Volume 2, No. 4 
October 1998

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee

Fire Ant and Worker Bee have four decades’ combined experience in the translation trade. They believe that in addition to producing consistently strong work, translators benefit commercially from adopting an entrepreneurial outlook and exchanging tips and experiences



A Unique Medium
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-98
  Translator Profiles
May Your Neurons Never Get Tired of Your Challenges
by Steve Vlasta Vitek
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Business of Translating
Danilo Nogueira
  Literary Translation
Translating Poetry/The Work of Arthur Rimbaud from French to English
by Michael Walker
  Art & Entertainment
Translator, a Lovely Profession
by Karin Almegård Nörby/Monica Scheer
Fernsehuntertitelung in Flandern
by Luc Ockers
 Biomedical Translation
Immunology—a Brief Overview, Part 2
by Lúcia M. Singer, Ph.D.
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XIII
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
       The Profession
The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

A new column with practical tips for practicing translators.

Cutting the mustard

I worked as head of human resources in a company that went broke and I’m thinking of going into business as a translator when my unemployment benefits end in June. I’ve already prepared a business plan and begun a correspondence course in translation. The instructors give me useful feedback, but I’m wondering if my work is really going to be good enough. How do I find out?

Wondering in Wales

Dear Wondering,

Seek out other translators. You can usually attend several meetings of your local translators’ association as a guest, even if you are not yet a member. Introduce yourself and talk to people.

But don’t stop there. Scrutinize the trade papers and business press for translations that give you the feeling the translator knew what he or she was doing and did it well. Contact the publication or author of the article to find out the translator’s name, and write to compliment them on their work. If you are really lucky, he or she may be willing to act as a mentor, taking time to review and criticize your translations in exchange for input from you (proofreading texts, for example). Even if this is not possible, an established translator can often put you in touch with other translators in your position. Networking always pays off sooner or later.
   Since you are in the UK, you might also look into the “Fledgling” scheme run by ITI*, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting. This matches newcomers to the profession with more experienced translators.
    Above all, don’t hide. Go out and meet people, because some of them will become very valuable contacts for you. And view your career experience in a field outside translation as a plus: it has brought you subject-matter knowledge as well as insights into what end-users of translations expect and need. That will be invaluable as you head into the market.



Help! Translator’s block!

I am specialized in a lucrative field and have a small but loyal customer base. I love translating, but over the past six months I’ve found it harder and harder to sit down and actually do the work. I procrastinate until deadline and beyond, then sink my teeth in—and enjoy the work! I actually enjoy it once I start. My clients are loyal but they aren’t going to put up with missed deadlines forever. How can I do this to them? Good God, how can I do this to myself? How can I get over my “translator’s block”?

Frazzled in France

Dear Frazzled,

How urgent is your query? If you have an overdue job staring you in the face this very moment, implement suggestions 1 and 2 immediately. Then have a cup of coffee and consider 3-8.

  1. Clear the decks. Get a cardboard box from your local supermarket and sweep all the clutter on your desktop into it. Everything. Keep only a keyboard, mousepad, mouse, one writing implement and your source text. Sit down: you are ready to roll.
  2. Ease into the job. Try starting with an activity less stressful and more structured than translation per se. Example: terminology. Make a list of terms you will have to look up, and begin your working day with dictionary spadework and web searches. This should generate a lot of the raw material you will need when you settle down to do the real language transfer work.
  3. Read through each new source text the day it arrives, regardless of the deadline. You will have a better idea of what awaits you, and your mind will already be processing information and linking up ideas.
  4. Longer term, look into sharing an office: having a quiet, businesslike place where somebody else is hard at work at a keyboard can get you into work mode, too.
  5. Tell people when you are busy on a job. Especially fellow translators. Tell them how long you think it is likely to take. The more people who know you are occupied through Thursday afternoon, the more guilty you will feel about not being busy doing it (massive guilt can also backfire, but it’s worth a try).
  6. Establish a work routine. The “freedom” of freelance life can become the freedom to push back the moment you head for the office until truly ridiculous hours, which is bad for your physical and mental health. Decide when you work best—crack of dawn? mid-morning? middle of night?—and reserve two 3-hour chunks of time at your computer around that window. Don’t let yourself skip those working periods. Ever.
  7. Get a good night’s sleep. Fatigue—mental and physical—saps energy and interferes with your ability to concentrate. Take up a sport, preferably one that leaves you physically exhausted. You’ll sleep better.
  8. As a last resort, look for a salaried position doing the same type of work, which you say you enjoy. If you are cut out to be a freelance translator, six months back on the 9-to-5 circuit will remind you why you left in the first place. If not, perhaps you’ve reached a point in your life where you need an outside structure to keep you on track. Why not? People change. Good luck, and keep us posted.


Glossary freebie?

I’ve been keeping glossaries for clients and updating them on a regular basis. Now one of my clients has asked me for a copy of the glossary. Should I give it to them at all, and if yes, should I charge for it?

Methodical in Miami

Dear Methodical,

Your business relationship with a direct client will benefit greatly from agreeing on a common base of terminology. Look at this as a collaborative project, not a threat. And whatever you do, don’t lose sight of the big picture: while terminology is important, your added value as a translator goes well beyond knowing the correct words (or should do).
    You know and we know that translation has nothing to do with word-for-word substitution. Many end-users will pay lip service to this idea, but it is easy for them to forget just how complex the service you are providing is. To raise awareness all around and consolidate your ties, keep your eye out for terminology items of interest to them. Clip relevant articles, highlight terms and send them on to your in-company contacts with a short cover note. Send the same contacts client-specific glossaries regularly and ask them to send these back with corrections and additions. As a glossary grows and improves, your translations will improve and customer satisfaction will rise. We repeat: this is a high-profile means of presenting the behind-the-scenes work you put in on behalf of your clients.
   If your client is a translation agency, negotiate a fair price, perhaps a few dollars per glossary entry. The agency is already keeping a substantial share of the sales price of your translations for itself. One way of justifying its role is to either build a glossary itself or pay you for doing so.


Time to raise prices

The other day I was clearing out some old papers and found some of my very first translations. I think the quality of my work has improved 500% since then. Yet my prices have hardly risen at all. I would like to earn more for what I think is a very good product. How can I raise my prices?

Gearing Up for Action, Chicago

Dear Gearing,

By doing it—by announcing to your clients that effective January 1 (or June 1 or whenever) your prices will be 10% or 15% or 20% higher.
    If you feel an explanation is necessary, point out that your prices have been steady for X years or that you are raising your rates to cover rising costs all around. It’s important that you be neither apologetic nor defensive (nor arrogant, for that matter): you have become aware that you are underselling your services and your current adjustment is aimed at rectifying the situation. And be wary of those who claim that “the going rate” is X, Y or Z. Translation buyers base their choice of supplier on many factors, among them subject-matter expertise, writing style, availability, language combination, speed and price. (Note that price: ranked last—at least for the quality-driven type of client you want).
    That said, it’s probably a good idea to check two things before you make a move.

  • Is your output really as good as you say? Not to knock your +500% improvement, but you may have been a dismally poor translator when you began. To confirm that your work does make the grade, submit texts to peers and subject-matter specialists for review. Explain that you are considering a price rise, and ask them for an honest assessment.
  • Is the demand there in your market segment? If you are constantly swamped with work, it is time to raise prices in any case (a.k.a. Economics 101). But some price-driven work will probably evaporate as you move up the ladder, so you will have to replace those clients with new customers willing to pay more. You may even have to redirect your efforts towards a different market segment altogether. Rest assured, quality-driven clients exist. But you will have to track them down. The place to link up with them is on their home turf—trade shows, industry events, etc.
In concrete terms, you can continue to serve your existing client base at current rates and apply your higher rates to new clients only. Once you are sure that the pool of new clients is there, announce to your old clients that you are adjusting your price scale upward in response to market conditions, and see if they are interested in continuing your relationship on that basis.
    And remember: just as there is no minimum price for translation (after all Babelfish supplies it free on line), neither is there a maximum. If you are targeting the quality-driven end of the market, be sure to quote high enough to start.


* www.ITI.org.uk; tel. +44 (0) 171 713 7600, fax +44 (0)171 713 7650    [back]

Fire Ant and Worker Bee are Chris Durban and Eugene Seidel, who live and work in Paris and Frankfurt, respectively. Both enjoy making a beeline for the pot of honey that rewards hard workers. Drop them a line at ChrisDurban@compuserve.com and eseidel@compuserve.com.

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