Posted by: patenttranslator | August 17, 2015

Remembrance of Things Past, Part II: Translation Agencies, Mostly

As I continue scanning files of old customers who no longer seem to be needing my excellent services (I am not quite sure why I am doing that, there’s probably some important psychological reason for it, one I do not dare to name), some files I don’t even recognize because the projects and the customers were not very important, while other files trigger an avalanche of half-forgotten memories.

I thought that I finished scanning all non-active direct customers last month, but it turns out that I misfiled some old-fashioned vanilla folders containing sheaves of printed e-mails, contracts, invoices, copies of checks (I make copies of some checks just in case they bounce) and other memorabilia and that the cabinet designated as the last resting place of defunct translation agencies (some of them truly departed and nonexistent, some of them gone to God knows where), still contain direct clients.

From Files for 1995: The Kamikaze Project

I remember this one as if it were yesterday although it has been more than 20 years.

A Federal Express envelope was delivered to my office in Petaluma one day with a long US patent application to be translated into English on a very short deadline. The patent was very complicated, in a field that I ventured into only occasionally. And at that time, I was basically translating only into English because I would have to hire other translators for translations into other languages and I preferred – and still prefer – to translate by myself.

OK, let’s get rid of this customer, I thought, and I faxed a response to the patent lawyer who sent me the letter (fax was the preferred means of communication back then.) I confirmed that although the deadline was very tight, I would be able to finish the project on time, but I quoted a high rate and brazenly demanded a down payment of 50%.

That should do it, I thought. I figured that I would probably never hear from the patent lawyer, for whom I had previously translated several patents from Japanese that year. But I was wrong. The same smiling FedEx guy brought another FedEx envelope the next day. It was much slimmer this time because it contained only a single sheet of paper with a letter confirming acceptance of my conditions and a check for several thousand dollars.

So I hit the phone and started calling translators I knew to find out whether they knew other translators who would be able and willing to work on a rush project into Japanese, and after several hours, I put together a team of five people. I remember that I designed it so that each translator would have no more than about 2,000 words per day for six days, including a Saturday, so that I could proofread and compile everything on Sunday because all we had was one short week to finish the scary Kamikaze project.

One of those Magnificent Five gave up on the project on Thursday. He said that the terminology was so complicated that he simply could not continue at the speed of two thousand words a day because it made him too tired. I coaxed and cajoled the guy into continuing to work on the project, while at the same time I took about half of his job from him and gave it to another among the Magnificent Five who agreed to add it to her portion of the Kamikaze project.

On Sunday, fortified with a bag full of old fashioned, glazed and chocolate donuts from a local bakery in downtown Petaluma and numerous cups of coffee (French roast), I was proofreading the translations of the Magnificent Five until late into the night. I had to fax the finished translation to a patent law firm in Japan, and also e-mail it to the firm because the patent application had to be filed right away in Japan lest the all-important filing deadline be missed. It was Sunday night in California, but already Monday afternoon in Japan.

When everything was finished, I staggered into the quiet, warm California night, walked to my parking garage across the street and drove 20 minutes, first through a dark downtown and then on Highway 101 from Petaluma to my house in Santa Rosa. It was only when I hit the remote to open the garage door and saw that the garage was unusually dark that I realized that the whole time I had been driving without lights, at around 2 AM.

The Kamikaze Project was a success – but I could have easily died in a car accident on that warm California night. It almost did become a true Kamikaze Project worthy of the name I gave it.


Here’s another memorable one – this one was from a tiny agency that sent me a long pharmaceutical translation project 15 years ago. The agency was run by two people, one of them a translator who discovered my considerable talent because 15 years ago I was writing articles for a newsletter for translators in Northern California called Translorial and she used to comment on them.

I am pretty sure that after we lost contact with each other she moved to France and then from France to Australia, unless I am thinking of somebody else … but according to Google, she lives in San Francisco now and her agency still has the same name. But there is no website, only a phone number. She is probably retired now.

I see on one of the scanned pages that I put in large, bolded letters on the bottom of my Past-Due Invoice reminders:


It worked! She sent me a partial payment in response to this subtle reminder within a couple of days and the remainder of the balance followed shortly after that.

From Files for 2006: Don’t Know About Other Translators, But Mass E-Mails Are Not Really My Thing

This file I remember very well too.

It was a tiny translation agency run by a very decent, polite and intelligent couple, the kind of people that must be finding it difficult to survive in the brutal new reality of corporate “translation business.” The husband has a PhD in chemistry, and he would always call first if he had a big job or something that he needed back in a hurry. The wife was the accountant in their small business.

I see from my 1099 Tax Form that they paid me 27,828 dollars for services rendered in 2006. It was lots of pharmaceutical tests, device testing procedures and other BMP (best manufacturing practices) testing protocols that I was translating from Japanese along with several other translators for this couple.

They paid promptly and well, for rush work they paid 1.5 times my usual rate. This is one agency that I should try to keep as a customer, I thought at the end of 2006. But then, in 2007, they put their business up for sale and after a few months it was bought by another translation agency in New York.

But the new owner, who wanted to expand his base of customers in the field of pharmaceuticals and life sciences, was using very different methods to communicate with translators.

The old owner used to call whenever he had a rush job or a big project to make sure that I would be available. It’s hard to turn somebody down when they call you in person. (Incidentally, almost nobody calls these days, everything is done by e-mail now.) Once he called when I was driving on a highway and when I explained to him why there was so much noise on the phone line, he apologized profusely and promptly hung up once I accepted the job, although usually we both liked to shoot the breeze a little.

I see in my files that the closing sentence in one of his last letters to translators said:“We thank you for your support over all these years and wish for each one of you only the very best that life can bring.” And I am sure they both meant it, because they really cared for the translators who were the people responsible for the success of their tiny but very busy company.

They don’t make translation agencies like that anymore.

The first job offer that was sent to me from the new owner of the agency was e-mailed also to a whole bunch of other translators because it did not mention me by name. Nevertheless, I responded and tentatively accepted the translation within about an hour, mostly based on my fond memories of the retired couple.

But the job was gone by then. So I e-mailed the PM (project manager) to express my befuddlement, as I thought that they wanted me to translate this particular material because of my experience with the same type of material over the past few years.

Not so, indicated the PM (her name was Brittany) in her e-mail response: we are in fact looking for first responders. So I told her to please delete me from her company’s database because I was not interested in being a first responder. If I were, I would have become firefighter or paramedic (not a cop, I don’t have the personality for that) decades ago while I was still young and better suited for such a stressful occupation, both physically and mentally.

Her boss, the guy who bought the agency from the nice couple, called me within minutes to apologize for dumb Brittany’s actions. But I’m afraid I was a little brusque with him and after a few words I simply hung up on him. I knew that new company was going to be very, very different from the old one and that I simply did not want to have anything to do with the new people.

I have to say, it made me feel a little bit better to put him in his place like that. From what I see on Google, his company is doing well now: it uses “ISO certified procedures,” it has “an international network of over 5,000 professional linguists” (who must be also professional first responders), and they “leverage their industry expertise and technology know-how to provide streamlined, cost-effective solutions,” while “their industry-leading quality management systems yield better than 99% accuracy and quality.”

In other words, I was right to hang up on the guy. This is not a translation agency that I would want to work for, and even if I did get a few jobs from them at first, after a while they would just replace me with the first and hungriest first responder in their pack of “5,000 professional linguists” who would be much cheaper than this Mad Patent Translator.

I am still scanning files under letter A. With any luck there will be even more entertaining material in my file cabinet where old translation agencies go to die.



  1. Meine Güte, “Mit 17 hat man noch Träume”! Ich brauchte nur den Titel zu lesen und sofort hatte ich einen Ohrwurm.
    (Ich bin zwar erst 30, aber das Lied ist in Deutschland allgemein bekannt.)


  2. “…. und sofort hatte ich einen Ohrwurm.”

    Ich auch.


  3. Being a first responder is certainly not a life goal: this should mean that you are anxiously waiting for a phone call or e-mail for a job, although you should rather spend your time on projects, so my guess is the first responders are not always the best for a job.
    This is by the way a contradiction with the buzzwords served by translation agencies: their job and added value consists in finding the best qualified specialist for each and every project, is the first responder a good method for that?
    I do delete the e-mail containing “best rate” and “first come first serve” for this reason: a company that chooses translators by price or by unemployment cheats their customers, which is in the end dangerous for their translators.

    Also as you point out it is also much more rewarding to be the one person called for a project than the one among “5000 professional linguists” who catches the e-mail on the fly; at a time when we translate so many HR hype about the importance of personnel dedication and engagement, how can a serious translation company ignore these factors so much?

    Liked by 1 person

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