Volume 3, No. 2 
April 1999

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



What’s New?
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-99
  Translator Profiles
A Typical Translator?
by Cynthia Keesan
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
  Legal Translation
Pitfalls in Legal Translation
by Davide De Leo

Working in Brazil
by Danilo Nogueira.
  Translators Around the World
Translators’ Day in Armenia
by Narine Khachatryan
  Arts & Entertainment
Translation for Art and Architectural History
by Michael Walker
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XV
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’ Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Translators’ Events
Letters to the Editor
Call for Papers
Translation Journal
        The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

A column with practical tips for practicing translators.

Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I’m a freelance translator. Three months ago I accepted two jobs from a agency in France—the first time I’d worked with them.
      They seemed pleased with the work, but they have not yet paid my bill. Now the same agency has asked me to do some more work. I have completed the new texts but am loath to send them until I get confirmation that my earlier invoices have been paid. Would I be justified in withholding the work?

Getting Nervous

Dear Nervous,

Is it any consolation to hear that many payment problems with agencies have far more to do with their home-grown mom&pop shop approach to doing business than evil intent? (Yes, we realize that that in itself is a depressing comment on the state of the translation industry).
      But we do sympathize. Better yet, we ran your query past an ex-accountant who once headed up an accounts payable department. Here is what he suggests:

  1. Have a copy of your invoice handy, and give the agency a friendly phone call. Tell them you want to “check the status of my January invoice.” That in itself should be enough to give them a gentle nudge.
  2. You are more likely to avoid a round of buckpassing if you deal with a named contact. So ask the person on the phone: “Can I just make a note of who I’m speaking to in case I need to get back to you?”
  3. If they stutter something about “not having received your invoice,” respond pleasantly—even apologetically (practice beforehand if necessary)—“I wonder if I could seek your help in sorting this out? I’m currently working on another job for you, and I want get all the paperwork on this previous project sorted out so that I can be sure to get the present one back on time.”
Keep in mind that you are more likely to get your money if you are friendly and courteous at all times. As our accountant friend says, people often mess up chasing debts because they get tense at the idea of money being overdue. So the bottom line here is definitely to keep cool.
      That said, you are not a doormat. If despite your good humor and constructive approach payment is not forthcoming, refuse further jobs from the agency and take a more aggressive tack. There is strength in numbers, and transparency is a useful weapon: consider posting a message on FLEFO, the translators’ forum on CompuServe, to link up with other translators who have had problems with this agency. And let translators’ associations in the company’s home country/region know. In France, send details to Catherine Bonneville [bonnevil@artinternet.fr], who maintains a list of “problem agencies” for the national translators’ association Socié é Fran&&cced;aise des Traducteurs.
      Longer term, we think one of the most constructive initiatives that top-end translation companies/agencies might consider would be to draw up clear instructions on how to take deadbeat companies to court in different countries. Compiling this information is beyond the means of many freelance translators. And surely it is in the interest of all quality suppliers to unmask operators with shady business practices.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am currently working as an ESL instructor in Japan teaching English. However I do not want to do this forever and I am thinking of entering translation. I am particularly interested in entering the video or film industry and subtitling foreign films. My second languages are Italian and French, and I am studying Japanese.

  1. How does one break into this field?
  2. Do you know of any organizations where I can obtain information? Are there any institutions that train film/video translators in North America or Europe?

I Think I Cannes

Dear Cannes,

  1. By being the right person in the right place at the right time. First you must develop the skills. Like most types of translation, subtitling is much much harder than it looks. As our local expert Nigel Palmer says, you’ll need “flair, practice, perseverance, a real interest in film as a medium, an amenable temperament and a crossword puzzle (problem-solving) mentality.” And that’s just for starters. Subtitling is as much about reading the picture and the situation and knowing what does not need to be translated as it is about encapsulating everything said. For that reason, many good movie subtitlers are also film buffs/critics/scripwriters, have been to film school, etc.
          Nigel’s hands-on suggestion: test your skills/potential by renting foreign films on video and trying to improve the subtitles without lengthening them. Focus on expressing ideas in the most concise and unambiguous way possible. Collect short words.
          Don’t even think of applying for—much less taking on—a job until you have some mentored experience, since deadlines can be tight enough to drive even an experienced subtitler to despair. As a career choice, it is not particularly compatible with family life for precisely that reason.
          Once you think you are on the right track skill-wise, get yourself into the right place: consult the trade press and professional sources to find out where films are being subtitled in your language combination/direction. Go there and find a mentor—someone whose work you admire. Establish contact, and be prepared to invest the time needed to hone your skills until your Big Break comes along.
  2. Some universities offer courses in foreign-language subtitling (e.g., the University of Lille in France). These may be useful, but are by no means a passport to a living in subtitling since there are so few vacancies.
          A good address for more information is the European Institute for the Media in Düsseldorf, Germany. Contact: Anne English, Europaeisches Medieninstitut, Kaistrasse 13, 40221 Düsseldorf, tel 00 49 211 9010 457, fax 00 49 211 9010 479, http://www.eim.org, 100443.1703@compuserve.com.
          EIM publications about language transfer in the media include “Overcoming Language Barriers in Television: Dubbing and subtitling for the European audience” by G-M Luyken and others (EIM 1991, 214pp), ISBN 0 948195-19-3 and “Dubbing and Subtitling: Guidelines for production and distribution” by Josephine Dries (EIM 1995, 74pp), ISBN 3 929673-16-9.

    FA & WB


    Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

    I am a freelance translator. For some time I have been working through an agency that has assigned me to do in-house translation for one of their industrial customers.
          The very day I arrived on site, the end customer made it perfectly clear that they would be interested in working with me directly. I consider it would be unethical (if not suicidal) to take up their so far veiled offers, but they are getting more insistent, and I am confident that if I don’t agree to work with them directly, they will look for someone else who will. Then the agency and I would both lose out.
          I have mentioned this to the head of the agency. I suggested that I should accept the offer and pay the agency a commission for, say, two years, or as long as the assignment lasts, to compensate them for their investment in seeking out the work. He is not interested; in fact I don’t think he even believes my story.
          What should I do? There is no way I could prove that the customer is looking for a direct contact and that the agency will lose the contract in any case, so if I were to “steal” the agency’s client, I fear my reputation would be tarnished. However the end customer is a big concern, and there could be a lot of work in it, so financially the risk might be worth it. What do you advise?

    Twixt the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

    Dear Twixt,

    On-site assignments for an agency can be tricky and your dilemma demonstrates why. Normally each link in the chain adds value. Here your end client views the agency’s input as nil now that it has recruited you for them. All of which sounds to us like a naive client or naive agency—or both. Trust us: you are right not to add a naive translator to the equation by assuming you can have your cake and eat it, too. Your reflex—reporting the exchange to your employer and offering to make good his investment—acknowledges as much.
          We suggest you consider why this job is being offered to you.
          If the industrial customer is bowled over by your subject-matter expertise, writing skills and team spirit, and wants you at any price we can only advise you to go for it—especially since you have already offered to compensate your current employer for their loss of the customer (and very generously, in our opinion).
          A few suggestions, though. First, check your existing contract first to make sure you are not opening yourself (and the industrial customer) up to a lawsuit. Second, make sure the price is right. You already know what this customer is willing (or apparently not too willing) to pay your present employer for your services, so keep that in mind if you are negotiating a salary package. Do not sell yourself short. And if the industrial customer’s offer is to work with you as a freelance supplier, be sure to weigh up the cost of any additional services your agency employer is currently providing—resources, equipment, editing, admin, back-up, vacation time, etc. Remember, you will have to finance these on your own once the agency is out of the picture.
          But there is also a flip side. To put it bluntly, the more people pay for your services, the more they are likely to value them. If, as you seem to imply, the industrial customer’s chief concern is price—your services are cheaper without the agency’s margin on top—we suggest you think twice. Price-driven clients can be more trouble than they are worth: penny-pinchers are no fun in the long term.
          Beyond these immediate concerns, your question highlights the familiar agency/ freelance divide. On the one hand, Fire Ant & Worker Bee are amazed at the number of skilled translators who assume there is no alternative to working through an intermediary. Many “So you want to be a translator?”-type publications mention the direct client route only as a second thought. Let’s be clear: a thriving market exists for translators with top-level writing skills, specialist knowledge and the energy to get out and link up with direct clients.
          Good translation companies/agencies bring different skills to the table. They earn their piece of the cake through their ability to coordinate multilingual projects, locate the right talent for each job, provide resources and editing, assume financial risk and, in general, offer a timely response to a broader range of language needs. If they are not adding value, it is hardly surprising that they find their role (and margin) threatened.

    FA & WB

  © Copyright Translation Journal and the Author 1998
Send your comments to the Webmaster

URL: http://accurapid.com/journal/08xlation.htm