Posted by: patenttranslator | September 20, 2014

How Many Translators Does It Take To Translate ….. Anything?


There are many variations of the joke “How many cops does it take to screw in a light bulb?” According to a European version which I remember from the seventies, the answer is “Three, one cop standing on a chair and holding a light bulb, and two cops turning the chair around.”

According to a contemporary American version, the answer is “None. They just beat the room for being black and then arrest it for being broke.”

According to claims from advertising propaganda often found on the website of many a translation agency, it takes quite a few translators to translate anything at all.

A typical claim of this kind is formulated as follows:

“We don’t use just one translator for our translations, we use several layers of quality control in which 2, 3, 4 (so far I have not seen the number 5 yet, but maybe you have) highly qualified translators are checking, double-checking, triple checking, and editing and improving the translation before it is approved by our final quality checker.”

This statement flies in the face of common sense. If it were true, it would mean that either the translation agency is paying 2, 3, or 4 highly qualified translators for something that can be done best by 1 (one) person, or that 2, 3, or more people work for free or for next to nothing.

Even though many translation agencies pay very little to translators who do the actual work, they generally have to pay them something. And even if you only pay a few pennies per word to the translator, the pennies would tend to add up quickly if you had to pay twice, or three or four times.

There is an English proverb that says “Too many cooks spoil the broth”, and examples of identical or similar proverbs exist also in other languages: Zu viele Köche verderben den Brei (exactly the same proverb in German), On n’arrive à rien quand tout le monde s’en mêle (“You get nowhere when everybody gets involved” in French), the Russian version says “У семи нянек дитя без глазу” (u semi nyanek ditya bez glazu = a child looked after by seven nannies is completely unsupervised, thank you Alia), and I like especially the Japanese version: 船頭多くして船山に登る [sento oku shite fune yama ni noboru = too many captains will steer the ship up a mountain].

A simple equation that could be used to illustrate the inverse relationship between the number of specialized professionals such as translators working on the same translation and the resulting quality of this translation can be expressed by Equation 1 below:

1 Translator = a translator, 2 translators = half a translator, 3 translators = total disaster                                    (Equation 1)

[i.e. 2 translators would likely to do some damage to what was originally a good translation, 3 or more would simply destroy it every single time].

True, sometime it does make sense to use more than 1 person to perform a certain specific task.

For instance, it would not be a good idea to use only one pallbearer to carry a coffin. Dead people resting in a coffin on their last journey to the cemetery tend to be heavy because most of our body is made up of water and bones. That is why unlike when it comes to translating complicated documents such as patents, several people who are in good physical shape need to be involved in this particular task, usually 6 or more strong men depending on the weight of the body and of the coffin.

A simple equation that could be used to illustrate the relationship between the number of the pallbearers and the ease with which their task is accomplished can be expressed by Equation 2 below:

1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer + 1 pallbearer = relatively easy task                (Equation 2)

[wherein all 6 pallbearers carry only 1 coffin with 1 dead body in it].

But most other specialized tasks are best carried out by a single person who is well qualified to perform a task and fully in control of the entire process, from the beginning to the end.

This is true not only about translation. Most people would agree that you need a single, really good professional to perform a single professional task really well. To illustrate this truism, let’s consider what would happen if the insane “the more specialized professionals working on the same job, the better” concept is applied to a couple of other professions.

For example, there is always only one 1 burger flipper who is in charge of expertly flipping the same greasy burger over a hot stove. Despite the low pay, comparable to what many translation agencies are paying these days to some translators, it is not an easy job and there is a learning curve to mastering this particular skill. But it is obvious that if 2 burger flippers were flipping the same burger, that would make even such a relatively straightforward task impossible to achieve. There would be burgers falling on the floor and hot oil burning the arms, legs and crotch of the poor burger flippers!

There is also always only one dentist who is drilling a root canal because 2, 3, or more dentists working on the same root canal of the same person would probably torture the poor patient to death and most likely do great bodily harm to themselves as well as every dentist has a slightly different approach to root canals.

To use another comparison, one could also say that using 2, 3, or 4 dentists to perform the same root canal on the same person at the same time would lead to the same result as if an escapee from a mental asylum pretending to be a dentist was using a chain saw on a root canal. The patient would die a horrible death also in this scenario, but at least he would die quickly at the hands of an insane person wielding a chain saw.

It is not a good idea to use several people for any of these tasks, right? So why do translation agency marketing managers use this kind of lunacy for advertising on the websites of their translation agencies? I believe that there are at least three possible reasons for this silly claim which is widespread in the so-called translation industry.

1. Many translation managers in the so-called translation industry themselves don’t really know anything about translating.

While it is probably also true that for example marketing managers of Burger King franchises don’t know that much about the proper way to flip burgers, they seem to be much more sophisticated than advertising managers in the so-called translation industry because I have never seen this kind of really stupid advertising (as in “we use 2, 3, 4, burgers flippers until the burger that is flipped just the right way for you”) at McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, or even at Jack In The Box or Popeys.

Only advertising managers in the so-called translation industry seem to think that if 2, 3, 4 or more translators were translating the same thing, the translations would be getting progressively better. They would be getting progressively worse, of course, but how are they supposed to know that when they have never translated anything themselves and never will since they don’t know any foreign language?

2. Many translation agency managers probably think that their customers are really dumb.

Some customers clearly are not all that smart if this kind of advertising seems to work on them. But is it a majority of them? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

I think that most people see through this nonsensical claim right away. And now they have my blog post to confirm their intuitive suspicions.

3. The claim is true because this is how some translation agencies in fact operate.

Every translation agency, (including myself, and I am not even a translation agency), is swamped daily with résumés from people claiming to be translators able to translate just about anything for next to nothing. So if you can find somebody who can translate for example a Japanese patent to English for let’s say 3 or 4 cents a word (and you can, if this person lives in Thailand or China), or from French to English (and that can be done too if this person lives in Africa), and then have 1 or 2 more persons of the same provenance who also claim to be translators “edit” the cheap translation for 2 cents a word, you got yourself a great deal because a real translator living in a Western country would have to charge several times just to be able to live and pay taxes than what was just paid to 2 or 3 “translators”.

The resulting translation will thus be massacred by 3 madmen who are using a chain saw on a root canal because none of them really knows much Japanese, or French, or English, or has any experience in the field of patent translation.

But as long as the client does not complain, who cares?


  1. Thanks yet again for introducing some levity in my day. Incidentally, some truth as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. @ Elisabeth

    All of it was truth and nothing but – including the cop jokes.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. How many angels can dance on the tip of a niddle?

    Steve, you know me and you know what I am going to say about “how many translators does it take to translate anything.”

    What you are talking about, i.e., “on n’arrive à rien quand tout le monde s’en mêle,” is one face of the truth. I would not translate “s’en mêle” as “step into action.” What some people do to translations of others is meddling without real action. That’s why we get to nowhere. But there are several perspectives to the matter of translation.

    Kevin Hendzel has several blog posts on this matter which provide a different perspective, for example, and etc.

    Both Kumārajīva (350-409) and Xuanzang (602-664) translated major Buddhist Sutras into Chinese not alone. Although their approaches were different, they both “crowdsourced” translators to assist them achieving the translation. Theirs are long stories and I would not get into the details. What I would like to point out is that there are translation works which are not possible to be achieved by one angel translator. The three lessons Kevin points out is another face of the truth. I’d rather take those lessons to keep my pride of being a translator. Kind of an oxymoron, but it’s the nature of the truth of being a translator.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Wenjer, there is a world of difference between the sort of collaboration that Kevin H talks about and the BS processes one too often finds with linguistic sausage producers. And when I choose those with whom I cooperate, the result is often better than I could manage myself. When these “teams” are imposed by the unqualified, the disaster is often much like what Steve describes. Waterfall TEP processes in general are too prone to serious errors. It’s usually better if nobody even dreams of correcting the technical aspects of my work (and sticks to obvious typos, dictos and identifying passages that were carelessly edited by me to sound as if I were a drunken monkey, and in those last cases it’s best to go back and ask WTF?).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. @Wenjer

    I never claimed to be in possession of complete and absolute truth.

    I am not Buddha.

    But I know one thing: Kevin does not know much about anything. I am surprised that you have not figured it out yet.


  5. Russian version of the proverb: У семи нянек дитя без глазу.
    But actually in most of the good translation agencies and publishing houses all translations are proofreaded and edited by editors, although sometimes they only spoil the work by “showing their own style”.


  6. @Alia

    It goes without saying that it is best when a translation is proofread by a good proofreader. That is very different from the claim “we use 2, 3, 4 translators”.

    However, to save money, translation agencies generally use proofreaders who either would not be qualified as translators, or who do not even understand the source language, which as you pointed out is very dangerous.


  7. Let’s assume that the translator is translating INTO their native tongue, which is the way the “experts” tell us it should be done. Next, a proofreader comes along and cleans up the grammar, syntax, spelling, etc. The proofreader does not need to be a translator of those same two languages, in fact, it is better if they are not for obvious reasons: They will start mudding up the work itself by feeling they have to “refine” the translation as well as the grammar.

    However, as an editor myself, I have run across some pretty crappy, convoluted sentences from translators because they could not figure out what the source text was really trying to convey, so they tried to dazzle me with big words and run-on sentences. In such cases I DO have to bring another translator into the equation to help me figure out what is being said.

    An example of this is a recurring report we translate for the Russian fishing industry. The Russian author might know a lot about fish hatcheries, but I doubt if she graduated from the 8th grade. Her Russian is horrible, and our job is to make her sound brilliant! Hence, we use a couple of translators to collaborate in deciding just what the heck she is trying to say!

    In such cases, the broth actually does come out better if there are two cooks!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “The Russian author might know a lot about fish hatcheries, but I doubt if she graduated from the 8th grade. Her Russian is horrible, and our job is to make her sound brilliant!”

    And here I thought that a translator’s job was to translate what the author actually wrote.

    I had no idea that the real job of a translator is to make somebody who did not finish 8th grade sound brilliant.


    • Really? I’ve had many cases where the main task was to make the author or company sound less idiotic than the source text would, especially if the source text contains cultural content that doesn’t map very literally or well. Not really a patent situation, however, unless we’re talking about litigation documents, where a legal or strategic commentary on the (still to be submitted) source text is often appreciated. Source texts are only inviolable if you need their exact content to nail some deserving person to a wall or to see exactly what points can and perhaps should be attacked in a legal case.


      • “I’ve had many cases where the main task was to make the author or company sound less idiotic than the source text would”

        That’s why I translate patents. All they want from me is to translate the damn thing as accurately as possible, without leaving out or adding anything.


  9. Q: How many translators does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: It depends on the context.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I do often use a comparison: you need a paint job for your car or you have to make sure of the quality of a car that has been assembled by a manufacturer, this because I have long been working on these Haynes manuals that show on the cover the body of a car with every nut and bolt propely aligned around with all components spread apart.

    Do you really believe that the proper way of checking quality is removing any single nut and bolt and make sure that it has been properly torqued and that all the parts have been properly aligned, or that you should rub all this paint with your own wet-end-dry and make sure that the paint thickness is exactly what it should be?

    You do obviously check quality by driving the car or looking at the paint, which means reading the translation and looking at it as an end-user: is it readable, working the way I like, shining as much as I hoped?

    And if your car manufacturer or painter is an expert professional, you will simply have to admit that your added value is zero: yes the car is properly built and you or I should probably need a lot of training to align things as well or torque as precisely.

    So as a proofreader or editor, I am very happy when I have to say that I am useless : I checked the work of an expert who did his work properly, and all I have to say is “OK, perfect”. Adding 3 or more people to say the same will not add so much to the value, or should it?

    But there are some agencies or translation companies who will try to fool you into believing that this fellow worker tired of flipping burgers wants to try rolls and brushes, and he will do your paint job for much less than any competitor, you will just have to find a competent proofreader to polish that a bit.

    This is the “cheap translator, competent proofreader” scheme so common in this industry, you know the result, and adding 3 or more poeple to polish that will rather likely remove any colour than make it shine.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. […] There are many variations of the joke "How many cops does it take to screw in a light bulb?" According to a European version which I remember from the seventies, the answer is "Three, one co…  […]


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