Posted by: patenttranslator | August 10, 2017

The Market Prophets with Big Dollar and Euro Signs in Their Eyes

I have recently read a number of blog posts written by translators who live on three different continents about the rates being paid in the translation business nowadays to translators.

They all agree that there is a big difference between the rates paid to some translators and the rates paid to other translators that are easily at least ten times higher depending on which part of the translation market the translator works for.

Which I agree with too, of course. There is no such thing as a “going rate” for “a translation”. There are many, many different rates for translation, depending to a large extent on two important variables:

  1. What kind of translation it is – or the famous “specialized niche”.
  1. Who is paying for the translation – which mostly means whether the translator works for a broker, (although it also depends on what kind of broker), or whether a lucky translator has been able to attract direct clients who are willing and able to pay much higher rates, partly because there are no commissions to be paid to a broker.

What I do not agree with are the nearly astronomical translation rates per word that the prophets with big, golden, shiny dollar and euro signs in their eyes quote in their posts and podcasts as feasible. Twenty cents per word is ridiculously low, they say, 30 cents is not enough either, 50 cents might be enough, but not really because a dollar per word can be done too, unless one aims even higher, which one definitely should.

It is certainly possible that on occasion, a translator can demand and extort from a customer a very high rate when the poor customer is under the gun.

But how long is such a customer likely to patronize a very expensive translator? No translator has a monopoly on a certain type of translation, regardless of how smart and good he or she is, and unlike certain industries, such as private health insurance companies or drug manufacturers in the United States, translators are not able to create monopolies and cartels and operate like gangsters, the way private health insurance and the pharmaceutical industry operate in the United States.

A certain wunderkind by the name of Martin Shkrelli, who also goes by the moniker “pharma bro”, was recently in the news because he purchased the rights to an old but important medication and then jacked up its price by 5,000% from $13.50 to $750 per pill (this according to Scientific American).

This is what Big Pharma (whose ingenious business motto is “Your Money or Your Children’s Life”) has been doing for decades in the United States with the kind approval of both Democrats and Republicans – who could easily make this illegal. For those living in other countries who may not know this, the mighty US government does not even have the right to negotiate drug prices with drug manufacturers. The mighty US government simply has to accept the prices, dictated to it by Big Pharma, at which pharmaceuticals are sold to it, to be then distributed to tens of millions of people covered by medical insurance programs such as Medicare.

Something like that ought to be illegal of course, and it also ought to be the job of our politicians to make sure that this kind of shakedown is and stays illegal, but the Ds and the Rs won’t do anything about the murderous business model of the pharmaceutical industry because then they would lose the money that pharma bros are feeding them.

Our highly principled politicians want to retire in comfort as multi-millionaires – and who can blame them, right?

But there’s a right way to jack up prices of life-saving pharmaceuticals, and a wrong way to do it. The right way is to do it over a period of several years so that most patients don’t notice it – until their house is up for foreclosure.

Poor pharma bro Martin Shkrelli did it the wrong way – overnight, which gives a bad name to pharma big and small (if something like that is still possible).

But let’s come back from hedge fund managers and pharma bros to earth, to lowly translators and to their pitifully low rates in the real world.

As of right now, I have seven patents on my desk awaiting translation with an (estimated) total of 42,500 words and a firm deadline for completing the last one no later than 16 days from now.

This means that I will have to sit on my ass seven days a week in front of my computer and finish at least 2,700 words a day to make sure that I will indeed deliver the translations on time, no matter what. Some days I translate quite a few more words, but then again I have to spend long hours proofreading long patent translations, which means that the number above is only an obligatory daily minimum. Plus I also manage other projects done for me by other translators.

And there have been months, like the last one, when the daily minimum number of words to be translated by yours truly was about 3,500. But if the number goes higher than that, I have to turn the work down, although I still do accept work that I can subcontract to other translators.

(Some translations of new patent applications are so confidential that I am prevented by some of my customers from subcontracting them.)

I have been religiously practicing this form of self-flagellation, I mean working at this pace, for about a year now.

I am not going to disclose how much I charge per word on my blog, but I will say that I consider what I charge a good rate for me … while still a bargain rate for my customers.

If I could raise my rates by a few cents to 30 cents (so now you know that what I charge is less than 30 cents), or 50 cents, or even a dollar per word … hell, I would do it in a split second!

I would then probably be only able to work five days a week like normal people and instead of an old Mazda with 112,000 miles on it and an even older Chrysler Town & Country (old, but it still looks good and it is very spacious and comfortable and the mileage is ridiculously low because we mostly use it just to go to the supermarket), I would have a brand new Audi and a gleaming BMW SUV beast in my garage.

As I said, if I thought I could jack up my prices and retain all of my customers and keep gaining new ones, I would definitely do it.

But unlike the pharmaceutical companies and private health insurance rackets in this country, there is this awful thing called competition in the translation market in the real world that I live in and I just have to live with it.

I know that competition is alive and well in the market for translations because most of my clients, mostly smallish and medium sized patent law firms, ask for a cost estimate when they have a new translation for me. They need my cost estimate because they too have to get it approved first by their clients, which is how competition works in the patent translation market.

I always add about 50% to the cost I usually charge, but I only offer it as a higher priced option for rush translation, which means that I will set everything aside and rush translate a document in half the time that I would normally ask for with a regular turnaround time.

Sometimes I get lucky and get to charge the higher rate for basically the same work.

But not very often, which shows how sensitive my customers – and their customers – are to higher rates.

Despite what the translation market prophets with the shiny dollar and euro signs in their eyes say about high rates in “specialized upmarket niches”, and my “niche” is certainly both specialized and upmarket, translators in highly specialized fields too have to be mindful of their competition when they set their rates, even those of us who have been able to eliminate the middleman and thus are able to charge higher rates to direct customers.

We patent translators get to charge maybe up to 30 cents, if we’re lucky, on occasion, for rush work, when the customer is in a pinch.

But if we want to have a constant supply of work for a long period of time, we can’t even think of charging 50 cents a word or more as the prophets are telling us.

I myself have been wondering why these prophets keep saying that the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to rates for translation in specialized markets.

So I asked another translator for his opinion, someone who runs his business the same way that I have been running mine for the last two decades – he mostly translates himself, but he also occasionally subcontracts work to other translators when he works as an agency.

You know what he told me?

He said (summarized): Oh, well, they just want us to admire their genius and envy them.

I suspect he is not very far from the truth.

Here are a few completely useless but generally harmless and enjoyable activities I highly recommend because they will instantly make you feel better about yourself:

  1. Deleting a bunch of files on the hard disk.

Deleting files can be so addictive!

I try not to delete too many files that I think are now irrelevant and useless … because how can I possibly know for sure which ones I will never use again? Plus there is so much space on the hard disk for word-processing files that it does not really make a whole lot of sense to keep deleting files that may or may not be needed again.

But every time I liquidate files it feels so good that next time when I feel lonely and unappreciated, which, sadly, is most days, I just go ahead and delete me a bunch of files again.

It’s an even better mood booster if I delete a bunch of files from a removable storage medium, i.e. a thumb drive, because unlike on the hard disk, the space on the thumb drive is in fact quite limited.

  1. Checking out spam emails at frequent intervals, generally at least every ten minutes.

 This is a very popular pastime for people who work in isolation on a computer and who need to come up with something to break the tediousness of the current moment of their hopelessly boring and uninteresting life. Even if we receive a somewhat important email a few times a day, it would clearly be sufficient to check email every few hours, or definitely no more than  every hour or so.

But it is so satisfying to find out every few minutes that no important message is awaiting me! This knowledge gives me an important boost because it feels like I am doing something productive, even though the more I do it, the more I am wasting my time.

But who cares?

Deleting unnecessary emails every few minutes makes me feel like I am doing something useful and important, which results in a feeling of elation that I can induce in this manner without having to resort to alcohol or legal or illegal drugs to feel good about myself.

  1. Checking emails not just on one, but on a plurality of different computers to have backups of emails one will most likely never need again.

Most emails that people receive these days (something like 99% of emails that 99% of people receive), are unsolicited garbage from spammers who send unsolicited garbage and viruses to people who might be careless and/or dumb enough to open such emails.

On the other hand, how can we possibly know how many legitimate, non-spam emails that were received today could be crucially important for us a year or two from now?

To play it safe, the best solution is to download emails that look like they kind of might be important at some point in the future to at least one desktop and at least one laptop (the more the better).

Even if for instance my house is destroyed in a hurricane, earthquake, or goes up in smoke as a result of an armed insurrection, one of the machines might survive the devastation, with all important emails preserved and intact.

This of course means that I have to keep deleting stupid and malicious emails from several machines many times every day to make sure that I will be able to find the important, preserved emails a year or two from now.

But this time-consuming and somewhat frantic activity also makes me feel so productive that I feel it’s totally worth multiplying it via several computers and highly recommend this frantic activity as one of my favorite productivity and self-esteem boosters.

  1. Keeping detailed records of all requests for price quotes, including those to which I know I should not even bother responding.

I suppose I could just send a price quote when somebody who looks like a serious potential customer sends me a request to quote a price for something, such as a patent translation, and then forget about it if there is no response.

Especially if the potential customer only has a hotmail address and lives in China or India, I know I should probably not even bother responding. I must have received hundreds of these over the years from Chindia, but I have never actually received a single job from them, even when I used to respond to these somewhat frivolous requests years ago.

So I no longer respond to requests from Chindia (because I know I’m way too expensive for those guys), but I still keep a record of each request, regardless of the origin of such request.

Otherwise, I would feel that I’d behaved like a damn racist if I completely ignored people who live in developing countries. It’s not their fault they can’t afford my expert services, is it?

The fact that I take these people seriously enough to keep a record of them makes me feel better about myself, and that is important to me. 

  1. Constantly checking the bank balances of all of my accounts every day.

I have two business bank accounts, a joint checking account (with my wife – so I can put money in it and she can take it out), and a PayPal account, which is a total of four accounts whose balances I generally know. But still, the good thing is that I can keep checking them at least once a day when I get bored working on my computer.

Since I am also already on Social Security, I can also check when exactly the next wire transfer is scheduled, as well as the amount I can expect.

The actual amount does not change because the government determined that there is no inflation (according to the US government there has been no inflation in this country for quite a while, at least when it comes to paying out Social Security to old folks who are on a fixed income.)

But the actual date changes because the wire transfer is made every second Tuesday rather than on a certain date, which gives me the opportunity to ascertain the actual date for the incoming wire from the US government as many times as I want to.

It is so satisfying to know that the money will be in my account on the 9th rather than on the 14th because the third Wednesday falls on the 9th this month!

I think I need to buy some stock, even if it is just a few shares, as long as they fluctuate in price, so that I can keep checking what is going on with my investment!

Most people who waste time every day on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and other popular social media platforms might not know that there are so many other creative ways to waste time for those of us who waste our lives, working or pretending to be working while sitting in front of a computer.

My hope is that my post today will give my blog readers some food for thought, and perhaps also a pointer or two that will result in inspiration leading to further creative and highly satisfying activities for which no social media platforms are needed.

We don’t need no stinkin’ Facebook!

There are a wealth of generally useless but highly enjoyable activities that one can engage in while sitting in front of a computer as important managerial activities that have the power to instantly make us feel important and good about ourselves.


Posted by: patenttranslator | July 21, 2017

The LSP Model and the Anti-LSP Model

Despite two decades of ferocious attacks by the translation industry on our profession, there are many of us who do not subscribe to the corporate mass-production model laid out for us by the translation industry. We refuse to work for it and instead are doing our own thing, independently of and differently from LSPs (also known as Language Service Providers, or Lame Service Providers).

I am going to call the non-LSP model the anti-LSP model and practitioners of this model anti-LSPers in my post today.

I don’t think it’s even debatable that most of us anti-LSPers are much better off, financially, emotionally and otherwise, than translators who obediently serve the LSP model and long ago gave up on the dream that is at the heart of every small business: the dream of becoming an independent, professional specialist who is free to pick his own customers and to determine rates and conditions under which he is willing to work, instead of capitulating to the translation industry and just doing as he’s told.

The financial aspects of what we do for a living, although they are not everything, are kind of important in this world too, wouldn’t you agree? As Woody Allen put it, “Money is better than poverty, if only for financial reasons.”

Based on what I hear, the anti-LSPers among us are doing quite well. Not all of the time of course, but more than just some of the time.

I have friends who translate various languages and subjects, who live in different countries and who almost never (or never) work for corporate translation agencies, or for the LSP model.

When I hear from translators who are working for direct clients, I mostly hear them complain in person or on social media that they are too busy and find it difficult to keep up with the demand. I certainly have this problem myself as I am currently forcing myself to work seven days a week and hardly have time for anything else.

When translators who work for the corporate translation industry’s LSP model are complaining, sometimes I do hear them complaining about too much work too, but mostly they are commiserating with each other about low rates, unreasonable demands on their time, and translation agencies (LSPs) disappearing without payment, only to appear later under a different name.

From a historical perspective, the LSP model is quite recent. It was created as a result of technology and globalization about two decades ago, while the translator-direct client system has been around for millennia.

What I am today calling in my silly post the anti-LSP model in fact has a very long tradition behind it.  St. Jerome for example, the patron saint of our profession when it was still considered a real profession, (before the LSP models started calling us translators “vendors”), worked as a freelance translator 16 centuries ago for approximately 30 years on his translation of most of the Bible from several languages into Latin for only one direct client, namely the Pope.

As there was no internet in St. Jerome’s times (not even fax machines!), he had to deliver his translations to the Pope in person, although it is possible that he had friends who were helping him with timely delivery, unless he saw the walking as a welcome break from his sedentary and solitary profession, which is likely, I think.

Did St. Jerome work for a medieval intermediary, an equivalent of a modern corporate LSP? I don’t know the history of the Middle Ages that well, but I sincerely doubt it. Most translators probably worked directly for their clients in the dark and backward Middle Ages when money was not yet speech and corporations were not yet persons … when in fact there were no corporations yet.

And we still have anti-LSPs in our enlightened modern times, although the LSP model is also very common, and some translators may even think that it’s the only game in town.

So how does the modern LSP model work, and how is it different from historical and current anti-LSP models? The LSP model is a system that is quite efficient at what it does – namely creating large numbers of translated words in a relatively short period of time based on a strict division of labor.

This is how the LSP model works:

  1. Owners of the LSP system are almost always thoroughly, proudly and defiantly monolingual people (especially in English speaking countries), who specialize in the fine science of buying low and selling high, or at least in buying as low as possible and selling a little higher. The great majority of the LSP owners actually don’t understand anything about “translation” per se and they therefore logically see very little difference between the division of labor at a McDonald’s franchise, for example, and at the new type of translation agency called an LSP – let’s not forget that large LSPs are also franchised now, just like fast food restaurants.
  1. Employees or freelancers working for the owners of the LSP model, usually called project managers, who sometimes know something about foreign languages, but usually very little and almost always absolutely nothing about the languages they are handling. In their defense, this is really not their fault because they are asked by their monolingual employers to handle any language, something that not even St. Jerome himself could do. These workers could also be described in the pyramid of workers supporting the LSP model as managers or overseers of the actual workers, who are called:
  1. Translators, namely the people who, although they are in fact generating all of the profit for the owners of the LSP model, and thus also paying the mostly meager salaries of managers or overseers employed in the LSP model, are at the very bottom of the system and typically have absolutely no say about anything.

The image of plantation slaves working on cotton fields somehow always comes to mind when I think about the role of translators in the LSP system.

Although a system with this kind of division of labor and separation and segregation of work and workers makes sense up to a point in the environment of a fast food restaurant, the system clearly does not work in the context of translation business.

The LSP systems works quite well when it comes to generating large amounts of texts with many words in a short period of time.

But the Achilles heel of the system is that it is designed in such a way that the people running the systems (LSP owners and managers employed by them), can’t tell whether the large amounts of texts with the many words generated by the worker bees called translators are translated accurately, reasonably well, or mostly incorrectly.

The system cannot work as well as a fast food franchise because unlike flipping of burgers at a fast food chain, translation represents a highly knowledge-intensive labor that cannot be divided into a few simple, interchangeable steps (such as making fries and flipping burgers), and then distributed efficiently among several or many far-flung translators toiling in respective countries on different continents.

Although this feature is precisely what the translation industry is very proud of and likes to boast about on LSP websites, I think that Pope Damasus II would have clearly recognized even 16 centuries ago that this would be an unrealistic way to go about to get long translations done when quality is paramount, as was the case with the first translation of Bible scriptures into Latin.

Why else would the Pope give St. Jerome 30 years to finish one job, when he could probably have found five St. Jeromes in and around Rome, parceled the job out to them and then have had the Bible translation done in six years, especially since what is now called the Bible was written in several different languages?

Another reason (in addition to the need for speed to keep customers happy) why the LSP system does not work very well is that translators are completely powerless in a system in which all decisions are made by people at the top, i.e. owners and managers who are not translators and who often know very little or nothing about translation.

Whether the creators of the LSP model realize it or not, the model they created, with its emphasis on maximum speed and the lowest possible cost of a production unit called a word unfailingly keeps generating lower and lower quality final products, frequently resulting in what is referred to with the technical term “total crap” or by the acronym “FUBAR”.

The final product created by this system does consist of production units called “words”, but the final product that is actually desired by the customer is not the same thing as the maximum number of words that can be created in record time at the lowest cost of the production unit.

Based on the LSP model, a larger, possibly somewhat urgent project – although who knows whether the project really is urgent, or whether the urgency is the result of a somewhat capricious decision of a mid-level manager in a widget-making factory – is typically organized by an LSP coordinator in the following fashion:

An LSP model project manager who needs to have several long documents translated on a very short deadline, (which is often completely unrealistic), dips into a database of translators conveniently available for example on the Proz or the ATA website and fires off an impersonal email to a dozen or more translators, such as the following email that I received a few days ago, as I am listed in the ATA translator database.

“Dear Translators

 Would you please confirm how many words you could take on from the attached?

Word count: see file overview

Deadline: 10 am, 2 days from now.

Thank you!

 Natasha P., Just Another LSP, United Kingdom.”

Natasha included for my convenience several files for translation in four attachments in PDF and Excel files. I took a quick look at the files and saw that there were many thousands of words to be translated per each file. I should add that I received the email one day before a major holiday in the United States.

I wonder whether Natasha realized that 10 AM in the UK is 4 AM on the East Coast and  1 AM on the West Coast of the American continent, which means that each of the translators that she “reached out to” (that’s how project managers in the LSP model like to put it because it sounds so dramatic!) in the United States would in fact only have about one day to translate thousands upon thousands of words during a major holiday when most people naturally want to be with their families.

Maybe not, because why would she set such an impossible deadline for delivery? Or maybe she simply not give a damn, which seems to be more likely.

But this is the way the LSP model works. Little details like this are completely irrelevant in the grand scheme of the LSP model. And if Natasha sent the same email to Japanese translators (this was a translation of medical documents from Japanese to English) who live in Europe, the United States, as well as in Japan, Canada and Australia too, how could poor Natasha possibly know which country has a holiday on any given day?

Did Natasha get the job done, I wonder? She probably did. There are so many translating worker bees in this world and they all need work, so they’ll just grab as big a piece of a job as they think they can handle and these worker bees in the end will get the job done, by hook or crook.

As I said already, the LSP model is very good at generating large numbers of words in a record period of time.

I used to be happy grabbing as many thousands of words as I could handle when times were slow while working for the LSP model myself for many years. There were so many bills to pay, I felt I had no choice.

Fortunately, eventually I did work my way up to being a practitioner of the anti-LSP model, and although this model also has its disadvantages, I am much, much happier as an anti-LSPer, and not only because I make quite a bit more money than the worker bees trapped in the LSP model.

I believe that now is a very good time for other translators to enter the translation market as anti-LSPers simply because the LSP model creates so much crap that direct clients are actively looking for alternatives to the FUBAR products that are so typical of the LSP model.

Although I did not realize it or give a name to it then, the anti-LSP model was the concept on which I instinctively based my small translation enterprise by trying to identify my own direct clients, which in my case are mostly patent law firms, starting about 20 years ago.

The fact that after so many years this little anti-LSPer is still here and busier than ever, while completely bypassing the LSP model, indicates to me that the anti-LSP model is based on a sound concept. I also think that, unlike the LSP model which aims to maximize profit at all cost by generating as many words in the shortest possible time, the anti-LSP model is applicable not just to patent translation, but to just about any field of specialized knowledge where expert translations of highly experienced translators are sought after, frequently required and reimbursed in accordance with their perceived value.

It is so much more fun working for the anti-LSP model, which is to say working for yourself. You still get to translate, and you can get much better rates than what you can hope to receive from the modern LSP model.

Are you happy in the LSP model?

If not, may I suggest that you concentrate on creating your own version of your own anti-LSP model that will work better for you?

Are your direct clients going to find you and are you going to find them?

I certainly hope so.

Good luck to you.

My obsession with mystery novels started when I was 16.

My sister had a friend, a sweet, chubby girl named Marcela, whose mother was addicted to mystery novels. Addictions were generally much more benign half a century ago than they are now in our modern, addiction-riddled society, especially in the little backwater town where I lived, behind the Iron Curtain.

Although Marcela and her mother, (there was no father, I was told), lived in an apartment less than 100 meters from our place on the same town square dominated by a big plague column surrounded by a fountain in the middle of the little medieval town of Český Krumlov in Southern Bohemia, I was too shy to visit them despite my sister’s frequent exhortations. (For those who don’t know, plague columns were built in Middle Ages in many towns in Central Europe to thank God for ending plague epidemic.)

Come to think of it, I was probably too scared to be alone in an apartment with three women for an extended period of time. It sounds a little intimidating even now.

So anyway, when Marcela’s mother, who I never met, found out from my sister that I liked to read, she started sending me books from her extensive collection of mystery novels. Every time my sister returned after a visit to Marcela’s place, she would bring new books for me to read and return the ones I had finished reading.

Marcela’s mother had a subscription to something called “Edice Smaragd (The Emerald Edition), a series of famous mystery novels, all of which were printed on special emerald-green paper – a revolutionary concept I found fascinating. The green color itself was the promise of an interesting mystery to be solved at the end of every book, a promise that, unlike most other promises, was never broken.

The special edition included some books by Czech writers. I remember for example “Smutek poručíka Borůvky (The Sadness of Lieutenant Borůvka) by Josef Škvorecký, but most of the books were translations from other languages: English (Dorothy L. Sayers, G. K. Chesterton), Dutch (Jan de Hartog), and French (George Simenon), among other writers of mystery novels in various languages.

My fondness for mystery novels has never really left me. One of the first things I did after I moved to Japan in the mid eighties was buy a mystery novel in Japanese in a bookstore in Chiyoda-ku near Tokyo’s Central Railway Station and read it.

After I returned to California, I continued buying mystery novels (always on sale), and I still do here in Virginia, although this time only with books in English. I don’t like to borrow books from the library, nor do I enjoy reading them on my tablet. I tried it, but it didn’t work for me. You could say that the pages of a book have the power to touch me only if I can touch them too.

Somehow, with tablets, PDF files and other intangibles, I have the impression that my feelings are not reciprocated, unlike with pages that let me touch them.

My house is full of books now—at least half of them mystery novels—so many of them that when I move next time, which will probably be quite soon, I will have to get rid of most of them, even if it breaks my heart.

Still, we hoarders of books have an easier life than hoarders of cats and dogs. We don’t have to buy food for our books, nor do we have to walk them, they don’t bark, don’t piss on the carpet when they get mad at us, and if we simply decide to dump them because we need to move and don’t have the space for all of them anymore, they don’t really mind.

At least I hope they don’t mind.

But enough talking about me and my obsession with mystery novels. Let’s talk instead about me and my obsession with patents.

What do patents have in common with mystery novels?

At first glance, nothing. But appearances can be deceiving. I see many interesting similarities.

Unlike other types of technical translation (device or software manuals, for example), every patent is a story with a beginning, main theme, and an end, and sometimes the story is as touching as a country music song.

Just like the authors of mystery novels, patent application authors work in an environment based on certain rules that must be adhered to. In a mystery novel, the rules can sometimes be broken in a creative manner, for example when the author identifies the murderer in the first few pages. But it hardly ever happens because that is not what readers want or expect.

Just like readers of mystery novels expect the novel to be guided by specific rules, national patent offices in different countries expect patent applications to be based on specific rules.

The application starts with a description of existing technology, usually called prior art, the problems with existing technology (and there are always so many problems with it, none of it is basically any good!), and how the new patent is going to improve the old technology, usually by saving us all a ton of money, improving the environment, and generally making this world a better place to live in!

Then there are patent claims that are supposed to specify exactly what these new improvements are and how they work. In Japanese and Chinese patents, the patent applications start with claims; in European patents, the claims are at the end.

Placing claims at the end of the document makes much more sense from the viewpoint of a patent translator (or just about anybody else) because claims are often written in such impenetrable language that one can understand them only after all of the concepts have become clear from the previous text, and all the equivalent terms in a different language, English in my case, have been identified.

The claims are sometimes harder to figure out than a really complicated whodunnit especially with patent claims in languages that use a very different word order than English and place the verb at the end of a very long sentence. While in English the verb comes just after the subject, the verb is at the end of the sentence in German and Japanese.

Patent claims also often contain what in mysteries is called a ‘red herring’ – false clues that writers of mystery novels use to distract readers, confuse them and send them in the wrong direction.

The red herrings in patent writing are anticipatory, all-encompassing definitions of practical examples called ‘embodiments’ that include for example ridiculous ranges of boiling points, melting points, temperatures, angles, materials and constituents, components and just about anything else. The ranges and many different possibilities are intended to cover the next potential inventions in which for example only a boiling point of a certain chemical is changed by one or two degrees in comparison to existing technology.

I am not kidding. At one point I was translating dozens of Japanese patents and articles dealing with pharmaceuticals, on and off for more than a year, where my client was mostly interested in one thing and one thing only: the boiling point of the chemicals.

So a really good patent application writer needs to fill the patent with a number of red herrings that would make it possible to claim a few months or years later, when somebody comes up with another minute improvement, that this improvement has already been covered by a previous patent, and therefore the new patent should not have been granted, or that it must be invalidated if it has already been granted.

And if the patent is not valid, there is of course no need to pay royalties to the owner of the patent.

Part of the fun of reading mystery novels or patents is looking for red herrings in mysteries and their equivalents in patent applications.

Patent translation is not for beginners. But if you already are a fairly experienced translator, possibly a technical translator who is staying away from patents because they have a reputation for being difficult, you may want to give patent translation a try.

Start with something simple – a patent that one can clearly understand right away, because those exist too. This is in fact the only way to find out whether you are patent translator material.

If you happen to be somebody who enjoys well-written mystery novels, you might be able to add patent sleuthing and translation of  patents from foreign languages as one of your valuable skills.

The problem with mystery novels is that, unfortunately, nobody pays us for reading them, while on the other hand, patent translation tends to pay a little bit better than most other types of translation.

No matter how enjoyable mystery novels are, in this respect, patent translation clearly beats reading mystery novels.

“In a time of universal deceit – telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

– George Orwell

“This is a man’s world”, sang James Brown in one of his songs filled with honesty and emotion back in the sixties.

If he were still alive today, he might write a song with the title “This is a fake world”, because we are now so surrounded by a fake reality that it is almost impossible to tell real from unreal.

My caller ID displays completely fake, made up names of people who don’t exist. The phone numbers sometimes begin with an area code from right here in Virginia, but that does not mean the caller really is calling from Virginia because all you have to do is to pick a phone number for any area in any country with a desired area code on the internet.

The result is that we no longer answer our phone when it rings. At least I don’t, unless I recognize the caller’s name and number.

I even hesitate to describe the people behind telephone marketing scams as callers. Scammers would be a more accurate description – why would they use a phony name and number, if it is not a scam?

Although there are real persons hiding somewhere behind a computer program who are somehow connected to a fake name and phone number, we are now being called by computer programs instead of by real persons – computer programs designed to call dozens or hundreds of people at the same time because the telemarketing peddlers of whatever it is they are peddling know that most people do the same thing I do: they only answer the phone if they recognize the name and number as legitimate.

My email inbox is filled with fake messages sent by other computer programs under more fake names. This morning I scrolled through 83 emails from email marketers before I found an answer to an email I sent yesterday to a translator.

The answer was there – I saw that she did accept the translation, but only after wading through all the deceptive junk. I need to figure out how to switch to a new email from my current one, the one that I have been using for the last 17 years, without losing contact with people who still use that email. Since I try to delete the spam as soon as possible, sometimes I inadvertently delete important messages without realizing it, and sometimes, important message are routed to the spam folder automatically by my anti-virus software.

This is something that must be happening to millions or hundreds of millions of people every day in a world that is almost completely fake. Young people don’t seem to use email much anymore, and most of them don’t have a landline either. My sons for example almost never email me, they use apps (app me?) instead.

Among the fake emails and marketing emails that I receive constantly, some of them asking me to click on a file with a virus hidden in it, are also marketing emails from translators sending me their résumés in the hope that I will send them some work.

Some of them may be sent by real people – usually people who have no skills and no experience in the kind of work that I do, but some of them are résumés of translators who seem to have real skills and experience.

But here again, there is a minor problem – they were stolen from real translators by predatory outfits created by people who live in Gaza, or maybe Hyderabad or Chisinau.

I was introduced to the concept of stolen identities two years ago in an interesting presentation of a speaker who was showing us samples of stolen résumés at a IAPTI conference two years ago in Bordeaux, France.

“This guy here”, said the speaker, “is a real person, he really is a translator, and he really has a PhD in nuclear physics”.

“But the person in this résumé does not exist because, although it originally was the résumé of a real person, it was stolen from a real translator and modified slightly, usually so that only contact information, such as an email address, was changed”.

Hijacking résumés of real translators of course already has a long tradition in the translation industry. Translation agencies, who now prefer to be called be “LSPs” (Language Services Providers) because it sounds as if they themselves are providing the language services, and not translators, have been soliciting résumés of experienced and well established translators for at least two decades to use them for their own purposes, usually to deceive their customers and make them believe that the people who translate their documents are educated, experienced and well qualified translators, and not the cheapest warm bodies listed among another 3,500 warm bodies in the agency’s database (although some of them are probably dead already).

I remember that about 15 years ago, I stupidly sent my own résumé and a copy of my diploma to an agency in the UK that was bidding on a big project and needed translators like me.

I never heard from them again, of course. Maybe they didn’t get the job, but even if they did land a major project, the résumés they solicit are used only for the bidding part and the job is then parceled out to much cheaper translators who may not be very qualified, but are cheap enough for the translation industry.

I never did it again. It is not a good idea to send information like that to people I don’t know.

The résumés that I delete daily from my spam folder are probably real if they are written clearly by people who have no relevant experienced (from my viewpoint), and if they seem to be from experienced and capable translators, lowering the chances that they have been stolen for nefarious purposes by outfits operating as “back offices” of the translation industry from low-wage countries.

In a world where everything is a lie, to tell the truth is a revolutionary act, as George Orwell put it.

In this world, even the relatively new means of communication that used to work for quite a few years, such as telephone and email, have been compromised to such an extent that we can’t trust them anymore.

The best and possibly only way to find a good translator now is to completely ignore these compromised means of communication and rely instead on what people have been relying on for centuries – recommendations from friends and people we know.

Nothing else can be trusted.



 About me

Over more than twenty years as a freelancer and a few extra years as an in-house translator with clients and agencies, I have translated and edited more than twenty million words in the fields of oil & gas, energy, legal, and IP from Spanish, Portuguese, French, and German into English. Originally from the backwoods of Salzburg, Austria, I now reside in Querétaro, Mexico, after many years in San Francisco, California and a short stint in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Whenever I am not translating, I like to take off to explore the more remote corners of the world.

Albert Rieger – Allingua Expert Translations & Language Consulting
Spanish – Portuguese – French – German
Querétaro, México

Have CAT tools had an impact on the overall pay of translators? Certainly, in case one blindly accepted the oversimplified rationale of the new agency model of full vs. fuzzy matches. Did they impact rates per se? I don’t think so.

At the same time, I am quite certain that computer-assisted translation tools did have a great impact on the earning potential of translators because CAT tools are just so symptomatic of what Steve routinely calls the “new agency model” or what I refer to as the “industrialization” of the business of translation.

I still do remember the times when translation agencies/firms were usually run by people who were either translators themselves, or non-translators who still had some foreign language background, or at the very least people who had more than just a superficial appreciation for what translators actually did or what translation actually involved. In other words, people who were aware of the “qualitative” aspects of translation.

Those were the days when I first moved to the States, and as a German speaker, what immediately struck me as sort of odd was the fact that the term Branche, as in Übersetzungsbranche, would be rendered as “industry” in English, as in “translation industry”, even back then. A business, yes, I thought by myself, but there was clearly nothing industrial about the activity, in my mind. This was nothing like car manufacturing or steel production, I mused. But hey…

But if the translation industry wasn’t an “industry” per se back then, it did not take a long time to become one in the truest sense of the word. Now, it’s an entirely different ballgame. By now, the “translation industry”, at least the mega-agency part of it, is run by people who don’t seem to have the slightest clue about translation, about translators, to say nothing of having any background in foreign languages. Needless to say, they would not know a thing about the “quality” of translation, and truth be told, they could not care less. Seems like this new corporate CAT/MT universe is entirely populated by business people, software engineers, mathematicians, and whoever not… anything but language professionals or, God forbid, actual translators.

And while there weren’t any industrialists in the good old days, there sure is no shortage right now.

And what these self-anointed translation industry leaders all do care about are the “quantitative” aspects of translation, which is really the only relevant aspect when it comes to “selling high and buying low”. With this mindset, it is really the only thing they can care about, even if they really wanted to care about anything else. The pressure of shareholders certainly doesn’t help, either.

So, for the quantity aficionados, things are actually very simple: a text is nothing more than a quantity of “translation segments”, which can be stored and then recycled as necessary. For them, the fact that a translation segment is already in memory simply means that it doesn’t have to be translated anymore, it just needs to be inserted, and voilà, that’s not translation, right, so why should the translator be paid a second time? And if something similar has been translated, well, according to this logic, that’s a “fuzzy match”, which should not be paid in full, because, in their non-translator world, it does not require the same translation effort as a full match. Simple as that.

When I am talking about the loss of quality, I am not only just talking about the aspect of whether a translation is good or bad. I am also referring to aspects which greatly affect how long it takes a translator to properly translate something… like extensive formatting, readability of the text, or translatable text interspersed with non-translatable English text which needs to be reproduced, anyway, or pre-translated elements which may or may not be correct in a new context. For the new breed of agencies, unless they are “translatable units”, none of these qualities or elements seem to matter… at least not when it comes to payment to the translator who has to deal with them.

For the translation industrialists, there are also no longer any words with shades of meaning and register, just “units”. Just like there are no translators, just “vendors”. I have yet to be actually called a “translation unit vendor” by any of them, but I know the time can’t be far off.

And with their extremely near-sighted view (if one can even call it “view”) of what translation actually is – for them, this simply means an assembly-line production of translation units, which unfortunately still requires translators as some sort of at best semi-skilled labor, hopefully to be rendered obsolete in the very near future – it should not really comes as a surprise to any of us that they have been pushing very hard to impose this concept of theirs, not only as the best one, but as the only viable one, really.

Nor should it come as a surprise that the ones they have been able to convince of this outlandish statement are mostly newbie translators who simply do not know any better, who believe that “CAT tools are the norm now”, which is a myth the new agency model is all too happy to perpetuate ad nauseam, despite quite a bit of evidence to the contrary.

Whenever agencies ask me why I don’t use CAT tools, I personally always respond the following, in this order:

  1. Stability issues with CAT tools: I am not looking forward to unexpected software conflicts and computer crashes with CAT tools, which have been very well documented, so by not using them, I avoid the risk of being unable to complete a project on time, which is paramount for me.
  2. Based on many years of experience and actual try-outs of different CAT tools, they offer no time savings for me for the kinds of projects I usually work on.
  3. Through “segmentation”, they interfere with my personal “creative flow” when translating and actually decrease both my translation output and quality.

All of these caveats actually do reflect my real-life experience with CAT tools, so it’s not like I did not try. And it’s not like I am making things up.

Curiously and fortunately, after mentioning these shortfalls to agencies, I have never had any agency probe any deeper into any additional reasons and motivations I might have, so I never had to mention the other serious concerns I have about CAT tools. It is probably a good thing that they don’t really know what projects CAT tools are actually helpful with and for which ones they are a waste of time (my point 2) and what the creative process of a living and breathing translator actually entails (my point 3). Something like that would require some knowledge of how a translator ticks, and that is simply not something which characterizes the new agencies.

In summary: CAT tools may have directly cut down on translator’s earnings in some cases and not in others.  But that’s not the whole story, and certainly not the most significant one.

I do believe that, indirectly, but much more significantly, CAT tools have certainly had an adverse impact on translator pay because, rather than being used to enhance the productivity, consistency, and thus the income of translators, which is how they were initially marketed to translators, they were quickly hijacked by the emerging corporate LSP model to line the pockets of a new breed of translation business operators (almost exclusively non-translators) and their shareholders for which only “quantitative” aspects of translation exist to the exclusion of any “qualitative” issues.

And while translators were and are still debating the pros and cons of CAT tools under different scenarios and circumstances, CAT tools immediately made perfect sense to the new operators: segments which had already been translated did not need to be retranslated, regardless of how inaccurate or outright wrong they were in any given context, period. More crucially, they did not need to be paid again, under any circumstances, and similar translations did at least not have be paid in full. And as long as this new business model could be strictly imposed on translators, or most of them, there was almost unlimited potential for increasing profits… those of agencies, mind you, not those of translators.

Keeping this in mind, I firmly believe that CAT tools were the actual killer application for the emergence of the new agency model, just like Lotus 1.2.3. and WordStar were the killer apps for the IBM PC. And in the process, everything else that was incompatible with this approach was stripped from the translation process, and the art of translation was downsized to a mere production of “translation units”, something that could simply be measured and then hopefully be multiplied, at best ad infinitum and into ever greater riches.

Unfortunately, as “killer” as CAT tools might have seemed in the beginning to translators, especially the way they were presented to them by CAT tool vendors, I can see that it is just now that many translators start realizing who is making a killing… and who is getting killed.

And that is something that has impacted all of us, whether we are actually using CAT tools or not.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 19, 2017

What Is the Proper Etiquette for Using Posts of Other Bloggers?

Is there a proper etiquette for using posts of other bloggers?

And what are the rules for translating online articles and blog posts and using them as examples for university courses? It seems there are no rules for something like that.

Shouldn’t there be a proper etiquette for profiting from somebody else’s intellectual activity? Some people, university teachers, for example, don’t seem to think so.

I was originally trained as a language teacher, first for Latin, and later for English and Japanese after I defected to modern languages. I have always earned a living by translating and interpreting several languages, but have never actually had the pleasure of teaching languages, except to individual students for pocket money when I was living in Prague as a carefree lad in my twenties.

So far I have never received a penny for my hundreds of articles and posts, most of them on various issues relating to human and machine translation, compensation of translators (or the lack thereof) and related subjects that I have been writing about over the last two decades in a number of publications, both on paper (Translorial, New York Circle of Translators, ATA Chronicle), and online (Translation Journal, and finally my silly blog).

I like to spend my time in this manner because I enjoy the feeling when my creative juices are flowing, and also because I want to have some impact, even if a very limited one, on my chosen profession and on what for lack of a better term is called the translation industry.

I thought that since I was writing articles without any monetary compensation – my only compensation is when a post gets a lot of views – my articles belonged to me and nobody could appropriate them for themselves, for example for money-making purposes.

But about 10 years ago, I found out from a phone call that some of the articles I had been writing for many years and for many publications, both online and on dead tree media, were being used for teaching language students at universities.

The phone call was from a young woman who told me that one of my articles was used by somebody at the University of New York in courses taught to students. She was one of these students at NYU who had recently graduated with a degree in French language and because she lived in the same city in Virginia as I did, namely Chesapeake, she wanted to meet me.

I don’t remember what the article was about, perhaps it was about machine translation. I only remember that it was one of several articles that I wrote for Gabe Bokor’s Translation Journal over a period of several years before I started writing my own blog.

So we met at a Starbucks near my house and decided to start a translators’ group in Chesapeake, and although the young woman eventually got a job in France and moved there, the idea of a translators’ group in Eastern Virginia survived when another young woman interested in languages somehow found out about me, probably from my articles online because this was before I had my blog, and contacted me to start a local translators’ group through the Meetup app.

Incidentally, this was the same person who told me that I should start writing a blog. Without her, who knows whether you would be wasting your time reading these lines now?

That group met here regularly for several years until this person, who was from Germany and lived in the US for only a few years, moved back to Germany.

Of course it is a major ego boost for me when a pretty girl, at least three decades younger than Mad Patent Translator, calls me and wants to meet at Starbucks (because I am such an interesting person!)

The timing is a little off – it would have been a much more appreciated side benefit for me a few decades ago when I was young and single, but what can you do. There was no internet then anyway, the only thing we had back then were … blind dates.

Another ego boost for me is when my silly posts are translated by bloggers who want to post them on their own blogs in their languages.

This has also happened to me quite a few times and my posts have been translated into at least half a dozen languages, including several times into Russian, Spanish and Portuguese. I seem to remember that there were also some translations into Arabic and Chinese.

The posts that were most frequently translated were a series of posts in which I explained the difference between real translators, subprime translators, and zombie translators, and the one about a translator’s disease that I call translator’s dementia – a very popular post a few years ago.

The more I make fun of translators in a post, the more popular the post usually is. Unlike interpreters, translators seem to be a forgiving bunch in this respect. But based on my experience, it’s not a very good idea to make fun of interpreters.

Here again, although of course I like it when people want to translate what I have written into another language, I don’t understand how they can do it without getting my permission first, or at least letting me know about it, preferably in advance.

Since even these rude translators generally always identify the author and include a link to the original post, which is how it should be, I eventually find out about the translation when the link appears on my WordPress dashboard. Some people ask for permission in advance, which is always granted, and then they send me a link to their translation.

That is in my opinion the proper etiquette, and I appreciate it when people do that.

But some translators simply ignore me as if I were dead already, as one Russian translator did last week when she translated an older post of mine and put it on her blog for other translators to comment on it.

Well, I’m not dead yet and it so happens that I read Russian! I consider this kind of behavior churlish and uncivilized, and I naturally have the same opinion of the people who do that.

I think that the New York University professor who was or still is using my blog posts, or the blog posts and online articles of other translators to teach classes to budding translators, should at the very least have informed the authors of the posts and articles about his or her idea for what to include in the curriculum for translation students.

And so should translators who translate the blog posts of other translators and put them on their own blogs to get some eyeball exposure and clicks.

That’s all I’m saying, and that’s all I want.

Is that too much to ask for?


Is Trados at least co-responsible for the wage theft known in the translation industry lingo as “full and fuzzy matches” and the resulting reduction of at least 30% in the rates being now paid by translation agencies to translators?

That is the question that I would like to pose to readers of my silly blog today.

Whether you like Trados and other assorted CATs and use them or not, or whether you find them counterproductive as I and many other translators do, I think that your answer would have to be “yes” if you take an honest look at what happened in the “translation business” over the last decade or two.

Almost seven years ago the spirit moved me to write a post titled “Friends Don’t Let Friends Use Trados or any other Translation Memory Tool”. When I wrote it, most commenters somewhat forcefully disagreed with me, many gleefully denounced me as a technophobe, luddite, or worse and proudly pronounced their undying loyalty to their beloved CATs in general and to Trados in particular.

As a positively mad patent translator who, inconceivable though it may seem to some, believes in the superiority of human brain over software packages and as a result refuses to use Trados or any other translation memory tools, I was the odd man out when I wrote the post. This is a position that I am quite used to and in fact enjoy due to my inherently contrarian nature.

There clearly must be something very wrong with me.

But that was seven years ago and things are not quite the same now as they were then, judging from the continuing popularity of this post and some of the views expressed more recently in the comments. At this point the post has had over 20,000 views and dozens of comments; at least half of them agreeing with my position that was fairly unusual and audacious seven years ago. It is one of my “evergreen posts” – every now and then somebody links to it for instance on Facebook and the old post starts piling on new views again. It had 276 views yesterday (out of a total of 475 views on my blog yesterday).

I think that even seven years ago, many people did not like Trados but were too intimidated by the translation industry to dare to express a negative opinion about this computer tool, a conditio sine qua non (an indispensable tool) in the minds of many, and in the minds of all inexperienced newbies for sure, given how conscientiously, diligently and assiduously the translation industry was pushing this tool.

The reason why translation industry was and still is so eager to insist on obligatory use of Trados is not exactly a mystery.

I used to work for more than a decade, since the late nineties, for a really good translation agency in California translating long Japanese biomedical and medical patents and medical studies for them at fair rates.

Then one day about 15 years ago I received a new translation order that I was supposed to sign and send back. The last paragraph of the translation order had me baffled because it specified the exact percentages (fractions) of the actual rate that would be applied from now on in every translation to something called “full and fuzzy Trados matches.”

So I called the person who sent me the job, somebody I used to enjoy working with for about a decade, to ask her what was this thing called Trados and what where those “full and fuzzy Trados matches”, because honest to God, I did not know.

“Oh, you don’t have to worry about that,” she said. “If you don’t have Trados, that’s fine” she added and proceeded to explain to me what these fuzzy and full matches, that I was told not to worry about, were.

But this formerly very nice agency that used to have quite a bit of work at fair rates for me for many years then completely stopped sending me work within about a year, presumably because they did find somebody who obediently agreed to be shortchanged based on the larcenous concept of “full matches” and “fuzzy matches.”

Fortunately for me, I was at that point already working mostly directly for patent law firms, and so far, patent law firms have not been pushing obligatory use of this particular tool that the translation industry is so enamored with (knock on wood).

Direct customers, at least those that I work for, never, ever ask about Trados or CATs, probably because they don’t know and don’t care what these things are. And why should they? What they care about is:

  1. How much I charge for my translations (because their customers understandably don’t like to spend a lot of money for translations),
  1. Whether my translations are accurate enough to be used as evidence in court, and
  1. Whether my translations are suitable for filing new patents based on translations of patent applications that were originally filed in another language.

I never asked, but I have a feeling that if they did know what these things called CATs and Trados are, they would demand that I don’t use them because they need translations that are the product of the brain of an educated and experienced translator, not the product of algorithms that by definition cannot take into account the different contexts of the patent documents.

How do you for example defend a translation as evidence in court if the translation is to a significant extent the product of an algorithm?

It is one thing if a translator uses CATs, even Trados, because he genuinely likes it and finds it useful, not only for generating as many “word units” per hour as possible, but also for maintaining consistent terminology.

Even I can see that, as long as the translator is in charge, as opposed to the software being in charge, CATs can be a useful tool for this purpose, although I personally prefer not to use them because I also see that these software packages have too many disadvantages for a translator specializing in the patent field, while in many other fields these tools are completely unusable.

But to demand that all translators use them for all translations, and then to refuse to pay for certain words in the text because they have been already mentioned in the text, which is what the translation industry is doing, has been doing for more than a decade, is theft of labor, plain and simple.

I think that if our associations of professional translators, and I am talking about the ATA (American Translators Association), UK’s ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting), Germany’s BDÜ (Federal Association of Translators and Interpreters), or IAPTI (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters), want to be worthy of the designation “professional” that they all like to throw around so much, they should make clear their position on the use of CATs public, and in particular their position on the use of Trados, which is so assiduously being pushed by the translation industry on us all, and which renders the official rate being paid to translators essentially meaningless for the reasons I have outlined in my post today.

Otherwise, I don’t think that our esteemed translators’ associations deserve to use the words “professional translators” in description of which profession’s interests they represent and serve.

For that matter, I think that it would be a good idea for the company that sells to translators the CAT tool that is now called Trados SDL Studio to also make public its own position on partial payment or non-payment for translated words that have been creatively identified by the translation industry with the aid of Trados as “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”.

I for one would like to know whether the company is on our side, or whether it is firmly on the side of the translation industry.

Posted by: patenttranslator | June 4, 2017

In Praise of Healthy, Wholesome and Holistic Laziness

A few days ago somebody called me to ask how much would I charge to translate what the caller said was a police report about the death of her mother in a certain European country. I was trying to concentrate on proofreading a long patent translation I had just finished the previous day and although I felt sorry for the caller, I did not feel like tackling a translation on this particular subject.

So I quoted a relatively high rate in the hope that the potential direct customer would keep looking so that I could concentrate on finishing the stack patents and then take a break.

And the caller probably did find somebody else, probably cheaper, because I didn’t hear from her again.

Yes, I am sometimes particular when it comes to what kind of direct clients I want to work for, although in comparison to translation agencies, usually not nearly as choosy.

Yes, I am definitely getting lazy. After working in the salt mines for 30 years, shouldn’t I be entitled?

Now, at the age of 65, (for some reason I almost wrote 35), there is no longer that much to play with in my free time…

I can’t really practice sports anymore other than chess, which I don’t play (too complicated for me), and romance went out the window decades ago when I weighed half as much as I do now and had twice as much hair.

What I’m basically left with are books & teevee when I enjoy an occasional protracted period of wholesome, soul-nourishing laziness. Oh, and thank God for Netflix, the Russian Probe (into a potential collusion between Donald’s election campaign and Russia), and other highly entertaining highlights of American politics!

Limited though my options may be, they are still better than work, I think. I do enjoy being lazy tremendously.

In fact, I’m so lazy now that I frequently behave like a prima donna just to avoid laboring for long hours on a long-term project that only a few years ago I would have literally killed for.

After I finished those patents I was proofreading, when there was in fact a longish period of little work, somebody called to inquire about my services. The call was not from a client or a translation agency, but from a headhunting agency.

The headhuntress, who kept calling me honey and sweetie, was so excited that she found me! She was looking for a translator to tackle a continuing translation job for an FDA (Federal Drug Administration) project in one of my language combinations.

Right off the bat I asked for a rate that was 3 (three!) cents higher than the rate I saw in one of about a dozen questionnaires to fill out and sign that she sent me. Oh, well, that should be OK, she said, since yours is a “limited diffusion language”.

I started filling out the numerous forms, but the headhuntress, who continued calling me sweetie and honey, kept mercilessly hitting me with new demands.

The check marks indicating my acceptance of the conditions must be in blue ink, she said. So I had to redo the whole damn thing in blue ink.

Your résumé does not show enough experience with medical translation. Can you do something about it?, she wondered. So I redid the damn résumé too to emphasize my experience with medical translation, in particular my experience with good manufacturing practices (GMP) for pharmaceuticals and with double-blind medical studies.

I have been translating these subjects from several languages for the last 30 years, but that still was not enough for her. She kept asking for more and more information.

She asked for and obtained my social security number, as well as consent to obtain my credit report from several credit reporting bureaus, and she also had to apply for security clearance for me because the translation project was for the government.

I was kind of wondering whether the blasphemous and heretical content of my blog might make me ineligible for “gobmint work”. I was also wondering whether the government understands the difference between a government employee and an independent contractor who works only when he is needed and when he has time to work because he also has other clients.

I tend to think that the government and headhunting agencies working for the government see this as a difference without a distinction.

At this point, I was getting majorly annoyed by all this paperwork and a continuous barrage of new demands on me, an independent contractor who, unlike an employee, has no guarantees of any work in the future whatsoever, not to mention employee benefits.

At the end of the process during which I was filling out numerous questionnaires with many items that should naturally be inapplicable to an independent contractor, the headhuntress had one more request.

She told me that I needed to pass an evaluation test administered by a translation agency that among other things makes money by administering such tests.

I know the agency because I have been working for them for more than 20 years, and in fact I am occasionally still working them. So I responded that I would do the test, but only if I got paid for it. But the headhuntress misunderstood me: “Yes, of course, you don’t have to pay for it, we will pay the agency for the test”, she said.

“No, no, you have to pay me”, I said. What I meant was that although I am willing to fill out a battery of forms, one of the principles that I live by is that I translate for free only for family members or friends and I do not consider a headhunting agency, or the government, to be family or friends.

I also said that I consider such a test to be a joke, which is why after 30 years of being in business as an independent translator, I don’t work for free and why I would waste my time on it only if I wasn’t getting paid for it.

The headhuntress was stunned that a mere translator would be so incredibly rude, sassy and cheeky as to call a translation test a joke and demand to be paid for it. Most of this negotiation was done by emails, and I was downloading the various assorted forms, filling them out as best as I could, signing them in blue ink, scanning them and emailing them back, modifying my résumé to better fit the job requirements, etc.

But when I refused to do a free test, she called to try to twist my arm and make me agree to do the damn test for free. I told her that I would be happy to work for her if she found a way around this particular requirement as it is contrary to my principles. Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot be asked to serve in the armed forces of any country, and experienced translators should not be asked to work for free, that’s what I think.

I seem to remember that she was no longer calling me “honey” or “sweetie”.

When I would not budge, she said during the phone call that she would call me again on Monday to see if I had changed my mind (this was on Friday). I might in fact have changed my mind had she called on Monday depending on how skilled she is at twisting arms, and she is probably very good at that. But either she did not call or I managed to miss her call on Monday.

So since I did not get to work on this new continuing government project, I blissfully lazed during the sunny afternoons, as the Kinks sang one of my favorite songs that is about 50 years old now.

I got busy again within a week with my usual bread-and-butter kind of translations, basically patents, patents, and more patents, which pay significantly better than government projects obtained through translation or headhunting agencies. I got so busy that I longed again for the blissful time when I had nothing to do all day for several weeks.

Few things are as enjoyable as turning down work, being lazy and refusing to take on new responsibilities when it is pretty obvious that somebody will come with new demands on my time soon enough – and if not, that I can live from my savings, meager though they are, for several months.

During those weeks when I was not doing much of anything, I finished three books. In the last one, Escape Clause by John Sandford, one of my favorite authors narrates a complicated saga about two Amur tigers who were stolen from a Minnesota zoo to be turned into highly prized products that are used in traditional Chinese medicine.

The male tiger is unfortunately killed at the beginning of the book and then dealt with accordingly by being processed into various medicinal products, while the female tiger, whose name was Katya, was kept alive to simplify the logistics of the gruesome process.

Three other people connected with this loathsome act were murdered in the book, including the elderly Chinese millionaire who placed the order for tiger body parts.

Throughout the entire book I was hoping that Katya would somehow find a way to get out of her cage and kill the murderous sociopath who was the mastermind behind the entire disgusting operation.

On page 272 Katya finally escaped from the cage, crushed the skull of the sociopath—who had been keeping her hungry for such a long time—in her mighty paws, and ate him.

There is nothing better in life than being able to savor a long period of healthy, wholesome and holistic laziness, when one finally gets to enjoy a meaningful book with a profound message, without being constantly interrupted by people who want to make us work for them.

Posted by: patenttranslator | May 24, 2017

What Is a Translator’s Means of Production?

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson


I sometimes receive despondent comments from discouraged translators in my blog’s comment section, who don’t know what to do because the translation business is no longer what it used to be.

Like this one I received only last week: ” … The yearly income of a veteran Japanese>English patent translator has been converging with that of an experienced American English high school teacher. This wasn’t the case in 1990 or even in 2005.”

Most people feel for laid-off workers who after decades of work in the automobile industry suddenly find themselves unemployed and unemployable, at least when it comes to their former profession.

And when a burrito vendor who used to make $300 an hour for many years selling fabulous burritos from his food-cart to Washington lawyers (who also make $300 an hour), cannot do so anymore, some of the burrito man’s customers will even cry as per an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “How Washingtonians killed a perfectly good burrito cart.”

As the article puts it: “It wasn’t just one dagger that killed the burrito entrepreneur. It was one after another, after another.”

“Back in his heyday, from about 2007 to 2011, Rider [the burrito maker and vendor] says his one-man cart might bring in $1,000 in an afternoon. In 2007, Washingtonian magazine reported that Rider—who is notoriously tight-lipped about his finances—made enough from his burrito cart to afford a vacation home and then some.”

But now, he can’t pay the rent on his house.

It so happens that a burrito place, a hole-in-the-wall kind of thing, opened about three years ago next to a tiny Foodmart and a rather desolate looking gas station where I sometimes stop to get gas for my car.

So I stop there now and then to get gas and a burrito, and sometimes only a burrito. The last time I tried to do that was a Sunday, but then I went for a burger instead because a line of about twenty people was snaking throughout the entire store and I did not want to wait.

The guy who owns the restaurant works there with two young, Hispanic looking dudes. On weekdays when the place is not that busy, he sometimes works there by himself. His prices are not low, higher than most other burrito places, I would say. But he uses fresh, organic ingredients and free-range chicken with special hot sauces and he knows a lot about how to make the perfect burrito, salsa and quesadillas because he spent years in Central America perfecting his foreign language skills and his chosen trade.

So in contrast to the article from Washington Post, what is happening in my neighborhood seems to contradict the notion that the days of burrito carts, stands and restaurants are over. You can read reviews of this tiny restaurant that opened recently near a rather ugly looking gas station on Yelp here.

Millions of manufacturing jobs have been sent to low-wage countries, because capital always has and always will follow low wages and lower manufacturing costs like a salivating dog will always follow the wonderful aroma of a piece of bacon.

The translation industry, inspired by the example of the manufacturing industry, has been trying to outsource as many translation work as possible – work that used to be performed by highly qualified, experienced translators in Western countries, to low-cost countries in Europe, Asia and Africa for many years now.

This is one reason why the profits of large translation agencies have grown dramatically over the last two decades, while incomes of freelance translators have been falling precipitously.

But unlike the car industry, the translation industry has a big problem when it comes to outsourcing translations to poorer countries: it is much easier to train blue-collar workers in Vietnam, for example, to manufacture car parts while using the latest car manufacturing technology, than to train Vietnamese, Chinese or Moldovan translators to translate for example complicated German, French or Japanese patents into English.

Although the translation industry has been trying to do just that for many years, the main result is that the market for specialized translations is now drowning in what I call “subprime” translations because these translations can be provided (with a few exceptions) only by highly educated and experienced translators who are native speakers of Western languages, English in particular.

In the field of patent translation, subprime translations are translations that are not reliable as they contain unnoticed mistakes due to the manner in which these translations were created: either with “language tools” such as machine translations that are later edited by cheap, unqualified hired help, or by using an equally cheap labor force of “translators” who have no business translating highly complicated technical and legal documents.

One reason for the falling quality of translations is that many translation agencies located in low-cost countries in Asia (collectively known as Chindia), or in Europe (such as in Moldova) now specialize in working as subcontractors for translation agencies located in Western countries.

I know this because these sub-sub-(sub?)-contractors regularly send me offers to ‘cooperate’ with me as they put it. They proudly list agencies that are already ‘cooperating’ with them, and the long list of large translation agencies attached to their emails reads like a directory of who’s who in the translation industry.

These big agencies, the movers and shakers of our beloved translation industry, are the ones who have been paying lower and lower rates, while making translators wait at least two months to get paid based on demeaning and unfair agreements containing many thousands of words. They are the ones who use Trados so that translators are not paid for repeated or similar words (called in the creative agency lingo ‘full matches’ and ‘fuzzy matches’), and who also force translators to sign away copyright to an intellectual product called translation, which is then supposed to become the inalienable property of the agency intermediaries, without the knowledge or consent of the actual clients who paid the agencies for the translations.

But the good news is that this sad situation (sad from the viewpoint of the clients of such translation agencies, the clients who are, perhaps unwittingly, paying for subprime translations), also creates new opportunities for individual translators who want to work for direct clients without the intermediary of mega agencies.

Nobody cries when another translator hits the dust because the rates paid to translators by the translation industry have been slashed in the “bulk translation market” during the last 10 or 15 years by about a third. Nobody will even know about it, outside of the family and perhaps a few friends of a previously busy and prosperous translator.

But there is no reason to cry if we realize that we don’t have to continue working for this new incarnation of the translation industry.

Just like there will always be a demand for good and well priced (and not necessarily cheap) Mexican food, despite sad human interest stories so frequently published in our newspapers, there will always be a demand for good (and not necessarily cheap) expert translations.

In that respect, translators have a major advantage over blue collar workers. Times are changing, but then again, they have always been changing and they will always keep doing that.

If we are able to change with the times, we should be ok, whether we translate patents or sell burritos for a living.

If we can’t change, or refuse to do so because we are too busy complaining about how unfair it is (even though it is unfair), we will bite the dust just like the American automobile industry workers (or should I say the workers of the former American automobile industry?), except that nobody will feel sorry for us when we lose our jobs.

But if we can figure out how to market ourselves to direct clients and make contacts with new clients who are looking precisely for the specialized translation services that the translation industry is unable to provide, and that we have been offering for years, but only to translation agencies, we will survive the conditions created by the current form of the translation industry.

To do that, we have to become specialists in our translation field, not just word mongers selling word units to intermediaries—some at deep discount—which is how the translation industry sees us.

The former American automobile industry workers cannot work without a means of production that is owned by somebody else – a plant with lots of robots and costly machinery in it.

But translators don’t need a means of production that is owned by somebody else because our means of production is called … a human brain.

It is up to us whether we will let ruthless intermediaries use the means of production that we possess for their own purposes and at the lowest possible cost for them, or whether we will use it for our own purposes independently of the translation industry.


After more than a year, I went to Burrito Perdido today for lunch. It was a weekday, not very busy – there were only three other guests there besides me. But the owner no longer works there, not even on weekdays. Instead, he had three other workers handling the business, one Mexican woman who takes care of cooking, and two pretty teenage girls who take care of the customers, all three no doubt working for minimum wage.

I also thought that unlike in the past, the chicken burrito was much skimpier on the chicken.

In terms of the translation industry, I think it could be said that the guy became the equivalent of a small, specialized translation agency, successfully competing with a whole bunch of fast-food joints (McDonalds, Hardee’s, as well as with the franchise chain of Mexican restaurants called La Cantina),  located within two or three minutes from the restaurant (by car), which can represent the equivalent of large translation agencies for the purposes of this post.

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