Posted by: patenttranslator | July 18, 2014

Seven Signs That A Translation Agency Is Not Just Another Ignorant Parasite


In a previous post titled Seven Unmistakable Signs That A Translation Agency Is A Fake, I listed some of the most telling signs of an agency operating based on the rules of the corporate translation model. Many agencies clearly belong to this category, but definitely not all of them, although to my knowledge, the business model of all large translation agencies is at the present time based on the principle of blinding, insatiable corporate greed.

In this business model, translators are considered easily replaceable, cheap hired help (Kevin Lossner calls them HAMPSTeRs, I call them nanolators, among other choice titles), not as highly educated and highly valued professionals who must be paid and treated accordingly if you want to keep them motivated to work for you.

Large translation agencies are typically owned and run by monolingual people who know nothing about translation per se. While they may not know anything about foreign languages, they know how to maximize their profit, generally at the expense of the busy bees who are working for them. These people are very good salesmen who would be able to make very handsome profits for example by selling refrigerators to Eskimos, I’ll give them that. But still, because the only business they understand is the business of making money, I consider them ignorant parasites who are generally unable to add value to translation. Their main contribution is that they add to the cost – a lot.

So how can a poor translator tell that a translation agency does not subscribe to the holy credo of the corporate translation agency model?

I think that there are several signs that a translation agency may be based on a different model, a model that competes mostly on quality rather than mostly on quantity and price.

I will list seven such telling signs indicating that a translator may be dealing with another kind of translation agency, the kind that is in fact sabotaging the corporate translation mold by using the many weaknesses of the corporate translation model, which is in fact a relatively new phenomenon, only about two decades old.

1. The Translators Are Paid Very Quickly

I work for three such agencies, one mails me a check immediately when my translation has been delivered, one pays within a few days, and the third one pays me on the first and fifteenth of the month, by a transfer to my bank account. These are the only translation agencies that I still work for on a regular basis. The fact that they pay so quickly is very healthy for my cash flow given that some of my customers let me wait five to six weeks before they finally pay me, especially large patent law firms. The stack of bills that would accumulate in five weeks while I am waiting to be paid would be otherwise very thick and all of them would be past due if I did not have clients who pay very quickly.

2. The Translators Are Paid Good Rates

What is a good rate is of course eminently debatable, but you know what is a good rate for you. If your rate is accepted immediately, without haggling and without stupid tricks that not even a somewhat intelligent dog would fall for, such as “full and fuzzy matches” based on advanced CAT mathematics (although many translators fall for these tricks), you are being paid a good rate.

3. The Translation Agency Is Often Run by Former or Current Translators

Unlike the salesman and saleswomen in the corporation translation model, the people who manage the translation business in this model actually know a lot about translating and foreign languages. That is why they don’t need for example to do what ignorant brokers who know nothing about translation have to do, such as give “translation tests” to translators. Once current or former translators take a look at a résumé and send a prospective translator a short, paid job, they can tell easily whether they have a winner, a pitiful plodder, or a total loser.

4. The Translation Agency Specializes in Something Rather Than in Everything

The corporate translation agency model “specializes” in everything and anything as long as there is a potential for major profit in it for the agency. These outfits translate financial materials, patents, they do “transcreation”, subtitling and interpreting, from and into all languages. And why not when they don’t need to know anything about the languages from and into which they are translating, let alone the subjects that the translators will be dealing with. Their motto might just as well be “If we don’t specialize in it, it doesn’t exist”.

But there are also translation agencies that do specialize in only a few defined areas, such as patents and technical translation, or financial translation, and the best ones usually only translate from a few languages, namely those that the people who run the agency understand.

5. Confidentiality Agreements Are in Fact Confidentiality Agreements

Confidentiality agreements did exist two or three decades ago, before the advent of the corporate translation agency model. But they were only a few dozen words long because these were in fact confidentiality agreement whose purpose was to ensure that confidential information will not be leaked out to third parties by dumb translators.

Recently I was contacted by a translation agency interested in finding out what I would be able to do for the agency’s bottom line. The “Confidentiality Agreement” had almost seven thousand words, and the payment terms were “60 days net”.

Needless to say, I told them to take a hike as I did not want to waste any more time with them.

6. You Are Not a “Dear Linguist” (They Remember Your Name)

I used to translate validation protocols for tests of new pharmaceuticals from Japanese to English for a tiny, highly specialized translation agency, run by a husband and wife team. Sometime it was hard work as some of the documents were handwritten, but fortunately, they were mostly written in a neat handwriting. The husband, who had a PhD in chemistry, was the proofreader, and the wife was in charge of accounting. They paid me very handsome rates, especially since they paid 1.5 times my usual rate for rush translations, defined as work on Saturdays and Sundays or more than about 2,000 words per working day.

Then the elderly couple retired and sold their business to another translation agency. The change in the attitude of the new owners toward translators was really striking. Shortly after the transfer of ownership, I received an e-mail asking about my availability for a small translation addressed to a “Dear Linguist”. When I answered the e-mail within about 10 minutes, the project manager in this new agency that in fact paid among other things the old owners also for information about my services informed me that the translation was already assigned to another translator. When I asked how was that possible since I responded to the first e-mail very quickly, the project manager told me that the work is assigned first to “first responders”. I told her to delete me from their database of translators because I would never work for the agency again. The owner of the agency actually called me, apologized for “an oversight” and tried to pacify me to keep me working for him, but I just gave him a piece of my mind and hung up on him.

When you receive an e-mail addressed to a “Dear Linguist” or a “Dear Translator”, the agency does not really give a damn who will do the translation because the e-mail is sent to several warm bodies to find out which one of them will bite first and quote the lowest rate.

7. Personal Accountability Is Not a Problem in a Small Agency

When you work for a translation agency that is based on the corporate translation model, it is very difficult to ask questions and solve problems because the tasks are divided, distributed and delegated to different people who may not understand what the problem is, or who may prefer not to make themselves available if there is a problem. For example, if a payment is not received on time, it is generally very easy to establish what went wrong if you are dealing with an agency consisting of a husband and wife team.

But when you deal with the large, corporate translation agency type, you may not even know how to contact the accounting department, and even if you do that, they may or may not get back to you within a reasonable period of time with a reasonable explanation.

Part of the advantage of this structure – from their viewpoint – is that nobody is really accountable and responsible for anything. As usual, an advantage for them is a disadvantage for the translators.

Given that the translation model of some, or possibly many, small translation agencies is diametrically opposed to the large, corporate translation model (paying good rate and on time instead of peanuts in 60 days, real specialization instead of “specialization in everything”, absence of incredibly long agreements designed to turn translators into subservient, cheap hired help, emphasis on the qualifications and capabilities of individual translators instead of emphasis on the profit margin and on the bottom line über alles), one could say that the translation agency model described above is sabotaging the corporate translation model.

But that’s not how I see it. We should not forget that the large translation agency model is a relative newcomer, while the old model, described above, has been pretty much the norm for a very long time. Thirty years ago, large translation agencies simply did not exist. It was only the advent of Internet that made it possible for brokers who don’t really know anything about translating to start businesses, small, not so small and huge, called translation agencies.

Small, specialized, accountable translation agencies may be sabotaging the corporate translation model, but they are not sabotaging the translating profession. It is the large, corporate translation model that is sabotaging what not so long ago was a promising and rewarding occupation. This model is also the main reason why the quality of so many translations is often so poor.

Translators who refuse to work for the corporate translation behemoths are thus playing a small but important role in helping to restore a healthier balance to the translation market, healthier not only with respect to the incomes that we are able to achieve as translators, but also with respect to the quality of translations that can be provided by individual translators and highly specialized translation agencies to their clients.


  1. I enjoyed your article and I think your analysis of the differences between types of translation agencies is very perceptive, as usual with your takes on the translation business. I am curious about where / how you have been able to access some of the sub-standard translation you say is rampant; in other words, what evidence do you have to substantiate that claim?


  2. @Elisabeth

    Where is the evidence for the saying “You get what you pay for”, which exists in just about every language?

    In other words, what evidence do you have to substantiate that claim?


  3. Weak tea, Steve.

    Elizabeth asked a simple question: “I am curious where / how you have been able to access some of the sub-standard translation you say is rampant…”

    Since you didn’t answer, we can only assume that you have been guessing.


    • Elizabeth, Nate

      The proof is readily available.

      Register with one of the big brokers, and see for yourself what is the quality of an average editing request. You may even get one of their large TMs that you will be able to go over and assess.

      Furthermore, some of these translations are publicly or semi-publicly available. When speaking with direct clients who actually care about their content (and every content creator cares; but if they are part of a corporation, the Procurement department is actually the one responsible for buying translation, and they treat it as a commodity – like everything else for them – and look for like-minded business entities, i.e. the brokers, to take care of it for them) can tell you horror stories about how they got burned, It even prompted the EU to release a paper named Quantifying quality costs and the cost of poor quality in translation. This paper has its limitations though.

      Virtually everything means literally nothing. You always get what you pay for, and in this case, you get what the broker you hired has paid for (and the skill level they are likely to attract in light of their general attitude).


  4. Steve, I enjoyed your article and hope you enjoy this excerpt from an article in the Wikipedia. It focuses on the abuse of freelancers by companies and informs that measures have been suggested both in Europe and America such as, for example, making it “illegal for companies or organizations to employ freelancers directly, unless the freelancer was entitled to benefits such as pension contributions and holiday pay” (I agree, don’t you?). Of a particular interest for you, I guess, should be the few sentences at the end of the excerpt cited below, the ones about the Massachusetts law given as an example.
    “In Europe, the perceived disadvantages of being freelance have led the European Union to research the area, producing draft papers that would, if enforced, make it illegal for companies or organizations to employ freelancers directly, unless the freelancer was entitled to benefits such as pension contributions and holiday pay. In the UK, where the terms of integration into the EU have and are being hotly debated, this would lead to a significant reshaping of the way freelance work is dealt with and have a major impact on industry; employers would be required either to give freelances the contractual rights of employees or employ only freelancers already being employed by agencies or other organizations granting them these rights. However, the White Papers that recommend such moves have not yet been adopted in the EU, and the potential impact on UK employment laws is being opposed by key UK organizations lobbying the government to negotiate over the acceptance of EU legislation in such areas.[citation needed] The legal definition of a sole trader requires that he/she must have more than one client or customer which promotes the freelancing ethos.

    In the U.S. in 2009, federal and state agencies began increasing their oversight of freelancers and other workers whom employers classify as independent contractors. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO)[23] recommended that the Secretary of Labor have its Wage and Hour Division “focus on misclassification of employees as independent contractors during targeted investigations.” The increased regulation is meant to ensure workers are treated fairly and that companies do not misclassify workers as independent contractors to avoid paying appropriate employment taxes and contributions to workers’ compensation and unemployment compensation.

    At the same time, this increased enforcement is affecting companies whose business models are based on using non-employee workers, as well as independent professionals who have chosen to work as independent contractors. For example, book publishing companies have traditionally outsourced certain tasks like indexing and proofreading to individuals working as independent contractors. Self-employed accountants and attorneys have traditionally hired out their services to accounting and law firms needing assistance. The U.S. Internal Revenue Service[24] offers some guidance on what constitutes self-employment, but some states have enacted stricter laws to address how independent contractors should be defined. For example, a Massachusetts law[25] states that companies can hire independent contractors only to perform work that is “outside the usual course of business of the employer,” meaning workers working on the company’s core business must be classified as employees. According to this statute,[26] a software engineering firm cannot outsource work to a software engineering consultant, without hiring the consultant as an employee. The firm could, however, hire an independent contractor working as an electrician, interior decorator, or painter. This raises questions about the common practice of consulting, because a company would typically hire a management consulting firm or self-employed consultant to address business-specific needs that are not “outside the usual course of business of the employer.”

    So, just stop and think. How come a translation company should offer all possible languages when they don’t have their own staff but use freelancers instead? As for the quality of such translations, enough is to say that the corporate translation agencies use anonymous freelancers from all over the world who often translate from one foreign language into another.


  5. @ Rennie

    “So, just stop and think. How come a translation company should offer all possible languages when they don’t have their own staff but use freelancers instead? As for the quality of such translations, enough is to say that the corporate translation agencies use anonymous freelancers from all over the world who often translate from one foreign language into another.”

    The quality of translations suffers when the people who are running a translation agency are unable to tell good quality from poor quality because they don’t understand the product (languages) that they are selling.

    I see it every day for example in English summaries of Japanese and German patents which are freely available on the Japan Patent Office (JPO) and World Intellectual Property Patent Office (WIPO) websites. Some summaries are very good, but many are full of mistakes. Typically, the mistakes on JPO sites are due to the fact that the translators are native Japanese speakers whose English is not very good. The English of the summaries on the WIPO website is not bad, but the technical terms are sometime mistranslated. At least the terms are usually correct on the JPO website.

    This is clearly a result of the fact that WIPO is dealing with a number of agencies and some of them know what they are doing, while many just sell translations without have a clue to what it is that they are selling.

    And since my clients already have these English summaries, I have to try to use the English terms contained in them as much as possible because otherwise they would wonder why am I translating it differently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ” they don’t understand the product (languages) that they are selling”

      Exactly! Here I’d only add, that no quality standards could help, simply because making translation products is not the same as making, say, dairy products.


  6. […] In a previous post titled Seven Unmistakable Signs That A Translation Agency Is A Fake, I listed some of the most telling signs of an agency operating based on the rules of the corporate translation model.  […]


  7. “Part of the advantage of this structure – from their viewpoint – is that nobody is really accountable and responsible for anything.”

    Not true. Many of these agencies have it in their elaborate “NDA” that the translator assumes all responsibility if anything goes wrong :).

    But (lame) jokes aside, this business model is not sustainable. The proof can be seen nowadays as many of them are retreating to technology to replace – what have become over the years – their unskilled and unreliable translators. Another benefit of this move is the shift of skills and expertise from “traditional” ones to IT ones, while taking more control over the entire process thus becoming more of a language transformation service provider than a broker. At least the technology, with all of its limitations and shortcomings is more predictable and reliable than those who are typically (I’m generalizing of course) willing to work with them. How ironic it is, their desperation to maintain healthy (and than some) margins that have became endangered by the very business model those outfits have promoted.


  8. Shai,

    I didn’t understand the above. Translations are still being done by a human even if a combination of MT and translating. It has just become much cheaper to use MT/lower wage translators than MT/higher wage translators in many cases.

    You say that this business model isn’t sustainable, yet it has been in use for many years. Since MT will keep improving, why wouldn’t the model continue? and if not sustainable, in what year will it end? 2015? 2020?


    • MT will keep improving is your prediction (one that you keep repeating over and over again as a statement in the comments of this blog, so please allow me not to address it any further).

      “It has just become much cheaper to use MT/lower wage translators than MT/higher wage translators in many cases.”

      It has been cheaper to use low-skilled and cheap translators for years now. This is largely what the corporate agency model is based on. Cheaper? Yes; Same, or even close, quality? Not really. You can continue to use this model, but the results will be on par with what you pay for. When I say unsustainable, I mean that at some point, the awareness to this dubious model will increase, and more and more people (and I’m referring to translation buyers) will be fed up with being taken advantage of. If you look for a topical example to what I mean, look at the online (as in search engines and social media) sponsored advertisement market.

      Also, don’t fool yourself to believe that MT will decrease costs for the buyers. The end game here is to shift the perceived skills required from traditional translation-related to IT-related. It probably not going to be long before claims about how preparing a MT-engine is so resource intensive that it can’t be done for cheap – you need a data center, experts programmers, IT-personnel, security, linguistic technicians, etc.

      Since translation is not an in-house process in most organizations, you cannot even offer cost-saving by outsourcing it and eliminating in-house roles and expenses (as is the case with system administration and server farms).

      If you know the technology world, you have seen this happening before, and more than once.

      You are of course entitled to your opinion, and I respect it even if I disagree with it, but you don’t seem to be open to conversation. You just keep repeating the same predictions and statements, and seem to enjoy the role of the contrarian.


  9. I noticed that you chose not say when you think this business model will end. I don’t think it will end but instead expand yet if it does end, there is a big difference between it ending in 2016 and 2026.

    I remind that MT will keep getting better and better because it’s improvement is what brought about what you call the new business model in the first place. Without the improvements in MT over the past 5 to 7 years, many lower skilled/lower wage translators would not have a foothold in the market.

    You say that translation buyers will become more and more fed up with “being taken advantage of” but do not offer examples of this happening. Not that everyone is always happy, just as they haven’t always been in the past, but were is the evidence that their are significantly more unhappy customers than five years ago?

    There is nothing contrarian about what I’ve written. I just happen to be in the minority and realistic enough to know that the only way translators can prevent further slides in income is to get direct clients.


    • I didn’t specify a date because: A) I’m not a prophet; and B) I never said that the model is going to disappear. I’ve explained what I meant by calling it unsustainable. If it was so sustainable, then many of the agencies weren’t as concerned with their margins as they are today. And if you want proof. attend/take interest in what is being said in agencies-technology-centric conferences or even watch some videos on YouTube, such as:


      for a start.

      This business model has nothing to do with MT. It is not something unique to the translation profession and existed long before generic MT was available as it is today. This business model has gradually gained traction in the translation market for the last 15 years or so.
      Many unskilled translators got a foothold regardless of MT. Many still do.

      And one more thing. I really don’t have to justify myself to you. I say what I see and think. You may disagree or even think that I’m full of nonsense, fine by me. But I don’t have to justify or prove anything to you, especially when you never bother to do what you ask from others.

      If you believe that MT is so superior and the buy-low-sell-high business model is such a great thing for everyone, but the translators, good for you, but I find it difficult to understand what you are getting at. What is your point? That translation is doomed as a profession?

      In another blog article I’ve asked you if you work as a translator, agency owner, technology proponent, other type of stakeholder. You have yet to answer this question. I think that it is only fair that we know. what interests we represent.


  10. “The court also found that the [editing] and [revising] services performed by the translators fell within [Global Translations’s] usual course of business because “without the services of the [translators], [Global Translations] would cease to operate.”

    Hope you all understand what I’m trying to draw your attention to 🙂


    • This is completely different because Google doesn’t employ translators. Companies will never be forced to pay pensions or give vacation time to freelancers. The first syllable is “free” and is there for a reason. Freelancers don’t have to report to a company, sit through useless meetings, etc.

      I could see this working in France circa 1980 but most of the world isn’t France of the 80s.


      • Forcing freelancers into employment is NOT my point. What I’m trying to draw your attention to is the upside-down position of roles in translation business. Translation agencies wrongly claim they provide language services. Their true role is to provide logistics services, to connect customers and translators (editors/revisers/consultants).


  11. Once again no evidence of great dissatisfaction among end clients that suggests the business model is not sustainable. (The two youtube clips was talk going around in circles with vague statements of “communicate X better”, “we need to bring Y and Z together…”)

    Of course my point has been for many years that the translation business is doomed if you expect to make more than an average salary ($50,000 in the U.S.) and as largely a post editor. A typical J>E translator’s income has dropped 35% since 2000 assuming that rates haven’t changed due to inflation.

    You say the business model has nothing to do with MT but MT was all that the panel on youtube above discussed. MT quality has improved enormously since Google Translate was introduced in 2006, which is why a letter to the now defunct Translation Journal complained that a $5,000 job lined up suddenly went to MT/post editing. It is why one of Steve’s friends who translated G>E for a company for years told him they were using MT/editing so longer needed.

    Computers will keep getting more and more powerful over time so the current business model will get stronger, and not at all unsustainable.

    As I’ve said before, I have nothing to do with the MT industry and am interested as a translator..


    • ” I have nothing to do with the MT industry and am interested as a translator.”

      You’re interested as a translator, good. Now, just try to imagine you were interested as a customer, too. Imagine you, the customer, contact a translation agency. They assure you they use only highly qualified, experienced, etc. translators, editors, consultants, etc. They don’t reveal any names, though. You trust them. Then, behind your back, they do MT, get a high-school student touch it here and there, and proudly hand it to you as a product of highest quality. You pay, accordingly. So, would you pay as much as that if you knew who (or what) actually translated your material?


    • You keep missing my point (by the way, from your response I find it hard to believe that you watched the videos in full), arguing against things that you think that I say, constantly ask for proofs as a device for undermining trust in the arguments of others (where is your proof to everything you claim?) or as if someone owe you anything (if you don’t want to believe or at least check for yourself, fine, don’t), and keep countering with the same old arguments over and over again regardless of what others have argued – so a true discussion based on exchange of opinions and experiences can’t even occur.

      If you, as a translator, think that the translation profession is doomed and/or happy to take the role of a post-language-transformation-editor, good for you. I wish you all the best.

      But this is becoming too tiring and exhausting, so I’m out.


  12. I watched the videos but neither had much substance. The host said 108 businesses surveyed out of 1200 (an extremely low response rate that suggests lack of interest) , of which only 17% were clients, responded to a survey.

    84% of 108 (or 90) used MT at some point, while 75% (or 80) were still using it. So about 10% stopped using MT because of 1 of 3 reasons: 1) low quality 2) finding capable systems or training data 3) not the right language pair.

    The first panelist said 80% are not satisfied with quality, but he doesn’t say which group: 80% of the 108 or 80% of the 10 who stopped using MT. Then he does his own tiny survey of “a few” LSP and finds out they are using Google or Bing.

    The second speaker contradicted the results of the survey by saying “people didn’t feel that the quality of MT was sufficient enough or good enough to continue to want to continue using it.” But only 10% stopped using MT!

    Then we find out that the first guy wasn’t correct. 80% apparently said that “the quality of MT was either neutral or bad.” Well who lumps in neutral with bad? Those are worlds apart. (The first guy made the mistake twice.)

    The third guy says linguists need to be hired to improve MT yet the opposite has happened over the past 15 years. As one famously said, “MT improves every time we fire a linguist.” Of course, Google has no linguists since GT it is statistical based.

    I’m not the only one asking for evidence. Elizabeth asked Steve the same thing right after I did.

    I’m not sure what I have not backed up. Everyone knows MT has made a huge impact in recent years as quality has improved. That panel discussion would not have taken place before 2007 and the entire thing is on MT.

    I don’t plan on translating too much longer because I don’t want to post -edit. if others do, then that’s great.


  13. “I don’t plan on translating too much longer because I don’t want to post -edit. if others do, then that’s great.”

    There will always be other people willing to do post-(MT)-editing, but that isn’t great at all, because few of them will be highly qualified professionals, and even fewer will stay in that poorly-paid job for longer than a year or two, or three. Translation profession will gradually turn into a temporary occupation for immigrants and jobless people.


  14. […] a house What to do in the United Kingdom if you’re a translator or interpreter on holidays? Seven Signs That A Translation Agency Is Not Just Another Ignorant Parasite Masters of the Translation Universe: 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know CPD for translators: […]


  15. […] In a previous post titled Seven Unmistakable Signs That A Translation Agency Is A Fake, I listed some of the most telling signs of an agency operating based on the rules of the corporate tra…  […]


  16. Thank you for this, Steve. I would add another sign: the agency displays some degree of awareness and concern for the issues you brought up here and in your related post on “signs that an agency is a fake.”


  17. […] 22/07/2014 Seven Signs that a Translation Agency is not just Another Ignorant Parasite by Steve Vitek (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) […]


  18. Reblogged this on International Language Services – Isabelle F. Brucher – Translation office specializing in Law, Finance and Marketing since 2004.


  19. I have been looking for an article like that. I appreciate your insight. I figured why so many low quality translations exist and agencies ask me to proofread them at so low rate. I told several agencies to inform that the translations were not good, however, they have kept using them as they are the “first responder” or accept the job.

    Liked by 1 person

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