Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Improving Human Translator PR

It may be easier if you first read my last post, the one about MT copy.

While only translator associations — perhaps with increased donations from their members and any human-reliant agencies who would wish to support us — have the leverage to commission and sustain a serious PR effort, we are not entirely powerless on our own.

We are all writers, sometimes good ones, sometimes also copywriters, and most of us have at least some understanding of business and marketing. Those who don't, on the other hand, are likely to be literary translators with superior writing skills or niche technical/scientific translators with the standing to make a difference.

Here are some pointers. There will be no specific examples because I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings. I'm not writing this to ostracize but to help.

  1. Our PR and marketing is often not professional enough.
    This is sometimes true even of high-profile translators who write about translation marketing. Their own can still be pretty low-key for their relative education and experience and somewhat plaintive or a little on the commodity side in its appeal. Besides, I've noticed self-esteem problems and even in the group typically referred to as established translators. Symptoms akin to the Stockholm syndrome have crept their way even there. Essentially, it's one thing to preach or theorize, another to just do it. I'm guilty of that myself, too.
    Non-professional PR and marketing has a tendency to lead to competition on bad factors. Price, turnover, flexibility or availability... not bringing value to the client's business but compromizing the translator's own. Or simply 'unique' selling positions as everybody else's. The latter thing is marketing solipsism: Professional quality and best prices only with Generic Language Vendor. Really?
    That isn't strong business copy. Clients use Google, and they know it says the same on everybody's website.
    Even if the copy does drive sales by leading the reader from A to B, it still doesn't match a professional service in league with doctors, lawyers, architects, financial advisors — or even the manufacturers of quality products. They supply ample data for the copy reader to base his decision on — and no doubt make sure the data shows the service or product in a positive light — but leave the decision to you, and they never beg or even scream, 'pick me! pick me!.'
    The freelance first person (I... me... my...) may help show a real person and establish an emotional connection with consumers especially, but it doesn't inspire respect in B2B (business-to-business) presentation. It also generally makes sure you either have to stay modest or risk being mistaken for an egotic person.
    Similar things can be said of casual photos. Well, yeah, in some situations they can help establish an emotional connection with a consumer or even a human inside a corporate client's structure. But they lower your profile when they are used as the main picture on your website or in your profile. Unless you're selling to creatives, and especially if you're selling to lawyers and bankers, suit up.
    Regarding overall presentation: If it looks like an intern, talks like an intern (etc.), it is a what, accomplished professional?If you act like the client's intern, you'll be treated accordingly despite having, say, two master's degrees, several memberships and accreditations and 8-15 years of experience (or 20-30). This may be a little difficult to manage, but just because you haven't had a boss in 20 years doesn't mean you haven't been promoted. Perhaps you haven't earned a boardroom position (but if you have anything comparable to an M.B.A. degree, it's basically similar to sitting on the board of a small company), but you've moved from Junior Subassistant to Experienced Professional as a minimum.
    It's difficult to introduce ourselves as highly trained professionals when we're writing about our bilingual homes and our passion for languages, too.
    Some people doubtless are swayed more by products created with passion, but people want to pay for knowledge and skill, not for perennial holidays or place of birth. 'Charging your money for our passion.' Or worse: 'Taking your money away so we can keep enjoying our hobby.' I honestly haven't tested if it works, but I'm concerned.
  2. The widespread belief that clients aren't interested in translation or don't want to hear about it is bollocks.Precisely the fact that so many people fancy themselves translators and try their hand at translation despite not quite being qualified, the way people come to translation from other fields sometimes later in life, it means the profession is intellectually attractive.
    More than that, it's like a childhood dream.
    All over the world, mothers and fathers are spending hard-earned cash to teach their children English or French or something else as a passport to better reality. It isn't as good as an American or British passport or one from La République, but it's second best.
    People learn German or Russian to gain access to the market, and on American websites se habla español. And Latin translation still exists in 21st century.
    Busy high-level executives may lack the time to hear out the tale, and they may already have heard it anyway, but that's just not the same as not being interested. (By the way, you can indeed sometimes convince executives more easily by using fewer words in your copy.)
    Similarly harmful is the belief that translation quality — as something supposedly unmeasurable — should be left out of the equation, leaving in the price and customer service. Good luck competing on availability, flexibility and ever-increasing package of added services in your offer (or broad-smiling compliance with silly or irrelevant requests).
  3. Translators should stop making the ridiculous claim that just simply being a professional translator or having a translation degree makes you a whole different entity from and above a talented bilingual. Even one with splending language competence and writing skills.
    Like the client is supposed to believe that! Like it's even true!
    How can we even hope to get away with it rather than making the client feel like his intelligence is being insulted — or like he's not so sure about our own?
    Next thing we may as well say that being able to translate doesn't make you a translator.
    Because what? Because registering as 'Jackie Translations' or 'Jimmy Language Services' does that? Just drop that cliché.
    Instead, explain what your education and accreditations mean, how hard it was to get them, what they mean for the client, i.e. what features they have and what benefits they bring.
    Bonus if you can deliver such copy in a matter-of-fact editorial style without either blowing your own trumpet or pleading with the client.
    Make it good to read, relevant, keep the flow and at least avoid any blatantly untrue hogwash to the tune that only professional translators can ever hope to produce good translation.
    In the words of the father of modern advertising (David Ogilvy): 'the customer is not a moron — she's your wife.'
    And no jabs at the client's trilingual secretary — who may very well be the client's wife, just for the record. In any case, she's a trusted aide and may well have more education and superior skills than quite a couple of professional translators. She is also the single most logical target for a translator's direct marketing efforts.
    For similar reasons, quit marketing nativeness as your core USP. We've already discussed the why — if you make yourself essentially a professional native speaker, rather than a professional linguist, then no wonder businesspeople might not want to pay more than twenty bucks an hour for your services. Unlike a plumber or hairdresser, whose work takes some real skills. (Don't get me wrong, it's great if you're native, it's just that your competence and status come from your education and experience.)
    And no jabs at the client's non-linguist or non-native engineers, lawyers and doctors, either.
    Don't be surprised, shocked or dismayed when they aren't perfect translators or even writers, even in their own native languages, even if you aren't native and they are. If translating and writing is easy, then your job is easy, so quit expecting much more than the minimum wage or meh treatment.
    Again, those people are your potential allies and advocates in the client's organization, and very logical targets for your marketing, just like the client's polyglot of a secretary. They can even become your clients in a personal capacity when they need a paper translated or edited, or take you along when they get promoted or move on to a more international company. Before, you may need to prove that your Lilliputian is better than theirs without offending or alienating them.
    Alternatively, they may become your valuable consultants... or fellow translators, one day.
  4. Stop marketing so much on client service, flexibility and availability.
    You can't beat a good waiter at client service, nor can you beat a professional concierge at making yourself useful. And you will be competing there if you don't make translation your core service and core value. Get confident about the value of translation and respect translation. If you don't, who will?
    You're a translation professional, not a translation delivery professional or translated-file-conversion-and-troubleshooting professional or keep-the-formatting professional. Neither are you  a make-the-client-feel-good-about-his-bad-copy/glossary/previous-translation professional.
    You've got to draw a line at some point unless you want to be driving the client around and offering massage, not even just doing DTP at a fraction of rates earned by technicians for all your degrees and language/subject-matter experience.
    If you don't draw the line yourself with added services — or all sorts of tasks increasing inserted in job specifications by clients and agencies — don't count on your clients to do it. Why would a client not take you up on an offer you make? Why would a client not ask for or even say he requires things he knows you'll do? Even if those things are way below your qualifications?
    Again, you're a translation professional, not a meeting-the-client's-requirements professional.
    And no, the client will not necessarily respect you more for being amenable and taking over low-level office and technical tasks from his organization — if this means he can avoid wasting his own employees' time if yours is available free of charge for just the same thing.
    The client may like you — perhaps, to some extent. But respect you? Nope. Rather, the client will update his perception of you and base it on the nature and level of the services you provide.
    Don't delude yourself with notions of 'complete service'. Every major company needs someone to chair the board meetings and someone to sweep the floors. Nowhere does it say that the two tasks need to be done by the same personYour client does not need you to clean his ugly documents and repair his broken files or do his low-priority research and communications any more than he needs you to come brew the coffee or sweep the floors or answer at the client's HQ.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Two Sad Things about MT (+ Analysis of MT Copy)

Here are the two really sad things about MT:

  1. Companies will pay for MT — and the development of it, further research, staff to operate it etc. — in order to avoid having to pay translators.
  2. MT is now — ironically! — combatting its image of an easy thing to do, just like translation should. Not translation but MT is being presented as the respectable art or science which requires skill.

Look at Asia Online's banner close to the bottom of Pangeanic's blog post.

Here's also what they claim at AsiaOnline:

On the other hand, the complexity of high quality MT can be daunting. To succeed requires a significant amount of skill, a deep understanding of the different approaches to MT and MT technology, a deep understanding of the data used to customize MT and a range of tools, skills and knowledge that permit optimizing, managing, manufacturing and fine tuning of the data to deliver the highest possible quality. These skills are generally in short supply and are not available to most in-house. (Emphasis added.)

The text is a fragment of content-driven copy, i.e. text which still sells or achieves a PR goal (e.g. awareness, loyalty, incentive to switch), but does so through creating informative content rather than advertising.

Let me show you a couple of characteristic PR/marketing moments in the text. To avoid any misunderstanding: PR/marketing is not pejorative. It's not (necessarily) a dark sales ploy. It's persuasion and advocacy, and its techniques are often used without conscious deliberation by people who want to convince others of something. I'm not 'unmasking' here, just showing you how persuasion works here.

It 'leverages' scarcity, i.e. presents MT as rare goods, which sell better because demand outgrows supply.

It 'leverages' the techy side of MT by justifying the client in not being able to grasp it fully — it's too complex for you, don't worry, it's not your fault and you aren't any less a smart person if you can't fully grasp it. NOT: You can't hope to understand it, forget doing it on your own even if you're a full bilingual, just hire a professional and pay up — which is often the way we, translators, talk.

So, the MT guys keep the tech aspect well short of losing them the client's attention and interest. The result is respect and admiration rather than headache, loss of interest and dismissal of the idea as uncomprehensible and of doubtful viability. Which is different from what we, translators, achieve or even try. Rather, we tell the client we're necessary whether he likes it or not — which is not quite endearing — or we try to make ourselves useful, often in ways conflicting with self-respect, which clients and agencies do pick up on.

By contrast, look how MT dodges both!

The copy also still reassures the client that the highest possible quality can be achieved, even: 'delivered'. It would be unfair to make too much of 'deliver', since just about everybody else talks like that, and 'deliver quality' is pretty much an established collocation, but 'deliver' is still a bit of a marketing buzzword which 'leverages' mental associations with physical delivery (right in your mailbox, on time) or delivering on a promise.

In other words, the paragraph presents MT as something too complex for the average person or business to 'deliver' but still something a reasonable businessperson would want to use.

Like a good ad, the copy keeps the editorial style while unloading a whole slew of positive factors. It conveys just enough complexity to earn the reader's respect and concession of status, but not enough to make the reader lose faith in his own ability to make an informed judgement regarding its viability. Sort of like engine parameters in a sophisticated car ad or encyclopaedic details in a high-class food ad. See Ogilvy classics. I particularly have in mind the Rolls-Royce ad and the Guinness ad as good illustrations of the editorial/tidbit technique.

Other than a potentially transpiring notion that MT is capable of reliably achieving the highest possible translation quality — one can't disagree with the facts in that copy.

In short, they're doing their PR and marketing right. They're getting it right as far as copy goes.

The problem, from a translator's point of view, is that:

  1. A machine's skill to translate is valued. A human's is not.
  2. MT skills are clearly being the subject of a PR initiative to raise their profile, which means both awareness and status, plus positive emotions and associations such as respect, admiration, reliability and robustness.
  3. MT is an investment, human translation is a cost. Guess which one wins? Okay: Investment always wins over cost.
  4. R+D time and money, and marketing and PR budgets, go to MT and not human translation. There will be or already are clients who prefer — other things being equal — to put money in machine translation rather than human translation as a matter of preference.

Re: #2 but also in connection with #4, don't count on the MT-driven part of the 'translation industry' to raise the profile of human translation, make it respected, admired and well-rewarded. It's in their interest to keep the profile of human translation low — and lower — and raise the profile of MT instead.

Individual translations can't do that, either, because we don't have the 'leverage' and we didn't become translators to be half-time PR and marketing paraprofessionals.

Rather, it's up to translator associations to give human translators some serious PR. Can't do much of that when they rely on financing from MT-related companies, though.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Overwhelming Cheapness


You may already have faced some form of peer pressure to stop complaining about issues in the translation industry or pretend things are better — in general or for your specifically — than they really are. A number of colleagues, believing in the power of an individual, take it so far as to say that your rates and work satisfaction depend only on you.

Which is not true.

It certainly does not hold water in the real world. You can do a lot, especially if you have vision and energy and patience, but there are things you just can't do and things you just can't change. As a minimum, you can't actually wish physical objects into existence, as much as you can design them with your mind and craft them with your hands or direct others to make them, you can't make people act the way you want them to without a sufficient incentive, and you can't deny the laws of physics. You can fly, but planes are consistent with the laws of physics.

A popular meme, which goes back to a 19th century prayer by a Reformed theologian (the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr) says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It has been repeated time after time by theologians, politicians and other people, and Niebuhr wasn't probably the first person to formulate the thought in some version, either.

Wisdom — or shall we just say: common sense — requires that we know the difference at least exists. Common sense requires we acknowledge that it does. We may not have the knowledge and skills to analyse the difference in many specific cases, but common sense requires that we don't deny the existence of some factors which are beyond our control.

Determinism? Defeatism? Rejection of individual responsibility? Not at all! But the Earth would be a queer place if everysixbillionbody had the power to alter world economy according to his or her will in a heartbeat. To be reshaped a second later by anysixbillionbody and then back to where it was before and then... You get my point, don't you.

'Your rates depend only on you,' is rubbish unless you qualify it, at which point it stops making sense or being attractive. 'Your rates depend only on you within a subset of circumstances that are entirely within your control.' And what circumstances are those, anyway, if any?

As attractive as it may sound to philosophical idealists, it just doesn't hold water.

Limits beyond your control exist.


Let me now go back to an article I discussed six days ago from a different perspective: The Translator Approach in Translation Studies – reflections based on a study of translators’ weblogs by Helle V. Dam of the Department of Business Communication @ Aarhus University. The author discovered three things:

[1] In the selection of respondents, every effort was made to ensure a sample of translators with a strong professional profile, thus presumably at the high end of the translatorstatus continuum. Notwithstanding, the results of the studies consistently indicate that even these translators have relatively low occupational status;
[2] the bloggers invariably stress that there is a large income disparity and that a translator’s earnings depend entirely on his or her skills, expertise and professionalism; (emphasis added — and let's note that we're talking about a professional researcher's analysis of what was said by our colleagues equipped with quite some understanding of economy and business — nonetheless, the 'entirely' claim is manifestly wrong);
[3] bloggers, who are simply a subset of generally recognizable translators, would typically position themselves in the higher-income group, or at least higher rates — this is similar to how established or well-known translators generally claim to make good money. Except, like the author noted in the beginning, even prominent translators have relatively little status.

I will not be mentioning specific people here, but if you follow the 'industry' for a while, you will eventually get a hang of the numbers. Sometimes you'll just see a raw number without commentary, and it will make you think and work out your own conclusions. For example, you could conclude that it takes a star translator to approach the fee range of a generic accountant or small-time lawyer.

Some time ago, I witnessed a discussion in which some relatively high-charging and recognizable translators were awed by a €200 hourly rate (~ £160/$270), commenting that at that kind of rate you supposedly needed to be a yes person (i.e. your response to client requests should be: 'yes, and?', which would make you look childish if you really were to say, so don't), be available around the clock, never put a client on your waiting list, and talk to CEOs rather than ordinary managers.

My first thought was: €200 is very low for someone who's even allowed in the boardroom.

Generic accountants charge ~$200 (£120/€150) and generic small-time lawyers ~$300 (£180/€220) per hour ($500 and more for big shots and even $1000 for the stars), as do clinical therapists in the US. In the UK, some figures include a slighly unbelievable ~£500 (~$850) for lawyers (there exist ~£20 ones but anyway), ~£250 (~$420/€300) for doctors, ~£750 (~$1250/€900) for realtors, ~£150 ($250/€185) for psychologists and personal trainers, ~£90 ($150/€110) for plumbers, electricians and hairdressers.

Those are rates billed per hour, not actual earnings taken home by those professionals, especially as salaried workers or anybody else with a boss. Different professions have different costs of getting in and actually practicing, so disposable income may be lower where rates are higher.

Still, while individual translators can outperform lawyers and doctors financially, it takes a star translator to get close to the pay grade of a generic practitioner in other fields, with comparable education and experience. Despite the 'doctor' in name, a J.D. or M.D. (or LL.B.) is essentially equivalent to an M.A. (although an LL.M. or M.B.A. or M.Phil. will be slightly higher as an advanced Master's degree). If you have a Ph.D. degree in translation, languages or your subject matter, you probably have more education than your lawyer, doctor or accountant. Some translation exams and even memberships in associations may be as difficult as a bar exam, if not more, possibly on par with qualifying medical exams as to difficulty. The rest is largely the perception of the economic value of your profession, degrees and other qualifications, i.e. a perception of how little you should earn just because your degree is in arts in general and philology or linguistics or translation in particular, or because you are a translation practitioner and not a medical or legal one.

Let's imagine you charge in the vicinity of £0.30/€0.40/$0.50 per word — the star rate, as even established and sought-after translators mostly stop in the high teens or twenties at best, even from direct clients. Your marketing quite possible costs a fortune, if not in money then in time. You proofread, edit and revise yourself approximately one million times, and your rates probably include proofreading or full revision by a colleague. Perhaps they even include some other people's fees, such subject-matter consultants and DTP specialists, and resources and stuff you need for research, such as subject-matter articles, official norms and other things you purchase online without charging your clients. Not to mention your subscriptions, CPD, membership fees, attendance fees and more. You must have had a ton of business and marketing training by then. And there's possible a lot of paperwork and other bureaucracy than at lower pay grades, which claims your time and saps your life force away. The texts are probably not that easy. If they are, there's still the style guide, corporate voice guidelines, obligatory reference material...

So how fast can you translate in such circumstances? Five hundred words an hour? Roughly, that'd be about £150/€200/$250 per hour as long as the editing and reviewing didn't slow you down below the 500 words per hour (which it often does, but sometimes there are surcharges for that).

And how much time do you put in that you don't get to charge for? Phones, lunches, forms, admin, tech matters, actually doing that CPD, attending subject-matter and client-industry conferences, networking and so on. Not only few of the foregoing are free to attend, they also cost your time.

At least CPD and some of the conferences and subscriptions help you develop in some areas you genuinely care for, but the rest means you're gaining knowledge and experience as a semi-amateur business-and-marketing wizard without a degree or much else in the way of a relevant qualification in the field — which, among other things, means junior, entry-level status.

Here's what you can read in an article on the website of Local Version, an agency which took it on itself to stop the tide somewhat, while still not charging or paying any spectacular money (emphasis added):

Professional translators earn 30% below average salaries in Western countries. 
(...) So that senior, busy, English to French translator will earn around €16,000 a year. This is 25-30% below average disposable salaries in France or Canada, in spite of the fact that good translators typically have at least one university degree and 8+ years of professional experience. Rates in other languages are often lower.

(By the way, it's a fact that prices are low, but demand is not decreasing. In fact, prices are falling even though demand is growing.)

Finally, typists take $0.05 per word and $25 per hour (possibly including some editing at that rate, but you don't hire a fully qualified editor to type). Six cents is what American agencies try to pay translators, sometimes less. I've been offered that for a translation from mediaeval Latin to English, some 500 words due by midnight, involving history, geography and international relations. (FYI, I had quoted $0.60, which wouldn't have produced an amazing per-hour rate given the amount of time it would have taken, and Polish agencies actually pay much better than that for even non-urgent Latin.)


I lack the training to conduct proper economic analysis, so this will largely be guesswork and intuition on the basis of personal experience and what I read about the 'industry', but there may be multiple causes:
  • Translation value perceived to be low.
  • Translator value perceived to be low.
  • Notably the translation/translator being denied credit for any return of investment enabled by the translation, said credit going entirely to people responsible for the business venture or the original text.
  • Psychology: freeconomics, popularity of free-riding, decreasing levels of intelligence and analytical/critical thinking ability, increasing levels of self-absorption, self-importance and entitlement. People expect freebies because by now everybody has figured out how easy it is to get them, which can be made even easier by feeling special. People are spoiled every day by reality shows and other media glorifying averageness, by social media turning everybody into a star by enabling image management tools, consumer legislation and information spoiling people and encouraging irresponsible and narcissistic attitudes, or by sellers and providers falling on their knees before buyers.
  • Psychology: the gaming streak. Every penny chipped off gives the taste of victory. People will lose their valuable work time or free time to argue about pennies and look for marginally cheaper offers. 
  • Psychology/economy: loss aversion. People will lose several hours of potential work time in order to avoid spending half an hour's worth of money. It feels like a loss to them — or lack being weak and falling victim of someone else's game — when they accept anything less than the cheapest or the best offer. Those feelings take precedence before rational spending decisions.
  • Psychology/economy/magic: buyers are spoiled by the dominant reverse-auction model, which globalization and widespread Internet access makes possible. They also think that out of the infinite ocean of people they have access to someone just simply has to accept their low offer. Unfortunately, they are not mistaken.
  • Non-executives not supposed to earn in leage with executives, except for select few professions, including lawyers and medical doctors in private practice but not normally including linguists.
  • 'Translator invisibility', the physical nature of typing, the role of a linguist as a mere communication channel.
  • Some sort of an impression that you should make more translating someone else's ideas than communicating your own.
I could probably come up with some more. Please understand that this is not an indictment or complaint but an attempt at identifying the causes of the symptoms we're seeing in order to enable us to do something about them.


Here's what I think we could do:

  • Raise the translator's profile. Not by claiming that we do 'more than translation' or are 'more than translators' because that will lower the profile of the profession while elevating individual professionals somewhat (and unreliably).
  • Remind people of just how much education and experience translators have. Compare to other professions, including specific examples such as lawyers and doctors (if you have a good idea, please consider donating it to your association so that it can reach a broader audience in the form of a brochure or infomercial). Expect people to compare and reflect on the results of the comparison.
  • Claim credit for the ROI generated by translation. Even if we don't come up with the ideas, we often adapt them, which is sometimes just as good as conceiving them anew. In any case, we are always at least a necessary link in the chain. I'm not saying we should milk that necessity, but neither do we need to accept $50 for a piece of text the client will make millions with. Remind the client of both immediate and long-term value the translation will bring or losses or costs it will avoid. Capitalize on guarantees (i.e. risk assumption) if you aren't disclaiming them for business clients.
  • Some taste of game and of victory can probably be generated for the client in a smart way and within ethical limits. Congratulating the client on having the wisdom and courage to choose the safer path is one such way. It does take courage to choose the safer path, just like with substance abuse.
  • The lure of freeconomics can be deflected by an appeal to responsibility, sustainability, stability, security and similar values, as well as reminding the client of how much it cost to get the source text from a law firm or ad agency.
  • People's loss aversion can be dealt with telling them or showing how much they stand to lose — preferably not in merely theoretical ways but some examples — by too aggressive cost-cutting. Encourage them to be responsible and invest in safety and image.
  • There are ways to inspire people to try and become special rather than thinking they already are. Dreaming about the future, not about the present. (Although perhaps concrete figures would be better, e.g. some rough figures from research and surveys, or success stories.)
  • Show not tell. It's understandable that — just like on a dating portal — clients won't fall for a name and photo and some generic information (age, city etc.). Even if you tell them something, that's just words, and your words at that. Build credibility with examples rather than words, and in using examples you build credibility anyway.
  • Testimonials, referrals and so on. Collect them and display them. Success stories and case studies are a slightly different thing, so I'm mentioning these separately.
  • Pass more exams than you need, and convert credits into degrees, just so you have a wall of credentials to make it harder to negotiate you down, and send a clearer message that you're probably good to people who don't know you yet.
  • Help them justify the spending before themselves, the boss, the spouse.
  • You are not lying if you feature your diplomas, experience and CPD more prominently. You aren't lying if you explain their benefit to the client.
  • Make clients chase you a bit. It doesn't take a marketing wizard to succeed at that. If you're as much as married, you probably know a little about giving the other person some space, not pursuing too aggressively, checking if he or she will call back or call first.
  • Cheap tip (and you owe me nothing for it): Professional photos help raise your profile way above their one-off cost. A professional shot doesn't have to be anything fancy, but one sees the difference between it and a 'selfie'.
  • Avoid a cheap look in other aspects. Make savings in areas which are less visible than anything which directly involves your image. For example, you don't need to have a logo or stationery at all, but if you do have some, they'd better be good.
  • On the contrary, convey a message through the quality of such external manifestations as your business cards, website design, stationery and paper you print on, or pretty hand writing, or the language you use, or meticulously crafted newsletter. This is not deception unless used deceptively. There is a difference between branding and pretending.

The following are duct-tape solutions because they help your situation without removing the problem of overwhelming cheapness of translation.
  • Rebrand as a consultant. It will often raise your profile or at least your income. I believe this is a duct-tape solution overall because translators have more concrete substance to them and more profile potential. Professions have their value. Doctors and lawyers don't play consultants, even though they technically are. Still, a consultancy-style approach can allow you to ditch per-word and per-page rates in favour of hourly, daily or even weekly rates or monthly packages, retainers etc., thus decommoditizing your work while potentially allowing you to make more or work more slowly and focus on quality more. Alternatively, you could quote and bill research time and editing time separately from words or even hours of translation.
  • Brand yourself a translator-cum-copywriter or translator-cum-somethingelsewriter. Another hack but not as bad as 'more than translation' since you rely on legitimate synergies here. If you have the stomach for it, take night classes towards a subject-matter degree, better still if you can pass a professional exam. You'll probably be able to charge more for the same work as before, having more credibility and less competition.
  • Diversify your income. It will give you something to fall back and turn down lowball inquiries, sort of like having a rich spouse. Teaching and writing raises your perceived status and credibility. Writing helps your search engine rankings, especially if you do it on the same domain where you park your website. Royalties are shabby, but books and webinars sell when you work on something else or sleep.
  • Outsource. Probably a logical step if you've been forced to learn a ton of business and marketing skills, which you don't have enough room to leverage meaningfully as a freelance professional. Still, that's obviously not translating, it's management and perhaps editing. And you know what it is when you buy for three cents and sell for forty.
  • PEMT. In some cases post-editing machine translation does make you more money than actually translating, and good MT may be better than some of the translators you have edited. MT is not inherently evil, it only competes with us for our job.
  • Take a touch-typing course. This looks gimmicky (more so if you use a blindfold or keyboard with blank keys), but even though thoughtful translation is much slower than just typing, reducing the extent to which your typing speed limits your translation speed is still legitimate. This does nothing for the prestige of translation (or even your own) but makes you more money. Just be quiet about how fast you can type, or it will be used against you when negotiating prices.
  • You can use speech recognition software if you can dictate in such a way that the quality of the resulting text is good enough even when you speak faster than you write. Again, it probably doesn't improve the perceived value of translation much (although it may, in removing the manual work of typing), and you probably don't want to go public about the speed gain.

You can achieve a lot if you commit your creativity and your hard work to the task. Never think otherwise. But just because you aren't achieving your dreams or aren't as well to do as some other people in your business doesn't mean you work less hard or are less smart. Your market matters, your circumstances matter. Not everything is in your control. This means you can't do everything you want, but it also means it isn't your fault when you can't.

Don't think that if you want something you can wish it into existence — that's what clients think when they want you to translate 10,000 words for tomorrow and give them a volume discount and still get the highest quality possible.

You don't have to be greedy or self-obsessed, just don't gimp yourself, don't gimp your colleagues, don't gimp your profession as a whole. Don't gimp your clients, either, by supplying them with poor-quality cheap and rushed translation if they could afford better. Rather, do some persuading and allow both of you to reach your potential more fully and more comfortably.

Don't fall victim of the Stockholm syndrome: Clients and agencies will — not always consciously — use a lot of negotiation tactics and tricks, sometimes even dirty tricks, to manipulate you into accepting low offers. A lot of them will depreciate the value of your work or your qualifications to soften you, just like hagglers in some cultures ruthlessly offer unjustified criticism of merchandise they want  to buy. Don't blame them harder than is warranted, but don't allow their say-so to define your own perception of your work and yourself, either. Once you're done citing your qualifications and objective economic data for reference, it's up to them to demonstrate that you should work for less, and why.

Tuesday, 20 May 2014

Axe the Tools! (No, Just Trim Them To Size.)

No, don't literally. I have something else in mind.

I'm reading Luke Spear's The translation sales handbook. A roadmap to higher rates, better clients almost as I'm writing this, so it'll be quick.

Essentially, at some point in the introduction Luke says:

I plainly could not have earned the figures that now offer me a degree of stability without raising my rates and using tools.

And he's not alone. Many people will say the same. You could even say social proof is there.

On the other hand, I look at the phrase and I want something different. Tools are important, but tools don't make a translator. To be sure, they can speed up our work and make it more consistent, more reliable, easier to manage. Imagine life without online dictionaries and other resources (e-books, articles, forums and groups) which allow you to get away with just spending some bucks from your credit card and avoid the trip to a physical library with a paper notepad (which you possibly still do from time to time anyway, just not as often as it would be necessary otherwise).

But I always want to emphasize the translator and deemphasize the tech. There is nothing wrong with the tech, but think where we are positioning ourselves if our core sales/marketing proposition is the fact that we work with a certain CAT tool. Meaning we're available for work with TMs (translation memories) and, more importantly, for fuzzy discounts (reduced rates on the basis of some parts of the text being e.g. 80% similar to a record in the TM or even to some other part of the same text).

CAT logos are a prominent graphical element on many translator websites, you'll see them everywhere (personally, I have a CAT licence, but I refuse to put up such a sticker). CAT trainings are often emphasized as prime CPD (Continued Professional Development). Where does that put us? Right on the assembly line! We're turning into CAT operators. Not being turned, turning. We do it to ourselves.

It is pretty much compulsory to have CATs right now (although there are some translators who don't have any and do fine, even prosper), but there is no compulsion to define ourselves through them.

What about other tools? Does one really need a specific tool to keep track of your billable time? If you do, does it have to be anything else than pen and paper? Does one definitely need a piece of software to save notes? (Cork board! Post-it notes!) Accounting tools... seriously? It's possible to churn invoices fast enough without even having a template (guess how I know). Less convenient but still doable.

(For the record, a law blogger I've read recently gives this kind of advice: if you're a low-tech person befriend a gadgeteer. If you're a gadgeteer, befriend a low-tech person who relies on pen and paper. Either way you can learn useful things. That's good advice.)

Anyway. Draw your authority from your translation and subject-matter education and experience, not from your tech tools. Tools are just tools. They have their uses, but we need to emphasize the translator, not the tools.

So I'm not saying we should totally remove CATs and other tools from our presentation but rather put them in perspective and proportion. Specific feature, concrete benefit. Something to the tune of:

I use [insert CAT name], which helps me keep my translations consistent and charge less for repeating parts.

rather than:

I have [insert CAT name], which validates me as a professional translator.

Okay, so how does this relate to earnings, as per the quotation in the beginning?

The challenge is to position ourselves and present ourselves so that we don't have to rely on tech, as an argument or otherwise, in achieving or justifying decent rates.

A while ago, I read the description of a philological degree course at my old university, where I had studied something else, and I was hooked. If I was hooked, why would a client not be?

Thursday, 15 May 2014

Non-Trivial Translation

Twitter and Facebook are currently full of The Translator Approach in Translation Studies
– reflections based on a study of translators’ weblogs by Helle V. Dam of the Department of Business Communication @ Aarhus University.

Between 2008 and 2013, the author studied more translation blogs than I knew existed, and came up with a number of interesting observations. Those can all be summarized in one thought expressed in the beginning (emphasis added):

In the selection of respondents, every effort was made to ensure a sample of translators
with a strong professional profile, thus presumably at the high end of the translatorstatus
continuum. Notwithstanding, the results of the studies consistently indicate that
even these translators have relatively low occupational status.

Yes, even well-know translators don't necessarily make much. I would be surprised to see a celebrity translator claim the hourly rate of a generic accountant or junior lawyer in American terms. Things are more complex on this side of the pond, but the rates hailed as pure gold are paltry if you've been to the legal world. A lawyer or accountant or medical doctor with a recognizable name might not actually make €200 per hour, but he would almost certainly bill much more unless he ran a lean solo practice.

Income, visibility, prestige and appreciation of our comparatively good education were all low.

Also, supposedly, the bloggers invariably stress that there is a large income disparity and that a translator’s earnings depend entirely on his or her skills, expertise and professionalism. Well, let's have some variety. I totally disagree with that notion. Even though it's obviously meant to be a bit of a metaphor and poetic expression, it's still wishful thinking and ignores the laws of economy, as well as a bunch of subjective factors concerning individual translators, which are not skills or expertise, unless it's skill and expertise in business and marketing, which is not the same as expertise and skill in translation (even business and marketing translation).

Later, the author notes that bloggers seemed to divide translator in two fundamental income categories, invariably putting themselves in the higher category, with comfortable or fair or even explicitly high rates. While I believe that's a simplified view of what they say, still, what are they supposed to say? They'll tell you about the good times but not about the bad times. You can't really tell the public when you're struggling.

I think it was highly perceptive of the author to pick up on the more than cliche (like, no. 1 of translation copywriting), of which I'm no big fan. In asserting that his own translation services are more than translation — and therefore for that reason deserving of a semi-decent rate — a translator effectively asserts that normal translation does not deserve a halfway decent rate. Which doesn't really help raise the profile and value of translation in clients' eyes but rather does the opposite.

The same observation I'd submit with regard to other ways in which translators typically try to assert their value. And I'll be very frank in saying this, so please don't take offence: translator's clumsily cling to added value and beat that horse to death. If you assert a ton of added value within standard rates, you're essentially saying that the core value is poor.

And you become not a valued, respected professional on par with a lawyer or doctor or architect but an added-value provider who is useful because he helps fish out typos in the original, fix the bad maths or even straighten out poor bits of legal or medical advice or otherwise does something which someone else — someone paid and respected better — should have done. And preferably with a deep bow, humbly conceding the spotlight to whomever should have done it the way it is after the translator fixed it. Free of charge and for a patronizing pat on the back (or head even, if I'm going to be really figurative here).

Or document management. Because your translator knows where the files you've misplaced are. Seriously?

However, I wanted to focus a bit more on a translation-related example for a change. It was intended as an illustration of the idea that translation is not mindless substitution of words. It didn't — for once! but only seemingly, I think, as I'll show in a minute — concentrate on added value, which, in my book, is a huge plus.

A quick trip to Google reveals that inspiration came from Naked Translations. The post was in French, but the article used an English translation. Let me quote:

I think I can trace back my love of translation to one particular passage [in a novel] […] during a conversation, one of the characters moved from using ‘vous’ to using ‘tu’ to address a troubled young man in need of comforting […]:
‘Mais êtes-vous certain de vouloir nous quitter?’
‘J’ai bien peur de ne pas avoir le choix.’
‘Tu vas me manquer.’
The switch from ‘vous’ to ‘tu’ indicated a shift in the relationship from formal to something more intimate and personal. This is how the English translator dealt with it:
‘But are you sure you want to leave us?’
‘I’m afraid I have no choice.’
‘I’m going to miss you,’ she said, taking his hand in hers.
The increasing closeness, which was expressed through language in the French text, was thus
translated by a physical gesture in English. I remember thinking that this was just wonderful, and
being quite taken by the cleverness of it all” (5, 5).

For comparison's sake, Google Translate returns (which I confess I think I actually like better):

'But are you sure you want to leave us?'
'I'm afraid I do not have a choice.'
'I'll miss you.'

So, basically, another example which ultimately comes down to added value: the translator's value consists in adding substantive content. In literary translation, that's a bit like throwing in a tip of your own when translating a how-to guide in business translation. It's not wrong (although I'd personally just contented myself with, 'I'll be missing you,' both to mark informality through the use of the continuous form and to make it closer in meaning and form to the original), but it's not quite translation. It goes beyond translation, and it shouldn't really be done without talking it over with the author first, which I don't know but just suspect was probably done (in which case it would make sense to inquire as to the extent of the author's contribution, such as by describing the scene in more detail, which would essentially be a supplementation of the original). Because it's certainly up to the author to make the decision on any novel PDA in a novel. ;)

How about we, instead, come up with some ways of making ourselves look useful other than fixing the original or expanding on it? Our job is rendering, not fixing or expanding.

Sometimes you have to ditch the form to render the content, and sometimes you even have to ditch the content if the form's what's important (for example in certain word plays). Sometimes you translate by addition (for example English into Polish will sound awkward if you don't throw in a bunch of past participles for padding), sometimes you translate by omission (and not only of the padding), in some other instances you need to substitute a functional equivalent that sounds nothing like the original. Well, sure. But the job is normally about finding equivalence and reconciling fidelity and style.

So let's demonstrate our competence in translating, not in providing added value.

Oh, and one more thing: our clients usually don't need to see us in pyjamas, jumpsuits and beach gear and hear about our authority problems and dislike of structure. (Not that all of us fit this image.) A marked lack of professional decorum is one of the reasons our status is often low.

Partners Get the Profit, Subcontractors Get the Wage

Once upon a time an agency owner spelt this out for me when I proposed something close to a percentage deal: Subcontractors just get a wage. Profit is for the partners.

I returned the favour — and the gift of a free lesson — by spelling it out for him that it was in the nature of an intermediary to live off of a commission on the fees of those who actually provided the service.

See the difference? The difference lies in the positioning. He positioned himself as a partner and positioned me as his own mere subcontractor-to-be. On the other hand, I positioned myself as the real service provider and him as an intermediary.

In my reply, I repositioned him.

This is what NLP folks refer to as reframing: when somebody gets in that bad frame of mind — or tries to impose that bad frame on you or on your relationship or interaction with that person — you propose a different frame. Or you just simply propose a different way of looking at a problem when you want to get someone out of a rut.

This is also referred to as cognitive reframe, which, in Wikipedia's words: is a psychological technique that consists of identifying and then disputing irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Essentially, you get to the bottom of what's troubling you — which has a lot to do with your way of thinking about that subject — and you treat yourself to a different way of looking at it. If you're stuck in thought patterns which you know don't make sense or are hurting you, you look for a different, more rational or more manageable way of looking at the same issue.

At the bottom lies simply going from A to B (which is just what marketing does, by the way, or a hammer*), but if we put some meat on the bare bones it goes more like this:

Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing events, ideas, concepts and emotions to find more positive alternatives

(* A hammer gets you from not having nails driven through a plank to having nails driven through the plank.)

Except it wasn't therapy, and I wasn't looking for positive thinking (a half-empty-half-full reframe would have been just that). Rather, I identified the bad thing — bad for me — being the guy's partner/shareholder/owner vs subcontractor frame or pattern — and I found me a more positive alternative: I was the provider of the service, while the agency dude was just an intermediary.

That wasn't about the legal nature of whatever relationship we were contemplating, it was about the thinking about respective roles.

This said, I do regret it comes to such combative witticisms. I'm a fan of collaboration and sharing, and I wish we could both be co-owners of a joint operation (not necessarily a joint venture in a legal sense), and share the fruits of our labour between the two of us. Perhaps this is what I should have proposed, a more constructive solution, and perhaps it would have worked, I don't know. I confess I was being petty to some extent. He'd showned me my place, I had to show him his.

Anyway, the point is that as long as translation agencies — and other outsourcers — are the owners of translation, translators won't be getting much in terms of profit. They won't be partners, they'll be subcontractors or some other subordinate category not entitled to participate in profit sharing.

In other words, capital will prevail over labour. Or will it really?

Capital is not just cash!

It doesn't even have to be anything tangible. Cash is not tangible, to begin with. Coins are no longer lumps of gold or silver with a monarch's stamp, and banknotes, just like printed university diplomas, only representan idea. Pastries and broomsticks and computers are tangible.

Capital can be anything which contributes to the success of the partners' venture, including labour. Heck, even insurance, i.e. a conditional(!) promise of bailing the partnership out of trouble, should it get into any (and we hope it won't), could constitute capital. Telling jokes to keep the other guys in good spirits while they're working also could be capital, but telling jokes actually is labour, so let's get back to insurance.

In this illustration where insurance is capital, nothing goes out of your pocket as long as the company doesn't get in trouble, but you still get a share in the profit. If there is never any loss, then you'll basically only ever gain profits without ever spending a penny. Unfair? Nope. Because if things go down south, then you'll suffer more than the other guys. Your promise makes them safe. You bring in safety.

Things being so, who says cash should be privileged? Cash or the agency's plot of land with a physical office, or production infrastructure (value chain/QA) or sales infrastructure (website, ads, sales reps, client base etc.)? Since when are those things better — or anything else superior grade — than your translation labour, translation expertise and anything else you bring in?

I'm not saying your labour should be privileged, either. I'm not a commie.

Furthermore, it's not unfair if someone offers you a fixed wage for a fixed task! Even if that task happens to be part of his own profit-making operation. Which is how employment works in general.

But who says you need to give them whatever they want on their own terms? (You don't.)

The beauty of the free market is that everybody is allowed to negotiate. You still need negotiating power and leverage to really make it work. This is not to say might makes right — rather,  everybody has the right, so you just need to get the might.

Or you possibly already have the might, except it's dormant and you need to tap it.

You own your labour, don't you? Your labour. Your availability. Your skills, your diplomas and referrals and other cool things which attract translation clients. You own your computer, your software, your books. Just like the agency owns its own computers, its own software, its own books.

You own it, so you make decisions about it, not the agency. It's not unfair if you make those decisions without subordinating your interests to those of the agency.

Nor is it only the agency who's allowed to benefit from the laws of the market or from the way the economy or the legal system works. If your goods are scarce, you can charge more. If their quality is premium, you can charge a premium price. And so on.

What I'm trying to tell you here is that it's not true that the agency is allowed to rely on all sorts of arguments and advantages but you are not. It would be true if it were true that translators, by some sort of law, need to be subordinate to agencies. But they don't.

You don't need to make your capital subordinate to their capital, either. Unless you really need to because you don't have the leverage to command a better price or better terms for your goods or services. But while you may lack the might, you have the right just as they do.

They are right when they say you aren't a partner in their enterprise. In fact, I can respect that: some time ago a group of people assembled and decided to tie their economic lot together, together profit or lose, and together create something. They then created the something and are benefitting from it now. It belongs to them. It does. Why should an employee or (sub)contractor take it away from them?

On the other hand, your business belongs to you. You had the idea, you decided to brave it alone on your own, being your own only partner (unless your parent or spouse or bank was effectively a silent partner). You created it, it works, you can benefit from it. Why should a reseller or agent take it away from you? Or a client?

It's wrong if you propose an unfair arrangement, one that cheats or abuses the other party and imposes an unproportional division of investment, profit and loss. But it isn't unfair if you simply require a higher cut or even a more advantageous — or simply different — compensation scheme.

It doesn't need to be so that your earnings are capped in the low, single-digit cents and the agency's open-ended and growing, getting 30-40 more cents a word that are not yours to think about. That sort of thinking is natural for a business owner, but it doesn't mean you need to agree with it and submit to it if you negotiate with that business owner from the outside.

Percentages or whatever don't matter here. Or even profit shares. What matters is that it isn't true that translation agencies are entitled to push for the highest profit they can while translators should content themselves with blue-collar wage and status.

Yes, it's true they own their business, and you are not their partner. But you own your business, and they are not your partners. Or employers.

Reframe. See your work — and everything else you bring in — as capital. Equally privileged capital.

On the other hand, see whatever work an agency does as equally privileged work. Just as your capital is as good as the agency's, so the agency's work is as good as your work.

Equally privileged does not mean equally valuable. It means equally entitled to be recognized for whatever value it brings in and bring the worker — or the capital owner — his reward. (Without privileging any particular sort of capital or labour. Labour also being capital and capital also being labour.)

If an agency does most of the heavy lifting, i.e. gets some really good and high paying clients you wouldn't hope to get on your own, does the management, the DTP and the technical stuff, does some really serious QA and is ready to step in and hire experts for terminological consultations and reviews, pays you even if the client doesn't pay, and especially if it will eat the loss and not sue you above the value of your invoice for any errors you make, then the agency may well be entitled to a lion's share of the end price. And you're effectively a specialized employee. An important one to be sure, deserving a nice wage, but it's hard to speak about being cut out of profit unless your translation is really unique and critical to the end value.

On the other hand, if the agency basically mediates contacts and payments, then it's hard to see the relationship in the same terms as, say, that of a construction company and a woodworker or bricklayer or glassworker, where the company manages the whole thing and not even the architect can claim ownership of the project. It's more similar to an artist's or sportman's manager or a proper agent.

An agent is someone who seeks out contacts — and sometimes contracts (and sometimes may be authorized to just already sign contracts) — for his principal. And gets a percentage share. This is different from being a salaried trade representative or marketer (many of whom may be remunerated on the basis of a small base salary plus commission anyway, just to motivate them to work and avoid paying for their degrees and certificates and experience when they aren't bringing in any business.)

Wait, so who says people who sell someone else's goods can profit but people who make goods to be sold by someone else cannot?

Again, this is not a proposal of percentage-based compensation model. Rather, I'm saying it doesn't need to be so that an agency charges 40 cents and pays the translator 7, as opposed to the translator getting 33 and the agency getting 7.

Obviously, few agencies would agree to that, and an agency can always walk out. But so can a translator. Why should only an agency be allowed to threaten to walk out ('Unfortunately, we cannot accept (...)') or use my-way-or-the-highway tactics ('We can offer you X,' or forcing you to sign their long contracts in entirety without any change or there's no deal) — but not a translator?

The free market makes the rules equal for both parties here.

People may have the sort of perspective in mind in which whoever gets to get the clients in or issue invoices for them is entitled to 'own' the whole thing. Or that the larger, more powerful company is entitled to 'own' it rather than the small company or freelancer. But, as we've seen by now, there aren't really conclusive arguments in favour of that. With some success, you can argue agencies are, well, agents, and resellers, and the more mediating and reselling they do, the less can they claim to be somehow the owners of the product.

Yeah, they own their businesses. But you own yours. You can be their nameless vendor. They can be your nameless agent. Those are two extremes. Find some sort of balance.

Recap (with a twist):

  • You aren't being exploited just because an agency keeps 50% of the end-client price or more. The product doesn't make the profit. The sale of that product does. The sale is made by the product and the sales effort, combined. Both are labour, and both kinds of labour deserve pay. If it has bothered you so far and brought you stress and mental anguish that an agency which really does a lot of things charges much more from the client than it pays you, you need to change your thinking by acknowledging the labour the agency puts it.
  • On the other hand, your work, skills and everything else you bring in is capital, it's valuable assets, material or not, just like the agency's. It's not somehow less valuable than marketing, sales, taking clients to lunches and writing invoices. Or being a business grad as opposed to a language grad. Or putting one's investment in a translation degree as opposed to a translation agency. You don't need to see yourself as someone who is duty-bound to work for someone else's profit.
  • Depending on the balance of the labour and capital each of you bring in, sometimes you really are basically an employee, but sometimes the agency is basically a glorified salesman. Know the difference.
  • You aren't a partner in their business. But they aren't in yours, either.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Assignment of Moral Rights: It's Not Just Amazon! Agencies Do It All The Time.

Right now translators and interpreters are talking about the open letter of the French Association of Literary Translators to Amazon. You can read the letter in French at and some part of it in English at L'Association des traducteurs littéraires de France and at least some of it in English at Kontax.

The fuss is about the assignment of moral rights, which Amazon requires of its literary translators. The contracts select Luxemburg law as the governing law because such an assignment won't work under French law.

Once you assign, transfer or cede (various words may be used) your moral rights, you no longer need to be attributed, asked for permission to make any changes. Heck, they could possibly even publish the translation under someone else's name, depending on what exactly the law and courts allow them to get away with.

The thing is, it's not just Amazon who's doing that! Translation agencies do it all the time, including the supposedly good guys with 5.0 average scores on the Proz.com BlueBoard from like 200 comments. (Getting a 5.00 average from 200 comments is easier when your contract specifically prohibits your translators from giving you negative feedback online! Which is what some of those guys do and aren't even ashamed to spell it out in your contract with them.)

And I've recently been asked by no less than a French agency to sign that type of clause (although it did stipulate some provisions in case the transfer didn't work out), which was specifically prepared by its team of lawyers, along with one other contract and one exhibit for a nice little bunch of paperwork total.

It wasn't just that French agency, anyway. I remember the same, except more verbose, from an English outfit subordinate to an American parent. And I'm pretty sure there's more of that going on.

Yes, agencies legitimately need the right to make changes over your objections in order that they can meet whatever requirements their clients impose on them. Imagine you outsource part of your workload to a new translator, you trust him but he turns out to be not that good, and he uses his moral rights to forbid you to do any proofreading, forget editing or revising his translation. Awful, isn't it? So yeah, they need the protection to some extent.

On the other hand there is a trend to omit translator attribution. It obviously serves agencies because it allows them to crawl into the spotlight hitherto occupied by individual translators. And it allows them to reinforce the fiction that individual translators don't exist, which is all too convenient. It allows the clients to pretend that translation was done in-house, too. It allows authors and owners to avoid sharing credit, it even allows some people to just steal the credit.

It also helps to devalue our work by denying us any moral rights, stripping us of any connection with our work, reducing our status to that of non-authors and non-creatives. Which is convenient because wages fall together with status. If you bluecollarize translators, you can now pay them blue-collar wages, this isn't just about egos.

Am I ranting about some devious plans hatched by some evil dudes bunkered up in some MLV's HQ and gradually put into execution? Nope, I'm not saying any such conscious and co-ordinated effort exists. On the other hand, I wouldn't be surprised if individual companies were working towards that goal perhaps without putting it on paper much.

Finally, I'd like to call your attention to one more thing: The assignment clauses always say the assigment takes place within your remuneration or consideration. In plain English, this means that your pay already covers the transfer of moral rights. While that's not the end of the world in itself, it means that if the transfer doesn't work and a court decides to strike the clause or declines to enforce it, it's possible that your agency (or client) will now have a financial claim against you for some part of the price of your translation. Because you sold something which you couldn't sell and which the buyer didn't receive.

I suggest a compromise: If you don't get credited, the agency should neither. But you should always be credited if you translate a book for publication. It's up to you with an article, but if other people who translate articles for some sort of widely circulating newspaper or magazine get credited for it, then I don't see why you, personally, shouldn't get the credit (other than to pretend that you don't exist and the agency's or client's corporate identity actually translates texts). And obviously nobody should be credited as the translator who didn't actually translate the text.

So perhaps don't make fuss, don't force the agency to force its client to credit you in that company's own internal newsletter or on a leaflet or milk carton. That wouldn't be very reasonable. But don't allow them to keep pushing and eliminating any attribution still traditionally or customarily given to translators in those particular books or magazines or by the same publishing houses etc.

And perhaps this is another reason why those who can should either push agencies for change or start competing against agencies. I wrote more about these two issues in April: collaboration and change, competition.

Driving our rates into the ground and trampling our rights is hardly collaborative, it's basically a hostile act, so starting to compete by seeking more publicity as individual freelancers is more like a recognition of already existing reality.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Freelance Outsourcing: Make it (Semi-)Official or Don't Do It

Sometimes it's easier to take on more work and to start outsourcing the excessive workload than it is to raise one's own rates.

However, in the interest of the entire profession translators who are more in demand should raise their rates and allow their colleagues to raise theirs.

Freelancing is a form of business in which it is easy to forget about progress. There is no natural path of advancement, and there can be very little in the way of career progression unless the steps up are triggered — actively claimed and proclaimed — by the translator. 

Just like of the employees of a stagnant company, if you don't ask for a raise or promotion, you won't get it.

Namely, as a freelance translator, you're always 'Translator' forever, getting paid the same rates unless you raise them.

This can make you think that starting an agency to leverage the work of others is the only way to improve your fate. It's not.

Alternatively, you may just simply find yourself swarmed, permanently or periodically (which is more common) with work you can't or don't want to refuse. And that means you need help, you need another pair of hands. Right? Wrong!

Or rather that's surely a way, but there is also another way.

You can just simply raise your rates! Your colleagues will still end up handling the work you can't do because you only have two hands and the day has only 24 hours, but they will be doing it in their own name, dealing directly with the client and possibly getting paid higher rates.

And whichever clients initially balk at your now-higher rates may soon come over once they see how much they 'save' by working with someone cheaper. Or training a new person. Is this blackmail? No! Your value increases in proportion to your skill and how you know the client's company. You deserve a raise for that.

If you think your client won't understand, you're perhaps judging the client too harshly, too early. Give the client a chance.

Besides, handing stagnant clients down to a translator who is perhaps now just as skilled as you were when you started working for the client who won't pay you more after, say, five years, is gentler than just simply terminating them. As a wake up call you can still leave that client your updated rate sheet or offer to do proofreading, editing or revising for a reasonable fee — with a loyalty discount if you want to grant one to your old client.

If you actually like outsourcing and managing and organising — and have gained an understanding of business (notably your clients' business) in the course of your translation work — how about starting an agency? You can still translate or act as a proofreader, editor, reviser, co-ordinator or some other QA person to make sure your clients get the quality they're used to.

Outsourcing without being an agency is a bit more complicated.

Hybrids, as Patent Translator dubs them, do just that — on condition that they openly act as outsourcers, i.e. communicate it to the client in clear terms that the job will be outsourced.

It's not my business if the client agrees and especially if the outsourcing translator does the QA, but ghost translating shouldn't be considered as a serious option. It can even bite back, notably when a nameless translator manages to botch the work which went out in your name.

But the great masters had apprentices, didn't they?

You could cite the example of the painters and sculptors of old, but everybody knew that they had a workshop, pretty much because it was a crowded place full of kings' and lords' envoys and everybody want to put a son there.

And the work cost more if the master added more than just a finishing touch.

At least in theory, and in the beginning, masters were masters and didn't hire other masters, they oversaw a small herd of apprentices and pupils. Translators can do that too, it's called mentoring.

Later, of course, masters started to inherit their positions and talented outsiders started being barred. Or forced to do work the powerful master could sign and sell as his own. Let's not have that in translation.

Besides, if you want to be a master — which is not a bad idea, actually — claim a master's fees. Raise your profile so that your students possibly get more reputation from your name than the clients'. And so that you don't have to manage a barnful of apprentices free of charge. Ugh!

Is it Josh or is it Kate?

Since a freelance translator's clients don't communicate with each other, they don't know how much work leaves that translator's mailbox. They don't know if it's 5000 words a day (plausible) or 10,000 (possible) or 20,000 (extremely unlikely) or some obscene number.

Consequently, they may think they work with Josh personally at all times where in reality they're working with John, Kate or Sally, depending at each time on which of them really gets to do it.

It's true that John, Kate and Sally are happy because they have work, and perhaps even the referrals they get from Josh are more valuable than referrals from unknown clients. So I'm not saying this is unfair on these grounds. But the system isn't really optimal.

For starts, either Josh does QA free of charge, or accepts risks to his reputation, or he pays them less than he gets from the client, in order to make some markup for the trouble of managing the whole operation.

How about the client paying Josh for that instead, and paying John, Kate and Sally a full rate? And giving everybody a normal referral, including a special one for the supervisor?

This is especially true in agency-translator relationships where there's a ceiling on the rates and all sorts of translators with varying qualifications may be paid in the same bracket.

This means John, Kate and Sally may well swap places with Josh at other times! In which case the first one to land the job will get some markup and the rest a reduced rate, or the first one to claim the job will end up doing QA free of charge.

This is clearly not optimal unless we're talking about a mentoring relationship.

So start a team or agency, or outsource officially, or just simply raise your rates.

If you just simply raise your rates, you as the more wanted translator (or simply the first translator on the job) will earn more, the less wanted translator will also get to earn more (as opposed to taking a cut to make room for the colleague's markup), and the client will have a choice.

If you don't want to raise your rates, that's fine, too, but again, do it officially, openly, or just facilitate contacts.

If you feel that raising your rates would be greedy, consider raising them just so that your less established or less wanted colleagues also can. Go up to allow someone else to go up, instead of keeping the place and keeping the rates low.

Alternatively, just like a rookie, you can raise rates for commercial clients and do pro bono work for charities. We'll explore this angle in more detail in a second.

Just basically don't make your superior work available at cheap rates so that normal work holds no value.

More experienced translators need to make more so that less experienced translators can make something.

Back to the beginning

This is similar to my suggestion that newbie translators who need experience shouldn't flood the market with cheap human translation but:

  1. charge more from normal commercial clients (including translation companies and agencies)
    and, at the same time:
  2. gain your much-needed experience working for charities and NGOs free of charge. 

For example, if you translate 30,000 words per month at €0.06 per word, you will end up making €1800 and translating 30,000 words per month.

Alternatively, you can charge €0.03 per word, translate 60,000 words and make €1800.

It seems you have to choose between rates and experience. But it only seems so!

Because 30,000 words at €0.06 per word for €1800 monthly + 30,000 words at €0 per word for €0 = 60,000 words and 1800 euros a month.

This means you still end up doing 60,000 words and taking home 1800 euros a month, but you still get to keep the higher rate for business clients in place. There is thus no bottom feeding.

And your work gains a higher profile because you do higher-priced commercial work — since you don't depend on (only) commercial work for experience — and get the benefit of working with NGOs, engaging in pro bono causes, making connections from which paid work sometimes results. And perhaps your business clients feel like they're supporting your significant pro bono operation when they pay you good rates.

Plus, with NGOs it should be far easier to specialize and certainly easier to gain exposure and build your name. An agency has no need to slap a non-competition clause on you or gag you into silence about that work you did for it, especially if that's not about any real secrets but only about denying you the benefit of the client's name and logo in your portfolio.

I'm not trying to corrupt you here and take the charity spirit away from your charitable work while giving you a cynical outlook. But the numbers do add up here, and the charities still get to benefit from your work without needing to part with money or anything else.

Just perhaps be honest with yourself and realize the difference between purely charitable work and the kind of charitable work which is written into a for-profit business model. And in the latter the NGO's names and logos in your portfolio can play a significant role.

Still feel bad? So just tell your clients like it is, right on your own page, that you've chosen to gain your experience from NGOs instead of lowering your rates for normal, commercial clients, and that this is benefitting you financially when you get business from the valuable NGO referrals. At which point I can't really see what would be dishonest or unfair or even dirty here.

By the way, if you put heaps of €0 pro bono work on your website, you may actually attract high-paying clients with that or convince existing clients or prospects to pay more. With heaps of €0.03 work you can't! Rather, they'll want discounts.

Okay, so what's the point of this here? The point is that pretty much the same principle applies to experienced translators. Donate your time to charities directly instead of donating it to commercial clients indirectly through low rates. (Which is what happens when you outsource unofficially within your own standard rates unless you find some sort of sweet spot such as when you pay a student a good rate and the difference between his rate and your rate, which you keep, will make a comfortable payment for any post-editing you do. And the client still gets your quality instead of student quality, of course.)

If You're Overworked, Up Your Rates! (to Up Your Game)

One of the complaints we sometimes hear — and sometimes envy — on freelancers' social media is too much work and having to decline. Th...