Posted by: patenttranslator | May 24, 2012

Extremism In Claims About the Pursuit of Quality in Translation Is a Vice Also Known as Lying

It was Marcus Tullius Cicero who said “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue”, of course, although most people remember only the first part of the sentence as something that Senator Barry Goldwater said to great applause in his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention. Cicero also said “To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be forever a child”.

But the quote on which I base my post today is “Extremism in the pursuit of excellence is no vice” because I found it somewhere online today. This permutation and immature imitation of what was originally an elegant Latin sentence, unless meant as a joke, is pure marketing drivel, typical for example of what one can see on hundreds of websites of translation agencies. Translation agencies profess to adore quality. If you believe what they say on their websites, the sole purpose of their existence has been and is a never ending quest for quality in translation.

The marketing specialists who write the propaganda for their websites use marketing slogans such as “we redefine the very meaning of translation through the use of new and innovative translation management models with unique solutions”.

These marketing specialists are invariably monolingual. They understand how to manage the translation business to squeeze as much profit from it as possible, but how could somebody who is imprisoned in a monolingual world possibly understand the translation process? The job of health insurance claim adjusters in the American for-profit healthcare system is to minimize expenditures and maximize profit. That’s it. They don’t know anything about medicine, other than how to make a lot of money out of human suffering and pain, and even death. At least they don’t pretend that they are medical doctors.

But monolingual managers of translation agencies claim to understand everything about translation much better than the actual translators who are hardly ever mentioned in the marketing propaganda.

And how are they transforming the process of translation by creating new models for measuring the quality of translation?

First they create a computer database of translators and ask translators who look for work to answer all the questions. There are about a hundred questions you have to answers in an online questionnaire for translators that I am looking at right now. Questions about things like translator’s operating system, computer memory tools and other software, experience with “crowdsourcing”, and “What is your normal hourly Machine Translation post-editing capacity?”, or  “Do you provide transcreation services?” (don’t you need to be a trans-gender person to be able to do that rather than a mere translator)?

They always ask about how much you charge, what kind of discount are you willing to give them for this and that, and how many words a day you can translate.

Although the online questionnaire for translators that I am looking at right now has more than a hundred different items, there is nothing in it about the education of a potential hungry translator eager to work for the agency. How translators actually learned a foreign language, for instance whether they graduated from a university with a degree in French or Japanese, is completely irrelevant to the person who created this questionnaire. They ask potential candidates about their competence in different fields such “IT, legal, medicine, patents, finance and banking, pharmaceuticals”, but all the potential candidate for working for the agency has to do is to put a checkmark in a little box. There is no way to determine from the questionnaire how the would-be translator acquired specialized knowledge in various fields.

Neither does the questionnaire ask about how many years the would-be translator lived in a given foreign country. If you are for instance a Japanese to English translator with a PhD in physics from MIT who studied Japanese at Todai or Waseda and then spent the next 10 years translating patents in Japan, this would not be reflected in your answers, evidently because it is not important. What is really important is whether you use the software that the agency wants you to use such as Trados, and how much discount you are willing to give for the famous “fuzzy matches”.

Another thing that agencies are increasingly demanding these days from freelance translators is complete obedience on the level that Cesar Millan the Dog Whisperer demands from the wayward dogs that he is training. Translators are no longer even allowed to submit their invoices. That is so 20th century! Translators must log onto an accounting software module of the agency to submit their request for payment. It’s not really an invoice anymore. You just fill in items that the agency asks you to fill in. This means that you can’t really have your own payment terms. You must simply accept what the agency allows.

Of course, unlike “freelance translators” who work for this kind of agency, Cesar Millan’s dogs are richly rewarded for their complete obedience by being well taken care of and loved because they have learned over the centuries a few neat tricks such as how to wag their tails just so to express the depth of the admiration for their owners. But since translators have no tail, they can’t wag what they don’t have.

And unlike employees working for paternalistic companies, who are also being generally well taken care of in return for their loyalty to the company (this model still exist in some countries such as Japan), the agency has no such burdensome responsibilities to “freelance translators”.

In return for complete obedience, the persons formerly known as freelance translators will be fed some work by the agency if their rate is low enough and if they are willing to wait at least two months to get paid this low rate, after a hefty discount has been taken for “fuzzy matches” and such. But only until the next person who fills out the online questionnaire puts in a lower rate, of course.

This is how extremism in the “pursuit of quality” in translation looks from my perspective. I see plenty of extremism in the model, but the goal is definitely not “quality”. There is only one goal here: to maximize the profit for the agency, regardless of the quality, especially since the people running the agency are usually unable to tell a good translation from a bad one.


  1. Fortunately, it sounds as though clients are moving away from agencies whenever possible in order to work with good translators on more collaborative terms. Clients have caught on to this false promise of quality. Thank goodness for that!

    I haven’t had too much experience with agencies, except when some project manager has screwed up and needs to pay for a rush job. Offers like that underwhelm me, and I can see why clients would be, too.


  2. “it sounds as though clients are moving away from agencies whenever possible in order to work with good translators on more collaborative terms. Clients have caught on to this false promise of quality”

    Perhaps you are right but I doubt it.

    What is the percentage of translators who mostly work for direct client vs. those who mostly work for agencies?

    I don’t know, but my guess would be that it is probably less than 20%.


    • I got this info from a guy who collects data from the client end, so maybe it’s biased based on the particular fields he collected from?


  3. What info?

    Can you share more specifics?


    • There was a meet-up for the DC area ATA group (NCATA), speaker’s name was Andrew Lawless. I looked for his presentation on our website, but it hasn’t been posted yet. Sorry! I can say with certainty, he knows his stuff. Began in publishing, transitioned to translation for about a decade if I remember well, then found a niche that combines both with a bit of his business knowledge. Wish I could give you more details!


  4. OK, thanks.

    I saw this information in my e-mail because I am an NCTA member. But it’s more than 3 hours from here to DC so I have never gone to a meeting so far.

    It would be a really healthy trend if clients started moving toward individual translators and small agencies because the big ones and even the small ones using the methods I discuss in my posts do a horrible job both as far as clients and translators are concerned.


  5. For one of my agency clients, I do exclusively the so-called linguistic validation jobs. Such are native-only jobs and the results are products of collaboration.

    The agency is a very specialized one. They don’t do anything else outside of a certain field and I believe that their extreme pursuit of translation quality is the right way. That was why I started working with them since 2007. I am no English native, so that I don’t do English linguistic validation jobs. I do only Chinese and I am proud of being able to justify the results. Should I do English linguistic validation, I would be disqualified right a way, becasue I am aware of the mistakes I would do when I am writing anything in English or even when I am thinking in English.

    So, Steve, there are surely many agencies who falsely claim extreme quality pursuit, but there are still some specialized agencies who really stick to their procedures of quality assurance. And they don’t necessarily pay peanuts.

    Since you are working in the field of patent translation (specifically, chemical engineering, biochemistry and probably semiconductors or electronic devices), your experiences with agencies can be very different from mine. In principle, I don’t work with agencies whose methods of doing business do not convince me, which includes the ways they acquire end clients, the ways they maintain customer relations as well as translator relations, the way they assure translation quality and so on. In short, I work only with agencies I know well enough to put them in the right light, unless they are chosen by the end clients to whom I have direct contacts to ensure my position of not getting fucked.

    Chris Durban’s theory of acquiring direct clients at “waterholes” is perfectly correct. If translators want to improve their position in this industry, they shall think hard of the ways of how to get rid of the disqualified agencies. As I said some time ago, it is always about power and money. It is about who wears the trousers (wer die Hose an hat). Agencies know well that most translators are in weaker positions and they make use of it. That’s why translators get fucked again and again.

    To any translator who does not want peanuts, I recommend Chris Durban’s “The Prosperous Translator.” Just ignore the disqualified agencies. There are good ones, who are our translation colleagues and who know what they are doing. Jesus said, “…quaerite et invenietis pulsate et aperietur vobis.” I believe in this and it has done me a miracle when I was banned from a translator workplace. I found out that I don’t need to streetwalk or pose at any translator platforms to be selected by whoremongers.


    • The only watering hole that I frequent is the Internet. Different people will have different approaches, but this one has been working for me so far.

      I just read online that there was a big celebration in San Francisco on the occasion of the 75 years since Golden Gate bridge was built. I remember the celebration (walk across the bridge) when it was 50 years old, it was just weeks before I started translating I got fired from my stupid job.

      The bridge toll then was 3 dollars, only in one direction (to the City). It is now 6 dollars in both directions.


      • Steve, yours is a special case. Everyone who follows your blog understand why the only watering hole for you is the Internet. At least, you don’t have to streetwalk at any portals. You are brilliant in what you are doing.

        Little people like me is different. We need to have direct contacts with people to make sure that we can do business with each other.

        I know quite a few patent translators both in Taiwan and China. Most of them work with law firms and agencies. They are not like you who attract clients online. Those ones who do are mostly the ones who pose at portals, because they do not have the talent as you do. Your writings are convincing and people who need your service know how to reach you online.

        I can confirm a trend of clients working directly with translators. Two direct clients came to me since 2008 because they had read what I wrote about certain issues in our industry. Those clients provide me sufficient work annually. And the best thing is that the jobs are regularily scheduled, so that I know when there weill be jobs coming and when I can take on other jobs from other clients or when I can work on several jobs from other clients in parallel when theirs are loosely scheduled.

        I do believe that more and more translators will do the way you do and/or the way Chris Durban indicates, instead of posing at some establissements or streetwalking in hope of being picked up by “Freier”. And there will be more and more staid clients come to the idea of working with translators directly.

        Nevertheless, there are reputable specialized agencies who are reliable partners of translators. I guess I am just lucky to have found some of them. And I wish those, who search to find, have the same luck.

        I am more than happy that you got fired from your stupid job 25 years ago, so that we find a valuable translation colleague in you through the Internet.


  6. Fantastic, Steve. I subscribe to your point of view, again. Both on advertising the ideal quality and on market conditions. As to everyone advertising the best quality and being, in reality, at various unknown quality levels, the message is soon to be found void. In this sense, it is detrimental to the class. As to the market, I would say in Brazil it is even worse, as this profession is not legally regulated yet, so the market can be wild sometimes, and translation can be dangerously close to slave work, especially for beginners. As to me, I own a small technical translation firm where I do basically everything except for accounting. I never advertised (although I am not against it) but have clients (mainly through others’ recommendation) enough to live exclusively on translation. I am glad that you value this kind of business profile.


  7. Translation is completely unregulated here as well.

    You need to have hundreds of hours of supervised training before you can become a hairdresser, but if you want to translate really complicated technical documents, all you have to do is hang out your shingle and you’re in business.


  8. I was falling asleep on my translation, so I thought to sneak a quick look-see into my “readlater” folder, (in lieu of stretching or taking a walk, a symptom of translator’s dementia, surely) and found your post. Myself, I work mostly, I daresay almost exclusively, with direct clients. My experiences with agencies are limited and none too satisfactory. I think that the much publicized “pursuit of quality” by agencies is so much market-babble. IMHO.


  9. “Myself, I work mostly, I daresay almost exclusively, with direct clients. My experiences with agencies are limited and none too satisfactory”

    I used to work only for agencies for the first 5 years or so because that was the easiest way to find work.

    At this point I mostly work for direct clients and only occasionally also for agencies, mostly small jobs.

    I think that most translators mostly work for agencies but according to what some people are saying, even on this blog, things may be starting to change as clients are realizing that it makes a lot of sense to working directly with translators.


  10. Excellent post, every word of it.


  11. Thank you very much.


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