Volume 12, No. 4 
October 2008

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 45 issues.

Index 1997-2008

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Life without Sunday Nights
by Anne Vincent

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
Whistle-Blowing and Language Professionals: The Case of Postville and Professor Erik Camayd-Freixas
by Eileen B. Hennessy
Navigating in a New Era: What Kind of Education and Training for Translators?
by Eileen B. Hennessy
In Love with Words
by Monica Scheer

From the Editor
by Gabe Bokor

  In Memoriam
Henry Fischbach, 1921 - 2008
by Gabe Bokor
Dr. Marijan Ante Bošković, 1939 - 2008
by Paula Gordon

  Translators Around the World
The Serbo-Croatian Language(s) Today
by Michael Walker

  Nuts and Bolts of Translation
O papel das técnicas de tradução no ensino da Tradução Especializada—o caso dos textos turísticos no par de línguas português-alemão
Katrin Herget, Teresa Alegre
The Seven Steps
by Danilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini

  Advertising Translation
Skopos in Practice: Building an Appealing Brand Image in the Translation of Soft News
by Zhao Ning

  Religious Translation
God's Translators: A Conversation with Ilan Stavans
by Verónica Albin

  Literary Translation
How to Face Challenging Symbols: Translating Symbols from Persian to English
by Mahmoud Ordudari
The Literary Translator and the Concept of Fidelity: Kirkup's Translation of Camara Laye's L'Enfant noir as a Case Study
by Kolawole, S. O. and Salawu, Adewuni

  Translator Education
The Acquisition of Translation Competence through Textual Genre
by V. Montalt Ressurrecció, P. Ezpeleta Piorno, I. García Izquierdo

  Translation Theory
The Translators' Role in Clarifying Some Misconceptions
by Ferenc Kovács,
CILT, MA, Dip Trans in Business, Law and ICT,

  Translators' Tools
Translators’ Emporium
Getting Graphic
by Jost Zetzsche
The Comparable Corpus-Based Chinese-English Translation—A Case Study of City Introduction
by Guangsa Jin

  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

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 joined our national translators' association last year but will not renew my membership this year because their website is awful, incompetent, impossible to update and (above all) not productive financially.

I have no way of knowing, but are all the other translators in this group bachelors/old maids with no children (I have three to support) or metrosexuals (I can't afford that luxury) or gay? (don't get me wrong, this is perfectly respectable, my bro is). Fact is, I have zero time, zero interest and zero budget for their dinners and get-togethers, my rare outings are to the supermarket around the corner.

A few statistics say it all:

Contacts from Proz over a period of 3 years: 143. Of which 84 contracts.

Contacts from the professional association over 18 months: 1. Zero contracts.

From what I see guys like me don't exist in most translators mindsets.

Get Down to Business


Dear Down,

We think your mismatch with your (ex-)professional association results from a basic misunderstanding of how such associations differ from commercial platforms. For a start, most associations require proof that you are indeed a professional translator before they let you in. On commercial platforms you pays your money and gets your access. You may be able to participate for free in ancillary activities such as forums, but any structured input you provide is a gift to a commercial entity. Most platforms are very clear about this.

So what are professional associations for?

They are one or more steps back from the market: they facilitate contacts among professionals, raise awareness of best professional practices, offer guidance in ethical and professional matters, organize training courses, and promote the profession as a whole to outside world.

What they are not is mega-translation agencies dedicated to placing jobs. This is true even if they display your contact details for potential clients, or give you an opportunity to meet like-minded professionals with whom you might decide to work on large projects. By networking in a professional association, you will often pick up business tips, too (here's one: if you ever do rejoin and decide to participate actively, don't try to get the conversational ball rolling with your second sentence).

To address your closing comment, guys like you not only exist in translator mindsets, you populate entire neighborhoods of the translator world. You're at the wordface from dawn to dusk, with no time to network or socialize with clients or your peers, so busy are you making the next deadline to pay the rent and put food on the table.

Don't get us wrong. It's good to have your eye on the bottom line. In fact our main objective in writing this column is to get translators to reflect more about business matters. But Proz and other commercial platforms, while entertaining forums for social exchange, are not the best place to build up a client base of demanding, well-heeled direct customers who are passionate about their texts. The reason is simple: this buyer profile does not fish in pools of anonymous self-proclaimed professionals. And of course if you're happy with the clients and prices you find on Proz, that's fine too.

If your national association is really that bad, find another vector for networking. Just remember that you get out of any networking opportunity what you put into it. And to pull in the truly lucrative jobs, you must get out to venues other than supermarkets on a regular basis.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I've been a full-time freelance translator for over a decade, and I've never been out of work for more than a few days. However, this year, July has been flat—and I mean zero sales. Now, in July, I was fortunately busy on volunteer work during the first fortnight and on holidays during the second—so that was not too bad.

However, after I came back from hols in August, things looked set to head in the same direction and I invoiced exactly zero again until August 18th. Fortunately, my billings for August 18 to August 31 came to approximately 25k on a few extremely urgent and technical documents, which has smoothed things out nicely.

My wife tells me that it's just a matter of clients being on vacation over the period, but I must confess that sitting in front of a silent phone was getting on my nerves.

Do you think I should review my marketing strategy?

Slight Panic


Dear Panic,

Your letter is a reminder of just how important it is to have a cash buffer in the bank or under your mattress for those lean stretches. Small-business gurus in the US put this at about two years' worth of living expenses.

  • Good for you for sitting tight and not lowering your prices (speaking of which, sounds like a nice end of August you had there).
  • Less impressive is the image of you sitting in front of a silent phone—unless that was just a turn of phrase.

Business slack? The lull is in itself a business opportunity. Use it to get out to client events—log some facetime at business lunches, conferences, and trade fairs, where you can mingle and pick up strategic information about who's doing what and where you might fit in. Be seen, and be seen to be knowledgeable, professional and passionate about your customers' specialties.

While out and about, never ever mention that business is flat or (even worse) in a slump; they don't need to know. You're at the dairy-farmers' convention or insurance brokers' breakfast on tropical storm coverage because you are analyzing their industry in preparation for an upcoming job (which you can't discuss, it's confidential).

It's astounding how many translation jobs materialize in precisely these conditions, when your presence reminds demanding clients of a text they'd shelved, convinced they'd never find a knowledgeable, professional and passionate translator to take it on.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I graduated six years ago and after two years working in an agency set up a freelance business with my partner. We specialize in energy and want to build a direct clientele. Right now we are at 50% agency and 50% direct clients. Our minimum per-word price is 0.20 for direct clients. My partner thinks we are spending too much time actually winning the clients, and I am starting to agree. It usually takes one industry event plus two follow-up meetings with the departments involved for the first job to arrive; during that time we have transport expenses plus hotels plus living expenses and no money is coming in.

Do you have any advice for speeding up the process without looking too pushy?

Tracking Expense


Dear Track,

Rather than look for shortcuts to winning clients, we suggest you raise your prices. As you point out, there is an acquisition cost involved (something agencies know all about) and the more specialized you are, the lower 0.20 a word looks. Track your per-hour net income, not per-word gross. And next time pitch for 0.30.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Last year I attended a translator meeting where a delightful ex-senior civil servant regaled us with tales of her foreign postings and (current) translation assignments for which she charges 0.05/word. People in the room asked why she was charging such low prices. She replied that she "didn't really need" the money, and that she thought it was "unfair" to charge more when she was retired and had a good pension already.

I thought of this when reading a recent discussion in an online forum. In it a semi-retired Translation Elder comments on rising inflation and falling prices, rails against the powerlessness of translators to negotiate good rates, predicts dire things to come. Later in the discussion you learn that both he and another elder are not making a living translating at all. Instead they are using occasional assignments to top up income from other sources.

You also learn that both of these gentlemen work at low (even very low) rates. So despite being articulate and experienced, they are the ones doing pin-money translation at pin-money rates—even as they condescend to "young people" like me. I realize there are other factors in play, but this general cluelessness about pricing and ethics is disappointing.

Globalization opens the world up to cutthroat competition say some, but I'm wondering now if our most insidious enemies are not translation elders and their mindless, cynical ways.

Ageist Reader


Dear Youngster,

The enemy is not the elders, but the "mindless ways."

A simple example: "lookit lookit lookit the disgracefully low offer I received this morning! It's outrageous/depressing/deserving of a lawsuit, the market is going to hell in a handbasket!" Whenever a message like this goes up on a forum, a certain percentage of the young, middle-aged, graying at the temples and decrepit all pile in for a moanfest on Chicken Little's heels. Before you know it, it's self-fulfilling prophecy time all over again, as less vocal forum members take this nonsense seriously and ratchet down their prices.

Our opinion? If you are in the market for real, you charge for real—and make a point of raising your prices every time you realize you are in demand. That's every time you find yourself working more hours than you want. You cull low payers from your client list as you gain experience, you regularly take professional development courses in your existing and potential specialties to keep on top of things and you just as regularly identify attractive new markets and clients—lift your eyes off the screen and fingers off the keyboard to go out and win their business.

All that is Economics 101, which your elders may have forgotten or skipped, just as they appear to have missed the class on "dumping" and its consequences.

Other advice:

  • Take online discussions with a grain of salt. Some of these guys are teasing, playing devil's advocate. Others are whiling away a lazy summer's afternoon on the wifi-enabled air-conditioned porch before pottering off to the golf course. Still others are bullshitting from their abandoned trolley-car under a bridge.
  • The fact that so many translators tippytoe around rates leaves the gate wide open for these entertaining gasbags to monopolize the conversation. Speak up!
  • Cynicism is more fashionable with elders than with younger people (thank goodness). Victims suck the air and energy out of the room—who wants to work with them? So perhaps your know-it-all elders have scared all the potential clients away.
  • Finally, older translators can be genuinely out of touch with changes for the better in markets, and perhaps too stuck in their ways to deal with demanding clients. Data in the SFT rates survey to be released this week (http://www.sft.fr/page.php?P=fo/public/menu/gestion_front/index&id=144) indicates that price-per-word rises gradually as translators gain in experience and age, but falls off after age 60.

The bottom line? Everyone—every single reader—should be following our advice in paragraph three. We'll stop there so as not to get caught ourselves in another aphorism: Old translators never die, they just rant away.