Posted by: patenttranslator | July 1, 2011

Do Translators Get “Stiffed” More or Less Than Other Professions?

A few months ago, my son backed his car out of our garage without checking first the rear view mirror. There was only a minimal damage to the car, but the door had to be replaced. The look on his face when he was announcing the bad news to me was something to behold. It was the same look that he used to give me when he was 5 years old and he knew that he had done something really, really bad and there was no way to hide it.

So I called a company that installs new garage doors and a guy came promptly the next day. A new door was “only” 700 dollars, exactly what I thought it would cost.

I sometime try to strike up a conversation with people who come to my house to fix things. Freelance translators are sort of really isolated from the real world. We basically live on the Internet. Our blogs may be read from Montreal to Kuala Lumpur, but we usually have no idea what is going on just around the corner because we don’t really have to get out too much into the real world.

So I try to talk to the world a little bit when the world comes to me on similar occasions. I had an interesting discussion with the kid who installed my satellite TV a few years ago about education policies in US and other countries. His mom was from Morocco and she moved back there, he said, although according to statistics, Morocco is a very poor and dangerous place to live. But his mom clearly preferred Morocco to Virginia. There was a couple of  dudes in blue overalls who came to our house to fix my bathtub. I did not really get to talk to them too much because they were reeking of marihuana so much that had I stayed in their vicinity for more than a minute or two, inhaling of the pungent residue trapped in their clothing would probably get me high and I had work to do. But they did a good job on the bathtub.

Because the guy who installed a new garage door for me was a co-owner of a small company, four people altogether, we were talking about business. Whether you install new garage doors or translate Japanese and German patents for a living, business is business and there are many similarities between both professions. One similarity is that just like translators, garage door installers are paid after the job is done. Unlike translators, they can demand payment immediately, but just like translators, there is not that much that they can do when their customer does not pay the bill, usually because he has no money.

I was surprised when he told me that his company loses about 15% of the money owed to them every year to deadbeats. People may give them checks that bounce or simply refuse to pay and there is not that much they can do about it because the amount is relatively small.

I think that this is much more than the loss that most translators experience in their business. I do get “stiffed” every now and then, but it is definitely much less than about 15% a year. The most dangerous jobs to accept in my experience are rush jobs from large translation agencies that like to specialize in impossible deadlines on huge jobs because the profit potential is exceptional in such cases.

They split a text that should be translated by one person if it is to make sense at all between five or six or more people and then they have a proofreader who tries to resurrect to translation by making sure that the same terminology is used in all the parts of the translation. This can be done, but it can be done well only if the correct terminology is identified before the translators start working and if these translators have a way of communicating with each other. But this not how they do it. About six or seven years ago, I lost over a thousand dollars because the editor of one such job needed much more time than he thought he would need, and since I was the one who was translating the first part of the translation, he said it was all my fault. So he was paid much more than what his quote was and I was paid nothing.

That was the only real big hit from a deadbeat agency that I can remember in the last few years, but probably mostly because I don’t accept jobs like that from agencies anymore. Better safe than sorry. I remember another deadbeat agency out of Washington DC, a soft spoken guy with a Spanish name, I can’t remember it now, called me out of a blue and offered an upfront payment of 50% for a long Japanese patent. I never received the remaining 50%. I found out later from a German translator that this was the modus operandi of this “translation agency”. She told me that she got burnt too in the same manner by the same sleaze ball. Apparently, the guy moves a lot since he has to move when too many people are trying to get the remaining 50% from him.

In more than 20 years, I have been “stiffed” by perhaps 5 agencies and the total amount of money I lost in this manner is relatively small, several thousand dollars over a period of more than two decades.

Twice I lost money because the company went bankrupt. Once you start receiving letters from bankruptcy lawyers, you know that there will not be any money left to pay a translator when the lawyers are done with the job. I did lose about three thousand dollars to a translation agency in Belgium that went bankrupt on me. The first letter that I received from the bankruptcy lawyer of this agency, her first name was Vivian, must have been in French because I understood what it said and I faxed in my claim as instructed.

After that, Vivian started sending me letters in Flemish because she must have realized, quite correctly, that I would not be able to read the letters. I did not pay anybody to translate those letters from Flemish for me because I realized that it was time to cut my losses.

If there was any money left in this account, Vivian was going to steal it anyway. Paying for a translation would be just throwing good money after bad.


  1. Although I have never been “stiffed” for a job in the true sense of the word, the government agency that I have worked for since 1967 pays such lousy rates that we contract translators are stiffed as part of the job description. As I was throwing out armloads of uncorrelated reference materials with which they used to supply us and which I have treated with reverence better saved for the Bible, I found an old invoice for a book I did lo! these many years ago: $8,000 for 100,000 words. I nearly cried because I don’t make much more than that now, and that was 1999! I consoled myself finally with the thought that that was the “Express” rate, the “Routine” rate being $3.00 lower.

    We now “negotiate” contracts, meaning that we say what we want and they dictate what they’ll give. “Research rates” are an insult. No more “Express” rates, no more handy guides, no contact with “editors” now known as “program managers” (unless I’m behind on that; even the FBI has miraculously turned their language specialists into language analysts, with no improvement in training or performance).

    So why continue on for p***-poor pay? I do the kind of stuff I like: world affairs, otherwise known by its other dirty name, “politics.” No learning the vocabulary for fiber optics, for example. I did an entire book once on the soil science of some region of Peru, but I had had geology and was happy to have an entire book, never mind the research (there is a difference between loamy clay and clayey loam, after all!). The 100,000-word book was on “The Zaire of Mobutu.” I did half a book on the GRU, anotther on freedom of the press in the Congo (that’s a funny one!). Yet another on fundamentalist religions in the Republic of the Congo. Sadly the idealism of my youth is worse than battered; it has died a sickeningly hopeless death. I remember reading about Daniel Ortega jogging in Central Park with a Rolex, Gorbachev in silk Italian suits (Italian silk suits? Now there’s a topic….).

    Best of all, I don’t have to look for the stuff, i.e., market myself, a task for which I am totally unsuited and unequipped. And I NEVER get stiffed, NEVER! Except routinely. While I sit home with my cat and listen to classical music. I’m 72; it could be worse.


  2. I realized a long time ago that I can’t work as a translator for the government because the I could not possibly feed my family for the pittance that translators receive for their work from the government.

    As a linguistics major, I am as unsuited for marketing myself as you are, but I had to figure out how to market myself anyway.

    I sit home with our dog and listen to all kinds of weird music while my website is doing the marketing for me now. 60% of the money that I made in June, which was a pretty good month, as was every other month so far this year, came via 2 new customers who found my website.

    Best regards,

    Steve Vitek


  3. Hi and thank you for your words. They are really illustrating specially this last part on throwing good money after bad. (reminded me also about the sunk cost fallacy). I recently started my own bussines and also experienced my first deadbeats. I suppose is a matter of experience to assume that those are just a apart of all bussiness.


  4. What in the world is the “sunk cost fallacy”??? I am reminded of an anecdote from a fellow “TA” at Berkeley in the early ’60’s. While working at a warehouse, the employees could not use the words “toilet paper.” The “terminology” invented was “detachable, disposable sanitation units.” Reminds me of translating Cuban political rhetoric (as recently as two days ago), which is virtually un-translatable, so meaningless is it. Abstract French gobbledy-gook at least sounds elegant, initially, but once stalled in a translation about the new methodology for training independent self-employed workers in the food industry, it (sorry about the dangling participle) is next to impossible to get started again.

    See why all the degrees in the world are worthles when it comes to such things as “sunk cost falla\cy” (not ?sunken-cost”?)?


  5. One can only guess what “sunk cost fallacy” could mean, but my question would be: Is your Spanish better than Antonio’s English?

    (I just hate it when my wife makes fun of my mistakes when I speak Japanese to her, although I sometime make fun of her English too).


  6. Nah, it’s all right; Everybody on the internet can take a joke from a stranger, not. Translating Cuban politics must be mind twisting. I still remember the first time I got my hand on an issue of Granma. Good luck with that.


  7. Man, that was quick!


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