Fire Ant & Worker Bee Q&As, written by Chris Durban, is a column with practical tips for practicing translators.
This column has been a featured section of the Translation Journal for over 15 years. To read more about Chris Durban please see the side bar to the right.
Chris is currently participating in a special MBA program with Seth Godin. The following Q&As have been plucked from the TJ archives.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
When you go to meetings with clients at their request, do you invoice your time?
Starting Out & 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,
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?
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,
We're in a crisis and budgets are tight. Should I reduce my rates? I have the feeling that everybody but me has got work.
Dear Nervous Nelly,
We’re curious: has your cost of living suddenly declined?
We doubt it. But you should be aware that the only message sent out by a cut in rates with existing clients is “hey, I am desperate over here.” And self-identifying as the desperate party in a business negotiation is not where you want to be.
How are you going to explain to clients that you could have asked less for your services last week or last month and didn’t, but have now changed your mind? And if you do lower your rates, how are you ever going to raise them again when the market picks up, which it eventually will?
If your income has dropped because you’ve out-priced yourself with a few clients, pull yourself together and go find some new ones. And if you can’t operate profitably, shut down your business and do something else.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am desperately nervous in the presence of clients. The other day I'd planned to go to an information day for professionals in my specialty area but didn't make it past the registration desk. It just seemed too daunting: once in the room, I would have had to dart around shaking hands and making small talk. I can appreciate (theoretically) why that might be a good move, but it's not me.
What's with the darting and small talk? First-time participants at such events learn a lot by simply watching and listening—if necessary, you can don a potted-palm suit and melt into the background or fiddle with your cellphone as an I'm-busy-doing-deals prop.
You will quickly realize that attending client events serves three main purposes:
But to get that far, you'll want to take steps to avoid a meltdown in public, with or without the tree costume.
Tips for cave dwellers preparing for a client event:
The bottom line? Meeting clients in the flesh is good for you, your translations and your business. It can even become addictive.
Written by Chris Durban, author of the book, Prosperous Translator. The book is available on Amazon.
"Some of the Web's pithiest advice on building a successful translation practice. Translation is the grandest, most foolhardy enterprise that humans can engage in. Done right, it can also be a lucrative and intellectually satisfying career."