Posted by: patenttranslator | October 22, 2015

The Blue Ocean, the Red Ocean and the Yellow Ocean

One frequent translator complaint that I notice on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Linkedln) is how much translators detest the patronizing attitude toward translators by some project managers (PMs) working for certain translation agencies.

The worst offenders for poor treatment of translators, who are often much older and much better educated than the PMs, usually young recent college graduates who can’t find another job and are thus favorite hires for PMs of translation agencies (excuse me, LSPs!), especially the large ones, because they can be hired on the cheap.

One such former PM of a large translation agency, (hint: it’s been in the news a lot recently due to major internecine troubles in the company among its two partners who are fighting each other tooth and nail in court to the delight of translators), shared this little tidbit with translators eager to find out more about the company’s innovative production techniques: the company’s project managers are given a low starting base line for a rock bottom rate to be paid to translators, with a special incentive for the project managers – if they’re able to cajole a very naive or inexperienced translator into agreeing to accept even less for his or her work, they’ll get to keep the difference between the company’s rock bottom baseline rate for a given project and whatever rate the project manager is able to convince the hapless translator to accept.

This is obviously very important motivation for the young PMs who typically receive a miserable salary from the agency, which might be one reason why they’re so exceedingly friendly when they contact translators. When they e-mail us, (sometime they even call, although not very often because you can send mass e-mails to a whole bunch translators at the same time), they act as if they’re our best friends in the whole wide world! They always refer to us by our first name, although often they are young enough to be our daughters, even granddaughters in my case (most of them seem to be female). This type of arrangement creates a kind of invisible tip, similar to the visible tip that guest in restaurants leave for the waiters and waitresses.

The big difference here, of course, is that it’s up to a guest in a restaurant to leave a tip: big tip if the service was fast and expertly delivered (by a pleasant and cute waiter or waitress), or no tip if the waiter or waitress was obtuse and the service was slow and lousy. But the tips left for PMs of such translation agencies are shelled out by underpaid translators, often beginners, unknowingly and unwittingly.

It’s also a good illustration of how the corporate translation agency model is very efficiently designed to squeeze as much work for as little money as possible not only from the translators, but also from PMs. Tips are considered part of the official remuneration of waiters and waitresses in restaurants who even have to pay taxes on tips nowadays, which is the reason their hourly wages are so low. I’m not sure whether agencies pay a tax on tips that translators unwittingly leave for PMs at such a translation agency … they probably do … the agencies would never do anything so completely amoral, or even illegal, would they?

What these PMs don’t seem to realize is that this little scheme with tips for project managers who can talk translators into accepting lower rates will ultimately push their own salaries down, meager as they are.  It will push their own salaries eventually even lower, because just like translators, they too are considered to be another expense that must be minimized to ensure maximum profit for the owner of the agency. Lower and lower rates will over time also result in lower and lower qualifications of translators and thus also lower and lower quality of their translations, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern.

But most translators are not really that stupid (at least I hope so). They realize that PMs who are trying to schmooze them up to accept even lower rates are not really their friends.

Their friends are translation agencies who pay decent money for good work, and promptly, and most importantly: direct clients. They aren’t really looking for friends, only for good customers who will help them pay their bills.

The voracious greed driving the translation industry model is unashamedly obvious. The translation industry’s research groups promoting “strategic planning” keep coming with new “studies” based on largely unverifiable, self-serving projections, with titles like “The Translation Market Is Worth 37 billion Dollars” – and look at the huge slice that this incredibly smart agency has been able to bite off the big translation market pizza!

Do dentists’ associations have research groups publishing market studies titled “The Global Teeth Market Is Worth 74 Billion Dollars?” Or do accountants’ associations have studies saying “The Global Market for Tax Haven Schemes Is Worth 148 Billion Dollars?”

On second thought, they probably do, except that they put it in much less obvious terms than the so-called translation industry. This is the world we live in and there isn’t much that one can do about it.

According to marketing gurus W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne who published a book titled Blue Ocean Strategy in 2005 with an expanded edition published in 2015, there are two kinds of markets in the modem world. If I understand the central thesis of the book correctly (I haven’t read it, I only read reports about the book on the Internet), the term Red Ocean is used for markets where the supply often exceeds the demand and service providers thus must fight for available work like sharks fighting over food so that the blood from the vicious fights of the sharks has turned the ocean red.

But there are also Blue Ocean markets, where crystal clear water appears to be blue. There are no sharks in this pristine market environment and companies and individuals who are able to create a strategy leading them safely and reliably to Blue Oceans can charge much higher rates for their services and products than their counterparts who concentrate all of their efforts on the food supply available in Red Oceans.

I think that there is some truth to this economic theory, although for the most part these fancy new strategies seem just like an application of new fancy verbiage to pretty evident situations. Translators who work only or mostly for large translation agencies are clearly fighting for survival in the worst kind of Red Ocean market imaginable.

Translators who are able to ignore the Red Ocean environment and instead focus their marketing efforts only on direct clients and small, specialized translation agencies (which are often run by their colleagues), are working in the Blue Ocean environment based on this terminology.

I would add that thanks to the so-called translation industry, there is now also a Yellow Ocean environment, an environment that has been created by greedy translation agencies, and also by translators’ associations happily parroting the propaganda of the so-called translation industry.

According to what the industry and some translators’ associations are telling us, the so-called translation industry is our friend, and new, nearly miraculous technological solutions of the so­ called translation industry, such as ISO (Industrial Standard Organization) certification, human post-editing of machine translations, crowdsourcing, cloudsourcing and highly efficient management of translation projects in which individual translators are treated as countless and faceless humanoids efficiently organized in a database and forced to jump through as many hoops as necessary to achieve maximum project efficiency and maximum profits, are really good for the translators.

But just like the newly created scheme of tips extorted from poor translators by poor project managers, none of these technical solutions is exactly good for us.

If most translators’ associations don’t tell translators that these schemes are really bad for them—and at this point they sure don’t do that—they’re helping to create a Yellow Ocean environment: an environment in which the big, hungry snake of the so-called translation industry has eaten up translators’ associations like little, helpless froggies.

And the big snake with a ravenous appetite, having ingested the little froggies, has been excreting its poisonous propaganda and pissing into the crystal blue water for so many years now that the formerly pristine waters of the Blue Ocean have been turned into a Yellow Ocean not only for translators, but also for their clients.


  1. Right on, Steve. Everything you have written here reflects my own experience with the agency in question. Even its “Awards Program” for its most productive freelancers looks like it was computer generated, with no personal recognition of the highly-productive translator and, astonishingly, no personal name of the agency’s staff appearing in any of the correspondence related to the program.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Reblogged this on International Language Services – Isabelle F. Brucher – Translation office specializing in Law, Finance and Marketing since 2004.


  3. […] The problem with the e-mail offers of work that I have been receiving for the last three days is that they all came from the red ocean or from the yellow ocean areas of markets where the supply greatly exceeds the demand and service providers thus must fight for available work like sharks fighting over food so that the blood from the vicious fights of the sharks has turned the ocean red. If you want to know what I mean by the yellow ocean, read this post on my silly blog. […]


  4. […] if it does happen. As translation agencies have unwittingly created an extremely competitive shark-eat-shark market for themselves in the red ocean and yellow ocean segments of the market, they constantly demand lower and lower rates from translators, which is why I think […]


  5. […] really are plenty of other fish in the sea, and provided we also learn how to stay away from the red ocean and yellow ocean where all kinds of pretty disgusting fish may be swimming, one of the advantages of our job is that we are much less likely to be abused than […]


  6. […] a result of the bloodbath in the “translation industry” over the last two decades that pushed the rates per translated words down even for highly specialized translations, the […]


  7. […] number of new customers from Internet was drastically reduced in the last five years or so, because the competition for both organic listings and paid advertising has become brutal in the last…. But it’s not about how many new customers, mostly patent law firms, will find me in a given […]


  8. […] best evidence that monopolization of translation services is impossible is the fact that after decades of mutually destructive internecine warfare intended to kill off competition the way Amazon or Microsoft has done it, the market for translation is still a famously fragmented […]


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