Posted by: patenttranslator | June 1, 2012

Market Forces Are Turning Translators from the Most Significant Bits (MSBs) to the Least Significant Bits (LSBs) in Translation Business

Technical language can be strangely poetic and graphic at the same time.

For example data packets are sent through Internet organized to include least significant bits (LSBs), most significant bits (MSBs), and payload, while they are cyclically checked to ensure that they are not corrupted.

This also how the translation business is organized and sent through the Internet. End clients would play the role of both a transmitter of texts that are encrypted (in a foreign language) and of a receiver of plain texts that have been translated (decrypted), translation agencies would of course play the role of the most significant bits (MSBs) because they try to control everything, the translation is the payload because it represents the information or the message for which somebody is willing to pay a considerable amount of money, and the translators are …. well, the least significant bits (LSBs), aren’t they?

After all, all that translators have to do is replace words in one language by corresponding words in another language, which is something that can be done even by machines these days. Machine solutions are not perfect yet, but one day soon, translators will not really be needed much, except perhaps to run cyclical checks to ensure that the machine translated text is not corrupted. Many people believe that this is in fact true, and the machine translation industry is quite happy that this is what most people believe.

But using the language of Internet protocols, I would say that it is up to the translator whether he or she will be the most significant bit or the least significant bit in the entire translation process.

Translators who mostly receive work from “global directories of translators” or from translation agencies that pay very low rates are definitely the least significant bits. They are most definitely treated as such, all you have to do is take a look at how much these translators are paid.

I think it is a really bad idea to look for work in one of these places, sort of like looking for love in all the wrong places.

People who look for love in all the wrong places usually learn at some point that this is the wrong way to go about it. But it would seem that some translators never learn because new online bidding venues keep popping up like mushrooms in a Bohemian forest after a rainy week in August.

Here is another example of how insignificant translators are in the modern business model of commercial translation:

I was looking at a summary of the “Language Services Market for 2012” by the Common Sense Advisory. Here are the first 5 bulleted points describing translation market in this summary:

  • Current market size estimates for the language services industry along with a detailed description of the methodology used to obtain the estimates
  • Projected growth rates for the industry through 2015, including region-specific breakdowns
  • Rankings of the Top 100 global market leaders
  • Regional lists of the largest translation and interpreting companies in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, North America, Northern Europe, Oceania, Southern Europe, and Western Europe
  • Breakdown of the number of providers in each size range worldwide, Critical financial benchmarks for LSPs, including average revenue per employee, average revenue per salesperson, average revenue per employee, average revenue per salesperson, average revenue per project manager, broken out by both size range and geography ….

Note that there is nothing there about the least significant bits in the translation business, namely the actual translators. The only information about translators that I found in this summary was that “their productivity is stagnant because an average translator can still translate on average only about 2,684 words per day, which has not changed much in decades if not centuries.” It was difficult to raise the productivity of slaves on sugar cane plantations since they were paid nothing, and it is difficult to raise the productivity of translators. I wonder why.

I believe that this particular bit of information about the word count is in fact true. On a bad day when I am struggling with a difficult patent written in a nearly incomprehensible Japanese, this is almost exactly the number of words that I will produce before I call it a day. I can double it on a good day, but usually only when I am being paid a high rush rate. Greed can move mountains.

The report also says that despite the fact that there are not enough experienced human translators, the prices are not likely to go up because the translation business is somehow exempt from the usual forces of supply and demand. Financial Translator has a really funny post about this interesting theory here.

Personally, I don’t think that the people at the Common Sense Advisory know very much about the translation business. Common sense tells me that nobody can possibly know that much about something as shapeless, fragmented and undefinable as “The Translation Business”.

What do these market prognosticators know for example about people like me? I have been in business for 25 years, but translators like me would be completely invisible to them. They probably e-mail me their questionnaires, as does the American Translators Association, but I never fill them out. Nor do they know anything about my customers, because patent lawyers are not likely to waste their time by filling out some dumb questionnaires either.

Here is my prediction for the translation market in 2012: Since there are hundreds of different segments in the translation business, in segments where the supply of translators exceeds the demand, the rates will continue to be stagnant. In segments where the demand exceeds the supply, the rates will go up.

Because the law of supply and demand works in the translation business just like in any other business field, I already raised my rates this year, although only to new customers so far, as I have too much work most of the time.

Why did I do that? The law of supply and demand commanded me to do so.


  1. Hello, Steven. Thanks for the mention and the link to my item. I also liked your take on the issue, since it is true that a fragmented landscape is much harder to generalize about than a industry in which five or six companies account for 80% of the revenue. Also, I guess that when “LSP” executives say they can’t find qualified translators, they may mean they can’t find qualified translators at a middling to lowish rate range.


  2. “I guess that when “LSP” executives say they can’t find qualified translators, they may mean they can’t find qualified translators at a middling to lowish rate range.” … and who would be willing to do a free test, sign a demeaning contract in which the translator must promise “to pay reasonable attorney fees” should the translation agency in its wisdom decide to sue a hapless translator, as well “to assign any intellectual property created during the translation process to the agency”, not to mention giving a hefty discount for “fuzzy matches” based on what Mox calls “Crados”.

    Of course they can’t reach qualified translators under these conditions. They should be happy if they can reach beginners.

    But unfortunately for “LSPs” and fortunately for the translators, their clients can reach translators without a broker, which is happening more and more frequently, although this is not on the radar screen of the Common Sense Advisory people at all.


  3. Steven, Miguel,

    Thanks for putting in words my exact thoughts after reading that LSPs cannot find qualified translators (CSA’s article). I spend a lot of time everyday replying emails from qualified translators (highly qualified translators) who offer their professional services to me. And I know LOTS of qualified translators (highly qualified translators) from all over the world who are not 100% in the profession because, well, we know why.

    Eureka! I realized that those reports are being linguistically subtle. In brief: I am not qualified to work for The Big Word, ALS, Lionbridge, or the exploitative agencies in my country. Lucky me!

    GREAT POST, Steven!



  4. Hi Au:

    Thanks for your comment.

    Yes, what they mean is that they can’t find qualified translators who would be willing to work peanuts and under impossible deadlines.


  5. Very well put.
    Only that I would not trust a sudden increase in translator’s fees would make us more productive than 2,684 or whatever number of words per day.
    I do believe productivity can be increased, but true change will come from a comprehensive outlook on quality and the way we translate, methodologically speaking.


  6. Another really good article. Translation agencies are the least significant bit because they don’t do anything at all apart from being an intermediary between client and translator. They should be treated as such. The solution is to somehow remove them from this structure by directly offering our services to clients. Luckily, thanks to the Internet there are ways to do this, and you for one seem to have found them 🙂


  7. I would disagree.

    The fact is that most translators are unable or unwilling to do what it takes to find their own clients and they are quite happy to work for translation agencies who can provide them with work even if it means a much lower rate.

    In this respect translation agencies pay an important role and some treat translators with respect, usually the small ones.

    The problem is that there clearly is an effort underway to turn translators into an insignificant, invisible cog in an all-important, and all-powerful grinding wheel represented by translation agencies that these days make poor little translators jump through a number of hoops, such as when they don’t even accept translators’ invoices anymore and require them to fill in billing information online, require them to use Trados, require them to sign long, sinister and demeaning “confidentiality agreements”, etc.

    I think that this is a pernicious trend that should be resisted.

    If you are a translator who works for this type of agency, you have only yourself to blame if you feel underpaid and unhappy.


    • I know. Most translators are happy working for agencies because they don’t have to spend time and money on marketing (and advertising themselves on the Internet isn’t anybody’s cup of tea either). What I meant is that as translators, we should be confident when dealing with translation agencies because we are actually the strong link (without the translator, the process doesn’t work) and if agencies do not show the necessary respect for the translator, or pay miserly rates, then translators should not hesitate to tell them that.

      After all, it is them who do the important work.


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