Posted by: patenttranslator | December 29, 2016

Escaping the Inescapable Network of Falling Rates

I was going to mail a letter yesterday, well, a credit card payment. Few people probably still mail letters in 2016. I can’t remember the last one I mailed, but I still mail checks to pay bills.

But when I arrived to the big blue mailbox, it was surrounded by yellow tape and there was scaffolding next to it and three smallish guys were doing something to it. It looked like they were painting the wall next to the mailbox. So since I did not want to get the paint on me, I gave my letter to one of the guys, who looked to me to be barely 18, and asked him if he could mail it for me.

He looked at me as if not comprehending what I was saying. Then one of the older guys said something to him in Spanish, he nodded his head and took my letter and attempted to put it into the big mailbox.

But he could not figure out how to do it because he was trying to push it into the mailbox through a non-existent slot. In some countries, the slot is on the side where the kid was looking for it and I guess Mexico is one of them. But in United States, you have to first pull up the big metal flap that protects the mailbox, from rain, probably. After a second he figured it out, pulled the flap up and posted my credit card payment, I thanked him and that was that.

I deduced from this episode that he must be a brand new “illegal immigrant”, probably from Mexico, who just arrived to this country and has not even mailed a letter from here yet.

New translators (newbies) and would-be translators who often work for incredibly low wages are the “translation industry’s” equivalent of “illegal immigrants”. And they do not necessarily live in low-wage countries, since anybody can claim to be a translator. And some people who translate can do it very cheaply because their translation income may not be their primary or sole income.

Thirty years ago when I started working full-time as an independent translator, I was being paid (at first) six cents a word for translating Japanese patents for a small translation agency that specialized in patents.

Then another Japanese translator told me that he knew a guy who paid seven cents who was looking for Japanese translators, so I stopped working for 6 cents, (which 30 years ago was the equivalent of 12 cents now), and started working for that guy, who had tons of chemical patents because he used to work for a big chemical manufacturer. Then I stopped working for him when somebody offered me 10 cents a word, and by the mid nineties I was charging at least 15 cents, up to 18 cents for rush work to some translation agencies.

That was what I was charging to translation agencies and it wasn’t bad, but since I saw no reason to keep working only for agencies, by the mid nineties I was working more for direct clients, mostly patent law firms, than for translation agencies and I was and still am charging direct clients a little more than what I can charge a middleman, of course.

Incidentally, there is no magic bullet to finding direct clients for your translations, but here are a few pointers:

  1. You need to have a good idea about the field in which you want to specialize: in my case, patent translations.
  2. You need to identify who your direct clients are: in my case, my direct clients were obviously going to be patent law firms and patent law departments of different companies, mostly large corporations.
  3. You need to design a strategy to make them aware of your services: I have been sending letters to potential clients for about 10 years since the early nineties every time my work load was light. I must have sent thousands of letters, but I did find my first clients in this manner, and some of them stayed with me for more than a decade. I no longer send letters in this century as I am now relying on my website and silly blog for visibility on the internet.

In contrast to the development of rates in the eighties and nineties of the last century when rates kept going up if you had a good language combination and specialty, the rates paid to translators by the “translation industry” started going down instead of up in this century, even for highly specialized translation, such as for patent translations, and even for very complicated languages that are very difficult to learn, such as Japanese.

Some of the downward slide is the result of globalization, as some translation agencies now send translations to countries such as India or China where labor is much cheaper than in Western countries. The translations might not be very good, but they are probably still much better than machine translation.

A big part of the downward slide is the result of “portals for translators”, where translators bid in blind actions, and work goes to whoever bids the lowest.

In contrast to popular belief, personally, I don’t think the decline in rates over the last decade or so has much if anything to do with machine translation.

In spite of how the propaganda machine of the “translation industry” is trumpeting the claim that machine translation is “quickly approaching the level of human translation”, machine translation has been quickly approaching the level of human translation for at least 10 years, or in fact since about 1947 if you know the history of machine translation.

I always print out the machine translation of the patent I am translating, either from the European Patent Office or the World Intellectual Property Office website, which offer three types of machine translation of patents: Google Translate (feared by some, but also known as Giggle Translate among other translators), Baidu and Microsoft (Bing) Translator.

When I print out a machine translation from Microsoft Translator, I see that Microsoft Translator is basically indistinguishable from Giggle Translate. Sometimes Giggle Translate is slightly better, but it sometimes gets beaten by Microsoft which does not seem to jump to wrong conclusions as much as Giggle Translate, at least when it comes to highly technical terms. And quite often the sentences produced by Giggle Translate look like a really good translation … but the problem is, they say the opposite of what the text says in the foreign language.

So I don’t see machine translation as having affected much the rates being paid for translation. What did affect rates directly (and every translator is affected at least indirectly by everything every other translator and translation agency is doing), in addition to globalization, is the incredible greed so prevalent in the “translation industry”.

The “translation industry” does not seem to care that by always chasing lowest cost of labor, they are killing off their best customers. There is a reason why some people are willing to work for very low rates, and the reason is usually that these people can’t command higher rates because they can’t really translate.

The big secret, that only a few translators seem to know and talk about, is that the inescapable network of low rates being paid for translation is escapable.

The “translation industry” would like to think of itself as the indisputable king of translation. It believes that its business model and the methods of large translation agencies that brutally exploit translators and seek lower and lower labor cost to achieve higher and higher profit is the most logical and the best business model in this particular segment of the service industry.

But as I read somewhere, because translation is so incredibly fragmented, the ten largest translation mega-agencies with offices on several continents account for less than ten percent of the market for translations.

The “translation industry” is not Big Pharma, which can enforce its own monopoly over the market for medications resulting in incredibly high prices by bribing our politicians year after year. There is a lot of competition in the market for translation and as far as I know, the “translation industry” does not even have lobbyists.

The key for translators to escaping the inescapable inevitability of falling rates in the “translation industry” is to stay away from the most exploitative segments of the “translation industry” by creating an alternative to it – a business model that is based on methods that have worked for translators in the last century and the centuries before, when translators such as myself were working only for small agencies with a human face that paid good rates and that did not treat translators as indentured servants.

But I also believe that the most important component of the alternative business model for translators who want to escape the inescapable network of falling rates is that they need to eventually work mostly for direct clients instead of working only for a broker.

I just heard on the news that 2016 was the first year in a long time when there was actually an increase in salaries and wages paid to workers.

It is not inevitable that rates paid for translation should keep falling. But if translators do nothing and obediently accept the dictate of the new “translation industry”, it is not difficult to see that they will continue doing precisely that.


  1. Thank you for that brilliant analysis of the current state of the translation industry and why rates are sinking so low. We have lost clients because they found someone cheaper, and we have had applications from translators who are charging more than we charge direct clients. As for MT, it can never equal human translation for the simple reason that translation is like authorship and machines (or monkeys) will never be able to replicate human translation skills. Someone should calculate how much money has been spent on creating CAT programs like Trados and MT programs such as Google Translate, probably ten times as much as is spent on researching a cure for cancer. I know of at least one greedy translation company that went bust trying to replace human translators with MT, though that was back in the 1980s when the system was even cruder than it is now. Nevertheless, for some simple jobs such as getting the gist of an email sent in Latin characters to someone who does not understand the language, the online translations are often adequate, which means that we humans lose out.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. First! When I saw the title in my mail, I knew I couldn’t resist. Thus you narrowly beat Dragon Age: Inquisition. 😉

    I’m not sure to what extent this is universally true across all of the fragmented markets, but I suspect it isn’t just my neck of the woods — some agencies aren’t motivated by greed alone. They don’t maximize the margin by lying to the client about the top-notch exclusive service he’s supposedly getting and to the translator about the allegedly lousy market or allegedly lousy client budget for a result like 40 cents from the client and 7 cents for the translator.

    … Instead, they either want to make translation cheap for the client because that’s their misguided mission, or they think they have no other choice because they can’t or fear to think about any other strategy than cost leadership. From a business point of view maximized cost leadership can still be more rational than being stuck in the middle. This is popular among large Polish agencies and a lot of ones that aren’t exactly small per se but are in a lower bracket than some agencies that are smaller in size.

    And some think themselves business geniuses just because they sense and react to what the market allegedly wants. Or so they think. In reality, of course, they are simply capitulating on the price front, not providing something that’s much needed and only they can provide etc. This is popular among Polish translation agencies in the small or medium range.

    Finally, you and I and many of cour colleagues obviously know this, but just in case some readers don’t yet — a large part of the problem is that you rarely know which agency does what. Those guys stay in business as middlemen because of the veil they cast on either side of the client-agency-translator chain. Which is, of course, often a parasitic existence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “And some think themselves business geniuses just because they sense and react to what the market allegedly wants. Or so they think. In reality, of course, they are simply capitulating on the price front, not providing something that’s much needed and only they can provide etc. This is popular among Polish translation agencies in the small or medium range.”

    This is true about translators as well. I myself have been tempted a few times the last few years when business slowed down to simply give up, lower my rates and “hook up” with a few cheap agencies that would keep me busy.

    But eventually, old clients who were silent for a long time came back, I picked up new ones and I am busier at this point than ever …. while I still charge the same rates.

    If it keeps up, I may have to raise them.

    Liked by 1 person

    • ‘This is true about translators as well,’ — unfortunately, that’s true.


  4. Hello, Thank you very much for your opinion on this matter,
    I am from Argentina. I am a Sworn Translator, which means my translations are certified by a professional association. However, the formality required by law is usually replaced by translations made by notaries, attorneys, and different professionals which have no knowledge in translation whatsoever. Sometimes the translation is not required at all, despite they must be drafted by a professional registered translator. All in all, we are losing workload and some seek agencies that pay low rates in order to make a living. This is a growing tendency which seems to have no clear solution in the foreseeable future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Estela, The problem is that end-customers do not have the faintest idea as to how much they should pay for a translation. Moreover, they are more often in contact with intermediaries than with freelance translators. And most intermediaries are not translators. So most intermediaries keep on DISINFORMING END-CUSTOMERS as to the REALITY of the translation profession, like:

      – a realistic PRODUCTIVITY rate (i.e. translation SPEED):

      There is no such thing as “per hour translation speed”, since there is always a LEARNING CURVE, per end-client, and even per translation order.

      In my HRM classes, I learned that employers (and intermediaries too often see themselves as employers) tend to want to align ALL of their employees/manual workers to the productivity of the FASTEST of them.

      The fastest speed becomes the STANDARD speed, in the eyes of employers/intermediaries with a slave-owner’s mentality.

      This is why in the different industries, manual workers scold those among them who work too fast, because the rest cannot follow, otherwise it might become the standard goal for all of them to reach.

      We cannot apply this in a world of freelancers, but just to share some of my knowledge in HRM.

      Employees have trade unions to defend their conditions of work. We don’t…

      So working with end-customers and EDUCATING THEM – not crawling again – is the ONLY WAY TO SURVIVE. And it’s a longer prospection process, but a MUCH MORE REWARDING one, both in terms of finance and HEALTH.

      – a realistic per unit (word, line, page) FEE:

      This is a direct consequence of one’s perception of translation speed, as explained here above.

      Intermediaries and end-clients have to be reminded REGULARLY that freelance translators do not get paid “per word” but FOR THEIR TIME AS TRANSLATED INTO PER UNIT FEES.

      Please also always use the term FEE, not rate.

      This is a job for university-educated people, not for bilingual amateurs working from their kitchen table…




      Happy New Year to you all.




      There are octopuses all around us, in the political sphere and in the economic sphere.

      We have to keep watching for them… and FIGHTING THEM ASAP.


      LSPs have to understand they are perceived – and DENOUNCED TO END CUSTOMERS – as nothing else than OCTOPUSES who make the translation profession DISAPPEAR, WHICH IS CONTRARY TO THE INTEREST OF END CUSTOMERS.

      They fill their pockets, suck all the juice until there is no juice left.

      Then try another lemon.

      Until all experienced translators have disappeared and they are left only with amateurs who do not have the faintest idea of what translating is all about either.

      “Qui se ressemble s’assemble”, we say in French: those who are alike stick together: amateur translation “agencies” will only have amateur “translators” in the end.

      The more your educate your customers (including intermediaries – and you can and should threaten to denounce them to translators associations and social networks), the more you will be respected.

      The more you crawl, the least you will be respected.

      Amen and happy new year. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Unfortunately, in this ‘industry’ the middlemen seem to need to misinform the clients in order to justify their own existence. They have a systemic need to downplay the role of translators who are the real providers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, this is giving them bad intentions. I believe that at the root of the crazy system we are facing is the fact that 99.9% intermediaries are non-translators, so they do not have the faintest idea of what translation is all about. So don’t CAT tool producers. And end-customers.

      If we freelance translators do not re-establish our bond with our direct customers, they will keep on falling prey of uninformed monolingual commercial people and the assholes hoping to make a buck by fabricating ‘translation” software programs – whereas they have never translated a sentence themselves in their whole lives!

      There are a lot of useless people on the dole trying to make a buck via the Internet – like translation intermediaries and “translation software” producers… And untrained, amateur bilinguals…

      We translators have never needed the Internet to get a job. It just happens to happen on the Internet too…

      There are lots of psychopaths hiding (or hoping to hide) behind an Internet screen.

      They just don’t realise that their anti-social behaviour is even more easily perceived via the Web.

      Psychopaths are hoping to create octopuses too…

      Cutting their tentacles is of prime importance. Asap. 🙂


  6. Nobody tells and nothing forces CAT producers to get in any way more actively involved in our profession and our market than just selling their stuff. The same goes for other IT companies invading the translation market and trying to make it a conquered province for the IT industry.

    Have to agree on sociopaths and psychopaths. Just for the sake of full clarity, I don’t have any qualifications to actually diagnose that, but I do know a bit more than your average non-psychologist, and yeah, I think disorders are aplenty in our neck of the woods and explain a lot of the behaviours we witness and suffer from.

    Perhaps we need to fight for more access to clients, but we also need to directly stand up to agencies. Or just learn to work without them. And the latter can be difficult considering that agencies already own the market.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Steve, do you seriously mean that when you wrote to patent firms some of them actually *answered* you?! I don’t think any of the ones I’ve tried even did me the courtesy of responding.


  8. Yes, they did, by sending me Japanese patents for translating. In fact so many responded that although I was originally working only for translation agencies, within a few years, about a half of my income was from patent law firms and only a half of it came from translation agencies. At this point I don’t really work for agencies, with the exception of a few that I would not describe as belonging to the “translation industry”.

    As postage kept going up, I had cards designed for this purpose that I was mailing up until a few years ago, but as postcards don’t seem to work at all, I rely only on my website and my blog at this point.

    Most translation agencies don’t do a very good job and some to a terrible job when it comes to translation of patents, unless they specialize in it, which is not very often the case.

    And patent law firms who have to deal with substandard translations are more than ready to switch to a different service if the opportunity is there. But first you have to contact them and they have to take you seriously to give it a try.


  9. As well as technical translations, I also undertake patent translations (into and from French) usually related to engineering. We were approached by an agency to undertake one (a quite short extract of technical detail). It bounced back from them with comments to say they had had it edited, and would we mind commenting on the review comments. I said no, as we could see there were lots of errors in the “editing” and we didn’t want to waste any more time on what was, for us, a small job. I responded if they weren’t happy we wouldn’t invoice them, but of course they couldn’t use our work as we retained copyright (I thought this was a scam to avoid paying, always a risk). The agency came back and politely asked for comments which we gave them (spelling and gender errors, and one of the suggested “edits” completely changed the meaning of a section – very dangerous in legal terms) and our invoice. They paid instantly (within the hour!) which is a bit unusual in my experience, so the relationship was preserved. However I couldn’t resist pointing out that I have 30 years’ experience in technical translation and have undertaken editing myself on numerous occasions. I resisted the temptation to say “Your current “editor” is probably a 16-year-old boy in his bedroom in Beijing who loves Meccano and has a French GCSE” but it was tempting…


  10. Ha, ha, ha.

    That was a good one.

    A good example of:

    1) How clueless translation agencies are about patents.

    2) How dangerous it may be to send a patent of translation to a generic translation agency (that does not specialize in technical translation and patents).


  11. […] This is probably the second most popular subject discussed by translators on the internet, right after “What actually is the going rate?” […]


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