Posted by: patenttranslator | July 26, 2015

The Big Guy takes 40% more, but doesn’t the small company actually give you more of what you want?

When you buy a new house from a builder, just about anywhere in the United States, the house will come with a landscaped front yard. There will be a nice, lush green lawn in front and some trees, bushes and even sprinklers are often also included in the price. But only in the front, because the front is what people see when they have to make a decision about whether to finally buy, or keep looking.

The back of the house usually has no landscaping, only a lot of mud, temporarily administered by little birds, merrily chirping as they hop around looking for tasty worms. You can generally tell how well the new house owners are doing economically by how long it takes them to landscape the back of their new house.

Builders say they do it this way so that customers can customize their landscaping.

When you later finally buy new landscaping for your new house, there are often big differences in the prices offered by different companies. Shortly after we bought our house 14 years ago, we were offered a free price quote for new landscaping in our muddy backyard by a major landscaping company in our town. I often see trucks with this company’s logo on the road, and whenever I see this company’s workers putting in landscaping for new house owners, they’re all Mexican, except for the foreman, who is usually the only white guy on the crew.

We agreed to take a look at the free price quote, which came with a simple drawing explaining the future design, a rather generic one.

But because we thought that the price was a bit steep, we talked to people who knew other people and eventually we hired three guys who were able to do the landscaping for us for quite a bit less, based on our own design, which was very different from the generic design we were offered by the big company. You can see a part of the landscaping in our backyard if you click on the “About me” tab above.

We also talked to a foreman of a crew who was building new houses here and he agreed to bring his crew with a cement truck in the evening to pour the concrete patio and walkways around the back of the house.

Our two children were joyfully watching the interesting spectacle with utter fascination, observing five or six strange dudes, (they were all white back then, not a single Mexican among them), pouring concrete and creating fancy shapes from the concrete with tiny pebbles on top according to my wife’s precise specifications. When the job was finished, my son Casey, who was about 10 at the time, tried to bounce his ball off the still-wet concrete. I remember it so clearly because I see the round depression in the concrete walkway every morning when I take our dog Lucy for a walk.

We saved about 40 % on landscaping costs, and got the exact design that we wanted (or rather that my wife wanted) because we did not go with the big company.

Big companies have all kinds of expenses that small companies or freelancers generally do not have.

Big companies have to pay for sales people who are looking for new leads or “prospects”. The sales people usually work on commission. If they don’t find a new job for the company, they get nothing. But if they do find new work, the commission is usually generous.

Big companies have several layers of managers who must make sure that the workers who do the actual work do everything according to the company’s rules, without stealing or engaging in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual harassment of coworkers or bringing a dog to the office. There are so many layers of various managerial workers in the intricate structure of big companies that people are finally beginning to notice that many of these jobs are completely useless.

According to some economists, most jobs in our modern economy are now useless, which is to say that they do not create any real value for the client.

Above the considerable number of people who are doing mostly useless jobs, on top of the pyramid of useless jobs created in a big company, high above the low paying jobs of workers who in fact produce real value, sits a company owner who functions like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking in a big chunk of the money that will go to only one person.

I may not have been thinking about it quite in these terms at the time, but I think this is why the second bid was about 40% lower when we decided to get another price quote from people who were not working for a big company.

In large translation agencies in what is now called the translation industry, there are also many useless jobs and a lot of wasted overhead with no benefit to the customer.

Every large translation agency employs a fleet of sales people. I don’t know exactly how these sales people work. I do know that their job involves identifying suitable targets, people and companies who need to have something translated, (like patents, for example) preferably on a regular basis. So the cost quoted to a customer of a large translation agency will have to cover expenses for sales people who look for new clients by making cold calls to suitable clients, or even flying to another city or country and staying in an expensive hotel prior to a meeting with an important potential customer.

If they can find suitable customers and make them sign on the dotted line, then sales people are invaluable to the translation agency.

But from the viewpoint of the customer who just needs documents translated, they create no value whatsoever.

Large translation agencies nowadays also employ various experts who have a number of different jobs and tasks in the new economy, which is based on a system in which most jobs are useless. The agency needs an advertising specialist for Internet marketing, so if you type for example “patent translator” into Google, in addition to my silly blog (Diary of a Mad Patent Translator) and my website (at — which will be displayed on top of organic listings because Google somehow figured out that I really am a patent translator — mostly large translation agencies will be displayed in paid listings on top and to the right of organic listings.

Translation agencies these days also need public relations specialists who regularly produce commercial propaganda called press releases to be distributed both by online media and by dead tree media.

Other PR specialists must spend at least some of their time following discussions of translators in online venues such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. I know this because whenever I lurk on a discussion of translators on social media, it is generally only a matter of time before a PR person representing the translation agency being criticized raises strenuous objections.

Translation agencies also need many so-called PMs, or project managers. This is a job that arguably does create value for the actual customer. Well, inarguably, this job does create value for the customer, but only if the PMs know what they are doing. Unfortunately, based on my experience, this is rarely the case.

It may be due to the fact that I mostly translate a weird combination of languages (Czech, Polish, and Japanese). But even when I translate other, more common languages (German, French and Russian), project managers that I deal with usually don’t understand a single word in the language of the project that they’re managing, which is one reason why they can easily mismanage the project, typically by assigning the project to the wrong translator to begin with.

So the rate charged to a customer of a large translation agency will also have to cover the salaries of project managers whose job it is to organize the work, the way a foreman of a cement pouring crew must organize the work. Unfortunately, unlike said foreman, translation project managers are often not qualified to do their jobs properly.

Because a large translation agency must pay all of the costs I listed above, in addition to many other costs such as expensive office rent, there is generally not that much that is left in the end for translators, as they’re not really considered that important in the intricate organizational structure of most large translation agencies.

The landscaping company whose bid was too high for my taste 14 years ago is now trying to solve the problem of the cost of worker’s wage by hiring cheap undocumented migrants. Translation agencies, big and small, but mostly big, try to solve this problem by outsourcing work to people who are able and willing to charge less, much less, than what an educated and experienced translator would be charging. We can thank the Internet for this now that it is available in countries where labor is dirt cheap in comparison to North America or Western Europe.

We did the right thing when we rejected the free cost estimate from a large landscaping company 14 years ago and instead decided to directly hire the people who do the actual work.

Not only did I save money by doing so but I think that we also received better quality of work.

And so would customers willing to look for translators who specialize in the type of translations that they need, instead of trusting a large translation agency … because it has a large advertisement on the Internet.


  1. “like a huge vacuum cleaner sucking in…” Yes, yes, yes! 🙂

    “Translation agencies also need many so-called PMs, or project managers. This is a job that arguably does create value for the actual customer. Well, inarguably, this job does create value for the customer, but only if the PMs know what they are doing. Unfortunately, based on my experience, this is rarely the case.

    It may be due to the fact that I mostly translate a weird combination of languages (Czech, Polish, and Japanese). But even when I translate other, more common languages (German, French and Russian), project managers that I deal with usually don’t know understand a single word in the language of the project that they’re managing, which is one reason why they can easily mismanage the project, typically by assigning the project to the wrong translator to begin with.”

    Again, yes, yes, YES! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • On the other hand, a good project manager can be worth her weight in gold …


  2. Very good thoughts indeed. Agree that there are roles that are unnecessary in the “translation industry”, and I think these are the ones that can be easily replaceable with technology/automation. For example, PMs. PMs can be replaced with a decision system —I believe is doing this—.

    For the rest of the positions that deal with marketing, sales, PR… well, it may sound hard, but… translation is a sales game. It doesn’t matter if you can translate (or, in the case of your house workers, if you can build). If you don’t put your name out there, it won’t work. That’s why sales is a search, as you correctly pointed, for the most lucrative customers possible. And it’s a fixed cost that hardly can be removed, and needs to be added on top of the translation quote. Freelance translators need to understand this as well: translation is a sales game. It doesn’t matter to be the best, the most educated, the fastest, the cheapest. The real meat in the industry is where to find clients. And in an industry so fragmented, it’s quite frankly the biggest problem to solve.


    • “If you don’t put your name out there, it won’t work.”

      Whose name, please? The name of the agency, or the name of the translator?

      I’m strongly in favor of the direct contact between clients and their translators. Agencies should help the two parties looking for each other get in touch rather than conceal translators from clients and vice versa. An agency that adds real value to the translation services it offers shouldn’t feel apprehensive of clients getting to know their translators. It’s only too natural for a client to know his or her translator, isn’t it? A PM is only needed for huge projects, and that PM can’t certainly be one who doesn’t understand the languages of the project. See also “Know Your Translator” at

      Liked by 1 person

      • Both! Agencies and translators. And yes, agree that agencies need to be more transparent with their translators.


  3. Thanks for your comment, Rodrigo.

    Actually, I believe that both the PMs and sales people are relatively easily replaceable. I don’t need to use either since I can figure out how to organize the work and where my direct clients are on my own.

    The only irreplaceable component in the process is the translator.

    And yet, that that is the component that most people think will be relatively easily replaced by a machine any time now.

    But only people who don’t really understand much about translation think that.


  4. A few days ago I got an email from a PM who seemed hell-bent on making your point for you. The PM offered 7 cents per word for a 5,000 word, into-Hebrew translation, asking that I respond with my resume and take a translation test. (I saddled up my nopetopus and rode away from that mass-emailed, everybody-BCCed email, whistling a happy tune.)

    I thought I’d heard the last of this outfit but no! They got back to me and all their other BCCipients yesterday, with an urgent deadline for a requested edit and the following note: “If you are specialized in legal…please let me know cause the Client did not accept the translation quality delivered.”

    Yup, PM who doesn’t know how translation works *right* *there*. Whoever contracted with them deserves whatever they got.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Can you give us a hint as to which outfit it was, Shunra-san?


  6. Steve, you’ve put your finger on it – as usual. These are precisely the reasons why I’m so frequently against tendering, especially when it’s local, regional or national government. The workers at the coalface often get a pittance, people higher up get paid rather more, and someone at the top makes a good-sized profit, but the government pays them very large sums to take the organisational burden off it – and usually all in the name of cost savings!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your reasoning is absolutely true for work that can be handled by one, maybe two translators. A company or individual that only occasionally has the need for small translations in a very limited number of language combinations is better off contacting an individual translator directly. However, large multinational companies that need hundreds of thousands words translated into dozens of languages every year cannot afford to work with individual translators, or even small agencies for each individual language. They need the larger agencies, and those agencies need the overhead to be able to cater for those huge clients.


  8. Large multinational corporations need to work with a large translation agency only on a relatively limited number of huge translation projects, such as for example yearly updates of printer manuals into 16 languages.

    I would not be able to deal with something like that, and I would have to turn the job down.

    But even large multinational corporations work with individual translators provided that these individual translators specialize in a type of translation that these large multinational corporations need. These corporations, if they have smart people working for them, understand that they get a much better value in this manner.

    For example, I have been working for patent law departments of several large multinational corporations for more than a decade.

    If you want to see which ones, click on the “Our Clients” tab on my website.

    Liked by 1 person

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