Posted by: patenttranslator | August 24, 2017

The Toxic Environment of Translation Industry 2.0

The “translation industry” environment, which I will be calling in my silly post today the translation industry 2.0, is very different from the translation industry environment that I got to know as a newbie technical translator 30 years ago in San Francisco.

Even as a beginner working for translation agencies back in the 1980s, I soon began to feel like a professional whose work was valued and appreciated by most of the agencies I was working for, even though I was pretty green, had a lot to learn and a long way to go.

Some people who were running the small, mom-and-pop type of translation agencies, typical of the translation industry 1.0 back then, eventually became friends of mine who were able to give me a lot of good advice because they were older, more experienced, and because they meant well.

They made money from my translations too, of course. But the idea was not to wring out all I had to give in order to maximize their profit in the 1.0 version of the translation industry. It was much more of a two-way street back then.

I’m afraid all of these people I used to know in version 1.0 are dead now, and I mean that literally.

How many people do you know among the translation agencies in the translation industry 2.0 (if you work for it now), that you would consider friends who would give you valuable advice because they understand your job, have a lot of experience, view you as a professional and care about you as a human being?

Things changed for the worse, much worse, after the year 2000, the approximate birthdate of the translation industry 2.0, that places so much emphasis on “technology tools” such as Computer-Assisted Translation tools (CATs), nearly miraculous (to believe the industry propaganda machine) machine translation, and various other computer programs and tools including expansive databases containing thousands upon thousands of data about anonymous, faceless, far-flung translators called “vendors” in the newspeak of the translation industry 2.0.

There really is no place for highly educated and experienced translators, who regard themselves as professionals and experts in their own right, in the dog-eat-dog marketplace reality of the translation industry 2.0.

Which is why experienced translators were for the most part replaced by “vendors”, picked more or less from these bulging databases containing hundreds or thousands of entries describing the capabilities of newbies arranged mostly by how much (which is to say how little) they charge and what kind of discounts they are willing to offer on top of rock bottom rates for things like “full matches and fuzzy matches”, and whether they are willing to wait at least 60 days, preferably longer, to get paid for their work.

Uppity professional translators who expect to be paid sooner than in two or three months need not apply as far as translation industry 2.0 is concerned.

Considering that the new breed of movers and shakers in the translation industry 2.0 are monolingual entrepreneurs who know precious little about translation, if anything, the shift of emphasis from reliance on live, experienced professional translators to relying on young, inexperienced beginners and inanimate “tools” of modern technology put to work in the hands of newbies is not surprising.

It is therefore perfectly logical that one of the important goals of the movers and shakers in the translation industry 2.0 is to try to figure out how to make translators “more productive”, i.e. how to make them translate more words, which are typically used in the translation industry as units of production, per day.

The industry already achieved part of this urgent task more than a decade ago when it coerced new, inexperienced translators into using CATs, and Trados in particular, for every translation while promising gullible translators they would then be able to double, triple, or quadruple their output of production units called words and thus to increase their income commensurately.

Although poor naive translators might have thought they would be able to double, triple or quadruple their income in this manner, their rates are now lower than they used to be in the translation industry 1.0, lower by at least 30% compared to rates paid 20 years ago, because the opposite of what was promised happened thanks to cutthroat competition and also thanks to an ingenious invention of the industry called “fuzzy matches and full matches”.

The invention of the concept of “full and fuzzy matches” means that the most predatory segment of the translation industry now insists that some translated words are worth less money than others, and some translated words are simply not worth any money at all. The actual matching and assigning of zero value to translated words is to be done fairly and impartially by the CAT software prescribed for translators by the translation industry 2.0.

As George Orwell might put it, all words are created equal, but some words are more equal than others.

This dirty practice is of course nothing but a fairly successful attempt at wage theft, and therefore it is an illegal practice, although to my knowledge, no translators or associations of translators, who are supposed to be representing translators’ interests, have so far sued the predatory actors in the translation industry for this immoral and on its face absurd practice.

In addition to CATs, the two other major miracles of technology that vendors formerly known as translators are encouraged to use in order to “increase their productivity” are computer programs replacing keyboard input by voice input, and editing of machine translation to make it look like a real translation.

All the technology tools I am mentioning in my silly post today of course have their legitimate uses, in addition to the illegitimate ones, designed to put more money into the pockets of translation agency owners by deftly removing it from the pockets of already typically quite impecunious translators.

Some translators use these tools and they are able to profit from their use … unless they accept the Shylockian bargain of the translation industry 2.0 demanding discounts on top of discounts from poor translators, so that the exact number of the pounds of flesh to be extracted from them are dispassionately counted by a computer program.

CATs, and probably even Trados, can be very useful with highly repetitive translations … although not with the kind of translation that I specialize in. As a Chinese translator pointed out to me in one of his comments on my blog, his CAT makes it very easy to update printer manuals that he regularly translates from German to Chinese, and even though he is forced to allow a translation agency to count only certain segments as new words, he still makes plenty of money in this manner.

But the question is, should the final discount for such repetitive translations, which I think would be a perfectly legitimate practice, be determined by a software package wielded by a greedy translation agency, or should this discount be determined by the actual Chinese translator who is doing the work?

Speech recognition software programs, such as Dragon Naturally Speaking, are another wonder of technology that is supposed to greatly facilitate our work and increase our translating speed. And I am sure that for some translators it does exactly that, especially for those who are already suffering from carpal tunnel syndrome and thus can’t really use a keyboard without their hands hurting.

In the translation industry 2.0, speed is not the only thing … speed is everything!

I remember an interesting session at a IAPTI translator conference two years ago in Bordeaux, France, where a patent translator specializing in translation of Japanese patents into English was explaining the system he designed to maximize his daily word output.

In order to maximize his daily word output, this highly educated and highly capable and experienced translator (I remember that he graduated from Harvard) designed and manufactured a special vehicle that looks like a hammock on wheels, in which he can sit and dictate his patent translations into speech recognition software at breakneck speeds, while migrating between different rooms in his house, without having to use a keyboard or suffering from a sore back after many hours of sitting in not very comfortable positions while typing, as I do when I have to work for long hours on a rush translation.

I don’t remember the exact title of his presentation, but I think it was something like “How to make millions of dollars by translating”.

About 10 minutes into his presentation, which I found fascinating, the translator sitting in the chair next to mine leaned over and whispered in my ear “It’s clear to me already that I will not make millions dollars based on what I hear”. That was also my thought at that exact moment.

One problem with the translation industry 2.0 is that unlike the translation industry 1.0 (which fewer and fewer translators in the 2.0 version remember now because to a large extent, the translation industry 2.0 is able to use only inexpensive newbies), is that in the new, 2.0 paradigm, translators are not really considered people who have necessary limits to their endurance levels of physical and mental exertion and fatigue, which mere humans normally have.

The 2.0 model sees translators more or less in digital terms, as if they were no different than a useful app that can be downloaded from the internet, rather than individual humans who are made of flesh, blood and bones, and not zeroes and ones like computer applications.

If only the translation industry model 2.0 could turn human translators into a cool downloadable app, the industry’s business and profits would take off like wildfire! That’s why the 2.0 model is trying so hard to teach translators, newbies in particular, how to “increase their daily output” with tools such as CATS, machine translation, and voice input.

Alas, few newbies are likely to understand at this point that if they do manage to learn how to double their output, the industry will slash their compensation by 50% and keep the extra money for itself, as it did after the introduction of CATs by insisting on obligatory discounts for “fuzzy matches and full matches”.

Even most direct clients probably don’t realize that there is in fact a limit to how many words a human translator can produce per day without making too many mistakes, even if it is a good and experienced translator, or without creating complete garbage if it is an inexperienced newbie, the equivalent of typical cannon fodder for the translation industry 2.0.

Most translators would agree that the limit to how many words a translator can produce per day is around 3,000 words.

I believe this is a good average number of words that most translators can translate, including myself.

While a higher output than 3,000 words per day is on occasion possible for a highly experienced human translator in a familiar field (I have been able to translate up to 5,000 per day for a few days in a patent field that I know well, although never more than that), depending on the type of text and other factors, there is a pretty awful price that human translators must pay for a high speed.

And a speed that produces more than 3,000 words day after day is not sustainable for a long period of time, at least not in my case.

The price that humans pay in these cases that the 2.0 model does not pay any attention to are health problems such as carpal tunnel syndrome, hemorrhoids, bleeding spots in eyes, high blood pressure from the high level of stress induced day after day by this kind of work, and other syndromes that over the long run are likely to put us in an early grave.

And don’t translators have the right to have a normal life, including being able to spend some time with their family and kids, for example?

Sometimes the client is under the gun and there is no other choice than to translate large amounts of text as quickly as possible. In these cases, I believe that we should try to do what needs to be done, regardless of the toll this kind of exploitation of humans called translators takes on us … but at a much higher rate than our normal rate. I usually add 50% to my usual rate if I work for a direct client.

Most of the time, the result is that the clients suddenly become much more flexible about the deadline. Sometime they do agree to the higher rate, in which case I just put my life on hold and do it, killing myself while going at it at about 5,000 words per day for a few days and trying to preserve my sanity by thinking about the pile of money I’ll make.

However, such a high rate is generally accepted only by direct clients. Translation agencies in the 2.0 model will generally only pay a couple of cents above the usual rate, if that, while they will of course try to double the rate they charge to their client.

As I wrote in another post years ago, since translators are generally paid by the word, our clients think that they are only paying us for the words that we have translated for them.

But the words are just a convenient counting device that is used instead of measuring the time, or the fleeting moments of our lives.

Our clients are not paying us for words.

They are paying us for precious moments of our lives that we will never get back.


  1. I love the header! Two days ago I was asked by a notorious agency would I do a rush job of less than 500 words. I agreed, only because the job was short. I heard nothing more and the next day I wrote asking why the job had not arrived. The project manager had the nerve to tell me she had been “too busy” to let me know that my rate was too high and she was frantically looking for someone cheaper! That is the kind of respect we translators get! My rate, incidentally, is one that everyone else accepts, it is by no means high.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. (Alex, an old friend of mine whom I met in San Francisco in 1982 where he had a small translation business with another Russian guy, left this comment on my Facebook page as a response to my post. So copied it here was well.)

    Hi Steve! I have read your review and agree with your analysis. I am a translation history as I passsed through translation industry stages 0, 1, and 2. My translation industry stage 0 was started in 1954 in Russia where I used to write a translation text on a paper, and the text was then typed by a proferssional typist in 2-3 copies through a carbon paper. The typist charged me by pages and therefore she always made 2″ margins on both sides of the sheet. Later I acquired my first typewriter and from year to year replaced my typewriters with more later models but at that time the copies could still be obtained only through a carbon paper. Copying machines have not yet been developed, and, even when they appeared in some offices, common people did not have access to them as they were concidered as means for distribution of anti-soviet propaganda. Therefore, during big holidays all typewrriters were locked in a special storage (in Department 1 of each organization). Having a tehnical, legal, and some lingustic education (a mechanical engineer diploma, two-year of English Courses, Two-Year Patent Law Institute, and two-year technical Japanese translation course), my translations were on demand, and I either typed the translations or dictated English to Russian translations and Japanese to Russian translations to my typists (I had three part-time typists). Actually, as a full-time employee I worked on weekends and in the evening after the work. But the typing technique remained the same for a long time,i.e., till my emigration to USA in 1981. In the first month of my arrival in the USA (with $500 per 6 people and a $2000 loan), a friend of mine from New York (he was born in Russian community in China, returned to Russia as a patriot, put into prison as an American spy, released in about 10 years [I do not remember the exact term], graduated from a Mining Institute in Sverdlovsk, and emigrated to USA), gave me a first big translation (Cannon Copier Manual) from English into Russian. I rented an IBM typewriter with a golf-ball-shaped type head for $30 a month. It was in 1981 or 1982 when we met with you at the Donald Fillippi place. In USA I switched mostly to Japanese to English translations specializing in patents and patent-related materials. I discontinued my translation business in June 2016 and switched to patent work. By the way, I want to worn the transllators not to work for STCC Translation Agency in China. They did not pay me about $3500, changed their email and other contact data. Regards. Alex

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I was translating at first on a typewriter too, Alex.

    In Japan, I had a job as an in-house translator translating Japanese and German to English, plus also German to Japanese, which I was dictating to a secretary who was then typing it in Japanese because back then I did not know how to type in Japanese. We had computers with word processing software in the office, but at home I only had a small typewriter (Canon again) that had only a tiny one-line display where i could see what I was typing and change it before saving it to memory.

    This was a marvel of Japanese technology at the time.

    The biggest translating job that I got to work on was a job I got from a translation agency in downtown Tokyo after my regular job. It was my translation of the specifications of an oil pipeline being built in Siberia from Russian to English.

    I was working on it after work for several weeks sitting on the tatami floor with my feet stuck under a kotatsu with a little heater in it which kept my feet hot (those were winter months), while the rest of my body was cold because I lived in a traditional Japanese house that had no air conditioning or heating.

    This was in 1985 and 86. I only started using computers for translating after I returned from Japan to San Francisco in 1986. I still remember my first real PC that I bought in 1987. It was a Korean-made Leading Edge PC, and I was totally in love with it. Just thinking about its logo after all these years makes me all tingly with excitement.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting! Thanks for posting.

    Your discussion of the presentation at the IAPTI leads to a couple of questions:
    1. I wonder how the listener came to the conclusion that s/he would not make millions based on what s/he heard. Was it that the presenter emphasized the “think outside the box” eccentricity too much, making the approach seem inaccessible? Was it that the approach proposed by the presenter was too much of a deviation from existing work practices? Was it skepticism that the procedures actually worked as billed?
    2. I wonder what this “hammock on wheels” thing was… It is always interesting (and sometimes alarming!) to hear what people actually take home from my presentations. Sounds kind of cool, but certainly nothing I have built…

    At any rate, I am glad that you found the presentation in Bordeaux interesting…

    Oh — please send my regards to Alex. If he is who I think he is, he gave me a couple of pointers and dope slaps several decades ago, and had a positive impact on my translation career, so I am grateful to him.


  5. Thanks for commenting, Warren.

    1. I think the translator sitting next to me simply came to the same conclusion as I did (that your method is not going to make him rich) because he realized that it would not work for him, as I did.

    I’m glad it works for you, and I think your setup is very clever. But surely you would agree that different people will have different approaches, and yours is not suitable for all translators.

    My approach is very different from yours. Instead of concentrating on trying to produce as many words per day as possible, I use a number of strategies, such as working mostly for direct customers, translating from and into several languages (by myself and through other translators), and basically trying to work as a translation agency with a human face if I feel confident that I can tackle and handle the organization of a project involving other translators.

    Since I am also quite a bit older than you, I don’t need to make that much money anymore. Our kids are grown up and they have been independent for about a decade already.

    2. Well, that thing replacing a chair that you use looked to me like a hammock on wheels.

    3. The Alex in question is Alex Shkolnik. Is it the same Alex you met decades ago? If you are on Facebook, you can find him there.

    Incidentally, are you planning to go to another conference next year? As I haven’t gone to any this year, I am planning to go to at least one next year and I’m trying to make up my mind to which one.

    It would be great if we could meet again and compare our experience from the past few years. Since you had to leave early, I did not really get to talk to you much in Bordeaux.


  6. “But the question is, should the final discount for such repetitive translations, which I think would be a perfectly legitimate practice, be determined by a software package wielded by a greedy translation agency, or should this discount be determined by the actual Chinese translator who is doing the work?”

    Exactly. In that batch of a dozen significantly overlapping translations I’ve mentioned before which I did in double-quick time using translation memory, I was perfectly happy to recommend a percentage discount for the client (who had supplied all Word files, not that common in the patent profession, as I guess you know!) based on the time and effort it had taken me. But I wouldn’t have haggled about charging for exact matches, fuzzy matches and so on. (Fortunately, you don’t normally expect to get exact matches in patents, and certainly not in the ones you get from the EPO in graphic PDF files, anyway!)


  7. Right. I give discounts too, for example if I have two patents filed one after another by the same company and the prior art section is long and it is simply copied to the second application.

    But it’s up to me whether I do that or not.

    I would not allow some stupid software to make this determination.


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