Posted by: patenttranslator | January 22, 2012

One Basic Difference Between Dogs and Humans Is That Humans Have the Ability To Contradict What Is

Basic human dignity consists in the ability to contradict what is

Cornel West

I love my dog Lucy, but she has basically no ability to say no to anything. If I tell her that she cannot eat my food because dogs must eat dog food, she is hardly in a position to contradict me. She can refuse to eat her food, but she will eat it later when she gets really hungry.

Dogs have grudgingly come to accept this reality because they understand that this dog ↔ human relationship is still a pretty good deal for them. Of course, it is a pretty good deal for humans too. But as Cesar the dog whisperer tells us, if we allowed our dogs to contradict us, dogs would live in mansions that are custom built for canines and people would sleep in little dog houses. As children gradually learn how to say no to scary grownups, they start becoming real human beings.

The human beings who were waiting for 2 hours in front of a local church here almost three years ago to cast their vote for a black man who had the courage to print his middle name “Hussein” on the ticket were saying no to the status quo.

In fact, I remember that when I was talking just before the election in the gym to a neighbor of mine, mother of a friend of my son, she told me: “I could never vote for somebody whose middle name is Hussein”. Unfortunately, all this talk about change was just a load of …. very clever advertising. The man with the foreign sounding first and middle name lost all of his courage the day after the election. There would be absolutely no difference in anything had those people who so patiently waited their turn in front of the church three years ago voted for John McCain instead.

There are not that many opportunities for people to say no to anything in modern society. If you try to refuse to take off your shoes or even look the wrong way at the TSA (Transportation Security Administration) guy at the airport, the chances are you will miss your flight. So I take off my shoes, put them on the conveyor belt, and try to think about something else. It is all part of the conditioning and for the most part, it seems to be working. So far, anyway.

But given that I am a freelance translator, I do have more freedom to say no to many things that your typical employee would have to accept automatically.  So I try to take advantage of the little bit of freedom that is still available to me.

I don’t have to accept working conditions that I don’t like. True, I have to be able to find work for myself first, but after 25 years of doing just that, I more or less know how to do it.

I don’t have to accept a rate below what I consider my minimum rate. And I don’t, not anymore, not under any circumstances. Because once you do that, even when it is “just this time, just for this job, or just for this customer”, all your future work at the higher rate that you were previously paid will be overpriced.

I don’t have to accept payment terms of more than 30 days. I am willing to wait 30 days, but not longer than that. If a translation agency does not pay me on time, I will no longer accept new work from them. If a major patent law firm takes substantially longer than 30 days to pay me what is owed for my work, I automatically increase my rates.

And I can usually get away with it. Even though the law firm may have offices in many cities on several continents and I am just one person, this is one of those cases when it’s not about the size. I have more power as an individual than a large law firm if the firm momentarily needs me more than I need the firm. There are hundreds, or possibly thousands of large and small firms that can use an experienced patent translator such as myself. But how many people have my experience and can do what I can do for these law firms at my reasonable rates? If the answer is “not that many”, I am negotiating from a position of strength.

So I try to fight for basic human dignity and contradict “what is” when this “what is” is something that in my opinion should not be.

I don’t use Trados or any other CAT tools because I don’t like them and I have no need for things like that. Contrary to popular belief, there are many translators who do exactly the same thing,

I don’t sign long and demeaning “Confidentiality Agreements” stipulating strange new conditions, such as that “intellectual property” created while I work on a project for a translation agency is the property of the agency. Does it mean that what was in my head when I was translating a Japanese patent is now the property of a translation agency that bought the translation from me and then resold it to a patent law firm? What else could it mean?

Another very strange but ubiquitous clause is a relatively new condition that says that should the agency in its wisdom decide to sue a translator for some reason, the translator would be responsible for “reasonable attorney’s fees”. In a country with a hundred thousand lawyers, there must be thousands of severely underperforming and severely underemployed lawyers willing to sue just about anybody for just about any reason at all.

Do most translators sign such agreements? I would hope not, but perhaps they do. In which case it would be probably true that just like my dog Lucy, not that many translators still have the ability to contradict what is.


  1. Do you truly think that Barack lost ALL of his courage the day after the election, and that it would have made no difference if John McCain and Sarah were in office? Two Supreme Court justices have been appointed during this term. Without considering any other issue, that in itself is enormous.

    Perhaps the difference is more obvious to people who have spent their entire lives here, and I do not mean this as an insult. Even so, there is positive value to taking what I can get now and coming back for more later. If you don’t believe it, talk to John Lewis or go to the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis.


  2. Yes, I do.

    And so does Cornel West, who spent his entire life here.


  3. The “attorneys’ fee” clause has been discussed numerous times on the ATA Business Practices listserv. We recommend the translators cross the clause out or tell their client they won’t sign it if the clause stands.


  4. OK, makes sense.

    My recommendation would be to cross out objectionable parts, take the current job if you need the money, but try to stay away from such an agency in the future since it is clear from the contract what kind of agency it is.


  5. Not to put too fine a point on it, but West was born in ’53, which makes him four years old when Little Rock’s Central High School was “integrated.” The so-called Freedom Riders rode the buses in ’61, so Cornel West was eight.

    Yes, there are things that have been a disappointment, but it’s not all one way or the other. Consider the alternative. McCain has disappointed many, including a lot of Vietnam vets, gay people, minorities….

    Obama appointed Hillary to be secretary of state. That has not made a difference? Wow.


  6. I voted for Bill Clinton twice, but I voted for Obama in the Virginia Primary over Hillary because he seemed more authentic to me than Hillary.

    Boy, was I wrong. Just about everything candidate Obama said turned out to be a lie. The only promise he kept was that he would escalate the incredibly idiotic occupation of Afghanistan.

    His greatest achievement, the so called “Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act”is the biggest lie of them all. All two thousand plus pages of it were written by lobbyists for private insurance companies. It protects the profits of private insurance companies at the expense of the patients. Health insurance is now even less affordable than before this “healthcare reform” as a result of this “healthcare reform”. There are about 50 million people in this country now who have no insurance at all and nobody knows how many of those who on paper do have insurance will go bankrupt if they get sick and actually need to use their “insurance”.

    Remember how Obama used the image of his grandmother who was dying of cancer and fighting insurance companies at the same time during the election? That was was slick! I really fell for it because I thought, how could anybody be putting on a show about something like that? Surely, he must care about people like his grandmother?

    Well, none of them give a damn. Both Ds and Rs take their marching orders from people who pay 14 percent in taxes, and probably much less if you count the money hidden in Cayman Islands and elsewhere, while most people have to pay about 40 percent if you count the combined tax burden, not just what is called here “income tax”.

    Fortunately for Obama, GOP has no candidate this time around who could beat him because the GOP is putting on a freak show this time around. Unless something changes between now and November, he will be reelected. But I will not even bother to go to the polls if the choice is between Obama and Romney or Newt. After 20 years of voting for Democrats, I will now only bother to vote if there is a candidate there who really represents people like me.

    Nothing will change if the only choice is between Ds and Rs. Obama has proven that to me very clearly.

    Let’s talk about translation next time. Comparing Rs and Ds is a total waste of time. As far as I can tell, there is really no substantial difference between them, except in the rhetoric they use before an election.


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