Category Archives: Advertising

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.

4 Comments

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

Seeking customers and the animal way

I have had time to listen to marketing experts at ATA conferences and I have also read their advice on well-written articles, listicles, self-promoting tweets and blogs. To most of these experts, the situation is binary: either you seek customers or you don’t. In the former, they’ll guide you through the steps, but you’re risking your future if you ignore their advice, meaning that you aren’t that keen on seeking new customers.

In this world of the marketing expert, you’re either actively seeking new customers, promoting your practice through ongoing blogging and social media and attending trade shows, or you aren’t really serious about acquiring new targets and raising your income. Their collective advice is to seek out new prospects aggressively. Even a self-professed introvert who works as a life coach told me recently on Twitter that public speaking (that is, the art of speaking in public) also involves networking and self promotion. I’d hate to prove her wrong, but I will.

Even marketing experts who trawl (or troll, depending on your definition) the world of professionals have advice for those of us who don’t feel comfortable with networking. I have read their arguments and techniques, which are ultimately an extrovert’s advice for extroverts about marketing themselves repackaged and labeled “Networking for Introverts.” Again, this binary or, rather, tunnel vision, is disappointing, coming from people whose livelihood depends on teach others how to network. Sometimes I think they are living and preaching a religion called networking.

Unlike them, however, I find great guidance in the animal world.

Puma lion of the Andes

Having spent countless hours watching documentaries by National Geographic and the BBC, especially those beautifully narrated by the late David Attenborough, I have found that some traits animals, big and small, display to feed themselves, procreate and raise their young, and to survive, are worth observing and, to a reasonable extent, applying to our professional lives.

The African lion eats every 6 days. Other large cats (the cheetah and tiger) have similar eating habits. Large herds of antelope and wildebeest roaming the plains on their annual treks are often followed by prides (groups of lions) waiting for their chance to strike and score one of these large preys. There is a rhythm to these movements tied to how often the lions hunt and eat, but it’s not just the travel of moving prey that govern how these large cats hunt to eat, but also the rains and droughts. Drought in one place means herbivores like wildebeest and elephants have to move elsewhere for grass; hence, lions have to follow these rolling restaurants in order to secure sustenance and survival.

These hunters don’t advertise their intentions, however. They don’t come to an antelope and say “Hi, there; I’m a lion and I’d like to take you out to dinner. Or lunch, whichever you prefer. I can put you down for, say, 11 a.m.?” No, these hunters hide, their spots concealing them in the tall grass, their soft-padded paws allowing them to approach their prey unnoticed, at least until it’s too late for the stalked herbivore to escape unharmed.

Lions do announce their presence in at least two ways: when a lionness calls her young and when a lion rumbles his powerful growl, which goes on for miles, to intimidate other prides and to sow fear among prey animals in the dark.

Eagles, vultures, frigates and owls, among other bird species, take on projecting a powerful presence, with some variations in their approach. Peregrine falcons, for instance, attack bats as these exit their safe caves, but the falcon singles out one bat, not several, to hunt down. By contrast, a spider casts an almost invisible net to hunt not just one, but several insects. There’s even a spider species whose web can snag a bat!

Speaking of spiders, some, like the jumping spider, observe its prey from a distance, then jumps to catch it. Other spiders, like the trapdoor spider, hide in a hole on the ground covered by a trapdoor. As soon as the victim crowls by, the spider catches it fast. These are some of my observations, but are the parallels to seeking customers that I’ve gleaned?

  • There is no universal way to find a suitable customer; find the ways that you feel most comfortable with and excel at them.
  • Customers come in different sizes, so you might need to do some self-examination to find out what size you are so as not to overextend your efforts in going for the wrong size.
  • Customers aren’t just economical targets; they are human, like you. Instead of being aggressive, how about being persuasive?
  • Customers, like roaming wildebeest and elephants, don’t like to be followed around as they can smell your networking intentions and will likely flee in the opposite direction. Maybe it’s best to observe and learn about them from afar, then approach with caution when they show their vulnerable side.

Some hunters hunt in packs, other hunt alone. Likewise, some of us translators like to approach a prospect alone, at our pace. We are not “wasting” an opportunity nor are we being “too slow.” Some translators work best in pairs or small groups while others prefer to do it all themselves. Different strategies are applied according to their nature.

Pumas are solitary

We can learn a great deal from animals, insects and others among our fellow inhabitants of this planet. Nature spent millions of years refining their survival skills and their lifestyles, and so it did with us. Instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, we could start listening to nature and find ways of applying what we learn to our professional and personal lives.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, ATA, Customers, Marketing, Networking

The awkward departure of a former ATA media representative

The American Translators Association, a non-profit professional organism with a membership of approximately 11,000 in the United States, Canada, Europe and other countries around the world, is undergoing another set of growing pains. Its Board of Directors is made up of volunteers, most of whom are independent translators or small business owners like the readers of this blog.

Established in 1959 by a small number of New York City translators, ATA grew almost exponentially in the following decades. It currently has strong programs to reach out to novice translators and schools. Its media and public relations program has achieved important milestones in the last 15 years, thanks to driven people such as Chris Durban, Lillian Clementi and Kevin Hendzel, the latter becoming ATA spokersperson.

However, the ATA PR machine has undergone some painful internal motions in recent years, which culminated with the sudden resignation of its spokesperson, Kevin Hendzel, in 2012. He was replaced by Dr. Jiří Stejskal (no the ice hokey goaltender), a small businessman, owner of CETRA, with main offices in Elkins Park, PA. Mr. Stejskal is also a former ATA president.

A recent article published in the online site of The Economist quotes Mr. Stejskal thus:

“Machine translation” is the next step. Computers learn from huge databases of already-translated text to make ever-better guesses about how to render whole chunks from one language into another. Translators used to scorn this, seeing their human judgment as irreplaceable. Now, says Jiri Stejskal of the American Translators’ Association, it has won respectability.

This seemingly innocent statement caused a firestorm in the Yahoo! ATA Business Practices forum and in LinkedIn’s ATA discussion group this week, initiated by Mr. Hendzel:

Hendzel 1

When I first saw it, I assumed that it was sharing a link to an article about the ATA. Many translators did just that. It wasn’t until days that the reactions began to appear. Some commented on the outrageous quote, which many took as the ATA’s official position on MT (machine translation) having gained respectability. Mr. Hendzel, as it is his custom, rehashed his past role as ATA spokesman for a decade and how the ATA and translators in general had gained greater recognition during that time. At least, until 2012, when he resigned as spokesman. He further recited well-worn lamentations about the sad state of ATA in the field of public relations and the overall mismanagement  perpetrated by members of the current ATA Board. The initial posting collected a thread of about 45 comments, some thanking Mr. Hendzel for bringing up the topic and others disagreeing with him.

I also participated in the discussion. Full disclosure: at first, I complained about the misquote and asked that Mr. Stejskal offered an explanation:

My first comment on the matter.

My first comment on the matter.

A second reading of the quote in question changed my mind. The quotation marks surrounding Machine Translation had thrown me off, and I erroneously attributed them to Mr. Stejskal. It was time to call for a step back. Is it possible that the writer’s stile was at fault here? I concluded that the article required a second or third reading.

 

I was confused, and doubts about blaming this “PR disaster” (according to Mr. Hendzel) on Mr. Stejskal deserved further analysis and cooler heads:

Hendzel 6 - My doubts about the quote

Hendzel 4 - Mi admission of error and trying to strike a moderate tone

The discussion was boiling and not resolving anything. However, commenters were civil toward each other, despite the fact that clouds of doubt and something more, undefinable as yet, were mounting and hovering over the debate.

There were many sensible comments and I added what usually drives me to discuss things. I also sensed an agenda after carefully rereading the initial posting that started the thread: Why is Mr. Hendzel criticizing the ATA spokesman for saying the wrong thing? Why is he making Mr. Stejskal responsible for “killing our primary message”?

Hendzel 5-mod - Keeping cool heads

Before the reader arrives at wrong conclusions, this is not about the nice and sensible things I said. Since the thread includes 45 comments and due to the impracticality of quoting every single one of them, I’m using judgment to insert the ones that I think are necessary for my discussion on the matter. Nor is it my purpose to rant against anyone involved in the long conversation. I want to present the most salient facts for those interested precisely because it touches on the public image of the professional entity I belong to as a translator. From my exchanges with Mr. Hendzel since 2011, I knew him to be a consummate self-promoter, a superb presenter and a very articulate spokesperson. Behind all that, however, I could sense a tendency to indulge in hyperbole and extreme comparisons bordering on demagoguery. I pointed that to him on several occasions, both in public and in private exchanges. Therefore, that exposure cued me to some purpose in his carping against the current ATA spokesman. I considered the discussion another exercise in futility and kept my thought to myself.

First, upon Mr. Hendzel’s resignation in 2012, ATA had to find a new spokesman and Mr. Stejskal stepped in. Media interviews don’t always go the way the interviewee intended and it’s up to the journalist or editor what comes out as the final version in print (or on the air). That’s what seemed to have happened with The Economist paragraph. The portrayal of machine translation (MT) as given in the article does not represent ATA’s position on the matter. Second, ATA lost its paid media adviser when it defunded the media outreach effort.

Finally, some light at the end of the tunnel. Some much-needed clarity reached my thoughts and I thanked Ms. Clementi for the facts and her comments. The discussion was not going to end like so many others, however. It was not going to be another event blown out of proportion by hyperbolic statements. A fellow translator, James Kirchner, known for his sharp mind, wrote what he considered to be the motivation behind the whole thread by Mr. Hendzel. Summarizing his words, Mr. Kirchner said that Mr. Hendzel had misrepresented the Stejskal “quote.” Mr. Stejskal clarified the matter in the BP list that the paragraph in the article was not accurate and proceeded to repeat what he actually said to the journalist.

In Mr. Kirchner’s view, Mr. Hendzel is being unjustly critical of Mr. Stejskal and the whole argument is pointless: there is no crisis. Finally, Mr. Kirchner indicated 3 common threads in Mr. Hendzel’s press-related pronunciations in the past: 1) Mr. Hendzel and his team did a superb job as ATA liaisons with the media; 2) any other ATA media representative is incompetent, and 3) Mr. Hendzel prefers to criticize those in ATA who are working in his old position as spokesperson.

James Kirchner said what I was thinking, but with much more force and determination. The interesting thing about this is, I had said similar things to Mr. Hendzel in the course of other discussions in the last year and a half, with little consequence. So I started to ignore his postings. The ATA moderator for our discussion group reminded everyone of the netiquette rules: don’t attack anyone, be courteous, etc. Inside, I was a tad indignant because I didn’t want this uncovering of a self-absorbed individual go unnoticed. So I wrote this:

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I finally expressed my thoughts about the propagandistic tone behind the announcer of the thread, Mr. Hendzel.

I was courting a reprimand, I know. I said what was on my mind without naming names, but it was clear who I was referring to. Being reprimanded was not a present worry for me, though. Then Mr. Hendzel did the unexpected: he said he would resign from ATA this week. He further claimed the dangers ATA was facing due to the lack of real leaders and improper management. He lamented over the years he served to promote ATA, adding, rather puzzingly, that ATA was like the Apple computer going the way of Radio Shack. He promised to keep active in his blog and his parting words made reference to pursuing better options to head media efforts at other translators organizations.

Kevin Hendzel announced, with his hallmark pomp and circumstance, that he was leaving the ATA. He shared his conviction that the ATA is on a downward spiral to ruin and irrelevance but that he was going to be better off elsewhere.

So it seems that Mr. Hendzel had been smarting from his resignation as ATA spokesman, burning with desire to keep working in some media capacity but still harboring a deep resentment, contempt and disdain toward other ATA officers and marked animosity against Mr. Stejskal for reasons unknown to us.

I used to respect Mr. Hendzel precisely for the PR achievements he scored for the ATA. I remember the occasions that I would hear about the ATA and its spokesman, Mr. Hendzel, on some radio or TV interview. He did provide a great service to our organization. Then, the assumption of a new board of directors in the second decade of the 21st century changed things for public relations and for Mr. Hendzel. The Board and Mr. Hendzel didn’t see things eye to eye, the former later defunding PR and media efforts and the latter resigning in the aftermath in 2012.

Kevin Hendzel says that it was a sad day for him. Well, it was a sad day for me and for many others who witnessed how this otherwise intelligent and highly skilled professional decided to tear down his own legacy by tearing apart the current ATA spokesman and whatever other PR initiatives were started and achieved after his departure. It is a very grey and dull epilogue of his own making, a bland departure for a heretofore sterling man with an ego to match and who couldn’t bow down with grace and dignity.

The main problem for most was the misquoted ATA position on machine translation. Mr. Stejskal, fully aware of the commotion caused elsewhere in LinkedIn, wrote a candid, calm and complete explanation on the topic, which is now considered closed. As a result, ATA is requesting a clarification on the misquote from The Economist.

In the larger horizon of news events, we can be sure that ATA spokespersons will be quoted, misquoted, underquoted in different media. Other bloggers will comment on the issue, not all of them connected to the translation activity. And ATA will issue clarifications and gain more recognition and stature in response, I surely expect. That’s basically what the cooler heads in the LinkedIn discussion thread were asking all the time.

2 Comments

Filed under Advertising, ATA, Machine translation, Public image of translators, Public Relations, Public relations in translation

Cleveland could be a cosmopolitan city

I’m a Clevelander by adoption; I’m entering my 5th year as a resident in the area (west side of Cleveland proper) but I can’t yet feel the urban atmosphere as more than mere concrete bigness and hollowed-out glory that doesn’t seem to reach out and touch the world.

Cleveland and surrounding cities have many bright spots: worldclass museums and orchestras, as well as the famed Cleveland International Film Festival, now in its 39th anniversary. Several multinational companies, from Sherwin Williams to Lubrizol and Hyland Software, call the Greater Cleveland their home.

According to US Census 2010 figures, 12.1% of the population age 5 and older speaks a foreign language. Of that slice, 7.1% of adults 18 and older speak Spanish, 0.6% speak Arabic, 0.5% speak Chinese. Also, 0.9% speak a Slavic language (Polish, Serbo-Croatian, Ukranian and Russian). But Cleveland is not the only epicenter of foreign languages in Ohio. In recent years, the city of Dayton, OH, has become the home of 2,500 Aishka Turks, who speak Turkish.

ACS 2012 census reporter Cleveland OH (languages)

By most accounts, Cleveland is a multicultural hub, but you wouldn’t see it by reading the local newspapers or websites —unless you were specifically looking for a foreign-language website, that is. But Cleveland has a ways to go before being considered a truly dynamic cosmopolitan city.

Take exports, for example. Aside from some of the companies I just mentioned, I didn’t know about any local exporters until recently through an article published in Crain’s Cleveland Business (found here) in last June. The article, titled Companies have a world of options to enter export game, mentions several useful programs to help local companies export products, but fail to say anything about using foreign languages. Countries may have ports of call where you send your merchandise, and your company (if it is an exporter) may know all the forms to fill out to comply with the regulations of a foreign country, but a language is your portal to a foreign culture, which can come in handy to understand business transactions and practices in that faraway destination. Since you put so much stock on exporting and gaining new customers, thus improving your bottom line, shouldn’t you be paying attention to their language as a factor that can influence your earnings favorably?

Another area of potential robust growth is real estate. You would think that the saying “location, location, location” is only relevant to local clients or buyers, right? Not quite. In a July 18, 2014 article in the Mansion supplement of The Wall Street Journal, a foreign language can give real estate agents a competitive edge. For example, Nadia Rahmani, an agent with Jameson Sotheby’s International Realty in Chicago, is fluent in three foreign languages —French, Arabic and Spanish. In her estimate, 40% of her buyers in Chicago are international: “Even though they’re fluent in English, they’re more comfortable speaking in their native tongue.”

WSJ - Real-estate agents and different languages - 18 July 14

A similar circumstance is happening here, in the shadows: a real estate agent I know, Luba Kohut, speaks Ukranian. She told me that her Ukrainian has come in handy with some clients. But I wonder: where are the Ukrainian real estate brochures or websites? Are you listening, Howard Hanna? Imagine for a moment if real estate companies could market units in foreign languages, thus attracting the attention of foreign investors! Just look at what Dayton did.

Health care centers in America attract thousands of patients from all over the world. In our metro region, hospitals like Cleveland Clinic offer language assistance services by way of foreign language interpreters for international patients. However, how is a Brazilian patient supposed to know that she’s entitled to request a no-cost Portuguese interpreter? Even the otherwise informational page is —you guessed it— in English!

To recapitulate, Cleveland businesses, big and small, could learn a great deal about showing an international, cosmopolitan face to the world and to every visitor. A very good example is Lubrizol. If you go to the Lubrizol’s website, you are welcome by this splashscreen:

Lubrizol in 3 languages

Small businesses could do something similar, but COSE, the Council of Smaller Enterprises of which I was a member for close to 2 years, has no initiatives in that regard. Cleveland businesses need to adjust their attitude from a local mindset to a more worldwide one. Use foreign languages not just to network and find clients but also to show your sense of hospitality and humanism, which goes beyond language and cultural differences. And this attitude should not be an one-off event. I invite you to widen your vision to years, not just months, down the road. You don’t have to shed your unique city identity when you embrace a cosmopolitan attitude. If you agree, let your voice be heard at your local chamber of commerce or similar association.

But you could take direct action and put yourself on the map whenever there are international events in our city. Take the 2016 Republican National Convention that will attract thousands of press representatives from all over the world. If you play your language cards right, they might as well become your best brand ambassadors back to their home countries.

Cleveland and its metro area have some enviable advantages compared to other metro areas in the country, including reasonable property taxes, simplified ways to establish a corporation, low housing costs, lots of green spaces and the four seasons (even if we get snowed in once in a while). Don’t keep it to yourself, say it in a foreign language.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Brand awareness, Cleveland Metro, Cultural awareness, Public Relations

The promise of speed

I am an avid reader of science for public consumption. I am also an observer of ads in different media. Let’s face it, most of us dislike commercial messages interrupting our favorite TV show, but it’s a love-hate relationship. We want to be entertained more than informed.

One particular area of advertorial entertainment is the slew of auto insurance ads on TV. Shticks abound, such as the Farmers Insurance University with talented J.K. Simmons as their instructor with characteristic dry humor. Then there’s Dennis Haysbert in the Allstate spots, but he’s too serious for my taste. However, Allstate has Dean Winters, the very funny “Mayhem like me” star. Let’s not forget two of my least admirable characters —Flo of the Progressive ads and that irritating reptile in the Geico commercials.

For the State Farm singing skits, I haven’t forgotten them. “Like a good neighbor, State Farm is there!” I am sure many people find all of these entertaining and valuable in different degrees. They all promise one thing: comprehensive insurance that is easy on the wallet. And speed in taking care of your insurance claims.

Science shows that serve up facts with a side of personality are big business: Morgan Freeman in Through the Wormhole is one example. His voice lends credence to otherwise dry and dusty facts. I’ve been following Mr. Freeman’s career through several of his memorable and not-so-memorable roles, from The March of the Penguins to the forgettable Wanted. It’s the delivery, the cadence of voice that brings in a spectator, a reader, a buyer.

How do you want to capture your listener’s attention? You speak more slowly, with added emphasis in subtle ways. The opposite is true if you want to scare away listeners or viewers. Consider this: how many times have you understood the speech of the actor reciting the legal disclaimers in those TV commercials? Have you ever bothered to read the legal disclaimers in the same commercials? Why not? The font is too small, even in a big flat screen TV.

What does this say about the speed of delivery? Faster is not always better. In fact, faster may act as a repellent instead of an attractant to your ad, your service, your product, your reputation, your brand. You.

I remember an impromptu meeting of engineers, developers and translators at Intergraph in Huntsville, AL, in mid 1999. The manager in charge of software localization wanted to push the simultaneous release of the next version. In the past, he said, software localized (i.e., translated) in foreign languages waited for about 3 months to be released, which affected sales. The decision was then to shorten the localization time, making it a simultaneous delivery of software releases with all its attendant —and unintended— consequences.

Shortly after leaving the company, I still recalled that episode as an event where speed was more important than excellence. Faster deliveries seem to guarantee faster deals and shorter sales cycles. The cellphone industry is one prime example: Samsung brings to market a new model every 2-3 weeks by my calculation. In contrast, Apple debuts a new cellphone model once a year. Yet the iPhone’s market share is 15%. Not bad for a phone introduced in 2007. Nokia and RIM’s Blackberry, however, have been losing market share over the last few years. Yet the market pressures to come up with new models ever so often are too great to ignore, and the temptation to speed up products is very great.

Along with these faster products, documentation in multiple languages is rushed out the door. Unlike math calculations, that computer can perform increasingly fast, documents can’t be written in infinitely shorter times. Consider a short email of 10 words…you still need at least 30 seconds to write it. Maybe you type fast and can send out a 10-word message in 10 seconds. Good for you. Was that enough time to think about it? Maybe, maybe not. If all you needed to do was to acknowledge receipt of an important piece of information, all you had to do is type “Yes” and hit the Reply button. Nothing to think about. However, we can all agree that some of the most troublesome and dangerous emails contain a few words and were thoughtlessly sent out in the Internet ether. Once sent, you cannot easily undo it. So much for the benefits of speed.

Speaking of emails, I am reminded of a classical Apple ad published in 1985. Back then, modems were just a little faster than walking by today’s standards, but the capability of 1200 bits/second was a blazing speed at the time. Apple promises instant access in the ad published in the June 1985 issue of National Geographic:

Image

Apple promises instant access by using an Apple modem with the Apple II computer.

The concept of speed has become the concept of now. But this is nothing new. A proverb such as The early bird gets the worm accentuates the virtue of speed. But, is this really a virtue? Is it really advantageous to rise early always? I recently closed one of my most “productive” days last Friday by clocking in at 5 a.m. and clocking out at 40 minutes past midnight. I handled at least 4 projects in 4 different platforms, from SDL Trados to Adobe Illustrator. Was I feeling proud of myself? Sure. But nature charged me extra for the privilege by making me sleep in the next day: I woke up at 10:30 a.m.

That is not to say that promising speed does not have its place in business. Four days ago, one of my customers required a quick turnaround inside 21 hours for a 25,000-word project and offered me a portion of it. I ventured to offer up to 9,000 words in that timeframe, which was humanly possible and professionally feasible to me. Did I deliver on time? You bet. But that meant sleeping only 2 hours to meet the deadline without putting my mental abilities at risk.

We all know our strengths and weaknesses. We can be speed demons in some tasks and slow as a snail walkers in others, and that’s good. Our minds and bodies tell us, if we listen, when we can push ourselves to the limit and deliver in a speedy yet responsible fashion without abandoning excellence. Please notice that I haven’t used the word quality, not even once. I prefer excellence.

Today, where speed is king, let’s pause for a moment, smell the roses, take a cup of joe and consider that excellence is best achieved with calculated, measured pace. Suetonius’ invitation, Festina lente (more haste, less speed) could be more relevant today than we think.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Reputation, The business of translation

See spots run

All languages are equal, but some languages are more equal than others.

Paraphrasing the (in)famous quote from H.G. Well’s Animal Farm, «All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others,” I find myself thinking of a soup of random but oddly connected ideas: pigs, languages, words, and spots. Why spots? British painter Damien Hirst’s endless artwork collection of spots, carefully arranged color dots named after pharmaceuticals.

In my list of random ideas, there’s an undercurrent: commodification. According to Merriam-Webster’s, it means turning something that is not supposed to be a tradable object into a commodity. Look around in your house or office. Are there any objects that are uniquely wrought and made? Maybe that purple sweater knitted by grandma? Or perhaps that loaf of homemade bread you made two days ago? Did you make the bread from scratch? Of course. Where did you bake it? In an oven, a bread maker?

My mother used to bake homemade round breads and pastries for sale, fresh out of a brick-and-mortar hemispheric oven. My father built it for her in our backyard when I was a preteen. That oven was very useful to my mother for several months. I only cared for the pastries. Even though my father was no skilled bricklayer, his oven was similar to thousands of other mud ovens. Whatever we do with our hands remains unique, not line-assembled like a plastic toy or an SUV. Working things with our hands has many benefits but, how many people bake their own bread these days?

A mud oven

Take another commodity: books. A Gutenberg-printed bible in 1455 cost “the equivalent of three years’ pay for the average clerk” (from http://www.historyguide.org/intellect/press.html). Nowadays, you can get a nicely bound bible for 5 bucks or less. Thanks to industrialization, many handcrafted items became commodities and arrived in our homes. In mine, for example, most items are commodities: books, computers, kitchenware, clothes, pieces of furniture, CDs, DVDs, consumer electronics, foodstuff, rugs, office supplies, lighting fixtures, even the paint on my walls. But it’s not just objects that have been commoditized. Services such as electricity, water, cable Internet and phone service are all commodities.

The benefits of commoditization are evident: affordability, predictability of cost, ease of manufacturing, standardization of manufacturing processes, performance and delivery, ease of use, easy transfer of goods and services across borders, just to name the most important. For us, consumers, affordability and ease of use stand out.

Globalization made commoditization a truly international phenomenon. Almost overnight, there were no borders, tariffs were lowered, products, services and jobs began their fluid transfer among nations and territories. In America, we live an economic paradox: we have an unprecedented access to affordable goods from all corners of the planet, and we want products with better quality at lower prices. The downside is that we lose jobs to other nations in the process —not just China. If the goods we so prize were made in America, we would be paying several times over for them…and we wouldn’t be a happy lot, would we?

Works of art used to be unique. Paintings, sculptures and installations worth tens, hundreds of thousands of dollars, even millions of dollars, cover the walls and floors of many a museum in urban centers across the globe. Why are they so costly? Because they are unique. But then, we have another paradox: the commodified painting that is also expensive, intended for the wallets of the one-percenters.

Damien Hirst’s simultaneous exhibits in all 11 of Larry Gagosian’s galleries around the world consist of more than 300 spot paintings. These art objects come in different sizes and color palettes but share two themes: perfectly round color spots and grid distribution. Not all of these paintings were made by Mr. Hirst, however, but by his assistants. I saw some examples in the January 23, 2012 issue of The New York Observer this week. Granted, the paintings are mesmerizing in all their blahish glory. The most anyone paid for a Hirst spot painting, named 3 -(5-chloro-2-hydroxphenylazo)- 4, 5-dihydroxy-2, 7-naphthalenedisulfonic acid, was £1.8m (from http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Seeing-spots/24530). You can see a reproduction here and judge for yourself if this painting is worth more than 2 million dollars.

Damien Hirst's Valium (online reproduction)

But Damien Hirst is a well known painter, a brand in itself. His paintings draw higher-than-premium prices because of who he is and what he’s done, even though his spot paintings make you yell “My daughter could have painted thaaat!” Some art pieces are more equal than others, and so are other products or services.

Consider your product or service, how much it cost you to produce and deliver to market, and how much you price it. Even if it is a commodity, if your product or service is rare or unique enough, and useful enough, it will command a premium sticker price. Imagine your product to be a premium water bottle. Supermarkets stock those for $1.5o -$3.50 apiece. After a bottle is drunk and tossed into the garbage, what is its price? A few cents for recyclable content.

Consider now your product or service and the messages surrounding them that help to sell them or use them, such as ad copy, marketing collaterals, documentation, handbooks and instructions. How much value do they add to your product or service? Are they recyclable or transferable? In case you sell overseas, do the translations of said accompanying messages add value to your product or service?

Your product may look like millions of other products. Your service may sound like thousands of similar offerings. At a distance, all of them look the same, just like Damien Hirst’s spot paintings. Will Heinrich, The New York Observer’s resident art columnist, has this to say:

“…the medical-white canvases are decorated with perfectly round, appealingly candy-color spots…The colors, although sticking to a narrow, consistent palette, do not strictly repeat in any one painting, and they’re so precisely applied that the spots look like stickers…Even the white backgrounds stop perfectly short at the edges.”

Hirst’s formula to make his spot paintings unique was the unrepeatability of the color dots, which brings uniqueness to his commoditized art. Likewise, the texts that promote and sell your products and instruct on their use may as well share this distinctive trait of unrepeatability: your company style and tone permeates the texts to create the look and feel your customers have come to expect from your offerings. So should your translated materials. Your message —in English or in foreign languages— does not have to be a commodity just because it is printed on commoditized paper, html or pdf.

A skilled word artisan can make this possible by spotting the inherent and vibrant patterns in your writing, and then casting fresh servings of texts in foreign-language flavors that are pleasing to the eye of the discerning consumer. Whether it is an MSDS, a help file, a tool’s instruction manual or a brochure for your new service, don’t relegate them to your customer’s blind spot. Make them visible. Make them valuable.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Business of writing, Commodification, Style, Translation as art, Translation as value added, Value added

Mad Men

Homer Simpson parodies Mad Men

“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days,” wrote columnist Doug Larson. Men —and women— possess selective memory: we all like to remember the best bits of the past, to time travel back when the present looks and feels unbearable, sad or preposterous. That’s one reason behind movie remakes and TV shows such as Mad Men. The pleasant past feels more glamorous and acceptable because it is less noisy than our present.

Our harried present is a slave to quick turnarounds, yesterday deadlines and high productivity. In our lives, both personal and professional, we rush with an even faster step, a bouncier spring, towards a dazzling goal or destination. Once we arrive there, be it in the form of a quarterly sales number or a high manufacturing output, we seemingly can’t wait to be back on the road, to get our speed fix again. Software companies, cellphone makers and twitterers are racing toward the next build, the next device model and the next 140 characters with bated breath, as the squirrel being chased by a dog. So, up she goes on a tree only to gaze forward to the next tree.

Famed Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling is known for having sped from rags to riches in five years. But there was a 3-year span that separated the release of Goblet of Fire and the Order of the Phoenix. On the outside, it is generally assumed that an accomplished writer can churn out books with ease. In a TIME Magazine July 2005 interview with Lev Grossman, Rowling admitted that her writing could stand some editing:

I think Phoenix could have been shorter. I knew that, and I ran out of time and energy toward the end.

Regarding Goblet of Fire, Rowling added: “In every single book, there’s stuff I would go back and rewrite. But I think I really planned the hell out of this one. I took three months and just sat there and went over and over and over the plan, really fine-tuned it, looked at it from every angle. I had learnt, maybe, from past mistakes.”

The so-called new field of transcreation, which is none other than copywriting in a foreign language, involves penning slogans, taglines, brand names and other advertising copy that energizes the potential buyer-reader with the same conviction and desire as the English copy. Whether it is marketing copy, poetry, fantasy novel or health care benefits, writing is writing. Good writing can be motivated but cannot be rushed. Good writing follows the same goal but different morphologies in different languages. The phrase Just Do It doesn’t sound so snappy and hip in other languages. David Droga, chairman of Droga5, recently stated that “…for every iconic line like these, there are a hundred failures. Writing bad copy is easy, which is why the majority of advertising feels disposable.”

The translation industry is awash with technology-based promises of faster, higher productivity, perfect renditions in foreign languages, seamless software localization and priceless product placement in overseas markets. Stand back and listen to the noise before you make a determination. The ongoing crush that purveyors of language services have with their technologies conflate time to market with delivery readiness. As first impressions last for a long time, for good or ill, why rush a translated document to the market where it runs the risk of being seen as amateurish or careless by the consumer?

If you really care for your message to the customer, choose your translation writers carefully. Perhaps what you write is all they will know about you. Do you want them to base their buying choices on poorly written copy in their language? If you still think that writing is easy, here’s an exercise for you: write your life’s accomplishments in 3 minutes. It is not that easy, is it? You have to sit down and think about what words to use. After all, these are your accomplishments, you should feel proud of them. How will you communicate that pride, that swagger? What’s the difference between I did 3 years of accounting at Kohl Industries and In my 3 years at Kohl Industries, I streamlined the accounting department operations, achieved annual savings of $35,000 and modernized record keeping?

The only translators that are worth your time are those who care about your image. They don’t come cheap, but they enjoy writing with a purpose. A penny for your thoughts.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advertising, Marketing, Offering premium-level service, Translation as writing, Writing skills