Posted by: patenttranslator | August 19, 2015

Stand By Your Translator

It’s an awful feeling when a customer is not happy with your translation. When it happens, it’s easy to feel like a total failure, almost as if everything that you’ve been trying to do until now was wrong but you were so dumb that you failed to realize it.

But even the best translator makes mistakes, and I use the plural here advisedly.

It’s an indisputable fact that St. Jerome, the man who translated the Bible into Latin 700 years ago, was one of the greatest translators who ever lived.
And yet, most biblical scholars agree that the word “horned” in the following passage from Exodus, was a mistranslation and that the correct translation from Hebrew to Latin should have been “his face shone”:

And when Moses came down from the Mount Sinai, he held the two tables of the testimony, and he knew not that his face was horned from the conversation of the Lord. And Aaron and the children of Israel seeing the face of Moses horned, were afraid to come near.” (Exodus 34:29–30, D-R)

I am not a biblical scholar, but “shone” makes more sense to me than “horned.” As nobody caught this mistranslation at the time, Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of Moses in Rome has horns.

A mistranslation does not by itself negate the value of the entire translation. Nor does it automatically mean that the translator was incompetent. It only means that out of many possible alternatives, the one that should have been skipped by the translator was in fact chosen.

The truth is, sometimes a client may also take an instant dislike to a very good translation for reasons that mostly have to do with the fact that the client does not understand how translation works.

When translators work directly for a client, they have a chance to explain themselves and sometimes even change the client’s mind. But when translators work for an intermediary (a translation agency), they are generally considered guilty as soon as a client expresses any misgivings about a translation.

Translation agencies should primarily look out for our interests because we are ultimately responsible for their financial success or ruin. They can’t make any money without us. Without us, they’re nothing. But many of them do the opposite – if anything goes wrong, their automatic reaction is: “Shoot the translator!” And they just wash their hands off the whole thing while stiffing the translator.

It happened to me just a few weeks ago when I was asked by an agency to translate advertising text on the front and back of Japanese credit cards. I accepted the translation as a minimum translation job since I was able to translate the text consisting of only a few words within a few minutes.

But the next day the agency sent me a long commentary from the client about my translation. The reason why the monolingual client did not like my translation was that it did not correspond exactly, word for word, to the English wording they had there. The original English information/advertisement must have been the original text that was then translated into Japanese. And the moron client thought that my translation should have corresponded word for word to the original English text if it were any good. But obviously, a pseudo informative but mostly advertising text, however short one, or especially a very short one, must be changed dramatically if it is to work in another language, especially when it passes from a language like English into a completely different language such as Japanese, with all its cultural implications.

The agency wanted me to work with the client and “fix” my translation (for free, by including the additional work in my minimum flat fee since they did not mention any payment.) But I simply refused to touch it because I didn’t see the point of trying to justify myself to a dumb client who knows nothing about translation. The way I see it, if the project manager didn’t understand what was going on – and she didn’t, because she never asked me anything, only ordered me to revise my translation – she too was an incompetent factotum.

So I told the PM, “Please feel free to ignore my invoice.” It was for my minimum flat fee amount, so I figured that it wouldn’t be such a big loss.

But at the same time I told myself that in spite of my offer, if I don’t get paid for my work, I will never work for this PM again. I did not get paid and I will not accept another job from this person again. It is too risky to work for people who value your work at zero dollars and zero cents as soon as something seems to go wrong. There are other people in the same mid-size agency, four of them, who I have been working for already for a number of years and I will continue working for them. I have a feeling that they would have understood instinctively what was really going on, or at the least that they would have insisted on paying my paltry minimum in this case. You can’t simply stiff a translator just because a client has no idea what the word “translation” means.

I was in fact lucky this time because I only lost a few minutes of my time while translating a few words, while I was able to confirm my suspicions about this particular project manager (I already had my suspicions about this person.) Had I accepted a long job from the same PM for another ignorant client, the loss would be much more painful because I would either have to work with an ignorant and arrogant client, or lose much more money.

If arguably the greatest translator who ever lived—and who was later named patron saint of all translators by the Catholic church in recognition of his work—could make a major mistake that later led Michelangelo astray (arguably the greatest artist of all times), when he was creating his statue of Moses, the chances that mistranslation will never happen to you or me are approximately 0.000.

I will contrast the case above with another example of a client who had a problem with my translation about two years ago. It was a translation of a long Japanese patent in an area that I am quite used to after more than two decades of working in this field.
But more than a year after I finished the translation and received payment for it, I received an e-mail from my client, a partner at a major patent law firm. He said that when he took my translation of the long patent with him to discuss technology related issues with the opposition in Europe, the counsel representing the other party pointed out what the opposition identified as problems with my translation.
The issues that the opposition had with my translation were attached to the e-mail, several of them, as the patent was very long.

Let me tell you, dear readers of my silly blog, reading the e-mail and the attachment was pure agony for me, and not only because I’ve been working for this client since the mid 1990s and chances were I was going to lose him now. Fortunately in one sentence, burnished in my memory even now, my client said ” … although I defended your translation vigorously…”

So I responded by humbly apologizing for any problems my translation may have caused and offered to go through the translation with a fine tooth comb, word for word, and address all of the issues that the opposition had with my translation … at my usual hourly rate.

My offer was accepted. I saw that the opposition had a point in some of the objections expressed to my translation, although more than half of them were in my opinion arguing about how many angels can dance on the tip of a needle. But I did not put it like that, of course – I merely suggested that while an alternative interpretation was possible, due to differences between Japanese and English grammar, so was mine.

It took me a long time to read and proofread everything as I was careful in trying to address every one of the points that the opposition made about my translation as diplomatically as possible.

I put five hours of work on my invoice. It took me longer than that, but I decided not to push my luck. And I was paid for the additional five hours of work by the law firm, which keeps sending me work. In fact, I see in my records that in May of this year, about 40% of my income came from the same client who sent me several long Japanese patents for translation.

Some people are smart enough to stand by their translator even when a client raises objections to a translation. And some people think that the best, most convenient and fastest solution is to shoot the translator first, and wash their hands off the whole thing afterwards.

It’s a fast and convenient solution, but not necessarily a smart one.


  1. Hear, hear, Steve! Interestingly, I’ve just had my agency contact for my problematic “straw that broke the camel’s back” translation in touch, practically begging me to do another job for the same difficult end client. I stuck to my guns, as I don’t enjoy working for people who don’t appreciate what we do. And yes, we do all make mistakes – clients and agencies too.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Steve: The experiences you recount are all too frequent in every translator’s work, including mine. I think the basic problem is that language is a very tricky subject in many ways, and when you are bringing two languages together, the trickiness is more than doubled, especially when they are as unrelated as Japanese and English.

    Then, as happened to me yesterday, you get a review of your work from an agency that claims that a review pointing out your egregious faults was done by an “experienced translator” who–presumably–knows more about the profession than you do, because otherwise why would the agency believe that person more than you? I don’t know whether it makes sense to get into a fight over the issue, since I don’t get that much work from this agency and can easily afford to let them think I’m third- or fourth-rate, or whatever they think. But I guess I should–perhaps someone will learn something somehow.

    Even good translators can differ in good faith about how to translate specific words and phrases, or whole texts. So how does the poor agency employee, who in most cases doesn’t know the language other than English that is involved, supposed to adjudicate? And when the criticism comes from the end client, who usually doesn’t have a clue about what makes a good translation between those languages (if they did know anything about the matter, why don’t they do their own translation?) but is in the crucial position of forking over the cash for the job, it’s even more depressing. The only thing that bolsters your self-esteem is the occasional compliment that comes your way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “an experienced translator who – presumably – knows more …”

      Ha-haa-haah! A week ago, an agency contacted my boss Harry (a translator himself) with a request to review someone’s translation from Bulgarian into Serbian. Harry is a professional interpreter and translator from and into Serbian and Croatian (uni diploma, 30+ years of experience, etc.) So far, so good. Harry asked who the translator was, expecting an MT. To his surprise, the agency said, a native Serbian speaker! Harry’s native language is Bulgarian, you know, so he exclaimed (I was in the next room, listening unintentionally), “You expect me to review a native speaker’s work?!! Sorry!” and refused. Another Bulgarian specialist in Serbian would have agreed without any questions, and there certainly was someone who did agree. That’s why I couldn’t help laughing when I read your post. Sorry!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. While I thoroughly agree with your analysis of the likelihood that any translator, even a saint, will make errors (plural), the specific example you chose for St. Jerome’s error is less than thoroughly clear-cut.

    The Hebrew words describing Moses’ beaming face as he came down with the divine word on all-to-shatterable stone are “karan or panav” (קָרַ֖ן ע֣וֹר פָּנָ֑יו), and indeed the shining makes more sense than the sudden appearance of horns.
    However, it seems worth noting that the Assyrian god of wisdom and writing is generally portrayed wearing a horned cap (Nabu is the name for this deity). It seems arguable that Moses is portrayed as being granted wisdom and thereby bearing the horns of wisdom. In fact, horned headgear was the mark of wisdom throughout Mesopotamia: I came across it when researching Sumerian textile and Nisaba – the goddess of writing and weaving, among other matters. Her insignia? A horned tiara.

    Whether or not assuming this be-horned status was the meaning intended by the scribes of the Bible, I will never know. And I want to assure you that the phrase “karnu panav” would only mean “he was beaming/smiling” in Modern Israeli Hebrew, and that meaning certainly does make sense in the Biblical context. But the horns, they seem to be less unlikely in context than one would think at first glance.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I was thinking about you, Shunra-san, when I said “While most biblical scholars agree ….” because I was not sure to which camp of biblical scholars you might belong in this case.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “Translation agencies should primarily look out for our interests because we are ultimately responsible for their financial success or ruin. They can’t make any money without us. Without us, they’re nothing. But many of them do the opposite – if anything goes wrong, their automatic reaction is: “Shoot the translator!” And they just wash their hands of the whole thing while stiffing the translator.”

    So true. I can’t imagine agents in other fields – think performing arts or professional sports – behaving like this. Translation agencies need to start treating their translators as the talent, not as interchangeable and disposable serfs. Let’s think about the translator-agency-client relationship in a different way: We (translators) are giving the agency a cut of the fee paid by the client for our services, in return for the agency’s successful marketing of those services.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The problem is, the way it works, we are not in control, they are.

      Liked by 1 person

    • “I can’t imagine agents in other fields – think performing arts or professional sports – behaving like this.”

      And can you imagine agents in other field hiding the names of the talents they represent? What would you think of a writer’s agent, for instance, who claimed he or she wrote the writer’s books?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Steve, I had a similar problem earlier this year. I translated a lengthy document outlining contractual conditions of service for a UK company which had a French subsidiary. I explained that we are not lawyers so it was possible that some of the conditions were not compatible with French employment law or existing cutom and practice, but on that basis we would produce a precise translation of the English contract, which we did. A day or two later we received a brusquely worded email saying that the HR person in the French subsidiary had said that it was a very bad translation.
    I replied politely that it would be as well to check that the subsidiary staff member didn’t mean he didn’t like what the contract said (as it represented a challenge to existing conditions of service) rather than the translation was inaccurate. A day or two later, we had a (not very apologetic) email confirming its accuracy and asking how to submit payment of our invoice…
    This was the translation equivalent of “Don’t shoot the messenger”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That was very good thinking.

      Sometime I get carried away and simply burn the bridge even though I know that I should be more diplomatic.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “Translation agencies should primarily look out for our interests because we are ultimately responsible for their financial success or ruin. They can’t make any money without us. Without us, they’re nothing.”

    Absolutely! Which means the role of project manager within an agency is hugely important – they’re the ones who either ensure good translators will continue to work with the agency, or drive them away in droves. Ie, they are directly responsible for the success or otherwise of the agency.

    And yet agencies can employ PMs who know virtually nothing about translation and think good translators are expendable. Bizarre.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “And yet agencies can employ PMs who know virtually nothing about translation and think good translators are expendable. Bizarre.”

    Maybe if they paid them more, they would be able to find better PM material.

    Just a thought.


  9. Actually I couldn’t agree more, Steve. How a PM role could be seen as low skill, low pay is beyond me.

    I’ve used 2 strategies to employing PMs over the years. The first is to get the very best administrator I can, and teach them all we can about translation. The advantage is they run the ship beautifully and are smart enough to treat people decently. The disadvantage is they’ll never fully understand things from the translator’s perspective.

    The second option is to hire a translator who has good admin skills. They’re ideal for dealing with translators, but aren’t always as good on the admin side or in dealing with clients.

    I’ve had great PMs from both camps. But it’s not always an easy mix of skills to find. And good people never come cheap.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The second option is to hire a translator who has good admin skills.”

      One is not enough. To run a translation company, you need to employ translators with all the languages you want to offer, and by employ I mean under employment contract: salary, holidays, social security benefits, everything.

      Not having done that, you don’t have any legal right to claim your company provides translation services from and into a multitude of languages.

      I don’t suggest you should employ all translators you work with, far from that! What I suggest is: just do away with the “Berlin” wall you have erected between translators and their clients, that’s all.

      Why not working in a transparent way? Are you afraid clients would elope with translators and leave you aground? As Teema put it:

      “translation agencies keep the names of translators secret because they are afraid that publishing the names would make their customers contact the translators directly, and the agency would be left with nothing. As a freelancer translator who often works for agencies, I have to ask: why be afraid of that? If a translation agency really adds value to the process, then every customer will naturally prefer doing business with agencies. But if there is no perceived added value, then it has to be created artificially. One way of doing this is to make any communication between customers and the translators who actually do the work as difficult as possible.”

      Liked by 2 people

      • Translation agencies do provide a valuable service for their clients. If they did not, they would not exist, the market would reject them. But it is not the services that they brag about, like double-checking, ISO standards, and all that nonsense. The fact is that so many translators are too lazy to to after direct clients because it requires a lot of thinking and a lot of work and they are just not willing to do that.

        It is true that most translation agencies try to erect a Berlin Wall around their translators because they realize that they don’t really provide the services they brag about and that their translators would defect to a direct client in the blink of an eye given half a chance.

        But it is also true that most clients don’t give a damn who the actual translators were, as long as the price fits their budges, they’re happy. And in many cases, the fact that the agency coordinates the work for the direct client is well worth the additional cost to the client.

        In addition to being a translator, I often function also as an agency and I can remember only one case, about two years ago, when a patent law firm asked me to deal directly with a Chinese translator who was working for me. I gave them her name, of course, and she was able to talk to them directly.

        It had no effect on my relationship with the law firm or with the Chinese translator.

        If you don’t like to work for agencies, find your own direct clients, Rennie, that’s all I can say.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Plus there is always the risk that if you teach them too much and if they are too smart, they will start their own agency.

    So mediocre PMs might not be such a bad choice after all.:-)


    • Dear oh dear, such cynicism in one so young and innocent………. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  11. St. Jerome translated from Greek into Latin. He knew no Aramaic. An yet he went furious against Augustine of Hippo (letter 75). Guess why…
    And, by the way, it took 1000 years for his translation to be ‘approved’.


    • 1. There are several version of the Vulgata. So the Catholic Church had to figure out which one to approve for promotion as the official translation after the invention of the printing press, which occurred about a thousand years after the translation into Latin.

      2. St. Jerome also studied Aramaic and could read it competently, but he admitted having a problem with pronunciation.

      Too much red wine?


  12. Text: “that their translators would defect to a direct client”
    Edit: “that clients would elope with translators and leave agencies aground”
    (it’s the clients who look for translators, not vice versa; your wrong impression comes from the fierce competition among agencies which would go out of their way to “capture” a client or else the next-door agency would “swallow” the prey)

    Text: “But it is also true that most clients don’t give a damn who the actual translators were”
    Edit: “But it is also true that in the Middle Ages most clients didn’t give a damn who the actual writers were.” (see Wikipedia, Copyright: “In the Middle Ages in Europe, there was generally a lack of any concept of literary property”, etc.)

    Text: “the fact that the agency coordinates the work for the direct client is well worth the additional cost to the client.”
    Edit: “the fact that the agency coordinates the work does not mean that it should stand like a Berlin wall between the client and his or translator; on the contrary, it should facilitate the contact between the two parties who are looking for each other. (Steve, you don’t think I suggest PM send away clients by saying, “Nu, here’s the wicked translator’s address and phone, go and find him!”, do you? I suggest the agency take the material, send it to the translator, take it back, print it, etc., just as before. The only difference will be that the agency will give both parties contact info about each other, or even better, will offer the client sort of a translators’ catalog to choose from before making an order; clients have the right of choice, remember?)

    Text: “If you don’t like to work for agencies, find your own direct clients, Rennie, that’s all I can say.”
    Edit: “Translators encounter extreme difficulties in finding direct clients as a bevvy of agencies is always sucking in their clients like a giant vacuum cleaner. The suction force is maintained by a whole array of fraudulent practices, such as: false advertising, blocking the contact between clients and translators, and others”

    Liked by 1 person

  13. “Translators encounter extreme difficulties in finding direct clients as a bevvy of agencies is always sucking in their clients like a giant vacuum cleaner”

    So what? The real problem is that many translators are too lazy to try to figure out how to find direct clients for themselves.

    You could also say that they are not terribly smart.

    But not all of them. Many translator don’t work for agencies at all, in spite of your giant vacuum cleaner mechanism.

    You just have to know what you want, and go after it, not just complain that “it is extremely difficult.”

    Liked by 1 person

  14. “many translators are too lazy to try to figure out how to find direct clients for themselves.”

    Would you please, clarify what you mean by “translators”?

    Let me tell you why I’m asking you this silly question. At first sight, the answer is easy: a translator is a person who translates. This, however, does not mean that a translator can do nothing else. In fact, most translators are involved in one or more than one other activities.

    So, what is a translator then? Harry’s book “Translators and agencies” identifies three major groups of translators (Chapter 50):

    1. Qualified translators who run a translation agency of their own. They translate only occasionally because running the agency takes up most of their time;
    2. Qualified translators who work as teachers and the like; they also translate only occasionally because teaching takes up most of their time;
    3. Un- or low-qualified persons, incl. young enthusiasts (school or university students) who also translate only occasionally, and, usually, for a short time, but as soon as one is “discharged” from the “army”, another takes his place, so this army, this huge anonymous resource, is always there on tap ready to translate for peanuts everything and anything, indiscriminately.

    As you can see, neither Group 2, nor Group 3 are interested in looking for direct clients. The only group that is really interested in looking for direct clients, is Group 1.

    So, it is not a question of laziness at all, but of priorities. People are involved in other activities, more important for them than translating.

    That’s why I’d like you to clarify what you mean by “translators”. Perhaps you have a different idea of how translation industry is structured?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. The group that is not interested in looking for direct clients represents in my opinion translators who are intellectually lazy, to their detriment.

    I know translators who don’t work as agencies and who never worked for agencies, only for direct clients.

    I myself mostly work for direct clients, but also for a few agencies (basically only for one on a regular basis, for a few more occasionally).

    I also work as an agency, mostly with languages that I don’t translate myself (although I usually have some knowledge of these languages, such as Chinese, Spanish, Bulgarian, etc.) But more than 80% of my income is derived from my own translations.

    So your list of categories of translators would appear to be too limited. It does not correspond to the reality which is much more complex.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I have given you a most simplified grouping. You belong in Group 1.

    The book also tells about the agencies’ interrelations: today I’m your translator, tomorrow you are mine, etc.

    “I know translators who don’t work as agencies and who never worked for agencies, only for direct clients.”

    Tell me more about these. I’m very interested, as here, in Bulgaria, it’s impossible to work for direct clients as an independent translator. Only agencies have full rights in this country, including translation of official documents. That’s why there are more than 3,000 agencies here, and more than 140 are certificated by EN 15038. For a country of 7 mln, less than the population of New York, that’s really impressive, isn’t it?

    So, tell me about professional translators who are not agencies. Don’t they do something else for a living? You know how difficult it is even when you run a small agency, so how have they been able to survive, I wonder? Contacts? Strings to pull? Skillful at avoiding taxation? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Sorry, Rennie, I am working on a complicated patent and I’m afraid I don’t have time for detailed explanations that would lead to further discussions.

    But I do know translators who don’t work for agencies, never did and probably never will, in various languages, such as German, Russian, and Spanish. I talked to one such translator (Spanish to English) just yesterday.

    It may be difficult, but it can be done, and you can do it too if you put your mind to it.

    Good luck!

    (Going back to my patent.)


  18. “Sorry, Rennie, I am working on a complicated patent and I’m afraid I don’t have time …”

    And suddenly not only the patenttranslator but everyone else remembered they had some complicated work to do, and quiet silence set in on the blog so teeming with discussion thereinbefore.


  19. […] It’s an awful feeling when a customer is not happy with your translation. When it happens, it's easy to feel like a total failure, almost as if everything that you’ve been trying to do until…  […]


  20. Thanks so much for this. I have been a professional translator for 55 years, yet I still make mistakes and typos and leave out sentences, etc. This was not the case, however, in a recent book translation that I performed for a U.S. publishing company for whom I had worked successfully on a series of books. I was suddenly informed by the desk editor that he had reviewed my translation with several “academics” (who of course were eager to claim that I had made mistakes so they could be awarded the work) that my translation was sub-standard and the whole book would have to be retranslated! As a professional editor for such prestigious houses as OUP and Palgrave Macmillan I know that this is nonsense, that there is not a document in the world that cannot be re-edited rather than re-translated from scratch. The examples of my “mistakes” that they showed me gave me a clue to what was wrong, i.e. this book had been written in a third language, then translated into French and then sent to me for translation into English! This fact, combined with the copy editor’s bad attitude, is what was liable to destroy my reputation.

    The publisher refused to pay me the final instalment of the fee which put our company into huge financial difficulties. One piece of luck, I was offered another book translation on a totally different subject by a reputable French publisher. This time, the book was being checked by the original authors who have a good command of English, as well as by the editor at the British publishing company that is going to publish it next year, and all of them approved my work. What luck and what a relief! Incidentally I have translated over 100 books, most, but not exclusively, art and cookery.

    Liked by 1 person

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