Posted by: patenttranslator | March 30, 2014

How Many Translators Can Dance on the Point of a Very Fine Needle?


Medieval scholars allegedly liked to debate a problem involving the precise number of angels, magical, ephemeral and weightless beings who can be squeezed onto the point of a pin to do some angelic dancing thereupon.

In English, this timeless riddle is usually expressed as “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin”, which is an idiom indicating that a topic of no practical value is being debated.

The algorithm is in fact not that difficult to design and one does not even need to be a theologian or have a computer to do so. If angels are but an expression of God’s Love in the form of concentrated, pure and weightless intelligence, then if an infinite number of angels is asked by the Great Clockmaker to dance on the point of a needle, an infinity (∞) of them will joyfully do so while singing Hallelujah.

Last week a certain translation agency (I will call it agency A) was looking for a near infinity (∞) of Japanese translators to translate millions of words within a few weeks from Japanese to English. Because I am a Japanese translator myself, I received more than two dozen messages from this and other agencies to join the Japanese translators who were already doing the dancing on the needle for a very short span of time given the number of words to be translated, defined to me first as 5 million words, and then as 20 million words.

Unlike angels, translators are not weightless or ephemeral. Quite a few of them are in fact overweight as a result of their sedentary occupation and a dull, monotonous and often quite depressing lifestyle. Unlike angels, translators don’t know how to perform miracles (even though their clients regularly ask for miracles without even realizing it), and their number is limited, because, again unlike angels, they are not a pure expression of infinite love and intelligence.

I was thus one of the finite number of Japanese translators who were pursued with zeal by translation agencies to dance on the tip of the needle last week.

Let’s assume that agency A had 20 million words that needed to be translated in about 3 weeks from Japanese to English. If a human translator can translate about 3 thousand words per day, then the agency would need to find about 333 translators to finish the project on time based on the following formula:

333 translators x 3,000 words a day x 20 days = 19,980,000 words

(For the purposes of this formula, let’s round up the number of words above to 20 million, and let’s say that the agency would need only 1 day to proofread all of the translations).

There are thousands of agencies who would love to jump into the ring and take on this project. And based my experience from last week, many did in fact do just that because I was contacted not only by agency A, but also by at least half a dozen other agencies  working as proxies for agency A.

In addition to being contacted many times by project coordinators from agency A, mostly by e-mail, but also by telephone, I was also contacted by other agencies who were working as subcontractors for agency A and who were trying hard to find 333 translators for some dancing on the tip of the needle of the time. Every time I checked my e-mail box, I found another message about the same project there, and because my phone kept ringing, I stopped answering it.

I was contacted by several agencies from United States (in California, New York, Georgia) and by several agencies from other countries (including Holland, Polynesia, Egypt). The rates offered for this work ranged from 7 cents a word to 20 cents a word. One agency manager told me that they were initially offered 10 cents by agency A, but when he asked for 20 cents, agency A immediately agreed. So some agencies may have been offered more than 20 cents a word, which is still a low rate for an agency for this language combination.

I almost accepted the job myself when one persistent and highly goal-oriented project manager called and tried to talk me into doing it at the high end of the range.

But when I looked at the “Independent Contractor Agreement” that I would have to sign first, I realized that I will never be able to work for agency A again, although I used to work for them for several years many years ago.

The “Independent Contractor Agreement” that this agency was sending to translators a few years ago had about 1,300 words and it was, more or less, a legitimate confidentiality agreement.

This “Independent Contractor Agreement” had over 3,000 words, and it had so many farfetched, outrageous clauses that I would have to cross out first that I decided not to bother accepting any work at all.

The agreements that some translation agencies want independent contracts to sign these days are in fact detailed descriptions of the relationship between a master and a slave.

For example, according to the new agreement, I would not be able to attempt “to influence, directly or indirectly, any subcontractor to terminate his/her employment with the company”, which must mean that I would not be able to say anything about agency A on my blog without having it approved first by the agency.

I would also have to assign “all rights, title and interest” in my translations to the agency, and agency A would have the right to conduct unannounced audits of my facilities, business practices and any other matters relating to the performance of my services.

If I signed that “Independent Contractor Agreement” agency A would basically own me and I would be their slave who has no rights whatsoever.

So I really had no choice but to refuse to be one of the 333 translators dancing on the tip of the sharp needle for the privilege of working on that particular project.

There are thousands of agencies on this planet who would eagerly accept the headhunting part of the project and sign just about anything to make a buck, and many have apparently done so. But are there 333 Japanese-to-English translators on this planet who can actually do the translating part?

And how many of them are willing to sign such an agreement and dance on the point of a very fine and very sharp needle to make some money, even if for just a few days?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. If you do have some answers, even partial ones, I hope you will share them with the readers of this blog.



  1. I know exactly what you’re talking about, and like you I almost agreed to do the project but backed out because I couldn’t agree to the terms in the Contractor Agreement. In addition to the clauses you noted above, I was particularly disturbed by the line that said the company could unilaterally reduce my fee if in their sole opinion there was something wrong with my translation. I couldn’t possibly agree to terms so arbitrary, so I had to pass on their ‘exciting opportunity.’


  2. OK, so not everybody signs these agreements.

    It’s good to know that some translators in fact dare to act like normal human beings.


  3. […] of this “exciting offer” because the agency was on my list of agencies best to avoid. But soon I was besieged by e-mails and telephone calls about the same job from many other translatio…, from California to Massachusetts, and from Holland and Singapore acting as subcontractors for this […]


  4. […] If you want to find out more about this, I described my eerie experience with the mammoth project that had to be finished in record time in a post titled How Many Translators Can Dance on the Point of a Very Fine Needle. […]


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