Strategies for translation providers in an uncertain world… a survival guide.

This post originally appeared on the blog The translation business and it is republished with permission.

Sometimes, how we translators run our professional lives and operate our businesses seem to be under threat.

Human translators, although usually skeptical, cannot avoid observing the growing influence of machine translation and perhaps wondering how long will it be before a piece of software will put them out of work.

Then there is the emerging spectre of crowd-sourced translation, a phenomenon which is most certainly not going to go away [1].

And what about the sneaking suspicion that perhaps English will ultimately end up as a global lingua franca (at least in commerce and science) making most of the translation work we translators currently do entirely redundant? Certainly many have predicted the ultimate triumph of a single universal world language – from Stalin in the 1950’s [2] to evolutionary biologists today [3].

That change is coming to our profession, I have to say, is not really news to me. In my professional life I’ve seen the profession emerge from a local cottage industry and became a global business. In the space of a few decades translators abandoned their manual typewriters and got plugged into highly connected networks of global proportions. We can be sure that this pace of change is not going to slow down anytime soon.

One of the most insightful commentators on the evolving role of technology in the translation industry, Kirti Vashee, states it point-blank: “It is likely that the professional translation world is going to see significant disruption in the coming years…” [1]

On the upside, however, there has never been a time history when the demand for translation was as great as it is now – and the most informed opinion suggests that demand is going to continue spiralling upwards. CSA puts it this way:

“… the amount of content grows faster than anyone can translate it […] Many organizations throw up their hands in despair, realizing that they don’t have the resources or money to deal with this explosion of content.” [4]

There are simply not enough human translators and clearly machine translation and crowd sourcing are going to play significant roles in an expanding market. But there is also a strong argument that human linguists will play an increasingly important role in the emerging, but differently shaped translation world.

Small to mid-sized translation companies and independent translators are the backbone of the industry – but they are fragmented and are vulnerable to the developing changes. Paying attention to “business survival skills” in a rapidly changing market will be a priority for many.

Chief amongst these skills is maintaining (or increasing) business profitability – whatever happens. There are a number of obvious strategies: adapting to the changes is one and optimising the return from existing resources is another. In this post, I look at one approach to the latter – making better use of the skills and resources translation providers already have.

Making your existing resources more profitable.

Let’s look at how a small, imaginary language service provider, XYZ Translate Ltd, could leverage off its existing resources and become more profitable.

Like most small businesses, XYZ Translate Ltd is subject to the Pareto principle – 80% of its meagre profits come from just 20% of the work it undertakes. That means 80% of the work is often done at a loss or at very low margin. The company is not short of work, but it is frequently so bogged down with work which returns little profit, that they often miss out on better paying work because they can’t deliver to the customer’s time frames.

One trick for XYZ Translate Ltd is to break out of this low-margin trap: this means reducing the volume of low-margin work in order to free up resources for more jobs which return a higher margin.

Easier said than done? And a bit scary?

So let’s imagine that this is what our imaginary LSP did:

Firstly they looked at the margin they made on all the jobs they handled over the past year. Let’s imagine that they discovered that the most profitable work came from a just a couple of clients in a particular sector – let’s say from the waste management industry.

Why was this work so profitable? They got the first job quite by chance, but they realised they really weren’t set up for the task. Knowing that they would have to make a really big effort, they quoted high – and were fortunate to get the job.

But to keep the customer coming

  • They needed to invest a lot of energy into developing the right sort of resources and finding a reliable pool of translators who were (or who would become) experts in the field;
  • They paid the translators well for the work – and in return these specialised translators became very loyal and made themselves (almost) always available for work. This means they could always deliver on time;
  • Because the translators became so familiar with the terminology and were always kept up-to-date with the issues in the waste management industry, the amount of time-consuming research required for each new job was relatively small, and they were able to turn the work around quickly;
  • The project managers knew exactly which translators and revisers were appropriate for these sorts of jobs; glossaries, terminology databases and translation memories were all up-to-date and the translators got to know the style guides backwards.

So the clients in this sector were happy and continued to pay well because there were few issues with the translations and the work is always delivered within deadline.

But while the production processes were highly efficient and the margin on each job was fantastic, the number of jobs they got per month in this sector was tiny!

Just imagine how XYZ Translate’s bottom line would look if they even got one more client in this sector? Or two, three or four?

Pretty much by chance or good fortune, XYZ Translate Ltd had developed a highly efficient process in a very narrow field. The company most certainly didn’t set out to be experts in waste management. They developed a great area of expertise, but they just didn’t have enough customers in the industry sector to make it really pay.

How could XYZ Translate leverage off this expertise?

We might think about XYZ Translate Ltd’s small number of very profitable customers in the waste management sector as reflecting the density of such customers in the area of their marketing reach. (Not all firms in the sector would be willing to pay the sort of premium that XYZ Translate charges for the work.) To find more customers who want just the sort of service that XYZ Translate Ltd can deliver, they need to expand the reach of their marketing…

… they just need a bigger market!

The laws of probability are such that there are most certainly more customers “out there somewhere” who will be willing to pay a premium for just the sort of excellent service XYZ Translate Ltd has to offer. But expanding the size of the catchment area to find those elusive “ideal customers” is a serious marketing problem – and that costs. Tracking them down and making the sale can be an expensive exercise – especially if those new potential customers are “somewhere out there” in a different city or a different country, or in a different time zone…

LSPs like XYZ Translate Ltd usually don’t have the financial or marketing resources to assess a global market in order to target a relatively small set of more profitable customers. Every LSP and freelancer has some unique strength, skill set or a combination of different factors that will attract customers who are looking precisely for what they have to offer – if the market is big enough. As localisation sales and marketing veteran, Jessica Rathke puts it:

“Each company has its own unique aspects, be it a vertical specialization such as life sciences or legal translation.  Each company has its own history (or not), unique set of employees and unique client base.  The uniqueness in any of these areas can be exploited and communicated that will give the target audience a feel for your organization, company ethos or methodology that distinguishes your company from another.” [5]

A clear and obvious survival strategy for translation providers like XYZ Translate is to differentiate from their competitors by leveraging off what they can already do well and most profitably.

Notes:

[1] Kirti Vashee (2011), Translation Crowdsourcing,  http://kv-emptypages.blogspot.com/2011/08/translation-crowdsourcing.html

[2]  Stalin “foresaw the merger of zonal languages, into a ‘common international language which naturally will not be either German or Russian or English, but a new language embodying in itself the best elements of national and zonal languages’”, http://www.guardian.co.uk/theguardian/2011/aug/02/archive-stalin-and-soviet-state

[3]  The Guardian: Biologist Mark Pagel argues that humanity’s destiny is to become one world with one language. http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/punctuated-equilibrium/2011/aug/04/1

[4] Donald A. DePalma and Nataly Kelly (2009), The Business Case for Machine Translation, Common Sense Advisory, Inc., Lowell, Massachusetts, USA.

[5] Jessica Rathke, (2011), Is Differentiation in the Localization Industry Possible?http://l10nsalesandmarketing.blogspot.com/2011/02/is-differentiation-in-localization.html

Shipping Wars — a TV course for new entrepreneurs

One of the biggest problems for people entering the translation profession is a lack of hands-on, street level business experience. Many don’t understand the value of their time, and they may have no clue how to price their work — in fact, many beginners feel embarrassed and greedy when they ask to be paid respectably for what they do. Negotiating is also uncharted territory for many, and some don’t understand the difference between pricing their own services versus a corporation pricing a manufactured good.

There are books and seminars that help novices understand and implement good principles for running their businesses, but sometimes you can learn from unexpected sources. And as the famous baseball coach Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot just by watching.”

One interesting source for watching the way experienced independent entrepreneurs operate is the “reality” TV show Shipping Wars. The program follows several seasoned independent truckers as they bid on contracts and haul unusual loads cross country. Novice and even experienced translators could learn a lot from the way these truckers operate.

Bidding. The first thing that’s worth watching closely is the way these truckers bid on contracts. The jobs come to them the same way they do for most of us translators, over the Internet, and they have to outbid each other. I would not recommend dealing with agencies or individual clients who send out a cattle call for translators and pit them against each other in bidding wars. (Watch out for that evil expression “your best rate”!) However, you may sometimes have to horse trade with good clients, so there are things to be learned from the way the truckers on Shipping Wars bid.

Truckers constantly keep their costs in mind when they bid. Their bids are always anchored to their time and expenses. They don’t get caught up in a race to the bottom in which the proposed prices are no longer tied to anything real. If they find that others are bidding below cost or are offering prices that don’t take their time into account, they never hesitate to pull out of the bidding and look elsewhere.

As a translator, whether you’re bidding or accepting a fixed rate, you need to keep your business and living expenses in mind. If you’re competing with people who are bidding below subsistence wages, walk away and let them have the job. Once you show a willingness to work for next to nothing, the same clients will keep coming back expecting you to work at sweatshop rates.

Among the costs you need to consider when pricing and bidding is opportunity cost. This is business lingo for how much money you could have made on another job if you hadn’t tied yourself up in a badly paid one. When these truckers quit bidding and slap their laptops shut, they don’t know what the next opportunity will be, but they know it’s coming from somewhere and that they shouldn’t commit themselves to a poorly paid job just because they’re afraid the good one won’t come.

People say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” but this does not always apply to a translation business. If your hand is holding one bird, it’s awfully hard to catch two more, so you sometimes have to let one translation job go to someone else so that you can catch a better one.

The higher bidder really can win. When one of the older truckers won a job over a lower-bidding competitor, he shut his laptop, declared, “You can’t outbid experience!” and took off to pick up the load. He had stated during the bidding war that he would not go below the price he wanted no matter what. He won the job by convincing the customer of his experience and expertise.

When you have a bidding war going on, instead of letting yourself be dragged down into the crab bucket, it’s better to stick to a reasonable price that meets your costs. Instead of bidding lower and lower, convince the client of whatever makes you more fit for the job. Are you certified or very highly experienced in the CAT tool the client wants used? (Or for new, more naïve clients, can you convince them of the advantages of your using any CAT tool?) Have you actually worked on the types of machines the job is about? If the job is about art, for example, have you been to professional art school?

Believe it or not, truckers have specialties just like translators do. When one of them, nicknamed “The Cowgirl”, bids on certain contracts, she makes sure clients know she’s one of the highest-rated livestock transporters. Translators, too, should always highlight their actual experience. Have you been to a chicken farm and seen an automatic chicken feeding system? There are translation clients that need your knowledge, believe it or not. A friend of mine listed his scuba experience and by surprise became the go-to translator for a scuba equipment company.

Negotiation. Once the bidding is done and the contract has been awarded, that doesn’t mean all negotiations are over. Sometimes the client “forgot something”, or “something went wrong,” and “can you just help me a little?” There are cases where a good, regular client needs a little favor once in a while, but if someone asks for a favor that demands major time, you’d better ask for more compensation. As a client roared at me when I was a beginning translator in a small Czech town, “I TOOK YOUR TIME AND YOU DESERVE TO BE ADEQUATELY COMPENSATED!” Another one said, “You can give the charity rates to charity cases!” They were teaching me a professional, self-respecting approach to charging for my work.

One trucker on Shipping Wars had to pick up a truckload from a winery. Yet, when he got there, it wasn’t ready for shipment, and the owner was there by himself. Expecting an obedient response, the owner asked the trucker to help him pack the rest of the wine. He’s a blue-collar guy after all, right? An hour or so of packing wine was not part of the contract, so the trucker demanded compensation. He and the owner horse traded, and instead of more money, he got a couple cases of great wine, but he was satisfied.

This kind of thing can happen to translators also, and we can learn from those truckers. A client sends you a project and then asks you to do something extra for free. Maybe it’s to wrestle for a couple hours in Word with a converted PDF to make it look like the original. Or it could be one of those cases where the client sends you a “finalized” text, then, when you’re almost done translating, they send you a different “finalized” text with major rewriting, and maybe they’ll even come back a third time with still another “finalized” text to replace the one you’d already translated. That kind of client is also liable to say they’ve shelved the project and don’t want to pay you. You wouldn’t believe how many beginning translators let themselves be cheated in such situations. Like these truckers, you need to demand what your full time and effort are worth.

A pig in a poke. Sometimes the truckers accept a job and find it to be grossly misrepresented. This can happen to translators too. In one episode of Shipping Wars, a trucker bid on a job to haul a number of large duct tape sculptures made by art students from the university where they were built to the tape manufacturer who would judge them in a contest. Based on the way the job was represented, it seemed doable and well compensated. However, when the trucker arrived, the sculptures were much larger than they were claimed to be, and the art students’ professor told him he had to make two runs for the agreed price instead of just one, as the contract stated. This would double the labor, time, and fuel, and bring the trucker’s profit dangerously near zero. When the trucker said double the run would require double the compensation, the professor yelled at him: “You agreed to the contract, and we’re bound to the university budget!”

There are a few issues in that situation that are relevant to translators:

1. Clients should find out what things cost before they establish a budget! If a client or agency asks you to cut your price in half because, “That’s all we have in the budget,” that’s not your problem. The client put the cart before the horse, and you’re probably better off refusing and waiting for a better managed job.

2. When a client yells at you for demanding adequate payment, he surely knows he’s cheating you. This is an intimidation tactic. Don’t fall for it. (And as you save for your future, be aware that yelling and intimidation are also common tactics among investment scam artists. If you ask for clear information about an investment somebody is pushing, and he yells at you, hang up.)

Keeping the customer on the hook. One of the truckers on the show was just minutes away from delivering her freight – a bucking alligator ride – when her customer phoned her and said his customer couldn’t use the ride because it was raining that day. “If they don’t pay me, then I can’t pay you.” This is never acceptable customer behavior. If a customer agrees to pay you for work, and you adequately perform the work, then you have to demand compensation. It’s the customer’s problem to collect from his own client. Never work for a client who makes your fee contingent on his customer paying him.

Walking away. The truckers on Shipping Wars also know when to walk away from an offer. As one husband-wife team were bidding on a job, competitors’ bids kept sinking, and more details came up about the awkwardness and fragility of the cargo, the wife finally said, “Just because we can transport anything doesn’t mean we should,” and they dropped out of the bidding.

Just because you think you can translate something, and the price is right, that doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Does the potential client seem iffy? Is there something wrong with the document you’re given? Once I got a document that was photographed with a cellphone, and the clearest thing on photos was the breadcrumbs from the phone wielder’s continental breakfast. As I got into the document, I found that a lot of words were cut off at the edges of some of the photos, important words like “not”, for example. There is no use in saying yes and trying to make something like that work, because the results are sure to be imperfect, and that could come back to bite you. Even if the client seems understanding at the beginning, he may blame you later, so it’s best to let iffy jobs like that go. As former presidential candidate Carly Fiorina often said, it’s important to know when to walk away from the table.

Do what you have to and spend the money to do it. On Shipping Wars, the truckers often run into unexpected complications, so they do what they have to and spend the money necessary to tackle the situation. One trucker arrived for the cargo and was suddenly told it had to be transported under climate-controlled conditions. He gave up the idea of transporting it on his flatbed, and he spent the money to rent a refrigerated trailer. The job still paid off, and he had a satisfied customer. Another trucker was hired to carry a vintage TV camera boom – a big, hulking structure – across several states. At some point he could feel it wobbling in the wind, so he stopped by a lumber yard and built stabilizers for it. That also cost him money and effort, but he got the load to its destination and got paid.

If you’re a Trados user and a client offers you a $600 job that has to be done in MemoQ or Wordfast Pro, for example, is it worth buying and learning the second CAT tool for that? Probably not, because the price of the tool would eat up most of the revenue. But what if the job were for $10,000? Would it be worth buying the second CAT tool then? Hell, yeah! Not only will it get you the job, but it will probably create a lot of customer goodwill, and you’ll be able to take later jobs from that and other clients who require that tool. It’s shortsighted to be too cheap.

A long time ago, a prominent ATA member, who is a Windows user, got offered a huge job that had to be done on a Macintosh for some reason. Did he respond, “No, thanks, I use Windows”? Of course not. He calculated the financial benefit and bought the Mac. Sometimes you have to spend money to make money.

Shipping Wars is just one good resource to give you a feel for running an independent business. Other resources are all around you. Ask people questions. Get them talking. There might be a gas station owner nearby who’s been in business for 60 years, through all the changes in the economy and technology. Get an oil change and ask him about his business. Talk to the granny who does catering from her house. How about the guy who snakes your basement sewer? Then there are the freelance writers and engineers. Almost any independent businessperson knows things that a new translator can learn from!

Author bio

James Kirchner is a translator working from German, Czech, French and Slovak into English. Because he works in two “small languages,” he has had to develop a larger-than-normal number of specializations, but mainly does technical, marketing and fine arts translations. James is a past president of the Michigan Translators/Interpreters Network (MiTiN), which is the Michigan chapter of the ATA. He has a BFA in Fine Arts from the College for Creative Studies and an MA in Linguistics from Wayne State University, as well as a Czech Proficiency Certificate from the Státní Jazyková škola in Prague. He has a black belt in Aikido and Karate and is an avid intermediate student of Taekwondo and Iaido.

Starting out in translation? Find a mentor!

This post originally appeared on sciword and it is republished with permission.

I was reading one of Kevin Lossner’s blog posts from 2010, titled “No Monkeys!”. He gives 12 pieces of advice—a twelve-step program, as he calls it—for those getting started in the translation business. All of it is great advice and I think everyone should follow it, newbie or not; however, there is one point on which I’d like to expand to impress upon any new translator coming across this blog how important it is to follow.

“Find a mentor. This one is not optional. Most twelve-step programs involve a sponsor, usually one who has struggled with the same issues in the past. In our movement we offer more latitude: you don’t have to seek out a recovering monkey as your mentor. You can also work under the watchful eye of someone who got things right the first or second time.”

When I did my traineeship at the European Commission’s Translation Service fourteen years ago I had a mentor. “The Godfather”, they called him (I still laugh at this). All trainees had a godfather. Mine was a walking encyclopedia, a Greek translator from Alexandria, Egypt, who taught me a lot; though it would be fair to say that most Greek translators in the technical/scientific translation unit of the DGT (Directorate-General for Translation) went out of their way to teach me translation methods as applied in the EU. Business practices I learned on my own and from other freelancers later on; it is difficult to learn the tricks of the trade and how to handle your own projects, do your own marketing, and interact with clients from non-freelancers.

Finding a mentor “is not optional,” says Kevin Lossner. It really shouldn’t be. Having a mentor will make your life so much easier. It will save you time and mistakes. Sure, after hours of looking for good online FR-EN dictionaries you may come across Termium and proudly celebrate your discovery when you realize what a gem it is; or you can skip to celebrating a FR-EN job well done after your mentor saved you those hours by telling you from the start “Make sure to use Termium, it’s an excellent resource, here’s the link.” Or he can save you the embarrassment (and perhaps the legal trouble) of finding out that Google Translate is not reliable and could not care less about the confidentiality of the document you need to translate by explaining to you how it is being developed and how it works. (I am assuming that all seasoned translators know about the dangers of using Google Translate. If not, please read on this topic, e.g. article Confidentiality and Google Translate.)

What should you not expect to learn from a mentor? How to translate! You should already know how to do that. Comparative stylistics and translation techniques should be well engraved on your brain by now. Expect to learn things you’re not exposed to in your translation studies. Use your traineeship to learn how to run your own business.

So what should you learn from a mentor?

Research

How to do research on the topic of the text you’re translating, what resources to use. Resources include paper and/or online dictionaries in your language pair(s) and field(s), online encyclopedias (Wikipedia is the most popular one but please use it with caution—some colleagues and I had a blast with some outrageous errors in several Greek Wikipedia articles, and then didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the Greek entries machine-translated from the English ones.

Your mentor will tell you which resources are reliable, which ones should be used with caution, and which ones should be avoided), journals with articles in your field(s), websites on the subject matter of your texts (could be a section of the Airbus website if you’re translating about airplanes, or the online Health Library of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute if you’re translating the medical records of cancer patients and need to know more about cancer).

Proofreading

I wrote previously that you shouldn’t expect to learn how to translate because you should already know that before starting your traineeship. Proofreading, on the other hand, is a different story. How many of us who formally studied translation were taught how to proofread a text? How many learned how to edit a translation? And how many of us learned in our studies the difference between proofreading and editing?

Sure, we knew how to use the Track Changes feature in Word, but were we shown what to change and what not to touch, what constitutes an error and what is simply a matter of personal preference and style? Were we taught how to charge for proofreading and editing and how to determine our rate? These are all things that your mentor can help you with.

CAT tools

There are several: MemoQ, OmegaT, Wordfast, SDL Trados, among others. Should you use any of these? Which one is more user-friendly? Would the tool of your choice work on your MAC? Are the more expensive ones better? How do you answer to a client that might ask for a discount due to repeated terms as calculated by the CAT tool? These are questions your mentor can help you answer.

See which tool he uses, if any. Watch him use it. Get your hands on it (don’t get nervous if your mentor is standing right over your head while you use it; many of us are very picky about what goes into our translation memories), or perhaps you can just use a trial version. How about voice-recognition software? Perhaps you’ve heard of Dragon Naturally Speaking. Is it available in your language? If your mentor uses it, take a shot at it and see whether it increases your productivity or not.

Project lifecycle

A good mentor will give you exposure to the entire lifecycle of a project, including a translation request, a PO (purchase order), acceptance or rejection of a project in the beginning, and delivery of a project in the end. Look at a request with your mentor: sometimes (quite often, actually) requests are incomplete and make it impossible to judge whether we can take on the project or not.

Sometimes a client will ask me if I can translate a text of X thousand words by such and such date, without telling me the subject field and sometimes without even telling me the language pair! Your mentor will tell you what to look for in a request before you jump into accepting it. He will also tell you when to say no. Look at some POs. What information do they contain? Does the client need the translator to sign an NDA? What is an NDA? Should you always sign it?

E-mails

All projects involve some correspondence between the translator and the client. Sometimes communication takes place over the phone but most often it is done by e-mail. The speed and convenience of e-mail communication does not mean that your e-mails can be sloppy. Shadow your mentor when she replies to a client: watch how she addresses the client, how careful she is with punctuation, what register she uses (which of course may vary from one client to the next, but not by much, a client is a client, and even if you’ve worked with him for a while and are on friendly terms, you wouldn’t use the same register as with your nephew), how she re-reads her e-mail before hitting Send to make sure it is linguistically and semantically correct, knowing the bad impression a message with errors written by a language professional would make. I’m stating the obvious, I know, but unfortunately I’ve seen too many e-mails full of spelling and grammar errors, even some e-mails starting with “Hey there,…”, to omit this point.

Invoices

At the end of a project or at the end of the month you’ll have to send an invoice in order to get paid for your work. It is surprising how many posts we see in online forums by new translators asking how to write an invoice. I don’t know why so many university translation programs don’t dedicate a lesson or two to this. Ask your mentor to show you a couple of old invoices. Make a note of the information they include. Ask her to let you write the next invoice. Ask her also to tell you about different payment methods.

Project-management tools

By this I don’t mean any complex software that a full-time PM might use. But whether you like project management or not, you’ll have to manage your own projects, so you’ll have to find a way to organize your work. There is software you can buy or you may opt for an Excel file or plain old paper and pencil. I use a weekly planner—which is always open in front of me—to write project names and deadlines, and an Excel sheet to write all my project details such as client, project number and/or PO number, project name, number of words, rate, total price, assignment date, and delivery date.

These details come in very handy when it’s time to write invoices, that way I don’t have to look for this information in POs and e-mails. After I send my invoice for a project I write the date on that sheet, as well as the payment due date. After I receive payment, I mark the date of payment and move that project (that Excel line) to another sheet of the Excel file. You may use one or a combination of these and/or other tools. See what your mentor uses and ask for her advice on how to organize your first projects.

Translation portals

You don’t have to ask your mentor which translation portal/site to join (I wouldn’t recommend them, except for Stridonium if you work with German and qualify to join) but do ask her to tell you everything she knows about them (hopefully she will know about them), including which ones to avoid—or at least which sections of them to avoid. You may have heard of ProZ.com, translatorscafe.com, peopleperhour.com (this last one is not just for translators but for freelancers in general, and I would stay away from it unless you want to work for a month to make enough to buy a sandwich).

ProZ.com used to be a great resource for the first few years after it was launched—which happened to coincide with my first years in the business and I cannot deny that it helped me immensely. Unfortunately it has changed focus from serving the interests of translators to serving the interests of big translation companies that seek lower prices and treat translation as a commodity. So this site should be used with caution, if used at all. I would avoid the jobs section like the plague. The forum archives can be very useful, though for any new questions you might want to ask, I would opt for translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Ask your mentor to recommend some translators’ groups; they can be general or language-specific or domain-specific.

For example, I am a member of the following groups on LinkedIn: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Applied Linguistics, Polyglot-Multilingual Professionals, Aviation Network, International Aviation Professionals, Aircraft Maintenance and Manufacturing, Boston Interpreters, IMIA – International Medical Interpreters Association, and Translation & Localization Professionals Worldwide, among others; and the following groups/pages on Facebook: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Certified Medical and Healthcare Interpreters UNITE!, The League of Extraordinary Translators, South Florida Business Owners Networking Group, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Interpreting and translation forum, ESA – European Space Agency, Translation Journal, Interpreting the World, etc.

Of course some of these may not apply to you (I have aerospace engineering background and translate for aircraft manufacturers, hence the aviation-related groups); your mentor, who is working in the same language pair(s) and probably also in the same field(s) will be the best person to recommend the most helpful groups for you.

Associations

It is a very good idea to join a professional association. Look into local associations (e.g. NETA if you live in New England in the USA, Société française des traducteurs (SFT) if you live in France, etc.) and domain-specific ones (e.g. IMIA if you are a medical interpreter and/or translator). Ask your mentor which associations she is a member of, what she has gained from her membership, what the mission of those associations is and how they are contributing to the profession.

Where to find a mentor

There are plenty of translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. I mentioned some above but there are many others. Join some. Actually join many; later on you can unsubscribe from the ones you don’t find interesting or useful. Browse some old discussions, learn from them, start participating, make connections. Introduce yourself, say that you’re a new translator and that you’re looking for a mentor. Try to find a mentor that lives in your area so that you can work at her office (even if it is a home office and even if you do so only once or twice a week) and so that you can practice all the points mentioned above, i.e. shadowing her while she e-mails a client to accept/reject a project, see in person how she uses a CAT tool so you can learn quickly, have her watch you write an invoice, etc. If that is not possible, you can still take advantage of a traineeship by finding a mentor willing to spend some time explaining things to you over the phone, by e-mail, skype, etc., guiding you as you take your first steps as a freelance translator.

Image by PublicDomainPictures from Pixabay

Author bio

Maria Karra is an aerospace engineer and technical translator. After years of testing spacecraft instruments, she discovered that translation was more fun, so she established her technical translation business and never looked back. Maria was born in Greece and spent the better part of her life in Boston, Massachusetts. Having lived and worked in France, Belgium, and the USA, she now calls Miami, Florida her home. Feel free to connect with her on LinkedIn.

Teacher’s Top Ten: Business Practices

One of the main reasons we encourage students to join ATA is to take advantage of the wellspring of knowledge surrounding best practices—the kind that make working for yourself a smooth ride rather than one riddled with potholes.

Over the years, I have assembled a collection of ATA materials that I share with students and mentees alike. Because when we present ourselves as professionals, we all benefit.

Here then are my top ten professional business practices resources:

10. Questions to Ask Before Accepting a Project This blog post gets you started building a checklist that you should consult when communicating with a client about a potential project. I had a checklist next to my phone for years until I committed it to memory.

09. Translation Certificate vs. Certification This one pairs nicely with What is a Certified Translation. If you’re still confused about the difference between a certificate, certification and a certified translation after reading this, go back and read them again.

08. “Hot” Specializations Past President Corinne McKay takes on the question of specializing in her ATA Chronicle column.

07. Transitioning from Classroom to Career in Translation A free ATA webinar from someone who made the transition herself, packed with practical information.

06. Tips For Navigating Your First ATA Conference A rite of passage for many students, the ATA Conference is a transformational experience that for many marks the beginning of their professional career. Because it’s an investment, it’s a good idea to come prepared, which is what this free ATA webinar does.

05. Preparing to take the ATA Certification Exam While it’s intended to be a mid-career exam, many talented students will sit for the exam after a few years. Watching this free ATA webinar will give you an idea of whether you are ready to take the exam, and how to prepare for it if you are ready to take the plunge.

04. ATA Compensation Survey (the Executive Summary is free, and the full report is available to members) One of the hardest issues T&I practitioners wrestle with is how much to charge. The ATA compensation survey provides a context for understanding what colleagues are charging. The full survey breaks things down by language and geography, and is also useful for influencing policy makers. Be sure to spend some quality time with it before you get to number 3:

03. Is This Still Worth It? A classic article by veteran translator Jonathan Hine that walks you through the full process of setting your rates. Bonus hint: look on the ATA website for the US CalPro Worksheet, a spreadsheet file that does the math for you.

02. ATA Guide to a Translation Services Agreement and ATA Guide to an Interpreting Services Agreement Free, editable downloads of modular contract language that you can include and customize to meet your own needs and situation.

And the number one resource I want every student of translation and interpreting to have:

01. The ATA Code of Ethics and Professional Practice and Commentary Far from being a dry, lifeless legal document, the ATA CEPP embodies our professionalism. The accompanying commentary is a living document that illustrates the concepts with easy-to-grasp situations. Since you signed on to uphold it when you joined ATA, you should probably be very familiar with it—and bookmark it.

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About the author: Caitilin Walsh is an ATA-Certified French-English translator who delights in producing publication-quality translations for the computer industry and food lovers alike. A graduate of Willamette University (OR) and the Université de Strasbourg (France), and a past-President of the American Translators Association, she currently chairs the ATA Education & Pedagogy Committee. She brings her strong opinions on professionalism as an instructor of Ethics and Business Practices at the Translation and Interpreting Institute at Bellevue College, Chair of the T&I Advisory Committee for the Puget Sound Skills Center (both in Washington State), the ALC Bridge Committee, and the Executive Board of the Joint National Committee for Language (JNCL-NCLIS). When not at her computer, she can be found pursuing creative endeavors from orchestra to the kitchen. She can be emailed at cwalsh@nwlink.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @caitilinwalsh.

Three Lessons: Humility, Collaboration, Perseverance

This post originally appeared on Word Prisms and it is republished with permission.

All three – in that order – hold the key to becoming a world-class translator.

An interviewer, who was also a writer, once asked me how many words I’d translated before I published my first translated book for the American Institute of Physics. I imagined he expected an answer of perhaps ten thousand or so.

“About two million,” I replied.

Two million?! How is that possible?

“That’s a conservative figure, I think.”

I explained that I was young and had been dictating scientific translations from Russian into English for publication in scientific journals for almost a decade when I published my first book translation. I kept two technical typists busy full-time.

I might have added that I was also personally responsible for perhaps 1% of all US East Coast consumption of editorial red ink scrawled all over my translations.

It turned out that my translator-editor colleagues at the American Institute of Physics, Plenum Publishing, the Optical Society of America, the Congressional Research Service, the World Bank and the U.S. national labs, to name just a few, were even better than I was.

I thought of myself as a terrific translator at the time – don’t we all? I knew my subject-matter cold. I could write convincingly and clearly. I had completed tons of college coursework in translation at Georgetown and had published translations with nationally renowned Russian scholars at the Smithsonian. I’d been selected by scientific publishers from many hundreds of applicants, often the only translator chosen in a given selection round. The staff at the American Institute of Physics would always call me “Dr. Hendzel” when I called because many of the other translators on the translation program held PhDs in physics (I didn’t)  and they were wary of offending somebody (I would politely correct them, but they would just as politely ignore me.)

So this editorial brutalization took some getting used to.

Twice a week I’d receive these fat packets stuffed full of hard-copy final corrections (later I’d receive red-lined electronic files). It was feedback on a massive scale, constantly, every single year, across dozens of sub-disciplines in physics, optics and engineering, and seemingly without end.

It occurred to me that this level of collaboration and correction was a lot like the scientific enterprise itself.

You learn three things from this kind of decades-long editorial mauling.

1. Humility.

2. Collaboration.

3. Perseverance.

Welcome to the Commercial Translation Market

Fast forward a few years to when I jumped feet first into the commercial translation market with my company ASET.

The first of many sobering realizations you come to in the early phases of building a premier boutique translation company is that you cannot possibly do all the work yourself, even if you do dictate.

After seeking out and examining the actual translation work produced by your commercial colleagues, you soon begin to realize that something is terribly wrong.

The commercial translation market appears to be radically different from the scientific publication market in some very crucial ways.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the work is genuinely good. This warms your heart and brings a smile to your weary face. But much of the technical, legal and even financial translations produced by some of the most visible and recognizable names in the commercial translation industry – even those with graduate translation degrees and certifications a mile long – are dramatically and bizarrely uneven.


This comes as a bit of a shock. How is this possible?

The quality spectrum and relative distribution looked something like this:

Publishable – Good – Understandable – Technical Fiction – Embarrassing – WTF?

After you’ve carefully evaluated several hundred translation samples yourself and had thousands more assessed by your former scientific-translator colleagues you do trust, a pattern begins to emerge.

The translators whose work is most solid – technically accurate, well-researched and elegantly written – are those who have had excellent technical subject-matter training (whatever relevant field) and have been translating professionally for a minimum of ten years. A decade appeared to be a tipping point.

But that’s only a start. Far more crucial to real expertise was the way these translators worked for all those years.

The Essential Role of Collaboration

The best translators had dodged the bullet of working in total isolation. They had spent their careers working in a massively collaborative environment – either physical or virtual (sometimes both). These people had been revised. They’d been edited. They’d been re-written. Their texts had been scrutinized, disemboweled, blasted apart and re-assembled.

They’d been fine-tuned and polished and burnished and shined.

Their translations had been at risk their entire careers: At risk for acceptance or rejection or revision by their own colleagues who were right there in the trenches working with them.

They would project their translations on screens at translation conferences and stand by them. They would reflect and consult and discuss with the session attendees ways to improve them.

Often conference interpreters who also worked as translators – the ultimate experts in collaboration and active learning from each other – were, surprisingly enough, much more flexible and receptive to instruction and guidance than were (written-only) translators with subject-matter training working into their native language of English.

Angry Isolationists

This rejection did not go over well with some of the translators whose work I evaluated, heavily edited and then rejected for requiring far too much intervention on every level.

“Your changes are a matter of opinion,” some sniffed (perhaps, but their translations were describing a physical world that did not actually exist).

“Here are my responses to your changes,” they would say, writing out 20-page single-spaced responses defending terms they “found in the dictionary” but made no sense in the context, to the extent that their context made any sense at all.

“Translators are creative artists and do their best work alone, like authors do,” some translators argued, often angrily and vociferously. It was pointed out to me more than once that Shakespeare worked alone (seriously). They would dispute the most minor of points and reject all feedback on principle. Most of these objections followed Sayre’s Law: “In any dispute, the intensity of the feelings is inversely proportional to the value of the issue at stake.”

“I’ve Never Had a Complaint from a Client.”

Then there were the translators who would defend their translation quality based on the specious and puzzling notion that they’d “never had a complaint from a client.”

This could not be true, first, because I was a client, and my rejection of their work based on a careful assessment was about as “complaint-y” as it gets.

Second, veterinarians never have complaints from their patients, either – nor do coroners – for perhaps the same reason that some translators don’t. Many clients cannot accurately assess translation quality – certainly monolingual clients can’t – so they say nothing at all.

Silence should not be confused with a vote of confidence.

The Exorbitant Price of Arrogance

All humans have an enormous cognitive and emotional investment in self-image. And translators are running a business, which supports their very livelihood. So these are some very sensitive grounds on which we tread.

Unfortunately, these translators had made the regrettable decision somewhere in their careers to defend their ego and self-image over all else, even (and especially) the quality of their product. This is a doomed strategy in a competitive market. It’s also an unfortunate one given the opportunities we all have to learn from colleagues through collaboration.

And even a modicum of modesty – or a realization of the limits the complexity of the world place on us – would have unwound all that defensive energy and pointed them into a much more productive – and ultimately happier – direction.

Author bio

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.

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 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, ReutersThe Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionUSATodayWired and many more outlets promoting translation and interpretation services as vital to commerce, diplomacy, security, and culture.