Posted by: patenttranslator | March 23, 2014

We Have a Large Translation Project: 5 Million Words – How Much of That Can You Do By Tuesday?


I receive e-mails like this from agencies periodically. Last week I received it twice or three times, I am not sure now. I was talking on the phone to a friend who also translates Japanese: he also received it, and he also ignored it.

I have several good reasons to ignore such e-mails. For one thing, this one was from an agency that I stopped working for more than a decade ago because I did not like the way it was treating me.

The project managers would routinely and on purpose underestimate the word count to cajole me into accepting a job over the weekend, which then turned out to be 6 thousand words instead of the mere 3 thousand that I did accept.

So they would simply lie to me to get the job done. Repeatedly. Who cares about a poor translator who is tearing his hair out in desperation? If the job is not finished on time, it will be my fault and I will not be paid a dime.

This agency used to be OK when it was just starting out about 20 years ago. But the bigger it got, the more onerous its demands and the more devious and inconsiderate its practices became.

After somebody with a British accent called on a Saturday morning at 5 AM asking me whether I can take on a long French chemical patent for delivery by Monday, I’ve had it with their reckless disregard for my well-being. Never accepted a single job from them after that rude awakening on Saturday morning. But apparently, somebody working for the same agency knows that I am still here, translating Japanese and other languages.

This type of translation: 5 million words by Tuesday – and I am only slightly exaggerating, I think the e-mail said that it was 5 million words in 3 weeks – is in fact a perfect fit for the new type of the corporate agency structure.

In the old days, by which I mean more than 20 years ago, no agency would accept such a job order because it would be impossible to ensure even a minimum level of quality. And the customer would have no choice but to listen to reason.

But quality is no longer important. Speed is. Speed and profit.

We are living in a new age of technological miracles and the “translation business” has been changed profoundly by new technology, resulting in demands for ever greater speed and ever higher profits. Anybody with a perfunctory knowledge of how to connect a PC to Internet can start a translation agency, and anybody with a perfunctory knowledge of two languages can call himself a translator.

There are thousands of outfits out there calling themselves “translation agencies”, or better yet, “LSPs”, and possibly millions of people calling themselves “translators”. Many of these agencies don’t know much about languages, and often the same could be said also about the translators.

Modern translation agencies these days love jobs with impossible deadlines because if they get them done, and somehow, they do get them done, they stand to make a lot of money very quickly. And that is the reason why they are in business: to make a lot of money as quickly as possible!

Since there are thousands of people calling themselves translators on this planet, why not use as many of those who have no choice but to work for a miniscule rate to get such an impossible job done?

The new type of modern translation agency uses translators as modern researchers use tiny, self-propelled machines called nanobots for various applications in medicine and industry. The purpose of millions of nanobots, who are self-replicating and have a certain amount of autonomy, may be to devour and thus eradicate a certain disease.

The purpose of hundreds of nano-translators working on a 5-million-word job is to devour 5 million words in a certain language and somehow transfer them during this process into another language.

Nano-translators (nanolators?) too are self-propelled and they too are allowed a certain amount of autonomy. Unfortunately, they are not self-replicating. But fortunately, translations agencies are self-replicating! The guy who e-mailed me on behalf of a large American agency was in fact working for some other agency based in Europe.

Before a chain of events is set into motion whereby thousands of nano-translators (or should I start using the word nanolators?) are unleashed on 5 million words like bacteria on a rotting carcass, two or three brokers often spring into action as middlemen channeling the work to hungry nanolators.

Everybody in this parasitic chain makes profit, while the smallest profit goes to the translator at the end of the chain, and the highest profit obviously goes to the mighty agency at the beginning of the chain.

Nanobots are self-propelled machines who are not able to think for themselves, but who do have a certain amount of autonomy. Nanolators, also known as translators, are also allowed a certain amount of autonomy, but very little, about as much as nanobots.

One of the offers to become one of the dozens of nanolators attempting to devour the 5-million-word job and somehow convert it during the process from Japanese into English came with two “Independent Contract Agreements” that I would have to sign first if I wanted become one of the countless nanolators. The longer one had over 3,000 words, and among these words was an article titled “Prohibition Regarding the Use of Google Translate or Other Tools”, according to which the self-propelled nanolators must agree not to transmit any files to external or web-based software (such as Google Translate).

The reason for this prohibition to use machine translation stated in the contract was the potential for breach of confidentiality, but I wonder if this was the main reason for such a prohibition.

After all, if one can use machine translation to translate millions of words from one language into another and then quickly edit them so that they would make some sense, you don’t really need to be able to know two languages.

One language would be enough. Or possibly even half a language, if you can run the text through a machine translation program first. So the prohibition to use Google Translate, which I understand is now becoming a fairly common clause in “Independent Contract Agreements” a certain type of translation agency is now making thousands of nanolators sign, is probably the only criterion designed to guarantee, in addition to confidentiality, also that the thousands of nanolators in the database of modern translation agencies are in fact translators who know at least to some extent at least one and half language.



  1. Great post Steve! I’d take more time to reply if I didn’t have to get those 5 million words sorted by Tuesday :).


  2. @ Alchymie

    Well, I didn’t take the job, which is why I have time to write my silly posts.

    Incidentally, during about 20 minutes while I was walking my ugly-chan pit bull Lucy, I received another offer for the same job from another agency.

    This time the agency, which is located in Polynesia, specified the rate – 7 cents.


  3. “Nanolator”? What a fine term for those dirty little cogs in the machines for manufacturing and extruding linguistic excrement.

    I particularly love those inquiry letter from unknown service providers who feel obliged to tell me how well known and respected they are in the fields I’ve translated in for a decade and a half. I don’t think I’ve heard of any of them before. There are plenty of “unknowns” who do good work and don’t feel the need to pretend to be something they aren’t. But then these won’t be bearing down and extruding 5 million words in 3 weeks.


  4. Hoo boy, does this sound familiar! One of these fly-by-night mega-agencies (and I’ll bet you can guess which one) sent me so many inappropriate queries that a few years ago I finally blocked their domain names (yes, they have more than one) so I would never receive another email from them again. Shortly thereafter, I received a didn’t-you-get-my-email phone call at a ridiculous hour from one of their project managers in Hawaii, which gave me the opportunity to tell them in person exactly why I wanted them to remove my name from all of their contact lists.

    The send-twice-as-much-source-text-as-agreed-upon tactic is a more recent phenomenon, which unfortunately has begun to be adopted by even some of the more “reputable” agencies. My partner and I have resolved to do a closer inspection of the source document before proceeding with the work, but we still occasionally forget to do it. I guess we just haven’t been burned often enough yet.

    One thing we’ve learned: never answer one of those “Hello all! Sorry for the mass email…” queries. It’s always a waste of time because they are bottom fishing, and we are never going to be the lowest bidder they are looking for. In normal, professional business communications, we would never leave an email unanswered, for obvious reasons. In these cases, however, the deliberate snub never seems to register.


  5. @Kevin

    I am mostly trying, so far in vain, to trump your new name for a well know and highly reputable agency – The Pig Turd – which is now internationally recognized.


  6. @Parisblues

    “Hello All!” is is déclassé.

    The polite form for mass e-mails is “Dear Linguist” or at least “Dear Translator”.


  7. It gets worse – I got that email too, and I don’t know word one of Japanese. The next day I got an offer for Hebrew, of which I am also woefully ignorant.


  8. @Your Good Words

    Japanese, Spanish, Hebrew …. who can remember which nanolator translates what when there are so many of them.

    Project managers have more important things to do, like manage projects and stuff.


  9. I recently got a request for a weekend job asking for about 5,000 words of several legal documents in 24 hours, for $0.06 per word. I replied to them that if they want me to do it on Google Translate, I can accept their conditions. If not, I can do up to 2,000 words per day, for $0.10 per word. I didn’t get a reply.


  10. Well, an agency got a rush job from some law firm because it quoted the lowest rate, probably about 15 cents if they are offering 6 cents to translators.

    Once they have the job, they started looking for translators who are desperate enough to do it for half of their already low rate.

    That is in a nut shell how modern “translation industry” works these days, why translation rates are so low and the translation quality is so bad.

    The best thing to do is never to work for these people and concentrate on honest agencies and direct clients.


    • Yes…Starve the Beast!


  11. I constantly get requests of the “we have seven batches of a large project due by xxxxx. How much can you do by this deadline”. However, they never specify the contents of the document or provide a sample so that I can see if it is something I can translate, something I can translate by the deadline and something I want to translate. I always have to ask and they always seem incredulous as though I were the only translator to ever ask to see the document first or at least want to know something about it. And then they reply with a short answer: “it’s medical”. Well, what does that mean? Is it a patient consent form, doctor’s notes, insurance forms, medical journal articles… It’s like they don’t know or they don’t care. They just want to get the job off of their desk.


  12. @Jeff

    1. They simply have no idea what is in these documents because they are in a foreign language. Maybe they have some idea if it is in Spanish or French, but if it is for example in Japanese or Russian, or even German, they have absolutely no idea.

    You can’t really expect them to be able to understand something written in a foreign language. That would be completely unreasonable!

    2. Translators are indeed very timid these days. That is why they gratefully and without a word of protest sign 4,000-words-long, incredibly one-sided and demeaning agreements even before they are offered a job and before the rate is discussed.

    If they don’t sign those agreements quickly enough, they will be simply replaced by countless nanolators waiting for a chance to finally have a job.


    • My favorite agreement is the “confidentiality” agreement that requires the translator to destroy both the source and target document once the translation is complete. So should you ever need to testify in court, your answer to the question “Is this your translation?” your only honest answer would have to be “I really couldn’t say.”

      Although MS Word may identify you as the document’s author, you can’t possibly know to what extent the document was “edited” after it left your hands if you don’t have your original translation to compare it to.

      I wonder how many attorneys are aware that this has become common practice at many of the large agencies specializing in legal translation.


      • Or the ones that require you to fax them pages and pages of signed forms, including private information (I once got one with a demand for a photocpoy of my passport!) just so they can add you to their database. Not only is the work they (may) provide probably not worth the cost of the printing and faxing, you don’t really know who is on the receiving end of the paperwork, and what they intend doing with all the information you have supplied. I agreed to do this once only – now I ignore all job offers that demand any kind of document signing before I get a P/O.


  13. Hi Steve,

    How about nanoeditors?

    Have you heard of the recent launch of Unbabel ( A specific service offering human-edited machine translation, launched just two days ago. According to the article “businesses can send Unbabel what they need translated online, through its API or by email, which the company then converts into micro-tasks, automatically translating the source and turns over to its community of editors to refine. The content is then delivered, recombined and translated in near real-time”. The editors work “work remotely, via their laptops or mobile phones”. Unbabel charges the end-client USD 0.02 per word! What’s sad is that if you look down at the comments, there are quite a few people saying what a great idea it is.


  14. @Phyllis: I’d tell this entity to unbabble immediately and shoo it off my computer forthwith 🙂


  15. @Phyllis

    That is just so cool!

    30,000 nanolators nanolating (for 1 cent a word?) on their cell phones the content of websites in dozens of languages to jump start sales from Andorra to Zaire!

    Whoever came up with this idea is a genius!

    This will be the next Facebook!


    • Do you want to tell me there are people out there who would agree to edit machine translations for 1 cent a word? It takes me longer to edit a machine translation than it does to translate from scratch. The only explanation for this is that the editing is being done by looking over the translation and correcting obvious mistakes, without the editors attempting to read the source – they might not even know the source language. I wonder if anyone has ever bothered to compare the results of the “unbabble” with the original documents – I’m sure that if someone would try it out, he’d have a good laugh!


  16. @alchymie2013

    I like how you spotted that Unbabel is a homophone of unbabble 🙂


  17. @Steve

    That’s the idea, yeah!

    According to Unbabel’s website itself, you will “Discover new markets” and “Pay less for quality”.


    • @Phyllis
      And presumably on their “Translators’ Page” the instigators are promising their marks that they will become as rich as Croesus – that is if they have ever heard of him..


  18. […] I receive e-mails like this from agencies periodically. Last week I received it twice or three times, I am not sure now. I was talking on the phone to a friend who also translates Japanese: …  […]


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  20. […] I described a project like that in this post a few months ago. This is probably not something that a small agency could do on its own, although many small agencies are often also drawn into these projects as I write in my post linked above. You do need a network of many project managers who can activate dozens of translators to start working immediately on these Kamikaze missions. […]


  21. Hi I am Harinath I am a Japanese translator I can handle any type of translation like English to Japanese like mechanic and software legal and medical and patent like that. Please provide me any type Japanese translation work.


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