This blog has been doing so well, especially over the last few months. Today of all days, I think I owe it to those readers who have been contributing intelligently to the discussion. Today, on April 1st, 2019, the quality of readership was extraordinary from the very start.

That's why I'll refrain from my opinions and give the floor to you – those who provided their valuable comments just a few hours ago.

Thank you for your insightful feedback. There is not enough space on this blog to acknowledge you all.

By way of exception, this post is not about translation. Though while I am writing this, translation or translators are still at the back of my mind.

Many years ago, at the Language Olympics in St. Petersburg, I was introduced to a scholarly book by an unfamiliar Russian author. The book was a present from a Byelorussian student, another Olympics participant. Never mind the author or the subject, she told me when she gave me the book. Read it, I think you’ll like it.

So I did. In fact, this book is still on my bookshelf today. I read it in Russian back then, but I heard it was also available in English, Icelandic and Japanese. However, I never came across this book or any other books by the author since then (mine was published in 1984 by Nauka, the main scientific publisher in the then USSR, with the venerable Dmitry Likhachev as senior editor). When I google up the author today, the English edition still appears on Amazon though. An antiquarian, out-of-print book. And at a ridiculously high price!

A couple of months ago, I did receive a rare copy, published by Odense University Press. It isn’t trimmed properly and its pages aren’t cut apart. I don’t think I ever cut any book open before!

There are very few references to the author of the book, the Soviet scholar Mikhail Steblin-Kamensky, on the Internet. According to St. Petersburg Encyclopaedia, he was “philologist and Scandinavia specialist, Ph.D. (philology) in 1948. A professor at Leningrad State University from 1950, he founded and headed the chair of Scandinavian philology from 1958. His major works are on the history of Icelandic literature and culture, Scandinavian languages, and general linguistics. He translated and published Old Icelandic records including Icelandic Sagas, Elder Edda, and Younger Edda. He lived at 17 Mokhovaya Street from 1903, 25 Podkovyrova Street from 1920s, 27 Kolpinskaya Street from 1957-60, and 12 Martynova Embankment in 1960-81. Buried at Serafimovskoe Cemetery.” His story “The Siege of Leningrad” was published in 1980 in Granta.

M.I. Steblin-Kamensky, source:

The Saga Mind is a scholarly book about Icelandic sagas, the emergence of literature and the history of authorship. However, the subject serves as a pretext to explore more universal themes: consciousness, perception, experience of time and space (in the context of sagas, time is referred to as a “chain of generations”). Facts and fiction. Steblin-Kamensky’s ideas on the origins of writing (and re-writing) and his distinction between “historical truth” and “artistic truth” sound astoundingly modern and may resonate with the insights of today’s public intellectuals like Eric Weinstein with his “metaphorical truth”.

Here’s the table of contents. It looks strangely unscholarly. Trust me, there’s not a whiff of esotericism or some popular psychology stuff about this book. It is still rather academic, but with tongue in cheek and a knowing wink to the reader (particularly in the last chapter):

Re-reading the book with translation or translators at the back of my mind, I can’t help feeling that it has a certain relevance for our time. While a traditional approach with a focus on “accuracy and faithfulness” will give way to machine translation, it’s such aspects as authorship or creativity that I expect to come to the fore. Terminology is tricky: I am not sure how to refer to that kind of writing (or re-writing, since I dislike the term transcreation) that is so close to translation and yet so different from churning out more or less verbatim copies of the source-language originals. But I digress… 🙂

I scanned and OCR’d a few pages (which I had to cut through first 🙂 ).

Remember this meme?

I happened to find the ur-author of the footnote in the last chapter:

“Suddenly the author distinctly felt that someone had appeared behind his back. Turning away from the window, he saw, in the depths of the room, near the wall, a strange figure with sad eyes in a pale face and a grey beard; he was dressed in a long, wide garment. The stranger was the first to break the silence. Unfortunately, there is no tape recording of everything that he said that night.”

The strange figure turns out to be þorleifr, a visitor from the 13 century. “He had been disturbed in his grave during the laying of a pipe from some hot spring, and since then had not been able to find rest”. After making a few interesting observations on what he finds around, he turns to the subject of “sagas” as he prefers to call books and newspapers in the author’s hotel room.

The next few pages are the best that I ever read about the emergence of authorship. Or about professional writing or just writing for any other purpose than simply stating the facts, including writing about somebody else’s writing that I am doing now and that, were we to believe the author and his guest from the past, might be the most incomprehensible thing of all:

“þorleifr simply could not understand what either literary history and criticism, on the one hand, or a literary historian or critic, on the other, could be. Is the latter somebody who tells sagas about sagas? If he simply tells sagas which have already been told by somebody else, then how is he different from other saga-tellers? After all, any saga has already been told by somebody before, though perhaps in a different way – more expansively, more briefly, and so on. Or maybe, instead of telling a saga, he only says that he is going to tell it, but actually does not? Such a thing did happen to þórir, þorleifr's greatgrandfather. þórir was visiting a man named Ásgrímr (here þorleifr recounted Ásgrímr's family tree). Instead of feeding þórir, Ásgrímr only told him about food. Finally, þórir killed Ásgrímr.”

Like many years ago, the book still provides much food for thought. It‘s safe to only tell about it. And it’s still fun to read, too 🙂 




One ongoing topic on translator’s forums is a comparison of translation agencies and direct clients. Due to the nature of these forums, this is often conflated with the question of how to win clients – agencies, direct end-clients, both or either kind.

A recent “sales story” about one less-than-ideal way to hook a new customer stirred up a bit of discussion. Allison Wright, one of the most thoughtful critics, summarized its main ideas and expanded her initial comment into a blog post.

It is titled “Fifty ways”, but it is, basically, about three criteria that must be met when a translator decides to take on a job. In the course of the discussion, Allison nudged me gently about my look at the issue and that prompted me to write this post.

“Fifty ways” is a fitting title, because it makes sense to differentiate. When you decide about a new translation job, there is something that I feel shouldn’t be left behind. How much time/effort do you need for your first job for a new client (discounting the effort and the non-billable time to land the job)? How much time/effort do you need for a comparable job, once a future-proof, long-term working relationship has been established?

The answer is obvious: the longer you have been working for one client, in one specific domain, the less effort and time each subsequent job for that client will cost you. There is a certain coherence to your work that benefits your growth (call it capacity building, if you will) – you acquire a unique set of skills, knowledge and experience, and your resources are efficiently used. However, these precious, laboriously acquired assets tend to become rusty, if not applied frequently, and fade away. This is the case with one-off projects.

A translator becomes a specialist through working for specific clients, in specific domains. Specialization is key, but traditional specializations – like technology, finance, marketing or law – are way too general for today’s world. Companies – your clients – strive for differentiation. This also applies to communication and linguistic context. One company’s terminology may be taboo for a competitor. No universal, industry-wide vocabularies (or all-purpose guidelines) make much sense any longer, the value lies in the client-specific, customized use.

Working closely, long-term with regular corporate clients, you get to know their business inside and out. Also, you learn to look at things from the entrepreneur’s side. That translates to the quality of your work, too: you deliver a better service when you have the inside view of the purpose which your translations contribute to.

Needless to say, all this applies, almost exclusively, to direct clients.

With most agencies, the time/effort isn't worth the outcome. You will rack your brains to figure out a cryptic acronym while translating a sophisticated, jargon-filled corporate presentation – only to find out, after several emails to your agency (and a couple of days after the delivery deadline), that the acronym stands for the first and last name of one of the presenters. Had you contacted the end client directly, you would have saved yourself hours of "research" (and delivered a far better translation).

After working with various translators, I found that those who are used to working predominantly with agencies are less likely to feel responsible for their work. They regard their translation as a semi-finished, intermediate product to be checked, corrected and completed – by someone else ("and for the price they're paying me, what else they should expect?!"). This attitude doesn't resonate well with direct clients.

For a typical "agency translator", it's hard to see the wood for the trees: while direct clients expect deliverables which serve a particular purpose, they are served a more-or-less verbatim rendition of their "source text" – that comes out when you hastily translate everything the client "said", sentence-by-sentence, instead of working out what the client had "meant".

Then again, specialization… With agencies, even those that you may happen to work for on a regular basis, there is more jumping around – from one subject, one end client etc. to another. Learning curves are frequent and steep, but they take you nowhere. Typically, you gain shallow, fragmentary experience at the cost of more effort/time and less productivity, see above.

Let alone prices…

Pricing is another topic that ranks high on on translators’ forums. I believe that a close, lasting business relationship with dedicated corporate clients may change your view of pricing, because it changes your view of competition.

If your business relationship is based on a long-term contract or a general agreement, you no longer have to provide quotes for each project or bid for a certain job. Many projects and jobs would hardly find any takers anyway – without your inside knowledge, your special experience and skills, a random competitor would fail to deliver on their bid.

However, competition is still there: if you get inside the head of your client, you may start to compare the cost of your service to the cost of a potential staffer who would be needed, as an alternative, to take on your job.

At the first glance, the cost comparison doesn’t work in your favor. Your service is far more expensive. Extrapolate your hour rates to a month’s salary – and the result will appear three or four times “too high”. There is no chance you can end up with such an unrealistically high position in your client’s hierarchy, if you apply for a salaried job. But there is nothing wrong with your numbers – they reflect your cost on a per piece basis.

(On a side note, if you never heard about the 3x rule, there has been another recent blog post that is worth reading – especially if you don’t feel comfortable about your “too high” prices. Or “too low” prices – the post may make you reconsider your attitude toward agencies, too, if you think they are synonymous with “greedy exploitation”, but I sidetrack.)

In terms of unit cost, you seem to cost your client a lot of money. However, the reference number for your client – I am still referring to long-term, regular clients that ensure a steady flow of work – isn’t your unit price. Their reference number would include the hypothetical staffer’s annual salary plus social security contributions and the like plus the potential dismissal cost. With this in mind, if looking at the total cost, you as a contractor are saving your client money as compared to you as an employee.

While it is unlikely that you'll find a salaried employment commensurate with your per-job prices or your hour rates, you still can set yourself ambitious financial goals. In terms of working hours, the total amount of work done on a contractual basis for one client doesn’t relate to that of this client's FTE employee – typically, you put in a lot less work. In other words, you still have enough time/resources to put to sustainable, profitable work – and I definitely prefer a dozen of so of regular and committed clients to hundreds of random, one-off jobs.

Sometimes less is more. It is the quality ingredients that are a deal-breaker. This applies both to the quality of your service and the quality of your clients. If this two-way mix is right, you don’t have to chase new clients all the time. Given a sustainable stream of work, a dozen or so may be ideal.

If you look for new jobs, I believe you should try to choose them carefully. It is not that whatever you have around the house, it is going to make you a great meal. Accepting a new job is just much about the job as it is about the client. It makes sense to be selective about this.

To choose direct clients over agencies is only half the battle. Whether fifty or a hundred ways, I think it is essential to differentiate between two approaches – short-term and long-term. To say it's like day trading vs. investment is something of a metaphor. But perhaps that is also something freelance translators could learn from.

The images were taken in Hout Bay, South Africa.

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