Posted by: patenttranslator | October 11, 2013

Is 50 Thousand Dollars Money Well Spent on a Translation Degree?

Every now and then I receive e-mails from readers of my blog who ask for my input. I usually ignore them, but not always.

One of them from this week went like this:

My name is Charlie, and I’m a Chinese ‑ English translator with a few years of part‑time work, and about 1 month of full‑time work under my belt.  I’ve been a fan of your blog for a while, and greatly appreciate your no‑bs take on life and the industry.

Which brings me to a question that I would like to pose to you.  How do you feel about paying $50k to NYU to go get a degree in translation?  I have a high‑intermediate knowledge of, and a strong passion for IT and computer technology, which I would love to turn into a career in Chinese ‑ English patent translation.  That being said, I know nothing about legalese, and my one attempt at translating a IT patent abstract was a painful and ultimately unsuccessful undertaking (and that was just the abstract).

Had such a program been offered at the time, do you think a M.S. in translation would have saved you time, enabling you to “jump” through the first 3‑4 years of struggling? Would you recommend it to a young translator who wants to skip such a period now?  Do you think the cost and inconvenience of getting this degree and living in NY for a year to do this program is time/money well spent?

If anyone is going to call it like it is, it’s you.  At the same time, you must get lots of unsolicited sh*t e-mail, so please don’t feel the need to respond to this either.



I asked Charlie if it would be OK to respond in a post, and he said:”Sure, do your worst“.

So here is my very worst.

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of technical translators.

A. Those who have a degree in linguistics or languages and learn what they need about the technical fields in which they translate on the job.

B. Those who have a degree in a technical subject and either “picked up” a foreign language “accidentally”, for example because they lived abroad for a long time or grew up in a multilingual family, or they learn a foreign language on their own because they want to be able to translate.

I belong to the first category, and my degree in Japanese studies served me well, as I was able to put it to good use on three different continents over the last three decades which is described in this post.

Ideally, a good patent translator should be native in at least two languages, he or she should have a technical degree (at least a master’s degree, although PhD would be best), as well as a law degree. Which is why ideal patent translators simply don’t exist, only plenty of people who belong either to category A. or B. above.

In fact, I believe that people who are truly “native” in more than one language do not exist either, as the word native is a cognate of the Latin word “natus” meaning “born”, and unless you are James Bond or become reincarnated, you get to live only once.

We live in an imperfect world in which imperfect people are doing their best, or their worst. We may and sometime we do strive for perfection, but perfection is attainable probably only on rare occasions in art, hardly ever in real life, or even in translation. Our world and our life is simply an endless series of compromises.

(I can just see Charlie muttering under his breath – even though I have no idea what he looks like):”Come on, man, stop this dumb philosophizing already. Is it worth 50 grand or not)?

OK, I think that a degree from NYU is probably not worth 50K.

One of the extreme injustices young people in countries such as United States or Japan are facing is the extremely high cost of college education.

Instead of trying to help smart people who are just about to start living their lives to become educated so that they could eventually figure out how to fix things that old people screwed up so badly, we saddle them with mountains of debt right at the starting line, debt that some of them will be paying, with a lot of interest, for the rest of their lives.

A dysfunctional society needs to do that partly to prevent young people from becoming too independent, because then they could be thinking for themselves and trying to change the society, which is what often happens when young people are allowed to think for themselves.

With tens or hundreds thousands of dollars in student debt to pay off, independent thinking is a luxury that the indentured young can simply no longer afford.

And that is just the way Wall Street likes it.

You can become a very good translator, Charlie, whether you have a degree in translation from NYU or not, if you have it in you and if you put your mind to it. And I would bet anything that there will be tons of Chinese patents that will need to be translated for decades to come, and very few people who will be able to do it well.

Potential employers, at least here in United States, probably pay little attention to such a degree anyway. In 31 years that I have been living here, I have been asked about my degree only twice: once by a nosy old lady at the Northern California Translators Association, about 15 years ago, who had absolutely no reason to see it. She probably thought I was making it up (so sorry if I disappointed her), and once by a translation agency in UK. The agency was looking for impressive resumes and people with degrees because they were bidding on a translation project. Once they got from me what they wanted, I never heard from them.

It is not the degree that is so useful later in life, it is what you can learn before you receive your degree, and after you have received your degree. A degree is just a start, a good, solid base for good, solid, lifelong learning, if you have been lucky enough to have gone to a good school.

But there are also other ways to learn what you need to learn to become what you want to be one day. I don’t know anything about NYU, but from what you told me I do know that they are very greedy.

If you can figure out how to pay the debt that you would incur by going to NYU within a few years, I would recommend to go for the degree. If I were young again, I would love to be living in NYC and going to NYU.

But only if I could figure out how to pay the debt very quickly.

If something like that does not seem feasible, I would recommend to look for a cheaper alternative, to you, Charlie, and to others, perhaps a less greedy college. Aren’t there still a few left in this country or abroad?

I believe that education has a value that is independent of the earning potential that usually, but not always, comes with a degree. In other words, education (or a degree, if you will), has real value even if it does not translate directly into making more money later in life.

But if the choice of a young person today is between a degree that would turn this person into an indentured servant who will spend decades trying to pay off a mountain of tuition loans, and an alternative to such a sad existence, I believe that a smart young person should look for an alternative.


  1. Right on, Steve! I agree with you 100%. Great analysis and post.

    Charlie, you might check with your state bar association or paralegal association about continuing ed programs. Maybe look into a patent-examiner course (not sure how much those cost). Look for one-off presentations or webinars on patent translation from the ATA or eCPD webinars. If you’re an ATA member, join the Sci-Tech and Chinese language divisions.

    While you educate yourself about patents, you can use your IT and computer knowledge in translation for other document types. I’ve heard told that before-sale translation is more remunerative than after-sale. That is, documents needed to make the sale are crafted more lovingly and paid more attention to than the ones that come in the box when you buy the product, and so more money is spent to get a good translation.

    Good luck.


  2. I really enjoy your posts and appreciate the information you cogitate and impart, and up til now always agreed with it one hundred percent. But as a truly native speaker of two languages I point out that though rare, native speakers in two languages do exist. Born in the States, I lived there the first 9 years of my existence – since then I have lived in Italy (am now 71 yrs young). I specialize in legal translation, and enjoy the challenge. I have a colleague who, like me, is totally bi-lingual and a legal translator – whereas I stick to it-en, she happily translates both ways.


  3. @Elisabeth

    I would not expect you or anybody else to always agree with everything I say.

    Maybe you are the rara avis – the exception that confirms the rule.

    And maybe you are “more native” in one of your languages without even realizing it.

    Would you like to write a guest post for this blog refuting my silly theory that one person can be truly native only in one language?


  4. Steve,

    True to form you held nothing back, and I appreciate it. Thanks as well to dbaplanb for those suggestions; I had not heard about eCPD before and it looks like a great resource.

    My hope would be that the M.S. would help me confidently tackle more complex projects, enabling me to charge more premium rates. If so, I could put that extra income toward paying off the school debt. That’s what I’ve been assuming without any proof that investing in a graduate degree would really equal higher income as a translator– I don’t think such data exists.

    I’m leaning toward taking the course, mainly because I just can’t envision any other timely way of building competency in legal or technical translation without having some schooling. I honestly can’t see how I could self-educate myself to that level. It might exist, I just can’t see it. Perhaps I’m just being a bit impatient.

    Lots of food for thought…

    Thanks again!


    • Constantine,
      You seem to be talking about two different things:
      (1) confidence in your work, leading you to feel comfortable charging more
      (2) Competence in specialized fields

      For (2), the masters in translation course may indeed help you improve your competence, but it’s not the only way. Other ways to gain competence (and confidence) include practice on your own (perhaps by finding documents in both languages and testing yourself), “interning” with a colleague who works in the fields you want to master, and taking courses to gain specialized knowledge in your source and target languages. But I understand that these are not always as effective or motivating as classes and deadlines and instructor and classmate feedback.

      For (1), There is no objective obstacle to stop you from being more confident and raising your rates right now. A master’s degree might indeed make you more confident about your work and comfortable raising your rates. But do you know if your potential clients will be willing to pay you more just because you earned a degree?

      That is, you don’t have to spend $50K just to find out that your clients are not willing to pay higher rates. I’m not saying that clients won’t be willing to pay more, but it seems like you should do some research into the market before making that investment. Please pardon me if you have already done that part. Meanwhile, while you’re waiting for the semester to start, you could quote higher rates to new clients and see what kind of response you get.


  5. @Paula

    Something is telling me that Charlie’s mind is made up and whatever you or I may say is not going to make any difference.


    • And that’s fine (besides, no one asked me). But it prompted a great post, so thanks to the both of you.


    • Steve,

      Not so! I was definitely leaning toward yes before asking others for their opinion, but after seeing that the response from all corners has been pretty emphatically against, I’ve decided to back-burner it for now.

      I’ll start with some Proz terminology courses, and a few classes a website I found called Translator Training, which seems like it might have something to offer, and go from there. Who knows, I might end up saving myself 48,000 dollars.

      Thanks for the post Steve!


  6. @Constantine, aka Charlie

    There was a story in today’s Washington Post about an old couple who after years of struggling paid off a credit card debt in the amount of 60 thousand dollars which was due mostly to medical expenses.

    Even though the husband had cancer, which went into remission and then came back, and both the husband and the wife lost their jobs, after years of eating baloney sandwiches, they paid off their debt instead of declaring bankruptcy.

    These two people were held up for the rest of us as an example that the rest of the sheeple should follow.

    The criminals on Wall Street who ruined the economy for many years to come, if not for good, were bailed out by taxpayers – instead of being prosecuted for crimes that they committed. The greedy banksters who were given money at close to zero percent interest then they turn around and “loan” the same money through credit cards to this couple at 20 percent interest to people dying of cancer who are forced by the system off their medical bills in this manner.

    That is how things work. Socialism for the ruling class, brutal feudalism for the rest of us.

    I would be very careful about going into debt these days, unless it is absolutely necessary and the interest rate is quite low.


    • Steve,

      Yeah this all strikes to the heart of why I left America in the first place! Even as a youth, I could see some pretty nasty things on the horizon.

      If there’s one thing about America that I respect, however, it’s the general quality of American education. While in this particular case I’m not sure a graduate degree makes sense, I’d hate to see a further erosion in the perceived value of education, which is already pitifully low in America.

      I blame that as much on the schools as on Wall St. The way they’ve been treating their professors is shameful.

      Working away on alternatives, thanks again for the input.


  7. […] Every now and then I receive e-mails from readers of my blog who ask for my input. I usually ignore them, but not always. One of them from this week went like this: My name is Charlie, and I'm a Ch…  […]


  8. […] for Sustainable Business The Language Translator’s Eternal Dilemma: How Do I Raise My Rates? Is 50 Thousand Dollars Money Well Spent on a Translation Degree? Κατώτατες αποδεκτές αμοιβές μετάφρασης, επιμέλειας, […]


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