Posted by: patenttranslator | July 11, 2016

An Important Skill for Translators

Knowledge of a foreign language or languages, knowledge of a specialized subject matter, and superior writing ability are the three skills that every translator needs to have, regardless of which language and subjects he or she translates. In an age when marketing is everything, good marketing skills are as important, if not more, as the knowledge of just about anything, or skills pertaining to translating and writing.

But other important skills are often overlooked when it comes to the toolbox of skills that is essential for just about any occupation, including that of a translator; and the ability to anticipate and foresee future trends is certainly among them.

Some people are very good at analyzing current trends and selling their analyses as projections and forecasts of future trends, and the internet has turned this kind of instant-expertise-for-sale into a booming industry. Advice can now be sold in the form of webinars to thousands of translators who are eager to know what to do in a world that keeps changing so quickly.

I have to say that many of these instant translation experts and prognosticators remind me of the occupation of a haruspex in ancient Rome. A haruspex was a priest in ancient Rome who was trained in divining good and bad omens indicating future events from the entrails of sacrificed animals, such as chickens and sheep. This was a practice that Romans inherited from the Etruscan religion. The Etruscans (a civilization that remains very much unknown to the modern world) adopted this religious and business practice from the ancient Near East, although it appears to have originated in Babylon – probably because just about everything appears to have originated in Babylon, including foreign languages, which according to the Bible were created as God’s curse for a botched urban revival mega-project.

I remember from my Latin classes that according to Cicero, Cato famously said that he was surprised that a haruspex does not burst out laughing when he meets another haruspex  (… mirari se aiebat quod non rideret haruspex haruspicem cum vidisset), partly because this sentence is an excellent tool to teach past tenses in Latin. To paraphrase Cato the Elder, who left us some wonderful quotations such as, All mankind rules its women, and we rule all mankind, but our women rule us”, sometimes I am surprised that one instant translation business prophet does not burst out laughing when he or she meets another instant translation business prophet.

Fast Technological Changes Are Changing Many Professions in the 21st Century

Johannes Gutenberg, (whose real name was Gensfleisch, but who changed it to Gutenberg, which means good mountain, the maiden name of his second wife because it sounded much better to him that his original name), invented the printing press around 1440 based on the idea of a wine press. His invention was used with only a few minor modifications for about four centuries until the invention of linotype printing in the late 19th century, and the linotype printing technology was then used again almost without any changes for another century until the 1970s.

Compared to our time, technology changed and eventually died very slowly in previous centuries, a very good thing from the viewpoint of job security in many professions. But technology changes so quickly these days that when we are watching a movie, we can usually guess in what year the film was made within a span of about two or three years based on the model of the cell phones the actors are using.

One reason why job security is not guaranteed for the same profession for many generations, as was the case in the times of Johannes Gutenberg, and even in the 19th and 20th centuries, is the fact that changes in technology are not easy to predict.

What can be predicted is that instead of trends that last for a few centuries or at least a few decades, things that we used to take for granted can now change within a few years or even a few months. For example, who could have predicted that instead of reading dirty manga magazines, which is how I remember Japanese commuters on the subway trains in Tokyo 30 years ago, 70% of the same commuters on Japanese subway trains would start playing games on their cell phones? This is obviously an unfortunate development for Japanese manga translators, and a very good development for translators who specialize in games.

Or who could have predicted twenty years ago that the demand for translations of Japanese patents would go down considerably and the demand for translations of patents from Chinese and Korean would all of a sudden explode? This is another example of the kind of change that no all-purpose translation guru would be able to predict. And since different translators translate so many different languages and work in so many different fields, it is almost impossible to find any commonalities between these fields and languages.

A translator of German or French legal documents does not really have that much in common with a translator of novels from Japanese or Polish, or with a translator of Korean and Chinese patents. A well trained haruspex worth his three coins with the image of a Roman emperor on them could probably provide about as much insightful advice about modern translation trends to “translators” as most modern instant gurus.

Similarly, a business called Common Sense Advisory, which bills itself as, Market research for Global 2000 companies to operationalize, benchmark, optimize, and innovate industry best practices in translation, localization, interpreting, globalization, and internationalization” does not really have a whole lot of information that would be of much use to translators either. Personally, I am very skeptical about the usefulness of this type of business as a source of information for translators. The first “active word” sounds like a bad translation from Japanese (operationalize = 操作化?), and so does the last one (internationalization = 国際化?). It is most likely just a very good source of “translation industry” propaganda, which is to say, of misinformation.

No matter how many cute graphs and questionable statistics and dreadful new terms these haruspices (I think that is the proper plural form in Latin) come up with, why would anybody trust these particular prognostications if the company can’t even come up with new words that would sound like good English to describe what it is that these “translation industry” pioneers do for a living? It’s beyond me.

Corporatization and Globalization of Translation Have Created the Current “Translation Business” Model

Unlike technological changes, the application of the corporate business model to translation is something that probably could have been predicted after the signing of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) in 1993. This happened at a time when what is now called “the translation industry” consisted for the most part of very small mom-and-pop translation agencies that were usually run by current or former translators who understood translation because they themselves were translators, unlike the present monolingual managers and owners of translation mega-agencies who take their inspiration from the vampiric business model of Wall Street.

When just about everything is being corporatized and globalized, including wars, prisons, charities  …, translation too has been turned into a business model that cares only about one thing: higher and higher profit levels. This means that “the translation industry” can remain highly profitable for business model owners only if translators, the people doing the translating work, can be hired at lower and lower rates.

That is why translation rates have been pushed down by “the translation industry” for the most part to levels that are much lower than what experienced and highly educated translators were able to demand for their work two or three decades ago, especially taking into account inflation.

The changes during and after the shift to the corporate translation business model are evident even in the ludicrous terminology that is used to describe this business. Translation agencies no longer refer to themselves as “translation agencies”. They have become “LSPs”, or “Language Services Providers”, as if the brokers purchasing translations from translators to resell them at a higher price to end customers were the ones providing these translation services, not the translators.

Many other ingenious terms were created for the illicit techniques developed to pay translators as little as possible, terms such as “fuzzy matches and full matches”, “post-processed machine translations”, and other terms created as descriptions of insidious techniques that really have nothing to do with the process of translation (which occurs in the human brain), and everything to do with the process called greed (that also happens to originate in the same organ of the human body).

Most of Our Professional Associations Are Not Really Our Friends

It is very unfortunate that some associations of translators have been basically co-opted by the corporate translation industry to such an extent that many translators no longer realize that things were not always as bad for us as they are now, namely before the advent of the greedy mega-agency business model that has been adopted also by many smaller translation agencies who care only about the bottom line and do not give a damn about the damage they are causing to our profession.

You may or you may not agree with some or most of what I am saying in my post today, but do you remember and can you cite a single article grappling with the issues that I am trying to identify here in a publication of your local association of professional translators?

I certainly don’t remember any such article in the ATA (American Translators Association) Chronicle, which calls itself “The Voice of Translators and Interpreters”. Leafing through any issue of this magazine provides very clear evidence that the voice of translators and interpreters is almost inaudible, while the voice of the “translation industry” is heard loud and clear on the pages of this publication.

We Also Have to Work a Little Bit More on Our Analytical Skills

The knowledge of foreign languages and of specific subjects, in addition to the ability to write well, are important skills without which translators can only deliver shoddy work.

But there are also other skills that we need to work on if we want to survive the onslaught of the “translation industry” on our profession. First of all, we need to realize that a translator’s profession is not the same thing as “the translation industry”. We and our profession exist independently of this industry. Our profession existed before this industry was created, and it will hopefully still be there even should this particular industry die in the event that artificial intelligence that can perfectly simulate human thinking, emotions, sexuality, humor, empathy and many other aspects of our existence that humans share only with animals can be developed at some point and put to good use for greater profitability of this industry …. because at that point, the industry will have killed itself with its own greed.

I don’t think we need a laughing haruspex to tell us what will happen to our profession if we give in to the “translation industry” pushing our rates to lower and lower levels in the interests of higher and higher profits for the industry.

Unless we use our analytical skills to figure out how to cooperate with each other and with the pre-corporate model of translation agencies while working largely outside of “the translation industry”, which represents only one segment of the translation market, we as translators will be relegated to the role of slaves pulling away at the oars of slave ships toward ever greater profitability for the owners of the slave ships.



  1. This weekend, someone was surprised about all the translation work I get, and wondered: do you have an agent, or something?
    And I was thinking: that would be neat. An agent, or an agency, that would appreciate our skills and promote them to clients. Book translation assignments. For a fee, of course, which *we* would pay them, since they’d be working for us. Not a translation agency, but a translator’s agency.
    Somehow, the whole concept of reselling and repackaging translations as a commodity had turned this relationship the wrong way around.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Love this concept! You’re going in the right direction! We need to educate others about what we do. I was appauled the other day when I friend told me that a translator friend of mine was giving her son transltion work and paying him for it… This is a 17 year old with no experience in translation, with no real grasp of the English language and I thought, “if we, translators, don’t value our work, no one else will”.
      So, Daniel, I’m in! Let’s turn this around, with translators who really value our work, are passionate about what we do and thus, do it well!


    • If it’s good enough for film stars, it’s surely good enough for translators 🙂


  2. That’s great that you are getting lots and lots of work.

    What language(s) do you translate?


    • Dutch, German, and Hebrew.
      Mostly from agencies, still, but I hope to broaden my portfolio. 🙂


  3. I see. If you have too many German patents, you can send them to me if you need a vacation.


    • Likewise 🙂
      I might do that, actually. We have to be sure not to undercut each other… You have my email. I’ll respond tonight (just boarding a plane).


  4. Just let me know how much I can (you want me) to charge and that is what I will charge, unless it is too low for my taste.

    Thanks very much, whether it works out or not!


  5. Dear Steve, I enjoy all your articles so much! I could act as your agent if I’d had the necessary abilities 🙂 But now serious: Only one thing was buzzing around my mind while I was reading you – you ought to publish a book with the texts of your blog! I would be your first buyer. Today I spent two hours helping out one colleague to unravel the mysteries of one single German legal sentence… what solutions can our “industry”, fuzzy matches and Co. offer in such a case? With what “business chain” can one substitute the core of our work? Indeed, the “translation market” is larger than the “translation industry”. (I see that you already took away the “a” from the last sentence, I was just about to mention it.) Thank you again for writing down your thoughts and please publish a book!!!! Best regards, Agnes Lenkey


  6. “Today I spent two hours helping out one colleague to unravel the mysteries of one single German legal sentence… what solutions can our “industry”, fuzzy matches and Co. offer in such a case?”

    None, because they don’t really know anything about foreign languages and translation. That’s not their expertise, they are brokers who know a lot about buying low and selling high, but that’s pretty much it.

    And thank you so much for your suggestion that I should publish a book. I actually do have an editor who is collecting what she considers to be the best of my silly posts for a book that will be hopefully published in some form soon. We had a teaser containing several posts printed and I gave a couple of hundred of these teasers out at translator conferences in Bordeaux last year and in Prague three months ago.

    If you have any practical advice about publishing or about posts that should be in the book for me or for my editor (Jesse Tomlinson,, please hit us with your comment.


    • Steve, I am so happy to hear that you indeed are planning to publish a book! I would have only one short advice: make the included articles as short as possible. In my expierence, short/condensed/concentrated is the best solution nowadays. Wishing you all the best, Agnes Lenkey


  7. Steve,

    I think that your conclusion that: “This means that “the translation industry” can remain highly profitable for business model owners only if translators, the people doing the translating work, can be hired at lower and lower rates.” may only be partially true.

    There is also evidence to suggest that the factors driving prices lower also include:

    – The relative value of the content that translators have traditionally been working with. Static corporate content (usually talking about their wonderful amazing new products) just does not have the same value anymore to anybody, so there will be a downward price pressure.
    – Global arbitration with translator resources, e.g. Eastern European translators doing FIGS, Latin Americans doing Spanish work etc.. that is enabled by the Internet. Corporations and agencies realize that the content they are translating might be crap anyway, that few will ever read carefully, so why send it to the best translators they know.
    – The availability of “good enough” MT for a lot of transient, short shelf life content. “Total crap” translation to you I know, but good enough for hundreds of millions to use and translate 1.45 Billion words a day just on Google alone according to data reported at the Google I/O conference in April. So now Google alone translates in a week (at crap quality admittedly) what the whole “translation industry” does in a year. Do you think people would use it if it was completely useless?
    – Tools that do provide efficiency in the process (CAT, TM, Online Dictionaries and dare i say MT?)

    But I think that there are also new kinds of non-traditional translation work emerging if you wish to stay in Corporate Business Translation. You can see examples of this on my blog ( if you have any interest.

    I also think that some of the tools are getting better, and provide growing leverage to translators who are willing to explore the dark side. Fuller has some good advice for us all.

    “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

    ― R. Buckminster Fuller


  8. “You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
    To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

    You must have missed it somehow, but that’s exactly what I am trying to do to the corporate translation business model which for the most part generates crap, because crap works only for a relatively small segment of the translation market. That is also a huge market for real translations.

    And since we both like quotations, I have one for you too:

    “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

    Margaret Mead


  9. Hi Steve,

    I’ve greatly enjoyed reading your posts on this site and I think there’s a wealth of useful information here for all translators.

    In this post you mentioned increasing demand for translations of Chinese and Korean patents. I was wondering if you could give a little more detail on the evolving market for these two language combinations for patent translation, especially compared to Japanese. This is an area that interests me greatly and I’d love to hear more of your take on it. Thanks!


  10. Well, all I have is anecdotal evidence.

    I used to simply say to my clients that I don’t translate into the languages from which I translate, such as German and French, or languages like Chinese and Korean for something like 20 years because there was plenty of work for me from Japanese to English.

    But in the last 5 years or so I developed the capacity to translate also into several European languages, and also Korean and Chinese patents, through other translators who work for me while I am an agency for them because I’ve had frequent requests for these kinds of translations.

    So I do know that there is work in this field in these languages, and I also know that it is difficult to find good translators from Japanese and Korean. Especially Korean translators were hard to find for a long time (because “white people” were simply not learning this language too much, and the English of native Korean is often not very good.

    Hope it helps.


    • Thanks for the reply. From my experience it seems that prices for Chinese patent translations tend to be much lower because of the large supply of cheap labor, while Japanese consistently commands the highest prices and Korean lags somewhat behind, though still substantially higher than Chinese. Has this been the case in your experience?


  11. Yes, that is about right, I think.

    With a couple of caveats: Japanese work is not as plentiful as it used to be and the cheap labor producing translations from Chinese and Korean often results in subprime translations.


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