Volume 7, No. 3 
July 2003

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee




From the Editor
Forty-Two Dog Years

Index 1997-2003

  Translator Profiles
When Bad News is Good News or Serendipity Strikes Again... and Again... and Again...
by Alex Schwartz

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Translators Around the World
German Children's and Teenagers' Slang
by Igor Maslennikov
ATA Certification In Bosnian, Croatian And Serbian
by Paula Gordon

  Medical Translation
SARS or ATP—a Misnomer in Mainland China
by Yichuan Sang, Ph.D.

  Translation Theory
La relevancia de la documentación en teoría literaria y literatura comparada para los estudios de traducción
by Dora Sales Salvador
Register Analysis as a Tool for Translation Quality Assessment
by Liu Zequan

Memory Training in Interpreting
by Weihe Zhong

Pedro Misner, 1939 - 2003
by D'Vonne Casadaban

  Translator Education
Translation: Back from Siberia
Alireza Bonyadi
Reflections of Prospective Language Teachers on Translation
Adnan Biçer, Ph.D.

  Book Review
The Hunt for Red October
Mark Hooker

  Translators' Tools
SDLX™ Translation Suite 2003
Dr. Thomas Waßmer
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
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 am an eighteen year old high school student in the U.S.; ready to graduate, and thinking about majoring in Spanish, and possibly minoring in translation, in efforts to become an interpreter/translator in a hospital. Do a lot of people do this as a full time job? What is the pay? Qualifications? Demand?

Any advice you could give me would be greatly appreciated.

Hospital Hopeful


Dear Hopeful,

Interpreting and translation in health care are viewed as emerging fields in the US, but current demand depends entirely on where you live and whether you are willing to work by telephone.

Experts tell us that in some areas you can make a living as an in-person medical interpreter, while in others professionals mix medical interpreting with translation and interpreting in different venues, such as court and social service agencies. If, however, you are interested in working as a "telephonic interpreter", you can make a living (albeit not necessarily a good one) wherever you are, say these contacts.

For medical interpreting, you will need:

  • Language skills, especially oral comprehension and production, including comprehension of regional dialects.
  • Interpreting techniques and skills, especially in consecutive mode.
  • Health care and social service vocabulary.
  • Knowledge of anatomy, physiology, common medical conditions and common medical procedures.
  • Awareness of health care beliefs and practices of the communities for which you will be interpreting
  • All-important interpersonal skills.

To translate written documents in this field, you will still need specialist knowledge of medical procedures and social services, plus, of course, training in translation proper and excellent writing skills.

For more information on both areas and suggestions on training, check out the website of the National Council for Interpreting in Health Care at www.ncihc.org.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have recently retired from a US Federal Government position, where one of my functions was that of an official Polish translator and interpreter. 

I continue to perform same duties for my former employer, as an independent contractor. We have a standard fee agreement.

 I would now like to expand my translator activities. For that purpose I am joining an association. I have one problem (at least one that I'm aware of). While I feel some confidence in my translator skill, I'm a complete novice to the "business."

Proving that point beyond reasonable doubt, I asked the association for prevalent standards in the charging of fees. I was told about antitrust laws that would make an answer to my question illegal. I also noted that in your questions and answers this vital issue is discussed only in terms of "too much" and "too little. "Just right," is when you can feed your family, without killing yourself. Now, this is something that could be written into the plot of Alice in Wonderland.

Is there some source that you can suggest, from which I can, even obliquely, derive my personal fee standard? Luckily, I will not be relying on translating to make a living, but I would like to get started on the right track.

Straight Talking Please


Fire Ant rasps:

Dear Straight,

You write "Luckily, I will not be relying on translating to make a living."

Call us grumpy and cranky, but why are you asking us then?

As we see it, the only way to charge prices for translation that are at the upper end of the market is to be a full-time professional. Being a full-time professional does two things:

  • It means you put in the hours necessary to become good at your craft, i.e., staying current on your specializations; being a good writer; mastering the mental mechanics of turning words in one language into words in another—the muscles inside your brain that you need to do the heavy lifting of translation will atrophy unless exercised for hours every day.

  • As Ambrose Bierce wrote, nothing concentrates the mind so well as the prospect of hanging from a tree the next morning. In translation, the barriers to market entry are so low as to be non-existent. Every single day, new people are coming in hoping to undercut you and take away your business. Every single day, one of your customers may go bankrupt, or your contact may be fired, or a bean-counter may decide you are too expensive, or you may get into an argument with a customer and get dropped, just like that.

Unless you have the very real prospect of the bill collectors pounding on your door, how are you going to muster the guile, the cunning, the crazed single-minded determination to maximize your earnings that are your only safeguards against your bed being carried out from under your ass by the repossession man? How are you going to develop a "sixth sense"—an almost physical sensation of just how much you can ask for and be right more often than wrong?

Concretely, what is to stop you from defining what you want out of translation and then doing it? E.g., "I want to have a $5,000 supplementary annual income from translation."

Okay, then buy office equipment, write to agencies, and hope that work starts coming in the door. It pays better than solving the NYT crossword puzzle! But nine times out of ten you end up either churning out work of less than sterling quality, or working for too little money as you turn out high-quality work that takes you far too long to produce because... (see above).

Something tells us you know this already, and that you are turning to us because you think we have a magic bullet to offer. Sadly we don't.


Worker Bee buzzes:

Dear Straight,

Ponder Fire Ant's advice—and see, too, our response to Beached in Bordeaux below.

See also the ATA's just-published 2003 Translation and Interpreting Compensation Survey, which presents "the most complete, accurate, and up-to-date income data on the translation and interpreting professions" according to the ATA website. It costs members $45, non-members $60."



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

In your answer to Yankee Doodle you stated "as for cutting prices to appeal to bottom-feeders—well, it's an unusual business strategy, but we can't get our heads around it as this column goes to press. Perhaps someone could explain?"

I am convinced that what we translators do is extremely important, and that we must unite and create a common front when it comes to professional fees or rates. Cutting prices, I believe, is always a horrible proposition with terrible consequences for the translator and the industry alike.

Your recommendations to Yankee Doodle on planning ahead are right on target to endure the slow times. We all go through long cycles of abundance and drought. But with careful planning we can overcome the worst times and use the slow pockets to actually do something productive and proactively sell our service... getting our thankful clients to write testimonials, to recommend our services to their clients, and to keep us in mind. They say "out of sight out of mind" and I believe there is a fine thin line between slow-work and no-more-work. A client-targeted newsletter with accurate and relevant industry info collected from the Internet, for example, is a great way to keep them receiving our info.

There are many strategies and I am only an entrepeneur with little to teach and much yet to learn. But one thing I have learned the hard way is that my service is well worth my professional fee and I prefer to eat rice for months to come, rather than lower my professional fee for anyone. I extend freebies such as complimentary short phone/email consultations, or quick single (or two) paragraph proof, anything that will not take more than 5 minutes of my precious time. Added value stuff that everyone loves to receive and makes people feel special.

Ed the Entrepreneur


Dear Ed,

You said it. Periodic client outreach through the products and services you mention is an excellent reflex. Ultimately, high-profile pro bono projects make far more sense than cut-rate work.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Are my rates unrealistic?

I live in Bordeaux, and recently sent a copy of my brochure (copy attached) to a colleague in the UK who said she might have some medical texts for me in the near future. I added that I was prepared to discuss rates.

Her response was that she was "flabbergasted" (at €158/1000 words, ie GBP 112...) and she added: "In England, you can charge half that, ie GBP 65. No wonder the French agencies come to England and offer even less... "

The problem is, these days I am finding work very thin on the ground and wonder if I have indeed priced myself off the market. And yet (a) I don't always charge these rates, and (b) I haven't raised them much over the years. This year was the first time for quite a while. When I do charge them, the clients (all direct) don't quibble. They are very happy with the work done and pay more or less by return. I have been working for some of them for years.

However, it is becoming harder and harder to find work. I am not alone in that; my colleagues here too, in all languages, are saying the same thing. The economic situation in France not being very buoyant (Bordeaux even worse), the unsettled international situation, financial scandals, etc., all don't help.

Any ideas for kick-starting my flagging business?

Beached in Bordeaux


Dear Beached,

Your question highlights an intriguing side of the translation market.

In any business, it's essential to have a grasp of what you might be charging. But we are convinced that many if not most translators are flying blind.


Perhaps it's the much-decried "poverty cult"—linguists feeling uneasy talking about money; "uggh, tacky," even when negotiating skills in this area could result in a direct improvement in their quality of life.

Skittishness may also result from run-ins with national anti-monopoly authorities. We know of two major translator associations that have incurred hefty legal fees after (awkwardly) wading into the fray and issuing what said authorities construed as attempts at price-fixing.

Or maybe it's simply a natural preference for discretion as regards one's own earnings.

Whatever the case, many agencies and freelancers appear to base prices on what their competitors are charging (or, even worse, what they think their competitors are charging). This when they should be interacting with clients to determine what those clients are prepared to pay for a red-hot product—which is often a lot more.

Which brings us back to client education.

Clients not aware of what translation can do for them will tend to base purchasing decisions on price, full stop.

It does no good to complain about how foolish this is. What you must do is get out there and explain, in words your audience understands. Not rant, not whine, not wave a diploma, not insist that translators "deserve respect," etc.—those are all huge turn-offs—but explain to them how your expertise is going to give them a competitive advantage.

Concretely, you have to get out from behind the keyboard and schmooze. Tacky? Of course not. A little scary to start, perhaps, but also both exciting and stimulating, and the only way we know to get a handle on where your clients' heads and budgets are. Not to mention the invaluable insights you will gain on what the texts you produce are supposed to achieve—an excellent way to improve quality.

It sounds like you've already built up a good practice, and we suspect you've simply let things slide on the commercial side. Maybe your in-company contacts have moved on to other positions. Maybe your competitors—larger outfits with schmooze budgets to spare, or young & dynamic (or old & dynamic) rivals your size—are out there pitching harder than you.

There is only one solution: get out to those chamber of commerce meetings, attend the wine-tastings with expert foreign journalists (hey, sign up for a refresher course yourself). Rebuild your contacts to the decision makers. Be pleasant, self-confident and above all interested in clients' markets and products. There is no question of lowering your prices unless you get independent confirmation from far more sources that this might be in order—and even then there are ways of appearing to lower your prices without actually doing so.

Oh, and as straight talkers, let us add that your prices are absolutely in the ballpark. Your UK contact is working in a segment of the market where clients have long been left up to their own devices. She is paying the price, and ultimately so are they. Remember, the bottom end of the market is €0/1000; as we all know, volunteers abound. But remember, too, that the sky is the limit at the top. You get a crack at those markets by reaching out to clients at every opportunity. Good luck!