Posted by: patenttranslator | December 2, 2014

Translators Can Be as Unimportant as Movie Extras, or as Important as Movie Stars or Directors


Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.
Woody Allen, American movie actor, comedian, & director.

Translators may be completely unimportant or very important depending on what kind of role is offered to them, or rather what kind of role they can get.

When I was a poor student four decades ago, I used to work as an extra in movies every now and then to make some money that would be then invariably spent with friends on beer in pubs. The most memorable role that I remember playing back then was when I was in Nazi uniform saluting Adolph Hitler who was played by a Swedish actor. I forgot his name, but he was pretty good, although not nearly as good as Bruno Ganz in Der Untergang (Downfall, check out the parodies of Bruno Ganz as Hitler on Youtube, for instance when Hitler is getting mad that his pizza is late). In a surreal moment at the end, we were all signing “Die Fahne hoch! Die Reihen fest geschlossen!

After that we got our money and quickly changed into our own clothes.

When you are a movie extra, you don’t have to be able to play. You are just an unimportant peon among dozens, hundreds or thousands of other unimportant and interchangeable peons who just like you are happy to make a little bit of money in exchange for their time, although they don’t have any talent either.

Mutatis mutandis, this is also a fitting description of translators who work for the modern type of corporate translation agency. One major translation agency sent last week corporate mugs to translators on its “network of thousands of highly qualified specialist-translators” which said:

We have launched our mug selfie competition! All of you, our TMS trained linguists will receive or have already received one of our exclusive thebigword Translation Management System mugs. Once you have received your mug get involved and take a selfie with the mug showing the logo and join in with the competition fun. Just post it to our Facebook page for a chance of winning a £100 Amazon voucher.”

This got many translators mad because up to that point, these translators were naively thinking of themselves as independent professionals rather than obedient mascots of a translation agency who would obviously be willing and happy to monkey around with a stupid mug next to their own mug for the amazing chance to win a £100 Amazon voucher and maybe even get into good graces of their master in this manner. Apparently it never occurred to the geniuses who designed this marketing campaign that there could be a blowback from translators who do not want to be used as props, or as well trained, housebroken pets who will gladly do amazing tricks for their master on demand.

One of them said:“I can’t say I’m surprised by these marketing tactics, but this just takes things to a new low. Last year they cut rates without any consultation or negotiation whatsoever, now they want to rope us into marketing their company? Why on earth would I want to put a selfie of myself with one of their mugs on Facebook? Wouldn’t they do better to spend their money on giving translators better rates than wasting it on tacky marketing campaigns? It doesn’t really send a good message about translation being a serious profession either. What do you think?”

There were many responses from translators that differed only in the level of indignation at this novel approach to exploitation of translators expressed in the comments in the range from high to sky-high. Responses like this:

“I had to wait 5 months to get paid. Last year, they wanted to “persuade” us to go down with our rates. Why should I take part in any marketing campaign in favour of such a company?”

“The whole idea is appalling. How about all of you who have dealings with them put every one of your pictures on a poster with a big red STOP sign (like for cars) overprinted on it and then send it to them.
“We ain’t mugs, we don’t like mug shots and we are not in the business of promoting others’ businesses.”

“Cries out for some creative ‘reverse’ marketing – how about doing something with that mug and posting it on FB? Invent your on slogan and tape it on the mug and then take a picture and put that on FB that ? For example “Some Mug sent me a mug but with their rates I couldn’t afford to put tea in it.”

To some translation agencies, especially the big ones, translators are as unimportant as movie extras in a film with a lot of mob scenes.

To a few of them, translators are as important as movie stars, because their talents and skills, if these talents and skills are present, will bring the customer back to the company with new orders for new translations. In the absence of such a talent and skill, the customer is likely to go someplace else.

This is the only kind of translation agency that I am still working for. From the way an agency is treating me, I can tell quite easily whether they see me as an easily replaceable movie extra, or as a star in a movie. The movie may be seen by only one person, the person who needs my translation, but if he or she truly appreciates my work, I have done my job as well as Meryl Streep, Dustin Hoffman, or Robert Redford.

And sometime, when I am the translation agency and I pick a translator for a role that I myself cannot play, usually because I don’t know the language, I am the film producer and film director who is responsible for the logistics, which is just a fancy word for putting it all together.

It is an important role and I like that role too. The only role that I am no longer willing to play is that of a movie extra. I did not mind being an extra four decades ago, but at this point I am much too old for something like that.



  1. There are different periods in life and different skills to be sold: when being a student with limited skills you did not compete with professional actors, just like I compete with nobody when translating Wikipedia articles, and I don’t mind about fan subtitling of American series: nobody will pay for that anyway, or so little that a professional will not care.

    Now you have experience and skills that make you a star in your profession, and you are proud to put your name on your work, you ask for the price of this star status.

    The main issue with BIG translation companies is that they sell movie stars to their customers (native, experienced, tried and tested, careflully reviewed…) but they actually hire and treat them as extras, and worse it shows like this mug story demonstrates.

    By the way movie stars are well-known faces, just ask your translation company who will perform your job and check the credentials of the star supposed to shine on the play you wrote.
    Chances are you willl never know the name or the face of the extra who happened to be assigned, now you know that you do not always get what you pay for…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I don’t agree with the notion that movie extras are unimportant. Quite the contrary. Movie extras do play as important a role as movie stars. If the extras play their part well the movie will flow naturally and you probably won’t notice them, but if they are not good they can ruin the whole movie. To make a good movie you need both stars and extras – and you need respect for everyone and everyone’s part.


  3. “Movie extras do play as important a role as movie stars.”

    OK, whatever. Maybe they are even more important than movie stars and directors.

    And if what you aspire to is to be a really good movie extra, good for you, although I do hope that you change your mind and decide to become the star and director in the movie of your life when you are a little bit older.


  4. Extras may look like they’re just backgrounds of the stars but hey, a tree isn’t called a tree without leaves. Sure thing movie stars started being an extra too. Read the cons of being an extra at and it’s a WOW!


  5. thanks for sharing this!


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