The Opportunity Cost of Misplaced Entitlement in Translation

Comprehensive list

A couple of weeks ago, a friend posted a picture of “a comprehensive list of everything you are entitled to and that which the world owes you.” The image was that of an empty sheet of paper. I thought it was absolutely brilliant.

Later that week, someone in a translation group posted a copy of an incredibly rude, whiny, and ineffective message they had sent out to a potential client who was simply trying to open the door to a negotiation. The translator was insulted, apparently, because the agency owner wanted to negotiate in the first place: not drive down price with a ludicrous offer, just negotiate. Things escalated and got quite ugly pretty quickly once the agency owner went online and came across her name and confidential information about the job (information which had been given to the translator in good faith for the sole purpose of evaluating and quoting the job).

I happen to know both parties involved. The translator does a lot of online bragging about his rudeness to agencies who just don’t seem to get how special he is; and the agency owner is actually a really great person, who pays well, on time, and is an absolute pleasure to work with. I have in fact recommended several colleagues in other language pairs to this boutique agency and they have the same impression as I do. So on the one hand we have a serial agency basher and problematic translator and on the other hand we have a boutique translation business owner who was looking after her client’s interests and her own business. How dare she?!?!

Had the translator not been betrayed by his own Ego and misplaced sense of entitlement, he would have landed a great client, as the agency’s concern had more to do with the translator’s proposed deadline than with his price. Had the translator focused on interests instead of positions, he would have realized the agency was willing to pay his proposed price (and even a bit more, according to the agency) to get the translation a couple of days earlier and have enough time to review it in-house before final delivery to the end client. Instead, the translator took to social media to list all that to which he is entitled on the count of his self-perceived sheer awesomeness (paraphrasing Po the Panda).

Of course, there’s more than one way to understand the concept of entitlement. If by entitlement we are referring to our legal entitlements (i.e. the rights we each have in virtue of being human), then the empty “comprehensive list of everything you are entitled to” is flat-out insensitive to the entire notion of justice and clueless as to the many sufferings of the world. However, if by “entitlement” we are referring to some people’s unjustified belief that they have a right to certain privileges or special treatment just because they are who they are (i.e. white, rich, etc.), then the idea behind that picture is well worth promoting and the translator in question should learn from it.

I have insisted in many different posts that professionals need to watch their online behavior at all times. It’s oftentimes the first thing people see and you never know where in the web a potential client is waiting to be discovered. In today’s world, opportunity no longer “knocks at your door,” sometimes it IMs you or pokes you on Facebook. So when we go online to brag about how rude and rough we got with a client or to troll other translators in forums or blog comments, what we’re really doing is telling the world there is a side of us that feels it is better than other people, that others owe us this or that because we are SO cool, that we know better, that we are smarter, that we own a thesaurus, that we read some business guru and bought into the hype, that we can write complicated sentences, etc. You get the point.

What we’re not doing is helping to promote professionalism in translation or in any way earning other people’s respect. One could argue respect is a given. It’s not something you earn. Perhaps in everyday life that is true. We say “please” and “thank you” to absolute strangers on a daily basis out of respect and those are givens. But the kind of respect that comes with placing value on a person at a professional level, with wanting to pay their fees and to accept their terms and conditions are not givens. Professional respect is earned. You don’t respect your doctor’s professional opinion simply because he or she wears a white coat and has a stethoscope around their neck, you respect their professional opinion once they have proven to be qualified, reliable professionals who know their stuff. So why should translation be any different?

32 thoughts on “The Opportunity Cost of Misplaced Entitlement in Translation

  1. lucindabrooks says:

    What a great post Paula. You reap what you sow. Being accommodating to negotiation and generally being nice usually pays dividends. The behaviour of the translator you mention was unprofessional to say the least.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Paula:

    It is difficult to disagree with what you are saying in your post. I would just like to say that the chances are that you are presenting only one side of the situation, and the story may look quite different from the other side. In my experience as a tiny agency operator, most translators are willing to negotiate deadlines, and even rates, if you explain the situation to them politely. Some are weird and behave strangely, but we all do that sometime because we are all human.

    On the other hand, in my experience as a translator, I know that many if not most agencies are extremely arrogant and many if not most of them see translators as little unimportant and easily interchangeable cogs in a wonderful machine that has been designed God for greater glory and profit of translation agencies. No deviation form this wonderful concept is allowed.

    Even if everything that you say in your post is true, I would not be surprised to come across a translator who overreacted in this manner. True, some translators are also arrogant and impossible to deal with with.

    But compared to the number of translation agencies that are extremely arrogant and even routinely demand from translators concessions that are clearly against the law, I believe that there are actually very few such translators, while many if not most agencies behave like an omnipotent mafia. That is why so many translators hate them now, which was not really the case a couple of decades ago.

    I don’t think that what translators need is more humility. But I do believe that even just a tiny bit of humility would serve modern translation agencies very well.


    • Thanks for your comment, Steve. I appreciate and value your opinion, but respectfully disagree with some of your points.

      I am presenting the event as I saw it, as a member of the group where the translator regularly does his venting and as a translator who has worked with the agency on repeated occasions. So no, I’m not objective. But I don’t think that invalidates my point. If 2400 years of Western tradition of thought have taught us anything, it’s that there is no such thing as an objective account of reality anyway. We are always biased in our interpretations of the world and, thus also, in our accounts of that world. Even science, the most “objective” of accounts requires several levels of fail-safes to counteract bias.

      This leads me to my point about your comment. You admit that you have had all sort of negative experiences with agencies that have led you to believe agencies fit your account, and I can’t argue with your personal experience; but what I can argue with is whether your personal experience can be extrapolated to translation as a whole. I could tell you my experience with agencies has not been even remotely similar to yours, but that wouldn’t invalidate your point either, because I’d only be extrapolating my personal experience to translation as a whole, and we would get nowhere.

      That’s the problem with sweeping generalizations such as “agencies are X” or “agencies are Y.” Do we have any data to support this other than our personal experience? How many agencies are out there? How many contracts do they negotiate on a regular basis? How many are found to be “arrogant”? How do you define “arrogance”? Are all agencies bottom-feeders? If yes, do you have any evidence to support that? You said yourself in a post on your blog that you’re having a rough time and can’t afford health care. Of course, it’s possible that this has something to do with bottom feeders and how they affect translation as a whole. However, isn’t it also possible that there could be more than one factor playing in? Could there be other explanations for your situation related to your own negotiation skills, marketing strategies, external factors affecting demand in your language pairs, critical changes in related industries, etc.? These questions are, in part, the reason why I can’t support this constant demonization of agencies that so many translators are eager to support online. Not only does it not fit my personal experience, but other than the accounts of those who speak loudly, nobody’s presenting actual data (that I know of, so please correct me if I’m wrong); and without hard data, I can’t buy into the idea that “agencies suck” is the only explanation to the problem.

      Translation companies are reporting earnings in the millions and I’m getting a nice piece of the pie (not in the millions yet… but I have faith in myself! 😉 ). Most of my friends are doing just as well, while working with agencies and even some LSPs if you can believe that! I recently negotiated a surprisingly great contract with one of the “Big Demons” who was not only willing to pay my fees but also agree to my terms for delivery and translation credits. I would, of course, make a distinction between agencies and bottom feeders. But I cannot demonize all agencies just because some are bottom feeders. Just like I can’t demonize all translators just because some are whiny babies.

      The point of my post is not humility, it’s strategy. How you present yourself to the business world and the cost of letting your Ego rule your behavior in professional settings. Perhaps what we need is to stop complaining and take control of the “industry.” Certain circumstances are of course beyond our control. But aside from the extremes of structural poverty and systematic human rights violations, life is not generally something that happens to you; and as intelligent moral agents, I think some translators need to stop playing the victim and take control of their businesses! This guy, from my point of view, is just comfy in his “poor misunderstood awesome little me” world. But when he boasts about it loudly online (while sharing confidential information) and so many translators are “liking” and encouraging this kind of behavior, then we have a problem with our collective professional image.


  3. 1. I don’t know about the details of what “this guy” did or did not do. But I do know that to simply refuse to negotiate can be a perfectly sound strategy. It all depends on the details, of course.

    I do it every now and then, possibly because I am mad.

    2. Contrary to what you seem to say, “life is something that happens to you”, especially if you can’t say no when you feel that you need to say no.

    In fact, as John Lennon put it in his last album, “Life is what’s happening to you while you’re busy making other plans”.

    And a year later, he was dead.


    • I don’t see how “refusing to negotiate” can be called a strategy in a negotiation. I mean in the pre-negotiation phase it can be strategic to evaluate whether negotiating is worth your time in the first place. That much I can agree with. But once the negotiation is open, playing sum-zero games has been proven to be the most ineffective “strategy” -and this *is* supported by hard evidence in game theory and recent Harvard publications. Playing hardball only works when the person on the other side is conflict-averse or a weak negotiator. Otherwise, you lose more than you gain, which again leads back to my initial post: opportunity cost!

      As far as the philosophical question of whether life happens to you or not, John Lennon had a great singing voice and some nice rhymes, but I get my philosophical food from the heavyweights of human thought. I refuse to buy into determinism, especially when it takes the form of hippie pop culture. No offense to hippies (my mom was one in her youth and thanks to that I’ve been handed down some pretty trippy clothes). I just think matters as profound as the meaning of life merit quite a bit more depth.


  4. Dear Paula:

    “I refuse to buy into determinism, especially when it takes the form of hippie pop culture.”
    (That is so funny, it really made me laugh).

    Given that you are half my age, which means that you don’t really know anything about life yet, I will try to ascribe your comments to youthful ignorance and exuberance.

    See you in Prague in less than 3 months – if you still talk to me at that point.

    Over & Out


    • Steve,

      Nice that you have a sense of humor. Most Lennon fans take him way too seriously.

      However, your response is so condescending and insulting on so many levels that it makes my point for me. You’ve compensated for your lack of arguments in favor of your position with a personal attack (a fallacy known as Argumentum Ad Hominem) by underestimating a person with two degrees in translation-related fields, a specialization in Finance and Corporate Law, a PhD in Law, a position as a University professor in non-other than Ethics and Legal Philosophy, and I’m just scratching the surface. I could go on, but I won’t because nobody likes braggers.

      I see your “age” and match it with “formal education and training that can knock your socks off” PLUS my life experience, of which you know nothing about because you don’t know me, where I come from or where I’ve been. We spoke once in person for five minutes in France, that’s the entire extent of your knowledge of me as a person. That and this blog, which perhaps you read regularly, perhaps you don’t. It makes no difference. Because what you are judging me on is my age. Age *is* a circumstance of life over which we have no control (which does not prove determinism as I’m referring to determinism in the philosophical sense, as in hardcore analytical philosophy, not a buzz word). Being born earlier is not an achievement. It’s what you do with your time that matters and I choose to spend mine building a profitable business, supporting causes I care about, and taking control of what *is* within my reach. You just spent part of your time today proving my point on online etiquette. So thanks!

      Liked by 5 people

    • Forgive me for chiming in here, but your tone, Steve, is aggressive and unproductive. No need for ad hominem attacks or vitriol. We’re all friends here, sharing what we know and what we don’t know. There’s no need for someone to take the position of judge of others, especially since you are in someone’s blog, someone’s space, someone’s extension of herself. Please be courteous.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Very relevant post, Paula. The word “negotiate” is an action verb and is part of even the humblest of shop owners out there (well, they haggle over a price, but the point is the same). In some Middle Eastern cultures, I’ve read that a Western tourist should know that he, the customer, is expected to haggle over a price, not just say “Okay, I’ll buy it.”

    Most of us welcome our enhanced exposure to the world via social media, our blogs, websites and comments on various forums. Being reminded of keeping an eye on our words and actions is nothing less than proper manners, the same when our aunt would correct a word we used or wrote.

    In the case of the rude and boisterous colleague, all I can say from a psychological standpoint is this: some people have very little self awareness. I recently read a statement on an online forum: “I can only be responsible for the words I speak, not by the way you hear them [my paraphrasis]”. I felt a bit uncomfortable, because, even though I cannot be held responsible for every interpretation my words undergo out there, I think I am still responsible for how I say them. It’s an ongoing lesson, of course.

    The points about respect and how we earn it are valuable, and they can be traced all the way back to how we treat others in person. While I don’t subscribe to the mantra of being brutally honest, I know how I can come across others. I do practice this rule, however: I give others the benefit of the doubt and I hope I’m earning the same in return.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for your comment, Mario! I really like that quote of yours. A good friend of mine is a shrink and she claims our interpretations of the world, of others, and even of what people say reflect more about us than about whatever it is we’re interpreting. So we can’t control how others interpret or perceive us, but we can control how we treat other people and how we present ourselves to the world. I think it’s nice to be reminded of that from time to time.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m inclined to agree with your shrink friend, Paula. I think we sometimes transfer our attitudes, prejudices, etc. onto the person whose message we’re interpreting.

      I personally think that I have to deliver a message in a way that minimizes misinterpretations, however. Here in America, phrases like “It was a joke!” or “I am calling you out on this, and I do this to my friends” seem to show that the interlocutor is being humorous when you misinterpreted his intent, but I view them as a mask of aggression. This misuse of sarcasm to excuse oneself from clarifying a message (whether it’s a business discussion on negotiating or not negotiating, or a personal matter) is a sad state of affairs and betrays a lack of empathy and unwillingness to use a clearer and unambiguous language.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Lloyd Bingham says:

    Well done for speaking out on this issue, Paula. This is a very profound and extensive problem that blights our profession, and we need more professionals to speak out against it. Whilst all translators agree that we should allow clients or colleagues to take advantage of translators, that is not what this issue is about, as misrepresented by many of those in favour of the right to rant. The arrogance of some agencies is a completely irrelevant, as translators are professionally obliged to conduct themselves appropriately even when faced with a demanding situation.

    I believe I know the group you are referring to. What started as a place for light-hearted humour and innocent satire has become an arena for attacks on fellow industry members, often containing sweeping generalisations, as you point out, and is encouraging more and more translators to reject professionalism in favour of a cheap laugh and breach of confidentiality.

    Like you, I also fundamentally disagree with Steve and view his stance as dangerous. More importantly, I condemn his patronising personal attack on you (and in turn on any translator younger than him) in these comments, following what was until that point a perfectly reasonable debate, and would urge him to apologise to you. He is right that we are within our rights to refuse to negotiate, but the attitude expressed in doing so in the example you write about is simply unprofessional.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Lloyd! I appreciate your support. To be honest, my initial post was NOT about Steve. But his ageist comment here on my blog, followed by his misogynistic comment elsewhere online (of course I mean the “kitchen sink” comment that left us several of us speechless) and his finger pointing on Twitter basically illustrates my initial point -even with my snarky comment about John Lennon which he took so deeply to heart!

      I will probably try to explain my point about negotiation a bit better in a future post. A few people pointed out to me yesterday just how unclear that comment was and how many ways it can be misinterpreted. But I don’t think it was aggressive at all and I stand by the rest of my statements. I do hope Steve will do some soul searching after all this blows over. He was once a very esteemed colleague and I hate the direction this is taking.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Jayne Fox says:

    Thank you for this excellent post, Paula. And how ironic that a post on professionalism should attract such unprofessional comments. Your response has been exemplary!

    Liked by 4 people

  9. Paula, this is simply a brilliant piece because it dares to say out loud what is only whispered about among people who make translator hiring decisions.

    There is very serious money to be made in this profession – there is very serious money being made in this profession right now (and yes, I’ll quote it – running from $120,000 to $225,000 every year, far beyond the numbers seen in the ATA surveys, which miss the complex and varied premium market entirely) and by several of the people who have supported your position in this comments section.

    This applies to people who have the right combination of translation, writing, specialization and…wait for it…people skills.

    Extensive psychological and workplace research has consistently demonstrated that the strongest predictor of success across the majority of professions requiring a university education is in fact not grades or academic performance, it’s people skills.

    How well one gets along with others.

    What one learns in kindergarten may in fact turn out to more important than what we learn in all the years that follow.

    In any reasonable assessment of professional success, the “angry loner” is a hugely costly position, both in terms of losses in overall lifetime earnings, and the ability to perfect one’s skills and move upmarket.

    Angry loners do seem to have a shocking amount of free time to write on their blogs every week – sometimes multiple times a week – about how angry they are and how screwed up the world is, and how the agencies are mostly (or all) unfair, and they publish the same tirades in different shades on a stunningly time-costly basis.

    How many hundreds of blog posts can one write that say the very same thing, while all your successful colleagues are using the same time to translate, edit, collaborate and otherwise earn money?

    The comment sections on these blogs are just echo chambers where various resonant tones of disappointment, anger, snark and self-assurance in one’s views bounce off the virtual walls.

    Head-keyboard, head-keyboard.

    I’ve run up against this same angry, defensive psychology in evaluating translators’ work, especially those who do not collaborate or have their work regularly revised by their colleagues (I spent a decade being brutally revised myself, and continue to collaborate and be revised to this day. How else can we perfect our craft?)

    These are often the same translators who defend their work on the specious grounds that “I’ve never had a complaint from a client.”

    The same, of course, could be said of veterinarians and coroners, too, and for the same reason – the customers in our industry are not the best judge of quality.

    Silence should never be confused with a vote of confidence.

    So here’s an alternative approach.

    Step back from the computer, stand up, go outside. Attend the trade fairs, industry conferences, and meetings your clients attend. Gather up the courage to walk up to total strangers and speak openly to engage them.

    Be kind. Help newbies. Pay the check. Smile. There is joy in collaboration that results in a product that delights a client while simultaneously helping us all perfect our craft.

    Above all else, seize the opportunity to embrace humility. There are several reasons for this.

    First, humility is not just healthy, it’s an accurate version of reality. It’s a recognition that one’s experience is limited, biased, and could – and often is – flat out wrong.

    Be humble by recognizing that what we do every day is in some sense miraculous – we have to know everything another human being knows as they are writing a text – and then paint an accurate and scintillating picture of that reality in an entirely different world.

    Finally, be humble to the potential of the text. You are never as perfect as you need to be to do every text justice.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Paula,

    According to Malcolm Gladwell, the key to success lies in 10,000 hours (or more) of practice. It is this practice, not your “formal education and training” that I match your “age” or, to prevent any misunderstanding, your concept of “age”, with.

    The “age” also means putting things into perspective, understanding them historically: for someone who witnessed and experienced things as they evolved, your big news might be just a mildly significant event in a long series of similar happenings. Or even something trivial from the perspective of a life-long experience.

    It is interesting how quickly a discussion can get off track and lost in off-topic, blame-game type of comments.

    What started as a present-day, industry-specific illustration of an age-old truism – it is better to be polite and respectful in business negotiations – was followed by a comment to the effect that being polite and professional would serve both parties well. However, this reasonable, though just as far from novel, observation failed to achieve its goal, namely establishing balance and providing a more complex picture within the context of “a couple of decades”. Unexpectedly, it provoked a heated protest against such an unjust – in your opinion – generalization.

    Steve Vitek has created a semi-literary figure of a “Mad Patent Translator”. I’d prefer the comic lightness and self-deprecation of his “Diary” over any flatulent appeals to humility, any day of the week. Woody Allen was said to be “the only one commercial American filmmaker who consistently speaks with his own voice”. If there are any similarities between Woody Allen’s characters and the personae of blogging translators, the Mad Patent Translator is the (only) one with a consistently unique and humorous voice.

    My impression is that both the character you describe, your ranting and bragging translator, as well as the author, yourself, tend to take things a bit too seriously.

    I might tend to take things seriously too, but I try to prioritize: as the late Alan Rickman said, “I do take my work seriously and the way to do that is not to take yourself too seriously”.

    Respectfully yours


  11. Being more or less familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s claims, I’m more inclined to consider him another Silicon Valley hippie-turned-guru who found some measure of success in publishing pseudorevolutionary literature.

    Valerij offers an interesting perspective, a side to Mr. Vitek some of us don’t know. This reminds me of how differently we approach life and call our own approach humorous or sarcastic. That there are different brands of sarcasm and humor, I think we are aware of, at least intellectually. However, that doesn’t take away the biting remark.

    I don’t care if you are Japanese, Czech, American, Italian, German or South African: if the recipient of your “humorous” remarks feels distressed (I prefer that to “offended”), just apologize, offer clarification and context, and move on.

    Because if you just rationalize your humor as something the recipient can’t possibly understand because he/she takes things too seriously, you’re blaming him/her for your tactless words.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was sort of hoping the Paula & Steve show would be over by now and we’d all moved on to more interesting things, but then I saw Valerij’s comment. I”m with Mario on this one. Though I must warn my friend that calling other people’s heroes “hippies” will get you in some serious trouble! Go figure… 😉

      Anyway, what I think is interesting (and by “interesting” I mean seriously messed up) is the way the humor trap played into this whole ordeal. This reminded me of a very interesting publication in Philosophy now by sinologist, philosopher, and editor of PN, Anja Steinbauer about the ethics of humor.

      You have to be a paying member to read it, but given “fair use” and all, here’s a fragment:

      “The question is: where does the fun end? The ethics of humour are extremely complex. They range from questions about the freedom of speech to the moral difference between different agents making the same joke. […]

      I would suggest that the two most serious problems with hierarchical jokes are these: Firstly, as Plato says, the aesthetic form of a joke form is just so attractive and appealing that we may not pay enough critical attention to the moral content. Secondly, far from having a dialogue function, jokes can be conversation stoppers. As Theodor Adorno says: “He who has laughter on his side has no need of proof.” In other words, humour is, next to its wonderful properties, also a great potential tool for manipulation. Dress them up as a joke and you can get away with outrageous statements.”


      • Well, I stand corrected on the “hippie” term, which I seem to have used a tad carelessly. My point on that particular bit is that I don’t care much for what Malcolm Gladwell writes (I recently read a book review of his latest effort, and I read it not on Wikipedia or o Tech Crunch or Slate). Thanks for letting me opine.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. Thank you very much for this post, Paula. I’m sorry you had to deal with a rude commenter. Whether there are sides to this story that you don’t know is irrelevant; you kept the identities anonymous and point out that this situation can occur and that we, as translators, need to keep our egos in check. I know that even I can be guilty of this kind of hubris, especially when I’m feeling stressed out or overworked. This post was useful and it was kind of you to take the time to think about it and to write this out. Thanks again!


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