Skills. What skills?

Translation agency - new management structure

I was reading a blog article about photography, when I stumbled upon this sentence: "[The photographer] uses strong colors, ambient light, and emotion to capture beautifully complex images".

Whereas I understand and can explain in technical terms what strong colors and ambient light mean, "emotion" sounds a bit too abstract for my taste. You may know it at first sight, but how exactly do you use emotion? Is it just another ingredient to put into your photography product?

The way I feel about "emotion" in the above statement is similar to how I feel when I read about "skills" in translators' blogs or social media posts. Especially of late.

It is difficult to keep up with the relentless flow of posts on the subject of "what does it take to be a successful translator". However, there are increasingly two trends that dominate the discourse.

The first, and more recent, focuses on being an entrepreneur and developing the right attitude that is seen, more and more, as a prerequisite for success. In its most constructive form, it is about marketing and sales. Today, though, CPD courses and anything offered as "marketing for translators" has a tendency to turn into "marketing to translators", with a surprisingly high number of translators happy at being discovered as a new target group.

The opposite trend is about professional competence. Some may call it “pro skills”, and that is exactly what reminds me of a photographer using "emotion to capture images", again and again.

What exactly are our skills? To be a successful translator reads to me as to be successful as translator, not as an entrepreneur in the field of translation. However, most of us work in a market environment where only few have in-house positions, and for some, the word “entrepreneur” seems to sound more flattering than “small business” or “sole proprietor” even if it is not exactly the same*.

I cannot say that I am happy with such terms as “enterprise” or “company”, but any of them offers a certain advantage over “entrepreneur”: they assume a structure, a set of responsibilities divided between functions, persons and departments.

Indivisible as a sole proprietor is, it doesn’t mean that an individual translator should ignore the multi-function structure of a company. A typical organization chart won’t trigger a multiple personality disorder when applied to a one-person business. In fact, I believe it can be rather helpful. Especially when we are talking about skills.

Freelance translator - organizational chart

Whenever the subject of translators’ skills comes up, we can ask the question: Who in a typical company structure needs the skills or would benefit from them. In a typical company structure, we would have a CEO (that would be our “entrepreneur”), a strategy or business development department (somehow entrepreneurial too), an HR department (looking after the staff with the right attitude – and skills), a planning department, an accounting department etc. Those are management and administrative functions that drive the overheads. But the revenues that fund them come from a triad: purchasing – production – sales.

Whereas the two functions on both ends of this triad – purchasing and sales – make up the core of many a typical translation agency’s business, an individual translator’s doesn’t have much to do with purchasing (I consider it the Biggest Mistake That Freelance Translators Make, though this is an entirely different matter).

Sales is a different story, too. Knowing how to sell is crucial, no doubt. If you treat yourself as a business, it makes no sense to produce anything before you make sure you can market it properly.

Having said that, it is worthwhile to remember that essentially we are translators, not salespersons. We are what we are, and most of us will be never able to beat those who were trained and hired as salespeople. Especially those with a natural talent and corporate resources. Those whose core skill is to sell.

So each time I hear that the difference between success and failure in translation lies with sales, I don’t only think it is a simplistic and slightly anachronistic statement. I think it actually might do more harm than good in terms of what concepts and skills need to be prioritized for freelance translators.

It is slightly anachronistic because “the balance of power has well and truly shifted from seller to buyer in recent years”. Not only has the perception of sales and salespeople become more negative, creatively disruptive websites, platforms and apps make the idea of a traditional salesperson obsolete.

And it is rather harmful, too, since it brings us back to the discussion about lemons and used-car salesmen. If the difference in translators’ rates stems from the differences in the quality of selling, as recently stated by a poster in “The League of Extraordinary Translators” on Facebook, it implies that the quality of product fails to be a prime differentiator. Hence, brush up your sales skills, colleagues. Become entrepreneurs!

I for one think that if you treat yourself as a business, it makes sense to map yourself as a business with a functional organizational chart. I see the core function of our profession in production. As for skills, I think that translators need the skills to provide the quality of their products (and services) first. And then learn to communicate it instead of simply “go out and sell”, as the commenter put it on Facebook.

Translation companies - translators and managers

So what are our core production skills? I was used to think that these are mastery of subject and writing excellence. However, the first is specialist knowledge rather than skills. It can be learned, not necessarily through training, but through knowing how to research and communicate with the client. Doing research may indeed be one of the most essential methodological skills.

What about other core skills? A couple of weeks ago I received one of the best compliments from a colleague. I outsourced to her a translation into a language that I can only read and understand, but would never translate into on my own. However, I read the translations that I outsource and, if need be, do some changes. This time, after I emailed the slightly revised version to my colleague, she told me that she “learned a lot from the revision”. Given the circumstances, I believe that it may be partially true.

Those rather minor changes I did were not about terminology or style – I cannot write well in that language, so writing excellence was completely out of place. My usual focus is rather on the audience and the message to bring across. Sometimes you can adjust the theme-rheme relationship or shift the focus on the main idea just by adding a logical link.

Interpreters who learn to take notes know how to insert the so called “transitions” or “link word” like “if…then”, “tho”, “cos”, “to” (for “in order to”) etc. to achieve coherence and make the speaker’s ideas more memorable. I think translators, too, can learn a lot from their techniques.

So many translators learn to translate words, sentences and segments instead of learning how to make their words, sentences and segments make sense. Perhaps the one skill they need to focus on is simply thinking while translating.

You don’t have to find a translator to teach you all kinds of support and auxiliary skills. E.g. touch typing or using CAT tools. The same is true of many administrative, business or entrepreneurial skills.

But the only way to learn your core skills is to learn from other translators. There are lessons best learned in an apprenticeship. Or in a network of experienced and knowledgeable colleagues. Or together with the client who does the revision of your translation. Or in the Catskills.

Again, conference interpreters who work in teams and consecutive interpreters in direct contact with their clients are in a better position. They learn from one another, from the audience, from the source.

That is another difference between how you learn core professional skills and everything else.

But of course, we need to learn business skills and how to sell. Otherwise we risk finding ourselves rather low on our industry’s organizational chart.

Translation industry - top and bottom

Remember what George W. Bush said about the French: They don’t have a word for entrepreneur. Translators seem to be in love with this word. They are taught more and more to develop “entrepreneurial skills” and “get out and sell”. It is all very well but perhaps they’d need to learn – and upgrade – their core professional skills, too.

* See Wikipedia: The term "entrepreneur" is often conflated with the term “small business”. While most entrepreneurial ventures start out as a small business, not all small businesses are entrepreneurial in the strict sense of the term. Many small businesses are sole proprietor operations consisting solely of the owner, or they have a small number of employees, and many of these small businesses offer an existing product, process or service, and they do not aim at growth.







  1. Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz’s avatar

    You didn't exactly expect me to agree without reservation, Valerij, now did you? Still, while I haven't been thinking actively about these issues for a longer while, my views seem to have evolved a bit. I agree we need to learn to think like entrepreneurs and in some sense of the word actually be entrepreneurs, or at least be entrepreneurial. However, just like in business, watching and adapting to the current so as to best swim with the tide is not the only option that's available. Quality no longer a powerful determinant of anything really to clients — or rather *sufficient* quality taken for granted with no thought given to relative skill levels, if any, by clients? So make them aware. They don't care to think? Make them anyway. They don't want to? Force them. Don't always just simply adapt to them. Make it so that they adapt to you. Don't just chase them, make yourself chased, wanted. This is not something that is beyond a translator's power to learn and do, though it takes more effort — just like in business, where the easiest thing to do is to broaden the offer and expand added services and throw in some unpaid added value at the same time as lowering the unit price, i.e. being stuck in the middle in Porter terms. Translators need to stop being apologetic about being translators and stop rebranding themselves as entrepreneurs first translators second, where in reality they are translators first and entrepreneurs a distant second — and there's nothing wrong with that. Being assertive and imprinting a mark on the market has a future, but being passive hoppers-on does not. I'm sure I could convince you we actually agree on this anyway.


  2. Allison Wright’s avatar

    As always, I appreciate your methodical approach, Valerij. I think it is worth pointing out that unless a translator is very clear about exactly what it is that he or she is selling – and why it has value for the client, no amount of sales or entrepeneurial ability will sell that product on a sustainable basis. I second your call for the constant honing of our core professional skills. As we discover, as the years go by, there is always room for improvement, and networking with and working together with language pair and subject field peers certainly provides the additional focus on translation competence we all need.


    1. Lukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz’s avatar

      Allison, I'd hate to be more of a contrarian thinker than necessary or inflict myself on the other commenters, but I do think we're dealing with a case of necessity here. Notably, I wish to very clearly, with utmost determination, oppose the idea that we allegedly need to explain value for the client every time we quote rates that correspond to a comfortable but not luxurious living standard, notably in such a way as would somehow achieve the assent of an adverse negotiator whose goal in the negotiation is to achieve the lowest price possible by refusing to acknowledge our justified, reasonable claims.

      Revolutionary, ground-breaking, game-changing claims require commensurably more justification, but anything which is reasonable and especially anything which is quite obvious and self-apparent requires much less justification — in fact pretty much none at all. We don't and shouldn't need to reinvent the wheel in our proof that clients actually need translation in general or our translation and our skill in particular — clients who come forward to buy it, so they can't not already know they need it; clients who come to us specifically, having chosen us over others, so they have zero credibility denying that our particular skillsets, ethics or other qualifications are of particular, value-enhancing significance to them.

      Speaking phisolophically, in the fee discussion there should be less room, less patience, less time for catering to disingenuous debaters who in bad faith withhold assent from obvious truths or from truths that show through their own conduct but are only withheld formal, verbal recognition when it comes to discussing money.

      The onus of justifying outlandish claims — or especially any expectations of financial or other preferment or de facto semi-charitable contribution in the form of accepting work below sustainable rates — should be squarely on the clients, where it rightfully belongs.

      The problem is we as translators, as a group, have been a bit too polite and accommodating so far, so not only unreasonable clients but even fellow translators somehow end up thinking we need to play along with such unfair negotiation games.


    2. Hanna Sles’s avatar

      Nowdays a freelance translator is a small online business.  Like with any other online businesses, digiral world has shaped a stereotype: the best business is the one which is in the Top Google search results. Translation industry is not an exception. Therefore, in order to survive and thrive, a freelance translator has to develop and implement additional skills – how to launch a website, how to market it, how to set up and keep updated social networks, etc. 



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