Volume 17, No. 2
April 2013

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page


Index 1997-2013

TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
Have Language, Will Travel
by Robert Ewing Finnegan

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant and Worker Bee
Networking 101
byDanilo Nogueira and Kelli Semolini
Translation—an ageless profession
by Katia Spanakaki

  Translators and the Computer
The Ukrainian Cornucopia of Tools
by Jost Zetzsche

  Medical Translation
La historieta como instrumento para la divulgación médico-sanitaria: Aspectos pragmalingüísticos
Blanca Mayor Serrano

Translation and Politics
Trauma and Translation: Bearing Witness
by Fatima Sakarya and Sidney Shaievitz
Soviet Censorship and Translation in Contemporary Ukraine and Russia
by Nataliya M. Rudnytska, PhD

Arts and Entertainment
When Correct Grammar is Wrong-ish—Grammaticality, Ungrammaticality, and Usage-based Theory in Film Subtitles
by D. Bannon

Science and Technology
A Glossary of Olive Oil Taste Testing (Spanish-English and English-Spanish)
by Soledad Sta. María

Translator Education
How Approaches of Teaching English Can Be Used for Teaching Translation?
by Omid Jafari

  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' Tools
Translators’ Emporium

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,

A while ago, a translation student posted a message on an internet forum for translators that I visit occasionally; he was in his second year, classes were a bore, and he wanted to pick up some paid proofreading work on the side before hitting the market full time on graduation.

Youthful champing at the bit can be a good thing, but his message was full of stylistic and spelling errors, and I expected someone to point this out. I mean, really. Looking for proofreading work?

Imagine my surprise when he received a flurry of offers from the forum members, plus all sorts of friendly advice on how to pick up jobs.

Shouldn’t professional translators set the bar higher? Yet here they were welcoming this young man with open arms, as a peer. Perhaps my question is: am I a hopeless old fart?

Tut Tut


Dear Tut,

It’s a pity the forum spelling police were not on duty that day, since students generally listen more closely to perceived professionals than to their teachers (who do boring things like remind them about the importance of spelling).

Our opinion? People go to many of these forums to kick back and relax. Or to reach out from their lonely lairs during a coffee break. Or to chat—why not? Many are beginners—again, why not? Everyone has to start somewhere. Many others are self-anointed professionals, which explains why they are wobbly on business, strategic and even ethical issues, e.g., subcontracting mission-critical proofreading to a twenty-year-old who can’t spell.

But there is a lot of good will, which is why you may be overhasty in dismissing them out of hand. If you choose to drop in during one of your own coffee breaks (rather than head for a real professional forum), why not use that time to shape the debate?

Here timing is essential: had someone raised the spelling issue early on, surely many of the earnest wannabes would have hesitated before piling in with job offers. Some of them may even have stopped to ponder the importance of this so-minor-as-to-have-gone-unnoticed issue for their own work.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am the only in-house translator at a reputable telecoms company in my region.

My company sometimes outsources translations for faster turnaround and to reduce my workload, as different departments tend to send a lot of urgent requests. However, some of the translations are sent to PR and marketing agencies whose staff members are not necessarily translators, just bilinguals. I would like to know your thoughts on that. The same department often sends out translation requests to different vendors, which introduces terminological and stylistic inconsistencies in some of their publications.

Also, I have been given the opportunity to test and select translators and translation agencies that I find good. However, even when the agencies I selected have produced good sample translations, when following up with the departments whom I recommended them to, I find that some of them were not happy or satisfied with the quality. How can I overcome this in the future and how can I better select candidates?

In-house Translator


Dear In-house,

Coming from one of the (sadly) vanishing in-house breed, your comments should be of particular interest to readers, and we appreciate this opportunity to respond.

First, we’d be very interested to read your job description, since it sounds like your employer is relying on you for a range of skills—which is a plus, since you clearly take your job very seriously. Call us naïve, but we also see attractive scope for career development if you play your cards right.

Concerning marketing texts, we have observed—again and again—that no one can really judge the impact and effectiveness of language solutions except an expert native speaker. That applies “even” (dare we say especially?) to English, which many, many non-native speakers claim to speak fluently. Having said that, we reckon your PR agency’s team need not necessarily be translators—assuming they can deliver the goods, as judged by demanding native speakers working in your industry.

But terminological inconsistency is something else. If you are the sole in-house language expert, this comes under your purview. In concrete terms, you should take the initiative to create and manage a database of industry- and company-specific terminology for all of your suppliers.

Suggest to your boss that you bring in a qualified terminologist to help with this; you might make it a budget issue and emphasize the savings that will be achieved in as little as six months. And be sure to use development of this database as an opportunity to establish closer ties with the departments involved; if you are the sole in-house translation expert and they are not taking your advice, you need to raise your profile.

How to do that? Well, first, you go out and talk to them. Dress the part (yes, wear a business suit like other executives), prepare an agenda, set up the meetings, and—above all—make a point of listening to their concerns. Then keep your antennae out for solutions to specific language points they’ve raised and get back to them with some options. Demonstrating personal attention and targeted expertise is the best way to establish your credibility as the Corporate Word Guy. No offense, but right now they may be viewing you as the nerd in the translation cupboard, which is not good.

Similarly, while it’s great that you’ve been asked to vet and shortlist translation suppliers, if these same departments are not satisfied with the work they’re getting, something is seriously wrong. Again, your first priority must be to reach out to named contacts in these departments.

What’s the problem? Ask them. And then listen.

Were the texts they received from your recommended supplier poorly translated? Not to be cynical, but human nature and the market economy are what they are: we’ve seen many cases where vendors give a test piece/first job their best shot, only to lower standards once the bird is in the bag. One solution here is to tell vendors their name will appear next to the texts they provide; this can shame the slackers into pulling up their socks.

But there could be other issues: perhaps the vendors you recommended are not as available as they might be, or are not sensitive enough to turnaround times. Their social skills may be lacking. Note that we are big believers in buyers being in direct contact with the translators who produce their texts—whether or not an intermediary is involved—and you might want to investigate this option.

In any case, bringing these and other issues out into the open is absolutely essential, since this will allow you to consolidate your position as the quality-oriented staff member who’s willing and able to make translation services part of your company’s success. You might also consult our reply to a similar query here.

We wish you the best of luck and do hope you’ll report back!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have been contacted by three different agencies over the last few weeks proposing the following table for CAT tool discounts, all of whom I have refused while remaining icily polite:

Repetitions @10%

100% Matches @15%

95-99% Matches @20%

85-94% Matches @50%

75-84% and below @66%

50-74% and below @100%

No Match (New Words) @100%

Unedited Text in Graphics @100%

There appears to be some company trying to push this grid along with their CAT tool marketing. It is particularly derisory because low-grade fuzzy matches are in reality practically worthless, often costing more time than they save, especially for those of us who use voice recognition. I often set my CAT software to ignore them.

I am writing in case there is anyone new to the profession who is inclined to believe the sales pitch that this is some kind of “industry standard”. It certainly is not. The supplier of a service sets the price, not the buyer. The buyer decides whether or not to buy.



Dear No Grid,

We agree not 50 nor 66 but 100%, sir, and applaud your reminder that this grid is a negotiating tool—some might say weapon—and definitely not an industry standard.

Self-assured claims to the contrary come from vendors applying commodity-based business models. They are understandably desperate to lock in margins at the low end of the market, where prices are very definitely under severe pressure.

As you probably know, many skilled professionals insist that translation technology is above all a quality assurance tool for ensuring consistency. As one observer notes, “real-time savings are achieved consistently only with large blocks of 100% context matches.” And in other cases? Well, no one is saying that time might not be saved in some instances, with some texts. But that is not what “industry standard” grids—applied across the board—are.

This may be a good time to point out how much more sense it makes to bill by the hour, which recognizes genuine productivity-driven savings, however achieved.

A top interpreter once told us he developed the concentration he needed to perform at the highest level in the booth through intensive chess competitions. We find ourselves wishing translators would play more poker, to gain practical experience in the skills needed to call a negotiator’s bluff.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

When you go to meetings with clients at their request, do you invoice your time?

Starting Out & Counting


Dear Counting,

Whoa. Face time with clients is always good—it’s how you build trust and discuss ways to make your working relationship more efficient. It consolidates your ties. If the people you’re meeting work in open-plan offices, it may even give you a chance to meet new users of your services within that company (and/or remind the accounts person over near the window that you’ve got a few invoices outstanding, could they check on that please).

So the answer is no—client meetings are an investment in marketing, quality control and continuing education, and as such not billable.

Speaking of non-billables, some translators we know get nervous and/or uptight whenever genuine freebies come up. They fail to realize how very rewarding flexibility can be in certain strategic situations. Just as it would be foolish to, say, produce a test piece for free for a lowballer, it is absurd to nickel-and-dime a good client (or even prospect) to death.

In fact, being generous with good clients (and being recognized as being generous) is usually win/win. It makes you one of the team, allows you to leverage the resulting goodwill in a variety of situations, and smoothes the way for these valued customers to deal quickly and efficiently with large invoices at other times.

Seth Godin wrote an excellent blogpost on this very issue recently.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

A lot of the scientific texts in my field are produced by government agencies in my source country, and since they are notoriously late payers, I have been charging $0.20 for editing their articles for professional journals. (That’s a premium on my regular rate.) I have several clients at the national science institute there.

I've now been contacted by a researcher in a smaller lab to do a rush translation in my highly specialized field. It’s very technical (just my cup of tea). The document has 10,000 words. Half of it is in French and half in English—very strange. Sentences start out in English and end up in French and vice versa. So it's really a combination translation/editing job. But it suits me fine because the English helps me with the vocabulary.

I don't have rates on file at this guy’s lab and he just wants me to start on his project. He has not inquired about rates.

But I want to get the rates question settled up front. I was thinking of proposing $0.25 to $0.30 USD per source word.

My question is: given the project as described, is this outrageous?

Tech Star


Dear Tech,

Outrageously low or outrageously high? You are an expert in the field, you have a strong track record and you are rearranging your schedule to meet a rush deadline. As we see it, your only weakness appears to be your ignorance as to the value of the skills you are bringing to the table.

We know translators in your situation who give both a per-word price and a comfortable hourly rate, and tell their contact they’d be happy to apply either—the clients can decide which they prefer. That way you're covered whatever happens, and the client gets a degree of control that he may find reassuring: he knows what his top fee will be (the per-word quote) and can always hope that your familiarity with the subject will make your hourly total lower—which would presumably work for you, too. That said, in our experience editing patchwork texts is a lengthy process.

Speaking of which, the mixture of English and French sounds very much as if your researcher (or his boss) is indulging in wishful thinking: with English the language of choice for many international scientific publications, researchers are encouraged and sometimes ordered to write their articles in English regardless of their level in that language. Which can be extremely frustrating for them: in many cases, we reckon 20% (and sometimes a lot more) of their original argument/reasoning slips through their fingers and out of their scholarly writing, on purely linguistic grounds.

Assuming your estimate is accepted, why not take this opportunity to explain to your new client that you can do your job much better if he writes his next paper entirely in his native French?