This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Monday, 31 March 2014

Be(com)ing Responsive — Picking up the Calls (or Losing the Jobs)

Lack of responsiveness was also mentioned as a negative trait in outside law firms.
“When I contact you, I want to hear from you as soon as possible,” said Robertson.
“Immediate is perfect. Two hours is great. Longer than 24 hours is not acceptable.”
[Janet Ellen Raasch, Panelists tackle the perennial question: What do general counsel want? 5/26/2010 @ JD SUPRA]
I should probably first explain the background of this quotation a little. Lawyers work in a field which is similar to ours. They offer highly specialised services which are often incomprehensible to and misunderstood by the clients. Like here, their clients are usually not prepared to evaluate the quality of their work, so the focus is on client service. Corporate counsel are qualified lawyers, but they are quite susceptible to becoming — or becoming seen as — legal managers rather. In this they are somewhat similar to agency owners and managers (e.g. vendor managers, project managers) who may have some sort of a linguistic background and experience without necessarily being normal active translators. On the other hand, some may be very acutely aware of all the intricacies of the job that needs to be done. This is a bit of an individual matter.

In short, corporate chief counsel (or Chief Legal Officers and similar positions) are to lawyers more or less what agencies, publishing houses and their various project or vendor managers are to us. Thus, for a lawyer that wants to get corporate work it's important to know the general counsel's side of things, just like translators really should listen to agencies and PM's more (it probably comes easier to listen to one's very own direct clients).

From my own practical experience, I can definitely say that a translator does lose business for not picking up calls as they come or returning the ASAP, or for not keeping track of all the incoming incoming mail — as difficult as it is to concentrate on delivering a highly focused, high-quality work amid all the ringing and beeping.

While extreme urgency is more characteristic of the 'bottom-feeding' segments of the market, legitimate rush may still exist among more reasonable business clients. We aren't the only profession affected by the fast pace of business these days. Lawyers in particularly can be hit pretty hard with anachronistic litigation deadlines in some jurisdictions, which make no account of the complexity and sheer size of individual cases. For doctors getting hit pretty hard is probably the daily (or nightly) standard. IT support specialists are probably in a much similar position to our own, given the similarity of our roles.

In short, clients sometimes need fast decisions. (Which is not the same as fast turnover on the job.) And they need the security of being certain that the job will actually be done. Getting in touch with you is not just the simple matter of a delayed confirmation. The client is aware — possibly already on the basis of your existing history together — that you may not always have the time to do the job when the two of you do finally get in touch. Hence is nothing is certain yet, or secure, from the client's perspective.

Your clients may root for you, but they still ride for their own company, not for yours*. And that is by no means egotic or self-serving on their part. On the contrary, everybody's responsibility is for the well-being of his own organisation first and foremost. Employees and employers, and shareholders, usually come before favourite business partners and vendors. The reverse could be unethical or even illegal.

Your clients or contacts have ethical and legal obligations which they need to meet, and they can't play friends at the expense of those important obligations. You may be a lawyer's or a doctor's best friend but what if the lawyer's client will lose the case or the doctor's patient his life or limb? First things first.

In other words, for something so basic it is remarkably hard to realise (or at least it was to me) that your client is not your agent who is out there to get you jobs*. You may be tempted to see it that way when you regard the client as someone whom you have drawn over to your camp, 'converted' as the marketers say, and so on. On the contrary, your client is out there to see jobs down for his own company or organisation.

Unless you and your client are somewhat close — which generally needs to be earned and even then requires an extra something beyond normal good service — he doesn't even necessarily perceive any particular need to see you earn the money rather than someone else. There is nothing devious or sinister in this. In fact, not getting paid for a service you didn't do is a fair exchange, more balanced than many of the exchanges translators make all the time in jobs they do get. Not receiving an opportunity is an equitable exchange for not being disturbed with inquiries.

In fact, your client may even be that reasonable, forgiving person who understands you may be too busy to pick up the call and does not want to add another piece to your existing pile. Such a client does not expect you to clone yourself and manage the phone full-time just as you work on all those jobs you have. He does understand that, as a freelancer, you have other clients too, other jobs. No hard feelings, even happy for your business success and good luck by all means! But still the job needs to be done and someone needs to do it. If you can't, someone else just has to.

We can't really deny the logic of the above. Moreover, if a translator is too busy to pick up calls, he is also — in all likelihood — too busy to do any sort of urgent job or perhaps even analyse the task and prepare the quotation for something less urgent. Right? (So yeah, also be somewhat mindful whenever you tell a client how awfully overworked you are or the client just might cut you more slack than you'd really wish for.)

Bottom line, if you aren't there, especially after another call or two, even a well-meaning, favourably predisposed client will:

  1. opt for a safer solution, or
  2. a quicker conclusion, or
  3. do you a favour by not piling up any more stuff on your busy head (without knowing how much getting that job may mean to you).

Naturally, you can't be both translating and talking on the phone or checking and answering mail all the time. If you're particularly well established — or just affluent enough to afford the expense — you could perhaps hire an assistant if your clients will be okay with you. But responsiveness is also in the personal touch. Being routed through your assistant can (but does not need to) reduce the personal touch and make the connection more distant.

You may need to look for a solution that works in the unique circumstances you and your clients share together — for example discuss your communication channels in detail, adjust your habits for the client's convenience, set aside some fixed time for getting in touch if necessary, promise to answer mail within a set number of hours or always at a certain time in the evening or morning. Hire an assistant if you can afford one and being routed through one won't make your client relationships more distance.

Also remember that part of a freelance translator's responsiveness is in the direct, non-bureaucractic contact. If the clients wanted to deal with a bureaucratic wall and resistance of matter, they'd be talking to a computerised agency and getting processed by bots. In fact, agencies are already harder-pressed than translators to provide responsive, enthusiastic and all-round client-centred (even client-centric) service.

If you really like their jobs, I suppose there's no harm in telling your clients just that, as long as you don't come off too desperate. Appearing too eager or too need could send the message that your prices could be negotiated down somewhat or that you could be made to compete a bit harder on non-price parameters such as deadlines or technical aspects you normally avoid being responsible for.

The bright side, especially for younger, beginning translators, is that many jobs are won simply by being there and being available, for example when your more experienced and better-paid colleagues are not.

I will write about other aspects of being responsive later. If you found this article useful, you may also be interested in the other one I wrote today on a related subject: Be Pragmatic! (to Some Extent), which discusses the idea of not allowing rigid habits to stand between a translator and his clients and jobs. A while ago I posted What Does a Lawyer Need from You?. Knowing your clients' needs, and showing that you somehow know what to do with the knowledge, is also an aspect of responsiveness (you can't respond to something you don't know).

* Apologies if I sound slightly on the brusque side. My intention is not to be cocky but to explain the concept in plain words for real-life application.

Be Pragmatic! (to Some Extent)

From time to time it's good to get back to the basics. Last Saturday at TLC'2014 (The Translation & Localization Conference in Warsaw) I attended Fernanda Roja's presentation (video, text), which discussed some core basics of being a professional translator (but preferably without mentioning the professional part too explicitly).

A word of explanation though, it's not like only our present day and age brings us the answers to the question of how to translate (professionally or lege artis or whatever). It has more to do with how to run your practice (professionally). Which is an issue also lawyers have been addressing for quite a while.

This, in turn, ties into the modern problem of quality, as in quality issues, and the fact that clients can't normally directly and accurately assess the quality of legal aid, or translation aid, which they receive. On the contrary, they'll rather focus on the quality of service and some superficial QA markers (which is why it's important to self-administer some good QA).

Fernanda mentioned a number of things affecting our professional image, but there are three I would like to focus on, and they connected with each other. The first two are also rather typical client-service matters, so the mental association with quality and client service, will continue throughout this little article. Namely:

  • being flexible
  • being available
  • thinking for yourself (rather than relying on presumptions or opinions heard from others)

Fernanda mentioned translators who wouldn't do work outside rigid business hours because no. Or wouldn't try a new CAT because the current one was sufficient. Or because it was bad, and it was bad because a friend said so. I believe she also said something about services that don't fully fit a standard definition.

Bottom line, some translators seemed unwilling to operate outside a set of preconceived notions and getting hurt for it.

I thought: Well, okay, there may be no substantive reason to prefer the client's CAT tool over the one the translator already has. But does there really have to be one? The translator could simply regard it as an investment in getting the client, pretty much the same as marketing expenses.

Obviously, you shouldn't buy a whole new CAT tool for a job that pays your minimum fee (if you have one). but if multiple clients keep asking, perhaps it could pay to just have it. Might as well subscribe some newsletter somewhere, keep an eye and wait for a promotional offer, or something.

Just to be clear, I'm not a CAT person. I don't buy into their charm, and I laugh when they are referred to as 'cutting-edge technology', and it grieves me to see the predominance of claims of CAT ownership and skills in translators' marketing and advertising, as if that were what made them good translators (and some actually put it that way).

Nope. Just consider making the silly expense if it can lead to getting some serious business your way, which you'd otherwise be missing out on and really missing it (if you wouldn't, then no loss, obviously).

Pretty much the same way — consider giving them their own free samples of your work, especially if they are less obnoxiously referred to as test pieces that aren't paid for as opposed to actual free samples.

Should your credentials — including exams held by state commissions and translators' associations — carry more weight than whatever some reviewer somewhere thinks about your translation? Of course they should. Should the client, especially a professional translation agency or publishing house, be able to realise this? Of course. And it's pretty silly (and rigid, unflexible) otherwise.

But would you really rather be losing jobs for it than granting their request, especially if it's framed with a modicum of respect and opens some interesting opportunities, such as impressing your client in a direct way your certificates and diplomas cannot achieve?

I said it during Fernanda's presentation, and I'll say it now again: Professionals need their boundaries. But there's a difference between having boundaries and being rigid. Where exactly the difference lies is a subjective matter, and, for example, Fernanda and I each had a markedly different opinion on that.

So, I'm not proposing that you should relativise things and especially values (for example I don't work on Sundays for religious religious, and my clients know and respect this). Rather, I'm proposing that we should avoid making absolutes out of things which really are quite relative on their own.

It also helps if we can see that our own opinions are also subjective, perhaps as subjective as the clients' ideas, and they certainly may look equally as stubborn and unreasonable to your clients as their notions and preconceptions sometimes seem to us to be.

So perhaps what I'm proposing here is a bit of an NLP-style reframe. Perhaps we could avoid the unpleasant connotations of flexible in connection with clients — as if a translator's main asset were a neck that bends easily — and rather think about adding a certain shrewd flexibility to our business.

Does a Bad Source Ever Justify a Bad Translation?

Short answer: No, it doesn't.

Long answer, beginning with 'but': But translation is not the same as target text. Whether a bad target text is justified — or even required! — by a bad source text depends on the intended purpose of your translation, the so called skopos, and your arrangements with your client.

Suppose you're translating a love letter a certain mademoiselle has received from a certain mister. Mademoiselle pronounces weekend and basketball in a funky way, and mister can never get entrepreneur straight, or even au pair. In short, there is no hope of communication — without you.

Well, we're pretty much all sure that mademoiselle would very much like to receive a stunning pretty letter, be swept off her feet with butterflies and all, but if you turn mister into the next Abelard, will mademoiselle not, in the end, have become his Heloise under false pretences? Hmmm?

Also a court of law may need the information conveyed by the writer's or recorded speaker's idiolect, mannerisms, any twitchy behaviour, and even perhaps things such as dialect features, markers of a certain education or origin, all of which can have some kind of significance in some kind of case.

Similarly a publishing house could possibly (and had better) want to know the foreign manuscript for what it really is, not what it can be made into by a generous translator.

If your agreement provided for editing or transcreation, or at least your client has asked you to fixed some things as you go, then that's a different matter altogether. In case of doubt, ask. Don't presume.

And don't contribute to getting translation clients used to the thought — or sensation rather — that translation is supposed to bring nirvana to them as they read what was a poor source. Because translation is not about serotonin.

And don't teach lazy authors, publishers and others that a translator will carry the brunt of their workload, either.

Afterword. I really mean ask them. Spawning the nicest possible text for publication is not the only purpose of translation that exists. For information is a legitimate purpose and one which is frustrated by a translator who puts golden lacqueur on a worn truck.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Did the Laundry, Did the Dishes, Tonight Imma Do Me... What?

As you may've noticed by now translators are a bunch of masochistic people who enjoy impossible challenges. Among Polish translators we even have a Facebook group halfway devoted to just that. From a different group, though, I've pulled this today:

… wstawiłam pranie,
wstawiłam naczynia do zmywarki …
boje się, że wieczorem sama się wstawię …

For context, let's take a look at the picture below:

It shows an Art Nouveau kind of lady with a bit of a strong build for all the snazzy hairdo and ruffle lining, with a visibly distressed look on her face with just a little deeper — you guess it — philosophical undertone. But — like you can probably also guess — the text will put your feet right back on the grimy earth.

Basically, the whole thing is an anaphoric wordplay on the Polish verb wstawić. Literally, wstawić means to insert for precision or just put for etymology (you probably want a good old short Saxon word to render a good old short Slavic word, no Latin, thank you very much). But it also has another surprising meaning.

In short, she's done the laundry, she's done the dishes, presumably also did a couple of other house-running things in the same vein, at the end of the day she's going to need to unwind with a beer and she's afraid it'll take more than one beer to unwind. Sama się wstawię means I'll get tipsy. Strictly speaking, sama corresponds to myself, which we'll need to put in somewhere. That's going to be just one of our many problems with this short little piece. And this is precisely what those short pieces are looked up for by masochistic Polish translators (who don't shy away from tackling this sort of riddles into a non-native language).

This is going to be wildly subjective, but I can't tolerate any sort of addition before the first wstawiłam. It's gotta be a verb. And that verb's gonna set the tone for all of this. It'll pop up once again next line anaphorically, then jump place and epiphorically finish off the whole thing. Basically, the first and the last word of it are two forms of the same verb, in the same person and number, just a different tense.

Regarding pranie somewhat could have a descriptive association with dirty clothes or whatever. Forget it. Pranie is laundry, and avoiding a good, working 1:1 equivalent just to dodge the accusation of translating literally (like that's a bad thing!) is just... uh... I don't want to offend any one of you who might still be stuck in that sort of thinking, which might possibly even have been poured into you at a language faculty. Naczynia are vessels, but we can modernise them into dishes, no harm done. Zmywarka is dishwasher.

In the last verse (physically, there are five lines, but the third and fifth are just are just line wrap), we have something close to a full sentence: boję się, że wieczorem (sama) się wstawię in the most literal rendition, even preserving the word order, means: I fear that tonight I will get tipsy. In standard spoken English, barring any special circumstances, this would be closer to: I'll get tipsy tonight, I'm afraid. But this isn't really the kind of context that calls for the most standard and bland sentence order straight from a textbook. Ain't that easy, sailor.

Before we move on, it's important to note that we can't just mount the high horse and ignore the questionable ellips signs (the … character), three of them in all. Their arrangement is somewhat opposite of what they did with the word wstawić. The … appears at the beginning of the first line, then at the end of the second and third line. (The word wstawić opens the first and second but closes the third.) Note also the absence of sentence-arranging punctuation such as capital letters or full stops. Finally, there is some vague semblance to a haiku, something we probably should also aim to preserve.

Haikai are short and witty, but witty in a more sublime (and sublimated) sense than the witty we usually know. Which is basically what was aimed for with the picture, I suppose (where the funny thing is that the time when they drew like that was also the time of an increased exchange with and interest in the then-now-open Japan, following the Meiji restoration, Boshin rebellion and all; western artists adopted a lot of significant Japanese or at least Japanese-influenced features).

A haiku has a point, and that point is to send a message. Incidentally, for all its abstract artsiness, it's somewhat similar to a western syllogism (one type of which is the lawyerly dictum de omni — whoever kills shall go to jail, you killed, you go to jail, QED/pwnt). You have a major premise, a minor premise and then a conclusion, usually following a horizontal line. In a haiku, there is one thought, another thought, a kireji, which is a cutting word technically but more visible is the long dash (—) or — wait! — the ellipsis sign (…) that we've just seen in the original Polish meme. Ring a bell?

Sure, we don't have a 5-7-5 syllable structure, more like 5-10-12, but, thing is, in Polish you generally use more syllables anyway. You could probably go like this:

wstawiłam pranie
wstawiłam naczynia—
wieczorem sama się wstawię

It would thus contain 5 syllables in the first line (wstawiłam pranie is a unique case), then 6 in the second, finally 8 in the last. Close to the haiku metric but not the same. Somewhat close is close enough here, though. We are not following a strict convention, we're just playing with associations. Loose associations that were possibly not even consciously realised by the author.

Let's take a closer look at the structure:

same verb + object
same verb + diff. object + place adv.—
time adv. + diff., surprising object + same verb

In line with what we noted before, wstawić is the word that carries us through. Interestingly, we can now see that wieczorem tonight — is vaguely similar to the Japanese kigo, i.e. obligatory seasonal reference. The surprising object is obviously more of a fist thumping on a table than those subtle Japanese juxtapositions.

We can't really change the verb. It's gotta stay and always be the same verb connecting with different objects. Synonyms will not do (unless we redesign the structure), but different forms will. And we gotta land a serious punch with the surprising object.

So let's get our hands dirty. With laundry and dirty dishes and whatever's gonna be in the homemaker's cup by the end of the day.

Like I said in the beginning, we'll want not only the same verb everywhere but also one that's simple, just like the Polish one. Since I'm totally free of 1:1-phobia, I'll use 'put' on my first go. I could just use the simple past, but a contracted present perfect might be better.

I've put the laundry on
I've put the dishes in the dishwasher
Tonight, I fear, I'll put myself in a drunk stupor

Yes, it says put the laundry on, while dishes get their washer. But this is exactly how the author wrote it. Sue him, not me. The drunk stupor, admittedly, is much more than just wstawić się, i.e. get tipsy. But you can't really put yourself in a tipsy state in a witty poem, or can you? I'll have to think about it.

How about something less literal:

I got the laundry done
I got the dishes done
Tonight, I fear, I'll just get drunk

(The me after get is intentional. I'm not gonna be using textbook grammar here.) Nah. Too bland. And probably too exotic still. The guiding verb isn't near visible enough. Let's dispense with the perfect and put it in the same grammatical form everywhere, so it'll be hard to miss:

Get the laundry done
Get the dishes done
Tonight, I fear, I'll just get me a (strong) drink (done)

Meh. Ain't working really. Another translator suggested something with load. So let's give it a try:

Load the washing machine // or just the laundry
Load the dishwasher // or just the dishes
Tonight, for me, I guess I'll just get loaded


Get the laundry loaded
Get the dishes loaded
Tonight, perchance, I might just get myself loaded


Load the laundry
Load the dishes
Tonight, I fear, I'll just get loaded.


Load the laundry … done
Load the dishes … done
Tonight there's a chance I'll just get loaded.

I'll let you know when I have something better. And yeah, it does look like I forgot about the ellipses. Perhaps they weren't that important, or perhaps the urge to get rid of them was too strong.

Incidentally, you just might want to scan your sources for poems before you confirm the deadline.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

The $100 Follow-up

On Tuesday, I wrote a post about how it's better for $100 to do 1000 words than 2500. Today there is something else I'd like to mention in connection.

You may frequently come across the argument that you should give discounts for large jobs — because they bring more business to you — or for any jobs, really, because otherwise you wouldn't get those jobs.

And just to be sure: the argument has some merit. We can debate the propriety of it (i.e. of telling a service provider to cut his rates just to be hired, especially if it's either that or no deal), but the merit is there — as in, getting work is an advantage over not getting it, if it applies to you. (And if it doesn't, that's not your fault.)

But chances are the advantage doesn't apply to you to the same extent the client may be led to think, or is not quite as large. Here are some things to consider:

  • The $100 is not a gratuity, it's a wage of work, probably hard work at that, and not for an exorbitant price, either. Definitely, the entire $100 (or such other price as you may be charging) is not sheer profit, rather only a fraction of it is. This may be harder to notice for your clients when you aren't a seller of products or reseller of somebody else's services. But your own labour definitely is a cost in providing your service, as hard as it may sometimes be to get it recognised as such (e.g. in your taxes).
  • Often there will probably be some other work from other clients, sooner or later. The benefit comes down to getting more sooner and with more certainty. But the difference is not today or never, 100% chance versus 0% chance. The advantage lies in the difference. The difference is what you are getting in the deal.
  • Why should you need to surrender the entire benefit of the bargain to the client, as opposed to both of you walking away with some? (Which is something that — for a client — may be difficult to notice initially but not really hard to accept as a valid point.)

Bottom line: the benefit lies in the difference. Benefit = difference, basically. The difference makes the benefit of the bargin. Your clients may the confusing the entire value of the transaction with the benefit of the bargain (i.e. the difference it makes), so set the record straight, gently. This error is easy to make, even for smart people.

It's perhaps important to note that explaining things calmly, reasonably and in a way which is easily understood and accepted as valid is a good way to project or enhance your professional image.

The challenge here is to send the message in a way which allows you to remain humble and avoid sounding dismissive, which is difficult to accomplish when you're effectively telling someone that you'll be booked full either way, which implies that the potential or even existing client and his jobs are replaceable.

Keep the two things separate. Your clients matter to you, as does the work they hire you for. But your dedication to them does not mean that you need to apply flawed calculations and arguments to the discounts you give them.

Negotiation: Getting Ambushed and Railroaded

A real case:

Agency accepts the rates, hands down the test (a.k.a. free sample), sends the draft contract. The contract is 7 pages long and contains a lot of legalese. The provisions are markedly detailed and restrictive and some not quite fitting the situation of a freelance teleworker completing translation assignments for his project manager. There is a lot about compliance with the agency's applicable laws, and the way the translator is referred to as a 'Consultant' rings a bell, suggesting it's meant to invoke some specific legal consequences that are not immediately obvious.
Translator submits a reasonable — and reasoned — list of proposed changes, explaining the whys and wherefores of them, as well as explaining why there is a problem and supporting it with some concrete, good arguments. There is hoping for an understanding.
Agency business staff says the list is extensive (mere quantity, nothing more) even before forwarding it to the executive or legal. Also they understand if this will make collaboration impossible etc., so essentially no hard feelings if you can't accept our contract.
Translator doesn't want to lose the deal, reduces the list of changes. PM/recruiter has less material to bother exec/legal with — effectively cutting down the number of problems without even addressing their substance. How ruthlessly effective! And the agency may even be very conscious of the small win achieved thereby, as it shows the translator doesn't want to lose the deal and may be prodded around. An atmosphere of some urgency further helped the railroading, while no real haste had actually been necessary at that stage since not even any real job was waiting in the background.
The morale is: Don't get ambushed!

He wins who (looks like he) has less to lose

This ties into the BATNA concept: Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement.

There is an old adage about romantic relationships to the effect that the party who cares less controls the relationship. Both in romance and in business the same is true of the party who has less to lose (e.g. the battered spouse who wouldn't be able to afford the bills for living alone).

The power of perception in railroading

However, it isn't even necessary that the railroaded party (the 'railee') really have more to lose than the railroading party (the 'railor'). Perception will often do just as well, or almost, as facts. And when you get ambushed, you have less time to look around, watch, see, listen and hear, so your perception can misguide you. You can become protective or apprehensive of the wrong things, misestimate their nature or weight. The heightened rhythm of the situation may be used against you.

Old and worn but still working just as fine: artificial rush

And the cheapest shot in negotiation — perhaps only preceded by the, '(...) or no deal,' threat — is an artificial shortage of time for decision. The silly here and now. Like there won't be a somewhere else or a tomorrow.

Not to be confused with legitimate time-limited opportunities (which exist)

Well, yes, short windows of unique opportunity do exist. One does need to learn to identify such opportunities that need to be seized quickly or they will pass. For example, when a not so established translator with far less than a full calendar receives an inquiry about a valuable job that comes with some concessions or perhaps is somewhat more complex on the technical or logistical (organisational) side. Alternatively, there's a fast-paced recruitment procedure with a somewhat onerous sample-testing and referral-checking admission process, but there is also a nagging suspicion of some serious workload waiting to be claimed by those who make the effort.

Take it with a pinch of salt, mostly

Much of the time, however, tomorrow will be just like today. And there'll be more potential clients just like the one talking to you, or better. Much of the time the golden opportunities will turn out to have been cheep pewter with a splash of paint over the surface. Or just a favourable light.

Bottom line is: Don't allow them to dictate the terms of your negotiation.

The longer version is: Don't negotiate on their terms. It's not just about a potential one-sided outcome. A one-sided negotiation process leads to one-sided negotiation outcomes (sort of like biased decisions by a trial judge may lead to biased verdicts).

Don't concede all of the territory just because it's just negotiation and not yet the deal itself

As a negotiating partner you have a right to shape the process as well as they do — and co-shape, not only accept or refuse — the outcome of it. Shake up their designed rules of the game just so they don't get to be railroading you towards some conclusions which you don't want to be making and impressions you don't want to be forming. Make them need to adapt too.

When neither of you have the advantage the field is already level

The field is more level when both of you need to think and adapt and neither of you has the benefit of knowing what will likely follow (for example due to having designed or analysed the scenario beforehand). Somebody who has planned ahead is an advantaged position: playing totally on his own turf and even on his own schedule and according to his own dictated rules of engagement. So deny him that.

You don't even need to have it your way, it already substantially levels the field when the other party doesn't get to have any special advantage, e.g. one resulting from having planned the negotiation.

If this sounds too complex, just learn not to be influenced too easily by what your negotiating partners say or how they say it. Question your instinctive or intuitive or face-value impressions and interpretations — they may be legitimate signs of something good or bad, but they may also be something the other side wants you to be thinking.

And above all don't be steered into thinking there is some special urgency when there isn't really any. Like I said before, artificial urgency is something which forces you into bad decisions because it artificially cuts your deliberation time short, so your decision is based on less thinking, less clarity, a less than full picture of what the deal expects of you.

Don't take it for granted that it is necessarily true what they say about your perspectives or their own, or about the situation in the market in general, even if they are experts and you aren't. I'm not saying they're lying (although lying happens too), but there's a chance they're just simply talking from their own perspective and perhaps even pushing it on you, or being delusional, or going through a PR flow chart somebody designed for them.

Claim your deliberation time. It's not your fault they waited until the last moment with approaching you. It's not your fault their contract is 7- or 10-page long. It's not your fault they hired a lawyer who can't write in normal understandable language. Just because they even might have an urgent situation for real does not mean you owe it to them to accept their terms.

If they won't accept reasonable, standard terms, then they are rejecting your help. You are not denying them.

Learn to separate helping people from allowing them to dictate the terms of your help, and certainly don't allow them to guilt-trip you into thinking you're an unhelpful person if you don't cave in to their demands and sign something which gives them an unwarranted advantage (or outright dominance in your relationship).

The above is also true when you have already done a job for someone who now wants a written contract. You owe it to that client to own up to your work, confirm the receipt of your fee, give reasonable terms if no specific had been discussed before, but you certainly don't owe it to your client to sign whatever the client desires. If the client thinks you owe it because of having accepted and performed the job, then the client has it perfectly backwards. In reality, it was the client who accepted the default law and possibly even your own Terms of Service (if they are distinct and accessible enough, e.g. linked in your e-mail signature) by placing the job with you. (As opposed to you becoming the client's property.)


You are ambushed when the other party chooses the time, the place, the method and the extent you'll be negotiating. In short: if the negotiation is planned for, designed, by the other party. The advantage consists in being prepared and knowing what would follow. Or just having thought about the possible scenarios before and knowing how to react to each approximate scenario, even if it won't be carried out to the letter. One of the cheapest but still most effective negotiation tricks — and a large part of a successful ambush — is cutting your deliberation time short and railroading you into a quick decision which may not be in your best interests (especially when it agrees with what the other party wants of you, and especially the exact terms of getting it).

You deny the advantage by claiming your thinking time and by taking an active part in the negotiation and in shaping the negotiation process. You can also deny it by upsetting any predictable scenarios the other party may have designed or analysed in advance before the negotiation even started, down to such simple things as taking a different seat from the one offered to you when you meet face-to-face.

If you don't have a plan, you're already levelling the field by making it so that they don't effectively have a plan either (because their plan is no longer working or relevant).

Love Me, Tender... not?

There's been some talk in the lately, and I've recived a couple of such offers by mail and not for the first time, either. This round, however, I had already had a firm resolution not to get involved before it started. Why? Because unless you're really into that type of translation, it's not worth it. And possibly even then.

For starters, you'll be asked to fill in an impossible load of paperwork, some of it rather repetitive. And there will be a lot of detailed questioning about your past jobs and clients. Things you can't fully document you'll probably need to stop claiming (unlike in a more relaxed business setting). Once you're done filling in, you'll be asked to print it, sign it everywhere, then scan it. Like 20 pages or something.

Naturally, being asked to provide details of your clients and jobs doesn't stop at nuisance, it's also a confidentiality problem. And what if it your clients start getting pestered once you have made their contact details available?

Next, it completely doesn't make sense economically. There seem to be more agencies than translators for that type of work, which means that you may be on every single agency's list (or at least a good many of them) but the agencies will still compete against each other for the privilege to offer your same old services at the lowest price.

Incidentally, I hadn't even known until today, but it seems that the lowest price may be playing much more of a role than I'd thought in EU-related translation procurements.

Finally, even if you win it — after going through all the nuisance requirements and surviving requests for clarification, evidence and whatnot — the EU's pool of reference files is endless. This is good when you'd otherwise not know how to translate, but a whole different matter when it's mostly about remaining consistent with previous translations.

So think about needing to check countless bilingual files on EUR-LEX, other legislative, judicial or other databases, possibly several style guides, existing translation memories… ugh. There'd be more checking than translating.

How about De-Emphasising the CV, Using a Bio Instead?

CV's are somewhat controversial among freelance translators. I stand by my old opinion that it's not demeaning to have one and call it one. Lawyers, politicians, professors, CEO's and all sorts of people have CV's, so a freelance translator also can. If you're interested in the subject, Marta Stelmaszak's Lesson 57 has a compendium in the form of a massive free e-book with very helpful tips from people who have actually sifted through many of them.

On the other hand, in a job line in many ways similar to ours, lawyers are generally using bios, which is short for biograms (tiny biographies). At least 60% law firm website traffic goes to bios, possibly because few other things are either interesting or understandable to clients. Besides, getting 'conversions', selling etc. is largely about selling a story. And a bio is by definition a story.

If you go to the popular lawyerly blog at — which contains a massive resource of very accessible and very transferable marketing advice (again, because of the similarities between our job lines) — and if you enter 'bio' in the search query, you will get about 90 results. Curiously, visual CV's mentioned in Randall Ryder's advice/opinion post there are not unheard of among translators, but I don't see many bios out there. And they are really good replacements for a classical CV on a translator's website — and possibly only there for lawyers, though not really for us translators. We could probably use them more extensively than lawyers, notably in all of those directories we're listed in where a free-form profile is allowed (e.g.'s About me section), perhaps in brochures.

Using a bio allows you to be narrative and engaging, even though you lose the the benefit of a more structured presentation with key facts arranged chronologically or functionally or enumerated in a bullet list. However, you also get a chance to leave the CV contest behind. CVs fit rather closely in the paradigm of competitive variables (price, deadline, and credentials), bios break out of that scheme. Also, where there is no CV — and some of us have already pulled theirs due to the threat of scammers stealing them and replacing contact data with their own — there is less vulnerability to identity theft risks.

What else? If you'd like to give it a go or at least 'a think', I'd suggest you take a look at field experts from your areas of expertises. Lawyers, doctors, actors, writers, other people, how are their bios written? What do they have on their biographical or at least profile pages? What can you adapt from there? Can you use the knowledge to enable them to relate more easily to you? Bios are certainly not the only thing you can adapt once you get there and take a good look.

You will probably benefit the most from having a freeform bio, as opposed to the restrictions of a classic CV, if you're a native speaker writing in your own language (non-natives will find it much harded to keep up with you in creative pursuits than in CV writing) or somewhat of a copywriter/transcreationist, or both.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Learn (How) to Say No from Your Clients

What happened the last time you asked to have your rates increased or get a rush surcharge to apply or a short deadline to be moved?

In some cases the request was probably granted, but in the majority of them it was probably declined or ignored. Ignoring is the easiest answer, and the party ignored typically picks up the hint and stops bringing up the subject without need for direct refusal. Let's look at the refusals instead.

I doub they were actually flat out refusals, direct and rude, except perhaps for a couple of cases out of a hundred. Rather, they were polite and attempted to rely on arguments.

Arguments can be valid or not, but in any case they attempt to support the refusal with something. Data or emotions or a promise or threat but still something. They are not necessarily enough to covince you, they often show that you can't convince the other party easily. In some cases you decide it's not worth it, and you don't pursue your own arguments further. In other cases they leave it up to you to tell no to the potential collaboration that has been brewing so far.

You probably haven't often heard that your rates are ridiculous or exortionate. Rather, the agency (or client, in some cases) can't afford or can't offer you more than than a fraction of your rate. Possibly with a mention of the economic cirsis or how bad the market is in general.

In some cases the answer steers you toward declining the deal (so they don't have to) or accepting it on their own proposed conditions, e.g. by sending you or requesting from you a document connected with subsequent stateges of recruitement, or reiterating the request for your confirmation of the job they are offering.

Sometimes there's some talk about what their standard policy is or what the other translators accept.

Guess what. You too can talk about your policy or about rates and other terms your other clients accept. You too can use words such as: 'unfortunately', 'sorry but', 'I wish I could', 'while I value our collaboration', 'while I understand/sympathise with your situation/concerns/position' and so on, and talk about the tough market realities (which are not permitting you to hand out discounts liberally, for example).

You can also say that a proposed rate isn't leaving you much in the way of profit and that you need to pay some bills and put some cash in the banks, or that it is not a sufficient reflection of the type and amount of work you'd need to do.

You too can end with, 'please confirm this order at (…).'

Just no raw emotion but always arguments and perhaps without turning down the whole deal, only the scope of their proposal  you can't accept, while providing a fair counteroffer (which places the ball in their court).

Whether they are apologetic or adamant in their own no's, you can learn the execution from them.

Edit (27 March 2014): You're also more respectful when you give good reasons for turning down proposals, offers and suggestions, rather than handing down a flat no without explanation. Kindness and politeness open may doors. It's hard to communicate properly without respect and understanding. Your clients will respect you more if they learn that you are fair and reasonable, not whimsical or petty, which is crucial to your (personal and business) dependability, not just to your being well-liked or not.

Added Value, from a Conflict Resolution Perspective

You can read about added value from a business, financial or marketing or tax point of view elsewhere, beginning from Wikipedia. The perspective I want to take here is one of negotiation, or rather conflict resolution.

There are two fundamental styles of negotiation and two fundamental strategies. The styles are adversarial and collaborative, whereas the strategies are value sharing and value building. Styles are intuitive, strategies will perhaps need some explanation.

Value sharing is when you cut an existing pie, especially in a zero-sum game (e.g. 50/50, 80/20 etc.). Value building is when both parties work together to create more value and not necessarily divide in equally, which is not always possible. The emphasis is on generating as much value as possible for the two of you. Jointly, if your style is collaborative (you can theoretically build value in an adversarial style, but it doesn't make much sense).

The difference between value sharing and value building is typically illustrated with a textbook example wherein one of the negotiating parties need 2000 fruit pulps and the other 2000 fruit skins, and there are only 2000 such fruits total. If the parties fail to get to the root of their problem — by talking because how else? — then they'll end up with way supoptimal results such as a 1000/1000 (i.e. proverbial 50/50) split.

It does come down to the talking, which, in turn, basically comes down to the thought. You and your translation clients are not necessarily negotiating just the rates for the same old defined translation job, in an adversarial way. It's more of a give and take for both of you as long as you're at least ready to go there.

Why I mentioned conflict resolution is because this usually comes up when discussing ADR, Alternative Dispute Resolution, particularly negotiation or mediation. But it's not necessarily about a conflict per se. Rather, it's about reconciling interests that don't intuitively agree. Try to be creative. Collaborative value-building relationships probably work the best.

Example: You and an agency are negotiating your rate for the assigment, somewhat bitterly. You know you're good at it, and there they are trying to pay you a student's wage because, supposedly, they can't pay higher. You give them some arguments justifying the higher rate, which they use in negotiating with the end client and land the contract at a higher price. You get paid more, they get to serve their client and possibly make more markup.

The funny twist here is that the end client may very well be happy with the service and quality and even the quality-to-price ratio. In some cases prices which are not exorbitant but which can still be felt inspire confidence. 'Cheap meet is what dogs eat,' is an old Polish saying. People can appreciate qood service for little money, but serious prices probably find it easier to inspire serious confidence and serious treatment.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

For $100, It's Better to Do 1000 Words than 2500 (or 5000)

Just a quick one this time, before we get back to the dental adventure. Originally, the thought came from a Polish colleague, the currency was PLN and the figures were slightly different:

For 300 zloties, it's better to do 10 pages at 30 zloties per page than 30 pages at 10 per.

So yes, if you hold out and keep quoting higher rates, you will obviously have fewer jobs. (Which is not necessarily true, but let's presume for the time being that it is.) However, that's not necessarily a bad thing.


  • You'll be less tired and better rested. This will help your perception, avoid slips of attention and QA blunders, help you avoid uninspiring prose where it matters. Chances are you'll also catch more easily and think faster.
  • You'll be happier with your work. This motivation will likely show in your work — and by all means do make sure it does! :)
  • You'll have more time to accept last-minute jobs, emergencies (preferably for a solid urgency surcharge), jobs you like, pro bono (charity) jobs and such like.
  • … Or for blogging, writing articles, attending conferences, watching webinars, reading books. In short, all sorts of CTD, service to the translation community, and even marketing and client acquisition. Overworked and underpaid translators don't have the time and strength to fight for a better fate.
  • … Or for QA (Quality Assurance), which is one of the best — and easiest and cheapest — marketing tools and initiatives available to a translator. One just needs to stop regarding such QA as something along the lines of +10-25% unpaid time but rather see it as an investment in better testimonials, less client loss (and more client retention) and better jobs in the future. It's easier to satisfy and retain the clients you already have attracted than to attract new ones. As far as attracting new ones goes, however, the easiest way is word-of-mouth, i.e. referrals from your already existing (and hopefully talking) happy clients.
  • Your health will last longer.
  • Your relationships with family members and friends will be better for the added time you can spend cherishing them.


  • It's easier to find more work than it is to raise your rates with existing clients at all or dramatically raise them with new clients (especially ones referred to you by your old clients, who probably mentioned the rates you were charging them). It's possible to progress gradually and get out of an undercharging situation, but it's hard to do.

Notwithstanding, I know a translator whose initial strategy was to be cheap — even dirt cheap — and book his calendar full as soon as possible. But he used the opportunity to gain good testimonials and his increasing experience — and accruing testimonials — to get better rates. His goal was not to be in a rut of low rates for a long time just to be neck-deep in jobs.

 To some extent, thus, I suppose this is a subjective matter depending on what fits your personality best, and your goals.

Please consider, though, that if you wish to fill your calendar to the brim as a rookie — or even as a veteran in a pair and field where jobs are more scarce — there are other ways than lowering your prices for normal commercial clients. You can always donate your skills and time to those in the need, those who really need your translations, and the best you can do, but can't pay for them. Chances are the jobs will be more interesting than low-paying commercial jobs. The people you'll work with will likely also be more interesting, engaging and all-round nicer to work with. Even should you want to publicise your work for a marketing advantage, such as referrals, case studies, mentioning your clients on your website and so on — pro bono work has more potential for that sort of thing anyway.

Tooth Fairy Dust

Much of my day today was consumed by a long-awaited and rather meaningful (and painful) visit at the dentist's. The bill was nothing like discounted or promotional or whatever. They realised it was rather heavy and sympathised with my need to pay it, but they didn't offer to cut it half just to get me or keep or anything of the sort. Even though they had been genuinely puzzled as to how I'd possibly have found their practice.

See, I went there because they'd been recommended to me by a a family member and not their whole clinic anyway but just that particular doctor I'd gone to. I had been warned the bill would be heavy but also informed the doctor was a respected specialisted in just the sort of painful doom she was going to inflict on me.

There was no posing or showing off, nor any gadgetry, at the clinic. On the contrary, the furniture was the moderately priced plain white clinics can get away with, the location was not exactly the strict city centre, nor was it even large. It was not the place where the doctor had earned her reputation anyway. There was simply competence, reputation and just the right tools for the job (those were actually somewhat hi-tech).

I did have the option to look for a cheaper dentist somewhere else — spending my time seeking them out, going there, perhaps waiting in queue, whatever. Who knows how the medical procedures would've gone. Where I went, it was expensive but reliable and painless and fast and sure and quick.

… All of which a translator can achieve. The translator can certainly be a highly valued specialist in his field coming with good recommendations from the prospective client's family members, friends or business partners. The client may value the benefit of closing the transaction — and solving his problems — fast and assuredly, as opposed to a protracted process with an uncertain outcome. There is satisfaction in moving on and setting to work on new tasks, perhaps more rewarding.

Also, you shouldn't neglect a 'warm contact', i.e. somebody already expecting to be called and professing interest in your services and you as the provider of them, perhaps already prepared to pay your rates. Because from the position that person is in, your rates are more acceptable than to someone who is meh about the whole thing and only tentatively evaluates your free sample and asks you to fill in a questionnaire with the same data you've already provided in your CV or in the e-mail exchange.

How to tell such potential clients apart from the other folks, though?

The answer is that you can't, usually. Neither did the dental clinic from my example until finally some names started popping up at the conclusion of my first visit. Remember how I said they asked me how I'd found them? They had no way of knowing.

The moral of this story connects with the fact that no advertising or marketing can beat good old word of mouth in general, and satisifed and talking clients in particular, and that you never know if the potential client you are talking to right now hasn't been specially groomed for you by your existing happy client.

Big chances are you don't need to play any shenanigans with your rates or fill in a lot of paperwork to get such clients. They already know they want to work with you, or at least they are seriously considering it and being favourably predisposed. Just live up to the tale they have already heard.

Finally, doing what doctors do is not exactly a novel notion for lawyers, the business side of whose services is so similar to our own. Law marketing blogger Larry Bodine blogged about this in 2011 at, which is, by the way, a splendid source of knowledge for translators, as almost everything said there is transferable from the legal sector to our own with no or just minor adaptations. I'm pretty sure he can't be the only person who has noticed it, especially considering that a lot of emphasis in marketing these days is placed on focus on the client, facilitating things, solving problems, not just selling a service.

One more thing perhaps: If you place the 'centre of gravity' in your marketing and business approach on the problems you solve for your clients, the way you facilitate things, the opportunities you help them take advantage of, you will move it farther away from just looking at your services from the perspective of a commodity which — all the worse — comes with a very small and cheap unit of measurement, a source or target word worth a couple of cents. In the long run, you might even get to work for an hourly rate (like many lawyers and consultants) or set transactional prices or at least use billable pages or even larger blocks of text (e.g. publisher's sheets) instead of words.

The Rucola Box

Rucola, also known simply as salad rocket, is a green leafy herb you can put on pizza or in pasta or a salad. Before last Saturday I had only tasted it on pizza and I liked it very much, so I decided to buy some and put it in pasta. The box it came in I noticed only just after throwing it away. And I loved it. By this I don't mean any sort of raving hype. It simply found a soft spot in my heart. It probably aimed for just that, as it was unobtrusive and unassuming. Most of the space was used by an opening, just transparent foil through which you could see the leaves underneath. There was some appropriate imagery to invoke associations with frozen food, but the 'ice' there was really blue (much like the sky) and the drops of water on it were more like rain. Not the cold unfriendly ice at all. And then there was that pretty little ladybug on the edge of the transparent window, very amiable and touching. Perhaps another one somewhere else. And just a little patch of yellow sun in the logo. Otherwise a little green border somewhere or a bit of white. I would not keep the box (or rather its foil wrap), but I still have its picture before my eyes.

It changed my life for the better, if only for a short while. It was so positive and amiable that the mood was contagious, not in the least because of how humble it was. There was no corporate pride. No designer hubris. No gadgetry, no vogue, no artsiness, no nothing. It made the rucola look normal (as opposed to throwing the Italian flag, leaning tower and David  and everything else at me) but also very inviting. A normal part of my day — no pretensions to a central status — but one very rewarding and 'pleasant' but in the the good way, not a hedonistic self-indulgent way. The box and wrap didn't encourage me to give in to my passions or discover the wild me (the consumerist me with an open wallet, rather, huh), or indulge in raw serotonin, nope, if anything, it gave me an appreciation of simplicity. And it didn't commoditise the rucola. It wasn't a 'food product', it was rucola. Rucola that was smiling at me — though not at all presuming to have human-like qualities — and making my day better despite not laying a claim to any such ability. Being so respectul and positive and all. And humble.

You may figured this out by now, but the idea didn't commoditise the rucola at all, rather the opposite. In not becoming the instrument of wild passion or raw satisfaction or indulgence or whatever, it was allowed to be rucola, to be itself. It was very much owing to the opening that showed the leaves, made the leaves the most important thing, not the logo or slogans or certificates or advertising. It was all rucola. The packaging helped bring out the rucola, nothing more.

I wish the translation we do could be just translation, not a 'language service' or product or solution. And certainly not a dose of all-important service-gotten serotonin resulting from the client being complied with and satisfied and having his corporate or other ego stroked by our going through all the rituals of depersonalised contact full of tough talk. I wish we could be translators and not LSP's (or vendors for that matter). I think the tough business and marketing talk actually throws us down to the vendor level and our work down to some sort of services being provided by vendors much like the 'services' of the IT sector, e.g. the Internet access provided by an ISP or 'hardware as a service' or the 'services' that are run by our computers. Which is okay because they are not human work. Or a fresh plant.

So perhaps our way out is in being humble and unassuming, in changing not a life but rather someone's day for the better, in bringing out the natural good qualities of our work? And in keeping it fresh and friendly and not overdoing the packaging? And in remembering about the tiny ladybug and the friendly sun? And making the ice just symbolic, more like the blue sky?

Alternative Solution to Houston Baggage Complaint — Moving Complaint Desk Farther Instead

A while ago Houston airport faced a huge volume of complaints about baggage wait times. According to NewYork Times's article, the cause of the problem was psychological, as was the solution. Namely, it boiled down to a very short walking distance from arrival gates to baggage claim, resulting in about seven minutes of passive waiting for the baggage to come, after one minute of walking. Eventually, instead of assigning more employees or upgrading the machines, the management decided to move baggage claim farther away from arrival gates. Now passengers walked seven minutes and waited only one minute. Complaints stopped coming. This may look a little cynical to you — 'complaints stopped coming', like it's all that matters. However, I wish to stress that the clients' psychological well-being improved and the problem they had been experiencing before disappeared.

I suppose we could adapt this experience for translators' business needs — rearrange the process to eliminate idle or otherwise more odious waiting periods in favour of something more agreeable and make the clients feel better. So for example ask what deadlines they need as opposed to decreeing a schedule. Name longer deadlines and sometimes deliver early rather than giving them shorter deadlines but sometimes failing to deliver. Do not unnecessarily teach them to expect a fast turnover only to disappoint them when your bookings become a bit more complicated. And make rush fees look like compensation for your hard and dedicated work rather than a penalty for their bad scheduling (or especially for things they have no control over).

All valid points, but that's not what I wanted to talk about.

When I first came across the Houston story I was shown a 'meme' which I looked at in a cursory fashion and misinterpreted as suggesting that Houston airport management moved baggage complaint farther away from baggage claim. Or perhaps it was a satire. I don't remember. Anyway, with more walking distance between baggage claim and baggage complain people would trouble themselves if they cared enough about an issue to walk a couple of minutes to bring it up with the staff. Most notably, impatient individuals would not be tempted to vent their frustration at a complaint desk situated right whey there were waiting, right when the waiting started feeling too long. I associated that mental image with a certain problem we face in the translation business.

Like in any other professional service market, clients are not normally qualified to judge the merits of our work, only perhaps the quality of service associated with it. There is a reason why they need a translator in the first place, just like there is a reason why they need a lawyer when there is a lawsuit or a doctor when there's a bug that won't go away on its own.

To assess accurately the quality of a professional's work takes a lot of focused learning which normally only specialists have accomplished. And they accomplished all that because it was supposed to become their job and the source of their livelihood, in which they later gained practical experience and so on, which makes all the incentive. They clients may well have made a similar investment but in a different field, one in which they are competent and their doctor or lawyer or translator (etc.) is not.

Unlike lawyers and doctors, however, linguists generally seem to encourage clients to try and directly evaluate translation anyway. Many take their belief that the client is always right so far that — in their mind — the client is not only always right about the facts stated or the needs stated or even the quality of service received, but actually about the quality of the translator's work. And there not even only style and preferential matters but also about things such as actual errors. Or failure to have done this or that which was their obligation to do, as opposed to a simple difference of opinion. Some clients are assertive enough to push a translator in that kind of frame of mind.

This said, however, the typical client does not even necessarily wish to become involved in such a manner. Some clients expressly wish to be kept out of anything too directly connected with your translation work. This is something I realised all the more strongly when reading an old blog post by my colleague Marta Stelmaszak that's not even available on her website any more (or at least I can't find it). She got a direct client to talk — or she played the role convincingly herself (I don't remember, it was long ago) — and the result was to the tune of (I'm paraphrasing)

I know about clothes selling, not about translation. I don't want to be solving translation problems. You deal with them.

In fact, the client may experience decreasing confidence in his translator — because te translator does not, apparently, feel confident enough in his own professional field. The client may thus be led to think:

Why again am I paying those guys if they need me to solve their own translation riddles for them which they supposedly went to some school to learn and I did not?

Awful, isn't it. Well. If you need a qualified opinion, ask a translator colleague. If you need a lot of such opinion or need to make it more formal — talk your client into hiring an editor (not because you're bad but because team work brings better results). If you want unqualified opinion, ask your spouse or non-translator friend (and such opinions have value because they are often closer to what the target audience may think like). But don't ask your client or project manager or agency boss unless you really know what you are doing.

(Or unless your contract is such that you are the translation workforce but the agency takes responsibility for the final outcome and the editor is effectively your supervisor — which is, by the way, not at all shameful to admit and a good arrangement when you prefer to gain some experience in a more controlled environment first before taking larger responsibilities on your shoulders. And also the arrangement you should seek if you feel insecure.)

Probably the most obvious manifestation of the problem we're discussing here are the so called 'free rewrites' requested often by arbitrarily dissatisfied clients guided by their own preference rather than objective standards or at least previously communicated requiremens, and sometimes encouraged by tolerant or meek or hard-pressed agencies.

If you don't want your workload to include a lot of free rewrites don't pursue client feedback and satisfaction guarantees so aggressively, especially don't invite the client's input where the client is not really in the best position to contribute constructively. Don't make your client your reviewer and final arbiter. The client may not like it, and you may not like the results. It's hard to project the appearance of a confident and respected professional if just about any somewhat educated person is better qualified to do the job you've spent decades learning and doing.

Be responsive, of course, but don't shove your clients straight to your complaint desk. Don't encourage a negative mindset. Don't ask for constructive feedback when their emotional balance is temporarily a little off. Don't solicit unqualified opinions about the quality of your work or they will give you just that and start thinking that you really need their guidance.

Rather ask what else you could do for your client (and I'd make it new areas or types of service rather than added services or the kind of added value that only pretends to be 'added' while it really drives the price or interest) or even what you could better (and yeah, what you could do better rather than what you're doing wrong), but only where the client is not unqualified to give you an assessment. Don't put your client in a position of being hard-pressed to find a quarrel in a straw. Or you'll get just that.

Self-Administered QA

Dull and boring QA is not the sharpest tool in a translator's shed, but it may very well be one of the most important for survival and a more fulfilling professional life.

For starters, let's point out the single most prominent fact about translation quality. This is also one fact that modern linguists frequently ignore or possibly even choose to ignore. Without further ado:

Clients are not normally capable of judging the quality of the translation they receive. Clients can evaluate their own experience with your translation, but that's not the same as evaluating your translation.

To use a familiar point of reference — everybody knows how the KudoZ system works on People ask their questions, other people reply, and then the asker or in some cases the community chooses one of the proposals as the best one, awarding a certain number of KudoZ points to the author of that answer.

But how many people stop to think that perhaps askers — with their professed lack of knowledge if not about the entire field then about that specific little thing which they are needing help with — are effectively by their own admission not the most qualified judges of the matter?

It's the same with your clients. Perhaps just like KudoZ askers, some of your clients will have a bit of a background with languages and the various fields of knowledge involved in your translations. They may even be fellow translators, current or retired. The chances of this are obvious higher when you work for agencies.

Normally, though, clients mostly see your CV and your testimonials, they listen to you talking or read your writing, they assess how credible you sound (this largely basing on how much confidence you project), they can try and judge the logical consistency of your reasoning, and its elegance. All of which are superficial aspects, even though they often turn out to be reliable guides.

So not only are your clients not equipped with the right tools to judge the quality of your translation, they will also focus and even overfocus on what they can actually see and judge, which includes any 'QA issues' their highschool French or German just might be enough to spot. This is why even a single isolated minor issue can rise to the rank of, if not really a serious problem, then certainly the primary object of your client's attention for a while. Even someone who will not make too much of a typo may still end up registering a suboptimal and disproportionately flawed translation experience compared to what experience would have been registered if there had been none such issue with the translation you gave him. Whether one will make or less of this depends in the individual personality or relationship.

Speaking of which, it's much worse in adversarial relationships. A direct client may be forgiving in the light of how common errors are in business writing without really affecting the business purpose, while a fellow linguist may sympathise with you, having walked a mile in your shoes. However, a potential competitor for full-rate translation jobs, or a reviewer from some agency the end client pits against yours, will possibly not be so lenient, especially in the absence of a strong sense of ethics. Don't hand such a 'someone' your own head on a golden plate with an opportunity to rant about how you 'didn't even' do this or that, made all the worse by how easy the purportedly missing step would have been.

Bottom line, QA issues are the translator's Achilles heel.

Yes, a stupid tip of a heel on an otherwise immortal hero impenetrable anywhere but for that particular spot where his mother's hand held him when bathing him in the river Styx to make him immune to damage. That was also the exact same spot where an enemy archer's poisoned arrow got him, leading to his death. And it was poison which did the job; taking an arrow to the heel doesn't kill a warrior.

Eliminate the Achilles heel. Eliminate it, and you won't die to cheap shots.

Do your QA even if you aren't paid for it, even where it's expressly excluded from your scope of responsibilities. Even where there is a dedicated proofreader, editor, reviser, or any or all of them, you're probably still better off being complimented rather than excused (or saved or reversed) by them.

Even where the absence of QA would be justifiable, it's easier to win an argument than it is to win a happy client. Or any client, for that matter, who keeps coming back for more of your services.

Even where you won't be paid more, your services will look better. That will give you more desirability and more leverage, and more trust, and less replaceability, leading to more jobs and better pay. You will also receive nicer referrals, and your referrals are the living blood of your marketing because word of mouth is still the best and most important.

Beyond the spell-checker

Learn and master the spelling and punctuation of your target language, and also read up on whatever aspects of grammar and syntax you find yourself less than comfortable with. Memorise any applicable conventions governing numbers, currencies, units of measurement and such like, or just print them and hang them on your wall or stick post-it notes to your monitor, whatever it takes. Use more advanced tools as you progress.

Also, read your text again. And again if you must. Preferably on another day, with a fresh eye. Ask another person to take a look if your confidentiality clauses and non-discolure agreements do not prevent you from doing so. If things are too confidential, you might be able to get your client's relevant input or decision before the deadline.

You don't have to enjoy it, just do it

QA isn't nearly as bad as some of the student jobs we've worked. Once you get used to it, it won't take up so much of your time and it can become your second nature, making it less of a bother perhaps as well. You might be surprised to discover what kind of life-savers your QA steps can be — for example you can spot actual errors or mistranslations while applying surface polish — and how much they can improve your clients' experience, and your own (more on this at the end).

Retaining existing clients is easier than finding new ones — pretty much every marketing consultant will tell you this, or even an experienced business person. Satisfied clients keep coming back to you even when they have other options. Plus, like I said just a moment ago, there is no better advertising than your happy clients talking to other people. Even high-octane TV ads which corporations pay big money for still tries to fake this natural word-of-mouth coming from plain satisfied customers. Well, you don't need to pay for enthusiastic testimonials. You can earn them while doing your job.

Damage control

If you're going to be giving your clients the time anyway — as you can't really leave complaints unaddressed nor should you — better give it up front and with a smile, make it core or even added value rather than... damage control. Plus, if you are targeted by a scammer for a bogus complaint it had better not contain any real issues. As you know, translation is subjective, and it's always easy for any reviewer to come up with a list of preferential changes and even a couple of genuine improvements and legitimate minor issues. What you spot on your own won't kick you back when someone else spots it.

More importantly, nobody will lose his life or limb or property or good name if nobody proofreads, edits or revises the translation after you at all or with sufficient attention and competence.

Profiles and CVs, and forums — not only your actual translation jobs count

Don't be the shoemaker's child who goes barefoot, even when you travel a country road. Translators and translation agency often have errors and poor writing right on their websites and in their most important marketing materials. In your case, unless you're a very established or marketing-savvy translators, those are still online profiles and CVs. Bad spelling, bad grammar, lousy syntax, uninspired or outright literal translations, even unnecessary spaces before punctuation marks, you name it, it's all there. The same goes for forum posts and Facebook comments.

So, how hard is it at least to run your documents — or even forum posts and comments on Facebook and blogs — through a spell-checker before sharing them with othes? I'd rather not presume that clients, PM's and agency owners will ignore the issues they spot when interacting with you even on Facebook or a blog or a professional forum. Where else to interact with you anyway?

Plus, it'll be easier for you to write well in general if you don't restrict your nice writing only to situations in which you absolutely can't avoid it. On the bright side, you will see it pays back when clients and agencies start contacting you precisely because of the quality of your writing they come across wherever they do, including forum posts.

When I was barely starting to be a professional translator, something as insignificant to some colleagues as keeping the standards while posting on forums is how I earned that loan of confidence from one of my best agency clients which led to some high-profile jobs pretty fast and for better rates than the usual. You can do the same.

Afterword — back to that more fulfilling life

You'll feel better. You'll hear less complaining. You'll face less misunderstanding. There will be more compliments and happy comments and perhaps even enthusiasm in some cases. This should be worth giving a little more of your time. Or so I tell myself.

Later, I will write about keeping deadlines, picking up calls, writing back and some other things which affect a client's perception of the quality of service.

What Your Lawyer Client Can Help You with

As a follow up to my previous article about what lawyers need from you as their translator, I would like to mention a couple of things your lawyer clients can help you with:

Clarification. If you're translating something your lawyer client wrote, that lawyer client is the best person to ask what he wanted to say in the passage which is leaving you uncertain. However, the same is true for what his colleagues or even opposing counsel or some other lawyers — or their clients — wrote. Chances are his knows his clients well and possibly his opponents too. And the judge. And the clerk. And the law, of course.

Guidance. If you can't find it, chances are he still can (or his paralegal). You don't necessarily need to ask him for ready solutions, you can ask him where to find them. He is also likely to be your best source of information about all relevant matters concerning the law or the legal profession. You'll impress him more by finding the answers on your own than by asking him, but — probably just like with any other sensible client — asking will impress him more than failure.

Library. 'Nuff said. Some firms even employ librarians. Depending on their deals with publishers and other copyright holders they may be able to send you some materials you'd otherwise need to pay or make a long trip for (naturally, just for use in that particular assignment, not as a permanent freebie).

Logistics. This should not normally be necessary and would normally be looked upon kindly but in some situations — e.g. when you need research you don't have the time to do within the available deadline or need office assistance or something like bringing you a book from the law firm's library — your lawyer client (or his own client) almost certainly is better prepared than you to handle the necessary logistics and probably wouldn't mind. There is a chance that the lawyer will be willing to (get his client to) compensate you for any unforeseen but necessary expenses. If possible, however, better ask the lawyer's assistant or paralegal (since that's where the request will be forwarded anyway).

Editing (and sometimes even proofreading). Chances are he'll be doing it anyway. However, you can ask your lawyer client's input in matters of legal style. The lawyer probably won't mind as long as the question is not something you can easily find in Google or some other readily available resource (this said, rather buy yourself a style guide for lawyers and look there). In fact, he might even appreciate the thought and feel needed. In a closer relationship, where there is no danger of misunderstanding, it might be a good idea to engage the lawyer client as that much-needed second pair of eyes (it is not uncommon for lawyers to be more competent than some linguists you've worked with). Caution: Don't abuse it and don't make yourself look less competent for asking.

Referrals. If you're good, chances are he's already recommending you to other lawyers and possibly to his clients, but there may be some situations in which he wouldn't mind to but just hasn't thought about it yet. Recommending you to his colleagues will probably be a spontaneous impulse, but recommending you to his clients — for work connected with the clients' business but not the legal work the lawyer handles for them — sounds to me just like the thing a lawyer might not intuitively think about due to being totally concentrated on the cases.

Consultation. Whether you can ask freely about some terminology you need in your work done for your other lawyer clients will depend on how close a relationship you have. The closer you are, the more favours are owed, the easier this will be. In return, you can credit your lawyer client on your website for providing consultation (also boosting your own credibility). You can also ask for such consultation in exchange for any discounts or free assistance you'd be giving anyway.

Legal services. Duh. The obvious. Don't go to a random stranger when you have your own client. (This may not always be possible, though, as in some cases it could create a conflict of interest.) Besides, chances are you'll get a discount or even free service. Lawyers can be very protective of their own, which is how they may be seeing you by now. Plus:

Signing your default notices for non-payers. Something like printing your default notice for a non-payer on the firm's stationery and appending a lawyerly signature on it would be an easy favour, as it takes seconds, costs nothing and changes your situation with the debtor dramatically.

Reviewing your contracts. I wouldn't count on this one coming free of charge. However, stuff agencies ask you to sign and stuff your other clients ask you to sign (cut their names out) may need review by a qualified lawyer. I have talked about this lately with Rose Newell.

What Does a Lawyer Need from You?

This is a question I can attempt to answer for you on the basis of my experience from both sides of the fence. As far as theory goes, I know much more about the law than about business or marketing or even translation itself. So this is not a theoretical analysis but a friendly head-to-head where you can pick my brain (or rather I open it for you).

Any lawyer needs you to be punctual. Unlike some other clients lawyers understand that their deadlines are extreme and may be more prepared to compensate you adequately for the rush. However, as far as they go the 'dead' in 'deadline' is there for a reason.

Consequently, they also need you to be available. They understand that you have physical limits (although they will respect you more when you push those limits as hard as they do), but they need someone to be there when they need a translator. Needing someone to translate a motion with a limited filing window or a ruling that needs to be challenged quickly or urgent client mail or a ton of corporate work with a deadline is different from looking for someone to translate their website or something else that can wait. Also, they may still respect your professional standing despite needing you to be responsive and even somewhat flexible at times, as they themselves often take responsive and flexible to an extreme, even as highly valued and highly compensated specialists in their own field.

They need you to be faithful and exacting. What linguists may refer to as 'clumsy syntax' is often there for a reason. Style — while important (we'll get there later) — takes precedence after fidelity and content. They don't want you to be streamlining the things which you consider redundant. Lawyers are also linguists in their own way, and they are acutely aware of the different shades of meaning in words and phrases which most linguists normally consider interchangeable. They also tend to be conscious writers, and so you can presume that whether they repeat something ten times over or distinguish it they know what they are doing.

They need really good QA from you. No wrong numbers, no cross-translations (e.g. Buyer and Seller getting mixed up), no missing or added negations (which happens to tired translators), no confirming of 95% after nary any reading (which happens to translators who are trying to be too fast), nothing should be missing and nothing should be added, either. In case of doubt, ask the lawyers (and better sooner than later). The good news is that you can probably charge them appropriately for the QA because they of all people understand the importance of it. They probably know first hand how exhausting and ungrateful a task it can be — they are writers, after all.

They need consistency. This is a matter of both QA and fidelity. Those CAT tools you have will prove useful, but you may still need to look things up depending on how segmentation works in your CAT tool. For the record, you can probably mention your CAT tool as an asset (and mention that it wasn't freeware).

They need you to ask them rather than taking risks. Okay, some lawyers can be rude if they think you should know the answer, but feel free to ask them what happened the last time a translator didn't ask but decided to figure out the points of law on his or her own. When asking questions you can use the opportunity to reinforce your professional image much like doctors do, which lawyers themselves are learning to copy. They also need you to ask them sooner than later.

They need you to be tolerant of legalese. One translator will not change what generations of lawyers have passed on to their successors. Keep the campaigning for conferences, blogs, even your head-to-head time with your lawyer client in a more relaxed atmosphere. But not when the clock is ticking and the firm is a besieged city (you can tell from the size and deadline of the job among other clues). On the other hand, simple language should stay simple. It's probably simple for a reason.

Finally, they need you to keep your imagination in check. This relates to fidelity and to asking them questions. Research the subject, look things up, ask the lawyers, but no guessing, no hit or miss attempts, no reinventing the wheel (unless what you're doing for them is a marketing job). Rather, the outlet for your creativity should be in seeking ways to preserve equivalence.

What about style?

I mentioned style in the beginning. Strong writing skills and a good style are a valuable asset for a legal translator to have. This holds true especially for letters, correspondence, articles, memos for clients, not to mention the lawyers' websites and marketing materials that you translate. If you can deliver legal writing on par with the best of them, then you will be a gem among translators as far as they go. However, when in doubt you should be simple and clear. Don't start what you can't finish. Again, no letting your imagination out of control. Also, lawyers may already know how to edit a layman's writing for style and lingo, and they have likely been editing their own sidekicks and assistants for quite a while (junior lawyers, secretaries, paralegals, possibly even some of their clients).

While not being a necessity, good legal style can be a boon to any firm which takes its image seriously. While at it, you can probably offer some educational and consulting services or just informally coach your lawyer clients who communicate in their non-native languages. Lawyers tend to be smart and dedicated learners. Also, if they remember you as the guy (or gal) who facilitated their success (e.g. by coaching them up on the writing they use to make or keep clients), they will have a harder time replacing you with someone who is cheaper (or a senior partner's cousin or a translation agency who is a client).

As for where to start working on your style, I'll write more about that some time next month.

How else can I benefit from what I've just read?

In consideration of your staying with me and not falling asleep by now, I thought it would be a good idea to let you know that you can use this knowledge in building a good rapport with your current and prospective lawyer clients. If you show them that you understand their problems, you will have a better chance convincing them that you can solve those problems. If you prefer to — and know how to — switch your presentation from problems to challenges or opportunities, then all the better, but you still need to understand them. In any case, come with knowledge and use that knowledge to solve their problems and facilitate their opportunities. And feel free to come up with other things you can solve or facilitate for them — my list is not exhaustive.

Okay, I am a legal translator with some experience, I know this stuff, how do I put my point across?

I'm not a marketing person, but if you have no better idea by now, you can even do something simple like:

As a law practitioner you [need/require/face/value/appreciate/must have/depend on/can't live without/absolutely can't live without]. (...)
As [a qualified/experienced/seasoned/aspiring] legal translator I [know/understand/provide/facilitate/can (...)/cause/make sure] (...).

Thereafter you can follow with an innovative approach and phrase your value proposition more along the lines of: 'I [help/assist/enable/facilitate – adjust your grammar] lawyers do X (for their clients) by doing Y (for them).' You can even insert a why or how, or both, before you say what you help them do. But be brief. You don't have infinite time, and lawyers don't have infinite time spans. If you'd like to find out more about how to say all this in a short time, you can read my article about elevator speech. The article references sources where I got the idea from, which is potentially a lot of reading and watching material if only you're interested. And no, none of that material was authored by me, I'm a green rookie compared to those guys. I'd be like a paralegal in a partners' meeting if I tried to keep up with them.

Please feel free to share this article with fellow current and aspiring legal translators or those who consider transitioning into the field (bloggers feel free to repost this with a simple acknowledgement of the source). It is important for me that lawyers have good translation service, which is also crucial to their clients' receiving good legal assistance. Plus, it's important for that legal translators know how to present their case adequately (or better) and win the hearts of their lawyer clients.