Posted by: patenttranslator | January 2, 2014

Random Thoughts on Translation Rates, Translation Agencies, “Internet Portals” and Different Translation Business Models


Translators keep complaining that the rates paid for translation are too low.

I can think of many reasons why the rates paid to translators for their work have been low for many years. The never-ending recession, resulting in major disruptions in economy worldwide, must be one factor.

I myself have not dared to raise my rates to translation agencies since about the year 2000, and I have raised them only very moderately to direct customers. Translators who are working for me have not raised their rates to me either. In fact, last year I lost another agency client who asked me to reduce my rates. I have been working for this one-man outfit since 1994 but I no longer bother to respond to this guy’s e-mails.

Because many if not most translators work exclusively or mostly for a middleman, they are paid on average only about 50% of what the actual client is paying for a translation, sometime a little more, but often even less than that. And sometime the middleman lives and works in a country where pitiful wages are the norm, while the translator may be living in US, Canada, Western Europe, or Japan or Australia where the cost of living is quite high as are the taxes.

So called “portals for translators” such as Proz, GoTranslators, Translators Cafe and many other assorted “portals” are another factor putting a downward pressure on the rates. These portals, which have been around for about a decade now while new ones keep popping up on the Internet, are based on the ingenious concept that a “portal” (a new type of middleman) will take a hefty cut from the payment on an Internet platform where many translators compete for a job from one client who seeks out this platform precisely because this is where rock-bottom prices are being offered to and accepted by translators.

It is a given that many if not most of our clients are blissfully unaware of the value of a good translation, or of the havoc that a bad translation can wreak upon their enterprise or image.

New, inexperienced and unqualified “translators” keep bravely throwing their hat into the ring to compete with the rest of us, and since they often have absolutely no idea how much to ask for, they often work for a pittance, while their work is often not worth even the pittance they are being paid.

And some idiot-clients simply use machine translation because the price can’t be beat (it’s usually free).

A mistranslated sign at an airport in Japan, China or another country – and there are certainly many such signs at many airports in many countries – is an unambiguous, loud and clear message to all travelers passing through the airport: Attention, please: This Airport Is Run By Idiots! But it doesn’t matter. The idiotic mistranslations may stay visible to millions of travelers passing through the airport for decades.

But How Do I Do That?


So these were some of the reasons why rates paid for translation have been long for a low time.

But there is no need to accept the premise that we all have to compete with newly minted translators who don’t know how much they can charge for their work because they don’t really know how to translate, with translation agencies in third world countries, with the hordes of translators competing for scraps of work on “portals” for translators, and even with machine translators.

The translation business, for lack of a better term, is extremely diversified and not all translation agencies are mean and nasty profit making machines based on the predatory corporate business model.

It so happens that it took me only 1 month to replace the one-person agency whose business I finally lost last year after 20 years with another agency. This agency seems to be a traditional type of translation agency, with several project managers, an accounting department and the like.

I used to think that the only agencies that I want to deal with are tiny lone-wolf or mom-and-pop operations. But even some of the larger agencies apparently use a different business model, a model which is based on decent rates and prompt payment, in this particular case twice a month by direct transfer to my bank account, just as I used to be paid when I was still an employee 27 years ago.

There are also new non-agency business models in our line of work, such as this one at the Transbunko website. Only time will show whether it is a viable model, but their surcharge at 20% is much lower than what translation agencies are typically charging, and I wish them luck.

And then there are direct clients. Direct clients don’t care about our translation business model. They are simply looking for translators and they mostly care about what these translators can do for them and at what price.

I started advertising my services to direct clients in early nineties of the last century. At first I was doing it by sending out tons of direct mail to patent law firms during slow periods. The postage rates were much lower back then, and because most law firms did open my letters (the envelope looked like it could be business for them), most of my first direct clients found out about my translation service in this manner. And some of them still send me work even after all these years.

Ten years later, in 2001, to be precise, I created my own “portal” for my translation business, namely my own business website.

The only “portal” that I would recommend to translators who are looking for new clients is their own website. It took about three years before Google and other search engines found out that specialize in translation of patents from foreign languages to English, but they did find it eventually and since about 2003, between 10 to 30 percent of my income has been generated every year by new clients who found my website on the Internet.

Since some of these “new clients” need translations of patents and articles from technical journals on an ongoing basis, most of my current clients are patent law firms who found me in this manner.

I have to say that I disagree with the conclusion of a blog post on Thoughts on Translation which is titled Agencies and direct clients: not better or worse, just different. It is so much better when a translator can make one thousand dollars working for a direct client, instead of making five hundred dollars for exactly the same work when working for a translation agency.

Although as the blog post says, there are quite a few advantages to working for translation agencies, none of them can possibly make up for the the big disadvantage mentioned above: you have to work twice as long to pay your bills.

It makes sense, even for highly experienced translators, to work for translation agencies. It is one way to make a living as a translator.

But not the only way, and probably not the best way either.

We should always keep in mind that there are many other ways to run a translation business, that the worldwide translation market is not a monopoly that has been granted for eternity by God or a King to translation agencies, and that the biggest difference between agencies and the people who do the actual work is that while translation agencies cannot make any money without translators, translators don’t need translation agencies to make money if they can figure out how to find their own clients.


  1. Thank you, sir, for this insightful post. I worked for peanuts last year, but I shifted my focus to creating my own business model. However, I am trying my best to hone skills so as not to undermine my credibility. Thank you again; you are inspiring!


  2. Translators’ labour has been devaluated not only financially but also as a profession. It seems to me so.


  3. […] Translators keep complaining that the rates paid for translation are too low. I can think of many reasons why the rates paid to translators for their work have been low for many years. The n…  […]


  4. Great post!


  5. […] Translators keep complaining that the rates paid for translation are too low. I can think of many reasons why the rates paid to translators for their work have been low for many years. The never-ending recession, resulting in …  […]


  6. “…while translation agencies cannot make any money without translators, translators don’t need translation agencies to make money if they can figure out how to find their own clients.”

    This is a great observation and one issue situated right at the core of the independent translator-broker-client relationships. Professional practices (i.e. “good” professional agencies or hybrid translators) aside, if there is one area in which the translation brokers/resellers have succeeded superbly, it is in their social engineering efforts to convince translators and translation buyers alike that they absolutely depend on them (the brokers), and they went to great lengths (and still do) to maintain and deepen that belief.

    If more translators and translation buyers (who pay quite a lot to fund the broker’s sometimes extremely inefficient overhead, instead in the quality of service they are buying) realize that they do not depend on mere resellers (again, as opposed to professional practices) things are bound to change.

    Anyone somewhat familiar with the business models of some of the “big agencies” and the extremely inefficient market structure knows that they are not sustainable.
    Translators, and smart translation buyers, should understand that, prepare to seize the opportunists that will be created, and work actively to create opportunities.


  7. “Anyone somewhat familiar with the business models of some of the “big agencies” and the extremely inefficient market structure knows that they are not sustainable.”

    I would disagree, slightly.

    They are sort of sustainable, but with the caveat that as more and more experienced translators are forced to opt out of this model due to low rates, short deadlines, extremely long payment terms and generally brutal treatment at the hand of large translation agencies, only beginners and inexperienced translators are likely to keep working for these types of agencies.


    • Yes, true. Without quality professionals their model of charging quite a hefty sum (to fund their, sometimes huge, overhead) and providing cheap low quality translation is not sustainable in the long run. I think that this is in part why they are now moving to automated translation, not on the merits of the technology, but to increase their profit margins. The biggest irony here is that their shrinking margins are a direct result of their years-long efforts of commoditizing the profession and a for a (then) short-term benefit (Economy 101: you can reduce your costs only so much, it is always better and smarter to increase your revenues to maintain a healthy margin), and now they continue to do so with MT by claiming that translation is utility.

      But perhaps the biggest inefficiency is the reseller chain. Many of the big players outsource the project to a regional vender, who in turn outsource it to a local vendor, who sometimes outsource is to another and smaller vendor, and so on and so forth. It is not uncommon for the translator to be only the third or fourth hand in that non-value chain. The resellers usually don’t offer any value to the translator or the end client, but each hand along this chain takes it cut and shorten the deadline on the expense of the translator, and indirectly of the end client’s too.


  8. An excellent post that merits the thoughtful comments offered by readers. Increasingly, the only way to succeed as a translator is to hone your linguistic skills AND acquire the busy savvy necessary to short-circuit the “non-value” chain. Great video choice, too. Skeeter rocks. 😉


  9. “… the only way to succeed as a translator is to hone your linguistic skills AND acquire the busy savvy necessary to short-circuit the “non-value” chain.”

    Thank you. I could not agree more.

    I only want to add that avoiding the non-value chain and concentrating on direct clients is also the best way to avoid the psycho-somatic disorder called translator’s dementia (TD), which can sometime turn previously sane translators into zombie translators, see the links below.


  10. Ha! These zombie posts are definitely keepers, too. Thanks!


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  12. Hi Folks. I have been translating IP material for the past thirty years or so and since 1990 have been frequently billing $100+/hr (CDN). for PCT national phase applications. Not a few have been done under sworn affidavits. Pray tell me who among the myriad parties engaged in drafting and filing the original language applications bills out less than $100/hr? Absolut keiner. Personne. That’s where I start.

    Although many denigrate the translator’s art and craft, a precious brotherhood of Patent Agents and Lawyers are vitally cognisant of the horrors attending dimly understood background art or invention that makes its way onto translations that may well form the backbone of the intellectual property assets of a multi-billion dollar corporation. They are also quietly but assuredly embarrassed at the wide dissonance between the pittance the good-willed but unwitting translator gets for his work and the enormous legal and financial liabilities potentially lurking in the finalized translation.

    My marketing job is quite simply to point out this shameful inconsistency to my clients and soothe their consciences by narrowing that gap. To complete this exercise, it is pointless to try to educate the client on the travails of the translator and the merits of good translation. Rather I remind myself (and the client) that he(she) may, over the course of the year, be using tradespeople (plumbers, barbers — yes, them, renovators too) who will not leave their hearths for less than $100/hr. (Furniture movers, an unmoveable lot, won’t budge your budgy cage for under $135.00/hr CDN)

    There you have it. The translation is worth a blessed king’s ransom to the end user/inventor/assigns/licensees. Litigation is horrendously dear. Businesspeople not able to boast 10% of my background charge big bucks. My argument is made to myself and thus to those with whom I deal. I put out my Webpage and wait. Some bite, some don’t. But the legal people will respect me and do. And have for some time.

    When (not if) Mr./Ms. Wanting to Please Those He(She) Considers to be His(Her) Social/Intellectual Superiors by Billing $10.00/hr submits a translation file that is rejected by the Examiner for substantive lacunae and questioned by the inventor(s) as betraying a lack of understanding of the art,
    they often come back to me.

    i see a terrible lack of spine and fortitude in translators, who seem just to want to get A BIG BUNCH OF WORK AT 0.000005/word, drive themselves beyond the point of being able to discern the difference between a profit and a hole in the ground, and then in that catatonic state (perhaps euphoric — who knows) move on to take on another job. All the while without a clue as to the richness and rigour of the transation art or as to the acumen that is within them, neither as to the value of the writing to the end user. I’m tempted here to cite the old Chinese Curse.

    The coin of the weak and feckless translation industry has two sides: 1) Translators poorly apprised of their own self-worth, this translating into an inability to summon the guts to bill a respectable fee and 2) Clients who become ever more hardened in their conviction that translators (unlike furniture movers) are worthless because they charge nothing. 3)To this I might add imbecilic and immoral translation agencies (who really have a right to provide meaningful service and profit from it, but do neither)..




    Kim Smith(Mr.)
    Ottawa Canada


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