Words don’t come easy

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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.

Justice on the surface, Janus underneath. All that glitters is actually silver…

IAPTI Logo International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, based in Argentine

Dear colleagues,

This is to inform you of our resignation from the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI).

– Maria Karra (president of IAPTI’s Ethics Committee and founding member),
– Attila Piróth (vice-president of the Ethics Committee),
– Catherine V. Howard (University Liaison Committee member),
– Shai Navé (head of Israel Chapter),
– Valerij Tomarenko and Steve Vitek (both of the Professional Practices Committee),
wish to dissociate ourselves from IAPTI for the reasons outlined below:

Over the past year, we have become increasingly concerned about a growing list of problems stemming from the lack of checks and balances within IAPTI, which include the lack of democratic participation, transparency, external oversight, and measures to prevent conflicts of interest. As a result, there is a dissonance between the association’s outward image and its inner workings. Its pledge to empower individual translators and interpreters worldwide is at odds with its own hierarchical internal structure that disempowers members. IAPTI is run according to an executive model, not a democratic one, which allows few opportunities for participation and decision-making by members.

According to its own mission statement, IAPTI strives to be “a venue in which to establish a dialog, without censorship and without conflicts of interest, with the aim of promoting effective professional ethics.” Nonetheless, we have been stymied in our efforts to pursue constructive dialogs for meaningful change; our attempts to communicate problems to the general membership have been censored; and conflicts of interest continue to pervade the Board. All this is no longer aligned with our ideas about ethical business practices.

IAPTI’s outward calls for transparency in other entities are not consistent with its own internal practices. For example, the Board has failed to provide members with the range of financial statements required in the bylaws. For seven years since its founding, IAPTI’s registration has still not been approved by the Argentine justice or tax authorities, hence it has been operating without government oversight, but members are not aware of the ramifications of this lack of approval. Without financial transparency, members are left in the dark and ill-prepared for tax-related issues concerning business expenses, such as their membership fee. In our opinion, IAPTI’s lack of legal authorization is no excuse for failing to honor its obligations for transparency and accountability to its members.

In IAPTI’s current status, its own bylaws are not applied in full. It is unclear which bylaws, if any, in IAPTI’s website are applicable or valid, in the absence of any proviso or explanation. Members are unaware of any changes made in the bylaws, whereas such changes are supposed to be approved by members in a general assembly, according to the bylaws themselves. Without knowing the legal framework in which the association operates, members are deprived of information about the modus operandi of the association to which they belong. This excludes them from the emancipating experience of actively participating in the formation of IAPTI’s internal and external policies.

IAPTI's international aspirations and practices contrast with the local composition of the Board. All of the main officers (president, vice president, secretary general, and treasurer) are from Argentina and have held these positions ever since the association was founded in 2009. Although other Board members have changed over the years, they have likewise all been from Argentina, with a single exception. Furthermore, no elections have been held for any of these positions, even though the bylaws require they be held every four years. The Board thereby fails to reflect or to take advantage of the association's main strength: its rich diversity with members in over eighty countries.

We have reluctantly reached the conclusion that our attempts to promote checks and balances and greater transparency in IAPTI are futile. During the past months, several colleagues—including Diana Coada, Lisa Simpson, Lucille R. Kaplan, Vivian Stevenson, and Jayne Fox—told us they resigned from their staff positions in IAPTI over similar or other equally pressing concerns. We feel we exhausted all possibilities at our disposal to further the mission for which we joined this association. We believe IAPTI can fulfill its objectives only with fundamental structural changes within the association—changes that the Board has consistently resisted.

Therefore, we hereby resign from our positions within IAPTI and no longer wish to remain members of the association.

Attila Piróth
Maria Karra
Shai Navé
Valerij Tomarenko
Catherine V. Howard
Steve Vitek

Translation agency - new management structure

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.

Freelance translator - organizational chart

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.

Translation companies - translators and managers

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.

Translation industry - top and bottom

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.







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