Posted by: patenttranslator | February 21, 2016

There Are Many Ways to Make People Work for Free

It may have happened to you already, maybe even more than once. And if it hasn’t, it will, and probably more than once. I am talking about those dialogs in which you are asked to prove that you are not a robot by typing in letters and/or numbers that may be hard to read. Ostensibly, it’s just an attempt to establish that you are a human being and not a creepy digital crawler. Usually, all you have to do is type the letters and numbers once.

Even when you are asked to type the text into the little box only once, you are usually working for a company that has a contract for fixing scanning errors in exchange for payment, for example a contract from Amazon or Google or another company that is using a huge amount of scanned information that must be frequently corrected by an entity equipped with human eyes combined with a more or less functioning human brain.

If all you do is input a few alphanumeric characters once, well, no harm done, you could say, even if somebody is making money from your work without your consent.

But sometimes the authentication script keeps coming back at you with a vengeance, with new texts to correct in a new box, although you are sure that your last correction was correct. When it recently happened to me, I thought it must have been some kind of bug in the software, (I was trying to change the password for my Yahoo account, which I never use). Only recently did I find out that Yahoo kept coming back with new puzzles because it is making idle, stupid people work for the corporation for free for as long as possible.

Using the Internet, software and “language technology” to make people work for as little as possible, preferably for free, is a wonderful technique and a basic operating principle that the “translation industry” has been busily perfecting for well over a decade.

The relatively recent push to make translators work for less and less, and for free if possible, by using the Internet against them, started with the CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) revolution.

CAT tools (or simply CATs) were originally sold to translators as wonderful tools that would increase “productivity” so much that daily output in words would easily be doubled or tripled, at least. I remember about five or six years ago reading an article in the ATA Chronicle in which the author (I don’t remember her name now, but I do remember that she was a past ATA president) said that she finished translating more than 10,000 words in just a few hours thanks to a wonderful CAT tool. In addition to being a past ATA president, it also so happened by pure coincidence that the author was “a certified Trados trainer”.

We all know how CATs, and Trados in particular, are now used by translation agencies to force translators to accept non-payment or teeny-weeny payments for “repeated words”, “full matches”, “fuzzy matches” and other highly creative inventions of “the translation industry”.

Even before a rate is mentioned, I can always tell sleazy translation agencies of the type that I absolutely don’t want to work for by the fact that they all insist I use Trados for all of my work. Such translation agencies always offer the worst rates, coupled with a long waiting time before they finally pay you the pittance that they do eventually pay.

Here is part of an e-mail that I ignored this week: it relates to a job offered to me by a translation agency in France:


This is Major Cheater, Vendor Manager at [only the names are fake, nothing else has been changed in the e-mail].
We at are constantly looking for experienced collaborators and we would be interested in working with you. Please find below our terms & conditions and please don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions that you may have.

1. CAT Tool

The use of SDL TRADOS is compulsory for almost all of our projects in order to connect to our online TM’s. We mainly use STUDIO 2014, but some of our clients are still using Trados 2007 (although these projects are becoming increasingly rare nowadays). Could you confirm which versions you have and are proficient with?

2. Rates

We are able to offer you a per source word rate of 0.07 USD for translation and 25 USD/H for review (based on 1500 words per hour, please note that we may ask you to fill in an evaluation sheet).

Please find below our Trados grid:

Matches Rate
Repetitions      0 (not included in payment)
100%                 0 (not included in payment – or 10% if asked to be reviewed)
95-99%            19% of your No Match rate
85-94%            40% of your No Match rate
75-84%            50% of your No Match rate
[No match range from 0% to 74%]

 These rates apply to all projects and it is not possible to increase these percentages.
 The source word is used as our basis for billing, so please note that we cannot accept any minimum rate charges.

3. Payments

Payments are only made via bank transfer and will be processed within 60 days (at the end of the month) upon receipt of your invoice. For administrative matters, could you please confirm your country of residence?

I don’t quite know how to interpret their table of compulsory discounts for “matches” in Trados because I don’t use Trados, and even if I did, I would never agree to compulsory discounts. But I do know that it is a scam designed to make translators work for almost nothing, or literally nothing, because double the rate mentioned in the e-mail, namely 14 cents a word, was the lowest rate that I used to charge to translation agencies 20 years ago. I considered it a survival rate back then. I charged it only to a few cheap agencies, and of course, there were no obligatory CAT discounts 20 years ago.

I understand 14 cents is a pretty good rate if it is offered by a translation agency to a translator these days.

This is what those wonderful “language technology tools” have done to translators. They sort of did increase productivity, but in a way that resulted in more profit for the middleman, while translation rates were slashed by that same middleman because if you as a translator give your consent that somebody, somewhere, often in a different hemisphere, can apply a piece of software that you cannot control to your rate, your rate will eventually be mostly symbolic and largely meaningless.

You will be paid whatever the middleman says you will be paid, and that’s that.

The insistence on discounts for “repeated words” shows the enormity of the contempt that translation agencies who use this scheme have for translators. They do not consider translators to be professionals in their own right who deserve to be paid professional rates for professional work.

If I ask a plumber to fix my toilet or sink, any plumber that I call is likely to have several conditions before he agrees to attempt to solve my problem. No plumber that I ever talked to offered to drive to my house and look at the toilet free of charge, which would be a plumber’s equivalent of a “free translation test”. They all had a minimum charge, usually just under a hundred dollars, for simply showing up, and I understand that. Plumbers are professionals and their time is valuable to them.

Translators who routinely agree to take free tests when a translation agency demands one clearly do not see themselves as professionals who simply will not work for free in exchange for a vague promise of some potential work, possibly paid work, in an unspecified future.

No accountant that I’ve ever used would agree to charge me only for “processing new numbers” in my tax return, although most of the information that an accountant has to process is simply copied and pasted from the last year’s tax form, and only the numbers are changed. This is because accountants too see themselves as professionals, not as “post-processors” of numbers generated for them by accounting software. I have no problem with that either because I know that I am not paying them for how many numbers they changed in the tax forms this year. I am paying them good money because they know what to do with those numbers.

I could go on and on, listing professionals who charge based on quantifiable units, from musicians to writers to website designers, and who would never allow their customers to apply a customer’s software to the way the final charge is calculated to arrive at a lower figure, or dictate to them which tools must be used for the work.

If I dared to tell a professional plumber which tools must be used during the toilet fixing process, he would naturally think that I was crazy. But “professional translators” do not seem to consider the requirement that “The use of SDL TRADOS is compulsory for almost all of our projects” crazy these days, although to a professional it does sound crazy.

There is also a very good reason why so many translation agencies can’t use samples of previous work and instead routinely insist on free translation tests.

Although in some cases, it would be difficult to offer samples of previous work due to confidentiality requirements, all that is needed in most cases is to remove identifying information such as names and dates from the translation and the document is no longer identifiable. Because published patent applications, the bulk of my work, are in the public domain, technical translators can easily find suitable translation samples for evaluation.

The problem is, many translation agencies, and based on my experience possibly most of them, are unable to evaluate new samples because they are just brokers who do not understand much if anything about the translations that they are selling, or more precisely reselling to their clients. That is why the only thing they can really do is compare a new translation to an existing one they already have.

Post-processing of machine translation by human translators is just the latest scheme of “the translation industry” designed and invented by “the translation industry” to make human translators work for free or for next to nothing by using the Internet and technology, in this case machine translation, against translators.

Everybody who knows anything about translation will understand that if “post-processing” of machine translation is to be of any value whatsoever, the machine-translated detritus in fact must most of the time be completely retranslated. The push to reclassify translators as “post-processors” is thus nothing but a clever attempt at labor theft. Will translators fall for this trick just as they fell for the CAT trick?

They should have learned from their Trados experience. But have they really learned something? I don’t know, only time will tell.

Fortunately, translation agencies of the type described above are not the world, and they do not own the translation market, only one segment of the market that has become synonymous with the term “the translation industry”.

What are some of the characteristics of “the translation industry” market segment?

1. In this market segment, mega-agencies compete but often also cooperate with small translation agencies that are usually located in countries where labor costs are very low.

2. The market is served by translators who are able to work for low rates and willing to wait two months or longer to get paid. These translators are usually inexperienced beginners, students, part-timers and “multilinguals” who are just getting their feet wet and can’t figure out how to get better paying gigs.

3. Because translation agencies compete in this market segment mostly on price rather than expertise, they have to figure out how to cut their operating costs to the bone, and the best way to do this is to make people work for free or for next to nothing. Hence the insistence on compulsory use of Trados with the resulting non-payment or only fractions of the usual payment for “fuzzy matches” and similar monstrosities. Other components of the make-them-work-for-us-for-free strategy include multiple layers of subcontracting, where very inexpensive but not very good translators may be located in third world countries, the use of “in-cloud translators”, and the application of human post-processing to machine translation detritus masquerading as translation.

So what is a poor translator to do these days?

I believe that the best way to deal with many problems that are unavoidable in the “translation industry” segment of the market is to give it a wide berth instead of becoming part of it by joining its worst paid and most abused workers.

Because some small, specialized agencies, (the fashionable term is “boutique agencies”), try to compete on expertise rather than price, they pay much better rates to their translators, generally starting from about double the amount quoted in the e-mail that I received a few days ago and ignored, except for the fact that I used it for my silly post today. This is one way to avoid problems that are simply inescapable if one works for “the translation industry”.

Translators who have already developed considerable expertise in certain subjects are in an excellent position to compete with boutique agencies if they can figure out where their direct clients are hiding and how to contact them in a way that will lead to a response. These translators can generally earn about twice as much as what they would be able to make if they worked only for boutique agencies.

This of course requires a lot of work, but over time, an experienced translator can eventually develop a stable of well paying direct clients who will be sending work not solely based on the rate, but on a combination of factors having to do mostly with expertise. Although it took me a long time, since I was able to do that, most people can probably do it too.

The alternative is to become a human robot who works for “the translation industry” and puts in a lot of work hours, while the human robot is forced to work for free for many of these working hours.



  1. Good points, Steve. But, is there any other option? The industry is rapidly facing commoditization: it seems there’s no other possible value proposition than price, unfortunately. And, as an agency, charging “raw words” to the client results in lost quotes.

    On the other hand, translators unfortunately don’t have the time, neither the skills, to sell to direct clients. I can’t blame them: in a fragmented industry where the demand for translation can come literally from everywhere, finding a client is possibly the most difficult task in the “translation industry”.

    This situation leaves translators at the mercy of Trados and “greedy” LSPs… while forces LSPs to be mere organizations designed to sell—not even to translate anything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your comment, Rodrigo.

    “On the other hand, translators unfortunately don’t have the time, neither the skills, to sell to direct clients. I can’t blame them: in a fragmented industry where the demand for translation can come literally from everywhere, finding a client is possibly the most difficult task in the “translation industry”.”

    I agree – if they don’t want to bother to find the time and develop the skills to sell to direct clients, or at least to “boutique agencies” based on their expertise, they have no other choice but to work for “translation agencies” based on whoever can charge less.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Well, there certainly is a reason why agencies prefer trados: trados is agency friendly and freelancer and friendly and I would not be surprised if part of the trados sales man’s talk would be: “trados helps you to screw the translators”. Of course he would not say this loud and clea, r so that everybody can year it would rather be the “small print” whisper. There are other tools around that are much more user-friendly than trados and mostly these tools and been developed by translators going computer programming, who got frustrated with trados. Since these tools had been created on the basis of the negative experience with trados, it is no wonder that they are more user-friendly and that agencies are not like them.

    There is another thing one should never forget: Microsoft have their messy fingers in trados.

    Of course trados has been messy before, so Microsoft could mess up to much, as they did with Skype (almost every month there is a so-called improved version of Skype and you are left to wonder, what this improvement might be, an improvement for the user or an improvement for the NSA?

    I personally would like to see alternative versions of alternative CAT tools to trados, since there are operating systems around that are definitely more stable than Windows 10 or anything that comes from Microsoft.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “No accountant that I’ve ever used would agree to charge me only for “processing new numbers” in my tax return, although most of the information that an accountant has to process is simply copied and pasted from the last year’s tax form, and only the numbers are changed. This is because accountants too see themselves as professionals, not as “post-processors” of numbers generated for them by accounting software. I have no problem with that either because I know that I am not paying them for how many numbers they changed in the tax forms this year. I am paying them good money because they know what to do with those numbers.”

    I couldn’t agree more. I use Trados and WordFast, but they are my own investment and nobody but me profits from that investment. I reject the idea of my words being weighted as if they were bananas or apples. I am a professional.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Another very scary trend I have noticed is that a lot of agencies are now insisting that you complete ALL project using their “online CAT tool” which means you have to commit to a translation sentence by sentence (often several translators are “translating” the same document simultaneously) and you are on a time clock. You translate a sentence, press enter and move on.


  6. Anybody who would accept to work under these conditions must be pretty desperate.


  7. I hope it is desperation………………the alternative possibility is stupidity.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Aren’t all projects potentially post-editing jobs? In other words, the difference between a standard translation and post-edited translation is the provision of the machine translation provided by the agency. But, since any translator can easily generate their own MT (for free or for a very modest amount), the agency adds no value in this regard that would justify a discount, so why should the agency be given a discounted rate? Therefore, the only possible justification for granting a discount is the agency’s expectation of receiving a sub-standard product and the translator accepts the discount with the understanding that he/she has the agency’s authorization (in exchange for charging a lower rate) to provide a sub-standard product. However, does the client also expect to receive a sub-standard product or are they just sold on price and speed?


  9. Well, of course, an agency model that is based on post-processing of machine translation adds no value whatsoever.

    Since anyone can obtain machine translation (for example with GoogleTranslate or Microsoft Translator) for free, it is basically a scam that works as follows.

    Greedy translation agency geniuses buy a website domain that has some variant of the word “translate” or “translation” or the like in the name, followed by .com. Since these domain names are probably all gone by now and thus not exactly cheap if you want to buy them, you will need some startup capital to buy a good domain name and to build a website.

    People who are looking for translation service on the Internet will then hopefully find this new agency based on the keywords that they type into search engines.

    The agency finds “translators” who are stupid enough or desperate enough to retranslate the machine translation detritus, reclassified in this manner as “post-processors”, because the agency sends them a machine translation of the document that they obtain in this manner from a client who found them on the Internet.

    The agency pays the “post-processor” 1 cent for “post-processing”, and charges the customer for example 10 cents, (which would be very competitive if it were a real human translation).

    The whole thing is basically a scam, because as you said, the agency does not provide any real value, other than matching a customer with somebody who is desperate for money, even though it is a very tiny amount of money, but there are many scam of this type and other types in “the translation industry”.

    I wrote about this new translation agency model a few months ago in this post:


  10. […] Incidentally, this is also one reason why I don’t bother using any CAT tools, although the main one is that I simply don’t need them, don’t like them, and despise the way predatory translation agencies are trying to use them to extort illegal discounts for “full and fuzzy matches” from hapless transl… […]


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