I was reading a blog article about photography, when I stumbled upon this sentence: "[The photographer] uses strong colors, ambient light, and emotion to capture beautifully complex images".
Whereas I understand and can explain in technical terms what strong colors and ambient light mean, "emotion" sounds a bit too abstract for my taste. You may know it at first sight, but how exactly do you use emotion? Is it just another ingredient to put into your photography product?
The way I feel about "emotion" in the above statement is similar to how I feel when I read about "skills" in translators' blogs or social media posts. Especially of late.
It is difficult to keep up with the relentless flow of posts on the subject of "what does it take to be a successful translator". However, there are increasingly two trends that dominate the discourse.
The first, and more recent, focuses on being an entrepreneur and developing the right attitude that is seen, more and more, as a prerequisite for success. In its most constructive form, it is about marketing and sales. Today, though, CPD courses and anything offered as "marketing for translators" has a tendency to turn into "marketing to translators", with a surprisingly high number of translators happy at being discovered as a new target group.
The opposite trend is about professional competence. Some may call it “pro skills”, and that is exactly what reminds me of a photographer using "emotion to capture images", again and again.
What exactly are our skills? To be a successful translator reads to me as to be successful as translator, not as an entrepreneur in the field of translation. However, most of us work in a market environment where only few have in-house positions, and for some, the word “entrepreneur” seems to sound more flattering than “small business” or “sole proprietor” even if it is not exactly the same*.
I cannot say that I am happy with such terms as “enterprise” or “company”, but any of them offers a certain advantage over “entrepreneur”: they assume a structure, a set of responsibilities divided between functions, persons and departments.
Indivisible as a sole proprietor is, it doesn’t mean that an individual translator should ignore the multi-function structure of a company. A typical organization chart won’t trigger a multiple personality disorder when applied to a one-person business. In fact, I believe it can be rather helpful. Especially when we are talking about skills.
Whenever the subject of translators’ skills comes up, we can ask the question: Who in a typical company structure needs the skills or would benefit from them. In a typical company structure, we would have a CEO (that would be our “entrepreneur”), a strategy or business development department (somehow entrepreneurial too), an HR department (looking after the staff with the right attitude – and skills), a planning department, an accounting department etc. Those are management and administrative functions that drive the overheads. But the revenues that fund them come from a triad: purchasing – production – sales.
Whereas the two functions on both ends of this triad – purchasing and sales – make up the core of many a typical translation agency’s business, an individual translator’s doesn’t have much to do with purchasing (I consider it the Biggest Mistake That Freelance Translators Make, though this is an entirely different matter).
Sales is a different story, too. Knowing how to sell is crucial, no doubt. If you treat yourself as a business, it makes no sense to produce anything before you make sure you can market it properly.
Having said that, it is worthwhile to remember that essentially we are translators, not salespersons. We are what we are, and most of us will be never able to beat those who were trained and hired as salespeople. Especially those with a natural talent and corporate resources. Those whose core skill is to sell.
So each time I hear that the difference between success and failure in translation lies with sales, I don’t only think it is a simplistic and slightly anachronistic statement. I think it actually might do more harm than good in terms of what concepts and skills need to be prioritized for freelance translators.
It is slightly anachronistic because “the balance of power has well and truly shifted from seller to buyer in recent years”. Not only has the perception of sales and salespeople become more negative, creatively disruptive websites, platforms and apps make the idea of a traditional salesperson obsolete.
And it is rather harmful, too, since it brings us back to the discussion about lemons and used-car salesmen. If the difference in translators’ rates stems from the differences in the quality of selling, as recently stated by a poster in “The League of Extraordinary Translators” on Facebook, it implies that the quality of product fails to be a prime differentiator. Hence, brush up your sales skills, colleagues. Become entrepreneurs!
I for one think that if you treat yourself as a business, it makes sense to map yourself as a business with a functional organizational chart. I see the core function of our profession in production. As for skills, I think that translators need the skills to provide the quality of their products (and services) first. And then learn to communicate it instead of simply “go out and sell”, as the commenter put it on Facebook.
So what are our core production skills? I was used to think that these are mastery of subject and writing excellence. However, the first is specialist knowledge rather than skills. It can be learned, not necessarily through training, but through knowing how to research and communicate with the client. Doing research may indeed be one of the most essential methodological skills.
What about other core skills? A couple of weeks ago I received one of the best compliments from a colleague. I outsourced to her a translation into a language that I can only read and understand, but would never translate into on my own. However, I read the translations that I outsource and, if need be, do some changes. This time, after I emailed the slightly revised version to my colleague, she told me that she “learned a lot from the revision”. Given the circumstances, I believe that it may be partially true.
Those rather minor changes I did were not about terminology or style – I cannot write well in that language, so writing excellence was completely out of place. My usual focus is rather on the audience and the message to bring across. Sometimes you can adjust the theme-rheme relationship or shift the focus on the main idea just by adding a logical link.
Interpreters who learn to take notes know how to insert the so called “transitions” or “link word” like “if…then”, “tho”, “cos”, “to” (for “in order to”) etc. to achieve coherence and make the speaker’s ideas more memorable. I think translators, too, can learn a lot from their techniques.
So many translators learn to translate words, sentences and segments instead of learning how to make their words, sentences and segments make sense. Perhaps the one skill they need to focus on is simply thinking while translating.
You don’t have to find a translator to teach you all kinds of support and auxiliary skills. E.g. touch typing or using CAT tools. The same is true of many administrative, business or entrepreneurial skills.
But the only way to learn your core skills is to learn from other translators. There are lessons best learned in an apprenticeship. Or in a network of experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. Or together with the client who does the revision of your translation. Or in the Catskills.
Again, conference interpreters who work in teams and consecutive interpreters in direct contact with their clients are in a better position. They learn from one another, from the audience, from the source.
That is another difference between how you learn core professional skills and everything else.
But of course, we need to learn business skills and how to sell. Otherwise we risk finding ourselves rather low on our industry’s organizational chart.
Remember what George W. Bush said about the French: They don’t have a word for entrepreneur. Translators seem to be in love with this word. They are taught more and more to develop “entrepreneurial skills” and “get out and sell”. It is all very well but perhaps they’d need to learn – and upgrade – their core professional skills, too.
* See Wikipedia: The term "entrepreneur" is often conflated with the term “small business”. While most entrepreneurial ventures start out as a small business, not all small businesses are entrepreneurial in the strict sense of the term. Many small businesses are sole proprietor operations consisting solely of the owner, or they have a small number of employees, and many of these small businesses offer an existing product, process or service, and they do not aim at growth.