Posted by: patenttranslator | June 17, 2012

The Difference Between Cattle Calls and Legitimate Requests for Price Quotes

Cattle Call: An audition in which a large number of often inexperienced actors or performers try out. The polite term for “cattle calls” in Hollywood is “open call auditions”.

When you are busy trying to survive as a lonesome freelance translator, and many people have been doing just that for quite a few years now, can you afford to ignore cattle calls? And what is the difference between cattle calls and legitimate requests for price quotes for translation projects?

I think that to be able to make this distinction, one has to start by taking a good look at the entity that is asking us to put in our bid and at the real purpose of the bid.

If I receive an offer to quote a price for a potential translation from a translation agency that just says “Hi” without mentioning me by my name, it is a cattle call that is going out to a large herd of hungry cows standing silently, immutably and somewhat stupidly in a pasture where the green grass has been all but eaten up by now. These cows are essentially indistinguishable from each other. Therefore, as it does not really matter which one of them will land the job, the first cow offering the shortest turnaround time and a low enough rate will be fed a small amount of grass or hay.

I usually receive about one or two cattle calls like this a week, but since I think of myself as a unique individual who possesses highly specialized and somewhat unusual skills as opposed to a fairly generic cow, I simply ignore cattle calls like this, even if I have no other translation work for the moment.

I also ignore requests from translation agencies who somehow stumbled upon my website or my listing in the ATA (American Translators Association) directory to go to their website and fill in information in a database about myself. I do e-mail to them my résumé and a range of rates if the agencies look legitimate enough to me, but I do not fill out forms e-mailed to me for reasons described also in this post (Why It Usually Makes No Sense to Fill Out Forms Sent To You Ahead of Time – Except When You Are a Subprime Translator).

Sometime I also receive the cattle call type of e-mail from corporations who need to have a patent application translated from English to a number of foreign languages, usually Japanese, Chinese, Korean and some European languages.

The e-mail is usually sent by an administrator in charge of patent translation who is sometime lamenting, even in e-mails sent to strangers such as myself, how very expensive these translations are.

I could probably find translators willing and able to undertake these projects, and maybe even profit handsomely, given the amount of work, if everything works out in the end.

But I don’t want to participate in these projects because what the patent department administrator really needs in these cases is more than a translation. For example, if a patent is filed in different jurisdictions (in Europe, in United States, in China), the claims usually need to be modified because different rules are applicable to patent claims in different jurisdictions. That is why I think that the patent application should be translated by bilingual patent agents or patent lawyers in respective countries. And that is also, at least in part, why these translations are so expensive.

Recently I even started ignoring offers to submit a bid if the number of patent applications that could potentially need to be translated from Japanese into English, which is something that I can do myself, is too high. It takes hours to download patent applications from Internet – I am often only given the numbers of the patents – and then to print them and estimate the cost based on the English word count.

Let’s say that a patent department administrator has 25 patent applications and the average cost per one patent would be one thousand dollars. Because I know that the company is not willing to spend 25 thousand dollars on the translations, at least not at this point, I just explain how much it usually costs to translate one Japanese page into English. It is fairly simple to convert the Japanese character count into word count in English since on average 2 Japanese characters represent one English word. So I just offer to provide a binding price and turnaround time quote once the company narrows down the number of documents so that only the ones that will be needed are included.

But being able to determine the dividing line between a cattle call and a legitimate offer to submit a price quote is definitely a fine art if the e-mail comes from a company that ultimately does have the means to pay for the translation.

It is possible that I am losing a lot of money every time when I politely refuse to bid on a humongous project and explain the rule of thumb for how anybody can calculate the cost based on the number of pages in the original language.

But based on my experience, I am probably just saving a few trees, a lot of printer toner and my precious time when I refuse to provide a precise cost for translation projects that would be just too big and too expensive.



  1. Few days ago, there came an urgent request from a new PM at an agency client who works with me since 7 years asking if I could help getting a 40-page Korean patent translated in German.

    Her email is very polite, telling me that she is not thinking of me as a Korean>German translator, but that she knows of my Asian connections that have been helping the agency in the past years.

    Then, there came another e-mail from her before I started contacting my Korean>English connections. She sent me a copy of an English translation of the same patent application, asking if it is really an English translation of the patent. If it is, it might be helpful for the KO>DE translator who is going to translate the patent. But she doubted that it was, because it is an English patent application of only 6 pages.

    I took a look at both texts, only 3 or 4 pages of each, and wrote her, “It is the same patent application modified for different countries, one for South Korea and one for the USA. Besides, the formats are different and that’s why they don’t have the same or are of an approximately same length.”

    People who do not have anything to do with patents do not know that “the claims usually need to be modified because different rules are applicable to patent claims in different jurisdictions.” That is why they don’t understand why patent translations have to be so expensive.

    Cattle calling companies do not understand why it won’t work that way to find real good, specialized translators. Cattle calling might work in entertainment industry or with homogeneous bulk translations, but it just won’t work to find specialized translators cheaply because those good ones just don’t respond to cattle calls even when they are temporarily out of work.


  2. I did not know that you can read Korean.

    It must be quite difficult to find a Korean -> German patent translator. For one thing, there was not much work in this field for this language combination until recently. Presumably it would have to be a native German speaker who is fluent in Korean and has the experience.

    How many people like that even exist on this planet?


    • Not many. I know only two of them, one lives in Freiburg im Breisgau and the other in Seoul.

      Reading Korean is not too difficult at all. You got the letters of the alphabet and pronounce the words. They sound either similar to Chinese or to Japanese. Google Translate helps sometimes, but you need to know the grammar to entangle the garbled Shizos. ;o)


  3. My hat is off to your, I stand in awe of your, etc., and so on.


    • Steve, you know what? Reading Korean could be even easier for you who grew up in a totally different language group and who has learned Japanese which belongs to the same language group as Korean which is an Altaic language.

      It would be somewhat like when you read Russian, except that you learn another alphabet and a similar grammar. So, you have Добрый день! or Dzień dobry! and it becomes Dobrý den! in Czech. This happens to Korean and Japanese as well as Mogolian in a similar way.

      The sentence structures are even closer between Korean and Japanese than those between Slavic languages. Once you have the knowledge of the Korean alphabet to spell the syllables, you recognize the sentence structures immediately and find similar structures in Japanese. You may find the almost one-to-one mapping of the structures. KOJP translators can confirm this assertion. When they translate word by word, the translation looks awkward, but everybody understands what is in the text.

      I happen to be a Sino-Japanese half-breed and to have learned something about the Altaic languages. Keine Kunst, like the Germans would say. In fact, I always admire you in not only having learned Slavic languages, Teutonic languages, Romance languages and one of those Altaic language, Japanese, as well as your command in English. Besides, people can judge from your writings that you are very knowledgeable. You are not merely a patent translator, but also a philosopher (very good thinker).

      However, your topic is “the difference between cattle calls and legitimate requests for price quotes” and you come to the efficacy of quoting to decide on wether to quote or not to quote . Not many people would come to this line of thinking, not even when they can draw the line between cattle calls and legitmate requests. This is just fantastic.


      • I will take another look at the Korean syllabary when I have a break in the work flow.

        Thanks for the tip.


  4. I don’t translate patents at all, in fact, I’m an extremely lazy translator and perfectly happy not translating all the technical and medical texts that there are out there at the cost of missing out on a lot of money, but content with earning a bit less and doing simple IT texts and website translations.

    However, I often get requests to translate huge websites full of product descriptions etc., and it is quite common for me to submit quotes about a couple of thousand euros, which I know the client might not be willing to pay. I have lost many hours of my live estimating the cost of websites translations, i.e. downloading them and doing word counts, which can be a terrible mess especially in the case of online businesses with millions of product descriptions. However, so far I’ve always done the work through gritted teeth hoping that the client might accept. As a result, I have received some partial translations of the websites or the same client has contacted me over the translation of completely different documents a couple of weeks later. So, even if sometimes you know that the client is not prepared to actually go through with the project, it helps to establish a relationship with them.

    But if they’re cattle calls, I agree that it’s wisest just to ignore them altogether.


    • If they ask for a cost estimate for an elephantine project, the trick is to make them notice and remember you without having to spend hours putting together a quote for a project that is almost certainly too expensive.

      It is a fine art and I am still working on my technique.


      • Indeed. It’s also interesting how as a translator, after a few years of experience, you develop a certain instinct about a client even after receiving only a short email from them. So I am 99% right in guessing whether the client will accept the price or not. I am sure you have made similar experiences. What do you think is it? Which element of the first contact per mail or telephone makes us realize if a client is serious (willing to pay large amounts) or not? I can’t quite put my finger on it.


  5. It’s not just one thing. It’s called instinct, 本能 (honno) in Japanese, which literally means “real capability”.

    It is based on a number of aspects that are not articulated because they are in fact perceived mostly on a subconscious level.

    Some people follow the herd because they think that it is safer that way. And some people prefer to trust their instinct rather than conventional wisdom.

    I am now trying to get 5 thousand dollars out of a client who I thought, based on my instinct, was going to pay. I still think that they will pay, but there is a good chance that they will try to stiff me.

    Wish me luck.


    • Steve, I just noticed this last post of yours in the comments. 5 grands? That would hurt! I wish you good luck!


  6. Thanks!

    I need to get that money from them. I promised my son that I would take him to Oktoberfest this year and this would cover it.


  7. […] Customer New Study Shows 50 Percent of Fortune 500 Companies Don’t Translate their Content The Difference Between Cattle Calls and Legitimate Requests for Price Quotes Translation supply chains: Aligning your business with the best linguist Speeding up your […]


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