Supply-side Tiers: A Different Way of Looking at the Translation Business

Translators often classify clients as agency clients and direct clients. Regarding the supply side of the translation business, Neil Langdon Inglis many years ago posited that there was a de facto caste system among translators. Another approach is to discuss the translation supply side in terms of tiers, employing terminology that is commonly used in fields such as the auto industry, which might be useful in looking at the differences between translation and other businesses.

Tier One.  In the translation supply chain, tier one (T1) is populated by translation providers (including agencies and some individuals) selling translations to translation consumers (as opposed to other translation sellers).

Tier Two.  Translation providers that sell translations to T1 translation providers are tier-two (T2) providers. Most T2 providers, but certainly not all, are individual translators.

There can be more than two tiers. A translation provider selling translations to a T2 translation provider as a sub-subcontractor would be a tier-three (T3) translation provider.

For much of the translation sold by T1 providers, the value added by a T1 provider is often purchased from yet another T2 provider, in the form of rescue work to repair badly done translations from the first T2 provider.

In terms of who is selling to whom, the translation business tier structure is similar to the auto industry. Beyond that, however, there are some radical differences. The most serious difference is that, in the auto industry, the end-user (OEMs, the auto makers) most often know the identity of the T2 parts supplier that their T1 supplier is purchasing parts from. In the translation business, because most of the translation sold is sold by  T1 translation providers having little value to add, the T1 providers perhaps rightfully fear losing their business to T2 translation providers if they disclosed the identity of their T2 suppliers. The result is that the identity of a T2 provider is rarely revealed by the T1 translation provider to the end-user (translation consumer), and the identity of the end-user is, when possible, kept hidden from the T2 provider.

All evidence I have seen indicates that only a tiny portion of the people working as and calling themselves translators will ever become T1 providers. This view is supported by long years of experience and interaction with translators. The reasons are various, some attributable to decisions made by the translators themselves, including the choice of the place to live and the choice of source languages from which to translate. Others reasons relate to the ability of individual T2 providers to grow to the point of taking on the role of a T1 provider. For my language direction (Japanese-to-English) I would estimate the proportion of translation practitioners who reach the T1 ranks to be significantly less than 5%.

Given the above, I sometimes wonder about the value of even attempting to suggest to translators strategies for taking on the T1 translation provider role. Very few will ever achieve that, and the ones who will get there will most likely get there without suggestions from me.

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Taking More Money for Your Translations

(Adopted with minor changes from comments I made in a panel discussion at the IJET-9 Conference, held in Yokohama way back in 1998. Nothing much has changed to invalidate these comments.)

I would like to present a few ideas on how you can take more money for your translation, focusing on the act of taking. My comments are basically directed at non-Japanese translators trying to make more money translating in Japan, but they should have value to translators in other situations as well.

The suggestions given below for making more money include some generalities. Naturally, there are exceptions that can be pointed out. Remember, however, that what we call wisdom is often just a collection of generalities.

First, take control. Taking control of the translator-client relationship might seem a bit too aggressive a stance, especially in Japan. Remember, however, that in Japan (as elsewhere, but perhaps more here) as a service provider you are coming from behind. By taking control of the relationship, you can raise yourself to the position of an equal. I will say more about control in a moment.

Take no for an answer. When you have presented your story and your rates, and have been refused, sometimes you need to accept no for an answer and just walk away. Additional sales efforts are often a waste of time–spelled a loss of money–and it won’t be the prospective client who is wasting your time; it will be you. In some cases, especially when a translator who usually works for direct clients is approached by an agency, the translator makes the most money (that is, loses the least money) by being honest with the agency and simply telling them that they probably couldn’t afford the price.

Take nothing for granted. For a number of years I had two manufacturer clients which consistently gave me a total of more than 2 million yen monthly. Then 1990 happened, and these companies started bleeding red ink so badly that they virtually lost their translation budgets. Lots of people thought this kind of thing could never happen. Hit with a drastically reduced work inflow, I started putting more effort into increasing the proportion of patent translation I was doing. Patent translation, at least the kind I started doing, turned out to be largely immune to recession. I also went out and found some other manufacturer clients. The lesson to be learned is that flexibility and client diversity are important in riding out the storm.

One of the above two clients, before they went heavily into the red, was paying me so much for translations per month that someone there got the idea to try to hire me as an in-house translator. They never imagined that the offer they made me, a salary amounting to about 70% of my previous billings, when bonuses and fringe benefits were included was not nearly going to cover the lost income from other clients, probably because they fell into the common trap of thinking that they were the only client I had. They too were taking something for granted. The fact that they offered much less money, however, points to another rule for taking more money.

Take the work home. Most freelance translators already know that they can make more money as a freelance translator than as an in-house translator. The pain threshold for in-house translator salary is generally around the department manager level, above which the emotional stress placed on the employer and the accompanying animosity that occurs can be unbearable. Salaries of a special employees such as in-house translators (especially if they are foreigners) inevitably become known to the “regular” employees, and hearing that a translator is getting, for example, 900,000 yen per month (a highly unlikely amount, but easily earned as a freelancer) would destroy the harmony in even the most peaceful companies.

In situations in which an employee is seen to be working at a desk or otherwise in the presence of other salaried employees, there is an effective “market salary limit,” above which earnings probably cannot be pushed.

This limit also operates to put a ceiling on the amount of money that can be charged for interpreting, and for doing such tasks as on-site discovery document examination and translation, all situations in which the service provider must work in the presence of the client. It isn’t difficult for an experienced industrial translator to earn more per hour as a freelancer than a client could bear to see the translator earn while sitting at the next desk. When you take work home–i.e., work as an outside translator–you make it a lot easier for clients to deceive themselves into thinking you are not really earning that high an income per unit of time.

Take prisoners. Clients who think they can drop you might drop you. Those who realize they need you–and I mean you, not some other translator and not me–are more likely to give you more of the stuff that you pay your rent with. Your mission then is to find clients to whom your work is not only valuable, but essential.

Take your spoken Japanese ability seriously. The seldom-broached topic of spoken Japanese ability is sometimes a sensitive one. My experience tells me that, other factors being equal, a non-Japanese translator who cannot operate effectively in spoken Japanese in dealing with clients is at a serious disadvantage in negotiating for high rates and maintaining the necessary control over the client-provider relationship. Some translators might have success in selling their services to Japanese with considerably less than acceptable spoken Japanese. Imagine, if you will, however, the level of success that could be expected of a Japanese translator in the US trying to sell his or her services to a client using very poor English, or even so poor that it would encourage a Japanese-capable client to speak Japanese with the translator. There are clients here in Japan who will flip a conversation with a translator from Japanese to English out of desperation and discomfort. Having allowed that to occur, it becomes considerably more difficult to gain control and take high rates.

Take stock of what your translations are worth to your clients. It matters little what you think your translations are worth. Your rates will be largely governed by their value to your clients. One way to get more money, therefore, is to seek out clients to whom your work is more valuable. This should point translators toward writer-driven translation as opposed to reader-driven translation.

Take a good look at your client list, with a view to replacing low-paying clients with higher-paying clients. When I am asked by a colleague how to get a client to pay more money, my answer is often “you can’t.” It is very difficult to raise your rates significantly with your existing clients. You generally need to find new, higher-paying clients. This inevitably means leaving your older, lower-paying clients behind. The willingness to take that step is important in achieving a significant increase in income.

So where do you get these new higher-paying clients?

Take to the streets. It’s simple. Get out and sell. Because I have covered ways of selling in a number of articles in various fora and will revisit that topic sometime shortly here, I won’t go into details at this point. Suffice it to say that a translator with a high desire for more money might think about selling to direct clients. For me, this means stalking the streets and participating in events attended by prospective clients. Old Japan hands might tell you that they get their work through introductions and connections, and that applies to me as well. Connections, however, are not conferred on translators at birth, nor are they issued to foreigners as they pass through immigration when they arrive in Japan. Connections are made. Once made, connections can be worked, but it is certainly possible for a translator with no connections or introductions to make connections and find clients. Not everything the old Japan hands say is necessarily true. And on your way home from selling, you might think about:

Taking a taxi. Even if you are not getting all the money you want for translation yet, many taxi rides will save a translator more money, in terms of time not taken away from translating, than the cost of the taxi. This might sound like a trivial point, but it is just one example of spending money wisely as opposed to accepting inherited wisdom regarding frugality.

There is more that can be said above some of the above points, and that will be coming in future articles.

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Some Thoughts on Japanese Reading and Comprehension

Just how well do you need to read Japanese to be a JA-to-EN translator? I have heard this question from beginners, and thought I would make a few comments, which could perhaps be of some interest even to experienced translators. Naturally, I am directing my comments to NES (native English speaker) translators, the group that has the highest potential of achieving professional-level translation ability in JA-to-EN translation.

Starting Out

Many translators, and particularly the vast majority of translators working in the bulk market, are fortunate in that most translation situations allow them to hide from their clients, translating in the seclusion of their workplace, without the danger of being discovered scampering through a pile of dictionaries or running to the Internet, in utter confusion and distress. This fortunate situation is made possible in most cases by the intervention of an agency in the translation business food chain. Yes, the very same agencies that are decried as an evil in the translation world. The presence of the agency saves the translator from embarrassment and saves the client from worrying about whether the translator is really up to the job. Unfortunately, in addition to greatly lowering the income-earning potential of translators, it essentially prevents interaction between the translator and the only entity who can help the translation process–the translation consumer or author.

For the beginning translator, therefore, the answer to my original question is often “not that good at all,” if the definition of success at translation is the receipt of repeated jobs. The tolerance for plodding along at a slow pace, with heavy reliance on dictionary work and other time-consuming research, is governed in this sector of the market by tolerance on the part of the translator for low income. The question of quality remains, however, and my experience tells me that a translation done with lots of dictionary work and research at a very low speed is more likely to have serious problems than one done at a more commercially practical speed by someone capable of working essentially free of the dictionary lookup process.

Breaking Out and Away From Dictionaries

While translators are often assumed to work surrounded by piles of dictionaries and with heavy online lookup work, some beginners might be surprised to discover how little dictionary work accomplished professionals do during an average workday. Once you get to a level at which J-E translation is no longer painful, you will not that often be using dictionaries to look up Japanese words and characters. One key to this is working in your field of specialization, which will be the topic of another article.

But for the non-Japanese translator from Japanese, just what metrics would be useful indicators of whether you have achieved a level that enables a breakaway from dictionaries and a breakout from the bulk market? I would like to propose the following as a set of things that a seasoned translator might want to have as Japanese capabilities and that beginning translators should aim for. Some of these sound irrelevant, but are included for the specific reasons cited.

  • Read aloud an article from a Japanese newspaper, without faltering. This is a measure of your general comprehension. We often hear comments such as “I know what it means, but I can’t remember the reading.” I submit that many times these comments are not supported by fact and are merely demonstrations of a lack of reading comprehension. Such comments appear to more commonly come from JA-to-EN translators living outside Japan or living in Japan but with limited active use of Japanese outside of translation work.
  • Work through a typical translation text with no more than one dictionary lookup per 1000 characters. Why, you might ask, is such a level of independence from dictionaries required? It is not, I suppose, if you are not interested in achieving a healthy income, regardless of whether you work with direct clients or agencies. But there are other reasons; read on, please.
  • Discuss a job with a Japanese client over the phone, including reading off passages from their manuscript. Perhaps the above two items come into more focus now? There are not that many direct Japanese clients who are comfortable giving translation work to a non-Japanese who would falter in reading a manuscript aloud. This again points up one of the values of an intervening agency, which shields the translator (and the client) from such distressing situations.
  • Develop Japanese as an active tool for communication on a day-to-day basis. For those living outside Japan, this might be difficult, and to some translators this might seem unnecessary, regardless of where they live. Think again, however, of the times you have been stumped by elements in a manuscript simply because they are not things that you would use, for no other reason than that you simply don’t use Japanese to communicate. This phenomenon is particularly prevalent with slang expressions, expressions needing cultural context, and (last but not least) sloppily handwritten documents, which sometimes can be saved only if the translator can figure out what could have been written in a particular situation. Other problems involve field-specific jargon and abbreviations.

Are these comments starting to come into better focus?

Having Japanese language as an active and usable tool is not a matter of showing off how well you have learned the language, but rather a matter of developing the ability to rise to (or fall to?) the level of the manuscript because it is written in an idiom and context with which you have an active capability.

How Do You Get There?

There are probably as many answers to this question as there are translators or prospective translators.

Receiving a formal education in Japanese can be helpful but is seldom sufficient to reach the level of ability that I have cited above. We probably all know people with advanced degrees in Japanese who could perform few of the feats I cited. Here are a few suggestions on getting there, hopefully without that much pain on the way.

Get a Japanese Life. That’s neither an insult nor a typo. If you have any interests outside of translation, language learning and Japanese culture, why not pursue those interests through the medium of Japanese? This is a bit difficult outside of Japan, I must admit, but for people who have the chance to interact with Japanese, I strongly recommend this approach. Are you interested in cycling, art, music, or whatever? Find Japanese people with the same interests, join their groups, and interact, preferably in person. Some good stuff might rub off.

Use Japanese With Your Japanese Clients. Admittedly this can be difficult at the beginning, and is often virtually impossible in many cases if you have started out the relationship using English. However, any translator with aspirations of breaking out of the agency-served bulk market and acquiring direct clients in Japan is usually going to have to get past this hurdle.

Acquire an Informant With the Correct Work Context and Experience. Fairly early (about 40 years ago) in my exposure to Japanese, I was thrown into a situation in which I needed to sell products (my US company’s) in Japanese. Luckily I had a Japanese salesman working for me who I could use as a model for “sales Japanese.” He had years of experience selling, making him a good model to copy. You might not get so lucky, but it might pay to try to interact with someone who can provide a role model in speaking sales-ready Japanese, which is absolutely necessary in dealing with clients in Japanese. What you learned in school will not suffice.

Read Japanese Other Than the Manuscripts You Translate. As unbelievable as it might seem, there are translators who do no reading of Japanese unless they are translating. Reading outside of your manuscripts, either in your field or outside your field of specialty can give you the depth and breadth of experience necessary to pull you out of tight spots. I highly recommend it.

Almost all translators have a life outside of translation, and reading about those non-translation interests is a good way to improve your command of real Japanese, while acquiring information about a subject in which you are really interested.

For example, one of my interests is the Imperial Japanese Navy (and its reincarnation as the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force). Another is collecting slide rules (no laughter, please). I read about both topics in Japanese. I read books in Japanese that are about other things as well, and hardly ever travel on a train or plane without something to read in Japanese.

Is Thoroughly Understanding the Source Text Enough?

This is, of course, a rhetorical question. Target-language writing ability and subject-matter knowledge are also essential, and will be topics of discussion in the near future.

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Pressing Flesh is not Just for Politicians: The Value of Face-to-Face Sales for Translators

As a follow-up to comments directed at translators who have declared or are about to declare defeat to translation market forces or some imagined structural impediments that they think hold them back from advancing from the bottom end of the market into premium translation, here is an example of some chain-reaction encounters that can happen if you hang out in the right places. It goes without saying that what follows is a personal experience, but I think it worthwhile to relate what can happen when you get out from in front of your computer, look up from your small screen, and press the flesh.

To start off with some background, several months ago an interpreter friend A called to say that he was asked by someone to do some interpreting for a US attorney B (to him, an unknown attorney) that he could not handle because of a scheduling conflict. He introduced me to US attorney B, with the understanding that I would work for him directly. That is not the point of this article, but just the beginning of a string of events that confirm my belief in the value of making direct, face-to-face contact with potential clients.

Attorney B needed interpreting assistance with two things. One was a presentation to a huge Japanese printing company regarding his services (patent litigation). When I heard the name of the place we were to visit, I was pleased to see that it was printing company C, which I had previously done deposition interpreting for in Osaka and Seoul. And the very person we were to meet was the fellow that I dealt with in those two locations. I was working through a law firm at the time and had no direct dealings with printing company C, but certainly want to acquire them as a customer. It was a somewhat surprising and fun re-connection. A subsequent one-on-one meeting with their IP department manager made it seem like getting their work might take some time, but our discussions are ongoing. Yet that is still not the end of this story.

The next task for attorney B was to interpret for him at a presentation to the Japan Patent Attorneys Association event, which Japanese patent attorneys would be attending and getting CPE credits for. The presentation went well, and I exchanged a few business cards, but there was really not much time to do any serious selling, and engaging in such activity there would not have been appropriate. But again, the chain of encounters continues.

The youngish Japanese patent attorney D who introduced US attorney B and me to the audience at the presentation called me a few days after the presentation to ask me if I would like to attend a party event at the end of the series of training sessions for Japanese patent attorneys. I gladly accepted the invitation and put it on my calendar.

When the formal invitation arrived, I was a bit concerned, because it appeared that it was billed as an event at which the Japanese patent attorneys would have the opportunity to rub elbows with real-life foreigners and try out their English-speaking skills. This is not exactly the type of environment that would facilitate my selling to them, since I sell to Japanese customers in Japanese. Oh, well, I thought, I’ll go along with the game.

At the start of the party, a person from the JPAA announced that no Japanese was to be spoken. Alright, I’ll pretend to be a monolingual American for a while. It turned out, however, that it was easier than I had imagined to slip into Japanese. I proceeded to work the crowd, so-to-speak, and what ensued was a series of encounters that I feel will lead far beyond rubbing elbows as an English-speaking foreigner. Specifically, I ran into the following people.

  • Three attorneys from a well-known Japanese law firm, one of the attorneys on the letterhead of which I know from more than three decades ago, having been involved in a case with Kodak and Sony (he and I were on the Kodak side). My client was not his firm, but rather Kodak’s outside counsel, a large US law firm. In speaking to the most senior of the three attorneys, it turns out that he was involved with the very case I was interpreting for the day of the party, luckily on the same side.
  • Surprise! The attorney for the other side in the deposition I was interpreting in that day was also there. We had parted at 4 PM with no expectation of running into each other that night. I had done some work for his firm as an expert witness (and was deposed as a result) years ago, but I didn’t have much contact with them since then. I will not necessarily be selling to him, but it is an interesting demonstration of how small a world it is.
  • A US attorney from a large law firm that I have worked with fairly recently. I have known her for over 20 years and did not realize that she had moved to that firm. She has been in Japan almost all of those 20 years. I strongly suspect that this firm will be a continuing source of work.
  • A US attorney I have known for about 15 or so years on-and-off. He was formerly with a US firm in Japan from which I was getting translation and interpreting work. He subsequently moved to another firm and has very recently moved to a fairly small Tokyo operation of a smallish firm in the US. He is a strong prospect for work for us.
  • An in-house Japanese patent attorney at a Japanese company involved in manufacturing of displays. No, not the one that is now a Taiwanese company. This is also a good prospect for translation work.
  • Five Japanese patent attorneys from firms that I have yet to work for. I strongly suspect that I will be able to get work from one or more of them.
  • A Japanese patent attorney working for a Chinese electronics company but doing filings in the US for things developed in Japan.

All of this happened within about two hours.

The encounters with people I already knew were valuable in bringing my presence to their attention after a long span of silence. Naturally, it is unlikely that more than one or two of the new encounters will result in new business. But spending two hours or so and acquiring even one or two clients is a feat that is not easily accomplished.

And after all of the above, on the way out of the venue, Japanese patent attorney D mentioned that he thought he would be asking me to do some translation in a few months. And I had not even sold to him specifically.

All of these encounters are possible. If you think that you need to have connections to do this, let me just say that nobody is born with connections; they make connections. This is true of other professions as well. For example, successful litigation attorneys not only are smart but also are capable of making connections (and making rain, as they would say). And translators can make connections too, unless they have made career and life decisions that distance them from potential connections. In an upcoming article I will discuss some of the ways translators retreat from the market into a position in which they can rarely take advantage of direct client contact, along with some suggestions on how to network. Suffice it to say at this point that it does not involve social media.

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The Translator Echo Chamber: The Effect of Social Media

As I wrote in a recent article, it appears that translators of a feather flock together in social media groups, and that the grouping is generally in line with their position on the continuum between the bottom of the bulk market and the top of the premium market. Having come together in this manner, it appears that a group mentality is formed, with translators reinforcing each other’s views of what is common and expected in translation and resisting opposing views.

If a newcomer to translation wanders into a group populated mostly by translators near the bottom of the continuum, the takeaway is likely to be that normal and expected characteristics of working as a freelance translator include:

  • inevitably working for agencies;
  • translating without being able to ask questions of the author of the source text or consumer of the translation;
  • working for entities that are so suspicious that you need to ask other translators whether they can be trusted to pay;
  • taking work offered on Proz;
  • getting (and thinking that you can get) “good” clients on reverse auctions such as Proz;
  • thinking that “updating your Proz profile” is being pro-active in selling your services;
  • thinking that being a “certified” Proz translator or a paid customer of Proz means that you are serious about your profession;
  • working for rates of one-third or one-half of those generally paid by translation consumers for translation;
  • using a specific agency-mandated CAT tool in order to get work from the agency;
  • working online using an agency-mandated translation “platform;”
  • correcting bad translations done by others;
  • post-editing machine translation output;
  • working outside your subject-matter field of competency (because that is what you are asked to do by an agency);
  • using a free e-mail service and thinking that it does not reflect poorly on your professionalism;
  • thinking that you must surrender to an agency-controlled market;
  • hoping someday to get direct clients, but thinking direct clients only work with agencies;
  • thinking that there is a “market” translation rate that can be quoted or advised on by colleagues if you just tell them the language direction and field; and
  • thinking that it is useful to spend time complaining about low rates;

Although there are probably few translators who assume all of the above are normal, there are clearly numerous translators who not only think most of the above are normal, but also are faced with them as their reality on a daily basis. The operative word here is their.

Because not a single one of the above characteristics have applied to my translation work over nearly four decades of translating, I can see them for what they are. And most of the translators I know and meet here in Japan can generally say the same thing. One major reason for this is that I know mostly Japanese-to-English translators, and we live in our source-language country. (Just how important living in your source-language country is in breaking out of the bulk-market will be discussed in another article in the near future.)

New translators, however, do not have a body of experience to draw on in performing a reality check when they hear colleagues proclaiming the above-noted “realities” they perceive about our profession. And joining groups of similar experience-challenged colleagues isolates them from the viewpoints and experiences of people who perceive the translation business and their place in it in a very different way. Such isolation makes it easier for translators to fall into the trap of thinking that this is just the way the translation profession is, and that nothing can be done to change or avoid it. On social media platforms, they will find considerable reinforcement of these defeatist ideas, in two forms.

Positive reinforcement. On several fora that I participate in or regularly monitor, translators frequently provide positive reinforcement and validation of the ideas of our profession as noted above.

Push-back in translators’ groups. Translators who pipe up and posit, for example,

  • that you do not need to work with agencies,
  • that you do not need to use an agency-mandated CAT product or online platform, and
  • that belief in Proz as a place to get good clients is simply mistaken

are likely to get considerable push-back from translators who have embraced these aspects of working as a freelance translator as axiomatic and who don’t sense a value in doubting the inherited wisdom of colleagues who belong to what is best characterized as a poverty cult.

I am in a number of translators’ groups on Facebook and regularly monitor a translators’ group hosted at Google. Some of these are restricted to Japanese/English translators, while others are populated mostly by translators working other language pairs. The above-noted characteristics are common to most of these fora.

Although it might be uncomfortable to discover that your way of pursuing your translation career is seriously at odds with the experiences of others, I would advise newcomers to translation to take a look at translators who don’t fit into the mold presented as inherited wisdom. I would additionally ask them to ask themselves why the experiences of some other translators are vastly different from their experiences. The answer to that question could provide some hints as to how to break out of the bottom ranks or, depending upon the translator’s specific situation, a hint that it is going to be very rough going. Either outcome is better than believing things that are not necessarily true.

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Some Modest Predictions for Translation in 2018

As we start a new year, here are a few thoughts I have about how things might go in the translation field. They are subjective thoughts, of course, which is another way of saying that they are supported by my observations over decades in the translation business and, more specifically, over the past year or so.

Translator upward mobility. I expect that, for most translators, upward mobility in the translation food chain, which is already difficult, will gradually become even more difficult. Additionally, in at least certain markets (such as my language pair of Japanese-to-English), there is a chance that, depending upon a translator’s current position in the market, involuntary downward mobility might be an outcome to be of concern. That said, there are very few translators working at the top; perhaps only 5 to 10% of translators are doing any significant work in the truly premium market, which essentially means working for direct clients. I think these translators will largely be spared any slide into or toward the bulk market, because they have achieved a bit of immunity, both to the direct demands of the bulk market for cheaply done translations and to the domino effect triggered by translators just below them in the food chain caving in to such demands.

Bulk-market translators. Here is where I see a real existential risk for those who think that it will continue to be business as usual. There are two major factors that will work to accelerate this risk. One is the continued presence of translators in cheap-labor economies. In JA-to-EN translation, for example, a large portion of the huge demand for discovery document translation for US litigation is already being served by translation brokers in China and India. This is placing downward pressure on rates offered by US translation brokers to translators in the US, many of whom are quite dependent on such work. Some have given in to the low rates being offered, and this will inevitably place pressure on colleagues just above them in the pecking order to do the same or perish. Essentially, even those who are not immediately above the cheap labor economy translators have reasons to be concerned.

An additional risk in terms of rates is a two-forked one, represented by existing reverse auctions such as Proz and the proliferation of new online translation platforms, both of which work to lower the bar to entry into translation. The result is a ready supply of new translators ill-equipped to produce high-quality translations, but very willing to work for low rates. The demand for translations that are “good enough” as long as they are cheaply done has been demonstrated to be large. And the willingness of translation consumers to sacrifice quality to achieve a low purchase price provides fertile ground for the growth of machine translation services, bringing me to the next area of my predictions.

Machine translation. Anybody who has seen the low quality of JA-to-EN translations coming from translators in cheap-labor economies should recognize that there is already a considerable overlap in quality between machine translation and bad translations produced by humans, and that these poorly done human translations are already gaining acceptance in bulk translation markets such as the US discovery document market. If you are already able to use “good enough” bad translations produced by humans, the barrier to using much cheaper machine translation of a comparable quality falls away. This represents a threat to not only the JA-to-EN translators in India and China, but also to the lower-level translators in more advanced economies who are just above them in the food chain.

The effect of social media. Although social media is not a place to find up-market translation clients, interactions in groups of translators on social media platforms can affect a translator’s expectations regarding several important aspects of the translation profession. My experience is that translators using social media tend to group themselves roughly along lines of their position in the food chain of the translation market. A group that is populated mostly by translators in the low-paid bulk market will develop a group mentality regarding a number of issues facing translators. Essentially, these translators are in an echo chamber of their choosing. I suspect that members of such groups who have different views might be reluctant to express those views, perhaps not to annoy other members, or out of a sense of futility. I will go into this aspect of translator interaction in a short article coming up soon.

In summary, I think the world of translation as seen by practitioners in the coming year will not see any quantum leaps, but rather will be affected by trends that are better described as gentle drifting.

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The Basics of Qualifying Prospective Translation Clients

Regardless of whether you are out there selling your services or take a more passive approach by preferring to wait for inquiries, you will likely waste a good deal of time (and risk losing both time and money) if you do not quickly judge whether a prospective client is “real,” which is really actually just determining whether working for the client will be rewarding in the way you expect to be rewarded for your work.

Because there is a wide spectrum of expectations, depending largely upon a translator’s position in the food chain, a single translator’s view of qualifying a client might not seem reasonable to another translator. Hear me out, however, as I have been around the block a number of times with clients who held and did not hold promise of being rewarding to work for. I will set forth some attributes for qualified clients, categorizing these as essential or important. Some of these are simply common sense, but it is surprising how many translators never go through this process of client qualification.

Additionally, I will boldly assume that readers want to avoid payment problems and wants to have some form of recourse should problems arise, including but not limited to payment.

True physical location disclosed (essential). This should be a given, and is particularly important if the client is (or is suspected of being) too distant to directly visit.

Entities with no substance to speak of (some of them kitchen tabletop translation brokers) will often not disclose a physical address and some will fake up an address in a prestigious-sounding location. The latter can often be found out for what they are with just a bit of searching on the Internet. Simply Google the address to find out what is at the purported address. Often you will discover that the address houses a shared work space or mail-drop service. Bingo, you have outed the “company” as having essentially no substance in the location in which they purport to have an office.

Indication that they are a registered company (essential). Some translation brokers have websites that make them look like companies, when in fact they are individuals. If you run into problems with such a translation broker, your chances of getting restitution are greatly reduced, compared with the case of dealing with a registered company having more substance.

Use of a company-owned domain email address (essential). A place purporting to be a company should not be using a Gmail account or similar free mail service. Even paid email services riding on an Internet provider’s domain are not an indication of substance; they do not demonstrate that the entity takes the business seriously. What is called for is a unique domain name owned by the entity. And it is also advisable to Whois the domain to see who really owns it. It could be that the company is not a company and that the domain is owned by an individual whose name–unless a proxy is used to assure anonymity–could be revealed by using a Whois search.

My personal approach is to have an auto-reply note sent to every inquiry that comes to my inquiry address, stating that we do not even reply to email sent from free email accounts.

No requirement to use a specific translation “platform” or a specific CAT tool (essential). Such requirements (and certainly the requirement to use a platform) are usually indications that you are looking at not much more than a translation broker feeding at the bottom of the market and looking for translators who are also down at the bottom.

Location in a country having at least either the source or the target language as the official language or main language spoken (important). This is particularly important with translation between Japanese and English, since many bulk-market translation brokers have sprouted up in India and China. The ones in China are often subcontractors to translation brokers in the US that sell discovery document translations to their law firm clients. They offer very low prices but not much more. For this reason, my auto-reply note states that we do not deal with entities in places such as China and India (and as a matter of fact, with brokers in any country).

Personalized email greeting (important). Many translation brokers shotgun inquiries and do not personalize their emails. This is another sign of a bulk-market bottomfeeder. If they cannot take the time to address you in their inquiry, you should think twice about taking any time even to respond to their inquiry.

Full name of the sender disclosed (important). Although expectations regarding formality in communication depend on the particular local business culture, it is not unreasonable at least to expect to learn the full name of the sender of an inquiry without having to ask for it. Things like “Hi, this is Sandy from … ” are not what you would expect from a prospective client that you wish to treat you like a professional.

Location that you can directly visit (important). This is important for two reasons: a visit can verify the prospect’s substance (or lack of it), and proximity makes trouble resolution easier.

Even with the Internet and the ability to work at a distance from the translation demand location, if trouble ever arises, you will likely be out of luck dealing with an entity in a different country. Unscrupulous agencies know and use this in their treatment of their vendors. A good approach is to look for clients in your country of residence before extending your sales efforts to places that spell potential trouble.

It is very likely that, depending upon where you are in the translation food chain, you might be reading this and thinking that even the few common-sense conditions noted above would disqualify most of the inquiries you receive. For people hanging out on reverse auction sites such as Proz, the percentage of disqualified inquiries might be very high. If that is unacceptable, the only solution is to hang out somewhere else, and ways to do that will be discussed in another post in the near future.


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Meet Me Under a Bridge for Some Exciting News

Executive summary: Anonymity in cyberspace should be eliminated.

There has been lots of talk lately about the responsibility of social media companies for removing content that promotes terrorism. I agree that they should do that.

But complaints about terrorist hatred and recruiting people to implement their ideas completely ignore the root problem, which is that social media companies (and the internet in general) virtually assure their customers that they can remain anonymous, even to the social media companies themselves. It becomes easier to be irresponsible or criminal if you are assured of your anonymity.

For example, you can establish any number of fake accounts and anonymous pages on Facebook without providing any identification whatsoever. I have done just that several times as an experiment.
And the things you can do with that easily acquired anonymity are certainly not limited to calling for someone to commit a terrorist act. The same goes for free email services such as Gmail, which are totally anonymous.

I think the real solution to many of the problems on the internet is simply the total elimination of anonymity.

To use the internet, you should be required to identify yourself in a verifiable manner, not only to your internet provider, but also, and more importantly, to anybody you interact with on the internet, whether it be by email or on social media. Naturally, this would bring screams of protest from all sorts of people up to no good and people wanting to posture as protectors of “freedom.”

The vast majority of anonymous Facebook pages and fake accounts are anonymous and fake for good reasons. And most of the stuff that gets shared, even by normally sane people, is from anonymous sources. Yes, most of those Facebook pages you share (including the ones I agree with and have even Liked) are from totally anonymous players.

But think for a moment about the world outside of the internet. People who don’t say who they are in real life situations usually are not trusted. Why should it be any different on the internet or on social media platforms?

Would you listen to a story told to you by an unknowable masked person under a bridge somewhere, believe the story, and then share it with virtually everybody you interact with, without identifying the source or even thinking to find out who that “masked man” was? Probably not, but why has this become normal behavior on Facebook and the platforms of other such social media companies?

As long as people continue to steep themselves in the unthinking Share and Like culture that the huge social media companies have created, nothing will change.

Frankly I do not expect things to change. The vast majority of content in cyberspace will continue to be presented by anonymous players and accepted by credulous people too ecstatic about their “free” society to think beyond the Share button.

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The Dumbing Down of America: Someone Got it Right

In 1996, concerned about Americans losing the ability to understand, think, and question, someone wrote:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time–when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical facilities in decline, unable to distinguish what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing it, back into superstition and darkness.

Some readers have surely guessed that the author was Carl Sagan. He voiced the above concerns in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. So much of the above rings true. The major industries built on Western technologies have moved mostly to places like China, and fewer and fewer people are in possession of more and more world-changing technology. The technology have-nots and understand-nots are left to stare at the displays of electronic devices no longer made in their own country. Another Sagan prophecy that has come painfully true is the lack of political leadership that understands the issues at hand.

Sagan went on:

The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Again, Sagan demonstrated great foresight. He probably didn’t have anything like social media in mind when he wrote the above, but a thoughtlessly shared meme in Facebook is a good analog to the sound bites he worried were a sign of the dumbing down of America. And the credulity Sagan worries about can be seen in the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the rise of deniers of the plain truths that science has taught us about the world.

Although the operative technologies have shifted since then, Sagan was able to prophesize correctly the future 21 years away. Is there someone today who can, with as much insight, prophesize the world in 2038? If there is, I suspect such a person spends very little time sharing visual sound bites  on social media.

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A Plea for Responsible Engagement in the Lawless Land of Facebook

I wonder whether people stop to think before they knee-jerk share or like.  Think about what? Well, for starters:

Most Facebook pages (not user accounts, although tens of millions of those are also faked) are anonymous and therefore not credible.

And many Facebook pages list a URL, but that is almost never any help in discovering who is posting their content and operating the Facebook page and website, because they are masked. How in the world can such a masked website purporting to operate a Facebook page have (1) a privacy policy and (2) a terms of service page if they hide the identity of the owner of the website by using a proxy and have even no physical address.

I suspect that many “serial sharer” Facebook customers (yes, customers, because you pay dearly) haven’t got a clue as to the meaning of the above question.

It is totally meaningless to profess to have a privacy policy (which usually just states that visitors to the site have given up their privacy) when you don’t reveal your own identity. How is a person expected to make an agreement with someone who doesn’t tell you who they are?

The same goes for terms of use, which might ridiculously say that the website or URL owns the copyright to the material presented. This is total idiocy, and insulting to the intelligence of at least those Facebook customers who have any substantial intelligence to be insulted.

A website or URL cannot own anything, enter into a contractual relationship, or be expected to fulfill legal obligations. A website does not have any legal status. Only the owner of the website has that. And you’re not going to be told that identity in most cases, particularly with the ones frequently shared hereabouts.

For example a website with a URL such as or or a Facebook page it operates doesn’t own anything and is not itself a legal entity. There is an owner of the website, of course, but you would need a court order to discover who the owner is in many countries. And if they have the website hosted in an Eastern Europe or some other such location, even a court order might not work.

So people, smarten up, please. It doesn’t take that much intelligence to realize that most of what is easily shared is garbage presented by people who cannot reveal their identity for good reasons. The acquisition of good content almost always requires more effort.

There is proverb in Japanese that translates basically as “you’ll not be able to capture a tiger cub unless you venture into the tiger’s den.” It appears that many people are settling for the pile of cow dung outside the entrance to tiger’s den. And, what’s worse, they’re sending the cow dung to others.

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