Savvy Diversification Series – Online Language Teaching

The Savvy Newcomer team has been taking stock of the past year and finding that one key priority for many freelance translators and interpreters has been diversification. Offering multiple services in different sectors or to different clients can help steady us when storms come. Diversification can help us hedge against hard times.

With this in mind, we’ve invited a series of guest authors to write about the diversified service offerings that have helped their businesses to thrive, in the hopes of inspiring you to branch out into the new service offerings that may be right for you!

When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, my translation workload plummeted abruptly. With no way of knowing if and when my clients would return, I had to act fast to find more work that was compatible with my lifestyle as a freelance translator. One year of teaching online English classes in China in 2019 had opened my eyes to the world of online teaching and I was sure this sector was rapidly expanding with lockdowns in place around the world. It turned out to be the perfect industry to carry my business through the pandemic. Linguistic and cultural skills such as those cultivated by most translators are in high demand in education and are difficult to duplicate. There is clearly a shortage of good teachers, so I am constantly turning down requests to take on teaching projects outside of my already packed regular teaching schedule. This industry is likely to remain active even after the pandemic and is a stable option for translators looking to diversify. In this article, I will offer an introduction to the online teaching industry, discuss the necessary qualifications, tell you where you can find work, and go over some of the equipment you will need to get started.

What is online teaching and cultural experience hosting?

Online teaching consists of video conferencing online with one or more students for a predetermined amount of time in order to teach them something. The role of the teacher is similar to that of a traditional classroom teacher, but with everything online. One great advantage of online teaching is that teachers can work in the country of their choice. The key is to figure out which clients are frequenting the online teaching platform you choose and cater to their needs. Most of my clients are in the United States, so I offer courses on how to speak German.

With everyone stuck at home and yearning for a taste of international travel, online cultural experiences have grown in popularity over the past year. Cultural experience hosting is similar to online teaching. Instead of teaching a skill, however, cultural experience hosts strive to give attendees the experience of doing something in a different country or a foreign language. Cultural experiences can consist of courses where attendees engage in enjoyable hobbies while speaking a foreign language with other participants or courses where participants engage in an activity specific to a certain culture. Cultural experiences I have hosted include origami folding in German, German gingerbread cookie baking, art class in German, and a virtual shopping trip to a German Christmas market.

For the sake of simplicity, I will refer to both online teaching and cultural experience hosting as “online teaching” in this article.

What qualifications are required?

The most essential qualifications are life experience, valuable expertise that you are willing to share with others, and the ability to effectively sell that expertise to others. Although not absolutely necessary, an academic degree related to what you are teaching may help build credibility. You will need to have or develop teaching skills, so a teaching certificate of some sort can be enormously helpful.

Translators are generally fluent in multiple languages, have very valuable life experience from living around the world, and are highly familiar with the corresponding cultural environs. This in and of itself makes translators perfect online teachers and cultural experience hosts. Overcoming a natural tendency toward introversion has been the biggest challenge I have faced while teaching online.

Where do I find work?

There are a great many ways to teach online. Before you choose one, you should decide how much time you want to invest in finding clients, what kinds of students you want to teach, how much you want to be paid, and how willing you are to develop your own curriculum. Some platforms offer extra support with marketing and some will provide you with fully-formed curriculum. You will be able to earn considerably more if you are willing to write your own curriculum.

Create Your Own Online Language School

This is the highest-paying and most flexible option, but requires the most work. Not only will you have to write all of your own curriculum, but you will also have to bring in students yourself. In addition to collecting payments for you, online platforms in this category offer the technology required to set up your classes and offer them to the masses. The rest is up to you.

Pro Con
Pay Unlimited! You can charge what you want per student per live class. You can also create self-guided classes that bring in passive income. None.
Curriculum You teach whatever you want. It is a lot of work to make everything up from scratch.
Scheduling Work when you want. It is more time-consuming.
Prep Time Once you have taught the same class several times, there is no prep time. There is a tremendous amount of prep in the beginning.
Equipment Use what you have or buy more. None.
Students Teach whoever you want. Adults or children. You are responsible for finding the students.

Platforms to check out:
Learnworlds
Teachable
Thinkific
Udemy
Kajabi
Mighty Networks

Teach for a Flexible Online Company

If finding your own students is too much for you, teaching for a flexible online company is a good option. They will advertise your classes and enroll students, so you can focus on the nuts and bolts of teaching. You will be expected to create your own curriculum and content on these platforms. Content is subject to review and will be advertised on the site once approved. You will generally also be allowed to set prices as you see fit. Platforms in this category are often free to use, but will collect payment for you and keep a small percentage of the proceeds.

Pro Con
Pay You choose how much to charge. You are slightly limited by what others are charging. If you price yourself out of the market, no one will take your class.
Curriculum You teach whatever you want! It is a lot of work to make everything up from scratch.
Scheduling You are in charge. Work when you want. None.
Prep Time Once you have taught the same class several times, there is no prep time. There is a tremendous amount of prep in the beginning.
Equipment If you have the basics, you can create classes that don’t require additional equipment. None.
Students You may be teaching children or adults, depending on the platform. None.

Platforms to check out:

Outschool
Amazon
Airbnb
Viator
Meetup

Teach English in China

There are quite a few online English schools in China, all of which you can work for from the comfort of your own home. They usually provide you with a set of slides to use for each lesson and train you on their teaching method. These companies can have policies that are hard to fathom at times and will sometimes subtract pay for seemingly minor offenses. Demand for English teachers in China is high, making it an easy way to gain experience in online teaching.

Pro Con
Pay You always get paid what is promised. The pay is much higher than minimum wage, but relatively low.

 

Some companies subtract from your pay for silly things like being one minute late to class or having a single dissatisfied student.

Curriculum Just use what they give you. Very little work required. Sometimes the curriculum isn’t all that great and there is nothing you can do about it.
Scheduling Some companies are very flexible with scheduling.

 

Always early in the morning, so you will have plenty of time for translating during the day.

Time zone. You are usually teaching from 4 am to 8 am EST.

 

They tend to overhire, so it may be a while before you start getting students.

Prep Time Almost none! None.
Equipment None. They may require you to have some toys and physical props.
Students Usually children ages 3-12. Very cute! If you don’t get along with kids, it won’t work.

Companies to check out:
Bling ABC
Zebra English
Magic Ears
QKids

What resources do I need to get started?

No matter how good you think your built-in computer camera, microphone, and room lighting are, you are probably going to have to upgrade to be successful as an online teacher and cultural experience host. Here is what I consider the most essential equipment for online teaching:

  1. Professional Lighting

In order to cultivate a professional presence online, it is essential to be well-lit on camera. Buy a ring light or a set of those umbrella lights you see professional photographers using.

  1. High-Resolution Camera

Built-in computer cameras are generally very low-resolution and will negatively impact student experience. Low-quality cameras will also make you and your environment appear much darker on-screen than you really are. You will need a high-quality external web camera to ensure that students can see you clearly.

  1. Headset with Microphone

Students need to hear exactly how you are pronouncing things in order to learn a language well. You will also have to hear them in order to correct their mistakes. Having a good headset with a microphone is vital to ensuring that students can learn effectively. Make sure it is comfortable to wear as well, so your head doesn’t hurt after a day of work.

  1. Software

If you are working with direct clients, you may need a paid subscription to your favorite video conferencing software. You may also want to invest in teaching software that allows you to display pictures, words, numbers, and special effects directly on your camera screen.

I hope you can take this information and use it to diversify successfully with online teaching and cultural experience hosting. Translators possess a wealth of linguistic and cultural knowledge that is highly valued by learners, so it makes sense to share it.

Author bio

Carlie Sitzman is an ATA-certified German to English translator with over ten years of experience translating documents for the automotive and manufacturing industries.

She is currently learning French and enjoys painting landscapes in her free time. Read more about Carlie’s professional endeavors at: http://www.sitzmanaetranslations.com

Getting Started: 10 Tips

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

We oftentimes get questions about how to get started in the profession, and that’s a long answer. Actually, part of this blog is dedicated to answering precisely that question, and we have a long list of articles that we’ve marked for beginners. However, a dear friend of ours recently asked us to compile 10 tips on what one needs to do to get started (he was thinking about becoming a translator). We came up with these 10 tips/ideas, but of course there are hundreds more. These tips have nothing to do with language skills (we will assume everyone has those), but have to do with building a business and a career once you already have the necessary skills.

1) Read some fantastic books that will answer most of your questions about the world of translation. These books weren’t around 15 years ago, so you are in luck if you are getting started now. Our all-time favorite is Corinne McKay’s How to succeed as a freelance translator, and we hear our book The Entrepreneurial Linguist: The Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation isn’t bad, either. These two books should help solve 90% of your initial questions.

2) Invest in your education. There are many fantastic courses available for translators, and many are even online. For the Spanish/English pair, may we suggest UCSD-Extension, where Judy teaches?

3) Become a member of a professional association. Or two. Or three. The ATA has a great membership directory that clients can use to find vendors (read: translators).

4) Read the 650+ entries on this blog to get some good insight into the joys and challenges of translation. Then discover other fantastic blogs. We’ve listed them on our blog roll on the right-hand side of this blog.

5) Build your website and get an associated professional e-mail address. Don’t tinker with it too long–it will never be perfect, and you can always change it later. Done is better than perfect.

6) Attend industry conferences and meet your peers. There just is no substitute, and translators need a network of colleagues to succeed. So go out and build it. Be sure to also join e-mail lists (listservs) that many associations offer.

7) Invest in your set-up. We are in the lucky position that starting a translation services business requires minimal investment, but there will be some (a few thousand, perhaps) you need to buy a great computer, dictionaries, CAT tools, etc.

8) Keep in mind that starting a translation business is no different than starting out any other business, but perhaps with less risk because the investment you need to make is low and you have no overhead. Remember that it will take time to build a business. It’s never instantaneous.

8) Go to where the clients are. You need to get out of the house and network. If you are a legal translator, go to events where there will be lots of lawyers, such as bar association meetings, etc.

9) Create a good pricing structure. Don’t underprice everyone just because you are getting started, as that will affect you and everyone else in both the short and the long run. Do the math to see how much you need to make to have a thriving business, and charge the rate that gets you there. Not everyone will want to work with you, but you don’t need thousands of clients.

10) Dedicate time to administrative and promotional work. Unless you work only with translation agencies, which essentially do all the client acquisition work for you, you must do the sales and marketing functions yourself. In the beginning, this will take up a big part of your time, but as you progress in your career it will be less so.

What would you like to add, dear colleagues?

Author bio

Judy Jenner is a court-certified Spanish interpreter and a Spanish and German translator in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she runs Twin Translations with her twin sister. She is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She hosts the translation blog, Translation Times (www.translationtimes.blogspot.com). You can also find her at http://www.entrepreneuriallinguist.com. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com or judy.jenner@entrepreneuriallinguist.com.

Setting a Fair Price: It’s All about You

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

We are freelancers. We don’t need to maximize profits for invisible stockholders, who tend to only care about their dividends or capital gains and not a whit about language or what we do. For us, the definition of being rich is not to want for anything. We don’t define our wealth in terms of having more toys than the next person. Therein lies the secret to what I call breakeven pricing: making enough money for ourselves and not worrying about whether anyone else is making more or less.

A simple definition underlies what this article is about: the breakeven point is that price above which we are making a profit and below which we are losing money. In other words, the cost of delivering the product or service equals the money taken in for delivering it.

To price any product or service, one simply has to charge more than the breakeven point. How much more is completely irrelevant. This is because if we have calculated the breakeven point correctly, we don’t want any more; the profit is only a safety margin (accountants call it the “gross operating margin”).

In absolute terms, every transaction (whether a translation, an interpreting assignment, or even a piece of pottery at a craft fair) has its own unique breakeven point because the costs of each transaction differ over time, along with the countless variables that go into it. We could go nuts trying to calculate that. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Here are some simple steps to help you calculate your breakeven point.

Step 1: Add Up Everything You Want or Need—Everything

Do this for one year. Include what life is costing you now, but also everything you want for the future. Do this for yourself and your family. Involve your partner and family, and especially anyone who is or may soon be contributing to the family budget. After you make your personal budget list, it’s time to make one for your business. You really should develop a business plan so you know where you want to take your business, but that is the subject for another day. For this first time, just imagine what your business needs to run the way it should, especially if you know you need some items that you don’t have now. (See Figure 1 below for a sample itemized budget.)

Now, add it all up. This is not the time to worry about whether you can afford it or earn enough. This step is for dreams. After all, a plan is just a dream with a due date. You have to start with the dream.

Step 2: Figure Out How Much Time You Have to Make the Money in Step 1

Generally, there are about 2,000 working hours in a year. That assumes an eight-hour workday and a two-week vacation. Human resources experts use 2,000 to figure hourly wages in their heads. For example, $25/hour equals $50,000/year; the minimum wage is only $7.25/hour, which equals $14,500/year.

The problem is that you cannot work 2,000 hours in a year. There are holidays, and you get sick sometimes. As freelancers, we can take time off for more important things than our jobs, but we have to subtract those hours. As an example, a public sector job in Virginia would give you 11 holidays (88 hours) and 80-120 hours of sick leave. That would take 10% (200 hours) off your 2,000 hours right there.

Also, you cannot work on billable, paying jobs all of the time. You have to run your business: get the mail, deposit checks, attend conferences, meet with clients, travel, etc. It’s valid work time, but you cannot assign it to any one client, so it becomes a business expense that is not reimbursed. We call this overhead (or indirect costs). You make each client pay their fair share by taking those hours out of the equation so that your rate goes up enough to cover the overhead. If you’re doing one hour of indirect activity for every two hours of direct work (most businesses are not that efficient), you have an overhead of 33%. If you take a third off the 2,000 hours, or about 667 hours, you’re now down to about 1,133 available hours.

Step 3: Divide Step 1 by Step 2

This will give you the breakeven point, which is the amount of money you need to charge each hour. If Step 1 was $50,000, and the time available was 1,133 hours, you would need to charge at least $45/hour for your time. That is your breakeven point, which becomes your secret number. This means that you will always charge something above that number or walk away from the job.

Step 4: Set a Fair Price

This is where reality sets in. Now that you know how much you need to be making, you can do some serious planning to achieve it—or relax because you’re already charging enough (it happens).

The first thing to do is to get over the shock if you discover that your breakeven point is a bigger number than expected. Some of your dreams may be unrealistic, but you now have the power to look at them and to decide whether to put them in a plan for later or admit that you don’t really need/want them. After all, you don’t have those things now, so it’s not like giving up something.

Similarly, maybe you have more time to make money than you allowed in the first draft of your plan. You could plan to work on Saturdays (like the owner of a retail store) and add 400 hours to your calculation. This is the point where you start to make those adjustments.

Avoid the temptation to cut your holidays or eliminate sick days; leave them in the calculation. If you don’t get sick, or you find yourself alone on a holiday with a job to do, the extra time you put in will be banking cash that you will need someday.

Be conservative and prudent. Remember, these are estimates, not hard figures. When doing your calculations, round up to the next higher dollar, even if it’s only one cent over an even number (e.g., for $44.01/hour, think $45/hour).

There are many other considerations that you can bring into the mix now. For example, if you’re charging well below your breakeven point, you need a strategy for boosting your rate back into a profitable range. You can learn strategies for raising your rates by joining ATA’s Business Practices Yahoo group and going through the old message threads. Once you have your breakeven point, I think that some of the books and articles you read will make more sense. Any “business” advice you receive that causes you to charge less than your breakeven point is nonsense.

In the range that most language mediators work, it would be reasonable to charge about $5 above your breakeven point. So, for example, if my breakeven point were close to what I’m charging now, I might charge $5-10 over the breakeven and then come back in six months to review how well my initial data looks.

Step 5: Setting a Piece Rate

Most professionals charge by the hour, but translators, potters, bootblacks, painters, fruit pickers, and many others must charge by the item. This is known as a “piece rate.” For translators in the U.S., the piece rate is customarily cents per word; elsewhere, it might be per line, per character, or per page. Converting the hourly price that you have set is a matter of knowing how fast you can work. That requires keeping track of your time as you work. Once you know your average speed, your piece rate becomes your hourly rate divided by the number of words (lines, characters, pages, etc.) that you translate on average. For example, if your hourly rate is $50/hour, and you translate on average 500 words per hour, then you should be charging at least 10¢/word.

You can do this exercise using your breakeven point (your secret number) to obtain the per-word rate below which you should be turning down the job. For example, if your breakeven point is $40 per hour and you translate 500 words per hour, your breakeven piece rate is 8¢/word.

Final Step: Have Fun

There are many reasons you might want to take a job below your price range—maybe even below your breakeven point. When you work below your breakeven point, however, know it for what it is: a pro bono, in-kind contribution to a charity or a church, a personal favor, a hobby, or an avocation. You’re not in business under these circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that what you do has no value. Armed with the breakeven point, you can make sound economic decisions for business or personal reasons. In either case, I hope that you always enjoy what you do.

Author bio

Jonathan T. Hine Jr, Scriptor Services LLC

JT Hine translated his first book, a medical text, in 1962 and worked as a translator and escort interpreter through high school and a naval career. A graduate of the US Naval Academy (BS), the University of Oklahoma (MPA) and the University of Virginia (PhD), he is ATA-certified (I-E) and belongs to the National Capital Area Translators Association. He was the founding Secretary-Treasurer of the American Translation and Interpreting Studies Association.

When not writing his own books, he translates book-length fiction and non-fiction from Italian. More at https://jthine.com. Contact him at: jt@jthine.com

Savvy Diversification Series – Translator Training

The Savvy Newcomer team has been taking stock of the past year and finding that one key priority for many freelance translators and interpreters has been diversification. Offering multiple services in different sectors or to different clients can help steady us when storms come. Diversification can help us hedge against hard times.

We’ve invited a series of guest authors to write about the diversified service offerings that have helped their businesses to thrive, in the hopes of inspiring you to branch out into the new service offerings that may be right for you!

Why did I diversify into translator training?

When I was asked to write about my diversification into translator training, I had to take a step back and really think about how it all came about. The short answer is that it was not a conscious decision and ended up being a natural development of my career.

Before I became a translator, long ago, I studied and worked with international marketing. After moving to the US with small children, I understood that I needed a career change. When launching and growing my career as a freelance translator, I took advantage of the marketing skills I had learned during my studies and my previous marketing career. These skills provided me with useful tools and a strategic outlook on how to market my services.

How did I diversify into translator training?

I started attending the American Translators Association’s conference every year from the beginning as soon as I began my career as a translator. I did this to learn new skills and to network with colleagues and clients. After a few years, I was encouraged to submit a presentation and share my marketing skills, so I did. That led to several more presentations at translators’ conferences, with a lot of good feedback. I also took several courses held by other colleagues on building my freelance translation career and saw a niche in sharing my marketing skills.

After pondering this idea for a while and talking to colleagues, I decided to write a book. I chose a unique format for the book – the recipe format. The book is divided into starters for beginning translators, main dishes for more experienced translators, the building blocks of a successful translation career, and lastly, desserts, the little extras that you can choose from to enhance your business. Each recipe was a specific marketing strategy, or tactic for translators, with ingredients and step-by-step instructions. That is how the Marketing Cookbook for Translators was born.

The book was well-received. Many people started to ask for my help and advice in marketing their translation services. After a while, I decided to distill my experience as a translator, my marketing skills and background, the tips in the book, and the various presentations and workshops I gave into a marketing course for translators. I have given marketing courses and workshops for translators for more than five years and genuinely enjoy helping other translators to create a system to market their translation services based on their situation.

Around the same time I started writing the book, I began to listen to marketing podcasts. There were not many podcasts for translators at that time, especially not focused on marketing and business skills. I enjoyed bite-size tips in audio format and the convenience of listening to marketing tips while driving the car or walking the dog. I decided that I could try sharing marketing tips in a podcast format, and the idea for the Marketing Tips for Translators podcast was born. In the beginning, I set a goal of 100 episodes. Now I have published over 260 episodes and have no plans to stop any time soon. Even if it is a lot of work, I love interviewing colleagues and other experts, sharing new and old marketing tips.

The courses and the podcast have increased my motivation for the translation industry. I learn a lot from the interviews and my students, which provides a nice counterbalance to just doing translations. It brings variety to my working days. However, translation is still my primary source of income, and I hope it will remain so for a long time to come. The marketing courses and workshops bring in a nice additional income, but it is more of a passion project than a business. The podcast and courses motivate me to try the new marketing strategies I learn about myself, plus I must make an effort always to practice what I preach.

How do I find clients or students?

This might come as a surprise to some of you, but despite having a marketing background and sharing marketing tips to other translators, I wouldn’t say I like the selling part of marketing. Some say that selling is the end goal or marketing result, but I tend to focus on the marketing part and let the selling be a natural result. This means that I share my tips wherever I can and consciously try to find avenues to share my marketing training, podcast, and books.

I offer many tips and advice “for free” in the form of podcast episodes, an email newsletter, blog posts, checklists, and small guides. The people who find these resources useful and see results from them tend to be interested in taking it further, sometimes as a student in one of my courses. I also continue to share marketing tips in presentations and workshops at translation industry conferences, and as an invited speaker for different translator associations. Translators learn about my services through all these venues.

How has translator training helped my business?

The courses and paid workshops have added an extra buffer of income for my business. This was particularly helpful in 2020 when I lost a couple of direct clients due to the pandemic cut-downs, and the work from agencies slowed down dramatically during the first months of the pandemic.

But above all, the courses and workshops have kept me in touch with the marketing of my translation services and the translation industry, and have motivated me to learn new things. They have also provided an outlet for me to be more creative, satisfy my passion for helping people (I once thought of becoming a nurse), and give variety to my workdays.

Tips for other translators thinking of diversifying into training

If you have a skill that you have noticed has helped colleagues or friends, you could start teaching it to others. Look at things you have helped others with. Could your knowledge or skills be shared in the form of presentations, workshops, or a course? Do you have an “audience” interested in learning more from you about these things? Then you could diversify into training. I know many colleagues that I admire who share their specific knowledge this way. If you want to try it out, my best tip is to focus on a niche or target market that you know well, just like you do for your translation business.

I am optimistic about the future for freelance translators and believe that we will continue to be successful if we are open-minded and embrace change. This includes exploring options to diversify our businesses to have secure income streams in any situation.

Author bio

Tess Whitty is a certified English into Swedish translator, specializing in digital marketing and localization. With a degree in International Marketing and background as marketing manager, she also shares her marketing knowledge and translator experience with other freelance translators as an award-winning speaker, trainer, consultant, author, and podcaster. She is involved in several translator associations as a committee chair, language chair, trainer and mentor. For more information, or to connect, go to www.marketingtipsfortranslators.com, or www.swedishtranslationservices.com.

 

The Translator as an Editor

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

When it comes to reviewing copy, translators are often at what I like to refer to as “the very end of the line.” By the time copy is deemed ready for translation, it has usually been reviewed and edited by a plethora of people, including a professional team of editors and proofreaders. Yet, despite that overabundance of meticulous scrutiny, we translators often find that “final” texts still need editing prior to (and often post) translation.

While some may be tempted to think that the need for editing at this stage of the process highlights other reviewers’ shortcomings, this is seldom the case. More often than not, editors and proofreaders are bright, thorough, and highly proficient professionals. The issue is not so much how errors could have been made or missed, but why it is that “weak spots” in the copy typically surface at the very end of the line, that is, during the translation process. The answer lies not only in a translator’s language skills but in the very nature of translation.

Words Versus Ideas

While translators are skilled linguists with a thorough academic and practical knowledge of both their source and target languages (indeed, many are experts in their subject matter areas), this does not account entirely for them being more likely to identify unobvious copy flaws than many other reviewers.

It has been said many times before, but can never be overstated: translation is not only about words, it is mostly about ideas. In order to interpret the idea/concept/message behind a phrase and convey it in another language, translators must deconstruct and then reconstruct that phrase completely. It is during that “stripping” process that unobvious copy flaws often surface. While the translator does not necessarily need to be familiar with the subject matter of the source copy, in order to provide an accurate translation, he or she must understand the sense of each phrase and how it relates to the text as a whole.

If the copy is in any way ambiguous, a good translator will likely query it. There are many reasons for this. First, because a professional and ethical translator will not translate copy about which he or she is uncertain. Second, because at some point, someone might call the translation into question for not matching the source copy, regardless of the latter’s accuracy. And third, because a translator might actually feel some degree of accountability for the quality (or lack thereof) of the clients’ material.

Translators Are Writers, Too

Besides their ability to deconstruct copy, translators are writers in their own right. Regardless of whether or not a translator specializes in literary translation, writing (i.e., thinking through, drafting, revising, editing) is an essential part of the translation process.

The concept of the translator as a writer is foreign to many clients, but translators literally rewrite their client’s copy from scratch (think entire contracts, websites, instruction manuals, product brochures, articles, books, etc.), from beginning to end. This is why it should not come as a surprise that translators are more likely to point out inconsistencies than most people reading through page after page of copy, even with a critical eye.

If the copy contains discrepancies (e.g., conflicting information within the same piece, or across several pieces of printed material), the translator is more likely than most to notice it and point it out. In addition, translators often have to research the subject matter during a translation. If during that research they come across something that conflicts deeply with the information presented in the source copy, they might also question it.

An Inquisitive Translator Is Good News

Every professional’s brain is trained to look at copy differently. A marketing specialist may review copy to make sure that it contains specific selling points, flows nicely, and is catchy. A legal specialist may check to make sure a document does not open the door to legal challenges. An engineer’s review may focus on providing technical feedback. A proofreader will typically identify spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and major issues with sentence construction. But few people read copy more carefully than a translator. Typically, it is not until the translator actually starts translating that inconsistencies, technical inaccuracies, and unobvious flaws related to the structure of a given phrase or its meaning surface.

Regardless of the source of uncertainty— a translator’s misinterpretation, ambiguity in the source copy, or an obvious misprint—a good translator will likely ask questions during the translation process. Not always, of course, but often enough that a client may have cause for concern if a translator never does. Although most professional translators are able to look past “weak spots” and return better/clearer copy than the original, never asking questions would suggest that the copy is always clearly and flawlessly written. It would also suggest that the translator always comprehends the text fully, including the client’s technicalities, plays on words, artistic/writing licenses, and other subtleties. The chance of that is rather slim, especially in creative environments.

In fact, most translators will agree that asking questions is often part of the job. As Translation: Getting it Right, ATA’s free client education guide, puts it:

An inquisitive translator is good news:

No one reads your texts more carefully than your translator. Along the way, he or she is likely to identify fuzzy bits—sections where clarification is needed. This is good news for you, since it will allow you to improve your original.

Good translators strip down your sentences entirely before creating new ones in the target language. And they ask questions along the way.1 But not every client may feel that way.

Asset or Nuisance?

Some clients value their translator’s input so much that they will actually wait until their copy comes back from translation before releasing it or going to print. For these clients, a translator’s meticulousness tracking of the subject matter is an asset, and they have learned the value of building extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for both translation and post-translation editing. But clients who are relatively new to translation or to the international scene may have a difficult time appreciating the fact that an inquisitive translator is a good one (not a nuisance), or that copy can never be reviewed by too many eyes.

In some cases, a translator’s attention to detail may even be met with animosity, resentment, or distrust. A writer may take umbrage at his or her copy being queried. An editor may feel that his or her professional skills are being challenged. A manager may be upset that a production date is not met because of “translation delays.” In extreme cases, a client may choose to ignore a translator’s queries and use preliminary translations, or, worse, opt to work with translators/agencies that never ask questions or point out “fuzzy bits” in the source copy.

To Edit or Not to Edit?

When it comes to ambiguous (or untranslatable) source copy, a translator is confronted with more than the not-so-simple choice between editing and not editing. To begin with, the extent to which a translator should (with the client’s approval) edit source copy is an issue that is somewhat controversial. While most will agree that obvious misprints can safely be corrected and overlooked for translation, many will contend that more intricate changes, such as correcting technical terminology or rewording entire phrases to improve readability or sense, may not necessarily be up to the translator.

When we come across those (fortunately rare) cases where the source copy simply must be rewritten, we may have no choice but to request revised copy from our client. We may even have to take it upon ourselves to “redeem the untranslatable” by rewriting the source copy, rerouting it for approval, and retranslating it. (Whether we should is a matter of personal opinion.) In other (more common) cases, the source copy requires edits that, however small, may bear heavily on both the translation and the quality of the source copy.

In both cases, we should be fully prepared to justify our requests for edits, but at the same time be professional and tactful when presenting such requests to our clients. While some clients will welcome our feedback, others may not be open to editing the source copy. When a client is unwilling to edit the source copy, we may very well find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between producing accurate target copy that may not match the source copy, or producing target copy that matches the source copy but may not be accurate.

What We Can Do

While it is not essentially our place to critique our clients’ copy or always our role to correct it, it is within our reach to educate the people with whom we work regarding what we do, what we may find along the way, and how that can benefit them.

At times, it may even fall to us to remind our clients tactfully that editing copy during and post-translation is about one thing only: improving the original and working together toward a greater, better end. Ultimately, if packaging or a website features obvious misprints, if assembly instructions are confusing, if a contract leaves too much room for interpretation, if a product is pulled off the market because of misleading claims, or if someone hurts themselves because of copy written (or translated) incorrectly, those mistakes will reflect badly upon the client.

So, let’s continue being inquisitive, but just as important, let’s strive to step out of our traditional role and keep reminding and proving to the world around us that every contribution matters and that we (writers, editors, proofreaders, translators) are not competing against each other, but complete each other. And if, down the road, it leads to some of our clients learning to build extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for translation and post-translation editing, the better for us—and them.

Notes

  1. Durban, Chris. Translation: Getting it Right, 18, www.atanet.org/docs/Getting_it _right.pdf.

Author bio

Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.maginot@yahoo.com.