Practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I live in a country many people see as a translation backwaterbut things are moving!
About a hundred translators here are in the process of creating order out of chaos by setting up a national translators' association. We've made a lot of progress in establishing our structure and organization, and are working on a code of ethics and other projects. Would you have any input on client education and the like? Actually, any tips at all on stumbling blocks facing new associations would be most welcome (it sounds like you've been there before).
What terrific news!
One hundred people may be a nightmare to organize, but think of all the energy and good will you can tap into, gushes Worker Bee. Think of how you can advance together, promoting greater awareness of translation and better working conditions for one and all! Think, too, mutters Fire Ant, about the near certainty of dysfunctional loners and government-issue gasbags in your midst, and act now to ensure that your fledgling group does not get side-tracked by them.
No sooner said than done: below are our tips on what to focus on, what to watch out for, fascinating projects that will get everyone on board, and heads to knock together preemptively. (Readers' comments welcome).
Some translator associations admit agencies and companies, while others are limited to individuals, either freelance or salaried (company owners can nonetheless join as individuals if they are themselves translators). We can see pros and cons for both models, but is important to settle this early on, as there may be bad blood between freelancers and agencies. Your new association will need all its energy for moving ahead on concrete projects, not for squabbles.
Given the surge in online marketplaces (proz, gotranslators, etc.) where sign-up is as easy as clicking, paying your money and posting self-descriptions of "professional" details, you should also decide whether your group is focusing on "promoting the profession" or "promoting the services of individual members". If you want to do the two (why not), decide precisely where the line lies and plan ahead to avoid conflict-of-interest situations (e.g., if volunteers are manning your association phone line, they should not be siphoning off clients for their own business).
Meetings: Translators attending your meetings should go away with more energy than they had when they arrived. Full stop. This means that if ever a negative, nasty or simply needy individual or group of individuals starts transforming your get-togethers into moan & groan sessions or even food-fights, you must rethink the whole set-up. It is worth stating this explicitly right up front: meetings must generate energy, not sap it.
Training (1): Win-win! Training is one of the most constructive options around, and something a national association can do very effectively. Demand is absolutely enormous, perhaps because translation can be such a solitary job: people are generally eager to get out and interact with others. Just as importantly, specialized knowledge helps translators produce better quality work and charge higher rates. We repeat: win-win!
Training (2): By all means invite expert colleagues to contribute to your training sessions, but it is also important to bring in speakers from outside the language services industry: at one blow your training becomes client education, since a scientist, patent agent or finance director who has spoken to a group of translators in a training session usually goes back to his or her own industry with a new awareness of what professional translators can do for that industry.
A listserve/discussion group (yahoo, gmail or other) is free and a great way to get the flow going. Colleagues remind us that most existing associations have gone through ups and downs when aggressive individuals or small groups have hijacked discussion lists with flames and rants, chasing the rank and file away. The solution is have list members sign an agreement setting out basic netiquette up front. You must also have a moderator.
Money (1): In a general way, tread carefully on "money issues" (perceptions and reality) which can be a catalyst for all sorts of disputes and time-wasting.
Money (2): Some members/potential members will complain about the cost of whatever you plan to do, whether their contribution be $1, $10, $20 or $250 (refreshments at meetings, room rental for training, chipping in to finance a website, etc.). Let such comments go by, with a smile. Base your priorities on what the most dynamic, professional people want, and don't worry if there is not 100% agreement. Let us repeat that: the poverty cultists must not be allowed to set the agenda; with luck, they may climb on board later.
Money (3): Even the most dedicated volunteers can get discouraged if they lose too much business through the time they invest in the association. So decide together, at the start, what is reasonable "volunteer" work and what should be bought in (pooling costs). If your whole structure is "financed" by motivated people donating "free work", there will be burn-out at some pointperhaps even bitterness and martyrdom (loudly proclaimed or suffered in silence). Both are to be avoided.
Networking opportunities of all types are important, and work best if there is a specific timeline and objective. How about a joint writing project, such as an adaptation into your language of the excellent client-education brochure "Translation, getting it right" ? (We admit to a vested interest in this particular venture.)
Re codes of ethics, FIT-Europe recently asked its member associations to contribute theirs to a central repository, now online at www.fit-europe.org. There may be some ideas to recycle therewhy re-invent the wheel?
At one of your meetings, create sub-groups and go around the table having each person describe how he/she sees the association "in ten years' time". This (1) helps get everyone thinking beyond immediate issues (where you might not all agree) and (2) creates a positive atmosphere as people realize that what they are doing now will have an impact in ten years. Finally (3), it helps people get to know each other better.
We wish you the best of luck as you advance with your new association. And we'd be delighted to hear from readers with hands-on experience in this area.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Yesterday a major French carmaker asked us to revise a text they'd had translated by an agency in Slovakia. My Slovakian being as rusty as my Slovenian, I turned down the offer.
"But the translation was from French into English, and it's terrible," they replied.
Here's the good part: "Please bill the Slovakians. After all, it's their fault. Oh, and don't bill them too much because they have extremely competitive rates".
- It's cheap but bad.
- The poor quality is the fault of the agency working, at the client's request, with two "foreign languages."
- Do it properly, bill the Slovakians (whom we chose) but don't charge too much in order to remain competitive.
We discussed it in-house, and our reply was:
- We won't revise it. We'll re-translate it or nothing.
- We'll bill you, not the agency.
- We'll charge you 25% extra for the rush.
- We'll charge you 75% extra for being so stupid
Were we overly aggressive?
Sandwich Bar 2
An exquisite exchange, thanks for sharing.
As a colleague points out, these people are perfect candidates for the Clients To Fire list.
Doing business on their terms hurts not just you, the translation supplier, but the whole profession. If you accept, you become an enabler, which makes you just as guilty as they areonly more so, since you ought to know better. Subsidizing shoddy suppliers in Slovakia (or anywhere) with a cheap rewrite guarantees that these same suppliers will continue to undercut your prices.
Bringing that message home to your clients firmly and professionally (we're assuming you added "for being so stupid" for our benefit) is the way to go. Your letter is a useful reminder that it is not just clients who need educating, but also translation providers.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I worked as a professional translator (and enjoyed it very much) before moving into IT in a salaried position, but am now planning a return to translation and want to position myself properly.
You've often emphasized the importance of networking. Since I am not that good at networking, I'm thinking of employing a person to help me. Is this a good idea? If so, what profile should I be looking for?
We are in favor of translators focusing on what they do well, hiring other professionals as needed (e.g., a professional accountant, a professional IT technician, etc.). And it's true that some of the best translators we know are more at ease with words on the page than the humans across the desk or on the other end of the phone. Which means employing someone to help market your services can be a good idea (1) if you find the right person and (2) if the numbers add up.
But before getting into buying marketing services, remember that enthusiastic word-of-mouth referrals by satisfied clients amount to the same thingand they're free! By providing outstanding service to client A, you set the stage for them passing your name on to client B, then C, then D.
If you do decide to purchase marketing services, consider whether you are looking for an individual or an organization. Are there business networks or business service providers in your city or elsewhere that could usefully list your services in the palette they offer? Your local chamber of commerce might have some ideas and/or training courses that could help you to hook up with likely candidates.
If you are thinking of an individual agent, will s/he be representing you alone or you and several contenders in the same market? This must be clear from the start. To give your rep a running chance of pitching your services successfully, you must have an offer that sets you well apart from the competition. We don't see this working if you are not targeting the top end of the market.
Money-wise, work out very clearly what the agent/PR person's remuneration will be (percentage of sales won is safer than a retainer) and decide how many hours a month s/he will be working for you. Again, for this set up to work, you will probably have to be pitching to the upper end of the markethighly specialized content or very well-written work, which by definition is not fungible.
Note that in an ideal world, a savvy translation agency might also be your "agent"a terrific idea in theory (see "translator more at ease with words on page" above). But this ain't gonna work as long as agencies view translation as a commodity, and translators themselves share this misconception. When was the last time you heard a specialized translator tell a potential client "fine, talk to my agent"?
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I saw your response to the "urgent query."
I have a similar, but perhaps much more serious problem: I'm currently living in Paris, and I've just gotten a letter saying that I've been rejected from the (compulsory) URSSAF social-security system, which means I don't have a numero de cotisation or anything, but in the time that I sent in my application I started working already, writing "Siret en cours" on my invoices. What can I do? Why might I have been rejected by URSSAF? Can I re-apply and be instated retroactively? If you don't know the answers to these questions, could you suggest someone that I could contact who might?
Dear Freaking Out,
Why not go to the horse's mouth: simply phone URSSAF and ask!
Normally you will have filed your application in person, at which point the pen-pusher manning the desk will have given you a stamped receipt. That is itself proof you were acting in good faith when you started issuing invoices.
Dealing with redtape-meisters is an integral part of working as a freelance provider of services in France, so consider this your first hurdle. If you were a member of SFT, the national association of professional translators (www.sft.fr), you might use their free legal helpline for assistance; then again, French residents applying for SFT membership must submit proof that they have fulfilled the legal requirements for working in France, so you, sir, are in chicken and egg territory.
With information from the source, we're betting you can supply the missing documents (tax documentation starting in 1960? a certificate from your home-town justice of the peace certifying that you have no criminal record? grandmother's birth certificate?) to straighten things out. In the meantime, three cheers for you for taking the initiative and jumping through the hoops. Off-the-books translators don't get a crack at the lucrative end of the market.
FA & WB