Posted by: patenttranslator | October 13, 2014

The Merit of an Action Lies in Finishing It to the End


What do you say when people you have just met finally get around to asking the unavoidable question:”So what do you do?”, usually within the first few minutes of talking to them.

I used to answer for many years quite truthfully by saying “I am a translator”, but the problem with this answer was that it often elicited a confused expression on the faces of most people and sometime it was accompanied by really dumb suggestions, such as “You should move to New York, there’s a lot of work for translators there at the United Nations”.

I swear that several people told me exactly that.

When you say that you are a translator, it also usually tends to lower your status in the eyes of the inquisitive person talking to you because they will automatically assume that you probably don’t make a lot of money, which tends to be the case.

So I now have a different answer, equally truthful, though perhaps a little bit more opaque and seemingly somewhat more expansive, although in fact it is a more restrictive description. Instead of admitting to the crime of being a mere translator, I now say “I own a translation business specializing mostly in patents and technical translation.”

When people hear this version of my occupation, they no longer give me helpful advice such as that I should move to New York and start working for United Nations, nor do they automatically assume that I am a penniless loser. While they have no idea how much money an owner of a translation business makes, they generally assume that it is probably more than what a mere translator would make, which also tends to be the case.

If they do have a follow-up question, it is usually this one:”Do you translate yourself, or do you use other people?”, which I answer, laconically, with a single syllable: “both”. English can be a very economical communication medium: in German I would need two syllables, in Czech three, and in Japanese four.

This tends to confuse them and I have to admit that I enjoy it when I can confuse people like this – without making them mad at me, of course!

I think that the way translators answer this question shows how they see themselves, the role they think that they themselves play in the great scheme of things.

A translator is somebody who sits in front of a computer, looks alternately at a piece of paper or the monitor, and pounds the keyboard. When there is no work, he sends résumés to translation agencies.

That is not a business owner’s job description. That is the job description of a subcontractor. The Latin prefix “sub-” means “under”, and when you are working under somebody who owns the actual contract, you don’t really own much, if anything. It would be more accurate to say that you are being owned, or at least that your labor is owned, perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently, by resellers of the labor of translators who like to call themselves Language Services Providers (LSPs) rather than translation agencies.

There is nothing wrong with being a subcontractor, of course …. except for one thing. Because subcontractors’ wages are calculated by resellers of products or services as a business expense, they naturally tend to be low, because the lower their wages, the higher the profit of the reseller.

A Mongolian warrior, whose name was originally Temujin and who later became known as Genghis Khan after he built an immense empire stretching from China to Hungary, (larger than the Persian Empire and Alexander’s Empire, twice as big as the Roman Empire), once said:”The merit of an action lies in finishing it to the end”. Napoleon put it differently, although it is basically the same idea:”If you start to take Vienna, take Vienna”.

The people who immediately make the connection between the translating profession and a low income are not stupid and uninformed, they do so based on experience.

I think that when you are a translator, finishing the action to the end means thinking and acting as a business owner rather than thinking and working as a translator.

A translator’s equivalent of a conquered empire would be an impressive list of direct clients who keep said translator very busy while paying very handsome rates. This is a very valuable asset, an asset that can be sold at some point by business owners who decide to retire. Unlike most business owners, many translators do not own this asset, all they have is their own labor, and once they no longer work, they no longer own anything.

Temujin might have said about them that they did not finish the action to the end.

It makes a lot of sense to at least try to create the asset of your own little empire when you are a translator, an empire that can be built without spilling a single drop of blood, an empire that a translator who thinks only as a translator, and acts and works only as a translator, will never build.



  1. ” The Latin prefix “sub-” means “under”, and when you are working under somebody who owns the actual contract, you don’t really own much, if anything.”

    So, do you really believe that when you are doing a translation job from, say, Japanese for an agency that doesn’t have a translator with Japanese under a contract of employment (salaried translator), you are a subcontractor to that agency? I don’t think so.


  2. @ Rennie

    Then what are you if not a subcontractor?


  3. You may also express things differently “what are you best at”?

    You may answer “I am the best at translating patents from Englisn to Russian”, like some surgeons may be the best at repairing hands or cut fingers.

    And being the best at doing something, however specialized, is way more prestigious than typing patents that you did not even write, isn’t it?

    When I started this business early in the 80s, I was transalting software, because I was coming from the engineering and development side, and that was needed at the time.
    So saying “I translate software” did impress a lot people who could hardly figure out what a software could be, not to mention how it could be written or translated.

    Now you could quote some of the patent titles “I did translate this morning a new device to better control corium fusion in nuclear plants”, and LSPs or businessmen met in the elevator may imagine that doing something they can hardly understand whatever the language has a price, the price of being the best at that!


  4. @Didier

    “And being the best at doing something, however specialized, is way more prestigious than typing patents that you did not even write, isn’t it?”

    I am not typing patents, I am translating them.

    And thanks among other things to people like me, called patent translators, you can use your cell phone for many things today, things like finding and Ethiopian restaurant or using car navigation to get where you need to go, all on a tiny phone that only a few years ago could be used only for calling.

    I consider my job both prestigious and very useful.


  5. I tend to introduce myself as a technical translator in private practice.
    It usually generates a polite enquiry for more details, which allows me to explain that ‘professional’ translation requires high levels of education, creativity, skill, specialisation and professional ethics.

    It also allows me to explain that the ‘translation industry’, which uses sub-contractors/free-lance translators, is something else entirely.
    I use the comparison of a CPA and a company providing generic bookkeeping services to explain the difference. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I use the comparison of a CPA and a company providing generic bookkeeping services to explain the difference.”

      Good point. Only that a CPA does not work for an agency that invites customers to submit
      bookkeeping POs so as to re-assign them to anonymous, often unqualified “accountants” behind the customer’s back.


      • Quite!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: