Posted by: patenttranslator | April 8, 2016

How “The Translation Industry” Is Killing Our Profession – As Well As Itself – Without Really Giving a Damn About It

As an old timer who has been working as a freelance translator for almost three decades, in fact 36 years if I include my experience as an in-house translator in Europe and Japan, I have seen a lot of changes in what used to be called “a profession” and what is now called by many people, including translators, “the translation industry” (as if there were no difference between the two).

Change is inevitable in any profession; indeed, change is the only permanent constant that can possibly exist in human life. One thing is for sure: there will be no more changes in our life when we are finally dead.

Things can change for better or worse for the recipients of these changes and they usually fluctuate in both directions. But the trends that I see developing in “the translation industry” are more than just mere changes. In my mind, they evoke the image of a death spiral that is looming not only for the translation profession, but ultimately also for a large segment of “the translation industry”.

On the one hand, it would seem incomprehensible that a profession of highly educated and experienced knowledge workers, including translators—which used to guarantee a fairly comfortable middle class existence to this translator for more than three decades—could slip within a period of only about a decade to the current status quo.

On the other hand, what we are seeing in “the translation industry” is a mirror image of what is occurring in the corporate world in many other professions and countries. Newspapers are full of reports describing how in various other professions highly qualified human labor is either being replaced by machines, or outsourced to developing countries to maximize profits, including the legal profession, medical profession, accountants, and other professions.

The same trends are also dramatically manifested in the corporate “translation industry”.

The current business model of corporate translation agencies does not have much use for professional translators because it can’t really afford to pay them wages commensurate with their education, experience and expertise. The current business model of uberized corporate translation agencies cannot afford to work with professional translators because uberification naturally values profits über alles (German for “above all”).

It’s not personal to the translation agency owners and CEOs of uberized enterprises, it’s business.

The modern corporate translation agency model is based mostly on the concept of an owner or owners who own a business in which easily replaceable workers, who are essentially assembly line workers, perform functions that can be broken down into repetitive operations to achieve maximum profits for the owner or owners of an enterprise. The profits are not shared equitably with workers who are seen as mere assembly line drones because maximum profit can only be achieved when workers who do the actual work are paid as little as possible.

This concept is compatible with an assembly line for production of shirts, shoes or hamburgers where most of the work is done by machines and humans perform assisting and supervising roles. But the concept is not compatible with a working environment created for intellectual activities of highly educated and experienced knowledge workers such as accountants, writers, or translators, who in fact are the only professionals who ultimately are able to translate highly complicated texts, such as articles from technical and medical journals, or patent applications from or into foreign languages.

Notwithstanding the deafening noise that “the translation industry” is making about wonderful, revolutionary, disruptive “language technology” tools, by which is meant mostly machine translation and other computer tools, language technology provides tools that are very useful, but that can be used only by translators.

A customer relying on machine pseudo-translation is relying on a mountain of mistranslations. A customer relying on machine pseudo-translation that is additionally “post-edited”—by humans who are again treated as mere appendages of “smart machines” and considered and reimbursed accordingly—is relying on aggregated, butchered segments that will likely have fewer glaring mistranslations, but that will contain a lot of mistranslations nevertheless. The fact that the original spirit of the message is always killed by machine translation is not even debatable. The meaning of the sentences is also usually murdered by a non-thinking, non-feeling machine, unless the sentence is reconstructed, which is to say retranslated by the underpaid human appendage to the machine.

And yet, the three most prominent trends in the uberized corporate “translation industry” are:

  1. Reliance on machine translation,
  2. Reliance on post-processed machine translation,
  3. Reliance on “translators” who may be translating words supplied to them by an uberized translation agency while pecking on a cell phone keyboard, for example while sitting on a bathroom throne.

The third characteristic of the uberized “translation industry” that I list above is in fact taken from an article describing a new business of a young Korean entrepreneur, in which human “translators” are described exactly in this manner, while the article is celebrating the indomitable, innovative spirit of this young translation industry entrepreneur.

The translation industry is killing itself, seemingly without realizing what it is doing not only to real translators, but also to itself, or giving a damn about it.

The only way out of this death spiral for actual translators—university educated professionals who have years or decades of experience and expertise in specialized fields of human knowledge—is to make it clear to our customers that we, translators, are not a part of this “translation industry”.

We may or may not be using computer tools such as CATs (computer-assisted tools) or machine translations, but we use these tools for our own purposes. We must not allow other people, i.e. “the translation industry”, to control translators with these tools and use them against us.

We are not human post-processors of machine translation detritus for one cent a word, or possibly half a cent a word, or possibly less than that. Some pitiful human beings may be doing that, and our hearts go out to them, but human beings though they may be, translators they are not.

We do not translate while pecking away on a cell phone keyboard sitting on the bathroom commode (although some of us may be checking e-mails or Facebook or Twitter messages in this manner). Some other, pathetic human beings, because they still are that, may be attempting to translate in this manner to please “the translation industry”. This business model will go down in flames once all of the initial investors’ money has been spent.

We, human translators, are not “translation industry” slaves. We are the alternative to “the translation industry”.

And as long as we can survive the onslaught of greedy merchants who are attempting to replace human intellect by silicon brains using algorithms, assisted by unfortunate, pitiful human slaves, and as long as we refuse to become a part of “the translation industry”, our customers will have a choice between the translations provided by “the translation industry”, and translations provided by university educated human translators who have many years of experience and expertise in highly specialized translation fields.

There are markets for what “the translation industry” is selling, because some customers simply do not care that much that what they are being sold as translations is a mountain of mistranslations, as long as the translation service is really, really cheap, while ignoring the old adage that cheap things ultimately turn out to be very expensive.

And then there is also a market for real translation provided by specialized translators and specialized translation agencies who actually know what they are doing; unfortunately, not a common occurrence in the current version of the uberized “translation industry”.

And regardless of for what purpose translations are used by translation customers, we hope that most of them realize that few things may ultimately turn out to be more expensive than the cheap, machine-translated, human post-processed misinformation that is currently produced in copious amounts and labeled as translations by “the translation industry”.

The challenge for translators is to figure out how to connect with customers outside of “the translation industry”. Incidentally, translators’ associations are now facing the same decision – will they actively work for translators whom they are purporting to represent, or will they instead prefer to work for “the translation industry” by actively working against the interests of translators. Some are clearly doing the former, and some the latter.

The way I see it, the only way to escape the death spiral that “the translation industry” is persistently and untiringly creating for us and itself is to provide a valid, independent alternative to what is going on in “the translation industry”.

Unless we are able to provide such an alternative, our profession may soon be history.


  1. Brilliant, it should be sent to all translation agencies to remind them of who they are. I am especially fond of agencies who fire off an email to 50 translators in the language combination and see who picks up the pieces. Could there be anything more insulting? Except the rates they offer, of course. Recently, an agency operating out of Saudi Arabia offered 1 to 3 US cents a word for translation from Arabic to English. That is a classic example of the contempt in which translators are held.
    There is another aspect you have not tackled, namely the translation scams. The Translation Scammers Directory lists the names of individual scammers and it has become so long it has had to be divided in half! There are also scamming agencies. Only today, an agency claimed to be working for “one of the big four” law firms in the world and pretended to be in the UK. The address given was that of British Monomarks, the oldest accommodation address in the world, which lists no fewer than 1,000 businesses in this small building! Looking at their website, I can tell that the agency in question is in Romania! No doubt some minion at the “Big Four” was taken in by their talk. It is also clear from the swingeing details required by the EU Translation Department that they have been taken in by scammers in the past.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for your comment, Josephine.

    You are talking about Travod, right?

    They called me already two or three times to offer their services as a sub-sub-(sub-sub?) contractors to my translation business.

    They do have a clever name, though. Tra- is the first part of “translation”, and “vod” is the second part of “perevod”, which means translation in Russian.

    They’re not an agency, and they’re not translators either, just like the singer in my first Youtube video is not a women, and not a man ….

    And they do work already for oodles of translation agencies, including the biggest ones. They proudly e-mail to prospective clients such as myself a long list of agencies that take advantage of this particular creature of “the translation industry”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dear Patenttranslator,

    I speak Russian myself. No it wasn’t Travod this time, and anyway they are in Chisinau, Moldavia. They have also created a couple of pseudonyms for themselves, including Kickwords. The worst fraudsters are in Gaza and Egypt. Do you really believe they work for the agencies in question? What proof do you have? They are such liars they lie about everything, so why not lie about that? The fact that they have now had to stoop to inventing new names for their operations should tell you that they are not as successful as they like to pretend. That is true of a lot of fraudsters. I currently have a lot of work from reputable agencies, as well as from direct clients, and I suspect it is because they have found out the hard way that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I think that some of what they say is true, and some of it is a damn lie.

    The problem is, I don’t know which is which.


  5. I’m sorry for a low-quality comment, but I’m really time-starved right now. Just wanted to say that’s easily one of the best posts on translation blogs I’ve ever read, Steve. And the way you laid it so clearly! Thanks, thanks, thanks.


  6. Since we usually disagree about everything, I’m going to disagree with you again, Lukasz. Yours is a very high-quality comment in my opinion.


  7. ‘There are markets for what “the translation industry” is selling, because some customers simply do not care that much that what they are being sold as translations is a mountain of mistranslations, as long as the translation service is really, really cheap, while ignoring the old adage that cheap things ultimately turn out to be very expensive.

    And then there is also a market for real translation provided by specialized translators and specialized translation agencies who actually know what they are doing; unfortunately, not a common occurrence in the current version of the uberized “translation industry”.’

    This is the point for me.

    Time was that there was no such thing as a cheap translation – because there was no Internet to allow clients or intermediaries to solicit bids from around the world for the lowest price per word. There were more skilled and less skilled translators, and usually the more skilled ones got more work because, when the client was paying a lot for the translation, price sensitivity was not as much of an issue as quality sensitivity – you didn’t seek a translation just for fun, you sought it because you needed it enough to spend the money.
    But the Internet has globalized the market, and MT has made some form of “translation” free; so people who would simply like to have an idea of what a foreign-language document says can get that for nothing, or for a low price if post-processed.
    Yet there is always going to be a market for quality translation, and while clients will not want to pay more than they need to, they will want to pay enough to be sure that the work is good.

    The translation market has grown: what probably hasn’t grown as fast as the overall market is the market for quality translation – but I don’t think that good translators are likely to find themselves out of work.
    I used to do translations, and I used to buy them, and in my field (patent law) there is limited tolerance for cheap sloppy work.

    Bugatti is not going to go out of business because you can buy a Yugo for a lot less, but Ford and GM might get squeezed.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. ” there is always going to be a market for quality translation”
    True, but how can customer tell the difference? All the websites promise “quality” and if you don’t speak the language, how do you know what you are getting?

    Liked by 1 person

    • They don’t realize it initially. But the chances are, after a while the mountain of mistranslations will come crashing down straight on their head.

      And that will be when they will realize for the first time the extent of the damage.


  9. I recently went to the chain restaurant “Olive Garden”. (I know…) Hadn’t been there in years. Now they have tablets on the table where you can order your own food, drinks, appetizers, etc. The waiter said that they get paid a bonus each time they successfully encourage diners to use the tablet to order food. Like translators working for these automated translation portals, they seem blissfully unaware that they are eliminating their own jobs.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. But I think that there is a big difference here.

    It makes sense to use tablets in this manner. Technology cannot be stopped or ignored. Technology takes away jobs from waiters in this case, but it creates jobs for designers of menus for tablets.

    But “language technology”, i.e. post-processed machine translation makes no sense because machine translation is available for free, and even when it is post-processed, the result is still garbage, unless it is completely retranslated.

    And if it is retranslated, it is basically wage theft.


  11. “How can the customer tell the difference?”
    That is a problem. For me, in patent law it meant a few things: having the foreign law firms that were going to prosecute the applications do the translation (more expensive, but they had to deal with the mistakes, so they had an incentive to get it right), reading what I could of the translations as a quick check, asking colleagues whose native language was the target language whether the translation read well (not to translate, just to read the translation and see if it made sense in the target language), etc. A very quick-and-dirty check was whether the associate’s letters and translations into English read well. What works for you will depend on your needs and what you’re prepared to do to see them met.

    I agree with our host on the tablets for ordering.
    Tablets for ordering don’t necessarily eliminate waiters – they take away order-takers; just as ATMs took away cash-dispensing clerks in banks. Waiters offer something that tablets don’t – the ability to answer questions; tablets convey orders to the kitchen without needing an intermediary. But tablets can offer more: they can convey information about ingredients/calories/allergens, all in as many languages as you are prepared to program. There’s room for both.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. “Tablets for ordering don’t necessarily eliminate waiters – they take away order-takers; just as ATMs took away cash-dispensing clerks in banks. Waiters offer something that tablets don’t – the ability to answer questions; tablets convey orders to the kitchen without needing an intermediary. But tablets can offer more: they can convey information about ingredients/calories/allergens, all in as many languages as you are prepared to program. There’s room for both.”

    It is only natural that the latest technology that is available should be employed to provide better products and better service, although it often means that some jobs will be lost. Using tablets to enable a more abundant flow of information in both directions, unlike when a waiter is writing down an order on a piece of paper, really makes a lot of sense to me.

    And this technology does not eliminate waiters because the guests still will want to have human contact with the service personnel.

    But using machine translation to eliminate human translators is a very different concept.

    First of all, machine translation is pseudo-translation, not translation. It may look like translation, but no matter what computer and mathematical formulas are used, it really is just a haphazard agglomerate of words that looks like a real translation, but that contains a lot of mistranslations, and many of these mistranslations will not be evident to underpaid human post-processing slaves.

    Second of all, why pay for this shoddy service when basically the same thing is available on the Internet for free? It makes perfect sense to me to use free machine translation first to get an idea of what does and what does not need to be translated, but to pay for “post-processing” does not seem to make a whole lot of sense. I think it is a waste of money.

    Unfortunately, the last point may not be obvious to customers who don’t know much about how translation works and who are constantly bombarded by mendacious commercial propaganda generated by “the translation industry”.

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Steve, don’t be so pesimistic. MT and post editing is just another IT version of low cost translators. They work hard every day to educate our future customers. As my favored stand up comedian Ron white said:
    You can’t fix stupid. Stupid is FOREVER. Who wants such customers.
    The smart customers will always find us.


  14. I will somewhat disagree with you.

    Smart customers will only be able to find smart translators who make it possible for their customers (outside of “the translation industry”) to be find quite easily.

    Otherwise, we will not be found and the customers will send the work somewhere else.


    • Hi. I agree with you. Try and google specialised translation providers and your first hits are always the big sharks offering you know which terms and deliveries. One has to have their online marketing in place otherwise “the translation industry” big players is all that you get.

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Strong words that match the harsh reality of our profession these days… Between customers who can’t tell the difference or simply don’t care, corporations only interested in maximizing their profits, large translation agencies owned by non-linguists driving the show, and the thousands of pseudo-translators driving prices down, we’re going down. Regardless of our level of education, experience and expertise, we’re seen as glorified bilingual typists at best. Client education is key, but will it be enough to rehabilitate the profession? Seems like a losing battle from where I’m sitting…

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Thank you for your comment, Christelle.

    You are the third Christelle who said something to me by e-mail today. The last last time a Christelle said something to me was in 2008 as far as I can remember. Must be a sign of something, but I have no idea of what.

    But here is my response to your comment:

    In real estate, it’s location, location, location.
    In translation, it’s direct clients + specialization, specialization, specialization.

    Sounds like a title for a new blog, doesn’t it?


  17. I cannot agree with the claim made by a few translators that end-clients do not care if they get lousy translations. They do care but the joke is that they won’t pay more for good translations! When they get a bad translation, they just slag off the agency and refuse to pay for the translation. The agency passes on the complaint to the translator and refuses to pay him/her. The damage that a bad translation can do is incalculable, although even good translators make mistakes. For instance, I heard from an insurance company of a translation of goods in a bonded warehouse in which the translator left out the one item – brandy – stored in the warehouse that was inflammable! The warehouse lost an insurance claim worth millions when the warehouse caught fire.


  18. I could not agree more! For years, these thoughts have caused a lot of frustration and existential fear in me, and without realising it, I have helped enable one such agency myself with my highly professional work, only to see the agency becoming “uberized” and being sold to a translation industry giant, which doesn’t pay for quality anymore. Thanks for writing this article.

    Liked by 1 person

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