The future is now

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Wines of Bordeaux - IAPTI Translation conference

TRAFFIC POLICE OFFICER: Sir, would you mind taking an alcohol test?
DRIVER: Thank you! What drinks do you have on the menu, officer?

When thousands over thousands of people (including myself) hear of Bordeaux, the very first idea that comes to their mind is wine.

Those who associate Bordeaux with translation might be a few dozens, perhaps a hundred-plus people, but there are some. As a participant in the IAPTI's Third International conference that was held last September in Bordeaux (and was absolutely great!), I surely belong to this numerically insignificant group. Yet I have no idea how many in these two statistical sets, if asked about the ideal conference venue, would come to think of Bordeaux.

I started thinking of the largely untapped potential of this region for conferences yet to come after I went to La Winery, a few days after the conference closed. Set in a lovely location some 25 kilometers from Bordeaux, La Winery is a modern oenology tourism center for those who are eager to learn about viticulture, do some wine tasting and, hopefully, buy wine. La Winery houses a showroom, sales areas, conference and seminar rooms, all in cool modern premises of wood, concrete and glass, surrounded by a green park with ponds and orange and maroon chaise-longue chairs.

La Winery in Bordeaux - Translators Conference 2015

I drove to La Winery in the evening. The sunset glow flooded the road and made the scenery look like a beautiful French val. Unfortunately for me, when I think val I automatically think of the German Wahl, as in Qual der Wahl, rather than of gently sloping hills and curvy roads. Because Qual de Wahl, the German for agony of choice, describes pretty accurately how I feel in a French wine shop-cum-exhibition boasting “1001 wines from all over the world”: having a hard time to choose.

I am sure, though, that the difficulty applies to both sides: the huge variety makes it hard both for a customer to identify the “right” product and for wine producers to make their products shine among hundreds of other, similar specimens. The park around La Winery covers more than 20 hectares, but both for customers, and especially for producers, it might still feel like a cluttered space.

Or so I imagine. A participant of a professional conference would relate to a professional in another area rather than to a consumer client, no matter how important the client’s perspective may be, for every industry or field. A customer visiting La Winery can choose from hundreds of wines, all fine Bordeaux vintages. If you are a winemaker, I wonder how you feel in this giant showcase, alongside your competitors and colleagues. How do you make your product stand out?

Translators tend to stick together, all the more so in virtual places. "In a profession where so many of us are self-employed, I believe it is critical to have a forum where ideas can be exchanged," as my colleague Lisa Simpson wrote the other day on her blog. The problem is that too many translators cling to their sheltered concepts and don’t step outside their comfort zone.

Bordeaux Translators and Interpreters in La Winery

There is no arguing that, for many of us, it would be much more profitable and maybe healthier to hang out on different forums, above all those of our clients, provided there are such, both with a view to find new business prospects and hone our specialty knowledge and skills. Perhaps it would make things easier to bring together a whole lot of translators in a dialogue meeting with experts from a completely different domain. Unusual as such an out-of-the-box dialogue can be, isn't it likely to open new perspectives and perceptions?

It is true that translation and the wine business don’t have much in common. B2B and B2C don’t mix together well, but I don’t think that is so relevant.

Mondovino, a highly-acclaimed 2004 documentary about the impact of globalization, industrialization and corporatization on single-estate, quality-driven, boutique-type wineries, has a message that is meaningful to any freelance business. But regardless all the parallels, controversies and ideological debates, I am simply curious to learn more from other industries. When in Bordeaux, it might just as well be the wine business.

Do winemakers flock together in online communities to say things about wine merchants they would otherwise keep to themselves (it happens to translators in regard to translation agencies, for example)? Do winemakers (or any other professionals, save novice translators) seriously think that lumping together in a blogging community would increase their SEO visibility and help them get more translation jobs? Do winemakers outsource to other winemakers? Does Mouton Rotschild ask them to sign NDAs?

But seriously, I think even a strictly B2B, ultra-specialized technical or legal translator can learn a few new insights from someone from a quite different domain, in terms of market approach and customer focus. Or value propositions and mastering your skills.

For some reason I believe that viniculturalists have definitely something to share e.g. on the topic of Deep Work. And hearing them talk about quality, productivity and “focused success in a distracted world” can be quite an inspiring experience, provided the talk is held in a feel-good environment, rather than via a CPD webinar.

La Winery Interior in Bordeaux

I thought it was a great idea to have a wine tasting at the IAPTI pre-conference party. After visiting La Winery I started thinking that it would have been perhaps an even better idea to have a Bordeaux winemaker (or any other wine business professional) among the conference presenters.

Lisa is right. “In a profession where so many of us are self-employed”, online forums are critical. But sometimes, online places "for translators only" strike me not only as essentially monocultural places of disagreements (with the world outside in general or other fellow translators), but also places of repetitive discussions, as topics reproduce themselves over time. Cross-pollination or, in plain terms, listening to someone outside your field might be a welcome antidote to a tunnel vision and inbred ideas. A different monoculture has its benefits, especially when it helps reframe problems and connect non-obvious dots.

Bordeaux looks like a monoculture to outsiders only. It doesn’t matter. You can swap Bordeaux with any other seemingly monocultural space. Luxemburg, for instance, could make a perfect conference venue, if translators get a chance to talk to, say, a few open-minded investment bankers. Though a niche conference for financial translators on the Isle of Islay would have its benefits, too.

Jokes aside, and whatever you choose, there are places (or terroirs, as they might call them in Bordeaux) you’d never associate with the translation business. “The more you look the more you discover”. Since it is exactly such places that are worth a look.

Bordeau La Winery Chaise-Longues Outside

P.S. The Wine of Bordeaux retro-style ad campaign hinges on a combination of wine bottle silhouettes and unlikely environments, e.g. a wine bottle forming the tube of a telescope pointed up at a night sky. I find the idea quite cool.

Standing Out

I started travelling before the Internet was born. To book a flight ticket or a hotel room, you had to go to a travel agency; to learn about a country, to a bookshop. As the Germans say, “Vorfreude ist die schönste Freude” and a thrill of anticipation (“better than the real thing”) materialized in front of shelves with travel guides arranged alphabetically.

In line with the saying, the “real thing” usually turned out to be far less colourful than the pictures in the travel books. The pictures reframed the reality so that most of the “real thing” remained outside the frame. Usually, it was the less thrilling part.

At that time, I discovered that travel books fall into two categories. The predominant type was books that described an ideal world or dealt with the country’s heroic history, extant monuments and age-old culture. Books offering practical advice were few and far between, with only a handful standing out like a sore thumb due to their no-bullshit attitude and deliberate understatement or mildly ironic undertones. I developed an immediate liking for Let’s Go, The Rough Guide and The Lonely Planet, which seemed to celebrate the bright side of travel for easy-going, positive-thinking and low-cost backpackers.

Today, I can understand the criticism of the “lonely planet-ization of travel”, though I still prefer no-frills, feet-on-the-ground paperbacks over all the academic, glossy or kitsch panegyrics so popular during those pre-Internet travel days.

It was the “lonely planet-ization of travel” that became the object of a parody in 2003 when a book by three Australians was published. The book became a huge success in Australia and a cult classic elsewhere provided that Monty Python had already become part of the national cultural DNA.

The guide’s three authors made up an entire country – and wrote a seriously hilarious travel guide about it. After the collapse of the Eastern bloc, Molvanîa opened to foreign tourists, though the risk of visa denial for vegetarians was still high, as was the risk of leaving the country with only one kidney. The Great Wall of Lutenblag, Molvanîa’s ancient capital and home of the bubonic plague, fell down (due to inferior construction materials), meaning backpackers can now follow in the footsteps of invaders from the past: Molvanîa was previously conquered by Goths, Tatars, Huns and militant Spanish nuns. The Romans were scared off by a description of Molvanian women and the taste of the national beverage – a mixture of garlic brandy and beetroot juice.

If you have never heard of Molvanîa, you will now have an idea of this country. You may also guess how the sequels to “Molvanîa” unfold – mock travel guides for Phaic Tăn (a country that went through many political changes from Enlightened Feudalism to Post-Communist Yoga and Pilates) and the Democratic Free People’s United Republic of San Sombrèro (where you can get arrested without a warrant for calling the country just “San Sombrèro” as an abbreviated form).

From a linguist’s point of view, all three countries are quite interesting. In Molvanian, for example, articles change their form depending on whether a noun is masculine, feminine, neuter, or a type of cheese. Phaic Tănese is a tonal language with quite a few unusual sounds (the use of certain tones is governmentally restricted) and an average speed of 192 syllables per minute, whereas San Sombrèran is a fascinating dialect of Spanish that is spoken really, really fast (it is considered impolite to take a breath during a sentence).

However, it is not linguistic idiosyncrasies that motivate me to recall these books. My memory of Molvanîa is tied to a number of bookstores where “Molvanîa: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry” (Jetlag Travel Publishing, 2003) landed on the shelf alongside travel guides for Mongolia and Montenegro or among other books in the “Balkans” section.

Yet, my brightest memory of Molvanîa goes back to a further education academy in Germany where I used to work as an interpreter for foreign students. One day, the Head of the Eastern European Department discovered the book in the staffroom. Why didn’t we mention Molvanîa in our image brochure, he asked the teachers who were grading their students’ papers or drinking coffee in front of their computers. “Actually, the Molvanian students I met at the reception ceremony a month ago would make for a perfect cover picture if we want to update our booklet next time,” he added.

I have no remembrance of the reaction of the faculty members in the staff room. Quite probably, there was none. The Boss may be wrong or even embarrassingly wrong, but he is still the Boss. Perhaps, you had better keep a serious poker face if your boss seems to take this or that seriously. Or sit on the fence and wait until someone else spots the bluff.

Molvanîa is a very clear-cut case, though. A clearing in the jungle of far more intricate cases and borderline stories. Today, you never know if the emperor truly puts on his new clothes or puts on an act and plays an haute couture spoof.

Similar to "Vorfreude" ("joyful anticipation that comes from imagining future pleasures"), another German word that you have to describe verbosely in English is "Fremdschämen”. According to the Wictionary it means “to be embarrassed because someone else has embarrassed himself (and doesn't notice)”. It was certainly embarrassing to take Molvanîa for a country somewhere in the Balkans, but far more embarrassing to witness your boss praising the Molvanian emerging market. My feeling of “Fremdschämen” would have probably been most acute, if someone had tried to sell tickets to Molvanîa. Or if I had happened to encounter people willing to buy some.

No industry is immune to selling and buying into the Molvanian stuff. Ittakestwototango, like they say in San Sombrèro. Regardless the industry, it takes both sellers AND buyers to make it happen, preferably more buyers than sellers. In the translation business, for example, a rough how-to guide for selling tickets could be like this.

Start up a forum for freelancers, welcome your visitors as friends and colleagues. A community of colleagues is great for recruiting customers. But first, you should show that you can teach them a few things.

Your fellow translators might not realise that teaching something may be easier than practicing something. Contrary to what they may think, teaching is possible with no expertise in the subject. You don’t have to talk about the nuts and bolts of translation, you can craft your pitch like a translation guru with any translation-unrelated, general, positive and uplifting insights. Cues like "invisible energy" or "secret toolkit/mindset" won't impress those who are way too familiar with motivation teachers (or esoteric book shops). But to tap into a new, unspoiled Molvanian market, they will be the real thing. Call it personal development.

Personal development works much the same for aspiring real estate agents, amateur traders of the E-Mini S&P futures or freelance translators just starting out. Start teaching your colleagues (now hopefully followers). Teach them Attitude. Teach Authenticity. Throw in a couple more “A”s (but avoid “Amateurishness” or “Agency”). Now you have a philosophy with a nice combination of the “A” characters in place.

You can never be too generic or hollow. Turn your style, your mood, your pitch up to 11. If your followers are willing to stand out, they should stand more. Feed them truisms about a life-enriching freelancing lifestyle (with or without dabbling in translation). Keep the advice to hug trees to become better translators for later, though.

Use images, ignore what professional photographers and graphic designers tell you about Terrible Photography Clichés Like That One Full Color Item In a B&W Photo and other no-nos. Kitsch works. Share some of the Molvanian art.

Use videos. Some people might take them for a parody of psychobabble. Others, more impressionable, will take them at face value. Add some easy-listening sounds – someone will find them Zen or phaic-tan-tonic. Compile reviews and testimonials. Still better, essays. Your followers would be happy to contribute: when you are done with coaching translators you can start teaching feel-good copywriting instead. Or wholesome typesetting. Or Traveling through the Seven Circles of the Freelance Mandala. Above all, capitalize the opportunity to sell books and webinars. Later, you can think of diversifying into therapeutic gardening. Or growing olives and making goat's milk cheese at home instead.

Now you are all set and ready for the journey. Tell your followers (now hopefully your clients) that your journey will be a fascinating one. Say: “I want you to come with me to Molvanîa. We will travel through your Inner World first. Then we will go to Phaic Tăn. I think that Phaic Tăn is a really good place for us to travel together.”

You can add, as an afterthought: “By the way, did you know that the country’s name means “fruitful ground deep beneath the waterline” in Molvanian? Actually, they grow nice olives there. Be sure to taste some. In Phaic Tăn they grow papaya. Green AND black. We should try both.”


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.

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