Posted by: patenttranslator | December 3, 2013

The Secret World Of Translators/Translation Agency Hybrids

A translator accused me recently in a heated exchange of opinions on LinkedIn of not really being who I pretend to be. She said that when she looked at my profile, she saw that I was really an agency, not a translator.

But I am a translator. Translating is how I have been earning a living since 1980, in three different countries on three different continents. If you strung together all the words that I translated since then,  you would have a really long line of words, not quite from here to the moon, but probably covering the entire distance from San Francisco to Virginia Beach (provided that you pick a large enough font, of course).

Being a translator is an integral, indelible part of my personality now and I would have a big problem should I somehow be deprived of that part of who I am. I am not quite sure what else would I be doing.

After almost 34 years, it is probably too late for a career change.

But it is also true that I am also a translation agency. The proof is in a bulging folder of invoices from translators labeled “Subcontractors” in my filing cabinet where I keep receipts for tax purposes.

It so happens that the translating world is not divided between translators and translation agencies, in a world in which never the twain shall meet.

There are thousands of us translators/agency hybrids out there. In fact, if you take a look at my blogroll, there should be at least a couple of them listed right there.

Tolstoy said in Anna Karenina that all happy families are alike, while each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. I would say that all big translation agencies are alike in that they all use the same greed-driven business model, while every translator/translation agency hybrid uses a somewhat different business model, modified to suit the personality and preferences of each individual hybrid.

While the corporate translation businesses are pretty much all the same, we hybrids are not all alike. We all have very different personalities, strengths and weaknesses, and as a result, each of us has a different business model.

In my business model, I place a strong emphasis on the Internet. I believe that Internet is in fact an equalizing and at this point still fairly democratic platform for translators, but only for those translators who can figure out how to use it so that new clients would keep coming to his or her website or blog year after year.

This is also the best business strategy for me because among other things it gives me the freedom to live wherever I want to live, or to move, if I chose to do so, while my virtual shop remains exactly in the same place where it was even though I may have moved hundreds or thousands of miles.

Other hybrids place more emphasis on their personal rather than their virtual presence, although most of them also have a significant digital presence, as it is obviously best to try to combine both elements if possible.

They often live in or near major centers of business and commerce, such as London, Paris, or New York or San Francisco. It is not just that major consumers of translation services, such as law firms or financial institutions tend to be located in such centers. Many translators, and interpreters in particular, need to live in or close to these locations as much of the vital information that is exchanged in person in such places will never make it to the Internet, not even through social media.

An introverted hybrid typically tends to rely more or mostly on the Internet, an extroverted hybrid believes that personal touch is just as important as presence on the Internet.

But there are also some characteristics that most hybrids share, common characteristics that distinguish us hybrids from the corporate model of larger translation agencies.

We hybrids tend to specialize in only a relatively narrow field or relatively few fields, and only in certain languages. Modern translation agencies based on the corporate, greed-driven business model invariably “specialize” in all languages from Amharic to Zulu, and in all fields, from financial translation, to patents, pharmaceuticals and transcreation. Their advertising motto might as well be “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist!”

Hybrids are not a good choice for clients who need to have tens of thousands words translated within an incredibly short deadline. Many translation agencies love such projects and often proudly advertise on their websites examples proving to the world and to themselves that they excel at such projects. These projects are of course highly lucrative due to rush charges, but the resulting translations, stitched up together from many different masterpieces of many different translators who just happened to be available, are always pure garbage.

Hybrids typically stay away from such projects. This hybrid certainly does. The last such project I organized myself was in 1994.

But hybrids are a good choice for clients who look for translators who can learn everything there is to know about a given field in a few languages, namely the fields and the languages in which a clients expect to need specialized translations for years to come.

The reason why we hybrids typically provide much better services if the services being sought are to be provided in a few specialized fields is quite simple: since we don’t pretend that we specialize in everything, we in fact do specialize in something.

And when you specialize in something for many years, you tend to do it better than most people who claim to be able to translate anything.



  1. I will allow that there may be some differences between the big corporate agencies, but though I have experienced my share of them over the last 13 years, I can’t cite a case where those differences really mattered much. But in the “lower strata” of hybrids and small service providers more alert to their clients’ interests there are many nice fits to be found. Your Tolstoy reference is well chosen.


  2. “Your Tolstoy reference is well chosen.”

    Thank you. Russian classics used to be among my favorite authors before I started specializing mostly in mystery novels. The quote about happy and unhappy families is so incredibly and obviously true, and yet, nobody has noticed it until Tolstoy.

    On the actual subject of the post, I find it somewhat discouraging that so many translators seem to believe that the translating world is and should be divided between those who only do the translating bit and who are called translators, and those who organize the work, called translation agencies, as if being hybrid were a bad thing.


  3. “And when you specialize in something for many years, you tend to do it better than most people who claim to be able to translate anything.”

    When I saw the title of this blog post of yours, I thought of James Thurber’s The Secret World of Walter Mitty.

    Well, those who claim to be able to translate anything would have such a secret world. Those who specialize in something for many years do not have any secret world at all. Because “after almost X years, it is probably too late for a (fantasy) career change.”

    BTW, I agree with Kevin’s “in the lower strata of hybrids and small service providers more alert to their clients’ interests there are many nice fits to be found.” That coincides with my experience with hybrids and small service providers.


  4. Steve, have you noticed this?

    It would be great if you can take care of Translation Journal.


    • I am honored that you would consider me a suitable person for running the Journal, but my business and my own blog keep me very busy as it is.


    • I should have expected your reply upon this and should have written “if you could…”

      Well, as a Chinese expression goes, “The choice between bells and tripods or mountains and forests depends on one’s inborn disposition (钟鼎山林各有天性).” Gabe’s business has been running well and his Translation Journal has always been a very good knowledge base. In fact, I came from there to your blog. He must be essentially elder than we both are.

      I really hope that there is someone competent enough to take care of the journal, so that the younger generations of translators will have a place to acquire knowledge about our “industry” and know how to distance themselves from the so-called workplaces.


  5. I also enjoyed your Tolstoy quote.
    And I also hope that someone competent and inclined will take over the TJ. I think it could be a really good opportunity to bring it up-to-date. There is a lot of potential for what it could be.


  6. I just wanted to say I loved the line: “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist!”
    I really had a great belly laugh.


  7. […] They may start out by working as a project manager for a translation agency for a low salary, but they would generally do something like to get their feet wet once they have graduated from college and within a few months they usually quit the agency and start their own business, either as a translator, or as a translation agency, or as a translator/translation agency hybrid. […]


  8. […] A translator accused me recently in a heated exchange of opinions on LinkedIn of not really being who I pretend to be. She said that when she looked at my profile, she saw that I was really an agency, not a translator.  […]


  9. […] your translation business, plan smart How do you stay healthy and fit? Interview with Sara Colombo The Secret World Of Translators/Translation Agency Hybrids eBook Review: The Translator Diaries by Lloyd Bingham Agency Needs an Interpreter in 5 Minutes […]


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