Posted by: patenttranslator | November 6, 2014

History of Translation in the Last 10,000 Years According to Mad Patent Translator, Part II – Twentieth Century


As I wrote in my detailed, scholarly analysis contained in my post “History of Translation During the Last 10,000 Years According to Mad Patent Translator, Part I – Early Beginnings”, there were several important milestones in the development of commercial translation and of what later became known as “the translation business” during the last 10,000 years, such as translation of the Bible by St. Jerome towards the end of the fourth century and invention of movable printing plates by Johannes Guttenberg in 1465.

In the second part of the twentieth century, translation has come of age and became an important business thanks to technical means enabling dissemination of translated information by the communication means of the last century: typewriter, copier, telephone, and fax. This particular stage was described in some detail by James F. Shipp in his guest post on my blog “Brief History of Russian-English Translation in America”.

Translation became an important and fully commercially viable service in the twentieth century because it was translation that made timely information that was originally contained only in a foreign language accessible for all kinds of purposes and to all kinds of people: from generals designing plans to attack and invade a foreign country, to doctors who needed information on new and effective medications, and inventors who were hungry for information about improved design of the latest bread-slicing machine.

Two groups of business-minded people, who eventually became translation brokers called “translation agencies”, noticed that the value contained in “simple” translations of written and interpretations of spoken words can be relatively easily monetized, e.i. purchased at a relatively low price from (other) translators and then resold at a significantly higher price to what is in the business parlance called “direct clients”.

One of these groups of translation brokers consisted of translators who in addition to a translator’s mind also possessed an entrepreneurial mind driven by logic and experience. Unfortunately, this seems to be something of a rarity among translators.

The people in the second group, who also figured out how to make a living by selling translation produced by people called translators, could be described as pure entrepreneurs who were often completely or almost completely monolingual, often unabashedly and proudly so, especially in English-speaking countries.

In the second part of the twentieth century, the translating business was typically driven by the translating entrepreneurs who started a small translation agency. Most of these small translation agencies that I used to work for in nineteen eighties and nineties were people who also translated in addition to being translation brokers: I used to work for several German translators, several Japanese translators, one French translator, one Czech translator, etc.

Translators who work for translation agencies today mostly have to deal with project managers (PMs) who typically do not understand the languages that they are parceling out to their far-flung network of translators and who do not specialize only in a certain translation field either because the agencies that they work for claim to be able to deliver perfect translation “in every field from and into every language”.

In the last century it was much easier to communicate with the people who were running translation agencies back then because as translators or former translators, the people who were managing translation projects were usually able at least to read to some extent the source texts and then send them to translators who in fact did specialize in a given field.

In the last century, project managers who were also translators were also able to tell a good translation from a mediocre or bad translation. For the most part, this is no longer true either.

When an English-speaking project manager who works for the modern, corporate type of translation agency, usually a young person working for a low wage, sends a text for translation from Japanese, Russian, Korean or Chinese, or even from a language that is more accessible to Westerners, such as German or French, (s)he is usually unable to understand anything in the text in the foreign language. And once a translator who is not exactly experienced in a certain type of translation says yes to a complicated job in an unfamiliar field, the result may be quite ugly.

But of course, it will be the translator and only the translator who will have to bear all of the blame if an irate customer protests that that translation is unusable.

Back in the last century, project managers and owners of translation agencies not only knew something about the product they were selling, e.i. foreign languages, they also provided a useful buffer between a direct client and the translator, a human buffer who often got pummeled from both sides as the agency tried to serve both sides as best as possible.

Today, the agencies still try to serve their clients, but they see themselves mostly as bosses of inept, bumbling and unreliable translators who must be ruled with an iron hand. This is evidenced by long, one-sided “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that nowadays often have almost nothing to do with “non-disclosure” of confidential information of end clients as they are often used mostly to define the role of translators as serfs who must be made to obey their masters.

Back in the last century, translators were able to exchange jokes with people who were running translation agencies about things that only translators would understand and friendships that were established between these translators and the people who were running translation agencies, usually owners of a small business, would sometime last for decades to the benefit of both the agency and the translator.

The translators depended on the agencies for a constant supply of reasonably well-paid work, and the agencies in turn were able to trust the translators to supply them with translations that were likely to please even the most demanding customers. It was not a bad arrangement as far as division of labor is concerned because each of the two parties was able to concentrate on what they were really good at.

Back in the last century, many if not most translation agencies tried to compete mostly based on the quality of the translation instead of competing mostly on price: among other things by forcing translators to provide discounts for “repeat words and fuzzy matches” that are not necessarily passed on to direct customers, by outsourcing translations to third world countries where labor is incredibly cheap and then setting the low rates as the going rate also in Western Europe, America, Japan, or by creating new, ingenious schemes aimed at getting around the high cost of human translation with “post-editing of machine translations by humans”, “crowd-editing”, or similar brainless schemes based on the theory that pretty good translations can be obtained not only from talented, highly educated and experienced translators, but from just about anyone who may claim to be “bilingual”.

The price has obviously always been very important because contrary to the new, revolutionary theories cooked up by the modern, corporate type of translation agency in the never ending chase after higher and higher profits, human translation is a highly labor-intensive activity that can be performed well only by well educated humans and therefore it is never cheap – except when translation quality is unimportant.

But prior to the advent of the corporate style of translation agencies that are driven by maximization of profit and almost nothing else, maximum profit was not the only thing that was important – there were other also important considerations, and maintaining a good relationship with the best translators was a conditio sine qua non if the agency wanted to be able to compete in a market that was based both on price and on quality.

At the end of the twentieth century, change was in the air, for better for some and for worse for others.

Many changes would be gradually brought about by the emergence of Internet in many industries as a force that gives  a new lease on life, or kills, including in the “translation industry”. Some flourishing industries would be profoundly changed by it (e.g. music industry, book industry, movie theaters, newspapers), and some well established and highly profitable businesses would go bankrupt if they ignored changes inevitable due to Internet long enough (for example the tape and DVD renting business exemplified by the bankruptcy of Blockbuster a few years ago).

These changes would have a major impact also on the relatively young translation industry or “the translation business” in the twenty first century, which will be the subject of my next and last post in this series.


  1. Great Job, Steve!

    Only one slight correction here:

    “by outsourcing translations to third world countries where labor is incredibly cheap”

    This is not outsourcing for a very simple reason: a company cannot outsource its primary (core) economic activity.


  2. Nice one Steve! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. […] As I wrote in my detailed, scholarly analysis contained in my post “History of Translation During the Last 10,000 Years According to Mad Patent Translator, Part I – Early Beginnings”, there …  […]


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