Posted by: patenttranslator | February 4, 2014

Is the Large Translation Agency Model Ultimately Doomed?


I saw the following message on LinkedIn today:

Hi everyone, 

I received an e-mail supposedly from Travod’s NY, USA office with a request to do a complicated medical translation (something I don’t even know anything about) at a rate of ZERO because it was “a free test”. A “free test” that was also a PDF form and included complicated medical information about a special kind of surgery with doctor’s notes and special abbreviations. Wow – and they wanted it done right away and at no charge! They sent a couple robot-generated “requests” ie. scams. Then they sent an actual e-mail with someone’s name on it asking if I received their e-mail and if I could do it. They sent them at 3 a. m. so of course I didn’t receive it yet and would not under any circumstances do it even if they paid $100 because I don’t do medical translations and feel they should be done by someone who specialized in the field. 

The Word file sent along with the medical PDF said The Big Word on it and the office of TBW in NY was written all over it. Yet, the e-mails were supposedly from Travod. So it appears that they are joint companies and work together, maybe even running Travod’s office in the USA for them because Travod is actually in Moldova.

The e-mail was obviously about a real translation job, not a test translation, because nobody needs a test translation back in 5 hours. The agency just decided to find a warm body to do the translation for free to save money.

If this is what the corporate translation agency model has become these days, the logical question would be, is this model going to survive? The agency probably did find somebody, a new translator, perhaps, who has no experience, and who most likely did a terrible job with a text that was full of complicated medical jargon.

Most clients will eventually catch on if the quality of the translations received from a certain agency is consistently bad, and many will probably dump such suppliers of a bad service, even if the price is quite low.

Medical information is particularly sensitive and a poor translation or mistranslation can literally kill in this case. But some agencies don’t seem to care, as long as they themselves can make a killing in the short run.

But what is going to happen in the long run if this trend continues?

I think that we are already seeing what is going to happen to the translation market in the future. In other words, the future is already here as evidenced by the LinkedIn comment.

The corporate translation agency model is driven by ruthless greed that cares nothing about the consequences for translators who are expected to work for peanuts, or even for free, or for the customers who can suffer major damage as a result of the poor quality of translations that are often delivered by the greed-driven corporation translation agency model.

We have seen that while the large corporate business model has been extremely profitable for some, at the same time it has been detrimental to the quality of life of so many people in so many countries – and I am not talking only about seamstresses in Bangladesh.

As the traditional small family farm model was replaced in this country by the corporate business model, most supermarkets are now carrying bio-engineered Frankenfood instead of the real food that they used to sell a couple of decades ago. The eggs have yolks that are almost white, the strawberries taste like rubber with a little sugar on top, and the highly processed, cheap food is giving us record rates of cancer year after year.

You almost have to go to a special store that sells only organically produced food to buy real food these days, or to a Farmers’ Market to find oranges and strawberries that still taste the way oranges and strawberries used to taste not that long ago.

I think that corporate translation agency models has also created new opportunities for a different model for a translation business, a model that individual translators and small, conscientious translation agencies who care about the long term prospects for their business can follow.

The small family farm is dying, but it is not quite dead yet. Store specializing in local, organically grown food are doing brisk business, and the Farmers’ Markets that I saw in San Francisco, Santa Rosa, and also here in Virginia Beach were always full of customers.

Thanks to new, emerging technologies, new rivals are attacking established corporate business models on many fronts these days:

Customers are defecting from Google to small search engines because a new search engine model has been created that does not try to spy on us 24/7 and does not hit us over the head with creepy advertisements everywhere we look, land line and cell phone providers are also losing customers to new, cheaper business models that take advantage of the Internet and are not based on obligatory contracts, and many people, young people in particular, no longer even watch cable TV, since it is much cheaper to watch what you want to watch and when you want to watch it on the Internet or on Netflix.

As the comment from LinkedIn seems to indicate, the corporate translation agency model is based on a bet that most customers are not smart enough to be able to tell a good translation from garbage.

Only time will show whether individual translators and nimble, specialized translation agencies will take advantage of the new market that is now being created by the greed-driven corporate translation model for translations produced by translators who actually know what they are doing.


  1. Unfortunately it’s over-optimistic to suggest that the big business model isn’t going to work. I’m sure you appreciate that a lot of translation work in the big business world is done for legal reasons and nobody is going to read it anyway. For instance, lots of medical translations are actually for court cases and are more to do with money than saving lives. A lot of international business is done under British or New York law, so if there is a claim you might need thousands of pages of documents translated – maybe even months of e-mail logs. But the fact these documents have to be available in English doesn’t mean that anyone is going to read them. Who gets this kind of work, which is obviously highly lucrative? Translation agencies that seem to big business clients to be ‘professional’, ie that have an approach to business they can understand. Who cares about quality? Deadlines, smooth invoicing, and a corporate style of workflow is the thing. THat’s just one example.

    By the way, I am doing a 100 page patent application, so I thought of you. Jsi cesky clovek teda?


  2. Thanks for your comment, Christopher.

    There is a market for cheap, tasteless, bio-engineered and carcinogenic food. A veritable bounty of this kind of food awaits us daily on the shelves in our friendly neighborhood supermarkets.

    But there is also a market for food that is healthy and tastes good. And some people buy it even though it costs a little more.

    And there is also a market for translations that may or may not be accurate, and market for translations that must be accurate and very good because otherwise they would be useless.

    The kind of translations that you describe may be serviced perfectly by the large translation agencies, but it is not the only market segment out there.

    Don’t tell me that nobody ever reads your patent translations, for example.

    It so happens that patent lawyers spend hours arguing over nuances in the text of our translations of patents in foreign languages for hours.

    They actually love to do that because unlike translators, they get paid by the hour for their work, and the going hourly rate for a very good patent lawyer is 395 dollars these days.

    This is the market segment that is in my opinion worth pursuing.

    The corporate translation agency mill is not.

    To your final question (may I presume that you used Google Translate?), yes, I was born in Czechoslovakia, and I lived there until the spring of 1981 when I departed Prague and went on an extended vacation to Yugoslavia.

    I never came back from that vacation, Czechoslovakia is no more, Yugoslavia is gone too … but the mad patent translator is still here, banging away translations of patents and all kinds of other things like the crazy man that he is.


    • I can see that there are plenty of niches where good translations are really necessary – academic translations, for instance – and llawyers arguing over nuances for hundreds of bucks an hour is a bracing image. What it reminds me of though is a discussion I once got into with a client who was getting excited over a Brazilian contract that had ‘packaging’ and ‘packing’. I gently pointed out that this was the same word translated differently by two different translators working on the same text (agency job of course) but they weren’t having it. Presumably it is always the original patent that has legal force; but if it’s in Japanese I can see that there isn’t much alternative to trusting your version. I lived in Prague for nine years in the 1990s by the way. Pity about Yugoslavia of course.


  3. 1. “lawyers arguing over nuances for hundreds of bucks an hour is a bracing image”

    I know that this is one of the things that they do because if I screw up something, which does happen sometime, they complain, I have to sincerely apologize and humbly fix my translation.

    That is why I believe that accuracy is important in my line of work.

    2. Since there are not that many native English speakers who are truly fluent in Japanese, many Japanese patents are translated into English by native Japanese speakers, and some of them don’t quite understand the difference between “packaging” and “packing”.

    It is a relatively small difference, after all.


  4. […] I saw the following message on LinkedIn today: Hi everyone, I received an e-mail supposedly from Travod's NY, USA office with a request to do a complicated medical translation (something I …  […]


  5. Hi Steve,
    Sarah had a request by Travod like or similar to yours. Have you read of that? If you’re interested in it, this is the link.

    I appreciate and am grateful to the both of you for your commitment.


  6. Hi Vincenza,

    He’s referring to my post actually.


  7. @Vincenza & Sarah:

    That is correct. The original post on LinkedIn is also linked in the first sentence of this blog post.


  8. […] I believe that as large translation agencies are insisting on paying lower and lower rates to translators, this wil…. […]


  9. I signed up with Travod and got offered jobs for “general” translation that when I asked to look at the file (I would never accept a job without looking at it…) turned out to be as you said, a complex medical translation, actually 30 badly photocopied pages of someone’s medical notes. The rate was $0.05. I am not a medical translator and this was not a “general” text.


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