Posted by: patenttranslator | November 2, 2013

Disrupting the perceived order of things can be a very good thing

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

In a guest post on my blog four months ago, Valerij Tomarenko said that the biggest mistakes that freelance translators make is when they simply say no to a potential new translation project because they are busy at the moment, without trying to collaborate with each other.

That is certainly one of the major mistakes that many of us make. Another, more general mistake is that most translators simply accept what is perceived as the natural order of things and simply try to find a way to fit into the confines of this order, even when it is not a very good fit, instead of trying to find the most advantageous position for themselves if it means disrupting the general perception of what the existing order is supposed to be.

The thing is, our world is quite disorderly, and there really is no established or natural order in the translation business. Compliance with the existing order of things is mandatory … only if you are a robot. In this country (USA), translation is a completely unregulated business activity. This is both a good thing – unlike for instance hairdressers, we don=t have to ask the City Hall for a permission to do what we do, and a bad thing – anybody can call himself a translator.

Some people would like us to think that natural order of things in the translation business is as follows: customer, unreachable by mere mortals called translators → almighty agency, whose job is to keep translators on a short leash → lowly translator who does the actual work. But that is not true either. There is not even a real definition of what an agency is: based on my income, only about 70% percent of yours truly is a translator, the rest of me is an agency. Many translators belong to this mixed category, with different assignments of the percentages, as they both translate themselves and hire translators.

I call these translators hybrids. And if these hybrids disrupt the perceived order of things, I think it is a good thing, because unless existing order of things is disrupted every now and then, things are usually getting worse and worse.

* * *

Let’s take a look at a few examples of disruptions of perceived order in the business world.

Microsoft Word thinks that as the unquestioned King of Word Processors, it can dictate to the whole world how much and how often we will be all paying for it. This would mean that we would have to buy a license for this software once a year if Microsoft can get away with it, although it is a really lousy product.

But because it is such a lousy piece of software, more and more people are switching to free office suites and even back to WordPerfect. You actually own WordPerfect once you buy it, which is what I am using to write these posts, and you can still keep an old copy of MS Word for conversion purposes.

Microsoft decreed in its infinite wisdom earlier this year that its most recent version could be installed on one PC only. Lot of people complained on the blogosphere, but as usual, there was nothing in corporate media. About a month ago, the King=s Decree was suddenly amended – apparently, MS Word can now be installed on up to 5 PCs (too late for me, I am so mad at the King Who Has No Clothes that I will not buy it anyway, especially since I would have to waste money on it every year).

Another example: an unholy alliance of cell phone service providers has been pushing for years now down the throat of a captive market segment expensive data plans, so expensive that the cell phone bill of a typical user at this point is about a hundred dollars in this country, often more.

But since T-Mobile has recently thrown a spanner in the works by offering Afree basic data plan with no contract@, all of a sudden, major carriers started offering less expensive plans.

Once my iPhone contract expires next month, I too will probably switch to a less expensive plan.

I could include also people who are getting rid of their cable TV bill and other examples of disruptive conduct that can lead to very positive results.

* * *

Unless translators themselves are able to participate in the planning and shaping of the order of things, for example by becoming disruptive hybrids themselves, other people will create a system for us in which they will be on top, and we will remain on the bottom.

Each of us has different strengths and weaknesses. Some people can translate several languages, which is probably my main strength. After about two decades of translating mostly from Japanese to English, I am now translating more from European languages than from Japanese because there is much less demand for this language.

Some people can both translate and interpret, which is also a major strength, and some translators are good at marketing, holding of client’s hand, or have other skills having to do with management of people and projects.

There is no need to accept the perceived existing order in the “translation business” (customer →  agency → lowly translator) as an immutable law of nature if we don’t like the way some agencies treat us.

If we work only for translation agencies we like (because they treat us well), we will lead happier lives, and probably live longer too.

Too many agencies don’t seem to realize it, but the main difference between translators and translation agencies is that while we can make money without them, a true (non-hybrid) translation agency simply can’t make money any at all without translators.

Here is to hoping that some readers of my blog will be on their best disruptive behavior next time when they are asked to sign another incredibly restrictive and demeaning “Non-Disclosure Agreement” presented to them by another translation agency even before any rates are mentioned.


  1. Thank you, my hybrid friend, for another thoughtful essay. And for the music clip linked up top, which I particularly like.

    Years ago a friend liked to quote his brother-in-law, a youth pastor, who was fond of preaching that “blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be broken”. It was surely not the original line I took it for in those days, but it’s one that summarizes rather well a lot of the realities we might encounter. People will interpret that line in a lot of ways, but here I’ll understand it that finding the niche in which you will best prosper, the degree of hybridization which best reflects your balance of skills and opportunities requires a lot of observation, reflection and adaptation. And while some might cite the old, cynical opinion that rats and cockroaches will inherit the Earth as they are the most flexible, after watching a highly entertaining recording of a recent GALA discussion of the difficulties Linguistic Sausage Producers face in implementing machine translation in their business models, I think that the human analogues of rats and cockroaches might indeed be headed for extinction in the world of translation as they exhaust the available food supply and begin to feed on each other.

    I’ve been called naive by LSP owners who tell me I simply cannot understand why they must offer their services to end clients with healthy businesses at rates below what their Language Service Provider competitors will pay to a translator. They must remain competitive they say. Yet it is the former, not the latter I see facing extinction. With your mixed model, Steve, you can adapt your language mix, the composition of your team and the distribution of the work as the situation demands. Same deal for Valerij and others, with different adapted characteristics for their respective habitats.

    If I have to place my bets on the mammals to survive the economic meteor storm some feel is reducing the “translation industry” to ruins, I’ll say that your type will be feeding and breeding long after the dinosaurs are dead.


  2. “Yet it is the former, not the latter I see facing extinction. With your mixed model, Steve, you can adapt your language mix, the composition of your team and the distribution of the work as the situation demands. Same deal for Valerij and others, with different adapted characteristics for their respective habitats.”

    Thank you, my prophetic friend. I hope you are right about my prospects in the translation market.

    I will try to watch at least some of the video, but while I think that within the next century or so, MT will be used very frequently by many people, including many human translators, I also think that MT will not not be able to imitate or approximate human translation, except under very narrowly defined conditions which will make it very hard to use.

    Yesterday I gave a potential new client a price quote of 1,785 dollars for translating a Japanese patent. His reply was “This sounds pricey. Can you guys do it for 1,200?”

    So I replied “No, we can’t, but you can have it translated it for free with machine translation”. (At first I was going to use much stronger words, but then I settled for this subtly disruptive hint as he still sort of was in the category of potential clients, although just barely).

    I thought that this would be the end of it because when somebody tries to haggle like this, it usually is the end of it, although I was surprised that a patent lawyer would do that.

    But in 5 minutes I had another e-mail from him: “Let me ask my client.”

    And 20 minutes later I received another e-mail authorizing me to go ahead with the translation.

    So, once again, MT turned out to be a very good thing indeed.


  3. As a fellow ‘contrarion’, I welcomed and enjoyed your article as usual Steve. However, I must take issue with the ‘hybrid’ tag. It implies that we are, at least in part, in the same business as LSDs, i.e. that of ‘trading’ the services purchased (and coerced in some cases) from independent professionals (and enthusiastic amateurs).

    I see us as having a ‘professional practice’ where we occasionally co-opt the services of a professional colleague to better serve our client.

    I believe our salvation lies in differentiating ourselves completely from the ‘business’ of ‘trading’ in translation services.

    Let’s go back to what we are/should be, i.e. independent professionals providing a very personal, knowledge-based service relying on high levels of talent, education, training, experience and professional ethics (as well as good looks and modesty 🙂

    That’s not a business, that’s a profession, a completely different occupation despite claims to the contrary by agencies and some naive or inexperienced colleagues.


  4. I disagree with you, Louis.

    Translators are in the same business as translation agencies and there is nothing wrong with trading of purchased services, if the payment to the real service providers is timely and commensurate with the effort put in.

    And some agencies are honest, pay good rates and on time, albeit not too many.

    But I would not put all agencies in the same category. The way I see it, there is no reason not to work for the good ones, if I have the time and if they pay my rate.

    (Incidentally, it is possible that you will wake up one day and find – like the guy in Franz Kafka’s book who overnight turned into a bug – that you are now an agency).


  5. […] for this job only” When someone tries to change a grammatical form I know is correct Disrupting the perceived order of things can be a very good thing Research techniques for translators – Corpora and parallel texts Huh? Scientists find a version […]


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