Volume 15, No. 4 
October 2011

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Hi Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

In these days of ever shorter deadlines, I'm finding there's not much time to go face-to-face with my customers. Most of my contacts are via email—short and to the point. There's not much space for personal exchanges in the email world. Against that backdrop, how can I build customer relationships and make sure I stand out from the crowd?

Anon (or heading that way)


Dear Anon,

Here's an easy option: pick up the phone!

But as you do so, remember to start with "Is this a good time for you?" Say this just as soon as you identify yourself: even well-disposed contacts may be distracted, brusque, or downright irritated if they are on deadline or in a meeting.

Other telephone tips:

  • Keep your initial query brief and to the point. E.g., "Hello, I just wanted to make sure you'd received the draft translation I sent ten minutes ago; I'm at my desk all afternoon should you have any questions." Or "I've got three questions on the text I'm translating for you now; would you have a few minutes to discuss them?" Let your client take the initiative if they are inclined to chat longer.
  • Put a smile on your face before the connection goes through. Yes, a physical smile. Paste it right on there. And trust us, they'll be able to hear this in your voice: good vibes travel down phone lines. You might consider doing the same each time you pick up the receiver to answer a call at your end, too.
  • In a general way, be mindful of your telephone manner. Use your client's language when you phone; time your call to avoid peak busy periods; respect local conventions, especially levels of formal address. And keep it upbeat: asking for necessary clarification on a text can sound like nitpicking and segue into whining. So make sure you position yourself as someone seeking information as part of the providing-a-solution process.

As one expert contact reminds us "Phone relationships can be very real—you can even get onto 'tu/Du' terms with the clients you speak to by phone." We agree, on condition that you be prepared to do some expert listening.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

First off, your column and book are outstanding. I sleep with the book by my bedside (is that creepy?).

I read a lot about specialization, and want to know if I'm on the right track. More importantly—if there is any need for my specialty in the market (and not just in my head)?

I have studied Japanese for 9 years, and have lived abroad for 2+ years. While I'm aware that this far from qualifies me as professional, or even ready to translate, I'm hopeful for the future. I also have a few months' experience translating economic, public safety, and correspondence documents for local government, but my real passion is ecology and language. Along with my B.A. in Japanese studies, I received a B.S. in wildlife biology. I'm planning a grad program in aquatic ecology.

My ideal goal is to translate scientific papers for aspiring academics in Japan (Japanese to English only). Is there an actual need for this type of thing? Are there any other ways to translate research besides in academia?

Sleeps with Books


Dear Sleeps,

Our experience is that academic research for universities is generally very poorly paid, and researchers themselves some of the cagiest players of the "Is that your best price?" card around. Aspiring researchers are even more impecunious. Not that you should strike them from the outset, just saying.

But if you plan to make a living as a translator, why not follow the money? You do this by identifying text types and fields where your input is going to make a big financial difference to whoever is buying your work, and targeting those particular assignments.

Example 1: Science journals that serious researchers desperately want their work to appear in. You might contact these journals directly, on the assumption that they receive many turgid, unusable English-language manuscripts (we have personal experience of journals in the social sciences, where this is definitely the case). Pitch yourself as someone the editorial staff might recommend or turn to themselves if an awkward manuscript looks good content-wise—good science, poor English.

You'll need a short, extremely well-written letter for this. You might include, on a separate sheet, a few paragraphs that you've fluidified from bumpy foreign-tainted English to smooth, flowing English, demonstrating both your writing skills and grasp of subject matter. (Yes, this is a free trial offer to establish your credibility.)

Example 2: Listing documents and prospectuses for investment funds specializing in applied-science applications that include summaries of leading-edge research in highly specialized areas. We've seen a number of these. Their aim is to raise very large sums of money, which makes smooth texts explaining the science behind the investment essential. You might contact financial translators working in your language combination to see if they have any experience of this, or go straight to listing candidates themselves.

Example 3: Industry watch and patents. Expert J>E translator Ben Jones reminds us that Google and others are developing databases of academic research, indexed by English keywords and available as OCR/MT text, which expands the market enormously. "In areas where Japan is particularly active, a non-Japanese publication might want an in-house translator (or pet freelance with high availability) to seek out and translate interesting papers and/or snippets," he notes. Word has it that ecology and related fields are hot in patents, where it is definitely worth gaining skill and experience in your language combination.

Speaking of which, surely there will be lots of Japanese research on nuclear-plant impacts on the marine environment looking for translation in the medium-term future. Piggybacking on current events is—alas, Planet Earth—a good way to identify clients in need.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

What do you think of lawsuits?



Dear Outraged,

We're talking about translation issues here, right?

They are best avoided, especially for anyone in a state of outrage.

We suggest you take it down a notch and think again about where you want to invest your time and energy.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm tickled: I've just got a second interview with a big company (direct client) in Europe that is looking to hire a specialized translator for a one-year onsite contract starting in January.

I like and know the sector, and I figure a year like this will be a very good way to consolidate (1) my knowledge and (2) my ties to this particular client for freelance assignments once the in-house stint is over. Oh, and the salary we're talking about is in six digits.

Do you have any tips on preparing for this interview? What kinds of questions should I be asking?

Passport in Hand


Dear Passport,

Congratulations, you're through to the second round!

We assume this means you've already researched the company thoroughly, so know their industry, products, services and strategic priorities.

Start with a slice of white bread: you admire the company and are delighted to have made the cut.

Then on to the sausage and cheese. You may already have answers to some of the points below. If not, they bear mention:

  • Ask for a quick run-down of document types and formats you'd be working on. But make a list of likely suspects in advance, so you can feed in a few technical ones spontaneously; you'll come across as knowledgeable and organized, even if you discover that these are not part of the remit.
  • Try to get some idea of the volumes being handled—without sounding like a shirker, of course (play this by ear).
  • If you will be working with a team, how many other people are there? And what, exactly, will your job consist of: translating; coordinating subcontractors; maintaining databases; revising? If you'll be covering several bases, ask for an approximate breakdown of time for each.
  • Clarify whether the salary is gross or net (explaining, perhaps, that the system works differently in your country). 
  • Visa and work permit: will their HR department handle your application, or is it up to you?

End with another slice of white bread, e.g., how much you'd enjoy the opportunity to work with them, as their company, products and services are so very interesting.

Good luck, and report back!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Over the past six months I've done some very interesting short jobs for a small media agency at a good rate, but last week they told me their end client has complained about the cost.

I met up with them to discuss this, and it turns out that the end client accepts my price for last-minute jobs that are critical to their public image, but has asked the agency for a lower (much lower) price for more run-of-the-mill texts. These have a shorter "shelf life" they say, so "the budget isn't there."

I also learned that the end client really likes my work; before me, the mission-critical translations were done in-house and were deemed "unusable."

I want to keep doing the urgent, exciting and well-paid work; should I accept the other jobs at a discount just to keep everyone sweet?

Bargaining Now


Dear Bargaining,

You were right to set up a meeting in person; that's an essential first step in getting a feel for the lay of the land. And bingo, they've already given you some very useful information:

  • The end client likes your work.
  • The end client has been burned before.
  • The end client has a QC system (how else would they have been able to assess your work and the previous supplier's?).

You also know what justifies your premium:

  • Your work is very good (the client has stated this).
  • You are responsive and prepared to make yourself available in a crisis.
  • You are pleasant to work with.

Your first priority now is to generate ammunition that your media agency interface can use to get the end client to raise their budget, or, failing that, better understand how translation works and how lucky they are to have you.

One of the best ways to do this is to summarize in a short table the last three or four jobs you've done for them: date, times (illustrating your night-shift availability), topic, word count, interaction (versioning, proofing, online correction) etc. Often end clients—and even intermediaries—forget just how time-consuming it can be to get essential translations right, and just how helpful you were in their moment of crisis. This is where you remind them of that; you (re-)establish your credentials.

If they sit tight, you'll then have to decide which way to play it.

And if you are positioning yourself as a premium supplier, we say stick to your guns.

That is, thank the client for their business (state how much you enjoy working with them), remind them that you are available (for a price), and agree that they should go elsewhere for the low-end work.

You thus present this as an option that they suggested—even if their suggestion was primarily a bargaining tactic to get you to reduce your price.

At this point be prepared for them to ask if you can find them a cheaper supplier; look them straight in the eye and shake your head regretfully. Practice beforehand if necessary, and remember that silence is a great negotiating tool once the facts are out there on the table.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

Have you got any tips on how to break into conversational knots at business events? This has happened to me several times in my attempts to meet up with more direct clients: I walk into the room, and all I see is tightly clustered backs. Usually there is no greeter or other skid-greaser to help you break in. At the last chamber of commerce evening I actually got into a long conversation with the speaker because everyone was ignoring HIM too.

Excuse Me


Dear Excuse Me,

This wouldn't be a French business group, would it?

How about the "question for Mr. X" ploy?

  1. Find out who will be there: check the program and attendance list if possible. Read up on attendees you'd like to have in your client portfolio and prepare a few intelligent questions (a link to current events is always good).
  2. When you enter the room, step to one side immediately and pull out your cell phone to "take an urgent call." Use the time to scan the room and identify the loosest cluster.
  3. Don't hem, haw, hesitate or hover: walk over to that group and break in—politely of course. "Excuse me, would you be Javier Johnston?" He won't be, of course, but you then feed in a sentence linked to the event's theme, e.g., "Oh sorry, I'd understood he was going to be here and wanted to hear about his company's campaign in Mexico." Split-second pause, and, with a pleasant smile, you slide into "What do you do?" or perhaps "Do you do business in Mexico?" Your conversational ball is now rolling.
  4. It's often even easier to get a conversation going after a speech (hats off for cornering that speaker, incidentally). Pre-empt the closed clusters by asking your ice-breaking question of the person immediately ahead of you (or behind you) in the coffee queue. One-on-one is always easier, and "So what did you think of that presentation?" is a no-stress opener.

An expert contact in the US recommends "How to Work a Room" by Susan "Mingling Maven" RoAne. This includes a reminder that you rack up good karma points by being alert to and welcoming of solos to the conversation if you ever get in one of the groups yourself.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm a graduate student double-concentrating in French-English Translation and Francophone Studies, and I need to pick a research topic for my francophone studies program. I would love to focus on something that ties into translation. Can you think of any topics that might be interesting (and even useful!) for an aspiring French-English translator to research?

Searching For Research


Dear Searching,

If you plan to work as a translator after your degree, we'd go for a topic that will bring you into contact with potential employers—where the research itself involves reaching out to them and/or the results are of interest to them.

So forget the sacred texts, which many translation scholars get very excited about, and forget obscure literary works. Ditto otherwise laudable subjects like women's studies and colonial oppression.

  1. Invest some time up front to identify a topic of interest to decision-makers in business or researchers outside the language industry. See our suggestions on specializing for some ideas on how to research this.
  2. Pick a topic with some personal appeal. True, a subject can grow on you. And the best professional translators have a gift for getting excited about everything from disposable diapers to industrial fluids, once they've rolled up their sleeves and are grappling with, say, a patent. But you'll be spending a lot of time on your topic, so we figure it's helpful if there's some mutual attraction from the start.
  3. We assume you are doing or have done an internship (all the better translation courses now require these). Ask the person you reported to then for ideas. A plus is that these contacts will probably have a good grasp of your strengths and weaknesses—just as you will know whether or not they have a good grasp of the market or are simply gassing away. Your academic advisers will generally be at least one remove from the hustle and bustle of Main Street, Translation City—that's only natural—although their insights into how to structure your research will surely be invaluable.