Posted by: patenttranslator | May 4, 2018

A Cure for the Post-Translation Industry Syndrome (PTIS)

The most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.

Alice Walker

It was about 15 years ago when I realized for the first time that major and possibly irreversible changes were taking place in the translation business environment, demonstrated in the way translation agencies started interacting with me.

I even remember what prompted this realization:it was yet another Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) sent to me by a large translation agency that must have had already at least three previous NDAs signed by yours truly on file.

I can’t sign this disgusting and humiliating garbage, I was thinking to myself. It was not an NDA, it was so demeaning and constricting, nothing less than a declaration of my acceptance of very specific conditions of virtual slavery. I know that many translators believe that it’s OK to sign basically any agreement because most of the clauses in these things, especially the illegal ones, are unenforceable, especially if the agency is located in another country.

But for a number of reasons, I disagree. For one thing, if I sign an agreement without intending to comply with it, am I not a dishonest liar and a fraud, even if the agreement contains unenforceable and fraudulent clauses as do most NDA’s in the current form of the “translation industry?”

Prior to about the year 2000, there was no “translation industry,” judging from the fact that this term was not used. Well, the translators were there, of course, somebody has to do the work, and so were translation agencies. But the agencies did not refer to themselves as “LSPs” (Language Services Providers),” another dishonest and intentionally misleading term, because the agencies do not provide the language services, only actual translators and interpreters can do that.

So, very early into the 21st century I realized that I had basically two choices if I wanted to continue receiving work from translation agencies: either to sign anything and everything the new “translation industry” throws at me, or stop working for the “translation industry.”

Technically, there is also a third choice, since we translators can also delete the most offensive parts of the NDAs and sign them only once we’ve made our changes. But if you delete for example the part of the NDA that specifies how big a discount you agree to give for “fuzzy matches and full matches” and add a clause that stipulates that the payment will be provided in one month instead of agreeing with a fuzzy formulation of a time period that basically means three long months of waiting for your money, you are not likely to get much work from the agency that sent you the NDA anyway. So what would be the point of signing anything at all?

So instead of trying to modify these agreements and arguing with a PM (who has no power to do anything anyway) about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, I started eliminating every agency that sent me an NDA that stank to high heaven (and most them did) from my roster of agencies that I would work for every time I received a new or updated NDA that I just could not stomach.

But since up until about the year 2003, approximately 40 percent of my income came from translation agencies and about 60% of it came from direct clients, mostly patent law firms, this meant that I was suddenly facing the prospect of losing about 40% of my clients (providing that translation agencies can be put in the category of clients, which many translators would dispute.)

It was a scary realization because 40% of my income was of course a lot of money to me, especially since at that point I was the sole wage earner in a family of four.

Fortunately for my translation business, in 2001 I did something that made it possible for me to basically ignore the new predatory actors in the “translation industry” and more than replace the income from my work for agencies by income obtained for my work directly from direct customers.

Feeling inspired and pressed to do something about my dilemma, one fine day I decided to call my local Internet Service Provider, a tiny outfit in the Silicon Valley that seemingly consisted of 2 young guys who usually answered the phone whenever I called them with another stupid question. It’s not really that I did the right thing because I was smarter than other people, I mostly just got lucky because the guy I happened to call that fine, blessed day had a good answer for me. The question I had was “What kind of things can I try to do to make it possible for new customers to find my business on the internet?”

The guy who answered my phone, his name was Tracy and he sounded very young and talked like a teenager, listened patiently to my description of what it was that I was doing for a living and then told me that since I already had a descriptive website, what I needed now most of all in addition was to link the site to a good domain name.

I’m pretty sure that at that point I already knew what a domain name was, but I had absolutely no idea how to go about looking for a good domain for my services.

Up until that point, my domain name was JTRLS.com, which stood for Japanese Translation Services. In my naïveté I thought that it was a good name because it was short and it had the cool .com ending. But I realize now that it was a pretty stupid name:Sure, it was short and easy to remember …. for me! But unless a person knows already what the abbreviation stands for, who is going to remember it and find my expert patent services in this manner on the internet?

So Tracy got to work, although it was not really his job, went to a domain registrar’s website and then started throwing at me a few short and descriptive domain names that I was unable to find on my own. But once he explained it to me, I saw immediately how stupid my original domain name was, I registered several domain names that I thought might be much better, got rid of the dumb JTRLS domain and linked my website to about half a dozen newly registered domain at the cost of 35 dollars per domain per year.

Since at that point I was translating mostly Japanese patents to English, two of these new domains proved to be especially effective in motivating new clients to click on them: www.PatentTranslators.com (I got the domain both for singular and plural) and www.JapaneseTranslators.com. In retrospect, it seems obvious to me now that what Tracy suggested to me was exactly what I should have done to begin with.

But I don’t think that I would have figured it on my own had I not called him because like most people at that time, I knew very little about the internet 17 years ago, and understood even less.

So thank you so much for doing that for me, Tracy, wherever you are now!

At first I saw no change in anything for about a year or two. But from about 2003 I started receiving occasional emails from patent law firms with requests for a cost and turnaround time quote for translations of Japanese patents and a good portion of my quotes was accepted.

These translation price quotes then grew into a regular flow of new customers who kept me busy, along with existing direct customers, so that eventually the new direct customers became my old direct customers, while the percentage of work that I was still doing for translation agencies – and a few good ones are still left out there in the wasteland of the “translation industry” – over time shrank to about 10 to 15 percent.

From 2005 until the present, I have been keeping track of how many new customers found me through my website, and the results are pretty amazing, especially considering that the website is old and plain, I don’t use any search engine optimization (SEO) tricks, and I have never paid for internet advertising.

I see in my records that in 2005, there were 25 new customers who contacted me and sent me at least one job and the total of the new work represented close to 50% of my income for that year, in 2006 there 20 new customers representing about 30% of my income for that year, and so on and so forth.

The numbers were pretty constant up until 2010: Between 10 to 30 new customers who sent me at least one job a year, representing between about 20 to about 50 percent of my yearly income. After 2011, the numbers of new customers started dropping to single digits as translation agencies finally started figuring out how to compete more effectively with my tiny business, presumably by using “advanced search engine optimization (SEO) techniques”, so that by 2015, my formerly magic domain names resulted in only 4 new customers and brought in only a few thousand dollars of additional income.

So there you go, the post-translation industry syndrome (PTIS) was finally catching up with me, I was thinking to myself. Nothing can last forever, especially if it is a good thing.

What changed, I think, was that the “translation industry” perfected the so-called search engine optimization (SEO) techniques and combined them with putting a lot of money into internet advertising, while I never did anything that, as I was simply relying on the high ranking of my website in organic search results.

But it turned out that I was wrong again: although only 3 new direct clients found my antiquated website by the end of 2016, two of them then sent me so much work the next year that I had to work basically every weekend throughout 2017 to keep up with the demand and my income hit again the higher levels that I was accustomed to during the first decade of the millennium that ushered in the new form of the “translation industry,” toxic both to its customers and to translators.

My advice to my fellow translators would be: Do not despair if the post-translation industry  syndrome (PTIS) hits you like a ton of bricks, as it is likely to do so at some point.

It is understandable if the post-translation industry syndrome (PTIS) hits you and makes you so depressed that you start believing that your only choice at this point is to prostitute yourself to the “translation industry” instead of competing with it by attacking its weak points, because the industry seemingly has all of the power and you have none.

But remember, there are always other choices, because there simply must be. For me, 17 years ago, it was using the internet in combination with a good domain name to find new direct clients and thus to become independent of the miserable conditions that the “translation industry” was trying to impose on me.

For you it may be something else instead of a good domain name, especially considering that a good domain name is much harder to find now. Maybe you just need to explain to a smart guy like Tracy, who may not know anything about your business, but who knows things that you don’t know, what it is that you want to do and listen carefully to his suggestions.

Or maybe you know already what it is that you need to do. Even though you may not realize it, the knowledge may be already buried deep inside you and the advice will come to you after a good night’s sleep.

Just remember one thing: you do have power … unless you give it away by thinking that you don’t have any.

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Responses

  1. I do not sign any NDAs anymore unless such an NDA is project specific and restricted to what is at stake for my clients. And guess what? For a high volume extremely high value and ultimately secret project that I did 3 years ago the end-client never asked me to sign an NDA. It goes without words that respecting my clients interests is my basic attitude.
    It has become very clear to me that demeaning unilateral conditions and clauses tell you exactly what the basic attitude of such a potential client might be. If you refuse to sign and they still keep on sending you projects then they have some legals in their office trying to exercise their professional deformation. Else, you would not want to have that sort of a client anyway.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. […] I wrote in my previous post, it was about 15 years ago when I realized for the first time that major and possibly irreversible changes were taking place in the translation business environment. My solution was to stop working for what is now called the “translation industry”, and I was […]

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