Posted by: patenttranslator | November 24, 2019

Is Monopoly Possible in the Translation Market?

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Edmund Burke, Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher, 1729 – 1797.

An important feature of a well functioning economic system that is based on capitalist economy, is or at least used to be, unimpeded, free competition and access of many participants to a robust market for products and services. This was in fact the Achilles heel of socialism, Soviet style. Because Soviet style plants and companies set fixed and rigid production quotas and prices without needing to compete with each other as the prices and production quotas were set by highly placed apparatchiks who were sometime total morons, this “socialist economy” was beset by many problems, not the least of which was an almost constant lack or an insufficient amount of goods available to consumers, including goods that are simply necessary for normal life such as sanitary napkins and toilet paper. 

After the collapse of Soviet Union and the communist governments in its satellite countries, central planning was replaced by economy that is based on capitalist enterprise, which is in theory based on competition ensuring low prices and abundant supply of goods and services for all consumers.

But is that what really happened? Yes, in a way. Just about anything that you can buy in Western Europe or the United States can be also bought for about the same price in the previously communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

But if one takes a closer look at the products that are available in the supermarkets and hypermarkets for example in Czech Republic, the situation is not as rosy as one might think. For example, a few months ago I got totally disgusted after watching on internet an advertisement of the Gillette Company portraying men as pitiful sex hounds who cannot control their impulses and who therefore must be educated by enlightened lesbians (the marketing director of the campaign is reportedly such a person) to start treating women as enlightened lesbians think women should be treated, whatever that means.

So I decided to do my bit by no longer patronizing Gillette. But although several types of razor blades and shaving creams were displayed on the shelves in my store, it was for the most part just an illusion because all of the products for sale in my local supermarket were made by the Gillette Company. So, no choice, I either have to grow a beard or buy the stuff that Gillette sells, until I find a better source.

In the post-competition world of modern capitalist economy, the strategy of big multinational corporations is simple: kill off your competition to the extent possible and establish a monopolistic position by selling at first at a loss if necessary. A good example of this strategy would be for example the Microsoft Corporation. Once upon a time, while Microsoft was still establishing its monopolistic position for MS Word and Office, the Microsoft license that you bought for your software was good for as long as you wanted to use the software. Now you have to buy it again, again, and again every year … until you drop dead or switch to a Microsoft compatible Free Office product, whichever comes first.

Fortunately for us, translators, the translation market is quite different from the market for shaving cream or razor blades. The main reason for this, I believe, is the fact that while there is not much difference between two cans of shaving cream or two razor blades, provided that the shaving cream feels smooth and good on the skin and works well and the razor blade shaves well and close to the skin, there is a world of difference between two ‘translations’.

More like a universe of many differences, depending on whether the translation is a relatively simple translation of a letter from a long-lost relative in a foreign country, an advertising blurb, a cooking recipe, or an article from a scientific journal or a patent application. I have translated all of these subjects in small and big ‘niches and sub-niches’ of translation markets… with the exception of cooking recipes. I don’t remember whether someone asked me in more than 30 years to translate a cooking recipe, but I would most likely have turned it down. I don’t cook and I’m pretty that sure that I would make stupid mistakes even in a pretty simple translation, simply because I know about cooking about as much as I know about ladies fashion, which is to say nothing.

Some translators argue that translation is not really a specific field, but instead a specialized sub-field of many other specialized fields. I see their point and agree with them, up to a point.

My field, the main one, the one that I deal with now about 95% of the time, has to do with patents: both translation of patents for research and litigation purposes and for filing purposes. I mostly translate patents into English by myself; into other languages always through other translators, highly qualified and experienced and native in respective languages into which they translate. I know several other languages than English well enough to check the work of people who work for me, but not well enough to translate into these languages.

As I was saying, I think that it is for the most part essentially impossible to become a monopoly like Gillette or Microsoft for a large translation agency, nowadays called ‘LSP’ as in ‘language service provider” (as if the services were provided by the agency and not by a translator), because this damn thing called ‘translation’, which is not really a field as such as some people are saying and not without good reason, because there are enormous differences between different fields of translation. Despite this simple fact, all or most translation agencies claim to be able to translate anything and everything in any field and into and from any language.

Because as far as most translation agencies or ‘LSPs’ are concerned, translation is basically about replacing words in one language by words in another language, most of them do a piss-poor job at it and don’t even know it. Don’t even know it because they have no way of evaluating their own work – for that, they would need to know all the languages they claim to be expertly translating. So if they need to evaluate ‘quality’, they have to ask a translator, probably without realizing that many translators may not have a good reason to be straight with an ignorant agency.  

The best evidence that monopolization of translation services is impossible is the fact that after decades of mutually destructive internecine warfare intended to kill off competition the way Amazon or Microsoft has done it, the market for translation is still a famously fragmented market with a great number of participants in it, big and small, including yours truly. I am happy to say that my business has not been affected much by what I consider an insane price competition in the general translation market.

Although many large translation agencies are attempting to become a major force in the translation market and some have become very big by buying out competitors based on the time-tested big-fish-eat-small-fish method, if they do become a major player, they are that only in their relatively small niche, such as fast an cheap translations of corporate propaganda that nobody wants to read much, often performed by students or beginners, or by fast and cheap translators living in countries with a low cost of living.

For a more complicated kind of translation, customers still need to turn to a specialized supplier, either a specialized translator, if they can find one, or at least a specialized translation agency that does not pretend to be able to ‘do any type of translation from and into any language’, which is what every big fish must be doing to survive


  1. This is all so true. I have always hated being asked to evaluate other translators’ work, but as you say the agencies can’t do it themselves. The thing is that this method plainly doesn’t work. On several occasions I have had my work evaluated by people who are either non-native speakers, Americans or other semi-educated people, or seemingly just crazy people who think that seeing as they have been asked to evaluate a translation, their task is to invent as many mistakes as they can find. It happens with clients sometimes too: they invent problems with translations when they can’t read the original text at all. I suppose you can’t blame them for feeling that they are liable to be swindled by the ‘LSP’. If you want to analyse it in terms of competition, agencies have to pretend they can do every translation into every language. Also, even when their economic model (one large American agency outsources its translations to South America so it can pay less, with predictably awful results) means they should advertise themselves as Cheapo Translations! Never mind the quality, Low Low Prices! or something, obviously they are all going to pretend that they have some pixie dust they can sprinkle over everything to make it 100% perfect in every case. So that means there isn’t much they can compete on. Price? Not really. Paying less to the translators is a good way to increase profits, but they have to keep the prices to the clients up. No, it is speed that is the selling point. Promising not only to do magic with quality, but to do it with a two or three hour turnaround time, and explaining this by claiming to have an international network of top professionals working on it, seems to be the industry standard. The most cost-effective method of speeding up delivery is to cut out the proof-reading and correction phase, which means paying at least one other person. Another, now considered normal practice, is to split a translation among several translators, with no co-ordination among them, and again no proof-reading. I asked one big Israeli agency if they didn’t realise that this was a guaranteed method of producing internally inconsistent translations, and they replied ‘Oh no, it’s OK, we have a clause in the contract saying we are not responsible for any mistranslations.’ I think that is a kind of motto for the whole industry.


  2. Ha, ha, ha, thank you so much for your comment!


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