Practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I can see a recession is coming on; what should I do to protect my translation business from it?
We've got bad news for you: depending on where you live, the recession is already here. Interestingly, however, many translation providers are not yet feeling any painperhaps because client industries are trying to figure out exactly how they themselves are going to cope, thus need a steady flow of information from abroad.
But if you are a regular reader, you'll have the bulwarks in place, right?
- Even in good times, the basic rule of thumb is "Make yourself indispensable". As the economy slows, get out of your office into client territory, go that extra mile, specialize.
- If there are more competitors chasing a decreasing volume of work, be sure to give your favorite clients ammunition to use with their hierarchy to justify your prices and services. This is not all that difficult, but it does mean spending more time explaining, holding hands, providing cheerful extras, and the like.
- Watch out for start-ups staffed by newly unemployed language-proficient folk, a trend observed in past slumps. They generally have little staying power, but are efficient marketers as long as they last.
- Stay focused. Keep an eye on new ideas and markets, but remember that it is easier to keep a good client than to win a new one.
- Read up on what other industry observers are sayingit's a popular topic. Here's one we like http://thoughtsontranslation.com/2008/10/02/how-not-to-panic-about-the-economy/
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I thought you'd be interested in some feedback that I just received from a client:
'FA&WB are right to focus on raising prices, but they don't say enough about the importance of quality. As a result, intermediaries like us find ourselves with translators who demand far too much money for the quality of the work they provide.'
Just Passing It On
Feedback always welcome!
We're certain you've already have pointed out to your client just how often we address quality in this column, but in case some joker has been quoting us selectively, let's take this opportunity to get everyone back onto the straight and narrow.
Quality is every translation provider's Holy Grailon paper. And we certainly see very few suppliers (freelance or agencies) who claim to provide anything but the Best. Some of these people are absolutely, breath-takingly outstanding translators, too. Yet the proof is in the pudding, and the market opaque enough to hide lots of ropey practices. High prices don't necessarily mean impeccable quality, but low prices are a strong indicator of sub-par quality.
Moving right along, may we suggest once again that every client announceindeed, insistthat its translation supplier's name will appear in credits on published texts, including commercial and technical documents.
This is easy to do and has benefits all around:
- Clients get proof, right up front, that a supplier is proud enough of its text-offspring to assume maternity/paternity in front of the whole world.
- Good translators (and intermediaries) get their name out and about, attached to the work they produce and sell. This is as it should be.
- Poor translators (or intermediaries) also get their name out and about, attached to the work they produce and sell. This is also as it should be.
- Translators are reminded that their name and brand are on the line with every job they do, thus have an incentive to avoid over-extending themselves in expertise or capacity.
- Last but not least, this easy step costs nothing. Zero.
Why, we wonder, do not more translators make this approach theirs? Why do translation agencies not embrace it? We are confident that readers will enlighten us.
In the meantime, intermediaries like your client should have the wherewithal to judge quality, and rap knuckles or simply turn to different suppliers if it is lacking. This is what justifies their slice of the action: project management including triage, testing, selection of the best translator for a given job, and revision.
Finally, while we're on quality, it's high time somebody laid it on the line for suppliersbig and smallwho, when caught red-handed delivering a sloppy job, dismiss criticism with "at that price, what were they [the client] expecting?" To remind them, for example, that you get the clients you deserve.
Ah there, we've just done it.
FA & WB
I've just returned from a local translators' event on war-zone interpreting. To their enormous credit, the organizers of the meeting had arranged for two Iraqi interpreters to speak at the meeting and answer questions. Both had had to flee Iraq amid death threats, and one of them left the Middle East only 90 days ago. Fascinating!
Alas, as soon as the Q&A period began, one of the Iraqisa professional translator even before the Iraq war beganmentioned that many of his peers were not adequately trained as interpreters. That opened the floodgates, and the rest of the meeting degenerated into the Eternal Refrain. Our competitors are incompetent. Rates are too low. Computer translation is undermining us. Globalization is killing us. The Iraqis sat largely forgotten amid the collective kvetching.
What a squandered opportunity.
I don't hold office in the group, and I hadn't organized the meeting. I joined a few other dissident voices in pointing out the benefits of CAT tools and the upside of globalizationbut the negativity in the room swept us aside. How can I help change the dynamic and make future meetings worth my time?
Dear Fed Up,
It sounds you and the other dissidents stepped in too lateafter all, the theme was topical, the speakers unique and potentially riveting.
What the organizers needed was a SWAT unit in the wings or (better yet) strategically positioned throughout the room. Experience shows that three or four well-prepared people can and will turn the tide, provided they move in quickly and ruthlessly. But they must do so in formation, and they must be suitably armed, with a microphone and a string of pertinent, upbeat questions addressed to the speaker to get things back on track. Organizers should ask for volunteers in advance and have them write up questions.
Your moderator also plays a key role, putting her foot down pleasantly but firmly if ever a complainer starts getting out of hand or refuses to relinquish the microphone.
At some point it might be worth explaining that the priority for every translator gathering is that participants exit with more energy than they had on arrivalreinvigorated, recharged with the buzz that comes from networking and exposure to new ideas.
Collective hand-wringing doesn't do this. True, it may encourage audience participation (hey, everybody has something to moan about), but it drives away translators with energy and ideas who, like you, have better things to do.
At a very basic level, formulating themes for meetings in a positive mode is another way to throw the negative navel-gazers off balance.
Example: not "Who will survive the financial crisis?" but "How to use market turmoil to build your practice". Not "Globalization means pressure on prices" but "Three ways to harness global markets for your business." Not "Interpreters deserve more respect!" but "Adrenalin plus: one of the most exciting jobs in the world".
You get the picture. The point is not to squelch democratic exchange, but to thwart the Rodney Dangerfields http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rodney_Dangerfield
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I work in a "language of limited diffusion".
When I started out as a freelance translator, I did mainly localisation of software and hardware. At some point a lot of that was taken in-house in Ireland, and at the same time more translators came along who did the same thing. So I switched to printers and fax machines for a while, then mobile phones. In the meantime I had diversified into teaching, exam work, subtitling, proofreading and advertising, and I was also learning about white goods and black goods.
But at that point I discovered that there still was a steady market for "old technology", hazardous chemicals, safety and so on, which was familiar to me. I also did quite a bit of insurance-related translation as I had people I could ask and learn from.
To cut a long story short, I now do a lot of medical translation (instruments, equipment contains a lot of "old technology" like pumps and valves, plus the newer electronics).
I also do substantial medical-related sub-editing in-house, and oil-related stuff. My teaching has increased again (but that may be in part because I enjoy it; I also quite like it as it gets me out and about, even if the pay tends to be low).
If you translate into a "language of limited diffusion", you simply cannot stick to the same specialism all the time (unless you are very lucky), partly because there will always be limited demand, and partly because market focus changes. And even if you translate into a major language, some of the above still holds true, but you have more opportunity to specialise within a specific field, like law or finance.
My view is:
1. Always be on the lookout for new (viable) trends
2. Adapt and be willing to learn
3. Invest in yourself
The harsh reality is that you can make yourself totally indispensable to a company, but if that company goes under or cuts back, you will suffer unless you have other options already open.
You cannot specialise in translating typewriter manuals any more.
Thanks for your reminder of the flexibility that goes with the territory for LLDsand even major languages. Your comments on serial specializations are also well taken. Last but not least, your career path highlights the fact that an inquisitive mind and the genuine curiosity good translators bring to the job is one of their most appealingand profitablecharacteristics.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I've just become head of my local translator group. Members seem really interested in meeting up, so with our board (three people) we've thought having evening events with a speaker four times a year. We don't want to reinvent the wheel. Do you have a list of do's and don'ts? Thank you.
Out & About
No sooner said than done:
- Identify good dates (avoid clashes with school vacations, national sports events, etc.). You can use www.doodle.ch for this.
- Reserve a room, which should be central and convenient for good public transport/parking. A restaurant? Why not. But be sure your room is separate from other diners or the noise level will get out of hand.
- Book your speaker/guest, focusing on topical issues and/or outreach (non-linguists are often a good choice; since they return their natural habitat afterwards this can be a good vector for getting word out about how professional your group is, and what translators do). But do check to make sure your candidate is a good public speaker (ask around). Include a blurb on him/her in your program so that participants can read up on him/her/the topic.
- If not in a restaurant, plan refreshments & catering: who will bring what/serve? Who will clean up? Don't forget the bottle opener.
- Publicize your event as early as possible, but do send a reminder two weeks out, too. Some people need that extra push.
- Send a short email reminder to everybody two days before.
- Make sure the address, neighborhood map and an on-site phone number appear in several places (including the flyer that participants will print out at the last minute, as they dash out of their home or office).
- Get there early to put up signs to guide attendees to the room.
- Networking (1): as the date approaches, send a list of those who have signed up out to everyone. Do this in advance so that people can see who will be there and plan who they want to speak to.
- Networking (2): have name tags (inexpensive stickers & a felt-tip pen are fine) on site so attendees know who is who.
- Networking (3): have more copies of the attendance list to hand out on the day itself, including contact details to facilitate exchanges.
- Depending on group size, arrange for a sound system. Test it; make sure you know how to use it.
- If you are using a microphone for Q&A, assign an imposing older member of your group to be mike-handler; youngsters may be more agile, but they are also more vulnerable to the antics of bullies, neurotics and gasbags in the room (see Fed Up above). Make it very clear that the mike-handler takes orders from the moderator, and the moderator only (e.g., "next question?", change in topic, close, etc.)
- Thank everybody involved profusely, in public and in private, at the end, and announce that suggestions for future speakers are very welcome.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I know that you're often asked to give advice to eager translators. As one of your eager readers, I'd like to provide some unsolicited advice myself.
One of my (agency) clients recently sent out a letter to all their vendors informing them that they'd received some glossy business award in their country, which was great considering they were experiencing such tremendous growth, etc., etc.
This was all fine and good, until I discovered that in the same breath they'd decided "to communicate a necessary change in the payment terms set by [the company] with its translation service providers:
Your (MY!!) standard rate will be reduced by 6%."
As you may expect, I was not a happy bunny to read that.
Then I wondered: do I need this specific client that badly?
Question no. 2: Do they need me?
Answer: Well, let's find out.
So I replied, no doubt rather tersely, "Please be informed that I have just decided to increase the rates I apply to you by 20%."
And pronto, two days later, came the answer: "Whilst it seems you are unwilling to reduce your rates at all I would like to ask that in view of the above you can maintain your current rates as they stand. These are challenging times for many businesses and if we are to prosper in the current economic climate, we all need to play a part."
So what do I infer from this anecdote?
1. Business is business. Agencies are brokers. If their margins are squeezed, they need to cut costs. That's OK with me, as long as they don't play with MY income.
2. No matter how hard they try to convince translators of the opposite, agencies are nowhere without top-quality vendors. So don't let them bully you: finding good translators is a hard job. If you're good (or at least if *you think* you're good, RESIST!)
3. If they want me so badly that they not only instantly forget their "decision" to reduce my rate by 6% and instead beg me for a status quo, I would be stupid not to push my luck a little, don't you think?
You've hit the nail on the head, while omitting a key factor that we'll add in for the benefit of Passing's client: you can stand tall because you have something to sella specialization and writing style that this translation agency needs, and knows it needs.
You've also made the right decision in viewing this entire exchange as a business issue from start to finish.
All too often translators take announcements like the letter you mention as a personal insult and let their indignation ripwhich is probably the least productive option.
FA & WB