What I learned in August 2016

lake-districtIn August I rediscovered what an exceptionally beautiful part of the world the Lake District is (we were blessed with sunshine throughout our stay, however). Now that Brexit has probably scuppered my plans of moving back to the Continent to retire near the lakes in northern Italy to be close to family, I might just end up in the Lake District instead.

Back home trying to work in the heat of what has been a scorching summer, desperately trying to screen out the annoying tittering laugh of the young man on one side, who seems to have spent his entire summer kicking a ball against our fence (thunk, thunk, thunk), the older man on the other side running his business outdoors on the phone with his gravelly voice, chucked out of the house by his wife so he doesn’t fill it with his chain smoking, and the holidaying teenagers on the inside of mine with their endless calls of “mum!” I’ve been dreaming of a quiet country house by the lakes when the kids have finally moved out where I might actually be able to hear myself think. I cannot imagine how people can concentrate enough to get things done in open-plan offices or why attending jellies is popular since I always seem to gravitate towards the quietest part of our property.

I also learned, if you care to believe everything you read, that there are only:

“two ‘breeds’ of translators: Those who work with MT and serve the bulk market via agencies … The others are translators … focusing on high quality translations … They tend to work for direct clients.”

Say what?

To be quite honest, I find this remark by Tanya Quintieri on the Open Mic quite offensive and an oversimplified view of the current market situation. I have long been bothered by some of the rhetoric that gets bandied about and I feel the time has come to take a stand and stop this colleague bashing. However “premium”, high-earning, successful and absolutely brilliant a colleague is, that does not give them the right to tarnish everyone they view as beneath them with a broad-sweeping “bulk” brush and to accuse others of not caring about quality, working with MT as post-editors, or being intrinsically bad.

the time has come to take a stand and stop this colleague bashing

I appreciate that some high-end translators take the time to give us advice on how to improve; I read their viewpoints with interest and try to implement the aspects I feel apply to me. But telling complaining translators to just get off their backsides and seek direct clients is not the panacea so many claim it is for us all. In fact, it’s only a long-term solution for the individual that has the wherewithal to do so.

We need a different solution, one that improves the working conditions for everyone in the profession/sector/industry, whichever way you care to look at it, from the bottom up rather than merely opening the door for a few at the top. I believe there’s room in translation for us all, from the shining stars we all admire to those still finding their feet and including those of us who are good at what we do but aren’t as adept at business, marketing, negotiation and perhaps don’t (yet?) exude that sparkle of brilliance that makes our work burst into song.

As Kevin Hendzel, Chris Durban and a few other premium practitioners so rightly reiterate, our sector contains an entire continuum (also mentioned in Kevin’s comment on a previous post of mine on this same topic) or spectrum (read the comments below Martin Boyd’s post) of translators. And we all have every right to make a living from translation, do so in good conditions and be respected by others within and outside our profession.

not every client can be properly served by an individual translator

Tanya’s is the first article I’ve seen giving advice on how to poach a direct client from another translator. Perhaps it won’t be long before trade shows are flooded with translators working the venue and sidling up to stalls offering to undercut the price quoted by the colleague they’ve just seen leave their business card. The direct-client route might work for certain clients, in certain languages and in certain situations. But not every client can be properly served by an individual translator, either because a high volume, multiple languages or different specialisms are required within the same company.

If you land a direct client who can offer you the amount of work you are capable of handling to keep you happy, or a one-off assignment, that’s fantastic. But as soon as they want more, you’re going to find yourself having to outsource and control others’ work and payments, etc., or recommend colleagues to your client, which can also be fraught with difficulties, especially if they then don’t meet your client’s expectations. Personally, I don’t want to turn into a boutique agency. I don’t want the hassle of dealing with clients, setting up face-to-face meetings or chatting on the phone. This isn’t me and I don’t see why I should be made to feel wanting because this is not the avenue I pursue at all costs.

Please don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against the crème de la crème charging premium rates and working for the best clients. They have earned and deserve their success through their studies and efforts and I admire them for it. I do object, however, to the condescending attitude that everyone else is “bulk” and deserves their “crappy” lot: low rates, awful conditions, uninteresting jobs, etc.

Given that agencies aren’t going away anytime soon because companies need the services they provide, and high volume into multiple languages doesn’t necessarily equate to shoddy quality, agency work is a path many want to follow (please see Ted R. Wozniak’s post in the ATA’s Savvy Newcomer on unashamedly working for agencies and the advantages this entails). That’s why we need to focus on improving our relationship with agencies by honing our translation skills and fighting for our rights to good rates, decent payment terms, suitable deadlines, respectful contracts, etc.

the art of translation is the one skill translators can’t do without

cambridge-1On the subject of becoming better translators, I was lucky enough to go to a dinner in the hall at King’s College during Translate in Cambridge and rub shoulders for a short while with some of our profession’s greats. I had toyed with the idea of attending the whole event despite only translating from Spanish into English, but I had been put off by the language-pair field in the form as it only gave two options (FR-EN and EN-FR). With hindsight, I shouldn’t have let that deter me as there were quite a few observers specialising in other combinations and they managed to gain a great deal of insight into the translation process and valuable tips).

Translate in … events are in the pipeline for a larger selection of language pairs so more of us can take our work to the next level. And as many are now calling for and providing (see this post by Oliver Lawrence – and again, read the comments), translation slams and workshops, webinars, conference talks and even blog posts focusing on the art of translation are going to become more common in future. It is, after all, the one skill translators can’t do without.

If you enjoyed this post and would like to read more, you’ll find all the instalments listed on the Reflections & Resolutions page.

Photograph of dinner at Translate in Cambridge taken by Nelia Fahloun and used with kind permission.

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7 thoughts on “What I learned in August 2016

  1. Well said, Nikki! I totally agree with you about people’s attitude to translators who work with agencies. As you said, not every one is suited to working with direct clients and it is perfectly possible to offer high-quality translations and make a good living without doing so. I don’t think that wanting to spend more time translating and less time on marketing makes someone an inferior translator.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Nikki,
    I appreciate your thoughts. It’s easy to collect praise, but critique shows that people actually read my stuff and I do take it as cue to improve my way of getting across what I have to say and what I mean by it. The passage you quoted is incomplete, though. I never said that the translation world is black and white and of course there’s a whole spectrum between ‘working with direct clients only’ and ‘working for agencies only’. I’ve also said on numerous occasions that both are veritable approaches and in ‘Lesson 03’ I even said that some translators will make more money with agencies, as it all boils down to what we make per month (or per year, whichever way you want to look at it).*
    By ‘bulk’ I was merely talking about large volumes. Of course, quality is always the goal. When I talk about ‘quality’ when translating for direct clients, I do not only refer to the output, but also to the overall quality** of dealing with such clients. It’s a different terrain. That’s all. There’s nothing wrong with working for agencies. The workflow differs, think deadlines, (fuzzy) matches, discounts… I’d also like to point out that PEMT isn’t bad. I’ve always said we need to embrace MT as it holds great possibilities. But yes, the series on The Open Mic does focus on working with direct clients and the benefits it offers (and downsides it does have). On a personal note, it would be rather odd if I thought ‘agency translators’ weren’t good enough or inferior. After all, I spend my life with one. 😉

    So thank you again, dear Nikki. I hope I’ve made my point a bit more clear.

    *) I kinda dislike the so-called success-indicator money. Being a good translator has much less to do with the turnover we want to (and can or cannot) achieve, but more with the quality of life we aim for. But somehow, with translators, it always comes down to money.

    **) Quality, by definition: peculiar and essential character, a distinguishing attribute, peculiar and essential character, an inherent feature…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Tanya,
      Many thanks for clarifying what you meant. Despite being an incomplete quote, I am sure I’m not the only one who got the impression that people fell onto one or other side of the fence with not much in-between (and I’m afraid I haven’t had the time to read all your lessons, so I couldn’t benefit from bearing their content in mind). Bulk is a term that has been used to refer to the “bottom” of the market so many times in recent years that it now, unfortunately, seems cloaked in derogatory meanings. And I’m sure I’m not alone in becoming generally fed up with people at the “top” constantly putting others down.
      I did hesitate whether to post this in the first place as I certainly didn’t want to upset you in any way or for this to be perceived as any kind of personal attack. But I guess, as I’m sure you are aware, that when we “put something out there” we have to take the positive with the negative.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Indeed… We need to take both. And I’m grateful for it, because it sparks a discussion. I love a good discussion that’s respectful and honest. Surely, if you had the impression, others will have, too. Hence, I need to work on being clear (and not assume that people can follow my every chain of thought, which might base on previous posts. Just because it’s in my head, that doesn’t mean it’s in others’). I also understand that you and others might have a problem with the term ‘bulk’. The other day, a colleague pointed out that he doesn’t like the term ‘outsourcing’ as it bears a negative connotation in our community. But, to me both terms are totally okay. Perhaps that’s because of where I come from (not taking the traditional route into the translation business). I use them quite literally, for what they really mean, not for what they are perceived as in the translator community. That might be wrong, IDK. Either way, I am glad you posted your article and the criticism. I can only learn from that.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve finally got round to reading your latest post, Nikki, and laughed when you said about working in open-plan offices. When I worked in-house many moons ago, we used to have our own office, but then the powers-that-be decided we should move over to the super-duper new flagship building (all open-plan of course) and were allocated a small corner in a huge office space. It was a nightmare, needless to say, especially as were were still using dictaphones to dictate our translations. You couldn’t hear yourself think! We’d hear about the political lobbying department’s latest diets, boyfriends, new nail varnish… aaaagh! It was an uphill struggle, but we eventually lobbied ourselves back to a private office. Peace and quiet at last! Enjoy your peace now school has started again.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am, thanks. Not quite sure how I’ve managed to survive a whole seven weeks of a summer holiday with kids off school. Every time it comes round I wonder what happened to that idea of four terms and a shorter summer break, longer Xmas and Easter ones. Frankly, it’s quite stressful trying to concentrate properly on work and keep them entertained for so long. Next year I’m definitely going to sort out some more summer schools and/or adventure holidays.


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