Posted by: patenttranslator | February 24, 2013

Greed-Driven Systems Are In The Long Run Self-Destructive

It is not much fun to be a medical doctor these days. This is what a doctor who goes to the same gym as I do told me a while ago. The medical system that was created by the private insurance companies has done a lot of damage to his profession, which used to be very rewarding in terms of the respect that patients and the society in general used to have for people like him.

The salaries of doctors in the United States are higher than those of their counterparts just about anywhere else, but given how much money they have to spend now on personnel required to fill out and submit dozens of forms to different insurance companies, as well as on malpractice insurance, and how little independence they have compared to the time when family practitioners used to run a small business in towns where everybody knew and trusted the local doctor, how much do they really make?

As the saying goes, it’s not how much you earn, it’s how much you get to keep.

Private medical insurance companies have destroyed what not so long ago was one of the best medical systems in the world, or at least a very good one. The medical system in United States is now simply horrible as it is no longer based on common sense, common good, and profit, in this order. It is now a purely greed-driven system, created and maintained for the benefit of a tiny, parasitic layer of extremely wealthy administrators who are running it in order to skim as much profit as possible off the top.


People in many professions are unhappy with their jobs at the beginning of the 21st century, even if they are making a decent living, because they know that an important part of their job is to manipulate and deceive their clients instead of providing them with the best possible service.

How do mortgage brokers who were engaged in wholesale fraud for years until the real estate bubble burst in 2007 feel about their profession now, I wonder. I remember that when I was signing the papers for my mortgage, which fortunately for me was in 2001, before Wall Street unleashed the worst of their highly profitable fraudulent schemes on the real estate scene, the broker who asked me to sign a check for 500 dollars made out to his name said: “This is the only money that I am getting from you”. I knew he was lying, but I said nothing because I needed to close the deal. Sure enough, the final interest rate on the loan was a quarter point higher than what he had promised and I am certain that a big chunk of this money ended up in his pocket.

One of the main characteristic of greed-driven systems is that the people who do the actual work, and often also the customers, are treated as unavoidable but easily replaceable and interchangeable profit units. Another striking feature of these systems is that the concept of “common good” is completely ignored.


I think that a big problem with the modern form of the translation industry is that a purely greed-driven system has been recently created also in a large segment of the translation industry.

I will try to illustrate some of the recent developments in the corporatized segment of translation industry on “Nondisclosure Agreements”, which are now often 3 or 4 thousand words long and in which translators are asked to agree to a number of demeaning conditions, including the following stipulations:

1. The translators must wait to be paid for their work for a time period defined in such a way that it is really hard to figure out, such as “payment is initiated 30 days after the end of the month when the invoice was submitted”. Confusing verbiage is carefully selected to hide the fact that the translator is paid after about 60 days, as opposed to within 30 days which used to be the industry standard not long ago.

2. The translator is not allowed to submit his own invoices. Instead, “an independent contractor” is forced to use agency’s online accounting system to generate invoices according to the rules and regulations of the translation agency. This means that the “independent contractor” is prevented from being able to set his own payment terms and that he may be told to wait another month should he miss one of the hoops in the agency’s online accounting system through which he was supposed to deftly jump in the moment when he was told “now, jump”.

3. The translator must agree to use a certain CAT (computer-aided translation tool), usually Trados, which identifies instances when certain portions of the text or certain words are repeated so that these words will then not be included in the word count on the basis of which the translator is reimbursed for his work. This means that the translator’s remuneration is significantly reduced as the person formerly known as translator is basically turned into a file input clerk who is paid a certain amount for inputting certain words, less for certain other words (so called “fuzzy matches”), and nothing at all for certain other words (so called “full matches”).

4. The translator agrees to transfer all intellectual property created while working on a translation project for the translation agency (i.e. a broker) to the agency. For example, if a translator creates a database of technical terms in 2 or more languages while working on a translation project for a translation agency, this database would then be the property of the translation agency, not of the translator. If intellectual property is created during the translation process, why should it belong to the broker rather than the translator who is not the broker’s employee, or possibly to the actual client if that is what the client desires and pays for?

5. The translator must also agree to pay “reasonable attorney’s fee” should the translation agency decide to sue translator. This means that the number of lawyers willing to sue a poor translator for any reason whatsoever would be increased exponentially.

6. The translator is asked not to solicit or accept work from the customers of the translation agency for a period of a number of years (usually 1 to 3) even after the “Nondisclosure Agreement” is no longer valid. The “Nondisclosure Agreement” often makes no allowance for the fact that many clients may be working with translation agencies as well as with individual translators at the same time. It also assumes that the broker somehow “owns” the clients and that the clients do not have the right to simply dump the agency and contact another supplier, including individual translators. Such an assumption is obviously in violation of laws designed to prevent monopoly and promote competition.

7. The translator must also agree that should the translation agency or its customers in their infinite wisdom find the translation not up to the standards of the agency or of its client, whatever these standards are, he will not be paid for his work. This provision applies for example also when the original text is full of mistakes or written so poorly that it is virtually incomprehensible.


I don’t know how many translators sign these agreements. I used to cross out offending passages before signing them, but now I simply use these agreements to weed out agencies that I don’t want to work for, which means that I work on a regular basis for very few agencies. I received only 3 tax forms from translation agencies for 2012 and the total amount these agencies paid to me represented less than 10 percent of my income last year. 25 years ago, it was 100 percent, 10 years ago about 50 percent, and 5 years ago between 20 to 30 percent.

I assume that most translators who sign these agreements are desperate for work, possibly because they are just starting out, or because they are not very good or able to find other work. And since they know it, they will sign just about anything.

The “translation industry” thus created an environment that makes it unlikely that established and highly experienced translators will in fact be willing to cooperate with the greed-driven structure of the “translation industry” in its latest reincarnation, which treats them as easily replaceable and interchangeable “word replacers”.

It really makes much more sense to try to find direct clients, or to work only for small translation agencies, some of which still pay decent rates within a reasonable time period and treat translators with respect because they understand that without them, they can’t function.

I also believe that the customers are slowly catching on and that more and more of them will be defecting from large translation behemoths to highly specialized translation agencies and individual translators in the years to come.


  1. […] It is not much fun to be a medical doctor these days. This is what a doctor who goes to the same gym as I do told me a while ago. The medical system that …  […]


  2. Steve, any system that eats its own children can hardly be sustainable. “Corporatized translation” or bigtime language service brokerage as you have described it here is a fine example of this. As for those agreements, if it is a cold winter, “ashes to ashes” to get the fire started or “weeds to be weeded” or notepads for memos after chopping to A5 size… these people can go bugger the outgoing German pope before they’ll get my hamster feet on their wheel.


  3. I am assuming that they really don’t care.

    People like you are probably overqualified and too expensive.

    There is a readily available supply of new hamsters eager to start pushing the hamster wheel in the new model of translation industry who are willing to work for much less than old timers like you or me.


    • Ha, and I am pretty sure that the steps inside the hamster wheel look like leading to the heaven of a translation career for some ones!


  4. You are quite right Steve, there are plenty translators (and not necessarily just ‘new’ inexperienced ones) who are ready to accept all the clauses you mention (and other even more unreasonable ones). In fact, for a long time I felt almost guilty that I was not using Trados (or any such CAT tool) as it seemed to be a prerequisite if you wanted to even be considered. To me it just seems like a huge investment of time and money (the only advantage I see is the creation of glossaries, which one can do without such tool) and, as you rightly point out, it’s yet another way of paying translators even less.
    I believe there are still many (maybe smaller) agencies out there which are quite happy with ‘human’ translation only and still value qualified professionals with good experience like us…
    Just a couple of weeks ago, by pure coincidence, a friend of mine told me that she is now working as an interpreter for one of the very well known big agencies here in the UK (for which I used to translate) and that they are sending her to interpret in hospitals and courts of law. This friend has no translation or interpreting qualifications (she has a degree in Latin American literature) and her English is definitely not good enough to do any interpreting (not being her mother tongue). She is paid under 20 pounds an hour and is very happy with it. I was horrified (although for friendship’s sake I managed to be very tactful) and also a bit pissed off, not because I would want the job myself (I stopped interpreting ages ago and for those rates I would not even get out of bed) but because of the lack of professionalism from both sides and the potential consequences (a similar case ended up in the papers a couple of years ago over here; one of the biggest agencies providing totally unqualified interpreters for court proceedings).
    But this is a general trend now, the ‘horse meat’ in the translation world that you described in one of your earlier posts that jeopardizes the work of experienced translators.


  5. “This friend has no translation or interpreting qualifications (she has a degree in Latin American literature) and her English is definitely not good enough to do any interpreting (not being her mother tongue).”

    As long as she is better than the signing interpreter in the clip, she will do, considering the profit margin for the agency.

    (I love the way that woman says “25% of half a chicken”).


  6. I hear, “In the long run, we are all dead.” And I guess that’s why we have greed-driven systems everywhere. Because it is always some other stupid guys who pay for it, never the smarter ones.

    I also hope, as you and many translators in the past generations believe, that “the customers are slowly catching on and that more and more of them will be defecting from large translation behemoths to highly specialized translation agencies and individual translators in the years to come,” though I know that we are all dead in the long run.


  7. It is good to hear the opinions of other translators. Too often we are just isolated entities…


  8. You are hung on this phrase “in the long run we are all dead” almost as much as I am on the concept of the theory of synchronicity.

    But I do think that there are two distinct trends in the “translation industry”, one is the largely greed-driven segment represented by large companies, and the other one is represented by small players and individuals who usually provide better service because they specialize.


  9. I too have received a few of such ‘contracts of adhesion’ from US agencies, very thinly disguised as a ‘non-disclosure agreements. I refuse to spend the time it takes to even read them and politely decline to work with them.
    These contracts are a fairly clear indication of the contempt that some agencies/brokers have for the ‘profession’. Perhaps understandable because of the quality of the translators they are likely to attract, but also because of how the profession ‘projects’ itself. Many of our colleagues still talk about ‘rates’ instead of ‘professional fees’, about ‘being paid’ instead of ‘charging’, about being ‘offered’ instead of ‘accepting’ projects, etc. the list goes on.
    We must differentiate ourselves from the ‘industry’ if we do not want to be regarded as part of the problem when it all starts falling in a heap.
    We must develop a universal code of practice and a standard service contract that spells out the terms under which we are prepared to accept work, and which includes a reference to the professional standards we adhere to.
    In other words, we must recapture the initiative by behaving as professionals and making it more difficult for non-professionals and middlemen to encroach on the profession.


  10. I’m afraid there is no “we”.

    It’s everybody for himself, among thousands of zombies wandering around 5 continents, looking for something to eat.

    But I agree with you that individual translators should try to distinguish themselves from “the industry” and try to create a different and more rational model.

    I also agree Chris Durban that looking for new ways to establish certification processes and things like that would probably backfire.


    • “I also agree Chris Durban that looking for new ways to establish certification processes and things like that would probably backfire.”

      It has already backfired. That’s why we find a badge of Scarlet P at a commercial translator portal.

      To be sure, it is “Спасайся, кто может!” The effort to make a “we” is most likely to turn it into a game of power and money, something like a government.


  11. “It has already backfired. That’s why we find a badge of Scarlet P at a commercial translator portal.”

    I don’t know what you are referring too.

    (Спасайся, кто может! means “Save yourself if you can” for those who don’t speak Russian).


    • Steve, here is a hint:

      Read the second comment made by Rose Newell and the reply from Valerij and you understand what I was referring to with the Scarlet P. Such a network was proposed by the first translator meeting in Taiwan that was organized by me. It has turned out to be a very good business idea for the cyberstreetwalking site. And you know, it becomes a game of power and money, too.

      I mention this in regard to your “I’m afraid there is no ‘we’.” The only way out of the “Industry” for a translator is to look for his/her own reliable clients as a reliable translator on his/her own. That is: Rette sich, wer kann! (Save yourself, if you can!)


      • Interesting article and discussion.

        There may be a need for a different association of translators but I don’t think it’s going to work.

        It has been tried, without much success (for instance Translators Guild in the nineties of the last century – is it still around)?

        But individual translators, instead of being joiners and jumping on yet another bandwagon that somebody else will figure out for them, (for completely altruistic reasons, of course!), have plenty of opportunities to find their own clients and create their own business models independent of old models, such as the traditional agency model.

        The traditional translation model was created before there was this thing called Internet, and it has changed only slightly since this thing became a part of everybody’s life, namely only with respect to how to use the Internet against translators: by making them compete against zombie translators, using CATs against them, etc.

        But Internet can be used also by individual translators, without any new associations, against what I would call the bad players in the translation industry.


      • “There may be a need for a different association of translators but I don’t think it’s going to work.”

        You see, I am just of the same degree of pessimism as you are. There are always some people trying altruistically (so that some others can take advantages of them), but they either fail or turn into commercial entities. That translator cyberstreetwalking site was initiated as a “translator community” and has turned into a power thirsty and money greedy commercial entity, so that most of the initial moderators either jump on yet another bandwagon or keep quiet every since they got purged in a series of power struggles.

        Why it happens translators so? I was in a traditional market the other day. There was a vendor with a deep bucket full of crabs. I saw some crabs crawling upwards near the rim of the buckets, with some others clinging behind them.

        “Hey,” I told the vendor, “your crabs are going to away. They crawl over the buckets and disappear soon.”

        “Don’t worry,” the vendor replied, “they won’t. The other crabs will get them back down into the bucket.”

        And while he was telling me this, I heard a plupp and saw the crabs, which were about to get over the rim, dropped back into the bucket, along with the whole queue of the other crabs behind them.

        Aha, I realized what happened to translators who struggle to run away from the “Industry.”

        Bertolt Brecht wrote, “Ein Versuchskanninchen kann nichts aus dem Experiment über Biologie lernen.” (A guinea pig never learns anything about biology from the experiment.)

        Steve, you know what I mean? There must be some altruistic God’s idiots being taken advantage of by some greed-driven sharks while they are providing services for the sharks to some other free riders who tag on their claws and draw them back down to the bucket.

        BTW, I don’t translate manuals in 25 years, either. I translate only in Chinese. But I do project management in Japanese and Korean for some end clients (in collaboration with several agencies). The necessity of the existence of agencies/brokers is understandable. However, there are ways for individual translators who possess the experience and the expertise in special fields. These translators are usually regarded as over-qualified, but they are acutally not. When they realize how to market their skills, end clients come to them even through agencies with premium rates. They don’t have other secrets than being excellent in what they do. There is no shortcut to success.


      • Sorry, I mean I don’t translate manuals in 25 languages.


  12. I have been working in various positions in localization agencies (translator, project manager, sales) and hope to present a new perspective for you. I am afraid freelancers working for direct customers is not as easy as you may think. If it was, you would not be writing your posts and frustrations here. Acquiring a new client is a long and tiresome process. It means hours of research, calling, participating in bids, trade shows, conferences, customer visits etc. which cost time&money. Sometimes a year, sometimes even longer. And this is an investment the ‘bad’ agencies make to have the projects coming to them in the end of the process. They pay salaries to pre-sales, business researchers, sales people. Translation jobs do not materialize out of the blue and they do not come knocking on your door. ‘accepting the project’, ‘charging’ instead of ‘being paid’ sound very naive. Are you willing to split your time chasing the projects and translating? Do you think a client with a manual to be translated into 25 lgs will visit PROZ and will be contacting several translators per each language? What the industry clearly lacks, is the respect both sides should have for one another.


  13. LittleMy

    I think that the main mistake you are making is assuming that your description of your particular translation niche is applicable to all translation fields.

    It is not.

    There is a large segment of the translation business where the rules are completely different. It is not easy to find direct customers, but it can be done without having to “pay salaries to pre-sales, business researchers, sales people” if you specialize in a certain field such as financial translation, patent translation, etc.

    In fact, anybody can do it without using your prescription and more and more translators are no longer willing to accept the demeaning conditions that I describe in my post. I think that the type of translation agencies that use the contracts and business methods I mention in my post are digging their own grave.

    I don’t translate manuals into 25 languages, I leave that up to people like you.

    There is plenty of work for specialized translators like myself as well.

    And as I said, more than 90% of my income is now coming from direct customers, although not so long ago I was working mostly for translation agencies.

    At this point, I need translation agencies such as yours about as much as a fish needs a bicycle, to paraphrase a famous feminist slogan.


  14. I understand and respect your point of view and I agree there may be niches for specialized translators. Good for you! I am, however, of an opinion that the majority of translation projects (IT, life science, manufacturing) are processed and will be processed by agencies. Hopefully, ones employing human translators and not machine translation engines.


  15. “I am, however, of an opinion that the majority of translation projects (IT, life science, manufacturing) are processed and will be processed by agencies”

    That is possible, of course. Only time will tell.

    But many industries are going through wrenching changes now as a result of the impact of Internet, and the “translation industry” may soon follow the suit.

    For example the US TV cable industry has been bleeding big time recently and losing customers in droves.

    In the seventies, eighties and nineties, the TV cable industry reigned supreme. Now they are under attack on several fronts: people can now watch real news streamed on Internet instead of watching idiotic infotainment with tons of commercials thrown in for good measure, and it is more convenient to watch movies on Netflix anyway than on cable TV channels because you can control the timing. Since Netflix is now producing its own TV series (House of Cards), other non-cable players may start imitating them soon if this model is successful.

    Last month I finally got around to calling my cable company to ask them to reduce my monthly bill, which combined with my Internet and phone bill is pretty high.

    I told them to drop my subscription level to the cheapest basic level and pull a plug on all the movies channels because I watch movies mostly on Netflix.

    They said my monthly bill would go down by 80 dollars a month.

    When I received my bill this month, I saw that it went down only by 50 dollars. However, all of my movie channels are still there and so are the other channels that I told them to cut.

    This is how my cable company is trying to keep its existing customers – by giving them a big discount before they say sayonara for good because now they have alternatives.

    If large translation players remains as arrogant as they are now and continue to treat translators the way I describe it in my post, they may still be doing translation projects involving printer manuals into 25 languages in the future, but many of their former customers are likely to defect to smaller, specialized agencies and individual translators to save money and obtain better quality at the same time.

    Times are changing and their customers have alternatives too.


  16. @Wenjer

    The only way that human history makes sense is when you realize that the human race is just a Versuchskanninchen (guinea pig) in a giant scientific experiment of a devious alien civilization.


    • Well, Steve, I’d like to discusss “free will” and “dignity” somewhere sometime, before I eventually lose my lightness of being.

      As to your being hung on the concept of the theory of synchronicity, I don’t have much to say, but there is an interesting film I’d like to recommend you: David Cronenberg’s Dangerous Methods, 2011. You’ll see that human activities are about power and money. Some systems last longer and some others collapse sooner than later. Hitler’s and Stalin’s systems did last a while, but people out lived their systems. We will out live the present system, too. What interests me most would be to figure out how the present system is going to collapse.


  17. I am very glad that I was able to witness the fall of communism in 1989 and I hope to be around to see the fall of corporatism as well.

    Like you, I wish I knew how and when it is going to take place, but I have no doubt that it will.

    Systems that are no longer functional tend to collapse from within as communism did, or be destroyed from outside and restructured at the end of the useful life of such systems, just like Marie Antoinette was restructured when she uttered the famous and really funny words:”Let them eat cake!”


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