Posted by: patenttranslator | October 12, 2017

Do You Have a Secondary Career Path as a Plan B (Just in Case?)

Translation blogs these days are chock-full of posts about how important it is for translators to specialize in a highly valued translation niche.

And I agree with these blog posts. For the most part.

One way to escape the quagmire, defined in the Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a soft wet area of low-lying land that sinks underfoot”, of what is now called the “translation industry”, as opposed to translation as a profession, is to become an established expert in a lucrative niche and thus be able to simply ignore offers of work from translation agencies in what I call translation industry 2.0, exemplified by so many venal “LSPs” such as those that have been lovingly nicknamed by translators as Crapita, thepigturd, the Lying Bridge”, etc.

There are still some translation agencies that pay decent rates, quickly and without suffocating translators with demeaning and often illegal “Confidentiality Agreements”, because they are run by people who really appreciate the translators who do the hard work for them, and do it well.

But it is an uphill struggle for these agencies as they have to compete with the numerous Crapitas and thepigturds of this world.

Another advantage of specializing in a relatively narrow field is that when you are a specialist and really know your stuff, you are in a much better position to identify and target direct customers, who are generally able and willing to pay much better fees than even the most decent translation agencies that have (so far) managed to survive the dog-eat-dog reality of translation industry 2.0.

Join us, magnificent elite translators, and become a recognized professional in a specialized field. Be like us – we’ll tell you how to do it (usually in a paid-seminar).

Do it quickly or you will have to accept low rates and toxic conditions of the so-called translation industry. That is what some bloggers are saying, many of whom know so much about so little, as I wrote in this post three years ago.

And I have to agree with them again … for the most part.

This is in fact what I have been trying to do in my field of patent translation (without the paid seminar part) for most of the last three decades. Although I did not use to think about it in these terms, because for a long time I assumed that most translators were doing more or less the same thing, namely trying to specialize and target direct clients … which, unfortunately, is not really true, as only some translators bother to do that.

On the other hand, as every translator has different strengths and weaknesses, “moving upmarket in a specialized niche” as the slogan goes cannot possibly be a panacea in any case for each and every one of us.

Clearly, not everybody can be a member of a super-smart and exceptional elite, since the very concept of “elite” is based on the premise that only a few chosen ones among us can reach the exalted position on the top of the pyramid of translation rates.

Although I agree to a certain extent with the strategy that places so much emphasis on specialization, I also believe that the old proverb about not putting all of one’s eggs into one basket is as true today as it was centuries ago.

Even as we specialize in relatively lucrative, but usually by definition relatively narrow fields, at the same time we have to keep our eyes open and our ears fine-tuned to other options – because we never know when the bottom is going to fall out from our precious niche market.

My own work experience over the last three adventure-filled decades in the la-la land of “translation business” proves, at least to me, that a narrow focus on a lucrative specialization may not be the best policy.

For a long time I thought I had such a brilliant idea when I decided in my early twenties to learn Japanese, which I eventually did, to the extent possible for a foreigner.

Japanese has a reputation for being one of the languages that are so maddeningly difficult to learn that St. Francis Xavier, a missionary who was tasked with introducing Christianity to Japan, famously declared in the mid 16th century that Japanese was invented by the Devil to prevent the spread of Christianity in Japan (although at first he actually thought it would be an easy language to learn, probably because the phonetic structure of the melodic language is quite simple, at least compared to Chinese.)

He might have had a point – to this day, there are not many Christians in Japan. Incidentally, St. Francis Xavier also said this about the Japanese opinion of foreigners:

“They are very polite to each other, but not to foreigners, whom they utterly despise” (the Life and Letters of  St. Francis Xavier). This xenophobic attitude did change over the centuries to some extent – although the Japanese still for the most part utterly despise foreigners, especially those who want to settle in Japan, they are usually outwardly polite to foreigners now, often exceedingly so.

But I should probably get back to the main topic of my post today before I drown in peripatetic and completely unfounded speculation about Japanese, Chinese and other languages or cultures.

Inspired by the example of another Japanese technical translator I met in San Francisco, in the 1980s I started translating technical Japanese, mostly Japanese patents, and I was able to make a pretty good living in this way for about 25 years.

I was able to support a family of four, including my wife and two children, on a single income of a freelance translator for more than two decades.

But about five years ago, for a reason I don’t quite understand, at least not completely, I started receiving fewer and fewer Japanese patents for translation, until they all but disappeared. For example, this month so far I have only received two requests for Japanese patent translations (but no orders so far), and last month I only translated one Japanese patent.

Fortunately for me, although translating is basically the only thing that I am moderately good at and my specialization is relatively narrow, not all of my eggs were placed in one basket when the bottom fell out of it.

As the demand for Japanese patents decreased, it was suddenly replaced by a high demand for Chinese and Korean patents, Chinese patents in particular, about five years ago.

At this point in my life, I am a little too old to start learning Chinese or Korean. But since I know several excellent Chinese translators, I became a translation agency, handling a lot of Chinese translations through translators specializing in Chinese patents, in addition to my own translation. Fortunately for me, instead of relying only on Japanese patents, I was able to also translate German, French and Russian patents and started taking on projects involving translations from English into these languages, mostly involving patents again.

Although I think of myself as a translator rather than an intermediary, some months I made more money as an agency than as a translator.

The Chinese market seems to have cooled off a bit compared to the situation about five years ago, probably because low-cost competition in mainland China drove the rates so low that my fees, that I need to split with the actual translators, were no longer competitive enough.

I still mostly translate patents, but instead of translating them from Japanese to English, which is something that I do myself, I now also translate them from and into other languages, sometimes by myself, sometimes through other translators.

And now that I am a small translation agency, I translate not only patents, but basically any materials in fields that I think that I can handle well, while I stay away from fields that I don’t think I can handle well, such as financial translation, literary translation, or even some types of patents, such as complicated biochemistry patents …

As Clint Eastwood put it in his role as Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations”.

For the last two or three years, I have been translating German patents, as the demand for Japanese patents was replaced by a strong demand for German patents. I do most of the work myself, although at times I find myself in the role of a translation agency intermediary.

But I believe I can do a much better job as a proofreader of patent translations done by other translators than a typical project manager working for a typical translation agency.

It is quite possible that on the seesaw of languages in high demand, and translation of foreign languages is the only thing that I am moderately good at, another language will replace German on top in a few years again.

But in any case, as I am getting ready to finally retire, or at least work much less than I have been for the last three decades, I don’t really care that much anymore what might happen in a few years.

Now that the kids are out of the house and on their own, I don’t need to make that much money anyway. It’s nice to be what is called ‘an empty-nester’ in this country.

But before this empty-nester slows down his somewhat frantic pace when it comes to translating patents basically every day, mostly from German instead of from Japanese as used to be the case, he will still try to make as much money in his secondary career path, which does not have much to do with Japanese, at least not at this point.

Oh, and before I forget, I should probably mention that this year, I will almost certainly make in my secondary career that does not have much to do with the Japanese language, namely translation of German patents, at least as much money as I used to make before the market fell out of the red hot Japanese patent market, probably even a little bit more.


  1. What do you think is the reason for the drop in Japanese patent work? Are the Japanese filing fewer patents, less demand due to machine translation, or is the translation work going to someone else due to specialty/rates?


  2. My experience both with translation companies and with colleagues is that the ones who survive are not only specialists, but also double or triple-career persons.
    To translate a CV, an average bilingual person will do, just like to drive a car, an average Uber driver will be good enough.

    To translate a surgical procedure, a nuclear safety report, a chemical patent, the buyer conscious enough of the consequences will look for a physician, a physicist, or a chemist who happens to be also a translator.

    So specialization is not only a chosen career path, it may and often is rather a background and previous expertise, I will look with interest at a seminar that will give you the knowledge of a physicist, physician or chemist in a few days.

    The issue then for the translation industry is that if an engineer or physician earns so much less in translation than in their other or previous career, what do you think they will do?
    I still had to explain that last week to a recruiter in a translation company: they look for highly experienced engineer and PhD CVs, and per the “pressure of market and customers who are willing to pay so much but no more” they offer entry-level pay.
    In the case of this company, as they have to pay the intern, student or else seeking to match these contradictory requirements, this was even an intern pay.

    So customers look for high experience, prestigious backgrounds, double-talent in the subject matter AND in translation, they require linguistics skills, style and technical knowledge, and at the same time the translation companies tell you “we pay translators this much”.

    The net result could be that, if any other career or specialization is more lucrative than translation, only those who cannot do anything else will remain translators, and then who will translate the specialized documents?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, my answer to this problems was to stop working for translation agencies, because they really do “pay translators only this much”.

      Liked by 1 person

    • I think one outcome is that critical materials that need to be well understood by a multilingual audience will be increasingly written in English, while the lesser stuff will be machine-translated. One (patent-related) case in point is the London Protocol.

      As they say in SE Asia, “where money talks, speak English.”


      • Or as a friend of mine put it, bad English is the most useful language on this planet.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think all of the above.

    If you go to an electronics store such as Bestbuy, you are surrounded by Chinese and Korean TVs, with maybe a lonely, overpriced Sony.

    15 years ago, most of them would be Japanese. So Japanese technology is losing, or has lost, its competitive edge.

    I also think that in my case, a problem was that I was translating mostly Japanese patents for prior art, and there is less demand for that partly due to machine translation, and partly because so much more information is now available in English on the EPO website, WIPO website, etc.

    Most of the patents that I translate now, mostly from German, are new patents for filing in English, prior art patents I do only occasionally, and those are sometime from Japanese.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting post, Steve!

    I have also stumbled upon such a trainer, who requested EUR 500,00 just to specialize translators in business law or something like that… Needless to say, I registered to her free introductory webinar, just to get the free legal glossary. But afterwards, when I sent her a message saying her prices were too high for translators, she reasoned like a lawyer (what she originally was, before studying translation) and argued it was spread over 3 months, with exercises and corrections, so…

    I have been doing legal translations for nearly 15 years now and I don’t need her (expensive) classes…

    So, what you say you are doing is: keep your specialisation in patent translation, but change source (and target) languages as the market changes, contract out some languages (and sometimes make more money as an agency). You also translate in other specialisation areas from and into all the languages you are fluent in, because the market is such that one has to be flexible nowadays. Far away from the newbies’ recommendations (!) to specialise at all cost thus.

    It’s funny, indeed, how newbies (e.g. so-called ‘lawyers-translators’ or ‘juritranslators’ who have a hard time making it as translators – and even feel ashamed to be considered as translators) recommend all sorts of things to… experienced translators! 🙂

    And, yes, sometimes converting to another source language or specialisation area can lead to higher benefits than before! 🙂

    Have a nice day and a nice week-end!


  5. I wonder, why would a lawyer or a doctor want to be a translator when their own occupation pays much better …. if they are any good at it.

    I would make exceptions for people who for example are retired, or have gone through a serious case of professional burnout, but in general, I think that this is a very relevant question.

    The answer is probably that they just can’t make it in their original occupation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • And some of them cannot make it in their second profession (translation) either, obviously, since they pretend to teach now… 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ha, ha, ha … it’s like what they say about writers.

    Those who can write, write books.

    Those who can’t really write teach creative writing at a liberal arts college (in the worst case as adjunct professors or whatever they call teachers who have no tenure these days.)

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Steve, the version of that anecdote that I have heard is:

    Those who can – do.
    Those who can’t – teach.
    Those who can’t teach – teach teachers.

    I taught my two languages (German/English) once upon a time. But I much prefer the “DOING”.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Excellent video selections there. And I agree with the comment about specialists. Being a specialist is the only way to go – and yes, it will usually be necessary to be a double or triple-career person. That is often the only alternative, I believe. Good luck.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Oh wow, some good comments here!

    I usually come here when I get frustrated with translations. I had a case with an agency that sent me the translation back, claiming missing text and all that (a whole list), while just a few stamps needed to be filled in that were mostly illegible and, to appease them, you have to make stuff up (I figured it out from the translation, because I am smart and they are not). I do not like it when they exaggerate.

    This is what I would like to add- this world is not filled with smart people. From what I have seen, I wonder how most are hired and keep jobs. Anyway, a smart person needs to use his/her brain and being bilingual actually keeps you from acquiring certain neurological diseases, so you are protecting yourself, actually. I also do translation because the language I translate from is spoken very badly here in the US and there is no one to talk to in the language and I do not wish to get rusty, so translation is a pretty way to keep me fluent. Another reason why I translate is that I am a med/graduate student and making some money doing translations is actually very impressive to others, because no one else can do it. Knowing languages is just an impressive skill to have.

    My problem is, I deal with people who do not know what they are doing and I get so annoyed with them. It gets pretty ridiculous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “I usually come here when I get frustrated with translations.”

      Ha, ha, ha, good to know.

      Given how much most translation agencies pay their project managers, the only smart people working for them are those who only work there long enough to learn how to start their own agency.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh yeah, I wanted to add that it is better than working as a barista at Starbucks, where most of my classmates work. At least I am doing medically-related, brain activating things from the comfort of my office, so, there are some pluses.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. […] been inspired by some of you in this regard. In a recent post of his  Patenttranslator’s Blog Steve Vitek wrote about his response when Japanese patent translations started to dry up. Instead […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: