Posted by: patenttranslator | September 28, 2011

I Am Becoming A Translation Agency and I Don’t Like It One Bit

Now that I have all but stopped working for agencies, I am becoming a translation agency myself and I don’t like it one bit.

I still work regularly for one translation agency, but it’s not really an agency. It’s this crazy guy who became an agency the way I am becoming one now, about 20 years ago when he needed a number of experienced Japanese patent translators – he himself is a translator in a similar but different language combination. I have been working for him since the early nineties. He still keeps me pretty busy occasionally and I don’t want to lose his business because he pays right away. So I try to accommodate him whenever I can, which is no easy task because his (or his client’s) concept of a rush job means 14,000 words in 2.5 days. Which is about the most I can do on a good day without risking a heart attack.

All other agencies that used to supply me with regular work sort of disappeared. Basically, I became too expensive for them and we sort of dismissed each other (with prejudice).

I think that the problem is that there is less demand for Japanese these days, at least for technical Japanese. This week so far, I had one short Japanese patent and now I have two French personal documents on my desk and that’s it.

But since there are other translators who are working for me at this very moment on pretty long translations, I should be able to pay my bills the old fashioned way: by letting other people do the work. I always check how much I made per hour when I finish proofreading translations of other translators who work for me and it is usually twice to three times as much as what I can make by the hour when I translate, even at a very good rate. Still, I prefer when I can do the translating part myself. There must be something wrong with me!

Translation agencies would like to divide the world of translation business into translators who do the translating part and translation agencies who do everything else. But the real world is a little bit more complicated than that. Because translators are not very entrepreneurial, many if not most of them buy into this peculiar notion of a natural division of labor in the translation industry. But not all of them are perfectly happy being little, insignificant and interchangeable worker bees toiling day by day for the queen bee – an agency who will eventually give birth to checks to be mailed after 30, 60 or more days.

A significant percentage of translators develop a clientele of mostly direct clients and these translators then by necessity become agencies, usually when their clients start sending them work in languages that they themselves don’t translate.

Maybe people like me are meant to eventually become translation agencies in their old age, once they become too lazy to do themselves the heavy lifting that is required in your mind when you are translating complicated subjects and complicated languages.

I suppose I can live with that if I have to. But after 36 years of trying to learn Japanese, mostly in vain, I feel that I need to continue looking up on a daily basis little squiggly characters that I might have learned 20 or 30 years ago, but for some reason don’t recognize today.

I know that I will not be able to do to that for the next 36 years, but I hope that I will be given the chance to keep discovering and rediscovering meaning in characters and words that mean nothing to most people for as long as my eyes can see, my fingers can type, and my brain can process information.

When Jesus overturned the tables of money changers and drove them out of the temple (Matthew 21:12), if that is what really happened, I wonder whether one of these moneychangers thought to himself, perhaps for the first time in his miserable, greed-filled, money changing life:”This dude may be actually right. I need to find a different job for myself. I have to try to find a job that is useful and creates something positive, not just keep changing money to make a killing.”

Sometime, when I am done proofreading, creating invoices for the customer and calculating my profit, I feel what that money changer picking up his change from the ground in front of the temple from which he was chased by angry Jesus might have felt some two thousand years ago.

I never feel that way when I have actually done the work myself.


  1. I’m relatively new, 3 years of experience rather than 36, and I do not know whether to be relieved or scared that you are also still looking words up ;). I am not sure what the best solution is for you, but you have done a good job of explaining why I am not as eager to climb on the direct client bandwagon as some linguists suggest I should be, even if it means I cannot charge quite as much. I am reluctant to even take on editing jobs as I enjoy the translation portion of my job too much.


  2. I don’t get it.

    Which part of my post discouraged you from going after direct clients rather than relying on agencies for everything?


  3. I think you are minimizing the added value of review by a second person, Steve. If you were sending the sub-contracted work out blind without review then I’d see the point of the Jesus in the temple analogy.
    Thanks for writing.


  4. Mrs. Weaver:

    I have done a lot of things in my life blindly, but I am not sending work out blind.

    I understand that the most important part of my job when I am an agency is to select the best person for the job.

    And I think that I have a pretty good pair of proofreading eyes too. I am not your typical underpaid, clueless kid from an agency.

    Thanks for reading and commenting.


  5. Hi,
    It’s always good to meet someone who know what Tkaczyk means.
    Sorry if I wasn’t clear. I meant that since you don’t blindly send on work without your added value editing, I think you’re understating your role, and shouldn’t feel so bad. That’s all.


  6. I see.

    Well, sometime I have to do a lot of editing. For example, there simply are not that many native English speakers who can translate Chinese and Korean patents and I have to work with translators whose first language is not English.

    Although some are very talented, I usually still have to make quite a few changes.

    But with European languages, I mostly just look for typos end omissions and there is not that much or hardly anything to be done.

    But in any case, I think that most of the heavy burden is on the original translator.


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  8. Steve, I don’t get your problem here. Why not just raise your prices for your own work. (Haven’t we discussed this before?).
    I say this in particular for people like Jenn, who should not be misled. Part of the deal when you have direct clients is managing your client list dynamically — adjusting prices regularly, giving little boost (or big boosts) to the ones at the bottom, while gaining new ones at the top.


  9. I agree 100%. I have been increasing my rates (to direct customers) slowly for a long time, although I have not done so recently because the economy is so bad.

    But I think that I need to start doing that again. Since most large corporations are always chasing lower rates anyway to squeeze as much profit out of anything and everything, it does not really matter if they stop sending me work as long as I keep getting orders from smaller companies. I would eventually probably lose them anyway once they find a supplier that is cheap enough for them for the time being.

    I am just saying in my post (perhaps not very clearly) that I don’t like being an agency for personal reasons. I don’t like to depend on other people, for example. Incidentally, the post must have struck a chord because it was tweeted and retweeted numerous times and it got hundreds of hits within a few days.

    I thought that the rest of my life would be an advanced, continuous post-graduate study course of Japanese for which I would be paid handsomely by my customers. Instead, more and more I am becoming just another agency. I don’t like it too much, but it pays the bills too.

    It’s sort of a funny feeling when I read my books (mostly mysteries) knowing that I don’t have to worry about paying the bills too much because other people are working for me.


  10. Personally, I prefer someone else do the work any day of the week 😉 This was my biggest lesson for 2010 when I worked crazy long hours (ok, I still work long hours, but they’re no longer crazy).

    I do see your point about being satisfied with your own work, and I often feel the same way. But if you work with people you trust and whose quality and work ethic you’re happy with, then where’s the harm in that? Some people would call this “taking your business to the next level”. Just enjoy the extra time! All the more mystery novels for you! Unless, of course, you’re running out of mystery novels.


  11. I am not running out of mystery novels.

    But I am running out of good mystery novels.


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