Posted by: patenttranslator | March 2, 2012

How Do You Know That You Are Not A Fake?

I mean, if you are a lawyer, doctor or dentist, at least you have to go to school first for many years before you can start practicing your profession. That is what we translators call a “conditio sine qua non” for these professions.

But if you are a translator, you apparently don’t need to go any school. You just need to have a pulse and say that you can translate to become a patent translator as I write in this post. As far as I know, if you want to become for example a translator who is certified by the American Translators Association, all you have to do is pass a written translation test which takes about a couple of hours, and they will certify you. We don’t need no stinking badges (diplomas) for that! I was told repeatedly on this blog that even a machine translation from Portuguese to English passed this test.

So the way I see it, you could be a fake even if you have the ATA certification, or accreditation or whatever it is called these days.

In most European countries, especially in German speaking countries and other countries in what used to be called Mitteleuropa, you actually do need to have a diploma in translation if you want to practice our ancient profession, which is almost as old as the world’s oldest profession.

But here in the Wild West, you just have to pay your local City Hall a yearly fee of 50 dollars for a “miscellaneous business license”, more only if your gross income exceeds a hundred thousand dollars, and you’re in business.

So obviously, many people who call themselves translators could be potentially fakes. And some probably are. What if I am a fake too? ….. I am asking myself many a sleepless night. (Well, not really, but it is a good topic for a short blog post).

This feeling of being a potential fake is something that people in many professions are quite familiar with, especially people in creative professions such as writers or actors, often the really famous and successful ones. Success and fame is really no guarantee of genuineness, not in this world of ours, which is probably the only one there is.

And if somebody should say about you something like “this translation is no good, the translator must be incompetent”, there is really nothing that anyone can do about it.

On the other hand, the evidence that you are in fact who you say you are is not really that difficult to find. The evidence is in the envelope that somehow magically finds its way into your mailbox, usually after quite a few weeks.

If you open the envelope and it contains a check with your name on it for hundreds or thousands of dollars, the way I see it, you must be the real thing, especially considering that free machine translation is easily available already and has been for quite some time.

Although we are constantly being told by corporate propaganda that machine translation is already “almost as good” as human translation, if people pay you all this money for something that can be had for free, those people who keep sending you the checks for your translations, month after month and year after year, either must be complete lunatics, or you must be the real thing.

However, just like an actor is only as good as his last role, a writer as his last book, and a singer as his last song, a translator is only as good as his last translation.

In a way it is kind of sad that we can only determine who and what we are based on how much people are willing to pay for our work, but at least we translators do honest work, unlike people in many other professions that I can think of who are usually paid much more than translators.


  1. Hi Steve,

    The term ‘translator’ is not protected in Germany, and that must be the case for the rest of the EU, thank goodness, or is it different in the Czech Republic? You might need to satisfy some authorities if you interpret for the courts, but I think that is so in the USA too, isn’t it?


  2. Oh, and I don’t need a business licence either!


    • You need a license here for example if you want to open a business account at your bank, or even if you want to refinance your home, the bank will ask you for your current business license if you work out of your home.

      But if the checks are written in your name, nobody would probably find out whether you have a business license or not.

      There must be many people who work without a license out of their homes, hairdressers for example, or people who buy used cars, fix them and sell them. My son did it a few times and he told me that you can sell up to 7 cars a year like that without a license. If you sell 8 cars, you are a car dealership and you need a license for that.


    • “Oh, and I don’t need a business licence either!”

      Oh, but you do.

      Check with your Rat House, I mean Rathaus.


      • Margaret is absolutely right: as “Freiberufler”, freelance translators (and interpreters) in Germany do not require any sort of licence, business or otherwise. All they have to do is notify their local tax office that they have started working as a translator/interpreter and fill out a form, but this in itself is not in any way a requirement to actually start working as a translator/interpreter.
        And the fact that anybody can actually start working as a translator or interpreter is an entirely positive thing: no arbitrary examinations, no economically and socially indefensible monopoly, no parasitic rent-seeking, etc.


  3. I know the feeling you talk about here, but I try to channel it into producing a high-quality translation. I don’t care so much about the money I get for my work as the satisfaction of knowing I did a damned good job. That, to me, makes me less of a fake than the cash exchange.

    (On another note, I don’t think I need a business license here in Alexandria, VA, either. Just a DBA form. It must vary a lot by location…)


  4. I channel that drowning in turbid waters feeling into writing blog posts about how to increase one’s rates.

    I think that as far as every City Hall in this country is concerned, every business must have a business license because that is one way how to pay the salaries of useless tax collectors.


  5. Just wanted you to know that I always enjoy your blog.

    In Texas only court interpreters are licensed by the state’s licensing and regulation agency, however, courts located in towns with populations below 50,000 can hire anyone they want. There are no licenses for other types of interpreters and none for translators.


  6. Dear Mr. Vitek,

    After reading the last sentence of this post of yours, I just uttered “Wow!”

    Am I a fake translator? Some people might try to denounce me as such a one, but I am still doing what I am doing and I know that I am a translator when invoices are paid by my clients or when clients come to me and ask for advice on the correctness of a piece of Chinese translation.

    Some people say, “There is no such thing as a perfect translation. There isn’t even such a thing as a translation most people would consider pretty good.” ( But we know whether a translation fulfills its purpose or not.

    Medical doctors make mistakes ( Lawyers make mistakes. Linsenity is a wunderkind and he makes mistakes, too. Why not translators? Translators make mistakes, but people still hire them for achieving various purposes. It’s the performance of a translator that wins clients’ confidence, even if he delivers imperfect translations from time to time.

    A translator is somewhat like a thief. People usually don’t notice him until he gets caught of making a mistake. So long there are clients paying a translator, so long there are places for translators’ streetwalking and for finding buyers of his services, disregarding how low or how high he gets paid, it is easy to call oneself a translator.

    “And if somebody should say about you something like ‘this translation is no good, the translator must be incompetent’, there is really nothing that anyone can do about it.” In fact, a translator doesn’t have to do anything about it. Find the right clients, provide the right services they need, and get paid the way one wants to be paid – that’s almost all about being a translator.

    “Success and fame is really no guarantee of genuineness, not in this world of ours, which is probably the only one there is.” I like this statement. However, I am of the opinion that it takes a lot of luck to be successful and/or famous as a translator. I am glad that I don’t really need to be a translator while I’ve been a lucky one who have successfully found and kept the right clients who pay the way I want to be paid. And I am happy to read your realistic view of our profession. Thank you for the great post!

    Best regards,
    Wenjer Leuschel

    P.S. Yes, we do need a license to do translation business. The system must go on after all.


  7. ”There are no licenses for other types of interpreters and none for translators.”

    Thanks God for that.


  8. So you don’t need a permission to operate a business out of your house in Germany?

    Is it really true that Germany and other European countries are less bureaucratic when it comes to business regulations than US?

    It kind of makes sense because here we have to pay taxes to Federal, State and Local tax authorities. The corporate propagandists on TV and in newspapers, formerly know as journalists, say that taxes are lower here than in Europe, but I think it is really true only about rich people.

    If you make a lot money, you pay much less taxes here then in Germany or even France. If you make just a little bit, you have to make up for the huge hole left in the tax revenues by the likes of Mitt Romney who paid a whopping 13.9% of taxes on his income of 250 million dollars last year.


    • There are businesses – Gewerbe – but translation is a freelance activity, so no, you don’t need a permit. I can’t even remember filling in a form like Robin says. I did register for VAT, which was optional for me when I first did it. Less bureaucratic with trades and businesses maybe not, but where translation is concerned, certainly not more bureaucratic the way you described it.


      • Thanks for the explanation.

        I still have a feeling that if you called your City Hall and asked them whether you need a license, they would probably tell you that there is some kind of tax that you forgot to pay.

        I once went to the US consulate in Japan for advice on how to file my US tax return because I worked in both countries that year. The guy working there told me that I needed to pay taxes on some of the money that I made in Japan, which was not true because there is an exemption up to a certain amount to avoid double taxation.


    • I know you have that feeling, Steve.
      Fortunately translators are listed in the tax legislation as freelances. It’s true that some have been persuaded wrongly to register a trade, and others have got ridiculous VAT advice from their accountants.
      (From another fake who sometimes translates German tax law into English)


  9. Following what a high ATA mucky-muck called a stunning performance on the Spanish-English exam, which included the literary selection, said to be the most difficult, I was asked to be a grader. I subsequently received a bunch of exams to grade and was astonished at how bad they were and, what was even more shocking, that the examinees thought they were competent to take the exam. I don’t remember passing any. So, guess what? I was never asked to grade exams again. One ATA person “in the know” said I was probably too tough.

    What gives the ATA the right to certify translators? Or to “decertify” if one drops out? One does not lose a diploma after graduation. Moreover, I was informed that the annual fee mainly covers publication of the ATA newsletter, or whatever it is called now. What a group….


  10. I don’t have an answer to your question, but I thought you might want to know that when I tried to translate “mucky-muck” to several European language, Google just spat out “mucky-muck” back at me without bothering to translate anything.

    But when I used it to translate it to Japanese, I got 汚い、泥 (kitanai = dirty, doro = mud). Some sort of dirty business seems to be involved here if you go by the Japanese interpretation, which is usually my preference, linguistically speaking.

    The ATA newsletter is called the ATA Chronicle and sadly, it usually takes me less than 5 minutes to “read” it cover to cover.


  11. I think the intended term is muckety-muck (used to refer to someone high up in an organization). Mucky muck, to me at least, is the kind of thick mud that takes off your shoe when you walk through it.

    In my neck of the woods, a business license costs $75. I don’t think it’s restricted to people who work from home; it is required of anyone in business for herself (or himself, of course).

    Got to get back to faking that translation due on Tuesday…


  12. I saw the term mucky-muck several years ago on a discussion group on the Internet, so it must be a legitimate term too. Perhaps muckety-muck means a top mucky-muck honcho.

    I bet you did not know that you wouldn’t need no stinkin’ business license if you lived in Germany.


  13. “Muckety-muck” (, “mucky muck” ( or “muck a muck” (

    In my time of living in Germany (14 years), I’d have had it if I ever did a business without a license. Better not to have any trouble with the Fiskus or the Polente there in Germany. Maybe the rules are slackening now. It’s about time.


    • Hi Wenjer:

      So how would you say mucky-muck in Chinese, preferably with traditional characters so I can read it?
      The equivalent expression in Czech 30 years ago was “papaláš” which back then usually meant a high-level communist functionary, invariable really stupid.

      I googled it and it is still used now, but now it probably means a high-level corporate goon, invariably lethally greedy.

      Isn’t progress a wonderful thing?


      • A mucky muck can be called 大官儿 ([daguanr] – make sure to pronounce the -r sound at the end to convey the derogatory meaning of a “hohes Tier”) or simply 大人物 ([darenwu], – a V.I.P. – usually means a very powerful and “very impotent/incompetent person”) in Chinese.

        Interesting to know that mucky mucks are called “papaláš” (big Cheese).


    • Wenjer,
      I don’t know what you did when you were in Germany, but you couldn’t have been a freelance translator, as that category of Freiberufler never, ever had to have any sort of licence. Not in the FRG, anyway. But maybe you were in a different Germany, or doing something different. Or you weren’t a German/EU citizen. All you have to do as a freelance translator in Germany is file your tax returns on time (and you have a lot of time to do that, especially if you use a tax adviser), pay any quarterly advance (income) taxes they want from you, and otherwise enjoy the fact that Germany has one of the most liberal regimes anywhere in the world. And one of the strongest and best-paying translation markets…


      • Well, Robin, in my time in Germany, a Freiberufler should proceed with the Gewerbeanmeldung to do his business and get taxed. I was a Freiberufler doing tour guiding, interpretation and translation when I was studying. I worked later as sales representative after my studies. In both case, I avoided troubles with the authorities by engaging a Steuerberater and a legal advisor. Things do change in the years.

        As you correctly said, Germany is one of the strongest and best-paying translation markets. Most of my clients are German companies, either agencies or direct clients, above 3 quarters of them. The others are Swiss or Austrian companies. Yes, Germany is quite liberal now. I sensed it when I visited in 2008 and 2010. I´ll be there for one month this year when my daughter begins her study. And I´ll take time to know more about the changes. As a matter of fact, I did enjoy my long stay in Germany and I prefer working with Germans, who are straight-forward (bei denen man weiss, woran man ist).


  14. Hi Wenjer,
    Just one correction: translation and interpreting have *never* been a “Gewerbe” (trade) in Germany, so there has never been a requirement for a Gewerbeanmeldung for these professions. I can’t speak for tour guides, though of course a sales rep is definitely a “Gewerbe” that you have to register. Germany had a very liberal regime for translators/intepreters when I started around 23 years ago now, and AFAIK that has been the case since at least the early 1960s.


    • Hi Robin, it could be that I was working as a tour guide while I was asked to do some interpreting and translation jobs at the same period, so that I was registered as Freiberufler between 1979 and 1986. The sales rep activity from 1989 to 1993 was registered as a GmbH. The Steuerberater and the lawyer took care of the issues with the authorities. Thanks for telling me that translation and interpreting have “never” been a “trade,” though we treat them as a trade when we “buy” and “sell” translations (say, acting like an agency, even when we are registered as freelancer). Great to know that Germany has a liberal regime for translators/interpreters. I guess all we need would be only a tax number.


  15. I spent 4 years studying hard in a private school to get a Master degree in translation (in Brussels).
    When I decided to get established, first in Belgium and later in Morocco, nobody asked me for this diploma I was so proud of !
    In Belgium, they just asked me for a secondary school diploma.
    In Morocco, the only document they were interested in was an authorization from my owner to settle my business in his house !!!
    Isn’t it disappointing ?! Anybody with no certification can pretend himself a translator just like you who studied several years for that !!!

    I console myself with the idea that the quality of services will make the difference…


    • “I console myself with the idea that the quality of services will make the difference…”

      The important thing is whether you learned something useful, not whether they gave you a piece of paper.


      • Of course! But the piece of paper cost me many efforts !


  16. […] Localization Cost Savings, Part 2: Best Practices Translation in the New Millennium: I, Translator How Do You Know That You Are Not A Fake? Stop check fees are a part of doing business What to Charge: Calculating Your Rates When to Hire a […]


  17. I am a certified translator in English in Montevideo, Uruguay. This means that I completed four years of Translation Studies at the Law School of the State University (the only one entitled to issue this degree) and am registered at the Supreme Court of Justice. Plus, I also got my business license which is mandatory for issuing invoices (and paying taxes, of course). There are of course, translators that have set themselves up as such, and who may or may not have a business license, who can translate any documents not requiring a certified translation. According to legislation, all documents in a foreign language must be translated officially by a registered certified translator (traductor/a público/a) to be processed at any public agency within the national territory. Only 5 languages are nowadays represented by certified translators: English, French, German, Portuguese, Italian. For all other languages, it is necessary to resort to the services of an “idóneo” , that is, an expert who is a national of the language, can demonstrate competency certified by the corresponding consulate, and is registered at the Certified Translators Assn. of Uruguay. This person is contacted by, and delivers the translation to, the certified translator, who issues it and countersigns it. So I am most definitely not a fake, but rather the real thing, if I say so myself…. But fakes do exist out there, and sometimes there are professionals without a degree who are the real McCoy, and so-called professionals with a degree who don’t get up to par. Such is the way of the world….


  18. but at least we translators do honest work, unlike people in many other professions that I can think of who are usually paid much more than translators.

    Forgot to comment on this. Football (soccer) players maybe? Not that their work is dishonest, but sometimes they don’t score as expected and still they cash in these huge amounts of money….


  19. I was thinking more along the line of lying politicians who often can get away with just about anything for decades.

    If you are a football player who can’t score, you may get paid what is in your contract, but probably only for one season.


    • Right you are, but also as a politician, you may not get reelected, or your backers may withdraw their funding….


  20. I don’t know about your country, but the people who finance our politicians here keep financing their reelections because both the Democrats and Republicans do exactly what they need to get this money.

    It really makes no difference which of these parties you vote for anymore, and no other party is allowed to compete in honest elections. The media pretend that other parties don’t exist.

    So we can’t really want them out. And the politicians know that.


    • Here it’s another story altogether and it would be too long to explain and we would be veering way out of our original subject, so we’ll leave it at that, for today….BTW, very nice post!


  21. Yes, it is a different story.

    Who was it who said “If voting mattered they would make illegal”?


    • Don’t know who it was, but he (or she, to be politically correct) sure knew what they were talking about….Pity, after all that happened after the French Revolution, to have a right to vote. Although, after an eleven-year dictatorship such as we had here during the seventies, it sure feels nice to put in your ballot. As least we can hope to make a difference…


  22. It is off topic, but I have a question: how does one know if he/she should become a translator? The quality of work is not there yet, but you feel the potential, you feel that you CAN do it. You keep practicing and you enjoy it, even if you practice until 2 am and then go to work at 7 am. For how long? Should it come easy and fast, if you are really talented? Who do you listen, except yourself?


  23. I think that you can only know that you are the real thing if people keep you busy with translation work.

    You start marketing yourself and after a while you will know what you can do.


  24. As a stated in your article, if you are hired by serious companies or NG0s to translate on a regular bases is because the quality of your translation is good. A professional translator, particularly a free-lance translator/interpreter, is constantly engaged in language learning, getting familiar with various (interdisciplinary) fields.


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