Posted by: patenttranslator | July 5, 2013

The Three Types of Translators and How They Fit Into the Great Scheme of Things

Valerij Tomarenko, a freelance translator from German to Russian and from English to Russian who lives in Hamburg, Germany, said in his guest post on my blog that in his opinion, the biggest mistake translators make is that they simply concentrate on the job they have and fail to collaborate or cooperate with other translators when it comes to long-term strategic planning. Instead of trying to figure out how to accommodate other customers, they simply reply:”Sorry, I am too busy at the moment. Good bye and have a nice life.”

I think that for the most part, his observations are valid, but not equally valid for all translators. I think that most translators belong to one of the following three categories:

1. Translators who enjoy translating, but do not enjoy managing their translation business.

2. Translators who enjoy both translating and the business of running a business.

3. Translators who can translate and sort of enjoy translating, but who enjoy the business of running a business in fact much more than translating.

Translator Type 1 – Just Give Me Something To Translate, Please, Right Now If Possible! 

Most translators probably belong to the first category. Translators in this category can often be described as bookworms who live in this world because unfortunately, that is the only world we have, but who are not really of this world. They may be very good at figuring how to translate extremely complicated texts, usually because languages have been their passion for many years and often because they have a degree in translation, but they seem to be completely unable to figure out  how to find well paying work for themselves.

Instead of looking for well paying work from direct clients right where they live, or creating a well functioning website that could be found by direct clients across the globe, these translators  send hundreds or thousands of résumés to the same translation agencies as thousands of other translators in this category are doing every day. Many of them are so unimaginative that they even use the same subject for their e-mail, the most recent version of which is something like “Perfect translation skills available”, or something equally inane. This type of translator usually tries to compete mostly based on the rate alone, which means that these translators usually work for very low rates. They should be smart enough to know what their fate is going to be, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

As I said, these translators are not really of this world.

Translator Type 2 – Damn It, I Need To Figure Out Where The Best Gigs Are! 

The second type of translator, which is probably also quite common, although perhaps less common than the first type, is a person who is both a translator and an entrepreneur. While these translators enjoy the bursts of creative energy that wash over us like cooling ocean waves in hot summer days when we are engrossed in a really interesting translation, they also spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to find clients willing and able to pay well for good work.

This is also the type of translator who is likely to have a blog or a website, or both, and who is generally also much more interested in the surrounding world, not just the translation itself. These translators often exchange tips and advice on blogs and forums for translators and sometime they work together, or “cooperate” or “collaborate”. I think that I belong mostly to this type.

As one commenter on my blog (Wenjer), whose first language I believe is Chinese, put it:”Mitarbeiten, schön und gut. Im Grunde genommen, sind wir Einzelwölfe, die nur bei Gelegenheit in der Jagd dabei sind.  … Die meisten Wölfe laufen bei der Jagd nur so mit, damit sie nicht verhungern. Wir, die richtigen Bösen, sind anders. Wir greifen erst zu, wenn der Angriff entscheidend ist, damit wir auch den richtigen Wölfenanteil bekommen. Sonst verzichten wir lieber auf das Mitlaufen.

[Cooperating is well and good, but basically, we are lone wolves who only occasionally hunt in packs … Most wolves run along during the hunt only so that they would not have to starve. But we, the Bad Ones, we are different. We only attack when we can go for the jugular to make sure that most of the loot will be ours. Otherwise, we don’t even bother to run along with the pack.]

Translator Type 3 – Translating Is Fun – But Having Other Translators Make Mucho Dinero Pour Moi Is A Blast! 

The third type of translator, which is probably the least common type, is a person who may be able to translate very well, but who really enjoys much more the business of managing the translation process when the actual translation is done by somebody else.

People like that often eventually start running their own translation agency and most of the time, eventually they hardly translate at all by themselves. Thousands of small translation agencies, and a few big ones, were started by people like that. At this point I only work for this type of translation agency because many translation agencies run by former or still somewhat current translators are much easier to deal with, and they sometime pay better, although not all of them, of course.

There are no strict boundaries between these three categories of translators as some may clearly belong to one of these three basic types, and some may have inclinations placing them partly in two or all three of them, which is similar to Freud’s observations about the fluctuations in the categories of introverts and extraverts.

What type of translator are you?

Are you happy being who you are?

If you are not happy with your place in the food chain, are you doing something about it?

There is nothing wrong with belonging to either of these three categories of translators. My guess is that Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators and librarians, probably belonged to the first type. I doubt that he was as good a businessman as he was a translator. But once he figured out where the most interesting work was – translating the Old and New Testament from Hebrew, Arameic and Greek to Latin, which was not even his native language (his native language was a dialect of Illyrian), and who is going to pay him for his work, his marketing and cash flow problems were solved.

Once the Pope in his Papal Infallibility approved his CV (Curriculum Vitae), St. Jerome probably did not have to worry much about invoices as they were likely to be paid by the Vatican mostly on time. So he just kept working on his translation for several decades, well into his eighties, with lots of cooperation and collaboration from other translators, but without any advertising at all since the Catholic Church and the Pope would better fit into the category of “direct clients” than the category of “translation agencies”.


  1. […] Valerij Tomarenko, a freelance translator from German to Russian and from English to Russian who lives in Hamburg, Germany, said in his guest post on my blog that in his opinion, the biggest mistak…  […]


  2. LOL 🙂

    No. 4: Translators who can translate and run a business, but who enjoy categorizing other translators even more (at least once in a while).

    (I thought Wenjer’s first language is Mandarin, since Wang Jie means “sole wolf” in Mandarin)


  3. Mandarin is Chinese, or a version thereof.

    Do you know the characters?

    In Japanese it would be something like “ippiko no okami”, but maybe I would recognize the Chinese characters too.


  4. 拉你的腿


  5. Interesting analysis. I think I’m somewhere between the first and second categories. I run my freelance business as a serious business, but I’m not really interested in managing other translators. Bottom line is I really enjoy translating, and I really hate proofreading. I suppose if I were to one day find my supply of work drying up for some reason, or my continued prosperity as a “lone wolf” otherwise challenged, I might consider whether to set up some kind of boutique agency. If I did, it would be highly specialised.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I make on average about a hundred dollars an hour when I translate, and about three hundred dollars an hour when I proofread translations done by other translators for me, which is a typical agency’s margin when you work with a good translator and all you have to do is fix typos and maybe play with the formatting a little.

    It’s hard to hate this kind of proofreading.

    Incidentally, my clients charge their clients 395 dollars an hour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • You make a good point, Steve. The only proofreading I’ve done is for agencies, where I have no control over the quality of the translation I’m proofreading.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Steve, I am now tied up with 4 parallel projects, all from long term regular clients with high rates through agencies for the same end clients in 3 different fields. I wouldn’t start talking about your categorization of translators. Instead, I would suggest that we come back to the topic of why translators fail in collaboration.

    29 days ago I started a discussion “How to help translators refrain themselves from dumping” in a translator community by quoting the following link:

    The discussion is to be found here:

    There you find out how different views people can have toward “economics.”

    One of the commenters wrote, “The highest I have successfully billed was USD $0.81 a word for Chinese -> English.” And she explained how she came up to that sexy rate:

    “I quote my clients what I consider to be a reasonable rate for 7-10 days translation. Then, I give them a slight discount for 11-14 days and a big discount for 15-21 days. For everything under 7 days (5-6 days, 3-4 days, under 2 days, under 24 hours, under 12 hours, under 6 hours, under 1 hour) I raise the rate and I put this in my contract with long term clients.”

    Well, that’s the way I like it, being an entrepreneural translator. However, you’ll see that somewhere in the thread there came a translation colleague starting his opinion by saying:

    “I’m a bit late to this discussion, but all things economics-related in our field are of interest to me, so I’d like to add some food for thought: 1) While I understand the idea of this thread, the term ‘dumping’ doesn’t really apply in this case…; 2) All pricing, regardless of the industry, must take into account market segmentation, market niches, differences in quality, overhead, marketing costs, etc. In other words, different prices will reflect different realities…”

    Now guys, you see the reasons why some translators fail in collaboration. Valerij’s examples given in the last comment of the previous blog post are easy to be interpreted/explained. Instead of trying to make clients pay decent rates for first-class translations, all too many translators are too busy trying to out-bid their colleagues and even resorting to indecent methods, such as rephrasing every phrase, sentence or paragraph another colleague has already done well.

    I’ve been talking about collaborative translation teams for publication quality in Taiwan since 2004, but I haven’t succeeded in this respect. I succeed only in teaming up some translators for manual translations. In literary translations and transaltions of popular sciences, the result is null. Even when I tried to team up the best knowledgeable translators I could find in Taiwan for popular sciences, the results were catastrophal – delays of projects and poisoned blood among colleagues. You simply can’t put a translator of 80% competence with a translator of 95% competence to achieve a 95% to 100% translation for publication. They are most likely to reduce the performance to (95% – 80% =) 15%, if not even worse.

    By the end, I come to the conclusion that translators are proud people whose admiration for other translators does not last over the next mistake or error. This is why most of them are suitable for cyberstreetwalking and to be cattle-called and exploited by well-organised smart agencies whose clients do not care about translation quality. And since they feel their misery with their own flesh and soul, they would rather try everything to prevent their colleagues being treated well than to encourage themselves and other colleagues to achieve better deals.

    “I make on average about a hundred dollars an hour when I translate, and about three hundred dollars an hour when I proofread translations done by other translators for me, which is a typical agency’s margin when you work with a good translator and all you have to do is fix typos and maybe play with the formatting a little.”

    Steve, we know that the profit margin is normal, but some translation colleagues would take it for larceny, don’t they? I’d say, they shall try to get such good jobs as proofreaders.

    Once upon a time, when I asked a translator to work with an agency in Singapore which is run by a Korean couple, the translator asked me what did it mean by “do not make changes unnecessary.” She explained, when she does a proofreading job, it won’t show her full effort if she does not make a lot of changes. The Korean couple showed me the result and asked for my opinion. I put all the “in-other-words” back to their originals.

    While I charged my clients for 5000 words proofreading for 100 EUR with only one or two sentences reorganised sometimes, I just can’t understand why some colleagues have to rewrite the whole translation in other words and believe that they were “retranslating” the job.

    So, what do you think of my conclusion to the question of why translators fail in collaboration?

    Oversimplified, of course. But there is something true in it. Pro. Helmut Schoeck would have agreed with me. Or, I should say, I agree with his social theory (

    BTW, Steve, how do you like this full interpretation of Marina Tsvetaeva’s Мне нравится by Svetlana Surganova:

    @Valerij: About 2 years ago, I started to read your blog and I recognise that we are about the same line of thinking. During these days, I ‘ve recommended 2 of my contact persons at 2 direct clients (well, they are direct clients in Germany, but I work on their jobs in collaboration with very competent agencies that grant me the rate specified by the end clients) to follow your blog. I hope that they come up to you some day.

    You see, there are some better end clients than Olympia in Germany who need such Russian translators and Chinese translators like you and me. We wouldn’t be able to cover all their needs, even if we could work 7/24. The necessity to work with competent agencies who take care of the coordination of “proud” translators is obvious. The greatest mistake of translators remains the greatest mistake, but I am afraid that it has to be some agencies who remend the mistake for translators. And believe me, those agencies pay 1,40 to 2,20 EUR per standard line when the translation has to be publication quality. The end clients usually know who their translators are and how they are paid by their agencies. Good luck in finding such end clients and such agencies to work with!

    BTW, your Chinese characters can be refined to 扯你後腿拆你台 to explain why translators fail to collaborate.


  8. Wenjer,

    There is too much to respond to in your comment, so I will make just a few points as it makes more sense to save my creative energy for blog posts – posts have much more exposure than comments.

    1. “Steve, we know that the profit margin is normal, but some translation colleagues would take it for larceny, don’t they? I’d say, they shall try to get such good jobs as proofreaders.”

    Exactly. I am not really charging for proofreading at all when I work as an agency. I pay the translator the rate that he or she wanted, and I charge the clients the going rate for such translations. If I charged more than that, they would eventually go somewhere else, but most of them stay with me for years.

    The only difference is that for translations from languages that I don’t translate myself I always charge my rush rate, i.e. I don’t have the non-rush category for these languages.

    It only looks like I am being paid a lot of money for proofreading from a translator’s perspective, but what I am really being paid for is for having put the whole thing together.

    That is where the true value of an agency is, and that is also why translators who don’t need agencies generally make much more money than those who do.

    2. I am not sure but I think that your Chinese characters mean that translators (who can’t find direct clients) are too damn lazy.

    Which they are, whatever those characters really mean.
    3. “Business is about power balance. When you believe that you don’t have a chance to balance the powers, you lose the game.”

    Exactly. And unfortunately, the world is full of translators who have already lost the game without even realizing it.

    4. That version of “Mne nravitsya” is really very good. She is like a Russian version of a cross between Sinead O’Conner and Alison Krause. I found an English translation of the poem so I paste it below because most people reading this don’s speak Russian. It’s better than nothing (one way to tell a good poems is that it can’t be translated).

    English translation.

    “I like the fact that you’re not mad about me,
    I like the fact that I’m not mad about you,
    And that the globe of planet earth is grounded
    And will not drift away beneath our shoes.
    I like the fact that I can laugh here loudly,
    Not play with words, feel unashamed and loose
    And never flush with stifling waves above me
    When we brush sleeves, and not need an excuse.

    I like the fact that you don’t feel ashamed
    As you, before my eyes, embrace another,
    I like the fact that I will not be damned
    To hell for kissing someone else with ardor,
    That you would never use my tender name
    In vain, that in the silence of the church’s towers,
    We’ll never get to hear the sweet refrain
    Of hallelujahs sung somewhere above us.

    With both, my heart and hand, I thank you proudly
    For everything, – although you hardly knew
    You loved me so: and for my sleeping soundly,
    And for the lack of twilight rendezvous,
    No moonlit walks with both your arms around me,
    No sun above our heads or skies of blue,
    For never feeling – sadly! – mad about me,
    For me not feeling – sadly! – mad for you.”

    5. I think that the version of “Mne nravitsya” by Patricia Kaas on Youtube is pretty awful.


  9. “I am not sure but I think that your Chinese characters mean that translators (who can’t find direct clients) are too damn lazy.”

    Valerij’s 拉你的腿 means “pull your leg” while my 扯你後腿拆你台 means “drag behind your leg and tear apart your setting.”

    You must remember my story of how a vendor kept his crabs in a bucket. I went to a traditional market where livestocks, fish, crabs, etc. were sold alive. I saw crabs crawling upward to escape their confinement. Some of them were about to crawl over the rim of the bucket. I noticed the vendor that his crabs are about to escape. He answered, “Don’t worry, they won’t. The other crabs will drag them back into the bucket.” While he was answering me, I heard a flap and saw how the crabs fall back to the bottom of the bucket because there was a queue of them tugging and dragging one another’s legs.

    I guess this is how it works with agencies. Translators, a lot of translators, will be kept in their bucket, because they tear, tug and drag at each other’s legs. There is no way to escape the bucket for those poor souls.

    “I found an English translation of the poem so I paste it below because most people reading this don’s speak Russian. It’s not very good, but better than nothing (one way to tell a good poems is that it can’t be translated).”

    Well, I wish I could translate a Russian poem the way like the English version shows, either in English or Chinese. Fortunately, good manuals are always translatable, along with the bad ones. And thanks to my clients and their agencies who take care of the internal reviewers at theirs, so that these understand that they would lose the groud for existence if there were no translations from me or other translation colleagues. There is always a power balance in manual translation. And this is one way to tell a good manual is that it can be translated, even when revisions are required.


  10. As Albert Einstein put it: “Everything can be translated, but not everything can be translated well”.

    (Just kidding, I just made it up. But it sounds just like him, doesn’t it?)


  11. @Wenjer
    Thank you for everything! I started reading you thread on LinkedIn. Great insights! Мне нравится – I knew the song only in the original, in Ирония судьбы, with A. Pugacheva. I read that Tariverdiev forbid her to ever sing his songs afterwards.
    Wenjer, you asked a very important question why translators fail to collaborate. One can ruminate on this depending on which word (why – translators – fail – collaborate) is emphasized. You were curious about “why”, that makes me curious about “translators”. That is to say I would really like to know if translators are special. There must be similarities in other lines of work, where freelancers and agencies coexist. I mean journalists, illustrators, designers, copywriters working for advertising agencies. Is it similar? Different? Does your bucket with crabs apply specifically to our profession?

    I actually think that the English translation is really good, on the basis that I can recognize every line of the Russian original. I think Andrey Kneller, the translator, did a terrific job preserving the meter, rhyme, all the details.


    • @Wenjer,

      Just trying…

      For those who think Darwin’s insight hold some value…

      Our ancestors (the apes) were very selfish individuals. Their survival depended on collecting fruit and other foodstuff (and, of course, having intercourse 😉 .. )

      When we evolved, those two things got tougher. Once on the ground and on foot, killing a mammoth needed cooperation! Also, family ties helped the survival of siblings. Therefore, grouping was adopted as a survival resource by our species.

      Now, with everything so handy (again) – instead of stretching your arm to grab a fruit we can access the internet and the world is a click away – we have gone back to the arboreal stage. Individualistic survival once more!

      End clients want it cheaper. Intermediaries want a larger margin. Translators want jobs (at whatever rate).

      A tough trend to break.


  12. I was wrong to say that the translation was not very good.

    It was.

    It did nothing to try to include the idiosyncratic positioning of “ne” in the Russian original, which is what makes the poem so strange and melodic.

    But I guess that would be impossible. It would be like trying to translate a play on Chinese characters in a haiku referring to another well known Japanese or Chinese poem.

    If you want to know anything about anything, you have to be able to read the original.

    Translation is almost always a poor substitute for the original, but the alternative is usually …. nothing, or these days (perish the thought) Google Translate.


  13. “Translation is almost always a poor substitute for the original, but the alternative is usually …. nothing, or these days (perish the thought) Google Translate.”

    Steve, let me quote someone to counter your Einstein quote: “If you cannot translate it, you rewrite it better.”

    You have been always doing the same, instead of relying on Google Translate, I guess.

    “I knew the song only in the original, in Ирония судьбы, with A. Pugacheva. I read that Tariverdiev forbid her to ever sing his songs afterwards.”

    So far I understand, Valerij, it was during the Soviet period. Irony of the Fate was kind of critical, though the film was humorously popular. Besides, Tsvetaeva was not yet rehabilitated. It might be the reason why Tariverdiev reacted that way to avoid political persecution.

    The original sung by Pugacheva skipped the second stance, somehow weird. Surganova’s interpretation pleases me much better. There are some different versions of her interpretation accompanied by different instruments.

    You see, I take this song for example is show how important it is to collaborate. No matter with which instruments you interpet a composition, the orchestration is always the same – you need a lot of people functioning toward the same end. It shouldn’t be different with translation, in my opinion.

    I believe that translators, blinded by their pride, tend to miss the purpose/end of translation. This might be an answer to the question of “why – translators – fail – collaboration.”

    There was an internal reviewer whom we nicknamed “Ms. Iowa,” at one of our clients (whereas, Iowa = In other words again). Ms. Iowa made life very difficult for us translators and coordinators and, therefore, she made life difficult for herself to the extent of having to quit the job at the client’s eventually.

    Since then, we’ve developped a method to maintain the consistency of the translations for the client by advising the internal reviewers not to violate the phrasings that have been discussed and fixed in the TM. Remember Kevin Lossner’s talk in a Warsaw conference, The Bucket Stops Here? Thanks to the understanding of the client, that has been our method to stop “sabotage” since the incident of Ms. Iowa.

    Translation buisness is not just translation. There are a lot of politics. And to make the politics work the way we wish, there must be methods developped to maintain the power balance. Translators won’t collaborate, if they don’t see the necessity of power balance.

    Most cattle-calling agencies and translation portals maintain their power balance by pooling a mass of translators who are easily scared by competition and by letting some translators censoring other translators (named “moderators” and they work for free, of course, so that it becomes very easy to discard/slaughter them). When they fall back to the bottom of the bucket, they stay silent. This is a nice way how to keep crab translators stay in the bucket and there is always a mass supply of crabs. This is actually what Bertolt Brecht was talking about with his If Sharks Were People (

    Only the bad, bad sole wolves know how to escape or die. (You pull Steve’s leg with the meaning of Wenjer. Well, wenjer comes from Berliner dialet. “Weniger” is pronounced like “wenjer.” And you know what it means in German. While Dolittle understands animal languages, Doless try to understand games people play, in order to do less for more. :o)


  14. In order to correct the wrong impression some translation colleagues might have about me, I shall make a statement like this:

    There are only two types of translators for me.

    Of the first type are those who have spent enough time to get to know themselves and thus find out what they have for/to sell and ask for the pay they deserve and thus it makes them “happy” translators.

    Of the other type are those who are waiting to be picked and paid what they believe to be able to make them “successful” translators.

    The behavior of the two types of translators are very different. And I am sure that each one of us know how to identify oursleves to the type we really belong to, even when there are many shades that cover the gap between the two types of translators.

    The choice is always ours: a happy translator or a successful translator. Of course, the choice can also be a happily successful translator. This choice could be a very tough one.


  15. And yet, Wenjer, do you think translators have a special flaw and are different from other freelance professions like, say, illustrators, journalists, etc. as regards agencies, failure to collaborate or act as an entrepreneur, etc.?


  16. Valerij, I wish I had the time at the moment to respond upon your question. I believe, there must be some colleagues who would like to know the answers.

    However, translators are a special species. Like Steve wrote some time ago, they are the strangest creatures on the Earth and you cannot say that they are stupid. Their biggest mistake shall remain the biggest mistake, because they are not stupid and because they need to find out their own ways of doing business by getting to know themselves. They would post their profiles somewhere in the cyberspace and hope to be discovered, picked up and paid well, but there is no way to “tell” them anything. They usually know better than other people do, until they feel the pains in their own flesh trying to be picked up at some translation workplaces.

    I am glad that some people such as you, Kevin, Steve and some other sensible translation colleagues keep on writing blog posts, advocating some lost causes. Maybe more and more translation colleagues will find out their own ways by reading your blog posts. In fact, I have learned a lot from you guys.

    I am afraid I have to stop here for my duties now. We may start a private communication, since I send a private note to you a few minutes ago.

    Although the biggest mistake remains the biggest mistake, there is a minor mistake: most freelance translators stay anonymous because they are afraid of making mistakes in public. I overcome the fear and I know that I am not anoymous at all. That’s why I work as a happy translator, even if not successful. It’s nice to be happy. And I wish all translation colleagues find their ways to the happiness of being translators.


  17. […] The three types of translators and how they fit into the scheme of things, by Steve Vitek […]


  18. I do not think the translators of first category are only after low rates. I know many translators who do not mind with low rates are usually the 3rd category. But, I guess it depends on where they live also. Lifestyle can also influence their working ethics and habit. And those translators who do not work as freelancer might be included to the first category too, and sometimes they get paid very well. Or if you only talk about freelance translators then ignore my comment.


  19. “There are no strict boundaries between these three categories of translators as some may clearly belong to one of these three basic types, and some may have inclinations placing them partly in two or all three of them, which is similar to Freud’s observations about the fluctuations in the categories of introverts and extraverts.”


  20. […] it can be done, and different translators use different methods for this purpose. I rely mostly on my website (I am not sure that the blog helps much as it is aimed mostly at […]


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  22. […] introverted translator who lives in a small town or in the country. As I wrote in an earlier post, there are at least three types of translators and these different types translators would probably need to be looking for direct clients […]


  23. Really interesting! I love thought-provoking articles like this. I certainly enjoy translating more than taking care of its business side, but I understand the importance of both.


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