“We do it ourselves”

“We do it ourselves”

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Can clients be weaned away from DIY solutions?

This could have been another post about how difficult it is to prospect for direct clients, at least for a rather introverted person like me. I went to a trade fair last week, and it’s true that, as always, I found it tough to approach and connect with possible clients in person. Caught between the eternal dilemma of not wanting to sell in a pushy way but not really knowing what to say if I didn’t, I spent a lot of time feeling like a rather awkward failure.

But I think I’ve written that post before, and besides, it wasn’t all failure. After all, it was a wine fair, or rather the wine section of a huge food industry fair in Barcelona, and when there’s wine around it’s difficult to fail completely. However bad you feel, a couple of free samples tends to bring back the good cheer. And, as I know myself, I’d booked myself in for a talk, a tasting, and a lunch of food-wine pairings designed by top chefs. If I wasn’t going to persuade everyone to be my client, I was at least going to learn something and enjoy myself.

And I did manage to speak to some potential clients, so that’s what I’ve decided to write this post about: a random sample of potential direct clients from the Spanish wine industry and their their thoughts on translation. Partly to have something to talk about, partly as market research and partly as a lead-in to offering my services, I asked them what they did about translation.


Interestingly, none said they didn’t need it. Most wineries export to some degree and English is obviously an important language. It’s by no means the only one they’re interested in, though. Chinese and Russian were mentioned, and the more languages a winery needs, the more likely they are to resort to a translation agency. They don’t seem to be all that aware, though, of the risks of poor, unprofessional translation that this involves. They simply feel that for these purposes it’s the only option.

That isn’t the case for English, though. The overwhelming majority of wineries I spoke to said they did English translation in-house. Some were a little sheepish about it, others brashly confident: “Well, I lived in the United States for a time and my brother’s been there too, so between us we manage the English,” said the owner of a small but prestigious winery. Not that he actually said it in English, of course, although I say that without criticism. I always talk to clients in their own language if I can.

Another time I again found myself talking to the non-native-speaker who did the English translations for a slightly larger winery. She was frank about her limitations. “I can just about do it, but I can’t manage it like someone who grew up speaking the language, of course.” Why do wineries do this translation themselves? After all, they do seem to be aware of the importance of texts in English for their businesses. There seem to be two reasons: firstly, many of them have learned English to an above-average standard and are keen to use it. The other is convenience: if you’ve got someone in-house who you think can do a decent job, it makes more sense than looking for a translator who might turn out to know nothing about wine.

How can we sell ourselves to those who choose the in-house, non-native-speaker option? I can think of several possibilities, although I’m open to other suggestions. Firstly, we need to show some sort of expertise, or at least the right image. Chatting to them about their wine and having a decent-looking specialist business card pointing them at a specialist website are ways to do that. They’re simply not going to outsource to someone who appears ignorant of their business.


For those who confessed to doing their own translations, I tried a different tack, offering a revision option. Some might say this is a risk, because it’s possible that the material to be revised is going to be poor quality and difficult to work with. I honestly think that’s unlikely. Anyway, my intention would not be to be revising forever; the idea would be to gain their confidence and then persuade them to try me out for some translation work. This went down quite well. They took the point that I’d probably be able to polish their writing, and I have some hope that I might attract some work of this kind, particularly from one or two prospects.

My final idea was to collect publicity material from the wineries and to inspect the quality of the translations. So far a quick glance at it shows very little (although there is some) material that I’d be happy to deliver as a translation. I suppose that’s not surprising if they’re doing most of the work themselves. The majority of the translation is functional but clunky and rather literal, although possibly no worse than a generalist native-speaking translator might produce. I know I could do a better job, so my task must be to make contact with the clients and persuade them of this. Perhaps I will give them samples of what I can do, rather than just writing and saying “Your translations are rubbish”.

One interesting thing is that, although price may be a factor, no-one actually mentioned it. No-one said: “Translations are so expensive we do them ourselves”. In fact I suspect they generally had very little idea how much a proper translation would cost. The challenge, though, is to make them see how much better a proper translation would be.


  1. Marco Cevoli

    Nice article, Simon, as usual. Could you just elaborate on the "They don’t seem to be all that aware, though, of the risks of poor, unprofessional translation that this involves"? I don’t think this is fair to many translation agencies that do an excellent job in serving their customers. Regarding the part where you mentioned the cost, a few surveys and market research that I read came to the conclusion that customers say they want specialized translators with a clear understanding of their field, but when faced with more than one option, they don’t doubt to assign the job to the less expensive one. It’s probably due to the fact that it’s still very hard for translators to express their uniqueness, most of all, in terms of perceived value by the client. So I totally agree with you when you say "we need to show some sort of expertise", even though this is just the first step.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your comment, Marco. What I had in mind when I wrote about that risk was the fact that the agencies that look the biggest and most professional from a client’s point of view are also often the ones that pay their translators least and treat them worst. Also, the client has no way of knowing whether the agency has anyone on the payroll who actually speaks the language in question and can judge the quality of the translation provided. I agree with you that there are plenty of agencies, like Qabiria and others, which don’t behave in this way but a client has no way of telling which ones are going to do a good job and which ones are largely an exercise in public relations.

  2. Victoria Patience

    I’m a bit late coming to this, Simon, but I found it really interesting. Trying to put ourselves in our (potential) clients’ shoes and understand where they’re coming from, how their business works on a day-to-day basis is something that we could probably all do more of. Particularly in a nonjudgemental way like you’ve described. The fact that no-one cited cost as a reason for not hiring a pro was particularly thought-provoking so it sounds like tactful follow-up might work well. The fact that many of them do speak English might then switch over to being an advantage, as they may be quicker to appreciate how much better your translations read than the ones they do themselves.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Victoria. I’m certainly hoping it will turn out like that. All I’ve got to do now is find time for the tactful follow-ups…


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