Posted by: patenttranslator | September 30, 2015

On the Relative Irreplaceability of Translators

A core principle of the so-called translation industry is the notion that all translators are easily interchangeable and replaceable.

Project managers working for translation agencies have databases containing dozens, hundreds, or thousands (or at least that’s what translation agencies say on their websites) of translators who may be called upon by an agency depending on the particulars contained in each entry, (especially based on how much they charge). Because some of these translators may have moved (or may even have died) by the time they are needed for a particular project, many project managers send mass e-mails these days to multiple prospective warm bodies when a real project suddenly materializes.

In a system based on the operating mode described above, mass e-mails certainly save time. But this is not a system that would work for me, as I don’t consider myself part of the so-called translation industry anymore.

An alternative approach is based on a very different concept and principle, namely that a really good translator is not easy to replace. In fact, most of the time a good translator is almost irreplaceable. This principle and belief that I share with many, or perhaps only some modern translation agency owners, is not based solely on my vanity as a translator, but on logic and experience.

When a translator who has been working for the same client on the same type of translations for many years suddenly becomes unavailable, the replacement, when and if found, is likely to be at least somewhat deficient. Even if the new translator is good and experienced, he or she will lack client-specific knowledge that the translator who has been working for the same client for years has accumulated over many years.

Of course, each and every one of us is replaceable in the long run. As somebody put it, I think I read it in a British spy novel, “Graveyards are full of indispensable people”. But when a good translator must be replaced, there is a learning curve, sometime a long and painful one, and the resulting quality of the replacement translations may vary, at least during the initial stage.

The relevant knowledge is not as easily transferable in the translating profession as it is in some other professions because the knowledge is client-specific. When you need to have your garage door or water heater replaced, you need a professional repairman who knows a lot about garage doors or water heaters. But the repairman doesn’t need to know anything about you and your business. He already knows how the water heater or garage door will be used.

On the other hand, the first thing that a translator needs to ask himself or herself is:”How will be this translation used by the client?” Even though most translation agencies generally don’t tell translators much about the purpose of a translation, (perhaps because they don’t know or don’t care), we have to keep the purpose of the translation in mind when we are translating.

Just like we may not be easily replaceable to our clients, our clients are also very hard to replace, the good ones, anyway, which once again makes the issue of relative irreplaceability of translators extremely relevant when we want to go on vacation.

I remember that in the early 1990s, before most people started using the Internet, I tried to simply not worry too much about the business I may have been losing while I was traveling. When I came back home, there was a stack of unanswered faxes in my fax machine that I had to deal with to try and salvage a couple of jobs if possible.

But back in the 90s I was working mostly for translation agencies, and since most of them operated on the principle that every translator is more or less easily replaceable, it was not such a big deal.

As I started working mostly for direct clients, not being available for work, even during a relatively short vacation period, became a much bigger problem. Most translators probably try to solve this problem by trying to find a partner who can be trusted to replace them competently if a rush translation is needed. But in my case, the situation is complicated by the fact that I translate from seven languages (although most of the time it is just two or three of them), and also the fact that I am a one-man translation agency when I am working on projects that I cannot translate myself. Success or failure of the mission when I work as a translation agency, and this is now an important part of my business, depends on how much I know about the subject matter, the client, and the translator.

I gave up on trying to find a suitable temporary replacement partner years ago.

Before cell phones were turned into personal computers, I used to log into my e-mail account from “Internet kiosks” at airports, and check out Internet cafés in Europe, first thing after breakfast, to at least stay in touch with my clients by e-mail while on vacation. Are we really on vacation when we have to check our e-mail constantly?

Translators are considered as quite unimportant in the grand scheme of things, if they are given any thought at all. That so-called translation industry is trying to replace them by “crowd-sourced” amateurs which is just another piece of evidence clearly showing how little the so-called translation industry understands about translation.

Translators are not considered to be important in the grand scheme of things by anybody … until the guy or girl who did the last translation so well suddenly becomes unavailable, for example because he or she joined the ranks of other indispensable people in a graveyard who no longer answer their e-mails.

There are crowds of people in this world calling themselves translators who are hungry for work and eager to take on any translation project, sometime at any price. But the problem is, since only a very small percentage of them can do the job well, it’s very hard to replace a good translator when a complicated project suddenly becomes a very urgent task and the translator who used to do this project very satisfactorily suddenly becomes unavailable. The relative irreplaceability of translators then becomes very evident for example when a translator dares to take a few days off and go on vacation, although this is something that, unlike translators, most other people can do every year without worrying much about anything.


  1. Good points…

    Holidays are a real concern when you are a freelancer, but I guess we all find some solution to it.

    I work 60% for agencies and 40% for direct customers… When on holiday I tell agencies that I will be unavailable but I still work for direct customers if they really can’t wait… On the other hand I expect agencies to have a solution for such a normal ‘issue’ as a provider on holiday!

    I try to take as many weeks of “partial holidays” as I can (3-4 a year) but really have few true holidays… mostly 3-4 day breaks, including a week-end. Not that I think I am irreplaceable… but I wouldn’t like these good customers to be forced to look for someone else!

    If a big project from a direct customer comes up while I am on holiday or just too busy, a regular partner-translator translates and I proofread his work, which takes fewer hours. 🙂 We translate the same language pairs and practically in the same fields, this partnership has been going on for 13 years now although we have never seen each other face-to-face!

    Translation agencies usually still send translation requests during my unavailability time… I just ignore these mails. I used to try to “help” if requests were short but finally found myself doing lots of small not very well-paid jobs during my holiday.

    As for jobs sent to undisclosed or multiple recipients I simply ignore them!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My solution to the problem of vacations is that my vacations are very short, although I generally only take less than one vacation a year.

    I look so much forward to being semi-retired, which should happen in a few years (if I live that long).

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Steve – let me know if you find the source of the “graveyard” quote.
    Regards, Chris


  4. Hi Chris:

    It is attributed to Charles de Gaulle … and quite a few other people.


  5. And the quote is supposed to go on saying… “who have all been replaced” 🙂


  6. But it’s much better if you don’t say it.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. As always, Steve, beautifully put. I look forward to seeing the fruits of your next career, that of an internationally celebrated author.

    Changing a translator, when quality of outcomes matter, has the same downside as changing your doctor, dentist, lawyer, accountant, etc. It means a temporary setback whilst the translator familiarises her/himself with the client’s profile, history, circumstances, needs, problems, aspirations, etc. to be able to provide the best possible professional solution, and to reduce the potential risk of misinterpretations and inaccuracies to an absolute minimum.

    Since this is self-evident; and since the translation industry’s strategy is deliberately based on keeping the ‘chosen’ translator completely in the dark about the identity and details of the client; it is also self-evident that their business model is seriously flawed (at least as far as the client’s interests are concerned).

    My career as a CEO taught me a long time ago that succeeding with a flawed business strategy, no matter how much effort/money and deceit is being invested, only works for a short time, and only works for opportunists who are primarily focused on short-term profits.

    There is no place in a professional environment for commercial opportunism. If in doubt, ask the US partners of Arthur Anderson & Co (auditors of Enron).
    We all know of agencies who will arrange A plumber, electrician or mechanic when we need one.

    Would we choose a doctor, dentist, accountant that way?
    I think not.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “That so-called translation industry is trying to replace them by “crowd-sourced” amateurs which is just another piece of evidence clearly showing how little the so-called translation industry understands about translation.” Brilliant.

    Keep going Steve. I’ll let you semi-retire, but don’t stop your blog.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Don’t worry, Lisa, I will only stop if I run of inspiration. I am addicted to blogging at this point.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Nice place to be. I’ve got one or two things to say but never the time for it. It’s also nearly always in the soapbox vein. Then again, there are lots of others writing nice fluffy blogs so they’ve got that covered.


  11. I hope mine is not one of the fluffy ones.

    In fact, unless you call my soapbox “brilliant” every few months or, I may have to start doing something else instead ….. writing a book, or starting to learn another language, something that will require a lot of time and energy.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. “I hope mine is not one of the fluffy ones.” Of course not. I wouldn’t be here if that were the case 😉

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Reblogged this on International Language Services – Isabelle F. Brucher – Translation office specializing in Law, Finance and Marketing since 2004 and commented:
    “When a good translator must be replaced, there is a learning curve, sometimes a long and painful one, and the resulting quality of the replacement translations may vary, at least during the initial stage.

    The relevant knowledge is not as easily transferable in the translating profession as it is in some other professions because the knowledge is client-specific.”


  14. “When a good translator must be replaced, there is a learning curve, sometimes a long and painful one, and the resulting quality of the replacement translations may vary, at least during the initial stage.

    The relevant knowledge is not as easily transferable in the translating profession as it is in some other professions because the knowledge is client-specific.”

    Yep !… 🙂

    The problem is, most translation agencies do not translate so do not know anything about translation. But they are the ones explaining to end-customers what translation is (supposed to be) all about !

    And within (large) agencies, PMs are probably ordered to replace usual translators with cheaper ones as soon as they find some… 😦

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I used to always work through vacation periods and don’t anymore for the sake of my sanity. I hardly work for agencies anymore, so I don’t inform the ones I still work with, but I do inform my direct clients. Seriously, there aren’t many things that can’t wait a week or two if you really think about it, and if as a client you spend days and weeks or even months laboring over a text, only to realize that it’s due for publication in another language next, say, Monday, then shame on you for being so disorganized. The cemeteries might be full of irreplaceable people, but they’re also full of urgent, can’t-wait-another-day projects.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. It is true that these rush and super-rush translations cannot be done well, but it is also true that sometime they must be done, for example when a deposition has been scheduled already and more than a dozen patents must be translated within less than a week.

    That is why I offer two rates on every project 1. my regular rate, and 2. my rush rate, which is substantially higher. The result is that most of the time I will get enough time for the translation because the client does not want to pay the rush rate, and that sometime I get to charge a high rate on a rush project I am am able to actually do it.

    Many translation agencies love the super-rush projects because the rates can be raised substantially. They chop up the materials for translation and divide them among as many warm bodies as they can find so that the project would get done on time. The resulting quality is often horrible, but whose fault is it in such a case?

    It is the client’s fault, mostly.


  17. The rush rate is an effective way of seeing how urgent it really was, too. It is funny how next-day projects become less urgent sometimes 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Very good post, I hope you don’t mind me sharing it on my FB page (Federica-Pojaga-Translation-and-Creation).

    I am constantly pestered by such mass-emails, they are a real nuisance and I promised myself not to work with agencies that resort to these methods.

    I have actually found a partner I can send work to when I am away; this and cell phones and general connectivity have allowed me to finally leave my desk and start travelling, something I have always wanted to do.
    This winter will be my first experience of work on the road (with a little help from my friend)… fingers crossed!

    Liked by 1 person

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