A Hard Way to Make Money
by Robin Bonthrone
uriously enough, I have never been asked by a direct client about what qualifies me to be a translatorwhether I possess a translation degree or some other form of certification. That only happened to me when I started freelancing and had little option but to work for agencies. In the early days, I used to dread that question, or those dreary little forms you got sent by the agencies that basically wanted to know where and when you received your translation qualification, and how little you would charge for the privilege of working for what were in many cases quite evidently a bunch of cowboys who looked down on translators as some sort of sub-human life form. A lot has changed since thenand I now laugh at myself for ever having worried about the "qualification problem"but I'd like to start by tracing my evolution as a translator.
I suppose my first efforts at translation were when I started learning French and Latin at the age of eight, although that certainly wasn't my first contact with foreign languages. I grew up in Fife, the permanently windy peninsula on the East Coast of Scotland north of Edinburgh. During and after WW2, Kirkcaldy, my home town, had experienced a massive influx of peoplethe refugees, the dispossessed and the rejectedfrom those countries that had suffered invasion and occupation first by Germany, and then by the Soviet Union: in particular Poland, Czechoslovakia, and the Baltic states, as well as smaller contingents from Hungary, Romania and the Ukraine. My father, who died when I was wee boy, owned a wood turning mill staffed almost entirely by exiled Polish ex-combatants. To a three year-old, these were gentle giants who communicated more or less in sign language, because I could hardly understand a word of their hesitant, heavily accented English. And around the town, we would frequently be stopped by men and women who would smile and say what were obviously kind words to me and my younger brother while my mother strained to understand what was being said. From an early age, then, I had some vague understanding that not everybody in the world spoke the same language.
An ambitious translator has to invest a considerable amount of time and intelligence researching and building up first-class terminology resources.
I was the "beneficiary" of what was then regarded as a very proper, classical education. I can't claim to have enjoyed it particularly at the time, but I certainly appreciate it now. Prep schoolthat peculiarly British boarding establishment where the wealthier classes send their unfortunate offspring at the age of eight to "give them a good start to their education and get them out of the house"was where French and Latin figured prominently in the curriculum, followed by Ancient Greek from the age of eleven. But it was also an extremely broad education, with mathematics and the sciences also high on the list of priorities. There were two aspects of that schooling, though, that I think have stood me in good stead ever since: firstly the notion that grammar is important, irrespective of the language involveda vital key to understanding how language is structured to ensure effective, unambiguous communication. Secondly, writing skillsessay-writing, précis writing (abstracts), the ability to communicate concisely and succinctlywere drilled into us ad infinitum. How we hated it then, how tedious it was, butand this is the adult speaking againhow right the teachers were to insist that we did it, and did it again and again until they were satisfied. Because no matter how important all the other subjects were, it was made absolutely clear to us that Englishits grammar, comprehension, usage and literaturewas the most important of all, and that it was more or less a complete waste of time to learn other subjects, and in particular other languages, unless one's command of English was absolutely first-rate.
Prep school was followed at age thirteen by the next stage in the traditional British educationa public school in England (meaning a private boarding school). This I enjoyed even less than the prep school, but in between trying to avoid having to play rugby and cricket, I managed to start learning German. Here too, great emphasis was placed on learning the grammar and structure of the language, and again, I am grateful to have had the complexities of German grammar drilled into me courtesy of "Hammer's Grammar", by far and away the best book in English on German grammar (and one which I would very much recommendand still refer totoday). By dint of being a smart bratand prompted in particular by a desire to leave school as early as possibleI also succeeded in jumping a year so that I had just turned seventeen when I left school with my A-levels, the English advanced school-leaving certificate/university entrance qualification. I then spent a number of years as a junior officer in the Royal Navy before going to the University of London to read German.
I graduated at the high-point of the mass unemployment of the early Thatcher years. The prospects were not particularly bright for graduatesand especially language graduatesso after trying and failing for some time to find a job, I applied and was accepted for a place on a "European Marketing and Languages" postgraduate diploma course in Edinburgh. I think that this was a great shock to the system for all thirty-odd of us on the course. We were all language graduates, accustomed to in-depth analysis of some obscure aspect of the German Novelle, the infinite interpretations of Thomas Mann or tracing the evolution of words and concepts from old Gothic and Althochdeutsch through to modern-day German. Suddenly we were confronted with alarmingly down-to-earth subjects like economics, the fundamentals of accounting and finance, business research, international commercial law, marketing strategies and techniques, behavioral psychology, negotiation tactics, commercial correspondence andheaven help usselling. And much of this was in three languages (English and German, plus subsidiary French). For ten months, we lived and breathed case studies, sales negotiation scenarios and projects, including a longer-term project where we were assigned as export marketing/sales managers to small companies wanting to export to Germany for the first time. The attrition rate on the course was quite high, but our lecturers were both highly professional and extremely patient, and those of us who survived through to the end benefited from what I still believe was one of the best possible introductions to "business" available to linguists.
My first job after completing the postgraduate course was as a marketing assistant at a subsidiary of a large UK-based multinational. In addition to providing product marketing support to its UK sales force, I was also increasingly involved in assisting the export sales manager to the point where I was tasked with a project to establish a German sales subsidiary. This was not only an extremely interesting assignment, but also one where I could exploit to the full everything I had learned in the preceding year. It also involved a not inconsiderable amount of translation work, but more importantly, perhaps, this project involved my first contact with computers. The company had its own mainframe, but what caught my eye was an "executive" portable version of the CPM-based Commodore C64 which had been bought from surplus budget funds but never really used. I expropriated the machine, taught myself how to use it and the bundled applications, and thus began my continuing love-hate relationship with computers. However, the German subsidiary project was killed by the main board of the group, and I was soon looking around for a new job.
In the second half of 1985, I was hired over to Dietzenbach, about 15 km south of Frankfurt am Main in Germany, by a German company to provide sales and marketing support for its operations in the UK and Ireland. Three years later, I found myself in charge of these operations, dividing my time between desk work at the head office and regular field trips. Translation requirements were considerable, and I soon discovered that I could do this much better myself than the agencies and freelances that we had previously been using. It was a period of very long working days and constant contact with head office in Germany, our UK and Irish customers, and the company's lawyers in Germany and London. Frequently, I found myself on the road for several weeks at a time, visiting customers and our professional advisers during the day, and catching up with my paperwork and translating in my hotel room in the eveningmainly technical, legal and financial texts that were urgently required either by our customers or by head office. After a year or so of spending three weeks out of four away from home, I decided this was not the life for me, and left the company.
Based on my experience to date, it was a pretty natural decision to examine translating as a way of making a living. I warmed up some contacts I had had with local agencies, and soon found myself inundated with work. Armed only with a rather battered electronic typewriter and a handful of somewhat antiquated dictionaries, I soon made enough to buy a "state-of-the-art 286 PC with a whopping 1MB of RAM" (remember those days? It was only ten years ago....) and to start building up a proper reference library.
I spent the first year or so gaining experience working for agencies and identifying the rules and structures of the market, and then started to market my services to direct clients, particularly banks and accountants, as well as software manufacturers. I had the great fortune (and I'm convinced that luck plays as great a role in translating as in any career) to be coached and encouraged in my efforts at financial translation by one of these direct clients, the head of translation at one of Germany's largest banks. In addition to learning about the ins and outs of all aspects of translating for the financial markets, I also established quickly that the very few (German/English) finance dictionaries that are of any use to the translator only cover part of the picture, and that an ambitious translator (and I think that anybody who knows me and my work is aware that I am an ambitious translator) has to invest a considerable amount of time and intelligence researching and building up first-class terminology resources.
Another important client was the Frankfurt office of one of the large international accounting firms, which allowed me to warm up the financial and management accounting knowledge I had gained during my postgraduate course and had also applied in part in my previous job. I am often asked today why I started specializing in financial translation, and in accounting and reporting in particular. My standard response is that I identified a market opportunity that was poorly served by other translators, and that I was building on existing knowledge. Both of these are certainly true, but looking back, I also have a feeling that there were other, less tangible factors in play, that somehow the subject chose me, rather than the other way round. I know that this sounds odd, perhaps even ridiculous to an industry outsider, but I have certainly been told similar things by other high-end translators about their own areas of specialization.
However, I was notand am nottotally fixated on financial translation, and have gathered experience in a number of fields, some of which (e.g. pharmaceuticals, power engineering) I no longer translate. Others, such as software systems and applications, I still translate frequently, particularly if I can exploit my knowledge in "straight" finance, for instance in areas such as electronic banking, treasury management and securities trading, or my experience in business processes, including such areas as logistics/MRP II and supply chain management.
One of my software localization clients was the German company Software AG, which in the early nineties was Germany's largest and most successful independent software manufacturer, even for a time ranking ahead of its now massive rival, SAP. I worked on a number of projects for a team developing a suite of MRP II applications, and was soon referred on to the newly founded language services department, headed by Deborah Fry. Deborah and I hit it off very well almost from the start (although it was a good two years before we actually met in person), and Software AG's language services department was soon one of my very largest clients.
In 1994, after my first marriage had disintegrated, I finally managed to meet Deborah, and she and others persuaded me to get involved in a European project called POINTER ("Proposals for an Operational Infrastructure for Terminology in Europe"). I won't go into the gory details of what was undoubtedly one of the most chaotic and difficult European projects of all time, but anybody interested in reading the results should visit http://www.surrey.ac.uk/MCS/AI/pointer/. At the same time, Deborah and I were heavily involved in setting up the Deutsches Institut für Terminologie (DIT) e.V., the German Terminology Institute, which we then ran for a couple of years.
In 1995, Deborah decided that her career at Software AG was going nowhere, so she left the company and in July 1995, we formed Fry & Bonthrone Partnerschaft, Language Consultancy and Services (F&B). The "Partnerschaftsgesellschaft" was then a very new form of partnership in Germany, restricted to "Freiberufler" (members of the liberal professions, such as lawyers, accountants, tax advisers, translators and interpreters). It is a modified form of civil law partnership in which liability for a particular transaction can be limited to one of the partners, and the partnership itself is a legal entity that can conduct transactions in its own name.
Our aim was to pool together our respective experience and expertise in the areas of finance, banking, software, management and marketing communications to offer direct clients a range of translation services that neither one of us could have done alone. We also intended supplementing our translation work with language-related consulting. Unfortunately, just a couple of months after we started operating, I lost most of the sight of one eye due to a retinal thrombosis. For a time, I thought my translating days were over, as I had great difficulty in focusing on either printed texts or the computer screen. I persevered, however, and by learning to read texts differently (because of impaired stereoscopic vision) and using larger screens, I was back up to my original speed within just a few months. I was certainly very glad to have learned touch-typing many years ago.
Nevertheless, this incident threw us back by a year or so, so it wasn't until 1996, after Deborah and I were married, that we started building up the business as we had originally intended. We rapidly reached a situation where we were unable by ourselves to cope with the demand from our clients, and we soon realized that for the quality of translation we were offering, plus the often very fast turnaround times required, contracting work out to freelances was rarely the answer. After we had spent the nth night rewriting an external translation, we decided that now was the time to implement what had been part of our original plans for the company: recruiting and training our own in-house translators was essentially the only way to produce translations that met our quality standards, and a strategy that would allow us to build up the capacity needed to service our clients' translation requirements.
In 1997, we recruited our first translator, who had just completed her M.A. at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS) in California. She is still with us today, and is now our Translation Manager. In addition to myself and Deborah, we now have nine staff translators (including two German native speakers, one of whom is also a terminology specialist), an Office Manager and an office support specialist, two project managers, a recently recruited Tools & Resources Manager (ex-Trados), and a Marketing & Communication Manager (formerly one of our staff translators). We have also established close links with several universities and postgraduate institutions in the UK, Ireland, the US and Germany, and at any one time, we normally have between three and five students on paid internships of between three months and a year.
The demands and challenges of such an organization are quite different to those of the solo freelance or a small two-person business. To a certain extent, we have recreated at F&B a situation not unlike the staff translation departments that existed a couple of decades before, where junior translators can benefit from the experience and expertise of senior translators and revisers through on-the-job "learning by doing", backed up by training in specific subject areas and translation skills. On the other hand, we are subject to market pressures that the staff translation departments of former years never had to face. Apart from having to make a profit (!), we also have to cope with massive demand for premium-quality translations in a market that is both extremely dynamic and unpredictably volatile.
Some colleagues assume that I now spend most or all of my time performing management and business functions. These are certainly part of my present functional mix, but in fact I still spend most of my time translating, revising and researching terminology and specific subject areas, as well as helping and training our staff translators. We know that adding value to the organization in this way is what enables us to give our customers what they wantextremely high quality translations very quickly. Indeed, 1999 was my most productive year ever as a translator, despite my other duties. Every translation that we do is revised by a senior translator, and in practice, that still means myself or Deborah in the vast majority of casesalthough as our still very young translators (average age 26/27) gain experience, we will be able to hand over responsibility for revision work to them.
Building up a translation organization such as we now have has given me a totally different insight as regards the questions: "What is translation?" and "How do translators achieve and sustain quality output?". It is one thing to be a freelance, responsible only for yourself (and if you are dedicated, for the quality of your work). Being responsible for a team of translators, and the organization needed to back them up, is a completely different dimension. Firstly, it is vital that the organization needs to have quality procedures in place before you can even start thinking about the quality of the translation itself. We apply, and are certified under, the German translation standard DIN 2345 "Translation Projects", which Deborah was involved in developing during her time at Software AG. DIN 2345 seeks to lay down procedures for how a translation job is processed, as part of a full cycle starting and ending with the client. We have supplemented DIN 2345 to meet our own needs and those of our customers, and we have also incorporated elements of other published quality standards, such as the industry-standard LISA Quality Model.
Mention process quality to many translators, in particular the rather sad, lone-wolf types who are so numerous in our profession, and the response is often fiercely, aggressively negative. I will spell it out as clearly as I can: if we didn't have process quality procedures and standards in place, we simply wouldn't be able to produce the translation quality our clients demand. Let me give an example that highlights why such a quality framework is so important.
Our primary specialist areas of translation are Banking, Finance & Management; Information and Communications Technologies, Media, Marketing & Communication; and Logistics & Transportation. One of our main activities in the first of these specialist areas involves the translation of offering prospectuses (mainly into English, but increasingly also into German) for companies going public on the Neuer Markt in Frankfurt. Here is a typical workflow for such a project.
If we're lucky, we're notified about two to three weeks in advance of the arrival of the prospectus, and we are normally given the name and industry of the IPO candidate about a week before the text arrives. This allows us to research the often weird and wonderful subject areas involved: one week it may be turbomolecular vacuum pumps, the next gene technology, and then e-advertising. The text, when it arrives, is generally between 120 and 150 printed pages (30,000 to 40,000 words would be a good average). Again if we're lucky, we'll normally have around two weeks to complete this translation, though on occasion, we've had no more than a long weekend. In most cases, when we're about 75% through the translation, changes to the original text start arriving. These then have to be worked into the translation. Even before we've e-mailed the translation files to our client (normally the bank lead-managing the IPO), we may have received anything up to 20 sets of changes. The next stage is receipt and revision/proofing of the typeset prospectus (sent to us as a PDF file). This is when the "fun" really starts. The four or five days prior to the start of the offering period (including weekends, public holidays) are the hot phase. This is when all the parties involved in the transaction (several law firms, often several accounting firms, the bank, the issuer itself and its advisers) start making radical additions and amendments to the original prospectus, which we then have to translate more or less "on the fly" and incorporate into the foreign language version of the prospectus. Most of these changes come in by fax, and we fax back handwritten changes (Word files for longer passages). Our record so far was just over 2,500 fax pages in and out over a weekend.
If we didn't have defined process quality procedures in place, we simply wouldn't be able to cope with this massive workload within the designated deadlines: we'd get totally lost, and all of us would end up huddled in a corner with a blanket over our heads. That's why the process quality standards we adopt and impose are so important: they give us as translators a reliable framework to enable us to produce the best possible quality of translation.
Ensuring translation quality is, of course, a much more difficult task. There will, I think, never be any completely watertight standards that can be laid down for ensuring a particular level of output quality. Based on our experience, however, we have developed a set of rules that, if followed consistently, we believe provide at least a reliable starting-point for the translators themselves: the "6 Rs" (one of which isn't strictly an R, but I think we'll be forgiven for that...).
Read the text thoroughly before you move onto the next stage. A number of questions have to be answered:
- Is this a text you're actually competent to translate? (If not, don't move onto the next stage unless you're working under supervision.)
- Is the text complete? (You'd be surprised how often bits are missing.)
- Does the text match the customer's description of it? (It's amazing how "10 pages of an MD&A" can suddenly turn into 60 pages of financial statements and notes.)
- Reading the text also gives you a general idea of what it's about. If it's a longer piece, take notes and write a short précis (abstract) of the salient points of the text.
Research the terms and concepts appearing in the text. This is where language technology tools can also help. For example, some high-end terminology management systems (TMSs) allow you to run the text against the terms in your terminology database, automatically substituting or marking hits in the database. This can also be done manually, of course. You should end up with a term list containing the unknown terms (remembering that terms can have completely different meanings/equivalents, depending on the context).
Don't start translating until you have established all the missing equivalents in the target language. Investing several hoursor even days, for a longer projectin terminology research now will save you at least double that amount when you're actually translating.
Remember that when you're translating, you're actually writing in the target language, which for FIGES languages at least, will normally be your native language. If you're not writing in your native language, then you need to take particular care to make sure that your grammar and style are indistinguishable from those of an educated native speaker. This brings us to the next "R":
"Rhythm" here also stands for style and register. A legal or financial document, for example, demands a completely different style, register and flow than, for example, a marketing piece or technical documentation. This is something that can only come with experience, and this experience you should have gained before you became a translator (you shouldn't be using your customers and end-users as guinea-pigs!). Unfortunately, this is very often not the case nowadays. As I said above, I come from a generation that was more or less forced to learn to write properly and to express ourselves succinctly in our native language (the same applies to Deborah). The modern school and university system, however, seems to regard such skills are pretty unimportant, particularly in the English-speaking countries. This means that if you lack such skills, you are going to have to work all the harder to hone themand not at your customer's expense.
It probably sounds self-evident that translators should revise their own work, irrespective of whether it is then going to be revised elsewhere. It is my experience, though, that this often doesn't happen. Simply running a spell-checker over a file is not the same as revising it. It's important to remember that the buck stops with the translator, not with any downstream reviser, and certainly not with the customer. Revising it means reading it through and examining it firstly for formal errors: sentence or word missed out; superfluous words; adherence to any instructions (e.g. US or UK English); adherence to customer-specific corporate language; spelling mistakes, and so on (remember that a spell-checker won't distinguish, for example, between "he" and "the"they're both correct) . This is then followed by a second check for content errors: has everything been understood and translated correctly? Has the terminology been correctly applied? Are the style, register and rhythm appropriate for the text?
Finally, it is important to remember that you, as the translator, are responsible for your work. You are responsible for ensuring that the text has been translated in accordance with both any instructions given, and with the first five "Rs" listed above. I often read that only the client or user is able to judge the quality of a translation. I disagree with this violently. Firstly, in many cases the client or user is simply unable to judge whether a translation is good or not because they lack the language (or other) skills to do so.
Secondly, I believe that the first-rate translator, who is unique because he or she possesses not just subject area skills, but these skills in two or more languages, is often best placed to judge whether a translation is adequate or not. That said, we canand mustalways learn from our customers, and a positive feedback loop will ensure that quality improves all the time. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that statements such as "the customer is the final arbiter of the quality of a translation" are not infrequently misused to push responsibility from the translator to the user. It is, perhaps, symptomatic that this argument seems to be frequently advanced by the owners of what are essentially "envelope switching" agencies that essentially add little or no value to the translator's work.
Of course, these rules are in themselves not a magic solution for producing top-quality translations, but we believe that if other conditions are metincluding the right choice of translator, and his or her innate ability to translatethe odds that extremely good translations will be produced are very high. So what do we look for in a translator when we're recruiting for staff jobs at F&B? (the same applies essentially to freelances.) We've almost inevitably had a couple of disappointments in the past, but the following is the overall profile we have come up with, and one which I have also discussed with translation students during visits to translator education establishments:
- Extremely good command of the native language
- Ambition, passion and a desire to improvetranslators have to care about their work.
- Curiosity, a compulsive learner. I think translators are rather like sharksif we stop swimming (stop learning) we drown. Translators also need to be "switched on" when they're working: intelligence isn't enough, it has to be applied.
- Translators have to have the ability to learn and continuously extend their subject area knowledge, in other words: they have to think and act past the "language barrier" and into the subjects they are translating.
- They also need, of course, an intimate knowledge of the sourcenormally foreignlanguage(s) that goes far beyond what can be taught at school or university.
- Finally, they need a good grounding in the basics of business: whether they're freelancing or working as staff translators, they have to understand how business and business organizations work. They have to understand that as translators, they are not an island, but part of a huge process whose ends they may never see.
In the same way, they need to know the difference between revenue and profit. I've been told frequently by freelances that they "make" so much a year. It then emerges that this figure is their total revenue, and they don't have a clue what their actual after-tax earnings are. I'd like translators to be still working when they're 60 or 70 because they want to translate, not because they have to (because they haven't set aside money for their retirement, or evenin a couple of cases I knowbecause they were actually operating at a loss for many years, and had run up substantial levels of debt).
And what of the future? I have to admit that I'm rather anxious about the future: not for the future of F&Bfar from itbut for the future of the profession, of the industry as a whole. I think we are now approaching yet another crisis point, yet another crossroads in the development of the profession. This one, I feel, will be even more critical than those we have had to face (or have not faced up to) in the pasteven more dangerous, for example, than the consultants who swept through the staff departments, closing them down or reducing them to a mere shell: the same consultants who are now selling globalization and localization to the corporates. Ironic, isn't it?
The problem we now face is a combination of various factors, including: the very increase in demand for translationand the speed at which it has to be producedand the inability of large sections of the industry to cope with this demand; the increasing popularityand abuseof machine translation systems, coupled with the gradual improvement in this technology; the pace of change in the subject areas we have to translate; the skills shortage among new entrants to the profession, and the declining number of new students in a number of language combinations; and finally, the poor (or total lack of) image of the profession/industry in our client industries.
In response, I think we have to get smarter, and get tougher: tougher with translator educators, tougher with our technology providers, tougher with our "professional" associations and, in doing so, getting tougher with ourselves.
The educators have to be brought into line with what translators actually need in terms of skill-sets. Certainly in Europe, many educators seem to try very hard to ignore the fact that there is a difference between what they are trying to teach ("translation") and what translators do ("translating"). They have to focus on the needs of translators (and of the end-users), rather than on the promotion of academic careers. They must aim to produce graduates who are good, talented translators because of the courses, not in spite of them.
The technology providers must establish much more clearly what it is that working translators actually want and need. The language tools industry is still product development-driven, rather than market-driven. Too many of them still evidently adopt the approach: "Take what we want to give you, not what you actually want". In addition, there are many tools out there that still have not progressed past the R&D stage, but which the industry desperately needs (e.g. text analyzers, string substitution and term replacement systems coupled with morphology, term extraction systems).
I have the impression that a large number of the "professional" associations are about as effective, as ambitious and as high-profile as a rural knitting club. We will never be able to put our message, our needs, our claims, across effectively and powerfully without professional associations that are as well organized and managed as those of other professions. Above all, this needs the money to put in place professionally managed central organizations that will do most of the work, instead of expecting hard-working, successful translators (and interpreters) to more or less abandon their legitimate business interests for anything up to three years "for the good of the cause". Despite their hard work and genuine desire to move things forward, these individuals are faced with an almost impossible task, and they also have to cope with constant sniping from "colleagues" who aren't prepared to lift a finger (except the middle one). Let's put things into perspective here: translators or interpreters making forty thousand a year (US dollars or eurostake your pick) or more after taxesand there are plenty of such peoplecan certainly afford to pay a thousand a year for a professional association that will effectively represent their interests and act as a central services organization.
A final word on the title of this article: Gerd Janssen of STAR Germany, who was one of the most informed observers and keenest analysts of our industry, died suddenly earlier this year. Those words were his response when he found out how F&B worked, and what sort of work we were doing. He was quite right in many ways, but it doesn't mean that it's not a highly rewarding and satisfying way of doing business. I think that all translation is a hard way to make money, that it is without doubt one of the most challenging and intellectually demanding ways to earn a living. But working without these challenges, without this need to continue learning and exploring and stretching our minds still further, would be boring, dull and ultimately much more frustrating. Be a sharkkeep swimming!