Posted by: patenttranslator | January 31, 2019

My Five Stages of Life and Work as a Freelancer Between 1987 – 2019

People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no ‘mean guy’ who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless. But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible.

 The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding

Robert Maynard Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, 1974

This blog post will be a very brief summary of the changes that I experienced as a freelance translator between 1987 and 2019. There have obviously been many changes in more than three decades and all I can do is to try to summarize the most important changes as I remember them in just a few words, otherwise the post would be too long and too boring. So here are the five changes that I came up with:

Stage 1: Working for Translation Agencies in the Late Eighties

Working for translation agencies was quite enjoyable when I started my translation business in the late eighties. There was no “translation industry” yet, i.e. big agencies owned by non-translators who know nothing whatsoever about foreign languages or translation issues, and whose main expertise is in how to buy low and sell high, which is the case today. Most agencies were tiny to very small, and they were usually owned and run by former translators, or people who knew several languages and appreciated the work of the translators working for them.

Up until the early nineties I lived in San Francisco, where I knew several other translators who had been running their translation businesses for many years, many of whom were an inspiration to me. Back then I was quite happy working only for agencies. I was not interested in the marketing of my business, and since I was mostly translating Japanese patents and there was a shortage of people who could do that well, I was quite busy most of the time, and at good rates.  

Stage 2: The Search for Direct Clients with Direct Mailings in the Nineties

Initially, I subconsciously accepted the notion that there is a natural division between the capitalist owners of translators and the owned humans called translators and I was totally clueless about how to connect with direct customers. My extended translator newbie period lasted roughly from 1987 to 1992.

But when my children were born and my wife stopped working based on our mutual agreement (and she never did go back to work), I realized that I needed to make much more money because I had to replace her paycheck, and as a highly talented chef in San Francisco, I would say a genius chef, she was making more than this newbie translator more than three decades ago.

So I got together with Fred, another translator, and we started sending letters to patent law firms in and around San Francisco and Silicon Valley that we thought might have some work for us. In the early nineties, this was still a good way to find new direct clients for a budding patent translator, if you did not mind sending a few thousand letters year after year, which I dutifully did every time when work slowed down, which it did a lot.

It worked – after about two or three years, I had a supply of patents for translation, mostly Japanese patents, from patent law firms in California. I then continued sending letters to patent law firms in other parts of United States and by around the end of the nineties, about 70 percent of my income came directly from patent law firms and the rest from translation agencies at lower but still decent rates.

Stage 3: Finding Clients through My Website in the Early Two Thousands

I continued printing and mailing letters like a maniac to prospective direct customers up until the early two thousands, when I created my own website at http://www.patenttranslators.com, which was doing the marketing for me and which I basically did not change for close to two decades. I remember that there was no response at all to my website for the first three or four years. But after about 2004 I was already receiving most of my work directly through my website, in large quantities and at good rates and I discontinued my mailing campaigns.

In addition to Japanese patents, I started translating also patents from German and French, and things were going very well for me in terms of my income for quite a few years.

Because in some respects I am a total control freak, initially I insisted on translating everything by myself, with the exception of an occasional patent translation from Italian or Swedish or another language a few times a year.

Stage 4: Becoming a Specialized Translation Agency

But after a few years of translating everything by myself, I realized that when one picks translators very carefully, it is actually much easier to make money as a translation agency, since the profit margin common in the industry (about 50%) is quite sufficient. So although I was still translating by myself the majority of the patents that I was receiving from direct clients, in the two thousands about 40% of my income came from my work as an agency operator. I found the customers, matched them with suitable translators, and proofread their translations before sending them to the clients.

Although initially I was reluctant to rely on other translators, after a few years I got used to it and it does not bother me too much anymore. Maybe I am not a control freak anymore, at least not in this respect.

 Stage 5: Retirement

At this point, I am officially retired from the business, and as of this year, I finally decided not to pay for ATA membership (American Translators Association) for 2019.

I still work a little bit as a translator and as a translation agency, but not nearly as much as I used to when I had to provide for a family of four on a single income. Because my translation business was quite successful for many years, I managed to save enough money so that my savings would enable me to live modestly for several years without having any other income at all. To make sure that I will be able to live on a fixed income in my retirement, I moved from relatively expensive Virginia to Southern Bohemia in Czech Republic where I was born, mostly because the cost of living is lower here and also because I love it here and I still have some family here.

The Social Security income that I am receiving after 37 years of paying my taxes to Uncle Sam is quite extraordinary based on Czech standards, as it corresponds approximately to four local retirement pensions. Based on official statistics available on Internet, only 33 other Czech retirees receive a Czech old-age pension that is as high as or higher than mine, and two of them – in a country of 10 million people – receive a pension that is double of what I get from the US Social Security Administration.

I live modestly in a small, but comfortable apartment, not far (two bus stops) from the downtown in a small city of about 100,000 people just a few miles from the town where I grew up.  

 I do not believe that there is a natural or divine order dividing the world between the businesses representing the “translation industry”, which used to be called translation agencies, and now call themselves “LSPs”, apparently because they are ashamed to be called agencies, and the people who do the actual translation work, who know more than one language, called translators, wherein the twain shall never meet.

This is how the work of translators has been defined for us by big, corporate translation agencies since about the beginning of this millennium, but it is not a definition that translators must or should accept.

I don’t believe that accepting somebody else’s definition of how translators should live, work and function is to accept as an immutable fact that one has to work very hard for very little money and that not much can be done about it.

I believe that the key to success has always been and always will be the ability to beat the existing system by rejecting and replacing it by your own, custom-made system.

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Responses

  1. I hope you don’t mind my question. If so, please just ignore it. Some time ago you said you were putting in order the archive of your clients since you might sell it once you retired. Were you able to achieve that and gain money from such goodwill?

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  2. Well, I do have records going back more than 20 years listing my old clients, basically all of them US patent law firms, and how much they paid me over the years.

    But times have changed and I think that in order to sell my business now, I would have to do a lot of work, redo my website, start working hard as a translator and as an agency, start marketing my services in some manner again (I have not been doing anything about it for years), and most likely also start working with a service that sells translation businesses.

    A year or two years ago, I was still working hard and making good money, but the business has recently slowed down considerably. The thing is, I don’t really want to put in the necessary work, time and money. I am too lazy at this point, especially since I know that my modest fixed income is all I need for comfortable retirement where I live now (I would need more than that if I still lived in US, but I am probably not going back to live there, other than to visit my kids, and this is the main reason for it).

    On the other hand, I have a couple of domain names that would be quite valuable to a specialized agency or translator, and I might sell those domains if a suitable opportunity arises at some point.

    But as I said, fortunately I don’t need a whole lot of money, so I will probably not do anything about that either.

    Although, who knows what the future will bring?

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  3. Dear Steve, your story is very similar to mine, I also have a good domain, czechtranslation.com, I work as translator or interpreter, when the work comes, but I am very picky and I also work with number of good colleagues.
    Here is updated info from Czech newspaper, GTed with slight corrections. One USD is CZK 22.400 as of today. https://www.exchange.cz/deviza The Czech Social Security Administration’s data shows that pensions in the Czech Republic are not too high. The median of pensions is 10 657 crowns. This means that half of pensioners have a pension lower than this amount. Ninety percent of pensioners then had a pension of less than CZK 13,667!

    Still, there are people who are OK even in retirement. The CSSA last year registered fifteen! people who received a pension of over CZK 50,000 a month. An old-age pension between 30,000 and 50,000 crowns was received by another 261 pensioners. “The highest retirement pension is in the range of 90,000 to 99,990 CZK, a single! pensioner was receiving a pension in this zone,” CSSD spokesman Jana Buraňová said, with detailed information about the highest pensions being reported for the first quarter of last year. Updated info will be available again in April.

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  4. Thanks for your comment. Could you send a link to the Czech article you quote with the data on how much pensions are in Czech Republic now? The numbers I found were slightly different, but that was probably because the data was old.

    However, I assume the data only reflects Czech pensions. There must be thousands of pensioners who returned after working abroad to their old country and whose pensions are quite a bit higher.

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  5. Thanks for your reply, It totally makes sense. And you have all the rights to be lazy after all the successful years of your career. Enjoy your retirement!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. So why do you think business has slowed down considerably? A 46 year old J>E patent translator recently told me that after 20 years of translating he is looking for a new line of work after a client told him they are now using a translation agency that probably pays 7 yen a word instead of the 18 yen a word he had been receiving for more than a decade, which accounted for 40% of his income.

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  7. I think it’s probably the result of the crazy price wars in the “translation industry” that I mentioned for example in the “Blue Ocean, Red Ocean and Yellow Ocean” post years ago, but I don’t care too much.

    I am retired, my retirement income (with two pensions and savings) is sufficient to live very comfortably, and I am now so lazy that I don’t really want to work.

    You never answered my question about what are you doing or going to do about your retirement.

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  8. Well, you had a great career and timed the ending well. I use spoken Japanese far more now as I could see translation would end.I doubt I’ll retire but not because of lack of money. If I’m around at 65, it will be the year 2035, and a completely different job world due to A.I. That is only beginning, not ending.

    The translator I mentioned could have retired a few years ago at 44, but he is going back to school despite having a masters (in a worthless degree, job wise) to start a new career.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I too thought that I was basically never to retire and that I would continue translating until at least my seventies, but now I am glad that I found a way not to have to work until I drop dead. If we live long enough, we all have to retire at some point.

    Good luck to you!

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  10. Thanks! You too.

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  11. Hi Steve, glad you’re enjoying life in beautiful Czechoslovakia. We lost touch with your brilliant blog as it was attached to an email address that developed an unfixable fault…
    We have another (German and Spanish) translator staying with us at the moment and I told her all about you and your blog. I promised to send her a link to it, and googled you – which is when I found out about your divorce, retirement etc. How did all this happen so quickly…?
    We are doing the same as you…eased back on the promotion, and French husband is not accepting as much work (although quite a lot of patents) – just enough to keep his brain ticking over. Get in touch if you come to the UK – or France.
    Keep smiling! Cheryl and Philippe.

    Liked by 1 person


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