Posted by: patenttranslator | May 9, 2011

If You Were a Cow, Would You Rather Be a Cow With No Name or a Cow That Has a Name?

I was watching a documentary on German TV about small farmers and winemakers in Slovenia yesterday. A bald, tall dude in his fifties who owns a small winery and rides a motorbike around his vineyard to check on his beloved vines was explaining with a great deal of passion the difference between factory farming and small farms. “Small farmers here have about 20 to 25 cows”, he said. “And every cow has a name. The milk tastes different than the milk from the supermarket, and it also smells different. It smells like real milk.”

Small family farms have been mostly replaced in America by huge corporate agribusinesses. Animals are mostly kept in darkness in buildings or in small pens and fed twice a day to maximize the profit, except perhaps for a few fortunate “free cows” who are still allowed to roam free and graze in dude ranches under the wide blue skies of Montana.

Large translation agencies are trying to recreate the model of agribusiness corporations also in the translation industry for the same reason – in order to maximize the profit. Translators are asked to fill out detailed forms and questionnaires so that they could be included in large databases with other translators. If their rate is competitive enough, the same translators are asked again to sign a “Non-Disclosure Agreement” which often runs more than three thousand words. One fairly recent addition to these agreements is a stipulation that the translator must use certain computer-assisted translation (CAT) software, usually Trados, so that the translator could be paid a much lower rate for repetitions of the same or similar words or phrases or passages.

Another recent stipulation is that “intellectual property” created by a translator while working on a project for “the Company” is the property of “the Company”. I think that this probably means that if I figure out that the best translation for the Japanese words 制約なし最適化法 [seiyaku nashi saitekikaho] would be “a method of unconstrained optimization” while working on a short job for an agency, the agency now somehow owns the intellectual property rights to the connection between the Japanese words and the English translation and vice versa. Is this an attempt to transplant the principle of genetic engineering from agribusiness practices to the translation industry? Incidentally, agricultural products modified with genetic engineering must be labeled as such in countries belonging to European Union. I understand that in the United States, there is actually a law prohibiting such labeling.

Some translators, probably the majority of them, have given up and they sign everything and anything somebody will throw at them with a promise of some unspecified future work in some unspecified future. I don’t know if the term freelance translator can be still applied to such people. I don’t think so. The darkest “veal pen”, in my opinion, is now being created for “translators” whose job will be “editing” of the product of machine translation. Obviously, if you could use hardware and software to translate enormous amounts of words and then have human translators rework at a low hourly rate the garbage obtained from the hardware and software so that the thing would actually make sense, there’s gold in them thar hills for whoever can make such a model work. I don’t think it will work, and I feel really sorry for people who want to do something like that for a living.

But unlike the family farm, the freelance translator is not quite dead yet, whether in America, Europe, or elsewhere. The translation industry is so fragmented that even the largest translation agencies are really quite minor players competing with many thousands of other players. A certain percentage of freelance translators are still freelance, they don’t sign demeaning feudalistic contracts, and many of them prefer not to use CATs at all. One advantage of not using any CATs is that you don’t have to haggle about the rates of compensation for repeated words and passages also referred to as “matches and fuzzy matches”. I wonder what is the percentage of translators who dare to ignore computer assisted translation the same way translators ignore voice recognition, for instance, which is also something that was supposed to make it possible to translate at a much higher speed.

Some translators have even discovered that they don’t actually have to work for large agencies at all. A distinct minority of translators works mostly or only for direct clients without the intermediary of a broker, which is all that an agency is, of course. There are also many small translation agencies with people in them who know the name of every translator in their stable of translators, just like a farmer on a small farm knows the name of every horse and every cow in his stable of animals.

If I were a cow, I would want to be living on a small farm where the owner knows my name.

I am a translator, not a cow, I know that much. But if I work for an agency, I want the people who make profit from my work to know my name too. I don’t want to be listed in a huge database of profit units formerly known as translators. If an agency sends me long, one-sided agreements and insists that I sign everything and use something like Trados so that they could pay me less for “fuzzy matches”, well, that is a veal pen model that I am just not interested in at all.

And unlike cows, translators do have a choice.



  1. I know that when I was working as an engineer, the company employing me had the rights to any engineering intellectual property I might develop. It is and has been a standard of the work place for engineering types as long as I’ve been in the business.

    This included on and off the clock.


    • But I am not an employee.

      And I did not even know that what I was creating was intellectual property.

      I though I was just translating.

      But now somebody wants to own what’s in my head.


  2. Very well said, MPT, particularly with regard to IP clauses. I have noticed these clauses creeping into the agreements of agencies that I previously had good relationships with. Very depressing, and I simply cannot conceive how anyone who considers themselves an independent professional can sign such a thing. (*Especially* those of us who use CAT tools, since a blanket surrender of copyright makes the use of a TM across projects legally problematic.)


    • The obvious answer would be to cross out objectionable parts of non-disclosure agreements.

      I used to do that a lot.

      But now I see agreements like that as a sign that these are clowns that I don’t want to work for (as a cow with a name).


  3. @Warner, I think IP agreements are reasonable in an employment relationship. They make a lot less sense for freelancers, however, since we get none of the perks of employment and depend on our competitiveness to survive. And competitiveness is the core issue: if by signing an agreement I become legally obligated to comb through *any* translation I do to make sure it isn’t impermissibly similar to a translation I did for some other agency, that obligation makes me significantly less competitive — in fact, it may compel me to offer the second client an inferior translation.

    I would argue that these clauses are, in their effect, restrictive covenants that would be unenforceable in most US jurisdictions — but not many freelancers would have the resources to challenge them.


  4. Not only is it not legally enforceable, it’s not even practically possible to do something like that.

    I don’t really understand what the real purpose of the clauses about who owns intellectual property (what intellectual property?) is.

    If I know a correct set of technical terms in English for certain concepts that were originally expressed in Japanese or another language, I am the one who owns this knowledge, not a broker that I might have been working for at one point. The connection is in my head and the broker is not even able to determine whether this connection is valid or not because this broker would have to know everything that I know in order to make this determination.


  5. Thumbs up, Steve! I love the analogy with the small farms and industrial agriculture. The latter is also a major source of pollution, and the analogy holds there as well 🙂


  6. Thanks, man.

    I do it for the tweets. It’s got 12 tweets already after less than a day.

    Do you want to write an article about German patents for my blog?


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