Posted by: patenttranslator | May 24, 2017

What Is a Translator’s Means of Production?

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson


I sometimes receive despondent comments from discouraged translators in my blog’s comment section, who don’t know what to do because the translation business is no longer what it used to be.

Like this one I received only last week: ” … The yearly income of a veteran Japanese>English patent translator has been converging with that of an experienced American English high school teacher. This wasn’t the case in 1990 or even in 2005.”

Most people feel for laid-off workers who after decades of work in the automobile industry suddenly find themselves unemployed and unemployable, at least when it comes to their former profession.

And when a burrito vendor who used to make $300 an hour for many years selling fabulous burritos from his food-cart to Washington lawyers (who also make $300 an hour), cannot do so anymore, some of the burrito man’s customers will even cry as per an article in yesterday’s Washington Post entitled “How Washingtonians killed a perfectly good burrito cart.”

As the article puts it: “It wasn’t just one dagger that killed the burrito entrepreneur. It was one after another, after another.”

“Back in his heyday, from about 2007 to 2011, Rider [the burrito maker and vendor] says his one-man cart might bring in $1,000 in an afternoon. In 2007, Washingtonian magazine reported that Rider—who is notoriously tight-lipped about his finances—made enough from his burrito cart to afford a vacation home and then some.”

But now, he can’t pay the rent on his house.

It so happens that a burrito place, a hole-in-the-wall kind of thing, opened about three years ago next to a tiny Foodmart and a rather desolate looking gas station where I sometimes stop to get gas for my car.

So I stop there now and then to get gas and a burrito, and sometimes only a burrito. The last time I tried to do that was a Sunday, but then I went for a burger instead because a line of about twenty people was snaking throughout the entire store and I did not want to wait.

The guy who owns the restaurant works there with two young, Hispanic looking dudes. On weekdays when the place is not that busy, he sometimes works there by himself. His prices are not low, higher than most other burrito places, I would say. But he uses fresh, organic ingredients and free-range chicken with special hot sauces and he knows a lot about how to make the perfect burrito, salsa and quesadillas because he spent years in Central America perfecting his foreign language skills and his chosen trade.

So in contrast to the article from Washington Post, what is happening in my neighborhood seems to contradict the notion that the days of burrito carts, stands and restaurants are over. You can read reviews of this tiny restaurant that opened recently near a rather ugly looking gas station on Yelp here.

Millions of manufacturing jobs have been sent to low-wage countries, because capital always has and always will follow low wages and lower manufacturing costs like a salivating dog will always follow the wonderful aroma of a piece of bacon.

The translation industry, inspired by the example of the manufacturing industry, has been trying to outsource as much translation work as possible – work that used to be performed by highly qualified, experienced translators in Western countries, to low-cost countries in Europe, Asia and Africa for many years now.

This is one reason why the profits of large translation agencies have grown dramatically over the last two decades, while incomes of freelance translators have been falling precipitously.

But unlike the car industry, the translation industry has a big problem when it comes to outsourcing translations to poorer countries: it is much easier to train blue-collar workers in Vietnam, for example, to manufacture car parts while using the latest car manufacturing technology, than to train Vietnamese, Chinese or Moldovan translators to translate for example complicated German, French or Japanese patents into English.

Although the translation industry has been trying to do just that for many years, the main result is that the market for specialized translations is now drowning in what I call “subprime” translations because these translations can be provided (with a few exceptions) only by highly educated and experienced translators who are native speakers of Western languages, English in particular.

In the field of patent translation, subprime translations are translations that are not reliable as they contain unnoticed mistakes due to the manner in which these translations were created: either with “language tools” such as machine translations that are later edited by cheap, unqualified hired help, or by using an equally cheap labor force of “translators” who have no business translating highly complicated technical and legal documents.

One reason for the falling quality of translations is that many translation agencies located in low-cost countries in Asia (collectively known as Chindia), or in Europe (such as in Moldova) now specialize in working as subcontractors for translation agencies located in Western countries.

I know this because these sub-sub-(sub?)-contractors regularly send me offers to ‘cooperate’ with me as they put it. They proudly list agencies that are already ‘cooperating’ with them, and the long list of large translation agencies attached to their emails reads like a directory of who’s who in the translation industry.

These big agencies, the movers and shakers of our beloved translation industry, are the ones who have been paying lower and lower rates, while making translators wait at least two months to get paid based on demeaning and unfair agreements containing many thousands of words. They are the ones who use Trados so that translators are not paid for repeated or similar words (called in the creative agency lingo ‘full matches’ and ‘fuzzy matches’), and who also force translators to sign away copyright to an intellectual product called translation, which is then supposed to become the inalienable property of the agency intermediaries, without the knowledge or consent of the actual clients who paid the agencies for the translations.

But the good news is that this sad situation (sad from the viewpoint of the clients of such translation agencies, the clients who are, perhaps unwittingly, paying for subprime translations), also creates new opportunities for individual translators who want to work for direct clients without the intermediary of mega agencies.

Nobody cries when another translator hits the dust because the rates paid to translators by the translation industry have been slashed in the “bulk translation market” during the last 10 or 15 years by about a third. Nobody will even know about it, outside of the family and perhaps a few friends of a previously busy and prosperous translator.

But there is no reason to cry if we realize that we don’t have to continue working for this new incarnation of the translation industry.

Just like there will always be a demand for good and well priced (and not necessarily cheap) Mexican food, despite sad human interest stories so frequently published in our newspapers, there will always be a demand for good (and not necessarily cheap) expert translations.

In that respect, translators have a major advantage over blue collar workers. Times are changing, but then again, they have always been changing and they will always keep doing that.

If we are able to change with the times, we should be ok, whether we translate patents or sell burritos for a living.

If we can’t change, or refuse to do so because we are too busy complaining about how unfair it is (even though it is unfair), we will bite the dust just like the American automobile industry workers (or should I say the workers of the former American automobile industry?), except that nobody will feel sorry for us when we lose our jobs.

But if we can figure out how to market ourselves to direct clients and make contacts with new clients who are looking precisely for the specialized translation services that the translation industry is unable to provide, and that we have been offering for years, but only to translation agencies, we will survive the conditions created by the current form of the translation industry.

To do that, we have to become specialists in our translation field, not just word mongers selling word units to intermediaries—some at deep discount—which is how the translation industry sees us.

The former American automobile industry workers cannot work without a means of production that is owned by somebody else – a plant with lots of robots and costly machinery in it.

But translators don’t need a means of production that is owned by somebody else because our means of production is called … a human brain.

It is up to us whether we will let ruthless intermediaries use the means of production that we possess for their own purposes and at the lowest possible cost for them, or whether we will use it for our own purposes independently of the translation industry.


After more than a year, I went to Burrito Perdido today for lunch. It was a weekday, not very busy – there were only three other guests there besides me. But the owner no longer works there, not even on weekdays. Instead, he had three other workers handling the business, one Mexican woman who takes care of cooking, and two pretty teenage girls who take care of the customers, all three no doubt working for minimum wage.

I also thought that unlike in the past, the chicken burrito was much skimpier on the chicken.

In terms of the translation industry, I think it could be said that the guy became the equivalent of a small, specialized translation agency, successfully competing with a whole bunch of fast-food joints (McDonalds, Hardee’s, as well as with the franchise chain of Mexican restaurants called La Cantina),  located within two or three minutes from the restaurant (by car), which can represent the equivalent of large translation agencies for the purposes of this post.


  1. Whatever you do, they’ll beat you, no matter how hard you try. They, the cheap workers, the poor linguists from Chindia and the former communist bloc! They have been taking your jobs for years, and they won’t stop. No bad feelings, just fighting to survive. Customers, on the other hand, won’t stop using the agencies services. They don’t and won’t understand what translation is. All they need is quick service and a “yes” to all of their whims. A well-advertised agency is by far more attractive than an individual translator. It’s easily accessible, it offers all in one, it inspires respect. You just can’t rival it. A manager’s false promise is sweeter than a translator’s truth.


  2. “A well-advertised agency is by far more attractive than an individual translator. It’s easily accessible, it offers all in one, it inspires respect. You just can’t rival it. A manager’s false promise is sweeter than a translator’s truth.”

    If what you say were true, I would no longer be in business.

    But it so happens that I am incredibly busy, have been for many months now, because many direct customers realize that a specialized individual translator (or a small, specialized agency) is a much better choice than one of the many translation industry monsters.

    But first, the translators have to figure out how to connect with direct customers. Those who can’t do that will probably have to continue working for the worst segment of the translation industry, even though the conditions for them may be getting worse and worse.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. If you were so busy, you wouldn’t have be blurting your “silly posts” for years with the eagerness of desperation.


  4. Oops, I seem to have mistaken the grammar structure. It was “be blurting”, and then I wanted to change it to “have been blurting”. To be honest, I’m not sure about “wouldn’t have been -ing”. Is that structure correct here? Not logically. Only grammatically.


    • The structure is more or less ok except that the word blurting sounds funny used like this. Well, the whole thing sounds a little funny, actually. But l’m too busy to be your English teacher, Rennie.


      • Churn out is the correct verb.


      • For butter.


      • Not only for butter, Steve.

        “To produce something in an abundant and automatic manner: The author churns out four novels a year.

        To produce something in large amounts and without much thought: Rosco churned out a book a year for 13 years and earned a lot of money doing it.”


        Steve has been churning out a “silly post” a week for 7 years.


  5. Ah, “blurt”? Sorry, I just meant something like “producing too many posts on the same topic”. OK, thanks and bye!


  6. Your article is great but it doesn’t say anything about the fake translators, the scammers. People who know nothing about the translation business and who decide to set up a translation agency are the first target of the Translator Scammers, most of whom originate in Gaza, and who pretend to be real human beings, when in fact they are people who will run the job they get through Google Translate and send it to their client. I get at least ten “wonderful offers” from such “translators” every day. There are good clues to their real abilities, because they claim to work in both directions (impossible) and in weird but sought-after language combinations such as Norwegian and Arabic. The other problem, especially in the UK, is the UK government’s privatisation mania, privatising translations to the lowest bidder translation companies. The result has been a disaster, costing the UK taxpayer millions of pounds.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I heard about the first thing you mention but don’t have any first-hand experience with this problem.

      I don’t quite understand the second problem. Maybe you could say a few words about it.


    • “The other problem, especially in the UK, is the UK government’s privatisation mania, privatising translations to the lowest bidder translation companies. The result has been a disaster, costing the UK taxpayer millions of pounds.”

      Government, local and national, is outsourcing seemingly pretty much everything these days – or passing it over to the “voluntary sector” if they can. They claim it’s saving money – no having to pay salaries, National Insurance and so on – but I suspect that some of the middlemen are making a handsome profit at the taxpayer’s expense, while the poor people at the coalface, so to speak, be they cleaners, translators or whatever else, are being squeezed.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Hi,

    The link below gives some background to the issue Josephine refers to re court interpreters in the UK:

    The first two paragraphs say:

    “More than 2,600 court cases have been adjourned over the past five years because of failures in the interpreting service, according to figures released by the Ministry of Justice.

    The extent of the problem was confirmed as doubts emerged about the viability of the troubled contract for interpreting services after the outsourcing firm Capita declined to bid for its renewal in October.”

    Capita have their finger in many a very lucrative public sector pie. NHS, Dept of Work and Pensions – you name it, they are in there.

    The article I link to above is a year old. I believe the new contract has been won by – wait for it – The Big Word. You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you very much, Elisabeth.

    I did not make the connection between privatizing and the deterioration of translating and interpreting services.

    Now I know what Josephine meant.


  9. Yes, it will be very interesting to see what the Big Word makes of the situation. They have already got lots of work from UK government departments. My guess is that they will use the interpreting service as a loss-making enterprise to reduce their tax liability. They have taken over a few local agencies, I was recently offered £20.00 for half a day’s work (in Hebrew, not exactly a common language). My business partner was offered £70.00 INCLUDING travel and VAT for a high profile Arabic case.


  10. These people have no shame.

    I think of these companies as criminal enterprises, because that’s what they are.

    I was contacted by thebigword (also referred to as thepigturd among translators) about a year ago; they had some patents for translation, I forgot in what language.

    I just told the guy that his company has such a horrible reputation among translators that I would never even consider working for him.

    He replied, very politely, that he understood.

    Maybe they are already used to this kind of response from some translators?

    Liked by 1 person

  11. And, of course, the Big Word probably appear to be more authentic to provisioning departments because they confine their add-no-value and pay-as-little-as-you-can-get-away-with practices to the translation industry rather than spreading it around as Capita does.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Crapita is the surname for Capita, just like ThePigTurd (= “the pig’s shit”) is the surname for other crooks like TheBigWord. These are all U.K. companies, by the way. I HATE British translation companies. They are among THE WORST. They can get burned in a Syrian cage. That’s my favorite curse on them. It usually puts them in an indescribable rage. 😀


      • “These are all U.K. companies, by the way. I HATE British translation companies. They are among THE WORST. ”

        There *are*, of course, also perfectly good British translation companies. I work for several of them on a regular basis, and not for any of the ones you hate – unless you’re spreading that hate completely indiscriminately.


    • And I am not exaggerating: as Steve mentioned here above, those companies are CRIMINALS.


    • I wish freelance translators would just STOP CRAWLING in front of those ABUSERS.

      When an octopus develops, you have to CUT ITS TENTACLES A.S.A.P.

      Or it stifles you in the medium term. Before you know it.

      In fact, the very fact that you notice that an octopus is spreading (like SDL), it means that its tentacles are already so developed that you can notice them. Which means it’s already almost too late. So procrastinating in cutting its tentacles is irresponsible.

      Freelance translators must denounce to their direct customers that CAT tools do not “aid” nor “speed up” the translation process.

      These are lies.

      I suspect PERVERT PSYCHOPATHS to be among the members of SDL’s hierarchy.

      The aim of those dangerous mentally ill people is to squeeze us, lemons, UNTIL THERE IS NO MORE JUICE.

      Because a) they do not have any morality, like all psychopaths; b) they do not care about end-customers either (cf the Paris subsidiary told me that they only do SPOT CHECKS, no full proofreading any more!).



      Please let your colleagues and direct customers know.

      Our mistake has been not to inform our direct customers about our profession for decades, leaving it to non-translating intermediaries to DISINFORM THEM as they please nowadays.

      It does not cost anything to counter-attack: tell your direct customers THE TRUTH about CAT tools and machine translation: they (CONSIDERABLY) SLOW DOWN the translation process (at least overall) and DECREASE QUALITY, contrary to those crooks’ lies.

      They are just gimmicks invented with the sole and only purpose of EXTORTING REBATES from a profession that has never been known for being rich, which makes it all the more IMMORAL, on top of being ILLEGITIMATE.

      CAT tools are purely EXTORTION TOOLS, and even TORTURE TOOLS since they considerably slow down the translation process/eat up our time (during translation and overall), whereas using MS Word with AutoCorrect increases quality and speed, since AutoCorrect is a typing accelerator and a quick-to-encode terminological database, devoid of the multiple little boxes which CONSIDERABLY SLOW DOWN THE ENCODING PROCEDURE in CAT tools.

      CAT tools were conceived to spot total or partial segment analogies, so everything is separated in LITTLE BOXES:

      – this SLOWS DOWN the whole procedure;
      – this KILLS CREATIVITY;
      – this KILLS FLUIDITY;
      – in fact, you tend to forget what was said in just… the previous sentence!…

      Using different CAT tools means encoding one’s terminology SEVERAL TIMES, which FURTHER SLOWS DOWN the translation process.

      Yet those crooks expect… rebates!

      I have read online conversations among those crooks, laughing at us freelancers because now that we had “integrated” the “fuzzy match concept”, the next step was to make us accept the “post-editing of machine translation” concept… and further REBATES, of course.

      I mean, when rates will reach ZERO, and ALL AGENCIES align themselves on lower and lower rates, will there be any winner?…

      This is a SILLY GAME, coming from the deranged brain of psychopaths and the imbecile & gullible agencies who believed their lies: that they were going to go bankrupt if they didn’t buy those tools and impose them on the translators they were working with…

      And this is a SHORT TERM view. As if putting good translators out of business wouldn’t have consequences for end-customers (on which they obviously pee….).

      As if trained and experienced translators could be replaced overnight by a new generation of junior translators, easy to manipulate and eager to work at any cost (or rate…)…


      They are IMPOSTERS.


      They must be DENOUNCED to OUR direct customers.

      They are CRIMINALS: never forget this! It’s them or it’s us. No pity for those criminals.

      Cut the octopus’s tentacles. Any octopus. Political octopuses. Religious octopuses. All octopuses. No pity.

      Marketing has a terminology which belongs to war-related vocabulary.

      Well, this is a WAR between freelance translators and:

      – non-translating intermediaries;

      – software producers.

      The battle is NOT uneven. Indeed:

      – we are the sole and only professionals of the translation profession and we have to make sure that end-customers understand this;

      – we are the only ones who know how much we should charge for our services, not monolingual salespeople;

      – we are the only ones who know which TOOLS WE PREFER TO USE, without some greedy monolingual salespeople telling us what to do.

      And so on and so on.



      Or we will have to change professions and leave the market to:

      – amateurs who have never been trained to translate properly;

      – junior translators who are easy to manipulate by “the industry” but who will be put out of business sooner or later, until some new amateurs and juniors replace them…


      Nowadays, (nearly) ALL TRANSLATORS have:

      – a website;

      – online profiles with translation samples, recommendations, etc.

      There is no need for free tests. That is also something customers have to be EDUCATED about.


      We all have different:

      – language pairs;

      – areas of specialisation;

      – number of years of experience.

      So they should just enter a few keywords and that’s it!


      Do not become crazy because some PSYCHOPATHS are trying to take advantage of a market that is APPARENTLY little defended.



      LET’S DO IT NOW!



  12. “A Ministry of Justice spokesperson said: “We are absolutely committed to improving performance and ensuring the highest standard of language services for those who need them. (blah-blah-blah) Since this contract was introduced, we have also spent £38m less on language service fees. (oh, yes? just look at the title “Thousands of court cases adjourned due to failures in interpreting services”)”

    “Geoffrey Buckingham, an executive member of the European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association, said: “The available pool of interpreters is already limited, and the word is that many now have enough experience to move on to better-paid work.”

    Geoffrey Buckingham is right.

    The conclusion from all these endless discussions is: quit this miserable job, don’t be a translator or interpreter! Or stay on, if you enjoy being humiliated more and more, day after day.


    • “Since this contract was introduced, we have also spent £38m less on language service fees.”

      Perhaps. But I’d be interested to know how much their other costs have increased – all the costs incurred by abandoning/adjourning and reconvening court cases, for example.

      Liked by 2 people

  13. “There *are*, of course, also perfectly good British translation companies.”

    That’s good.

    But I did hear the opinion that the British translation agencies are the worst expressed by many translators. And although I have good direct clients in UK, I could never accept the rates and conditions of UK translation agencies that approached me over the years.

    As a result, I worked for agencies in many countries: Japan, France, Germany, Belgium (which also has a bad reputation), Israel (ditto), Hungary, Hong-Kong, but never for an agency in UK.


  14. In defence of my countrymen (although the good Lord knows we’ve got our fair share of wrong ‘uns, including those “running” the country, and definitely the chap who first took on the MoJ contract), the majority of my recent contact with “UK” agencies has been with individuals who are patently not UK nationals. It is possible some are attracted by the relative simplicity of incorporation procedures and relatively light subsequent administrative burden. A number of these individuals do, as Steve implies, seem to want to pay the kind of rates more usually associated with their various countries of origin. File under anecdotal evidence, obviously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, that is true. For instance, one of them, called Travod, emailed and called me (with a Skype-based phone number) a number of times offering to become what is now called in the translation industry my “back office.” They pretend to be based in UK, but it is in fact a low-cost translation agency that works for large agencies and that is based in Moldova where a pound or dollar goes much further than in London.


  15. […] Оригинал: […]


  16. […] I have already written several posts on this subject on my silly blog. […]


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