Practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I've noticed that translators often talk among themselves about customers. Do you often hear from customers about what they really think of translators? That would be very very helpful for us freelancers.
A good question, and if you search through past issues you'll find a few queries and comments.
Off-column, we've certainly seen and heard customersboth direct clients and agencieswho are absolutely bowled over by the expertise and sheer professionalism their suppliers bring to the job. It's a mutual admiration societyand a pleasure to see!
But the nature of an advice column is that people write in with problems, so here at TJ we've probably had a disproportionate number of buyers who are, if not necessarily unhappy, at least taken aback by behavior that would be considered unusual in the larger business world.
This is one reason why we regularly advise translators to dress up in their good outfits and trundle out to client watering holes. There is simply no better way to (1) see how the texts you produce are actually used and (2) observe first-hand how very pleasant but demandingof themselves and othersreal clients are.
Alas, at these same events we have also observed first-hand how some translators go out of their way to highlight their eccentricities. Curiously (or not) this is often done in the name of intellectual or moral straight-shooting. Trust us: clients don't see the purity. They see the weirdness. And this is both a psychological turnoff for anyone meeting a service provider for the first time, and a serious source of concern on the logistics front for clients intent on securing a top-quality text for a product launch, clinical trial or management report.
In other words, eccentricity is fine and even endearing in close friends, but it's not good for business. If you view translation as a lifestyle rather than a business, that's your choiceas long as you can produce the real goods on time. But even then it makes sense to hone your social skills so you can morph into client mode for the few virtual and physical contact hours that do come up.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I'm studying translation and trying to line up an internship for next summer. My school requires this. How can I get a good one? I'm willing to work hard, but I don't want to be exploited. Also, I want to build up a network for when I graduate two years from now.
In our experience, passionhaving it and demonstrating itis what gets you on the shortlist for satisfying and career-building internships. We're talking about a passion for words and wordplay, of course.
Good translators have it, and neither they nor top-notch translation teams are prepared to waste time and energy on a less than inspired intern.
In concrete terms, this means that if you are a wobbler, you may have to fake it for the time needed to develop that commitment. That's OK. But whatever you do, don't come across as blasé with your internship contactsit's the kiss of death.
You can improve your chances of getting an outstanding internship by honing your research skills upstream. Start looking now for the type of translations you really want to do or feel inspired by, and find out who produced them. Write to that company or individual to express your admiration and ask a question or two, just to get the conversational ball rolling.
Build on any relationship that ensues to inch, crawl or stride your way over to the internship question.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Silly me! I got a blog recommendation from a respected colleague, read it briefly, and sent a link to a listserv I belong to. People got upset with various inaccuracies in the blog and with the blogger, whose reputation seems to have preceded him.
In my opinion, recent topics discussed on this particular blog are very relevant. Yet the author also seems to have an agenda that more experienced blog readers already knew about. You might say that the "topics" merely provided an excuse to blast vitriol on translation agencies and certain professional associations.
How does one sort the wheat from the chaff with blogs of this kind? What is the difference between constructive discussion and downright mean-spirited criticism? Inquiring minds would like to know!
You've set out the problem very clearly. And we agree: mean-spiritedness drags the whole profession down, even as it fascinates in some cases. As a correspondent says, it's like one of those car accidents that you can't stop looking at.
So here are some suggestions to help keep your eye on the ball:
- The 24/7 news cycle notwithstanding, "reading briefly and reposting" is never a good idea. Instead try reading, digesting, ponderingand only then posting. You might consider redacting pertinent points to eliminate ranting. Otherwise you yourself risk being perceived as a pot-stirrer and gossip-monger. Not good!
- In our experience, vitriol and the trolls that sling toxins around are not really that hard to identify. Seriously. A personal attack on any individual is a warning sign; multiple personal attacksserially or in a single postconfirm that your author is busy settling scores, not advancing the debate. And trolls, aka chronically unhappy people, are often narcissistic: comments dripping in would-be withering sarcasm by a poster locked into broadcast-only mode? Bad news. No serious traffic or exchanges on the blog other than insults and put-downs? Hey, move on!
But before we do, a word of thanks for blogs. In the early days of the internet, translators on personal rage trajectories would hunker down on listservs and drive everybody nuts until they got the boot. That's over now, thank goddess. Anyone who has a view or universal truth to expound can set up her own blog and do itand enjoy the give and take (or vacuum) that ensues.
From a professional viewpoint, the most serious drawback we see for the authors of consistently negative or nasty blogs isparadoxically?the transparency they provide. Face it, who would want to work with folks like this? So the ranters' complaints become a self-fulfilling prophecy: they can rattle on in 100% good faith about the translation market going to hell in a hand basket, because their own market is headed that way. What they fail to grasp is that it's not technology, stupid clients, devious colleagues and corrupt professional associations that have chased the lucrative work away.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant (or Killer Bee or whatever your name isare you guys 16 years old or something?),
I have been reading your book because, although I've been doing this for 25 years, I figured I could pick up a few pointers.
Some of your recommendations seem pretty good, and I especially like your emphasis on Quality.
And then, in the chapter on Doing the Job/Processes (page 54), I come across your response to Report Writer from Indonesia, where you say:
"In this case, make sure that the customer understands that there is still is going to be an editor, namely them!"
Ironic, no, in a response that emphasizes the importance of self-editing?
Perhaps you should think a little less about "Prosperity" and a little more about "Quality."
Perplexed in Peoria
Well done! And you'd be first in line for an autographed "With thanks for your eagle eye!" copy of the second edition from the grateful authors if others hadn't got there first.
But here's the really good news: there are three other typos in the book. And no, we're not going to pretend that they were exercises in spot-the-deliberate-error. Go team! A free copy awaits the first reader who identifies each of these (at which point you can pass your copy of the first editionwhich you will have bought at lulu.comon to a colleague).
But speaking of typographical errors, let's take a look at a related issue that translators working for quality-conscious clients face regularly.
Say you've been stalking a likely client and have identified what has got to be a glitch in one of their texts (surely the CEO wasn't addressing a "key pubic issue" in his policy statement).
How can this type of error best be brought to the stumbler's attention? Don't forget, good clients generally welcome feedback, and a misstep can be an excellent way to get the flow going. But this only works if you respect three basic rules.
- Avoid snarky gotchas: sarcasm may be satisfying to the writer (see "trolls" above), but it's a short-term thrill: it also travels poorly (who knows how much non-native speakers really understand; they may simply think you are rude).
- Good clients really do want to get it right, and if you're pitching you must assume as much. So act as if you're convinced the offender will fix the problem as soon as you've flagged it.
- Cut the offender and his/her staff some slack. Example? Faced with an error-strewn sales brochure, lead your tip-off with "I realize such documents are often prepared at the last minute, when the pressure is on." This makes it much easier to segue into your own pitch (that you work well in those circumstances and will save them this embarrassment next time around). It's far more effective than "Clients always try to cut corners by hiring the cheapest supplierwell, look where it got you!" Any way you look at it, finger wagging is a turnoff.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Out of the blue I was contacted by a customer in the US. In his first email, he said he had a file with 200 sentences divided into about 20 dialogs. They were all already translated and he wanted them edited to reflect some questions/suggestions he had inserted.
Well, why not?
So I quoted for the total translated words using my revision rate (half my translation rate). He accepted and paid me in advance. But I quickly realized I'd made a terrible mistake. This was not a simple text where you find wrong words and correct them. Instead it was a course to help Americans improve their fluency in Spanish. So my contribution involved weighing dozens of options, semantic analysis, dialectal usage, etc. based on the questions and suggestions he sent.
Before long, I felt the price should be at least three times what I quoted. Yet I enjoyed the work and completed it to the best of my ability.
When I delivered, the customer seemed pleasantly surprised and offered me more files. At that point I told him the truth: I had made a mistake with the price, and though I was not asking him to pay more for the work already delivered, I was not eager to proceed with the same price and explained why.
He understood, sent me more money for the first job (an additional 100%) and asked if I wanted to do another part for three times the original price. I accepted and again received the payment in advance.
Everything went OK but I got the impression he was a little unsatisfied because he felt I was overdoing it and was not following instructions. Actually, I felt he was kind of temperamental. However there was a third and a fourth part, everything OK, paid in advance and at the triple rate.
Then the axe fell: I never received notification from him that he had received the fourth part. And the planned fifth part never came. Just silence. Again, money was not the problem and all work done was paid in full. The only problem I can see was my overdoing it on the comments.
What do you think?
We see three possibilities:
- The man's been hit by a bus; check local hospitals and clinics.
- You've been dealing with a well-heeled individual with a vague book project who lost interest when something else came along (perhaps a flurry of debutante balls or the opera season).
- Your client realized as the project progressed that he wanted interaction with somebody closer to home. Or decided, as you say, that you were getting a little too overbearing.
In any case, our advice is that you try at least one more time to get back in touch. Not to push for chapters five, six and seven, but just to find out what happened.
We assume you've already googled his name for additional contact details. Short of hiring a private detective, why not shoot off another message via your existing email contact address. Possible lead-in:
"I really enjoyed the project and would love to see what's become of the texts."
Or go the semi-commercial route with "My brother-in-law is learning Spanish and it struck me that your book would be just the ticket; is it out yet?"
Lessons learned: you bid far too low. Not surprising, lots of translators do, for lots of different tasks.
So here's a script to stick up on the wall behind your computer screen for use next time a new client comes calling:
- "Your project sounds absolutely fascinating. I'd really like to work on it."
- "Let's use price X for this first roundit will let you see how my input can make your text work well, and give me a chance to make sure that we've got a good match."
Having specified that this is a test run on both sides, you'll find it much easier to revisit terms and conditions for the next project.
FA & WB