Posted by: patenttranslator | April 12, 2012

A Few Essential Elements of a Successful Translation Business


Many if not most translators think that to be successful in translation business, they need to use translation memory tools, also called CATs, project management software, complicated accounting software and other largely useless and often ridiculously overpriced mechanical tools.

What they really need to do, in my humble opinion, is to take a look at a few common principles that have been applied by successful merchants, craftsmen and artisans to businesses on different continents for many centuries if not millennia.

Here is a brief summary of just some of them.

1.         Feng Shui (風水)

You probably know that Feng Shui means Wind-Water. But did you buy your house and design your home office with Feng Shui in mind?

I did, but I failed to notice the spire of a nearby church because I bought the house in summer and the church is visible only in winter when the trees shielding it from view have no leaves. I know now that the sharp edges of the tall church have the capacity to cut and drive away life energy, which is needed to bring new business to my office. Fortunately, since the church spire is mostly hidden by the leaves of the trees most of the year, this tends to absorb the negative influence stopping the circulating flow of life energy called “chi” (気) in Chinese, and “Prana” in Sanskrit. Business is often slow in winter when the trees leafless.

The study of magnetic fields is but one possible application of the principles of Feng Shui to modern sciences. We all know that magnetic fields from power lines can cause cancer, but few people realize that we are all surrounded by macro and micro magnetic fields at all times. When I was translating an article from a Japanese scientific journal about the influence of micro magnetic fields on highly precise measurement and detection methods, I realized to my surprise that the article was based on application of Feng Shui to micro-magnetic fields.

2.         Synchronicity

Synchronicity is a philosophical concept developed by Swiss psychologist Carl Jung in the 1920s. Jung noticed that we are surrounded in this world by what he called “meaningful coincidences”, which exist although they seem to have no apparent causal connection. I personally believe that there is often a causal connection between the strange coincidences that we all seem to be experiencing in our lives. For example, I resisted the temptation to start my own translation business for about 2 years because I was afraid that I would not be able to make ends meet. After two years of resisting the idea out of fear, I got fired from a stupid job, which made the transition to freelancing pretty much inevitable.

We should not resist the flow of meaningful coincidences in our life. Instead of wasting our time and energy by resisting the ebb and tide of the life-giving flow of energy in our world, we need to learn how to “go with the flow” and “use the flow” to our benefit.

I believe that I launched my business at the right time in accordance with the principles of synchronicity, when I learned enough from my various other jobs about what I needed to learn first in order to become a competent technical translator.

3.         Serendipity

Serendipity is in a way a logical result of synchronicity. According to Wikipedia, “serendipity” means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise”; specifically, the accident of finding something good or useful without looking for it.” This word is difficult to translate into other languages, although Google Translate tells me that serendipity is “Spürsinn” in German, which is translated in Muret-Sanders dictionary as “sixth sense” or “intuition”.

Social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, are just a few examples of the application of the principles of synchronicity and serendipity to modern business. Skype and Instagram would also be good examples of the same. Microsoft bought Skype, which did not really have much revenue, for 8.5 billion dollars, and Facebook recently bought Instagram, which did not have any revenues at all, for a cool 1 billion dollars.

Most translators can probably think of quite a few serendipitous occurrences when they found new and valuable customers by a happy accident without really looking for them.

While all translators had just a few years ago all was the famous “word of mouth”, we can now use serendipity through social media, websites and blogs.

Or we can ignore it, because it is hard to define and impossible to measure, perhaps because it does not exist. But one should probably keep in mind that Instagram’s revenues are also impossible to measure, mostly because they don’t exist.

4.         Findability

This word does exist in the English language and it is defined as “the ease with which information contained on our website can be found”. Of course, if we don’t have a website, it cannot be found. And if we do have a website but it does not contain the keywords that people who are looking for us are using in their searches, we will not be found either.

Although unlike relatively large translation agencies, translators cannot really spend money on advertising on Internet, translators who specialize can be found on the Internet easily as long as their website or blog has relevant content.

We can also do something that greedy, soul-less corporations are unable to do: We can actually write real blog posts that are fun to read. I am sure you must have come across any number of “blogs” of translation agencies that are just transparent, self-serving corporate propaganda masquerading as blog posts.

5.         Symmetricity

This word also exists in the English language and according to Wiktionary, it means “the extent to which, or the manner in which something is symmetric”.

It is a challenge to try to achieve the proper balance or Symmetricity in our business between the five ancient elements of Feng Shui, namely water (水), wood (木), fire (火), earth (土), and metal (金), five to seven days a week. Incidentally, the same elements are used in Japanese for 5 days of week so that you have a  “fire day”, “water day”, “wood day”, “metal [or gold] day”, and “earth day”. If you also add the Sun (日) and the Moon (月) as sometimes we do have to work on the weekend, you have the whole week, and all the other ingredients that I think are important on a weekly basis for a translator’s business, including: 1. Feng Shui, 2. Synchronicity, 3. Serendipity, and 4. Findability, which should be combined together for best result with the proper amount of Symmetricity (5).

I am not saying that if you try to achieve the proper balance between these five elements that I think are essential for any successful freelance business, you will become rich.

But I think that in addition to being at least moderately prosperous, you will probably enjoy yourself more than your typical corporate drone, or a “post-editor” of machine translation, which is something that some people call an emerging occupation, while I call it a horrible way to die.



  1. One of your best!

    The “coinidence thing” is scary. When I was in France, my sister (stationed in England at Lakenheath with US Air Force) was coming to see me. Messages got screwed up, but never mind! I ran into her in front of the Sorbonne. We walked past each other and instantly turned around to see if what we had indeed seen was real. My horse was a birthday gift. When I first saw him from the car as we drove to the ranch, I said I wanted a “cow pony” just like that. We bought him (for the price of meat), and when I received the official papers from the Quarter Horse Association, I saw that he had been registered on my birthday. This is for starters. You can’t make this stuff up.


  2. There are causal connections between what we call weird coincidences that we just can’t see, just like we can’t smell traces of whatever it is in the grass that our dog can smell quite distinctly.


  3. Yes, Mr. Vitek, I do believe that there are always causal connections (Kausalzusammenhänge) between what happened sometime somewhere and the coincidences we’ve just experienced at any moment. The problem is, we don’t always recognize the links, like our dogs would smell traces in the grass.

    As I see, all principles of the 5 run into the first one, Feng Shui, the harmony with the environment. There is a balance among the forces/factors that influence our lives. We don’t always recognize most of the forces, but we do go with “prana” most of the time. We go with the flow or use the flow intuitively most of the time. Intuition is kind of reasoning in a hurry. That’s how we survive, though we don’t usually see the causal connections.

    However, we don’t usually even know how Feng Shui functions, at least not knowing its way like we know how our Solar System functions. So, I am not sure that the church spire, the sharp edges of the tall church, cut and drive away life energy. Disadvantageous forces can also be turned to favor us, only if we know how. But it’s most of the time a matter of luck that we do the right thing in a right moment and at a right place.

    With your writing skill and the experience gained through the years of trotting around the globe and working as a technical translator, I am sure that you are able to ride the flow and take advantages of both head or tail winds to sail on. So long we don’t choose the horrible way to die, we keep our 気 circulating.

    Thank you for this post and good luck! People know why and how to find you. You are marvelous! I admire you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this one, Steve. It is indeed one of your best, and that’s not an easy mark to hit. Although I write a lot about technology on my own blog and I have used many technologies over the course of my careers as a scientist, software developer, consultant and translator, it has always been clear that these technologies play a very subordinate role to many other things, including the simple power of the human brain and the factors you mention here.


  5. @Wenjer & Kevin:

    Thank you very much, guys!

    I feel like we should establish a mutual admiration society or something.


  6. […] Translation Tools of Tomorrow How to approach prospective clients/language service providers A Few Essential Elements of a Successful Translation Business Tips on How to Better Connect with your Freelancers Think Proofreading Isn’t Important? Think […]


  7. Just found your blog through a so-called coincidence (Facebook ;)) and I really like it. Thank you for this article which is very compelling!


  8. […] that some people call an emerging occupation, while I call it a horrible way to die” – Steve Vitek), it is thanks to those like Kevin, a translator, language consultant, author of the brilliant […]


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