A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
How come I never see an interpreter question in here? Anyway, here is mine. Last month, a businessman who had booked my services for three days called a week before the assignment. The conversation went more or less like this:
"I wonder if I could ask your advice on a local question?"
"You know, I reserved a couple of rooms at Le Grand Hotel in your town for foreign participants in the seminar. Now they have decided they won't be coming after all. Do you think the hotel will give me a hard time if I cancel the reservations?"
"I don't think sothere is a major trade show next week, and I'm sure they'll be able to find other guests to take the rooms. Just tell them nicely; I'm sure they will understand."
"You are right, that's just what I'll do. Of course, without foreign participants I won't be needing an interpreter after all. I take it, then, that you will also be agreeable if I don't use you this time. Thank you very much for your help, and let's stay in touch."
When I reran the conversation in my mind afterward, I began to feel upset. Do you think I got taken advantage of?
Esprit d'Escalier in France
At the very least, your client was being disingenuous. Perhaps a hotel with fifty rooms or more can afford to be gracious about the cancellation of a few overnight stayswe can't really say, since hotel economics is not our field.
But you were being asked to forego not a small fraction but 100 percent of your revenue for the three days for which you had been contracted to work. That's quite a difference. Yet since you had agreed to his first question, it was difficult for you to assert your rights.
Be more wary in the future. For instance, in response to the first question, you could truthfully have said that you had no idea, depriving your counterpart of the advantage from his opening gambit.
It is also a good idea to write a clear cancellation policy into your contract. As always in this trade, cancellation policies employed by different interpreters run the gamut, from non-existent to payment in full regardless of how far in advance an assignment is canceled. Ultimately it is up to you to determine your terms of business, but a cancellation policy is one of the bedrock components you should have. It will greatly strengthen your hand: even if you decide that a situation warrants taking a conciliatory approachperhaps because your client is genuinely financially strapped, or because there is guaranteed repeat businessit will be your choice, not the client's.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I graduated with a Ph.D. in French literature from a US university in 1992, and decided to become a translator instead of staying in academia.
I'm now based in Cape Town, South Africa, where there is not much demand for French to English translation, and have decided to specialize in legal translation.
This poses a problem since I haven't been formally trained in translation, but I've been seriously translating (very part-time) since around 1998 and I'm sure I've improved my skills by taking the bull by the horns and translating anything not too technical. Of course, some clients are happier than others. I try my best and continue working for agencies, since I believe that this is the only way to go (self-education, self-training) for someone like me starting out. There is not much here in terms of training anyhow, let alone courses in legal translation. At the age of 38, I'm not considering doing a law degree. Is there any material out there you know of which could assist me in developing an expertise in legal translation?
Not being a fully qualified lawyer, should you even attempt legal translation? Well, if there were enough lawyer-translators around to meet demand, the market would probably say 'No.' But there aren't, and this is unlikely to change soon. In international law firms, bilingual attorneys are frequently pressed into service as in-house translators, but many greatly resent this and leap at the earliest opportunity to escape.
Soas long as you are open and honest with your clients about your credentials, we see no reason in principle to dissuade you.
But as you are no doubt aware, even if you find a retired attorney to take over part of the workload by becoming your reviewer/editorthe ideal scenarioyou are still taking on a major challenge.
Here are some points our legal advisers feel you should consider:
There are also specialized mailing lists that provide a forum for exchanging information and advice, e.g. the LIFT network (Law, Insurance, Finance) of the UK's Institute of Translation and Interpreting. Check the ITI website www.iti.org.uk for details on how to sign up. We note that some legal seminars for translators are currently advertised on same site.
Not only are French-English legal dictionaries scarce, but a dictionary can only help you to remember terminology that you already know and understand. Unlike a translator of, say, circuit-board layout software manuals, you will have to learn about your field not just once but twice, since the legal systems of France and the Commonwealth are independent of each other and look back on completely different histories. Leaving aside legal concepts, parsing some of the sentences found in a typical contract is a brain-busting exercise in and of itself.
Conclusion: there is no substitute for hitting the books and studying the French and UK (or US or Canadian or Swiss or Belgian or...) legal systems. Instead of attempting to read the textbooks assigned to law students in university courses, you might try looking for primers targeting other vocations, such as business administration students. Speaking of which....
38 is definitely not too old to study the law. Hell, a healthy and alert 65-year-old could do it! And it certainly won't be any harder than if you train on the job to become a successful translator. So take a good look at your priorities, and consider law school or paralegal studies. Even a stint as a bilingual secretary in a law firm would give you some direct experience of legal documents and procedures - an essential first step.
Finally, you may currently be in a backwater for French-English legal translation, but that does not mean you have to work in a vacuum. Vive Internet! Example: legal portal findlaw.com has a host of legal forms and sample contracts, in particular recent technology deals. Reading these can be helpful for understanding legal style. A number of firmsFreshfields is onepublish free brochures that explain various areas of French law (such as property or securitization) in English. These are all the more valuable in that many are drafted by expert bilingual lawyers. The Chambre de Commerce Internationale at Cours Albert Ier in Paris has published a number of useful documents in French and English, including certain model commercial agreements (distribution, etc.). Its Rules of Conciliation and Arbitration are available for free in French and in English, and are an essential reference for any person interested in translating in this field, say our contacts.
Information overload? Not really. What it all boils down to is one question: Why choose law as your translation specialty? If you picked it because of its potential for earning a healthy income, we approve. However, you should also develop a genuine interest in a number of legal issuesranging from the history of common law to recent developments such as copyright protection on the Internet. Are you sure that you don't want to go to law school after all?
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am currently a German teacher in New York State. I studied at a German university for two years and then worked for a US luxury retailer in Frankfurt for a year. I've now been back in New York for three years and am totally bored and uninterested in teaching. I am looking to begin translating but have no experience. I know that if given a sample translation I could do a good job but how do I get agencies to even give me the time of day?
I have filled out many online applications but without result because I have no work experience. I have just discovered a program at New York University that offers a translation certificate. Would this help my chances? I just don't know how or where to begin. My teaching job runs through June and I would hate to start a new school year in September.
Well, what's to stop you from sitting down and producing some sample work? Translation, like writing, is one of those activities where the conviction that you've got it in you will only get you so far: at some point you have to sit down at the keyboard and produce. Feedback from qualified critics will let you know if your work has promise, while tracking time spent and calculating after-tax income will let you know if this new career is one you might be able to live with and through.
For your first efforts, select texts in an area you know wellluxury goods? retailing? But watch the business press for mention of hot subjects and industries, areas where German companies are negotiating with US counterparts. Read up on these and try translating related material, to limber up in fields where demand may take off.
For feedback and practical advice, link up with the professional translation community in your area. The local chapter of the American Translators Association is the New York Circle of Translators www.nyctranslators.org; NYCT, P.O. Box 4051 Grand Central Station, New York, NY 10163-4051, tel. (212) 334-3060. You might also join some of the online translator forums and email lists for discusssions of the issues and challenges experienced practitioners face. In English, try lurking on Flefo, long a favorite with professionals, and now available through the Web at http://forumsa.compuserve.com/vlforums/default.asp?SRV=ForeignLanguage. Thumbs up for the translation certificate at NYU, which will bring you structured input and feedback on your fledgling attempts.
Above all, get yourself out of teaching: life is too short and kids too vulnerable for anybody to engage in this professional activity if it no longer appeals orworsebores them.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am a translator waiting anxiously for the Diploma in Translation result, due in March. Last week I watched a recent British film in the original version with Spanish subtitles and noted some serious errors in translation. These completely changed the meaning and the Spanish version did not make much sense. I thought that I had to tell someone, but I do not know who is responsible for hiring the film's translators. Any ideas? This may not be the best place to ask but I am at a loss as to who to contact.
This spilling of the beans business gets many people's back upall translators live in glass houses, says one of our contacts, while another muttered something about spitting in the soup.
Yet we can see where you are coming from: a good film may lose out on foreign markets due to sloppy subtitling. Unfair! Language itself deserves better. Yes! And your own critical sense has surely been sharpened by your course. So do speak up, but remember the ground rules:
And keep in mind that most films contain about 1200 subtitles. An error or two, especially in a film with a lot of regional accents and dialect, is not such a high failure rate, especially in view of time pressures as release dates loom.
In cases of blatant incompetence, the local distributor (their name will be
on the poster) is the party to write to, since they have the largest stake in the commercial success of the film.
Assume that whoever is in charge is simply unaware of the problem, and will want to correct things once the issue has been brought to their attention. Well, perhaps not for this film, but for future releases. Your tone must assume as much.
Be specific. "The subtitles were appalling" is little help; so is "your subtitler is hopeless." Go back and see the film again, and this time take notes.
Cut the original translator some slack, if only to ensure that you are not dismissed as the smartass in the back row. Concretely, mention a few factors that may be responsible for the problems ("I realize the Spanish version was released just two months after the original, so I imagine things were pretty hectic"; "Perhaps the translator was working from a faulty transcript.").
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I operate a translation business and regularly deal with suppliers I can only describe as social misfits.
Right now I am being stalked by an American gentleman from Wisconsin who has come to see me four times this week, wearing lederhosen and misbuttoned shirts (my company is in the financial district of a major city on the East Coast of the US). Wednesday it was a non-stop talker from southern California in sweats and bangles with a giant plastic flower (from a shower curtain?) clamped to the top of her chignon. Thursday a trio of wispy things who mumbled and all but fainted as they thrust CVs at me, yet applauded when the lederhosen man burst in to berate anonymous "agency owners" (not me, as far as I could tell) for exploiting translators.
What is wrong with these people, anyway? They are always bleating and whining about their low incomes, but practical marketing advice about approaching new prospects (e.g., acquire and wear business attire for strategic meetings; turn down the volume and listen to others; look at the person you are talking to, dammit, if you hope to do business with them), either gives them the vapors or gets them stamping their feet.
I used to find this amusing, but lately am getting depressed at just how clueless they are. Do they not realize that their own lack of basic business sense/social skills is a big part of their problem (and mine)? How can we get clients to take translation seriously when so many practitioners are this weird? More to the point: my retirement is still 15 years off. How can I keep from sweeping into the office with the living-room drapes across my shoulders myself one fine day?
Checking the Mirror
Well, you could always suggest that your local translators' association endorse a professional dress code. Or issue T-shirts with your corporate logo and a philosophical tagline to promising but offbeat suppliers as a step up the ladder in dressing for success.
Which brings us to the most important issue, one you have delicately sidestepped: what kind of work do these people produce? If it is good to excellent, surely it is in your interest to encourage their wildest eccentricities in both dress and manner, since this will scare off competing agencies and consolidate your role (and margin) as go-between. Direct clients won't touch weirdoes with a barge pole, which is precisely what we want, right?
If your impecunious translators are also poor translators, consider a Trojan Horse ploy: act now to straighten out their wardrobes and manners as a prelude to unleashing them out on the market. This could be the best investment you ever made; as everyone knows, clients recovered singed and reeling from translation disasters are some of the most loyal around.
A summer solstice drinks party with a fashion theme might be just the ticket. Book a speaker from Dale Carnegie, and announce up front that there will be plenty to drink and eat; this should bring in all the bottom-feeders.
In the meantime, take regular precautionskeep cool, make sure nobody is packing a gun and don't take any of these guys to lunch with clients. And do let us know how the party goes.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I translate from English into Dutch and vice versa and from French into English and Dutch, and have been working as a freelancer for well over eight years now. At first, I belonged to your first category of translators, dabbling a bit while I was studying, but after I graduated I moved into full-time translation.
I have a number of customers who ask me more and more often to write press releases and newsletters for them. One of them even referred a sister company to me, which suggests that they are happy with the copywriting jobs I
do for them.
Now, my problem is that when they first asked me to do some copywriting, I had NO idea whatsoever of the rates that are usually charged for this type of work. So I upped my translation rate a little, and told them USD 0.25 per word. I am charging their sister company USD 87 per hour, after calling around a bit to find out what prices copywriters usually charge.
However, I am far from sure that these are reasonable rates (from my point of view, that is), and would like to ask you whether you can give me an indication of the rates that are usually charged for this type of job.
Also, if I am now below current rates, I would naturally like to discuss higher prices with them, but I am not completely sure how to do that without losing my customers.
I would be very grateful if you could help me out on this.
We are not experts on copywriting per se, although one of us does it from time to time. One thing that struck us is that you seem to be employing two different pricing schemes for copywritingone, a per-word rate somewhat higher than your translation rate, and the other a straight hourly rate. This could lead to problems down the line because the two companies are related and might compare prices at some point.
While the Bottom Line does not suggest specific prices, 25 US cents per word would certainly not be a higher-end price for translationson the contrary! Generally it takes longer to produce a certain quantity of text when writing for hire than when translating an existing text. The reason is simple: in addition to research, client communications, terminology work, office management and the myriad other activities besides actual production that translators perform, a copywriter spends more time in briefings, progress meetings and on-site visits. Not to mention round upon round of revision hell. It is not uncommon to be asked to write a slender eight-page brochure by distilling reams and reams of raw client material: office e-mails, faxes, prior publications, business spreadsheets, news clippings, etc.
So while 87 dollars an hour would appear to be a healthy rate, 25 cents a word appears low.
Keep in mind, too, that in general copywriters lose money at first with new clients, even when on an hourly rate. The reason is simple: at the beginning, you won't dare to bill all the time you put in. After a couple of years, you start to break even, and after that you reap the rewards of your early investment as the learning curve (on both sides!) favors your economics.
You won't have much luck jacking up prices for existing customers. But as word spreads of your prowess, demand will rise. Every potential client then becomes an opportunity to lift your pricing structure a notch or two. It's one of the perks that freelancers enjoy! An employee who asks the boss for a raise is practically taking his life into his own hands: if your boss says no, you must then decide whether to quit or instead gnash your teeth and slink back to your desk, your motivation and self-respect in tatters.
You, on the other hand, can experiment, one prospect at a time. If you get several rejections in a row, it doesn't matter. A new buyer will come calling tomorrow and you can try a fresh approach then!
FA & WB