Posted by: patenttranslator | October 28, 2015

There Are Certain Limits Beyond Which Right Cannot Be Found

In my last post, I discussed (among other things) an economic theory with the fancy title “Blue Ocean and Red Ocean Market Strategy”. I mentioned a new technique related to pushing rates down for translators. Some project managers (PMs) of one translation agency are trying to weasel out lower and lower rates from translators because the translation agency allows PMs to keep the difference between the rock bottom low rates of the translation agency and an even lower rate, if the friendly, entirely sympathetic and apologetic, but very persistent PM is able to convince a translator to accept them.

I saw on social media that based on the experience of several translators, a number of translation agencies have in fact adopted this method and many of them use various ingenious methods to make sure that translators will be paid less and less over time.

1. The PM, who is always very friendly and cheerful, (plenty of exclamation marks, smiley faces and emoticons in an e-mail), pretends to be convinced that the translator’s previous rate was in fact lower because she somehow misremembered what the previous rate was. But, if the lower rate is not acceptable, the job may go to a different translator because “we don’t have the budget for it now” and there’s nothing that can be done about it.

2. The PM simply asks for a new lower rate, for example 20% less, and then proposes a tempting rate that is “only 10%” less than what the translator used to charge in the hope that the translator will jump at the chance.

3. A variation of the “we don’t have the budget for it” technique is when the PM says something like, “Look, this is a large, continuous but low budget job and we have a number of translators working on it. We can pay you x cents per word on this job because you’re such an excellent translator, but everybody else is getting x cents – 15%.” It’s invariably a lie – everybody is getting the same low rate.

These and other variations of dishonest and deceptive haggling techniques designed to force translators to accept less for their work seem to be currently very popular in the so-called translation industry.

There is nothing wrong with a broker, such as a translation agency, trying to secure the best possible conditions for a brokered deal, which is in fact one possible definition of a translation project of a translation agency. The agency organizes the project, the translators contribute their work and the broker takes a cut, namely what is left over once the workers are paid.

But as Horace put it, “Est modus in rebus, sunt certi denique fines quos ultra citraque nequit considere rectum” (“rectum” doesn’t mean here what you might think; the quote means something like “There is a proper way to do everything, and then there are certain limits beyond which right cannot be found”. Apparently, Horace knew two thousand years ago what CEOs of modern corporations seem to have forgotten: that even greed should be exercised with moderation.

It’s important to keep in mind that because the translation market is extremely fragmented, there is no such thing as “the going rate” for a certain language or subject as very different rates are paid in different market segments and each of these segments has its own “going rate”.

For example, generally very low rates are paid on online translation auction venues where many translators try to underbid for the same job. Higher rates are often paid by specialized translation agencies, and even higher rates can be obtained by translators working for direct clients if there’s no commission to be paid to a middleman.

Like many other translators, I am both a translator as well as a translation agency. I see from my receivables that last month, for example, about 40% of my income was generated from projects that I organized in my capacity as a specialized translation agency owner, 60% was from my own translations, and the situation is very similar again this month.

But I don’t need to swim with the sharks in the murky waters of the red ocean markets, either as a translator, or as a small translation agency owner.

Unlike the project managers of the translation agencies mentioned above, I am not actively trying to make more money by trying to force translators to accept less money for their work. Unlike some translation agencies, I don’t boast that I have “databases listing thousands of qualified translators”.

I am perfectly happy to have only two or three translators available for a certain type of project, usually a patent project that I can’t handle myself. I value translators’ willingness to work for me very much. The projects that I have for them are often continuous, highly specialized projects and it takes a while before the translators learn everything that they need to know to keep delivering very good work. I want to keep them happy while they are working for me and pushing their rate down would not make them happy.

When I initially accept a translator’s rate, I do so because I am satisfied with my own profit margin and don’t need to keep increasing it by decreasing the compensation for translators – although it would be difficult for me to pay more, since that would mean that I would need to ask the same client for more, or accept a smaller profit margin for myself.

Over the years, I did stop working with a few translators, even very good translators, as I was able to replace them with other, equally qualified translators who charge significantly less.

But I can think only of three such cases in the last 10 years or so, and I assume and hope that these relatively expensive translators eventually figured out, as I did, how to position themselves in a blue ocean market segment that pays them the kind of rates that they deserve.

So remember, dear reader of my silly blog, when somebody suddenly starts haggling with you over your rate, a rate that used to be perfectly acceptable in the past, perhaps with one of the techniques mentioned in this post, the question you should probably be asking yourself is:

Do I really want to swim with the hungry, insatiable sharks in the dangerous, murky waters of the Red Ocean, or shouldn’t I instead try to figure out how to navigate the much safer and much more transparent waters of the Blue Ocean?


  1. This is your best blog yet, Steve. You state the current situation very clearly.


  2. Thank you so much, Isabel!


  3. Another great post, Steve. There are days when the sheer viciousness and unfairness of this “industry”, and the qualities of people involved in selling and buying our work, make it really hard to enjoy the profession I am otherwise rather fond of. (Then, of course, I come to my senses and remember what it was like to work in the corporate world and academia :))

    I really wish the tactics you describe here and in the previous post got a much wider exposure. When I see the latest avalanche of silly, meaningless, repetitive contributions in LinkedIn groups, I wish those few people who have something important to say, like yourself, would go and get a bit of “real estate” in translation-oriented groups.


  4. Thank you so much, Anna.

    I feel the same way about “the industry”. I used to spend a lot of time on LinkedIn, but there are so many people just venting their without really saying much about anything else that I stopped doing that, for the most part.


  5. When you get off the subject of the ATA, you write very cogent stuff! But I would go further, and in fact I would venture into territory that many translators probably think is pure heresy.

    If someone finds it harder and harder to survive financially as a translator, and is more and more tempted to accept the bullying tactics you describe so well in order to get at least some moolah coming in, striving mightily to compete with machine translation systems and competitors in very low-wage countries, etc., why not quit and find another line of work? Or at least change your mindset from a “full-fledged, full-time, practitioner of the ancient noble profession of Übersetzer” to the less prestigious one of a part-timer translator, and fill out your budget by putting some effort into selling your beautiful knitted scarves, or whatever. (I have no idea whether the knitted scarf business is any more remunerative than translation, of course.)

    It seems to me that many translators have a view of the profession as a kind of sacred calling, like the priesthood or medicine, that gives one a status close to sainthood just for the sheer fact of serving humanity in the noble art of shlepping words from one language to another. They would sooner give up the ghost, it seems, than desert this calling. “I’d rather die with my boots on and my CAT tool running.” But I would suggest another parallel case: teaching. There are lots of teachers these days who are realizing that the ancient noble calling of teaching often just isn’t worth the struggle, either, and switch to software engineering, for example.

    And of course, LinkedIn is very helpful in some lines of work, but apparently not when it comes to translators.


  6. A lot of what you are saying makes a lot of sense, Zenner-san.

    But I think that it is also true that if translators had their own association, one that does not sing kumbaya while holding hands with the biggest and hungriest sharks (excuse me, I meant fins) and does not simply point the way to the Red Ocean as the proper way to the market and the only market where translators can make a living, fewer talented and dedicated translators who may not be very good at marketing themselves would need to leave the business and start making knitted scarves.

    That is what I am trying to say in my posts about ATA that you have not found to be cogent.


    • And I maintain that any translators who want to start a new organization that they feel will meet a need that is not now being met should go for it. Bon voyage and bonne chance!

      Such translator/interpreter-only organizations have been started. They’re not very well known because they’ve never really gotten very far, at least in this country.


  7. Yes, they have been already started, in this country and outside of this country, and I am a member of one of the.

    Merci pour nous souhaiter bon voyage et bon chance.


    • Whoops, sorry about the gender of “chance.” French is not my language!


      • I am sorry but what exactly is your point, Jon? You don’t like the dishonest practices and abusive behavior of some of our clients – well, tough luck, don’t protest, don’t try to make other people aware of those issues, just shut the heck up and go and do something else? Really? No doubt a recipe for a peaceful life, but makes a tiny bit harder to look in the mirror, wouldn’t you say? (I am joking, I know you didn’t mean it that way, but I think it makes sense to point out things that are obviously wrong, and at least talk about things. We work with words, after all, and shouldn’t underestimate their power.)


      • You are right. That was not my point at all. My point, which I did not express very well, I admit, was that there are some fields of translation in which it seems that adverse forces, such as increasing use of MT by clients and increasing entrance of translators from low-cost-of-living countries into the translation work force, are making it quite hard for translators in higher-cost-of-living countries to make a living solely from translating.

        What can they do? They could move to the low-cost-of-living countries. But what if they want to stay where they are? Steve’s recommendation, of course, is to get the high-quality, high-paying clients who treat you like a queen or king. That’s a wonderful idea–I fully agree with his condemnation of agencies and clients who expect translators to do bottom-of-the-barrel work like MT post-editing. But there are fields in which that is quite difficult to do. Connecting with such clients may take a great deal of time, effort, and expense, which a particular individual might decide, as a totally rational decision, is not really worth it, and switching to another line of work, or doing translation as only one source of income and adding others, might be the right course to take.

        Not all sub-fields of the translation field are exactly like all the others. The entire world economy of global capitalism is being swept by rapid waves of change, which I am not sure that everyone is fully conscious of. Some of these sub-fields are presently not being affected as much as others (but I think their time will come), and there there may not be any reason for concern, at least for now. But where these waves of change are making it much more difficult to make a living as a translator than it has been up to now, I am just suggesting that it might make more sense for some individuals to think about other lines of work. (And even for people who are thinking about becoming translators to think again. Exactly what fields are they considering entering as translators, and are they sure that there will be openings for them? Are they perhaps in something like the position of a graduate student aiming at a humanities Ph.D. and hoping for a university teaching career when colleges and universities are eliminating whole humanities departments, and if not that, converting those departments into places where only very low-paid adjuncts are being hired? This has to be considered very seriously in many cases.)


  8. “French is not my language!”

    I figured as much, that’s why I responded in French

    But you started it!


  9. Thank you, Steve, for this other very good post.
    I have never wanted to swim with sharks either, that is why I am very consequent with PMs who ask me for a (temporary) lower rate because they do not have the budget for it or because it is a big project or… (BTW, I am allergic to an excessive use of smiley faces). My very polite answer is always “no”. Because neither the local supermarket will sell its stuff cheaper during that big project, nor electric power and taxes will go down for me.
    (If I “do not have the budget for it”, I do not go into the shop/office).
    It is also interesting when an agency asks me in March if I am available for them in… July-August (when their cheap workers are all away). So, they can pay my rates when they need me.
    Now, after 17 years of career, I work more and more for small clients who ask me politely every time what that special project would cost. And pay the day after delivery.

    About LinkedIn: it can be useful to position yourself as translator in groups that are not meant for translators only (for example: Business in region XY).

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Excellent post, as usual. Congratulations.
    As an engineer almost fully devoted to technical translation for almost three years now, I understand the struggle a starting freelance translator has to face in order to get new clients, which sometimes lead to accepting low rates from agencies out of fear of not getting any projects. I confess I did, and it took me some time to overcome that feeling and set honest, reasonable boundaries to the rates I was willing to accept for my specialized, quality work.
    I would just like to encourage translators, specially beginners, to make the effort and stand for the rates they deserve. It’s hard at the beginning, but definitely worthwhile.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I want to thank zenner41 for explaining his thoughts in detail (with apologies for my own poorly worded contributions – overworked, no sleep etc.). I absolutely agree – there are some fundamental changes in quite a few professions, not only ours. Law and medicine are changing rapidly, and for many, even well-established lawyers and doctors, but particularly recent graduates, it’s pretty much swim with sharks or sink nowadays. Considering the huge investment many of them made into just getting that degree, this could be a difficult situation.

    To insist on working, and charging, the same way as 15 or even 5 years seems to be an obsolete delusion, at least for most of us. And an advanced academic degree with zero technical and real-life business skills will no longer bring money to the bank. The price pressure is everywhere. That doesn’t mean we should net get paid fairly or earn what we deserve.

    But this is not about how much we earn per word, is it.

    I think the most important part of Steve’s post is a description of dishonest and nauseating, deceptive tactics employed by translation agencies.

    Yes, it is a symptom, rather than a cause, but a symptom that can be addressed by every translators who is aware of such conduct. That’s why I feel we need to get those facts out there. Not our opinions, complaints or emotions, not just talking about the world as it should be, but real facts.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Dear Anna:

    Thank you for your comments.

    I think it is about how much we earn per word to a large extent. Globalized, corporatist business practices of extremely arrogant, ignorant and dishonest brokers have been very harmful to our profession.

    The trick is to get rid of these brokers while keep being busy, most of the time, anyway, at good rates.

    It’s not easy, but it can be done. That’s what I am trying to write about in my silly blog.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Great article. I refuse to work for agencies. I only work for direct clients and sometimes for fellow-translators that I studied with back in the day.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Lucky you!

    (I basically use the same method – I work mostly for direct clients and/or other translators).


  15. Did you see this


  16. “Town officials have turned their backs on Google Translate, but there has been an upside to the embarrassing error, García said, as it caused a surge of interest in this year’s festival.”

    Did it cause a surge of interest in clitoris too, I wonder?


  17. Well I didn’t go to the festival myself lol


  18. Great post again 🙂

    For all talking about LinkedIn: they are now entering the translation industry too, everybody wants a slice of the market:


  19. Thanks for your comment. This is a market niche that real translators better not touch with a ten foot pole … because it will pay basically nothing.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: