Category Archives: Public relations in translation

A day in the life of a 21st century translator

I’m not your vanilla-type translator. I’m not a conventional writer. Keen-eyed readers of my blog might have noticed that I never capitalize Every Single Word in my blog headings. I march to the beat of my own drum. However, I didn’t start like that at all. I thought I would be translating articles, business documents or similar media day in and day out for a corporation or organization after I earned my diploma.

Twenty five years ago, with a bachelor’s degree in English and Translation Studies in hand, I did not have one or two specializations in mind. Although I had studied the basics of Law for four semesters as part of the translation studies’ curriculum, I only knew I didn’t want to be a sworn translator nor a bilingual officer of the court (called perito bilingüe in Argentina at the time) nor did I want to specialize in legal translation (as in law-related translations).

The two main forces that shaped my professional decisions over those 25 years were not creativity, inspiration, following a particular leader or influencer or discovering the holy grail of selling professional services. No, sir. The two factors that drove me to where I am today as a diplomate translator were a) market demands on my services and b) my own intellectual interests.

There you have it then: I’m not a translator who just writes translations day in and day out. Today, Thursday, May 5th, 2016, is representative of what I do:

  • Write and deliver a rush 400-word corporate translation by 11:30 a.m.
  • Finish a medical transcription in Spanish and then translate it into English for delivery by noon
  • Insert newly translated paragraph in two InDesign documents, prepare deliverables (PDF files for printing) and deliver them before 7:30 p.m.
  • Review the typesetting of a corporate slogan I had translated into Spanish weeks ago and send the annotated PDF file back to the customer, with pertinents recommendations to their desktop publisher for improving copy of the same corporate slogan in RTL (right-to-left) languages such as Arabic and Hebrew.

Translation courses and BA/MA programs for the 21st century emphasize the use of software tools to manage projects, terminology lists and translation memories. These courses also include practical instructions on project management (a related career choice for translators), software localization (another related career) and business aspects of the profession, such as marketing tips. All these components are important and have a place in a translator’s career, but they should not be taught nor emphasized at the expense of a thorough, critical and lively discussion of the craft of translation. After all, a translator is a craftsman. It’s the writing, not the tools, that make a translator, whether in this century or in the millenia to come.

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Filed under Baccalaureate degree, Diplomate translator, Professional development, Project Management, Public relations in translation, Spanish DTP, TEnT tools, The craft of translation, Writing skills, Writing skills

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.

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

Please be patient with us translators

Translators and translation agencies are an interesting bunch. Sometimes we act like second or third children too eager to please our elders. Every single website promoting translation services almost invariably offers the same thing: hundreds of languages and thousands of translators and interpreters at your disposal. No subject matter is too esoteric or insignificant, no document too small or too unimportant. We aim to please.

Some of this eagerness is wholly sincere: we do care about languages and about precision in writing the best translation copy for you. But this desire to meet your demands may also betray a deep insecurity: we swim in a sea of saturated language service providers, with many bilingual amateurs and self-aggrandizing entrepreneurs looking for the next success story and fighting for customers like you, attaching to your business like remoras. We are afraid to be undervalued, underappreciated and ignored by you.

This insecurity drives us to show a little resentment towards amateur translators and Johnny-come-latelies who will snatch clients from us. It’s like a Cold War movie or a poor man’s John Le Carré novel: we want to rescue you from them as James Bond, but we end up being a copy of Johnny English instead.

The translation industry is highly fragmented, with very large language service providers (LSPs in our jargon) gobbling up the large government and corporate contracts because they have the marketing muscle and the human resources for them. In America, as well as in many other industrialized nations, the bulk of the translation services providers consists of small businesses, 5 to 50 strong, some being general-purpose agencies and some boutique translation companies. The rest is individual practitioners. Unlike milk producers in California, our industry does not have a slogan like got milkand TV campaigns to bring awareness to the powerful resource we can be for your company.

In this sea of confusion, it’s commonplace to see providers overpromising, overreaching and sometimes underperforming, which hurts other, better prepared providers. So, if that has been your experience, your new, better qualified translation provider may have to start from scratch to rebuild your trust in our services. Hence my request to be patient with us multilingual folks.

I recently penned a comment to a colleague’s sincere plea to improve and unify our public relations efforts and remind others out there that human translation is far better than machine (or software-driven) translation. This is what I wrote:

Subscribing to the right trade and business magazines and newspapers also helps to be aware not just of what’s going on with translators and interpreters elsewhere, but also with sister professions, such as graphic designers, information designers, technical communicators and writers, and so on. Many of our struggles as a profession are not unique to us, and knowing what other trades and professions are doing in the public arena can be very informative, educational and helpful.

After reading an article by graphic designer Ilise Benun in the HOW magazine, regarding how to negotiate fees for freelancers, I contacted her for permission to use parts of her article in my blog (wordsmeet.wordpress.com). She graciously granted it, and she’s now one of my LinkedIn contacts.

We need outside speakers at our ATA chapters and annual ATA conferences to learn what others are doing to bring not just attention but honor and respectability to our profession. We are too isolated. Isolated people tend to believe too much in their own fears and paranoia. We become so hungry for solutions that anyone with a megaphone and charisma can sell us their agenda.

I don’t think we should approach PR from our fears of being undervalued or ignored as a storied profession, as any fear-based campaign can become a self-fulfilling prophecy and undo our best intentions and efforts.

So, next time a translation company or translator comes knocking, please be patient. They’re trying to be as helpful as they can in a competitive and fragmented world.

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Filed under Customer relationship, Public Relations, Public relations in translation, Reputation

Yes, I am a premium translator

Premium shoes by Louboutin

Christian Louboutin black pumps with their hallmark red soles

During a short vacation in London in March 2009, I came across a book, The Tao of Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, written by Mary Buffett and David Clark. It’s a small pocket book, but I felt I needed it. I started reading the first few pages on the flight back to Cleveland, then left it in my library for a while. A long while.

21 months later, I found myself in need to read something else besides The World of Words and God is not Great. Perhaps I could find something that would help me understand better the mind of the businessman. I am no stranger to the concept of business, since I went to a business high school. I know the basics of reading balance sheets, understanding return on investment and keeping low debt.

I resumed my reading at Rule 23 (“Anything that can’t go on forever will end”). On Rule 25, Buffett says that accounting is the language of business. One of the variables in any business is cost, which has to be a small percentage of your revenue to make any type of profit. Cash flow is another variable to keep an eye on. Perhaps your costs are low but if you have a cash flow problem (ie, your sales are mainly seasonal, such as snow removal), then the business will not survive unless you increase sales or leverage it heavily.

I kept this point, that accounting is the language of business, in the back of my head as I continued reading tonight. In Rule (or Chapter) 33,  Buffett talks about how corporations grow by buying other companies and he sees such companies in two categories. The first one includes companies that have what he calls a durable competitive advantage. The second category includes what he calls commodity-type businesses, which he characterizes as companies “with low return on equity and erratic earnings.” I will attempt to translate into layman’s terms these two categories: category 1 is comprised of companies that have a high-value product or service, thus standing out from the competition in the long term; category 2 is comprised of companies that offer low-price products or services and get a very thin margin of profitability. They make money by selling in bulk.

Now, allow me to extrapolate these two categories to translation companies. Category 1 language service providers offer a high-value, high-priced service. This high price is due to the fact that their service is a durable competitive advantage, it adds value to your own product or service. This value is high because it can generate a durable business relationship or partnership, regardless of the economic or industry ups and downs in America or elsewhere.

Category 2 language service providers, on the other hand, offer a low-priced product or service because it does not add value. It is predicated on high volumes and low returns for the provider. The provider’s relationship with you is only as durable as its margin of return, which is razor thin due to the highly competitive nature of today’s translation market. Because this provider knows you can replace him with another low-cost provider at any time, there is no built-in loyalty in their relationship or partnership with you and he or she will try to lock you in with an upsell, such as a proprietary project management tool or CAT tool.

Compared to most translators that you can find on auction-style portals such as Proz, Translators’ Café, ODesk or Elance, I am expensive. The values I offer you are trust in your company, a durable partnership and enthusiasm for your product or service. My excellent writing skills are the frosting on the proverbial cake.

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Filed under Offering premium-level service, Public relations in translation, The business of translation