ATA’s Back to Business Basics – Diversification: A Tool for Thriving in Uncertain Times

ATA launched its new Back to Business Basics webinar series in September 2020. These webinars focus on a small, practical piece of business advice for translators and interpreters at different stages of their careers. The series quickly became popular: there are usually a few hundred people attending each live session. Members can access these webinars free of charge, and non-members can purchase each recording for $25.

Diversification: A Tool for Thriving in Uncertain Times was the second webinar in the Back to Business Basics series. The live event was streamed on October 5, 2020, and a recording is available in ATA’s on-demand webinar library. The webinar was given by Corinne McKay, a French to English translator and interpreter, seasoned trainer, and past ATA President. Corinne explained what diversification may look like for language professionals, shared a few reasons to diversify your business, and provided tips on how to do that.

Diversification refers to having more than one revenue stream, such as more than one type of client or service. By diversifying their businesses, language professionals can spread out their risks and avoid becoming dependent on their one or two top clients. In other words, diversifying gives you the freedom to focus on the profitable part of your services.

Corinne shared a few ways of diversifying your business. She stressed that it is okay to have multiple specializations as long as you don’t stretch yourself too thin and don’t choose too many unrelated subjects. Combining work for agencies and direct clients could also help you reap the benefits and mitigate the risks of working with each type. Finally, Corinne listed some services translators and interpreters can expand into, from purely linguistic to other creative endeavors.

Especially during difficult times, like the COVID-19 pandemic or a global recession, when translators and interpreters may see some of their work dry up and clients disappear into thin air, diversification can help you future-proof your business.

Check out the recording of this webinar and share it with colleagues who may be interested!

Author bio

Maria Guzenko is an ATA-certified English<>Russian translator and a certified medical interpreter (CMI-Russian). She holds an MA in translation from Kent State University and specializes in healthcare translation. Maria is a co-founder of the SLD certification exam practice group and the host of the SLD podcast, now rebranded as Slovo. More information can be found on her website at https://intorussian.net.

So, You Want To Be A Translator?

This post originally appeared on The Detail Woman blog and it is republished with permission.

There are two main things I want to do on this page: first, I want to say a few things to people considering entering the translation profession. Mostly I want to clear up some misconceptions, but there are also some things I just plain think everyone who’s contemplating or practicing translation needs to hear. Second, for people interested in what kind of background you need or steps you can take to become a kickass translator, I want to talk a little bit about the skills needed and how to go about getting them.

I write this page not with the assumption that I am The Kickass Translator of All Time, but with the knowledge that I am still growing and that every single thing I say still applies to me and always will. In fact, I hope I’ll always be growing as a translator. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But in my career I’ve had the opportunity to be on both sides of the process: on one side the translator being evaluated and working under supervision, and on the other side the person evaluating translators–both making recommendations on hires and quality checking other people’s work. It’s a somewhat unique set of experiences and it’s let me see a lot of things about the translating processes of myself and others, and about new translators I see entering the field.

Part 1: Opening Comments – On Translation

Over the last decade I’ve been asked a lot of questions about translating and being a translator. Some have come from aspiring translators, some from current translators, some from anime fans, and some from people who were just interested. I’ve seen remarks about translation in anime reviews, fan forums, and the like. I’ve also corresponded with people seeking translation jobs.

All these experiences have taught about some of the ideas people come into the translation field with–and some of the ideas they don’t. And I’m seeing some gaps between the expectation and the reality of translation that I’d like to address.

1. Your Work Is Not Your Work.

To translate means to deal in the borrowed or the stolen, never the owned. Everything that you are handling belongs to someone else. That show you are translating, that novel you are translating, it’s someone else’s work. This may seem almost insultingly obvious. But there are a lot of implications that you need to think about. The act of translation necessitates an extreme degree of respect. Surrender any impulses of “he should have.” Fight off any thoughts of “making it better” than the original. The greatest artist is great because of what you see testified in his work, but the greatest translator is great because of his invisibility. You must not insert your own ego. You must not change lightly. You don’t have the right to. It’s the same principle as the man assigned to guard another man’s wife: your job and your moral duty are to return her in the same condition you found her to the furthest extent possible. Because whether you love her, you hate her, or you find yourself indifferent to her–it’s your job, and she’s not your wife. You need to be thinking that seriously. If you’re not prepared to live with the constant moral responsibility that translating entails, you shouldn’t be a translator.

2. Some Types Of People Make Good Translators, Some Don’t.

Because translation carries such a high degree of ethical responsibility and there are so many cracks through which meaning can slip, a translator absolutely must be meticulous. The kind of person that makes a good translator is the same kind of person that makes a good librarian: someone who’s a little (or a lot) obsessive-compulsive. Now, of course you don’t need an OCD personality to be a translator. But if it’s not your personality, it’s got to be your attitude. Translating requires intense concentration for long periods of time and attention to the very tiniest of details. Either you need to get through on sheer meticulousness, or you need an all-absorbing passion for the work. What you’re like in your personal life, who cares (hell, my apartment looks like a nuclear disaster site). But if you’re a “don’t sweat the details” person about your work, if you skimp on research, if close is good enough for you, this is not the right career choice for you. I don’t say this out of the desire to lecture and I’m not trying to scare you off; I’m merely trying to lay out the truth so you can make an informed decision. I don’t sit in front of my computer every day shaking like a leaf under the burden of a soul-crushing responsibility and the effort of superhuman concentration, and you shouldn’t either. But we all need to understand the gravity of what we’re doing and be serious about it and honest in our evaluation of whether we can do it well.

3. Knowledge Is Less Important Than You Think.

Don’t think that just because you never remember what that one really common word you always forget means, you’re never going to be a good translator. In fact, don’t think that forgetting what those ten or twenty words mean will make you a bad translator. Translation is you in a room with your computer; you don’t have to talk to it in real time. Of course vocabulary is important. But what’s way more important is knowing what you know and what you don’t. In fact, that’s the most important thing. Because if you don’t know and you realize that, you can always find out. If you can research as appropriate and you can figure out how to find out what you don’t know, remembering the word for “farming” isn’t important. You can always look it up. ^_^

4. Knowledge Is More Important Than You Think.

Don’t think that you can translate TV shows with an A in first-year Japanese class and a dictionary. It just doesn’t work that way, for Japanese or for any language. Yes, a dictionary can–usually–define a word for you, but language isn’t just a bunch of definitions strung together with elementary grammar. You need to have both a good grounding in Japanese grammar and a good idea of how it’s actually spoken and written out there in the real world. There’s always going to be some weird sentence you need help figuring out no matter how good you get, but if you don’t have subtle and nuanced enough understanding of Japanese syntax to understand what the grammar of most every sentence you encounter is doing (it’s okay if you have to sit and ponder it for a while first or remind yourself somehow), you’re going to misinterpret and your dictionary cannot save you.

5. You Need Good English.

Whatever language you’re translating to, you need to be really damn good at that language. Say you’re translating from Japanese into English. If your English skills aren’t good enough and you can’t make appropriate choices for how to express something in English, it doesn’t matter how masterful your Japanese is.

6. “I Speak Both Languages” vs. “I’m a Good Translator.”

For some reason a lot of people seem to think that a native speaker of one language is going to be better at translating from that language (actually theorists agree that it’s best to be a native speaker of the language you’re translating into), or that someone who’s bilingual is going to be good at translating from one of their languages to another. That’s not true. Translation is a skill and an art. Speaking multiple languages doesn’t make you a good translator any more than being able to see multiple colors makes you a good painter. Just like with any craft, becoming good at translation is part talent, part attitude, part education, and part practice.

7. The Native Speaker Is Not An Oracle.

This is partly an extension of #6; as we’ve said, speaking a language doesn’t make you a good translator. So it follows that speaking a language doesn’t necessarily equate with being able to answer questions about that language well. Some native speakers are great resources for word meanings and other linguistic issues; some native speakers are horrible resources for those things. And many are somewhere in between: it depends on how good you are at asking the right questions. It’s important to have native speakers as resources if you’re not native in the language you’re translating from, but it’s equally important to choose your advisors wisely–and then use them wisely, respectfully, and kindly. Finally, keep in mind that no one is infallible. All of us make mistakes, and all of us have things we’ve got the wrong idea about or just don’t know. I’m a native speaker of English with a B.A. in linguistics, and there are certainly English words I don’t know or have wrong ideas about. ^_^

Part 2: What You Need – On Developing the Skills

The Monterey Institute of International Studies has a ten-point list of ways to prepare for being one of their translation and interpretation students. Highly-paraphrased (so much so it’s not even ten points anymore), it basically says:

-Read extensively in your native language and in the language(s) you translate from.
-Pay attention to the news in all your working languages.
-Take steps to make yourself a more knowledgeable and well-rounded person.
-Spend time abroad.
-Develop your writing, research, analysis, and (for interpreters) public speaking skills.
-Get computer savvy.
-Don’t stay up for days at a time and live on junk food.
-Remember Rome wasn’t built in a day.

I think this is a great list that applies to any translator in any field–although in the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that as an anime translator I don’t generally feel compelled to read the newspapers in Japanese. However, that is something I feel is important to me, because I’m looking ahead to if/when I ultimately transition to working more on projects that aren’t pop-culture. At that point having that experience will become as critical as everything else on that list. So take MIIS to heart, but also know what your own goals are. There’s good solid reasoning behind everything on that list and everything will power you up. Now to flesh that out and add some things born of my personal experience, here’s my shot at a ten-point list:

Ten Ways to Become a Kickass Translator

1. Get good at the language you’re translating from.

This is the obvious one that everyone knows. But hey, it’s obvious because it’s true. To be a good translator of any language, you need to have strong skills in that language. I translate Japanese, so I need to have strong skills in it. There are many other webpages out there which can tell you better than I how to develop your skills in your chosen language. So I’ll just be short and sweet and say “use it.” Read, write, study, research, speak, listen. Also, one thing other places won’t necessarily tell you: I find my background in linguistics has allowed me to synthesize a lot of my language learning faster than my peers with other academic backgrounds.

2. Get good at the target language.

The “target” language is the language you’re translating into. So for me, my target language is generally English. You need to have intimate understanding of the language you’re translating into. I can’t stress that enough. To craft a truly fine translation you need to have truly fine skills in English (or whatever your target language may be). Otherwise you won’t be able to communicate your ideas as clearly and you won’t be able to make appropriate or inspired choices that capture the spirit and texture of a literary text. Your skill in the target language is even more important than your skill in the language you’re translating from.

If you don’t speak your target language natively: read, write, and study it extensively, become acquainted with its high literature and its use in pop culture, and make sure you have trustworthy people to advise you on language choices. Also see my tips to native speakers below.

If you’re a native speaker of your target language: good, because that’s ideal–but that alone isn’t enough. You also need to have skill in wielding the language. The best way to develop it is to read extensively and write different kinds of things (articles, essays, etc.). Also, if applicable to the kind of translation you want to do, practice poems and stories–they don’t have to be publish-me good; you just have to work with them enough to get a grip on what’s involved. It’s best if you can get some constructive criticism on them as well. If you’re still in high school or college, you’re in the best possible position to get your English (or whatever) skills up to snuff: take courses that have a heavy writing component. Try to take at least one literature-type course and at least one technical or scientific course that make you really exercise your writing, and really pay attention to the feedback from your professors and peers. (Often it helps to do a little asking around about instructors before you sign up for the courses; upperclassmen can usually tell you which instructors will be truly helpful and which won’t.)

3. Research, research, research.

Many kinds of translation, especially of books, movies, and TV shows, are about knowing a little bit about every single thing that’s ever happened everywhere. In the course of a typical week translating anime, I might have to search for information on rainforest spiders, Pakistani names, a 1960s Japanese TV drama, the Reformation, aerospace technology, and the daily habits of Tibetan monks. And then it’d be Tuesday. Obviously, you’re never going to know all that plus everything else (Norse mythology, the Koran, Italian…). So you need to get good at finding stuff out. Not only that, but the answers need to be from reliable sources where possible. So one of the most key things to develop as a translator is research skills. If you’re in high school or college, try taking courses that will help you in this, or attend a library orientation day. (In most colleges the main campus library will hold an orientation day, often including research tips, once a semester. The only trick is that you’re probably only going to find out when it is by going up to the librarian in charge and asking.) Hell, try to get a work-study job at the library; you’re bound to learn something (I did), and make money too. If you’re not in school and/or don’t work at a library, don’t worry. Many college and public libraries offer sporadic courses on research methods; you can find out and try to take one. If that’s not a possibility, you can go to a college or public library and find that mythical figure called the Reference Librarian. The Reference Librarian’s job is to know how to find out stuff. If you’re a student, your school/college Reference Librarian is fair game. If it’s a public library, try to go on a slow day or make an appointment. Then go up to him or her, introduce yourself, and ask for help learning good research skills both online and in print (if you think you’ll need to be doing most of your research online, let her know). TIP: It will help if you bring some sample questions/areas of research so that s/he can help you by example. You can kill two birds with one stone by bringing research questions that have come up in one of your translations. CAUTION: Remember, the Reference Librarian is not a research monkey. S/he is not a research assistant. S/he’s there to help you do your own research. There is nothing that will alienate a Reference Librarian faster than expecting him/her to know or find all your answers for you.

Now, it’s worth taking a step back and saying that if you’re an anime translator and you already have some experience researching things, even if you’re not the Research Queen you may still be okay. Most–but certainly not all–of your research needs can be met by developing a passionate love affair with Google (both Japanese and your home country’s). However, watch out! Do not think for one moment that Googling isn’t a skill. There are ways to utilize search engines to find out esoteric things or get helpful, reliable results. There are also ways to take three hours getting completely useless results. Maybe you want to get some tips, or maybe you just want to set yourself a long list of hard questions and try to get better and better at finding the answers. Maybe you’re the Google Queen already. No matter which it is, the fact is good research takes practice.

4. Make friends.

Remember how I said translation was about being an expert on everything ever? Well, knowing an expert on everything ever is the next best thing. Networking is the way to go for a translator. When I need to be an expert on Latin for five minutes, I call my friend who teaches Latin. When I need to be an expert on Buddhism, I call my friend who’s an expert on Buddhism. When I need to know something random about flesh, fowl, or good red herring I call my dad. There are some things where all the Googling in the world is not going to deliver the goods as well as a consultation with someone who really knows the stuff. And if you don’t have someone to call, you’re going to have to spend a day at the library. You don’t want that to happen if deadline is tomorrow! So keep the various expertises of your friends and family in the back of your mind. Remember people you’re introduced to and be nice to them. And remember, when you call one of your people in the middle of the day and say “I need to know all the Biblical implications of this Greek word right now,” ALWAYS thank them before you hang up. They save your life, so be sure to show your appreciation.

5. Have an idea of what your goal is.

It’s my belief that someone who’s thought about what her theory of translation is, what translation means to her, and what she’s really trying to do overall as a translator is going to be better at her craft. So I would read a little bit on translation theory, and then spend a little time pondering what you think and what your philosophy of translation is. As an added bonus, reading other people’s writing about translation can give you ideas for how to handle problems you encounter. I suggested some books to start with on the Translation Resources page.

6. Get in-depth knowledge of the relevant field(s).

This may sound like a no-brainer. If you’re going to spend your career translating court documents, duh, you need to learn about law. But in less cut-and-dried fields I find people don’t always think about this. For example, a literary translator needs to have a strong literary background, with in-depth knowledge of major literary works and schools of literary thought. And an anime translator absolutely must have good knowledge of anime. You need to actually study it in a disciplined way, because it’s your field. You need to learn about the animation process itself (it’ll come up in interviews and extras if not the actual show), and about anime and its history in general (to get started, see the Becoming an Anime Expert page). Finally, the cultures and histories of the relevant countries are necessary fields of knowledge for ALL translators. I don’t care if you’re translating a great work of literature or a restaurant menu, you absolutely must have some foundation in the cultures behind all the languages/locations you’re working with. Yes, that includes your own.

7. Get a little bit of knowledge about the irrelevant fields.

Hey, like we’ve said, we’re the five-minute experts on everything. So pretty much anything you learn about in any capacity will probably come in handy eventually. Take the opportunities to learn about things, and just generally pay attention to what’s going on around you (especially the way people are talking) and file it away for later.

8. Have awareness of popular culture.

If you’re like me you find keeping up with popular culture and current events kind of a pain. But the fact is, it’s going to come up. Anything the world is preoccupied with works its way into everything. So keep your eyes open. Listen to the radio on your drive to work. Just find some way to pay a little attention to what’s going on. I always end up failing to read the newspaper, so I read TIME magazine–cover-to-cover so I get the news and the random.

9. Get creativity (yes, it can be a skill).

Scientists have been telling us for a while that creativity is a learned behavior, and it’s true. The more you practice brainstorming new and different language-play ideas, the more creative you are in your translation work. What are the common problems for every translator? What are the common translation problems in your specific language? When you run across examples of them in your daily life, take a moment and try to brainstorm ways to deal with them. Sometimes you do even better in this daily-life brainstorming than on your actual work, because there’s no pressure. What I’ll do is, when I’m reading comics in Japanese and I come across a really thorny issue, I’ll ask myself how I would’ve handled it. If I think of a joke in Japanese, I ask myself how I could make a translation of it work in English. Another thing you can do is look at other translations to/from your languages. Maybe you always handle puns in the same way. Does another translator handle them differently? Maybe that can break you out of the box and get you thinking in new ways.

10. Put thought into your work setup.

Translation is inherently uncomfortable because it often involves sitting on your butt for long periods of time, crouched over your desk peering at text. It can also be extremely inefficient if there’s a problem with your workspace or your equipment. You need to futz around with various different setups physically, to make sure sitting in that chair isn’t killing you, or to find out that moving your computer monitor up a few inches saves your life. And for goodness’ sake, get up and take a walk once in a while. It’ll save your spine and reboot your brain. You also need to futz around until you find a comfortable mental setup on your computer–if you’re translating from video, maybe there’s a video playback program that fits your habits better, for example. Little changes like that will boost your efficiency. Whether you’re a religious computer user or you’re one of the few holdouts who translates with pen and paper, you need to become very proficient in computing in all the languages you use. Clients will expect that and demand it. And there will be times when it’s just the only way to be efficient. There are all kinds of complications in computing in other alphabets, especially Asian alphabets, and the issues vary from operating system to operating system, program to program. Make sure that if nothing else you figure all of that out in whatever internet browsers you’re likely to encounter and in Microsoft Word.

Well, that’s about the size of it. If I were to say anything else, I think it would be that you can’t go wrong to take a linguistics course. Any aspiring translator still in college can probably benefit from some background courses in ling. Learning about language as a general system has greatly helped me develop my skills in all areas of translation, from as basic as language learning to as advanced as finding the intersections and deviances between languages and everything in between.

Author bio

Sarah “Alys” Lindholm is a Japanese to English translator of audiovisual media, academic papers, and other fun things. In addition to her freelance business, she is currently the Translation Manager at Funimation, where she spends her days acquiring new gray hairs and making sure your anime launches on time.

Purchase Orders Revisited

This post originally appeared on the blog My Words for a Change and it is republished with permission.

Way back in 2015, I asked my blog readers whether the purchase order I’d produced was merely a pipe dream or a document I could actually use with my clients. The general consensus was that my overly long PO would prove daunting for direct clients and unnecessary for agencies. After tweaking it a bit based on the many suggestions I received, I instead came up with a purchase order checklist. The idea was to fill it in ourselves using the information we gleaned in negotiations with clients and for it to be a handy reminder of what questions we should be asking.

However, I have to admit this hasn’t always been my approach as I have given it to direct clients for two main reasons. Firstly, it serves as a more formal record of the provision of services than an email exchange, especially as I’ve included a link to my privacy notice and to the ITI terms and conditions. And secondly, clients can also provide me with the details I need to perform that service better.

I always fill in as much of the document as I can before giving it to clients and, before today’s brainwave, I put “N/A” where possible because some of the lines were irrelevant for the requested service. Then it occurred to me that it would be far better to create separate model purchase orders for every service I provide. (It’s only taken me nearly five years to think of this. Better late than never I suppose!)

Consequently, I now have four slightly different versions of the original purchase order. They are for: translation; revision; editing; and localisation into UK English. I’ve differentiated between revision and editing as I do a lot of editing of academic papers that have been written by non-native speakers directly into English (or so the client tells me, which is why I have included a question on whether MT has been used).

As before, I’d be grateful for your comments. You can download the files from the following links:

Purchase Order for Translation

Purchase Order for Revision

Purchase Order for Editing

Purchase Order for Localisation into UK English

If you decide to use the files with your own clients, don’t forget that you can’t link to the ITI (Institute of Translation and Interpreting) terms and conditions unless you’re a member. And you’ll also have to change the link to your own privacy notice (although please feel free to copy any parts of mine you wish).

Author bio:

Nikki Graham is a Spanish-to-English translator and reviser specialising in leisure, tourism, hospitality andacademic articles (social sciences and humanities). She also does editingand localisation work. After passing the ITI exam in the subject of leisure and tourism in 2015, she became a qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (MITI). In 2018 she attained the ‘Qualified’ status for ISO 17100:2015, the internationally recognised standard for translation services. Nikki is also a member of Mediterranean Editors and Translators (MET) and ProCopywriters. You can find her blog, My Words for a Change, at https://nikkigrahamtranix.com/blog.

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.