Posted by: patenttranslator | June 10, 2019

There Is No Question that We Are Living in an Era of Unprecedented Destruction of Existing Occupations

There is no question that we are living in an era of unprecedented destruction of existing occupations that is driven to a large extent by new, innovative technology and internet. For example, many US large big-box retailers have been biting the dust, to borrow a turn of phrase from Freddy Mercury, for decades now, starting with Sears in the eighties, and more recently followed by other brick-and-mortar retailers such as JC Penny, Radio Shack or Circuit City.

Since the nineties, sales have been slowly shifting away from actual stores where people can go to look at and touch stuff, to shopping on internet, often to Amazon, which does not really have brick-and-mortar stores and yet is in everybody’s house.

Some chain stores have been able to survive the trend away from real stores toward online sales only, such as Best Buy, thanks to smart managerial policies and mutually beneficial cooperation with large customers, such as Apple, Microsoft, Google and even Amazon.

These unprecedented changes that were often, although not always and not only, driven by technology, affected also my own translation business. Sometime I look with nostalgia at how much money I was able to make as a small translation business owner who was doing most of the translating work by himself ten or twenty years ago. Now that I am thirty-two years into running my specialized translation business, I make much less than I used to in what I could call the glory days of patent translation.

It’s fine with me, I wouldn’t even want to be as busy as I used to be. The main thing is that I am still here, translating patents and having fun doing that. Fortunately, I am now or consider myself semi-retired and unlike many people my age (66), I don’t really need to supplement my retirement income, which is quite sufficient for me now that I don’t have to feed a family of four plus three dogs and a pensive bearded dragon lizard as I used to for a very long time.

But even though I don’t need to work, I really enjoy working, both translating myself and organizing and proofreading translation projects when I work as an agency and I would like to continue doing so for as long as possible.

The flip side of the general destruction of traditional ways of delivering products and services is that a small operation, such as my own tiny business, can offer to my customers advantages that for example large translation agencies are unable to provide, simple because they are so large and by definition they can only provide impersonal service through project managers who often know very little or nothing about the languages and subjects that they are handling.

Although of course large translation agencies try to pretend that everybody they use is an expert translator, I think that they mostly use beginners and people who are very cheap … but not necessarily good translators.

Why do I think so? Well, years ago I used to work for quite a few large translation agencies, but I would no longer touch work from them with a ten-foot pole as the saying goes because the rates they pay are ridiculously low and the deadlines are often brutal. I think the last time I worked for one of these agencies was about 15 years ago. They kept underbidding each other for such a long time that at this point, they are probably using post-edited machine translations, if you want to call them that, and a lot of would-be translators whose work is not very good, but who are very cheap.

Twenty or thirty years ago, most agencies were looking for talented, highly educated and highly experienced translators because their good name depended on the quality of the work that translators working for them could deliver. At this point, translation quality is mostly just an afterthought in so-called translation industry as most agencies are usually looking for warm bodies willing to accept the lowest rate for translating, “post-editing”, and other types of carnages inflicted by “technology” upon what used to be reliable human translation.

There are a few exceptions to this rule. Some agencies are able to buck the trends of the so-called translation industry, and I still work for such agencies. All of them are small or very small, and most of them are run by old timers.

They don’t force translators, newbies especially, to use CAT tools so that they could cheat them on the word count, they pay good rates, and they pay on time. Somehow, they managed to survive the cutthroat competition that is based solely on who can offer the lowest rate.

They are survivors from an older, gentler version of translation agencies, outliers who haven’t been destroyed by the new, predatory business model. It still makes sense to me to work for them, and when I work as an agency, I too apply the old agency business model to my own business model.

For example, I never haggle about the rate that I am paying to translators who work for me. I never say, “I can only pay x cents per word for this job” to try to force them to accept less. If I can make a good profit, I accept the rate that is offered to me, if not, well, then it’s not be and I move on.

Even though now I generally get paid in 45 to 60 days by many direct clients instead of 30 days as used to be the case, I pay every received invoice on the fifteenth and on the first of each month. Unlike most translation agencies, I have money that I keep in the bank precisely for this purpose, and I don’t need to make extra profit from the “float”, i.e. from the extra time that I could make the translators wait for their money. Unlike the “translation industry”, I care about whether translators can pay their bills on time.

I think that just like many large-box retailers, many large agencies will disappear in a few years, either because they will go bankrupt, or because they will be swallowed by brutal competition from other shark-like businesses.

The interesting thing to me is that despite all of the changes and all of the carnage that I have seen with my own eyes in the translation business over the last three decades, the old business model of a caring translation agency is still here, surviving the challenges of the brave new world quite well, just like mom-and-pop stores and restaurants that care about their customers and the people who work in them survived the demise of big stores like Sears, Radio Shack, JC Penny and Circuit City and are still there, doing pretty well, thank you very much, right next to a large shopping mall whose days are already numbered.


  1. Hi
    I read your blog assiduously even though you’re retired. I’m from your generation so I share your views and have commented a couple of times before.
    The reason I’m writing is that I’ll be in the Czech Republic from 18 to 22 June inclusive with my wife, based in Prague but looking at day trips out. Fancy a beer and a chat? How’s your city for a tourist day trip?

    Steve Pepper


  2. I’ll be happy to have a beer with you. Budejovice is a pretty town, esaily reachable100 km south of Prague.


  3. Steve, because of my health condition, I am not coming to attend my daughter´s wedding and visit you in Juli. But I´ll keep on reading your blog posts.
    In Taiwan, there are two occupations that seem not to be destructed in foreseen time — politicians and 艺能人 (artists). The politicians are acting like artists and that delights the people here. Why not? Poland just got a comedian as president. Taiwanese could get a tragedian in the coming election in 2020.
    Oh, yes, there is another occupation still existing: medical doctors. However, the med. doctors in Taiwan are also gasping for survival nowadays. The Trade War between US and China hits us badly, too. You can notice that in translation business as well. Less and less oders for translation, as most of my colleagues notice.
    We will see what the Trade War will lead to. Crashing China? Or, crashing the US? Both would be a bad result. Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi seem to be determined to taking overhand. The first occupation that should be destructed should be the politicians!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. It was Ukraine, not Poland, that got a comedian for president recently.

    Although they are all comedians and/or tragic actors, depending on which way the wind is blowing.


  5. You would like this piece, Steve.


  6. Ok. I’ll get back to you. Can you give me an email address for contacts. Mine is


  7. I can’t believe you are semiretired. It must be in a country other than the United States, where we can see retired people work at Wal-Mart and at local supermarkets. The minimum age I can retire without having my benefits reduced by income is 66 (I’m 10 years away), and most experts tell us that we should wait until 70 to retire. That would be fine and dandy if the individual is in relatively good health—not the average American, though, who is fed a diabetes-and-cardiovascular-disease-friendly diet since childhood.

    But I digress. I remember gentler days, in New York, when agencies would find me and offer a decent rate for a New Yorker translator. I still retain a couple (and I mean two or three) of clients who are good payers and take my rates and suggested deadlines. I was fortunate to be hired by a software company to do one of the things I love as a translator: translate user interface and software documentation. I have years’ worth of work, but this is America and workers (blue collar, white collar, knowledge workers, the lot) have no protection.

    I agree that agencies will continue to disappear or consolidate. The newer agencies are mostly about disruption, leveraging technology to offer competitive (i.e., the lowest) rates and at a faster clip. That’s not my world. The marketplace is so fragmented (layers and layers of translation company sizes, plus layers of translation expertise from useless to superb) that there aren’t two translators with equally shared experience or transferable knowledge or advice. I appreciate this space.


  8. I would not wait till I am 70 to file for Social Security. How do you know how long you will live or what shape you will be in when you hit seven-oh? Think of all the money that you would receive and that they get to keep if you file late.

    I filed when I was close to 65, kept on working and saved the money from Social Security in the bank. I was then penalized for working before I turned 66, but still, I think it was worth it. And then I moved to a cute and inexpensive town in Czech Republic where I was born and where I still have some family.

    Also, since your other language is Spanish, why not move for your retirement to Latin America or Portugal, where you could probably live off your Social Security payments quite comfortably? Millions of Americans have done it.


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