Posted by: patenttranslator | November 2, 2011

Living In the Matrices of Our Universe

The 1999 movie The Matrix depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a simulated reality created by sentient machines to pacify and subdue the human population, while their bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source. Upon learning this, computer programmer “Neo” is drawn into a rebellion against the machines, involving other people who have been freed from the “dream world” and into reality (from Wikepedia).

If you are a translator, there are many Matrices in the translation universe, and it’s up to you to choose one. You can for example work as contractor for the government, which typically pays by far the lowest rates with few exceptions. You can be an in-house translator/interpreter working as an employee for a company. I actually know one person like that, but I hear they are a dying breed. Most translators, however, live and work in one of the matrices described below.

A.        The Agency Matrix

If you have a language or a combination of languages that is in demand, preferably with some experience in a promising field, you can leave the logistics of looking for work to a few translation agencies who will keep you busy when times are good and business is plentiful. In exchange for your low, low rates, they will send you as much work as they can – but only when they themselves have work. Most of them will have work for you only some of the time, although some of these agencies have plenty of work most of the time because they enter into long-term contracts, for example with various government offices such as the Patent Office. But these contracts are invariably awarded to the lowest bidders, and translators are at the bottom of the food chain in this Matrix model. Translators who work for such agencies make very little money, but they do have a lot of work – until the agency loses the contract to somebody who bids even lower.

B.        The MT Post Editing Matrix

A new Matrix is being created for human translators to serve as an energy source for translating machines. The job of these human translators will be to clean up the messy output of these translating machines because unlike the machines in the Matrix movie, the translating machines lack intelligence. To me, translators who would work as post editors of machine translations are as close as one can get to humans whose bodies’ heat and electrical activity are used as an energy source by nasty machines as depicted in the Matrix series of movies. Personally, I think that companies that are now trying to develop this business model will eventually go out of business, because I don’t think that this is a viable business model. I think that edited garbage, while cheaper than real translation, will still be of poor quality and not usable in the same way as human translations. But many people would disagree with me.

A, B, … The Transitional Matrix

You can also move from one matrix to another and then yet to another one. When I started translating freelance almost 25 years ago, my first supply of steady work came from two translation agencies that paid me low rates for translations of Japanese patents as they had a long-term contract with the US Patent Office. My translation must have been quite crude a quarter century ago, but that was good enough for the government. Every time when sent them my translations, they would almost immediately hit me with a FedEx package containing more Japanese patents. Little by little, as I was becoming more experienced, I started offering my talent for sale to other translation agencies paying better rates. I doubled my initial rate after a few years, and then I tripled it in this manner. At which point I hit the threshold of a price that a broker is able to pay to a translator. Considering inflation, I’m afraid the rates that translators can get in the translation agency Matrix have not really gone up very much in the last 25 years.

C.        The Direct Client Matrix

There is also the type of Matrix in which the translator works without a broker. Although the logistics of this model are a little bit more complicated, this is my preferred model and the great majority of my income is now based on this model, although I still occasionally work for agencies. While translation agencies may play a useful role in some types of translation, I think that an agency is largely useless in the patent translation field. The only thing that an agency can do with my translations is have a proofreader, (who is almost never a language and subject qualified patent translator, otherwise he would be translating instead of proofreading), look for typos and omissions. And my clients know that, of course, that is why they stick with me.

Similar matrix models have been created also for other types of business. For example, most real estate agents in US work for large and small real estate companies. People who sell houses through real estate agents pay them a commission of 6% of the selling price of the house, the real estate company keeps 3% and the agent gets to keep the remaining 3%.  But some agents and some homeowners circumvented this matrix model. Some agents create their own company and work independently of large and small real estate companies. Many of them probably eventually go out of business or become a real estate company. Some home owners figure out the logistics of selling a house and don’t use real estate agents at all, and there is also a so called SBO (Sell By Owner) Matrix model, in which homeowners pay a flat fee for limited SBO services.

D.        The Dysfunctional Matrices All Around Us

It seems that many of the traditional Matrix models no longer function the way they used to. People are in the streets demonstrating daily in dozens or hundreds of cities on several continents, trying to short-circuit electrical connections of their dysfunctional Matrix model. The Greeks want to have a referendum on whether they want to accept the Matrix model that was created for them by German and French bankers. Where do they think they are living? In the cradle of democracy, (demos = people, and kratos  = power in Greek), where they actually get to vote about their own future? What a silly idea! They are trapped in the Bankers’ Matrix, of course! When Angela Merkel heard about this nonsense, she was so upset that she needed another piece of Torte with her Kaffee (she’d better watch it!), and Nicolas Sarkozy got so mad he could not eat all (he looks positively haggard now).

To summarize today’s lecture, several Matrix models are available to freelancers in general and freelance translators in particular. While it is important which model we chose, unlike the human slaves in the Matrix movie, (or for example graduates of US universities whose parents are not rich and who are in debt to the Wall Street Matrix to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars by the time they get their diploma), translators have several Matrix models to chose from. They can also create their own Matrix model by short-circuiting electrical connections in a given Matrix, connections that have been built over the years and decades, and watch as the sparks are slowly destroying the circuits of a dysfunctional Matrix model.


  1. […] Overcoming barriers to creativity Lesson 12: Unforeseen in translation Lesson 13: Becoming creative Living In the Matrices of Our Universe I want to work in translation Careers using languages Of Notepads and Writing Utensils Welcome to […]


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