Posted by: patenttranslator | June 1, 2013

You Have To Pay to Access Somebody Else’s Infrastructure If You Don’t Have Your Own

If you don’t have a plan, you become a part of somebody else’s plan.

Terence McKenna

I see on social media and on blogs that many translators are incessantly complaining about “huge profit margins” of translation agencies. And it is true – profit margins of translation agencies who know what they are doing, have been around for a while and have a lot work for translators, are very healthy, probably higher than the profits of agencies in another line of business.

Although I am not sure about that. When I lived in San Francisco, I had a friend, who worked as a graphic artist for a mixture of customers consisting mostly of private businesses with a few advertising agencies, who told me that the profit margin of the marketing agencies was 50%, which would be about the same as in the translation business.

Some translation agencies would like to present translation not as a task that is performed by a translator, but rather as a process in which a translator is only creating a draft translation during the initial stage of the process, which is then improved in many other stages.

Most people with a functioning brain will be able to tell that all of this talk about numerous quality control stages is transparent marketing propaganda. When I work as an agency, I know that once I find a suitable translator, the process is really simple. I proofread the translation and fix a few typos, if any. Oh, yes, and sometime I fiddle with the formatting. That’s it, folks. Why would I want to mess up a perfectly good translation? In spite of my own description of this blog (Diary of a Mad Patent Translators), I am not really crazy.

But in fact, I happen to believe that these healthy profit margins of translation agencies are basically reasonable and well deserved.

Although “an independent translator” who works for a translation agency has to first translate everything and do as good a job as possible, this translator would have not been able to work at all without the work, effort, and money that went into what I would call the infrastructure that made it possible for a particular translation job to eventually end up as an attachment in a translator’s mailbox.

The agency is selling you access to its own infrastructure, and there is no reason why an agency should sell access to its infrastructure, the all-important pipeline supplying work to “freelance translators”, for a less healthy margin. This access is crucial to many translators, although not to all of them, and possibly not even most of them. But if you want to use their infrastructure, you should be ready to pay for it.

After more than 26 years of making my living as a freelance translator, I am barely able to charge a slightly higher rate to translation agencies than the going rate. But as I have my own infrastructure in place, I do not depend on access to somebody else’s infrastructure, as most of my clients are direct clients. So I don’t really need work from agencies, although I will gladly work for them if they pay my rate.

Some translators believe that solution to low rates is organizing by translators in order to pressure translation agencies to pay better rates. It may be a partial solution, but I am not convinced that it will work. It kind of reminds me of the old battle cry “Workers Of All Countries, Unite!” That one did not work so good, did it? But who knows, I could be wrong about it. Different business models can definitely work.

What I think does work is creating your own infrastructure, a base of clients who, because they are not translation agencies, will pay you double of what you can get from people who let you use their infrastructure.

I believe that it is in every translator’s power to do that, although it is likely to take a lot of work for years.

How would one go about creating this infrastructure?

1. Identify Your Best Market Segment

First, identify a market segment that needs the translation service that you are providing, a market segment that is likely to pay good money for good work. It took me about three years to figure out the answer to this question, but by about 1990 I realized that in my case, this market segment are law firms, and patent law firms in particular.

2. Stop Sending Resumes to Translation Agencies!

Secondly, instead of sending your resume to thousand of fly-by-night translation agencies, which is what thousands of other translators and would-be translators all over the world are doing in this very moment, find a way to market your service to this market segment. I started with mass mailings to patent law firms in early nineties.

These mailings were very labor-intensive and quite expensive, but some of these law firms who found me in this manner still send me work more than 20 years later.

A much cheaper and much less labor-intensive method is creating a website targeted at the market segment that is likely to pay good rates. I started working on my own website in the year 2000. The first three years I had no response at all. It takes a while before you figure out what will work for your website because everything depends on your particular strengths and weaknesses, such as your language combinations and other particular skills.

But I did eventually figure out a formula that was and still is working for me in my particular case.

3. Do Whatever Else Is Likely To Work for You 

Thirdly, there must be many other ways to create your own base of direct clients, depending on where you live, how you use social media, whether you are able to market yourself directly, for example by attending conferences, or by making the dreaded cold calls, etc.

4. If You Can’t Be Bothered To Look for Your Own Clients, Stop  Griping About Excessive Profit Margins of Translation Agencies 

Fourthly, if you are not willing to make a major investment of your time, effort, and money into creating your own infrastructure, don’t gripe and moan about the “exorbitantly high margins” that translation agencies are enjoying, while you have to do all the work as the translator.

It is true that you do all the work, and they are making all the money, seemingly for nothing. But they did the important work involved in creating the infrastructure that eventually lured the customers to their agency. They are allowing you to use their infrastructure because they need you for a particular job, and now they are making you a part of their infrastructure, a part that is designed to be easily replaceable.

If you don’t like this arrangement, what is stopping you from creating your own infrastructure?


  1. Good points. Indeed, many people tend to forget that sales and marketing are the most important, an often most costly, parts of any business.


  2. Marketing can be costly.

    But it can be also done in a very inexpensive way, provided that we can figure out who are best customers would be and how to get their attention.


  3. I agree absolutely.

    In general I don´t believe in moaning and groaning. You either take life as it comes and make the best of it, or you roll up your sleeves and prepare yourself for some hard work. All the rest is generally useless.


  4. “In general I don´t believe in moaning and groaning”

    Moi non plus, except when it fits a suitable subject of my blog post and the moaning and groaning, including my own, makes me feel better.


  5. If we as translators started copyrighting our translations and providing translation in non-editable .jpg files, that would ensure we are compensated for our work instead of letting companies use our work to reap benefits without sharing the profit derived from our work.


  6. This does not make sense to me, Michelle.

    Once somebody buys our translation for a predetermined, fixed price, however it is calculated, it belongs to the buyer.

    And .jpg files can be easily converted to MS Word anyway. For example, you can convert them first to PDF format and then use PDF converter to convert them to MS Word.

    I use the converter all the time. It costs 20 dollars a year for the online version.

    Although I am curious: Are translators legally permitted to resell their translations to multiple buyers? For instance, let’s say that a law firm orders a patent translation from me, I sell them my translation, and then another law firm asks me to translate the same patent to them.

    Would I be legally permitted to resell my work in this manner? And if not, why not?


  7. Great post, Steve, as always!

    I agree with Patriica. Moaning and groaning is useless. I understood quite a long time ago that we need solutions. And the first step I took was to stop sending CVs to translation agencies and start thinking seriously how to invest all that time and effort in my own business.

    Complaining won’t get us anywhere. We will be treated as professionals when we treat ourselves as such. And translators’ associations can give us a hand as long as they do protect our rights and defend our interests.



    • Thanks, Fernando.


      • When I started my career as a translator more then 35 years ago, I quickly understood one thing: if you want to make it, you put boots on the ground and start walking. Never did it enter my mind to knock on doors of agencies and wait for them to send me freelance work. I knocked on doors of small and large corporations, from printers to computer chip manufacturers and everything else in between to get my own clients. For the last 30 years, it has been businesses that have been knocking at my door to give me work. The trick is simple: produce the best translation possible, own up to your mistakes if you make any and charge the rate that you are worth.

        In regards with marketing and ways to become known, has anyone ever heard of bartering? I bartered small translations for flyer design and printing. Come on people, be creative and inventive.

        And as far as copyrights are concerned. It is a given that you own the copyrights to your translations until you get paid for them, then they become the buyer’s rights, period. And in the example given for the patent, you are ethically obligated to tell the second requester that you already translated the exact same patent for someone else. Reselling the exact same translation for the exact same text can lead to very serious repercussions.

        All this to say that I just saw this article Steve:

        You, patenttranslator, might be quite interested as this could have an effect on your business (not that I wish it on you, quite the opposite).

        I truly enjoy reading your musings and your rants.
        Long live the patenttranslator.


      • Thank you so much.

        Some people (and monkeys) are happy with low-hanging fruit, and some people put the boots on the ground as you put it.

        Even most monkeys probably realize that the bananas on the top of the are bigger and taste better than what’s left over on the bottom.


  8. […] If you don't have a plan, you become a part of somebody else's plan. Terence McKenna I see on social media and on blogs that many translators are incessantly complaining about "huge profit margins"…  […]


  9. Very inspiring post indeed. Finding your own clients takes a lot of time and practice, but it is the only way to develop a decent “infrastructure” on the long term. And time is much better spent on that that sending thousands of letters to agencies that will never reply.


  10. Thanks, Anthony.


  11. Another good, thought-provoking post, thanks!
    I completely agree about (good) agency margins, it takes a lot of work to find clients and we, as freelancers, should know.
    Naturally however I disagree on agencies taking advantage of translators and not giving our profession the respect it deserves by selecting suitable candidates purely based on those who charge less (or by offering to pay a pittance). This is damaging on many levels.

    I have been thinking about creating a group of translators (like a co-operative, for lack of a better word) that could offer the same services as an agency, with all profits going to translators. I wonder whether this is what you mean by ‘organizing by translators’ and whether you (and other colleagues) think it could work. This way the burden of finding new clients through marketing would be shared.


  12. “I have been thinking about creating a group of translators (like a co-operative, for lack of a better word) that could offer the same services as an agency, with all profits going to translators.”

    I tried to put something like that together with 3 other translators when I lived in San Francisco more than 20 years ago.

    In the end, we all went our separate ways because each of us had a somewhat different agenda determined mostly by our language combination.

    But I think that a similar approach can work and I would love to hear from other people who were more successful in this respect.


  13. Thanks for your comment. I did raise this subject in a group discussion on LinkedIn a while ago and there seemed to be a lot of interest.
    Also some people thought that this is going to be a very likely future development as far as our profession is concerned, and that translation agencies (or Language Service Providers, as they like to be called now) were on the way out.
    I would also be interested to hear from colleagues on this.
    As far as your experienced is concerned, did you think that it made the marketing side of things easier?


  14. 1. “Also some people thought that this is going to be a very likely future development as far as our profession is concerned, and that translation agencies (or Language Service Providers, as they like to be called now) were on the way out.”

    From your lips to God’s ears …. but I don’t think it is going to happen, at least not on a large scale.

    Otherwise it would have happened already. Most translators simply don’t seem to be able to figure out how to market themselves to direct customers and go instead for the low-hanging fruit.

    And translation agencies do play a useful role in the market for translation services, although they are not as vital in the grand scheme of things as they would like to think that they are.

    2. I did not have any marketing experience when I started marketing my services directly to patent law firms more than 20 years ago.

    You don’t need experience. Everybody starts with zero experience. You just need to take a good look at what your strength and weaknesses are, create a plan that maximizes your strengths and stick to it.

    If it doesn’t work, it means that you need to come up with a different plan, hopefully one that does not involve low-hanging fruit.


  15. I admire people who work as translators because it is not easy as some people might think. Translation is a very good profession thus due credit must be given because they are professionals in their own right and they should be treated as such…


    • I wish more people realized this…. It is a very good profession (with ups and downs, like any other profession) and having been doing it for over 20 years I have no regrets.


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