Posted by: patenttranslator | January 4, 2013

The Corporate Translation Mill – From Commodification of Words To Zombification of Easily Replaceable, Largely Anonymous and Seemingly Unknowable Translators

After the first of January, translators usually start receiving “profile questionnaires” from translation  agencies. While we remember just about everything about every agency because translators and elephants have a long memory, “large translation agencies” (with more than 4.5 people working in them) don’t bother to remember who their translators are and what they have been doing for them over the years. And that is why they naturally must keep sending questionnaires to the dozens or hundreds of translators in their databases.

They don’t remember me, but I remember them. And what I don’t remember can be easily found in my files.

I see in my files that I started working for this agency, which shall remain nameless as is my custom, in 1994. The agency had a different name then and I was still “modeming” my translations to a “BBS”. Many translators reading this are probably not sure what a BBS is or was. I worked with at least half a dozen people there, and I remember that they all seemed smart and they were easy to work with. But the coordinators kept changing, and after 1999 when my favorite coordinator disappeared (I was later told that he quit because he was unhappy with the working environment), I was working for them only occasionally, although I still must have made them a lot of money because I billed them close to 10 thousand dollars in my invoices for 2003. They even sent me a Christmas card with their photos once, so I even know what some of these people looked like about 10 years ago. They all look muy simpatico in those photos.

My last invoice to them is from 2004. That was when I stopped working for them because they changed their payment term from 30 days net to 45 days. You try to do something like that to me, it’s sayonara time, baby!

Their latest questionnaire, and they sent me several over the years, has 4 pages. After questions about my contact information and the part about the languages that I translate comes the really important part: How much do you charge now, little zombie in our database? And what kind of discounts can we expect for CATs and other ingenious tools of modern translation bidness from this little entry in our database purporting to be a translator?

Here is an example of the inexorable, shylockian logic of corporate translation mills:

Translation-No Match*           $ …………………. per word

Translation 100% Match*       $ …………………. per word

Translation 95 – 99% Match*  $ …………………. per word

Translation 85 – 94% Match*  $ …………………. per word

Translation 75 – 84% Match*  $ …………………. per word

Translation 50 – 74% Match*  $ …………………. per word

They also want to know what is my primary, secondary and tertiary skill set, which software I am using with limited, intermediate, advanced or expert proficiency (what the hell is Alchemy Catalyst?), and obviously, since they don’t know anything about me, 7 references are required.

All of these references are indicated as “Agency …. Contact Name”. I guess a non-agency reference, such as a partner in a patent law firm would not qualify as a knowledgeable source who would be allowed to testify about my limited, intermediate, advanced or expert skills in anything related to translation of patents, because how could he possibly know anything about me if he is not an “agency contact”?

Although my question to them would be: How can translation agencies know anything about the translators who make money for them if they can’t relate to them anymore as people on a personal level?

One could assume that the only thing that is left now of all the work that I did for this company for more than 10 years is an entry in an old database which will not be updated because I don’t respond to similar questionnaires, although I do appreciate them as handy blog post material.

But one would be wrong. I remember that two of the coordinators who left this company contacted me once they started doing their own thing. I worked for one of them for about 7 years, I think, and he never sent me a single stupid, offensive questionnaire. I stopped working for him only last year when his agency, which in the meantime grew to a total of 3 coordinators and thus became just another miniature corporate translation mill, wanted me to lower my rates by 10 percent.

You try to do something like that to me, it’s sayonara time, baby!

It so happens that I am today working on a translation of a long German patent for another former coordinator who defected from the same translation agency years ago.

This guy has no problem remembering my primary, secondary, and tertiary skill set (Japanese, German, and French), and as long as he pays me (more or less) on time and does not ask me to lower my rate or send me stupid questionnaires, I will try to find the time for him whenever he has work for me.

I don’t need him to send me Christmas cards. We are neither friends nor family, just colleagues who hopefully respect each other. But if he turns his operation into another miniature version of a corporate translation mill in which every translator is only an easily replaceable profit center strategically stored in a frequently updated database of many other easily replaceable profit centers, I will stop working for him too.


  1. Damn right, Steve. Those questionnaires are such a pest!


  2. Thank you, Frenja, and a Happy New Year 2013 to you!


  3. Absolutely agree!
    (Side-rant: *Whose* TM are we matching against? Keep it simple: same rate for all matches, irrespective of % match. 🙂 ).
    Until I get a decent confirmation on rates, I do not fill in any forms!
    I automatically dismiss anyone who dares to ask me what my language pairs are, especially if they lie, and say that they have “found my details on…” (pick your forum).
    Great post, once again!


  4. Thank you for your comment.

    I give a discount only for a long deadline.

    And I don’t use Trados or any other CAT.


  5. Great post!


  6. […] After the first of January, translators usually start receiving “profile questionnaires” from translation agencies. While we remember just about everything about every agency because t…  […]


  7. Ah, Ромашки спрятались, that was how I fell in love with the former Radio Moscow.

    In my youth, they had a cultural program with this song as title. I was fascinated with their songs and listened to the political propaganda, too. What a Utopia the Soviets were that led me to a disillusionment in the 80’s when I came to Europe and visited Russia early 80’s.

    Russians have a rich culture on one hand while they have a terrible socio-political system that persists even after the collapse of the Soviets on the other hand. I asked my Russian teacher about “Russian Soul.” She said, “Oh, you wouldn’t ever understand it, because only a Russian would possess a Russian soul.” Well, having learnt a language doesn’t give me another soul, but another perspective of being. Yet, I enjoy Russian music very much, no matter folklore or pop songs.

    Thanks for the post and music!


  8. I heard Ромашки спрятались for the first time on the radio when I was in Russia in early seventies.

    Ever since then the song is to me a cultural symbol of Mother Russia (“why do you girls like the handsome ones – that love will bring you only suffering”). Although when I mentioned to students at the Moscow State University that that was my favorite song, they looked at me with pity.

    When I told my kids a couple of years ago that I like “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga, they gave me the same scornful look.


    • The same scornful look? You mean it?


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