Posted by: patenttranslator | June 5, 2011

The Knowledge of Foreign Languages and the Ability to Translate is Wasted on Translators!

The French have a saying “Si la jeunesse savait, si la vieillesse pouvait”, which was translated, by Mark Twain I think, as “The youth is wasted on the young”.

How very true. The things that we could have done had we known when we were young what we know now. But we didn’t know anything back then. We had this incredible pull that was drawing us toward something that we could not quite identify back then. Now that we are no longer that young, we can identify just about anything but we no longer have this yearning for proving to ourselves and the world that the impossible is not only possible but the only thing that is really worth doing. Quel dommage, as Mark Twain would say.

I think that that quite a few people probably think that the knowledge of foreign languages and the ability to translate is wasted on translators, just like youth is wasted on young people. It would be so much easier if monolingual managers of companies could train people in a couple of weeks to translate for example Japanese, German and French patents to English the way they can train new receptionists. They could then pay equally low hourly wages that are paid to receptionists everywhere on this planet to these newly trained translators and sell the resulting translations at the same high rates to their customers.

It must be such a hassle trying to find suitable freelance translators when you are a monolingual sales manager for a large corporation that is offering among many, many other things also expert patent translations to their customers. Which must be why I receive e-mails from these managers, who presume to be managing patent translations, although I presume that they are basically monolingual and have basically no technical knowledge about various technical subjects either. In other words, they have absolutely no idea what they are doing, like so many managers in large corporations.

The e-mail is typically worded as follows:

Dear Sir/Madam:

We are interested in identifying a translation source with emphasis on patent translation for possible future cooperation. Would you please get back to me ASAP with some brief information as follows:

·       Language combinations in which you handle patent translations (and in which you can demonstrate patent translation experience).

·       The number of your in-house translators (please specify the language and the patent field  combination).

·       Proportion of total translation work handled that is related to patent translation/ the number of patents translated annually by you or your company.

·       Do you work with freelance translators? If so, how many on a regular basis for language combinations and patent fields specified?

·       How do you evaluate and qualify freelance translators that you work with?

·       What are your quality assurance (QA) processes?

·       Your capacity for translation of patents (words per week).

·       Use of Trados or other translation memory tools.

I never answer these e-mails, of course. But I often look at the websites of the companies that sent me unsolicited e-mails of this type. The last one I checked promised to save their customers 80% on their translation orders. Which gave me an idea about the rates that this company is paying to translators.

Another type of unsolicited e-mails that I keep receiving are e-mails from people in India and China who think that I am a corporation of the type I am describing above and who want to work for me. Every time I look at the statistics of visits to my website which is at, I see that hundreds of people in India and dozens of people in China spent on average about 6 minutes looking for information about what is it that I do on my site.

Unlike the corporate managers in the West (here in America or in Europe), these corporate managers in the East (mostly in India and China) don’t want me to work for them, they want to work for me. They always have an American sounding name (such as Joe or Sally or Harry), their English is sometime excellent (do they have good proofreaders?) and sometime kind of hilarious when they are from China and kind of stuffy/hilarious when they are from India. These corporate managers in the East  often say that they want to be my “back office” for translations, which I think means that they don’t really want me to make it known to my customers that they do the work. And they make it clear that their rates are very, very competitive, perhaps 80% cheaper than what I am used to now.

So I think that there must be at least three business models in this brave new world of translation business in the second decade of the twenty first century:

1. The big corporate office, usually located in the West, which functions as “the front office” and works with far-flung freelance translators who may be located anywhere in the world.

2. The new type of corporation, usually located in the East (India, China or Eastern Europe), which calls itself “the back office” and makes money by managing translators who work for peanuts in low-cost countries by adding a (modest?) surcharge to make ends meet.

3. Individual translators like me, who don’t need anybody to be their “front office” because they can find their own clients just fine, thank you, and get much better rates from their clients. They are also not looking for a “back office” because they know that clients tend to disappear when the quality of the translations of patents that they receive is so bad that they are not really usable, for instance in court.

It’s a big world. There is a place in it for the front office and for the back office types of businesses. I am sure that both of these types of businesses can be quite successful, provided that the manager sitting in the front office or in the back office knows a few things about how to run such a business, although he or she may not know anything about languages.

And there is a place in this world for people like me, translators who actually know the languages that they are selling directly to their customers without a broker in the front office or a translator slave working for next to nothing for a manager in the back office.

The youth may be wasted on the young, but the knowledge of languages is not really wasted on translators, although it may seem that way to some people.


  1. Hi sir / mam
    i am Atul kumar singh . student of hotel management . i am research about ( Q – knowledge of foreign language is useful work for front office ? ) please send me a sagestion .


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