Everyone who has a blog also has a list of links to fellow bloggers who are also affected by the blogging disorder and like to bring to some of us from time to time good and bad news, a bit of camaraderie and even inspiration on a good day.

Unfortunately, having a blog with links to other bloggers also means that you have to delete those links every now and then because people simply stop writing, for all kinds of reasons.

I discovered recently that translation blogs have already become a subject that is being studied and analyzed in translation studies at universities. Well, at least at one university, namely Aarhus Univesity in Denmark, where Helle V. Dam from the Department of Business Communications recently published an article titled “The Translator Approach in Translation Studies – reflections based on a study of translators’ weblogs”. You can read the entire article here and come to your own conclusions about the folly of blogging by translators (warning: it’s about 8 thousand words long, much longer than even the longest of my posts).

Instead of attempting to analyze an article that was analyzing a sampling of what 21 bloggers wrote on their translation blogs, I will use the Aarhaus University study of certain occurrences on translation blogosphere to illustrate another occurrence on translation blogosphere, namely the one expressed in the title of my post today.

The article took into consideration 20 translation blogs based on a sample of posts downloaded from these blogs in September of 2012, or about 2 years ago. Here is the list of the blogs, which were apparently selected kind of at random by the author of the article from a list of 158 translation blogs published by the American Translators Association:

Blog Author/blogger, Downloaded on (date), Number of posts

1. About Translation / Riccardo Schiaffino, 9/10/12, 10
2. Catherine Translates / Catherine Jan, 9/10/12, 4
3. Financial Translation Blog / Miguel Llorens, 9/10/12, 5
4. Musings from an overworked translator / Jill R. Sommer, 9/10/12, 10
5. Naked Translations / Céline Graciet, 9/10/12, 6
6. On Language and Translation / Barabara Jungwirth, 9/10/12, 7
7. Patenttranslator’s Blog / Steve Vitek, 9/10/12, 10
8. Thoughts On Translation / Corinne McKay, 9/10/12, 7
9. TranslateThis / Michael Wahlster, 9/10/12, 7
10. Translating is an Art / Percy Balemans, 9/10/12, 10
11. Translation Times / Judy and Dagmar Jenner, 10/10/12, 5
12. Translation Tribulations Kevin Lossner, 10/10/12, 2
13. Translationista / Susan Bernofsky, 10/10/12, 7
14. The Translator’s Teacup / Rose Newell, 10/10/12, 8
15. Fidus Interpres / Fabio Said, 31/10/12, 12
16. The Greener Word / Abigail Dahlberg, 31/10/12, 7
17. The Interpreter Diaries / Michelle Hof, 31/10/12, 3
18. Mox’s Blog / Alejandro Moreno- Ramos, 31/10/12, 6
19. Say What? / Alexander C. Totz, 31/10/12, 10
20. Words to good effect / Marian Dougan, 31/10/12, 14

In less than 2 years, about a third of these blogs either disappeared completely, or activity on the blogs became very scarce compared to the situation 2 years ago.

One of these bloggers, a very smart guy who used to make me laugh like crazy, died (Miguel Llorens, No. 3).

A good number of other bloggers who used to inform, educate and entertain me in their posts, generally several times a month, simply stopped writing, while others have not published anything in several months, or even close to a year.

Catherine Jan (No. 2), returned from Paris to Canada, got an in-house job and stopped blogging. On ne sait pas vraiment pourquoi.

Fabio Said (No. 15), the phenomenal blogger from Brazil who racked up more than 1.5 million views on his blog, is blogging no more, and neither is Abigail Dahlberg (No. 16), she of the Greener Word Blog.

I still drink my coffee in the morning from a cup decorated by cartoons that Alejandro Moreno-Ramos mailed to me all the way from Spain (or was it France?), but I have not seen any activity on Mox’s blog recently either, have you? Or could it be that my link is outdated?

Some of the bloggers still seem to be sort of alive on the blogosphere, but their last post is many months old, although they used to post quite frequently only 2 short years ago. I am talking for example about Céline Graciet, (No. 5), whose last post, ominously titled “Freelancers: should you be insured against loss of income”, is dated January 16, 2014. Maybe she became insured against loss of income and stopped working and blogging too for good measure. Or maybe she entered a convent somewhere in England and one of the obligations of her faith is that she must not speak to anybody, which would preclude also blogging. (I saw a talk show on German TV yesterday in which one Dutch woman described how she did just that and then did not speak to anybody for 7 years, except for fellow nuns to whom she was allowed to speak in French for a few hours every Saturday. She spoke beautiful German but sometime she would get the gender of the noun wrong, which made me feel good).

Jill Sommer, No. 4, does not really blog much anymore either, she just sends to her followers cartoons about translation and grammar and such once a week. This kind of continuity is better than nothing, I guess, but I miss her posts.

The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas said, “When one burns one’s bridges, what a very nice fire it makes.” But I don’t believe that it is really true. We usually try to burn our bridges when we are still very young because we don’t want to live like everybody else, especially if it means living just like our parents lived.

But when we are a little bit older, we sometime discover that the bridges that we tried so hard to burn down are still there, and we then cross them back again to the world that is waiting for us on the other side of the bridge.

A burning bridge does make a very nice fire. But the poetry of a beautiful fire can last only for a very short time. And the truth is, we can never have enough bridges, and when we burn them down, for example by no longer posting on an abandoned blog, an important connection to our past, present and future is suddenly lost forever.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 16, 2014

Is a Universal “Fair Translation Rate” Possible?


The subject of a “fair rate” or a “living wage” is often discussed with passion on translators’ blogs and on social media. At least one translation blog is dedicated entirely to this subject. As other professions are also demanding what is usually referred to as “a minimum wage”, a number of movements in several countries are establishing a higher minimum wage in some local jurisdictions. For example, the Seattle City Council, led by a young, outspoken immigrant with a pronounced Indian accent, voted in June of 2014 to raise the minimum wage to 15 US dollars per hour, and the Swiss canton of Neuchâtel has adopted a minimum hourly wage of about 22 US dollars for 2015, although a proposal to raise national minimum hourly wage to about 25 US dollars was recently soundly defeated by a national referendum in Switzerland.

But how can one determine what would be a “fair rate” or at least a “minimum rate” for translation? Indeed, it is a very complicated proposition, not least also because it would depend on the definition of terms such as “translation” and “translator”. Most people would probably say that machine translation is also “translation” (although MT is obviously not translation, just like words and phrases listed in a dictionary do not really constitute a translation). And since MT is generally available for free, that is the criterion that many people would use to determine the lower range of translation costs, and anybody can call himself or herself “a translator”.

Another reason why it is so difficult to determine what would represent a fair rate is the fact that translators live in every country on this planet, and there are almost 200 countries on planet Earth where the cost of living and living standards are very different.

A translation agency operator proposed in a recent discussion on social media the following formula for what would in his opinion be a universally good per-word rate for translation: “…. £0.06 ($0.10), which per source word does, undeniably equal £900 for 5 days of 3000 words. Somebody in a salaried position of £40k or more would often be expected to work long hours or even work Saturdays.

But the problem is that what would be a very decent rate in country A would be a substandard rate in country B, and a starvation rate in country C. A rate of 10 cents per word may be an excellent rate if you live in Bangkok, Thailand, nothing to sneeze at if you live in Sao Paolo, Brazil, and a substandard rate if you live in Palo Alto, California, or Geneva, Switzerland.

Because translators of just about any language may live in just about any country, translators living in areas with a low cost of living compete directly with those of us who live in countries and areas where the cost of living is much higher.

On top of that, the tax systems are also very different in different countries. Here is how a translator living in Holland evaluated what was “a good rate” in the opinion of the translation agency operator mentioned above: “GBP 900 a week (or EUR 1100 ) sounds fantastic, but let me break it down for you. The percentages below reflect an income equaling at GBP 0.06/word GBP 40k or EUR 50k. Where I live (Netherlands), anyone self-employed is legally required to pay taxes (about 35%), social security (13%), and health insurance (about 3%), – so that’s 51% off. If you have kids, you may also want private insurance for long-term income loss due to illness or disability (4%), and maybe a pension for later (10%, and that’s low). Making it a total of 65% off. GBP 900 is actually more like GBP 300 a week – not bad, but then there’s mouths to feed, the rent/mortgage, the car, and 4 weeks unpaid holiday.”

Although on surface, the taxes would appear to be lower here in the United States than in Holland, it is mostly just an illusion skillfully created by Democrats and Republicans, the only two parties that are in fact allowed to participate in the political process here (and for good reason – they both work for the same people)! While income taxes + social security taxes will eat up only about 30% of an average paycheck here, on top of that we also have to pay property taxes (such as real estate taxes that can be easily 10 times as high as the same taxes in some European countries), substantial state taxes and sales taxes (although the sales taxes are lower here than the VAT tax in Europe), and various local taxes.

In addition, the cost of healthcare is not covered by the taxes for most people here (at least not until you turn 65), although it is much, much higher than in any other country. For example medications can easily cost 5 times as much here as in Germany, and most bankruptcies in US are in fact due to inability to pay medical bills. Obamacare did not solve any of these problems as it only pushed the healthcare costs even higher when it gave virtually unlimited powers to private health insurance corporations. If you add it all together, the tax burden here is at least as high as in Holland, while the “safety net” is minimal compared to many European countries, or even to Canada or Australia.

In fact, I have never seen an objective comparison and breakdown of the burden of taxes in different countries, including what these taxes are used for. It must be one of the taboo subjects that regular people are not supposed to be able to think about and discuss, not even on the Internet, although I am sure that this is a subject that is being intensively studied and carefully analyzed in various “think thanks”.

Another factor complicating this subject is the fact that none of us can be sure how many “words” we will be translating during those 5 days in a given week mentioned in the shortsighted formula above, as some weeks it may be more than 20,000 words, and some weeks it may be less than 2,000 words.

But just because the subject of a “fair rate” or “living wage” for translators is so complicated does not mean that there is no such thing as a fair rate for you, and a living wage for me.

We all know how much we have to make to keep the wolf from the door. But it will be a different rate for different translators, depending on factors such as the language combination, what it is that we translate, where we live, and, most importantly, who our most important customers are.

For reasons mentioned above, and for other reasons as well, it would make no sense for me to start suggesting now what a “fair rate” would be. I know what the number would be for me, but I don’t know what it would be for you.

Generally speaking, it is quite difficult to make both ends meet if we only or mostly work for translation agencies, pretty much regardless of where we live, because many translation agencies generally want to pay to people who live in countries with a high cost of living the same low rates as those that are paid to translators living in third world countries.

Unlike employees who are tied to their place of employment, self-employed translators can move to a place where the cost of living is lower. I have moved to different countries several times already, the last time I moved across the country 13 years ago, but I found that the benefits of such a move are not as important as I thought they would be. The main difference between the area in California where I used to live for 19 years (San Francisco Bay Area) is in the cost of real estate, which was and still is much cheaper where I live now (Eastern Virginia).

Other costs are very similar, plus the weather in Bay Area can’t be beat, and you don’t even need to have air conditioning.

Moving to another country with a much lower cost of living is another solution, and some translators have done it and are very happy about their situation. But it is a drastic solution, a solution that can easily backfire. First of all, most people can’t really move very easily, except when they are still young, single, and childless. Uprooting yourself and your whole family in your middle age or even later may or may not work out the way it was intended, and it may be difficult to try to reverse the situation.

Secondly, it is not sure at all that if you move to another place or another country,  the same conditions will exist there as they are now in 5 or 10 years from now. For example, as the US dollar lost about 40% of its value relative to most European currencies since about the year 2000, it is really not possible to make calculations based on one’s current income in a given currency because currency fluctuations are completely unpredictable.

And even if the situation remains as it is now, if you move from a country with a high cost of living to a place where just about everything is much cheaper, let’s say from a first world country to a third world country, this may also mean that you will never be able to go back home because you would not be able to afford to live there anymore. Although self-employed translators have a big advantage in that unlike most people, they can move quite easily, even to a different country, there is a big difference between living somewhere because you want to live there, and living there because you can’t afford to live anywhere else.

A better solution is to look for and find clients who are willing and able to pay the rate that you need where you are living now. Fortunately, clients who pay rates commensurate with the level of expertise and education that is required from highly specialized translators in various specialized fields can still be found by those of us who do not look for “low-hanging-fruit” easily obtainable at miserly rates from many translation agencies and from a number of blind auction sites, only to then bitterly complain about the miserable rates paid by so many translation agencies and angrily demand a universally “fair” translation rate, which is in my opinion mostly just a Fata Morgana.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 12, 2014

In the Deadly Embrace of a Ruthless Marketing Mafia


I just registered again my two phone line numbers (home + office) with the Do Not Call Registry. I remember that I did it already about 10 years ago, and it seemed to work for a while. To my relief, most of the incessant, annoying, idiotic marketing calls stopped. I could not believe my good luck.

But alas, it was not to last. It was only a matter of time before the telephone marketing mafia would find new ways to get around whatever puny laws might be interfering with their sacred business goals that make all of us their living and breathing targets. Since they are now calling from cell phones and from virtual phone numbers through Internet, there may be no way to enforce the ban by going after them since all they have to do is get another anonymous number.

The new technique that they are using is extremely ruthless. They make automated calls to call telephone numbers at different times, sometime even at night, simply to determine when are people most likely to answer the phone. If you pick up the phone, there will be nobody on the line, just a deathly silence. There may be millions of bewildered senior citizens who still dutifully answer their phone, who don’t understand what is going on and who are really, really scared.

It is much more efficient this way and that is the only thing that matters to marketing companies. Or so seem the marketing geniuses think. They don’t seem to realize that after a while, everybody will start monitoring phone calls and answer only if the call ID of the phone number appears to indicate a legitimate number. They don’t seem to realize that their complete disregard for even the simplest form of human decency will in the end kill off their own business as well, along with what is left of human decency in the profit-at-al-cost mentality.

It is not just the ruthless phone marketing that is killing off one technology after another. Junk e-mail is killing off the way Internet has been used for the last two decades. When 95% of what is in the e-mail is deceptive and malicious spam and “phishing”, often in languages that we don’t even understand, many people simply don’t use e-mail much anymore.

My children who are in their mid twenties hardly ever check their e-mail. I text them when I want to tell them something because texting still seems to work. They don’t have a fixed phone line either and they may never even bother to get one. I also wonder what will happen if the marketing mafia is given unencumbered access to databases of cell phone numbers. Will they eventually do to texting and cell phone lines what they did to wired lines, by which I mean killing off a lot of former cell phone users and making sure that people no longer answer their phones unless they know who’s calling?

Aggressive marketing techniques of search engines have also done a lot of damage to Internet. I no longer use Google for most of my searches because I don’t want them to know everything about me, especially since I have no idea who they will share this information with. My guess would be, with anybody who pays them for it. That is why I switched to a couple of non-tracking search engines about a year ago and I use Google only very sporadically now.

Celebrities are being pursued by the paparazzi, everybody else is being chased by the marketing mafia, in addition to the NSA, crazed hackers who want to turn our computers into zombie PCs unwittingly transmitting more of the malicious spam and deceptive marketing propaganda to more victims, thieves who want to steal our identity, and who knows what kind of other predators are hiding out there.

The way people are turning on each other, our modern world now looks like a watering hole in African Serengeti where hungry lions and hyenas are chasing weaker and sick animals to sink their claws and teeth into the tasty meat.

The deadly embrace of what must be most of the world by an extremely ruthless marketing mafia is just another symptom of a gradual, persistent decline of our culture. A culture that has lost respect for common human decency is in transition, on its way out.

And it is more than likely that it is going to be replaced by something that will be even more repulsive and menacing than what we have to live with now.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 9, 2014

Not Every Customer Is Worth Having and Keeping


A very perceptive person said once that although our lives may seem to us to be full of chaos and confusion and nothing seems to make any sense, when we later look back at our life, we suddenly realize that everything has been unfolding like a finely crafted novel according to an invisible plan.

With the benefit of hindsight we suddenly see that what at the time appeared as chaos and randomness was really just a logical continuation of the sum of our previous thoughts, aspirations and most importantly: actions.

That is why I have always believed that it is important to have a plan. Not necessarily for everything, but certainly for everything that is important. And often, in addition to having a plan A, it is best to also have a plan B, and sometime even plan C – just in case.

It is usually best to keep your plans, future, present and past, to yourself. For example, should your spouse ask you:”Why did you marry me?”, it is generally not a good idea to answer by saying “Well, darling, you were my plan B”, even though it might be true. I am mentioning this example because to my surprise, I met quite a few people who told me that they married their plan B. It seems to be a common phenomenon and these types of marriages often work out just fine.


So now that we have established the importance of a good plan for important things, let’s get back to the subject of translation. What is your plan for the future of your translating business? Or do you even have one?

If you don’t have one because like most people, you live your life day by day and don’t spend much time on idle thoughts about your future, perhaps you should. In the immortal words of Terence McKenna, “If you don’t have a plan, you become part of somebody’s else’s plan.”

The thing is, once we allow other people to make us part of their plan, we have to live with the decisions that they will make on our behalf. If you are a self-employed translator, I am talking about decisions such as how much you will be paid for your work, how long you will have to wait for the payment, what kind of obligatory discounts may be squeezed from you on top of a low rate, and what kind of recourse will you have, if any, should somebody decide not to pay you at all.

Most translators are self-employed and thus they have no unions. There are various organizations called associations and unions of translators purporting to represent freelance translators in various countries, but as far as I can tell, for the most part these associations represent mostly the interests of these translation agencies, not of the translators.

But self-employed translators also have advantages that are often not found in other professions. For example if you want to build houses, you will have to first secure all kinds of permissions from your local government and deposit a bond that may cost tens of thousands of dollars. The same is true for example also about hairdressers who want to open a new hair salon, or car mechanics who want to open a new car shop.

They need capital, usually a lot of capital to start a new business. If they don’t have capital, and most people don’t, their only option is to sell their labor to en existing business on an hourly basis.

But in some occupations, you don’t need much capital, if any, as just about the only thing that you will need to start your own business is a generic business license from your local City Hall. Your skill is your capital. There are many creative occupations and businesses on a very small scale providing specialized services, such as translators, web designers, writers, artists, violin makers, etc. The City Hall has not figured out yet how to tax them out of existence – although I am sure that they are working very hard on it.

The commodity that these kinds of occupations need is even more precious than capital, namely customers.

Because the decisions that you will make when you are trying to identify your customers and later find your customers and start working for them will for the most part predetermine the unfolding of the invisible plan upon which the rest of your life will be based, these decisions are about as important as deciding who to marry.

Just like potential husbands and wives, potential customers can be also divided into several categories. After all, if things work out, you may have to live with them for a long time, and given that you will need an income, it may be difficult to divorce them. And just like every available bachelor or bachelorette is not necessarily marriage material, not everybody who has work for you is necessarily good customer material.

Category A Customer

A customer who belongs to category A is somebody who is looking exactly for what you have and what you are eager to offer, and who is for that reason willing to enter into an exclusive (or almost exclusive as the case may be) relationship with you. If you find such a customer, and you actually need several of them, it could be a marriage made in heaven.

Your ideal customer will depend on what kind of translation you specialize in, but given the services that I am offering, my best customers have always been patent law firms. Small or medium size is preferred – the large ones are much less desirable because they tend to leave me after a few years and trade me in for a younger (I mean cheaper) model. But there are exceptions. I used to translate a lot of Japanese patents for one huge multinational corporation at very good rates for about 12 years before they traded me in about 5 years ago. They might have created their own corporate translation agency, or they might have outsourced their translation to cheaper countries, I have no idea. I was bitter for a while, but I got over it. It is important not to become too dependent on these kinds of customers because they can dump you any time. But as the saying goes, there is more than one fish in the ocean.

Category B Customer

This would be a small, specialized translation agency, preferably one that has been in business for many years. Unlike a corporate translation agency that is based on the sweatshop model, category B customers pay better rates, although not nearly as good as category A customers. But they usually pay fast, faster than category A, and they have a wider variety of work because they cast their nets wider than patent law firms. For example, yesterday I was translating for a category B customer from 4 languages (in 1 day!): from Japanese, Russian, Czech and German, documents dealing with very different subjects that have nothing to do with patents. I really like patents, but after almost 30 years, the chemical formulas and compositions of “preferred embodiments” can get a little bit boring.

Category C Customer

These are translators who run their businesses basically the same way I run mine and who need me every now and then to cover another language. They pay the same rates as category B customers and they usually pay fast. The main difference here is that they usually don’t have as much work for me because they mostly translate themselves the languages that they know. Sometime it is difficult to tell the difference between category B and category C customers, and sometime a category C customer eventually becomes category B when there is so much work in other languages.

Category F Customer

I don’t have a category D or E customers, as everything that does not belong to A, B, or C is to me category F. These are customers who in my opinion are clearly not worth having. I used to work for them in the past, but fortunately, I don’t need them anymore. The modern corporate translation agency type is a good example of a customer that I would not want to have. It is only common sense that most of the large translation agencies, such as those that are listed by Common Sense Advisory, belong to the kind of customer that is best to avoid. They might have some or even a lot of work for me, but at what I would consider substandard rates, and they usually pay late. Even if it is clearly stated in a contract that the payment terms are 30 days net, it is usually a lie because you will have to wait 6 to 7 weeks before the check finally arrives.

A special feature of the plan for my own translation business is making sure that I will not be part of the plans of customers belonging to category F. For example, I always politely respond to e-mails of potential customers who would fall into one of my categories A through C, even if I know that I cannot provide the kind of service that they are looking for, whatever the reason.

But I simply rudely ignore e-mails from category F of potential customers, although I generally receive several inquiries from them about my availability just about every week.

I am happy to say that category F of customers no longer belong to my plan A, B, or even C for the rest of my professional life. They would just bring too much chaos and confusion into the invisible plan for the rest of my life and instead of an interesting, finely crafted novel that is full of delightful surprises, they would turn it into a tale of misery and suffering.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | August 4, 2014

Smart Phone Is Not Always the Smartest Solution


Only a few years ago I had to pay over 220 dollars a month for my cell phone bill. I think it was about 235 dollars with taxes because I shared a “family plan” with my two sons while they were still in high school and later in college. I needed the maximum data limit, mostly for unlimited texting (for them, of course, I don’t text that much). When the younger one graduated from college last year, I triumphantly cancelled my line. They both have to pay for their own cell phones and car insurance now.

Since 12 x 134 = 2,820, this means that I had to pay to the phone company about 3 thousand dollars only for the cell phone service, in addition to 2 fixed lines (one for my home and one for my business) and a fax line. I almost never use the fax line, but somehow I can’t bring myself to kill it. Oh, and I also have an 800 number which also costs money.

But I did kill my smart phone line and replaced it with a cheap and stupid basic cell phone combined with a smart tablet which has a free data plan. At this point I am just adding 10 dollars or 20 every 3 months to an old Blackberry that I keep in my car and that I almost never use. But just because I “almost” never use it does not mean that it is never used. When I got a flat tire on our trip to Washington DC a couple of months ago, the old Blackberry, hidden and almost forgotten in the glove compartment of my car, suddenly saw a lot of activity. I would have been in trouble big time if I did not have the phone at that time.

My old smart phone, an older iPhone model, still sees a lot of activity, although it officially has no service, at least not from the original phone carrier (Verizon).

I canceled the phone service because neither Verizon nor any other phone carrier company would let me use a smart phone only for the purpose for which the telephone was originally invented, which is to say to call another phone. If you want to use a smart phone, every phone carrier in US will force you to buy an expensive data plan from them, whether you need it, or not (although consumers are apparently not as much in peonage to their phone carriers in other countries, see the comments section).

So that is why I don’t have cell phone service with Verizon anymore. But as I said, I still use my old iPhone a lot. I take it with me when I go for example to my gym or to a restaurant because I can easily find a Wifi connection just about anywhere these days, for free and often even unencrypted so that anyone can use it without having to beg for a password. For example every Barnes & Noble bookstore has free and unencrypted Wifi, and so do donut shops like Dunkin Donuts. This means that I can check my e-mail and things like the latest gossip or the latest outrage du jour on social media and activity on my blog. I can also use it for calling because I can make a call by accessing the number of minutes from my iPhone that I have in my Ooma account anywhere if I am connected to Wifi. And I text my sons mostly on the iPhone, because most of the time I am connected to Wifi.

Sometime I do need a data plan when no free Wifi is avalaible, but for that I only use a data plan which is available from T-Mobile to anyone who has a compatible tablet “for the life of the device”. The free data plan is only 200 Mbytes, but for a translator such as myself who is mostly connected to Wifi at the home office or in a commercial establishment, 200 Mbytes is mostly enough. Although I use my iPad’s free data plan frequently, since I need it outside of my office only for things like checking e-mail and car navigation, so far I had to purchase additional data from T-mobile only once – during another trip to DC, when I was expecting another series of potential emergencies, which fortunately did not take place.

E-mail eats up very little data, something like a hundred Kbytes per message, and car navigation does not really use much data either while the car is moving based on the itinerary which is stored in advance on the iPad. Car navigation applications such as Google Maps use a significant amount of data only when I store an itinerary in my iPad while I am connected to Wifi, before I start driving. After that, data is used only for recalculation of the route if I change the route while driving. But even then, the recalculation does not eat up a lot of data.

I think that companies like Verizon and AT&T are and will be losing increasingly more and more customers who just like me are fed up with having to shell out a lot of money for something that they don’t really need and definitely do not want.

Verizon still has better cell phone coverage in the United States than T-Mobile, which is its main advantage. But since I have not experienced any problems with T-Mobile coverage here in Eastern or Northern Virginia, I see no reason to go back to Verizon for phone service (my dumb phone is also with T-Mobile).

A dumb phone combined with a free or cheap data plan for my iPad (I can purchase additional data when I needed it) is a much smarter solution at this point.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 30, 2014

A Frog in a Well Knows Nothing of the Great Ocean


There is a well known Japanese proverb (originating in an old Chinese fable) that says exactly what is in the title of my silly post today, namely: 井の中の蛙大海を知らず (i no naka no kawazu taikai wo shirazu). A Chinese idiom, 井底之蛙 (jǐng dǐ zhī wā), which translates as “a frog on the bottom of a well”, is a synonym in Chinese for “an ignorant person”.

A link to the entire Chinese story about a turtle who visited a frog who used to be living happily at the bottom of his dark and cool, full of sweet water and tasty squiggly warms and buzzing insects, until the poor amphibian found out from the turtle about something called the ocean, is below:


I am sometime reminded of this Japanese idiom when a translator is speaking with authority about this or that issue having to do with translation, usually on a blog or on social media, but also in publications on paper.

So many of us know so much about so little! Or is it so little about so much?

This would of course include also this little froggy in his comfy patent translation well, full of squiggly and tasty technical translation terms from Japanese and other languages. But this little froggy at least knows that the little bit of knowledge that he may possess is limited only to his little well.

So many people would like to create hard-and-fast rules about translation in general. Here are a few examples of these universal and immutable rules about “translation”:

1. All translators must use computer tools (called CATs). CAT Refuseniks are insane and should be locked up in asylums for the mentally ill.

2. Translators can only translate into their native language. People who translate into another language than the one they learned from their mother are laughable imposters who need to be exposed as such and shunned by real translators, e.i. those who can rightfully call themselves native speakers.

3. The going rate for translation is [fill in the amount]. It would be futile to charge more than the going rate, and a translator who would like to attempt to do that will inevitably fail.

4. Based on the natural order in the universe, translation agencies are in charge of supplying work to translators and liaising with clients, while translators are only in charge of translating. It would be nice to be able to work for direct clients, but for a mere translator, this is an unattainable goal.

5. Translators who want to make more money must increase their productivity. There are several “language tools” in the form of software enabling diligent translators to do just that: they can increase their translating speed for example with voice recognition software, or with Trados, and they can “incorporate” machine translation in their software, etc. Since any of these tools, when used properly, will double, triple, or quadruple translators’ output, they will finally start making real money if they start using these tools.

Etc., and so on, and so forth.


There is a grain of truth in all of those statements, of course. But most of the times, most of these statements are mostly false.

1. While no statistics are available, I think that most translators in fact do not use CATs and never will. Although these tools may be very useful for some kinds of translations, namely extremely repetitive text provided in MS Word format, they are essentially useless for other types of translations, such as patent applications provided as PDF files. It makes sense for some translators to use these tools, and it would make no sense for other translators to use them.

2. It is true that most people can translate only into their native language. But that still leaves hundreds of thousands of people on this planet who can translate very well into their non-native language. And how do we define “nativeness”, this natural prerequisite for fluency in a language summarized by the term “native language”? Wasn’t George W. Bush a native speaker of English? (Yes, he was).

3. The going rate for “translation” can easily vary by a factor of 10 or more depending on things like the language combination, the subject, whether the translator is working for an intermediary or a direct client, where the intermediary or direct client is located, how badly the translation is needed, etc.

In other words, there is no such thing as “the going rate” for translation. But to froggies who live in their small, dark well, the well is all there is and nothing else exists.

4. There is a natural order in the universe, but translation agencies do not seem to be a part of this natural order. While some of them provide real value both for their customers and their translators, usually small agencies specializing in one or a few fields, many of them are useless parasites who do not understand the first thing about translating. A translator who only works for translation agencies is living in a particularly deep and dark well, where the food is not very tasty or plentiful, and the water smells bad and is scarce.

5. We can increase our productivity and various software-based tools can be used for this purpose. But there is a limit to a translator’s “productivity” because our brain can only process a certain amount of words per day so that the words would still make sense to us. In my case it is between 4 to 5 thousand words. If we try to go beyond this limit, instead of relying on our own brain, we have to allow the software to take control over the translating process. The results of such an approach will vary.

It is OK when a plane’s crew allows software to fly a plane on autopilot so that the crew can get some rest during a night when nothing unusual happens. But when a translation is processed by software to triple or quadruple the translating speed, the chances are that the translator will not even notice how many times his plane has crashed because as I already said, the human brain has only a limited capacity to process a certain amount of information. And this limited capacity of human brain to make meaning of things is the real limit to how many words can a human translator translate per day, not the capacity of a software package that by definition does not understand what the words in a translation mean.


At the end of the Chinese story about a frog and a turtle, the frog became much less enthusiastic about his comfy well when he realized that there is something out there called “the ocean”, and that this ocean cannot be even described in terms that a frog who has been living all his life in a tiny, dark well can understand.

Whatever it is that we translate, we can only know a few things about a few drops in the vast ocean of what we call “translation” because regardless of the many limitations of human brain, anything and everything that a human brain can think of can be also translated from and into another language.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 27, 2014

A Gaping Hole in the Curriculum for Translation Studies


When I was a university student, many, many years ago, I thought that the approach to teaching of foreign languages at my university was skewed too much toward the endless study of somewhat ephemeral and apparently useless subjects. For example, if your major was the French language, you needed to memorize first a lot of facts about French literature from middle ages to 18th century, if your language was English, you would have to deliver a seminar work on Beowulf, and if you were majoring in Japanese, you would need to study also the basics of classical Chinese and the complicated grammar of classical Japanese language called bungo.

Most of this knowledge would be completely forgotten within a few years after graduation, with the exception of a few of these students who eventually became teachers of the same subjects again, generally as university professors.

I knew even then that these were worthwhile and interesting subjects to study (especially classical Chinese was really interesting). My main objection was that the kids who were studying these languages, including myself, did not speak very good French, English, or Japanese, which to me meant that the university had the priorities completely wrong. When I said as much all those years ago to one of my favorite teachers, he told me:”You will have the rest of your life to try to learn a foreign language and become really fluent in it. But the only time when you can learn all of these seemingly less important things is while you are still studying here”.

I know now that he was mostly right, and I was mostly wrong. But I did have a point too. A few years after graduation, 5 to be exact, I was working as an in-house translator in Tokyo for a small Japanese company that was importing BMWs to Japan. One of my Japanese colleagues at the company majored in German language at Waseda University, one of the most prestigious universities in Japan. But when I tried to have a conversation with him in German, I found out that he did not understand even very simple German sentences. He told me that most of the time they were just analyzing German grammar at Waseda (in Japanese) instead of learning the actual language. I had the same experience also with a Japanese friend of mine whom I met in San Francisco and who majored in German studies at Kyoto University, also a prestigious Japanese university. He could not speak German at all.

The approach to teaching of foreign languages at many universities, probably most of them in any country, has always been heavy on theory (grammar, history, literature), and light on practical knowledge (mastery of the language). And it may even be for the best, provided that the graduates eventually do learn the languages from which they are supposed to be expertly translating after graduation.

But I think that a practical approach to teaching of foreign languages at the university level should also include advice and counseling about career choices for students who are about to graduate. There are many things that one can with do with a degree in languages. And one of them is working as a specialized, self-employed translator.

Most young people who study languages probably do not give much thought to their eventual career after graduation. They study languages because it is something that they are really passionate about. If they were equally passionate about making a good living, they would probably have chosen dentistry, accounting, or law instead of languages.

It is possible to make a good living as a self-employed translator, depending on your language combination and specialization – if you know how to go about it. But is this a subject that is included in the curriculum at colleges and universities? When I Googled it, there was no shortage of advice offered from a number of source, some of the very questionable. But I did not see any links to this kind of “career planning” offered as a course at a university.

The job market and career choices that new foreign language majors are facing now must be very confusing in these turbulent times. The traditional employment model, based on the employer/employee relationship, is becoming so diluted in the brave, newly globalized world that it may even be on its way out after about two centuries during which it this was the predominant employment pattern.

There are many things that inexperienced translators who are armed only with a brand new diploma should know about.

They should know that they are facing formidable obstacles in the modern job market, obstacles that did not exist when I was young. The public naively believes that in a few years, most human translators will become obsolete as they will be replaced by miraculous translating machines, just like most bank tellers were replaced by miraculous money dispensing machines. Most people do not understand the simple fact that a major limitation of machine translation is …. that it is not translation. Most people are led to believe that machine translation is similar to human translation, that it will be getting incrementally better until it is as good as human translation, and that this ultimate result is just around the corner. That is what they have been told by various assorted snake oil salesmen (people who sell “language technology” for a living) for at least two decades now, so it obviously must be true.

They should know that the corporate translation agency model in the so-called translation industry is based on a predatory relationship in which translators are viewed as easily replaceable, cheap hired help, neatly captured in endless databases containing thousands of worker bee translators, rather than as highly valued experts in their fields. Somebody should explain to them how things work in that part of the translation market and tell them that there are alternatives to the predatory corporate translation agency model and what those alternatives are.

They should know that depending on their language combination, they may be facing competition from countries where most people must survive on a few dollars a day and how translators can deal with these and other problems resulting from globalization.

They should know that there are many specialized “niches”, or fields of specialization where the potential for earning is generally better, such as financial translation, technical translation, or patent translation, and what are the prospects for future developments in different specialized translation fields.

They should be taught the basics of running a business as a self-employed translator. It takes years before a new translator can become confident that his or her particular model is financially sustainable.

There is a whole range of subjects that should be and probably are not taught on colleges and universities to people who are about to graduate with a degree in language studies.

Associations of translators generally do a very poor job of making sure that their members have access to useful information of this kind because they are mostly run by translation agencies. This will be inevitably the result in countries where both translators and translation agencies are allowed to be members of the same “association of translators” because translators’ interests are often diametrically opposed to those of the translation agencies, and the agencies have more money and thus wield a lot of power in such organizations.

Some bloggers emphasize the need for established, experienced translators to mentor young, beginning translators. But this kind of mentoring is probably not going to help a whole lot of people who need access to up-to-date information about their profession.

It would best if the issues and subjects that I am mentioning in this post were discussed as a part of the curriculum at colleges and universities where young people are majoring in a foreign language. Knowledge of this kind in the hand of new translators might eventually start shifting the power away from greedy brokers back to highly educated, specialized translators who are in fact the real language service provider.

I think that it would be really good for our profession if such practical courses were offered as a part of the curriculum at universities where foreign languages are taught, but I don’t think that this is the case at this point.


A potential customer inquired a few days ago whether my cost estimate for translating a patent application from French to English would include also charging for words such as “and”, “a”, and “the”. I always feel like responding by saying “only if you want me to include these words in my translation”, but I never actually do that. It is not a good idea to antagonize potential customers.

So let’s consider his question. If the translation cost is based on the word count, is it reasonable to charge the same amount also for simple words like conjunctions and articles?

The word count (or character count, or line count or page count) is a handy quantifier because it can be easily verified. That is why most translators base their cost on one of these quantifiers. But even when they charge by the word, translators are not really charging for the translated words – they are basically charging for their time. If I know how long it will take me to translate 2,000, 3,000 or 4,000 words, I also know how much I will be making per hour.

Some people say that it would be more fair if we could charge by the hour. I would not mind doing that, but I basically have to charge by the word because most translators charge by the word, or by the project – most translators also have a minimum charge for short translations, and some will simply ask for a flat fee for a given project.

What our clients may not realize is that the handy per word quantifier hides a lot of freebies that most translators generally offer to their customers, i.e. a lot of additional work for which we do not charge extra fees.

I just finished translating a fairly long chemical patent from Japanese to English. It was mostly straightforward work for me because I must have translated thousands of patents like this one. Although I charged my lower, non-rush rate, which is reserved for customers who give me enough time to work on their project, I was still making about 600 hundred dollars a day without working too hard.

So I am not complaining. But translating is not just about words. It is about making sense of things. Words are the most visible ingredients of what goes into every translation, but there are many other ingredients in every translation.

Here are few examples of some of these other ingredients that I simply threw in for free in that particular patent translation.

1. Long chemical terms count as 1 word

How many words is “2-(meth)acrylamido-propyltrimethoxysilane, 3-(meth)acrylamido-butyltrimethoxysilane, 4-(meth) acrylamido-hexyltrimethoxysilane”? It looks like about 20 words, but Microsoft Word counts it as 4 words. Who am I to argue with the wise and almighty Microsoft Word? I just accept the MS Word count, which would be in this case the same as the count of these 4 words:”the, “a”, “and”, and “not”.

2. Chemical patents have a lot of formulas which may throw off formatting

These formulas must be scanned and pasted into the text. It generally does not take a long time to do that, but it does take time. And when there several formulas on the same page, it may throw off the formatting, and once something goes wrong with the formatting, I may have to waste a lot of time trying to fix it. This is a problem especially with Japanese which takes up less space on a page because 2 Japanese characters on average correspond to 1 English word.

Because most people don’t charge an additional fee for scanning and formatting of chemical formulas, I don’t dare to add an additional charge either.

3. Chemical patents often include very long and very complicated tables

It is much easier to fit a few Japanese characters into the rows and columns of a table in Japanese than to fit the corresponding English words in a table in English. For example, “重合度” (jūgōdo) means “degree of polymerization” in English. The word “polymerization” alone is about 1.5 times the size of all the three Japanese characters in this chemical term. Recreating a complicated table that was originally in Japanese in English can be a nightmare, especially since MS Word always for some reason sadistically messes up the final formatting of complicated tables.

This particular chemical patent had one complicated, full-page Japanese table in “landscape” orientation in which the words ended up being nonsensically truncated in English by MS Word. After 3 unsuccessful attempts to recreate the table in MS Word, I created it in WordPerfect, which did a much better job, but because I had a file in MS Word, I printed it out and scanned and pasted it into the text as a graphic file.

The table was very important as it was the main proof of the claims of the patent, so I had to keep the same format in English. Because I inserted a graphic file to make sure that everything in the table will be instantly understandable, I did not charge anything for several hundred words contained in that table. Plus, of course, I could not charge anything for the three unsuccessful attempts to create the table in landscape format in MS Word either before WordPerfect saved my life once again.

4. Foreign words transliterated into Japanese may be very difficult to ascertain

There are several reasons for this. When foreign words are transliterated into Japanese, they often become unrecognizable unless you know precisely what they mean. For example, “sexual harassment” becomes “seku hara“, “power harassment” becomes “pawah hara“, etc. Well, the meaning of “seku hara” and “pawah hara” is obvious enough, but the meaning of technical terms adopted from foreign languages and then butchered beyond recognition courtesy of the Japanese language may be less obvious, especially since I don’t necessarily know from which language the term was originally imported. The foreign word could have been in German, or French, or Dutch or another language rather than English.

These foreign words transliterated into one of the Japanese alphabets called katakana can be found relatively easily with a search on the Internet … except when they are misspelled in Japanese. And they are often misspelled in Japanese patents because Japanese chemists and patent agents don’t particularly care about the correct spelling of foreign words in Japanese. For example, I remember a Hitachi patent agent who was consistently misspelling the word “analog”. It should have been written as “anarogu” in Japanese, but the esteemed benrishi was instead writing it as “anaguro“.

Patent agents do this kind of thing all the time. If the foreign word was originally for instance a Dutch or German name, for example of a Dutch or German (or French, or Russian or Polish?) chemist who invented a new method in chemistry, it takes forever to find out what was the original word if it is misspelled in Japanese.

5. Every language and every subject has its own unique challenges

Every translation from every language has its own challenges, and the more different the language is from English or the language into which one translates, the more challenging the translation is likely to be. Overcoming these challenges is also what makes translating so interesting.

Johann Sebastian Bach once famously said:”It is very easy to play any musical instrument. All you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.”

The same is true also about translation. It is very easy to translate anything into another language. All you have to do is know which keys to touch on the computer keyboard to formulate the right words in another language, just like J.S. Bach knew exactly which keys to touch on an organ’s keyboard to play one of his fugues.

This knowledge is what translators are being paid for, not the simple or complicated words that they are typing while translating.

I can understand it when a client asks a question such as the one in the title of my post today. But when a translation agency insists on discounts for “fuzzy matches” or “full matches” in repeated words or repetitive passages determined by means of software, that makes me really mad. I would never work for a translation agency that does that.

Although discounts may be in order in case of repetitive documents, for example updates of printer manuals or communication software, these discounts should be determined ahead of time based on an agreement between a translator and the client, not based on software controlled by the agency. The translator must be in control at all times, not some software in the hands of a dishonest broker.

Insisting that the ingenious principle of so called “fuzzy matches” or “full matches” should be applied to all translations is a criminal concept which is known in law as “theft of labor”. This kind of fuzzy thinking is very different from a naive question of a customer who is asking whether a translator should also charge for words such as “and”, “a”, and “the”.



In a previous post titled Seven Unmistakable Signs That A Translation Agency Is A Fake, I listed some of the most telling signs of an agency operating based on the rules of the corporate translation model. Many agencies clearly belong to this category, but definitely not all of them, although to my knowledge, the business model of all large translation agencies is at the present time based on the principle of blinding, insatiable corporate greed.

In this business model, translators are considered easily replaceable, cheap hired help (Kevin Lossner calls them HAMPSTeRs, I call them nanolators, among other choice titles), not as highly educated and highly valued professionals who must be paid and treated accordingly if you want to keep them motivated to work for you.

Large translation agencies are typically owned and run by monolingual people who know nothing about translation per se. While they may not know anything about foreign languages, they know how to maximize their profit, generally at the expense of the busy bees who are working for them. These people are very good salesmen who would be able to make very handsome profits for example by selling refrigerators to Eskimos, I’ll give them that. But still, because the only business they understand is the business of making money, I consider them ignorant parasites who are generally unable to add value to translation. Their main contribution is that they add to the cost – a lot.

So how can a poor translator tell that a translation agency does not subscribe to the holy credo of the corporate translation agency model?

I think that there are several signs that a translation agency may be based on a different model, a model that competes mostly on quality rather than mostly on quantity and price.

I will list seven such telling signs indicating that a translator may be dealing with another kind of translation agency, the kind that is in fact sabotaging the corporate translation mold by using the many weaknesses of the corporate translation model, which is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, only about two decades old.

1. The Translators Are Paid Very Quickly

I work for three such agencies, one mails me a check immediately when my translation has been delivered, one pays within a few days, and the third one pays me on the first and fifteenth of the month, by a transfer to my bank account. These are the only translation agencies that I still work for on a regular basis. The fact that they pay so quickly is very healthy for my cash flow given that some of my customers let me wait five to six weeks before they finally pay me, especially large patent law firms. The stack of bills that would accumulate in five weeks while I am waiting to be paid would be otherwise very thick and all of them would be past due if I did not have clients who pay very quickly.

2. The Translators Are Paid Good Rates

What is a good rate is of course eminently debatable, but you know what is a good rate for you. If your rate is accepted immediately, without haggling and without stupid tricks that not even a somewhat intelligent dog would fall for, such as “full and fuzzy matches” based on advanced CAT mathematics (although many translators fall for these tricks), you are being paid a good rate.

3. The Translation Agency Is Often Run by Former or Current Translators

Unlike the salesman and saleswomen in the corporation translation model, the people who manage the translation business in this model actually know a lot about translating and foreign languages. That is why they don’t need for example to do what ignorant brokers who know nothing about translation have to do, such as give “translation tests” to translators. Once current or former translators take a look at a résumé and send a prospective translator a short, paid job, they can tell easily whether they have a winner, a pitiful plodder, or a total loser.

4. The Translation Agency Specializes in Something Rather Than in Everything

The corporate translation agency model “specializes” in everything and anything as long as there is a potential for major profit in it for the agency. These outfits translate financial materials, patents, they do “transcreation”, subtitling and interpreting, from and into all languages. And why not when they don’t need to know anything about the languages from and into which they are translating, let alone the subjects that the translators will be dealing with. Their motto might just as well be “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist”.

But there are also translation agencies that do specialize in only a few defined areas, such as patents and technical translation, or financial translation, and the best ones usually only translate from a few languages, namely those that the people who run the agency understand.

5. Confidentiality Agreements Are in Fact Confidentiality Agreements

Confidentiality agreements did exist two or three decades ago, before the advent of the corporate translation agency model. But they were only a few dozen words long because these were in fact confidentiality agreement whose purpose was to ensure that confidential information will not be leaked out to third parties by dumb translators.

Recently I was contacted by a translation agency interested in finding out what I would be able to do for the agency’s bottom line. The “Confidentiality Agreement” had almost seven thousand words, and the payment terms were “60 days net”.

Needless to say, I told them to take a hike as I did not want to waste any more time with them.

6. You Are Not a “Dear Linguist” (They Remember Your Name)

I used to translate validation protocols for tests of new pharmaceuticals from Japanese to English for a tiny, highly specialized translation agency, run by a husband and wife team. Sometime it was hard work as some of the documents were handwritten, but fortunately, they were mostly written in a neat handwriting. The husband, who had a PhD in chemistry, was the proofreader, and the wife was in charge of accounting. They paid me very handsome rates, especially since they paid 1.5 times my usual rate for rush translations, defined as work on Saturdays and Sundays or more than about 2,000 words per working day.

Then the elderly couple retired and sold their business to another translation agency. The change in the attitude of the new owners toward translators was really striking. Shortly after the transfer of ownership, I received an e-mail asking about my availability for a small translation addressed to a “Dear Linguist”. When I answered the e-mail within about 10 minutes, the project manager in this new agency that in fact paid among other things the old owners also for information about my services informed me that the translation was already assigned to another translator. When I asked how was that possible since I responded to the first e-mail very quickly, the project manager told me that the work is assigned first to “first responders”. I told her to delete me from their database of translators because I would never work for the agency again. The owner of the agency actually called me, apologized for “an oversight” and tried to pacify me to keep me working for him, but I just gave him a piece of my mind and hung up on him.

When you receive an e-mail addressed to a “Dear Linguist” or a “Dear Translator”, the agency does not really give a damn who will do the translation because the e-mail is sent to several warm bodies to find out which one of them will bite first and quote the lowest rate.

7. Personal Accountability Is Not a Problem in a Small Agency

When you work for a translation agency that is based on the corporate translation model, it is very difficult to ask questions and solve problems because the tasks are divided, distributed and delegated to different people who may not understand what the problem is, or who may prefer not to make themselves available if there is a problem. For example, if a payment is not received on time, it is generally very easy to establish what went wrong if you are dealing with an agency consisting of a husband and wife team.

But when you deal with the large, corporate translation agency type, you may not even know how to contact the accounting department, and even if you do that, they may or may not get back to you within a reasonable period of time with a reasonable explanation.

Part of the advantage of this structure – from their viewpoint – is that nobody is really accountable and responsible for anything. As usual, an advantage for them is a disadvantage for the translators.

Given that the translation model of some, or possibly many, small translation agencies is diametrically opposed to the large, corporate translation model (paying good rate and on time instead of peanuts in 60 days, real specialization instead of “specialization in everything”, absence of incredibly long agreements designed to turn translators into subservient, cheap hired help, emphasis on the qualifications and capabilities of individual translators instead of emphasis on the profit margin and on the bottom line über alles), one could say that the translation agency model described above is sabotaging the corporate translation model.

But that’s not how I see it. We should not forget that the large translation agency model is a relative newcomer, while the old model, described above, has been pretty much the norm for a very long time. Thirty years ago, large translation agencies simply did not exist. It was only the advent of Internet that made it possible for brokers who don’t really know anything about translating to start businesses, small, not so small and huge, called translation agencies.

Small, specialized, accountable translation agencies may be sabotaging the corporate translation model, but they are not sabotaging the translating profession. It is the large, corporate translation model that is sabotaging what not so long ago was a promising and rewarding occupation. This model is also the main reason why the quality of so many translations is often so poor.

Translators who refuse to work for the corporate translation behemoths are thus playing a small but important role in helping to restore a healthier balance to the translation market, healthier not only with respect to the incomes that we are able to achieve as translators, but also with respect to the quality of translations that can be provided by individual translators and highly specialized translation agencies to their clients.

Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 14, 2014

The Bulk Translation Market Just Got Even Bulkier



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[From a website promising translation work to people who "can speak English and another language"]

I often talk in my posts about the sad situation in the “translation industry”. You don’t really have to know anything about foreign languages to run a translation agency. In fact, if you look at the background of the people who are running large translation agencies, many if not most of the “leaders in the translation industry”, at least those whose first language is English, are proudly monolingual brokers.

If you asked them whether the knowledge of what it is that they happen to be selling is a requirement to be a “leader in the translation industry”, this is what would probably think, although they would not say it in so many words:”Foreign languages are for the dumb worker bees who have no choice but to work for us, we are smart entrepreneurs and bold innovators. We don’t need no stinkin’ languages!”

A car salesman who cannot drive a car would be a major anomaly in the car selling business. It might make selling cars to customers difficult. A certain familiarity with the product, in addition to the certain je ne sais quoi that every salesman needs, is a given in the car selling profession.

Things are different in the translation selling profession. Many if not most of the salesmen and saleswomen in this line or work would be completely clueless about another language than their own.

But even these boldly monolingual salesmen and saleswomen of translations may eventually learn a few things about foreign languages. For instance, they might eventually learn the word count in English is about 20% higher than the word count in German due to numerous compound nouns in German, or that 2 Japanese characters, including kanji, hiragana and katakana, usually equal one English word, if they sell the honey that is produced by their worker bees by the word. Or if they don’t want to waste their genius on learning something about the product that they are selling, they might hire a few multilingual people to help with the management of translation projects – at the lowest paid positions, of course!

But a new breed of intrepid translation selling entrepreneurs is now entering the noble profession of translation brokers. These people not only realized that you don’t really have to know anything about foreign languages to sell translations, they even go one step further. They promise to be able to provide well paid work for people who really don’t need to know much about languages (or anything else) either as long as they “can speak a foreign language”. If you click on the link and enter your e-mail (a fictional one will do), you will be treated to several stories of anonymous translators (they will show you inspiring pictures, but no names) who make from 92 to 128 thousand dollars translating at home.

You too can make this kind of money, the blurb says, in the comfort of your home, if you “can speak a foreign language”. All you have to do is pay them 72 dollars to access a database of companies that can’t wait to start sending you highly profitable translation work.

But wait, that’s not all. There is a special sale on, today and only today you can become a member for 36 dollars! So why wait? Start making a six figure income right now!

Anything goes in the bulk translation market, and this is just another layer of the same market. Let’s try to identify some of the layers exerting downward pressure on translation fees in the bulk translation market.

1. Translation agencies in Chindia, but also for example in some countries in Europe, have been hammering the rates paid to translators for more than a decade now. There are countries where one can live on a few dollars a day. Why not base rates paid to translators worldwide on what one needs to survive in these countries? The textile industry has been doing exactly that for decades. A few hundred seamstresses have died horrible deaths, burnt to crisp in fires or buried under rubble, but the profits are absolutely worth it.

2. Blind translation auction sites online have been depressing translation rates for about the same period of time. When dozens of translators compete for the same job offered by an anonymous source (anonymous because the rates are so low that the agency might be ashamed to reveal its name) by trying to underbid each other, the rates are not much better than Chindian rates.

3. Many translation agencies are trying to acquire new customers by falsely promising them “technological solutions” such as machine translation or computer-assisted translation tools that will help them “save a great deal of money” on translation, or completely eliminate the need for expensive human translators. These technical solutions do save money – to customers who don’t mind receiving garbage instead of real translations.

4. New enterprises are being started (with other people’s capital), based on the idea that anybody who “knows another language” can start working for a new “translation platform” on the Internet and translate from home on a laptop or even on a smart phone, for example while sitting in the bathroom. What an ingenious multitasking concept … n’est-ce pas???? It must have been invented by a compulsive iPhone user (albeit clearly a monolingual one). The people who start these projects are not really crazy – after all, it’s not their money. Before the inevitable collapse of the enterprise, there is a good chance that a lot of the original capital invested by “angel investors” will remain in their pockets.

I could probably come up with more examples if my mind worked better this morning (or maybe you can). People are incredibly gullible these days when it comes to scams for selling translations and anything to do with foreign languages, which seems to be especially true about English-speaking countries where most people know very little about foreign languages.

As I wrote in another post two years ago, there is a company advertising something called “Pimsleur approach to learning languages as a revolutionary new method for learning a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying. The advertisements say among other things that our brains are “wired to learn a language in 10 days” and all we have to do is “activate this wired part of our brain”, which is something that somebody called Dr. Pimsleur figured out years ago to come up with a revolutionary new method to learn a language, any language, in 10 short days and without really trying. Selling this miraculous language learning method must be a very profitable business because I see it advertised on the Internet constantly.


So does the bulk of the bulk translation market weigh heavily upon the shoulders of this patent translator, you might ask? Hmmmm …… no, because it really has nothing to do with my work.

Last week I was translating a long legal brief from German, 14 thousand words. It was full of long, impenetrable German sentences in which one German patent lawyer was destroying (and thus showing off his brilliance) the technical and legal argument of another patent lawyer representing the opposition in a lawsuit over very complicated details of data transmission between mobile stations and base stations.

The technical part was easy for me, the legal part was more challenging. But at this point, after 27 years of almost daily practice, I can handle both parts of a complex legal and technical argument in German, Japanese, or French.

I am starting this week so far with two Japanese patents about optical systems using old liquid crystal technology. I haven’t started translating yet, but this kind of thing is usually a piece of cake for me.

I don’t know what other subjects the week will bring, but I am looking forward to it. The bulk translation market probably does exert some influence even on translators who have been working in their particular niche markets for many years, but this influence is mostly indirect and temporary.

After the dust has settled, highly specialized translators will still be here, long after most of the layers in the structure of parasitic and ignorant brokers, who seem to know so much about how to make money, and yet they don’t even know how to spell the past participle of the verb “pay”, has been erased from memory by the passage of time.


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