Posted by: patenttranslator | October 29, 2019

Keeping the Hustle Going After All These Years

The first time I moved my translation business was in 1992, during the pre-Internet era. Most people, including myself, did not really understand what this humbug about this thing call Internet was all about. I thought it was useful only for email. You could not even send large files though the thin copper wires of telephone lines, so what good was it?

But I did know that raising two small kids, they were 1 and 3 back then, in a two-bedroom San Francisco apartment in the Richmond district, cozy, convenient and close to all kinds of Asian restaurants as it was for us when we had no children, would drive us crazy. San Francisco has probably never been a good place to raise children. So we packed our possessions and moved across the Golden Gate Bridge into the heart of North Californian suburbia to a pretty small town called Petaluma, just 40 minutes north of the foggy city where all of our friends and many of my customers lived.

At that point we had been living in San Francisco already for 10 years. That was the place where we both arrived at the same time in 1982. Before Internet, where you lived was very important because your location determined not only access to friends that your felt good with, but also access to information that was indispensable to your business.

I used to have a lot of friends who were also Japanese translators when I lived in San Francisco, and through the grapevine from these friends and acquaintances I would often find out about nice translation projects in and around the City, especially in Silicon Valley, not far from us.

I remember, for example, how once when I owed a lot of money for last year’s income taxes, I found out through a friend of mine about a lawsuit involving translation of thousands of pages of handwritten research reports in Japanese. I called the law firm located in downtown San Francisco and next day I had in my office a whole box filled with pages for translation. It took me three weeks to translate all those pages, but after barely three weeks, my problem with back income taxes was gone.

Incidentally, no translation agency was involved in this particular project, there was just one paralegal at the law firm’s offices, a pretty young Japanese girl who looked like she was eighteen. She looked like a beautiful Japanese porcelain doll. This is how big translation projects were handled in the pre-Internet era, which to me confirms the fact that for most projects, translation agencies are not necessary.

It was difficult to keep the hustle going, which is to say to keep business flowing in at a nice clip, after I moved from San Francisco, because in the pre-Internet era, you lost access to friends who were in the same business and had information on where the work is. I remember that I had almost no work for several months after I moved to Petaluma, until I drummed up new business from new sources. I tried not to worry about it too much, busy as I was discovering the wineries of the wine country, walking trails and an old lighthouse in the Marin County, the Valley of the Moon drive among the wineries in Sonoma County, the beach in Bodega Bay that I saw for the first time when I was about 15 in a Hitchcock movie.

Now let’s fast-forward from early nineties to the fall of 2018. The wife, now ex-wife, has gone back to Japan, the kids are gone too, one lives in California and one in Michigan, and I am moving my senior ass after more than 35 years in the States from Virginia to my native Southern Bohemia. I am a recently retired, happy recipient of two retirement incomes, one a decent one from US Social Security, after paying into it for 36 years, and the other one, small but welcome too, including monthly payments of my Czech healthcare system premiums made for me by the Czech equivalent of Social Security, into which I also paid for 10 years.

All of my earthly possessions that I was bringing with me from the Norfolk airport were in two pieces of luggage, which contained mostly underwear, shirts and pants and such. Oh, there were two Japanese-English and one German-English dictionaries in there two. I just could not part with those, even though so far, I have not really needed them.

More important than our earthly possessions, generally speaking, are streams of income that we can either generate or count on until we drop dead, and I was not in a bad position in that respect. In fact, from that point on, I clearly did not need to work anymore, while I could live modestly but quite comfortably in my new/old country.

But it would be incorrect to say that my possession were what I was schlepping with me through the Newark and Prague airports in my two pieces of luggage. My most valuable possession was information that was more or less safely stored in my head and on my laptop – the business connections to customers who needed the kind of services that I have been providing to them for more than three decades and the knowledge how to get the work done, either by myself, or through other translators working for me.

In a way, it’s not that I have to try to keep the hustle going, the hustle will not let go of me, regardless of how old I am and where I live now, as long as I continue saying yes to customers.

And why would I say no? It gives me something to do and I enjoy both the work and the money.


  1. “And why would I say no? It gives me something to do and I enjoy both the work and the money.”

    Because as MT continues to improve, perhaps you will enjoy the lower and lower rates less and less?


  2. You have been saying the same thing for 10 years now, although my rates have not gone down.

    I guess it’s the you’ve got.


  3. That is good, but your real hourly wage has declined about 50% since 2000 assuming your rates haven’t increased since then.

    I’ve heard Japanese>English translators say they are asked to translate notably less work now than three years ago. This trend will obviously continue as MT keeps improving.

    I will be off 5 to 8 years, although your prediction will be off two to three centuries.


  4. Your assumptions about what I do and how much I make are completely wrong, as usual. I mostly translate into German, French and Chinese now through other translators, and if I translate myself, it is usually not Japanese. My hourly wage has more than doubled. And did I mention that I don’t need to work at all because I have two pensions that are more than sufficient for me?


  5. You have commented how much you earn and what you translate over the years. I also don’t know of any high end translator who has raised his or her rates since 2000, which means that working the same hours means a real earnings decrease of 50% since 2000 due to inflation.

    If you farm out translations then your nominal wage may have doubled but your real wage did not. Also, the vast majority of translators are not managers.


  6. “If you farm out translations then your nominal wage may have doubled but your real wage did not”?

    Huh? Why not?


  7. Because of inflation since 2000.

    If you made $40/hr in 2000 and $80/hr in 2019, your nominal hourly wage increased 100% but your real hourly wage increased 35% as inflation in the U.S. increased 50% since 2000.

    A translator told me he made $100,000 in 2002 and that would go up and down with the yen over time. If he made $100,000 in 2018 then in 2018 dollars he made almost $140,000 in today’s dollars in 2002, so he made 40% less last year than in 2002.

    Last New Year’s he said a client no longer needed him as the law firm was switching to MT and cheaper translators, so a loss of 40% in work. They still ask him to translate at times so closer to a 20% loss in work and income. He isn’t the only high end translator who is experiencing this and at 48 is looking for a new line of work.


  8. Yes, of course, inflation is a bitch.

    But in 2000 I needed at least $6,000 a month to pay the the bills for a family of four plus taxes in US. Most months I made more than that but I was working like a slave.

    Now I can comfortably pay my bills even if I don’t work with about $2,000, which is less than my two pensions, because I live alone in a country where the cost of living is much lower.

    You have to get creative if you want to beat inflation. What is your plan for dealing with inflation?


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