The Three Types of Translators and How They Fit Into the Great Scheme of Things

Valerij Tomarenko, a freelance translator from German to Russian and from English to Russian who lives in Hamburg, Germany, said in his guest post on my blog that in his opinion, the biggest mistake translators make is that they simply concentrate on the job they have and fail to collaborate or cooperate with other translators when it comes to long-term strategic planning. Instead of trying to figure out how to accommodate other customers, they simply reply:”Sorry, I am too busy at the moment. Good bye and have a nice life.”


I think that for the most part, his observations are valid, but not equally valid for all translators. I think that most translators belong to one of the following three categories:

  1. Translators who enjoy translating, but do not enjoy managing their translation business.
  2. Translators who enjoy both translating and the business of running a business.
  3. Translators who can translate and sort of enjoy translating, but who enjoy the business of running a business in fact much more than translating.

Translator Type 1 – Just Give Me Something To Translate, Please, Right Now If Possible! 

Most translators probably belong to the first category. Translators in this category can often be described as bookworms who live in this world because unfortunately, that is the only world we have, but who are not really of this world. They may be very good at figuring how to translate extremely complicated texts, usually because languages have been their passion for many years and often because they have a degree in translation, but they seem to be completely unable to figure out  how to find well paying work for themselves.

Instead of looking for well paying work from direct clients right where they live, or creating a well functioning website that could be found by direct clients across the globe, these translators  send hundreds or thousands of résumés to the same translation agencies as thousands of other translators in this category are doing every day. Many of them are so unimaginative that they even use the same subject for their e-mail, the most recent version of which is something like “Perfect translation skills available”, or something equally inane. This type of translator usually tries to compete mostly based on the rate alone, which means that these translators usually work for very low rates. They should be smart enough to know what their fate is going to be, but they don’t seem to be able to do anything about it.

As I said, these translators are not really of this world.

Translator Type 2 – Damn It, I Need To Figure Out Where The Best Gigs Are! 

The second type of translator, which is probably also quite common, although perhaps less common than the first type, is a person who is both a translator and an entrepreneur. While these translators enjoy the bursts of creative energy that wash over us like cooling ocean waves in hot summer days when we are engrossed in a really interesting translation, they also spend a lot of time, money and energy trying to find clients willing and able to pay well for good work.

This is also the type of translator who is likely to have a blog or a website, or both, and who is generally also much more interested in the surrounding world, not just the translation itself. These translators often exchange tips and advice on blogs and forums for translators and sometime they work together, or “cooperate” or “collaborate”. I think that I belong mostly to this type.

As one commenter on my blog (Wenjer), whose first language I believe is Chinese, put it:”Mitarbeiten, schön und gut. Im Grunde genommen, sind wir Einzelwölfe, die nur bei Gelegenheit in der Jagd dabei sind.  … Die meisten Wölfe laufen bei der Jagd nur so mit, damit sie nicht verhungern. Wir, die richtigen Bösen, sind anders. Wir greifen erst zu, wenn der Angriff entscheidend ist, damit wir auch den richtigen Wölfenanteil bekommen. Sonst verzichten wir lieber auf das Mitlaufen.

[Cooperating is well and good, but basically, we are lone wolves who only occasionally hunt in packs … Most wolves run along during the hunt only so that they would not have to starve. But we, the Bad Ones, we are different. We only attack when we can go for the jugular to make sure that most of the loot will be ours. Otherwise, we don’t even bother to run along with the pack.]

Translator Type 3 – Translating Is Fun – But Having Other Translators Make Mucho Dinero Pour Moi Is A Blast! 

The third type of translator, which is probably the least common type, is a person who may be able to translate very well, but who really enjoys much more the business of managing the translation process when the actual translation is done by somebody else.

People like that often eventually start running their own translation agency and most of the time, eventually they hardly translate at all by themselves. Thousands of small translation agencies, and a few big ones, were started by people like that. At this point I only work for this type of translation agency because many translation agencies run by former or still somewhat current translators are much easier to deal with, and they sometime pay better, although not all of them, of course.

There are no strict boundaries between these three categories of translators as some may clearly belong to one of these three basic types, and some may have inclinations placing them partly in two or all three of them, which is similar to Freud’s observations about the fluctuations in the categories of introverts and extraverts.

What type of translator are you?

Are you happy being who you are?

If you are not happy with your place in the food chain, are you doing something about it?

There is nothing wrong with belonging to either of these three categories of translators. My guess is that Saint Jerome, the patron saint of translators and librarians, probably belonged to the first type. I doubt that he was as good a businessman as he was a translator. But once he figured out where the most interesting work was – translating the Old and New Testament from Hebrew, Arameic and Greek to Latin, which was not even his native language (his native language was a dialect of Illyrian), and who is going to pay him for his work, his marketing and cash flow problems were solved.

Once the Pope in his Papal Infallibility approved his CV (Curriculum Vitae), St. Jerome probably did not have to worry much about invoices as they were likely to be paid by the Vatican mostly on time. So he just kept working on his translation for several decades, well into his eighties, with lots of cooperation and collaboration from other translators, but without any advertising at all since the Catholic Church and the Pope would better fit into the category of “direct clients” than the category of “translation agencies”.

2 reaktioner på ”The Three Types of Translators and How They Fit Into the Great Scheme of Things

  1. Tack för att du nämner min blogg, stämmer att jag skriver en hel del om degenereringen av den internationella översättningsindustrin. Priserna sjunker men kvalitén likväl den, snart är det väl bara gymnasiestudenter nere i Kina som översätter texter. Det är helt enkelt inte lönsamt längre för de flesta att arbeta som översättare (undantag mig ;))



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