Only Human Translators

Remember: the expert is you

Remember: the expert is you

I’m going to remember 2019 as the year of nightmare jobs. I’ve already written earlier this year about taking work I might have known I shouldn’t have accepted. This is a tale of two jobs that have more than qualified for the nightmare category, but which have ended up in very different ways. The first was just a simple-looking job involving translating a few certificates. There were no red flags or warning signs; the only complication was that the translation itself needed to be certified. Now, unlike many countries, the UK doesn’t have an established system for certifying translations. The Spanish system, for example, is well-established and the procedures are absolutely clear for those who have passed the exams to be “sworn translators”. The British system, on the other hand, is vague, with single set of proper guidelines. What filters through to translators and clients is that translations made by members of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting and the Chartered Institute of Linguists are accepted by official bodies if they include a certificate giving the translators’ details and confirming that their work is a complete and accurate rendering of the original. I am a member of both organisations and I’ve done a good many of these translations, so this particular job didn’t seem any kind of risk. I quoted a price, did the translation and the client – a colleague who runs a small agency – came to pick it up. Her question to me was: what if it’s not accepted? And, based on my experience with similar translations I’d done before, I made what turned out to...
The underlying theme

The underlying theme

Themes are problematic for conferences, I always think. And for me, the title of this year’s MET conference in Split – “Make it count: communicating with clarity and concision” – was doubly so because it included a word I’m certain I would never to use. Despite the fact that it does appear in the dictionary and the obvious analogy with “precision”, that word “concision” didn’t manage to convince me. Anyway, as we all know, despite everyone’s best efforts, not many talks at any conference you might mention take very much notice of what the event says it’s supposed to be about. Speakers have their own agendas and conference organisers, above all, need people to speak, so they don’t insist too much on their speakers toeing the line. Strangely, though, at some point, what I call the underlying theme of a conference always emerges: and that’s the real message to take home. In the beautiful Croatian city of Split, the underlying theme started to appear in the first keynote talk by David Jemielity. I’d already seen David this year at the ITI Conference in Sheffield, but although his message was the same his talk here was completely different. He explained how he and his team of translators had managed to win the confidence of top management at the Swiss bank where he works to the point where they are now included in corporate communication decision-making. This had been achieved, David explained, by learning to speak the language of the managers and bankers and to think like them. Only in this way could they be convinced of the need to change...
Dilemmas of an upwardly mobile translator

Dilemmas of an upwardly mobile translator

Freelance translation is full of decisions. Shall I take this job? Shall I reject that one? How much should I charge? Should I put up my rates? And all decisions have consequences. If you ask for too much, the client might go elsewhere. But if you ask for too little you might get offered something better. And if you take this, you haven’t got time to take that. My decisions of the past year all seemed to come home to roost in the two weeks since I’ve been back from holiday. First I seem to have lost a good client. It isn’t a badly paying agency I’ve been wanting to get rid of for ages, it’s a direct client with interesting translations that I’ve been working with for years. The only problem from my point of view was that my relationship with the client dates from a time when I didn’t charge direct clients enough. Since I realised this, I’ve been steadily increase my rate with them and it’s now approaching what I’d ask for from a new client, although they’re still getting me a little cheap. Unfortunately, they don’t see things like the same way. Surprised that they hadn’t sent me their regular monthly translation, I asked them why. And they finally admitted it: “We’ve found someone cheaper for the regular stuff. It’s not you, though. We really like your work.” As if that made things any better. All I could do was remind them that I’d still be there when they needed quality translations and wonder where I’d fill the gap in my monthly schedule. The same...
Dump the hard sell

Dump the hard sell

Start building relationships It may be a growing trend or it could be that I’m becoming more aware of it, but there seems to be an American-style sales logic creeping into the world of translation. I say “American-style” because, like many – perhaps most – Europeans I’m utterly put off by anyone trying to hard-sell anything to me. Phone me up and try to interest me in parting with my money and I’ll hang up on you. Knock on my door with something to push and I’ll probably slam it in your face. What I won’t do – never, ever – is buy anything from you. So I’m fairly sensitive to the emergence of ideas along these lines, and utterly resistant to using them in my own marketing, simply because I don’t believe they work. The other day, for example, there was a discussion on a translators’ group on Facebook during which a claim was made that clients never reject us because of price. Apparently, price is just an “objection” we have to overcome. To demonstrate just how ludicrous this statement is (and I’m particularly concerned with the “never”), I’ll use an example from my own experience the week before. An author wrote to me asking me to quote for the translation of a non-fiction book he had written. I made some calculations and quoted him a price and his response was unequivocal. “Thank you,” he said, “but your quote comes to more than all the money I’ve made from the book in Spanish. So I’ll have to say no. I’ll come back to you when I write a bestseller.” So...
Staying in or getting out

Staying in or getting out

It’s time to go when… In almost 20 years in translation now, I don’t think I can remember a time when so many people were getting out of the business. Lately it seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t read a message from someone saying that they’re working on a plan B, or getting a part-time job, or packing up altogether. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem fair – people who seem to be doing all the right things get to a point where they can’t stand any more while others who, with the best will in the world, don’t deserve a place in the profession, seem indestructible. The number of people leaving is hardly surprising, I suppose. With bulk market work being gobbled up by machine translation on one hand and the daunting degree of effort and commitment required to go upmarket (which I still believe is the best way to stay in the business) on the other, it’s no wonder many people find it easier simply to look elsewhere in order to earn a living. Some, of course, remain in the world of translation, selling courses, consultancy or coaching to translators. We all know who some of them are. Others go in a completely different direction. Not long ago, a friend of mine decided to give up freelance translation, temporarily at least. This struck me as a terrible shame. She was someone who seemed set up to succeed: not only talented, but with a good business head too. She hadn’t “made it” yet, but she was well on the way. But the frustration of chasing late-payers...
On the road with RevClub

On the road with RevClub

Taking our message to the translation world At the beginning of this month, I was sitting in a Scottish hotel with my friend Tim Gutteridge listening to the lively buzz of more than 50 people discussing each other’s translations in small groups. And I suddenly realised that exactly a year before I’d been sitting in a meeting room in Barcelona, also with Tim, doing exactly the same thing. It’s been a year in which Tim, and Victoria Patience and I have taken our idea of getting together in a small group of translators to mutually revise one another’s work to the translation world. Before that, it had been more or less our secret, although I did write about it here and here, so if you want to find out more about what RevClub actually is you can read those posts. RevClub’s “tour” (and I must be careful with the rock band analogies considering that Victoria still regrets that we didn’t develop stage costumes for our presentations) really began just after METM17 in Brescia, where I gave a presentation of my own about specialisation. When I was discussing that by e-mail with Victoria and Tim they had lots of questions, but what they wanted to know really boiled down to two things: where’s the next one? And why don’t we present something next time? In no time at all, Victoria, who lives near Buenos Aires, had agreed that, if I could persuade MET to let the three of us give a workshop, she would cross the Atlantic for the next MET meeting in Girona. Just the thought of the three of us actually...
A welcome message

A welcome message

Hope for the future I went to this year’s ITI Conference in Sheffield hoping to meet friends and colleagues but not sure quite what else to expect. Many would now have us believe that the big translators’ organisations have sold out to the agencies and the pushers of machine translation in the drive to make translators complicit in the endless spiral of falling rates and enforced productivity increases. It was my first ITI Conference, having recently joined the organisation, and I was delighted to find that, at least for this association, it simply isn’t true. Everywhere the message was the one I believe is right: specialise, be a better translator and charge what you’re worth. Close interaction with clients was also one of the themes. David Jemielity, an in-house translator with a Swiss regional bank, explained how he has managed to put translators at the heart of his organisation’s communication campaigns. And Chris Durban, perhaps the one translator who really does need no introduction, spoke, with detailed examples, about the way many translators are churning out work little better than machines. Her route out of the trap: specialise, improve, take more time over your work and, to the biggest round of applause of the conference: eschew PEMT (and how many computers could ever come up with such a memorable and perfectly chosen verb?). As usual I avoided the sessions on machine translation. Fortunately for those of use who really can’t be bothered to attend talks on something we’re never planning to use, we have people like former ITI chair Sarah Bawa-Mason to keep a critical eye on it for...
Coming of age

Coming of age

Discussion, not drama I co-run a Facebook group for translators, which I have mentioned once or twice before in this blog. Standing Up began when members of Andrew Morris’s Standing Out group rebelled against his plan to charge them for forming part of what they had always considered a community that belonged to them, not to him. Several translators, of which I was one, decided it would be a good idea to offer them somewhere to go, so they could continue to enjoy the benefits of belonging to a group of like-minded people without Morris’s rather overbearing way of running things. Rule one of our group was that there were to be no gurus and, if I am proudly discussing it in this blog post, it is certainly not because I consider that the group belongs to me, it is simply because I’m glad to have played a part in making it happen and keeping it going. Things began slowly and there were initial difficulties. Some people felt betrayed at what Morris had tried to do, others never wanted to hear his name again, and still others wanted to remain on good terms with him while simultaneously trying out the new arrangement. That meant every time his name was mentioned there were terrible arguments. Conversations had to be shut down and people left the group. There were times when I wondered if it was worth carrying on. But eventually feelings calmed and, when the dust settled, not only was the group still there, it had started growing steadily. It is still growing today and only a few weeks ago,...
Success revisited

Success revisited

Making it, not faking it In the last couple of weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about a subject I’ve touched on once or twice before in this blog (here, for example, and here too): success. I’ve been thinking about it for several reasons. On one hand, I’ve been finding posts by translators who claim to be a great success who in fact spend their time churning out junk at low rates for agency clients. On the other, there are translators I admire, with high standards, who, it turns out, are going through a rough time at the moment. So what is success for a translator? And does success mean anything at all? In one of the previous posts I referred to, I said we should define our own success, and I still believe that. Success can’t be the same for everyone because we’re not all motivated by the same things. Some seem to think that no-one is a success without a big house and a Porsche, others just want a pension, and still others will be happy if they can guarantee to put food on the table every day. But in this post I’m going define what success means for me. Are you the same, I wonder? What are my signs of success: You earn enough to do what you want to do. This is probably the most important of all. For some, here, we might be talking about buying the big house or the Porsche. For me, though, it means being able to take the time off I want to take, go where I want to go and do the professional...
Getting the message

Getting the message

Moving further from the agency fold I had another one of those messages last week. It came in e-mail form from an agency I’ve worked with for some years; an agency I’ve always respected and admired as one that paid reasonable rates without making unreasonable demands. I had, said the agency, expressed an interest in post-editing machine translation. Did I, they wanted to know. want to join in with their sparkling new machine translation programme and sign up for some post-editing work? It took me five minutes to ask them where they had got the idea that I’d ever been interested in machine translation and to inform them, politely but firmly, that it didn’t interest me in the least. But it doesn’t end there, of course. It’s one more step in my gradual estrangement from the world of translation agencies, which I began to describe just over a year ago. Now, I’m not against agencies as such. I’ve worked with them for all my translation career and I still work for some. I am fully aware that many translators want to continue working with them, mostly because they simply don’t want to have to do their own sales and marketing work. I am also fully aware, because they have told me so, that some translators don’t mind doing post-editing work and have found ways of making money out of it. Nor does the fact that an agency starts using MT necessarily mean that they will stop using human translators, or at least not for the moment. I am still working for some, although not all, of those which have sent me...