Posted by: patenttranslator | March 9, 2014

What Kind of “Game-Changer” Has Internet Been So Far for Translators?

If you don’t have a plan, you become a part of somebody else’s plan.

Terence McKenna

I don’t know what the translation business was like before computers, back when translators could use only typewriters, snail mail, and Federal Express.

I am pretty old, but not that old.

But I do remember what the translation business was like before the Internet, because Internet is only about 25 years old now, although most people did not really start using it until about the year 2000.

And I have been doing what I am doing for more than a quarter century now.

I remember cheap IBM clone PCs (“cheap” at 1,000 dollars for a CPU with two floppy drives, a 20 MB hard disk was 200 dollars extra), dot matrix printers that worked only with a heavy box of a special, perforated paper, and most of all, the wonder of new translation jobs from Japan, when they started falling like falling stars in slow motion out of my noisy and slow fax machine on curly thermal paper.

I remember how modem-to-modem connections with translation agencies, each of which seemed to be using an incompatible “handshaking protocol” with funny names like Kermit, were gradually replaced by something called BBS (Bulletin Board Systems), which existed somewhere in this strange space that I kept reading about in the newspaper called “the Internet”.

When I finally figured out what the Internet was really about, and it took me a while, I remember that I was expecting big changes coming soon down the road, although like most people, I could not imagine how many and how big these changes would be. I could not have imagined that whole industries would be so quickly wiped out, or pushed toward the edge of extinction.

I do remember that I did come to a startling realization about the Internet back around the end of the last century relating directly to my own job. I realized that what I needed to do was to try to use the Internet to replace translation agencies by direct clients.

I had a few direct clients already because since about 1991, I started offering my services directly to patent law firms instead of only to translation agencies.


But at the beginning of this century, I realized that I too can use the power of Internet to create a direct link with new clients through my website. And eventually, it worked, although it took several years before I started seeing concrete results as I wrote in this post.

I thought that the new medium of Internet would be “a game changer”, something that would make it possible for many translators to start working mostly directly for the real clients instead of for translation agencies.

It is true that many people are using the Internet now to sell translation services to direct clients. But most of them are not translators. Most of them are still translation agencies. But unlike in the old days when a translation agency was typically run by a translator who had an entrepreneurial streak and understood translation because he or she often knew several languages, the new breed of translation agency entrepreneurs is proudly monolingual and blissfully ignorant about anything that has something to do with a foreign language.

New “managers”, who came from part-time employment agencies and other types of backgrounds that have nothing to do with languages or translation, have now fearlessly joined the translation agency game. If you don’t need to know anything about foreign languages or translation, what is to stop even the most ignorant person from starting a translation agency based on the innovative and incredibly clever business method of “buy low and sell high”?

These new, along with some of the old “translation business specialists”, keep pushing the rates at which they are buying translations from people who actually produce them lower and lower. They keep creating new cool buzzwords for “translation technologies” that they are selling to their clients, although these fabulous buzzwords have absolutely nothing to do with actual translations.

It is not the translator who is now in the center of the translation process in the new model for “translation business”. In fact, the translators seem to have completely disappeared from the picture as they have been replaced by something that is called “technology”.

Instead of using real humans called translators who create real translations, this technology “provides integrated solutions, and “delivers tangible business benefits” by using “a crowd of more than 100,000 crowd workers”, who have suddenly appeared out of nowhere to establish residence in a big cloud in the sky in order to replace humans who used to study for many years languages and dozens of complicated and arcane subjects to be able to finally call themselves translators after a couple of decades of mere apprenticeship.

In one part of the so called translation industry, these formerly human translators of old times are now being replaced by almost-human “MT post-processors”, namely human worker bees who diligently go over the detritus of machine translation to try to make sense out of it, and by crowd-workers.

These almost-human worker bees and unknowable crowd-workers are supposedly creating translations, although they are not translators. Nobody really knows who these crowd-workers are, where they live, whether they have something to eat, or whether they in fact need to eat all, given that they are paid either nothing or next to nothing for whatever it is that they do. But why should anybody care about them? They just shadows, lost in a crowd of other anonymous shadows, like unimportant, cheap extras in a big budget Hollywood movie.

Thanks to the miracle of Internet, the role of the crowd-workers will be, in the great scheme of things, to eventually completely replace people who used to call themselves translators, for the greater glory and sky-high profits of monolingual translation industry entrepreneurs, reaching all the way to the cloud where the shadow crowd-workers reside.


So it turned out that although the Internet was a game changer, it was not exactly the kind of the game changer for translators that I was contemplating at the end of the last century.

Some translators were able to use Internet to establish and cultivate a relationship with direct clients, and for the most part replace translation agencies by these direct clients. It has been working for me quite well. I received 15 tax forms (1099s) for 2013: 2 of them were from translation agencies, the rest was from direct clients, mostly patent law firms.

I am not sure, but I think that relatively few translators are using the Internet to liberate themselves from ignorant bottom feeders who have infected a large portion of what is now called the translation business – although absolutely nothing is stopping them from doing just that, except perhaps for laziness and lack of imagination.

Instead of using the Internet to offer their services directly to their clients, they keep complaining on Internet about perfidious “platforms for translators” such as Proz and TranslatorsCafé, “platforms” that work very well for the people who own them and make a nice profit from them, but not for translators,  because the main effect of these blind auction sites where too many people are fighting for a few jobs is that they will keep pushing the rates paid to translators lower, and lower, and still lower, no matter how much noise translators are making on social media.

“When will somebody finally create a platform for translators that is fair to us?”, translators are asking, in vain, on their beloved social media.

They don’t seem to realize that although nobody is interested in creating “a fair platform for translators”, the platform that is equally fair to anybody, including translators, is already there.

The platform is called the Internet. But if you can’t figure out how to use this platform so that it works for you, it is only natural that somebody will figure out how to use it against you.


  1. “The platform is called the Internet. But if you can’t figure out how to use this platform so that it works for you, it is only natural that somebody will figure out how to use it against you.”

    Well, Steve, I don’t think that there is somebody who figures out how to use Internet to be against somebody. The fact should be, everybody tries to figure out how to use Internet to work for themselves.

    If we translators find out that this or that translation workplace doesn’t really work for us while it works for itself and some others, we just quit working for this or that “workplace.”

    In the Internet, people are like in real life. You learn how to deal with them in real, you make a good deal. You don’t learn how, you might easily make a bad deal, like in real life.

    Seth Godin has this post today and I like it very much:

    The reason why we, you and me, are well established as translators, semi-retired ones, is because we do matter to our clients. Otherwise, we might be trying our luck at those condemned “platforms” or “workplaces” for translators.

    Well, they are just doing their businesses, not ours, to our luck. “To get mass in the social media world, you need luck and you need to pander. I think our attention is more precious than that.”

    And this post of yours calls translators’ attention to turning their attention to what matters – not the platforms, not the workplaces, but our credibility in exercising our craft.


  2. Hi Wenjer:

    Thanks for your comment, as always.

    The main point of my post, somewhat obscured by my customary reminiscing about old times, was that the logistics of finding and maintaining direct customers before the Internet were quite intimidating, but this is not the case now.

    Any translator can create a website that can be found by direct clients. But I think that relatively few translators are doing that.

    Instead, they are looking for non-existing well-paying jobs on blind auction sites, and then complain on social media that nobody has created a “fair platform” for them.


    • Yeah, too bad that “they are looking for non-existing well-paying jobs on blind auction sites, and then complain on social media that nobody has created a ‘fari platform’ for them.” This is somewhat like expecting true love popping up from blind dates. (Well, some would do blind dating without expecting true love, yet they complain nevertheless.)

      The logistics of finding and maintaining direct customers in the age of the Internet is still quite intimidating for some people. They are afraid of being hurt – by not being able to collect fees! (Well, how do you know that it is the true love that stands in front of / beside you in real life as well as in the cyberspace?)

      Human factors or human conditions hold back most translators from finding a proper way that suits themselves individually to find and maintain direct (manufactuerers, lawyers) or indirect (solid, reliable agencies) clients. (Who dares to stand out like the Great Houdini or a Rhinestone Cowboy and say, “Here I am, the perfect one for you.” ? It is always safer to be in the mass, to manipulate or to be manipulated by the mass than to work on one’s own way. Plankton, a lot of them, swarming in the platforms and the workplaces, to be eaten!)

      In fact, maintaining a blog or a website isn’t the only way to find one’s own direct clients. There are zig thousand ways to discover one’s own “buddhahood” of being a semi-retired translator, as any ZEN masters would’ve told us. I guess you’d agree with me, Steve.


  3. […] If you don't have a plan, you become a part of somebody else's plan. Terence McKenna I don’t know what the translation business was like before computers, back when translators could use only typew…  […]


  4. As usual, I love your analysis, however you don’t address what I see as amajor, omnipresent obstacle to working for direct clients: collecting fees.


  5. @Wenjer and Elizabeth

    It has been my experience that it is generally easier to collect payment from a direct client than from an agency.

    Since my direct clients are mostly patent law firms, they get reimbursed for the translation cost by their clients, so it is not really their money that they pay me.

    If I work for a patent law department of a corporation, the translation costs are also built into the cost of the entire transaction, such as filing of a new patent application, and it is usually approved first as I generally have to have my cost estimate approved before I can start translating.

    There are so many unsavory characters with shady business practices among translation agencies that I am much more likely to be stiffed by a translation agency that I don’t know than by a direct client that I don’t know.

    And if I work for private individuals who are unknown to me, I make them prepay first, because in such cases the risk of non-payment would be substantial.

    So this argument about how difficult it is to collect from direct client does not seem to apply in my case.


    • Right, Steve, we usually don´t have any problems with direct clients.

      To be exact, if we are cautious enough, we don´t even have problems with agencies. I like specialized agencies especially. They know what they are doing and what we are doing, so that there wouldn´t be any payment problems coming up.

      Platforms and workplaces are fish ponds. Nobody knows nobody and there can be payment issues, even with low rates.


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