Posted by: patenttranslator | September 26, 2013

Are Translators Knowledge Workers or Just Easily Replaceable Worker Bees?

Not so long ago, most translators thought of themselves as knowledge workers, i.e. workers  who unlike manual workers create new knowledge or analyze existing knowledge to create new knowledge.

Peter Drucker predicted in his book “The Knowledge Worker” already in 1966 that major changes in society would be brought about by a resource called “knowledge”, a resource that knows no geographical boundary.

He said among other things that the incredible (fifty-fold) increase in the productivity of manual workers in the 20th century was for the most part the result of the work of knowledge workers.

A few decades ago, there was no question that a translator who had at his disposal only a typewriter with a sheet of paper and perhaps a dictionary, so heavy that it could be easily used as a murder weapon, was indeed a knowledge worker who had to know a lot of things in addition to at least two languages.

A few decades ago, you had to know a lot about the subjects you were translating, whether it was a new mechanical engineering design, description of a surgical procedure, or the proverbial “rocket science”. If you did not know what you needed to know, your only way out was if you knew the telephone number of somebody who knew what you did not know.

But that was before the limitless and borderless resource called knowledge led to development of other resources, including Internet, search engines, computer-assisted memory tools (which I don’t use, but some translators do), machine translation and many other resources available to translators now.

I still consider myself a knowledge worker, and I think that most of my clients think of me as a knowledge worker, especially my direct clients, but also some agencies. One can usually tell these things by the way one is treated by a customer.

But it would be difficult to argue that translators working for agencies who prescribe to these translators in demeaning and incredibly intrusive “Non-Disclosure Agreements”, which sometime border on insanity, exactly how and under what conditions these translators must work, think of the workers who work for them as knowledge workers.

In the second decade of the twenty first century, it is easy for a translation manager to think of translators as tiny, easily replaceable worker bees who by virtue of knowing two or more languages can be employed to replace words in one language by words in another language by using digital tools, preferably as cheaply and quickly as possible.

First, you ask the worker bees to sign an incredibly demeaning “Non-Disclosure Agreement”, which is in fact an acknowledgement of acceptance of terms that would be more suitable for slaves than for knowledge workers.

Then you tell the hard working bees which CATs to use to translate words between two languages, usually Trados. By agreeing to use these tools, the working bees are automatically agreeing to a big discount: repeated words (called “full matches”) are usually not reimbursed at all, while other matches, called “fuzzy matches” are paid at a much lower rate.

The worker bees are not allowed to issue their own invoices with their own terms of payment, they must bill the agency through “a portal”. They either accept agency’s terms of payment (invariably at low rates and with very long waiting times, usually around 2 months), or other, more obedient worker bees will take their place.

The honey produced by the worker bees who call themselves translators, namely the knowledge residing on the hard drives and even in the brains of the working bees, is actually not the property of the translators, as the “Non-Disclosure Agreement” also contains a clause assigning any and all intellectual property created during translating activity to the translation agency.

Workers who are not even able to own what they know can hardly be called “knowledge workers”. I call them all kinds of things: subprime translators, zombie translators, or worker bees (when I am feeling generous toward these poor people).

It is obvious that the more restrictive the conditions that some agencies impose on translators, the lower the quality of the translators who feel that they must accept work under these conditions. People who accept these conditions, coupled with low rates and very long periods when the hard working bees have to wait for a meager payment, may think that they have no choice if they seem unable to find better work.

But one of the interesting things about our often humble earthly existence is that we always have a choice (except, of course, when the political systems allows us only to vote for a Democrat or a Republican, that is unfortunately a completely meaningless choice at this point).

Sometime we may not see all the choices available to us, but we always have a choice between at least two options. And the choices that we make will in the long run determine who we are, including whether we as translators are knowledge workers, or just obedient worker bees who are easily replaceable and almost completely indistinguishable from each other.


  1. The political system does not limit us to a choice between a Democrat or a Republican, and even if it did, the choice is far from meaningless. One has but to look at the Supreme Court to understand why. If you do not vote, do not complain. Remember Churchill’s quote proclaiming that democracy is the worst form of government, except for ALL others that have been tried. No one said it was flawless. Furthermore, the US struggles to keep people — especially poor people/ — out, while others cannot keep their citizens in. Nothing like travel to realize what we have, irrespective of the crap we put up with.

    As for so-called “knowledge workers” accepting meager payment, translators often do it in order to get started, and they gain valuable experience. In addition, government employers often view translators as “by rote” workers, which is to be expected since most people have a limited understanding of just what translating/interpreting involves.


  2. Hypothetically speaking, a doctor could apply to work for an contract employment agency specialising in nursing staff.

    He would be somewhat overqualified and in need of brushing up on his skills with bed pans, of course, but he could do the job, would get paid far less than what he could otherwise earn (charge), and would not be able to develop a professional reputation and client base in support of his future career, earnings and saleable professional practice.

    Does this stop him from being a ‘knowledge worker’? No, it merely demonstrates that he is a very highly qualified and knowledgeable idiot 🙂


  3. “Does this stop him from being a ‘knowledge worker’? No, it merely demonstrates that he is a very highly qualified and knowledgeable idiot :-)”

    Or an immigrant from another country who can’t pass the doctor’s exam here.

    I know a couple of those, but I never asked them whether they think of themselves as knowledge workers.


  4. First, Steve, how come you always choose such music that I love?

    Second, some agencies may wish “to think of translators as tiny, easily replaceable worker bees,” but medical doctors could be thought of as tiny, easily replaceable fire ants as well, as Louis points out and as doctors are partly in such a situation nowadays.

    One of my translation colleagues told me about the working conditions under which her husband is hired to work at a hospital: 3 bucks a patient, 20 patients half a day – 12 minutes per pattient. You can’t earn enough as a medical doctor in Taiwan when you work at a hospital and have no private clinic for extra income. So, your wife has to work as a translator to help providing the family.

    Third, can any translator call himself a knowledge worker? Such ones like you, Kevin Hendzel, Chris Durban and many others can call yourselves knowledge workers, because you are vastly “knowledgeable” and are smart enough not to stand beside 7-Eleven (or post a profile at those “professional” protals) waiting to be picked.

    As Ricky points out, translators of other category/categories, especially those who have to accept meager payment for a start to gain painfully valuable experience, are thought of as “by rote” workers. Or, there may be some self-proclaimed “professional” translators who are neither knowledgeable nor experienced. They are neither by-rote workers nor knowledge workers and they are targeted by portals and agencies whose managers can take them for easily replaceable worker bees and tiny sqashable fire ants.

    To call oneself a knowledge worker as well as to call oneself a “professional” translator don’t help at all. A knowledge worker has to prove that s/he is. The proof is the hardest part. Staying with portals would make it even harder. Working with some good agencies or running one’s own business would be easier to change the situation.


  5. “… how come you always choose such music that I love?”

    Probably because we are of about the same age and have similar interests, especially when it comes to languages.

    I think that many people don’t even click on the videos.

    “You can’t earn enough as a medical doctor in Taiwan when you work at a hospital and have no private clinic for extra income. So, your wife has to work as a translator to help providing the family.”

    You can hardly call yourself a knowledge worker if what you know is not enough to pay the bills.

    Based on this definition, I must be a knowledge worker because the last time my wife had a job was back in 1989.

    And no way is she going back to work!


  6. […] Not so long ago, most translators thought of themselves as knowledge workers, i.e. workers who unlike manual workers create new knowledge or analyze existing knowledge to create new knowledge.Pete…  […]


  7. Well, I suppose it is lucky for me then that I cannot even get employment at any of my local translation agencies in the U.S. city in which I live, because they won’t even look at your application unless you have had 7 years of full-time experience working for another translation agency or doing translations full-time for a company. The working conditions sound dire. Then again, the working conditions for an entry-level freelance translator are also just as dire. If I had a dollar for every listing that would charge me less than minimum wage to translate a bulk amount of documents in less than 24 hours, I would not have to be trying to get into this industry.

    Or maybe it’s just all more difficult for those of us who are entering the field during economic recovery, no matter what route you want to take in this industry.


  8. Love the analogies you work with as always Steve. Great post that also elaborates again on your previous post on NDAs



    • Aaah, shucks, Anthony, you lavish so much praise on me … I’m blushing.


  9. “Or maybe it’s just all more difficult for those of us who are entering the field during economic recovery, no matter what route you want to take in this industry.”

    Starting a freelance business is almost always difficult.

    And I would not call the present economic situation economic recovery. The banks recovered because we were forced by the Ds and Rs to bail them out.

    But the economy did not recover and it looks like this is just the new normal that may stick around for decades.

    I hope that none of that will not prevent you from having fun while working on your knowledge of European beers, Nikki!

    After all, you are a knowledge worker!


  10. Happy to say that my work and life-partner and I work for agencies that treat us well, pay us well and also in a timely manner.
    Nevertheless we are about to strategise ways in which to reach end-clients directly and at the same time focus on work that really interests us and that matches our individual skills – which fortunately are also complementary.


  11. P.S. Please excuse me from adding a very brief commercial to the above..
    My partner and I jointly translate Czech and Slovak>English together and between us are able to deal with almost every type of text including highly technical ones – with the exception of SAP :).
    Solo I translate French>English and am geared primarily to the humanities and both less confident and proficient with technical materials though alchemy is highly favoured and happily employed..


  12. The profession title itself is almost meaningless nowadays. Not only that almost everyone boasts some pompous and hollow title (had a paper route as a kid? Well, you must be a Logistics expert with Point-of-Sale expertise), almost every profession today is ridden by amateurs and opportunistics, and the lower the entry barrier is – the more affected the profession is. As Louis (who has commented above) likes to put it when describing the translation marketplace: There is the industry and then there is the profession.

    I like to think that, generally speaking, there are value creators and value brokers in this world. The former are the ones who make things happen, while the latter find a way to feed off their efforts. This is not to say that value brokers are not needed, they do, but they are always dependent and their focus is mainly on survival rather then on professionalism or value. The translation industry is largely turning from creating a value into brokering value. Too many translators they I occasionally speak in term of working for agencies (as freelancers) instead of practicing their profession; or a making a living out of translation (meaning that their focus is the short-term financial benefit, little as it may be, of the current or next project) rather than see it as their carrier or profession.

    I don’t think that the technical changes have made translation any less of a knowledge-dependent work, if anything, and knowledge that was made easier to acquire was quickly offset by the need to learn how to acquire and use it. No amount of online resources can make an incompetent translator a good one. They can help to some degree, but nothing more. It is the lowered standards which deem adequate as enough, and it is the passive, subordinate, and self-defeating mindset who have developed and affected how the translation profession is perceived.


  13. It is a mark of our professionalism that we are able to keep confidentiality. We have to sign NDAs because some people do not realise how damaging indiscretion can be. I have an NDA with one agency, who pays quite well, and on time. Part of what I am not permitted to disclose is the mere fact that I translate material for one of its main clients. It amused me greatly, therefore, to receive a LinkedIn request from one of the PMs at this agency to “connect”.
    On another note, I do love telling agencies that I cannot provide references on account of confidentiality agreements and NDAs. I tell them I have a reference from 1991 which would not breach any agreements currently in place. 🙂 Strangely, no one is interested in this.


  14. @Allison
    “It is a mark of our professionalism that we are able to keep confidentiality.”

    This used to be the case when these agreements were about confidentiality. But the agreements signed now reveal a casual attitude of servitude, automatic among many “professional translators” who don’t mind signing “NDAs” such as the one in the example in my post.

    A real professional would never sign something like that.


  15. […] Need a manual? Fall 2013 issue of Caduceus, the publication of the Medical Division of the ΑΤΑ Are Translators Knowledge Workers or Just Easily Replaceable Worker Bees? Shame and pride of bilingualism: How everyone can benefit from bilinguals “Where you come […]


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