Posted by: patenttranslator | March 3, 2019

Step Out of Your Comfort Zone and Discover Multiple Income Streams

In order to eat, you have to be hungry. In order to learn, you have to be ignorant. Ignorance is a condition of learning. Pain is a condition of health. Passion is a condition of thought. Death is a condition of life.”

― Robert Anton Wilson, Leviathan

About 20 years ago, a client who had been sending me basically only projects that I could do myself for about a couple of years, namely Japanese and German patents to be translated to English, did something that upset me a great deal.

He sent me two short sets of patent claims in English to give him an estimate for how much it would cost to translate them into French and German. I remember that I was about to tell him politely that although I translate patents from several languages, I only translate into English. That is my strength and my specialty and that is what I should be doing, I thought to myself. I don’t want to unnecessarily complicate my life too much.

At that time I had so much work translating mostly Japanese patents to English that I figured, oh, what the hell, even if this law firm drops me, it’s no big deal, I have plenty of work from other sources, and I don’t really need the hassle of having to find translators who can do work that I can’t do by myself, organize the work, proofread the translations and pay the translators, usually long before I myself get paid. But then, as I was driving to a bookstore to stock up on new thrillers … (but only if the books were on sale), I kept wondering whether this would be the best decision to be made.

Fortunately, in the end I decided that this was a wrong, overconfident and arrogant decision to make and started looking for translators who could do the job that I was not able to do by myself. Because this particular patent law firm really needed somebody who could not only translate patents from Japanese and several other languages into English, but who could also understand and oversee translation of patents into German, French, Japanese and Chinese and because such a person is not exactly easy to find, it is still sending me translations, mostly patents and correspondence from patent offices in various countries, as well as translations from English an other languages as it has been doing into for the last 20 years.

In fact, I just gave them a cost estimate for two sets of patent claim translations into German and French a few days ago and I am now just waiting for their client to give us the go-ahead for this project. I will probably get the job next week. 

How much money and work would I have lost had I told this particular customer 20 years ago that I can translate only into English? It would have been a lot of work and money had I refused to step out of my comfort zone all those years ago, that’s for sure, good, interesting work and good money for me and the translators who work with me that would probably gone to a large translation agency in the fabulous “translation industry”, where the project would probably be handled by a project manager who does not know much, if anything, about patents, let alone understands patents in foreign languages.

Many translators tend to take a very narrow view of what they should and should not be doing and that is how they may overlook potential avenues for generating additional, multiple streams of income. To be clear, I am not saying that we should not specialize and that we should blindly accept anything that has something to do with translation.

But I am saying that so many translators overspecialize and insist on a very narrow definition of the kind of work they will accept, which tends to make them underemployed.

My additional streams of income have been coming for the last two decades mostly from working as a tiny, specialized translation agency, but different people can start adding different specializations to their original bag of tools, such as format conversions and handling of graphics, or creating websites in other languages, consulting, etc. The problem is that translators who work only or mostly for translation agencies (aka “LSPs”) are usually asked by these “LSPs” to do all kinds of additional work, for instance to throw in a lot of hours on format conversions and editing, completely for free in order to be “assigned” a translation job.

Those of us who work for direct clients are able to add a reasonable surcharge to our bill for additional, time-consuming work (provided that the client agrees with this ahead of time), or charge a higher per-word rate for the translation.

However, that is not the case when we work for the “translation industry”. Translators who are in the clutches of the “translation industry” are often also forced by the translation agency to work in a “proprietary environment” by using a special CAT software that will steal the word count from the translators (but not from the agency), as well as wait weeks before being allowed to submit an invoice. This is a direct, illegal assault on the autonomy of translators as independent service providers, designed to minimize their remuneration and create a long delay before a payment to obedient indentured servants is finally made.

But if we are able to avoid the predatory, mass-production “translation industry” model, we can generate multiple streams of our income by providing additional services that are closely related to our specialty, which may have been originally defined overly narrowly. In a way, it is as if we discovered for ourselves not only additional streams of income, but also additional streams of consciousness flowing through a universe that is not nearly as narrow and compressed as we thought.  

Although originally we may have been ignorant about what else we have to offer to our clients, our ignorance was only a first step, or a necessary precondition of learning, and it goes away with time as long as we are not afraid to keep learning.


  1. We concur 🙂


  2. Hi Steve,
    I wonder how you got to a statement like this:
    “But I am saying that so many translators overspecialize and insist on a very narrow definition of the kind of work they will accept, which tends to make them underemployed.”
    I tend to see the opposite: translators who claim specializations they don’t have, or who simply jump in and translate anything that moves, possibly trusting churn to bring them more customers. Or something.


    • Hi Chris, long time no see (smile). I think Steve is right. There is no good way to evaluate good translator except a long consistent track record, confirmed by experienced peers and all the newbees coming and claiming all sorts of useles degrees and diplomas in order to get a market share (there is a whole industry now parasiting on those poor souls) is just another example of a seemingly good deed (trying to make it easier for consumers to find qualified translators) getting justly punished.


  3. Hi Chris,

    Long time no hear.

    I think that both statements are true at the same time.

    Here is how Kenny Rogers puts it:


  4. Sorry, I was unclear. Steve states that highly specialized translators “tend to be underemployed”. I was wondering where that “fact” (?) came from. I observe the opposite.


  5. Dear Christine, you need to look at this issue also globally at the payment level. The recent model of translation industry is mostly to pay peanuts and make money of those, who are young and unexperienced (this is why they take low rates) or are willing to work for less because they live in low cost country and invoice it as from high cost country. And I am not even touching the biggest rip of of all: the MT post editing. Why the author of the song can get money every time the song is played, but the poor translator, who edit an MT sentence, is paid peanuts once and then the agency profits from it again and again.


  6. Good question, Chris.

    It comes from my own experience. For about 20 years after I started my freelance business in San Francisco in 1987, I was translating mostly Japanese patents to English. There was plenty of work, so that after the few initial years, my income was constantly in low six figures, which was enough for me and my family to live a comfortable life, especially after we moved from very expensive California to less expensive Virginia.

    But after the first decade of this century, the demand for translating Japanese patent applications plummeted for a number of reasons, some of which I understand, although not all of which are clear to me. Several commenters on my blog confirmed this fact, including well known translators based in Japan, etc.

    What saved my business when my main source of income all but disappeared was the fact that I started translating mostly German patents, so that in the last five years or so, at least 80% of what I have been doing is translating German patent and correspondence between patent lawyers and the German Patent Office, etc.

    So, being able to translate only Japanese to English would in my have been case overspecialization, which could prove fatal. Fortunately, I was able to branch out into translation from German and other language and working as a tiny, specialized agency. At this point I consider myself retired, and although I still work, I don’t really need to work to pay my bills, given that Czech Republic is much cheaper than United States.

    It is only natural that the trends in every industry would change over a long period of time – in my case it was more than 30 years. Unfortunately, we cannot take anything for granted, because time may change everything.

    Again, my experience and yours, which is opposite to mine, can exist at the same time, depending on the language, the field, and other variables.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dear Steve, my experience is very similar to your, with a bit bigger or smaller numbers in some years. I was working in ECZ combination since 1990, added ESK and CZSK after 1993 split of Czechoslovakia and moved mainly into legal and medical. I of course always use native editors, when I deliver all my 3 languages. That is in my opinion the biggest mistake of some of our colleagues, who usually not use (and pay) their own editors in order to have better control over the quality and also the price of the final product.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Answer to concerned translator
    May I ask what is exactly the difference between what you and other outsourcing translators do and agencies? What distinguishes translators outsourcing from the ‘predatory, mass-production “translation industry” model’ as you call it?

    Let me answer with a question – did you worked for an agency? If yes, how many times, and how did you like it?
    And now, have you worked for another translator, how many times and how did you like it?
    Write your answers and you will have your answer. If you can’t do that, there is no point to lecture you, as you will have no clue, what I am talking about.

    Your outsourcing translator (smile)


  8. You wrote: Did you ever follow translators forums closely, and the job boards specifically designed for outsourcing translators (and have thousands of members)? Write your answer and you will realize the rates and other practices are indistinguishable from those of (bottom feeding) agencies.
    If your counter argument is to suggest that there are exceptions among outsourcing translators, than the same is true for agencies. So I’ll ask again, what distinguishes outsourcing translators from agencies? It’s the same business model.

    And I’m sorry, the answer « it’s different because I’m the one who is doing this and I’m doing this better than my competitors » is simply not enough. Not by a long shot. The ‘predatory, mass-production “translation industry” model’ uses the very same argument.

    Dear CT, why should I waste my time there. When I work, I do not waste time. I do not care about business models, I care about my income. As I am doing it nearly as long as Steve, and because I know what I am doing, I take only work I want, under my terms and I run the show. My way. Good luck to you. Try to work instead of lurking on the net (smile)


  9. As I am making my hourly income ($85 and up, often substantially), I do not care.


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