Volume 11, No. 1 
January 2007

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 38 issues.

Index 1997-2007
TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
On Becoming a Court Interpreter
by Albert G. Bork

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
It could happen to you!
by Natasha Curtis
Translation Company Owners — Does Your Business Own You?
by Huiping Iler
On the Matter of Discounts
by Danilo & Vera Nogueira
Ten Ways to Make Sure You Get a Really Bad Translation
by M.L. Seren-Rosso

  In Memoriam
Catarina Tereza Feldmann, 1944 - 2006
by Regina Alfarano

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation of Proper Names in Non-fiction Texts
by Heikki Särkkä

  Book Review
Translating Poet-Translators: Norman R. Shapiro Meets Marot, du Bellay, and Ronsard
by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
Thinking German Translation
by Gertrud Champe

  Translation Theory
Domesticating the Theorists: A Plea for Plain Language
by María Teresa Sánchez
The Role of Bilingualism in Translation Activity
by Burce Kaya

  Translators Education
Meeting Students’ Expectations in Undergraduate Translation Programs
by Séverine Hubscher-Davidson

  Translators' Tools
The Impact of Translation Memory Tools on the Translation Profession
by Ahmed Saleh Elimam
Machine Translation Revisited
by Jost Zetzsche
Exploring Translation Corpora with MkAlign
by Serge Fleury and Maria Zimina
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

  Translators' Events
Upcoming Events
Languages and the Media Conference—Berlin 2006
by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I've noticed that the glossary of translation and interpreting terminology on my website has been reproduced in part or in its entirety on several commercial websites of other translators or agencies. This bugs me since it is out of order not to ask first and not to give due credit. It also contravenes copyright law. Finally, this website is my main (and very successful) means of attracting new customers.

I've so far written to the offending webmasters, citing my conditions for using excerpts from the glossary (basically clearly visible credit to me with a URL to my website). But in my experience, that doesn't usually yield a response. Any suggestions?

Sweat of My Brow


Dear Sweat,

This is where membership of your national translators' association pays off.

Let headquarters know of the problem and copy them in when you first write to offenders; this reminds the culprits that you are not alone—that the translation industry really is a village.

If a second reminder is needed, ask the association to do it on your behalf (be sure to give them all the information they need).

You don't belong to a national association? Consider an entirely different approach: email the guilty party a bare-bones "Dear (offender), I'm glad you liked my text. Did you know it was copyright? Sincerely (your name)."

The advantage here is that you've provided factual information (you exist, you own the text and you are aware of the offense) without showing your hand. The word "copyright" plants an ominous seed, we're told, and the laconic style elicits contrition and compliance more readily than a threat. Is a lawsuit in the making? Will you be waiting outside their office tonight, baseball bat in hand? Or might things be put right by a sincere apology and immediate removal of the material or inclusion of credits and URL?



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm a translator living in Tarragona, Spain. You've suggested that translators include a clause in their Terms & Conditions specifying that they must do a final review of typeset documents before the text go to press.

This sounds like a good way to avoid over-confident non-native clients inserting errors in my translations—and me getting blamed.

Can you suggest wording for this clause?

Safety Net


Dear Net,

Try a variation on "Our service includes compulsory review of final copy by the translator before printing, failing which a 50% [or 100% or 200% or 500%] surcharge will apply, as the translator's name appears in credits."

First-time clients always react—sometimes in a panic—to ask what this threat of extra fee is all about. Which is exactly what you want, since it gives you a chance to explain that you don't want to apply/collect the surcharge and won't have to if they respect their end of the deal. Better yet, you can explain why it is in both parties' interest to incorporate this final review phase: since your name appears on the document (normally right next to photo and layout credits), you are protecting your own "brand" even as you protect their image for foreign readers. Win/win.

This is also a good time to remind customers that the point is not to refuse their feedback and changes, but rather to ensure that these have been checked by a professional translator—you—before being set in stone or printed 200,000 times in full color.

An analogy to bring this home: if an audit company's client steps in and changes the numbers in financial statements after content has been finalized and signed, the auditors, too, will remove their name; it's a professional risk they cannot assume.

Note that if the customer cannot or will not comply with your conditions, there's no problem—but they must then remove your name (and pay your bill, of course).

Clients with experience of quality assurance generally have no problem with the concept or practice. Instead it is nervous translation suppliers who seem anxious to conceal their text paternity/maternity. Now why would that be? We're sure one of our readers will enlighten us, and in the meantime maintain that financial penalties are a good way of focusing the mind and keeping everyone on the straight and narrow.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have a sensitive and urgent financial query related to a French agency for which I have recently done a first job (780 words for which I received just over 37 after bank conversion fee). The agency seems to be the subject of some kind of tax audit. They want me to send written confirmation that I pay into social security funds.

There are three problems: first, in the UK, where I live, there is no requirement of this type (I really don't know which body could issue the "certificate" that they want).

Secondly, I obviously do not wish this to end up in the French courts—my spoken French is not as fluent as it should be and I know nothing at all about finance or law, plus I certainly do not have the money to pay a solicitor. 

Thirdly, for a series of personal problems too complicated to go into here, all of my translation work is indeed undeclared. I know I should straighten this out, and intend to in the near future, but have not had time, energy or billable income to do so this far.

What should I do?

Urgent Query


Dear Urgent,

To recap: you are working illegally and fear you've been caught and want advice from us because your French (and English) is not up to understanding the issues. Can we assume that the 37 was not for legal translation? Good.

It sounds like your French agency client's number has come up in an URSSAF review—not the tax authorities, rather one component of the (compulsory) social security system that applies to all independent contractors working in France. Such reviews are not uncommon. They are aimed at identifying people working off the books and forcing them to comply with the law.

If the offender is working in France, the person/company that paid him/her gets hit with a fine corresponding to the amount that should have been paid into the retirement/healthcare/family benefits fund (or as the employer's contribution for a salaried person), topped up by an additional penalty to discourage future "errors."

In your case, if the agency has to pay such a fine, they will not want to work with you again, for obvious reasons.

We think it unlikely that the French authorities will come traipsing over to Blighty to get you, although you should definitely phone your professional association's legal helpline for an opinion. It sounds like you might want to make this an anonymous call.

Perhaps a brief letter describing the British tax and social security system will suffice?

But consider this a wake-up call and—we bet you could see this coming—pull up your UK socks by this time next week. Don't procrastinate. When you work as a freelance provider of a business service like translation, breaking the law is not only a serious risk for you and your clients, it stamps a scarlet A on your forehead ("Amateur") and bars you from the lucrative end of the market.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

My company recently had a really bad translation experience with a translator of an Eastern European language who is a member of a national translator association. Despite sterling credentials on paper, the quality of the translation she delivered was unacceptable (confirmed by a review the client had done and another review that we commissioned). I don't want to cause trouble for her but although she was very nice throughout the whole project, she was completely oblivious about her lack of translation and language skills, even when directly confronted with examples of mistranslation.

We lost the client as a result (mainly our own fault since our project manager had not gotten an independent proofreader).

I now have two questions:

1. Should we tell the association? It does not offer certification in this particular language and obviously, it can't vouch for the quality of all translators who are members, but it does talk about its skilled and professional members on its website.

2. Secondly, how can I get an accurate and reliable idea of someone's qualifications if I don't speak the target language at all? References and sample translations are pretty futile, in my opinion, since these are bound to be good. Recommendations from other translators (which is actually my preferred way of finding new translators) are unavailable if it's a language you haven't worked with before. Requesting a free sample translation is something I hesitate to do. And since we're a small, non-profit agency we don't really have the funds to pay for a sample translation and review by a second translator.

Unhappy Buyer


Dear Buyer,

One of the reasons poor, sloppy and clueless translators chug along, dragging the entire profession down, is that unhappy clients don't take the time to flag their substandard work. Many customers don't even consider filing an official complaint since the effort is out of proportion to the amount involved—another reason why low prices are bad news all around.

Here you've told your supplier where her work fell short and she doesn't seem to have taken the comments on board. So we say yes, you should let the association know, if only to remind them that clients do notice and do care (and to lend support to anyone thinking of setting up a certification program in that particular language—why not?).

To avoid sterile he-said/she-said/no-I-didn't/yes-you-did exchanges, stick to the facts and enclose a copy of the review you commissioned.

As for locating skilled translation resources in a language you cannot judge yourself, this is precisely the type of added value that top-end translation intermediaries provide. They have put in place revision structures and invested the time and effort needed to sort the wheat from the chaff before letting clients into the room. Not surprisingly, their added value comes at a price; it is their margin.

In today's world of instant google searches and online databases of self-proclaimed "experts" of all types, from sex workers to jell-o mavens anybody can call herself a skilled Bulgarian or Tagalog or German or English translator. To reduce the risk of commissioning poor work and losing a client, translator referrals can be a good starting point, but there is no magic bullet: you either invest time and effort up front to identify top talent or you hire somebody who has already made that investment.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am a financial translator working from French to Spanish. You may not be aware of the state of the Spanish market these days, but my experience is that competition has driven most work into the arms of translators charging rock-bottom rates in Latin America and Spain, many of them working illegally. Things are so bad that I've almost decided to close down my business, because I refuse to work at such rates. I can't afford to.

I've been sending CVs to stockbrokers, banks and financial institutions since last December, but they never seem to reach the right person. Have you got any tips or is my language combination doomed?

Last Act


Dear Act,

If you are genuinely specialized, don't despair. There is a market for your services—but not one you can break into through mailings alone. To get a foot in the door, you need some face time or at the very least online interaction where you can display your knowledge and skills to potential clients (who may include fellow translators; see Unhappy Buyer's preference for referrals above).

  • Step up your networking with colleagues, perhaps by joining a specialized elist (e.g., the financial translators' forum) where you can provide reliable answers to fellow translators' questions. Be sure to include your full contact details as a signature in each message. General "global translator marketplace" lists will not do the trick; there are too many amateurs around.

  • Read the publications your potential clients read; there is no better way to stay on top of the issues that interest them and identify topics where they need, or will need, your expert input. Investing time here will equip you to leap into the breach if a make-or-break situation arises. Think Antonello Palombi.

  • Attend industry events where you can put into practice the famous glossary ploy and free trial offer. If this means traveling to a large town or city, do it. You can cut costs by making day trips only or by staying with friends.

  • Don't get obsessed with cheap providers abroad. The clients you want are not price-driven; they value expertise and the more sensitive their texts, the more hand-holding they will want, making proximity a definite plus. Let's repeat that: good clients do not buy translations from anonymous providers over the internet. But to link up with them you yourself will have to have a business plan that goes well beyond sending out CVs.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

To establish the size of a project, I tend to look at the text and number of pages. I normally count the words of the target text to assess volume after I've translated the text. In my current project, we agreed on 300 pages based on a word per page figure, and additional payment according to this formula for "some" additional text.

But it turns out there is so much small print that the volume is nearly double of what was agreed. I will be paid for it, that's not the issue. The problem is to demonstrate to my client that the volume is so much more than agreed and expected.

My client, which in this case is a "coordinator" I work with, thinks I can simply count the words in the source text to get a good idea of volume. To my mind, this is totally beside the point. I only know what I've done once I have counted the words in the target text and have operated this way for 20 years. I am not even sure it would be even an approximate indication of volume in the target text. Am I correct?

Wordcount Worker


Dear Wordcount,

No, we think you've got the wrong end of the stick, although your letter is a reminder of how useful it can be to compare perceived "standard practice" with what other people do. For a discussion of different approaches to billing, see http://www.accurapid.com/journal/35fawb.htm#billing.

Note that source text wordcounts are common, the advantage being that they give your client (and you) a clearer idea of what you are getting into before you start—before you sign on the dotted line. Which is as it should be.

But not to worry, you seem to have a good relationship with your coordinator, and this ain't rocket science anyway. To calculate a reliable ratio between target word-count and source word-count, simply select segments of a few texts you've translated in the past and use the "statistics" function in Word to count the corresponding words in both source and target versions. Calculate the difference, and note the average as a percentage. Bingo!

If your coordinator needs a visual "demonstration", you can always convert five pages of Exhibit A (your original-format source text—the one with all the fine print) into Exhibit B, the same document in 12-point Times Roman. The increase in length will be obvious. For fun, offer an Exhibit C, too: the same text in 2-point Times. Hey, this might even fit on one page—would you still charge the same as what you do for one regular page? Exhibits A, B, C = case closed.

But remember, however you decide to bill translation work, it ultimately comes down to how much you earn per hour, net of social charges and tax.