Friday, 22 August 2014

Use Normal Language as Your Shield Against Absurdity

Somewhat in opposition to the title, let's start from a hipster word: paradigm. The way wiki talks about it, it deals with:

  • what is to be observed and scrutinized
  • the kind of questions that are supposed to be asked and probed for answers in relation to this subject
  • how these questions are to be structured
  • how the results of scientific investigations should be interpreted
  • how is an experiment to be conducted, and what equipment is available to conduct the experiment.

Bottom line, it's a set of conventions that streamline science and confer legitimacy on research methods and results and theoretical constructs on the basis of popular consent. In plainer words, it's the rules of the game: who can play, what you play for, what you play with, what moves you can make and when, who wins etc. Same as in chess or backgammon.

No paradigm is set in stone. They are often disputed, sometimes challenged, and have their limits pushed by people. They change from time to time, sometimes naturally, sometimes in a big bang, but most of the time in nibbling small steps. This will be important here.

While science is generally credited with looking for the truth (in reality, it's more like looking for the best knowledge you can get), paradigms define the rules for making simplified judgements as to what's going to pass for truth for the time being, i.e. until someone comes up with something better, and for making sure we don't get too embarrassed when that happens.

The lingo is a very important part of any paradigm. When among the Romans you do — and talk — like the Romans do. This essentially means that you accept and follow their rules. The lingo serves as an 'us and them' kind of mechanism which sends a message of belonging to the same group and taking each other seriously. It puts you in the food chain. You and your ideas.

It can also serve to legitimize ideas which are really absurd. This is because any rules can be gamed in order to make the opposition powerless against what you are doing to them. Sun Tzu says good generals win before they start fighting.

You can end up discussing absurd things just because those silly concepts have been worded in a way which makes them look like serious subjects for discussion.

The point here is that the use of fancy words and dressing up absurd proposals and requests in what passes for acceptable language in business or in the field of translation smuggles absurdity inside the paradigm, gives legitimacy to those absurd ideas and changes the reality we work in. Unchallenged, those ideas become part of a generally accepted, received deposit of knowledge that we pass on to newbies. Or, in plain words, they get to shape our reality.

Example: You'd think that no serious person would go on to explain each and every case where a word in the text needs to be put now in the singular, now in the plural, or feminine and masculine, or a different noun case than some other time. Nowadays, however, because of what 'quality assurance' and 'quality checks' look like — and because of 'our client requires it' — serious linguists are sometimes asked to write serious reports justifying such 'inconsistencies'.

The translation 'industry' is home to ignorant people who will even ask you to please fix your errors, without bothering to ask what that was about and without the basic knowledge about language that a 10 year old should have. The magic of 'quality assurance', the new concept of translation 'quality' (mostly formatting and tags these days) and the compelling force of the invocation of their 'client' or 'client requirements' are responsible for this absurdity. And the absurdity doesn't stop there. For example you may have been asked or pressured to enter linguistic disputes with executives and managers who don't have the faintest clue what they're talking about (e.g. second-guessing your translation with a dictionary in hand, without knowing the language — or disputing your writing style when they aren't even advanced students of the language).

'Quality', 'QA', 'inconsistencies', 'feedback', 'best rates', 'our database', 'TEP' (translation + editing + proofreading), 'require', 'opportunity' are some of the magic words in our job line. They can be combined with more general management speak and marketing jargon.

First watch College Humor — Facebook Law for Idiots to see what a French-sounding word can do to people's minds. And that's not even conscious manipulation, more like naïve use by everybody involved. Typical translation business mail probably falls under this category, though I have no doubt that people closer to the sinister or outright sociopathic range are also in this 'industry'.

Go to 'What The Fuck Is My Social Media Strategy' (do it even if the f word offends you) to see how easy it is to randomly put together a piece of babble that seems to make some sense:

  • Expose new users to the brand through organic conversations
  • Target influencers with engaging assets to act as platforms for conversation
  • Encourage positive conversations to drive advocacy
  • Build loyalty & increased engagement through ongoing conversation and brand experience

Essentially, they shuffle trendy verbs like 'drive', 'leverage', 'encourage', 'target' etc. with trendy nouns like 'assets', 'platforms', 'influencers', 'advocacy'. They put them in patterns to mimic causes and effects, methods and goals.

Those sentences could theoretically have a legitimate meaning described by that sort of verbiage due to a need for precision. Except in this case they are randomly generated babble. Look at their magic at work.

The outcome resembles psychobabble or any other -babble, which is a situation when trendy jargon words are used to legitimize nonsense often by people who don't understand what they are talking about (or do, but are faking it to begin with).

Apart from cons and phoneys, probably pretty much every one of us does something like that in real life, without realizing it or without any seriously deceiptive intentions. Just like the tiny white lies and embellishments that come naturally.

Buzzwords — trendy words that already exist or hip words biz and marketing wizards make up as they go — are similar to weasel words, i.e. fuzzy language like 'some people say' or even 'it is generally believed' or 'clearly evident' which leads you to accept authority that's not even properly cited, perhaps because it's not there. Except in buzzwords mental associations are invoked instead. The 'magic' of a trendy word is used to legitimize something that doesn't normally make sense.


  1. The client is not offering any payment for this assignment.
  2. We want you to do it for free.



  1. For this particular client/assigment we are using the following schedule for fuzzy matches.
  2. Your pay will be 20% less than your normal rates for this amount of work.

  1. I am writing to offer you an exciting opportunity to work with X/become part of X team of some nouns with adjectives.
  2. We need an external translator to take over some of the workload from time to time. We have nothing special to offer but neither does anybody else, so you might just as well accept it from us as from any other guys.

In all three examples, how does #1 sound compared to #2?

Similar situations could include suddenly referring to your response to their own inquiry as an 'application' being dowgraded to the level of one of some 20 offers they are sieving through and comparing to each other.

Or their own internal procedures and request can be cited like they are public law, their own requirements as an insurmountable obstacle they can't physically remove for you.

Or instead of negotiating some changes with you, you could be referred to as a 'Doe Translations Translator', and 'Doe Translators' follow the attached ethical code, which is (as they put it) your obligation to study and follow at all times.

Obviously, 'vendor', 'subcontractor' etc. also define your role when forced on you without your outspoken opposition, which implies acceptance and may even legally constitute acceptance (making the thing binding on you in a court of law).

Bottom line: Magic words. Or, rather, magic words that are accepted without challenge.

Some buzz words are code phrases.

For example 'CAT required' without specifying which or requiring true CAT receivables simply means they'll want discounts for fuzzies. 'Best rates', 'market situation', 'permanent collaboration', 'large volume' etc. all make it so that you're supposed to use them as a pretext to give them lower prices. Of all these, 'best rates' also introduce a competitive mood.

By accepting their lingo, you accept their rules.

Don't give them the benefit of conferring easy legitimacy on their dubious or outright absurd proposals by discussing them seriously, using the language convention supplied by the agency or client. Don't accept their rules without challenge — i.e. rules that are supposed to favour them in the game. Sometimes including the power to change the rules as they go — obviously so that it's easier for them to win.

Normal language stops the madness.

... Because in normal language that sort of thing (as in #1 in the examples above) will not fly.

By using normal language you force smartasses to stop being smartasses. You can force them to get back to a normal win-win dynamic instead of gaming it so that it's win for them and loss for you. And you can put back on their shoulders the burden of persuading you to give them what they want from you.

It's also far less easy to follow a PR flow chart, i.e. scripted dialogue, in a mismatched register, e.g. more colloquial, more idiomatic, a bit more flowery or up to the point, than the register typically used in PR communications. This means they have to drop the script and start thinking on their own.

In short, normal language forces substantive communication. Personally, in some cases, I use and request 'workman's terms' for that.

(For the record, there is no shame in admitting you don't understand something. If you've really earned your degree in languages or translation, chances are something you can't understand could at least have been phrased better.)

Just talk to them in normal language, rephrase their requests and explanations and excuses into normal language and asked them if you're reading them right (as in #2) — as opposed to automatically adopting the style used in their mails, along with their perspective.

You may want to read a bit about cognitive restructuring or reframing if you're interested in this subject.

There is also plenty of connection with plain language. Things you do to your language to clear it of jargon may resemble techniques used by plain language drafters, e.g. in British civil service.

You'll need to be at least a little assertive to make this work.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Translator-to-Translator Marketing

The idea came in the form of inspiration from the title of this thing by Tom Kane popping up in my reading list. I'm not even reading it before writing this.

In short, we don't always market to professions. In fact, we often market to semi-professionals and to outright layfolks, sometimes outright ignorants who not only lack the knowledge but don't care to think logically and get some conclusions on the basis of the general knowledge and common sense that everybody has or should have (which does include a lot of PMs these days).

Translator-to-translator marketing is not what you'd normally associate with marketing, largely because the people involved are typically friends or at least acquaintances. Only in rare situations will you end up talking to an agency owner or project manager who actually does happen to be a translator (which doesn't actually always guarantee a certain desirable modicum of common sense and professionalism).

Those guys will be your friends, your acquaintances, your classmates, and everybody else you meet while procrastinating or sharing your misery in this masochistic profession with others.

Those guys know what they are talking about. Usually. And most of the time they know better than the usual layman anyway.

If they work, or have in the past worked, in your own pairs and fields, then chances are they are in a position to form a judgement of the quality of your work. If you have worked together on some projects before, they are likely to know whether you are reliable or not or if one can get along with you better or worse. Or what the clients, PMs and others said about your work.

Finally, people who always end up in the same forum and Facebook discussions with you generally know something about you, such as whether you seem to be a smart person, or conscientious, whether your suggestions to others seem sound, whether you can structure an argument logically in a foreign language or actually struggle with understanding what people say to you in your own (at least before you hit the reply button). They may remember the stories you share, and the sentiments.

Working with them — or through them — is similar to referrals from previous clients. They should also be treated accordingly, as just because you're friends doesn't mean the job is any less demanding (itself or, say, its deadline or some other important characteristics that go beyond the text itself). Thanking them and making sure they aren't embarrassed in the end by having recommended you is basic courtesy that I shouldn't normally need to be mentioning.

Don't neglect fellow translators as a potential source of jobs — they are rarely the ultimate source, and if they are then they typically don't have deep pockets, but from time to time they are in a position to co-opt colleagues or recommend substitutes. If you've been around for a longer while, you will know.

Fellow translators know you. Make sure you take this factor into account.

Finally, those can some of your best jobs. A fellow translator in a position of power can prevent the client from making unreasonable demands or asking silly questions and effectively doubling your work time without compensating you accordingly. He or she may also be able to negotiate better pay, nicer deadlines and some other conditions that generally put you in the premium league as opposed to the typical struggling-to-get-along situation.

Take care of your image inside your own circles.

As for the how-to, you are finally talking to people who understand what you're talking about — usually — so it should come to you more or less intuitively. I'm not encouraging any sort of solicitation among your remote acquaintances, unless there is some sort of mutual consent to helping each other out and a general will to learn about each other's practice, as is sometimes the case in networking. But the most beautiful thing is that in this you don't need to wonder how to reach people who don't know or care what you're talking about. So this is most of all a casual, everyday opportunity that you shouldn't waste.

You're already on the right path if your reputation grows, if your expertise is widely known, if people listen to what you say and you generally say things that are worth listening to or reading. And if you don't do anything particularly silly to estrange them — unlike in consumer or consumer-like relationships, even eccentric weirdos are respected for their competence within their own circles as long as they're good at what they do.

Time for Service Plans?

This is not about service levels in the sense of a service level agreement (SLA), although there is a lot in common. In a translation context a service level agreement would define how many errors of what kind are more or less inevitable and should be accepted as a fact of life (yes, nobody's perfect and you won't avoid every single type over 300 pages of perfect writing without as much as a speck of bland style or boring narration, let's get real), at what point the service would still be good but require some adjustments, when it would be substantially good but justify a discount here or there in addition to remedial work, and finally a more elaborate and less passionate structure of contractual penalties. If you take a standard contract and outsource the part about contractual penalties and give it more flesh and narrow down some technical aspects, delivery and so on, that will be an SLA, essentially.

This may seem to confuse 'service' in the understanding it typically has in everyday language (what do you think about when you hear that something was good or bad service) with the more narrowly understood product of what really is work for hire.

And translation does differ from 'services' in this, it is a work for hire. In a legal sense, 'services' are also often work for hire or commissioned work but real life focuses on non-legal aspects more. We aren't a branch of the hospitality industry (hotels, bars), nor a concierge service (where you literally get paid for making the client satisfied because his wishes of various sorts are met).

Client service perhaps still exists in our job line, but it's something markedly different from the core, substantive quality of our work. Does anybody talk about client service to architects? Lawyers have client care for obvious reasons — in some situations their clients are essentially patients. Patients invoke associations with hospitality. This applies to interpreters to a moderate extent, but that's it.

Whether it's service with a smile or with a scowl, it doesn't even matter and shouldn't even have popped up — the way clients are treated reflects on the individual translator's character, as in personality, manners and so on, but the whole thing is about translation, not about creating experience or providing care, forget simply running errands, making requests happens and procuring general satisfaction.

Bottom line: 'Client service' is quite incidental to our profession, generally the province of receptionists and secretaries that most of us don't hire but agencies and clients do, and is not to be confused with the substantive quality of our work, which is always focused on rendition from one language to the other.

You can't really produce unfaithful translation or bad writing on purpose, so in this way you can't 'sell' different quality levels or plans. What you can do, however, is itemize the price instead of making it all-inclusive or, in other words, inclusive of certain requests that your client might or might not make. There is no imperative (ethical or otherwise) that you have an all-inclusive price. There may be an imperative that you are available for this and that, but never that you are available within a low price or within the price already paid.

Fixing errors in your own work would be hard to charge for  — although there are situations in which even that could be appropriate (e.g. rush jobs, stylistic issues in working translations) — but you can definitely charge separately for:

reviewing mere proposals of change, as in whatever changes your client thinks about or even the proofreader or editor, as long as they don't come down to clear-cut errors on your part;
your time spent dealing with corrections that shouldn't have been suggested, i.e. explaining why the proofreader is wrong, i.e. free grammar lessons and that ilk;
explaining your choices when more information is sought — you should be able to explain them, but not necessarily free of charge and from a position akin to that of a criminal suspect;
and probably some more.

Right now agencies and in some cases also clients are pushing for lower prices and shorter deadlines. So perhaps give them that, but the lower price doesn't necessarily need to mean the same kind of work or client service that would normally have been included in the old, higher prices. You shouldn't have ethical objections here: it's not somehow fair for them to impose a lower price on you but still claim the same old thing — it works both ways.

If they don't want to pay more just in order that some things can be free (i.e. already included) when they pop up — fine, that's a valid choice. But charge them when those things do pop up. You can charge them high, as in for separate service, or you can tell them to make up the difference (upgrade their service plan, as it were), but you don't need to agree to do the same work or more for less. Especially if that work is not your core work, i.e. translation, but some transactional, administrative or educational aspects — especially something someone else could handle.

Notably, queries and requests from end clients that mostly come down to explaining the rules of the language to them can be handled by the in-house employees of any self-respecting translation company, at least as long as the most popular languages are concerned or otherwise languages their inhouse translators and proofreaders can handle.

There's no need for you to handle secretarial or assistance kind of taks or fill technical billets. You're a translator, not a software techie or office secretary, those are just billets the agency isn't filling in order to save money and cut a larger margin or be able to lower its price for the clients and thus gain a higher market share. Which is not your responsibility.

Admin is their job, not yourself, and so much more so concerns such as keeping the client happy, especially by humouring the client and granting all sorts of less than reasonable respects — down to what, entertaining the client and making coffee? Those are all valid roles and valid business decisions, but the people who deal with the execution of that are either specialized hospitality employees (so to say), who might even be making higher pay than substantive staff (a good, experienced receptionist is probably worth more than a generic new lawyer in a law firm, for example), or perhaps junior office staff. You may be junior office staff if you're in your early twenties with fresh ink on your bachelor of arts (yes, lowercase) degree, but not when you've got an advanced degree an a serious job in the professions.

For the record, those admin, technical and hospitality roles are not even something you need to provide for agencies or to their clients on their behest at all. Let's get some things straight already.

Bottom line: just like when a direct client doesn't like the prospective bill: itemize. Making it give and take. If they give less, they aren't entitled to take all. Draw your limits.

And you may need to put those limits in writing, as well as in your ToS, available somewhere handy on-line. This is because the law is slow to adapt and operates on a series of presumptions that are no longer valid in the situations we meet these days. Keep things clear so presumptions can't be made.

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...