Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit.
(Wisdom from a fortune cookie which came with my order of Chicken Lo Mein.)
At the beginning of this century, things were looking up for translators. At least I thought so.
In Anno Domini 2000, plenty of patent law firms in Silicon Valley were keeping me busy with patent translations, mostly from Japanese and German. Once in a while I also supplemented my steady diet of patents with translations of different documents related to lawsuits, such as correspondence among software developers, sales people and lawyers.
I remember one such large project that rolled out of my fax machine (that was how work used to come to me back then) toward the end of 2000 and it was a translation from Russian, a language that up until that point I had neglected in the mistaken belief that it wasn’t profitable, at least compared to Japanese. But I had to share this urgent translation with another Russian translator because the law firm needed it ASAP, even though I asked for a considerable rush surcharge. Hmm, I wondered. Can I charge the same rate for Russian as Japanese?
The internet quickly changed the character of Mad Patent Translator’s work starting around 2000.
I no longer had to go through indescribable suffering when trying to decipher poorly legible Japanese characters in copies of faxed patent applications. Now all I had to do was go online and download a legible copy of the document from the internet. Instead of looking for obscure technical terms in heavy dictionaries, I was able to quickly look up technical terms in various online databases.
All the big changes in my profession were due to the way the internet changed how we work. The biggest change for me was that my website, launched in 2000, started bringing me new clients in a big way after about 2003.
In 2005, 2006 and 2007, my website brought in work from a lot of new clients, mostly patent law firms who found me on Google. After 2005, new clients who found me in this manner accounted for between 30 and 60 percent of my total income each year, in addition to a steady supply of work that I received from existing clients. I could not believe my luck. I thought my business was recession-proof and that things would continue like this …. basically forever.
I remember when a Czech lawyer turned real estate broker (probably due to oversupply of lawyers at that time in that part of the world), asked me to what extent I was noticing the effects of the depression on the US economy when I was on vacation in Prague in 2008. I laughed and told her that I saw no effects of a recession in my line of work whatsoever and did not really expect to see any.
But nothing lasts forever and what goes up must come down, even when you translate complicated patents from difficult languages.
I see in a table of new customers that I created especially to follow how well or poorly my website works that after 2010, the rate of income that I was able to receive from new clients decreased to about 15% each year up until this year.
So what happened? Don’t they still need to have all those patents translated into English? A number of things happened, I think. Severe price competition from countries such as India and China is probably a factor. Many translations of patents that were ordered in the past may no longer be required because unlike in the 1990s, websites such as the European Patent Office website clearly identify equivalent patent publications that exist in English, obviating the need for expensive translations.
And translation agencies, large and small (but large in particular), figured out how to play the SEO (search engine optimization) game by strategically placing crucial keywords in fiction-based commercial propaganda texts on their websites so that these keywords would be picked up by search engines. And when a potential client needs to have a patent translated from Japanese, German or French, for example, the website of the agency may come up on top of the first few ones displayed by Google.
In addition, many translation agencies must be paying a lot of money to Google and other search engines for keyword-based advertising.
When I typed into Google “patent translation” this morning, among the first listings displayed on top in the paid-advertising section were five translation agencies, two of them large translation agencies that kind of translate everything, including patents, and one of them a new one from China, proudly advertising that they charge only ten cents per word.
Well, if a translator gets five cents a word from this Chinese agency, that is probably still a good deal for the translators if they live in China where the cost of living is relatively low. But this agency can probably translate only from and into Chinese, and their translations into English may not be very good because they can’t afford translators whose first language is English at the rates they must be paying given how much they are charging.
Only one of the agencies shown on top among the advertisers on Google this morning in fact does specialize in patents. I know this because I used to translate Japanese patents for them for many years. But then they replaced me with cheaper labor when I became too expensive for them. They were facing the same problems with competition that I face – from translators in countries with a low cost of labor, from better indications of relevance among different patent applications on the EPO (European Patent Office) and WIPO (World Intellectual Property Office) websites, and probably even from machine translation in some cases, especially if the translation is only meant for prior art search and machine translation indicates that the document is not very relevant.
Several years ago I saw that this translation agency was advertising for translators specializing in Japanese patents who would be willing to work with their own CAT (Computer-Assisted Translation) tool. I wonder how much their CAT pays their translators for “full matches” and “fuzzy matches” (for the same words or similar expressions). Nothing for same words and next to nothing for similar words would be my guess.
There are 13 listings this morning offering patent translations in the non-paid section, which is based on relevance rather than strategically placed keywords and the power of advertising dollars.
Most of these listings are again from translation agencies, and one of them is the agency mentioned above that was also displayed in the paid section.
But I am happy to see that based on relevance, my own translation service is listed twice in the top 13 entries on Google: Patent Translator’s Block, Diary of a Mad Patent Translator, is listed in the third position, just under the listing for the European Patent Office website, and my website at PatentTranslators.com is listed in the seventh position. So my own service is listed by Google twice as well, although I don’t pay for advertising.
Now, I know that Google’s results are skewed depending on what Google knows about the person who is running a search and the results that I see on my screen this morning may not necessarily correspond to what other people will see when they type in the same keywords, depending on what Google knows about these people.
But that is why I sometimes go on Google and other search engines in places where people can use a computer for free, such as a library, or an airport, to check what will be displayed when I type certain keywords into a search engines.
And the results are usually the same or very similar, because relevance still matters. If Google gets too greedy and displays mostly entries that are paid for, ignoring entries that are obviously relevant, people will eventually defect from Google to other search engines, such as MSN’s Bing. (God help us all should that happen!)
So that is why virtual competition between a tiny commercial website advertising a small translating outfit such as mine with top dogs in “the translation industry” is still quite successful, even after 16 years of many tumultuous changes in the field of technical translation, although admittedly not quite as successful at this point as it was in the early 2000s.
There is so much more advertising that I have to compete with on the internet now compared to the situation 16 years ago, and a lot of it is mostly fake advertising.
It is not very difficult to fake a message on the internet these days to achieve a certain purpose, such as to advertise directly or indirectly to attract new clients.
To demonstrate how easy something like that is, I cheated a little bit in my silly post today.
Did you realize that the motivational quote in the introductory part of my post today was a total fake?
I did find the message “Every adversity carries with it the seed of an equal or greater benefit” in a fortune cookie that came with my order of Chicken Lo Mein. But then, when I Googled the message, I saw that it was something that was actually said by Napoleon Hill (1983-1970), who according to Wikiquote was an American author who was one of the earliest producers of the modern genre of personal-success literature.
So, to give it more authenticity and make it appear as though it was in fact a piece of wisdom, thousands of years old, that originally came from the mouth of a bearded Chinese sage (which must have been the intent of the cookie factory that manufactured this fortune cookie), I translated it with GoogleTranslate into traditional Chinese.
I can see that the Chinese characters for “every”, “adversity”, “equal”, “greater”, and “benefit” are contained in the machine translation because I studied Chinese for a while before I gave it up to concentrate on Japanese, but I am not sure how much the Chinese translation was massacred by the machine.
Since my blog is not accessible from China (unless you know how to get around the censorship imposed on using the internet in China by the Chinese government), up until this point, most people reading the post probably did think that the wise statement about adversity was old Chinese wisdom, rather than just an advertising slogan that came from the mouth of yet another slick, calculating American peddler of snake oil.
Just goes to show that you can’t trust anything that’s on the internet these days.