Tag Archives: American Translators Association

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.

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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.

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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

Cut through the maze: Tips on hiring a translation provider

As your company expands locally and overseas, hiring is not limited to bringing new employees on board —outsourcing to small translation businesses when needed can be a lifesaver if done right. Contracting a language services company for the first time can be a daunting experience when you don’t know anyone in the industry. Who do you turn to for referrals? How can you screen? Who vets the professionals who say they can translate your marketing collaterals, your website, your tradeshow signage?

Hiring an independent translation provider is not much different than hiring a new electrician or an interior decorator. Surely you don’t just crack your yellow pages book open and start dialing AAA Translations on a whim, right? The following paragraphs should be helpful in guiding you through the maze of options and help you to weed out the marketing hyperbole to know exactly who you are hiring and what you are getting in return.

Train your hiring eye on a provider from several angles

Let me start with a personal story. Two years ago, I was looking for a floor installer to set a new floor in my recently purchased condo. I did my due diligence: scanned prices for materials and called 3-4 different floor installers out of a list provided by a local retailer, who didn’t offer to endorse any in the list. During my calls, I asked for particulars and a quote. Three of them visited my place and offered a written quote. Finally, I chose the lowest quote, the installer came and installed the floor as promised. But he was very slow on follow-ups, I had to hold payment temporarily due to his ordering the wrong materials and arguing with the retailer over it. Did I get the floor installation I wanted? In a way, yes, but the customer service experience left a bittersweet taste. Would I do business with this provider? Definitely not.

What was my problem? What did I not foresee? After all, I researched prices for flooring and looked up a handful of installers…but I focused a bit too much on price. Being fairly new in the area, I had no one to ask for recommendations. What would I do differently? I would focus more on (a) getting recommendations and (b) asking information about satisfied customers served by the installer and worry less on getting the lowest bid.

When faced with a need to translate brochures, websites, manuals and the like, many businesses intuitively reach out to other businesses for recommendations. Unlike services such as roof repair, tax preparation and office remodeling, language services such as translation are invisible to the buyer because the product, the language the translation is written in, is usually an unknown variable. A client of mine serves the language needs of a clinic in central Indiana. This clinic serves English speakers as well as Spanish and Burmese speakers. Except for Burmese-reading patients, nor the clinic staff or my client read any Burmese. So, for my client to know that the product —the Burmese translations— are any good is to rely on the reaction from Burmese patients.

So, many buyers of translation services go in blind, depending on promises of high quality translations from translation vendors. Is there a way to leverage this situation in your favor? Even if you don’t speak or read the foreign language, you can still control the screening of language providers and get the best bang for your buck…and happy customers who come to rely on your company literature in multiple languages.

I have compiled a short list of recommendations to help you out in your search for the best candidate for your translation job. The objective is to gain a clearer picture of the language services industry and keep you on the driver’s seat.

Call a professional association first. Professional translators and reputable translation companies are usually members of a professional association and have to abide by a code of ethics. The American Translators Association is the entity representing language professionals that have passed a certification exam, have university degrees or have undergone special training. Its members have provided language services for a number of years and are generally qualified to write documentation at a college or business level. ATA has regional affiliate offices called chapters and provide free access to a comprehensive directory of translators, interpreters and language service companies. In NE Ohio, visit http://notatranslators.org/ for a list of local language service providers.

Call your local chamber of commerce. Many translators and translation companies are members of a local chamber of commerce and are involved in their activities. Take advantage of this resource by getting in touch with your local chamber of commerce.

Call a competitor. Maybe one of your competitors has a webpage in a foreign language. Call him up and find out what he did about screening and selecting their language service provider. When requesting a referral, ask what priorities they applied in the selection, how they measured the provider’s performance and whether their customers were happy with the final product (the translation).

Ask for references. If you already have a language services provider in mind, via referral, recommendation or previous experience, ask for solid references of past work. Specifically, make sure to ask how they handled errors, mistranslations or complaints by customers, how responsive and sensitive to your customer’s needs they are, and how willing they are to learn about your company.

Look beyond bilingual. Many language service providers promise translations of any type of document in any known language. Since translation involves writing, ask for verifiable samples of translations. By verifiable I mean original translations that haven’t been lifted or scraped off of websites, original translations from real-life satisfied customers, and translation copy that responded to the business needs of the customer. Translation is a specialized writing skill not entirely dependent on bilingualism. Respectable professional translators are excellent writers. Be wary of interpreting companies or full-time interpreters who offer translations, as well as bilingual professionals with no previous successful writing experience of a professional (i.e., published) level.

Look for a matching skill set. Even in the world of professional translators, not every translator or translation company is well suited for all types of documents or websites. Look for providers with proven experience in your industry or in a sister industry. Avoid jacks and jills of all trades in this respect. If you are a hospital that performs clinical trials, for example, look for a provider with expertise in that kind of medical documentation.

Last but not least, here’s a step you can take to be in control of who you hire as your translator even if you don’t know the foreign language: ask for a written sample. Not a translation, but a short piece of original writing in English about your business or industry. For example, if you are a manufacturer, ask the translator or language services provider to send you a 200-word composition about the kind of products you make. How does this help you? First, it is in English and you can gauge how good the writing is. Second, it shows how familiar and comfortable the provider is in writing about your industry or product. Third, it tells you the level of interest the provider has in working for a company like yours.

As with many other hiring scenarios, you will want to make sure that your language services provider is someone who provides good service, who will be loyal to your customers and who will solve a particular problem in your organization, not create one. Even if you don’t speak or read a foreign language that your company needs, you can still maintain control over the screening and hiring process of a language specialist that will hopefully become a long-time associate and, like any other good employee, will mirror your hard-earned good reputation and business image for years to come.

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Filed under English writing test, Selection of language providers, Vendor management