Posted by: patenttranslator | July 25, 2018

Can Translators Survive Globalized “Translation Industry” as Independent Service Providers?

Although I am not that old (sixty something is the new fifty something, right?), I remember well the pre-globalized, pre-corporate phase of the so-called translation industry in the eighties and nineties of the last century.

I think that it could be said that the last two decades of the 20th and the first years of the 21st century were a golden age for technical translators and for patent translators in particular. When I look at how much I was making month after month (thanks God!) while I was a single earner in a family of fourth, some 15, 20, or 25 years ago, which, fortunately for me, is no longer the case, I keep thinking to myself how incredibly lucky I was to have started my business before the globalized phase of the “translation industry” turned so many of us into underpaid indentured servants who have to follow the rules created by their monolingual handlers at translation agencies, nowadays called “Language Services Providers” (LSPs).

I know that the main reason why I was so busy working at pretty high rates several decades ago was that I was able to offer my translation business to direct customers, without the interference of corporate agency behemoths in the pre-corporate phase of what is now called the “translation industry”.

Prior to the corporatized phase of the “translation industry”, roughly from about the year 2000 BC until about Anno Domini 2000, most translators were thought of as people who were running their own small businesses.

If you worked mostly for translation agencies, as I did at first in the nineteen eighties and even into the nineties, there was also a major difference between how the agencies treated you then and how they treat you now. Back then, huge translation agencies with offices in a number of cities and many more virtual “back offices” created in third world countries ad hoc for various projects to be hidden from the prying eyes of clueless clients, simply did not exist yet.

While a friendly or at least very civil, mutually beneficial relationship between a translator and a translation agency was the cornerstone of what the concept of the translation business was up until about the year 2000 or 2010, in the current form of the “translation industry”, or version 2.0, the fact that human translators are vital for creating a high-quality final product called translation is seen by the captains of the “translation industry” as a bug rather than a valid feature of their quasi perfect, highly automated digital systems for delivery of translations mostly by monolingual managers.

If they have their way, one day soon they will get rid of translators altogether.

It could be said that while the old version of translation agencies was quite translator-friendly, the new environment created in this century by the “translation industry” is toxic to us, translators.

The industry is treating us as if we were servants rather than independent business owners.

Even before we accept a translation job, no matter how tiny, called nowadays an “assignment”, we are required to sign agreements in which we must promise, under the penalty of heavy fines, that we will never, ever attempt to contact an actual client who orders a translation unless we are explicitly asked to do so by the agency. And even if we are asked by the clients themselves to do the job without the intermediary of the agency, we are supposed to turn such these clients down in a clear violation of antitrust legislation, at least based on the laws here in the United States.

The reason for this is clear – the agencies know that should a direct connection be established between a translator and a direct client, the client may get rid of the translation agency next time when a translation is needed ….. unless the translation agency provides an important service, which is sometime true, but not very often.

The agencies have been demanding for a long time now – with some success, especially with less experienced translators – that translators must purchase, learn and use word count-stealing software such as Trados, so that the translators could be very significantly shortchanged and more money would be left for the middleman, in clear violation of the  rule of the New Testament stating that “the laborer is worthy of his wages”.

It is very unchristian of the agencies to insist that full and partial “matches” must be obligatorily deducted from the laborer’s wages by word count-stealing software.

Maybe they’re all run by atheists.

Increasingly, we are also being asked by translation agencies to offer our services as “post-editors” of machine translations, so that instead of charging for our work based on the number of words that we translated ourselves, we will charge a low fee based on a predetermined number of hours.

This is because we can then be forced to charge a very low hourly fee, or a ridiculously low per word rate, determined by the agency, for what is in fact a mind-numbing, full retranslation of what a series of algorithms provided for free determined to be a “translation” by the agency. Something like that usually takes more time than a translation from scratch, but the agencies simply ignore this simple fact.

To its eternal shame, the ATA (American Translators Association) has been propagandizing for many years now the notion that translators need to participate in this scam designed to eventually get rid of translators all together and turn them into “machine translation post-processors”.

I have read in many articles published during the past decades or so in the ATA Chronicle that post-processing of machine translation is “a useful skill” that all translators should acquire and gratefully offer to translation agencies.

Not a single, non-propagandistic article has been published in the ATA Chronicle that would seriously examine the issue of what machine translation really is, namely that it is only a tool that is useful for translators and non-translators alike, but not an actual translation, let alone an article explaining how harmful attempts at post-editing of the product of this tool are to an actual translation.

So, thanks God for translation blogs, Facebook groups and other social media!

It is a tragedy that we, translators, have no association of translators that would really represent our interests, instead of representing the interests of the “translation industry”.

I hope this will change one day, because nothing stays the same forever, but seeing how bad the things are at this point, it may not change within my lifetime.

In view of all the bad news for translators, and I only managed to scratch the surface in my silly post today, I have to ask myself the question in the title of my post today: Can an individual translator survive “translation industry” (2.0), and perhaps even compete with the greedy corporate industry Leviathans?

I obviously don’t know the answer to this question. But I hope that some of us will survive the current form of the “translation industry”, namely those of us who will not follow the propagandized and confused herd of translators, also called newbies, who accept the present conditions on the ground as immutable facts imposed upon us by a more advanced, predatory alien civilization.

After all, I’m still here, doing my thing pretty much the same way as three decades ago, aren’t I? I may not as busy right at this moment as I was ten or twenty years ago when I had to work seven days a week at very high rates (compared to rates prevalent now) to meet the demand for services that I provided then and still provide now.

But last year was one of the best years for me ever in terms of how much I made (and I never had to pay as much in taxes as I did last year).

The balance of power between translators and agencies has changed and the agencies are now much more powerful than they were a decade or two decades ago, partly thanks to our “professional associations”, most of which will take money from anyone because they don’t give a damn about translators.

But that does not mean that we are powerless. What gave me the power some three decades ago to compete with much larger translation agencies was the fact that I found a few domain names that were very suitable for the services that I was providing (although it was mainly the domain, and with a powerful domain, I was able to offer my services directly to patent law firms, without having to go through the intermediary of translation agencies as I wrote in several posts on this blog.

I am sure that this can still be done today, although it is much more difficult to find a good domain name now than thirty years ago, of course.

But there must be also other lines of attack that may have to do with things like using social media or blogs in ways that I don’t know much about, attending conferences for specialists and conferences for translators, creating specialized Youtube channels (for which you can also get paid if you have a lot of views), and other strategies that I can’t even imagine.

Somebody much younger than me will hopefully figure out again how to beat the system by using modern technology before somebody else gets the same idea, and get as lucky with a new mousetrap as I did three decades ago.


  1. It’s a bit pessimistic this, Steve. Here’s a bit of light. Did you see the huge outrage about the poor quality of the German translation of a recent Brexit report? Several of our direct clients say “Yeah, we know computer translation still isn’t up to the job…”
    I think the future is localisation rather than pure translation – putting in the witticisms, plays-on-words and references needed for promotion to the target audience. Only humans can do this properly..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The future is in post-processing of the machine translation detritus.

    Great, Cheryl.

    “Yeah, we know computer translation still isn’t up to the job…” ????
    I think that machine translation should be provided with a warning identifying it as such, as opposed to real translation.

    And I have never agreed to process MT and never will. In fact, I got so pissed off at an old client (an agency) when the woman asked me to do it that I stopped working for her.


  3. This is so true.
    >It could be said that while the old version of translation agencies was quite translator-friendly, the new environment created in this century by the “translation industry” is toxic to us, translators.

    The industry is treating us as if we were servants rather than independent business owners.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Nice post, Steve. Not pessimistic but realistic.

    I work for one or two larger agencies, but only because they agree to give me work on my terms. One of them asked me quite forcibly last year to accept terms that would have been disadvantageous to me. I politely told them where to shove it… and here I am still doing work for them, on my terms. I’m not going to be dictated to by any agency. If I was forced to accept such a state of indentured servitude, I might as well shut up shop and get a less demanding job.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I agree! Had a request from an agency colleague to do 4K words by the end of the day – theoretically possible but we already have an urgent job with a deadline of Friday. We have had very good relationships with this collleague for more than 20 years. We can say “sorry no” without any risk to future business. When we discussed rates a couple of years ago (ie us putting them up, not them putting them down) agreement was reached because of mutual respect.


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