Posted by: patenttranslator | May 23, 2013

The Myth Of The So Called Translation Industry

Bitter complaining about the evil and devious practices of the modern type of large translation agencies as representatives of so called “translation industry” is a favorite sport of many a freelance translator, including this one.

Whenever I write my trademark dark, plaintive, accusatory posts on this popular subject, they always get a lot of tweets and likes. Which is obviously one reason why I do that – addiction to tweets, likes and reprints is tough to beat. If so many people seem to appreciate what I am saying, I feel that I am no longer a “vox clamanti in deserto” (a voice crying out in the wilderness).

But the fact is, the typical translation agency model is really typical for only a very small segment of the entire translation industry market. Think about it – there must be hundreds of thousands of translators on this planet, or at least people who make a living translating. How many of them can possibly work for a typical translation agency of the kind that translators such as myself love to deconstruct, despise and bash on our blogs and on Twitter and LinkedIn?

Probably not that many out of the total number of translators. Even if you are a freelance translator who is partially or mostly locked into their business model, you must also have worked for other clients who belong to a completely different model.

It is also true that only some translation agencies operate based on the predatory corporate model that is based on incredibly demeaning “Confidentiality Agreements”, coupled with demands for automatic discounts for “fuzzy and full matches” (repeated words), which is a determination made by the agency in its wisdom, with payment terms of more than 30 days, sometime even two months or more.

Most translation agencies are small, and it has been my experience that many small and smallish translation agencies operate according to a different model. Instead of asking translators to fill out a very detailed questionnaire online, some agency operators are in fact able to tell based on a translator’s résumé whether he or she looks like a suitable person for the task at hand because they themselves know a few languages and understand the underlying problems and issues.

As a translator/translation agency hybrid myself, I am deluged by résumés from translators every day. For every 100 e-mails from translators that I delete without reading them, I probably look at 1 of them quite carefully and sometime I even save it, because as we know, a good translator is hard to find.

Translation agencies are not a monolithic, evil beast.

In my role as a translator, I noticed that some agencies pay much faster than within the standard 30 or even 60 day period, which is what we have come to expect from a typical translation agency. And of course, whether I use or don’t use a CAT is of interest only to the kind of translation agency that I avoid like a plague (regular readers of my blog will know that I am quite allergic to CATs).

Over the years I myself have received a lot of work from many types of non-agencies, such as individual translators who are not really translation agencies at all. I remember that I used to translate Japanese patents for quite a few years for a German patent translator, his name was Hans, who once said these surprising words to me: “I never had to work for translation agencies”. He must be retired by now because Google does not know anything about him. A Russian interpreter told me the same thing when I asked her which agencies she worked for.

There are different organizations regularly needing translators, such as departments of universities, government organizations, NGOs and other organizations with people in them who are smart enough to look for individual translators instead of going to an agency website when they need to have something translated.

Of course, since I mostly translate patents, most of my customers are patent law firms. But I also frequently work for sole practitioners who happen to be patent agents or patent lawyers, inventors, investors (people who buy and sell patent portfolios), law librarians.

It is of course in the interest of the large translation agencies to perpetuate the myth that their model is the only legitimate business model in what is called “translation industry”, although nothing can be farther from the truth. Their business model is only one of many possible and existing business models for delivery of translation services.

There are many other models as well. While their model may be suitable for some types of translations, it often delivers horrible quality at a very high cost as the corporate model will always try to squeeze more and more work out of translators at lower and lower rates in the name of higher profits for the boss. The new name for this old concept is “higher productivity”.

While I wholeheartedly endorse complaints and objections of oppressed translators on blogs and social media as a healthy activity, what is perhaps missing here is an awareness that freelance workers don’t have to work for people in this industry who do not treat them well.

The myth of the so called “translation industry” is just that, a myth that is often propagated by people who usually have their own agenda. The real translation industry has many segments and it is in our power to work only for one or a few of the segments of this industry, namely for people who treat us with respect and pay us well and on time, and not to work for people who operate based on the extremely predatory business model practiced by some translation agencies.

If we fail to realize this simple truth, we can only blame ourselves for putting up with the many injustices of the modern corporate business model of a certain segment of the translation industry that we love to moan and groan about on our blogs.


  1. The only reason that the Agencies are able to dominate the market is that they have succeeded in persuading end-clients that they will provide a complete trouble-free service and that a customer will have some recourse should s/he not be satisfied with how a task has been carried out. The fact that frequently this is probably delusionary thinking doesn’t seem to permeate – presumably because (as far as I know no watchdog agency exists that clients can turn to to check the credentials of an agency nor to obtain help in rectifying any failures or misdemeanours on their part.


  2. You have a good point 1st class translation, marketing propaganda can be a powerful tool, but I don’t think that this is the only reason.

    Another reason is that some of these agencies do provide a useful service to the client, for instance when they coordinate translations into and from multiple languages for a client who does not want to be bothered with the details of such a project, while yet another reason is that many translators remain largely invisible to direct clients, even in the case when the clients would prefer to work directly with a specialized translator.


    • Few end clients believe marketing propaganda, because it is just that. They might be convinced the first time round, but if burned, they are unlikely to return to agencies providing poor translations and/or service. Most agency marketing conveys very little, leaving the customer none the wiser about how to differentiate one vendor from another. Price then becomes the differentiator. Business acumen is also rather poor in “our industry” so in many cases the agency caves in on price negotiations and passes this along to translators to deal with. Barriers to entry into our industry are also low, so there is always someone willing to give services away.

      Many agencies are passionate about languages and want to provide the best service possible to their customers. Having access to a wide pool of translation resources is a valuable service to companies, whose employees are under significant time and money constraints these days and do not have the luxury of sourcing and managing multiple (many) translators. Many projects I sold when working for agencies had 25+ languages. My clients could not possibly source and manage so many translators and get their own work done, even if they knew where to start.

      Some agencies are bad and these folks will ultimately go out of business, because they provide very little value.

      If you don’t like working for a particular agency, stop working for them and find customers/agencies who pay better, faster and are easier to work with. As the author states, there is plenty of work out there on many different levels from many different sources. Agencies are indeed only one source of business in a very fragmented business sector. This requires a bit of selling (we’re all in sales today), but not necessarily in the traditional sense. Make it easy for clients to find you with a robust LinkedIn/other online profile, join groups on LinkedIn your potential customers frequent, create a website, blog about issues your target customers care about…


  3. […] Bitter complaining about the evil and devious practices of the modern type of large translation agencies as representatives of so called "translation industry" is a favorite sport of many a freelan…  […]


  4. You are right, we don’t have to work with clients we don’t like. Myself, I am not what you may call flooded with work, but I have chosen to work mainly for end clients, and they certainly do appreciate the quality of my work.
    On another topic, thank you for the Don Williams-Emmy Lou Harris duo, excellent (well, I am rather partial to country music). Have a good weekend, Steve.


  5. […] Bitter complaining about the evil and devious practices of the modern type of large translation agencies as representatives of so called "translation industry" is a favorite sport of many a freelan…  […]


  6. Now I know why when I sent you a friendly email a couple of years back, trying to learn more about patent translation, I received no friendly reply. It probably got the big “D”!

    No worries, I enjoy your posts when I read them, and your comments on the blogs of others. Being new to the industry I appreciate any and all tutelage. This was another good one. I’ve already walked away from more agencies than I’ve worked for, but recently gave up contacting them all together. Those good ones that you imply are out there…haven’t found one. I agree, they’ve gotta be out there, but they’ll have to find me. I’m now on the hunt for direct clients only.


  7. It bothers me immensely whenever I hear colleagues saying that translators are part of the “translation industry” but I only understood last week whilst watching the online Hansard debate why I feel this way: “translation industry” is in fact an oxymoron. Of course there is a pressure to use translators the same way people in the East work cheaply for textile brand owners in the West, but translations cannot be produced industrially. Putting the middlemen between translators and end customers does not make an industry, and the translation and localisation process with all its phases was invented by translators, not by intermediaries. Okay, MT might be good enough, at least in some language pairs, to get a gist of the content for correspondence needs and for spying – I am reluctant to call it intelligence gathering (look at this gem: We make a convenient scapegoat when somebody higher up XXXX up and it’s probably the same everywhere. Sibel Edmonds comes to mind. But supposing – just supposing – that no translator agreed to work for any of these intermediaries we hear so much about lately, and not good things at all, where the hell would this “industry” be? Who would the “industry” peddle their high tech to, without highly educated human beings who have the talent, skill and experience required for providing seamless intercultural communication around the globe?


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