Volume 14, No. 2 
April 2010

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 51 issues.

Index 1997-2010

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Professional (and Geographic) Journey
by Frieda Ruppaner-Lind

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Translator and his Client: Factoring external determinations into the translational activity
by Dr. Iheanacho A. Akakuru
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  In Memoriam
In Memoriam: Josephine Thornton, 1937 - 2010
by Karen Brovey

  Translators Around the World
The Efforts of Translators in the Wake of the Haitian Earthquake
by Michael Walker

  Nuts and Bolts of Translation
English and Spanish 'Love' Collocations: A Historical Evolution
by Nuria Calvo Cortés and Elena Domínguez Romero

  Medical Translation
It doesn't go up, Doc? A stent may be the answer!
by Rafael A. Rivera, M.D., FACP
Handling Abbreviations and Acronyms in Medical Translation
by Małgorzata Kasprowicz
English-Spanish and Spanish-English Glossary of Ophthalmological Terms
by Concepción Mira Rueda

  Book Reviews
The Untold Sixties—When hope was born: an Insider's Sixties on an International Scale
by Alex Gross, reviewed by Gabe Bokor
Iain Halliday: Huck Finn in Italian, Pinocchio in English: Theory and Praxis of Literary Translation
Reviewed by Anne Milano Appel, Ph.D.
La Fontaine's Bawdy—of Libertines, Louts, and Lechers, translations from Contes et nouvelles en vers by Norman R. Shapiro
Reviewed by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.

  Arts & Entertainment
The Role of Trans-modal Translation in Global Cinema
by D. Bannon

  Translators' Education
The Importance of Collocation in Vocabulary Teaching and Learning
by Zahra Sadeghi

Translators and Computers
Consider the Luddites
by Jost Zetzsche

Translators' Tools
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,

Two years ago I used your techniques and caught my first direct client—a mid-size manufacturer in my region. Things were going great, but today I learned that my contact there is leaving at the end of the month. This is bad news, since (1) the company accounts for about 30% of my income and (2) he's a very pleasant person to work with. I'm concerned that the company will use his departure to switch to somebody cheaper. What can I do to remain in the loop?

Baby Blue


Dear Blue,

Don't despair: unless your man is heading into retirement or ill, chances are he's moving on to an even better position—which is your chance to add a second loop to your client portfolio. This is especially attractive in your case: when a single client accounts for more than 25% of your business, you're in risky territory.

But we suggest you start by consolidating your position at the first company.

  • Phone the man set to move and refer (briefly) to a particularly successful project you worked on together. Tell him how much you enjoyed it; this sets the mood.
  • Ask who your new contact in the company will be. Speak confidently and phrase it just like that. After all, you now know their products, organization and priorities, and things are going swimmingly—why ever should they change? (Why are translators so convinced that even good clients are driven solely by price?). Ask if you should contact this new person directly or if your soon-to-be ex-contact will be passing your details on.
  • You might also ask if he can tell you where he's moving, keeping in mind that this may be confidential. If he does share the information, mention—with a smile—that you will start reading up on product X, Y and Z of theirs just in case. A handy reminder.
  • Depending how the conversation goes, offer to translate his farewell message to former colleagues. Do this for free—he's a nice guy, sure, but is this above all an investment in his remembering you as he moves up the ladder Over There. And farewell messages are never very long.
  • Call your new contact at the current client and say how much you are looking forward to working with him/her. Suggest a meeting—face time is always good.

An irresistible topic for most corporate contacts (and one far more effective than "I'd like to meet you face to face so you'll remember to throw work my way") is "I've got some ideas about how you might save money on your translation budget."

Don't worry, this does not mean that you are going to slash your prices or recommend cut-rate solutions. What you'll do is walk the new contact through some basic best practice points to ensure that you can continue to supply outstanding translations with no rush charges, no screw-ups as they move into print, no frazzled Friday freak-outs. Win/win!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have been translating professionally for four years, from Spanish into my native English. I lived in Spain for a year and a half after college, and then spent six months in Mexico, so my Spanish is very good.

I know that professional translators are supposed to work only into their native language, but I occasionally get a request in the other direction and rather than let the client flounder and perhaps place the job with an unreliable supplier, I generally accept and have my husband (who is Spanish) proofread my work. I think our joint efforts are in fact very good, and no client has ever complained.

But recently another translator told me this is not professional, as my husband is not a trained translator. Technically she's right; he's an accountant. But he has been to college and is a native speaker of Spanish, and is of course interested in me keeping all my clients, so he really puts his heart into it. What do you think?

Both Ways


Dear Both,

We think you're on a slippery slope.

As professional associations intone with mind-numbing regularity, fluency in a foreign language does not, on its own, make someone a professional translator. Nor does bilingualism. Nor does a diploma, for that matter (your friend is wrong on that score).

But that's not all:

  • Two years in a foreign country doesn't come close to building the expertise you need to work into a non-native language.
  • Don't kid yourself: unhappy clients hardly ever tell producers of sub-par translations how unsatisfactory these are. Instead inertia reigns—they slog along with their known under-performer until a better option comes along.
  • And don't get us started on the writing skills of "college graduates."

But here's the real problem: by assuming that your two years' experience abroad and your husband's native speaker status are enough to produce a text that can stand on its own two legs, you are beaming out an "anybody can do this" message. Which immediately places you in a seriously unattractive segment of the market, one rife with semi-qualified competitors accompanied by their own helpful spouses, boyfriends, girlfriends, in-laws and more.

We are not denying that this part of the market exists. We're just pointing out that it is not where a professional translator wants to be.

Although we are certain your husband is a nice guy and genuinely wants to help, there are several other issues to consider, starting with the confidentiality you owe your clients. And what about the psychological flip-flopping that occurs in pricing when you are aware, deep down inside, that you can't really guarantee what you are delivering?

With that in mind, here's our advice: do the professional thing—get out and network. Locate a real live experienced translator working from English to Spanish and pass the jobs onto him or her. Who knows, you may get some in your language combination back in return!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Are anonymous testimonials worth using? And at what point in a business relationship can a translator ask a client for a testimonial?

Man in Black


Dear Man,

What a coincidence. Karen Klein wrote a column in BusinessWeek on this very subject.

To which we'd add simply that you should consult businesses in your country to get a feel for all this. Certain practices that demonstrate energy and entrepreneurship in one country are perceived as pushy and overbearing in others.

We stand by our comments quoted in Klein's column. There is so much churn in so many translation markets that even listing a client company can be laughable to those in the know.

It can also land you in hot water. We recently phoned a few companies whose names appeared on translation agency sites in the "satisfied clients" list. None of the client companies had any recollection of ever having worked with these agencies, and all were seriously unhappy to find their names in print.

So whatever you do, remember to keep it (1) transparent and (2) focused. If a named individual won't testify on your behalf, consider writing up a short paragraph about a specific successful project you did, with enough detail to attract clients in your target audience even if you don't name names. Here's an example.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I need advice on raising my prices. I'm thinking of one client in particular, for whom I've worked at the same per-word price for far too long. They really resisted the last time I brought this up (several years ago now).

What's the best way to raise the subject? Do I use the phone or email or a letter? What percentage rise should I go for?



Dear Counting,

Phoning will give you a better idea of their state of mind, but involves more ebb and flow. If you're nervous, a carefully crafted email might be better.

The main thing is not to get defensive or aggressive—which is easy to say, but not so easy to do, since money matters do make lots of folks nervous.

You've made a decision and are imparting information. You fully expect your clients to stay on board.

Once again, the sandwich method has definite appeal.

Here's a possible scenario:

  1. Let the client know how much you enjoy working with them [because their texts are so interesting, they themselves are so pleasant, their sector so dynamic]. And you really do know their operations and requirements intimately at this point.
  2. But your accountant has reminded you several times now, most recently at the end of [previous month] that the special rate you're working at with them is well below the one you apply to all your other clients. You haven't fussed to date because their texts are so interesting, they themselves are so pleasant, their sector so dynamic. But your accountant is adamant—and he's right. [See how handy it is to have a bad guy up your sleeve?]
  3. So you are raising your special rate, although you still plan to keep it at the low end of your pricing scale because their texts are so interesting, they are so pleasant, their sector so dynamic. [You say this even if their texts are boring, they are hopelessly disorganized, and their sector is in the doldrums.]

This new rate will apply from [date of your choice] and you sincerely hope that your relationship will continue.

Should this client dig in their heels, you might agree to postpone the increase to, say, July 1. You might also reduce it a tiny bit. This is called negotiating. But in this case be sure to start by announcing an increase that is higher than what you will ultimately settle for. You should also be prepared to address other factors affecting your net take-away, including surcharges, payment within ten days, etc. A good rule of thumb is never to fold on price without winning a concession in another area.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Here we go again. Both the New York Times and the Economist are waxing euphoric about how translation technology is going to change things radically and may even make us all redundant. These are very influential news media, and I bet other commentators will soon leap into the fray with the same message. As translators, we are small fry. How can we counter the trend?

Drowning Fast


Dear Drowning,

Step back and take a deep breath.

Now repeat after us: machine translation is here to stay. Really. Even Fire Ant admits to using it off and on for press reports in non-European languages.

But unless you are a truly hopeless translator, it is not a threat. All-but-free translations where speed and price trump accuracy are not where any professional wants to be, so may we suggest that you don't go there—except to use Google Translate and other systems yourself to browse the world outside.

If you ever need to explain the difference between these systems and what you do for a living, how about the chain saw analogy?

ATA used this in a letter to President Barack Obama last October: "The challenge for translation consumers lies in understanding the proper application of [human skills and technology]," [ATA media spokesperson Kevin] Hendzel noted. "Translation software is like a chain saw. It's an invaluable tool when you need to chop a lot of wood in a hurry—but you need skill to use it safely, and it's not recommended for surgery."

Nor will a chain saw get you far if you want to cut boards, paper, textiles, a roast turkey, your fingernails, your hair, a steak at a business lunch (or even at home). At the same time, what would be the point of using human translators to gist huge quantities of material? Surgeons could also saw logs with their scalpels, say observers, but it would be an absurd waste of their talent and capabilities.

So here's an idea: rather than simply highlight the silly mistakes that machine translation makes, we suggest you issue a friendly reminder to use the tool appropriately, taking care not lop off a finger (or a leg). And tell yourself that current media coverage is above all a testimony to the power and reach of the press and PR departments at Google and Asia Online.