Saturday, 20 September 2014

Ten Things Translators Are Doing Wrong

  1. Pictures. Few things have the potential to do as much good or ill to a professional's professional image as, well, images. Remember the meaning of 'code' in 'dress code' — it matters how people see you. If you prefer to keep it laid back, that's fine, too, but you can still put a real photographer behind a real camera. It will cost many times more than a simple ID picture, but it may well be one of the best investments you will ever have made. Make your picture representative of where you are or where you realistically want to be.
  2. TMI. This may be different if you translate for fellow freelancers or creatives, but lawyers and bankers who work 120 hours a week days won't be thrilled to hear about pyjamas and slippers and bath robes. Members of the general public who toil away in offices and at construction sites won't either. This connects with your image just like your picture: You won't be taken seriously if you can't make yourself look serious.
  3. Entry-level language-related imagery. We don't deal at the entry level, either. Ideally, all translators should be native or near-native in both the source and the target language.
  4. Broad references to all languages. We don't do 20 foreign languages, in most case we stick to one, two or three. We don't specialize in translation project management and traffic direction, either. In short, we are translators and not tiny translation agencies.
  5. Teaching paraphernalia. We don't teach. This is not a language school where a business exec can get from Elementary to Intermediate. This is real life.
  6. Your wish is my command. No kidding, This a direct quotation from a real translator's headline. May it stop already. This is not a concierge industry.
  7. Tech focus. Let's put things in perspective: it's your talent, study and experience that have shaped you into however good or bad translator you are, not your CAT tool. You don't want to emphasize your CAT tools any more than you want your clients to focus on them.
  8. 'You', 'me' etc. There is a trend for more personal touch in business-to-business copy, but let's keep some perspective: we aren't making Facebook friends, we're working.
  9. Errors and poor writing. As embarrassing as this is to note, translators' websites abound with errors and poor writing, which is one of the reasons it's so hard for the entire profession to be treated seriously and build a high profile.
  10. Piecemeal rates. There isn't much one can do on the agency front in this regard, but direct clients are often puzzled and sometimes put off by how typical translation pricing works, and they would be happy to pay per-project fees, recognizing that our work is more than the sum total of the words we type. 


  1. Another thing that looks bad is when translators publish marketing materials written in their source language without getting them edited by a native-speaker professional first. It makes it that much harder to persuade potential clients to have their texts professionally translated/edited if we haven't done the same with our own.
    Ditto for websites. If we give the impression that a DIY job is OK for a translator website, then why wouldn't a DIY translation be OK for a client...?

  2. Good point, Oliver, which I say as a big fan of DIY-ing my website, both on the tech side and the text side, where, obviously, I'm not a native-speaking copywriter, and I'm only a self-taught coder.

    Someone who doesn't risk having a heart-rending emotional void in his heart after committing his website into the hands of another (the way I do, having dabbled with web design since 1998) but who doesn't have the budget to afford a proper web designer should probably just use a Wordpress template, even a free one (the most popular ones are very solid, very business-like and overall very good), with a domain name attached even to hosting.

    Regarding copy per se, I'd say that narrowly specialized translators whose main asset is their knowledge of, say, medical or engineering terminology, might as well rely on professional copywriters in both of their languages, including whichever language they are native in. Masters of terminology are not necessarily proper wordsmiths, and there is no shame in that.

    On the other hand, translators who take marketing jobs or PR-sensitive jobs should probably not retain a third-party writer for any piece of their copy in a language they normally work into.

    There is one exception, though: It may feel more comfortable to avoid being the advocate of your own cause, getting personal and losing the distance and all. Hence, an exchange of services even between two professional copywriters working in the same language would not be inappropriate. (Unlike a green copywriter spending big bucks on a seasoned copywriter for ghost-written self-presentation.)

    The key here is that clients should not be deceived. Ideally, your copy should be a good sample of what your clients can expect if they engage your services for their own translation needs.

  3. Great point, Oliver.

    Łukasz, as a marketing translator I agree with you that my English copy should be my own; that's what I'm selling my clients: my skill as a writer who can clearly communicate a product or service's USPs. So my website text had better do that, and it had better be my own work.

    For that same reason, however, I wouldn't *dream* of writing the Dutch version of my website myself. I no longer have a Dutch version, but if I were to have one I would do what I did years ago: hire a Dutch copywriter to turn my visible example of my skill into Dutch that did the same thing.

    (That's right: I hired a Dutch copywriter who spoke English, not a translator. Because I needed someone who understood copy, and even then, I realized that most translators are—bizarrely enough—only average writers, if that.)

    Why didn't I write my own Dutch? Because the client's perception is critical when your words are a sample of your service. And kick-ass Dutch written by a talented native speaker is a much better reflection of the service I'm offering into *my* native language than would be my mostly correct but hardly kick-ass Dutch.


  4. I agree, Grayson, as into-Dutch marketing translation is not a service you offer. I only believe that as professional writer a translator should not use ghost writers (ghost translators, ghost copywriters) where confusion could ensue and induce a prospective client to make an ill-informed decision on the basis of a misimpression of that particular translator's writing skill where it matters. In case of doubt, it probably does. One way of avoiding confusion would be third-person narration if someone else wrote the copy.

    Oh, and, by the way, I don't think I'd ever have my own copy translated. I'd go for a monolingual copywriter hands down.

    The only exception is going between Polish and English on my own, but I think even that's lazy, and I should probably just write the Polish and the English from scratch at each time in the future, using any existing other version as no more than a fact sheet and source of inspiration.

    My Polish copy is sometimes translatable into English, but if I write it in English first, then it doesn't make any real sense translating. For example that profile I once had on, which you so kindly complimented in our first conversation, would have made utterly no sense translated into Polish. Chances are I had a non-translated Polish localization back at the time (either that or no Polish version), but I just don't remember.

    I could have transcreated it with some success and made it work (I prefer to think in 'how' terms, not 'if' terms, and challenge any such perceived impossibilities), but I suspect something altogether different would have worked better, at least on traditional Polish prospects. I only suspect this, though, I'd need to see the transcreation to tell.

    But in any case, I sometimes feel bad doing marketing translation because of how I believe native copywriters should instead be used for original work unless consistency is of paramount importance and for a real reason, not because a stagnant and inert Global Sales and Marketing says it is.

  5. Actually, the marketing conversation at companies that work globally seems to include debate on whether to use translators or in-country copywriters, for exactly that reason (and I agree with you that copywriting skill is paramount). The issue is that many translators aren't versed in the marketing skills that are required, while in-country copywriters who don't speak the source language can't work from the company's original marketing documents (campaign texts, but also strategy documents, etc; not such an issue when the target language is English, but definitely an issue if the target language is, say, Vietnamese: unlikely the marketing department has enough command of that language to converse with the copywriters). The ideal solution is a bilingual copywriter, which is increasingly how I'm positioning myself—though I'm keeping "translation" on my website because many clients start by searching for a translator.

  6. Thanks, Grayson. Well, I do believe that cultural differences between European societies are somewhat overrated, especially when advancing the proposition of hiring target natives only and feeling that language proficiency alone won't make a sufficient argument in high-diffusion languages that have quite many non-native proficient users. In reality, we do live in the aftermath of Greco-Roman civilization and mediaeval Christian universalism that didn't exactly die in 1453 or 1492, either. It's still possible to be quite parochial if one so chooses, but still, I do believe that because of our shared history and common roots and influences marketing, just like humour, is translatable rather than absolutely needing a new creation at all times, thank you for reminding me. It's difficult to reconcile this with what I said in my last comment, but it probably boils down to the fact that some things are more translatable and some less, and it takes a smart copywriter or translator to figure out the difference.

    We haven't explored this angle yet, but it's also possible that translators are better writers than copywriters due to the latter's focus on research, testing and making things happen, whereas translators are constantly QA'ed for correctness, style and all such like, writing all the time and not normally spending time as campaign directors, advisors and so on (for the same reason translators can become better legal writers than real lawyers also, same for health care, engineering etc.). They can be more expert in driving the sales than driving the text, which may not be what the client wants, especially when he's got the research and strategizing part already covered.

    But in the above situation my approach would be intelligent but generally not unbounded translation, with intelligent fidelity. When it comes to transcreation, however, I usually find it difficult to see the point in not just getting a native copywriter instead.

    Obviously, I'm not a fan of companies ordering almost source-independent transcreation at translation rates in order to save money otherwise spent on a real campaign designed and executed by an ad agency. (Which is not much different from companies trying to have their legal advice 'localized' by substituting local laws and making sure the advice reflects local conditions, a.k.a. just getting paralegal advice. Only the lines are less sharp to the eye in marketing than they are in law.)


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