A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Over the years, I have built up a loyal client base. But it is often difficult to satisfy the demands of all of my clients single-handedly.
I don't like to say no and risk losing a client, so I momentarily forget my vow never to subcontract. Then I end up redoing entirely what I have subcontractedto avoid the risk of losing a client! Then I ask myself what on earth I was thinking when I decided to subcontract in the first place. Then I make another vow never to do it again. Then the next volume crisis arrives.
Is there any way out of this trap?
Hard to Just Say No
Freelance translators have a vested interest in reminding clients of at least two things: (1) translators are not interchangeable and (2) there are only 24 hours in a day.
There's no need to boast shamelessly or dump on other suppliers' services (avoid the latter, it's counterproductive). But your decision to eschew subcontracting makes good sense in your situationrest assured that many expert freelancers have done the same.
Aside from printing out copies of your letter and sticking them on your bathroom mirror, refrigerator door and the wall behind your screen, we see three ways to avoid backsliding:
-Forward planning. Look back over the past three years and identify when your peak periods fall. Choose a strategic off-peak dateJanuary 1 or mid-year might be goodand write a short but pleasant reminder to all clients, making your no-subcontracting decision explicit.
The content might be that you enjoy working with them, you know they appreciate your work, and you are confident they will want to take steps at their end to secure access to your services. Tell them you are a victim of your own successa reminder that others recognize and appreciate the quality of your work, too (always flattering). Identify your peak periods clearly, and indicate that in those periods in particular you will only be able to accept work on a first come/booked, first served basis.
-Filtering by price. If demand is too high, your prices are definitely too low. One way to find outand defuse a looming volume crisisis to test deadlines with a three-tier offer.
For obvious reasons you should do this before the assignment starts.
If a client phones when you are operating at or near capacity, explain the situation and announce a 100% premium for next-day delivery, 50% for day-after-next, and "my normal price if you can wait 'til next Wednesday. Listen, why don't you think about it and get back to me this afternoon?" Be sure to give them a half-day to consider; that's the time it takes for the price differential to sink in. More often than you'd think, the deadline will be extended.
-Use slack periods to network and draw up a list of possible stand-ins. Not subcontractors, but freelance translators who seem to have a good grip on your subject areas (contributions to elists are revealing). A first step might be to exchange review services with somebody whose style you like, so you can build up a rapport and see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
Make it absolutely clear to your client that they will be dealing directly with another supplier who is fully responsible for all work delivered this time around. This is win/win, incidentally: if things don't work out, your stand-in's screw-ups will consolidate their ties to you.
We are all for freelance translators teaming up, but as you rightly observe one-off ventures formed when the pressure is on are rarely satisfactoryespecially if you are the one carrying the can.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am a professional translator from Angola.
I have been working in a translation office for over 10 years, but I don't have any university degree in translation.
Do you think that I can have accreditation without a formal degree?
Would you please give me practical steps for being accredited.
You don't say why you are interested in accreditationdo your clients know or care what an outside seal of approval might mean for the quality of your work? Will your employer recognize a qualification through higher pay or status in the office? Or do you simply want to test your skills against a benchmark?
We ask because it is worth thinking carefully about what you expect to gain before embarking on what is likely to be a time-consuming and expensive endeavor.
Ultimately professional translators are judged on the quality of the work they produce and deliver day in, day out. So while certification may help a beginner get a foot on the bottom rung, your 10 years' experience underpinned by a strong portfolio may count for more in many markets.
Those general comments aside, you don't say which accreditation interests you, nor are we sure whether you live in Angola or are simply originally from that country.
If you are thinking of the American Translators Association, note that the ATA voted in November 2003 to rename their accreditation program "certification". For more information, contact the ATA directly (www.atanet.org). In general, overseas candidates must take the exam at one of the scheduled group sittings (none of which are in Africa), or take an individual sitting proctored by a current certified ATA member (none in Angola at present). All candidates must also meet specific eligibility/experience requirements to sit an ATA exam, but there is a provision for candidates without a degree to take the test if they can provide proof of five years of full-time experience that's your cue if ATA certification is what you're after. If you do live in Angola now, success would give you a monopoly over the in-country Angolan market for ATA-certified translators. Hmm, that's a thought (although Fire Ant & Worker Bee have no information on how big that market might be).
Depending on your language pair(s) and location, other options worth considering are exams given by the Institute of Translation & Interpreting and the Institute of Linguists in the UK. For more information, visit their websites at www.iti.org.uk and www.iol.org.uk.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I live in Maine in the US. I am about to graduate with a B.A. in English and I'm interested in translation or interpretation for graduate studies or a future profession. I have reading fluency in Chinese and speaking fluency in Cantonese, as well as average reading ability in Portuguese, French, and Spanish. I am extremely passionate about learning languages but know that I may not qualify for a translator yet.
Could you give me some advice as to how I may begin a path toward a profession as a translator? Could you also tell me what range of translators there are? I am extremely interested in literary translation, for example, but know that this has not been an easy field to enter. What are the best ways and places, whether online or not, to meet other translators?
Yes, it sounds like you're ready for some face-to-face exchanges with people already in the business. Which means you might consider attending the New England Translator Association's upcoming annual conference (details up soon at www.netaweb.org) or some of the many educational seminars offered by the American Translators Association (www.atanet.org). Or even the ATA's annual conference, to be held this year in Toronto (November 2004).
But do some background reading first:
-ATA will send you its start-up kit for beginners on request (www.atanet.org) for free, along with its client education brochure "Translation, Getting it Right".
-The US Department of Labor has written up a fairly comprehensive overview of the different types of careers possible in translation. You can download it at www.bls.gov/oco/ocos175.htm.
-If you are interested in literary translationand you're right, it's a difficult field to crackcontact the American Literary Translators Association directly at http://www.literarytranslators.org.
-For advice from a panel of practicing translators on skills needed, read Bridging the Gap in this magazine.
For remote exchanges with practicing translators, there are a host of forums and discussion lists, among them Flefo and the chat sections of many online translation markets. Whence a request: readers, which of these are the most useful? (Curious, watch this space).
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am 28 years old, and for circumstances too complicated to explain here, I put my medical studies on hold in 2002 and moved from my native Venezuela to Denmark. Looking for ways to earn a living in a new country and support a 9 year-old child without having completed an education has proven to be depressing, hard and just plain nerve wrecking.
But first some background: My father, an English-Spanish translator, had his office at home, which means I grew up being a receptionist, then also a Spanish proofreader, and finally in 1994 I did my first English to Spanish translations.
I have been translating ever since. During some periods it has been my full-time occupation and in others an occasional occupation (my medical studies required a lot of time) and a way of earning some extra money in the comfort of my own home.
My father always encouraged me to follow his profession, but at this point, I felt that without his protective wing, I did not stand a chance, and without any degrees in translation or languages, it would be disrespectful to compete with others who had gone through an education.
The turning point was that I actually fell ill due to my workload andafter lots of encouragement from my boyfriend and my parentsI decided to start marketing myself and register my own translation company.
I realize now that there are a lot of people out there with no degrees who are excellent translators. That said, I have the advantage of a background in medicine and 10 years of experience (where does time go?).
But now to get to my question: how to succeed in a situation like mine?
I worked 7 years with my dad, the last 3 I have been freelancing, but only for one agency. New agencies ask for references, in the translation field I can only cite my dad and this agency (I have many references from my teachers at medical school, though), how would an agency see this? especially how valuable is it to cite your dad as a reference? I mean, he is my dad, he cannot really be objective.
I have successfully passed the two translation tests I have taken so far, I have registered in a ton of sites and applied to many agencies. Only 3 have added me to their databases, but I have not gotten any work from them yet.
There was one which especially detailed the tests results and made wonderful praises about my translation, giving me the highest grading in technical content, grammar and syntax and style. That boosted my self-confidence a lot.
I know I am good, I learned from my father the importance of meeting deadlines, inspecting your work carefully, not being shy to ask for assistance and taking overall responsibility.
But how can I make myself attractive to potential clients without having to offer unfair rates, or seem desperate? Which I am. My only income comes from one agency and even though I have a solid relationship with them, sometimes I feel I cannot put my feet down on some issues for fear of loosing the contact altogether. I have almost no savings, so I cannot really wait for months and months until my business picks up, I am actually depending solely on this agency to survive, which is very precarious.
I am sorry this has turned to be a bit short of "War and Peace", but I hope you can give me some pointers and advice!
Sincerely and desperately,
To summarize, you've got a raft of skillsyou've been a receptionist, a proofreader and a translator; you have both freelance and agency experience, you've got a specialty, you've done some medical school and you have lab experience.
But you've also got a dilemmahow to pitch these strengths successfully to clients.
First question: do you know who and where your potential clients are? We may be missing something here, but were surprised to read that you set up a translation company (presumably in your own name) only to market your skills to... translation agencies. With your skills and experience, why operate through an intermediary?
It's high time you did some online research to identify direct clients in need of your services, then developed strategies for linking up with them. True, the English to Spanish market for medical translation in Denmark may not be enormous, but there are fewer competitors, too. And how many words a month can you handle, anyway? Keep in mind that once your initial contact is madein person, if possibleyou will be working over the internet, making location less important.
Trade fairs are an attractive option in medical equipment and pharmaceuticals, and here Copenhagen's central location should serve you well. Test the waters with a few visits to pick up documentation, then consider a variation on the glossary ploy.
Second question: how many references are required, anyway? Direct clients will be more interested in the work you produce, so it is worth putting together a portfolio with some of your strongest recent pieces. Be sure to respect confidentiality agreements with your present agency, of course. If you have no outstanding examples, produce some now, perhaps by correcting poor texts published by a potential client.
But if you do need references, use current ones. Teachers in medical school are not a good ideathat was another life.
Which brings us to our final point: for your translation practice to take off, you must above all commit to translating as a profession, not just a fill-in-the-gap activity to pay the rent and put rød grøt med fløte on the table. Which means developing greater focus andabove allbelieving in yourself (as we've seen, there are plenty of reasons to do so).
In discussions of your career and study decisions, present these as a progression, not a series of upsets and choices made by default. Each development has given you strengths and resources that make you a uniquely qualified supplier of a sorely needed service. Once you are convinced of that it will be easier to convince potential customers. And hard as it seem at present, make sure your rates reflect your experiencenot your desperation.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
My father-in-law is an architect in France, and occasionally does work for an American company's subsidiary in his area. He speaks very little English, and when he needs to provide a translation of his reports and/or correspondence, he generally either a) has one of his supposedly "English-speaking" colleagues or secretaries do them or b) asks me to do them.
Like many people, he seems to think that anybody with a passable knowledge of English can translate. Last year he sent me a document produced by his secretary that was so badly mangled I told him it would be easier to just re-do it (example: "Nous n'avons pas été mis au courant du seuil significatif." rendered as "No one tell us the meaningful doorway.")
Now he wants me to evaluate one of his other colleagues' work.
How can I tell him in a tactful way that this stuff should be left to professionals, not self-proclaimed bilinguals or worse?
I should add that though I like and respect my father-in-law, we are not exactly close and he is a reserved person by nature; most of our conversations concern the weather and, lately, his new grandson. So I don't exactly have the kind of relationship where I could just call him up to chat.
In a few years you can broach the subject when discussing your son's language skillsbilingualism is a subject many families warm to, and a good opportunity to contrast oral and written fluency using concrete examples.
But that is many meaningful doorways down the road, so you'll probably want to act earlier.
Why not download "Traduction/Faire les bons choix" from the French translators' association at www.sft.fr and send it on to him? You can also ask the SFT to send him a dozen paper copies directly for distribution to his co-workers.
Written especially for non-linguists, this client education brochure is based on real-life examples of good and bad translations. It's short and readable. And endorsement by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the Paris stock exchange give its best-practice message extra credibility with people like your father-in-law.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am looking to get into translating business.
I was born in Seoul, Korea and currently reside in Southeast region of U.S.
I was lost as to what I should be doing with my life until recently, when I ran into an opportunity to translate a whole service for my wife's church. I was able to translate it okay without problems. Now, I'd like to make it my career. Where do I start? I only have some college education. However I am very fluent in American English and Korean speaking and writing, as well as idiom.
Now Saved (Maybe)
The sites and articles in our response to Faithfully Curious should be of some help, although as an immigrant you face a particular challenge.
Translation is traditionally one of the first "intellectual" jobs people move into on arrival in a new country (teaching one's native language is a close second, with documented cases going back to the French Huguenots in England and earlier).
This is no doubt due to the widespread misperception that these professions require no particular skills aside from speaking and writing one's native language, something most peoplerightly or wronglyfeel they can handle. This, in turn, is one explanation for low pay and low status in many market segments: a steady flow of new potential suppliers steps off every boat, many untrained and most prepared to put up with a lot as they find their feet in a new land. We are not blaming anyone here, incidentallyexcept translators who fail to explain to the general public that the work delivered by a professional is substantially different from most of these well-meaning ad hoc efforts.
But as an immigrant you will probably find yourself in the front line battling this popular misconception about skills, pricing and expertise. Hey, ask Daughter in Law.
So if you want to develop a translation practice, you will have to work very hard to differentiate yourself from the hundreds of thousands of other Korean-Americans who are your competitors.
The best way to do this is to link up with professional translators in your area, perhaps through the ATA online directory. Work only into your native Korean (that's golden rule number one for professionals), or with a skilled native-English speaking editor if you try going the other direction. Specialize. Find a mentor. And network like crazy.
Good luck !
FA & WB
Hello Fire Ant and Worker Bee,
Just wanted to thank you for giving me advice a couple of years ago (http://accurapid.com/journal/14fawb.htm as Charly). Things are going well and now I'm full time and not so amateur. I thought you might enjoy my web site http://home.earthlink.net/~miriamhurley/ about choosing a translator.
Thanks and kind regards,
Congratulations on a site that gets your message across with wit and style!
Next step: move the content over to a domain with a simpler address to reinforce the Hurley brand. An article in the April 2004 ATA Chronicle explains how and why to do this.
Onwards and upwards,
FA & WB