Posted by: patenttranslator | September 3, 2016

Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation?

Most companies and people who need to buy a translation probably never ask themselves this question. Whether it is a personal document costing less than a hundred dollars, or a very large number of long documents such as legal contracts, patents, reports, or correspondence between unscrupulous, cagey sales people plotting how to skin consumers alive – there are times when all of these documents must be translated from a foreign language.

After all, I never ask myself, where does the money go when I pay for a book, a dinner in a restaurant, or for a car, although I probably should.

In “the translation industry”, the cash flow follows different, often circuitous paths, depending on which segment of “the translation industry” sells the translation to the end-client. I would say that the flow of money spent on translations depends to a large extent on the organizational structure and size of the company selling the translations to clients.

As a general rule, the amount of money that will in fact end up in the pocket of the translator who did all of the translating work is inversely proportional to the size of the translation company, typically a translation agency. The bigger the agency, the less money is generally paid to the translator. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that most of this money is spent on other people who earn their living in “the translation industry” food chain who, as it happens, are not translators.

Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation from a Large Translation Agency?

There are many people who are not translators and who work for large translation agencies, also called mega-agencies by translators. All of these people need to make money, although the business income is generated by the work of the translators, not by the work of other people working at the agencies, such as agency owners, lawyers, accountants, sales people, project managers and sales managers, and various kinds of other managers on different levels.

True, these people also contribute to the business’s smooth functioning, especially given that without their work, the translators might not have any work for themselves, with the possible exception of lawyers whose main task seems to be writing extremely long, intimidating, demeaning, nonsensical and often illegal Non-Disclosure Agreements, or NDAs. These NDAs are sometimes not really Non-Disclosure Agreements at all as they often specify things other than confidentiality, such as payment terms, and confidentiality of documents is mentioned only in passing.

The simple fact that if there were no translators to translate what needs to be translated, a translation mega-agency would only have expenses and no income whatsoever is hardly ever mentioned on the websites of mega-agencies.

My guess is that only about 30 percent of what customers pay for translations to mega-agencies is distributed as payment to translators, while the remaining 70 percent is swallowed by the other non-translating occupations, which could be called ancillary occupations. The owner of a mega-agency alone is of course paid millions mostly for owning the agency. I see him or her mostly as a huge vacuum cleaner constantly sucking up huge quantities of hundred dollar or Euro bills.

When there is more than one owner of a mega-agency, this often leads to major problems, even if (or perhaps especially if) there are only two owners who used to be happily married, or at least engaged, to each other. I used to work for the agency discussed in the linked article in the pre-internet era about 20 years ago when it was still a small operation paying good rates on time. But as it grew, over the years it became a poster child of a typical mega-agency that is hated both by translators and by smaller agencies for its greed and aggressive tactics. I stopped working for them about 15 years ago. The article linked above seems to confirm the truth of the saying that what goes around, comes around.

Because divorces are often messy and expensive, there are two schools of thought on how to deal with a messy and expensive divorce and why a divorce is often so expensive:

1) “It’s cheaper to keep ‘er” (it’s better to stay together no matter what in view of the cost).

2) “Divorce is expensive because it is worth it”.

I think it all depends on the circumstances. One thing for sure is that a lot of work of thousands of translators is needed to pay for such a messy business divorce, although this is probably the last thing on anybody’s mind (anybody’s with the exception of the hard working translators, of course).

So that’s where a lot of money made by translators may eventually end up as well – in the bottomless pockets of divorce lawyers.

Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation from a Small Translation Agency?

Some small translation agencies are virtually indistinguishable from their large brethren.

They basically mimic the predatory operating principles of large agencies and as a result, they are just as inimical to the interests of translators when it comes to things such as rates paid to translators and working conditions created for them.

But not all of them. Some smaller translation agencies are still trying as much as possible to continue the business traditions of translation agencies from the prehistoric pre-internet era and unlike mega-agencies, often believe in and practice very different business ethics.

A few smaller, usually highly specialized translation agencies pay somewhat higher rates than mega-agencies, and just as importantly, they try to pay quickly and treat translators as human beings rather than as obedient translating slaves.

One reason for this is that while modern translation agencies, and mega-agencies in particular, are usually owned by monolingual “entrepreneurs” who don’t understand what translation is about and who don’t give a damn about translators, translation agencies of the pre-internet era were often owned and run by translators or former translators who not only understood translation issues, but were also better able to identify with the interests of mere translators, although they too obviously strived to achieve the maximum profit.

It so happens that these two goals are not necessarily mutually exclusive, depending on how a translation business is run.

As a result, at smaller translation agencies, the translator’s share of the profit derived from translations is usually in the range of 40 to 60 percent, which works much better for the translators, and quite well for the person running the agency as well.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am stating here that like many translators, I wear two hats as I am both a translator and an owner of a very small translation business profiting from the work of other translators that I sell at a surcharge to direct clients to whom the rhetorical question in the title of this silly post is addressed.

Twenty years ago, I was mostly translating myself and the share of income that I was able to generate from the work of other translators in projects that I organized was relatively small. As “the translation industry” managed to successfully lower the rates being paid by agencies to translators such as myself, at this point I am more and more working mostly as a one-man translation agency. I don’t want to work for “the translation industry”, especially since it treats translators as easily replaceable cheap help.

But I still work for a few translation agencies operating based on the concept of the traditional small translation agency model mentioned above, and I am grateful to them for continuing the tradition of decent translation agencies before they were infected by the virus of the “translation industry” and for helping me pay my bills.

I think it is logical that as more and more experienced translators are reluctant to work for the new type of predatory translation agency model so prevalent in “the translation industry”, the result is that “the translation industry” is becoming more and more dependent on new, starting translators, also called “newbies”, and on translators living in third world countries with a much lower cost of living who may not necessarily be translating into their native languages, or who may be translating subjects that they are not familiar with.

Although the quality of a translation is often in the eye of the beholder, this trend is of course bound to have a detrimental influence on the quality of the translations that are produced in this manner by “the translation industry”, not to mention the horrible consequences of utilization of “language technology”, such as post-processed machine translation, a very popular trend in the modern “translation industry”.

And Where Does Your Money Go When You Buy a Translation Directly from a Translator?

Something interesting happens in this case: you as a customer pay less for the same thing that you are buying, namely a translation; while the translator gets more for the same thing that she is selling, namely a translation … which would seem to contradict the theory that “the translation industry” even has a right to exist.

Well, I think that it does have a right to exist, even if it is just a middleman, but not in the same form in which it exists today.

Translation agencies, the good ones anyway, do play a useful role because many translators, possibly the majority of them, simply don’t know how to connect with direct clients so that they could sell their translations to them, and many customers simply don’t want to bother looking for individual translators, especially since most of them are very hard to find on the internet.

But those translators who know where their customers are and who are able to figure out how to connect with them discover that they don’t need translation agencies. I have heard quite a few translators say the magic words, “I have never worked for translation agencies” and I can usually detect pride in the way the words are said, justified pride in my opinion.

Although translation quality is in the eye of the beholder, I think that a logical conclusion is that translators who work directly for clients pay more attention to these translations, simply because they are being paid more, if for no other reason.

It so happens that “the translation industry” cannot exist without translators because they are the ones doing the actual translating work and “the translation industry” is not able to translate, which would seem to indicate that even its name is a misnomer (hence the quotation marks).

But translators can exist without “the translation industry” and can do just fine, thank you very much. They can charge more for the same work, just like a house owner who is able to sell her house directly to a client without going through “the real estate industry” can make more money by selling the same thing, namely a house, to a customer who is paying less for the same thing, namely a house.

It should be said that the comparison of “the translation industry” to “the real estate industry” is an imperfect one: here in the United States, the most common commission that real estate agencies take when a house is bought and sold is 6 percent, while as mentioned above, in “the translation industry” this commission is generally in the range of 40 to 70 percent.





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  1. All this is familiar and depressing enough to anyone who has spent a long time working with agencies, but I would add one simple observation: this situation is much worse in America than in Europe. After all, it is not so difficult to see how much you are getting skinned by the agencies. If you upload a file to be translated into Google Translator Toolkit, for instance, it will automatically generate an agency quote telling you how much a client would have to pay an agency for the translation, and in Europe it is nothing like the 70% mark-up you suggest. But in America it is quite different. I think the difference is actually to do with attitudes towards speaking other languages. In Europe the ability to speak several languages is still seen as a cultural accomplishment (though it has been wisely observed that actually there was an explosion of polyglot families due to the disruptions of the Second World War, which caused many people to change country: so that the supply of polyglot people is now drying up); but in America if you are bilingual it is because you are still a wetback, not properly assimilated into English-speaking society. So merely speaking another language marks you out as a poor person, who deserves to get screwed by corporate America.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The attitude that foreign languages, and “small languages” in particular are worthless and not worth learning, is an attitude that speakers of all “big languages”, like English, German or French seem to share to some extent.

      But this contempt for foreign languages is especially pronounced among English speakers, I think.

      The saying “to pick up a language” exists only in English, doesn’t it? In other languages you have to “learn a language” which implies a lot of work and time, in English you simply pick it up like a lost wallet or a piece of garbage, which implies a momentary, perhaps subconscious action.

      Liked by 4 people

  2. Recently, an agency that I have been working with for a couple of years sent me a revised contract out of the blue. I scanned it and found several objectionable sections. The worst was a clause giving them the irrefutable right to inspect my premises of work (立入検査), which is basically where I live. I asked them to delete the relevant clauses, which they refused, so I told them I won’t sign it. Lately I’ve picked up some other clients with better terms, so I am happy to let this one go if it comes to that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would never sign anything like that either.

      In any case, an agency that asks translators to sign an illegal clause is best to stay away from.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. These ridiculous contracts are not worth the paper they are written on! Don’t upset yourself and lose work by refusing to sign such contracts, just sign. In the UK at least, such contracts are illegal since there is a law of unfair contracts. If they ever sent the Translation Police round to your place of business, call the police!

    Liked by 1 person

    • This time I don’t agree with you, Josephine.

      What you are basically saying is that since the whole world is going fascist, it’s best to get along with fascists and sign anything they give us to sign to at least have some work.

      Plus this kind of an agency is likely to have many other very nasty clauses in its contract which would be enforceable in court.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I carefully read all contracts. I learned how important and relevant they are in my work in international arbitration, legal translations and depositions. I have had many clauses changed in many contracts over the years. The latest one, the venue for recourse was changed – international change at that. Thankfully, the prospective client had a representative office in my country of residence which made things easier.

    Contracts are very important.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Like your site. But I think the real question here is: Where does my money go after being paid for my translation?


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