Five questions and one more

Among German translators, Giselle Chaumien is unique in that her contribution to the professional translators’ community is comparable to that of an entire professional association. While others may incessantly promote their CPD business or obsess about monetizing their websites or blogs, Giselle, without much ado, has been offering a plethora of knowledge and expertise through her Wissenswinkel website (together with Sabine Lammersdorf) and her personal blog.

On Facebook, she moderates a popular Café Umlaut group. For years, she has been providing help and advice to those starting their career. Above all, she herself sets an example of someone who finds great satisfaction in mastering skills and, as a writer and translator, living a successful professional life.

There may be more in the offing and I’d be happy to spread the word in due course, but now back to what’s there. A few months ago, Giselle and Sabine started a series of interviews 'Five Questions for the Experts'. It was my honor and pleasure to be asked to contribute.

Another esteemed colleague, Allison Wright, kindly volunteered to translate this interview, originally in German, into English. She did a brilliant job that, for once, justifies using my clandestine slogan 'Better than the original'. Thank you so much, Allison! As for the pictures, they have only a remote connection with the interview: I happened to be visiting the 'Upside Down' festival in Aarhus, Denmark, when replying to the questions.


Valerij, what do you think is the most important key to success in our profession?

To look at every single translation job through the client's eyes:

Client's perspective + Thinking like the client = Success.

02 Above the town

It is a simple formula, yet not always obvious. Translators usually understand translation to mean conveying the text at hand into another language. For clients, however, it is more important for our translation to achieve their goals—as does the source text, only in another language. By not understanding what these goals are – why the client sent the documents for translation in the first place, I believe that success will be hard to come by.

We need to understand that clients expect a product; for clients, that product is simply a means to an end. And then there is the related service which arises from our thinking like the client. We have to ask ourselves what exactly the client will achieve with our translation? Does the source document really persuade the target group in the best way possible? What can be changed or improved? How can the translator help clients to communicate better with their audience? A means to an end—medium versus message: To be successful in our profession, it is important to understand the relationship between these two elements, and not simply to work in “text in, text out” mode.

Your own survey on what clients want from translators revealed clients' dissatisfaction because of the widespread misconception that “the job is about the text, and the text only”. The reason the translation was commissioned in the first place often falls by the wayside when such a narrow view is taken. (If you read German, I would strongly recommend that you read Giselle's article entitled “Was Auftraggeber sich von Übersetzern wünschen“ in the 2016-4 issue of the Fachzeitschrift MDÜ.)

In my book, now with the working title, “Through the Client’s Eyes: On Becoming a Better Translator” (possibly due for publication at the end of 2017), I call the key to success the 4 Ps (analogous to the 5 Ms of management, and the 4 Cs of marketing, and so on). The 4Ps are not the standard “Product, Price, Place and Promotion”, but a combination of Professionalism, Project-thinking, Personality and Packaging. The book deals at length with how our clients see translations, but also discusses what we can learn from other industries—from their perspective. First and foremost, it deals with publishing, advertising and design, where the visual counts for far more than the verbal.

We look forward to reading it. Do interpreters have a better idea of what clients are about? Are they more client-orientated than translators? You work as an interpreter and translator. What do you think?

It is a well-known fact that translators always ask for “more context”, yet they seldom see the relationship between “their text” and the client's actual motivation behind the text. As another of the clients you surveyed said, the world of business relations is a completely unexplored territory for many translators. What better way is there to understand the internal processes of a company and business connections and relationships in general than by getting to know clients and their companies on site?

As an interpreter, I am lucky to have been to the premises of many companies. For over twenty years, I have also been an interpreter in the fields of corporate consultancy and management training, mainly for GIZ (Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit, the German international development organisation) and its partners. This is one way to learn how business really works, and you can't help but pick up specialist knowledge as you go along.

I believe the best way to specialise—a magic word for translators—is through practical, hands-on experience. The same is true for market knowledge. What I have just described definitely applies to “my” market segment, which I have come to know through practical experience; that of direct B2B clients. Obviously, this would not apply to those who mainly translate personal certificates or work with translation agencies.

I also think that specialisation alone, without general knowledge and the ability to understand how businesses operate, is only one half of the success coin. It is through my contact with business executives whom I meet through my interpreting work that I have become particularly aware of what is termed methodical competence. Many CEOs and management executives move from one company and sector to another several times during their careers. They tend to be generalists, but are always able to acquire the specialist knowledge that matters.

In my opinion, there is a great deal of synergy created when interpreting and translation are offered as part of the same service. But here too, everything starts with the client. I sense how important it is for clients to have someone they trust—a reliable partner—for all their language-related and communication needs. If this trust is established when working with an interpreter, clients find it extremely difficult to understand why they should have to look for a different service provider for follow-up work—which just happens to be in writing. Take, for example, the translation of a written contract prepared after negotiations at which the interpreter was present and during which the terms of the draft contract were discussed.

What recommendations would you like to give to younger translators who are just entering the profession?

This dovetails with my response to your first question. I would advise young translators to keep their eyes open so that they can see what they are doing in a larger context from the client's perspective. But perhaps I would also mention this: Technology—by which I mean the technical means used, such as software—is simply a means to an end. Cooking utensils are not essential for you to be a good cook. No matter how fantastic they are, even cameras are useless without people, and being a bad, good or brilliant photographer does not depend on your equipment, or the latest software.

Robert Mapplethorpe's Tools

(Robert Mapplethorpe’s tools (the exhibition ‘On the Edge” in Aarhus Art Museum, October 2016)

Translators tend to be perfectionists. They are always looking for (and finding) errors and have a hard time coping with the idea of “better done than perfect”. Having said that, I have discovered recently that many translators do not even deliver a finished product. Many have the “text in, text out” attitude towards the job at hand mentioned earlier; they do not even see the text as a whole, and have no real concept of what “done” means. They merely translate individual segments in their CAT tools and send off the segments in the target language, without first checking the document exported from their CAT tool in the original program–and certainly do not check the document through the client's eyes.

I don't know whether it's because of the CAT tool or because many translators work mainly for agencies (i.e. for "the trade" and not for the end client), but I encounter this lack of versatility and inadequate sense of responsibility for their own products and services more and more. Obviously, they expect someone else to finish the job properly—that someone else will read the text through again, format it, adapt it, and take responsibility for it. But in real life, it is not like that.

I completely agree with you on that. What do you wonder most about when it comes to the behaviour of younger colleagues on social media?

I get the impression that criteria other than age or experience (younger versus older colleagues) are at work when using social media. But demographics apart, a lot depends on your personality. I have also noticed other things play a role, such as membership of a professional translators' association. Even among the members of our own association, the BDÜ, I have met many colleagues who avoid, dismiss or ignore Facebook, Twitter, and the like. Some of them call it “Facebook & Co.”, and have a very negative attitude towards social media of any kind. Either they see no value in being involved in social media, or hide behind pseudonyms or are afraid to express their opinions in public. It would be interesting to know what percentage of BDÜ members are in the better known German translator groups (such as Café Umlaut, for example).

I would like to see something of a more ambitious, or more professional, approach from active users of social media, especially on Facebook. I see no sense in wasting time bemoaning agencies, with their shamefully low prices. As a service provider, you are the one who determines your price, and not the agency. If your quotations are not accepted, look for other clients. Don't offer your products and services via the trade (agencies); offer them directly instead. Most translators, however, have difficulty believing that this works. Or that a stable, six-figure annual income is not only desirable but also quite realistic.

What many now refer to as the “poverty cult“ approach is something I regard quite simply as self-sabotage, like shooting yourself in the foot. Far be it from me to lay the blame on the victims, but many, many problems that colleagues on social media complain bitterly about are, as the Germans so neatly put it, home-made. And it should be remembered that self-sabotage not only hinders your own success, but reduces the chances of success for others too. It has a negative effect on the whole translation “industry”. And the image of the translation profession itself suffers too.

01 Marketing tips for translators

(At the 'Upside Down' festival, Aarhus, October 2016)

I feel exactly the same way, Valerij. One extra question, if I may, on the subject of the poverty cult and self-sabotage: You know that a significant number of our colleagues have a problem with the word “success” because it has negative connotations for them. What is your response to that?

I wonder which word would have positive connotations for them, in that case. First of all, what alternatives are there, if “success” is seen as offensive? “The main thing is to enjoy your work” or “What counts is achieving the right work-life balance” or even “At least I am my own boss and do not have to commute”?

The only problem is that the supposed alternatives and success are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary. It is precisely success that creates these alternatives and other possibilities.

My worry is that the negative perception of success, or the term “success”, paves the way for people to cling proactively to defensive attitudes such as “It doesn't really matter if I am not successful”, or “No good comes from it, and it’s not up to me, anyway”. Because there are plenty of things to blame out there for your lack of success: the market, clients, the translation industry, machine translation; the list goes on. One has to ask what successful colleagues are doing that is so wrong, when in spite all of these things, they are indeed successful.

So that the grounds for justifying their lack of success remain firm, success has to be negated, relativised, called into question, or whatever*. This creates a vicious circle, since those who are successful have very little motivation to talk about it in the face of such opposition. And if no one talks about it, then success does not exist. So, let's banish the idea entirely!

06 Child in Museum

Exactly! Can translators' associations help us to enhance the image of the translation profession? What do you think?

As far as associations go, I particularly appreciate the German association, the BDÜ. I think the best way forward for the BDÜ would be towards greater professionalisation and centralisation. Which is why I was doing what I could to achieve a greater BDÜ presence in the north of Germany, because two years ago, there was still no BDÜ in Hamburg.

Unlike other associations, the BDÜ stands by its target group:  freelance translators; no agencies. Giselle, you know the automotive industry very well. Can you imagine an association which lumped together drivers, mechanics, spare parts distributors, used car dealers and major automobile manufacturers, and then claimed to represent “the industry”? Not a good idea. But that is, effectively, what many translator associations do.

In terms of BDÜ, however, I would like to see a more refined approach than, for example, the one employed by ISO 17100 (as discussed in German in my article on its predecessor, DIN EN 15038). And, one more thing: I find it incomprehensible why the few search criteria in the BDÜ online database include—aside from Qualifications (translator, interpreter, etc.), Specialisation (Are the biopharma industry and biopharmaceutical industry really two different areas?) and Location—a field labelled “Translation tool”. I know of no trade directory where “tools” used are searched for, or of anyone who goes to a hairdresser because they use a certain brand of scissors or clippers. Shouldn't the choice of technology be left up to the service provider? To my mind, the BDÜ database is making a clear concession to translation agencies. I am aware of the BDÜ's justification in this regard—that there are supposedly direct clients who attach importance to the use of certain CAT tools. Such clients—companies whose own internal language departments mirror the model used by agencies—are, however, in the very small minority. Ninety-nine per cent of the German economy is made up of SMEs. They have no CAT tools and do not search for freelancers according to the CAT tool used. They cannot do anything with the half-finished products a CAT tool produces, just as they have no use for the “language experts” mentioned in the title of the BDÜ database. What such clients are looking for are communication service providers who can convincingly convey what the client's sales people, financial experts, legal advisors or engineers have to say to their own clients or customers. Removing the “Translation tool” field from the BDÜ database would help to enhance the image of our profession, in my view. Perhaps it would also contribute to our colleagues achieving a better understanding of the role they have to play and to improving their sense of self-worth.

Thank you, Valerij, for an interesting interview.

Thank you, Giselle.

03 Two Persons Over the City

Interview voluntarily translated and adapted by Allison Wright, because she agrees with the views expressed in the interview on adopting the client's perspective during the translation process.

* It is only from later comments that I realised that 'success' may be such a 'loaded' word for some colleagues. There are many interpretations, of course. The range from happiness as opposed to materialistic thinking to 'If you're still poor, you deserve it!" by Jack Ma. I find Jack Ma more motivational.

  1. Steve Dyson’s avatar

    Thank you Giselle and Valerij. Thanks also to Allison. The translation reads very well IMHO.

    I've long framed similar ideas in terms of "client-centred translation" and, more precisely, but also less elegantly, "translation centred on the client's customers".

    See

    – Customer-centred is the way to go (Sep. 2014)

    – Value proposition (Dec. 2013)

    – Translation by emulation, take #2 (Nov. 2011)

    – Transcreation (May 2015).

    Reply

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