Conventional accepted wisdom says that rates paid to translators are low partly because the barrier to entry into the translation business is very low. Everybody knows that anyone with a computer and access to Internet can become a translator. Oh, I almost forgot, a prospective translator also needs to know at least two languages.
This last part is often added as an afterthought because knowing two languages is not considered to be such a big deal. In English speaking countries, very few native English speakers actually do know two or more languages, but that is because they don’t bother to “pick up” another language. “To pick up a language” is a wonderful English idiom that to my knowledge has no direct equivalent in other languages and cultures, possibly because people speaking other languages and living in other cultures realize that a language is something that you have to study constantly, for decades, rather than something that one can simply “pick up” like some unwanted garbage lying on the sidewalk.
On the one hand it is true that the barrier to the entry into the translation business is next to nonexistent. If you want to start a translation agency, you don’t even need to know several languages, and many translation agency operators and owners are proudly monolingual, at least in this country.
Here is another confirmation of the inaccuracy of the truism of low barrier to entry in my line of work: Every day I have to waste my time deleting from my e-mail dozens of messages and résumés of people that I call subprime translators who are hungry for work. Just about anybody who has a website or blog devoted to translation is facing the same avalanche of e-mails written in bad English from subprime translators turned spammers who could perhaps on a good day translate reasonably well a birth certificate from their native language into somewhat ridiculous but still understandable English.
But that’s about the only thing that most of these subprime translators can do.
I could use a few “professional translators” with “perfect translation skills”, which is what these poor people who send me barrages of spam with attached résumés claim they are.
But the problem is, the barrier to entry into the profession of a patent translator, for instance from Japanese, is very high.
You have to know your languages really well. You have to know at least three thousand very complicated Japanese characters called “kanji”, and most of them have two, three, four, or more possible pronunciations. Unless you happen to have been born and educated in Japan, you have to spend many years learning the complicated writing system. If you are a native Japanese speaker, in most cases you are not really translator material either because very few Japanese people can in fact write good English. I met maybe three or four in the last thirty years, and I met a lot of Japanese people in Europe, in Japan, and here in the United States because I worked for three Japanese companies before I became a freelance translator.
A language like Japanese is not something you “pick up” if you are a native speaker of another language. Although I started learning it 37 years ago and I have been translating it for a living for more than 30 years now, just about every week I feel like a complete beginner when I am trying to decipher an impenetrable Japanese sentence. Other languages may be a little easier in some respects, and more difficult in other respects, but the linguistic barrier to entry into the profession of a patent translator from any language is considerable.
But that is only one of several barriers that a prospective patent translator must be able to overcome.
When you translate for example a chemical patent, you need to know the proper terminology in both languages really well. A relatively small mistake in the terms that you use in English may render your translation completely incomprehensible. And let me tell you, the rules that are used to create the names of chemical compounds in Japanese, German, French, Russian, Czech and Polish, for example, are very different. A PhD in chemistry would help here, but only up to a point because no chemist can possibly know every specialized field in chemistry.
Another problem is that if you can only translate chemical patents, the chances are that you will not be really able to make a living as a freelance translator. You also need to be able to translate competently patents in other fields, such as physics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, biology, etc.
Last year, for example, I had to learn everything that I could about the concepts and terminology relating to forklifts and industrial vehicles in Japanese, German, French and English because I had a client (a patent law firm) whose client (a major corporation) was filing new patents in this field. And I also had to find a few Korean translators who could deal with forklifts and industrial vehicles because I myself don’t know Korean.
You also need to understand the legal concepts important for translation of patents, opinions of opposing parties and examiners, briefs and appeals, etc., in at least two languages.
So, to briefly sum up some of the real barriers to entry into my chosen profession of freelance patent translator:
1. You should be “native”, or close to native, in at least two languages. Based on the etymology of the word “native” which is derived from the Latin word “natus” meaning born, you should be born at least twice within one lifetime. I haven’t really met anybody yet who could meet this requirement.
2. You should also have a PhD, or at least a master degree, in a number of fields. A single field is generally not sufficient because you will have to translate patents from a number of fields if you want to be able to make both ends meet.
3. You should also be able to understand the legal concepts and terms used in patent law in at least two languages, preferably complicated languages such as Chinese, Japanese or German, as these are the languages that are very much in demand at the beginning of the twenty first century when it comes to patent translation.
Since the barrier to entry into my profession is so high that no single person can possibly meet all of the three requirements listed above, at least not all of them to the same extent, the most that you can hope for is to come very close to meeting all of these three basic requirements. I am sure that what I just said about the field of translation of patents from Japanese is also applicable to many other translation fields and many other languages.
Which is probably why, contrary to popular belief, the rates that people are willing to pay to competent translators are not really that low.