Posted by: patenttranslator | June 11, 2015

Somebody Sent Me a Link to an Article About a Translation Agency

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.
George Orwell

Somebody sent me a link to an article about a translation agency that I used to work for in the past. I see in my files that they still must have me in their files because they sent me a small translation last year. But I basically stopped working for them about 10 years ago, or rather they stopped sending me work about 10 years ago.

The rates they paid were mediocre, but not too bad at the time, so it was not such a big loss, although they did keep me moderately busy for several years. I am pretty sure that what they pay now their translators is quite a bit less than what they used to pay me 10 years ago.

It is more or less inevitable that as a translation agency is growing and becoming more and more imbued with and beholden to the corporate culture (which can be best summarized as maximum profit über alles), it is only a matter of time before I have to pull their file (I keep hard copies of paid invoices and important correspondence in manila folders) and move it from the file cabinet for active customers to the one for past customers.

I saw a few years ago that the same translation agency was looking for several months for an experienced translator of Japanese patents in a discussion group of Japanese translators that is quite popular both in Japan and abroad. The agency had one major requirement: the translator would have to be willing to learn and use agency’s proprietary CAT software.

It was such an important requirement for this translation agency because once a translator agrees to this arrangement, the agency is able to exercise almost complete control over the translator, including the technical terms and words that the translator must be using, how much he can charge after deductions for things like “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, etc.

It is a small world because the article also mentioned one of the agency’s main corporate customers, a multinational corporation that I also used to work for several years ago when I was translating Japanese patents to English for them, but only indirectly through another translation agency, a small agency located in Belgium.

The small agency in Belgium paid better rates than the bigger one here in US, and I worked for them for about two years. But in the end, they left me holding the bag, as they never paid my last invoice, which was a considerable amount.

When I called the agency and started to talk first in French because they answered the phone in French (after many years, I finally had an occasion to practice my rusty French, and what an occasion it was!), they gave me the runaround and I never got to talk to the manager. But eventually, I was able to find out from e-mails of a secretary who took pity on me that the agency was having cash flow problems because they lost their main customer. Their main customer happened to be the same multinational corporation that is now a major customer of the other, bigger agency that is based here in US, the one that will only send work to translators who agree to use the agency’s proprietary CAT software.

One agency went bankrupt, while another one got a lot of new business. I used to work for both of them, but unfortunately for me, it was the one that that went bankrupt that owed me money, and instead of getting paid for a lot of work, all I got for my trouble was about a half dozens letters from a bankruptcy lawyer.

Instead of money, I started receiving letters from the bankruptcy lawyer of the translation agency in Belgium. The first letter was in French, the remaining ones were in Flemish, as the bankruptcy lawyer must have realized that a letter in Flemish would be much more difficult to understand than a letter in French. I never got paid for that last translation.

The article about the translation agency here in US says that the agency is saving their customers money for translation of patent documents because the entire process is “streamlined”, and that thanks to the agency, the multinational corporation no longer has to contract with overseas law firms who work with smaller firms and with outside linguists (I suppose outside linguists means translators). But this is not quite true. That is just what the agency owner told a reporter who probably does not know much, if anything, about translation, how translation projects are organized, or how filing of patents abroad works. The multinational corporation still has to go through a patent law firm located abroad in order to file patents abroad.

The savings on translation costs are mostly a function of the fact that the translators are paid less by the translation agency featured in the article, which read more like a press release written by a PR manager. This is in turn probably largely a function of the fact that all translators must use the proprietary software of the translation agency, which, among other things, is an ingenious way to disguise how much translators are in fact being paid for their work.

However, given that the “maximum profit über alles” principle is the most important component of the ideology and practice of not only this particular translation agency, but in particular also of its large corporate customers, how long will it be before the large multinational corporation finds another translation agency, which could be located for example somewhere in Chindia, that will offer to do the same work for half the cost?

Chindian agencies too are expert users of CAT tools, that too know how to use them to reduce the pay to translators, and they have access to translators who are likely to be able to survive on even less than translators who live in countries with a much higher cost of living.

So why not save even more money by outsourcing a company’s translation needs from US to Asia? What goes around, comes around, it is usually only a matter of time.

Over the years, (28 years, to be exact), I moved a number of files bulging with copies of invoices paid over periods of many years for translations for large, multinational corporations who used to send me a lot of patents for translation for many years from the file cabinet where I keep folders of active customers to the cabinet for files of inactive customers.

A few of these large corporations are still among my customers, and in fact I think I have an explanation for that. Even in large, multinational corporations, maximum profit über alles is not always the only thing that matters.

Even when you work for a large, multinational corporation, you are still working for individuals who work for these large firms. Especially when you work directly for corporate patent law departments of large companies or for large patent law firms, you are still working for individuals, often patent lawyers in senior positions who often understand the value of an ongoing relationship with an experienced translator who has been translating the same type of materials for the same company for many years, sometime for decades.

It is unlikely that this kind of relationship could be established if the translations are sent to a company that, as the article puts it “offers translation services for 125 different languages provided by more than 2,000 employees and contractors”. Especially when the conditio sine qua non that the translation agency demands from prospective translators is that all of the agency’s translators must use company’s proprietary software tool. Given the potential for misuse of such a tool, which I mentioned above, most experienced translators will probably pass and try to find better customers for themselves.

On the one hand, the journalist who wrote the article, which reads more like a press release, says that the translation agency specializes in patents, and that translation of patents is its main strength. But then he also says that the company enables global commerce through more than 2,000 employees and contractors offering translation services for 125 different languages. Come again? So which is it, do they specialize in something, or do they mostly specialize in everything?

It did not seem to occur to this reporter that when you specialize in 125 languages, you specialize in everything, which is another way of saying that you don’t really specialize in anything.

No matter what kind of service we may be talking about, the best service is generally provided only by real specialists, and a translation agency offering translations from and into 125 languages is not really a specialized agency.

It also probably never occurred to this journalist, who forgot to ask simple follow-up questions, that he was functioning mostly as a PR person rather than as a real journalist. Real journalists know how to ask probing questions in order to get at the truth hidden behind well sounding phrases, but this one was mostly just writing down the words that the interviewees were feeding him as if it were the Gospel.



  1. “Even when you work for a large, multinational corporation, you are still working for individuals who work for these large firms. Especially when you work directly for corporate patent law departments of large companies or for large patent law firms, you are still working for individuals, often patent lawyers in senior positions who often understand the value of an ongoing relationship with an experienced translator who has been translating the same type of materials for the same company for many years, sometime for decades.”
    Yes indeed.
    As both a one-time translator and a patent attorney consumer of translations, I know very well the value of a correct translation. An example from many years ago. A colleague in the patent department in which we then worked had an abstract of a Japanese patent publication cited against one of her applications. Wanting to be sure the abstract correctly described the publication, she obtained a copy of the original publication and had it translated by a well-known local agency. The translation said piece A was inside piece B, making the abstract and publication a good reference. I looked at the publication and realized that the translator was wrong – piece B was inside piece A – and the reference was irrelevant. A bilingual Japanese employee of the company confirmed my understanding. My colleague then had to file both the original translation and our correct translation with the Patent Office to meet duty of disclosure requirements – despite that a native Japanese speaker (which I know the translator wasn’t) said that the publication described piece B as being inside piece A, the fact that the original translation she had purchased had said the opposite meant that both must be cited. A simple issue turned into a problem and a time sink because of a bad translation, and only one or two words at that.
    There’s no substitute for experience and skill.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “There’s no substitute for experience and skill.”

      Derek, I would Like your post if I could, but unfortunately WordPress won’t let me 😦


    • This is one of the things which worries me about working for agencies: I wonder how much effort they make to ensure that related jobs are done by the same translator? Sometimes, of course, it’s not possible because of availability, but I’m sure a number of them just send the job out to the first available (or of course cheapest) translator. I do blame this at least in part on the end customer, though: if they know that a text is related to a previous job (and it does happen quite a lot in the patent industry that a job is, say, a divisional application of a previous one), then they need to alert the agency to this, otherwise you’ll just get a new translator attempting to reinvent the wheel and repeating all the research work the previous translator has done.

      I used to have a very major client who was active in what I shall call the automotive sector. I did a lot of (frequently overlapping) translations for them, having built up a large translation memory and terminology database for their products, spent a lot of time agreeing terminology with them and so on. Then suddenly we stopped hearing from them. A bit of sleuthing led us to believe that they had been lured away by a major translation agency who, to judge by what I understand to be their usual M.O, had probably offered to undercut our already seriously discounted rates. So, they lost the services of a translator who was highly experienced in their product in favour of work probably being distributed between a number of translators, none of whom would have been familiar with their products. I was only glad that I’d never supplied the client with any TM databases for them to pass on to their new supplier.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. <> reminds me of the sign over an auto repair service in Watertown, MA (where I used to live) that read “Specializing in domestic and foreign cars.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and constantly hear radio ads from Stanford Hospital “specializing in [disease x]”. When you’ve listened to a number of them, with disease x ranging from A to Z, you realize that they don’t specialize at all. The ads seem to me to be self-defeating. But I accept that they do have many specialist physicians.


      • The only part in the advertisements of pharmaceutical companies that is in fact true is the description of the horrible potential side effects of the drugs that they are peddling. Horrible as these side effects are, it is better to include them in the advertisements to prevent lawsuits.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Or a sign that read “Echtes Kunstleder”, in a shop in the former DDR.


  4. Yes, clients come and go. It only takes the person you dealt with leaving, or a new manager dictating they must now get alternative quotes and then take the cheapest (ie, someone with little understanding of the work who sees translation as a commodity). Some of our best clients though are the ones that have returned to us after trying elsewhere. They’ve been educated that all translations are not equal and if they want quality they need to choose carefully and pay more. Your multinational may well keep searching for the cheapest provider, but surely the time will come when they realise that strategy is causing them too much grief and they gravitate towards quality again.

    I think this perfectly encapsulates where our market is at right now. With little general understanding about translation, its not surprising clients are often blissfully unaware that quality can vary from rubbish to superb. They just assume it’s all pretty easy and pretty much anyone can do it, so price can be the determining factor. It’s like when those mega stores selling all sorts of cheap goods started popping up decades ago – our local variant had the byline “where everyone gets a bargain”. People initially thought they were buying good stuff but it was mostly junk and they soon realised if they wanted something that would last they had to go elsewhere. The smaller generalist places couldn’t compete on price so went out of business, but the specialist stores thrived by providing high quality and real service. I see our industry as on the same path. I’m picking that in time people/clients will generally become much more aware about translation and so much more picky choosing their translation provider. Most of the cheap and nasty agencies will have self destructed, and the specialist individual translators and quality-focused agencies will have an easier time of it.

    Liked by 1 person

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