Posted by: patenttranslator | July 4, 2014

Buying a Translation Is Like Buying a Pig In a Poke – Except When You Know Your Translator


Like everybody who has a website, I receive tons of junk e-mails every day. Because my website offers translation services, a good portion of these junk e-mails is from “translators” who would like to work for me.

99.99% of these people seem to have absolutely no experience in the field that I work in, they also have absolutely no idea what kind of translations I specialize in (hint: the website is at, and about the same percentage of these e-mails is written in such horrible English that I would not touch these “translators” with a ten foot pole even if they claimed to have relevant experience.

I am also often asked for advice for prospective translators by my neighbors and by people I meet when they find out what it is that I do for living. It seems that there are many people out there who “speak several languages”, and quite a few of them either have no job, or they hate the job they have and would like to do something else for a change.

Officially there are no barriers to entry into the translating profession, at least not here in the United States. You don’t need to have a degree and/or experience in anything, all you have to do is say that you can do it, pay a small yearly fee to the City Hall for a generic business license and you are in business.

Which must be one reason why the quality of translations vary so greatly and why a big percentage of what passes for and is sold to clients as translation is really horrible garbage.

But there are also other reasons for this sad, sad, state of things.

I also receive junk e-mails from translation agencies, often located in third world countries, but sometime right here. The last one, from California, said this:

Dear Linguist:

We would like to inquire about your interest in an Editing/Proof assignment.


The subject: Technical
Wordcount: 10000 words target aprox
Languages: Japanese into English USA
Format: MS Word
Budget: 350 usd aprox

Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to your reply.

So not only are there hundreds of thousands of people who think that they can translate out there, but there are also tens of thousands of agencies who are trying to use the really cheap human starting material of the product called translation in order to make very good profit with the following simple and ingenious method:

1. If you have an inquiry from a potential customer, bid a very low price to underbid all potential competition.

2. Find an extremely cheap translator (usually a beginner, or somebody located in a low-cost country, a third world country if possible).

3. Find a highly experienced and reputable translator who in fact knows what s/he is doing and make him or her edit the initial translation at a very low rate, although somewhat better than what the actual translator would be paid.

This method could work if the people working in or running the translation agency actually knew something about the subjects and languages that they are translating. But because most of them translate “all subjects from an into any language”, they in fact don’t know anything about anything.

The translation agency wanted me to proofread a translation from Japanese and accept “the budget” without being able to see and examine the translation first, which is also called “to buy a pig in a poke”. Incidentally, according to Wikipedia, (everybody’s favorite resource for anything and everything because it is free as it is based on work done by people who work for free), this idiom, which originates in the Late Middle Ages, refers to the practice when low-quality pig meat was sold to careless customers on the market in a bag, namely customers who did not bother to carefully check what was in the bag (or poke). When pig meat was scarce, while cats and dogs were not, the meat that the poke contained was often dog meat or cat meat.

A highly specialized translation agency which specializes only in certain fields and certain languages may be able to identify a talented beginning translator and turn him into a really good translator by supplying such a translator with translations in a given field after a few years.

This is how things used to work when I was starting out as a translator almost thirty years ago. To this day I am grateful to the translation agencies who gave me a chance to become a highly specialized translator when I was a total beginner.

But that is not how things work now.

Based on what I have seen, most of the translation agencies who translate “any language and any subject” have no idea what subjects they are dealing with, especially if the coordinators working in the agency don’t even understand the languages that they are “managing”, which is often the case.

But since based on their business model, they still need make a buck from anything and everything having to do with the translating universe, they use the method outlined above in the hope that things will work out in the end and the resulting translation will be of acceptable quality.

Sometime things do work out, but most of the time they probably don’t when you try to use a cheap translator in combination with an inexpensive editor, while you yourself are unable to evaluate the resulting product.

I ignore these offers of editing work for two main reasons:

1. The rates for editing are invariably so low that this kind of work is not really worth my while.
2. I would have to be really dumb to make what I learned over a number of decades in my line of work available to some translation agency by editing translations done by other people, often translations of inferior quality.

So I only edit translation that were done by translators who are working for me.

An individual translator who has been specializing in a certain type of translation for a long type, who is usually relatively expensive, is much more likely to do a very good job than an inexpensive translator who works for one of the thousands of agencies using the method described above.

Translators who do really good work exist too. Unfortunately, most of the time they have no idea how to find their own direct clients and direct clients are unlikely to find them since most of the time they don’t even have a website.



  1. Some segments of the translation market are structured and operate (very) inefficiently. Arguably, the lower one goes (i.e. the more price oriented one gets), the more exposed one gets to these inefficiencies, with all that they entails.

    Contrary to common belief, not all agencies are working with end clients; there are a lot of hands-down and some agencies mainly serve bigger agencies. Those at the top funnel the work in, pass it down to a regional agency, who in turn pass it down to a local/”single-language” agency, who might even pass it down to another agency before it reaches the “translator” who will actually to the translation part of the work.

    These are the broker type of agencies who have taken large parts of the low bulk market. in the last decade or so. As easily anyone can declare themselves to be a translator, it is even easier to declare oneself as an “agency”. At least when one is calling oneself a translator, one should be able to produce something that looks like a translation (and I’m not even talking about pure frauds who don’t know any second language and just use Google Translate for that), whereas to become an agency one doesn’t need anything more than a cheap laptop. Then one can use free services or setup a cheap website and is good to go. This gave rise to the bedroom/dorm room/kitchen table brokers who use the internet and bidding platforms to directly compete with the independent translators for work coming through agencies (while exploiting the fact that so many translators prefer to hide).

    The result of this inefficient structure is that even if the end client has paid $0.30, $0.40, and even $0.50 per word, after the broker chain has took their cut, the client get a $0.05 worth of core service. The rest goes to fund the brokers’ overhead, bonuses, apartments with a view, and business litigation.

    When working with an intermediate, it is not about how much one is willing to pay and the quality of service one seeks, ultimately it is all about how much the intermediate pays and what quality of service they are structured to offer.


  2. “Contrary to common belief, not all agencies are working with end clients; there are a lot of hands-down and some agencies mainly serve bigger agencies.”

    I know, I frequently received offers of “collaboration” from agencies in third world.

    I recently talked to a young man who is installing hardwood floors and wood trims in newly constructed houses. He said that he had to rip out a lot of installed wood boards from floors and walls because the company that he works for bought cheap plastic joints from China for the boards to save money. But the problem was, after a while these joints shrunk so that there were holes in them big enough to stick a quarter in those holes.

    I was wondering whether poor quality of translation is as visible as poor quality of used material is in newly built houses when I was listening to him.


  3. It’s not. The damages and associated costs of poor translation are long-term; sometimes they even remain largely invisible depending on who the customer is and what they use the documents for. Conversely, the feeling of triumph of cutting costs and pocketing more money is immediate.

    This day and age people understand risk and pain. If they understand how something risk them and/or can cause them pain, they generally will be more inclined to pay to minimize the risk and/or prevent pain.

    I have a relative whose company provide storage shelving units for big warehouses, factories, etc. When the first wave of the economical crisis hit the market, there was a rush towards cheap Chinese allegedly equivalent storage solutions. The explanation how it is impossible to provide an equivalent structural strength in such a low price fell on deaf ears. Fast forward few years, and there were major collapses. The bolts, joints, and shelves themselves were not designed to support their advertised load. They could support the specified load for a while, but ultimately gave in and entire sections collapsed. There was damage to equipment and some injuries. Only then – when the geniuses at procurement realized the long-term costs of damages and health-related expenses (I’m not fooling myself to believe that they actually care about the employees’ health and safety, they just don’t want to pay higher premiums and incur other injury associated costs (such as lost of work days), that they started to look for more reliable solutions.

    Not all the translation market segments have the same risk associated with them. Not all clients understand the risk and damages of poor translation, even if they affect them. But another aspect is that professional translation practitioners were historically somewhat unsuccessful at highlighting the damages of poor translation. The recent plethora of opportunistic stakeholders that must convince clients to believe in just the opposite so they could stay afloat certainly don’t help the cause.

    But not everything is lost or dire. Far from it. The costs of poor translation may not be immediately evident as holes in one’s hardwood or a collapsed shelving unit, but they will turn up eventually. One can’t really fool all the people, all the time.


  4. “The damages and associated costs of poor translation are long-term; sometimes they even remain largely invisible depending on who the customer is and what they use the documents for. Conversely, the feeling of triumph of cutting costs and pocketing more money is immediate.”

    When I lived in San Francisco, I had a friend who used to translate for a translation agency test reports about tests of nuclear reactors from Japanese to English for many years from Japanese to English in the eighties and early nineties. Then, the translations suddenly stopped in 1992. Some genius at GE (that was the end client) decided that GE did not need them anymore.

    These were the same nuclear reactors in Fukushima that blew up a couple of years ago.

    I wrote about it in this post on my blog:


  5. […] Like everybody who has a website, I receive tons of junk e-mails every day. Because my website offers translation services, a good portion of these junk e-mails is from “translators” who wou…  […]


  6. […] 06/07/2014 Buying a translation is like buying a pig in a poke – except when you know your translator by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]


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