Posted by: patenttranslator | October 15, 2014

Marta’s Thorough Checklist for Translators – An Invitation to Think Before You Act


There is no shortage of advice being given to translators on how to run a translator’s business, mostly beginning ones, on blogs and in newsletters and magazines published by organizations of translators.

Marta Stelmaszak’s new book “A Business Guide To Translators” is unusual in that … well, it is a book. But it is also unusual in that it is available as well as a digital file that is full of links so that readers who may be interested in finding out more about a certain subject or footnote can click on it for further information. You can also quickly click on a picture of a little bird, ubiquitous in Marta’s book, to tweet to your 10,000 followers another pearl of wisdom du jour about the translation business. Oh, and at the end of the digital version of the book is a clickable list of helpful blog posts written by a number of intrepid translation bloggers, including several posts from my silly blog.

So, it is a book, but at the same time, it is not a book, or not just a book.

Martha’s basic idea for the book is simple: application of general principles of economics specifically to the business of freelance translation, and that is why the book starts with a rather long definition of terms as an introduction to the topics that will be dealt with later.

I have to admit, since I mostly quickly scrolled through the 30 or so pages defining terms, I will probably never learn what the term “Bounded Rationality” means, while I believe that other terms that are also thrown around with abandon in economics, such as “The Law of Diminishing Returns” or “Opportunity Cost”, I understand all too well already (especially “Cost of Lost Opportunity”).

You don’t really need an economic interpretation of certain facts of life when you have been around for a while.

Economics, Shmeconomics. Every time I see on the news that another professor at another university was awarded another Nobel prize for economics (this year it was a French professor; a shy and modest looking guy, he actually looks muy simpatico to me, especially compared to Paul Krugman), I am reminded of the old joke that God invented economists to make astrologists look good.

While I have not read the entire book yet, (41 thousand words on 169 pages with lots of graphs, flowcharts and clickable gizmos if you read it as a digital file), I did pay very close attention to some chapters and some subjects, for instance to the insightful approach with application of simple economic principles to the subject of COST LEADERSHIP below (I would have called it LOW COST LEADERSHIP if it were my book).

Allow me now to give you a taste of the book with a rather extensive quote from the book:


For a freelancer, pursuing the cost leadership strategy is a bad idea. If you decide to offer translation services on a low-cost basis, you will need to have high production levels. In other words, you will have to translate a large amount for very little pay. Your business might stay afloat, but you would only just be keeping your head above water. This is because, as a sole trader (or even as a small company), you cannot benefit from economies of scale: you can only work a limited number of hours and the services are provided by you alone. It is also virtually impossible to lower your operating costs even further as these are not high to begin with (for example, neither renting an office nor having high overheads). Within this strategy, you would always have to offer the lowest rates, and whenever somebody else tried to offer less you would have to go even lower. In any case, it would be very difficult for you to take control of the whole value chain (how value is added to the product or service before it reaches the customer).

Moreover, as we saw above, your customers would be cost-conscious and not loyal to you at all, simply switching to a cheaper translator at the first opportunity.

While cost leadership is not a viable strategy for a freelance translator if they want to survive and have a chance at business success, for translation agencies, cost leadership seems to be a cheap and easy option. There are many agencies in the industry following the low-margin, high-volume approach, and every now and then, they try to push this strategy onto translators with volume discounts. A typical cost leader in the translation industry would advertise their services as ‘affordable’ or claim a ‘lowest price guarantee’. This is how they go after end customers who want to spend as little as possible on their translation projects.

What is unfortunate for these agencies – and you could say the flaw with this strategy – is that whenever any new competitor pursuing the same approach appears, their customers will simply walk away. Cost leaders need high volumes to survive, and this is why they often consolidate and merge, forming bigger and bigger Language Service Providers (LSPs). Also, they often try to minimise their own costs by opening offices in cheaper locations or outsourcing parts of operations. Taking control of the whole value chain is something that a number of agencies excel at.

Some translation agencies are successful in this approach and do generate enough profit to keep their owners happy. This is how the market works and there will be cost leaders in any given industry, just as there will always be price-sensitive clients. However, it does not mean that this bulk market will expand, dominate or overshadow other segments.”

Of course, we can only hope that the conclusion in the last sentence is correct. It is also possible that unholy alliances between mega-translation agencies in the West and their obedient minions in Chindia and elsewhere will in the end conquer most of the commercial translation market, in which case the world will be saturated with even more garbage than it is now, and the debris labeled “Translation” will be almost completely incomprehensible.

Personally, I think that it is almost impossible to give advice to beginning translators on how to run a translation business. It is such an infinite subject, a subject that depends on so many variables, starting with your language combination and where you live, and ending with your blood type.

Every translator is like yet another, completely different island, an island that is unlike hundreds of thousands of other islands in an infinite ocean, as each and every one of us lives and works under very different conditions, translating very different languages in fields that are limited only by limits imposed on human thinking by the yet unmapped capacity of human brain.

But then again, impossible is a good description of what translators do for a living. We specialize in doing the impossible daily, five or more days a week when we are busy – that’s just what translators are here for!

And given the exacting requirements that come with the territory for those of us who work as freelance, independent translators, it is a good thing to have a thorough checklist of things that we as translators may want to take into consideration before we act.


  1. Thanks for the early review, Steve. I haven’t had a chance to delve into the book myself yet, but after hearing Marta’s excellent talk in Athens (probably the best all-round presentation at the conference, with many other good talks), I have high expectations. The live linking in the electronic version of the book is something we all ought to do more often with our PDFs, though maintenance of the links will probably be a challenge.

    I think – based on my observations of the translation markets for the last decade – that Marta’s observations which you quote are correct. For individuals, the points are more than obvious despite the great number of lemmings who still pursue such a strategy. Among agencies I have watched one small shop after another go down the tubes chasing “low price success”, and the survival strategy of the larger Linguistic Sausage Producers of trying to repackage machine pseudo-translation (MpT technology), raw or reworked in human-assisted machine pseudo-translation (HAMPsTr) processes, as something somehow better or more reliable than the product of human understanding and effort (i.e. ordinary translation by humans with working brains) is a sad joke ultimately doomed to failure.

    I don’t see it as impossible to advise novices on how they might approach the business. Marta presents many general issues which warrant consideration by all of us, not just novices, but in every case and at every level of experience, we need to consider how these might apply in our situations. It is this careful analysis which is too often left out or where more honesty about the real effort invested would be helpful.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “I don’t see it as impossible to advise novices on how they might approach the business.”

    I said “almost impossible” and there is a big difference between “impossible” and “almost impossible”, much, much bigger than the difference between Coke and Pepsi, or Democrats and Republicans.


  3. Thank you for such a thorough review, Steve! Just as a shameless plug, the book is available here:


  4. There is also a link to ordering the book in the second Youtube video.


  5. Thanks for passing on your thoughts, Steve – I’m looking forward to reading Marta’s business-studies approach to freelance translation. And I’m loving the Steve/Marta combination here – so nice to see. 🙂


  6. “And I’m loving the Steve/Marta combination here – so nice to see.”

    An uprising of former Slavs.


  7. […] Marta’s Thorough Checklist for Translators – An Invitation to Think Before You Act […]


  8. […] angles and act on facts instead of vague ideas and wish­ful think­ing. Steve Vitek wrote a short review of the book, if you want to find […]


  9. […] different angles and act on facts instead of vague ideas and wishful thinking. Steve Vitek wrote a short review of the book, if you want to find out […]


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