Posted by: patenttranslator | August 9, 2016

Concerns About Horrible Conditions for Caged Hens Do Not Translate Yet Into Concerns about Horrible Conditions for Caged Translators

The most common way people give up their freedom is by thinking they don’t have any.

Alice Walker

Ditch Cages

Last week, a translation agency in the UK asked me whether I would be able to accept a rush translation of a legal document from German to English. They said in their first e-mail that they found my information in the ATA directory, that the document was about 500 words and that they needed it the same day by 5 PM. Greenwich mean time, probably, which would mean that I would have just a few hours for the translation.

Ten or twenty years ago, it would be a very simple negotiation. I would tell them my payment terms, and they would either send me the translation, or not if my terms were not acceptable. Since it was a rush translation, I might have asked for a couple of cents more than usual. Ten or 20 years ago, that was it, and I almost always ended up accepting the translation.

But times have changed.

I said, yes, I could fit it in, but could I see the document first? No, you can’t, they said. We hope you understand that we can’t show you the document unless you sign our NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement) first. I did understand and I was pleasantly surprised that although the NDA was more than 1,500 words long, unnecessarily so because it was full of ridiculously pompous and redundant legalese, the NDA in fact did only described in detail non-disclosure of confidential information.

I was pleasantly surprised that the NDA, despite the ridiculous and stilted formulations, was in fact an NDA because what “the translation industry” is now calling NDAs are often contracts dealing with a whole range of conditions severely restricting the freedom of translators with respect to just about everything, from payment terms to illegal non-competition clauses so as to allow translators a space no bigger than the space available to caged hens who are made to work just as hard for the poultry industry in tiny cages barely bigger than the poor bird’s body (0.46 square feet per caged bird).

In these tiny wire cages, hens are laying eggs as fast as they can, just as translators working for the “translation industry” must work as fast as they can in the tiny cages created for them by the paperwork they are made to sign before they can even see the text for an urgent translation.

So I signed the NDA, scanned the document and sent it back to the agency. I also attached my résumé as requested and told them in my second e-mail how much I charge for European languages and how much for Japanese translations. I offered them a pretty good rate, without a rush surcharge as I would have in the past. The rate I offered was in fact lower than what I used to routinely charge translation agencies 10 or 20 years ago, because realistically, that’s where the rates paid to translators in the current version of “the translation industry” are today, even after 20 years of inflation.

The third e-mail from the agency finally contained the document for translation. I saw right away that it would be a very simple, routine translation, although I doubt that the agency knew that because it was in German. But I also saw that the document had 773 words in German, which probably meant that the English word count would be closer to a thousand words, and not 500 words as the agency falsely stated in its first e-mail. At that point I already knew that I would not work for this agency because it would most likely demand discounts for “full and fuzzy matches”, which was probably how they arrived at their own word count.

Within a few minutes I received a third e-mail from them with more four more documents to sign, attached in addition to the 1,500 words of the NDA, titled as follows:

  1. Supplier Terms and Conditions (3,093 words)

The terms and conditions included a condition, fairly common now in typical “translation industry” contracts: The company may refuse to pay or reduce any Fees payable to Supplier for Services by such amount as the Company may in its reasonable discretion determine.

  1. Supplier Rate Card (305 words)

The Supplier Rate Card included in addition to questions about my rates, the interesting item of my “CPDs”, evidence of which I was requested to submit to the agency:


Evidence of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) is now required for most professions and is a benchmark of professionalism [Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha].  It is now a requirement of ISO 17100 that translators maintain and update their competencies. Do you carry out CPD activities and if so, would you be willing to give us details of CPD undertaken if requested from time to time?

Had I answered this question, my answer would be: Hell, no, I do not carry out CPD activities, I am too old for this stupid nonsense. I do have a degree in translation, more than 30 years of experience translating in-house and as a freelancer on three continents, and during those 30 years I was fortunate to be able to provide quite well as the sole breadwinner for a family of four, which is probably much more difficult for translators to achieve these days in the current version of the “translation industry”.

A helpful explanation of CPDs was also included, probably for “newbie translators”.

What counts as CPD?

Lots of activities you probably already undertake.  For example; webinars, learning new info, learning a new tool, learning about a new type of translation task or text type, joining in with industry discussions online or offline, going to a new country and learning about a new culture etc.

(OMG, I must join in an industry discussion rant online or offline, or go to a new country and learn about a new culture! Gosh, I completely forgot about that!)

But wait … does eating sushi count as a CPD unit of continued education in Japanese culture? And what about kimchee, can I get a CPD point for Korean culture if I eat a lot of stinky kimchee, does eating pizza regularly count for CPDs awarded for Italian culture, and would eating burritos at least once a week get me a point or two for Mexican culture?

  1. Payment Terms (507 words)

The Payment Terms included also this pearl, which I understand is also a very popular clause in “translation industry” contracts these days because you can’t actually pin down exactly how long it will take for you to get paid:

“The payment shall be made 30 days from the end of the month, e.g. any invoice dated January will be paid around the end of February.” 

Since they asked me to translate about a thousand words within a few hours on the fifth of August, and the agency said that it accepts invoices after the end of the month, I think these payment terms mean that I would be expected to submit my invoice by the end of August, and then I would be paid, should I be so lucky, around the end of September.

  1. Registration Database (295 words)

The Registration Database is a handy tool for the agency, handy mostly for checking up on the rates different people may be charging. Its main purpose is to make it possible to determine within a split second who charges less than you once you are registered in the database. I expect more and more agencies in the ” translation industry” will be using this handy tool.

So in order to translate 773 words from German to English (or about 500 words according to the agency), I would have to sign four different documents with a total of 5,700 words, and I would have to agree to each of the conditions according to the formulation in each of the documents, remember what they are, and try not to piss off the agency, for example by forgetting to visit a new country every now and then and trying to learn its culture, or by submitting my invoice on the 6th instead of on the 7th of each month.

Why is it that translation agencies that are trying to put translators into tiny wired cages created in contracts with many thousands of words that translators, who are supposedly “independent contractors” are being forced to sign, are even allowed to display the official logo of translators associations as “corporate members” of the American Translators Association, or of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in UK? I did see the logos of both organizations prominently displayed on the websites of agencies in the ” translation industry” which has been trying for many years to treat translators the same as chickens in tiny cages.

Are these translator associations doing anything about the contracts that their “corporate members” are making translators to sign? And if they are not doing anything about them, who are these associations purporting to represent translators really representing?

How is it possible that both the ATA and ITI, organizations allegedly of, by and for translators, accept corporate members, when so many of these corporate members treat translators worse than the poultry industry is treating caged birds?

Other associations of translators in other countries do not accept corporate members, such as the BDŰ (Bundesverband der Dolmetscher und Űbersetzer, the Federal Association of Translators and Interpreters in Germany, which is not far behind the ATA in number of members), or the IAPTI (International Association of Translators and Interpreters, founded a few years ago in Argentina, (an international organization of translators, which I think has less than a thousand members at this point, but is quickly growing in many countries and on every continent), presumably because these associations of translators understand that the interest of translators and corporate members, primarily translation agencies, are often diametrically opposed, and one cannot serve two masters, sit on two chairs, etc.

Although nobody seemed to care about pitiful, caged birds only about 10 years ago, one reason why there was such an outcry about the welfare of chickens and hens was that as the article linked above puts it, A small, millennial-led group that boasts of creating databases on egg-buying companies [was] lobbying investors and methodically testing the palatability of its public messaging”.

Where is the group of concerned millennials in our associations of translators? Nobody seems to care about the welfare of pitiful translators who are put in tiny wired cages where they don’t even have enough space to turn around, figuratively speaking.

That would change if the interests of translators were represented by associations of translators that ostensibly were there precisely for this reason. While it may be possible for different people to disagree as to whether non-translating persons and institutions, such as translation agencies or the FBI, or the NSA should be permitted to become members of an association of translators, most reasonable people would have to agree that translation agencies have already acquired too much power over translators in the last couple of decades. Our associations are supposed to promote the interests of translators, rather than the interests of translation brokers, or of the government. Unfortunately, they just pretend not to even see the problems. In any case, they are not doing much, if anything, about this particular problem.

Instead, the ATA has invented a system of infantile “continued educational points” that are now used also by translation brokers to enforce obedience in translators, mostly newbie translators.

Established, experienced translators can hardly be expected to take this system seriously, and I understand the Institute of Interpreting and Translating in UK has a similar policy of demanding that translators continually participate in acquiring silly “educational points” that make experienced translators either laugh or cringe.

If a poor translator must sign five different documents totaling almost six thousand words even before being offered any work at all, that is an abuse of the system for production of translations, (or for production of linguistic sausage as one blogger puts it), that has been created over the last two decades by a certain type of translation agency that preys on newbie translators.

Supermarket customers have noticed that there is clearly a big difference between the quality of the cheapest eggs produced by caged birds and eggs produced by “free range” hens. The former have whitish yolks and are almost tasteless, the latter have yellow yolks and taste the way eggs are supposed to taste.

Have customers noticed the difference in the quality of translations produced by newbie translators who become imprisoned in little cages created for them by the “translation industry” in contracts that they have to sign even before any work is assigned to them?

I don’t know the answer to this question. Many probably have noticed, some probably have not.

I do know that some associations of translators admit into their ranks translation brokers and powerful governmental bodies as non-translating members called “stakeholders”. If these associations really are associations of translators, they should at the very least try to regulate the size of the stick with which poor little translators cowering in fear in their tiny cages are beaten, the big stick that stakeholders use to beat poor little translators over their heads, and to increase the square footage available to these pitiful translators in the tiny translator cages.





  1. I have come across agencies like these, who always boast that they have ISO 7000??? etc., which means absolutely zilch in the case of translation. You were doing them a big favour by offering to translate 500 words (or what they told were 500 words which was actually a lie) in an hour or so. This is how they intended to repay you, by sending you ridiculous documents to sign (which by the way are not worth the paper they are written on, as I am sure you know) and telling you they would not pay you for 60 days at the very least. These agencies are run by people who are monolingual or who are in their teens and have taken a language course at university but have the financial resources to set up an agency and con translators.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’ve probably mentioned before the European agency who sent me 35 pages of an “NDA” which I never bothered to read 😦

      With regard to the one-month-plus payment practices, it is worth pointing out – from the other side of the fence – that it may not be financially viable for some “boutique” agencies actually to have a salaried member of staff dealing with payments, but that they may contract that work out to an accountant for perhaps a day or two per month. (Back in the old days, even we, as a fairly large concern, only had an accountant working for us one day per week). If they have an end-of-month payment run, for example, I guess it would be impractical to settle all bills received in that month, but I certainly see no valid reason not to settle all invoices received the previous month later than at the end of the following month, or even better invoices received by halfway through the month at the end of the same month. Where an agency is big enough to employ salaried accounts people, of course, I don’t see that they should have this problem.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The way the agencies see it, they are doing ME a big favor when they ask me to translate a thousand words or so in a couple of hours at a low rate, and then let me wait for more than two months to get paid. That is the face of the new “translation industry”.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I like your timing, Steve. I have been thinking about these particular matters a lot lately as the conditions proposed with a straight face by mechatronic PMs have become ever absurder, beyond what my mere mortal mind could frame without their expert guidance.

    Actually, the most absurd service request I’ve ever received was for a company in NY that needed a one and a half page press release translated. To do this I was supposed to fill out endless paperwork verifying that my company is run by a transsexual veteran of unusual color who happens to be missing a few limbs and types with a pencil between her teeth. All this really was necessary to do them the favor of translating that press release. I passed these jokers on to an agency I knew in the same city, because I figured they probably deserved business like that.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I have been in contact with such an agency recently: half a dozen of documents to download, print, read, understand in a foreign legal language, sign, scan and return. Which would have given me the right to… take a free test.

    I was under the impression that I would have to spend a week understanding all their documents, then another week taking free tests, and we had not agreed on fees and payment delays yet – so I refused.

    There was also a similar one calling us “wordbees”, which I told them I found profoundly insulting: we are university-trained people, not… animals…

    The Brit in question called me because I had questioned the competences of his… sister-in-law (who does mention being just a former secretary in her online profile though, but she seems to have obtained some sort of piece of paper: well, it does not show. She, too, expected her “bees” to spend hours filling in several Excel spreadsheets that were totally incomprehensible – free administration work that she should have done herself, or at least explain clearly – all that free work, only to be buried in a database. I called her “brainless secretary” and she fully deserves it…).

    The Brit in question was very sure of himself, so I called them unprofessional, not belonging to the translation world, and foreseeing that such people would disappear sooner or later, especially after the Brexit, as they won’t be able to pay their European translators any more with the British pound falling down against the euro.

    I HATE British agencies: I had forgotten HOW MUCH I hated them.

    I swore to myself NEVER to even attempt to enter in contact with such disgusting people, who treat translators like dogs (or bees)…

    There is something about the British mentality that has got to change. I am so RELIEVED that they are OUT of the EU. I really wish all these fucking British agencies go bankrupt, because they were dumping prices in Europe, being out of the eurozone. Now they are also out of the EU: at last!

    They have always had one foot inside and one foot outside of the EU. Their only role was to be a Trojan horse for the U.S., i.e. SPIES, TRAITORS, HATEABLE people.

    Sorry for British translators who read this, but YOUR translation agencies are PIECES OF SHIT. And I sincerely hope that ALL of them go UNDER.


    • Isabelle, I don’t know who the agencies are who have caused your bad experience, but please don’t tar *everyone* with the same brush. I have several British agencies who are a pleasure to work for (some of them don’t even have T&Cs – it’s great! They send me an email asking me if I can do the work, I reply saying yea or nay, they send me a confirmation if applicable, I do the translation, send it back, invoice them, and they pay me – reasonably quickly, and certainly within 30 days 🙂 ). Long may this last. I certainly hope they don’t go under, because otherwise I might actually be forced to consider working for some less-scrupulous agencies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If they need Japanese or French and pay good rates, I would work for them too, Alison.

        But I have to say, I have come across quite a few British agencies of the type that Isabelle is describing, and I don’t remember any of the type that you are describing, not in recent years, anyway.


      • Hi Alison. I would love to know who those agencies are. I overall don’t have problems working with British agencies, but payments tend to be slow.


  5. A fact for which I do not have yet an explanation: the people who very publicly care so very much about the rights of poor transsexual veterans of unusual color who happen to be missing a few limbs invariably turn out to be the nastiest people around if you try to point out inconsistencies in their claim in what you hoped would be a polite, rational discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Lame Services Providers never stop being innovative about all the favors they do freelance translators and the NDAs (Nefariously Deceptive Agreements) they get them to sign.


    When you are lucky enough to have more work than you can do, it is funny to start playing hardball and see how some agencies take your offer when it’s their best interest.

    My risk management policy in case of small to mid-size rush jobs sent out of the blue by new clients is to require full upfront payment. My offers are always time-sensitive, and I no more waste energy in negotiations.

    The reality of the matter is that most LameSPs would stop existing if they couldn’t trick freelance translators into a shady business relationship made of abnormal requests.

    Most beginners are at risk to fall into untold slavery because they believe it’s the way this industry works.

    Successful translators free up their time for rewarding business.


    • “My risk management policy in case of small to mid-size rush jobs sent out of the blue by new clients is to require full upfront payment. My offers are always time-sensitive, and I no more waste energy in negotiations.”

      I should have tried it. I might have gotten a hundred bucks out if it. This way, I only got another post on my silly blog for all the time I wasted on them.

      Next time I will give it a try!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Steve,

        Every year, I get more than $1,000 out of this technique. Of course, it works best when you are booked all the time—or have a keen sense for the poker game.

        At any rate, this blog doesn’t feel silly at all, and I wish every newbie translator could read it 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

  7. “I HATE British agencies: I had forgotten HOW MUCH I hated them.”

    Ha, Ha, Ha.

    “There is something about the British mentality that has got to change. I am so RELIEVED that they are OUT of the EU. I really wish all these fucking British agencies go bankrupt, because they were dumping prices in Europe, being out of the eurozone. Now they are also out of the EU: at last!”

    Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha.

    I believe that is what is called A CURSE!

    But they are not out of the Eurozone yet, it will take some time, if it happens at all.

    Another problem is that when agencies go bankrupt, they usually leave behind legions of translators holding the bag. When an agency in Belgium, which is where you happen to live, I believe, went bankrupt on me about 10 years ago, I never received a penny from them for my work on two long Japanese patents for which they got paid by their client, and for which they owed me more than three thousand dollars.

    All I received was about 6 letters from their bankruptcy lawyer. The first one was in French, and when I responded to it by trying to stake my claim to the money owed to me, the lawyer started sending me letters in Flemish.

    I wrote a post about it on this very blog. You can probably find it by searching for “Belgium”.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good to “see” you in such great form!! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  9. From something I read recently, it does sound as though the new ISO certification rules *do* require some sort of evidence that the translators being used are keeping up with their CPD. Good idea in practice, perhaps, but not necessarily so much in reality 😦

    I actually *like* CPD. I’m always keen to improve my knowledge of the fields I work in, and my translation skills, so any *relevant* CPD opportunities are always welcome. Unfortunately, as a patents translator, it’s always difficult to know how relevant any CPD is going to be. Say a client sends me a nuclear physics patent: is it worth my while doing a webinar on the subject if there’s one coming up, or will this just be a one-off, and the webinar therefore a waste of my time? Even sometimes when you think you’ve had a run of jobs in a particular field, and it might be worth investing in some CPD or a specialist dictionary, there’s no guarantee that that work won’t suddenly dry up again. We won’t go into the subject of doing rather less-relevant, or totally irrelevant, CPD just to clock up the necessary number of CPD points to meet some quota, which is of course pretty pointless, and not what the idea of CPD is supposed to be.

    “I understand the Institute of Interpreting and Translating in UK has a similar policy of demanding that translators continually participate in acquiring silly “educational points” that make experienced translators either laugh or cringe.”

    As far as I can see, that’s still only a recommendation rather than a requirement. Long may it stay that way.


  10. I today read an article, a bit silly somehow, but that stated a very disheartening truth: “Every day there is a new middleman trying to put their hands on your private parts and squeeze until you give them their imaginary cut on your art, on your soul, on your hard work.”

    Here we go.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks Daniela, this quote is excellent 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  11. As always, I love your post and your irony, Steve!

    You’re so right in the evaluation of the situation of the translation industry! It seems that the space for free-range translators it’s getting smaller and smaller and that it’s getting very difficult to escape the cage. I have worked as a translator almost all my life and, these last years, it’s very discouraging if you have to look for new clients in the jungle of countless translation companies. Most of them want to make you sign NDAs, contracts and so on and, on top of that, they want you to make free tests!!!

    The last thing that I’ve been called by a PM is: “Beta translator”. He said that if I registered in their “system” (of caged translators), in the beginning, I would be a “Beta translator”. He didn’t tell me what I had to do to dethrone the “Alfa translators”. Please! Maybe they watch too many videogames?

    But I think that, sadly, this is the spirit of our times. This “wild capitalism” model is affecting many industries and professions. I would not advise young people to become translators but, on the other hand, I don’t know what I would advise them to be. I only hope to “survive in the profession” until I retire and I pray that, by then, the government will have money to pay my pension, which I doubt very much. Forgive me if I’m being too pessimistic, but it’s difficult to see it any other way…


  12. Thanks for your comment, Assumpta.

    I am in similar situation to your, only another year or two before I should be able to retire – if the money promised by the government is still there.

    I wonder if the translation agencies care that they have made it basically impossible for experienced translators to work for them.

    Probably not, there is a constant and abundant supply of newbies and people who are slaves by nature.

    But the question I have is: How is it possible that “our associations” don’t fight for your rights?

    Isn’t it their job? Isn’t it what they are supposed to do in exchange for the membership fees that we pay them every year?


  13. I think that translator associations have always been quite weak, at least in Spain, and I have never been very active in that sense (My fault!). In fact, translation has never been a very valued or well paid profession, in Spain.

    Until the Spanish crisis began some years ago, I worked mainly in the audiovisual field. We were quite a small group of translators, and usually, it was so difficult to reach any consensus, even though we had a lot of work! Since the crisis began and our work was reduced drastically, it was “every man for himself”… I’m just saying this because I think that, sometimes, we are our worst enemies.
    I had been living quite comfortably in my little bubble for many years until then, and when I had to “get out in the world” to look for more work is when I discovered this new reality.

    I also think that there are very powerful forces against us, like these European “competition rules”, for instance, which forbid us to set minimum rates and even to talk about rates publicly. That would be OK for big companies (that horse through this rules!), but in fact, in the end, it only serves the interests of those big companies.

    Anyway, have a nice day and cherish your good clients!


  14. I thought only American translators were prohibited to talk publicly about rates by their government and by the ATA.

    Sorry to hear you have the same rules to keep the little people as poor as possible also in Spain.


  15. Kevin and Steve: While I often admire your sense of humor, I fail to see how mocking disabled vets is funny, even by piling on more minority traits. My nephew, who lost a leg in Afghanistan, would certainly not find your comment amusing. I know Donald Trump likes to make fun of the disabled, but I expect better of you. What does such a remark have to do with translating anyway?


  16. I thought Kevin was mocking endless, nonsensical and counterproductive paperwork created by politically correct bureaucrats, rather than making fun of “a transsexual veteran of unusual color who happens to be missing a few limbs and types with a pencil between her teeth” who most likely does not even exist.

    I was told more than once, in the interest of political correctness, I presume, that I should not use the word “slave” on my blog because I am not black.

    Do you think that people who are not black should be allowed to use the word “slave” on their blog, even if they are white?

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I know the comment was not intended to be offensive; I know you and Kevin are good people and would never mean to mock someone like that. What I’m saying is that the “joke” missed its mark. For people who are piecing their lives back together after the horrors of war and dismemberment, it just isn’t a laughing matter. It’s not a matter of political correctness but simply one of being aware of how words can go astray. I’ve made comments too that I didn’t realize how they could offend until someone pointed it out to me. That’s all I’m doing.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. “I know you and Kevin are good people and would never mean to mock someone like that.”

    Like all people, we have our good points, and our bad points.

    I respect your position, Kathryn, but in my opinion, it has a chilling effect on freedom of expression when people are expected to self-censor themselves in this manner, even if many people would say that it is for a good cause. In other words, I believe that it creates more problems than it solves.

    And I note that you chose not to answer my question, which is your prerogative.

    Thanks for commenting again!

    Liked by 1 person

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