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.


  1. Praise the Lord. Hmm... So, what do you think will happen if I say the following:

    1. The fact that I am a native means you are guaranteed the touch of a person with an intuitive feel - honed over an entire lifetime - for the language, what works and what doesn't, in real life.

    2. The fact that I hold a degree from an Ivy League university means that, especially given my age, you are assured precision and stylistic excellence in use of language.

    ... I could say more, but it's quite a dicey matter talking about one's Ivy League education. There are people who choose to leave it off their CVs because potential employers or customers will think they are overqualified and expensive, not to mention that they may well be thought of as snotty. Although then again, one could pose the question of whether one wants to work with the kind of customer who has that kind of attitude :P

    1. I'm a staunch enemy of leaving anything off one's CV. :P Besides, just one client who will be duly appreciative is enough to let go of for bottom feeders who may worry that your education will prevent you from working for peanuts. :P

      Re: being native. Having an intuitive feel is not confined to native speakers; linguists studying multiple languages or focusing a lot on a single foreign language also have it, though on a different basis and manifesting itself in different ways. But my focus here is that being native doesn't actually guarantee correctness or writing style — certainly not more than completing higher education, which normally presupposes being native anyway (or just as good). So put the emphasis on native degrees rather than native ethnicity. :P It'll do your professional profile more good. Like I said: place of birth doesn't strike me as a particularly compelling reason why one should pay a service provider some serious bucks. On the other hand, education is more like it. Heck, growing up, keeping in touch, well, that's still better than just simply being born in the lucky place. Where nationality is the dominant criterion and education and experience are largely ignored, the profile of the profession is low, well below craftsmen who need to pick up real skills.

      Plus, an ivy-league educated foreigner will trump the average native writer.


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