Thursday, 23 October 2014

The Third Way: Increase Awareness

Some minutes ago I read an article from Jim's Marketing Blog from two months ago, linked by Frau Newell somewhere on Facebook. It's worth reading in whole, but without further ado, according to the author's powerful opening statement (sort of):

To get that price / value balance right, we have 2 options:
  1. We can pump more value into the product or service.
  2. We can lower the price.

In the context of translation, I immediately thought of the third way, probably as a result of thoughts crossing my mind of late, perhaps since April or May:

Increase awareness.

Strictly speaking there is no contradiction here, as the value needs to be in before you can raise awareness about it. But it's worth noting that:

  1. Once you put the premium value in, you'll need to communicate it or chances are it won't catch, which the author notes in saying: we are fooling ourselves if we expect prospective clients or customers to pay a premium, for something that’s average or close to average.
  2. Chances are the premium value is already in, so you need not to add it but to communicate it, right now. Which is also in the text but requires some reading into it, preferably with an open mind.

My proposition is that translation does not need any more value pumped into it, it needs better communication of its existing value. Any communication of its value would be a good start.

Actually, it would be false to say that no value communication exists, but it rests on the wrong premises:

  1. Added services of a kind which is really copy-shop services, or office assistance or entry-level technical assistance, which puts the profile of the profession below what translators' education and credentials would suggest.

    A lawyer will naturally end up gophering quite a lot in his initial years at the firm, even brew a couple of cuppas while at it, but no firm ever advertises lawyer-made coffee and lawyer-made copies as the added value that sweatens the deal, let alone its unique sales position. And this even though some lawyers are really conscious about courtesy, hospitality and warm and cosy client care. Plus, if a lawyer drove a truck, it would still be pilled at the same hourly rate as legal advice.

    (Or real consulting but without real qualifications. I recall a European translation agency contract where one of the attachments, an ethical code actually, required translators to check the correctness of source code while localizing software. I also recall a smart client who ordered legal advice 'localized', with a translation price tag and not legal advice price tag. Many translators probably have tales of expectations of typesetting, DTP, graphical editing and all sorts of checks in addition to just translating well.)

  2. Making translators look like that cleaning person with hidden talents, who is probably inreality a good fairy and who will quietly fix and polish a corporate manager's reports, filings and sales mail while sweeping and mopping his office at night. That, and Captain-Obvious-style consulting, telling clients things any twelve year old should know.
  3. Silly, unnecessary, outright dumb kinds of forcibly peddled added value such as preserving the intact layout of... incoming mail, down to copying the sender's signatures and logos over to the translation. I would question the soundness of mind of any client who really wanted to have his incoming mail translated like that as opposed to having it inadvertently peddled to himself by a translation agency or even translator anxious to furnish something, anything remunerable.
  4. Distasteful manifestations of ready obedience, submission and flattery, comparable to falling prostrate before the client and begging for scraps that fall from his table. 'Your wish is my command' is a real translation tag line I've seen, but by far not the only one in the same vein. You don't win respect that way. And you get scraps, bones, not serious compensation for your services.
Much of it is probably due to the situation translators and agencies currently live in, having their self-esteem constantly undermined and even sometimes functioning in circumstances in which self-esteem is a luxury some just can't afford.

The one thing is, if you don't have faith in yourself, it's hard to expect that others will. I'm not encouraging you to embrace the vice of pride but rather to take honest inventory of your skills and qualifications, their worth, their value, the path that led you to achieving them, the effort, the emotional reward. See the good things, the valuable, the unique. If translation represents no real value to you, then something is going wrong.

The other thing is that unlike what many (but not all!) marketing writers and speakers currently preach, it's not exclusively about defined benefits, or wants, or exclusively things that pertain to your client's business and not you. And it certainly is not about worshipping the ground the client walks on and wagging your tail hoping he'll throw a bone, which is as poor a strategy for winning clients as it is for winning girlfriends. To get a client hooked — and turning clients into hardcore fans is an idea I first heard from a law blogger — you need to tell story. It always is about a story. There are places in this world where stories are currency and the sum of $1, $10 and $100 is 3 colourful paper trinkets, not 111 dolars.

Tell a personal story. There is a reason lawyers use bios on their websites. About 60% of their traffic goes to the bios. Personal does not mean TMI, so skip the laundry of your multilingual home (unless you really are a good writer), but do tell a story about your academic studies and your professional path and the work you do these days. Don't be daft and presume that it would be of no interest to your client, like many people say. How do they know? Besides, I believe I've already covered the nonsense of treating your client like an alcoholic father (who must not be upset in the slightest, not made to listen to even a hint of something that's of no immediate relevance to him and his current situation).

Everybody loves to hear stories, you just need to find a way to tell them without driving people off or putting them to sleep. If you perceive yourself as a 'cultural mediator' (two individuals are also two cultures, on some level), a 'builder of bridges' or whatever else translation propaganda currently bills us as being, it would be a good test of the skills you supposedly rely on for a living.

By way of illustration, I never studied languages or translation myself at a university level because back at the time I'd thought it would teach me nothing new. (Edit: Oh wait, I did for a year in 2010-2011.) However, a couple of months ago, I was mining the faculty website for terminology and buzz words when translating a colleague's transcripts, and I got hooked on the narrative. It sucked me in and wouldn't let me go. Why oh why can't translators put similar narrative on their own websites? If it worked on a cormudgeonly skeptic like yours truly...

In short, believe in the value of what you do. Communicate that belief. Make it contagious. Show, not tell, even using words for the purpose. Give your prospective clients a chance to appreciate the value. They can't if you won't let them.


  1. Hi Lukasz,
    Thank you very much for another insightful post!
    Yes, I completely agree to your point about communicating value. The way we feel (about the value) on the inside translates to how it looks like on the outside.
    But what I am curious about is...
    To quote from your conclusion, if translators are well advised to give their “prospective clients a chance to appreciate the value”, they actually have to do it twice: first, when “chasing clients” (your keywords just below the final words) and, in most cases, competing against each other and, secondly, when delivering their translation.
    What do you think about this second opportunity? How can our product (or service) communicate value, assuming that a certain information asymmetry is inherent?

    1. Great question, Valerij. Everybody focuses on the copy and the competition, and even has somewhat of an intuitive grasp and feel of it, but #2 is more complex to address. I don't have a smart answer off the cuff, but, since you mention information asymmetry, that'd lead to translators having the burden of proof in that information economy. Not as in a proper obligation or some sort of dire consequences looming if the event of failure, but just that if they want the client to arrive at certain observations and conclusions, they'll need to help him along the way. Otherwise they won't succeed in what they'd like to achieve. (I toned this down a little to remove unnecessary adversarial dynamics.)

      But the bar here is not as high as in a criminal trial, for example, in that comparison you only need to give a client some proof, mostly just a reason really, maybe show him where the proof is, in any case, this is a more forgiving, less demanding scenario.

      Many translators are INTJ types or have outright autistic/Asperger's-like tendencies (even if they don't have the 'real thing'). Such people often convince others of their expertise the moment they open their mouths. The other goal, though, is to look serious and be taken seriously, something translators struggle with. Translators can be quite silly for people with so much knowledge and intelligence, maybe 'naiveté' is the right word. In any case, that'd need to go, and it may well be half the reason we're seen as gullible people who will swallow an expert team's load of work and do it for a fraction of the rate a single suitable professional would take. We're constantly being milked for discounts and for additional unpaid services, which is one of the results (symptoms of it).

      Now, when translators try to act like 'serious businesspeople', they fail notoriously and come out more grotesque than ever. They need to find their own way as opposed to try and emulate others. But without self-confidence, with a shattered self-esteem, that is very hard to do.

      I'd say that just just like we'd like our extent to give a confident presentation of the client's message with a flair, so we need to make our own presentation which is intended for that client's eyes and ears.

      It'd be difficult to name specific things to do, but they'd all be examples and means to an end — the most important would be the mindset. Having a certain voice and speaking with that voice. Let's say three or four values or other proposals that the voice can succeed in showing in a natural, unforced way.

      This and simply communicating — I know this is cliché, but the largest problem with communication is the assumption that communication is taking place. 'Hi', 'please advice of the best rate and deadline,' 'attached please find your translation and invoice,' is not really communication, or, in any case, it generally fails the economy-of-information test. (However, brevity does have a certain potential to show confidence and professionalism, so I'd rather avoid making this look too simple.)

      Agencies, on the other hand, often operate on the premise that the client shouldn't be asked any questions. Like that is what gives the client peace of mind — it does not, not any more than a medical doctor who asks you no questions but writes down the prescriptions and sends you on your way.

      Obviously, some clients do dislike the inconvenience of being asked a question, but those are people with serious issues, and their egos need clinical attention, not fostering.

    2. Some clients dislike needing to stoop and listen to a translator talk or read a translator's writing — translation in such a case is not believed to be the translator's writing but only the author's; by contrast any comments, footnotes etc. are the translator's own, and that's what invokes a 'don't speak until spoken to' reflex in some people. People who — we can bet — are not exactly powerful and highbred mediaeval or eastern lords, unless perhaps in their own minds. Again, those generally need clinical assistance or at least a counsellor, not an obedient little translator or PM.

      Instead of catering to a small minority of dysfunctional businesspeople among translation buyers, both agencies and translators should develop meaningful communication during projects.

      Now, of course, this would very clearly require agencies to abandon their typical approach of keeping translators invisible and their status low so that they don't need to be paid serious money or given some serious respect to their rights (as authors of derived works, which translations are). Consequently, this really would require translation agencies to change their business model.

      The translator who communicates value is generally the translator who writes commentaries, inserts footnotes, adds prefaces and forewords and afterwords, has his name put on the other and is listened to and has his own conferences and press events just like the author. Mutatis mutandis for legal, medical, marketing or tech translation.

      The very opposite state of things we're observing these days is partly due to translators' own inactivity and, yeah, lack of confidence and self-esteem or lack of belief that 'engaging' their clients and PMs makes sense.

      This is connected with the modern fatalistic marketing misassumption that substantive value or quality of professional services is non-appreciable (perhaps because measuring it is difficult, especially with precision), so it's not woth bothering with and all the effort should instead go to more appreciable things such as client service, client care etc.

      ... And that's precisely a huge contributing cause of the problem. When you abdicate your substantive quality proposal, you're reduced to the status of a concierge who is kept and sometimes paid for making his betters' wishes and whims happen. Preferably no questions asked and don't speak until spoken to.

      Plus, if you don't have concrete value, you'll need to compete on low prices, there is no avoiding that.

    3. And, if your core service doesn't have its own value, you'll end up doing additional services and bending over backwards to invent, design and sell them.

      Translation needs to be a core value, no buts.

      However, I'm getting a little carried. Back to the original thought: There are probably many things a translator wants to say to his client when returning a translated text. Say, or ask. So do. But it's more important that a translator already is regarded as a well respected white collar professional before the time he hands his work back in.

      The latter is hard to achieve with a good deal of agencies, where translators are effectively ordered around and humiliated at whim by junior personnel without half their education, professional status or even age. And those entry-level office workers often have managerial sounding titles to their names, which is sometimes taken literally (as in the twenty-something really is your superior or supervisor or manager and you're a rank-and-file employee under that person) by those involved, resulting in a situation where a 40 years old translator with a couple of degrees and almost 20 years of experience is told by a 20 years old student (if) to fetch some documents, retype some data from his CV into the agency's form, fix some details of formatting or whatever. There is a total lack of respect. UK agencies, for example, are notorious for that. Again, this is an example of the agency business approach and model these days, which would need to change in order to manage a proposition of value.

      ... And without managing it, agencies themselves will also remain confined to competing on the price and mangling each other to death in a red ocean of price competition and competition based on client service and client satisfaction in a clearly dysfunctional, psychopathic adversarial model.

      Translators have more chance to project professional status with direct clients, but they'd need to unlearn the habits learnt from being the dogged victims of the modern sweatshop/low-price wordmill agency model.

      Sorry for being so verbose, but as of yet the subject is not yet ripe for a concise summary.

  2. Thank you, Lukasz! Actually, it was something different that I had in mind when asking for your thoughts. Partially, it was also my reaction to the comment in the Facebook thread that Frau Newell started, namely about [the type of advice that is] “vague, unspecific, and ultimately useful only to someone who had, almost literally, been living under a rock“.
    Yes, “translation is a core value”, no mistake about that.
    There is much advice for translators on how to communicate value in order to be awarded a job, in other words, “chasing clients”, that is essentially marketing advice.
    However, the problem is so many translators don’t have much clue about how to communicate value through what (and how) they do on the job and après.
    It is what I have been working on for some time now, so I hope it will eventually materialise in some less vague, more specific ideas. (To avoid any misunderstanding, I certainly don’t mean your advice and thoughts here, but refer to the original article from Jim’s Marketing Blog that I feel rather ambiguous about. Of course, “increase awareness” is a step in the right direction.)

  3. I think I get your point, Valerij, though I think I also got it before, only perhaps it's a little difficult to solve the question and find the right words to express it. I think translators project value when they act professionally. This means a certain gravitas and decorum, which is not the forte of many translators. Many really seem to be gullible, to be overeager to please, to talk too much about 'passion', to just jump at jobs and so on. The marketing does look like we're a bunch of apologetic hobbyists who are fed by passion rather than food money buys, and who can be taken on a ride somewhat easily or otherwise exploited, prodded arount etc. We rarely inspire respect. Low-quality and giddy presentation may well be the case. Then, there's that overfocus on technical and formating details in POs and such like, the tolerance of awfully pushy and humiliating language from our clients, and more. If we stopped working with rude people and tolerating idiotic remarks (or making them, actually), perhaps things would get better on this front. Otherwise I think there isn't that much to do left when handing back the job, it's more front-loaded rather, and translators project whatever their project from their CVs and profiles and maybe whatever mail they exchanged with the agency or client in the beginning, perhaps the test if any.

    On the other hand, there is a problem situated immediately after returning our work (we shouldn't really use phrasing such as 'post-delivery' because this isn't construction industry or commodity market) — namely how translators agree to all sorts of stupid changes proposed by clients because they don't care or because they think that's actually the right thing to do. Translators won't stop being everybody's apprentice if they will continue to be corrected by everybody and his dog, especially on matters in which they have education and experience and the person correcting them does not.

    I do think translators should abandon the externals of commodity deliveries, or even those typical of the broad services market, and instead take after lawyers, doctors and such like, who don't hand in their papers as if they were a truckload of commodity goods from a factory line.

    However, we need our own identity, not emulation. When I refer to lawyers, accountants, architects, doctors etc., I mean inspiration only. We should probably counterbalance that inspiration with some influence from the world of writers and artists in general, notably book authors and article writers. Or, in some cases, perhaps the ad industry. And in all cases whatever industry we are translating for.

    Again, a largely circular answer, but I don't think I can make it any narrower. Other than just doing one's job well — really putting in the time, supporting solutions with research, double-checking carefully, getting second opinions, going the extra mile — and not allowing any sort of non-professional correction or (non-)payment-related shenanigans. Perhaps it might help to itemize the steps in the PO or invoice or even somewhere in a translator's client-care brochure to give clients more vision of what's going on.

  4. While at it, we often end up translating about things we aren't expert in, and definitely not on par with a noted field-specific expert. But that's normal, and it's part of the job and part of the deal. Usually nobody looks down on lawyers etc., somehow, because of their lack of engineering or medical knowledge when they litigate related issues, interpret the laws or work on legislation.

    When a translator needs to ask some questions, resolve some doubts, have an engineer (or lawyer, doctor etc.) review the text, the request shouldn't be giving the impression that the translator is just too daft to translate the thing and needs assistance from people who have meaningful jobs. We should be more assertive about that and prepared to explain the collective effort involved in making certain translations optimal. And, frankly, we should call clients, intermediaries and their personnel on any snarky remarks. This connects with what I said about being everybody's apprentice.


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