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The Awl has a fascinating piece on freelancing. Excellent prose, some lessons to learn, a few debatable points and, most gratifying of all, an approach refreshingly different from the stuff you typically get from sources covering freelancing.

[I]n order to be a freelancer for very long, you have to think of yourself in certain ways. You know what they say about beautiful people? That every pretty girl or gorgeous man is someone’s ex, was too much hassle for someone. That’s definitely true of freelancing. You show up to the party with the Times or Playboy on your arm and people always, always, always think that you are the half of that relationship that is the lucky one. There are a lot of squinty glances. Really? What do they see in you?

Highly recommended.

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Quick links

  1. Lebanon is campaigning to save the Arabic language. The U.S., meanwhile, is embracing Spanglish.

  2. Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia believes we are experiencing an online language revolution.

  3. A promising review of Through The Language Glass. We are tempted to question the premise, but the book must be fun regardless.

  4. What do translators and designers have in common? Clients, at least some of them.

  5. Games With Words. More experiments than games: data is being collected for research purposes. Behind some of the tests is Harvard’s Psychology Department.


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We were today reminded of an episode we witnessed a few years ago, and since we never figured out a satisfactory response, it would be particularly interesting to hear your opinions.

There’s a high-ranking politician speaking in front of an equally high-ranking international audience, and a guy stands next to him doing consecutive interpreting. TV crews are present; it is not a private meeting: many people are going to see it. Everything goes smoothly until the point where…

“We need to reach a compromise,” says the politician in his language.

“We need to reach a compromise,” says the interpreter in English.

“It’s middle ground,” barks the politician at the interpreter right there, in front of everybody. “Compromise, that’s when somebody is discredited.”

The scene was later featured in a TV story on how interpreters screw up whenever they get a chance, even at the top level. Apparently, it never occurred to anybody to question the remark. (Remember we mentioned shared reputation?)

So the question is, can you suggest an elegant way for the interpreter to avoid looking like an idiot while not making the important client look like an idiot either?

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Five issues you may be facing, three solutions for each, skipping the most obvious like “get yourself a website” or “carry business cards just in case.” We are sure you have dozens more suggestions, and we are hoping you’ll share some of them in the comments.

Clients don’t know you exist.

  • Target your marketing efforts correctly – at potential clients, not at other translators.
  • Have others market your services. For example, if you do websites, team up with web design studios; if you do interpreting, ask hotels in your area how you can get them to recommend you when their guests need an interpreter, and so on.
  • Choose a small market, get universally known to its players, then spread from there. For example, at first, target only automotive spare parts suppliers in your area. Advertise in whatever press they read, write guest posts for their blogs, attend their events, etc. The small scale makes it possible to be on everybody’s radar all the time. Then expand into other geographical markets, markets for related products (e.g. cars), etc.

Clients forgot you exist.

  • Write a white paper. Make sure it is relevant and more insightful than “It is very important to hire a professional translator because having your translations handled professionally is very important.” E-mail an excerpt to clients from whom you haven’t heard in a while, together with an invitation to read the rest on your website. Be prepared: if the white paper is the only interesting thing there, the effect will not last long.
  • Invite clients to participate in a short survey that will help you improve. Try something like this: “If you could change one thing about any aspect of our services, what would it be?” Offer a relevant reward to all respondents or a few randomly selected winners (e.g. a credit towards their next purchase). Stop screaming “I don’t work for free!” right now. It is not work done for free. It is how you buy information and remind clients of your existence when cash is tight. There is no way this is going to decrease the perceived value of your services. Then analyze the feedback, make appropriate changes and report the news to clients.
  • Announce a new service. Something simple, like turnkey solutions offered through partnership with a DTP expert or over-the-phone interpreting in addition to face-to-face, is better than nothing, but hardly memorable. Get creative and come up with something innovative. Keep an eye on what others do in unrelated industries, it is often a good source of inspiration. The new service doesn’t have to be a cash cow. The primary objective is to get people to talk about you in a good way and demonstrate your ability and desire to adapt.

Clients don’t trust you.

  • Encourage word of mouth. When somebody else says you are good and doesn’t get a commission for that, it is a much more credible message.
  • Meet potential clients in person, preferably in settings where you can demonstrate your fluency in different languages. Many people, especially those who didn’t start using technology when they were still wearing diapers, are more comfortable doing business with human beings rather than pixels.
  • Look and sound professional both in real life and online. While a sleek website does not guarantee smooth cooperation, one with white text in Comic Sans against yellow background decorated with blinking images of puppies and a photo of you at the age of two clearly spells trouble.

You are a pain to deal with.

  • Remember this is not war and clients are not your enemy. Your attitude should be “I am here to help you solve a problem at a fee,” not “It is insulting that I have to work when Paris Hilton gets paid just for showing up at parties, so at least make it painless for me.” When a client does something you don’t like (calls at 7 p.m. on a Friday, asks whether you can translate 20,000 words by tomorrow…), it is probably not because she secretly hates you. React accordingly.
  • Be a valuable resource. When you are not available for a project, recommend somebody else. If you encounter logical or factual errors in a document you’ve been hired to translate, let the client know. Stick to Google’s philosophy: don’t be evil.
  • Be flexible. If a client asks for daily project status updates, spare him the lecture on how this will distract you from work. If he wants you to use his company’s internal terminology instead of standard vocabulary, do him that favor. If need be, make it clear where you draw the line,* but don’t decline reasonable requests merely for the sake of having everything your way.

* Once, upon delivery of a translation about one page long, we were asked to explain each word choice. That’s a good example of a situation that justifies a no.

Clients can get what you are offering elsewhere more cheaply.

  • Play up the uniqueness of your USP. Make it clear exactly why your services, while more expensive, are also more valuable. Build your marketing efforts around that point, so it can’t be missed.
  • Focus on a niche market where low costs are not a priority and establish yourself as a guru there. Consider this story from another industry: it illustrates how this can and should be done.
  • Get additional qualifications and set up a business where translation is only part of the process, for example, an advertising agency specializing in local campaigns for international companies (localize copy, arrange production, get placement, etc.).


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Quick links

  1. 75 Big Marketing Ideas for Small Marketing Budgets. Not all are applicable to translators, but quite a few are.

  2. An oldie but goodie to complement the above: 12 innovative, budget-friendly marketing techniques from the Forbes.

  3. You are what you speak: a nice, if a bit technical, article on language diversity in the New Scientist.

  4. How language reflects the balance of good and bad in the world, a curious quick read.

  5. “Meanness is the market’s way of coping with a bad situation,” argues the ever insightful Bryan Caplan. A universal observation that obviously holds true in the translation market.


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So, he conducted another study where he had two men solve puzzles. At the end, one of them was randomly awarded a large sum of money. The observers were told the reward was completely random.

Still, when asked later to evaluate the two men, people said the one who got the award was smarter, more talented, better at solving puzzles and more productive.

A giant amount of research has been done since his studies, and most psychologists have come to the same conclusion: You want the world to be fair, so you pretend it is.

This is from yesterday’s post over at You Are Not So Smart covering what essentially is one of the many flavors of the well-known Matthew Effect.

Lesson? Do not whine. Yes, it is perfectly possible that you haven’t succeeded (yet) for reasons that are beyond your control. But people tend to believe it is your fault even if they know for sure it is not.

Tell us about your successes. When you encounter an obstacle, tell us how you’ve overcome it. No need to try and persuade the market you are unwanted only because the world is unfair. Few clients will be willing to check for themselves whether this is indeed the case.

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First off: boy, did we hit a nerve with our first post. The plan was to keep posting for a while, then start spreading the word when we had some content for visitors to browse around. Instead, the word spread itself and we got 500+ views in the first 24 hours plus comments that provide plenty of food for thought.

Lesson: never plan. (Just kidding.)

In his comment, José Henrique Lamensdorf made two remarkably important points. We are going to disagree with one and agree with the other.

(For non-translators among us: José Henrique is an excellent example of a translator who does know how to market himself. Pretty much everybody in the industry knows this name.)

The machine translation argument is the part where we can only nod in agreement: yes, MT is good, and yes, exactly for the reason specified.

We witnessed a certain degree of panic and denial when statistical translation came about. Being predominantly employed to translate things that otherwise would not be translated at all, it hasn’t noticeably changed the landscape so far. In its current state it is seldom useful, but it must be getting better.

It will eventually — we think, pretty soon — get good enough to handle all basic translation projects that do not require specialist knowledge, thus eliminating translators lacking such knowledge from the market and making it clear to clients exactly why they are expected to pay a decent professional fee when they do need a human translator.

Consider photography as an illustration (pun unintended). In most cases, the pics you take with your phone cam are just fine, and you wouldn’t hire a photographer to create a visual memoir of you hanging out with friends at the local pub anyway. If you do enroll a pro, it’s because you need something she can do and you can’t, and you know it, so there’s no need to explain the difference.



As to this whole pricing thing, it is not that simple. Translators are actually not unique in letting clients set prices: you’ll find a handful of even more extreme variations of that practice here. Admittedly, in other markets it is nowhere near as widespread as in ours and constitutes a promotional device rather than a component of a business model. The question, then, is how it happens that in translation, prices are so often determined on the buyer’s side, and the story goes like this.

Buyers in every market, not only in ours, naturally prefer to get what they want as cheaply as possible, but, assuming that what they want is reasonably specific, they do not start out with a particular budget in mind. Exceptions like college students who want their iPhone app UI localized for the price of two hamburgers are negligible.

In an efficient market, a buyer would shop around, find a few translators who are equally right for the job (we’ll not elaborate on this part for now, or this post will be endless) and go for the cheapest. No price setting by clients in this scenario: they’ll save what they can, but that’s business as usual.

However, most translators don’t bother to market their services and are therefore hard to find, so the easiest option for a buyer is to contact an agency. Agencies do not compete on the quality of translation services, because they all outsource work to basically the same pool of freelancers — or, as they prefer to put it, have thousands of brilliantly qualified translators in their databases.

If we apply this model to the home electronics analogy that triggered this discussion, here is what we’ll get: you walk into a local Best Buy store and find it empty. A manager approaches you with a friendly smile and asks how he can help you. “You’d like a television? Congratulations, you’ve come to the right place. We get our TVs from the best manufacturers out there. We carefully select them. All their engineers have PhDs from Ivy League universities.”

Sounds nice, especially if you forget for a minute that talk is cheap; but it is the fifth showroom you have visited today, and you’ve been told exactly the same things in each. How do you choose? The situation is further complicated by two unusual circumstances.

First, the identity of TV makers is a secret. There are no brands. You can’t buy a TV just like the one you saw at a friend’s home, because there’s no way to identify the device.

Second, — a bit of a stretch of imagination when it comes to electronics, but a reality when it comes to translation, — there are barely any product features you can specifically describe. You can and do have requirements that you’d like the manufacturer to meet, which is how you would choose where to buy if there were no distributor in the middle. The interaction being anonymous, you can state your demands, but can’t check whether the store complied.

So, what happens next in our showroom…

…or at our agencies? They compete on what is left: the quality of project management, which is hard to reliably demonstrate in advance, and prices. It is at this point that the rate that would later be imposed on a translator is established: with no other verifiable information to discuss, agencies suggest budgets. As we said above, all else being equal, a rational buyer will go for the cheapest option. As we also said above, at this stage all is equal for the buyer.

The next step is the translation market’s very own variation of the Ultimatum Game where Player A suggests a way to split the money to a crowd of Players F and gets his own portion unless they all reject the offer.

So the short answer is, clients do not set prices. Agencies do: their incentives are different. This headache is so widespread that economists gave it its own name: the principal-agent problem. The principal in our case is the buyer, but it is still in translators’ best interest to find a solution, if we want to be expected to meet buyers’ requirements and not agencies’.


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