Posted by: patenttranslator | December 10, 2014

It’s Not Just About the Money That You Can Make Right Now


November was a slow month for me. I was not nearly as busy as in October, so instead of spending most of the day translating and proofreading, I was reading several novels and watching movie series on TV, including about 6 episodes of “The Affair” on HBO and 12 episodes of the French police series “Engrenages” (“Spiral”) on Netflix (it’s good for my French).

I was reduced to reading my trashy books, walking my son’s ugly/beautiful pit bull Lucy and watching movies if I found something worth watching, an increasingly more and more difficult task these days as mostly really stupid Hollywood movies seem to be offered on all of my 12 movie channels.

A translator’s life is full of suffering and tribulations.

But after the lazy month of November ended, I started turning work down again in December. I had to turn down a translation of a German contract and a long translation of a Japanese patent (27 pages) since I was already translating 2 long Russian contracts (a total of 50 pages).

All of these translations that I would have loved to be working on in November were from translation agencies. I never have to turn down offers of work from direct customers because usually, when I offer a discount for “non-rush” turnaround time to direct customers, they (or in fact their customers) almost always go for the deadline that his twice as long to save money, which gives me the time to do everything by myself.

And when I have to translate on a rush deadline, my greedy alter ego kicks in enough additional energy so that I still finish all translations on time, although an almost superhuman effort is often required.

But I sometime I have to turn down work from a translation agency.

The long Japanese patent that I could not accept last week was called “Data Processing Device and Data Processing System”. I must have translated at least a dozen Japanese patents with exactly the same title, and quite a few from German and French. From the viewpoint of this mad patent translator, patents about data processing devices and systems are a gold mine. After the first few pages I don’t have to look up anything and the style is usually concise and highly repetitive, just the way I like it. I remember that with one such patent, I think it was 120 pages with about 20 figures at the end, it was in fact the longest patent I translated so far – it took me about 2 weeks to make what I would normally make during a whole busy month.

Every translator has his or her special field that is for this translator very easy and lucrative. But it is really not a good idea these days to specialize in a few, highly lucrative fields. As far as I can tell, it is not even a good idea to specialize in only one or two languages these days.

A few months ago I was asked to give a price quote to a law firm for a number of Japanese patents. I always include both a regular turnaround quote, which is based on the assumption that I will be translating it all by my lonesome, as well as a quote for expedited turnaround, for which would have been needed at least one additional translator to help me due to a much shorter deadline.

So I called several translators who are known to me as highly experienced translators of Japanese patents, although in fact I never met any one of them in person. Everybody seemed to be too busy at the moment.

One of these translators told me that he had absolutely no time at all because he was working basically full time only for one customer – a patent law firm that kept him very busy … and then some. He said that he was doing very well, although the rate that he was charging this particular customer was in my opinion too low – 3 cents lower than what I normally charge translation agencies.

So I asked him:”But isn’t it too dangerous to work for only one customer?”

“Yeah, it probably is”, he said. “But what can you do? And I am so busy that I am doing really well even at that rate. They always send me new work before I finish what I am working on.”


The same translator who was so busy a few months ago sent me an e-mail yesterday. He probably did not realize that he sent it to the same guy what talked to him on the phone a few months ago. The short e-mail said:”I am writing to you to inquire whether your firm might be in need of my services as an experienced Japanese-to-English patent translator” …. “My reason for seeking to expand my client base at this time is that my largest client, with whom I have worked for over ten years, has recently experienced a decrease in its volume of J-E patent work.”

It is more than just dangerous to work only for one client. In my line of work it may be ultimately a kiss of death.

It may be good work if you can get it, while it lasts, especially if it is well paid. And it may last for a long time, more than ten years, but you must have to have a plan for what to do when it’s over. And the only plan that makes sense to me is to have more than one client, to specialize in more than just one field, and in my case (and in the case of many other translators), preferably in more than just one language.

That is why I in fact preferred to work on the Russian legal contract this week instead of a Japanese patent about a data processing system, which would have been more lucrative for me.

Unlike with Japanese patents when I can comfortably put my translator’s data processing device and data processing system (called brain) on autopilot, I have to look up a lot of Russian legal terms because I have only translated a few contracts from Russian, and most of them only recently.

But truth be told, I enjoy Russian contracts as much as Japanese patents, although I would be twice as fast if I were translating a patent, especially from Japanese. Every language results in new amazing discoveries for me. For example, isn’t it interesting that the word “brak” means both “defect” and “marriage” in Russian? The genius of the Russian language led to such a happy confluence of two seemingly disparate meanings in the same Russian word. I wonder how that happened. Also, if I am not careful how to pronounce “departure” (ubytiye), it will sound like “murder” (ubitiye). Russian is full of happy moments like this for me.

It’s not just about the money that I can make right now. It’s about the proper balance of other things too. I enjoyed being lazy for a while last month. The books that I read were pretty interesting, and I finally went to the beach for the first time in several months (although the wind was really cold).

People generally don’t realize that being able to pay attention to the world around them and to enjoy all those little and seemingly unimportant things in life is in fact much more important than the money.

The money will still be here … when we no longer are.



  1. Another linguistic curiosity: the Swedish word for married (“gift”) is the same as for poison.
    Thanks for yet another interesting post!


  2. It seems that linguistic curiosities related to other meanings of the word “marriage” would make a good topic for a doctoral thesis of a future esteemed linguist.


  3. I enjoyed your post, Steve.

    In Spanish the word for wife is the same as for handcuff.


  4. @Jesse

    But there is a clear difference between “esposa” (wife) and “esposar” (handcuff) in Spanish, right?

    In Russian, exactly the same word “brak” can mean 1. marriage, and 2. defect, waste, defective product.

    Maybe some eminent Russian linguist will graciously explain to us the etymology of the word “brak” in Russian.


    • It’s exactly the same word. The context of course’ll signal which one it is. But I think there’s also some truth to it. Being married is like being handcuffed to the other person.


  5. Esposas are “handcuffs” esposar is “to handcuff”. 🙂


  6. @Jesse

    I see.

    At French conversation evenings that we have in a restaurant here, somebody proposed a game where you start a sentence in French and somebody else finishes it.

    So Chris said “Non, vous ne pouvez-pas dancer avec ma femme …” (no, you cannot dance with my wife), and a certain S.V. finished it by saying “sauf si vous avez l’intention de se enfuir avec elle et disparaître à jamais” (unless you intend to elope with her and disappear forever).


    • We really liked the French series Engrenages. The next season is due to air in the UK in 2015.


  7. As far as I know, the series is not available here on cable, only on Netflix and only for one season.

    Could it be that Hollywood is afraid of foreign competition?


    • Could be, Steve. All four seasons so far have been shown in the UK. We’re just waiting for season 5.


  8. It is very rare that they show a foreign films on one of the dozens of movie channels here. A few years ago I was with a different cable TV company – there are usually only two providers of things like cable, phone, or Internet service here, even in big cities, so that they don’t have to compete for customers since the have identical prices and offering – that company actually had one channel with quite a few foreign films from France, Italy, Germany, Russia, but my present company has basically none. They have been showing “Amelie” as the only subtitled movie for years now.

    So I pay 35 dollars extra for a French channel (TV5 Monde) and for 2 German channels (Deutsche Welle and Pro7) to be able to watch films, news and other programs in French and in German.

    The people who put together program packages for cable movie channels here either seem to assume that Americans are not interested (or perhaps not smart enough) to be able to follow subtitled films. (After all, you have to be able to read pretty quickly to do that).

    Either that, or they are afraid of foreign competition.


    • There isn’t much foreign language programming here either. But a couple of years ago BBC4 started doing a regular Saturday evening slot where they show (mostly) high quality foreign language drama. Highlights so far have included all four seasons of Engrenages, the brilliant original Danish drama The Killing (three seasons) and Swedish-Danish series The Bridge (two seasons). Also, many satellite and cable TV packages include TV5 Monde, though I rarely watch it. Does it ever show any good movies?

      $35 a month sounds like a heck of a lot to pay for three foreign language channels.


  9. “Does it ever show any good movies?”

    Once in a long while. I don’t seem to get a lot of the situational humor in French comedies. Something must be wrong with me. But I try to watch the movies anyway at least for a while, for the language and to escape from the English language only ghetto here.

    But they do have very good documentaries, especially in “ARS-Reportage” from places such as Mongolia, Brazil, or Russia. I have never seen anything like that about what is going on in the rest of the world on American TV.

    “Envoyée Special” is also usually very interesting if you are interested in what is going on in France, and so are discussions of foreign reporters stationed in France on “Le Kiosque”, etc. One of the topics reporters from Germany, Algeria, Belgium and other countries were discussing yesterday on “Le Kiosque” was whether Bush or Cheney could be arrested somewhere in Europe for war crimes (they were talking about the newly released Torture Report).

    I don’t think that they would dare to talk like that on US TV.


    • Indeed, Steve – Envoyé Spécial has long been the best current affairs programme on French TV. I suppose I should try to watch TV5 more, but time seems to escape me…


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