Posted by: patenttranslator | May 30, 2018

The Future Is Unknowable

The future is unknowable, but the past should give us hope.

Winston Churchill

I read yesterday in the New York Times that yet another taxi driver, the fifth one in as many months, committed suicide in New York City because he had a huge debt and could not find enough work as a result of ride-sharing services. His body was found floating in the East River.

The taxi driver, who I thought had a Chinese name although it turned out that he was from Burma and who went by the name Kenny, had taken out a loan seven years ago to buy a $700,000 medallion that gave him the right to operate a cab.

Let me try now to rewind the video of my own life in my head back to 1987, the year when I started my translation business in San Francisco. My own initial investment into my new business when I decided that instead of being employee, I would start my own translation business, was about $2,000, which was what I needed to buy a new computer (with two “floppy disk drives”, no hard disk yet,) and a noisy, used dot matrix printer.

I remember that after I had daringly put the computer on my credit card as I had no income to speak of yet, it took me about half a year to pay the entire sum off. I had no customers and no idea how to go about finding them, but it was in not very difficult to find work back then. I simply went to a library, copied the lists of translation agencies in the “Translation and Interpreting” section published in the Yellow Pages in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, mailed out a few dozen résumés and within a few months I was making as much as or more than I did as an employee from various translation jobs obtained from the equivalent of the gig industry three decades ago.

Good timing is everything in life, whether you want to move to a different town, start a new business or a new family, and $2,000 is much easier to pay off than $700,000.

Fortunately for me, my timing was not bad three decades ago, unlike the timing of the poor taxi driver in New York, and I did not end up jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge and floating in the San Francisco Bay.

But so much has changed for worse since then for people who want to start a new translation business now. Although a very good computer with a very good, perfectly quiet printer now costs less than $500, most other things that a new translator needs have changed for worse.

For one thing, translation agencies no longer even advertise in Yellow Pages. I got a new copy of Yellow Pages yesterday, it had a much smaller footprint than what it used to be even a decade ago, and there was not even the familiar heading there for Translation-Interpreting for Virginia Beach and adjacent areas with a population of more than a million.

And most of the agencies that operate on the internet nowadays are very different from what they used to be thirty years ago. Three decades ago, most agencies were run by former translators who knew other languages and specific subjects and understood what translation is all about and. These agency owners were interested in finding the best translators available in a given field because they understand that they were be putting their own reputation on the line based on the translators who work for them.

The people who were running translation agencies specializing in patents and technical translation back then were often multilingual engineers who themselves became translators, and because they enjoyed running an enterprise more than translating, they eventually started a translation agency and usually were very good and successful at that.

These were the translation agencies that I used to work for 30 years ago.

But that is so twentieth century now. If you now run a search for a specialized translation service on the internet, you will be immediately hit by promises of “patent translation services providing excellent translation quality for 10 cents a word for translations from and into 600 languages.”

Just about everything the generic translation agencies and often even agencies that claim to specialize in patent translation promise on their website is a damn lie. First of all, patents are obviously not filed in 600 languages. This is just some patent agency’s PR person’s idea of effective commercial propaganda, namely another stupid idea of a propagandist who does not know anything about languages, and who may be seriously underestimating the intelligence of his potential customers by simply pulling the number of 600 languages out of thin air.

In other words, this particular claim is just another of many fraudulent claims so typical of the commercial propaganda encountered on the websites of modern translation agencies (or “LSPs”.)

Although depending on how one defines the term “language”, more than 6,000 languages are spoken worldwide, and 1,652 languages are spoken in India alone according to data from Census of India, out of which only around 150 are considered official languages, patent applications can be filed in India simply either in Hindi or in English. So a couple of languages is all that is needed for this purpose in the huge Indian subcontinent.

If for contrast we now take a look at the country of Iceland with a small population and a language that is spoken by only some three hundred and fifty thousand people, we will discover that although patent applications can be filed in five different languages in the country of Iceland, namely in Icelandic, English, Danish, Swedish, or Norwegian, only the claims and an abstract must be submitted in Icelandic.

And although 23 official languages (and many more dialects) are spoken in the entire continent of Europe, according to data from the European Patent Office, the original regulations of the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT) provided originally for publication in only five languages: English, French, German, Japanese, and Russian.

Since then, PCT Rule 48.3 has been amended to include Spanish (in 1985), Chinese (in 1994), and Arabic (in 2006) as additional languages of publication.

The PCT Assembly then also adopted with effect from January 1, 2009 an amendment to PCT Rule 48.3(a), which added two new languages of publication: Korean and Portuguese.

Incidentally, translation of claims and abstracts from a relatively small number of languages, including from English, into other languages, such as German and English, for publications of claims and abstracts according to PCT rules has been a busy field for my small and highly specialized operation: I have been doing this kind of work for several patent law firms in cooperation with excellent, experienced native patent translators for about 12 years now.

But I accept only languages that I myself can read and translate, not 600 (nonexistent) languages!

While the claim that a translation agency is translating patents from and into 600 languages is obviously a lie aimed at impressing gullible (and apparently not very smart) potential customers, the claim that this patent translation outfit is actually able to have its translations done at 10 cents a word is probably true, at least for some of the languages that an agency may be in fact able to handle at this rock bottom price.

Since the translation agencies typically keep at least a half of the 10 cents per word fee so proudly advertised, this means that the human translators who work for such translation agencies will be paid no more than about 5 cents a word, possibly less.

That the average output in terms of the number of words that a translator can translate per day is about 2,000 words. I myself can translate between 2,000 to 4,000 words. But it depends on the circumstances and I am probably faster than many patent translators because this is what I have been doing for more than 30 years. So a translator working for this agency could make about one hundred dollars per day, for quite a few hours of very intense, complicated and time-consuming work, on days when there is work.

And of course, there are likely to be days, perhaps many days, without work in the life of a freelance translator.

In other words, experienced and qualified translators would not be able to work for such translation agencies at all for economical reasons. Which is why I myself stopped translating patents for translation agencies well over a decade ago and now I translate patents only for direct clients.

So who translates the patents that experienced and qualified translators used to translate for translation agencies up until some 15 years ago? Although of course I don’t know the answer to this question, I can make an educated guess.

I think that most of these translations are in fact done by algorithms, so that the resulting detritus, (the result of the process in which a mathematical formula is used to match a text in a foreign language to a similar, but not identical text among billions of texts that have already been translated by thousands of human translators), is then looked over by somebody who would be willing to try to remove for about 1 cents per word the most glaring mistakes from the machine-translated text so that it would look like a real translation.

I happen to know that 1 cent a word is the going rate for post-processing of machine translations of patents because that was the fee offered to me by a translation agency some time ago.

If I was just about to start my professional career in technical translation right now, would I still headlesly jump into such a risky endeavor now as I did 30 years ago, or would I instead try to find a less risky and more lucrative line of work for myself?

I think I would probably still do it, but with one major caveat: from the very beginning, I would try to stay away from translation agencies. There is no point in helping them in their race to the bottom, both in terms of price and quality; in fact, if you really want to be a professional translator, helping them to do what they are doing now is tantamount to professional suicide.

I would now design my business from the start so as to be independent of the middlemen in what is now called the translation industry, by identifying, finding and working only for direct clients for my translations.

Although the future is and always has been unknowable, and even though there is so much flotsome and jetsome floating around in the immense reaches of the internet that is being sold by the “translation industry” as actual translation, or probably precisely because of that, there will always be a demand for accurate and elegant expert translations, not just in my field of patent translation, but in every field of human knowledge.

I believe that those of us who are able to specialize in one of the many demanding and exciting fields of human knowledge will still be able to make a good living, unlike the taxi driver in the article at the beginning of my post today.

But I also believe that unlike a few decades ago, we can now do so only if we avoid translation agencies and work only directly for the clients who are actually using our translations.


  1. Interesting post.

    “The future is inevitable and precise, but it may not occur. God lurks in the gaps.”
    – Jorge Luis Borges


    • And the Devil is in the details.


    • What ?


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