Posted by: patenttranslator | April 23, 2013

How To Tell That You Are Working For A Zombie Farm (Eleven Handy Characteristics)

There was a time, many moons ago, when translators working for translation agencies (before these agencies started calling themselves “LSPs”) were treated with respect. As an old timer who has been in this business for over 26 years now, I remember those days fondly.

I felt that the people at the agencies that I used to work for back then were my colleagues and friends, we could joke together and complain about unreasonable customers, partly because a decade or two ago, I was still able to communicate with translation agencies through the phone rather than only through e-mail.

But then the agencies discovered that if they start treating translators who do the actual work, namely translating, as easily replaceable and interchangeable zombie units, they can pay them half as much as they used to, and they can also let them wait for the paltry payment twice as long and generally treat them as indentured servants, which is obviously a very efficient way to run a business, almost as efficient as moving a factory from America or Europe to China, India, or Bangladesh.

If one defines a real translation agency (and there are still a few left out there) as a business that values the work of translators, and a zombie farm as a business that does not give a damn about the zombies working for the farm, what are the typical characteristics of a zombie farm?

I would like to propose the following Eleven Characteristic Signs of Zombie Farms in the modern translation industry.

1.         Zombie farms are absolutely not interested in you as a person or in your “professional background and experience”

You are just another zombie to them – that is why zombie farm operators do not want to even bother looking at your resume. It is understandable that they don’t really have time to look at resumes of all those zombies who want to work for them! All they really need to know is your rate! Zombie translator applicants are simply asked to go to an online database and fill in each entry for zombie translator hopefuls. This makes it much easier to harvest suitable zombie profiles for potential jobs, which is called “finding a good match” in the zombie farm industry.

2.         Zombie translators who don’t use Trados need not apply

Zombie translators must use expensive translation memory tools that they are ordered to buy, for about eight hundred dollars, usually Trados. The reason for this is again efficiency –  translators using Trados or another preapproved computer memory tool are expected by zombie farm to gladly cough up major discounts for what is called in the industry “full and fuzzy matches” for which they will be paid nothing or next to nothing. While the translators thus make very little money after obligatory discounts have been deducted from payment, much more of the compensation for the work from the client will end up in the bottomless pockets of the zombie farm, which is again very efficient.

3.         Zombie translators who are not ready to sign even the most demeaning “confidentiality agreement” need not apply

 A zombie farm typically asks a prospective zombie translator to sign a long “Nondisclosure Agreement” even before a job is offered, specifying numerous and onerous duties and obligations of zombie translators who must among other things agree to clauses such as these:

4.         Zombie translators must wait 60 days or more to be paid for zombie work

 This is one reason why zombie translators are usually very hungry. The actual length of the waiting-to-be-fed period is usually disguised in the agreement in nearly impenetrable English (as in “we pay 30 day after this or that date of this or that month”), which translates into English as “we pay when we pay – take it or leave it, zombies!”.

5.         Zombie translators must agree to work for free if necessary

Zombie translators must agree not to be fully compensated, or not to be compensated at all, should the wise heads at the zombie farm decide in their infinite wisdom that the translation is somehow defective and thus no money needs to be paid for days or weeks of zombie work.

6.         Zombie translators must agree to pay “reasonable attorney’s fees”

…. namely should a zombie farm operator decide in his infinite wisdom to sue a zombie translator for any reason at all. Fortunately, this is very unlikely to occur because most translators, and zombie translators in particular, have no money and a reasonable (or even sane) attorney would thus be unlikely to sue them. However, this clause is always used in these contracts because the zombie translator is thus clearly expressing his or her near total submission to the zombie farm owner, which could potentially include also sacrificing the firstborn son should this be requested.

7.         Prospective zombie translators must also agree to “transfer any and all intellectual property” to the zombie farm

… this would be intellectual property created while a zombie translator was working on a project through a zombie farm for an end customer. This clause again does not make a whole lot of sense because zombie translators are simply not very intellectual, and thus do not create much intellectual property, not to mention of course that it is also outrageous (and probably illegal) when a middleman wants to own a product that was created by an ostensibly freelance zombie and not an actual employee of the zombie farm during the zombie farm working hours.

8.         Prospective zombie translators must also agree never to contact the end customer

Zombies may not do so for any reason at all, unless a written permission is obtained first from the zombie farm. This clause actually does make sense because if the end customer knew who the actual translator was, the customer might decide to circumvent the zombie farm and work directly with the translator.

(As these “Confidentiality Agreements” usually have about 3 thousand words, I am unfortunately able to list only some of the absurd and demeaning clause in a relatively short blog post).

9.         Zombie translators are not allowed to submit their own invoices

Instead, they must submit “payment requests” by using software that has been specially prepared for them courtesy of the zombie farm. This is used to further reinforce the dependence of zombie translators on zombie farm procedures, for instance so that “payment requests” can be submitted (in lieu of invoices) only on certain dates, etc., which is again very efficient as the “wait-to-be-fed” time period can be further extended.

10.       Zombie translators are always referred to as “vendors”, never as translators

This is a handy term used by zombie farms in impersonal e-mails specifying new requirements, rules, regulations and updated instructions for multitudes of “vendors”. The latest rules and restrictions must be followed to the letter if a zombie translator wants to eventually be paid. Ignorance of the latest zombie farm rules on the part of a zombie translator is no excuse and can result in further extension of the waiting period. The use of this term also shows that to a zombie agency, the main difference between ice cream and hot dog vendors and translators is that unlike translators, people selling ice cream and hot dogs cannot be forced to discount their products based on fuzzy and full matches.

11.       Zombie translators are quick first responders happily competing among themselves to underbid each other

Zombie farm operators enjoy sending e-mails with one job offer to a whole bunch of zombies so that the zombies could start fighting among themselves to come up with the lowest price and shortest turnaround time. This is again very efficient because most zombie translators typically check their e-mail every couple of minutes, and since they know that they are bidding against the bids of other zombies, they always bid very low while offering to meet incredibly brutal deadlines.

Now that you are armed with a list of some of the most important characteristics of modern zombie farms, it should be quite easy to tell whether you are you working for a traditional translation agency, or whether you are working for a modern zombie farm.

If at least 6 of these characteristics are applicable to your “LSP” or “translation agency”, you are working for a zombie farm and the chances are that even if you have not been fully zombiefied yet, it is only a matter of time before an efficient zombiefication program will turn you into a full-fledged zombie.



  1. If he’s watching us, George Orwell will be smiling wistfully and whispering: “told you so!”

    I’ve started tackling the issue in structured way at


  2. […] There was a time, many moons ago, when translators working for translation agencies (before these agencies started calling themselves "LSPs") were treated with respect. As an old timer who has been…  […]


  3. Dear Steve,

    If the translation profession were protected, all these f… intermediaries would AUTOMATICALLY disappear and translators would earn the double of what they presently earn.

    If customers could rely on DIPLOMAS (+ experience of course), there would be no need for f… agencies! As simple as that!

    When you go and see a medical doctor or a lawyer, other intellectual professions, you do not go through a f… agency, do you?

    Are lawyers and medical doctors that much more intelligent than translators that they do not accept to be robbed by f… intermediaries? Let’s stop the nonsense! Asap!…

    Let’s foresee huge opposition from rascals like SDL and other big f… agencies, but with the economic crisis, agency rates for translators have gone so far down that WE HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE!

    Quite frankly, as long as this profession will not be protected, I would not recommend it as a freelance profession (working for international organisations is something else, of course).

    Last but not least: there is NO good agency. That DOES NOT EXIST, stop dreaming. You always end up realizing you are feeding dishonest idiots… As far as I am concerned, I am completely FED UP ! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for your comment, Isabelle.

    There are good agencies. For example, I am a good agency, at least I try to be fair to translators who work for me and I never bother them with the zombie farm tricks described in my post.

    A Chinese translator just endorsed me a couple of days ago on her Facebook page.

    Small agencies run by translators are often, although not always, very different from the corporate zombie farms that I describe in my posts.

    Agencies do play a useful role, but a big chunk of them has been infected by the virus of vicious corporate greed to such an extent that I can no longer work for them.

    There is no clear dividing line between an agency and a translator: about 70 percent of my income is derived from my own translations, about 30 percent from my work as an agency, and about 10 percent of my customers are still agencies.


  5. Hi Steve,
    Thank you for another insightful and interesting post!
    I am a translator, and I do most of my work for these zombie farms, but I am getting fed up with it! I just started to go through the invoicing for April and realized that even though I have had lots of work and I’ve really been struggling to make all the deadlines, I will not be rewarded for it in any way. Not in payment and not in recognition or appreciation.
    I am starting to look around and want to find direct clients, I do not want to keep on working my a.. off for nothing!

    Once again, thank you for this post and for inspiring me to look for clients elsewhere!


  6. Hi Sasha:

    I hope you start marketing your services to direct customers instead of keep working for zombie farms.

    If you do that and are successful, you will probably eventually become also an agency, at least a part-time agency, because your clients will start asking you about translations from and into other Scandinavian languages, just like I am now handling translations from Chinese, Korean and other languages because I myself translate Japanese.

    Small, specialized agencies generally provide a much better service for their clients because unlike coordinators working for zombie farms, these translators turned into agencies understand the languages and subjects that they are handling, they work with experienced translators, and they treat their translators with respect.

    Good luck to you.




  8. What a load of drivel…


  9. Thank you for your constructive criticism.

    Which zombie farm are you from, Edward?

    Or you don’t have the courage to identify yourself?

    Liked by 1 person

  10. That’s basically the portrait of Transperfect. And yes, I was one of the lucky vendors…


    • From what I have read on blogs and Internet groups, many translators hate this company with a burning passion.

      They were actually a pretty good agency when they were small. I used to work for them in the nineties, but I started ignoring their e-mailed job offers about a decade ago.


      • Very true for Lionbridge too. Communications from both of them go directly to the spam basket.


  11. Especially your point 6 is a definite deal breaker for me as a former attorney. The liability risk for this is simply insane.

    One question though: How do we get rid of the Zombie agencies?


  12. We can’t get rid of them, but we that does not mean that we have to work for them.

    If one of the business principles of human translators were “zombie farms need not apply” (as in “I don’t work for zombie farms”), they would have to work only with inexperienced, timid zombie translators, which would not be very good for their business.

    I have a feeling that this is already happening.


  13. Steve, you probably know the German expression “Alle anderen kochen auch mit Wasser.”

    In one of your reply to my comment to your last blog post, you wrote,
    “I think that quite a few good translators have in fact joined zombies working at zombie farms instead of trying to find clients who will treat them like professionals. C´est la vie.”

    You see, everybody has to find their own ways to reach their Buddha nature. Some luckier ones come to the enlightenment ealier than some less luckier ones. Do you still wonder why people join zombies working at zombie farms or cyberstreetwalking at those notorious portals who censor honest opinions of our profession and the ill practices of zombie farms?

    Ich koche auch nur mit Wasser. I am just a bit luckier than most of my Chinese translation colleagues. With the luck I’ve been enjoying through my whole life. I’ve been kind of Rhinestone Cowboy and “offers coming over the phone,” as Glen Campbell sings.

    Before one finds one’s own way to reach one’s Buddha nature, there is no other way than “cooking with water.” I wasn’t different, either. And I spent 4 years streetwalking at a portal to figure out what is going on in the zombie market. Then I realized that I don’t need to do all that. There was a sudden enlightenment that has led me to the establishment of my being a freelance translator.

    I figure out that it is about power and money. If one cannot achieve power balance with one’s clients, there won’t be a long term business relation with the clients. This is why a zombie works for zombie farms or sticks to streetwalking portals while a non-zombie finds sooner or later his/her ways out.

    Believe me, Steve, nobody would like to be called a zombie. Nobody would admit that he/she is working for zombie farms or strolling at some pink areas of the cyberspace. One day when a translator comes to a sudden enlightenment and finds his/her own way of keeping the power balance, he/she would then realize that he/she was somewhat a zombie and had streetwalked.

    Before then, it is not too bad to “cook with water” at all. In fact, a translator’s self-pity or a translator’s bullfrog disease brings him/her more harm than the TD (Translator’s Dementia).


    • @Wenjer

      Cooking with water, Glenn Campbell and Rhinestone Cowboy, Buddha nature … it’s not easy to keep up with your metaphors, although I think that I got them all.

      I experienced my satori moment when my first child was about to be born about 24 years ago.

      At that point I realized that I would need to make twice as much because instead of 2 salaries we would have only one. Up until that point I was perfectly happy working for agencies … of course agencies back then were not nearly as predatory as they are now.

      That’s when I started trying to figure out how to market my services to direct clients … and I’m still working on it.

      This blog is a part of the whole process.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I knew you would get all those things and I am glad that you have had your satori moment and that you are doing well since then.

        Do you remember the one who bit someone with good advice at Corinne’s? I wouldn’t think that guy would ever have a satori moment like many of his like.

        In fact, I’ve found out that a translator would be almost always overloaded with jobs with 4 to 5 direct clients. The problem is to find the 4 to 5 clients. It takes good reasoning to acquire them and good humor to retain them. Sometimes, you have to quit one or two of them while you have to find some other ones to take their places or your places. This happened to me recently. I had to quit one of my best paying clients by recommending somenoe else to take my place.

        However, I don’t regret at all, because I am overloaded with works since quite a while. I need a vacation next month. Otherwise, I could become an overworked zombie and might land at some zombie farms later. ;o)


  14. Diplomas are no guarantee of anything.


  15. […] There was a time, many moons ago, when translators working for translation agencies (before these agencies started calling themselves "LSPs") were treated with respect.  […]


  16. Another very good post Steve, thank you. I agree, there are still a few good agencies, I am lucky enough to work for two small ones run by two friends… sadly they don’t provide enough work for me to live on. In my 24-odd years of work as a freelance translator I have succumbed to zombie farms (not the most ruthless ones I would say, but still…). Then I realised I was working all god given hours and still money was not enough. I have now become VERY selective, although I am finding it increasingly difficult to find agencies that accept my rates (which are nowhere near the highest for my language pair). However, I refuse to learn how to use Trados (I tried once, it remains a mystery to me), I never paid subscriptions to sites like Proz or TranslatorsCafe and I refuse to answer mass-mailings proposing a job. I might be getting old, but I feel that I have not studied and gained experience all these years to be part of what increasingly resemble cattle auctions… I got to the stage that I am seriously thinking about diversifying into something else, hopefully something that will show me some respect for the work I do…


  17. I know from what I have read on translators’ blogs and such that there are many inexperienced and unqualified translators who translate Italian to English and that the rates for this language direction are lower than rates for translation of other languages.

    I am not sure why that is. It would be more logical to have too many translators, some good and some horrible, in the next “main” world languages (after English and Chinese), such as French and German.


  18. An interesting but painful post…I started out translating for private clients, but these have gradually disappeared over the years, as the economic situation has worsened all over the world, and more and more small, private clients have reverted to machine translating (I had one private client who stopped sending me stuff to translate and started sending me stuff to “proofread” instead, at half the rate, of course; It took me a couple of hours of wrestling with the incomprehensible text before the penny dropped – instead of sending me the original article in English, he clicked “translate with xxx” and then sent it to me! I was furious and told him in future I’ll “proofread” his articles for my usual translation rate! I never heard from him again!).
    I recently joined Proz and have become a zombie, but hardly get any work because my rates, apparantly, are too high (although I checked on Proz and they aren’t on the high end at all for my language pair). So what am I supposed to do? (apart from giving up translating, of course!)


  19. It has been my experience that large corporate clients, whether agencies or direct clients, in my case patent departments of large corporations, are the worst clients to have.

    I gradually lost all my large corporate clients who used to send me work for many years during the last few years, with the exception of a relatively recent client – patent law department of a US subsidiary of a large European corporation.

    My guess is that these former clients switched to free or cheaper sources, machine translation or translation agencies in third world countries, to save money.

    But I was able to replace these former clients by small and medium-size patent law firms, which are more concerned about quality than the bottom line.

    So my rule of thumb is: the larger the company, the more likely it is that I will not be able to work for them, at least not for long.


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  21. […] of my posts are like the Zombies that I keep resurrecting in some of my posts – I thought they were dead a long time ago, but they simply refuse to die. When I look at the […]


  22. […] our world. The best movie dealing with this subject so far, (Zombies are dear to my heart and I wrote several posts about them), was in my opinion I Am Legend with Will […]


  23. […] that freelance translators have to face on a daily basis. Problems such as competition from people I call “zombie translators” who can’t really translate, but who are very cheap, lack of respect for our profession, brutal […]


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