Posted by: patenttranslator | October 25, 2011

The Corporate and the Non-Corporate Model in the Translation Business

The problem with communism, the main reason why the system could never work, was that it completely ignored the role of profit in a properly functioning economic system. When Ronald Reagan stood in front of the Berlin Wall 22 years ago and delivered his famous statement:”Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”, the Berlin Wall was ready to collapse because the system hardly worked at all at that point.

The problem with the current version of corporate capitalism is that it treats profit as if it were God Almighty. Maximum profit (or is it really just limitless greed?) has become the only thing that matters. How is this maximum profit achieved is essentially irrelevant. The business philosophy of shareholders in a modern corporation is very different from the business philosophy of Henry Ford, which is a business philosophy that made United States a very prosperous country during the second part of the last century (“I will pay my workers enough so that they could afford to buy the cars that they are making”).

But now that tens of millions of jobs of American blue and white color workers were sacrificed on the altar of maximum profit and shipped to countries where labor costs are a fraction of what they used to be here, the system works only for a tiny percentage of people. Which is why hundreds of thousands of people are now demonstrating in the streets all over the world, shouting:”We are the 99%”. After the fall of the Berlin Wall two decades ago, will they be able to rebuild the wall between corporation and state? It seems that something is bound to happen when so many people have nothing to lose anymore.

The corporate model of the translation business is also based mostly on profit maximization. A typical translation agency, owned by one or several entrepreneurs, hires project managers who create databases of freelance translators who can work for the agency. The project managers mostly don’t know much if anything about the languages or the subjects that they are handling, but they do know what the going rate is for a freelance translator in different language combinations and different translation fields. They also know how to organize the work, for instance by splitting long projects with a short deadline between several translators.

The quality of translations organized in this manner is often horrible, but since the profit on rush projects is excellent, many translation agencies specialize in projects with impossible deadline and proudly say so on their websites. There are tens or hundreds of thousands of freelance translators on this planet, and once you have a nice chunk of them in your database, you just have to figure out where the translation projects are and where are the translators who will work for the least amount of money for you, because that is the best way to ensure the highest profit for the agency. And profit is really all that matters.

But the corporate business model is not the only model there is, at least not in the translation business. There are still small agencies and individual translators whose business is not really based on the corporate business model. Although they absolutely have to make profit, and the more profit they make, the better, profit is not the most important thing in their business.

The most important thing to this patent translator, who understands that he will never really make a whole lot of money anyway, is the relationship between myself and my customers, and myself and translators who occasionally work for me, just like I occasionally work for some of them.

If I lose the trust of my customers, that is the end of my business. I have said many times “No” to jobs with impossible deadlines, though I was tempted by the potential profit. There are plenty of translation agencies that will be happy to jump at the chance to deliver crappy translation for excellent profit. I know that because I used to work for them not so long ago before I finally saw the light.

And should I lose the trust of translators who work for me, for example if I don’t pay them on time, I would have to find new ones. Few people seem to know that, but it’s not really all that easy to find a good translator. It is a major hassle. There may be hundreds of thousands of translators out there, but all I need is to know just a few of them who are really good at what they do for a living. And I don’t even need a database for remembering which translators I want to work with because I remember them as persons, not as interchangeable variables in my database.

The second most important thing to me is the adventure of running a business and being able to constantly learn new things, day after day, year after year.

You never know what the next job will be about when you are a freelance translator, even if you mostly just translate Japanese and German patents. You don’t even know whether you will have something to translate next week when you are a freelance translator.

But for some reason, a new translation always turns up in my e-mail. It may somehow appear there while I am writing these words, or tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow …. In spite of the biggest global economic crisis since 1929 (in the last 82 years!), the working cycle never stopped for this patent translator in the last 24 years.

For some reason, the world still needs translators like me, people who can make sense out of documents that are completely incomprehensible to most people because they are written in a foreign language, sort of like detectives who can find hidden clues leading them in the end to discover the truth.


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  3. […] The corporate translation agency model, which is very different from the old translation agency mode…, clearly creates a market opening for translations that are of a higher quality than what the corporate model is able to supply most of the time. […]


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