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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For the sake of this discussion, I will define “work like that” as follows. These characteristics happen to apply to the work I do, and I have often discussed these characteristics with colleagues in both open and private fora. To each, I have applied a percentage of translators in my market (JA-to-EN translation) that I think achieve these characteristics.

  • Work from direct clients: No greater than 5% of translators.
  • Work that pays at least around 0.30 USD per word: No greater than 5% of translators.
  • Work that does not involve concerns about payment, because the client is a well-known entity with a reputation to lose if it gets out that they treat their translation vendors poorly: No greater than 50% of translators.

Although the percentages are somewhat subjective judgments, my decades of experience in translation and in interacting with and observing JA-to-EN translators gives me a high level of confidence in these estimates. For translators wedded to the idea of working for agencies, let me be very clear about rates. I would be very surprised to hear that there were many translators receiving 0.30 USD/word from agencies for JA-to-EN translation. It might happen, but would be exceptional. Thus, getting 0.30 USD/word almost always means dealing with direct clients.

Limiting my examples to people working in Japanese-to-English commercial (i.e., not literary) translation, I would say that no more than 2% to 3% of translators ever achieve all the above. You can hope all you want, and, if you do the right things (including make the right decisions), have ability, and are somewhat lucky, you might get “work like that.” but you will be a part of a very tiny portion of the translator population.

Upon hearing the above definitions, I am sure that some of my colleagues are going to say that they are doing just such type of work already. Yes, they probably are; I hang out with some awesome translators. But they would be wrong to think that they are not the rare exceptions. The overwhelming majority of JA-to-EN translators never get out of the low-paid, bulk translation market, and are working away, perhaps in quiet resignation to their station in translation life.

Very few JA-to-EN translators ever meet a potential direct client and even fewer will ever get to work for direct clients. Almost all work for agencies and are paid much lower than the reasonably high 0.30 USD/word rate cited above, and many face the specter of late payment or non-payment because they are working for entities that have no reputation to lose if they treat their translation providers poorly.

I am currently looking up (surreptitiously, of course) specific translators I knew from the early days of the Japan Association of Translators and those I have met since those days. The targets of my checking around include some people with whom I continue to interact. From around 1985, I have observed numerous translators who ostensibly had the potential to be movers and shakers in our business. Almost to a man (and woman), they have fallen far short of the mark (if the mark is as noted by the characteristics I listed above). Many of them are skulking around on reverse auctions such as Proz or Translatorcafe, competing with translators in places like China and India for low-paying bulk JA-to-EN work. Among these translators are those who rightfully boast of formal education in language and translation. And surely some of them are good translators. But being a good translator does not equate to getting “work like that.”

A significant number of translators have left translation but, perhaps to be able to remain in Japan, have started doing things such as teaching English or rewriting (many of them calling it editing) JA-to-EN translations done by non-native English-speaking translators. A few have become “intercultural consultants.” Some of the above have gone back to their home countries, thereby making their already-slim chances of acquiring direct clients in Japan even slimmer.

Why is it so rare to acquire high-paying direct clients? The reasons are diverse, but most translators who are hoping to break out of the bulk market don’t seem to know the reasons why they are even in the bulk market to start with. Fewer still realize that they will never move up and out. It is easy to tell someone who is failing by doing the same thing over and over to simply do something else. Many people, however, don’t have a “something else” or have made decisions that preclude doing “something else.”

In my market, on average, the highest-paid JA-to-EN work by far is in Japan, working for direct translation consumers. This is writer-driven work, which is radically different from reader-driven work. The geographic and rate differences between these two market segments is something that evidently escapes many translators.

Writer-driven translation is required by the creator of a message who has a stake in how the message is expressed. This is not limited to marketing materials or user manuals. The patent translations I do are also writer-driven translations. The inventor’s employer needs to convince a patent examiner that their invention is worthy of a patent. It’s essentially a selling job.

In contrast, reader-driven translation work is ordered by entities who “just want to know what something written in Japanese says.” It is typically very low-paid compared with writer-driven translation, and is typically ordered by translation brokers on behalf entities outside of Japan. For JA-to-EN translators working in the US, the accessible market is dominated by translation brokers purchasing and reselling reader-driven translation work, often in the form of huge volumes of discovery documents for litigation in US courts.

A translator continuing to work in the bulk market for reader-driven JA-to-EN translation is simply not suddenly someday going to be approached by a direct client because their translations of those internal emails used in some patent litigation were so good. It just is not going to happen. Well, you might ask, how do you get direct clients if you have decided to live in the US? I have met JA-to-EN translators based in the US who have direct clients in Japan. But they acquired them by having lived in Japan, and some of them continue to make periodic visits to clients in Japan. I cannot think of any who have acquired such Japanese clients while living exclusively in the US.

If getting Japanese clients is so difficult, why not go after direct clients based in the US? Fine. How do you do that? I have not a clue, nor do I know many translators who would have a clue as to how to go about selling to direct clients in the US. I think it is difficult, and it might be more difficult than even I can imagine, and I’m usually pretty good at imagining difficulties.

That said, I do translation for some US law firms, but it is mainly because I met their attorneys in person on interpreting assignments. Very few translators have such opportunities. And most of the translations I have seen used by attorneys over the last decade or so have been done by a few of the well-known translation brokers that actively sell to US law firms. Some are horrible, but I suspect that it would still be quite difficult to drag the paralegals who order such translations away from their translation brokers. And the brokers having the translations done in Chindia for very low rates makes competing for that work very difficult.

If you wish to acquire Japanese clients here in Japan, you are going to need to live in Japan and be able to sell in Japanese. The spoken Japanese of most (I would say 95%) of the non-Japanese JA-to-EN translators I have met is far from being at a level that would enable them to sell effectively in Japanese to Japanese clients. For them, the “doing something else” of selling to Japanese clients is beyond their reach when the things they have been persistently doing continue to fail.

There is nothing that is going to change this situation. As wonderful as it might be to be able to tell beginning translators that they can make it to the top if they just try harder or do something special, for all but the very exceptional few, that would just be setting them up for a painful fall. The results of such painful falls can be seen all around us. Some of the results are not that obvious, because the people who are lurking at the bottom of the food chain are not that vocal. But it is clear to me that most will never make it to the level they might have hoped for. They can keep hoping, but it is most likely in vain.

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