Category Archives: Business of writing

Letter to translators without a diploma

 

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Dear translator without a diploma:

In my 27 years as a professional, full-time translator, I’ve worked alongside translators from different walks of life: doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, former language teachers, and others. I would like to address those of you who (a) are bilingual and (b) do not have a university degree.

In the United States, being bilingual has many advantages; those who speak and write one or more foreign languages (aside from English, understood) enjoy an almost intuitive trust from their superiors and colleagues who do not. Being able to work in a variety of environments with that knowledge is truly a privilege. However, this bilingualism has a dark side: monolingual people who see a bilingual person speak or write in a foreign language have no way of telling how complete or deep that language knowledge is. Many bilinguals like yourself have arrived with an apparently complete knowledge of their foreign language, have studied English here and they assume they are fully bilingual.

To be fully and competently bilingual, say, in English and Spanish, requires to have received the same level of education on both languages. For example, a person who holds a 4-year university education degree in America should have had received the same level of education in her foreign country. But the reality with you is that you came to this country with a completed primary or secondary education and nothing else. This is not necessarily your fault, as the timing and circumstances of your arriving here may not have been under your control. But you made the best of it and you continued and completed your native education in English-speaking institutions. So, your bilingualism is asymmetrical. There is an imbalance between your foreign language vocabulary and knowledge of grammar and the same knowledge in the English language.

You may have worked on different positions and, somehow, you or someone else assumed that your being bilingual naturally qualified you to work as a translator. You knew that your foreign language knowledge was not up to the same level as your English knowledge. For instance, you know all of your English verb tenses and know how to use your English prepositions, but you can’t honestly recall how many verb tenses there are in your foreign language, that language that once was your mother tongue. You speak it natively, you are knowledgeable about the latest expressions in that mother tongue, but you hesitate when you write stuff in it. You struggle to write something from scratch in your mother tongue because you lack the necessary tools. Worse yet: you struggle at it because you don’t particularly love to write.

The advantage of working as a translator for you is that you can mask your lack of knowledge by following English grammar structures and syntax when you translate, and assuming this is what the concept of fidelity is in translation. You are wrong. You have been wearing a mask for some time know, and it’s time for you to come clean. First, you need to recognize your lack of full knowledge of your mother tongue in order to freely express yourself in writing. Because translation is writing.

Second, you need to accept that degree of ignorance and do something constructive about it, like getting a college or university degree that requires studying and writing in your mother tongue. If you are to be intellectually honest about calling yourself a translator, and if you want to behave ethically as a professional translator, you owe it to yourself, your clients, and your loved ones.

I am not particularly interested in hearing about how many years of translation work you have done. What started as a deceit, even if it was a lie of omission in order to work, eat and have a roof over you, needs to find its way to an honest way of living. As for obtaining a college or university diploma from educating yourself in your mother tongue, you have a multitude of choices, and not all of them involve filing for a Pell grant or incurring heavy amounts of debt. There are MOOC courses, free online courses and other pathways to achieving what I’m recommending you to do. Please consider these options seriously.

But this is not just a call for you all to improve your knowledge of your mother tongue. Your pretense of being a translator when you are not is hurting the livelihood of translators who made sacrifices, who received a university education, who knew or discovered they had a talent for writing and became competent at it in two languages. You may continue to deceive your customers, who think that, by hearing you speak in, say, Spanish, you are equally competent in writing in that language. But you are not. You are hurting the rest of us translators because you go after our clients, you flood social media, networking and job websites with your resumes and pretend to be one of us, but you are not.

I wish the profession of translator were regulated, that a 4-year university diploma were mandatory and a written exam in the foreign language were also mandatory. You fail either of those requirements and you are barred from calling yourself a translator or seeking translation work. That’s my pipe dream, anyway. I, for one, built my profession on an avocation, on solid homework through all the educational levels, from kindergarten all the way through graduate school, in my mother tongue, may I add. I am a translator because I enjoy writing very much. Colleagues of mine who are equally competent can say the same thing.

Sooner or later, your mask will slip off and your incompetent writing will show. Then you will discover the tragic sadness of having built your reputation on sand. Please, stop being an impostor, decide if you want to continue deceiving others with your subpar, mediocre writing in your mother tongue. You should enjoy writing because your writing is you. If you cannot be yourself when you write in your mother tongue, you have no business working as a translator.

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Filed under Business of writing, Reputation, Translation as writing

Doing research as a translator

Research is a basic human skill, no Ph.D. needed to perform research. As toddlers, we researched our surroundings by using all of our senses, stumbling along the way, burning our fingertips when grasping a hot ladle or stinging our eyes while getting scrubbed and having our abundant hair washed with shampoo. We acquired knowledge through experience, or experiential learning.

Our nascent research skills get a bit stumped along the way, particularly if we’re subjected to rote learning and a sanitized, tradition-protecting educational infrastructure: we memorize and recite facts, factoids and fictions to later regurgitate them in a different format: oral lessons, multipage theses, business reports. If we’re part of a religious tradition with emphasis on certitude, all seeds of doubt be damned, we become survivalists, absorbing and internalizing received wisdom and passing it along later in life as professionals and instructors of every kind. What a critical thinker and thoughtful mind would consider outlandish ideas or impractical courses of action become mainstream thinking and knowledge, such as believing that there are two kinds of translators: those who work with agencies and those who work with premium clients.

So, what is research and how can it help us translators? During my two doctoral semesters in Portugal, I learned a thing or two about academic research and writing polished and purposeful papers. All this activity made me reflect on skills that I had exercised in other periods of my life, from my tweenage years to adulthood.

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Proper research spans our whole lifetime, not just a job’s timeline.

First, research is born of intellectual curiosity. It is intellectual as opposed—at first— to pragmatic or practical curiosity because we want to acquire new knowledge for its own sake, for the satisfaction it brings to solve a mental puzzle, even if it doesn’t have immediate real-life application. That comes later as we continue our research.

Second, research requires observation, examination and analysis. We observe a phenomenon, an event or an incongruous situation, we examine it to understand the general idea of it, then we analyze it to break it down into more digestible parts. For instance, my idea of an engine’s torque became clearer after my brother explained it as a function of a motor’s shaft, along with concepts such as idling, engine power and resistance. All these steps require a higher level of abstraction absent in glancing an article or fast-reading a white paper.

Third, research focuses on facts and conclusions, regardless of how we personally feel about the nature of our eventual discovery. While it may be acceptable to have hopes for our research on how many Emperor penguins are born in January, we have to put aside our emotions in the face of the number of dead penguins because letting our feelings influence how we view and interpret facts and design our conclusions is just unacceptable. And unprofessional.

For instance, if I say I distrust the Bureau of Labor’s percentage about the annual growth of our profession, I have to be willing to argue for and against that number, investigate how the Bureau of Labor arrived at it, what criteria were used in interpreting facts and shaping conclusions…in particular the conclusion that the profession is growing without taking into account micro and macroeconomic factors such as regional economies, universities’ rate of graduates in translation, and price dynamics at local, national and international scale. True research abhors soundbites and requires careful reading and consideration, both in very short supply among the masses of speed-loving geeks that translators tend to become in ever increasing numbers.

Fourth, research not only accepts but welcomes third-party testing of its preliminary and final assumptions. It is not enough for just one astronomer to declare the appearance of a brand-new star or exoplanet as his findings have to be independently verified by his peers in other observatories and countries. Sadly, we translators seem to depend on a popularity index: we listen more attentively to those who blog the most, who have more published books, who are more charismatic, who attend the greatest number of conferences or write more journal-published articles. Authority by SEO and search hits, not by research.

Leaving aside our global situation as translators, I’ve been considering how to explain my research methods to nontranslators. A nontranslator, such as a client, a boss, a project manager or a coworker (who, by the way, aren’t necessarily monolingual or ignorant about what translators really do) requires careful explanation of translation research that is not condescending nor uppity, one that is not too complex but not simplistic and Manichean. It is a real struggle for me because the way we translators individually do research is as intricate and mysterious as the way we process our translations in our heads before we write them down.

Those of us who drive on a daily basis may describe the series of decisions taken as simply driving, without dividing it into all its component parts like getting into a car, putting the stick in drive, checking our mirrors, buckling up before pushing the gas pedal, not to mention the myriad decisions we make aided by our eyes and ears, scanning in front of the vehicle and sideways, reading the intention of the other drivers surrounding us, feeling the wheel in the palms of our hands and knowing, almost instinctively, how much to turn it every which way and with what force or gentleness. All this is part of what we can call the topology of driving. We do something similar with translation. And research.

If a nontranslator asks us how we came up with a term or a turn of phrase in our translation, we simply say we found some clues in our specialized dictionaries or by reading industry articles or catalogs. But research is much more than that. You and I conduct this research in different ways depending on topic, deadline and availability of reliable resources. To many clients and translation buyers, the key mot juste is terminology or industry terms. They demand we know their jargon, buzzwords and language, how they call this thingamajik or that process. A company’s product is supported by a variety of different texts, from user guides to instructions to sales materials, but to a client, a business owner, coworker or project manager, all these texts share the same terms and the same brand. They’re right…and wrong.

For instance, Huawei makes routers for “innovative enterprise applications from small to super huge scale.” Words such as innovative and super huge scale are marketingspeak, but they’re part of the branding strategy for this company. If the translation of this text does not have words with the same oomph or impact as the English, a client might consider it a translation failure, despite all of our careful research. It’s the same with clunky English imports such as big data and [movie] streaming. They’re often left in English because, well, the translator couldn’t find an equally impressive Spanish or French or German equivalent, as if languages’ sole virtue for making global understanding possible resided on import words and false cognates.

Confronted with the task of explaining how I do research for my translations or how I come about with a sentence where a certain brand- or marketing-language word does not appear, I have to learn to go down into the thinking strata of my mind and emerge with the tools and methods I use to inquire about new concepts and express them in writing. However, even if I have a cogent narrative to offer, I have to run it through several filters to avoid coming across as a know-it-all spewing condescending prattle.

An uphill, ongoing challenge, this is. But a particular aptitude common to all translators is at my disposal, regardless of my personality or whether I am popular or not. The ability to translate, in its broadest sense, a complicated concept into an understandable one. Since I translate for a given reader or audience and tune my writing to their level of understanding, so should I proceed with filtering my innermost mental mechanics on research to provide not just a clear explanation but a persuasive one.

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Filed under Branding, Buzzword, Research in translation, Research methods, The craft of translation, Translation as writing

The inverse way of disrupting translation practice

I recall a sunny colleague calling me a Luddite on the Proz.com platform some years ago. The reason, vaguely recollected now, was that I chose to criticize a technology. It might have been translators using iPads, I don’t know. I confess to feeling jaded after reading numerous headlines about this or that technology increasing a translator’s productivity or how we should embrace AI, MT or some other technoacronym to bring home the bacon.

I also remember a translation agency owner (the agency, Antler Translation Services; Peter Wheeler the speaker) speaking at a New York Circle of Translators meeting in 1991. He spoke about translators pecking at a typewriter and fearing the desktop computer. That statement made a profound impression on me because a) I was a recent graduate with a translation diploma and b) I didn’t yet have a computer. I was enthusiastic, feeling paradoxically both new and at home among these translators who were challenging each other to move forward. Adopt the PC! seemed to be Mr. Wheeler’s proposed mantra.

We’ve come a long way in these intervening decades. That gentle push to embrace more efficient technologies has long been replaced by a less considerate and forceful thrust to board the fast-moving treadmill of technomarvels: CAT tools, TEnT tools, terminology extraction utilities, notebooks, laptops, mobile phones, file converters, project management and invoicing applications, webinars. They all march to the thrilling and shrilling marketing tune of each brand. And speaking of brand, we are told to imagine and develop our “personal brand” and speed network, smile and email our way into the hearts of new clients.

Your mind is not a cog. Don’t act like one.

But serious minds demand facts to support this whirlwind of tech-enabled innovation, creativity and get-the-rates-you-deserve chorus. No matter, the oft-cited Bureau of Labor figures extolling the double-digit year-on-year growth figures for the translation and interpreting profession will see us through.

Happy to quote these numbers, translation associations boost their MLM-grade conference offerings with promises of “networking that works” and other slick slogans. After all, hundreds and even thousands of members can’t all be wrong, now, can they? Is this the age of technomagic to transport us to a new era for translators? Can we really improve our lot as professional translators and the product of our labors with the flick of a technological wand? Call me a Luddite but I propose an antidigital approach to translation as a profession because I don’t care so much about my projected image as much as what I write in the form of translations.

I work with a team of translators. We use SDL Trados 2015. Our workstations hold 65 GB of RAM. All of our tools and applications reside in an internal cloud. That’s right—our desktop computers don’t have a hard drive to speak of. We enjoy a highly collaborative relationship with a team of workflow managers who take care of the mechanics of importing and exporting files, handling vendors and making sure our translation memories, termbases and other resources are on the right portals, waiting for us.

There are some unsettling trends that I thought were just my imagination, when I was working as an independent translator: not knowing how to use dictionaries, overdependence on Google hits to determine language usage, assessing translation quality by terminology choices, questionable research methods to determine sense and meaning in an original text or paragraph, overuse of bilingual dictionaries. I recognized some of these trends in the workplace, and they’re worrisome to me. These habits work to the detriment of two translation-related activities: reading and writing.

Reading is cheap and exposes us to a variety of genres and media, from advertisements to novels to specialized magazines and journals. Writing is likewise cheap and it can be done with almost anything over almost anything. I prefer the old writing instruments: pen or pencil, and a blank or lined sheet of paper. Before the reader tells me that reading or writing have little to do with advances in translation, productive tools and networking at conferences to get more clients, or raise rates to the level we all think we deserve, ask yourself: when was the last time you read something out loud? When was the last time you wrote a paragraph, a whole sheet describing, narrating or explaining anything?

Alone with your pen and paper, faced with the hum of your thoughts, try to make up a story, or describe an imaginary village or animal. Try rescuing a beloved teenage memory: your first day of driving a car, riding a bicycle, or seeing a sad face while riding the bus or subway. Consider what a dear friend told you about her day and try to put that in writing, just for yourself. Your mind, your hand, your eyes, your remembrances need no batteries. You don’t need to plug anything. Your high-definition screen in the mind helps you connect the dots.

Years ago I embarked on a sort of lone crusade to work more slowly, to give my eyes a little more time to read the originals I was given to translate, to read over the freshly mindbaked sentences I wrote on my CAT tool, to reconsider merging “segments” so that the language would flow more idiomatically and more naturally in written form. That endeavor, which I playfully called Keep calm and translate slowly, cost me dearly: rush-driven clients stopped calling me, tight deadlines deserted me, but I kept enjoying working with a select few clients who trusted me and with whom I developed lasting business relationships. But market forces being what they are don’t favor such unusual approaches and I was forced to go to the corporate world, where I am surrounded by technology. At least I am given enough time to work at my own pace as long as I am efficient.

Although our translation memories, built by other translators with different reading and writing habits, govern the way I review translations, whenever I am given a translation, I flex my mind muscles and put my own habits to work. I am free to apply my own research, reading and writing methods, techniques—not technologies— that bring me closer to the reader. I still harbor the hope that there is at least one reader who cares about language, about how things are written, who expects to savor a sentence, parse a paragraph, sense the syntax cadence that is carefully assembled for her use and decision-making. Because, no matter what technology you choose to translate with, the warm, distilled sense of human communication, whether oral or written, will always endure and transcend your technotoys.

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Filed under Business of writing, Customer relationship, Lectura - Reading, Networking, Project Management, Quality in translation, Rates, Rates and fees for services, Redacción - Writing, Rush translations, TEnT tools, Terminology, The world of translation, Trados, Writing skills

There and Back Again: Changes in the world of translation

There are as many definitions of translation as there are people in the world. Or, at least, as there are people who want you to hear their definition of such a pedestrian profession. Age gives you a new set of goggles to see the world every few years if you are gracious enough to let Time give you advice, that is.

Let’s assume translation has one main role, that of allowing one culture to be understood by another, and vice versa. In that sense, translation’s goal never ends as long as human cultures endure towards that end horizon we never seem to reach. That one culture needing to be understood in a different one possesses attributes, nuances and colors foreign to the receiving culture is a given. That cultural differences may be different, even shockingly surprising, is a fact that does not change. So, what does change in translating them? Processes, procedures, workflows, sales tactics, terminologies —What exactly?

The school of translation I attended in my youth was formerly called a school of languages, which reveals the fountainhead of ideas guiding the teaching of translation, imposing the models that are to be copied and passed down to professors and students, and offering up lists of authoritative books on linguistics, dictionaries, theories, etc. A closed world, you might say, almost like a serpent pursuing its own tail. Why? Even though translation was being (and continues to be) taught for several language pairs (Spanish>Italian, Spanish>German, Spanish>French, Spanish to English being the most popular), this academic bubble keeps on churning out translation graduates to an ever-encroaching global world. During my stay in Córdoba (Argentina) in 2005-2007, translation students graduating with little or no knowledge of how to present themselves to the world or understanding on the use of CAT tools was the common complaint I’ve heard. The emphasis in translation teaching was squarely set on language, grammar and texts.

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

My alma mater, the Facultad de Lenguas de la UNC

From that school of translation of the 1980s to the Aughts of the 21st century, I saw a significant change: a university offering hundreds of Spanish, French, German or Italian translators to a nonexistent local market to the same institution offering an increasing number of Spanish translators to a globalized local market. And that brings us to a second change, that of the local or urban market, quite well defined in its physical, commercial and intellectual boundaries, converting, voluntarily or not, to one more affiliate of the global machinery of commerce. As a company, big or small, you no longer have to send representatives to foreign countries… you send your translated literature to those lands!

Moving on to an aspect with a different scope: translation itself has changed. The forces of globalized commerce, rather than bringing together different cultures, languages and cities, have brought them into closer proximity via two distinct vehicles: the English language and consumeristic technologies. In the 70s and 80s, the translated literature accompanying a product was something of a luxury or an option, but it was certainly not a commodity. In fact, if memory serves me well, reading the Spanish translation of some consumer pamphlet or manual was a singular experience that enhanced the purchase, or “purchase experience” as the marketers of today are wont to say.

This purchase or acquisition was enhanced because the translation itself revealed a level of writing, of composition, an arrangement of texts that we no longer see in assembly-lined texts produced within companies where simultaneous release or production is prime priority. The excellence in writing a piece announcing the new car model, computer or coffeemaker, for example, has been replaced with so-called quality statistics, colorful infographics and PowerPoint slides. Translations have lost their soul.

I still remember the care I needed to place on writing a single-page introductory letter to prospective buyers of the milk products my company was making for local markets, which were no longer sufficient for expansion. My boss, the sales manager, had to approve my drafts before I could commit a single word to paper via our IBM Selectric typewriter. Now companies rely more on robomail, Word templates and slick stock photography on websites to introduce themselves. Where’s the writing skill? The individualized text has become the commoditized content.

In the face of such challenges, companies intent on penetrating new and foreign markets —or that want to reintroduce themselves ­­— ­­­­would do well in securing the services of translators who are very good writers first and language experts second. People and individuals, all consumers in one way or another, still want to feel personally welcome, distinctly touched by your writing, even in the Age of Emojis.

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Filed under Commodification, Quality in translation, The business of translation, Translation as value added, Writing skills

Taking the pulse of translation theories

If you are a translator or interpreter going to the upcoming ATA Conference in San Francisco, USA, consider performing this unscientific but social experiment: ask any of the veteran translators at the hotel lobby if they have a preferred translation theory.

If you get a hesitant reply, a stare or a shrug, don’t be discouraged. Or surprised. The more veteran the translator is, or the more steeped he/she is in the latest technologies or sales pitches for translation services, the less interested our colleague will be in (insert a derisive pause here) any translation theory.

Why is that? Glad you asked, because one of my current objectives as a PhD student at the Universidade de AveiroUniversidade de Nova joint doctoral program in Translation and Terminology is to listen to, learn about and discuss relevant translation theories. By relevant theories I mean concepts that ordinary translators can apply in their workflows. For example, Eugene Nida’s literal-and-dynamic (or functional, as Nida claimed in later years) equivalence theory is rooted on biblical translations, a subject hardly relevant to commercial or technical translators today. That doesn’t make it irrelevant, however. But that’s a discussion for another day.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

The writing of a translation is where the translation theories (i.e. our writing choices) are often applied.

And why, you may ask, translation theories should be relevant to the most important people in our profession —namely, our customers? They are, I would say, indirectly relevant to them. They don’t need to know them, but we do in order to base our translation decisions and provide adequate explanations for them.

One reason why exposing a customer to even a basic discussion of translation theories is unadvisable is that it can be dangerously confusing. For example, some customers already (and inadvertently) conflate two concepts: word-for-word (or literal) translation with a translation that is faithful to the original. While a customer may ask you to do a faithful translation (faithful to the meaning or spirit or intent of the original text —which, in Nida’s view, would be called a functional translation or, in Christiane Nord’s words, an instrumental translation— the selfsame client may bristle at not finding the same words (sometimes they’re false friends or false cognates) in your translation.

And some terminologists and terminology software advocates tend to muddle things up in this scenario by overemphasizing the importance or hierarchical relevance of a wordlist or glossary, or worse, by overselling the consistency between texts.

Studying and discussing translation theories and their specialized (i.e. arcane) terminology is par for the course in academic circles for translation studies. I recently expressed my view to one of my professors (in my very poor Portuguese, mind you) that we need to be the bridges between the world and the translation studies field to share these translation theories in an accessible language. I was given a reply that best attests to the surprise of making translation theories more accessible to the layman (“translation theory does not have esoteric language”). Still, that’s one of my objectives.

If you are a buyer of translation services, you may not need to know translation theories but you already know whether a text is well written or not. If you like to write, if you enjoy reading a well-composed document, you’re already knowledgeable in writing theory. The main bridge I propose for you to meet me half way is writing well for its intended purpose. I hope to meet you there soon.

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Filed under Business of writing, Consistency, Customer relationship, Literal translation, Misinformation on translator role, Translation theory, Writing skills

How important is courtesy to you?

I recently received an unusual surprise: an anonymous note on my unit door posted by a neighbor who obviously wanted to remain unknown. The note contained a noise complaint. Days later, having successfully resolved the noise issue (the neighbor never identified himself or herself, and the condo building board never received a complaint), the matter of good manners hovered on my thoughts for a while.

While I was working out the noise problem, I was working with a very polite client of mine on a multilanguage layout project for a local lighting company in Ohio. Each lighting fixture is sold with an information sheet in Spanish and Canadian French. These sheets are composed in InDesign CC; my task involved setting the translated text to an InDesign document (given by the customer or freshly created by myself). A pretty simple workflow.

However, my customer and I were facing miscommunication problems and some curt responses to our queries. My customer is a consummate diplomat in these situations; he has the capacity to listen and absorb his translators’ complaints and misgivings about a project but he will reframe them to the client in a way that is true to content but respectful to the customer.

You may feel like shouting on the phone, but it would be bad manners to do so.

You may feel like shouting on the phone, but it would be bad manners to do so.

Theodore Roosevelt said: “Courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.” In Spanish we have an older saying with the same meaning: “Lo cortés no quita lo valiente.

However, there are different degrees of courtesy accorded to family members, friends, neighbors, business associates, distant relatives and complete strangers. The way I learned to be courteous and polite can be summarized thus:

  • Show equanimity (temple, in Spanish) in the face of rudeness
  • Continue to be nice in the face of antipathy
  • Give a calm response to angry outbursts
  • When in doubt, be polite
  • Avoid namecalling
  • Give the benefit of the doubt as the other person may have different reasons for saying/acting the way he does
  • Internalize (i.e. be sincere) all your expressions of courtesy to avoid sounding like a phony

These are some of my own standards of courtesy. Very few things in life anger me more than a lack of civility; however, I rarely, if ever, respond in anger. If I do, I am quick to apologize.

But you might think that all this talk about politeness is old news to you, even a trite topic. But courtesy is like humor: it’s not universal and nobody expresses it quite at the same expected level. Agreed, the Japanese and Koreans may exhibit a more elaborate degree of courtesy than New Yorkers or Texans. The point remains that we should cultivate a basic level of courteous behaviors to the point that they become second nature, regardless of our interlocutor’s behavior or level of courtesy. It is only by internalizing these behaviors that we can avoid two disagreeable outcomes:

  • Look and sound like phonies
  • Our expressions of friendship and concern are manipulative

During a Graham Norton show a few years ago, a British comedian made a shrewd observation about Americans: “In California, people are friendly in order to network and offer their business cards” (the paraphrasing is mine). Sadly, I’ve seen the same behavior in countless conferences, meetups and social gatherings across America. In short, the behavior I’ve witnessed can be summarized as I’ll be friends with you if you buy something from me.

Consequently, have we come to expect courteous behavior only when things go our way or when we stand to benefit from a relationship with a customer or a colleague? What is more relevant to you, business owner or company representative, should courtesy permeate your business dealings in every situation?

The acquisition of manners finds its best vehicle in the home, and behaving well under pressure is its best expression. Good manners harness a person’s virtues —those tried-and-true character traits— found deep inside him as sunlight brings out the hues and tints on a landscape. It is through good manners shown that most people form a good opinion of an individual: she’s patient, respectful, attentive, friendly, dependable. Social media may be the desert mirage where good manners evaporate, but we can still rise to the occasion and let our goodness through with a kind gesture, which is at the root of all civility.

Have we become so concerned with that sad substitute for a good name, brand, that weed masquerading as a flower which thrives only on poor soils? Are we so enamored with the glitter of one-word descriptions as shortcuts to communication, thus relegating courtesy to the perpetual folder of “Nice to have”? I am persuaded that politeness, far from being the much-maligned veneer of politicians, narcissistic managers and con artists, begins with integrity and self awareness, attributes commonly found in “individuals of stature and profundity, of flesh and substance…”, as noted arts advocate Eric Larrabee once wrote.

Being courteous is a hallmark of professionalism as well. Indeed, showing up on time for interviews and meetings, for example, reveals respect for the individual and for her time. In writing this piece, my intent is to invite you to ponder the following: are you being polite to your colleagues, customers and vendors because you are naturally courteous…or because it is a means to an end?

Think about it. All candid and courteous comments are welcome.

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Filed under Courtesy to customers, Public Relations, Reputation

Charge a fee for your service, not your self-esteem

America, the perennial land of opportunity and home of the Braves, the Cavs and the Cubs, has also become the land of positive thinking and an incessant cauldron of relentlessly optimistic how-to books. If you were born in poverty or if your talent goes unrecognized and your ego is sorely bruised, America is the land for you.

For translation students, bilingual or polyglot workers and professionals aiming to become translators and baccalaureate translators everywhere, America not only preaches the gospel of free markets and entrepreneurship, but also the hopeful message of self-esteem-based pay.

How so? Consider how many times you’ve read or heard the expression “get paid for what you’re worth” or references to a translator’s self worth being more deserving of the 2 to 4 cents per word she’s pressed to accept for her highly skilled labor. As somewhat tangible proof of this psychological thinking, here’s a recent blog posting posted in an anonymous translation blog:

charge what you're worth (anonymous blog)

Marketplaces are about supply and demand, products and services, buyers and sellers, not feelings or egos or personal worth. Business deals and negotiations should not be personal in nature nor should they be taken personally. For example, if your translation quote is rejected (especially when no reason is given), you should just shake it off and learn from it. Success in any profession is not about closing every single sale, winning every customer and satisfying every user. Failure, contrary to what the positive thinking movement asserts, is not a negative event but a necessary and yet enriching one.

Yet some of my colleagues conflate their personal worth (character, good name, good habits, etc.) with their professional competence, as so deftly described on this piece written in response to a posting by Corinne McKay on her blog Thoughts on Translation:

translators underestimate worth and talent

What is of concern is the apparent connection shown between a translator’s personal worth (i.e. how good a person is, her value in the community, her parenting skills or her contribution as a human being) and her earnings. The realities in any marketplace contradict and disprove this flatulent fallacy. There are two points I’d like to establish:

  1. Only your professional services (translation, editing, proofreading, subtitling, interpreting, etc.) have a market value expressed in monetary terms.
  2. Your goodness as a person has no bearing on that market value or on your competitiveness in the marketplace.

Many of us know someone who sacrificed greatly to earn a university degree or who paid heavy dues to achieve a level of recognition in one country or continent only to discover that the marketplace tolerates only a modest fee for his translation services. As a human being, feeling undervalued is understandable but it still irrelevant to being competitive.

The reader will forgive this cliché, but many of us are passionate about our profession. This dedication or devotion should be uncoupled from our self esteem and feelings of self worth.

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Filed under Public Relations, Rates and fees for services, Reputation, Translation as value added

Mario Chávez, diplomate translator, at your service

I recently attended two conferences. One in Minneapolis, MN, on the design of medical devices, and a tradeshow in Cleveland, OH, for the 2016 Ceramics Expo. I enjoyed myself immensely on both and for a variety of reasons.

Having been absent from tradeshows or conferences since March 2015, I was a bit out of touch with that environment that I’d like to call outside: what kind of clothes to wear? Should I wear black or brown shoes? Shall I pack my netbook or just my iPad Mini 2? Should I design and order new business cards? And what about my elevator speech?

I grew up going to tradeshows when they were part of our school field trips in Córdoba, Argentina, so moving across a sea of strange faces and collecting free pens was a given. Because I had chosen the Design of Medical Devices event mostly as a learning experience and not a marketing opportunity, I went there with a ready and curious mind. Because I’m the kind of professional who isn’t giving elevator speeches at, well, elevators, and I prefer the laissez-faire approach, I did design new business cards with the focus on my medical translation expertise, with colors to match:

Wordsmeet Medical business card

I hedged my bets on a typewriter typeface to reflect many of the medical reports I transcribe and translate and settled on red tones resembling blood. I kept my contact information to a minimum to invite use and not contemplation. The reverse added to my call to action on the recipient:

Wordsmeet Medical business card2

Notice that I didn’t use the words freelance or translator anywhere on the card. My short introduction would go like this:

-Hello, I see that your company is designing cardiac stents (or valves or a measuring device). What can you tell me about it?

-Hello, I’m here attending the DMD to learn about 3D printing of organs. I see your company does something with 3D. Tell me about it.

When my interlocutor, after explaining what he does, turns to me and asked what I do, I would reply:

-I translate medical documentation, reports, medical devices… (handing him my business card to complete my own description). I’ve learned how laser sintering makes it possible to build these tracheas!

I would also use these conversations to delve into my other areas of expertise, as when a vendor and I were discussing the capabilities of a medical pump (used to regulate medicine drip on a patient in a hospital). I would ask what protections against hacking that pump device would have. The point was not to market myself but to start a conversation, contribute what I knew, ask about things I didn’t know, show sincere interest in what they did as a company. Most of these conversations would end pleasantly, sometimes without exchanging business cards.

Two weeks later, the Ceramics Expo was taking place at the I-X Expo Center close to the Cleveland Airport. I had a 3-day free pass to attend the tracks and visit the tradeshow floor. My only expense worth mentioning was the $10 day parking (and there is plenty of parking!) I have been to tradeshows on many occasions, as when visiting the New York City’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, but seldom have I seen such an organized expo as last week’s Ceramics Expo. Dozens of booths orderly set up, many German and Chinese companies being represented and brief yet useful presentations given (such as the one on transparent ceramics).

Showa Denko booth

Chinese company Showa Denko booth. Chinese reps were easy to spot for their dark business suits, white shirts and dark neckties, all very courteous to the visitor.

I remember debating on that Wednesday morning whether to bring 20, 40 or more business cards. I decided to bring to card carriers (those metal boxes with a capacity for 25-30 business cards) in my pocket. I almost regretted not carrying more cards with me because I had dozens of opportunities to speak with company representatives.

Of all the people I spoke to, only one or two were a bit surprised at my business card (see top of this post) because here I was, a medical translator in a non-medical tradeshow. I was able to explain away that discrepancy by introducing myself as:

-Hello, my name is Mario Chávez. I’m a technical communicator visiting this expo to learn more about the ceramics and glass industry.

And that’s all the spiel I needed to make. No need to use fancy schmancy words, or say that I’m an ATA-certified translator. I made a point of using active verbs to introduce myself: I translate this, I write that, I performed that other thing. If you want your prospect to take some current or future action, use action verbs, not nouns.

The whole exercise let me thinking: Should I use the title “Technical communicator” instead of “Spanish-English translator” from now on? Or Should I call myself something else, like a BA or MA in Translation Studies. I kept pondering on these alternatives and seemingly ambivalent thoughts for days. Then I stumbled on an article about how nurses with a BA are more in demand in American hospitals than nurses with an associate’s degree. The article, published in The Wall Street Journal last October 14, 2015, made a larger point: the use of the adjective baccalaureate, which means a 4-year or bachelor’s university degree.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate's degrees.

Baccalaureate nurses are more in demand than those with associate’s degrees.

That adjective took me to another one: diplomate. According to the online Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Definition of diplomate

So, I’ve decided to posit the question: wouldn’t it be better for a translator holding a university degree to call herself a diplomate translator instead of a freelance one? First, a freelance anything is simply someone who is working on her own, as a sole proprietor (or entrepreneur, if you must use that detestable word). A freelance translator’s only highlight is her ability to work for a variety of clients, beholden to no employer. But there are so many bilingual workers who call themselves translators that this distinction becomes not just blurry but useless and noxious.

Second, the beauty of the diplomate adjective attached to our chosen profession is that it highlights one of our largest investments: a university degree and/or diploma and a professional who has been vetted by a board of professionals (such as the American Translators Association).

So there you have it. From now on, I’ll be calling myself a diplomate translator because freelance translator just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. How about you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diploma, Diplomate translator, Marketing, Professional development, Public image of translators, Qualified translators, Reputation, Technical writing, Translator qualifications

A reputational story

Introduction

Companies are concerned about their image, their brand, their standing. It’s nothing new. Old problems with new words. What was described as affecting the reputation and the good name of a company is not adjectivized as reputational.

If a company enjoys a place of high esteem among its peers and in the community, domestically and internationally, then that good name becomes valuable and acquires a monetary value. It is then used as currency to extend its influence, increase its market share and cement its reputation.

Translators and translation agencies have depended on name dropping (“IBM is one of our customers”) and certifications (“Member of ASETRAD” or “ATA-certified translator”) to preestablish their status and foster trust. Testimonials started to appear in the late 90s on company websites as well as on individual translator’s webpages. The problem I always saw with those testimonials was their anonymized nature. Here’s a current example:

Straker translations testimonials

First names, or initials, with no company affiliation. Hm, does that approach foster trust? Some fabricated reviews at websites such as Amazon created a bit of an uproar a few years back, what we would call escandalete in Spanish or furore in British English (or Italian). Compare this with an exemplary use of testimonials below:

Advanced language translations testimonials

The company Advanced Language Translations is using testimonials the way I think they should be used: who said what about your company. The downside? Testimonials may have a short shelf life because project managers, localization managers, purchasing staff and others in similar positions come and go. The main advantage of a testimonial is its focus when it is properly written. Keen eyes may have also noticed that none of the testimonials refer to competitive pricing or low rates but to “reasonable cost” and “on budget.” As a translator myself, I would love to work on one of their projects!

Reputation and references

Speaking of working for a company as a translator, I recently had a telephone interview with a headhunting agency for an 8-week project involving technical writing and Spanish translation (two of my specialty activities). I was required to provide two professional references, as the best practice in these interviews go. I keep a list of at least six, so I provided two of them within minutes. I was promised to get a call back that afternoon.

The phone rang as anticipated and the interviewer thanked me for the references, but made some comments about one of them, saying that they couldn’t use it because my reference wouldn’t divulge what kind of projects I had taken part in. Then, I offered other references, which I emailed immediately. Coincidentally, the person who turned out not to be an adequate reference for this job called me to tell me about his experience. This is a personal friend and a long-time client, mind you. His reason for not giving particulars to the interviewer? He considered the details of his projects to be confidential and he left the impression that he was a competitor of the interviewer’s company.

Although he gave the interviewer very positive comments on my professionalism and dependability, his earnest and strict approach to giving detailes as requested by the interviewer backfired. I did not get the job. The moral of the story for me: be selective about which references to offer for a particular job. Did my reputation suffer? I think not, since the headhunting agency was working for the actual customer and is contractually bound to find the most adept candidate for the project, not for themselves.

Branding the profession

Translators and translation agencies earn and lose customers by word of mouth, directly and indirectly, all the time. This does not necessarily mean that a particular translator or agency is incompetent or a poor provider, but that their fees or rates are outside the budgetary boundaries of a customer, or that the customer used other economic or social criteria to choose a different vendor (“Our new translator is easier to work with”). Due to the globalizing nature of the Internet and its tools, market encroachment, client poaching and the downward pressure on services fees have given reputation a sometimes undesirable fluidity.

This impermanent state of affairs has taken some old hands by surprise: accustomed to decent pre-Internet translation rates, they complain and lament the way clients come and go looking for the most competitive rates. And this is happening regardless of the translation provider’s solid reputation. What a translation company or a translator has invested decades in developing, their good name and good professional standing no longer seems to hold the same reputational value. Seasoned translators in developed countries such as Great Britain, France and the United States have groaned in hushed whispers, then in loud complaints, about the influx of so-called cheap providers from developing countries, as if there is some conspiracy behind them to undercut their market share and, of course, their reputation. If a customer prefers a Spanish translator living in China over another living in Spain, what’s the point in cultivating your good name?

Among the answers given to this dilemma by translation associations and so-called language consultants, I have seen an increase in presentations, webinars, brochures and similar vehicles to help translators and similar providers with marketing their services better and, lately in the first years of the 21st century, with branding their services. As an example, the American Translators Association’s conferences have held an increasing number of marketing sessions. Based on a visual assessment of ATA’s past conferences, we have the following:

ATA sessions for indep contractors over 14 years

In the span of 14 years, we see a dramatic increase in sessions targeting independent contractors (individual translators and interpreters) to educate them on the use of sales, marketing, branding and business techniques and tools. This development shows two things in my mind: a) an increased preoccupation on better ways to sell translation services and b) the transformation of ATA conferences from an educational event to a marketing one.

Of course, I agree that translators should cultivate a good professional name in order to optimize their word-of-mouth approach to finding and retaining customers. In my experience, customers worth retaining prefer a reliable service, a personal touch and negotiation skills to find a reasonable price worth paying. In the field of professional reliability, I’ve been intrigued by other online tools that might be of service to a translator or translation company.

The branding aspect works best with companies than with individuals. A brand is usually tied to a logo, a slogan and a single word to convey a positive image. Take IBM’s Think, for example. An individual translator or interpreter (or similar professional) would do better in creating and maintaining a good name or good reputation, however, as the branding approach is kind of silly and oversized. A translator who is too concerned about her brand risks projecting an unfocused view, a pretentiously sized corporate image that isn’t really there, just as the “We” statements in individual websites.

Separate but successful business endeavors

During the summer of 2015, when work volume was low, I started to sell items on eBay: electronics, audio equipment and other second-hand items, such as vinyl records. Selling successfully on eBay is mostly a matter of personal image: how fast you ship and how accurate is your description of the item being offered for auction or sale; in short, what good your word of honor is. Consequently, good eBay sellers take very good care of their reputation by fostering a climate of trust that will engender good reviews and addressing any problems with the customer as they arise.

I started to think about the reputational and economic value of my eBay reviews when I read the following from a recent buyer:eBay positive review

This positive feedback surely feeds one’s ego, but there are many potential buyers who read these reviews in order to guide their purchasing decisions. Would then it be appropriate to route potential translation customers to my eBay feedback page? From a business standpoint, I don’t see why not.

Conclusion

For individual translators, professional and personal references are still being used, along with a CV or resumé and sometimes a cover letter, to assess a candidate for a job or project. Although websites and directories are being consulted to find competent translators, they are just a couple of several components in an effective business strategy to find and retain customers by word of mouth and good reputation. Branding and marketing listicles are gimmicks that only benefit the consultant who offers them. Not all social media are amenable to foster trust or a good name, but try them you must in order to find for yourself —not by others’ opinions— whether these are tools worth using. In my long experience as a translator, a good reputation is built every time a project is delivered to specs or beyond expectations, every time I exchange polite and on-point communications, every single time I telephone a customer who is frustrated or who needs to discuss a delicate aspect of a project. No fancy website and no extensive blog nor Facebook posting can do that.

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Filed under Brand awareness, Branding, Customer relationship, Customers, Marketing, Negotiations, Reputation, Selection of language providers, The business of translation

Translation Myths —Putting bilingualism to the test

As translators, we often are asked to do terminology research, as if translation involved only the word-for-word exchange of specialized terms. But this is a myth to discuss some other time. Let’s talk about bilingualism.

Bilingualism is the ability to speak in two languages. Knowing a few phrases in German while your native language is English or Italian does not count; you have to be able to express yourself freely and richly in two languages. Many European citizens have done this since childhood: growing up in a geography inhabited by multiple languages and dialects makes learning more than one mother tongue unavoidable. From my conversations with people from different European extractions, being a polyglot or multilingual speaker is the norm.

Some colleagues of mine tend to pooh-pooh Americans in general because they seem disinclined and disinterested in learning other languages, but this is an incorrect perception as well as a sweeping generalization. Because language learning is highly dependent on geography, we can’t blame a guy in Idaho who never cared to study or speak Croatian, especially if the number of Croatian residents in Idaho is small.

But then, you will say that that is not excuse! You know many monolingual Americans in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago who are surrounded by thousands of Latinos, Chinese or Russian-speaking folks yet they never cared to learn those languages. Point taken. But let’s discuss an often neglected characteristic of bilingualism: orality or the distinct activity of expressing oneself verbally in more than one language. Translation is writing in a foreign language with the flair, style, vocabulary knowledge and grammar capabilities belonging to that foreign language. Being bilingual has nothing to do with having the ability to write in a foreign language properly, or to write in it at all. Let me demonstrate.

I am a bilingual person because I can freely express myself in both English and Spanish. Here’s a small proof: explaining my bilingualism

Before you click on the YouTube link, can you easily “see” or “read” how bilingual I am? Of course not. Why not? Because they are spoken words. And the way we all speak words is far different from the way we commit them to paper. If you were to meet me at a coffeeshop to tell me about your latest vacation adventure in The Poconos (NY),  your speech would be full of ums, ahs, ohs, what-did-I-says and other filler expressions. Because the content is so illustrative, emotional and personally colorful, and because the communication is instantaneous (ergo, I am listening as you are speaking), we don’t need full stops, commas, semicolons or paragraphs, none of those structural strictures. It all makes sense, right?

Then why do you insist on calling me a bilingual translator? Why are your job postings inviting submissions from native Spanish/Chinese/Dari/Pashto speakers to work as translators, when you know full well that it’s apples and oranges? Translators write; interpreters and bilingual individuals speak.

Speaking of writing, how difficult is it for you or your staff to compose a sensible sentence to say what you really mean? If you want an interpreter for a call center or for tech support, say so, don’t ask for a translator. If you want a bilingual who can translate your documents, software, etc., use the word TRANSLATOR. Repeat after me: translators translate and write.

American businesspeople pride themselves in being pragmatic, direct, sensible and in delivering for the bottom line. That’s why I’m speaking to you in your pragmatic and direct and sensible language: call us for what we are and what we do. When in doubt, speak to us first. Thank you.

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Filed under Bilingual staff, Bilingualism vs. Translation, Misinformation on interpreter role, Misinformation on translator role, Writing skills