Posted by: patenttranslator | July 30, 2013

A Few Important Differences Between the Old and the New Translation Agency Model

The translation industry, for lack of a better term because there is really no such thing as a translation industry, only many different ways to handle translation projects, has undergone quite a transformation in the last decade or so.

I will now attempt to describe the ingenious strategy employed by this mad patent translator to bravely launch his translating career in the spring of 1987 in an apartment on 7th Avenue between California and Clement streets in San Francisco:

1. I bravely opened up San Francisco Yellow Pages under the heading “Translators-Interpreters”.

2. I mailed my résumé to about 20 translation agencies listed in the San Francisco Yellow Pages.

3. I went for a walk with our dachshund Muffin to a nearby park, which we called “Muffin’s Park” to distinguish it from Golden Gate Park, and waited.

Within less than a week, a large, yellow manila envelope appeared in my mail. It contained my first “big” job from a translation agency, namely an entire Japanese patent, which turned out to be about two thousand words, plus one page from a French patent, and one page from a German patent. The Japanese patent was about a new tire sealing technique, the French patent dealt with mechanical engineering (that one was really hard for me) …. and I forgot what was the subject of the German patent.

Back then I must have been a pretty unimpressive translator. I had no experience, almost no dictionaries, and there was no Internet. But the person who sent me the documents for translation and later paid for my work, although at a very low rate, saw that I had potential, especially in view of my combination of languages.

And she was right, although I stopped working for this agency very quickly due to the miserable rates that they were paying. Within a couple of years, I was a much less unimpressive translator, after 10 years I was a pretty good beginner, and after 20 years or so, I was pretty impressive in my chosen field of patent translation: I commit a major translation blunder no more than about once or twice a month, three times if it is a really bad month.


Things are certainly not as simple in the translation business at the beginning of the 21st century. To believe the repetitious, ubiquitous and really quite silly propaganda on the websites of translation agencies who prefer to call themselves LSPs (as in Language Services Providers) these days, the way a translation agency manages translations is all important, and every translation agency uses an original, incredibly ingenious method guaranteeing best quality and optimal results, while the role a translator plays in the process is barely mentioned.

However, this ingenious method is really quite simple. It can be described in four (4) short, monosyllabic English words: buy low, sell high – a total of 14 letters, not including one comma and two spaces.

The seductive marketing propaganda on these websites usually consists mostly of  half truths and blatant lies, which are clearly often conceived by marketing specialists who know a lot about selling and marketing, but very little if anything about translation.

The buy low, sell high method is centuries old, of course, if not millennia old. But the way this method is now being implemented by what is called the translation industry is in fact quite ingenious and even innovative.

1. Translation agencies no longer simply accept and read résumés from translators looking for work. That would be so twentieth century!

In the twenty first century, translators are directed to fill out detailed information about their language combinations, experience, and most importantly their rates in the “For Translators” section on agency’s website, which is something like a back door in a restaurant to be used by busboys and cooks, next to the garbage cans. The agency can thus create its own database of translators who are automatically competing against each other, based on the rates that they charge with other translators listed in the same database, with a click of a mouse.

2. Information about CATs (Computer Assisted Translation tools) must be also included. Many translation agencies, especially those paying the lowest rates to translators, will only work with translators who use a specific CAT, usually Trados, and who agree to provide substantial discounts to the agency for repeated words or sections which are known in the parlance of the “translation industry” as “full and fuzzy matches”. These discounts may or may not be passed on to the customer. My guess is that the customer will usually not get much of a discount.

3. In addition to proprietary databases of translators owned by translation agencies, there are also “translation marketplaces”, also called “online blind auction sites”, where translators who are located on different continents pay a yearly fee for the privilege of being able to aggressively compete among themselves on who will submit the lowest bid for a translation project.

4. Some translation agencies located in Western countries now routinely subcontract their translation projects to translation agencies that sprung up relatively recently in low-cost countries. Based on what I read on social media, especially on LinkedIn, translation bids are often won based on résumés of highly qualified and experienced translators. These résumés are submitted to clients and prospective clients, but the actual work is instead done by people who cannot translate very competently somewhere in Asia or Africa, then proofread by an inexpensive native English speaker to make the gibberish look more like English, and sent to a translation agency in a Western country which will sell this translation at a hefty profit to its client.

5. Many translation agencies, especially large ones, ask translators who have dutifully entered all the required data in the agency’s database to sign a long “Confidentiality Agreement” which has little to do with confidentiality. The agreement specifies, for example, that all intellectual property created by a freelance translator working on an assignment for a translation agency is the property of the agency, that the translator is to be paid only if the agency deems in its wisdom that the quality of the translation was satisfactory, that the translator agrees to pay “reasonable attorney’s fees” (as if there were such a thing) should the agency decide in its infinite wisdom to sue a hapless translator, and other demeaning and dangerous clauses in a “Confidentiality Agreement” that often has three thousand words.


According to the old “translation business” model in the twentieth century, the translator and his or her skills were very important for the old model to function well. Translation agencies organized the work by finding translation work and matching it with suitable translators for a certain type of work. Many translators were quite happy with this arrangement because they were simply unable to find direct clients for themselves, and most preferred simply to translate anyway.

According to this old model, a relationship of trust was created between a translator and an agency and when both the agency and the translator were meant for each other, the relationship would last for many years, sometime for decades. This relationship of trust has been severely disrupted by the new translation agency model which is based on a temporary relationship with translators who are currently charging the lowest rates.

Many agencies, especially small, specialized agencies, often run by old timers, still believe in the old model in which the translator is valued, appreciated and paid accordingly for his or her contribution to the success of the entire enterprise.

But basically all large agencies, and many small ones, subscribe to the new model, which can be very profitable for the agency, apparently for a long time, although based on the sacred buy low, sell high method, it inevitably generates … crap.

Unfortunately for translators – and fortunately for the modern type of translation agency, it is quite possible that in the age of crapitalism (this word is often used on left-leaning and libertarian blogs to describe our present wonderful economic and political system), poor quality is not such a big deal since most customers got used to crap a long time ago.


  1. […] The translation industry, for lack of a better term because there is really no such thing as a translation industry, only many different ways to handle translation projects, has undergone quite a t…  […]


  2. Steve, honesty also plays a greatly diminished role in this Brave New Business Model. I am increasingly encountering situations where agencies feel compelled to lie to end clients despite stern warnings, and all I can do when they get caught is shrug and have a private laugh. Some of these people used to know better. Claims of infallibility don’t even work well for the Pope, and we lesser mortals should not even attempt them.


    • Honesty might have been a valued quality of our ancestors (based on proverbs and such).

      The most valued quality in modern business environment is the ability to design the best bait and switch trap which is obviously based on lies rather than honesty.


  3. I recently completed a first-time translation assignment for an agency on their online system rather than in my own software (did it because I am curious about new technology – won’t go into details about the many disadvantages for the translator) and shortly after delivery received an automatic message that the quality had been adjudged satisfactory, on the heels of which a different PM sent me a second assignment (and in reply to my pointing out that the rate quoted was considerably below my agreed rate with the agency, “I’m afraid we do not have budget for this fee in this project”) and a request for a signed and WITNESSED! confidentiality agreement in order to allocate the new project to me! I’m still laughing.


    • @Elizabeth Glad to hear that you’re still laughing and not feeling the need to throw anything around or to whack the computer!:)


  4. To translate your personal experience into a somewhat abstract question, the question is, can the old business model survive under the onslaught of the new aggressive translation agency model?

    I think it can, but since many of the players, especially the greediest ones, will tend to gravitate to the new one, which is based on very low rates and constricting and demeaning conditions for translators, two distinct models will be created.

    These two models can either exist in parallel, or one of them will eventually become extinct.


    • @ pt Is there hope that the human/e mentality can supersede the di-plod-o-cus reality?


    • The two models do exist in parallel – I no longer work for the low-pay mega-agencies, but find plenty of boutique agencies prepared to pay good money for good work, as do their customers. If anything, I think the midfield might disappear, with polarization to the extremes of poorly paid CAT typists (with rich PMs and richer CEOs) and decently paid professional translators in specialist areas.


  5. Very good summary, Steve.

    “Many agencies, especially small, specialized agencies, often run by old timers, still believe in the old model in which the translator is valued, appreciated and paid accordingly for his or her contribution to the success of the entire enterprise.”

    Fortunately, thus far at least in my freelance career, I have been lucky enough only to work for this type of customer. Long may it continue.

    I’m also comforted to know that I’m not the only one who felt like a “pretty good beginner” after 10 years in patent translation!


  6. I’ve been going seven years. I guess that means I’ll be a beginner before too long 🙂


    • That’s right.

      At this point you are still only at the spring chicken level.


      • You make me feel so young 😉


  7. “Fortunately, thus far at least in my freelance career, I have been lucky enough only to work for this type of customer. Long may it continue.”

    Back in the eighties I used to know a Japanese woman in San Francisco who was looking for about a couple of years for an American man to marry her, mostly because she really did not want to go back to Japan.

    She used to say “I am not picky, but I am particular”.

    In the end, she could not find a man up to her standards and she did return to Japan. The last I heard, she landed a really good job in Japan, which at that time was really next to an impossible achievement for a woman.

    Why am I mentioning this here?

    I think that although translators don’t necessarily need to be picky who they work for, they should be particular.


  8. thank you so much for sharing this precious knowledge with me. I needed that


  9. Steve,
    At what point are you going to realize computers will swamp translators and that this line of work is over?


    • @Jeb I know that it was Steve whom you asked but my answer would be NEVER. I come from a family of translators and now I work with my life-partner. Nothing in my many years of experience has ever given me the slightest hint that beautifully produced “hand-crafted” work will ever become redundant or be replaced by “Machine Translation” – a description so ugly that even typing it makes me wince. It doesn’t make me shudder because I don’t fear it for one moment :).


  10. You would have thought that selling faeces at high prices is not a sustainable business model.

    So surely the buyers are going to realise at some point either that they’re buying faeces, at which point the whole house of cards collapses, or that they don’t actually care whether what they’re buying is faeces, in which case they can save even more money by getting it done with MT.


    • Oliver, I think the answer to this paradox is that most clients don’t actually care about the quality of the translation: what they care about is the format of the document. In businesses it has now been established that documents look professional if they use as much formatting as possible, and so they will pay agencies that can produce that. SDL products have always been good at that, so everybody is happy. The translator is unfortunately no longer the key player. About seven or eight years ago there was a wave (in America, naturally) of kids with computers doing translations from languages they could not speak, and offering very low rates as it was all computerised. That failed, but I expect it will come back again. Machine translation, routinely reviled in the agency-dominated ‘industry’, is in fact getting better and better and in some areas, such as standard contracts, works extremely well. So if the actual translation is going to be done by machines, translators are reduced to text technicians, making sure that the sub-paragraph titles in blue are still in 8 point font or whatever it is. Businesses could of course do their own MT as you say, but they prefer to outsource it because the formatting of the documents is so complicated that they prefer to pay a specialist agency. This is obviously not true in all cases, but that is the general drift of things.


      • If that’s where things are heading, it means that organisations that buy proper professional translations will have a competitive advantage (e.g. through having more effective marketing materials in foreign languages) or will be able to save money (e.g. through clearer manuals leading to reduced look-up times, fewer support calls, etc.).

        It is then up to the translation profession to raise awareness of these benefits.


  11. […] in Translation Makes Sense, But Overspecialization Can Be a Kiss of Death A Few Important Differences Between the Old and the New Translation Agency Model A book on international idioms reveals much about our national characters Why do we make mistakes? […]


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