Posted by: patenttranslator | November 9, 2014

History of Translation in the Last 10,000 Years According to Mad Patent Translator, Part III – Modern Times


In the last two posts on my blog I briefly summarized the developments in translation and in the translation business in the last 10,000 years or so, or how these developments appear to me in the first decade of the twenty first century. In this post I will describe a few striking features of the development in the history of translation at this point in time.

Disappearance of Barriers to Entry into the Translating Profession

During the last 10,000 years or so, before wireless access to Internet became almost as commonplace as access to breathable air, there were certain important barriers that both translators and translation agencies had to overcome to be able to compete and deliver the goods. For example, translators working on patent translation before the Internet had to have a very solid knowledge of another language, they had to know something about the relevant technology, and they also had to understand the concept of patent terms such as “claims” and “prior art”.

These barriers to entry into the translating profession were useful because they kept people who could not overcome them as they lacked the necessary skills away from the field of translation.

Although translation agencies did not necessarily need to know much about languages, and most still don’t, a few decades ago they had to invest at least a modest amount of money into the infrastructure and logistics of their business. In the pre-Internet age, they also needed to know something about running a business in order to run a “translation business”. But since Internet lowered the requirements for entry both for translators and for translation brokers into the “translation business” to a minimum in the twenty first century, the barriers to entry into this particular business for translation brokers have basically disappeared.

Theoretically, anybody can be a translator now. When everything is highly automated, theoretically, you can become a translator even if you don’t really know anything about anything, even if you don’t know any foreign languages. If you don’t understand something, an instant answer is just a mouse click away on Google, Yahoo, or DuckDuckGo, and you can use Google Translate or another free machine translation program and then lick the result into shape so that it would look like a human translation.

And what is the main, or in fact the only requirement for a translation agency at the beginning of the twenty first century? That’s right, you need to have access to Internet. You don’t have to pretend that you know a foreign language, nor do you need to waste money on office rent or on impressive stationary. All of that is so twentieth century now, if not nineteenth century.

A website that can be maintained very inexpensively will do just fine if what you want to do is run a translation agency in the twenty first century.

Thanks to the Internet, hundreds of thousands of translators (or people calling themselves translators) joined grizzled veterans in the translating profession who used be able to translate before there was Internet, incredible as it sounds. And thousands of big and small “LSPs” (Language Services Providers, which is the preferred term used by translation agencies now to disguise their intermediary role) are now operating as translation agencies on a worldwide scale on every continent with the exception of Antarctica, the only continent where access to Internet is still restricted.

Emphasis on Business Aspects Rather than on Skills and Abilities of Individual Translators

Because on the surface it would seem that everything that has anything to do with translation has become trivially easy, unlike in the past centuries and millennia, the emphasis has shifted in the twenty first century away from the abilities and skills of the human translator and in a certain segment of the translation industry, called “the bulk market”, the business aspects are much more important than the education, skills and abilities of human translators.

This, to me, is the main difference between the last century and the beginning of this century.

At least when one looks at the business model of the corporate type of translation agency, the emphasis is clearly on the business side of the “translation business”, rather than on the education, experience and other qualification of a human translator.

In the corporate translation business model, translators are no longer perceived as colleagues and sometime even friends of the people who are running the translation agency. For one thing, translators deal with project managers (PMs) who keep changing because they are generally young and poorly paid, and in any case there is very little direct interaction by phone between a project manager and a translator as just about everything is done by e-mail.

The particulars of every translator, most importantly the rates the translators are charging, are captured and kept in a database and in order to find the cheapest available translator, project managers often send the same missives of mass e-mails with the same job offering to a number of translators. Whoever responds first with the lowest rate will get the job. The project managers don’t really know what are the strengths and weaknesses of individual translators who to them are just interchangeable items in a database.

The translators are also often forced in the bulk market to adapt their own business model to that of the translation agency, which includes even the invoicing method. Instead of being allowed to issue their own invoices, they have to learn and struggle with the software that various translation agencies maintain online for this purpose, and they are thus obviously also forced to accept the payment terms of the translation agencies. While in the last century, translators would generally not have to wait longer than 30 days to get paid for their work, payment in 30 days net is being stretched to 45, 60 or more days in this century.

The agency thus does not need to invest any of its own money to pay translators who can expect to be paid only once payment has been received from the agency’s client. And since large corporate clients of translation agencies also often stretch the payment terms to translation agencies as their business is based on the same corporate business model, the translator who did all of the translating is usually the last person to get paid because he is at the bottom of the pyramid in the bulk market.

Another striking feature of the bulk market is that several middlemen often participate and need to take their cut first as they are inserted between the translator and the end client.

Millions of Words Translated in a Few Weeks by Nameless and Faceless Translator Drones

I will illustrate this mechanism on what happened to me personally about six months ago when I received an e-mail from a translation agency that I used to work for back in early nineties of the last century when it was a small startup. Back then they paid decent rates and on time. Once, when they did not pay me on time and I complained about it on Compuserve (an online discussion group for translators popular about twenty years ago), the owner called me to assure me in person that the check was being sent by Federal Express.

I stopped working for this agency about ten years ago when it became just another corporate behemoth displaying all the typical characteristics of predatory bulk market agencies. But they still sent me a number of e-mails informing me about “an exciting opportunity” to participate in a project involving several million words that had to be translated within a very short of time. I seem to remember that five million words was mentioned at first, which then grew to twenty million words to be translated in about one month.

I did not take advantage of this “exciting offer” because the agency was on my list of agencies best to avoid. But soon I was besieged by e-mails and telephone calls about the same job from many other translation agencies, from California to Massachusetts, as well as from foreign countries from Holland to Singapore, acting as subcontractors for this particular translation agency who were desperately looking for Japanese translators. To be able to work, I had to stop answering the phone and let the answering machine deal with these incessant phone calls.

It goes without saying that millions of words cannot be translated in a few days if a certain minimum level of quality is important. Because it would be difficult to organize and manage such a project, no translation agency would touch it with a ten foot pole a decade or two decades ago.

But Internet changed also the perception of what is and what is not possible in the bulk translation market. Although there are clearly not enough translators on this planet who can translate competently millions of words from Japanese to English in a few days, there are enough warm bodies on this planet who are willing to participate, for a price, in such an “exciting opportunity”.

Projects like this, when enormous quantities of words must be translated within a very short period of time, are in fact the holy grail of the bulk translation industry because they are extremely lucrative. A large percentage of the resulting translations will be of extremely poor quality, but that is not important as long as the person sitting on the top of the pyramid can make a killing in a few days.

When major banks and large Wall Street firms triggered off a worldwide economic crisis in 2008 with a business model that was based on fraud: namely on selling of mortgages to people who could not afford them, illegally certifying them as “AAA quality loans”, chopping them up and mixing them with mortgages created in a legal manner, these august financial institutions in the end had to be bailed out by taxpayers because they were “too big to fail”, which translated into English means that they owned the politicians who forced the taxpayers to bail them out.

I don’t know what kind of crises the translation market is facing now given the business practices prevalent in the bulk translation market in the twenty first century. I do know that even the largest translation agencies do not have the kind of power that large banks multinational corporations have over politicians in this and other countries.

But I do know that economical survival will be becoming more and more difficult for translators who hitch their wagon to the bulk segment of the translation industry.

Fortunately, the bulk translation market segment represents only one part of the market for translations. In more specialized segments, for instance in technical and patent translation, which is what I do, but also for example in translation of financial or advertising texts, etc., the situation is quite different from the bulk translation market.

Quality Is Still Important in the Specialized Translation Market

In these and other non-bulk translation segments, quality is still paramount. You cannot file patent applications that are based on mistranslations, and you cannot sell to customers whatever it is that you want to sell them if you are using poorly translated materials.

It is also generally much easier for translators who specialize in a non-bulk translation field to work only for direct clients, or for direct clients and for a few translation agencies who also specialize in a few given fields. That is what I have been trying to do for the last two decades. It seems to be working for me, and I hope that it will work also for other highly specialized translators.

I do expect a major bursting of the bubble in the corporate business model of large translation agencies at some point soon as clients will be increasingly moving away from poor quality that is necessarily generated by the “Kings of the World” in the translation industry who can translate millions of words within a few days.

I don’t see the politicians forcing taxpayers to bail out CEOs of translation agencies when the bubble bursts in the bulk translation industry the way they forced us to bail out the banking industry in 2008 and then the private health insurance industry (with Obamacare in 2010).

Unlike the banks, major corporations and private health insurance industry, the bulk translation agencies simply don’t have the kind of money that is needed to buy politicians these days.


  1. “I do expect a major bursting of the bubble in the corporate business model of large translation agencies at some point soon”

    Within a year or two? If it hasn’t happened already, why should we expect it to happen in the future? There is no “bubble” like the housing bubble or Japan’s asset bubble happening.


  2. “There is no “bubble” like the housing bubble or Japan’s asset bubble happening.”

    Perhaps. But it is also true that everything comes to an end at some point, and the fact is that the business model I am describing cannot keep going on as it is forever.


    • “the fact is that the business model I am describing cannot keep going on as it is forever.”

      No, it certainly can’t, and with your brilliant writing skills, you could help bring its end a little nearer. High time you exposed the fraud, Steve. It’s elementary: the LSPs’ falsely claim they have hundreds and thousands of translators. Aks the question, how many translators do you have to employ so as to be entitled to the right to say: “My company can translate into/from any and all possible languages in any and all possible economic area!”


  3. Thank you for the compliment, but my brilliant writing skills work, to the extent that they do work of all, only on topics that I select myself.


  4. “No, it certainly can’t, …”

    I guess I still don’t see it. This type of service has been available a very long time, and I’ve never heard any of my friends who translate complain about it.
    Everyone I know translates at the higher end and hasn’t been affected by these agencies.

    So what is all the fuss about? Anyone who translates at the professional level is immune.


    • “Everyone I know translates at the higher end and hasn’t been affected by these agencies.”

      You should know better than that. Why keep your eyes wide shut? 🙂


  5. “Anyone who translates at the professional level is immune.”

    So the problem of those of us who are concerned about the corporate business model of translation agencies is that unlike Esther, we are not translating at the professional level.

    Got it.


  6. The problem of bulk translation affects all of us–maybe not in ways we can directly perceive–but make no mistake that its effects are lasting. It hardly even takes any thought to come up with one huge one off the top of my head:

    1. Agencies competing in an ever-faster race to the bottom mean that rates are lowered for a large swath of our cohort which, in turn, brings us all down with them. This not only affects us through the obvious financial channels (“Well, if I can get someone to do it for .02 cents a word, why can’t you do it for that price?”), but also in terms of the intangible–our image. You might say that as a professional translator, it doesn’t affect you… but oh, it does. Picture the average uninformed yet perfectly normal client: if the first thing they do is contact a Big Name and they receive an unrealistic estimate and time frame, what will they think when they next contact a freelancer who has a more realistic–albeit expensive–price in mind? These unrealistic estimates make people think we’re superhuman and can work very long hours for very little pay. Though I have heard rumors that some Big Names actually charge an arm and a leg and make a killing from so generously offering peanuts to freelancers…

    2. I’m not so sure this bubble will ever break. When I started in 2003, I remember it being easier to ask for (and get) better rates. It seems to me the market is in a downward spiral with no end in sight, and I generally work with some great agencies and end clients. It seems more and more I’m having to weed out the non-players in my efforts to establish relationships with serious agencies.

    Anyway, fantastic writing and article (as usual). Thought provoking.


  7. […] In the last two posts on my blog I briefly summarized the developments in translation and in the translation business in the last 10,000 years or so, or how these developments appear to me i…  […]


  8. “Agencies competing in an ever-faster race to the bottom mean that rates are lowered for a large swath of our cohort which, in turn, brings us all down with them.”

    I agree, but I also think that “the new normal” will bring down mostly those of us who will continue working for agencies offering low rates, long payment terms and demeaning contracts.

    However, we do have a choice. Some agencies pay fast and decent rates, and if we concentrate our marketing activities on direct clients and design our business so that it could be easily found by direct clients, we don’t have to accept the corporate translation model at all.


  9. This is not a bubble. I translate at the same rate I have been for 15 years — on average , 16 cents a word. I expect I’ll be paid the same in ten years. All of my translator friends get about the same. So what is suddenly different?


  10. “I translate at the same rate I have been for 15 years — on average 16 cents”

    As to why I see a bubble bursting soon, it would be a long story, but I wonder whether you realize that 16 cents today would equal about 10 cents 15 years ago.

    This is one of the results of the downward pressure on rates created for translators by the corporate business model of translation agencies.

    Do you remember what was the price of milk, gas, a stamp, rent, health insurance …. well, of just about everything 15 years ago?

    Do you still think that you are immune?


  11. […] and Revision Translating Expressions? Ten Common Terms That Don’t Translate Well History of Translation in the Last 10,000 Years, Part III – Modern Times Find the Perfect Word for Your Feelings with This Vocabulary Wheel How to make the most of […]


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