Posted by: patenttranslator | December 15, 2017

Industrialization of Translation and What Can a Translator Do About It

As I keep liquidating and recycling old documents, mostly invoices and correspondence with clients and translation agencies (I am printing on the other side of the documents to save a few trees), I found a letter I received in 2008 from a small translation agency that kept me busy at that time for a few years.

The letter was announcing the sale of this tiny agency to a much bigger translation agency located in a different city. The small agency was run by a husband and a wife team – a common occurrence for decades before translation, something that used to be understood to mean an occupation or a small business, became what is now called the translation industry.

This is how the letter begins:

“As you may recall, in January 2007 we conveyed to you the news that we were actively pursuing the sale of [our translation agency] with the eventual goal of retirement. We have arrived at the successful completion of our efforts, and with mixed feelings we announce that our last day as owners of this company is March 20, 2007”.

I saw that in one of the invoices I sent them on September 3rd, and which they paid on September 20th, I charged them $1,971.36 for 8,214 words for a translation of medical device test results from Japanese to English at 24 cents per word.

It was a rush translation and back in 2007, better agencies still paid freelance translators for rush work the same as employers used to have to pay by law to employees in the United States for work on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, which is to say time and a half of the usual rate.

I did not know it then, but I do know now that the year 2007 or 2008 was the beginning of the demise of an era when many translation agencies were still very civilized businesses, an era when small and tiny translation agencies would team up with translators they considered top in their respective niches and the translators would then stay with them for decades because they were paid well and treated like professionals by people who understood the profession and valued their work.

So for me personally, 2007 marked the beginning of the end of the civilized era and the beginning of the new era of “translation industry” – a term that I usually put in quotation marks, because I still see translation as a profession rather than an industry that is based on buying and selling.

Although I probably should see it is an industry.

When everything is an industry, including war, religion, music, and art, it’s only logical that intellectual activities, including translation, represent just another industry, and the only purpose of all of these industries is to maximize the profit for the people on the top of the pyramid, the people who are rightfully called owners because they more or less own the people working for them and are doing the dirty work called translation in various layers of the industry.

Since the beginning of the era of industrialization of translation, which in my case started with the letter excerpted above, I lost pretty much all the decent translation agencies that used to keep me busy for many years in the pre-industrialized phase.

It took me a while to realize it, but I now understand that most of these agencies really did not have much choice but to adopt the cutthroat techniques of the translation industry, lowering rates paid to translators as much as possible to remain competitive in the new industrialized era. This was and still is a key ingredient of the business strategy in the “translation industry”.

Which meant that the agencies of the now bygone civilized era eventually either had to replace their most experienced translators by newbies in countries like China or India, or go bankrupt … or retire.

Fortunately for me, I have been working mostly for direct clients for many years, and it took a few more years before some of my direct clients started imitating what was going on in the “translation industry”, but eventually I lost quite a few of them to greener pastures of cheaper labor as well.

Capital always follows cheaper labor, and since we translators are basically seen as mere laborers, there is not much we can do about it, is there?

Well, I believe that there is something that mere translators can do about it. Although we have to compete with the new form of industrialized translation industry, we don’t really have to work for it at all if we are able to devise a strategy that works well for our businesses – using business models that are completely independent of the translation industry.

The strategy that has been and still is working for me personally can be best described as a three-pronged strategy that is based on the following principles.

  1. To save myself a lot of headaches and not to be forced to work for peanuts, I completely stopped working for large corporate translation agencies about a decade ago. It was really a no-brainer: the big agencies now pay such low rates that it really made no sense for me to continue working for them.

I still work for a few small translation agencies, but generally only on small projects, and at higher rates than what large corporate agencies would generally want to pay me.

  1. Because the Japanese patent translation market was very severely affected by outsourcing translations to China, I switched to translating mostly German patents.

Although Japanese is very different from Chinese, unlike translators in western countries or the United States, translators in China can read Japanese characters without any problem and they are now translating Japanese patents into English, which was what I used to do for more than 20 years. There must be thousands of people like that who can create usable translations with the help of machine translation programs.

These translations from translators in China probably contain many mistakes if the Chinese translators don’t really understand Japanese as well as they should, which is almost certainly the case, while their English is limited too. But they are cheap and that is basically the only thing that matters to the translation industry, because cheap translations can be bought at a low price and then sold for a high profit margin.

Fortunately for me, German is quite a complicated language and since it is not widely spoken or understood in countries with an abundance of cheap labor, the rates for German patent translations have not been ruined, at least not yet, by competition from such countries.

  1. Because my ancient website still works quite well and is pretty high up in search engine rankings for key words specific to my type of work, namely patent translations, every now and then I land a few direct clients who still pay much better rates than translation agencies, and these new direct clients sometime stay with me for quite a few years, although some of them eventually also defect to greener (read cheaper) pastures.

I believe the third prong of my business strategy, a website designed for a very narrow translation niche so that it could be found by search engines, is crucially important for every translator who wants to become independent of the translation industry.

So after three or four years of steadily falling income, I am happy to say that this year has been very good for me again.

I think that my experience proves an old truth, namely that if you can deliver a product at a much higher quality level than what your cheap competition is offering, you don’t have to lower your prices.

I also think that in the highly industrialized environment of the translation industry, translators, no matter how good they are and how hard they work, will be able to live in relative comfort and enjoy their demanding but rewarding work only if they can become independent of the toxic environment of the translation industry.

Otherwise, they will be relegated to the role of cheap, easily replaceable, anonymous and insignificant cogs in a machine designed to maximize the profit of whoever owns the big bad machine, including all of the easily replaceable cogs that make the machine work.


  1. Here is another conundrum of the translation industry: in the last few days I have been asked to quote on a job SIGHT UNSEEN by an agency who will not tell me the length or what exactly is involved. One agency asked for my rate for voice over in Hebrew, and when I told them I need to know more about the job, they revealed that it meant translating a Powerpoint script and THEN voicing it over! Another agency wanted me to quote on a Hebrew document they would not show me! I can only assume that these agencies employ project managers who haven’t a clue about translation, especially translation from or into languages that do not use the Latin alphabet.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. So many of the project managers in the “translation industry” don’t really seem to know anything about anything.

    I used to receive “Japanese documents” for translation that were in fact in Chinese, or documents that were described by project managers described as being in Russian because they were “written in the cyrillic alphabet”.

    What they did not realize was that these documents could have been also in Bulgarian, Serbian, Ukrainian or even Mongolian because they had only a vague idea of what this alphabet looks like and no idea that some other languages also use this alphabet.

    Machine translation is very helpful in this respect because unlike a project manager, the software will generally recognize the language.

    Although if it is a PDF file, poor project managers are lost again.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. “Es war auch mal, als wir alle anständig behandelt waren.”

    Those days are gone, but we survive. My question is: How would the newbies sustain?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The newbies are fucked, that’s for sure.

    Liked by 1 person

    • вера, надежда и любовь!Frohe Weihnachten!

      I believe, there is always hope for the newbies’ salvation and there is always love among people, from people to people.

      I suffered an ischemic stroke last year around Christmas and couldn’t work as a semi-retired translator for about 6 months. But the clients come back one by one with firstly smalerl projects and then with bigger projects gradually. I must believe that God has done his work on me. I experience especially the love from people, of whom I didn’t know personally. They provide me jobs with reasonable rates, so that I can still finance the studies of my two children in Germany and I myself live quite all right in Taiwan. My health is improved day by day, so that I can work on more projects, if I wish. However, I choose to work fewer and fewer. Somehow, I don’t find lower rates since my stroke last year. Some clients even raise my rates by 2 to 6 cents. When I read your 24 cents per words, I pondered a while why it was such a rate in those years. Rates nowadays are not too far from that one. And I believe, I’ll still be around in this “industry/craft” for quite a long while, say, 10 years.

      One of my two kids is trying to a newbie for DE-ES and CN-DE and CN-ES. Somehow, she manages for a reasonable living. So, I believe that there are newbies in Europe, too. Some corporates realize that they must foster some newbies to resume the works we are doing now.

      I think, we shall always keep in mind: “Belief, hope and love” or the other way round, as Paul explained, “Love, hope and believe.”
      There will be best-fitted newbies, despite of the gurgle translate. “Survival for the fittest,” not “survival for the most brilliant.” So, hakuna matata! Don’t worry! Be happy! Mahl den Teufel nicht an die Wand. When we die out, there will still be some fittest translators.

      Bleib gesund, fit und optimistic in den folgenden Jahren, Steve! The fittest newbies sustain. I should not have wondered.


      • Thank you, Wenjer.

        I am glad that you are getting better and still working!

        Despite Gurgle Translate, we will survive and even prosper!

        Happy New Year 2018 to you – the Year of the Horse!


  5. Why? The newbies are doing well — for now. 4 cents per word goes a long way in India. There just won’t be newbies from Japan or Western countries anymore.


  6. Thanks for this very interesting article. I’m a freelance patent translator myself, and the exact same thing as the one you describe here (small familial agencies being bought by bigger ones or folding up altogether, and all the rest of it) happened to me in 2007-2008.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Reblogged this on International Language Services – Isabelle F. Brucher – Translation office specialising in SciTech & Business since 2004..


  8. Hello! I just thought I’d add my 2 cents, as I’m a relative newbie to patent translation. It may just be my youthful naivety, but as a Ger-Eng/Fre-Eng (mainly Ger-Eng) patent translator based in the UK in my mid-twenties, my impression is that there is an abundance of well-paid opportunities for Ger-Eng patent translators. I admittedly don’t do as much work for Fre-Eng.

    Perhaps I’ve just had a couple of lucky breaks, but from where I’m standing the lack of new qualified translators in my language pair in the UK has been an advantage – the need for good technical translators for Ger-Eng is going up every year, yet the number of translators entering the industry has fallen. That means that job competition is low and the rates in comparison to other fields of translation seem (to me) to be pretty high.

    The German-English translators I know my age (admittedly there’s a very small number of us!) have had little trouble finding work. Although, from my (novice) perspective, I would definitely recommend that young graduates avoid the comfortable yet suffocating embrace of the large low-paying translation agencies and try for direct clients, as scary as that may initially seem. With a bit of initiative (and perhaps a bit of luck!) there seems to be plenty of well-paid work out there – albeit perhaps more for some language pairs than others.

    Again, perhaps this is my youthful naivety and passion for the wonders of patent translation, but I felt compelled to offer my perspective on the issue –
    especially if there are any young budding translators out there reading this and feeling disheartened or discouraged!


  9. I agree with you, there is plenty of work for translators of German patents to English.

    In fact, although initially I was mostly translating Japanese patents, I now mostly translate German patents.


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