Posted by: patenttranslator | June 26, 2011

How Much Is Your Translation Worth?

Is it 10 cents a word, or 20 cents a word or more?

That may be what it is worth to you if that is what you get for it. But how much is it really worth?

Well, if you work for translation agencies, it is worth at least twice as much as what you get for it because the agencies will resell it for about twice as much as what they buy it for (in 30 days, or maybe in 60 days or whenever they get around to it, depending on the agency). But I think that the real worth of a translation is usually much more than the money that is paid for it.

I translated a few personal documents from French last month for a guy who had a really hard time finding a French translator because he never uses computers and none is listed in the Yellow Pages here (he is sixty, although he lied to me about his age). Because he is very religious, he prayed a lot he said and finally, as a result of his prayers no doubt, a friend of his who did not pray at all but who does know how to use a computer found my website and the guy showed up at my house. It took him only 30 minutes to drive here from Norfolk, as God and his guarding angels must have been protecting him on the highway.

So anyway, this guy, who is sixty but looks much younger, married two months ago a Haitian woman who is 30 years younger than him and now he needs to prove to Immigration that she really is his wife in order to bring her here. Without my translation, he might never be reunited with his new wife here in Virginia and get a chance at a new start in life. You don’t get too many chances like that when you are sixty, even if you look much younger. I am sure that my translation was worth much more to him than the 150 dollars that I charged for it.

Let’s use another example. This week I was translating in addition to two Japanese patents also e-mails of Japanese sales people which are used as evidence in antitrust litigation. E-mails like that can be very difficult to translate for a number of reasons because the sales people understand very well that certain things should not be expressed clearly in documents that could be subpoenaed later, and the Japanese language is a perfect instrument if you want to use it as a system of smoke signals that can be interpreted only by people who know the code for interpreting these smoke signals.

Every time when I work on antitrust litigation projects like this, I am under a major time pressure because the lawyers always need the translations ASAP. For instance, right now I have a deadline of 10 days for two Japanese patents that I have not finished yet, a total of about 7 thousand words. The deadline on the e-mails, also a total of about 7 thousand words, was 2 days. I did finish the translation on time but I was really exhausted at the end of the second day. How much are my translations and those of other translators who were working on this project worth under these circumstances? If these translations are not obtained or if they are incorrect, nothing can be proven in a court of law and corporations are free to manipulate the market even more than they already do. Yet, few people realize that translators play such an important role under very difficult circumstances in these cases.

The longest project that I was working on this month was a long German patent, about 23 thousand words, which had to be translated in order to file the same patent in English. Anybody can “translate” a patent that is 23 thousand words long from German to English with a few mouse clicks now using machine translation. Yet, although machine translations of patents can be obtained for free, human translators are paid thousands of dollars to translate these texts because patent lawyers need a real, accurate translation in order to file the same patent application in English. How much money is involved in this case, for instance in patent licensing fees? How much money will a company lose if the new patent application in another language is incorrect because it is based on a mistranslation?

Nobody pays much attention to translators and translations, but the fact is, the modern world could not function without us at all. It would be an interesting world indeed if everybody simply just used machine translation for communicating with people who speak another language.

Nothing would work in this world where national boundaries are so nineteenth century.

The tower of Babel that this world would become without translators who toil, day after day, usually in obscurity and often for peanuts, is simply too scary to even contemplate.

Although it is an idea that could be used for a new script for a movie that could be called The Invention of Human Translation, and Ricky Gervais could play the title role. It would be sort of a sequel to The Invention of Lying.


  1. I don’t know why you use such a mocking tone for the older gentleman’s faith…it seems obvious to me that his prayers were answered and things are going well for him.


  2. I reserve the right to use a mocking tone for anything that I find funny.


    • True, but we all reserve the right to look objectively at what you say. I just made the statement, “I don’t know why you used” the tone. There is a reason for everything.


  3. And here I thought you actually wanted to know why I used a mocking tone.


  4. Actually, one of the things that interests me is the tone used by people when they are interacting in public forums. It is my contention that it would be more useful for the common good if everyone tried to ramp it down to be more civil. I am not taking sides, but I do think that people should be respected; I also think that your client deserves respect and that your tone set him up–albeit behind his computer-phobic back–for ridicule, which I think is unprofessional.

    Among other things, I am interested in the subliminal-level additions to translations, those made outside the knowledge of the source text client, and that would include tone. I doubt that you added anything subliminal to this fellows translation, but it happens; and you expose a bias in your comments that, while fitting within your rights as a blogger, would not commend your translational services to me for any sort of future work.

    Since you continued the discussion, I felt like I could respond. I do like and read the blog and appreciate receiving it.


  5. We all have biases which are based on our experience, education, gender and other particulars.

    For what it is worth, I would not want to have you for a client either.

    I am happy to leave clients who look for subliminal meanings in my translations to other translators.


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