Posted by: patenttranslator | January 21, 2018

The Misapplication of the Concept of ‘Disruptive Innovation’ to Translators Working on the Translation Plantation

There are two kinds of people in this world, 2 percent of people who take a chance when they see it, and 98 percent who don’t.

This quote is attributed to Alexandre Dumas

Disruptive innovation is a term that has been around for several decades. As this term is currently applied by the translation industry to the business of translation, the menacing and bellicose term in this case means replacing or minimizing expensive human translation by smart software and machine translation during the first stage of the translating process. This is followed by a second stage in which human or humanoid ‘post-processors’ are used to fix the unavoidable mistakes generated by software bugs and the machine translation product, which I like to refer to in my posts as detritus.

 Originally, however, the term disruptive innovation meant transforming a product that historically was so expensive that most consumers were unable to afford it, so as to make it much more affordable for consumers who are not necessarily affluent.

This concept has been with us for more than a hundred years. A well known example of the concept of disruptive innovation is Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, which when it was introduced in 1908, transformed the market for automobiles by creating a car that was more affordable than automobiles in the previous decades – automobiles that were accessible only to rich people.

There were some tradeoffs involved here, symbolized by Ford’s famous statement “They can have any car color they want, as long as it is black”, but the quality of the product was comparable to that of very expensive automobiles that used to be manufactured for rich people.

More current examples of disruptive innovation include the shift from mainframe computers to PCs, which started occurring about 50 years ago (I bought my first PC in 1987), while a very recent example of disruptive innovation in business management would be for example the switch from taxis to Uber service.

Most young people now have a smart phone and when they need the service that used to be provided by taxis just a few years ago, they use Uber. Because my son has Uber installed on his phone, he may never have to call a taxi.

I think that, unfortunately for taxi drivers, the days are numbered for their profession. For the most part, with some exceptions, I think most taxi drivers will be displaced by cheaper, less reliable and sometimes even dangerous Uber drivers for one simple reason – Uber is less expensive than a taxi. Unless an Uber driver looks and acts like a serial killer, most people who need inexpensive transportation will be ready to use Uber to save money.

The translation industry, and even some translators, believe that the same principle of disruptive innovation is applicable to the work of translators, most of whom will be relegated to the role of cheap post-processors of machine translation detritus if the translation industry has its way with us.

There Is a Big Difference Between Working for Yourself and Working for Somebody Else

But in spite of what the translation industry would like to do with us, or to us, there are several major differences between taxi drivers and translators.

The problem that Uber drivers have is that they cannot find their own customers without the Uber managements system. As long as Uber drivers and other low-wage workers called Turkers, a term I discussed more than two years ago in a post called How Many Translating Turkers Are Hidden Inside the Box Of Language Tools?, depend on a management system created by a corporation whose sole interest is in maximizing profit at any cost, they will make very little money. They already often make less then minimum wage, especially in the case of Turkers who must compete with workers in countries where there is no minimum wage and the cost of labor is very low, which is true also about some translators.

But as I said already, there are major differences between the position of Uber drivers and that of translators and other highly skilled knowledge workers on the labor market (provided that they are in fact highly skilled knowledge workers).

 Just About Anybody Can Be an Uber Driver or a Turker

One difference between translators and Uber drivers and Turkers is that unlike translators, Uber drivers and Turkers are unskilled workers. Just about anybody can drive a car, and just about anybody can perform simple tasks that Turkers are willing to do for a cent per task for major corporations.

The translation industry believes that just about any bilingual person or even a somewhat bilingual person can post-process the product of machine translation, which is not in fact an actual translation. But I believe the translation industry is wrong about that, although its mistaken belief does not surprise me because the monolingual people who own large translation agencies don’t understand and don’t want to understand what translation is about as I have written in many posts on my silly blog.

But Not Everybody Can Translate for Example Patents

Many translation fields, including patent translation, technical translation, or medical translation, to name some of the fields that I translate myself, as well dozens of other fields, still require highly specialized knowledge, even though unlike 30 years ago when I was starting my illustrious career as Mad Patent Translator, there is now an abundance of specialized information available to patent, technical, medical and other specialized translators in many languages.

Even the translation industry admits that that translators who have specialized knowledge in specific fields are very much in demand.

The fact is, not only major translation agencies are looking for translators who are specialized and highly experienced in certain fields and languages; direct customers are looking for these translators as well, and given the abundance of translations of inferior quality that the translation industry is producing with its industrialized approach to ‘production of words’, many clients are frantically searching for a translator who can actually do a very complicated job.

Old and New System for Connecting Translators to Direct Customers

This sounds like a perfect opportunity for translators to cast off the chains in which the translation industry would like to keep them. But how many translators are taking advantage of this opportunity? Unfortunately, it is not easy for direct customers to find a specialized and experienced translator because only a relatively small percentage of translators have figured out how to make connections with direct clients, which is to say how to create a system that connects the translator directly with a client, instead of having to go through an intermediary.

About 25 years ago I realized that I needed to create my own system for finding direct clients for my business, or rather to make it possible for direct clients to find me. This was at a time when the word internet did not exist yet, when the predecessor of what is now called the internet was a network accessible only through a thin telephone wire for exchanging files of word processed translations between two modems.

The first strategy I used at the beginning of the 1990s to find direct clients for my translation business was mailing letters to prospective customers. Between 1991 and 2003, I simply kept mailing letters, thousands of letters, to offer my services to prospective customers, which in my case were patent law firms that were conveniently listed per state in the country in a book published by US government.

It was a lot of work, but since I used just about every period of lull between translation work, about half of my income started coming from direct clients, mostly patent law firms, within a few years.

The second system for finding direct customers for my patent translation services was when I started using a new website that I put online in the year 2000. Nothing happened for two or three years, but from about 2003, I started receiving requests for price quotes, mostly for translations of Japanese patents.

Because my overhead was much lower than that of a typical translation agency, I got the work as my prices were competitive, and since I was able to find many new clients in this much less laborious manner, I stopped mailing letters to prospective clients more than ten years ago.

From that point on, most of my work came from direct clients so that less than about 15 percent of my income came from translation agencies. At present time, it is now probably only about 5 percent.

Depending on where a translators live and on their subject and language combinations, some translators are able to use other methods for connecting with new clients, such as participating in conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions and other events.

Depending on where translators live and on their subject and language combinations, some translators are able to use other methods for connecting with new clients, such as participating in conferences, trade fairs and exhibitions and other events.

The Development of Social Media Platforms Is a Powerful Innovation Disrupting Traditional ‘Vendor Management’ Systems of the ‘Translation Industry’

The development of social media, such as specialized groups of translators on Facebook, created yet another channel that some translators are able to use to connect with direct clients. These new channels mean that a direct client who has for example access to a group of translators on Facebook or Linkedln no longer needs to have access to a corporate system for ‘vendor management’ maintained by a translation agency.

So what is happening in this case is that the concept of disruptive innovation is now also working against the systems for freelance translator management, something the ‘translation industry’ has been using quite skillfully for several decades.

The people who offer their driving skills to Uber, and to a lesser degree for example people who list their houses on AirBnb, are very dependent on the management system of the corporations who find their clients.

But translators are dependent on the management  systems of the ‘translation industry’ only if they are unable to find their own customers because they believe they have no other choice but to work for low rates for their bosses on the translation plantation.

The Reliance of ‘Translation Industry’ on Computer Tools Is Detrimental to Translation Quality

Regardless of what the propaganda of the translation industry says, improving translation quality was never of much interest to these ‘entrepreneurs’. The reliance of the translation industry on computer tools and machine translation is a clear indication of how the industry views human translation. Even the monolingual movers and shakers must have realized that the industrial approach to mass production of translations that their industry developed with the aid of machine translations and software designed to reduce the remuneration of translators, without passing the savings on to the direct clients, is bound to result in very poor quality translation.

But as far as the industry is concerned, such a tradeoff is acceptable in the interest of maximum profit level at any cost.

I have no doubt that many translators will be influenced by the industry’s industrialized approach to what translation is all about into the equivalent of tired, underpaid and overworked Uber drivers, or worse.

But is unappreciated drudgery for the greedy bosses on the translation plantation an unavoidable destiny for most professional translators, even those who are highly educated, experienced and eminently qualified?  

I don’t know the answer to this question.

I am just hoping that more than 2 percent of translators will realize that they can ignore what is going on in the translation industry as long as they can figure out how to sell their expert, highly specialized translations directly to their customers without the intermediary of greedy middlemen.

Otherwise, I don’t know whether to feel more sorry for translators who are working on the translation industry plantation, or for the clients who have to work with the translations that the translation industry is producing.



  1. I think all innovation is disruptive, isn’t it. Those who innovate shake things up – and take the initiative. What did Steve Jobs say? “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.” I think that is very true.


  2. Based on this definition, Hitler, Stalin and Mao were the greatest innovators of all times.


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 )

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: