Volume 14, No. 1 
January 2010

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 50 issues.

Index 1997-2009

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Twenty Years of Steady Workload
by Andrei Gerasimov

  The Profession
The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

  Translators Around the World
Where Can I Find a Chinese Sworn Translator in Rio de Janeiro?
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Culture-Specific Items in Literary Translations
by Sepideh Firoozkoohi

  Medical Translation
How Many Varieties of Medical Practice Are There?
by Rafael A. Rivera, M.D., FACP

  Science & Technology
Translating a Patent: Translator's Templates
by Kriemhild (Karen) Zerling

  Translators and the Computer
Automatic Web Translators as Part of a Multilingual Question-Answering (QA) System: Translation of Questions
by Lola García-Santiago and María-Dolores Olvera-Lobo
The Efficacy of Round-trip Translation for MT Evaluation
by Milam Aiken and Mina Park

  Arts & Entertainment
Empirical Study of Subtitled Movies
by Maria Bernschütz, Ph.D.

  Literary Translation
La influencia de Voltaire en el primer Hamlet español
Laura Campillo Arnaiz

  Translators' Education
English Language Teaching Through the Translation Method (A Practical Approach to Teaching Mongolian CPAs)
by Dr. Naveen K. Mehta

  Translators' Tools
Pondering and Wondering
by Jost Zetzsche
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’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I've identified a company that needs my services. We would be a perfect match, in fact. But they are not answering my emails (four to date). I phoned and spoke with their communications department person; she didn't seem wildly enthusiastic. In fact she didn't offer me any work. But she didn't say no either. I don't want to give up yet.

Do you have any suggestions ?

Match Made in Heaven


Dear Match,

You don't say exactly how you phrased your pitch in the emails, but it sounds to us like your offer may well be filed in the "pest" folder.

Suggestion: ease off for a bit, and swing back around again after a six to 12-month break. Alternatively, identify some professional events where this prospective client will be on hand and try to meet up with a representative in person. Face time is always good; you can't shake hands by email or phone.

Should you meet a representative:

  • use a question or two to get him talking, then step back and do some intensive listening.
  • don't overstay your welcome: unless you really hit it off, exchange an insightful comment or two and business cards, then move on.
  • above all, do not remind him of how many times you've tried to link up unsuccessfully. He may wonder if his colleagues at head office know something he doesn't. It comes across as whining; it's the equivalent of trailing a hot-air balloon marked "loser" behind you. Your emails were then, this is now.

Good luck!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Should I put my terms & conditions on my website or is it better to simply attach them to the estimates I send out?

Lock'em In


Dear Lock,

Do both. Getting things down in black and white is an essential first step in developing and maintaining a portfolio of happy, loyal clients. So adopting and publicizing ultra-clear terms of business is an excellent reflex.

Remember, too, that T&Cs are not only about payment: they describe how you work and explain what you deliver, while reminding your client of the input you'll need from them along the way.

It's that second chunk that you'll want to emphasize early on in negotiations, most effectively in a less legalistic format than your official T&C document, which comes in when you are actually closing the deal.

Onwards and upwards!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I want to specialize, how do I start?



Dear Focus,

What a nice short question.

May we ask a few back at you?

  • Why do you want to specialize?
    Because you're stressed about waking up and having to tackle a new subject every single day? To earn more money? Or have you seen the results of a major study showing that specialization leads to better digestion, greater personal happiness and an improved sex life? Valid points all, and taken together a good argument for doing everything you can to achieve better focus. Which will also help you avoid a potentially fatal translator illness: cynicism and burnout.
  • Got any particular areas you are thinking of specializing in?
    As we regularly point out in this column, translators always produce better texts in fields they are passionate about. But loving a subject and mastering it won't guarantee jobs if the demand ain't there (this with a tip of the hat to a delightful British colleague who lives and breathes cricket but has so far been unable to drum up much specialized work in his language pair: Spanish to English).
    At the same time, there are plenty of market segments with texts just aching to be translated and no genuine talent on hand.

Here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Search this column's archives for previous advice on specialization, including our recommendation that translators sit back, assess their strengths and weaknesses, and take out a three-month subscription to a national business daily. This alone will let you see what's hot and identify promising matches.
  • Once you have an idea of the area(s) in which you want to specialize—areas where you'll have some expertise to start, if possible, and where demand exists—contact people working in that field to describe your project and ask them which sub-specialties they, as subject-matter experts, are tracking.
    We're not talking about translators here, rather businesspeople, scientists, engineers, architects, medical experts and so on.
    Make it clear that you are not looking for work: what you want is their view of trends in their specialty, including professional events to attend, looming cross-border issues and super-specialist niches worth developing.
    Discovering where potential clients' heads are at can be incredibly illuminating.
  • Once you've got a few leads, buckle down and do the heavy lifting: immerse yourself in the field, read-read-read and link up the dots. And practice the translator's craft, of course. Who knows, those early contacts might become mentors, or even your first clients!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I know you are not big believers in brochures, but in my case they work well. This, I believe, is for a specific reason: two of the four sides of my brochure are taken up by testimonials, including a number from well-known firms.

Having said that, I'm constantly asking myself "How can I do even better?" (in selling myself to prospects).

You've suggested doing a free short sample and encouraging the client to compare your translation and the existing translation. This probably works well for marketing materials, speeches and anything that is published, but much of what I translate is confidential (legal documents), which in most cases are NOT posted on a web site or floating around the Internet.

Any thoughts as to what approach you'd take (besides your usual suggestion to attend business events attended by people from companies you'd like to have as clients) if you mostly translated documents that are NOT published?

Yours in Confidence


Dear Confidence,

It sounds like you are doing just the right thing by using testimonials to link your name and services to the decision-makers in your market. That and getting out to bar association and other events, as you/we say.

The aim is to establish yourself—pleasantly, professionally, discreetly—as the go-to person in subject/service X. Testimonials do this very effectively, even for (especially for) confidential documents; they are also far more effective and credible than flabby lists of past and current clients.

Speaking of credibility, a word of warning on artificially crafted testimonials and other inaccurate claims. We are sure that your own brochure contains none of these, but in a world of anonymous and geographically remote suppliers, many would-be top players have no such scruples. In fact, examples have recently have come our way indicating that the more high-powered the (fake) names and the more prestigious the (pseudo) addresses the better, apparently on the grounds that nobody's checkin'.

Readers, it's a bad idea to make stuff up. The translation world is a much smaller place than you'd imagine. Truth-calisthenics will and do catch up with abusers, and drive off the very customers they'd love to count in their client portfolio.

Thanks to Yours in Confidence for giving us an opportunity to address this important issue.

whose insightful comments are tracked and savored by
Warren Buffet, George Soros, Bill Gates, Barack Obama,
Hillary Clinton, George Clooney and Gabe Bokor. (Well, Gabe, anyway.)


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

This is truly depressing. I had lined up a big job with a translation company two weeks ago. I gave them a discount because of its size (reluctantly). So Friday, after 12 days of waiting, they write to tell me that the client changed the deadline and it's shorter, so now I agree to take roughly half the job. Not ideal, but even half represents $5,000-6,000, so that's fine, since work is very slow. They ask me to wait until they send the job ticket in a day. I get a call the next morning from the translation company owner telling me that the client had gone ahead and used Google to translate the documents (over 200 pages of technical material).

End result: I'm out desperately needed cash, the translation company is out their profit on the job, and the customer gets crap.

However, I cannot compete with free. This sucks.

The translation companies have pushed for automation for the past 15 years. This is the monster they have created by pushing automation.  I wonder how many clients are going to simply use Google? Hey, it's free! It's instant! It's automatic!



Dear Disgusted,

The medium-term solution we see for you is to take a marketing course—or two or three—and get yourself some direct clients.

If not, you've outsourced your marketing by default and must live with the consequences. The Supremes got this right: whenever an essential person, however sizzling, "just keeps [you] haaanging on", the only way to take control of your life is to get rid of them and move on.

It clashes with our generally upbeat approach, but here's another thought: what if the agency placed the job with somebody else and simply fobbed you off with the Google story?

The good news is that an unsatisfactory client base is something you can fix, with dedication and effort.

Look again at precisely what you are selling (or not yet selling) and identify what sets you apart from the competition. That's what you should be promoting. And if your perceived competition includes automated translation systems like Google, it's high time to reposition yourself.

Moving right along, should a choice between free computer-generated translation and your own expert services ever come up again (in your contacts with your future direct clients, for example), here are two useful arguments:

  • Naïve consumers generally don't realize it, but both source texts and computer-generated translations produced by Google become part of the Google Translate database: that is one of the conditions for using the system. This alone rules out the use of Google Translate by professionals and businesses with even remotely confidential documents.
  • Running 200 pages through Google Translate is not free. It means cutting and pasting vast numbers of 500-word segments. Which costs somebody's time for—as you point out—unreliable output.

Automation the enemy? Well, there's automation and automation.

True, it is in bulk buyers' and sellers' interest to commoditize translation, and pretend that the humans involved are interchangeable. Some hint or state explicitly that automation allows them to do this. And for certain bulk products—where nuance and accuracy are not all that important, but speed is—they may even have a point.

But is this necessarily an agency vs. freelance issue? After all, plenty of bulk freelancers have headed down the commoditization road as well. It starts as soon as you pitch on the basis of price rather than expertise.

Surely the challenge is to harness useful automation options to do the grunt work (think consistency, for example), and invest the time you save to hone other, exclusively human translation skills, of which there are many. That plus more marketing and time logged at the client-education front is the way to go.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I occasionally do sight-translation work for a longtime client with branches in several locations.

Last spring I took a short assignment in an office where I had never worked before: the work was interesting, and it was a good opportunity to meet a new set of people within the company. At the special request of the lady who contacted me, I agreed to lower my rate from the usual $125/hour to $80 for that job only. Disappointing, but probably worth it for a small project: once they work with me, clients often want to use me again, and my rate is less of an issue. Also, making a good impression on new people often results in referrals.

When the job ran longer than expected, I negotiated with the client to finish it out at my usual rate. I gave examples of the value I had brought to the project and showed how I had saved them time and money. They agreed and seemed satisfied with the job I did.

That was six months ago. I haven't heard from them since, and now I'm wondering whether I priced myself so high that they won't call me back. However, it's also possible that they haven't been in touch because they haven't had any need for sight-translation or interpreting. That wouldn't be unusual with them.

I've seen price pressure before, and in this economy I'll surely see it again. Do you have any advice on how to handle this kind of situation in the future? And do you have ideas on ways to re-establish contact with the original client and/or to emphasize the value I've given them?



Dear Worried,

First you need some concrete information on why they haven't been in touch. Truth is, clients think about translation services when they need them, which is hardly surprising—the same applies to the legal, accounting, tax advisory, packaging and cleaning services they buy in.

So freelance service providers often worry needlessly when, as you speculate, the client is simply focused on something else.

What you want is a way to remind them that you are available and interested without being a bother, or, even worse, sounding desperate.

Here are two options:

  • Phone your contact to say that you are conducting a year-end (or new year's, or quarterly, or half-yearly) review of your client base.
    Mention how much you enjoyed working with them on [project, date]. Tell them your business was volatile in 2009 (not bad, just volatile) and given a few fire-fighting jobs, you're trying to improve your own forward planning. [Don't put unreasonable pressure on them, and don't mention prices]. You realize that translation needs can wax and wane unexpectedly, but do they have any projects in the pipeline that you should be blocking out time for?
    This tactic may not generate any useful planning information, but it does give you a credible reason to call. And from your contact's answer, you'll get a better idea of the lay of the land.
  • You say you saved the client time and money. Ah, it's always good to remind them of points like this!
    Why not write an article on this very subject for your professional association's magazine or, better yet, for a publication in the client's own sector—an ideal way to highlight their expertise and yours.
    Once again, start with a phone call to your contact.
    Mention how much you enjoyed working with them on [project, date]. One of your aims for 2010 is to promote awareness of best practice among users of translation, a priority for your national professional association [this happens to be true for every professional association we know of].
    So you're writing a piece on how smart businesses in [the company's field] make effective use of translation services, and you'd like to interview them, or at least refer, in the article, to the project you did for them. You won't reveal any confidential information, and if they do not want their name mentioned, no problem, you can anonymize it.
    Whether or not they choose to participate—or the article ever gets written—you've reestablished contact, which is what you want.

It's surprising how non-threatening, positive outreach to past and existing clients can generate business, sometimes immediately. Maybe it boils down to reminding them that you're around, that you're very good at what you do, and that you're pleasant to work with.


A Reader’s Comment:

Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

With all the festive spirit and good feeling around at this time of year, I thought it would be a suitable time to send you a thank-you letter for writing such an inspirational column.

I have read and made a searchable archive of all "The Bottom Line" columns, and have eagerly adopted all the advice you have given over the years.

I recently attended a training course in my specialist subject, have subscribed to two trade journals in both my source and target language, and have forged relationships over the past few months with expert translators in my specialist field, for whom I proofread in exchange for their advice on my work. I've also bought a few text books in my specialist subject, which I work on evenings in order to deepen my knowledge in the field, and I'm really embracing the possibilities of having the high-flying career that I have always dreamed of!

In fact, through these actions alone (and not necessarily marketing) I have already managed to convince several translation agencies to give me high-profile translation projects, and I'm now getting paid, hands-on experience. The pay may be minimal, and my translations are probably still of the kind that would have you two grabbing for a red pen to use as part of your pitch to the client in question (all beginners make mistakes! I just hope the agencies are proofreading my work before it goes out!)

But I'm not letting this deter me, because I'm only at the beginning of the long journey I have mapped out for myself based on the advice you have given. I have been building up a library of bilingual documents that I use to compile my subject-specific glossary, and I'm getting to the (very satisfying) point where everything is starting to gel and make sense. What a refreshing change to come into the office with a real sense of purpose, unlimited enthusiasm and a will to succeed!

So I just wanted to thank you for this inspiring column and your charismatic personalities that shine through in every answer you give. Your advice is in my mind every single day I am in the office, and you have made me understand that translation really can be a financially and intellectually rewarding career.

Roadmap in Hand