Posted by: patenttranslator | November 3, 2017

Don’t Let Anybody Know If Your Productivity Is High

My post today is about why rates for translation are stagnant or falling despite increasing translator productivity.

Translators are hardly the only workers who have not been able to earn higher incomes as a result of higher productivity enabled in the last few decades by relatively new technologies (computerization, quick access to information on the internet, and most recently, machine translation.)

For most workers, real wages have barely budged for decades. Even though worker productivity has risen dramatically since the 1970s, people are now making less than they used to about half a century ago.

In the United States, a high-school education and the single income of one worker per family generally guaranteed a decent standard of living in the 1950s and ‘60s, up until the ‘70s.

But things changed for the worse for the people doing the actual work. Workers in many professions now have to work harder, faster and longer, only to make less money than they used to half a century ago.

There are many reasons for this, of course. Distribution of income has never been more unequal than it is now in the United States, and whether the Ds or Rs are nominally running the country has made no difference, since both parties are controlled by the same money.

As the late, great Gore Vidal put it, “There is only one party in the United States, the Property Party . . . and it has two right wings: Republican and Democrat. Republicans are a bit stupider, more rigid, more doctrinaire in their laissez-faire capitalism than the Democrats, who are cuter, prettier, a bit more corrupt – until recently . . . and more willing than the Republicans to make small adjustments when the poor, the black, the anti-imperialists get out of hand. But, essentially, there is no difference between the two parties.”

How much did healthcare cost half a century ago? It costs so much more now, at least in the US, that even those of us who make a decent living may not be able to afford it anymore.

This is how Pew Research, a highly respected a nonpartisan American “fact tank” (even I respect it, and I don’t see much to respect around me these days), based in Washington, D.C., put it in a recent article:

“After adjusting for inflation, today’s average hourly wage has just about the same purchasing power as it did in 1979, following a long slide in the 1980s and early 1990s and bumpy, inconsistent growth since then. In fact, in real terms the average wage peaked more than 40 years ago: The $4.03-an-hour rate recorded in January 1973 has the same purchasing power as $22.41 would today”.

One major reason why translators are among workers who make much less money in today’s economy than they used to, is the insatiable greed of the translation industry.

The translation industry already pulled off a major coup d’état in the last decade when it comes to how little the industry now pays to translators thanks to the creative invention of the concept of “full matches” and “fuzzy matches”, a greedy concept that is nothing more and nothing less than illegal wage theft that should be vigorously prosecuted and banned in a society that is ruled by the law instead of by greed.

But the translation industry is not done with cutting our wages yet. Far from it. This is what the corporate blog “matecat” expressed in June of this year on the industry’s expectations of how quickly translators should be translating and at what rates (the blog is not about mating cats, or how to make cats mate as the name suggests. Cats generally need no encouragement for what is a favorite pastime of theirs – the last three letters that spell out the word CAT are the keyword here.)

“700 words per hour is actually the norm nowadays in many sectors. There’s no need to wait for 2022. It would be pretty difficult to run a profitable freelancing business with less than 500–700 words per hour. For most common European language pairs, the average rate per word is around €0.05. To make a decent €30–35 per hour, a translator needs to reach (and exceed) the 700 words per hour threshold.”

So if we want to make an equivalent of 35-40 US dollars per hour while working for our bosses in the translation industry, we would have to bang out at least 700 words per hour. After taxes, we would have some 20 dollars left to splurge on things like rent, food and utilities. This of course without any guarantee that we will have work at all if the industry’s leading thinkers are able to find somebody willing to work for them for a few dollars less (preferably for quite a few dollars less.)

It is in fact impossible to run a profitable freelance business for translators living in Western countries who work for today’s version of the translation industry, regardless of how fast we are able to translate. Even if we were able to double, triple or quadruple our output of words per hour, (I don’t want to call something like that “translating”, because translation is not the same thing as continuously spitting out a record number of words in the shortest possible period of time, in fact, this has little to do with translating), we would still not be able to run a profitable freelance translating business as long as we were still working for the translation industry.

Even if we were able to translate for example 1,500 words per hour, the leading minds of the translation industry would simply come up with another fuzzy scheme, similar to “fuzzy matches” and “full matches”, that would make it possible to knock our income way below the level of even US$30-40 per hour.

After translating daily as a freelance translator for more than 30 years, I can sometimes translate at the speed of about 700 words per hour, without using any other tools than my computer, the internet, and my brain.

But I can do that only if I am in an inspired state, called  translator’s high, in which I finally perfectly understand everything I am translating, and I can translate on an auto-pilot as if I were taking dictation from God. It generally happens to me a few times week … although there are no guarantees.

But there are also many less productive hours when I am too tired to translate at such a high speed. I know I will make mistakes if I keep pushing myself to crank out more words, so I generally take a break. And like every translator, I have to spend considerable time researching terms and concepts I am dealing with in specialized databases on the internet, including consulting machine translation programs, which to me represent just another specialized database available for free on the internet.

But I have to be very careful when it comes to how I use so-called language technology, because most of my clients would dump me if they thought I used CATs or edited machine translation to translate the patents and patent-related Office Actions that I translate for them. For some reason, they are only interested in actual human translation. Maybe they are Luddites, which is the term the translation industry hurls at translators who for example refuse to participate in “post-processing” of machine translations.

In this and other respects, my direct clients, who are mostly patent lawyers, are very, very different from the great thinkers in the translation industry.

The other respect in which they are different from the “translation industry” is that they pay me on average four times what the translation industry would pay me for the same work, and still more for rush translations. I’m sure they would not mind at all paying me the same as the translation industry, but they know I would not be willing to work for them for less.

Here is what I think about the idea of increased productivity: unlike the great minds in the translation industry, I don’t think that increased translation speed is the same thing as increased productivity for translators.

Increased productivity to me means making more money, not cranking out more words per hour, until my brain can no longer process the words I see on a computer screen and on a sheet of paper.

In any case, I don’t think the magic number of how many words a translator can produce per hour is a measure of productivity when it comes to translating, or a measure of accomplishment for individual translators.

There are so many different variables hiding behind this magic number.

When I start translating a patent, my speed is quite slow because at that point I am still trying to establish the terminology I will be using and this can be quite time-consuming.

When I am translating the claims at the end of a patent, I can fly … or I believe I can fly, as the song says. But even though at that point I understand everything, I have to make an effort to slow down and pay close attention to the details in my translations, like numbers, or I will be making stupid mistakes.

So I have to try not to go too fast. Flying through translations at a high speed can be very dangerous.

One thing’s s for sure: to increase my productivity, instead of increasing the number of words I translate per hour, I need to keep working on my ability to find and keep clients who appreciate what I do for them and pay me accordingly.

And most importantly, increasing my productivity means staying away from the translation industry.



  1. Productivity for a translator is how much money they get in one hour or one day, which may lead to choose projects on criteria such as knowledge of the subject matter or the customer, personal preference or even file format (although I can translate Autocad native format, nobody pays me enough nowadays to accept the jobs).

    The rest is inside the black box that contractors have to keep for themselves: do you ask a plumber which torch will be used or a carpenter if the saw is manual or circular?

    We may increase our productivity by proper education or experience (understanding perfectly the document is a must, being able to write by yourself in target language often helps), by touch typing, by keyboard shortcuts, by dictating, by TM leverage (I know you won’t buy this one, but I do increase MY productivity with it on projects other than patents), by an intelligent organization of work, but all this is OUR business: the whole concept of contracting is leaving the professional use their own tools and methods.

    Translation industry works like Uber: they look for the best price for a standard service, when you need to go somewhere without any attention to details.
    My guess is these translation industry bosses won’t send a Uber driver to pick up a big client at the airport, they will call a limo with a “chauffeur de maître”.

    When perfect and reliable service matters, i.e. for the translation of a patent, a marketing brochure, a catalog, a letter to shareholders, a medical device manual, wise buyers should not turn to translation industry either.
    Some translation agencies or companies make a business of finding these specialists for their customers, and some customers realize the difference and ask for the same translator next time or hire them directly, this is the difference between the profession of translator or chauffeur de maître and the industry of transportation or translation.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. “Translation industry works like Uber: they look for the best price for a standard service, when you need to go somewhere without any attention to details.

    My guess is these translation industry bosses won’t send a Uber driver to pick up a big client at the airport, they will call a limo with a “chauffeur de maître”.

    But based on the way Uber works, customers call Uber drivers directly without the intermediary of Uber management, probably based on which driver is located closest to the direct customer. So Uber does not know whether the direct customer is a kid who does not want to drive his car back home on Friday night because he had four beers, or an important big-cheese customer.

    The way translation industry works, there is always an intermediary between the translator and the direct customer, namely the translation agency and the intermediary (translation agency) is often very ignorant. One of the problems is that the project managers handling the documents often, or perhaps usually, don’t understand the languages in which the documents are written, let alone the complicated subjects. Since these are often underpaid kids who don’t understand much about anything, especially when we are talking about big agencies that “translate all languages and all subjects”, they don’t know how to pick a suitable translator, especially since based on the way corporate translation agencies work, they need to go to the cheapest warm body to maximize profit.

    I was once asked by an agency project manager whether I was available for a part of a long project from Russian to English. Agencies usually parcel out long jobs automatically to send them to several translators, although the client would sometime agree to wait a bit longer to get back a translation that makes sense.

    So I asked her whether she was sure that the job was in Russian.

    She said, yes, it was in Russian because it was written in Cyrillic. She had no idea that it could also have been in Bulgarian, Ukrainian, or Serbian, or even in Mongolian.

    The “translation industry” often does a pretty horrible job and one reason for it is that most people working in it as project managers have no idea what they’re doing.


  3. The UNO requires its in-house translators to translate:

    1,650 words per working day.

    Please remind ALL your customers (direct clients AND middlemen) that THIS IS THE NORM.

    All the more that we freelancers also have to take care of our marketing, sales, accounting, purchases, etc, which come on top of an employee’s workload.

    Look at this freelance translator’s online CV:

    “Capacity: 1700 – 2000 words per day for translation
    3000 – 3500 words per day for proofreading”

    “1700 – 2000 words per day for translation” sounds reasonable.

    One could add: “2000 words, including evening work”, just to make it clear that beyond that, it’s clearly NIGHT work…

    Only translators who translate the same kind of thing day after day can achieve higher speeds.

    But as freelancers, we have to be flexible and have several areas of specialisation, in several language pairs. So…

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The UNO requires its in-house translators to translate:

      1,650 words per working day.

      Please remind ALL your customers (direct clients AND middlemen) that THIS IS THE NORM.”

      Hear, hear. I think the EU’s target is similar, isn’t it? Or was it the IMO? I know another big international organisation goes for less than 2000 words per day.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is 3 : 30 PM and I have translated so far today 1,560 words since about 6 : 30 AM. It’s a patent on a subject that I know very well, in fact this one is very similar to another one I translated last week, which was written by the same patent lawyer.

    I can go faster on occasion, if I have to, in which case I charge my rush rate. But I know that 700 words per hour on a regular basis would put me in an early grave.

    And I would prefer to spend a few more years in this world.

    Seeing as it is Sunday, I think I’ll call it a day and start watching part 3 of “Goliath”, an Amazon Prime series with Billy Bob Thornton I can highly recommend to anyone who like’s courtroom drama and has strong nerves.

    Make that nerves of steel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Have fun watching part 3 of “Goliath”! Maybe it will be broadcast on Belgian and/or French TV some time. It has only been aired on the ‘VOD Amazon Video’ platform, see:

      As to “words per hour”, your 173 wph today (if you worked during 9 uninterrupted hours) correspond to the average of my 2 speeds:

      200 wph on average for my top specialisation area (legal) in my top language pair (Flemish/Belgian Dutch into French for Belgium) if I use MS Word with the AutoCorrect macros as a typing accelerator and easy-to-encode termbase (i.e. terminology database).

      With a CAT tool, my speed is only 150 wph, because the termbases are much, much, much slower to encode: too many little boxes to fill in one by one – whereas in MS Word’s AutoCorrect, you enter one concise entry and that’s all!

      And even when I format a nice, long entry in MS Word before entering it in AutoCorrect (e.g. some of those legal terms have up to 40 legal translations in French!), it is much, much faster than encoding the same number of target terms (with references, context and all, for reliability, as it should) in a CAT tool’s termbase.

      CAT tools considerably slow down a (conscientious) translator’s work, on top of decreasing quality, mainly because of all those little boxes, both in the termbases and in the target text area.

      This is the way CAT tools have been designed (no matter what brand!), because their sole and only purpose is to spot analogies among source segments, so that the clueless crooks who exploit us can rake as much money as possible from our already meager remuneration, which makes it both immoral, criminal – and unrealistic: how do those “great thinkers” think that we can live on such peanuts? And buy the latest CAT tool(s)?… :-/

      Their business model only works with amateur translators, because those have no moral issue with typing the first thing that comes to mind.

      If that’s what end-customers want, fine.

      But there are two different translation markets:

      – customers who do not want to pay much and are ready to use amateur translators;

      – customer who want quality and are ready to pay for professional translators.

      The problem with middlemen is that they tend to crawl to end-customers’ least wishes, instead of educating them.

      The sub-contractor has got to compensate for the middelman’s lack of courage and/or information as to what realistic prices and speeds are.

      This is why freelance translators should make every effort to emailing end-customers and informing them about what is REASONABLE (a favorite lawyer’s term!) and what isn’t.

      What is REASONABLE is:

      – 1,650 source words per day;

      – around €/$ 0.20 per source word.

      The more there is a variation from these ‘norms’, the more one becomes UNreasonable…


      • “With a CAT tool, my speed is only 150 wph, because the termbases are much, much, much slower to encode: too many little boxes to fill in one by one – whereas in MS Word’s AutoCorrect, you enter one concise entry and that’s all!”

        Isabelle, you must be using the wrong CAT tool 🙂
        With mine, it’s highlight source term, highlight target term, and press a keystroke combination. Probably takes less time to do than it did me to type that.

        “This is the way CAT tools have been designed (no matter what brand!), because their sole and only purpose is to spot analogies among source segments, so that the clueless crooks who exploit us can rake as much money as possible from our already meager remuneration,”

        If that’s ALL your CAT tool does, I’d dump it like a shot.


      • I see that with Alison Penfold, we have a committed defender of CAT tools here! Plus someone talking with utter bad faith.

        a) Of course, “the most sold CAT tool on the market” (I won’t name that crooks’ brandname!) can just save 2 terms in one second, Alison!…

        But saving just two words without any reference as to:

        – where you found it, for later trustworthiness (where the hell did I find this? was I in a rush? have I been misled by some automatic translator (= AT hereafter)? Etc.);

        – context:

        *what kind of sentence,

        * what specialisation area? E.g. Can this term be used in a legal text, or is it plain everyday language?

        – any necessary grammatical remark (e.g. re. plural forms, feminine forms, etc.);

        – etc,

        IS MEANING LESS – which the INCOMPETENT people who created CAT tools DID NOT KNOW:

        those crooks are JUST ONLY SALESPEOPLE, sub-sub-contracting out software development to JUST ONLY COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY PEOPLE.

        And the crooks who advertise for those extortion tools are just as INCOMPETENT:


        – fucking clueless JOURNALISTS

        – and fucking clueless “communication people” and “financial people” formerly on the dole: the two SLATOR crooks, who spead LIES about what translation is really all about and make a living out of it. Read their online bios (sit down before that!).

        I’ll answer your second remark in a second post, this one is getting too long. Never thought I would have to explain all this to a supposedly “professional” translator… Sorry, but I have decided to speak my mind.



        But there will always be cowards leaving the hard work to others – while reaping the benefits when the octopus is finally dead.

        Such is the “human” race…


      • “in MS Word’s AutoCorrect, you enter one concise entry and that’s all!”
        – The two CAT tools I use, memoQ and SDL Studio, do have AutoCorrect; Studio also has a similar feature they call AutoSuggest. Term Bases? Useless because in my target languiage, each noun has six (6) cases (i.e., different endings) sing. and 6 pl., total 12 (practically some are the same, so let’s say 8).
        The real slower-downer of CATs as opposed to MS Word is the rigid typing input. If you have to type “szcz” ten times per hour, then “przy”,”ść” etc., and there are no macros to help, forget about 700 or even 400 wph, easily achieved within MS Word. Or quick fixes for typos, like changing “me” into “em”, or syntax by changing the sequence of any two words. – I don’t think it would be difficult to introduce Word macro facility into Studio. The good old Trados allowed us to work directly in Word.


  5. “When I start translating a patent, my speed is quite slow because at that point I am still trying to establish the terminology I will be using and this can be quite time-consuming.

    When I am translating the claims at the end of a patent, I can fly”

    Of course, there is a ‘learning curve’ in ANY translation job!

    Only the clueless middlemen who have never translated a single line of text in their miserable salespeople’s lives don’t know about this.

    But they do not belong to the translation sector, so…


    • Maybe they don’t know, but I think that it’s more that they don’t care.

      They don’t really give a damn about the people who do the work.


  6. I only worked about 4 hours today. The rest of the time I spent watching me a little teevee, taking a nap, reading a book …

    After all, it’s Sunday.

    I think my average speed is 400 words per hour, including researching things online, wasting time on social media, etc.

    And I’d like to keep it that way.

    I see no need to keep killing myself trying to crank out as many words per hour as possible. Been there, done that, don’t want to do it anymore.

    Which is why I don’t work for the “translation industry”, only for small agencies that I have known for years and for direct clients.

    Both of these categories of clients pay much better than the “translation industry” and generally also give me the freedom to work at my own pace.


  7. “When I start translating a patent, my speed is quite slow because at that point I am still trying to establish the terminology I will be using and this can be quite time-consuming.

    When I am translating the claims at the end of a patent, I can fly …”

    That’s an interesting workflow. Mine varies far more, but I frequently start with the claims, because I often find that the translation memory will then incorporate their wording into the part of the specification which deals with them. Actually, my workflow can be anything but linear: if there’s a list of reference numerals included, I start by translating that, because it gives me upfront so much of the terminology I need. Even if it’s only a fairly tentative translation of a term, I can use that for starters, then reconsider it later on and do a global search and replace if necessary.
    Then I tend to go for the claims. Or I start right at the beginning if the writer has been kind enough to actually explain what the patent’s about and where the technology is used – not that that happens that frequently (have you ever gone through a patent assuming that you’re talking about one thing, then suddenly one word halfway through the description of the drawings makes you realise that actually the field of application is a completely different one from what you thought? It shouldn’t happen if the writer is explicit enough at the beginning, but they frequently aren’t. “This invention relates to a [noun].” Full stop. Period.). If you’re really unlucky, you can even look at all the cited prior art and it may still not be clear what the invention is being used for!
    Sometimes, if I’m getting really bogged down in the description of the claims, I’ll hop to the start of the description of the drawings and see if that brings enlightenment, as it frequently does. That’s one of the beauties of translation memory: you can hop about within a text pretty much as much as you like, as long as the sentences stay in context.


  8. I probably learned the technique that I now apply to German patents because that is what I mostly get these from the way I have been translating Japanese patents the first twenty years or so.

    Different methods make more sense for subjects and different languages.

    And for different people too, of course.

    Unlike patents in European languages, Japanese patents start with claims, but I always start translating Japanese patents after the claims, from the introduction of what in German patents can be called “preamble”, then I translate the prior art and the rest of the description and do the claims at the end.

    I want to understand exactly what the patent is about before I translate the claims, at which point I should be certain that I am using the correct terms.

    I sometime keep changing the terms that I am using as I continue translating if I realize that there is a better term that I can use for something, but I don’t want to change the terms once I get to the claim section because I would have to go back and change them in the preceding text as well.

    Especially in long Japanese patent claims, hundreds of words that are connected by what is called in Japanese “renyokei”, which is something between an infinitive and a gerund in English, and a comma, it is sometime impossible to understand what the claim says unless you know what it is supposed to say from the preceding description.

    That’s just how Japanese works. It is a language that is much more context-based than other languages, so much so that the context is really a part of the grammar. That is also what my Japanese teacher told me 40 years ago. I did not understand what he was saying back then, but I do understand it now.

    About twenty years ago I explained my method to a guy who was just starting to translate Japanese patents, and he said “I should have realized that doing claims first makes no sense, this makes it much, much easier.”


  9. I just want to say, Isabelle, that there is no way to get rid of octopuses, as you put it in such a charming manner.

    Octopus is a very old and very smart animal. They are older than dinosaurs, and we all know what happened to dinosaurs, but not to octopuses. They have brain cells packed in their limbs. Some say the octopus is the world’s smartest animal. They are colorblind, but they can fake many colors to confuse and ambush their prey.

    I will never forget Victor Hugo’s description of a huge octopus monster that the hero of his book “Les Travailleurs de la mer” has fought and killed, thus winning a battle while ultimately losing the war (the girl who was the reason for everything he was doing).

    Since no matter what we do, we are not going to be able to get rid of them, the best solution might be to try to stay out of their way.

    We can still do our own thing, while ignoring octopuses to the extent possible.

    The way out of the CAT trap is not to use them, or if we use them, not to tell anybody about them, least of all to translation agencies.

    It’s none of their freaking business.


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