Posted by: Steve Vitek | July 9, 2012

The Real Barrier To Entry Into The Translation Profession Is Extremely High

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.

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Responses

  1. This is just the kind of attitude I wish I heard more often at translator meet-ups! You take pride in your work and the education/research it takes to become good at it. What’s more, you aren’t afraid to say so. Refreshing!

    Like

  2. Thank you for your comment.

    Refreshing is good on a hot, humid day in Virginia.

    When I got off my air-conditioned car, my glasses were completely fogged up today.

    Like

  3. Outstanding post, as always. Thnx for the Jennifer Rush theme, it was a while I hadn’t listened to it…Such a crystal-clear voice!

    Like

  4. I like Celine Dion’s version too.

    But I think I like this one better.

    Like

    • Absolutely. So do I.

      Like

  5. Excellent post, Steve! I truly believe that one of the problems in our profession is that anybody who claims to “know” two languages feels that he or she can call himself or herself “professional”, a word that comprises much more than having passed an international exam or being bilingual. The question is who helps to spread this idea?

    Like

  6. Very true… and also an example of excellent self promotion.

    Like

  7. Have we met before Steve? For a moment I thought you were describing me. :) Living in Turkey, Patent translator, undergraduate in chem. eng. and master degree in biotechnology. Still being underpaid for patent translations, mainly in the medical and pharmaceutical field and in genetic engineering. Have many fiends saying, “A bit broke this month, can you pass over some of your patents?”
    Love…

    Like

  8. “Just about anybody who has a website or blog devoted to translation is facing the same avalanche of e-mails …”
    ARGH!
    I’m still thinking to be a very, very, very subprime translator, as no one spams me
    LOL

    joking aside, your words are very surprising to me, as I always though that patent translation was the worst way to gain money

    indeed with a translation agency I worked to in the past, rates were very low, at least for English to Italian, so adding that I consider the translation of patents the most boring task ever, and I wouldn’t do it even if they paid me “a peso d’oro” (in English is “a fortune for that”, but the Italian wording is a lot more enlightening), I gave up very soon

    but may be that rates were low as I worked for a translation agency, and into a overdone language couple, instead for direct customers and Klingon to Sindarin, as in your case, may be ;-)

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  9. [...] 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 a…  [...]

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  10. [...] Paid to Translators Sign Language Interpreters: Recognizing and Analyzing Our Power & Privilege The Real Barrier To Entry Into The Translation Profession Is Extremely High Olympic Lingo: Obscure Words Related to the London 2012 Summer Games This Week’s Language [...]

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  11. [...] 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 a…  [...]

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  12. Hi Steve,
    I need your advice – I’m an American guy who is thinking of becoming a translator. I would have to learn a language from scratch. I would like to choose a language and specialization which would maximize my income potential. Which language(s) and area(s) of specialization (patents? finance?) would you recommend, and why? What is the most I could expect to earn as a translator, and how? Is $100,000/year or even $300,000/year possible? What would be the most efficient way to go about learning the skills I need to be a top-notch translator, and how long would this take?
    Thanks in advance,
    Alex

    Like

  13. Hi Alex:

    What is the most you can expect to earn?

    It depends on your language and your specialty. The most somebody like me can earn from translation after many years (more than two decades) is about 130 thousand dollars on a really good year. But on a bad year it can be easily a half of that. And there will always be good years and bad years.

    If you really want to make money and like and have a flair for languages, you should become a specialized translation agency. It is generally much easier to make money when other people work for you rather than from your own work. You can also be both a translator and a specialized agency at the same time. Many translators do that, including myself.

    I think it takes most people about 5 years to become fluent in a European language such as French or German for somebody who speaks English, about 10 years if we are talking about languages such as Japanese, Chinese or Korean, which is where the money is.

    You can cut this time period in half if you move to the country of your target language and completely immerse yourself in the new language and culture.

    I heard the stories about translators making hundreds of thousands of dollars, but I don’t know if they are true.

    I do know that most translators don’t make much money. According to ATA (American Translators Association) yearly survey, the average income of a translator in this country is about 60 thousand dollars.

    So some make twice as much or more and some make only a half as much or less.

    You should pick a field that you are really interested in, not just something that has the promise of mucho dinero.

    After all, if you are successful, you will be doing it for the rest of your life.

    Hope it helps.

    Good luck!

    Like

  14. Steve,

    Thanks so much for your reply. The reasons I’m considering a career in translation are:

    1) I’ve always been interested in everything international, including languages, cultures, history, geopolitics, etc.;

    2) I’m very much attracted to the lifestyle of a freelancer who can work from anywhere, which might enable the lifestyle I dream of, namely, perpetual travel, or dividing each year between several countries, etc.;

    3) even at the low end, the salary should enable me to live well enough if I live in lower cost-of-living countries some of the time;

    4) all the reasons you listed in several of your blog posts – can’t be fired, can work well into old age if I want, can’t be made obsolete, etc.

    5) I can’t think of a way to make money doing anything I’d rather be doing (just traveling and learning whatever I fancy, mostly).

    On the other hand, when I think of translating, especially something lucrative like patents or financial stuff, I imagine it being incredibly boring. Actually, I want to learn a language more than I want to translate, and I find learning about languages more interesting than actually learning a language. So you see I’m in a bit of a bind. So far, translation is the best fit I’ve come across, even though it’s far from ideal for me. So should I pursue it? I still don’t know.

    Starting an agency sounds interesting… maybe I should do that instead. But I guess it would be much harder with so many tough competitors already in the market, and a low barrier to entry. And I guess this would necessitate qualities that are not my strengths, such as networking, schmoozing, sales, people skills, etc. Next, how do I know if the translators I’m farming work out to are competent without knowing the languages myself? I’m sure there’s a simple answer, but there are a lot of things like this I’d need to learn… and how do I learn them? (I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions).

    Back to translating… is it true that you make as much translating German patents into English as you do translating Japanese patents into English? Because that’s pretty amazing, given that Japanese takes much longer to learn.

    I’ve heard that some smaller languages are equally lucrative – Flemish, Finnish, Swedish, etc… Supposedly they should pay similar to Japanese… do you know if this is true? And what about French? I know it’s a FIGS language (well, German is too, for that matter), but I recall someone in one blog saying that she made very good money (~$100k/year) translating French legal (?) or maybe it was financial documents into English… so it appears that specialization is at least as important as language in the earnings equation? Any idea where I can find comprehensive data comparing language/specialization combos and what they pay to translate into English?

    I’m more interested in Asian culture (food, movies, etc.), so would prefer to learn Japanese(or Mandarin, or possibly Korean, if the earnings potential would be similar, but I don’t know how to find this info), but on the other hand, I could start making money much sooner if I learned a European language, and there’s also the possibility of obtaining citizenship in a northern European country if I do that, which I’d really like to do, because the direction the US is going in really scares me, especially in regards to health care, the economy, inflation, taxes, unemployment, homelessness, crime, political and social stability, etc.

    So once again, I humbly ask for your thoughts and advice… hoping that this isn’t too tedious for you, and apologizing if it is.

    Best Regards,
    Alex

    Like

  15. Hi Alex:

    There is just too much in your comment to cover all of it in my response. I will try to go into some of the questions you have in some of my future posts.

    I will just mention a few points.

    Don’t think about money so much. If you don’t even know any languages, unless you are in your early twenties, it may be too late for you to learn a useful language such as Chinese. Even if you move to China or Taiwan right away it will take you years to learn it. If you don’t have talent for languages, it will take you longer than what other people would need. How can you know whether a career in translation is suitable for you if you don’t know any foreign language?

    Any language can be profitable, including the most popular ones such as French and German, or “languages of limited diffusion” such as Finnish or Flemish. It all depends on what market segment you pick and how well you can market yourself. But of course it is easier to find work if you know a language that is very much in demand and very difficult to learn. That’s the main reason why I picked Japanese 37 years ago. Lots of native English speakers know French and German, but how many native English speakers know Korean or Chinese?

    I charge the same for German and Japanese because my clients are patent lawyers. To them my rates for Japanese are on the low side and my rates for German are on the high side, but since they can use one translator for both languages, this is very convenient for them. Plus they don’t care too much about the rate difference because they don’t pay my invoice – their clients do.

    If you are interested in Asian culture, start studying an Asian language. You will find soon enough whether you like what you are doing and if you do like it and are still young and unattached, you can move to an Asian country for example as an English teacher.

    If I were you, I would not be looking for advice from other people that much.

    Nobody can really give you the advice that you are looking for because the answer to your of your questions is in yourself.

    Like


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