Posted by: patenttranslator | September 8, 2011

Is the Translator → Translation Agency → Customer Model Becoming Obsolete?

In the summer of 1987 I decided to become a full time freelance translator. I sent about 20 resumes to translation agencies listed in the San Francisco Yellow Pages …. and waited. Within about a week, a large brown envelope containing a complete Japanese patent and sections of a German and a French patent mysteriously appeared in my mail. When I was done translating, I mailed my translation back to the agency. There was no Internet back then, I did not even have a hard disk on my PC. I had a WordPerfect “floppy disk” in one drive and I was saving my work in another drive. The word Internet was a brand new word back then, yet to be learned by most people in the brand new world that would be changed so profoundly by the implications of this word.

Because I had no idea more than 24 years ago about the logistics of the technical translation business, I had no choice but to work through agencies. How have the logistics of translation business changed since then?

The changes have been truly revolutionary. Internet changed not just the logistics of how one can find customers for translators and deliver the translations to customers. It obliterated or caused great damage to many professions, such as publishers of dictionaries. I have hundreds of technical dictionaries for Japanese, German and other languages, and I hardly ever use them anymore or buy new ones. It is usually faster to just search for a technical term in German or Japanese to find an equivalent in English online.

Many professions such as writers, singers, actors or hookers have been traditionally represented by an agent, mostly because the logistics of the business involved in these cases are quite complicated. In theory, Internet has made it much easier for freelance translators to work for their own clients rather than for a broker, especially considering that a typical translation agency pays translators about 50% of what the client pays for the translation. I think that the commission paid to a writer’s or actor’s agent is much lower, more like 15%. Only hookers are probably paid even less by their agents than translators (although I don’t think that they give free samples of their work [which would be tantamount to test translations] to prospective customers as willingly as translators).

So did translators take advantage of the new opportunities to find translation work directly in the era of Internet? Some did, but most did not. There are translators who have very cleverly designed websites and blogs which function so well that they basically replace clients who will be lost through inevitable client attrition with new clients who stumble upon a translator’s website or blog. But these entrepreneurial translators are in a distinct minority. It takes time and money, and you need a lot of persistence and imagination to design a website that will in the end work well for a translator. You can have a free blog, but it still takes a lot of time to generate content for your blog, especially content that will be appealing to potential clients and found by search engines.

To most translators, this is just too much work. Instead, they simply create a free page on a portal like Proz where they will be found by some customers, but mostly by customers who want to pay rock bottom prices, also known as agencies. Legions of translators then fight for work on such portals, work for which they are mostly paid exceedingly low rates. Many translators in the United States and some abroad also have a listing on the American Translators Association (ATA) directory, including this patent translator. But the thing is, only agencies seem to know about this directory. I have never been contacted by a non-agency client through this directory, and I have been an ATA member for the last 24 years.

Every now and then when I need to find a new translator for a patent or a technical article in a language that I don’t translate myself, I Google for instance the words “Korean patent translator, electronics”. Invariably, the result of the query is a bunch of websites of agencies, rather than websites or blogs of individual translators, with very few exceptions.

So I think that the business relationship in which the translator, who after all does all of the translating work, despite what an agency might be saying, is at the bottom of the pyramid, is still very much the norm after two tumultuous decades in which the Internet has done much good for some professions, as well as wrought much havoc in other professions.

The main difference now is that instead of mailing their resumes as I did a quarter century ago, translators now post them online in directories that are frequented basically only by translation agencies, or on venues where hordes of hungry translators are fighting over scraps of translation work, or e-mail them as junk mail to agencies who will mostly delete the e-mails without even opening them.

The translator → agency → customer model has not been rendered obsolete by Internet. On the contrary, Internet helped to cement and reinforce this relationship to such an extent that for most translators, it is as permanent a relationship as it has ever been, and it is very clear who is at the top and who is at the bottom.

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Responses

  1. Haha, I like how you use the words “translator” and “hooker” in the same sentence… When you’re starting out as the former you can certainly feel like the latter. Well said.

    Like

  2. I’m glad I made you laugh.

    But when I dared to make this comparison online in the NCTA (Northern California Translators Association) discussion group, my comment was called among other things “disgusting”, probably because it is so completely baseless, by some gentle ladies participating in online discussion of translators that was and probably still is very strictly monitored and censored.

    The chief censor of that “discussion” group eventually “unsubscribed” me from the group and one of the reason that was cited as a reason for this sudden termination in an internal NCTA communication (which was stealthily intercepted by this devious patent translator) was this comparison.

    You can read all about it in my post on this blog here

    https://patenttranslator.wordpress.com/2010/09/11/you-have-been-unsubscribed-from-the-northern-california-translators-discussion-group/

    Because I am against this kind of censorship and heavy-handed opinion control, I decided not to renew my NCTA membership as of this year (and I was a member of that association for 24 years), as did at least one other former member of NCTA.

    Like

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  4. Hi Steve!

    I couldn’t agree more. I think you’re right when you say that most translators don’t use the Internet to find more clients because it’s too much work for them. I do believe many of them want to find more direct clients though. Many of them are probably lost and don’t really know where to start. That’s how I felt when I started out myself two years ago – I know, I’m a rookie compared to you. In France, my Masters degree didn’t include any marketing class, so I had to learn all the business basics all by myself. There’s one thing I understood very quickly though: the translation agency > translator is NOT right for me, which is why I work hard to find my own direct clients.

    Cordialement,

    Sophia

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    • Bonjour/Hello,

      I am curious…How would you go by finding your own clients, at this time?
      Thks

      D. Clerc

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      • Everybody has his or her own way.

        Most of my clients found out about my services when they found my website.

        If you have a website that is relevant to what your potential customers are looking for online, they should be able to find you.

        Obviously, it is not as easy as it sounds.

        Like

  5. Hi Sophia:

    Good to hear from you.

    “La langue de l’Europe, c’est la traduction”

    My response would be:

    The language of the United States is English.
    In particular, the phrase “take the money and run!”.

    Like

  6. Allow me to post in here. Just for fun, again.

    NONE out of the nine machine-translated examples below (Courtesy: GT) is proven acceptable. In these replaced products, no experts would be able to judge whether I wish to recommend or I do not wish to recommend a certain person.

    私は斯かる人物を推薦したくない。
    I recommend people do not want to hunt Si.

    私は、斯かる人物を推薦したくない。
    I do not want people to hunt Si recommendation.

    私は斯かる人物を推薦しようとは思わない。
    I recommend trying to hunt people do not think Si.

    私は、斯かる人物を推薦しようとは思わない。
    I would recommend trying to hunt people do not think Si.

    私なら斯かる人物を推薦しません。
    Si I would not recommend a person to hunt.

    私なら、斯かる人物を推薦しません。
    I would not recommend people hunt Si.

    私が斯かる人物を推薦するようなことはありません。
    To nominate that person but I do not hunt Si.

    私が斯かる人物を推薦するようなことは決してありません。
    To nominate a person that I will never hunt Si.

    私が斯かる人物を推薦するようなことは断じてありません。
    To nominate a person that I do not absolutely have to hunt Si.

    Like

  7. I see a lot of MT of patents from Japanese, German and French. Last week I was translating a long French patent and I printed out the MT first because I usually do that when it is available.

    The MT was pretty good, it made a lot of sense …. until it didn’t. But still, MT from European languages makes much more sense than MT from Japanese.

    This particular patent also had the claims, all 30 of them at the end of the patent application, translated into German and English by human translators. The human translator for English was very good (he or she was an Australian based on the English), but this translator failed to notice one of the many “faux amis” (false friends), which is a major problem for humans who are translating between quite similar languages, such as French and English or Czech and Polish. This translator translated the French word “une installation” into English as “an installation”, although “a facility” would have been much better.

    The German translator did not make this mistake (possibly because there are not many “faux amis” between German and French) and “une installation” was translated in the German claims as “eine Anlage”, which can clearly means “a facility” among many other things.

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  8. Thank you for reminding me of the faux amis “空似言葉”.

    Here we have a similar case: an egg is expressed in two ways of Kanji, but as I happened to learn in the past, either one of the two ways should not be used in China because it is likely to be taken as an unmentionable part of a body, probably in a slang.

    Apart from the above, whenever I get work from France or Germany through a Japanese patent law firm here for translation, a script given to me is 100% based on English (the job has been done in Europe), which I suspect is a mechanically replaced and post-edited product. Aiming to reduce my own additional mistake to minimum, I always check whether an original version in French or German is available so that I may be able to compare such European version with the English one.

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  9. The whole issue of “subcontractor networks” in the language/translation business is interesting. Kristiina Abdallah from the University of Tampere has put out some interesting articles about the subject (at least in Finnish), and I very much subscribe to almost everything I see her writing. (For translations, I am both a customer and a service provider myself.)

    The fact is that the whole translator-LSP-customer chain puts the translator at a precarious position with conflicting interests. Should they ditch professional pride and quality concerns to make more money (or at least a decent living)? Should they have the customer’s interst at heart rather than their employer’s (LSP’s)? Or should they think of the end-user first? This is a battle I have waged myself back in the day, and which more or less led to a career change. I actually used the prostitute analogy back then…

    I think one of the facts here is that, in many cases, translators simply don’t have the business savvy (or even the interest) to look for direct customers. Quite simply, having an LSP push work to you without you having to worry about project preparation, customer relationship management etc yourself is what many translators prefer. Or at least that’s how I feel.

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  10. “I think one of the facts here is that, in many cases, translators simply don’t have the business savvy (or even the interest) to look for direct customers.Quite simply, having an LSP push work to you without you having to worry about project preparation, customer relationship management etc yourself is what many translators prefer.”

    Exactly. And then they bitch and moan about low rates and greedy and nasty agencies.

    They are like a wife who believes her husband when he says “Honey, I will not hit you anymore, I swear”, and never divorces the SOB.

    Like

  11. This is quite an interesting article! I had no idea how the pyramid worked. I am happy to have found your website, I was searching for information on website translations and I found this. I may rethink my strategy now with my website as to how I want it translated. Thanks for sharing!

    Like

  12. Hi Patent Translator, Timo and others!
    I just came across this site and found it highly interesting. As Timo above referred to my work, I would like to give you two links which might prove to be of interest in the translator-translation company-client configuration.
    “Translators’ Agency in Production Networks. http://urn.fi/urn:isbn:978-951-44-8082-9
    Translators in Production Networks. Reflections on Agency, Quality and Ethics
    http://epublications.uef.fi/pub/urn_isbn_978-952-61-0609-0/urn_isbn_978-952-61-0609-0.pdf

    Should you want to exchange thoughts with me on the matter, feel free to contact me. It would make me happy to know your thoughts on this important issue. Best Kristiina (kristiina.abdallah@uwasa.fi)

    Like

  13. I was reading it to get something and i found that not only the content but the comments also are very much knowledgeable. i must say that the content is well written

    Like

  14. Amazing parallels: translators – prostitutes
    http://clubs.dir.bg/showflat.php?Board=translators&Number=1952598860&page=0&view=collapsed&sb=5&vc=1

    PS. Today, Oct 4, 2014, I happened to encounter an article of 2011 in the blog of a colleague from the USA [you, Steve :)], where translators were likened to prostitutes:

    “Many professions such as writers, singers, actors or hookers have been traditionally represented by an agent, mostly because the logistics of the business involved in these cases are quite complicated. In theory, Internet has made it much easier for freelance translators to work for their own clients rather than for a broker, especially considering that a typical translation agency pays translators about 50% of what the client pays for the translation. I think that the commission paid to a writer’s or actor’s agent is much lower, more like 15%. Only hookers are probably paid even less by their agents than translators (although I don’t think that they give free samples of their work [which would be tantamount to test translations] to prospective customers as willingly as translators). ”
    https://patenttranslator.wordpress.com/2011/09/08/is-the-translator-%E2%86%92-translation-agency-%E2%86%92-customer-model-becoming-obsolete/

    Apassionata (a Bulgarian translator):

    “Heee … I started calling myself “a call girl” as early as in 2004 :)”

    Rasheda (me):

    “And you like it? Your pimps (the agencies) will deduct part of your fees (probably the greater)! They will plagiarize your translations – the fruit of your highly skilled, intellectual and creative work! They will boast that they – the agencies – have done your translations themselves! And you will feel cosy and call yourself “a call girl”! A Stockholm Syndrome, huh?”

    Like

  15. Update, Oct 7, 2014:

    Apassionata:

    Hey, you have totally unleashed your fantasy 🙂

    Rasheda:

    C’mon, I just IMAGINED for a moment that you are a translator. Please, forgive me! 🙂

    Like


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