Posted by: patenttranslator | June 6, 2015

My Advice To Translators: Be More Like Giraffes, Less Like Hamsters

So many people are eager these days to dispense invaluable advice to translators, web designers, programmers and many other “freelance occupations” that whole industries have sprung up to offer professional development advice on how to promote one’s career by following the sage advice of professional and lifestyle gurus.

Some of these gurus who offer professional development guidance to translators, among other professions, don’t know anything about translation or translators, and probably not much about any other profession either.

They are monolingual and they never translated anything in their life. So instead of analyzing different kinds of markets for different kinds of translators and the rewards, benefits and pitfalls of the translating profession, they will be probably talking about … the proper lifestyle, correct body posture, breathing and mind expanding techniques, I suppose. I am not really sure what they talk about because you have to pay them, generally about 300 Euros or dollars, to make them willing to share the magic of their wisdom with you in a webinar.

The fact that these kinds of professional coaches don’t really know anything about anything in particular is not a disadvantage for these professional coaches in the professional webinar industry. Quite on the contrary: once they reach a certain status, their guru status alone makes them eminently qualified to talk about everything and anything at all in webinars that can be sold through the Internet to anybody willing to pay for them.

More and people are already and more still will be working through the Internet, and they all naturally need to learn proper breathing and mind expanding techniques, and things like how to focus the mind on professional goals and identify priorities through cognitive multitasking to achieve professional excellence.

I just threw randomly selected words into the sentence above, but if you Google them, you will have no trouble finding webinars of knowledgeable mentors who offer to teach you exactly that.

I don’t believe in professional gurus. I think that most of them, make that all of them, are a waste of time and money. My advice to people who want to become translators, but perhaps are not quite there yet, would be to forget about professional coaches and look for inspiration in the animal kingdom instead.

My advice is to look in particular at the fascinating animals called giraffes.

Why giraffes?

Giraffes are very interesting animals. They are so different from any other animal. I remember that my parents gave me a toy giraffe when I was 5 years old and had to spend several weeks in a hospital. I was completely fascinated by that toy giraffe all those years ago, and I am still fascinated by these animals now.

Initially, giraffes had as many vertebrae as other vertebrate animals and humans have to this day: namely a total of seven vertebrae. So how many do they have now that their neck is about 7 feet long?

If you guessed 14, or 21 or more, you would be wrong. If you thought that it looked like a trick question, you were right. Giraffes still have only seven vertebrae, but each of them is over 10 inches (25 centimeters) long.

Scientists have a number of competing theories for why and how their necks got so long. According to some, male giraffes need a long neck to fight other males over food and females by using their heavy necks and heads as weapons. The Pentagon is no doubt financing a few studies examining giraffe fighting techniques and their applicability to low-tech close combat fighting.

But I think it is clear that the main reason why sneaky giraffes developed their long neck, (which is proportionally much longer than a swan’s neck), is that unlike zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, rabbits, or hamsters, giraffes realized early on, millennia ago, that the tastiest food is generally located on branches high above a level that is visible to other plant eating animals. They basically have only one competitor when it comes to the juiciest stuff to chew on: elephants. But their long necks can reach even higher than a pretty long trunk of a really big elephant.

All the other plant-eating animals are competing for the same brown and yellow grasses and low-hanging fruit in the African savannah. Everybody from zebras to hamsters is doing the same thing, except for giraffes.

That must be why I always see a condescending smirk on the funny long face when a giraffe is chewing the greenest and juiciest leaves and branches, although all the other animals must make do with what is left on the ground while keeping an anxious eye out for predators. And if you have seen any documentary about the Serengeti, you know that giraffes are basically chewing something all the time, except when they are running on their long feet.

My advice to translators who are eating the dusty yellow and brown grasses near the watering hole where hyenas and lions congregate to prey on zebras, buffaloes, gazelles, goats and rabbits would be: become a giraffe.

Forget about professional coaches. They don’t really know anything about anything anyway, and in any case, they know nothing about you and don’t care one bit about you. They will just tell you what they think you want to hear to make money. Instead, be like a giraffe: try to figure out yourself where the best work is for somebody like you and then try to stretch your neck as far as you need to in order to reach it.

The best work will not be found on “portals for translators” where dozens of translators are competing for a single job by trying to underbid each. It will not be delivered to you courtesy of translation mega-agencies who make translators sign “Non-Disclosure Agreements” that run to more than 10 pages. The real purpose of these agreements is to make us declare our obedience to the principles of hamsterization of translators in the new version of “the translation industry”.

No matter what these agencies are telling you, post-processing of machine translations is not “a useful new skill that you should add to your arsenal of existing skills”, unless knowing how to skillfully dig one’s own grave is a useful new skill. It is mind-numbing and mind-dumbing drudgery when you have to retranslate the result of algorithms run amok, combined with poverty because you are expected to do it at much lower rates than what you used to make. It can be best described as a horrible way to die.

Just like the gurus who know so little about so much, I don’t know where the best work for you is or will be and how you should go about finding it. You have to figure it out on your own because everything depends on your language combination, your personality, your education, your inclinations and your skills, and the present and future trends in the development of an almost infinite translation market.

But I do know that instead of thinking like hamsters, translators need to be thinking more like giraffes. They need to figure out how to stretch their necks even if they must keep the same seven vertebrae that they were born with. But they need to do it quickly. Unlike giraffes, translators will not have centuries or millennia of evolution to stretch their necks as far as it takes to reach their goals.

They only have a hundred years to live, probably quite a bit less.



  1. I love this post! Well said, especially about hamsterization. I am off to practising being a giraffe:)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The agencies have already evolved into giraffes. That’s why every single translator is desperately trying to “prolong their neck” by offering as many services as possible into as many languages as one may think of.

    Remember the gynecologist & orthopedist dilemma? Here it is for those of you who have not heard of it.

    To get an idea of what agencies do, imagine a doctor, say, a gynecologist, who has hung out a sign to his office. The sign, however, does not read: “Dr. Johnson, specialist in gynecological diseases”, but “All kinds of medical services!”

    Now imagine that a man with a broken arm comes to the gynecologist. The gynecologist telephones an orthopedist and tells him: “I need you urgently, I HAVE A CLIENT with a broken arm.” The orthopedist provides the treatment, the gynecologist gets the money, and pays the orthopedist half or one third of the amount.

    Generally speaking, this is what most agencies do. Typically, the owner is a translator, who has rented a small office in the city center and hung out a sign “All kinds of translations!”


    • If – as you say – the agencies have become the top-browsing giraffes, then let’s be birds and let it drop where it may. However, I think you’re wrong. They aren’t browsing the premium top branches but rather rooting like pigs at ground level, ripping up the ground and turning the low-lying zones of vegetation into a holy, stinky mess, a No Man’s Land of professional muck in which some easily get stuck. But lions have learned at their cost what the lick of a long-legged giraffe can do, and I imagine pigs – being the cunning creatures that they are – know well enough to stay clear and leave those treats at the top to their betters….

      Liked by 1 person

      • That is why I am saying in my fable that translators should think like giraffes, grow a long neck and let other creatures fight over the stinking mess down there.


  3. Steve, this is possibly your best one yet.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. For some reason your giraffe triggered a memory from my distant youth of a gnu. I’ll say more here except to give the link that took me back cca. 60 years to a musical performance in London that was as fresh now as it was then 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Not “I’m a gnu, how do you do? Call me bison or okapi and I’ll sue”, by any chance?


      • No, not that one because I grew up on different things.

        When I got the giraffe toy from my parents, they also gave me my first “book” with lots of pictures about a little chick who got lost in the fields and was looking for way back home (similar to the story “Are You My Mother?” that I used to read to my own kids 30 years later).

        And the story in that picture book (I learned the words that went with each picture by heart and pretended that I could read) started like this:

        Jak to bylo, pohádko?
        Zabloudilo kuřátko.
        Za zahradou mezi poli,
        pípá, pípá, nožky bolí.


  5. I appreciate it, but judging by the response, the best post so far was this one:


  6. I like your comparison to the animal kingdom, Steve. How refreshing to move past “sharks” and “blood on your mouth” to refer to how juicy it feels to say, catch a new client or get a really good deal.

    I also love giraffes and had to get that big stuffed toy one from FAO Shwarz as soon as I was able, which turns out to have been around 20 years old.

    I’m not too sure what gurus you are talking about, but there is some really good advice out there in the translation “industry”, including yours! So far I haven’t met anyone who is downright out for their own good only or trying to take my money or be a jerk (and here I am talking purely about individual people). I have found other translators/editors/freelances/copywriters/writers to be pretty great people. So far! Perhaps being at it years and years shows a different picture as to what is really going on. Agencies seem (I can’t speak definitively as I only have worked for a couple) to be the major culprit/enemy/giant trying to make money off people who work really hard and lower prices.

    Anyway, back to the giraffe, I have not seen a smirking giraffe lately. I think they are just noble beasts, above it all, literally, who are loping their way about their lives. Who knows who will be extinct in the future though.


  7. “I have found other translators/editors/freelances/copywriters/writers to be pretty great people.”

    From what I have seen, it is a mixed bag at best.


  8. […] So many people are eager these days to dispense invaluable advice to translators, web designers, programmers and many other "freelance occupations" that whole industries have sprung up to of…  […]


  9. Another excellent article, Steve. Just excellent.
    I do not believe in professional coaches either, translators or not. I like your comparison with giraffes, that is much better than the comparison I use when I try to explain to younger colleagues how things are: I compare the market with the ocean. While many fishermen prefer fishing near the coast and complain that there is less fish there every day, only a few of them dare to go further away, in open sea, which is much more difficult but also more rewarding. 😉

    @Rennie: No, I am not desperately trying to prolong my neck. I offer the few services I am able to, and am honest to potential clients if I am not qualified to satisfy their needs (wrong language pair, wrong specialization, unrealistic deadline…). Until now, people have always been comprehensive and thanked me for speaking openly.

    So, I would only try to be even more giraffe in my own fields. 😉

    A nice day/evening/morning to everybody!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. @Rennie & Chani

    I stretch my neck as far as it takes to pay the bills. Rather than as a sign of desperation, I see it as a sign of giraffe-like sophistication.

    28 years ago I was basically translating only Japanese patents.

    Now a line in my e-mail footer and on my stationery says “Translation of patents from Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and European languages since 1987”. I don’t translate everything and from and into all languages, but I do translate much more than I used to, even though I still have the same total of seven vertebrae.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Just thank you, great article.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wonderfully insightful, Steve.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Right on the spot as usually

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Remains to be known if there will always be juicy leaves at the heights that our bills tend to require?

    The metaphor is interesting enough in that the best leaves cannot be reached by all: if you need to understand japanese, AND understand the patent subject matter, AND be able to write correctly in target language AND do this professionnally in a short time frame with proved experience, then there are not so many competitors around your neck.

    So extending your neck and developing your skills is useful (and could be in an other field if translation someday is no more juicy enough), but you also have to find the tree that you can reach better than others and demonstrate that you are the best at this tree.

    This is a niche market with short demand and short supply, specialization is the key; some agencies dare to say “this project has been refused by so many translators that I thought you could have a look at it”: OK i will look if my neck is long enough for these leaves.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. “The metaphor is interesting enough in that the best leaves cannot be reached by all”


    Giraffes have figure it out to – they call it job security (the job being munching on the tastiest leaves located high above the level accessible to other herbivores).


  16. a total of 7 vertebrae?? I think you might be referring to the cervical spine only


  17. You are so smart!


    • if I am, it’s not because I can count vertebrae 🙂


  18. I really like your giraffe metaphor! What you are saying, basically, is: find your niche and go for it. However, I’m not sure I agree entirely with your disapproval of coaches. Yes, many coaches know nothing, which is why they became coaches in the first place (“Those who can’t …” if you know that adage ;-)) But there *are* some helpful books/webinars/podcasts/people out there. When you’re swimming with the hamsters, it can be hard to realize that you need to climb up on the shore and grow a longer neck — this is something an outsider might be able to point out, especially when you’re just starting out as a freelancer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am sure there are some good coaches out there. But I think they are few and far in between. And most of them only dispense advice for beginners – because how else can they advise people they don’t know anything about, unless they are talking to beginners who don’t know much about anything. A lot of this advice must be paid for, although if these beginners were a little smarter, they could figure out most of it by themselves, or find the same invaluable advice on free blogs, such as mine. That’s what I think, anwyway.

      Liked by 1 person

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