A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Getting jobs from reputable agencies is incredibly hard. I've been tested by several, only to wait for months on end with no actual assignment. Their explanation is that project managers act independently from the HR department; they encourage me to keep waiting.
But waiting is the one thing you cannot do when you are starting, so instead you (at least me) end up working for less reputable agencies at their own (rock bottom) rates, meeting impossible deadlines. I may be marketing myself terribly wrong, or translation in the new era may have became a terribly competitive business, or both. Ideas, please, for us beginners.
Drumming My Fingers
What you are looking for, dear Drummer, is a means of hastening your Big Break. You don't mention how long you have been hammering at the door, but unless you are extraordinarily lucky, amazingly skilled and/or possess a rare language combination, you are probably going to have to log some more time at the less glamorous rungs of the ladder.
In practical terms, count at least two years to accumulate the strict minimum experience/ feedback you need to gain a foothold in the market. If by the end of this period you are not getting repeat business and attracting a better-quality clientele there are two possibilities.
The first is that your skills are not up to scratch yet. To judge this, you'll need feedback, and unfortunately the less reputable agencies rarely provide it. So even if you do of necessity start working through low-end outfits, use every single opportunity that comes up to solicit comments on your work. Commission a critique from an established translator or editor. If your work is found lacking, you may want to think about a translation course, or better yet an internship in a translation department or company.
The second possibility is that your marketing is skewed. Agencies are loath to assign a job to an unknown quantity, so the challenge is to make your strengths better known. You can do this by highlighting specialist skills in your resumé or by establishing personal contact with agency staff and owners.
This is easier than you'd think. If you are keen on working for agencies, attend language-industry events, where translation companies and agencies are traditionally well-represented. Since you are not applying for a job but offering a service, do not distribute a CV. Instead, list your specializations together with relevant work history, recent seminars and workshops attended, resources including dictionaries and software, membership in a professional body, any published work, and references. If you feel tongue-tied or worried that you have no published work to show (yes, we realize you are a novice), try another tactic: ask translation company reps present to critique your skills sheet for you. And use the one-on-one exchange to impress them with your enthusiasm and knowledge.
Finally, as one contact reminds us, while part of marketing is what you write, the other part is where you send it. From your letter, it sounds as if you are tackling some mighty big agencies ("HR departments"?). Do not confuse big with good; clients do this all the time, and many get seriously burned as a result. In our experience some of the best translation companies around, offering good pay and interesting projects, are the smaller, specialized ones.
FA & WB
So how big is the translation market anyway? I guess it's inherently international, but maybe broken up into $ revenue originating in the US vs. elsewhere... Do you have a guess off the top of your head? I'm researching this and am totally stalled.
You're right, it's definitely an international market. Yet hard data is, well, hard to find. A recent report from Allied Business Intelligence estimated the world market at $11 billion in 1999 and called for it to reach nearly $20 billion in 2004, but we are not the only ones to find those figures low.
You can stop reading here, Dataman, but translators might note the following: 30 years ago virtually all of the demand for translation in the US was inbound, a.k.a. finding out what the other guys were up to. Nowadays observers assure us that some 70% of the market consists of outbound work, in many cases associated with Web localization and e-commerce. Selling. Exports. There is money to be made, and translators could do worse than focus on the skills these markets require.
FA & WB
I am a student at a European translation school and, if all goes well, will graduate in June this year. If you had just one piece of advice to give me and my classmates, what would it be?
Find a mentor and put in an apprenticeship before you strike out on your own. An expert translator can teach you far more than you would learn by churning out work for low-end agencies to get the one million or more words you need under your belt.
To locate your mentor, sit down right now and think about your dream job: the kind of texts you want to be working on a few years down the road. Find a few. Analyze them. Find out who translated them, and approach that person for tips. Do not become a pest, but do ask for other references/contacts/suggested reading in the field. Fan the flames of any correspondence that may ensue. Try to meet up in person if possible. Offer to work as an intern. This will give you first-hand experience while honing the many skills required in translationproof-reading, software, administration and general drudgery.
Good luck with your final exams!
FA & WB
I was interested to read the letter from a bank translation department complaining about unethical outside suppliers. A year ago I, too, was hired to head a bank translation department, but unlike your correspondent my gripe is in-house people. It's the long-time staffers who pose a problem: they seem to be positively proud of not knowing anything about banking. Almost more aggravating to me is the fact that despite their "literary" airs, their own writing is the most uninspired I have ever seen. They arrive late and leave early. Oh, and the head of human resources has just confirmed that there is no way on earth I can fire them and take on some new, more enthusiastic talent. Any suggestions on how I can kick this team into shape?
No Dream Team
You know and we know that the only way you are going to get a dream team together is by throwing these turkeys out on their ears. Since that is impossible, you must revert to Plan B, which assumes that they have potential but have been allowed to slide into bad habits.
Remind yourself that some of these guys may not know how bad they are. Really. Others may have a sneaking suspicion that they are not very good, but not know how to improve. It is far easier to slack off if your vision of your job stops at the edge of your desk, and if they knew little about banking when hired and were never encouraged to get interested in itwell, tuning out of professional life becomes more understandable.
In practical terms, staffers who have got into a rut for these reasons can be salvaged. We'll look at the no-hopers in a minute. But your own immediate aim must be to get some momentum goingmaking it clear that there are definite advantages ahead for those who take their job seriously. Start by securing the support of your human resources manager or another higher-up for a 12-month program aimed at kicking the department into shape. Since many of our suggestions will cost nothing to implement, your proposals should fall on fertile ground.
The road to revival begins with ensuring that all staff members know what the documents they translate are supposed to achieve. The older (and "literary") ones will be pretty good at bluffing, so be sure to start with the basics and take a wide-ranging approach. It is amazing how many staffers (and freelancers, for that matter) view texts as matter that materializes at one end of their desk and disappears, transformed, into a black hole in space at the other. The important thing is to change this mindset.
Ultimately, training/outreach opportunities for the entire department give everybody a chance to tune back into the big picture. Those who subsequently choose to re-tune out are no-hopers and you can relegate them to the slow track with a clear conscience. No bonuses, no travel, least desirable offices. They have only themselves to blame.
Organize a mini-training course for your team. Aim: ensure that everybody knows what each client department does. Have someone from each department come in and give a 20-minute presentation, then answer questions. Choose a schedule that will fit in with your unit's workload, and make it clear that this is an on-going series.
- You have probably already compiled a list of translation requirements in each bank department. If not, have your team help you do this, pairing one more energetic translator with a slacker in each case.
- Using a rotation system, bring a member of staff along with you each time you go out into the bank to discuss a text or project. The best antidote to translator isolation and ennui is contact with real live authors and readers.
- Tackle quality head-on by instituting brown-bag lunches (you aren't in France, are you?): once a week everybody lunches together informally in the office and each translator in turn submits a text for constructive criticism. You might start the ball rolling with an anonymous text from an outside supplier. It is usually easier to focus on terminology firstthis will allow you to feed in some of the technical background neededbut be sure to hit a few style points each time, too. Be prepared to put your own work up for criticism, of course.
- Track banking industry conferences on topical issues and send motivated translators along to events whenever possible.
- Institute a fast track and a slow track, and at your annual performance reviews reward those who have progressed personally or provided input to the rest of the team to carry the whole unit forward. Use every incentive you can think of to encourage staff members to invest time and energy in their work.
FA & WB
It was heartening to see your column on the web, and without the need to pay out large sums of money, to be given some idea of what is out there.
I worked for six years as a translator-interpreter in Italy and now find myself in a position to take up some work It>Eng, or Fr>Eng over the next few months.
Whom should I contact (if anybody)? Should I merely keep my eyes peeled for work on the newsgroup or are there agencies or organisations that I should contact?
Start by mining your contacts from the past six years for job offers and assignments. Since they already know you, they will be the most likely source of referrals.
Are you still in Italy? Then join the local translator association, attend trade shows and workshops in your fields, and if you do not live in a major market such as Milan or Turin, visit at least once per year to build up business contacts.
Another job-generating instrument to try might be Radovan Pletka's e-mail job list. Try it and let us know how it works for you.
FA & WB
I became a freelance translator 3 years ago, and took my first vacation last summer. It was immensely gratifying that all my clients came back after the break, even though they got good results from the colleague I referred them to.
I know I work too much, but as a single parent and our family's sole breadwinner I worry about earning enough to raise my two small children. There's also another reason: even though my only contacts with clients are by phone and email, I've come to really like most of them. I don't like to disappoint people I like, so I end up taking on more work than is good for me. How can I learn to say no?
Congratulations on getting your business off to such a strong start! However, neither your clients nor your kids will be well-served if you collapse from exhaustion. If your clients have all come back to the fold, they clearly value your input, so maybe it's time to ease off a bit on the workload. Remember, it's a marathon, not a sprint.
To improve your quality of life, the most promising option we see involves building on your links with the colleague who took on your clients last summer. Why not approach her and suggest an overflow arrangement? Having a reliable back-up allows you to give out a phone number rather than disappoint with a flat noor set yourself up for a heart attack with a friendly but reluctant yes. And yes. And yes.
Another idea that works for some people is booking time for your familyactually blocking off afternoons or evenings in your agenda, as if you were reserving time for a job. This can help keep work from encroaching on the rest of your life.
To reduce worries about money, chart your income and expenditures, and identify where your most lucrative and enjoyable work comes from. Focus on those clients, and pass overflow on to your colleague. Andno doubt you were expecting thisraise your prices. Your workload alone means you are charging too little.
FA & WB
Last summer I replied to an ad in a UK daily placed by a French translation company looking for freelancers specialized in finance. They emailed me a test piece and soon told me it was satisfactory and that I would be contacted. In September, there was a follow-up call from the French office to discuss terms, starting dates, ways of working, etc. I received a package of sample translations, documents, style sheets, etc. to study, along with a list of specialized dictionaries that were to be used imperativementall quite hard to get hold off and very expensive, needless to say. I said I was ready to start on 1 October.
Since I had heard nothing by the end of November I asked what was up and was told training new translators was taking a long time but work would come. In December, they said I would be contacted within the next few days, but now, well into the new year, the message is that I "may be contacted when the need arises."
Is this how things operate or am I just unlucky with this one? What if anything can I do? Apart from the totally unprofessional approach of the outfit concerned, it is no joke to invest money in this way.
Out on a Limb
Yes, you were unlucky. The agency was unprofessional and you've been treated shabbily. It sounds to us as if they were bidding on a project that failed to materialize, and were trying to line up talent just in case. The best thing to do is view this as a learning experiencea series of events that will help you develop the sixth sense you need to sort out the good guys from the fly-by-nights. You might also write them a letter stating your objections to their unethical ways, with a copy to your national translators' association.
That said, we advise you not dwell too much on this injustice. The good news is that you now have some excellent dictionaries to help develop your specialization in financial translation (a very lucrative niche, as you may know).
FA & WB