Posted by: patenttranslator | August 10, 2017

The Market Prophets with Big Dollar and Euro Signs in Their Eyes

I have recently read a number of blog posts written by translators who live on three different continents about the rates being paid in the translation business nowadays to translators.

They all agree that there is a big difference between the rates paid to some translators and the rates paid to other translators that are easily at least ten times higher depending on which part of the translation market the translator works for.

Which I agree with too, of course. There is no such thing as a “going rate” for “a translation”. There are many, many different rates for translation, depending to a large extent on two important variables:

  1. What kind of translation it is – or the famous “specialized niche”.
  1. Who is paying for the translation – which mostly means whether the translator works for a broker, (although it also depends on what kind of broker), or whether a lucky translator has been able to attract direct clients who are willing and able to pay much higher rates, partly because there are no commissions to be paid to a broker.

What I do not agree with are the nearly astronomical translation rates per word that the prophets with big, golden, shiny dollar and euro signs in their eyes quote in their posts and podcasts as feasible. Twenty cents per word is ridiculously low, they say, 30 cents is not enough either, 50 cents might be enough, but not really because a dollar per word can be done too, unless one aims even higher, which one definitely should.

It is certainly possible that on occasion, a translator can demand and extort from a customer a very high rate when the poor customer is under the gun.

But how long is such a customer likely to patronize a very expensive translator? No translator has a monopoly on a certain type of translation, regardless of how smart and good he or she is, and unlike certain industries, such as private health insurance companies or drug manufacturers in the United States, translators are not able to create monopolies and cartels and operate like gangsters, the way private health insurance and the pharmaceutical industry operate in the United States.

A certain wunderkind by the name of Martin Shkrelli, who also goes by the moniker “pharma bro”, was recently in the news because he purchased the rights to an old but important medication and then jacked up its price by 5,000% from $13.50 to $750 per pill (this according to Scientific American).

This is what Big Pharma (whose ingenious business motto is “Your Money or Your Children’s Life”) has been doing for decades in the United States with the kind approval of both Democrats and Republicans – who could easily make this illegal. For those living in other countries who may not know this, the mighty US government does not even have the right to negotiate drug prices with drug manufacturers. The mighty US government simply has to accept the prices, dictated to it by Big Pharma, at which pharmaceuticals are sold to it, to be then distributed to tens of millions of people covered by medical insurance programs such as Medicare.

Something like that ought to be illegal of course, and it also ought to be the job of our politicians to make sure that this kind of shakedown is and stays illegal, but the Ds and the Rs won’t do anything about the murderous business model of the pharmaceutical industry because then they would lose the money that pharma bros are feeding them.

Our highly principled politicians want to retire in comfort as multi-millionaires – and who can blame them, right?

But there’s a right way to jack up prices of life-saving pharmaceuticals, and a wrong way to do it. The right way is to do it over a period of several years so that most patients don’t notice it – until their house is up for foreclosure.

Poor pharma bro Martin Shkrelli did it the wrong way – overnight, which gives a bad name to pharma big and small (if something like that is still possible).

But let’s come back from hedge fund managers and pharma bros to earth, to lowly translators and to their pitifully low rates in the real world.

As of right now, I have seven patents on my desk awaiting translation with an (estimated) total of 42,500 words and a firm deadline for completing the last one no later than 16 days from now.

This means that I will have to sit on my ass seven days a week in front of my computer and finish at least 2,700 words a day to make sure that I will indeed deliver the translations on time, no matter what. Some days I translate quite a few more words, but then again I have to spend long hours proofreading long patent translations, which means that the number above is only an obligatory daily minimum. Plus I also manage other projects done for me by other translators.

And there have been months, like the last one, when the daily minimum number of words to be translated by yours truly was about 3,500. But if the number goes higher than that, I have to turn the work down, although I still do accept work that I can subcontract to other translators.

(Some translations of new patent applications are so confidential that I am prevented by some of my customers from subcontracting them.)

I have been religiously practicing this form of self-flagellation, I mean working at this pace, for about a year now.

I am not going to disclose how much I charge per word on my blog, but I will say that I consider what I charge a good rate for me … while still a bargain rate for my customers.

If I could raise my rates by a few cents to 30 cents (so now you know that what I charge is less than 30 cents), or 50 cents, or even a dollar per word … hell, I would do it in a split second!

I would then probably be only able to work five days a week like normal people and instead of an old Mazda with 112,000 miles on it and an even older Chrysler Town & Country (old, but it still looks good and it is very spacious and comfortable and the mileage is ridiculously low because we mostly use it just to go to the supermarket), I would have a brand new Audi and a gleaming BMW SUV beast in my garage.

As I said, if I thought I could jack up my prices and retain all of my customers and keep gaining new ones, I would definitely do it.

But unlike the pharmaceutical companies and private health insurance rackets in this country, there is this awful thing called competition in the translation market in the real world that I live in and I just have to live with it.

I know that competition is alive and well in the market for translations because most of my clients, mostly smallish and medium sized patent law firms, ask for a cost estimate when they have a new translation for me. They need my cost estimate because they too have to get it approved first by their clients, which is how competition works in the patent translation market.

I always add about 50% to the cost I usually charge, but I only offer it as a higher priced option for rush translation, which means that I will set everything aside and rush translate a document in half the time that I would normally ask for with a regular turnaround time.

Sometimes I get lucky and get to charge the higher rate for basically the same work.

But not very often, which shows how sensitive my customers – and their customers – are to higher rates.

Despite what the translation market prophets with the shiny dollar and euro signs in their eyes say about high rates in “specialized upmarket niches”, and my “niche” is certainly both specialized and upmarket, translators in highly specialized fields too have to be mindful of their competition when they set their rates, even those of us who have been able to eliminate the middleman and thus are able to charge higher rates to direct customers.

We patent translators get to charge maybe up to 30 cents, if we’re lucky, on occasion, for rush work, when the customer is in a pinch.

But if we want to have a constant supply of work for a long period of time, we can’t even think of charging 50 cents a word or more as the prophets are telling us.

I myself have been wondering why these prophets keep saying that the sky is pretty much the limit when it comes to rates for translation in specialized markets.

So I asked another translator for his opinion, someone who runs his business the same way that I have been running mine for the last two decades – he mostly translates himself, but he also occasionally subcontracts work to other translators when he works as an agency.

You know what he told me?

He said (summarized): Oh, well, they just want us to admire their genius and envy them.

I suspect he is not very far from the truth.


  1. “A certain wunderkind by the name of Martin Shkrelli, who also goes by the moniker “pharma bro”, was recently in the news because he purchased the rights to an old but important medication and then jacked up its price by 5,000% from $13.50 to $750 per pill (this according to Scientific American).”

    Is this the same guy who’s helping to bankrupt the NHS, or is there another one out there? Can’t remember what the medication is, but it’s certainly important.


    • Martin Shkreli’s antics are restricted to the US; he bought just the rights for pyrimethamine distribution, not the drug’s actual patent. The rest of the world is safe for now.

      The NHS and everyone else are struggling with 5- and 6-figure price tags for new drugs such as Sovaldi, the $1000-a-pill cure for hepatitis C.


      • Now would be the perfect time for the Democrats to acknowledge the obvious: that Obamacare cannot be fixed because it was mostly just a bailout of the private insurance industry and big pharma, and that while some people got a temporary help, too many people were hurt by it, which is why it so hated.

        But once you acknowledge that, you would have to also acknowledge that the only solution at this point is to start looking at some sort of American universal healthcare system similar to what people in 42 other countries have where the costs are much lower and the results much better.

        But I have not heard a peep from the Democrats about that.

        What is again the difference between Democrats and Republicans?


  2. Bankrupt NHS in UK? It would be a different bro but I am not sure which case you are talking about.


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