Posted by: patenttranslator | May 29, 2012

I Work Hard for the Money So You’d Better Treat Me Right!

I received an e-mail from a translation agency that has been recently mentioned in the news in UK and frequently discussed on blogs of translators as it has been attempting to cut the pay of interpreters to between 16 to 22 pounds (25 to 35 dollars) per hour, which amounted to a 60 to 80% cut in pay. Yes, I am referring to Applied Language Solutions (ALS). Due to the incredibly low rate offered to interpreters, the agency then began to be boycotted by most of the interpreters who used to work for the company.

One Czech interpreter filled in an online application and successfully enrolled her pet rabbit Jajo as a qualified linguist. According to this article in News Today, the rabbit later received emails from the firm welcoming him aboard as a translator –  and he was even invited to an online seminar to learn more about his role.

The e-mail sent to me said, among other things:

“We are currently searching for a pharmaceutical translator from Japanese to English for approximately 10,000 characters of which around 50% are repetitions …… Trados is preferable. If you are interested, please e-mail your CV with the relevant experience with your proposed rate.”

Although I would probably be also welcome as a qualified linguist, just like Jajo the rabbit, I did not e-mail them my resumé because I don’t really work for agencies much, I don’t use Trados, and I don’t give discount for “around 50% of repetitions”.

Which got me thinking, what is the justification for paying translators less for “repetitions”?

Well, if something is repeated in a text, translators can cut and paste a given portion and what would otherwise take hours will only take minutes. In fact, this is something that I do quite often because patents tend to be quite repetitive. The same thing is often “recited” in a patent in the main text of the specifications, in the effect of the invention and then for good measure in several claims with minor changes, such as by using different molar ratios or different chemical compounds.

But even if portions of Japanese text appear to be identical to a CAT tool because they are identical, I often have to translate them differently.  For instance a popular technique in Japanese patents is to “recite” all the claims before the actual description of the invention starts also in the section titled “Means To Solve Problems” (課題を解決するための手段, kadai wo kaisuru tame no shudan). Claims may not be broken up into several sentences. No matter how long a claim is, it must be just one sentence. But if a long claim with 800 words is repeated in this section, I always break it up into several sentences to make it more understandable because the same claim is no longer a claim unless it is contained in the claims section and I am thus free to use my judgement when it comes to a proper structure of sentences in English.

These are just some of the reasons why I never give discounts for what could be called repetitions, although I just cut and paste corresponding portions and then proofread them and make changes as required. Should I be giving a hefty discount to my clients for something like this?

If I did work mostly for agencies, they would probably try to force me to do that. I would have to use Trados or similar software that makes it easy to quantify repetitions and I would have to agree to a discount for what would be “about 50%” of repetitions in this case.

Would the translation agency then give the same hefty discount that the translators are forced to agree to also to their customers? I don’t know, but I doubt it very much. I think that the agency will probably ask the translator for a discount and then charge the customer full price if it knows that it can get away with it, which is probably the case most of the time.

I don’t think that translators should be asked to give discounts for repetitive passages. If a direct client asks me about a discount for something like that, my standard answer is that I don’t feel that a discount is warranted because since there are often minute, almost invisible changes in seemingly repetitive passages, I have to proofread them several times to find out whether there are any changes in these passages and where they are.

This is in fact sometime true. A long claim in Japanese with 800 English words in it can have just one change, or just a few minor changes, for instance when the same claim is made about a “device” and a “method”, and it sometime really does take forever to find out what the difference is because you have to look at 4 different types of very similar texts:

1. Japanese claim No. 1 about the “device” or “apparatus” (装置, sohchi),

1. Japanese claim No. 20 about the “method” or “process” (方法, hohhoh),

3. My English translation of the portion of Japanese claim No. 1 about the “device” or “apparatus”, and

4. My English translation of the portion about the “method” or “process” in claim No. 20.

Because everything is arranged in a completely different order in the structure of the Japanese sentence and the English sentence, I have to keep jumping from one place to another to look for differences, usually from the beginning to the end, which makes it very easy to miss a thing or two, resulting in a mistranslation. Should I mistranslate something important, I would have a big problem, and so would my client.

A CAT tool would see the “repetitions”, namely the hundreds of words preceding a verb that is hiding at the end of the whole construct of 800 words, and although it would probably flag the verb, only a human translator with a lot of experience will know how this minor difference changes the entire claim.

I find the whole idea that human translators should give discounts for software that makes their task easier to their clients, usually translation agencies who will then turn around and charge their clients the full price, absurd.

This is not how things work in other occupations in the real world.

I have been with Bob, my tax accountant, since 1987. In 1987 it must have taken him a long time to prepare my tax return. He was not even using a computer back then, I had to go to his house, he had to talk to me and waste a lot of time to make sure that he would have all the relevant information.

I now live 3,000 miles away from Bob, but I still send him the same information, he feeds it into the software package that he is using and probably prepares my tax return in something like 20 minutes.

He then mails me my tax return and a bill for 350 dollars, which I promptly pay. I don’t begrudge Bob that he can make 700 dollars an hour because he is worth every penny of it. He has a lot of experience because he has been working for the Internal Revenue Service for years before he defected to the private sector decades ago. He has a law degree and he must follow all the new legislation affecting tax issues, and that is a lot of new laws every year.

If I told him, “Bob, look, you are using this software package that makes it very easy for you to prepare my tax return because all you have to do is just fill in different numbers in the same fields on the form every year, you should give me a discount for 50% of repetitions”, he would drop me like a hot potato. He would probably think that I have gone crazy after all these years of translating Japanese patents, per se not an unreasonable assumption.

I pay him because I respect his expertise, and he knows that. I could probably find a somewhat cheaper tax  accountant. But to me, the savings are not worth the potential risk.

When I get paid for a translation, even though I may be cutting and pasting several portions in a repetitive patent, I don’t really get paid by the word, that is just something that I use to estimate the cost of my translation.

I get paid among other things for “my expertise in cutting and pasting”, if you will. And if you want me to give you a discount for that, well, then I will not be able to work for you.

Because even when the job is quite repetitive, I work hard for the money, and you’d better treat me right.


  1. Hear! Hear! – I completely agree that discounts for repetitions or copy & paste or volume job should not even be brought up—by any party.
    Translation is not a commodity, and it’s time not only for agencies to realize it, but more urgently and importantly for translators to understand and implement and stop underestimating themselves and their profession.

    I once had a 30 minute discussion (well, more like a drilling by me :-)) with an agency about discounts, and although my explanation was heard and even AGREED with, the low rate they offered – a result of a discount they thought they should get from me for volume – did not change. So, obviously I didn’t take the job.
    I think it’s downright rude to ask a translator to give discounts for volume projects – agencies seem to think, or at least try to persuade us to believe, that more words to translate means less of our time, and therefore we should be paid less. Where did they learn basic math?

    I decided the time spent with my children is far more valuable than working for degrading discount rates. So, I may end up earning a dime less, but I also gain my self-respect, self-esteem and the wonderful opportunity to see just a little bit more of my children growing up.

    For the sake of proper disclosure I will say that I do work with some agencies – those that respect the professionalism, expertise and diligence required from a good translator.


    • It’s OK to work for agencies. I used to do that for years before I figured out how to find work on my own.


  2. Absolutely spot on, especially, quote; “I don’t really get paid by the word, that is just something that I use to estimate the cost of my translation”.


  3. The first remuneration that I received for translating a short article from a Japanese technical journal in 1978 was a bottle of rum.

    I just told the guy that that was what I wanted, I specified the kind and I was pretty happy when he brought it to me. He was happy too because he needed to know what was in that article for his PhD thesis.


  4. This is a must-read for any translator. Very cogent argument explaining exactly why discounts are a stupid idea.


  5. Thank you, Jill.

    So are you back from your Hawaiian vacation?

    How was it? Did the islanders treat you right?


  6. While I think it’s logical that agencies would think of that – paying translators less for repetitions, when working with CAT tools – it is true that once you have translated a phrase which figures four times in the text, if you then find a mistake during proofreading you have to, well, correct it four times. When I worked for agencies, in the beginning I was quite good at negotiating the price… but they would usually apply their own Trados grid, ripping me off in the process. So then I negotiated different Trados rates and was a lot happier. As for direct clients, well, if they want to save money on repetitions, I suggest that they purchase SDL Studio themselves (several hundred euros) and learn to use it (several hundred hours)…


  7. If it takes hundreds of hours to learn Trados, it must be a truly monstrous program.

    Fortunately for me, I don’t need to waste time and money on things like that.


  8. You are (as always, I might add) absolutely right. 3 times out of 5, on average, I don’t agree with my own translations – how am I expected to agree with – and not charge for – “repetitions” (be these mine or of something someone else translated) or give discounts the so-called “fuzzy matches”? (sometimes these fuzzies take up more time to fix than doint a straight, honest-to-God translation). If I went to my dentist and said “hey, you do this job a couple of hundred times a month, so give me a discount” I believe that she would kick me out of the door in no time at all!


  9. Ah, but there is a big difference between people who stick their hands into other people’s mouths, also called dentists, and people who simply replace words in one language by words in another language, also called translators.

    Dentists are highly educated professionals who are therefore entitled to remuneration on a much higher level than mere word replacers (translators) who don’t really need to be educated at all. Or do they?

    Anyway, I think that is how much of the general public may see translators.

    As they used to put it in ancient Rome: “Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi” (what is permitted to a God is not permitted to an ox).

    To which my response would be:”let them have it machine translated” (because then the ignoramuses will see what this “word replacing” business is really about.


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  11. […] I received an e-mail from a translation agency that has been recently mentioned in the news in UK and frequently discussed on blogs of translators as it has been attempting to cut the pay of interp…  […]


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