This article was first published in 1997 on the NCTA (Northern California Translators Association) website in the earliest days of the web. It’s a window into the translation industry as it existed more than 20 years ago, but the advice is more important than ever in today’s supercharged technology and business environment.
There is a great vibrancy and dynamism in the U.S. translation community today as translators stand up and refuse to surrender to the prevailing undertow of the “Poverty Cult,” a disease diagnosed and declared dead by Neil Inglis at the ATA Regional Conference in Washington, D.C. Inglis characterized what might be termed the Seven Deadly Sins of the Poverty Cult as “envying the success of others, gloating over the failure of others; a pervasive sense that it is better for everybody to fail than for a few to succeed; a sickly squeamishness where the subject of money is concerned; shabby gentility, more shabby than genteel; a widespread conviction that it is better to have a little and be secure than to take a gamble and risk losing everything; and last, and very much least, schadenfreude mixed with sour grapes.” I hereby offer the following Seven Virtues as guidelines for the aspiring translator striving to “cast off the counterproductive mentalities that paralyze translator progress in the United States.”
- Master Your Subjects.
The first principle of commercial translation is to deliver a product of unparalleled quality. All long term success in the translation market is built on this foundation. The increasing complexity of modern technology and international commerce, however, has forced translators, journalists and other writers to develop increasing levels of sophistication and expertise in technology, law, banking, international trade and other fields. Translators with a formal education in the various subject areas have a huge advantage in the commercial market. There is simply nothing in the translator arsenal to substitute for mastery of subject matter. By hook or by crook, master your subjects. This expertise will improve the translation, solidify understanding, protect the client and enhance your authority. This authority is—not coincidentally—critical to the success of our profession. Forget nail biting through interminable “specialization vs. generalization” debates. Choose a few commercially viable specialty areas and learn everything about them. Remember that translators come in two varieties: “Specialists” and “hungry.”
- Appreciate Your Limits.
If you ever come across a podiatrist who insists on surgically removing your spleen, you will soon discover why specialty knowledge is important. If you ever advertise yourself as a translator who can “do any subject,” you will look like the hapless podiatrist. The process of choosing specialty fields necessarily means not choosing many others. All good translators recognize the limits of their knowledge and turn down (or refer to colleagues) assignments that may imperil the quality of their product. The act of referring work to colleagues goes beyond charity: It protects the initial translator’s reputation by deflecting work that could deflate a hard won reputation for quality. It also promotes the notion that what translators do is sufficiently complex and demanding to require specialization. This happens to be true.
- Defend Your Product.
If you work with direct clients (or the less reputable translation agencies) it is imperative to stand up and defend the integrity of your product against the full arsenal of assaults: Impossibly shrinking deadlines; the lost 40 pages that must be completed on the original deadline or the condemnation of your translation by the client’s sister who took a semester of French in college. Reputable translation agencies will fight this battle for you by establishing policies and practices that protect their product as well as their in house and freelance translators. The policies I have established at ASET place translators and editors in the role of decision makers not only on production and quality issues, but also on whether jobs are accepted by the company at all. Direct clients, on the other hand, have hired you the translator ostensibly to deliver expertise and a product that the client is unable to produce on his own. So, forget the mantra that “the client is always right.” In truth, there are good and bad clients, and the bad clients are almost always wrong when they insert themselves into the translation process. The good clients in the translation industry grasp this intuitively and recognize that they have hired a translator (or translation agency) to deliver a service they cannot. These clients will rely on the translator to look out for their interests on a level far in excess of their ability to judge it. They will give latitude sufficient to operate in a manner consistent with the translator’s quality standards, which in the end can only benefit them. Translators run into trouble when good clients start down the road toward bad, and the translator is foolish enough to actually follow the client down this road under the guise of “meeting the client’s needs.” This is idiotic and self destructive. What clients need to be told is that they are about to enter a minefield. No set of actions that places client circumstances above the quality level of the product (“I don’t care about quality, I need those 40 pages overnight!”) is ever acceptable, period. There is no excuse for a translator to act as a co conspirator by bowing to client demands that compromise that translator’s product. In the same way that no sane surgeon would ever agree to do a six hour triple bypass operation in a mere 45 minutes to meet the patient’s needs,” no translator should agree to butcher a translation toward the same end.
- Sign Your Work.
The simple act of claiming authorship shatters the “black box” invisibility of the translation process and reinserts translators into their rightful place as craftsmen of the translation product. A host of respected translators, including John Bukacek in the U.S. and Chris Durban in Europe, have long promoted translators’ signing their work as a means to elevate public recognition and appreciation for the role of translators. The long absence of translators in the public consciousness has had many troubling and costly consequences for the profession, including a near universal lack of appreciation for what translators do—even among clients who should know better—and absurdly optimistic public expectations for machine translation and other automated solutions for leaping the language barrier. Translators who sign their work are also expressing confidence in their product in public while demonstrating the integrity to stand by their work.
- Quote Your Rate.
One of the fastest ways to get rid of a plumber is to tell him what rate you will pay him to come fix your sink. The fact that plumbers slam down the phone at this kind of treatment and some translators do not is astonishing. Freelance translators are well advised to set rates at their own discretion and quote those rates to translation agencies (also referred to as “translation companies,” a preferred rendition, in this article). I can think of nothing that interests me less than what a translation company tells freelance translators it “will pay.” In fact, a reputable translation company can readily be identified by its request that you quote your rate first. There is plenty of room for good faith negotiations between parties that approach a transaction as equals.
- Promote Your Profession.
Public relations and promotion of translation has been so catastrophically poor for so many years that it is a miracle the public knows we exist at all. There is no unified public policy promotion, advocacy or lobbying for translators on the national level, and extremely scant promotion through the popular media. Even in such a lackluster environment, translators are blessed by the fact that we all work in a field that the public finds intrinsically interesting (imagine the challenge of promoting, say, industrial fluids to the media.) Some of the most visible media coverage for translation, including magazine articles in the international trade press, major metropolitan newspapers and in flight magazines, as well as radio interviews and commentary, have been initiated in the last two years by individual working translators, interpreters and translation companies on the national, regional and local levels. Translators in Europe have begun a major client education initiative to reach out to industrial translation users. Translators in FLEFO report on their college campus appearances to promote translation and several of the more active FLEFO translators and interpreters share source information and feedback from client education and public relations efforts.
- Perfect Your Craft.
Good translators do not become great translators by study, research or practice alone. These will get you to “good,” perhaps “very good,” and certainly are necessary steps to solid competence. Great is much, much more painful. Great translators—the ones who really stand out—have had their translations mauled, picked over, dissected, disemboweled, examined, edited, published, revised and amended by their translation colleagues, editors and reviewers, sometimes for years. Each successive translation then draws on the collective experience of the translator as well the entire host of creative input and guidance from those translation colleagues and editors. All translators benefit to the extent that their work is “at risk” for examination, revision or review. Translators are best served in their professional development by establishing and maintaining a close community of cooperative and disciplined colleagues whose talent and expertise help to guide and focus the intensely personal creative act that is translation.
Image source: Pixabay
Translator, linguist, media commentator and business executive Kevin Hendzel draws on over 35 years of experience in the translation and localization industry in a broad range of roles, including translator, language lead, company owner, lexicographer, media commentator, and national event panelist. His blog, Word Prisms, is an award-winning blog on translation, technology and the modern business of language, and has over 6,000 registered viewers from all over the world (http://www.kevinhendzel.com/blog/).
As the official translator of 34 published books in physics and engineering and 10,000 articles for the Russian Academy of Sciences, Kevin Hendzel is also one of the most widely published translators in the English language. Kevin’s professional background includes an extended period working on the US-Russia Direct Communications Link, also known as the Presidential “Hotline,” where he was Senior Linguist of the technical translation staff. Between 1992 and 2008, Kevin worked to advance ASET International Services Corp. to become the leading firm on all nuclear programs in the former Soviet Union before selling the company with his business partner in 2008.
Kevin was the original architect of the ATA national media program launched in 2001. Between 2001 and 2012 he served as National Media Spokesman of the American Translators Association. During that period he appeared on CNN, FoxNews Live, ABC World News Tonight, CBS News, NBC News, MSNBC, National Public Radio, Voice of America, PBS, The New York Times, the Washington Post, the AP wire service, Reuters, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, Wired and many more outlets promoting translation and interpretation services as vital to commerce, diplomacy, security, and culture.