Posted by: patenttranslator | June 26, 2012

You Don’t Have To Know Foreign Languages To Run or Work for a Translation Agency

Myth: Everyone who works in the language services industry speaks another language.
Fact: While the ability to speak another language is beneficial for understanding how other languages work, it’s not a requirement for working in the translation industry. Yes, of course, translators and interpreters must be fluent in two or more languages, but certain in-house positions do not require knowledge of an additional language, although I have found it useful in the past. The most important thing to remember is that the rules of one language don’t apply to all other languages.

(From an insightful blog post of a translation agency titled “Common misconception about the translation Industry”).

If you want to sell legal services, you have to be a lawyer. If you want to make your clients money by trading stocks, you have to know something about how things work on the stock exchange. If you want to sell cars, you have to know quite a bit about the cars that you are selling and the psychology of potential buyers. At the very least you need to know how to drive a car.

But if you want to start a translation agency, or work for one, all you have to know is that “the rules of one language don’t apply to all other languages” (whatever that means). I did not make it up, a translation agency blogger came up with this pearl of wisdom. She found it useful in the past, but it’s not really that important to know foreign languages to sell them. Oh, but you do need to know that you have to buy low and sell high. And that the rules of one language don’t apply to all other languages (whatever that means).

That’s it. Now you’re good to go. You can start your own translation agency or work for one as a project coordinator. You don’t really have much education either? Are you a high school dropout? No problem. There are no dumb requirements for entry into the “translation industry field”. None whatsoever in each and every state in the United States of America. If you want to be a hairdresser or cosmetologist in California, for example, you have to have at least a 10th grade education and first spend thousands of hours as a trainee.

But translation agency project managers are supremely qualified to do what they do from day one. Even if they speak only one language. Even if they are high school dropouts.

The reason for this is simple: they are not the ones doing the work. The actual work is done by somebody else, cheap hired help called “translators”. Project managers just sort of organize everything and you don’t need to understand foreign languages for that!

You do have to know some things, though. For example, you have to know how to deal with translators and translation agency customers. But you don’t really have to know as much about dealing with people as your typical waitress or car rental agency representative must know to keep her or his job.

This is because you don’t really have to talk to translators much anyway. You mostly just send them e-mails. Say you have a translation “job” that needs to be “placed”. You go to your agency’s database, or if you don’t have one, there are many other databases of translators on the Internet, such as the Proz database or the ATA (American Translators Association) database. You find a bunch of translators in a given database who claim to be able to translate a given language in a given field, send each of them an e-mail, and whoever gets back to you with the lowest rate per word will get the job.

Once you have the text translated into English, you will have to “proofread” it. You can do it yourself if it is in English, but of course, you cannot really ascertain much about the translation because you don’t know the original language, so you may have to ask another translator to proofread it.

But remember, you can only do that if the original translator’s rate was really low and the proofreader who actually knows both languages, or says so, is charging next to nothing because your profit margin should be at least 50%.

If you don’t know foreign languages, you can’t know whether the translation really makes sense. But as long as you “know that the rules of one language don’t apply to all other languages”, you should be OK because the notion that “everyone who works in the translation speaks another language” is a myth.

Of course, although most translation agencies claim to be able to translate “all languages and all subjects”, there are translators and translation agencies who specialize in a certain language or several languages and in a given field. They probably know a little bit more about foreign languages and translation in general than that “the rules of one language don’t apply to all other languages” (whatever that means).

I think that buyers who buy their translation from such a translator or translation agency are much more likely to be happy with the end product, which tends to be quite expensive.

The way I see it, buying a translation from a monolingual salesman of a translation agency that translates “all languages and all subjects” is like buying a new car from a car salesman who not only does not know anything about cars, but cannot even drive.

There are probably not many car dealerships that would employ car salesmen who know nothing about cars and who don’t even have a driver’s license because people like that could not possibly understand what it is that their customers are looking for.

But you don’t have to speak another language if you want to work in the translation industry.

People often assume that, but it’s just one of the many myths and misconceptions about the translation industry.


  1. Wow, Steve, you stick a needle into the balloon! The agencies are goinig to hate you!

    Indeed, you don’t need any education to be a businessman. All you have to know is “buy low and sell high” and probably “the rules that apply to this circumstance do not apply to other circumstances” (whatever it means).

    You don’t need to be a translator to run a translation portal that attracts thousands and thousands translators (though the good ones just go away after a while). And your employees don’t need to be efficient communicators, either. But, you do the business.

    When I was very, very young, my hatsukoi’s father told me, “You are not going to marry my daughter. A university graduate is nothing. I don’t even finished my basic school, but there are many masters and doctors working for me.” That the real rule that applies every where. It’s all about money and power. All about “wer die Hosen anhat,” like the Germans would say.

    You see, that’s why I always paraphrase Molière and say, “La traduction est comme la prostitution. D’abord, vous le faire pour l’amour, et puis pour quelques amis proches quelques années, puis de l’argent.” Better to become a pimp and buy low and sell high.


  2. But presumably there are many high-end call girls who know how to find clients without a pimp, and there are also some translators who know how to find well paying work without translation agencies.

    See for instance this blog (in German)

    It’s mostly the low-end workers who always need a middleman.


    • Correctly, high-end call translators know how to find clients without a pimp with or without an etablissement !


  3. The same is true of certain government agencies. The “staffers” who pick the translations to be done for the Open Source Center do not necessarily read and/or comprehend what they are picking (and subsequently reviewing, at some level). Nor are the English translations always correct. In the past, we would receive grammar “corrections” that were simply wrong. These staffers or employees have the benefits not extended to us.

    Wiretap monitors may or may not understand or be competent in either the language they are monitoring or transcribing. Sometimes the best monitors absolutely have NO competent English, and in some cases claim to have a university degree. There would be a way to use their skills, but the well-paid G-13s (or whatever they are) either cannot, will not work out a comprehensive program to do it. They just go home at night.

    And life goes on. “Simplify, simplify,” said Thoreau. And “Cultivate your garden,” counseled Voltaire. Otherwise it’s the looney bin.


  4. “Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler.”

    This quote is attributed to Albert Einstein, possibly spuriously.

    When monolingual wiretap monitors and translation agency coordinators make decisions about languages that they don’t understand, things are simpler than they should be.

    I think that what is needed here is a slightly more complicated system. I also think that this is largely an American (or Anglo-centric) problem. The counterparts of (foreign language) wiretap monitors and translation agency coordinators in most other countries are usually NOT monolingual.


  5. BTW, Steve, nice music you’ve again chosen this time. Wasn’t it Breakfast at Tiffany’s, the one with Audrey?


  6. Yes, the one and only, singing one of the most beautiful songs I ever heard.


  7. Actually, the wiretap monitors to whom I referred were ALL Latin American, some claiming university diplomas, some without but very good, but all vehemently opposed to an American finding things to correct. As for the OSC program managers or whatever they’re called now, it’s defiinitely a flaw in the system. Many are bilingual or trilingual, but not necessarily in the language combination they are handling.

    And, sorry to say, many afflicted with the complex that makes them think they are, having attended whatever private or government school, superior to Americans. It really gets tiresome, particularly since they are not open to any sort of comments or corrections. I know I’m stepping on toes here.


  8. Oh, I misunderstood you completely.

    Instead of being too simple, things are sometime too complicated.

    I am so glad that I don’t need to work for the government. Any government.


  9. One of my acquaintants in Australia told me a story of a former Chinese military officer who immigrated to Australia. The former Chinese officer does not speak or write much English, but he has a job at an Australian agency that monitors Chinese gangsters in Australia.

    Since the former officer had been in Chinese military for more than 25 years, he can easily recognize different dialects. His job at the Australian agency is to tell in which dialect or dialects the wiretapped conversations were and to help certified Chinese-English translators translating the wiretapped conversations.

    A nice job, my acquaintant in Australia said. He is probably one of those CN-EN translators who have to translate the wiretapped conversations.

    You see, Steve, it is true that you don’t need to know foreign languages to be in translation industry. The industry needs many different talents, if we may call such and such abilities talents.

    Since I am too expensive for Taiwanese translation agencies and law firms, they usually don’t ask me to translate their documents. However, some of them would come to me and ask me to identify the languages of their documents or to translate only the titles of them – for a fee that most of my Taiwanese translation colleagues would start to drool, had they known of it. Why those agencies or law firms do that with me? Well, they would decide then if it is feasible for them to cattle call translators for the translation of the documents. (Since there is Google Translate, they stop to ask me for the identification of the languages, but they still ask me to translate the headlines of patents or something else.)

    There ARE many ways to do translation business without exactly knowing a foreign language, because this industry needs a lot of different talents (whatever we may understand this term).

    “The most important thing to remember is that the rules of one language don’t apply to all other languages.” Whatever it could mean!


  10. That’s what I’m saying in my post, namely that “you don’t have to know foreign languages to work in the translation industry”, although I did not write it with this acquaintance of yours who is a former Chinese military officer in mind.

    But I guess former Chinese military officers who don’t really know any other language fit into the equation too.

    If they can tell the difference between different Chinese dialects every time, it’s sort of almost like being able to speak foreign languages, I think.


    • Note that the officer I was told about does not translate. His job is only to identify dialects, then the agency finds a translator for the translation, and he assists the translator when this one is translating. He has never done a translation. That’s how it functions with the Australian “Homeland Security” agency. They don’t let the one who identify languages translate – different from what Ricky was describing of how it is in the US agencies.

      BTW, it wouldn’t be too bad to work for governments. When I was living in Bolivia, a diplomat who was sent to Taiwan came back to Bolivia for visit. He asked me to go over to La Paz and introduced me to some Bolivians who were in the political curcus. He said, “This is Beni. He works for the Taiwanese CIA. He knows too much of our country. Beware of him.” Well, I wished that I really had worked for our CIA. Then, I could have sung the song “Live and Let Die” like Paul McCartney does.

      And, Steve, here is a translator blog that you might find interesting: – check out the rest of his posts, there are some stuffs in this guy.


  11. Didn’t know they have the Vaterland Sicherheitdienst in Australia as well.
    What is this world coming to?
    One big Deutsche Demokratische Republik on steroids.


    The posts on the blog you recommend are too long. They are probably funny, but it’s so French that I can’t really appreciate the Gallic humor as a stupid foreigner (変な外人).

    I try to watch a French movie at least three or four times a week on TV5 Monde because I am so tired of American films with cookie cutter car chasing scenes, gratuitous sex and brutal violence (or is it the other way round?), but sometime in the middle of the French film I can’t take it anymore and I am back to car chasing, sex and violence in English.

    It feels like a more familiar terrain to me at this point. Yesterday I watched “Le Cri du Hibou” (from 1987), but after about 20 minutes I realized that it is exactly the same plot as in “The Cry of the Owl”, which is a recent American film, so I did not finish that movie either.

    Hollywood must be running out of good script writers.


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