.

The problem with any intellectual activity is that it is not necessarily available to us on command. A bricklayers can probably mix mortar and put layers of bricks on top of each other until his muscles ache and the entire body becomes too tired, generally regardless of his mental state. But translating is different. Whether we are doing a good job or not such a good job depends to a significant extent also on our mental state.

I don’t know whether a chef in a famed four star restaurant must be in a creative mood to create culinary masterpieces in his kitchen. I suspect that it is in fact a necessary preconditions for chefs too, although cutting up celery and onions can probably be done while daydreaming about something else, such as getting another raise in pay, or reuniting again with a long-lost love.

It is not a good idea to daydream while translating. Teenagers should not be texting while driving, and translators should not be daydreaming while translating. They must clear their mind of all unnecessary ballast and concentrate on the task at hand, which may be simple at times, but quite often unexpectedly formidable.

We need to be in the right kind of mood to translate, or at least to do it well. When I am ready to work, I love it when I can start hitting the keyboard to transform words written in Japanese characters or in Cyrillic into words that will make sense in another alphabet to people speaking another language.

And I hate it when somebody is telling me that I have to start translating right now to finish the translation as soon as possible.

That is when translation becomes torture. Unfortunately, when so many people want to have our translation yesterday, torture is often a part of life for most translators. Some translation agencies emphasize and praise their own amazing capability to do the seemingly impossible when hundreds or thousands pages are translated “by teams of translators” in record time to the full satisfaction of a grateful client.

It is not that difficult to organize agony en mass by dividing a long document into smaller portions in order to feed them to hungry translators, and then cobble together a linguistic sausage that resembles a real translation from the tortured pieces of texts produced by people who may or may not be very good translators.

The results of this approach to translation or to any kind of other creative work do not vary. The results are always really bad. But in the corporate translation agency model for mass production of units called words, this does not matter very much. It may take years before a client realizes that a translation agency is constantly producing mostly garbage.

Although torture through translation may be the new normal in the bulk translation market of the corporate model for production of translated words, there are things that we as translators can do about this problem.

The best thing is clearly to try stay away from a business model in which translators are thought of as a multitude of interchangeable cogs in machinery designed to maximize profit for the owners of the machine.

The next best thing is to refuse to accept work from clients who are constantly hitting us with unreasonable, inhumanly short deadline.

And if a very short deadline is unavoidable in a true emergency, translators need to charge significantly higher rates.

If we dare to do that, we will be tortured much less frequently, and we will probably also be healthier and may even live longer.

Work does not necessarily makes us free. Nazis pretended that this was the case, and so did the Communists, although it was clear to everyone that it was just a joke. The lack of respect for privacy, dignity and creativity of workers may be one of the reason why the Thousand-Year Reich lasted only a few years and Soviet Union only a few decades. Which makes me wonder how many years are there still left for corporatism. Not too many, I hope.

Some type of work may make us feel free, but everything depends on what kind of work it is and in what kind of environment we are working.

Because work does have the power to make us who we really are: free people who are doing willingly something that they are really good at, or slaves.

Posted by: patenttranslator | November 13, 2014

So This Is How They Do It


As I was taking a well deserved nap yesterday afternoon after several hours of heavy-duty translating (I need to do that at my age now just about every day), my phone rang and my Panasonic phone announced in a genderless, computerized voice “CALL FROM SKYPE”. I have a talking phone, a source of constant entertainment to me because I get a kick out of how it totally mispronounces everything, but not in an accent of any recognizable human language.

It was a man with Russian accent who called himself Chip, an unusual name for a Russian, who said that he was calling from a translation agency in London, England, called Travod and that he was eager to help me out should I be in need of assistance with a translation project in any language. His English was pretty good, although he was obviously just reading something from a sheet of paper, and his accent was not very strong, although I found it really strange to hear a Russian man pronounce the word “patent” in British manner (in England it rhymes with latent).

So to get back to my nap as soon as possible, I told Chip to go ahead and send me an e-mail with a price list for his company’s translation services. Incidentally, I could not get back to sleep after that, but I am not really mad at Chip, I know that he just does what he has to do to get by.

Anyway, if you are curious as to what was in the e-mail that Chip who bravely makes cold calls to what he thinks are translation agencies and then sends them e-mails sent to me, here it is:

Dear Steve,

Following the phone conversation I had with you today, I am sending you an email with the details of our company to see if there is any way we can become a strategic partner in translations for PatentTranslators.

Please note that we do translations in over 130 different languages and we work with more than 2500 freelancers all around the world. All our translators are native speakers of the target language, and have a minimum of 5 years experience in translating. Whenever you get big and urgent projects hard to complete or you don’t have a specialist to translate for a specific industry or language, you could assign the whole translation project to us (translation + editing + proofreading + DTP if needed).

Here are some examples of our discounted rates for translation:

European and Scandinavian languages to English = 0.11 USD/Word; Proofreading – 0.05 USD/Word

German, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Finnish, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, Danish + other

Asian languages to English = 0.11 USD/word; Proofreading – 0.05 USD/Word
Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Mongolian + other

African languages to English = 0.11 USD/word; Proofreading – 0.05 USD/Word

Of course we do handle much more languages besides those listed above, it would be my pleasure to assist you on any future inquiries.

I can send you few names of some of our biggest customers, agencies that constantly use our services – The Big Word, Transperfect, Translate Plus UK, MCIS Canada, Turkish Translations Office Turkey, Fox Service Czech, RWS Group, CTS Language Link etc.

Attached you can see our regular rates, for your consideration, but of course I am opened to give you discounts up to 40% for larger projects and long-term partnerships that definitely should make you happy working with us.

Looking forward to hearing back from you.

There was also another sheet attached listing rates for about 60 languages, all hovering around 11 cents per word.

Chip, Sales Manager, Travod International.

Note: Certificates and reference letters proving the experience available upon request. Translators ready to start immediately if necessary, TRADOS or other related software available.


Travod is clearly created from two words: the first word is the first part of the word “translation”  and the second part is the end of the word “perevod” which means translation in Russian. Very clever. Another blogger wrote an interesting post about Travod last year called “Travod and how to win your client’s trust: nice pics of skyscrapers, dogs and a few phony addresses”, so I think that I will end the post here, especially since I have to translate a Japanese contract that I haven’t started yet although I need to finish it by tomorrow, and then something from Czech followed by two patents from Russian.

Incidentally, according to the post from Translation Ethics linked above, Travod pays to its translators under two Euro cents, which is why and how they probably still make plenty of profit even though they just work for other agencies rather than for direct clients.

But I am wondering, didn’t these fairly large and fairly established translation agencies, as far as agencies go, that are listed in Travod’s e-mail make Travod sign a confidentiality agreement prohibiting disclosure of any information relating to the work that Travod is doing for them, such as the fact that these translation agencies send their translation to some guy who may or may not be located in England, but probably lives and works mostly in Moldavia where the cost of living is much lower?

And since Chip is so cavalier with this kind of sensitive information about these translation agencies, who are his dear clients but who probably don’t want anybody to know that this is how they handle translation projects these days, what happens to even more sensitive information of the clients of these translation agencies contained in the documents that they sent to Chip for translation?

Who knows how many people in how many countries will have access to the information contained in the often highly confidential documents being translated by the crème de la crème of these corporate translation agencies who can’t seem to resist getting a really great deal from a subcontractor like Travod, who in turn may be sending the translation to yet another subcontractor in a country where living and labor costs are even lower than in Moldavia, perhaps in China or India?

Oh well, as long as the end client makes the first subcontractor sign a non-disclosure agreement, the first subcontractor makes a second subcontractor sign another non-disclosure agreement, and the second subcontractor makes a third subcontractor sign yet another non-disclosure agreement (if there is a third subcontractor), I am sure everything will be just fine.


In the last two posts on my blog I briefly summarized the developments in translation and in the translation business in the last 10,000 years or so, or how these developments appear to me in the first decade of the twenty first century. In this post I will describe a few striking features of the development in the history of translation at this point in time.

Disappearance of Barriers to Entry into the Translating Profession

During the last 10,000 years or so, before wireless access to Internet became almost as commonplace as access to breathable air, there were certain important barriers that both translators and translation agencies had to overcome to be able to compete and deliver the goods. For example, translators working on patent translation before the Internet had to have a very solid knowledge of another language, they had to know something about the relevant technology, and they also had to understand the concept of patent terms such as “claims” and “prior art”.

These barriers to entry into the translating profession were useful because they kept people who could not overcome them as they lacked the necessary skills away from the field of translation.

Although translation agencies did not necessarily need to know much about languages, and most still don’t, a few decades ago they had to invest at least a modest amount of money into the infrastructure and logistics of their business. In the pre-Internet age, they also needed to know something about running a business in order to run a “translation business”. But since Internet lowered the requirements for entry both for translators and for translation brokers into the “translation business” to a minimum in the twenty first century, the barriers to entry into this particular business for translation brokers have basically disappeared.

Theoretically, anybody can be a translator now. When everything is highly automated, theoretically, you can become a translator even if you don’t really know anything about anything, even if you don’t know any foreign languages. If you don’t understand something, an instant answer is just a mouse click away on Google, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo, and you can use Google Translate or another free machine translation program and then lick the result into shape so that it would look like a human translation.

And what is the main, or in fact the only requirement for a translation agency at the beginning of the twenty first century? That’s right, you need to have access to Internet. You don’t have to pretend that you know a foreign language, nor do you need to waste money on office rent or on impressive stationary. All of that is so twentieth century now, if not nineteenth century.

A website that can be maintained very inexpensively will do just fine if what you want to do is run a translation agency in the twenty first century.

Thanks to the Internet, hundreds of thousands of translators (or people calling themselves translators) joined grizzled veterans in the translating profession who used be able to translate before there was Internet, incredible as it sounds. And thousands of big and small “LSPs” (Language Services Providers, which is the preferred term used by translation agencies now to disguise their intermediary role) are now operating as translation agencies on a worldwide scale on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, the only continent where access to Internet is still restricted.

Emphasis on Business Aspects Rather than on Skills and Abilities of Individual Translators

Because on the surface it would seem that everything that has anything to do with translation has become trivially easy, unlike in the past centuries and millennia, the emphasis has shifted in the twenty first century away from the abilities and skills of the human translator and in a certain segment of the translation industry, called “the bulk market”, the business aspects are much more important than the education, skills and abilities of human translators.

This, to me, is the main difference between the last century and the beginning of this century.

At least when one looks at the business model of the corporate type of translation agency, the emphasis is clearly on the business side of the “translation business”, rather than on the education, experience and other qualification of a human translator.

In the corporate translation business model, translators are no longer perceived as colleagues and sometime even friends of the people who are running the translation agency. For one thing, translators deal with project managers (PMs) who keep changing because they are generally young and poorly paid, and in any case there is very little direct interaction by phone between a project manager and a translator as just about everything is done by e-mail.

The particulars of every translator, most importantly the rates the translators are charging, are captured and kept in a database and in order to find the cheapest available translator, project managers often send the same missives of mass e-mails with the same job offering to a number of translators. Whoever responds first with the lowest rate will get the job. The project managers don’t really know what are the strengths and weaknesses of individual translators who to them are just interchangeable items in a database.

The translators are also often forced in the bulk market to adapt their own business model to that of the translation agency, which includes even the invoicing method. Instead of being allowed to issue their own invoices, they have to learn and struggle with the software that various translation agencies maintain online for this purpose, and they are thus obviously also forced to accept the payment terms of the translation agencies. While in the last century, translators would generally not have to wait longer than 30 days to get paid for their work, payment in 30 days net is being stretched to 45, 60 or more days in this century.

The agency thus does not need to invest any of its own money to pay translators who can expect to be paid only once payment has been received from the agency’s client. And since large corporate clients of translation agencies also often stretch the payment terms to translation agencies as their business is based on the same corporate business model, the translator who did all of the translating is usually the last person to get paid because he is at the bottom of the pyramid in the bulk market.

Another striking feature of the bulk market is that several middlemen often participate and need to take their cut first as they are inserted between the translator and the end client.

Millions of Words Translated in a Few Weeks by Nameless and Faceless Translator Drones

I will illustrate this mechanism on what happened to me personally about six months ago when I received an e-mail from a translation agency that I used to work for back in early nineties of the last century when it was a small startup. Back then they paid decent rates and on time. Once, when they did not pay me on time and I complained about it on Compuserve (an online discussion group for translators popular about twenty years ago), the owner called me to assure me in person that the check was being sent by Federal Express.

I stopped working for this agency about ten years ago when it became just another corporate behemoth displaying all the typical characteristics of predatory bulk market agencies. But they still sent me a number of e-mails informing me about “an exciting opportunity” to participate in a project involving several million words that had to be translated within a very short of time. I seem to remember that five million words was mentioned at first, which then grew to twenty million words to be translated in about one month.

I did not take advantage of this “exciting offer” because the agency was on my list of agencies best to avoid. But soon I was besieged by e-mails and telephone calls about the same job from many other translation agencies, from California to Massachusetts, as well as from foreign countries from Holland to Singapore, acting as subcontractors for this particular translation agency who were desperately looking for Japanese translators. To be able to work, I had to stop answering the phone and let the answering machine deal with these incessant phone calls.

It goes without saying that millions of words cannot be translated in a few days if a certain minimum level of quality is important. Because it would be difficult to organize and manage such a project, no translation agency would touch it with a ten foot pole a decade or two decades ago.

But Internet changed also the perception of what is and what is not possible in the bulk translation market. Although there are clearly not enough translators on this planet who can translate competently millions of words from Japanese to English in a few days, there are enough warm bodies on this planet who are willing to participate, for a price, in such an “exciting opportunity”.

Projects like this, when enormous quantities of words must be translated within a very short period of time, are in fact the holy grail of the bulk translation industry because they are extremely lucrative. A large percentage of the resulting translations will be of extremely poor quality, but that is not important as long as the person sitting on the top of the pyramid can make a killing in a few days.

When major banks and large Wall Street firms triggered off a worldwide economic crisis in 2008 with a business model that was based on fraud: namely on selling of mortgages to people who could not afford them, illegally certifying them as “AAA quality loans”, chopping them up and mixing them with mortgages created in a legal manner, these august financial institutions in the end had to be bailed out by taxpayers because they were “too big to fail”, which translated into English means that they owned the politicians who forced the taxpayers to bail them out.

I don’t know what kind of crises the translation market is facing now given the business practices prevalent in the bulk translation market in the twenty first century. I do know that even the largest translation agencies do not have the kind of power that large banks multinational corporations have over politicians in this and other countries.

But I do know that economical survival will be becoming more and more difficult for translators who hitch their wagon to the bulk segment of the translation industry.

Fortunately, the bulk translation market segment represents only one part of the market for translations. In more specialized segments, for instance in technical and patent translation, which is what I do, but also for example in translation of financial or advertising texts, etc., the situation is quite different from the bulk translation market.

Quality Is Still Important in the Specialized Translation Market

In these and other non-bulk translation segments, quality is still paramount. You cannot file patent applications that are based on mistranslations, and you cannot sell to customers whatever it is that you want to sell them if you are using poorly translated materials.

It is also generally much easier for translators who specialize in a non-bulk translation field to work only for direct clients, or for direct clients and for a few translation agencies who also specialize in a few given fields. That is what I have been trying to do for the last two decades. It seems to be working for me, and I hope that it will work also for other highly specialized translators.

I do expect a major bursting of the bubble in the corporate business model of large translation agencies at some point soon as clients will be increasingly moving away from poor quality that is necessarily generated by the “Kings of the World” in the translation industry who can translate millions of words within a few days.

I don’t see the politicians forcing taxpayers to bail out CEOs of translation agencies when the bubble bursts in the bulk translation industry the way they forced us to bail out the banking industry in 2008 and then the private health insurance industry (with Obamacare in 2010).

Unlike the banks, major corporations and private health insurance industry, the bulk translation agencies simply don’t have the kind of money that is needed to buy politicians these days.


As I wrote in my detailed, scholarly analysis contained in my post “History of Translation During the Last 10,000 Years According to Mad Patent Translator, Part I – Early Beginnings”, there were several important milestones in the development of commercial translation and of what later became known as “the translation business” during the last 10,000 years, such as translation of the Bible by St. Jerome towards the end of the fourth century and invention of movable printing plates by Johannes Guttenberg in 1465.

In the second part of the twentieth century, translation has come of age and became an important business thanks to technical means enabling dissemination of translated information by the communication means of the last century: typewriter, copier, telephone, and fax. This particular stage was described in some detail by James F. Shipp in his guest post on my blog “Brief History of Russian-English Translation in America”.

Translation became an important and fully commercially viable service in the twentieth century because it was translation that made timely information that was originally contained only in a foreign language accessible for all kinds of purposes and to all kinds of people: from generals designing plans to attack and invade a foreign country, to doctors who needed information on new and effective medications, and inventors who were hungry for information about improved design of the latest bread-slicing machine.

Two groups of business-minded people, who eventually became translation brokers called “translation agencies”, noticed that the value contained in “simple” translations of written and interpretations of spoken words can be relatively easily monetized, e.i. purchased at a relatively low price from (other) translators and then resold at a significantly higher price to what is in the business parlance called “direct clients”.

One of these groups of translation brokers consisted of translators who in addition to a translator’s mind also possessed an entrepreneurial mind driven by logic and experience. Unfortunately, this seems to be something of a rarity among translators.

The people in the second group, who also figured out how to make a living by selling translation produced by people called translators, could be described as pure entrepreneurs who were often completely or almost completely monolingual, often unabashedly and proudly so, especially in English-speaking countries.

In the second part of the twentieth century, the translating business was typically driven by the translating entrepreneurs who started a small translation agency. Most of these small translation agencies that I used to work for in nineteen eighties and nineties were people who also translated in addition to being translation brokers: I used to work for several German translators, several Japanese translators, one French translator, one Czech translator, etc.

Translators who work for translation agencies today mostly have to deal with project managers (PMs) who typically do not understand the languages that they are parceling out to their far-flung network of translators and who do not specialize only in a certain translation field either because the agencies that they work for claim to be able to deliver perfect translation “in every field from and into every language”.

In the last century it was much easier to communicate with the people who were running translation agencies back then because as translators or former translators, the people who were managing translation projects were usually able at least to read to some extent the source texts and then send them to translators who in fact did specialize in a given field.

In the last century, project managers who were also translators were also able to tell a good translation from a mediocre or bad translation. For the most part, this is no longer true either.

When an English-speaking project manager who works for the modern, corporate type of translation agency, usually a young person working for a low wage, sends a text for translation from Japanese, Russian, Korean or Chinese, or even from a language that is more accessible to Westerners, such as German or French, (s)he is usually unable to understand anything in the text in the foreign language. And once a translator who is not exactly experienced in a certain type of translation says yes to a complicated job in an unfamiliar field, the result may be quite ugly.

But of course, it will be the translator and only the translator who will have to bear all of the blame if an irate customer protests that that translation is unusable.

Back in the last century, project managers and owners of translation agencies not only knew something about the product they were selling, e.i. foreign languages, they also provided a useful buffer between a direct client and the translator, a human buffer who often got pummeled from both sides as the agency tried to serve both sides as best as possible.

Today, the agencies still try to serve their clients, but they see themselves mostly as bosses of inept, bumbling and unreliable translators who must be ruled with an iron hand. This is evidenced by long, one-sided “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that nowadays often have almost nothing to do with “non-disclosure” of confidential information of end clients as they are often used mostly to define the role of translators as serfs who must be made to obey their masters.

Back in the last century, translators were able to exchange jokes with people who were running translation agencies about things that only translators would understand and friendships that were established between these translators and the people who were running translation agencies, usually owners of a small business, would sometime last for decades to the benefit of both the agency and the translator.

The translators depended on the agencies for a constant supply of reasonably well-paid work, and the agencies in turn were able to trust the translators to supply them with translations that were likely to please even the most demanding customers. It was not a bad arrangement as far as division of labor is concerned because each of the two parties was able to concentrate on what they were really good at.

Back in the last century, many if not most translation agencies tried to compete mostly based on the quality of the translation instead of competing mostly on price: among other things by forcing translators to provide discounts for “repeat words and fuzzy matches” that are not necessarily passed on to direct customers, by outsourcing translations to third world countries where labor is incredibly cheap and then setting the low rates as the going rate also in Western Europe, America, Japan, or be creating new, ingenious schemes aimed at getting around the high cost of human translation with “post-editing of machine translations by humans”, “crowd-editing”, or similar brainless schemes based on the theory that pretty good translations can be obtained not only from talented, highly educated and experienced translators, but from just about anyone who may claim to be “bilingual”.

The price has obviously always been very important because contrary to the new, revolutionary theories cooked up by the modern, corporate type of translation agency in the never ending chase after higher and higher profits, human translation is a highly labor-intensive activity that can be performed well only by well educated humans and therefore it is never cheap – except when translation quality is unimportant.

But prior to the advent of the corporate style of translation agencies that are driven by maximization of profit and almost nothing else, maximum profit was not the only thing that was important – there were other also important considerations, and maintaining a good relationship with the best translators was a conditio sine qua non if the agency wanted to be able to compete in a market that was based both on price and on quality.

At the end of the twentieth century, change was in the air, for better for some and for worse for others.

Many changes would be gradually brought about by the emergence of Internet in many industries as a force that gives  a new lease on life, or kills, including in the “translation industry”. Some flourishing industries be would profoundly changed by it (e.g. music industry, book industry, movie theaters, newspapers), and some well established and highly profitable businesses would go bankrupt if they ignored changes inevitable due to Internet long enough (for example the tape and DVD renting business exemplified by the bankruptcy of Blockbuster a few years ago).

These changes would have a major impact also the relatively young translation industry or “the translation business” in the twenty first century, which will be the subject of my next and last post in this series.


Translation has always been with us, ever since languages were invented by people living in caves who discovered that it is much more fun to keep creating new words to communicate with fellow cave dwellers instead of just using a few grunts and hand gestures.

Different languages were thus developed by people living in isolation in different regions on planet Earth in the prehistoric age. Cave and hut dwellers were at first completely monolingual, although they were already able to communicate over relatively large distances by using a system of smoke signals, or drums called tom-toms in Africa, predecessors of more recent communication systems such as radio, Morse code, TV, Internet and car navigation.

A few thousand years ago, during Stone Age, Bronze Age, and even in Iron Age, being monolingual was not much of a problem because most people never met anybody who would speak a different language.

Neither was being monolingual much of a problem for instance for Vikings who did not need to learn another language in order to do what Vikings were so good at: pillage and burn down villages, kill the men, rape the women and steal everything in sight.

Many occupations and certain lifestyles thus did not require knowledge of foreign languages, which is true to this day. James Bond, who was very good at martial arts, shooting and driving very fast fancy cars, may have picked up few phrases in Chinese or Russian here and there, but he was monolingual for all practical purposes.

Larry Summers, former President of Harvard University, and former Secretary of Treasury, according to many one of the geniuses who caused the Worldwide Financial Crisis which started in 2007 and for all practical purposes is largely still with us, is also proudly monolingual, as I write in this blog post. This is not very surprising to me as he is coming from the same Anglo-Saxon tradition as James Bond.

However, being monolingual was a big problem already for intrepid travelers who dared to travel to far away destinations on horseback or on camelback, or to sail the sea on tiny and fragile wooden ships many centuries ago.

When the Italian explorer Marco Polo traveled at the end of the thirteenth century to Asia, he had to learn several languages, probably as many as four of them based on the spelling of foreign words in his book, a guidebook called in Italian “Million”, which is now more than 700 years old (Persian, Mongolian and Uigur, although scholars cannot agree on whether he also learned Chinese).

This guidebook served for centuries as a model for the way guidebooks should be written, whether the authors of modern guidebooks are aware of it, or not. One can see its influence for example in my favorite series of guidebooks called Lonely Planet Guidebooks, which served me well when I was planning my escape from America to Japan almost 30 years ago, and then again more recently when I was planning my escape from California to East Coast 14 years ago.

Of course, foreign languages were also learned by educated people in ancient civilizations, including in Greece and in Rome (although not so much in isolated, navel-gazing China or Japan). The works of Greek philosophers, playwrights and authors were studied by Latin writers and intellectuals in ancient Rome and eventually had a major influence on the birth of a cultural movement in Italy that became known as Renaissance.

Perhaps the best known translator of all times was a biblical scholar who was born in Dalmatia, whose real name was Eusebius Sophronius Hieronymus and who later became known as St. Jerome after he translated the Bible into Latin (which was not his native language as I noted in this post on my blog).

However, although translation has been with us for millennia, it was only after the invention of the printing press by the German inventor Johannes Guttenberg in 1440 that translation became a much more important means for dissemination of information than during the centuries when every book had to be reproduced manually by a scribe, often a monk who had to have a neat and clearly legible handwriting.

Technical translation and translation of patents, which is what I have been doing for almost three decades now, was not really required during the Middle Ages for two important reasons:

1. There was no patent system, at least not a unified and internationally recognized and enforceable system of patent rights, although some patents (letters patent) were granted locally to inventors in England already in the fourteenth century, in Venice in the fifteenth century, and in France in the 16th century.

2. The second reason why technical translation did not really exist during Middle Ages was that just about every book dealing with sciences such as astronomy, mathematics, botany or geography was written in Latin. Up until about the year 1500, Latin was the common medium for communication in Europe not only during Middle Ages, but in some cases up until the nineteenth century and beyond. Although I was born a few years after the Middle Ages, I had Latin for 3 years in high school and for 2 years at Charles University in Prague (where the language of instruction was naturally Latin when it was founded in 1348 by “the Holy Roman Emperor” Charles IV), which is clear evidence of how ancient I am.

As a teenager I even had a pen pal in Italy with whom I corresponded in Latin (her name was Antonia and she loved to dance), but that would be a story for another blog post.

Although Nicolaus Copernicus was fluent in Latin and in German, as well as in Polish, Greek and Italian (we don’t know whether he spoke German or Polish at home), he wrote his book called De Revolutionibus Orbium Celestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Spheres [or Bodies]” in Latin for obvious reasons. Had he written his boon on astronomy in German or Polish, the chances are that the Sun would have be revolving around the Earth, at least in the minds of his contemporaries, at least for a few more decades.

The logistics of what is now called “the translation business”, to the extent that it at all existed in ancient times and Middle Ages are not clear, although we do know a few facts here and there.

We know for example that St. Jerome worked for the pope when he was translating the Bible into Latin. It is likely that he had only one customer, namely the pope, for more than half a century, who probably paid his invoices on time and at a good rate too.

However, having only one customer is not something that I would recommend to a modern translator (unless your customer is somebody with pockets as deep as those of the pope and the translation is at least as long as the Bible).

Literary works were in more recent centuries often translated into other languages by writers who were fluent in more than one language, and it can be assumed that for example letters or articles and excerpts from foreign newspapers, to the extent that these things were translated at all, were simply translated by people who “knew a foreign language”.

A new profession of “a translator” was then slowly established sometime in the 20th century, when mass communications (telegraph, radio, TV, and most importantly Internet in the 21st century) completely changed, for better in some respects and for worse in other respects, the character and the nature of what later became known as “the translation business”.

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 27, 2014

Translation in a corporate era of productivity at all cost


Although the essay below by Kenneth Kronenberg, a veteran translator from German, is already a few years old, I decided to publish it (with his permission), sort of as a long guest post.

It is definitely worth reading in its entirety although it is about 6,000 words long, and I hope that it will provide much needed food for thought especially for young and beginning translators.


What is translation? What is a translator?
Translation in a corporate era of productivity at all cost

Question: Is there anything about MT that would enable translators to develop the higher skills needed to translate more demanding material?
Alon Lavie: I don’t think there’s anything; but I’m not sure there’s anything in TM either.

Good afternoon, I’m glad to see you all. Before I start, I want to congratulate the organizers of this conference for a job very well done. As former chair of the Conference Committee, from 1997 to 2003, I understand that what looks like a seamless production is the result of a group of dedicated volunteers endlessly sweating the details. I also know about the esprit that develops among members and about the glow of satisfaction after the event is done. I hope that some of you in the audience will consider joining the effort next year. I encourage you to give your name to one of the members of the Conference Committee.

I want to talk today about some profound changes in our field and the effects that they may end up having on us. And in us, too. I’ll introduce my concerns briefly here, and then I hope you’ll all join me in exploring these issues.

Over the last ten years there’s been an increasing emphasis on so-called “productivity” in translation. As translators are bombarded with calls to “get it in yesterday,” we are advised – sometimes essentially forced – to use technologies, particularly translation memory tools, that streamline and standardize translation “output.” My concern is that if we adopt these “productivity” values thoughtlessly, we risk adopting along with them a drastically narrowed view of ourselves, our work, and our potential. These tools take control of the translation process out of our hands and place it in the hands of others. They are the face of corporatism in translation. They encourage us to make the demands and pressures of the corporate marketplace our first concern, and to place them ahead of our own satisfaction, creativity, and development. This kind of tunnel vision threatens to turn translation into a sterile technical exercise – a personally meaningless task that affords less and less emotional or intellectual pleasure.

Furthermore, to identify too closely with the needs of our corporate clients ultimately sets us up for lower pay. Corporations are really good at centralizing control of work processes to reduce costs. This is the value of translation memory tools for agencies and their corporate clients. They speed up and standardize output in the interest of reducing costs.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with reducing costs, but I find it hard to imagine that these savings will come out of anyone’s pockets but ours. Especially as more and more translators trained in TM come out of the translation programs that have been set up throughout the country. A bit more on that later.

I am not saying that there is no good in these new technologies. I do think, however, that we shouldn’t adopt them, or the values they embody, thoughtlessly. If we want to be sure that we use them to our advantage, not someone else’s, that we are their masters and not the other way around, we have to make ourselves aware of the risks they pose.

Let me take a moment to remind you of exactly how un-narrow a phenomenon translation really is. In fact, translation is one of those fundamental processes without which life is impossible. Every stimulus from the “real world” that comes in on us is filtered through countless translational processes within our sensory organs and eventually in the brain. It is only through translation that patterns of sound and light can be comprehended as speech or writing or painting or movement. The processes are so seamless that we mostly take them for granted, but without them, there is no meaning.

We are constantly translating and being translated, internally, too. We are the result of countless acts of transcription, coding, and decoding carried out at the nuclear level – translational processes that are fundamental to life itself. And comparative studies of identical twins, fraternal twins, and unrelated children raised together and separately have demonstrated just how formative they are of our physical, emotional, and intellectual makeup.

This awareness that we are always translating, that translation is universal, has lately become something of a commonplace. But it is less commonly recognized, although equally true, that translational processes are not only the result, but also a primary cause of who we are. They define us. They shape who we may become.

Now, most of us here today are engaged in one particular form of translation: the rendering of communications from one human language into another. And as hard as it may be to convince our clients of this, we all know very well that this entails a good deal more than taking a dictionary and swapping out words. I think it is no overstatement to say that good translators bring their entire persons to the task. Our innate genetic predispositions, our experiences, the work habits we develop over a lifetime – everything in us goes into our interpretations, as does the sensitivity to language that we train and refine by practice and study. This is the vision that I think translators need to keep in mind, but that I fear is threatened.

Here’s an example. I will be using my own stories throughout this talk, because I’m the only translator I know from the inside out. But you probably all have similar stories of the ways your lives and experiences have impacted upon your work (and vice versa), and I hope you’ll offer some of them to enrich our discussion later. In the meantime, here’s one of mine. For many years, I made my living translating medical papers, patents, and other documents, and whatever else came my way. As a sideline, I developed a fair amount of skill in reading 19th- and 20th-century German handwritings, which enabled me to translate correspondences and diaries for private clients.

It was in that context that I first became aware of the interaction between the translator and the person “being translated.” About 15 years ago I was translating the letters of two brothers who emigrated from Germany to Missouri in the 1840s, and wrote copious and fascinating reports of their lives for family and friends back home. I became aware of a feeling that I was seated in the writers; that I was channeling them, giving them voice. The result was a translation that was widely reckoned to be lively and engaging.

Several years later, however, this method was put to the test. I undertook to translate 400- plus letters written in the 1880s to a mother in Germany by her 19-year-old daughter, who was working as a governess in Constantinople. Identifying with adventurous young men was one thing, but what on earth did I have in common with a teenage nanny? As I embarked on the huge task I wondered where it would take me. But as my relationship with the writer developed, I found myself accompanying the young woman on her errands, consoling her when she worried about being a 21-year-old “old maid,” and even reading the romantic potboilers with which she entertained herself after work, like Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris. She commented several times that those letters home were her diary, that she was confiding in her mother. But I, too, became a recipient of her confidences, and I responded to them. Returning some of the letters to the owner one day, I asked for a color Xerox of the young woman’s portrait. Wagging her finger at me, my client said, “Now Ken, don’t you go falling in love with Marie. She’s been dead for more than 60 years!”

I’m not sure about the falling in love part, but my discerning client was absolutely right that I was intensely engaged with my subject. The question of where her voice stopped and mine began is a very interesting one that bears on a lot of translation issues, but I’m not going to touch it today. I will, however, say that this identification with the voice of the writer has always felt right to me. I became increasingly comfortable with it over many experiences like these, and if I can be said to use a particular translation method, that’s what it is. It’s that depth of engagement that makes translation so rewarding for me. (Incidentally, that’s Marie looking over my shoulder in the photo in NETA News.)

And it applies to less dramatic tasks, too, which I’ll illustrate in a moment. There is something profoundly transformative about translation. The process changes us. Every act of translation, if we are lucky, leaves behind it a “residue” of experience and comprehension that fuels the desire and the capacity for more. This is why translation is a creative pursuit, and why what we do can be “our work” instead of just “a job.”

This is true of any skill that a person pursues seriously and in which experience is exercised and compounded over many years. And this transformative quality in good translation work is why I’ve never been able to convince myself of a hard and fast line between what is called “literary” translation and the translation of the technical and other workaday documents that most of us engage in. Clearly a Toyota manual makes different demands on a translator than does a novel or a poem. But every document is produced by a person who, to one degree or another, brought his life experience to the production of it. At least until recently. As such, every document is an entrée into a world of human experience. The deep engagement and linguistic finesse that characterize literature can be found in surprising places, and – as anyone who has ever been disappointed in a book can attest – it can be missing in surprising places, too. The voice and substance of the author, and therefore of the translator who conveys them, are not relevant only in so-called “literary” works. Optimum translation of any document requires that the translator be able to recognize the different kinds of engagement that different documents demand. Even a laboratory SOP that sets out the procedure for moving from a dirty room to a clean room can be clearly written and psychologically perceptive. Or it can be junk. And our appreciation of the difference is literary.

To give a more specific example, I once translated an expert testimony in a patent infringement case. I never fully understood the particulars of the case, although I had a grasp of the technical vocabulary, which was not all that extensive. But the testimony was written in such a way that I could follow a complex argument from thought to thought over fifteen pages. I felt as if I were on a tightrope. If the author abandoned me, I’d fall into the abyss and might have to admit that I was translating over my head. But he didn’t abandon me. By the time I reached the end, I knew that I had nailed that translation. And as I thought about the experience afterward, it occurred to me that perhaps this was one way of recognizing first-rate expository prose of a certain sort – that it could be followed and translated even before it was fully understood. The writing was so crisp, the grammar so precise, the transitions so logical, that all I had to do was go willingly along.

A translator who does not appreciate the difference between good writing and bad, between solid writing and sleazy, will not produce an ideal translation of either – and, again, that appreciation is essentially literary. Refining our capacity for appreciation makes us better translators; it’s one aspect of the residue that I’ve been talking about. That attorney was a terrific writer. And he, too, added to the creative residue at my disposal.

A few days ago, I finished translating for Stanford University Press No Justice. Nowhere., the diaries of Willy Cohn, a German-Jewish teacher and historian who chronicled the progressive constriction of Jewish life in Breslau from 1933 until just days before his murder in 1941. A far cry from patent translation, it would seem, and indeed these writings involve looser – though not less demanding – modes of translation and a very different sensibility. Still, when Cohn explained a theoretical idea, I felt myself shifting into something akin to patent gear. I know where I learned that voice – from dozens of patents, and from that lawyer. That’s what I mean by residue. Translation muscle gets built up when something stretches us; once we have access to that residue, it can be used for purposes for which it was not strictly intended.

These are my stories. But I imagine that most of us have had experiences of being taken beyond the translation at hand to a place where we had to step back and appraise the voice of the writer or the quality of the writing. Perhaps some of us have even found ourselves now and then forming in our minds some piece of a personal theory of translation. These experiences should not be discounted; appreciation and theory-making are among the hidden pleasures of translation, whatever we are translating, and they enable us to grow into our craft. When we lose that expansiveness, we lose our creativity and our freshness.

So. What does it mean that translators are increasingly being urged to be more “productive?” …and that TMs promise to increase productivity by reducing “redundant” effort in the translation process? As I’ve said, that promise is very attractive to agencies and the corporations who engage them, and TMs have won great acceptance as a result. It’s an attractive promise to us, too. Certainly we want to work efficiently. We have a vested interest in making the most of work we have already done, and it’s very helpful to be able to organize our specialized knowledge and vocabularies into an easily accessible form. But when these tools achieve their efficiencies by weakening our grip on the translation process, it behooves us to be careful. One obvious example is the fact that when agencies mandate the use of these tools, it is often they, not us, who end up owning the translation memories that our work produces. But there are other kinds of control too. As soon as someone or something other than the translator can interject translation solutions – even if the translator is entirely at liberty to reject them, the translator’s own process has been interrupted or even hijacked. The question does not revolve, as some would have it, around which texts are suitable for TMs and which not, the real question has to do with the effects that these tools have on the mental habits of translators themselves over time.

Skilled translators, like all other skilled workers, evolve highly personal and sophisticated work and thought processes. These are interrupted when disembodied translation segments are introduced from who knows where. It’s one thing to build our own translation memories, freely following our own trains of thought and the voice and logic of the text.

But it undermines our process when we are constantly distracted by other people’s solutions. These may be good or they may be bad, but before we can make that determination we have to stop what we are doing to judge them. The very fact of stopping, though, undermines the efficiency that is the whole point of translation memory. So there is always pressure on us – more or less subtle – to accept what the TM gives us, especially if we are only being paid a percentage of our full rate. We also know very well that if we look at it long enough, even bad text starts to make sense. Eventually it becomes “good enough.” One of my correspondents, a teacher in a well-respected translation program, wrote to me recently, “It is like shoveling sand against the tide as translators (students, but professionals as well) simply get lulled into adopting the solutions proposed by the TM.”

This problem is now being acknowledged occasionally on professional forums. Even some proponents of translation memory tools have noted something of a deterioration in texts translated using TMs. I have heard this chalked up disparagingly to a lack of translator “professionalism.” But I think that this is a red herring, an elegant way of blaming the failings of the tools on the translators who are increasingly pressured to use them. We need to be wary of such self-serving explanations. In this case, there are far more cogent ones.

One has to do with morale. People are most engaged in their work when they feel that they matter. But translation memory tools are designed explicitly to keep the translator from mattering – to liberate translation from dependence on any one translator’s individual process and even on any one individual translator. To translation memory tools and those who mandate them, I do not matter. If my words and those of other people are interchangeable, how can I not conclude that I am interchangeable too?

And it’s worse than that. TMs tell us not only that we are interchangeable, but also that we ought to be. If translation output is increasingly going to be a patchwork of translation memories – that is, of many translators’ contributions – a distinctive individual voice is more of a liability than an asset. The technology itself works to homogenize diverse contributions. It suppresses the individual realities of the participating translators. In this way it undermines optimum translation, and it is not hard to see why it can never achieve the richness of individually crafted work. But it is disingenuous for proponents to call that the translator’s fault – it is the inevitable result of a depersonalizing technology.

This confronts translators with a personal dilemma: If speed of output is everything, if words are commodities to be swapped and sold, there is no point at all in developing our own translation voice. But if we don’t develop that voice, then what? Do we spend the four or more decades of our working lives filling in other people’s blanks with little opportunity to develop and exercise our full, and most fulfilling, potential? Chasing one project after another, rushing to meet deadlines? Is that all there is? What – a – trap.

If I sound as though this really matters to me, it’s because it does. I spent my adolescence at a school in Switzerland called the Ecole d’Humanité. The Ecole was founded by the progressive educators Paul Geheeb and his wife Edith, in 1934, after the Nazis forcibly took over his first school, the renowned Odenwaldschule, in Germany. Rather than fire Jewish and socialist teachers, or compromise the school’s egalitarian and coeducational principles, the Geheebs left Germany and started over. The name of their new school was itself a direct challenge to the Nazis. The word humanité (in all its forms and in all languages that use it) encompasses all peoples, not just so-called Aryans.

If the school’s philosophy could be summed up in a single maxim, it would be “Werde der du bist” – Become who you are. We were constantly reminded of these words of the Greek poet Pindar, because they were woven into all aspects of the school. We received no grades; we wrote elaborate assessments of our own accomplishments in little green books, and our teachers did likewise. We had three hours of classes each morning; the afternoons were given over to theater, sports, and the arts. Each morning we peeled the day’s potatoes and vegetables, and we did most of the cleaning and maintenance ourselves. The school did not want to educate one-sided people, and a great deal of attention was paid to the particular needs of each student. When I arrived, at the age of 11, for example, I had no apparent knowledge of German. But the school knew that I had lived in Germany for a year when I was five. Their solution, and this was very typical, was to place me in a Latin class – in German.

My years at the Ecole had plenty to do with my becoming a translator. When I look back over my life, I can see just how firmly anchored that phrase from Pindar became, and how it guided my choices and thinking. And I know that many of you have had equally intense formative experiences with other languages and other cultures, and that those are what have brought us all together here today as translators.

TMs present another practical problem. Their characteristic segmentation of text interrupts flow. It discourages the translator from keeping the flow of the whole text in mind, and forces concentration on individual parts. This problem, too, is showing up on the forums, where some translators note that transitions tend to get lost, with an adverse affect on smoothness and sometimes even on meaning. Of course, such problems can, theoretically, be remedied in the editorial phase, but what is the point of building this feature in and then having to undo the results afterwards? And what is the cost of being endlessly jarred out of our own process and the flow of the text? What happens to our ability to appreciate the text?

Remember the expert opinion I mentioned before? The crisp and careful transitions in that piece were among the chief guideposts that allowed me to translate this unfamiliar material successfully. They were also what alerted me to the quality of the writing, which I then strove to emulate in my translation. I doubt that I would have picked up on those cues if I had been using Trados or Wordfast (the particular TM that I own). Instead of an expanding experience and a real pleasure, this assignment would have been just another job. Ka- ching! Next! That’s the commodification of translation in a nutshell.

Yes, it’s good to know that we can use these tools to develop our own translation memories and our own specialized vocabularies. And I would be the last to deny that help in avoiding dropped passages is a good thing. We translators with years of whole-text experience can probably find ways around some of the pitfalls I’ve been talking about.

Still, how do we inoculate ourselves against the dulling effects of broken-up material and the constant intrusion of outside solutions? Even skilled and sharp-eyed translators are not necessarily immune to that – or to the siren call of “productivity at all cost.”

But the rising generations of translators are the most vulnerable of all. Most of them have limited experience negotiating the linguistic oddities of different languages. They’ve had little or no chance to develop their own perspectives and their own voices. For translators growing up in the era of translation memory tools, this technology, and its outputs, will be the norm, especially now that translation programs across the country are under pressure to accept that norm as the new standard. I recently spoke with a friend, a translator and translation teacher who is helping to set up a new university translation program. I asked him whether they taught TMs. “The university really wants this program,” he said, “but it has to be self-sustaining.” This was a cryptic response, and I had to think about it. Then the light dawned. “Wait a second,” I said. “Do you mean that XYZ is paying you to use their tool?” “Something like that,” he said, suddenly reticent. We should all be concerned about this.

I don’t have much to say about machine translation. At the moment, even its most enthusiastic proponents claim that it is suitable only for certain easily controllable sorts of texts, and for gisting and some of the other things that Alon mentioned. But I don’t think that this is how it will work out in the real world. MT output may or may not ever meet the Turing test – that is, be indistinguishable from human translation. But it won’t have to. All that has to happen is for it to become just good enough to be profitable after post-editing. That “just good enough” may well become a de facto definition of acceptable translation. The pressure on us to do machine-driven work will be stronger than ever – and low post- editing rates will probably depress overall rates. Reassurances from the industry that this won’t happen are little more than anesthesia.

My own feeling is that translators should refuse to post-edit machine translation if at all possible. Not that I think we will stall the inexorable “March of Progress, ” but there is really nothing in it for us. How can it be in our developmental or financial interest to tidy up linguistic rubbish produced without benefit of a functioning human brain, mind, or spirit? We gain nothing from it intellectually or emotionally. There is nothing in it that develops our skills so that we can take on more demanding material. (This is what I was getting at with the question I asked Alon during his session. His candid response actually gave me more than I anticipated.) It will not encourage us to get under the text or gain an appreciation of an author – because there is no author. But that is exactly what will give us a decent living and a rewarding life’s work.

Because we do have to make a living, and this is getting harder. These are difficult times, and I don’t know a single freelancer of any persuasion who doesn’t live with constant insecurity. The pressure to “buckle down” and make a “decent living” feels overwhelming, and it’s hard to resist the temptation to do whatever it takes to make ourselves more attractive to the market and to get the work “done and out” as fast as possible. And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that – except that TM and MT don’t offer us security, and they never will. Translation rates as a whole haven’t risen in years; by anecdotal account they are actually dropping. If I am right about the trends I’ve been talking about, they will not be rising any time soon. Productivity tools will have played some part in that. And the interchangeability that I talked about will increase, making for even more psychological insecurity.

I have been fortunate in some ways. I grew to maturity as a translator when there was no serious pressure to adopt productivity tools, and I never had to worry about being a so- called “professional.” I have no children, and children are the weightiest of all financial responsibilities. Even so, I worry about money in a way that I didn’t before. I have declined to do TM work, and that has cut into my agency work. But I did this at a time when I was ready with alternatives. I was willing to make this leap because my work for academic publishers is so much more compelling, even though with all the revisions and extra work that such translation requires, the pay works out to about a third of my usual fee. But I have a few private clients who pay my full rate. And work on privately held letters and diaries – my preference when I can get it – pays very well too, although material like that is not always available. So I’m working toward an economic balance, a “business model” in which letters and regular clients subsidize my book translations. So far it’s working more or less well, if somewhat nerve-wrackingly. But it’s impossible to see around the next corner. The net I’ve cast is a somewhat narrow one, in part because I’m older and over time my interests have become focused. There are certainly much broader – and potentially more lucrative – waters for other translators to fish in. But we have to be willing to set out on our own and find them – no one else is going to look for them for us. Don’t settle for what falls easily to hand.

Most of us are going to have to engage to some degree with these productivity tools. Their use will probably become a necessary skill, a useful one to fall back on when more engaging and rewarding work isn’t available. But finding really good work in the usual places is not going to get easier. There are still agencies that remain uncomfortable with the implications of these tools and refuse to use them, but they will probably become fewer in coming years. For our own protection, at a minimum, we have to be realistic about the limitations and dangers of these new technologies and about their seductions. And we should not identify with the narrow vision of translation that emanates from corporations and translation-brokers. We have to find ways to reframe what we do to encompass all of what translation means. We have to seek out clients – private, academic, corporate, whatever – who know how to value what we do, and who give us work that we can turn into “my work.” Even when we do work with these tools, we mustn’t let them persuade us that a depersonalized involvement (which reflects the capacities of computers and the priorities of corporations) is the best we can hope for.

How do we break out of the trap? I can’t answer that question concretely, because that has to come from within each of us. But when in doubt I fall back on the principle of my school – Become who you are. Not an easy answer, but it does offer us a lodestar by which to set our course. Let me give one last example of the ways that a translator’s life and work can become creatively intertwined, and why it’s so important to keep a broader vision of translation alive against the corporate forces that would narrow it.

About 10 years ago at a book fair I found a slim volume titled Selbsterziehung zum Tod fürs Vaterland, Self-Education for Death for the Fatherland. The author was Udo Kraft, an “ordinary” German. The book was published in 1915, after Udo’s death, by his brother, Friedrich. These excerpts from Udo’s diaries and letters made my hair stand on end. They chronicle his unwavering obsession with dying in defense of the German Fatherland against its arch-enemy, France – and his bitter regret at having been born too late. In 1914, at the age of 44, he finally had his chance. He enlisted in the Kaiser’s army – and took a bullet to the head in the first action he saw. I decided to translate the book as a way of understanding Udo. But more than that, I thought that the close reading that translation makes possible might let me feel my way into the mindset that made World War I – and what came later – possible.

I translated the book. I also hunted for more information – any kind of information – about Udo. For several years I came up dry. After all, he was not a “notable” in any way. But, being who I am, I don’t give up easily, and eventually I happened upon a 12-page article about him in the journal of a small German town’s historical society. And in it I learned that his brother had taught at the Odenwaldschule, the original school established by Paul Geheeb, the founder of my own Ecole. Utterly astounded, I plugged “Friedrich Kraft” and “Odenwaldschule” into Google, and it was true. Up popped the Geheeb archives page on the Ecole d’Humanité website! Udo and Geheeb, it turns out, were cousins. They were both born in 1870. They attended the same university. For a time they were even members of the same dueling fraternity. They were close when they were young, and there was a fairly large correspondence between them in the archives. I had stumbled upon a dramatic, and very close-to-home, example of something that had fascinated me much of my adult life: the notorious split in the German character of that period. Here it was, embodied within a single family, in two boys who had grown up together, and one of them was a man I had actually known! In Udo could be seen the authoritarian, militaristic, and doctrinaire side of the culture; his cousin Paul Geheeb, who died at the Ecole in 1961, while I was there, was a German humanist and pacifist whose highest ideals were the poet Goethe and “Werde der du bist.”

In 2004 I flew back to my old school, to the one archive in the world where I, uncredentialed and unaffiliated, would not only be welcomed, but also fed and housed. I read the correspondence, which added immeasurably to my sense of the man. Then, in a wish to share something of the excitement that this chase and its results had engendered in me, and to encourage other such exploits in independent scholarship, I put my translation and the results of my research up on my website, under a Creative Commons license. I returned Udo to the public domain.

When Stanford University Press contacted me last year about translating the diaries of Willy Cohn, they told me that my listing on PEN had led them to my website. I cannot say with certainty that it was my translation of Selbsterziehung that made them choose me. But it was the website that told them what they needed to know about me and my work, including a translation done years earlier for my own purposes alone. That is what was there for them to see, and to judge. And what will happen once No Justice. Nowhere. is published? I have no idea, but I look forward to the next chapter of this unscrolling adventure.

As I said before, we are translating animals. What and how we translate defines who we are, and vice versa. In that sense, every translator brings his or her whole person to the task of translation. The task for each of us is to discover who we are, and to find work that engages us – every bit of us. We need to have and develop our own work – work about which we are so passionate that we are even willing to do it – at times – without compensation. Not because it’s a moral issue, but because that passion is what attracts others to us, and opens their eyes to what we can do.

I’ve told you something about the development of my own work and where it has led me. You’ve got your own stories, and they will be different. But I think we all know how much it matters to be able to say, “This is my work,” and feel on solid ground. Translators are individuals first, or they are not fully translators. To reassert the fundamental association of language, translation, and humanity is the only way to keep us from being sucked into a corporate vortex where our skills are little more than an instrument for someone else’s profit, and our unique voices are suppressed. It is those unique voices, and what we say with them, that connect us to other people and give life to what we do.

I have tried to place before you today a vision of ever deeper engagement, a translation model diametrically opposed to the depersonalized and ever more superficial corporate model of “productivity,” which can only separate us from ourselves. Even when we have to deal with that model out of necessity, we should never let it define us. We need to be looking all the time for new opportunities to use our skills, and to show the world exactly what they are – and who we are. That is how we can place ourselves in the way of work that is both rewarding and fulfilling.

To paraphrase Pindar, “Become the translator that you are.” – (And don’t get trapped in Trados!)

By Kenneth Kronenberg
Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution

-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0

United States License, 2011

Posted by: patenttranslator | October 25, 2014

What Do You Do When a Customer Suddenly Vanishes from Your Radar Screen?


It may seem very strange, improbable, and even incomprehensible, but sometime even an old and trusted customer may simply vanish into thin air like a plane that vanished from the radar screen of the control tower for reasons unknown and perhaps unknowable.

It happened to me this month, and it was not some fly-by-night operation that disappeared because the crooks did not want to pay. That, of course, happened to me a couple of times too, but that would be a different post. This time it was the patent department of a subsidiary of a large corporation that had been sending me long, juicy patents, my “meat and potatoes” kind of work, usually several times a month since they discovered my website in 2007.

I normally communicated with a secretary at the company who was in charge of translations only by e-mail. I would confirm receipt of new patents for translation and she would then confirm receipt of our translations, either the same day or the next day. I talked to her only a few times during the period of seven years. I had her telephone number and it was her direct line, but we only used the phone when something went wrong – once when the cost estimate for translating a number of patents was too high and the company decided to translate only claims instead, once when she did not receive my translation (their server must have rejected my file because its size was over the limit due to many scanned-in graphics – so I sent it as a PDF file instead of in MS Word).

Last month I translated three patents for them, one from French and one from German, and another one was translated by a patent translator who I generally work with from Chinese and I just proofread it.

So the company owed me about three thousand dollars for the month, out of which I owed about 500 dollars to the Chinese translator.

The secretary confirmed receipt of the first two patent translations – the Chinese and the French one, but not the third one which I translated from German. Oh, well, I thought, it’s Thursday today, maybe she is not coming to work until Monday. But when radio silence continued also on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday … and then the whole week, although I sent her three more e-mails and left two messages on her voice mail, I knew that something was wrong.

But what? My three e-mails asking for confirmation of safe receipt, not counting the original e-mail with the translation and invoice attached, should have been delivered since they were not returned. And every time when I called the secretary’s number, the recorded message asked me to leave a message, so the number was still valid, wasn’t it?

I try to have a backup plan for everything that can go wrong on my side. For example, because we sometime lose power here in Eastern Virginia when rains and storms topple trees and power lines, I have two corded phones in my house, one downstairs and one upstairs so that I would still be accessible by phone even if there is no power, and I can use my iPad as a personal hotspot for Internet if I lose power. I have of course several computers and printers and scanners so that if for some reason something goes wrong with one machine and there is no time to figure out the problem, I can just move the job to another machine to finish a rush translation on time.

But I had no backup plan prepared for something as unexpected as this. I went to the website of the company and called its main number, which gave me another recording. Option number 7 was to talk to an operator “in case of a real emergency”, but when I tried to talk to a live person in this manner, my call was disconnected after a few rings.

This happened three times.

Now I knew for sure that there was something wrong, not only with my contact person, but probably with the whole company.


About fifteen years ago an electronics company that owed me money for translation of a phone manual from German to English was bought out by another company. That was how I discovered that it is perfectly legal to buy only assets of a company without assuming any obligations for its liabilities. At least that was what a lawyer’s letter that I received instead of a check said.

And about seven years ago I lost about three thousand dollars for two long Japanese patents I translated for a translation agency in Belgium. What was their name …. can’t remember now, except that it was such a cute name. I did several translations for them on several previous occasions and they did pay me on time. But instead of receiving a transfer to my bank account for those two long Japanese patents, I received a letter in French from a bankruptcy lawyer instructing me on how to register my claim.

After I did so, the lawyer started sending me letters in Flemish to make sure that I would not be able to understand them. In a way I did understand – there was no way I would receive a penny from that lawyer.

So I know how these things go: when you least expect it, somebody hits you under the belt with a mighty punch that may knock you out, at least for a while.

I tried to assume a Zen stance to this seemingly intractable problem. It’s just money, I kept telling myself, and I really would only be losing the 500 dollars that I have to pay the Chinese translator out of my own pocket, the rest is basically the time that I spent working on two translations – for free.

Truth be told, I did not feel very Zen about it at all. But I could not think of anything else to do. Let’s wait and see, I told myself.

A week passed and nothing happened. Then another week passed, and still nothing. Then finally, at the end of the second week, there was a message on my old-fashioned answering machine (I use answering machines because I believe that they are more private than voice mail) from the elusive secretary who left her home number and her cell phone number for me to call her back at any of these numbers.

Man, was I glad to hear her voice after two weeks of waiting!

When I called her back, she told me that she did not get my third translation, or any of my phone messages and that the last translation probably disappeared into Internet’s black hole because the subsidiary was no more, her job was eliminated by the company and she lost access to her company phone line and company e-mail address.

She was basically forced to retire, she said, although she did not want to do it yet, because she loved her work and could not imagine what she would be doing without her job. But she was more or less OK with it, she said, and financially she was going to be OK. We chatted for a while, and she said that she had five grown children, so she would be probably visiting them a lot.

She did not sound very enthusiastic about it, I thought.

And then she said that her boss, or former boss, took her to a dinner before she was “eliminated” and one of the things he told her was to make sure to tell the translator who was translating all those patents for them all those years to contact him directly because more translation would be needed again. And she gave me the phone numbers and e-mails of two people in the company who were in fact the recipients of the translations.

“They really like your translations, so make sure to call or e-mail”.

After I did that and resent my translation of the German patent, the next day I finally had a confirmation that the third translation was received along with the words:”I too am sorry that [insert name] is gone, but I am pleased with your work and will send all future translations directly to you.”

It turns out that no matter what we do, we cannot have a backup plan for every eventuality because too many things are beyond our control.

I know now that in addition to trying to have a backup plan for every eventuality anyway, it is a good idea to have more than just one contact person for every customer. But in the end, the best backup plan is to do good work. There will always be a need in this world for people who do good work.

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