Posted by: patenttranslator | February 26, 2016

Three Examples of Modern Advertising by the “Translation Industry”

First Example

“Traditional approaches to translation no longer cut it”, said a black female actress in a video commercial of a translation agency on my computer screen, and then favored me with a dazzling smile for a second. A white, young, slightly geeky-looking male actor—mostly because he was dressed in jeans instead of conservative office attire and had sneakers on his feet—chimed in, “Translation alone is not enough: in my team, we have agile translation engines, seamless integration, global fluency platforms …” …. “Now I easily customize workflows while our favorite translators edit in context”, added a third actor, also a young white guy, muy sympatico looking, although not quite as young as the second actor, sans tie but more conservatively dressed than the younger geeky dude, probably because his role in the commercial was that of an experienced project manager.

I am quoting the words of three actors in a commercial of a translation agency that has been pursuing me relentlessly wherever I go online for the last month or so. Since these actors are not translators (trust me, I can tell, I have been translating for a living since 1980), everything they say is a lie, right?

Well, no, not really, it’s just an ad, and we don’t think about what actors say in commercials as lies, although their statements are obviously complete fiction because they’re just acting. But advertising is not about lying, it’s about selling illusions to people … preferably people who don’t know any better.

It’s really my fault that these kinds of commercials appear on my computer screen so frequently, for example when I check my local weather. Several times a day I go to multilingual online dictionaries when I am working and am literally at a loss for a word, and sometimes I use words like “translation” and “translator” in my online searches. So an algorithm of one or several search engines must have erroneously determined that I am a likely future customer for the stuff that translation agencies are selling.

Which I am not, of course, because I am a translator myself. But since I then confused the algorithm even further by clicking on these commercials, the search engines must be at this point pretty sure that I am indeed a likely customer. Truth is, I’m clicking on the commercials mostly because it makes me feel good to know that the agencies will be paying good money for each and every one of my clicks.

What is an “agile translation engine”? It sounds like machine translation that is married with “seamless integration” once the product of the agile translation engine has been edited—“in context by our favorite translators” (if we still want to call them that)—as opposed to edited out of context, I suppose. So “the translation industry” is now trying to sell translations to customers based on vacuous commercials instead of based on actual information, with the same type of completely fictional commercials that corporations are using to confuse consumers in order to sell them soap, yogurt and presidents.

Second Example

Last month I was also being pursued online by a commercial from a different translation agency, one that I sort of know personally because I used to work for it. This was back in the day, more than 20 years ago when they were still a very small startup, before they became an octopus that has its tentacles spread to entangle most of the world.

The second agency’s commercial, the one that I just called an octopus, must have been cheaper to produce. There were no sexy actors in it pretending to be translators or translation project managers, only graphics quickly flashing on the screen and showing things like simplified outlines of continents and oceans, with gears meshing everything perfectly together. The marketing bit is left to the narrator who is introducing a super-cool translation system that makes it possible for the agency’s clients to translate anything into any language at lightning speed with a mouse click or a swipe of a finger on a smart phone. Voilà, it’s done, and you save 40 percent on your translation (all of the big agencies now have a new system, and they always use the same number for savings in their advertisements or commercials – 40 percent, not a single percent more or less).

About two years ago, this translation agency asked me to help them with a project involving the translation of five million words from Japanese to English. I still remember that their e-mail said, after the obligatory greeting “Dear Linguist”, “We are very excited about this opportunity”.

Although I was going through a slow period at the time, I didn’t want to bite because as I said, I don’t like this octopus. I am hardly alone, I believe it is hated by dozens if not hundreds or thousands of translators. But as this particular agency really does have its tentacles everywhere, my phone was ringing off the hook, about a dozen times a day with offers to work on this exciting project from different subsidiaries and sub-sub-subcontracted sub-agencies of the ubiquitous octopus that were located in California, New England, Holland and Asia, among other places, most of them offering low rates because the agency is well known for paying low rates.

If you want to find out more about this, I described my eerie experience with the mammoth project that had to be finished in record time in a post titled How Many Translators Can Dance on the Point of a Very Fine Needle.

The range of rates offered for this particular job was from 10 to 18 cents per English word. Eighteen cents is a really good rate to be offered by an agency these days, so I called one of the coordinator’s from the actual agency back (not a sub-sub-sub person), and he said, yes, sure, we have as much work for you as you can handle, let me send you our paperwork, you have to sign it first and you’re good to go.

But when I saw the agency’s humiliating and not quite legal terms in the “Non-Disclosure Agreement”, which I seem to remember was very long indeed, I decided not to take them up on their generous work offer after all, and I simply sent the coordinator an e-mail stating falsely that I had received a better offer in the meantime, (it was a lie, I actually had no other work at that time).

But that still was not the end of it. A really good agency that sends me well-paid work e-mailed me a proposal for the same Japanese translation job next day. Since they were going to pay me the same rate (18 cents), they must have been offered a much better rate than what the octopus offered to me.

So I called the coordinator, explained the situation to him and told him that while I would never work for the octopus directly, I would definitely work for him. But an hour later, the guy e-mailed me to let me know that he could not sign the contract either, and that was that.

Third Example

I also kind of know the agency that is behind the third commercial that has been chasing me online for quite some time now. This is a very simple, cheap, static advertisement of the type that will simply take you to the agency’s website if you click on it.

I think it must be a very small agency, possibly just one woman. She is located in California and she must be spending a lot of money for online advertising.

She was sending me an offer to work for her about twice a month last year. In December of last year, she sent me two e-mails, one for a translation from Japanese and one from French.

The e-mails are basically a form in which she just fills out a few words, such as the language in question and the dates. Since she sends these e-mails to a whole bunch of dear linguists at a time, she does not bother with the names of these linguists. And I don’t bother answering her (I never answer when somebody dares to call me “Dear Linguist”).

Here is a sample of one of these e-mails:

Dear Linguist

We would like to inquire about your interest in our translation assignment.

The subject: [description]
Languages: Japanese to English
Wordcount: 1,650 English words total
Turnaround: tomorrow 10 am pacific time
TRADOS: not necessary
Format: ms word – track changes

Should you be interested in helping us with this project please reply with your rates and availability.

In your reply retain the subject line of our email so it is easier for us to track your response. Also, if you know of other translators who have the background and the experience we are looking for and could be interested in this project, I would greatly appreciate it if you could forward my email address to them, or send me their coordinates.

Thank you for your time and consideration. We look forward to your reply.

Best regards,

[name], Senior Project Manager

The deadlines are always extremely or brutally tight, on top of low rates. She is probably spending more money for online advertising than on translators because in her initial e-mails, which I started receiving more than a year ago, the rate to be paid to me as the dear linguist in question was specified and it was a pitifully low rate.

Does this method of keeping translators’ costs to a minimum while spending your budget on Internet advertising work? The translations will probably be mostly crap, but who cares? Most of the translations that big agencies crank out are crap too. How do you translate five million words in one month, especially from a language as difficult as Japanese, without producing pure crap?

I don’t know, maybe her method does work. I am busy some of the time, but definitely not all of the time. Maybe I should give it a try and stop relying on my website’s generic rankings, which are pretty good, if I say so myself. Google has been sending me vouchers “worth 100 dollars for advertising on Google” for several years now. It says on the voucher that all I have to do is pick the keywords and give them a call.

Google knows everything about me already, including probably what I will have for dinner tonight, but it still wants to make a little bit more money off me by sending me free coupons with promises of more business if I use those coupons. How nice of them!

Unlike the actress in the translation agency’s commercial, I happen to believe that the traditional approach to translation still cuts it. If what you want is a good translation, you need to find a good translator. Just as the best way to find a good dentist, or lawyer, or car mechanic is to ignore all kinds of advertising, including the phone book, TV, radio and Internet, and ask your neighbor or colleague at work to recommend one, the best way to find a good translator is to ask somebody you can trust who knows one.

Good dentists, lawyers and car mechanics don’t really need to spend their money on advertising because their clients will do their advertising for them. At least that’s how it used to work.

The same should be true about good translators, too. But maybe this was true about translators only before “the translation industry” came out with novel concepts that mostly eliminate the need for a good translator—concepts like agile translation engines, seamless integration, and global fluency platforms, to create a business model in which machine translation and CAT tools are used instead of real translators, while human translators are relegated in this model to the role of “editors” who edit (in context, of course) huge junks of text generated at record speed based on algorithms by machines.

Maybe I am simply unwilling to admit that all resistance is futile because of my naiveté, and because I am hopelessly and uselessly clinging to the memory of the good old days before the Internet with its viruses, spam e-mails, robo-calls and spying en mass on everybody and their grandmother destroyed the life as we used to know it.


  1. […] First Example "Traditional approaches to translation no longer cut it", said a black female actress in a video commercial of a translation agency on my computer screen, and then favored me with a dazzling smile for a second. A white young, slightly geeky-looking male actor—mostly because he was dressed in jeans instead of conservative…  […]


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