Sad Truth about the Translation Industry

Greater than 5 minutes, my friend!

The translation industry is a very complex domain with multiple issues that are not very obvious for the first-time translation clients, and sometimes even for battle-seasoned customers too. In this post, I would like to show you some hidden pitfalls behind the translation market realia.


Rising demand for translation services in the 20th century was preconditioned by the development of international trade and increasing cultural exchange between nations and states.

However, slow means of communication and the specific nature of demand for translations services were the primary reasons why translations were done by in-house/independent translators working with publishing houses, government authorities or large companies.


The true potential of translation for businesses was discovered only with the emergence of the internet.

Rapid globalization process and the ever-growing amount of content that needs to be translated has resulted in an unbelievable growth of the global translation market, reaching $40 billion in 2016.

Today translation is used to reach the foreign audiences and engage with new clients from around the world. In other words, translation can be a powerful business growth tool when applied in the right way.

It is no surprise that various translation companies offering B2B services sprout like mushrooms after the summer rains, combining translators in teams and performing administrative and management tasks to ensure processing of large multilingual translation projects.

On the other hand, now when almost everyone has a relatively cheap and reliable internet connection, many independent translators can market their services on the web using personal  websites (e.g. this site where I offer English-Russian translation of documents, websites, and applications), or using translation portals like Proz, Translators Café, or on social networks for translators like The Open Mic.

However, there are two major downsides caused by the above two situations:

1) Many translation agencies that emerge on the market have no idea about actual translation processes and apply methods that devalue a translator’s labor. They take an easy way out dumping the prices both for the clients to resist high competition between the agencies and for translators to increase marginal income. This leads to a situation where professional translators simply refuse to work for peanuts. That means when you hire a second-rate translation agency, you cannot be sure that the translation is done by professional translators.

2) There are many self-proclaimed translators who are ready to work for peanuts, but cannot offer anything but pitiful translations that often represent poorly edited machine translation.

Some clients can swallow the bait and hire either a low-profile translation agency that convinces them to buy “cheap, fast, and quality translations” (which is impossible), or hire an amateur freelance “translator” from UpWork who is ready to work at ridiculous rates.

Unfortunately, many clients don’t know the target language and cannot check the quality of translations. Dishonest agencies and amateur freelance translators make use of this situation, thus undermining the authority of translation service providers.

In many cases, clients realize that they received a useless bag-of-words instead of translation only when it is too late to do anything.

A bad translation can ruin your reputation, lead to millions in losses in case of a mistake in a legal document, or even cause death if someone decides to order cheap medical translation.


The first experiments with machine translation date back to the 1950-es. More than sixty years later machine translation engines still cannot compete with human translators in terms of quality.

Though the progress of machine translation is considerable, most probably you have heard a lot about Google Translate’s hilarious and even damaging fails like Russia being translated as Mordor.

Therefore, promising claims such as

Google Neural Translation is Nearly Indistinguishable From Human Translation

is nothing but a cheap marketing trick. I can agree that machine translation engines are able to translate simple general subject texts and ensure a very basic understanding of the original text idea.

But they will hardly ever be able to properly translate specialized technical texts or highly creative content such as marketing texts, ads, and literature.

In this regard, it is really sad that many translation clients, being fooled by marketers, rely upon machine translation using it for important projects only to suffer from serious translation errors.

If you still think that using machine translation for your business documents is a good idea, there is a strong reason that can persuade you out of that: Google does not use Google Translate for its official documents.


Due to its segmented nature, the translation industry is subdivided into multiple sectors offering translation services to small, medium and big business in various fields from tourism, movies, and e-commerce, to medicine, technology, and science.

Consequently, the translation industry entailed the creation of overly complicated supply chains and networks, where direct clients stay far from the very core of the translation industry — translators.

Large translation corporations like LionBridge, TransPerfect TheBigWord etc. receive bulk translation requests from high-end clients like Microsoft and Google. Of course, they charge high rates to cover all expenses and gain income.

However, in many cases, such companies do not hire full-time translators to perform all translations in-house. The costs of office rent, salaries, taxes, social and medical insurance fees, etc., make it very expensive to have a lot of full-time employees in the developed countries.

It is easier to split the job between several subcontractors operating in cheaper countries, to offer lower rates and earn a margin. And that’s exactly what they do.

Then, subcontractors divide the translation project by language pairs, content types, etc., and allocate different parts of the project to even smaller companies based in the target language countries.

Of course, subcontractors crop a part of the cost and offer even lower rates to sub-subcontractors. Finally, sub-subcontractors use freelance translators to perform the work.

This is a simple example of a translation supply chain, but in the case of large multilingual projects, the chain may become even bigger. This causes longer communication, poor information exchange and low rates paid to the main driving force of the industry (you already know what that means).

Therefore, when you order English-Russian translation services from a large company located in your home country, let’s say the United States, in many cases the actual translation job is done four times cheaper by a freelance translator from a Russian-speaking country on another continent.

Key takeaways:

  • Do not use cheap translation services;
  • Learn more about your translation service provider before hiring (be it an independent translator or an agency);
  • Try to work with direct contractors (either small agencies with in-house staff or independent translators);
  • Avoid intermediaries to prevent overpayment;

I hope now you understand the actual state of affairs in the translation market and this information will help you to choose the right translator for your next translation project.

Simon Akhrameev

About Simon Akhrameev

Blogger, entrepreneur, certified English-Russian translator helping businesses expand to the Russian market since 2007 offering technical, legal, and marketing translation & localization services.

7 thoughts on “Sad Truth about the Translation Industry

  1. Long time no see, Simon! I hope all is good n Bishkek? Interesting article and I think there’s a lot of truth to what you say (some really good takeaways too!)

    I wonder if there’s a way for us to explore it even deeper to see if there’s something we (as freelancers and owners of tiny agencies) can gain from the situations that you’ve described?

    As someone mentioned on Twitter, I think we may need to change the narrative into a more positive direction. 🙂

    I think our market is huge and there are plenty of opportunities for smaller guys. I’d even dare to say that it’s easier to be a small company rather a big one because scalability is probably one of the main pain points of our industry (which often leads to the situations that you’ve described with poor communication and low rates). Oh, and, of course, it’s easier to manage a few people rather than mange an army of managers, sales people and translators.

    Personally, I think there’s a lot we can learn from this:
    – Narrow specialization and working in one language pair can distinguish you from competition;
    – Simplifying communication will help you gain and retain clients; (no more 5+ managers working with a single client)
    – Lots of room for improvement in establishing and maintaining the supply chain;
    – We can still tame the ever-growing dragon called Machine Translation by developing new service offerings like PEMT at a more affordable rate (for those clients who’re willing to accept the lower quality for the sake of saving more dollars);
    – Marketing and sales teams can try more personalized approach to win bigger clients;

    So, even though, the reality might be “sad”, I think there’s an abundance of opportunities for us, we just need to figure out a way to seize them 🙂

    1. Hi, Dmitry. I just came back from a month-long trip to Russia and still trying to recover after workcation. I know I could transpose the post into a major key, but I still think that a sounding title with provocative content can attract more attention to the situation. I agree that there are plenty of opportunities for all kind of businesses, still, there are many clients who are uninformed or misinformed about important issues in the translation market. That was the main purpose of the article – show some major pitfalls (in my opinion) our potential clients need to consider when ordering translation services. However, I think it is a good idea to write another post with a positive attitude, offering solutions rather than indicating the problems only.

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      1. “I just came back from a month-long trip to Russia and still trying to recover after workcation.”

        Oh, yeah! I saw some pictures on Instagram. Did you know that Belgorod is kinda my home town? 🙂 I hope you had an awesome vacation.

        “That was the main purpose of the article – show some major pitfalls (in my opinion) our potential clients need to consider when ordering translation services”

        I agree! This is super important, so thanks for bringing that up! I do hope that over time we’ll see some gradual improvement how large LSP manage their supply chain and handle project management. My bet that technology will play a major role in it.

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    2. Hello Dmitry,

      I feel good reading this reply of yours. I was not always that optimistic about things in the industry, since about 70% of what I get is from agencies and they pay really low rates. But I also agree there are endless possibilities due to technology developments. Thank you!

  2. Hi Simon,

    I hear you. And I believe one of the greatest issues is that most of the customers these days seem to be new to translation and localization (I work mostly with games and some of my customers are at their first localized games and think the best deal is the lowest cost. Usually, it is hard to explain my rates). They do not know the localization is poor until players from a country start complaining. When it happens, they already lost many players. But I also think that there are great opportunities for us at fair rates, mostly due to the new technologies (For instance, I have more customers in other continents then in my home country where the rates are pathetic.)

    Great article.Thank you for sharing.

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  3. Hi Simon, you wrapped it up nicely! There is one way to have quality, pay for it and still save a lot of money as a business: it’s much cheaper to have your in house translation department with freelance translators that earn a decent buck than working with one of the big agencies. I’ll tell you how much cheaper: about 2/3rds. Why companies don’t bother to learn more about translation management and create their own translation teams, is a mistery to me.

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