Posted by: patenttranslator | December 1, 2011

The Thousand Monkeys Theorem and Marketing Techniques for Freelance Translators

According to the so called infinite monkey theorem, if you have a thousand monkeys banging away on typewriter keyboards for an infinite amount of time, sooner or later one of them should come up with a Shakespearean play. This theorem is just an illustration of a mathematical formula which cannot be proven or disproven because the amount of time that humans and monkeys have at their disposal is limited by their lifespan.

Which got me thinking, what are the chances that one of the thousands of supposedly experienced freelance translators bidding on many translation networking sites such as Proz, which according to Wikipedia has 500 thousand registered users worldwide, will sooner or later land a job that does not pay substandard rates? I would say that they are about the same as the chances of a somewhat intelligent monkey to write another Hamlet.

I have been a proud non-paying member of Proz, GoTranslators, Translators Café and other sites for translators for about a decade. I sometime look at their glossaries when I Google a technical term. I let Proz and other websites publish a number of my articles when they asked me, and I occasionally kill time by lurking on the discussions on Translators Cafe, etc.

These websites are useful. But I don’t think that it is a good idea to look for work on these social networking sites. When you have so many hungry translators fighting among themselves over scraps of available translation work, there can be only one result of such an arrangement: rock bottom prices.

A devious monkey such as myself understands that you have to create a completely different arrangement if you want to be paid what your work is really worth. You have to eliminate the middleman – a  networking site with half a million members, or a translation agency with hundreds of translators who may be even cheaper than you, safely stored in their database. You have to create opportunities for clients to bid directly for your services, preferably several clients at the same time so that you don’t have to accept a low rate.

The Monkey King (Sun Wukong,孙悟空) is a different kind of monkey. It is a classical Chinese story (also called “Journey to the East”) from the 16th century about a devious monkey who can travel thousands of miles in one summersault, and who knows 72 kinds of shape-shifting transformations allowing him to transform himself into different animals and objects so that he can fight the best warriors of Heaven and Earth.

A freelance translator does not need to be quite as powerful and sly as the Monkey King, but  he does need to find a marketing technique that is better than the writing technique of the monkeys in the thousand monkeys theorem.

There are at least two major techniques allowing translators to find direct clients and avoid having to work for starvation rates. These techniques will depend on one’s personal characteristics and preferences, as well as strengths and weaknesses, including one’s gender.

1. The Schmoozing Technique

Women are typically much better at the Schmoozing Technique than men. This is a natural technique for most, but not all, women. Typically, the translator needs to live in or near a major center of commerce, preferably a big city, because that is where the movers and shakers of the business world tend to congregate. The Schmoozing Technique is also more suitable for translators in non-technical translation fields, such as financial translators, or people who translate advertising materials, novels, glossy brochures for cultural institutions, etc.

Women are again typically better at this type of translation more than men, with the possible exception of financial translation. Many aspects of one’s existence which are completely irrelevant to most translators laboring in other translation fields are very important for translators who want to be adept at the Schmoozing Technique: You have to be well dressed, color coordination is a conditio sine qua non, men should be typically shaven (except when they are still very young and studly), and they should have a jacket and a tie; women should wear a subtle perfume and an appropriate amount of makeup, with some but not too much jewelry, etc.  If you live in or near a major city, you can also create a local Meetup group of translators and meet with similarly minded people who are usually eager to brag about successes achieved with the Schmoozing Technique and swap delicious gossip over a cup of coffee or a glass of wine.

2. The Digital Mousetrap Technique

This technique is suitable and perfectly appropriate even for old, ugly and really boring people. Needless to say, finding potential clients through website is my preferred technique. It may not be as fabulous as the Schmoozing Technique, but it has its moments, as well as a number of advantages.

Not only can you be old, ugly, overweight, smelly, cantankerous and bad company, it also makes no difference where you live when you use this technique. Whether you live in Paris, San Francisco, or on a beach in Papua New Guinea (with no disrespect to Papua New Guineans), you can still use the Digital Mousetrap Technique because unlike the Schmoozing Technique, this technique is highly portable and basically location-independent.

The idea is quite simple, although it is not that simple to implement. Instead of having to go to a website where hundreds of severely underemployed and overqualified translators compete for work, you create your own website where hundreds of customers will be asking you, the translator, maybe along with a few other translators or agencies, to give them a price quote.

Instead of competing potentially with dozens of hungry translators on one website that you cannot control, you will be able to compete with only a few other translators or agencies, but only if your Digital Mousetrap is well designed. It takes a long time to perfect this technique, but it is worth the investment of your time and money if you hire a web designer. The clients first must be able to find your website. This means that you have to be able to figure out key words that your clients are using when they are looking for somebody like you,  as well as a lot of other things that you will learn with time.

Since this post is based on the theme of smart and devious monkeys, I will end it with a reference to the famous statue of Three Wise Monkeys (三匹の猿, sanbiki no saru) in Nikko, Japan, who cover their eyes, years and mouths in accordance with the principle of see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

This principle has a very different connotation in Eastern and Western culture.  The “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” maxim in Eastern culture means that people should mind their own business. That is why those three monkeys in Japan are called wise.

But when the monkeys are transplanted into a Western culture, they lose their wisdom. The  monkeys in the Western interpretation of the proverb don’t see anything wrong with being blind, deaf and mute because they are afraid to see things as they are.

Translators who complain about “unfair” rates that are offered by agencies and on social networking sites, without actually doing anything about it such as working on their Schmoozing and Digital Mousetrap marketing techniques, or developing their own technique, remind me of the three monkeys of Nikko who might have been originally wise, but who are now completely lost in a foreign culture that they will never understand.


  1. It is my experience as a woman that men are much better than women at schmoozing, so no wonder that you, as a man, think women are better at it than men. Perhaps it’s the definition of “schmoozing.” Men are much more apt to pressure, as in exerting pressure against woman standing at the copy machine, or using the “poor-ol’-me-I’m-just-a-man” and “don’t-forget-your-promotion-depends-on-me” tactics. Perhaps women do use feminine wiles. Is that schmoozing?


    • The copy machine incident you described is not how I would define schmooozing. I would call it bullying.

      For some reasons, there are only female wiles.

      Men have not developed any wiles during the evolution of the species. They use brawn and plenty of trickery.


  2. My experience is that, a lot of the time, customers will prioritize comfort and convenience even over price. If they have a translation need and do not have an established process for how to get them, they will most probably go with the first one that will appear reliable and will just get them what they need, especially if their need is urgent.

    I recently sat down with a translation customer and she asked about the prices. I answered that I actually have a lot of pressure to raise the prices in their other major language pair. She replied: “OK, I just thought since I never looked around.” From my perspective, it is amazing that so many companies have absolutely no idea about how to go about acquiring their translations, or how to manage the process or their language assets. And they don’t realize that it is a problem for them. Then again, when you go in and start talking with this kind of companies, it is quite easy to establish rapport (or start “schmoozing”). All you need to do is be honest and point out the facts and people tend to be quick to realize that they would be wise to take some advise, or even consultation. At least, this is my experience.

    If I was still translating professionally, I would probably hang around Proz etc, but I probably would not use that as my main strategy for gaining customers. I’d rather invest in building personal relationships and direct customer contacts. Of course, that’s easier said than done, especially if it’s not in your nature to “do sales”. And besides, if you’re learning languages, they probably don’t teach you about this stuff.

    I am not sure if I believe in the “digital mousetrap” strategy outside specialized domains such as patent translations. I find differentiation to be a huge challenge for freelancers and translation agencies and having to rely on website optimization and Google Adwords is not the ideal situation. I hear most salespeople for translation agencies give the same sales pitch over and over again. How is anyone supposed to know which one is the right match for them when translation vendors do not want to understand their needs and challenges?


  3. I think that just about everybody can come up his or her own specialized domain.

    When I graduated with a degree in Japanese studies, I had no idea that I wold be one day translating Japanese and German patents for a living.

    I thought that I would probably be teaching Japanese at a school or college. That is how they train students.

    And the digital mousetrap does work for me and other people I know, in particular because I am not good at selling myself in person. The website or blog can do the selling part for you.

    Of course, it will not work for everybody.


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  5. […] (The Thousand Monkeys Theorem and Marketing Techniques for Freelance Translators, December 2011) […]


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