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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.








Die Konsolidierung schreitet voran. Das gilt gleichermaßen für viele Branchen, ebenso für unsere „Sprachindustrie“. Darunter verstehe ich nicht nur die üblichen Verdächtigen, sprich Übersetzungsagenturen, traditionell eher auf den Handel mit Sprachdienstleistungen aller Art spezialisiert, sondern vielmehr die Produzenten, die eigentliche industrielle Kraft unserer Branche. Mit anderen Worten: Die fortschreitende Konsolidierung umfasst auch freiberufliche Dolmetscher und Übersetzer, genauer genommen, deren Verbände.

Vor einigen Wochen haben sich Übersetzer und Dolmetscher in Norddeutschland zu einem Landesverband (LV) zusammengeschlossen. BDÜ Nord (die Seite vom LV Bremen und Niedersachsen wird demnächst überarbeitet) ist ein überregionaler Landesverband unter dem Dach des BDÜ, der zahl- und einflussreichsten Vereinigung deutscher Sprachdienstleister. Die Gründung war überfällig: Warum der BDÜ, als der Bundesverband qualifizierter Dolmetscher und Übersetzer bundesweit agierend, nicht auch in Hamburg und Schleswig-Holstein formal präsent war, ist für Außenstehende nicht nachvollziehbar.

Im neuen BDÜ LV Nord gilt mein Interesse primär der Öffentlichkeitsarbeit, insbesondere den Netzwerken und sozialen Medien. Zwar habe ich bewusst die Entscheidung getroffen, für den Vorstand für PR und Social Media zu kandidieren, jedoch war ich wenig vorbereitet, mich vor der Mitgliederversammlung in Bremen vorzustellen. Umso mehr meine Dankbarkeit an all diejenigen, die mir ihr Vertrauen geschenkt und ihre Stimme gegeben haben. Ein paar einleitende Worte zu meinem Aufgabenfeld (und wie ich es verstehe) bin ich ihnen schuldig. Soviel zum Anlass dieses Blogeintrags.

Eine hohe Mitgliederzahl bedeutet eine große Vielfalt, aber auch große Unterschiede. Unter anderem in bezug auf die Einstellung zu und Nutzung von sozialen Netzwerken und Internet insgesamt. Laut einer informellen Facebook-Umfrage des schwedischen Übersetzers Erik Hansson haben etwa 60 % der freiberuflichen Dolmetscher und Übersetzer keine eigene Website. Mein Eindruck ist, dass der gleiche Prozentsatz, wenn nicht sogar ein niedrigerer, auch im Falle einer Umfrage in unserem Verband zustande käme. Die Anzahl derjenigen, die in sozialen Netzwerken beruflich und privat unterwegs sind, ist vermutlich noch geringer.

Eben kommt eine Meldung vom BDÜ-Landesverband Sachsen-Anhalt, der die Meinung, die sozialen Netzwerke würden beruflich wenig taugen, als Irrtum darstellt. Ob die Nutzenargumentation pro Xing und andere Plattformen ausreicht, die zweifelnden Mitglieder umzustimmen, sei dahingestellt. Zwar wird die unten zitierte Empfehlung zum Irrtum erklärt, doch ist es einfacher, ihr zu folgen (was viele KollegInnen ohnehin, mit oder ohne Empfehlung, tun): „Verlieren Sie … nicht zu viel Zeit auf solchen Websites, sondern knüpfen und pflegen Sie Kontakte lieber persönlich. Besuchen Sie Kunden, melden Sie sich zu Seminaren an, gehen Sie auf Messen etc.“

Meine Meinung dazu ist ganz pragmatisch. So wie in dem Posting von unseren Kollegen aus Sachsen-Anhalt taucht der Begriff Social Media immer häufiger im Zusammenhang mit „beruflichen Zwecken“ auf: Es geht um Neukunden und darum wie man „Aufträge an Land zieht“. In der Tat: Kaum ein anderes Thema beschäftigt uns, Freiberufler, mehr als die Kundenakquise. Und jedesmal, wenn die Frage gestellt wird, wie kommt man an neue Kunden, wird über Werbekampagnen, Networking, WOM (word-of-mouth, neudeutsch für Mund-zu-Mund-Propaganda), Kundenansprache auf Messen usw. hin und her diskutiert. Dabei muss ich immer an einen augenzwinkernden Chinesen denken, von dem ich mal den Spruch hörte: „you hunt, we catch“.

Ich weiß nicht, wie es euch geht, aber ich bekomme ständig Anfragen von potentiellen Neukunden, die mich über meine Website finden. Diese „Entdeckung" schulden sie den Suchmaschinen, allen voran Google. Dass die Suchmaschinen meine Website als Treffer anzeigen, wenn der Kunde nach bestimmten Kriterien sucht, liegt daran, dass die Inhalte auf dieser Seite offensichtlich als relevant eingestuft werden. Und das wiederum liegt daran, dass auf meine Seite von anderen Seiten verlinkt wird und die Inhalte mit den Themen bzw. Schlüsselworten auf anderen, ebenso relevanten Seiten korrespondieren. Zwar gehören die Google-Algoritmen angeblich zu dem meist gehüteten Geheimnissen unserer Zeit, jedoch ist die Rolle der Foren und der sozialen Netzwerke dabei unumstritten.

Auf das Risiko hin, dass das Fazit etwas plakativ-populistisch klingt: Keine ausgeklügelten SEO-Tricks, sondern Inhalte und Aktivitäten in Foren und auf anderen Seiten, darunter auch in sozialen Netzwerken, sind entscheidend, ob potentielle Kunden euer Angebot im Netz finden und auf euch aufmerksam gemacht werden. Im Falle unseres Verbandes ist es ein kollektives, in seiner Vielfalt kaum zu schlagendes Angebot, dass sowohl nach innen (an seine Mitglieder), als auch nach außen (an alle Kunden und Interessenten) gerichtet ist. Es hängt also von uns allen ab, ob der BDÜ als die erste Adresse für qualitativ hochwertige Sprachdienstleistungen auffindbar und sichtbar wird.

Im Klartext: Ich finde es schon nett, wenn unsere potentiellen Kunden auf der Suche nach einem geeigneten Dolmetscher oder Übersetzer nicht in erster Linie das vermittelnde Gewerbe, sondern unseren Verband auf der ersten Trefferseite finden. Das ist gut für unsere Kunden und für unsere Mitglieder (obwohl zugegebenermaßen die Online-Datenbank der BDÜ-Übersetzer und -Dolmetscher stark verbesserungsbedürftig ist).

Je präsenter der Verband im Internet ist, je häufiger die entsprechenden Webseiten erwähnt und referenziert, sprich verlinkt, werden, desto größer die Wahrscheinlichkeit, dass der BDÜ und seine Mitglieder von Kunden gefunden werden. Ob man auf solchen Seiten wie Xing „zu viel Zeit verliert“ (siehe Zitat oben) oder nicht, hängt also davon ab, wie konstruktiv man seine Zeit und diese Seiten nutzt. Auch davon, ob man gelegentlich an die Wirkung von keywords und backlinks denkt. Selbstverständlich gilt es für alle öffentlichen Netzwerke, ebenso für die eigenen BDÜ-Foren, vorausgesetzt dass sie offen sind. Noch wichtiger ist es, nicht nur dort präsent zu sein, wo sich überwiegend Übersetzer und Dolmetscher austauschen, sondern wo unsere Kunden – unsere Zielgruppen – sozialnetzwerkmäßig unterwegs sind.

Die sozialen Medien heißen „social“ und nicht „corporate“, weil sie von vielen Individuen, mit ihren persönlichen Stimmen und Meinungen getragen werden. Das Potential eines mitgliederstarken, von gemeinsamen Interessen geleiteten Verbandes ist gerade in diesem Bereich enorm. Das Bedürfnis, eigene Privatsphäre zu schützen und bei dem einen oder anderen Meinungsaustausch unter sich zu bleiben, ist verständlich und legitim. Dass einige Bereiche nur für Mitglieder zugänglich sein sollen, steht außer Frage. Nichtsdestotrotz: Alle Inhalte, die aus dem einen oder anderen Grund unter der Decke gehalten werden, sind für das Ziel einer pragmatisch betrachteten, am Marketing orientierten Öffentlichkeitsarbeit – Bekannt- und Gefundenwerden – kontraproduktiv. Bleibt man unter sich, verschließt man sich gegebenenfalls auch den potentiellen Kunden.

Betrachtet man die Suchmaschinenoptimierung als die Gesamtheit all der Maßnahmen, die helfen, eigene Webseiten im organischen Ranking nach vorne zu bringen, so besteht für unseren Verband die wichtigste SEO-Aufgabe darin, möglichst viele Mitglieder zu einer offenen, aktiveren Nutzung von Social Media und zu mehr Präsenz im Internet zu animieren. Allein dadurch entsteht mehr natürlicher, relevanter Content, als was die SEO-gesteuerten Seiten durch eine höhere Suchwortdichte künstlich zu generieren versuchen.

Also nochmals, liebe KollegInnen: ganz pragmatisch bedeuten soziale Netzwerke in ihrer Folge mehr natürlicher, relevanter Content und ein höheres Ranking, im buchstäblichen und übertragenen Sinne. Daraus ergeben sich bessere Chancen, von Kunden gefunden zu werden, als Verband, als Einzelmitglieder, als ÜbersetzerInnen und DolmetscherInnen für entsprechende Thematiken, Spezialisierungen und Sprachkombinationen. Selbstverständlich schließt das „passive" Gefundenwerden all die anderen, „aktiven" Marketingempfehlungen (Kontakte pflegen, Kunden auf Messen besuchen…) keineswegs aus. Aber denkt daran: Marketing, ähnlich wie Tourismus, kann sowohl „outgoing“, als auch „incoming“ sein. Die chinesische Weisheit, finde ich, bringt es auf den Punkt.

Translator German-Italian at Proz Conference in Porto 2013

The Time magazine I was reading on the plane to Porto contained an article about the Chinese billionaire Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba.

In recent years, each time I was doing a research on some obscure machinery and equipment when translating for trade fairs and exhibition catalogues, I invariably came across product listings on Most of them were of no more use than any other unspecified, unexplained offers of industrial products, but Alibaba was omnipresent. It took me quite a while to learn that Alibaba, a source of information for my translation-related research, was actually one of the biggest business-to-business Internet-based marketplaces, a portal to connect Chinese (and now global) manufacturers and suppliers with international buyers.

In my understanding, ProZ is Alibaba’s pendant in the translation business. If you are looking for a translator with a certain language and specialty combination, chances are you will land at ProZ. If you are searching for obscure terms to be translated in your target language, you may find some suggestions and perhaps even a terminological discussion on a translators’ forum at ProZ.

Alibaba started as a private business. Now that this online marketplace and shopping search engine is bigger than Ebay and Amazon combined, Jack Ma makes headlines as a crusader for the environment and community.

ProZ started with a view of becoming an international organization and community of translators and interpreters, but essentially it is a marketplace for translation services, operated as a private business.

However, the community aspect still plays a major role for language professionals registered at ProZ. When asked about the motivation of participants in the 2013 ProZ International Conference held on June 8-9 in Porto, Portugal, a fellow translator said “I think most people come for socializing, ours is a lonely business”.

Apart from the opportunity to socialize with peers (and getting to know so many talented and impressive people), the Porto conference offered an interesting range of speakers and topics.

Without going into details on all the insightful and inspirational events (you can find a lot of information and feedback at the “Porto Conference Post Event Recap”), I’d rather highlight both opening sessions.

ProZ Conference in Porto 2013

The first one, called “Minding your own (translation) business” by Nigel Saych was rather programmatic and conceptual. Nigel’s personal evolution, from a freelance translator to a multi-language translation company, is a nice case study of the choices we must make (as long as we are still able to choose, and “don’t let big agencies bully you”). In fact, Nigels’s “third way” reverberates strongly with my own idea (and practice) of collaboration. From my music days I remember Arnold Schoenberg’s saying about “the middle way as the only road that doesn’t lead to Rome”, but I have even more doubts about the extremes. Like Nigel, I believe that collaboration opens up a new “middle” way when faced with choosing between the devil and the deep blue sea.

It is too early to speak of a trend but the number of precedents is growing. I wonder if Nigel Saych, based in Holland, knows our Stridonium, “the island’s third way”, and I am definitely glad to learn, thanks to the ProZ conference, other examples of collaboration, that of Nigel Saych’s company, but also of the Portuguese KennisTranslations (special thanks to Luisa Yokochi) or Word Awareness (special thanks to Attila Piróth, head of IAPTI’s France chapter).

Marketing for Translators

The opening session on the second day, called “Exploring the freelance advantage: how to stay competitive in the new professional landscape” by Marta Stelmaszak, was spectacular. As a fan of the Red vs. Blue Ocean (with a record of several dozens of interpreting jobs at marketing seminars on this very subject), I am always happy for the Blue Ocean word to be spread.

Marta makes a strong case for identifying (and visualizing) one’s own strengths and USP. She makes the audience draw concentric circles (“why – how – what”), strategy canvasses and, finally, the Ideal Customer Avatar. I can imagine that if you are diversified it would be a problem to have one avatar, but Marta’s own personal John the Lawyer remains memorable, even if slightly generic, at all times. (My personal avatar of a British lawyer for human rights, with a reputation to defend and an inherent commitment to the idea of fairplay looks certainly more like Colin Firth in “Bridget Jones”, but I get sidetracked.)

If I may use the “why – how – what” allusion once again, I would say that Marta’s tremendous appeal (I nearly wrote Marta’s magic) is based perhaps not so much on WHAT she tells, but HOW. Marta is not afraid of exposing her own vulnerabilities and is truly great in translating all the usual marketing concepts into a very personal, emotional and touching experience. More importantly, she aims to inspire and motivate (what she reaches) and certainly deserves every success that is coming her way.

Translation conference in Porto, ProZ

One of the final sessions was by Valeria Aliperta, who presented her personal brand, Rainy London Translations. Considering the weather on the conference weekend, the brand name could have been easily adapted to Porto. Considering Porto’s Roman history, “Gladiator Translations”, suggested by Valeria’s father for her brand name, would make sense too.

But Rainy Porto made a point. In fact, the organizers of the ProZ conference failed miserably to make Porto look much different from London in this particularly respect. But this was perhaps their only failure.

Everything was perfectly organized. Much food (and wine) for thought, a great venue (and much better weather on the following week, as a matter of fact). Thanks for everyone for making this event so special!

Nigel Saych - English translator in Holland

Nigel SAYCH: “Like George W. Bush said, the problem with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”.


Anne DIAMANTIDIS: She is French, not Greek, perfect in German, English, medical translation and SEO (if the French have a word for it).


Alejandro MORENO-RAMOS: If you don’t know his full name, you certainly know MOX (and his pictures).

WantWords - Polish to English

Marta STELMASZAK: “If you know WHY you are, it makes you feel sure of yourself”.

English-Russian translator

Konstantin KISIN: “My minimum is 5,000 words a day, within 5 hours, not consecutive hours“.

Rainy London - Marketing translation

Valeria ALIPERTA: Design Rules the World?

Technical translation for Portuguese

João Roque DIAS: “Translating technical manuals is about telling people how to press a button”.

Translation - English and Spanish to Portuguese

Above: Michele SANTIAGO, translator English / Spanish to Brazilian Portuguese

Title picture: Nadine DRESING, interpreter and translator for German, Spanish, English and Italian.


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