Posted by: patenttranslator | March 10, 2011

The Invisible Translator Strikes Again!

There was an interesting post on the Thoughts On Translation blog recently on the subject of translators’ rates and the compensation potential, followed by an equally interesting discussion among translators from three continents. This mad patent translator® also chimed in a few times.

A somewhat pessimistic view of the future of our profession was expressed on that blog by Robin Bonthrone, who said among other things:” What I find disappointing is that there is practically zero research being carried out into the *economics* of translation, a subject that appears to be of little or no interest whatsoever to translation academics (maybe translation attracts the wrong sort of academics?). I can’t think of any other job or profession that is so poorly researched in terms of the microeconomic fundamentals and interactions. The translator’s invisibility strikes again?”

And it is true, other than the annual compensation surveys by ATA, which may or may not reflect the reality of an almost infinite number of “markets for translation”, I don’t know of any other research in the United States into the economics of the translation business. But how do you research something like that? What is translation and who does it? This is an infinite subject. Anything that has been written in one language can be and occasionally is translated into another language. Very different rates are paid for different language combinations and subjects in different countries. From what I can gather from anecdotal information and information available on blogs and online, the rates vary from about 1 cent per word 40 cents per word and more, based both on US dollars and Euros, if one ignores machine translation, which is not really translation at all and mostly free as it should be.

On the other hand, we translators all know what kind of rate we can get from a certain client, pretty much to the half cent. So which is it, is there an infinite range of rates and income potentials, or is there in fact only one rational rate, namely the rate that I am getting right now for my translation and that you are getting for your translation?

About 25 years ago, just before I launched my innovative and groundbreaking patent translation service, I met a translator in San Francisco who at that point had been making a living very successfully as a freelance technical translator from Japanese for more than 20 years. He told me the following:“People have no idea what translators do and who they are. They think it is an old lady working in the basement on a typewriter, and that’s all they really care about.” (This was back when people were still writing mostly on typewriters). Shortly after that I had the good fortune of getting fired for low-level insubordination by a stupid blonde from a really stupid job, which forced me to reluctantly launch my patent translation career.

Things have changed a little since 1986, but not that much. Most translators are still invisible and many are reduced to fighting over scraps of translation work posted on online venues that pay pitifully low rates. Sometime they protest, and they may even try to organize sometime.

But the problem is, they are still invisible. The people who pay for our translations, and I mean the people who order translations, not the myriads of brokers, probably still think of us as faceless and nameless old ladies working in the basement somewhere. We have progressed from the typewriter to computers, but so did everybody else. Does the world understand and appreciate our work now a little bit more than it did 25 years ago or 250 years ago? Probably not. In fact, “translator” was probably a much more prestigious profession 250 years ago, as there was no free machine “translation” back then and very few people could in fact translate.

Somehow we have managed to stay invisible for quite a few centuries now and it looks like the 21st century will not be any different. Sometime we do talk among ourselves on blogs, and some of us have websites, but most translators are perfectly happy to stay almost completely invisible and work for the middleman who will take his middleman’s cut, usually 50%. We sign long contracts in which we promise not to interfere with the middleman’s business and make all kinds of other strange promises, such as that if the middleman wants to sue us, we will gladly pay his lawyer’s fees. I am not kidding. Most contracts sent by agencies to translators seem to have this clause these days. The only thing that protects us from being sued, really, when we sign such a strange contract, is that the lawyers probably know that they would not be able to collect much if anything from us.

Instead of trying to figure out where the customers are, we fill out questionnaires sent to us by agencies so that they could then send a bunch of e-mails to a bunch of warm bodies and see which pet has been domesticated enough to offer the lowest rate if there is finally a job in our language combination.

It is a lot of work if you want to understand who your end-customers are and how to find them, or rather, how to make them find you in the age of Internet. We simply don’t want to work that hard!

So we stay invisible, and bitch and moan about the outrageously low rates that the broker and the public at large is offering these days. And since we are so afraid that machines will put us out of work one day soon anyway, we see no other way but to accept the outrageously low rates being offered today, before all translations are done for free by big, smart machines, who will soon be installed in the basement instead of the nameless and faceless old ladies who used to do translations there in the old days.

If armies of expensive lawyers have been replaced already by smart computers as chronicled in this frightening New York Times Article, how can poor translators stand a chance?

Which sounds like a great topic for my next blog.


  1. “In fact, “translator” was probably a much more prestigious profession 250 years ago, as there was no free machine “translation” back then”

    How right you are:

    “The money made from the [Iliad] translation allowed Pope to move to a villa at Twickenham in 1719, where he created his now famous grotto and gardens.”

    I doubt that, for example, Robert Fagles could afford to buy even a tiny apartment – let alone a villa – from what he earned out of his Iliad.


  2. I was paid about seven thousand dollars for each book about Japanese management methods that I translated in the nineties of the last century (that sounds kind of weird but I like the idea of throwing centuries around in one lifetime like confetti).

    I see that these books are still sold on Amazon and elsewhere.

    There was no villa in it for me when I was translating those books.

    Which is one reason why I stopped translating books and concentrated more on patents. It’s easier to make mortgage payments that way.


  3. Hi Steve!

    Very nice article! I have to say I’m not sure I agree with you on that. To me, you’re only invisible if you don’t do anything about it. As you know already, many translators are happy not to be too “visible” because it’s easier that way. I guess they all have their own reasons for that. To me, one of them is that some translators don’t value what they do. I myself regularly find direct clients even if this is really hard work. Many translators may not want to learn how to find these clients. I’m out there and I’m doing it and I don’t want to be part of the invisible translators crowd you talk about. It is also our job to make a difference. If translators don’t, they shouldn’t moan about it… This is true of any business, isn’t it?



  4. Hi Sophia:

    So how do YOU find your clients?

    Do you want to share your secrets?

    I basically use my website so that clients can find me, plus I get referrals from old clients.


  5. Hi Steve,

    Your method is great. I find most of my clients using networking and word-of-mouth. To me, that’s the most powerful way of finding clients directly and building interpersonal relationships with them. I’m no guru in that area but I totally believe you need to market yourself at all times. I also use Linkedin and Viadeo (for French clients only), I have my own blog (as you already know). There are many ways of finding clients. I specialize in art translations so I also focus on this niche to find new clients. Having a website is a good way of being visible and many translators don’t even have their own websites, which is something that really puzzles me… The only thing I know is that you will be rewarded for all the effort you put into your marketing.


  6. I created a twitter account and a linkedin account but I can seem to be able to figure out how to use them. I don’t even remember the password.
    I think these things were designed for an by younger people.

    “Having a website is a good way of being visible and many translators don’t even have their own websites, which is something that really puzzles me… ”

    So now I know why you called your thing Puzzle Translations. I was kind of puzzled by that myself at first ….


  7. Hello Steve! I don’t use Twitter (way too much information to deal with!) and I’d rather focus on one or two social networks. I guess with your experience in the business, your reputation is your best argument. I called my business Puzzle Translations because to me translating a text is like doing a puzzle, you have to understand the meaning, put the pieces of the author’s meaning together and make the translation convey the same global “image” as the original.



  8. Nice post, Steve.

    “People have no idea what translators do and who they are. They think it is an old lady working in the basement on a typewriter, and that’s all they really care about.”

    In my old translation project management days, the occasional client visiting our HQ would be genuinely surprised to find four PMs in a small office and not rows and rows of men in white coats (or little old ladies) frantically bashing away at typewriters. Of course, the agency was quite happy to silently perpetuate this myth.

    Given the low entry barriers to starting off in translation and the nature of the people that often pursue it as a career, I think it’s fair to say that many of our colleagues are not as business-minded as they could be. A number of people I know who went into translation did so partly to avoid the big bad commercial world whereas, ironically, we need to recognise ourselves as legit businesses in order to succeed, gain recognition and attract higher fees (just like every other business).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: