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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.”

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