Executive Function Skills as a Predictor of Translation Ability

Last Fall, I conducted a survey in which the participants were asked to complete 3 cognitive tests. The purpose of this informal research project was to find out more about the X-factor that sets apart skilled translators from other bilinguals (see my previous two posts). The test results suggest that translation ability requires highly developed executive function skills.

These results were also published today in the Bulletin, the bimonthly journal of the Institute of Translation and Interpretation in the UK. The editors rewrote text in the article somewhat to suit their style and guidelines, and it is their policy to not include references. So for the sake of completeness, here is the original text complete with footnotes.


This project was inspired by a study commissioned by the FBI on what it takes to be a translator.1  The FBI employs well over a thousand translators, and given the mission of the organization, “to protect the United States from threats both international and domestic”, the quality of the translations is obviously a crucial concern. Which leads to the logical question: how do you make sure that the translators are up to the job? The FBI study set out to determine whether high scores on language comprehension tests equate translation ability. The study concluded, to the surprise of no translator anywhere, that this is not the case, and that translation ability was an additional “X-factor” that could only be assessed by means of an actual translation test.

Although the FBI study may seem a bit like kicking in an open door, it addresses a valid concern. Language comprehension tests are objective and can be graded by anyone with the answer sheet. Translation tests are trickier because more subjective, and they have to be assessed by another translator specialized in the same language pair. A large organization whose primary business is not translation cannot be blamed for trying to find the most efficient way to test for this skill.

Previous research

But what if there was a way to test for objective predictors of translation ability? The invention of functional MRI (fMRI) in 1990 made it possible for researchers to measure and map brain activity, and by 2012 it had already been used in almost 250,000 studies cognitive neuroscience and other fields.2 As it happens, a handful of these fMRI studies focused specifically on what happens in the brain during translation activity. This is what these studies found:

  1. Translating activates different parts of the brain than learning or using a second language.3 This confirms the findings of the FBI study. It may seem counterintuitive, since you can’t translate without using language, but the phenomenon is not unique: MRI scans have shown that mathematicians use an entirely different part of the brain to think about advanced math problems than the areas associated with learning math and performing basic operations.4 Obviously the basics have to be mastered first, but just as not everyone who passes a calculus class is a mathematician, not everyone who speaks a second language is a translator.
  2. Although the findings of the fMRI studies on translation activity were not identical, there was significant overlap: all the studies observed activation in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and the basal ganglia (in particular the caudate nucleus and the putamen).5,6

So what do we know about these areas of the brain? Once again, fMRI studies prove helpful. The ACC is involved in “high-level processing (in outcome/error monitoring and action planning”.7 The caudate nucleus and the putamen are necessary for “attention, controlled retrieval, and monitoring of information within working memory”.8 These brain functions are “cognitive mechanisms by which performance is optimized in situations requiring the simultaneous operation of a number of different processes. They are regularly called upon when sequences of responses must be generated and scheduled, and when novel plans of action must be formulated and conducted”.9

Together, these abilities are commonly referred to as executive function or executive control.


I think that the elusive X-factor referred to in the FBI study is highly developed executive control. And executive control is something that can, in fact, be tested. Various cognitive assessments have been developed over the years that focus on specific executive functions. So if translation is characterized by the activation of brain areas involved in executive control, translators should perform well on these cognitive assessments.

Assessment tool

To test this idea, I used software from PsyToolkit10,11 to create a short online survey with three standard cognitive assessment games that are known to recruit the ACC and the basal ganglia.12,13,14

  • The Stroop test

In this test, subjects are presented with a list of words for colors, and the words themselves are printed in various colors. The subjects are asked to name the color the word is printed in. The idea is that it’s much more difficult to name the color when the word itself spells out a different color, because our brains are so conditioned to read text. This difficulty is called “Stroop interference”. The more well developed the subject’s executive function (specifically inhibitory control), the fewer mistakes he or she will make.

  • The Flanker task

In this test, subjects have to respond to a central stimulus (usually a letter or an arrow), which is “flanked” on either side by other stimuli that are irrelevant but still interfere with the response. Again, lower error rate means better inhibitory control.

  • The Wisconsin Card Sorting test

In this test, subjects are presented with consecutive sets of cards. They have to pick a card and then they are told whether or not their selection is correct. Based on the feedback, the subject has to figure out the unspoken rule, which is to select a card based on color, shape or number. Once the subject figures out the rule, he or she will pick the right cards until the rule is changed. At that point, the subject has to figure out the new rule, and so on. The first guess is by definition random, the second guess has a 50% chance of being correct, but after that the correct answer should be clear. The index for executive control is response time and error rate for the third guess.


To compare translators with the general population, I asked translators and a control group of non-translators to complete the survey. I received responses from 331 translators and 60 non-translators. I also asked the translators to specify their years of experience and the non-translators to specify their occupation. This enabled me to see whether performance on the cognitive tests was related to years of translation experience, and how translators compared to specific professions in terms of the results. I also removed a few outlier responses (for example from respondents who failed to answer questions or didn’t complete the tests).

Survey results

The mean response times and Stroop interference were slightly higher for translators than for the control group. This is not surprising, since translation by definition requires a laser focus on the meaning of text, so it will take even more effort to focus on other aspects. However, what matters here is the mean error rate, the index of inhibitory control. And we see that despite increased interference, the error rate for translators was less than half of that of the control group.

In this task, in which the translators were not hampered by textual interference, they were faster under both conditions with a significantly lower error rate than the control group, suggesting more effective inhibitory control.

The mean response time for translators was lower when figuring out the rule, with a steeper drop in response time when they moved from guessing to certainty, and an error rate that was 5 times lower than that of the control group.


The survey results support the idea that translators have highly developed executive function skills, as they scored consistently higher than the control group in all index categories for executive control.

To refine the results, I also compared the performance of the translators with that of the highest-scoring control participants. The controls with the highest scores worked in fields related to research/science and engineering. I found that the translator results were on par with the results for those participants. This suggests that translation and those particular fields require the same type of executive ability, applied to different problems.

Interestingly, there was no correlation between translator scores and years of translation experience. This could also be an indication that executive function is a separate, underlying trait that is a predictor for translation ability, not something that develops as a result of translation experience.

Due to the relatively small sample size and the limited scope of the assessment it would be premature to draw any definite conclusions at this point, but it does seem to me that the results are interesting enough to warrant further research to confirm the existence of this “Executive Factor”.


1 Brooks, Rachel Lunde, and Maria Brau. “Testing the Right Skill: Evidence to Support Testing Translation Ability.” Linguistica Antverpiensia, New Series – Themes in Translation Studies. Accessed January 10, 2021. https://lans-tts.uantwerpen.be/index.php/LANS-TTS/article/view/448.

2 Glover GH; “Overview of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging,” Neurosurgery clinics of North America (U.S. National Library of Medicine), accessed January 10, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21435566/.

3 Price CJ;Green DW;von Studnitz R; “A Functional Imaging Study of Translation and Language Switching,” Brain : a journal of neurology (U.S. National Library of Medicine), accessed January 10, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10581218/. – Cathy J. Price et al. – Brain (1999), 122

4 “in professional mathematicians, a specific set of areas was activated when they were thinking about math problems. […] These areas weren’t activated by non-math problems, and were not activated in the non-mathematicians who treated complex mathematical statements as gibberish.” Price CJ;Green DW;von Studnitz R; “A Functional Imaging Study of Translation and Language Switching,” Brain : a journal of neurology (U.S. National Library of Medicine), accessed January 10, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10581218/.”).

5 Keerthi Ramanujan, Man Wai Kong, and Brendan Weekes, “An FMRI Study of Executive Control during Translation and Oral Reading in Cantonese-English Bilingual Speakers,” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 11 (2017), https://doi.org/10.3389/conf.fnhum.2017.223.00040.

6 Price CJ;Green DW;von Studnitz R; “A Functional Imaging Study of Translation and Language Switching,” Brain : a journal of neurology (U.S. National Library of Medicine), accessed January 10, 2021, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/10581218/. – Cathy J. Price et al. – Brain (1999), 122

7 Bush et al., 2000

8 Sandra E Leh, Michael Petrides, and Antonio P Strafella, “The Neural Circuitry of Executive Functions in Healthy Subjects and Parkinson’s Disease,” Neuropsychopharmacology 35, no. 1 (May 2009): pp. 70-85, https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2009.88, p.4

9 Sandra E Leh, Michael Petrides, and Antonio P Strafella, “The Neural Circuitry of Executive Functions in Healthy Subjects and Parkinson’s Disease,” Neuropsychopharmacology 35, no. 1 (May 2009): pp. 70-85, https://doi.org/10.1038/npp.2009.88, p.1

10 Stoet, G. (2010). PsyToolkit – A software package for programming psychological experiments using Linux. Behavior Research Methods, 42(4), 1096-1104.

11 Stoet, G. (2017). PsyToolkit: A novel web-based method for running online questionnaires and reaction-time experiments. Teaching of Psychology, 44(1), 24-31.

12 “Performance of the conventional Stroop specifically activated the anterior cingulate, insula, premotor and inferior frontal regions.” Hoi-Chung Leung et al., “Event-Related Functional MRI Study of the Stroop Color Word Interference Task,” OUP Academic (Oxford University Press, June 1, 2000), https://academic.oup.com/cercor/article/10/6/552/347510.

13 “In an fMRI experiment [4] we observed increased BOLD activation in the caudate, anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), and superior and middle frontal gyri during performance of the flanker task.” Rajendra D Badgaiyan and David Wack, “Evidence of Dopaminergic Processing of Executive Inhibition,” PloS one (Public Library of Science, 2011), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22162756. 14 “Poor WCST performers had a reduction of the left caudate nucleus and putamen, and right total striatum when compared to 24 healthy controls.” Paolo Stratta et al., “Association between Striatal Reduction and Poor Wisconsin Card Sorting Test Performance in Patients with Schizophrenia,” Biological Psychiatry (Elsevier, May 28, 1998), https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006322397000176.

Translation Brain: Finding the X-Factor

In my last post I talked about a research study commissioned by the FBI, of all organizations, on what it takes to be a good translator. The study concluded that speaking a second language is not a predictor of translation ability and that proficient translators possess a separate skill which the researchers literally referred to as an “X-factor”. Based on this discovery they concluded that candidate translators should be given actual translation tests and not simply be tested on language comprehension.

That got me thinking. On the one hand, we can all breathe a sigh of relief that the FBI, which relies on accurate information to make life-or-death decisions, has taken a giant step forward in making sure that their translators are actually up to the task. But why commit all this time and money to a study that is pretty much the equivalent of kicking in an open door?

I think the issue is not so much that the FBI was hugely surprised at this finding; in fact, I’m pretty sure they were not. I think the underlying problem they have been trying to solve has more to do with time, objectivity, and staffing. A multiple-choice vocabulary and reading comprehension test doesn’t take a lot of time to grade, the answers are objectively right or wrong, and anyone with the answer sheet can grade the test. An actual translation test takes a lot more time to assess, there are usually multiple ways to translate a sentence correctly, and the reviewer therefore needs to be a translator him/herself. And even then, as every translator knows, it’s notoriously hard for editors keep a firm handle on their own biases and not confuse subjective preference with objective error. It makes sense that an organization whose primary business is not translation would hope that a simple, straightforward language test would be an adequate way to test translation skills, and it speaks for them that they finally concluded that this was not the case.

But I think they stopped too soon. What they should be asking themselves is: what is this X-factor, exactly? And what if there was an objective way to test for this X-factor as a predictor of translation ability?

As it happens, a lot of research has been done on brain activity since the development of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), and researchers have been able to pinpoint exact areas of the brain that are activated during specific activities. As it further happens, several of these studies focused specifically on what happens in the brain during translation activity.

The first item of interest is that this imaging research confirms the conclusions of the FBI study, as stated for example in “Explore the Brain Activity During Translation and Interpreting Using Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy” by F.M. Lu et al.: “Interestingly it was found from previous work that the findings using the native language (L1) or the non-native language (L2) in different settings during monolingual communication is not the same as that from translating […] It follows that translation-specific processes cannot be directly inferred from research on, or models of the bilingual brain.”

Second, there are certain areas of the brain that are activated specifically during translation. Keerthi Ramanujan et al. concluded in “An fMRI Study of Executive Control During Translation and Oral Reading in Cantonese-English Bilingual Speakers” that “when translation and oral reading were contrasted, greater activation was found for translation in predicted brain areas of executive control e.g. caudate nucleus.”

Similarly, a study called “A Functional Imaging Study of Translation and Language Switching” by Cathy J. Price et al. found that “Translation, but not switching, increased activity in the anterior cingulate and subcortical structures whilst decreasing activation in several other temporal and parietal language areas associated with the meaning of words.”

Although this is by no means an exhaustive list, these fMRI studies agree that the anterior cingulate and specific subcortical structures (caudate nucleus and putamen) are activated during translation but not during monolinguistic tasks. What is interesting is that these areas are specifically devoted not to language but to functions such as attention control, working memory, planning, reasoning, cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, etc. — collectively referred to as executive control.

An analogy with mathematics might be helpful here. Einstein always maintained that his mathematical theories did not come to him in words but as non-verbal concepts and images. fMRI experiments have since confirmed this phenomenon. Researchers Stanislas Dehaene and Marie Almaric found that “in professional mathematicians, a specific set of areas was activated when they were thinking about math problems. […] These areas weren’t activated by non-math problems, and were not activated in the non-mathematicians who treated complex mathematical statements as gibberish.” (“Origins of the Brain Networks for Advanced Mathematics in Expert Mathematicians”). It turns out that basic arithmetic facts and calculations are stored in the left parietal lobe, while complex mathematical reasoning activates the right parietal lobe.

In the same way, linguistic facts and rules are not stored in the same areas that are activated for more complex translation processes. Ergo, reading comprehension and vocabulary tests are not predictors for translation ability.

I think that the elusive “X-factor” is a highly developed executive-function area (in particular the anterior cingulate, putamen and caudate nucleus). And that is something you can actually test. In fact, there are scores of psychoneurological tests that focus on specific brain activities, including executive functioning. My guess is that certain types of executive function tests will yield different results for translators, bilingual non-translators and monolingual non-translators.

To test this idea, I set up a short online survey with three standard cognitive assessment games that are associated with different parts of the brain. The whole thing takes about 10 minutes, and my hope is to get enough participants from all three categories to tell me whether I’m on to something or completely off-base.

Please click here or on the link below to take the survey, and kindly forward this to anyone else you think might be interested! One thing: I apologize in advance for the chipmunk voice in the second game; that’s not me being weird, it’s the sound effect that came with the game!

Once I collect enough data I will be back with the results.

Thank you and have fun!

Go to Translation Brain survey

The X-Factor

As every translator knows, the bane of our existence is a common perception that anyone who has taken a semester of Spanish in high school or spent a year in France can be a translator. This sad state of affairs is not helped by the proliferation of sketchy, bottom-feeder “start earning money working from home!” translation platforms and uninformed popular notions about the use(fulness) of machine translation. But now help has arrived in the form of an unexpected ally: the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation, better known as the FBI.

The FBI, whose mission is to protect American citizens and uphold the constitution of the United States, uses contract linguists to translate documents, interpret during interviews with subjects of an investigation or visits from foreign dignitaries, and provide cultural expertise to assess and mitigate threats to our national security. Translation (or interpretation) errors can have fatal consequences, so flawless performance is of the utmost importance.

So not surprisingly, the path to becoming a qualified FBI linguist is long and arduous, including extensive written and oral testing, background checks, polygraph tests and drug tests. Multiply all this paperwork by thousands of candidates over the course of decades, and you have a huge pile of data ripe for meta-analysis just sitting there — until recently.

After many years of spending a lot of time and money on vetting translators, the FBI realized that their tests did not, in fact, guarantee quality translations. So they commissioned a team to analyze the test data to find out what, if anything, was missing in their testing procedures. The results were published in 2017 in Linguistica Antverpiensia as Testing the Right Skill: Evidence to Support Testing Translation Ability.

The traditional assumption had been that the only requirements for translation were reading comprehension in the source language and writing ability in the target language. However, they found that this was not actually the case. Analysis showed that reading comprehension and writing ability were necessary but not sufficient:

In conclusion, the data support the assertion that reading ability in the SL and writing ability in the TL are prerequisites for translation ability, but they are not substitutes for measures of translation ability. The inability to read the SL or write the TL will predict low translation ability; however, high reading and writing abilities also cannot predict translation ability. Therefore, the ability to exercise congruity judgement is a latent variable that plays an integral role.

Apparently, proficient translators also possessed an X-factor called “congruity judgement”, which was defined as “the ability to choose equivalent expressions in the target language that best match the meaning intended in the source language.” Somewhat of a “duh” statement if you’re a translator reading this, but apparently a major revelation even to an organization with one of the most long-standing, stringent translator vetting procedures in the business.

In any case, they did figure it out in the end and not only that, but their research has given us more hard data to use instead of ineffective defensive bleating at social and professional gatherings. So on behalf of a grateful nation of translators, we thank you, FBI researchers, for your service.

Do the Next Thing

julentto-photography-CIuakYIjadc-unsplashHaving made it through this corona-ridden year relatively unscathed so far, I have now been staring at an empty inbox for the past two weeks and I’m getting nervous. I tell myself to take a deep breath and turn off the mental PowerPoint presentation with the colorful graphs presenting these past two weeks as a firm projection for the next two years in relation to mounting bills and unexpected major expenses. Like all freelancers I’ve been through this before and new projects inevitably come rolling in again, although the global situation right now is a little more unusual an uncertain than before. All the same, I know what to do. The strategy is simple and can be summarized as follows: do the next thing.

I didn’t come up with that and I first heard about it in the context of grieving. When things are tough and uncertain, just think of one small thing you can do, and do that. Make your bed. Go to the grocery store. Or in business terms: take care of invoices. Sign up for a professional development course. Write a blog post. When you’ve done that, think of the next thing and do that, and so on. Although each activity may seem small and unimportant, collectively they gradually bring about positive internal and external changes. Small actions can make a significant difference over time.

I’ve seen it in my own life. At some point during my early years as a translator, I realized after a conversation with a project manager that the low-paying agencies I was working for were never going to increase their rates, and that I would have to make some changes on my own if I wanted to earn more. So I did the next thing: I got my ATA certification. Followed by the next thing: pay a designer to create a professional website. And the next thing: marketing myself more intentionally. The immediate benefits were that I found better clients who were willing to pay for quality. That was great and as planned. What I did not foresee, though, were the long-term benefits of those actions.

When AB5 (the union-backed travesty that prohibits businesses in California from working with freelancers) took effect on January 1, several of my clients told me they couldn’t work with me anymore unless I incorporated. A ridiculous technicality since there is no change to the actual work or the business relationship, but a lifeline nonetheless, which I grabbed. During the hastily arranged appointment with my accountant to set up my LLC, I had to register the name of my company. Thankfully, I had already settled on Calliope Translations when I got my website so I didn’t have to come up with something on the spot — a good thing because spontaneous creativity is not my forte and the results could have been less than optimal.

Since then, the uproar over AB5 has continued and exemptions have been granted to various professions. Translators and interpreters have been fighting for an exemption as well but as it stands now, the AB 1850 amendment that is up for a vote includes an exemption for certified translators only. There is absolutely no logic to this, because the stated aim of AB5 is to encourage companies to hire freelancers as employees but it’s exactly the uncertified who would be at a disadvantage when competing for those jobs. Freelancing offers much more freedom to find clients and build your business on your own terms. But that’s a whole different issue. The point here is that I’m grateful that the decision I made many years ago to get certified is now instrumental, in an entirely unexpected way, in keeping my business afloat.

So I try to maintain the discipline of finding “the next thing” to do in these uncertain times. Take an online course. Double down on marketing. Judging from other blog posts I’m not alone in this, and several colleagues have been inspirational in this regard. Judy Jenner, for example, is embracing the challenge of working with the interpretation function in Zoom and sharing what she learns with others in recent blog posts. Or Claire Cox, who has been sharing honest accounts of life in quarantine and what she is doing to make the best of circumstances beyond her control. And just today another colleague, Jennifer Goforth Gregory, shared similar experiences on her blog. She also had the great idea of doing a survey to find out how other translators have been doing this year; you can read her post and the first survey results here.

And I try to resist those mental worst-case PowerPoint presentations. Granted, there are times when you have to face the fact that the most unpleasant explanation is the correct one, i.e. your pants are not tight because you put them in the dryer, they are tight because of those donuts you’ve been eating. In my case, the lack of projects these past two weeks could be because all my clients have all gone simultaneously bankrupt / decided they don’t want to work with me anymore / have all been bought up by Google in a hostile takeover and Gurgle translation is the only thing they offer now. Or, more likely, work is slowing down due to Covid-19 closures; many courts are closed, for example, so no litigation and no briefs that need to be translated. Not all that great either, but temporary and survivable.


To be continued . . .

The Success Fairy and Real-Life Strategies for Tough Times

fairy3In show business there is something called a “bad laugh”. Legendary movie critic Roger Ebert described it as “the laugh you don’t want to get, because it indicates not amusement but incredulity, nervousness or disapproval.” In the translation business we have our share of bad laughs as well. They’re usually just private giggles, for example when a typo in a dry financial document turns an innocent word into a completely inappropriate one. Unless you don’t catch it, of course, and the PowerPoint document, now on the big screen at a conference, results in a very bad laugh and a fired translator.

Most often, though, bad laughs are the just rewards for cheapskates who use non-translators or machine translations for their very public communications. Save money once, be immortalized in “hilariously bad translation” memes forever.

But then there are those rare, shining occasions where a mistake slips in that actually takes the text to a whole new philosophical level. I was working on a court case the other day in which two big companies were fighting over – what else – huge stacks of money. Now I like to use my CAT tool for legal translations because even though it’s not much help for the body of the text, the translation memory saves a lot of time with the standard phrases and labyrinthian terminology in these types of documents. The case involved one company suing another for not paying the agreed fee upon successful completion of the project. The thing is that the Dutch text used the English term “Success Fee” throughout. And my happy CAT tool, assuming it was encountering a Dutch term, suggested the translation “Success Fairy”. Because “fee” in Dutch is “fairy”.

FairyI was sold immediately. Success Fairy? I’m in! No longer was I toiling to help one megacorp relieve another of hard-earned cash; I was on a quest to liberate the Success Fairy from villains holding her captive in their corporate dungeon. It was the most inspiring court case I’ve ever translated, even if the excitement was all in my own head and I regretfully had to “find & replace” all the fairies with boring fees at the end.

Now I want a Success Fairy too. Don’t we all? Especially in this time of crisis when work has dried up for many due to closures or cancellations, and when hard work is no guarantee of income because invoices don’t get paid. Freelancers here in California are reeling from the double whammy of projects beings cancelled due to Covid-19 and being blacklisted anyway because of AB5, which penalizes companies for hiring California freelancers.

It would be nice if there really was a success fairy who leaves money under your pillow when you lose a job. In the meantime, you do what you can. I can only speak for my particular niche of translators based in California, but here are some things I’m doing to stay afloat while the storms rage.

With regard to AB5: the language of the bill is complex and confusing. In some places it seems to claim that simply being a sole proprietor is enough to be exempt from the law, and I have at least one client who was satisfied with that. If you’re a sole proprietor in California and you’ve lost clients because of this law, it might be worth it to reach out and see if they’d be satisfied with sole proprietorship status as well.

However, many companies will no longer work with California freelancers unless they incorporate. So that’s what I did. It’s a hassle and it’s expensive, but the $800 annual fee has already paid for itself by helping me retain my best client. You can do it yourself online, but I recommend paying a tax advisor to help you through it. Some of the questions are not that easy to answer if you don’t know what you’re doing, and you probably don’t need any additional stress during difficult times.

Now, you might be thinking that you also don’t need an $800 extra expense during difficult times, but the fee is not due until the annual renewal date the first time. Of course, you do owe the fee for the first and second year if you take advantage of this delay, but it does give you some breathing room while you reconnect with old clients and find new ones. I look at the fee as a long-term investment.

Note: use a tax consultant, not a lawyer. The first lawyer I called wanted $1000 and he had no suggestions other than asking what my accountant thought I should do.  The tax consultant I found not only advised me on the best structure (one-member LLC) but completed the process online during our very first appointment. For a fraction of the lawyer’s fee, I might add.

If you’re a California-based translator you may also want to consider joining a translation association in your source country if you haven’t already. Potential clients in other countries couldn’t care less about AB5, but they don’t necessarily know about the ATA and may be more likely to check translator directories in their own country. So I recently started the process of joining the NGTV, the Dutch version of the ATA. There are a lot of hoops to jump through; they require references, documentation, diplomas and transcripts, sealed versions of which have to be ordered, then translated, then evaluated by an international diploma assessment organization, etc. etc. All this by regular mail, back and forth across the ocean. I started the process a few months ago and don’t expect to hear anything before June. But again: long-term investment.

With regard to Covid-19: translation is a great profession to be in, especially right now since most of our work is online. Still, some translation fields have been affected more than others, travel and tourism in particular. My specialty is medical and legal documents, and I’ve seen a drop in legal assignments as many courts are limiting or completely suspending their operations. But medical care is always essential and even more so in times of crisis, so I’ve been busy as ever with medical projects. I know it’s easier said than done, and I’m not advocating taking on projects you’re not qualified for, but see if there are translation fields that have been less affected by the pandemic that you might explore. They are out there.

If you’d like to weigh in on how your work has been affected and how you’ve been coping, I’d be very happy to hear from you. We can all use advice and encouragement or even just a place to vent in these challenging times. I’m not holding my breath for the Success Fairy, but when I see people everywhere using creativity and ingenuity to connect, survive, and overcome obstacles, I think we may just make it with good old hard work and perseverance after all.



AB5: an Orwellian “Opportunity”

2+2=5As if this world wasn’t Orwellian enough already, with the effects of our 21st-century versions of the “1984” Ministries of Love, Peace, Plenty and Truth on the news every day, our California legislators have managed to come up with a new one: the Ministry of Opportunity, designed to “protect” freelancers by putting them out of business. I am talking of course about AB5, the new law forcing companies to reclassify freelancers as employees, which went into effect on January 1.

Yes, we get it; the law was designed specifically to make it harder for Uber and Lyft to skirt labor laws by treating their drivers, who are employees in all but name, as freelancers.  This makes sense for freelancers whose work requires them to be physically in California, which means that the company would not be able to simply hire someone who lives in a different state.

But translators (among many other freelance professions that operate on a similar model) and their clients are not bound by geographic location, since projects are assigned and delivered by email. So it’s as easy as “click send” to assign a translation to someone in Texas or the Netherlands who is not hampered by ridiculous laws and won’t expose them to the threat of future legal action.

Another issue is that most translators work for many different clients, since no single agency has enough projects to add up to a full-time job in most cases. So even if every agency would by some miracle agree to enter into employment contracts with its translators, translators would be getting a salary and benefits from 20 employers. Yes, I’m sure that will be excellent for the economy and not lead to higher prices at all. What an Opportunity all around.

The sponsor of the bill, assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), has consistently responded to the firestorm of concern with a few standard phrases that offer empty reassurance, misrepresent the facts and deny the actual consequences experienced by actual people as a result of her meddling:

  •  “If you are a true independent proprietor, you can still operate as one.” Reassuring words, but the devil, as usual, is in the details. Note that you have to be a “true” independent proprietor, which, surprise, is subject to a long list of criteria that is so complex and confusing that many translation agencies have stopped working with California-based freelancers out of fear of inadvertently breaking the law and being held liable later.
  • Independent contracting jobs or freelance jobs are “not good jobs to begin with.” Really? The median annual income for translators is about $50,000, with those at the top making more than twice that. Yes, I see how forcing companies to hire people at minimum wage would be a much better opportunity for translators with their no-good 6-figure jobs.
  • And in response to one particular translator who described her own experience since this law went into effect: “I’m sorry and I feel that she does feel that way. But I don’t think it is true.” No, I’m sure all those cancelled contract notices are entirely imaginary.

Thank you, Ministry of Opportunity, for your great and marvelous works on behalf of us poor saps who thought we were doing just fine on our own terms. We now understand that the old notion of equality of opportunity is unfair, that allowing people to hire whoever they want or to work for whoever they want creates an unacceptable difference in outcome. True equality can only come about when the law stamps out every unfair opportunity. But not for lawmakers themselves, of course. Because some are more equal than others.

AB5. The name could not be more perfect and unintentionally prophetic. In the final bleak chapter of Orwell’s 1984, the government agent holds up four fingers and “corrects” Winston’s thinking until he truly believes he is seeing five. I’m grateful for the many advocacy groups who are taking action by filing lawsuits, pressuring their representatives and challenging this law in other ways. With them, I still see four.

This was my venting post; thanks for listening. In my next post I’ll talk about my personal experiences with this law, changes I’ve had to make and what we can do as translators to challenge this law.

When the Shoe is on the Other Foot – 21 Days as an Undesirable Client

Reputation is everything in freelancing — and that goes for clients as well. In don’t know how it works in other industries, but the translation world is not that big and word gets around. This is especially true for agencies: there are various online groups, sites and forums for rating agencies and naming & shaming bad players. I’m not aware of any equivalent lists for translators, but I know that many agencies have internal rating systems for the people they work with and I’m sure project managers talk.

Still, lists and recommendations only cover a fraction of everyone out there, so most of us have kissed a few frogs in our search for Prince Charming Client who pays well and on time. After many years and thousands of email interactions with potential and actual clients, like many of you I have developed the gift of “instassessment”: the ability to see at a glance whether an offer is worth my time. It’s a sliding scale, and the classification is as follows:

Just No
Anything that does not address me by name, offers stupid low rates, or uses emoji’s in the subject line

If I Must
Pays well but the agency’s translation flow or online system is so burdensome and time-consuming it’s only worth the hassle if nothing better has presented itself. For a while.

If I Can
Well-paid but unenjoyable projects for good clients. Implementing track changes, “small” jobs that consist of multiple individual files, etc.

Yes Absolutely
Pays well, good communication, interesting projects. I have a few clients that fit this bill, and I will do whatever it takes to accommodate them.

Every morning I go through my inbox pretty quickly, ignoring, rejecting or accepting offers without too much deliberation since I know what I’m looking for and what I can handle on any given day.

And then one day the shoe was on the other foot. Because of some recent changes we no longer have health insurance through my husband’s job, and here in the US that means we are required to purchase our own insurance or face penalties at tax time. However, like many government programs, universal coverage is great idea in principle and a logistical nightmare in practice. As we found out in short order, Covered California, our state version of the federal program, is so difficult to navigate that you need professional help to do it, except the profit-to-hassle ratio for insurance agents is so unattractive that no one wants to touch it.

oliver twistSo instead of the smiles and friendly service we were used to with our old insurance, all of a sudden I got a lot of “just no’s”. For three weeks I talked to one agent after another who seemed happy to have my business until I dropped the CC-bomb, at which point they all of a sudden they remembered they were “not taking any new clients”. Or, if I had left a message on their machine, they did not return my call at all.

I did have a few “if I can” responses: these were agents I had worked with before and who were willing to help in principle, but when they realized they were in over their heads they either stopped returning my calls or told me good luck but try someone else.

I was getting close to desperate when on day 21, literally hours before the deadline, a miracle happened and I found an agent who told me she could help. Shann met with me right away, powered through the application and got us on a plan that was a third of the cheapest quote I got (for the same plan) when I submitted the form myself. To say I was impressed would be putting it mildly. This business woman has created a niche specialty by working just a little harder than everyone else to figure out a daunting system, and now she’s cleaning up with all those clients no one else can help.

It was a sobering experience to go from “preferred customer” to “undesirable”, just like that. I also realized that it was not the “just no” responses that really bothered me; at least the message was clear and it was nothing personal. I had no particular expectations from any of them anyway; that’s why I sent out so many requests.

It was harder to swallow when an agent I had always had a good relationship with promised me he would be able to help me for sure, but then he disappeared for two weeks before finally sending me a link to some online plans I could have googled myself in 10 seconds. The tone of his email had also changed from super helpful to curt and impersonal. Did he just feel bad he couldn’t deliver? I have no idea. But it felt worse than all the straightforward rejections from everyone else.

Generally, the more you are invested in a relationship, whether business or personal, the stronger the sense (and expectation) of obligation. That’s why I don’t feel bad for ignoring emails from agencies that that keep contacting me with jobs at subpar rates after we have had the “we’re not a good match” conversation. Or the requests for collaboration addressed to “dear linguist”. No relationship, no obligation.

But that’s why this stressful experience also highlights the power of “yes absolutely”. This agent did the hard work to specialize and carve out a niche, and now there are not too many people who can do what she does. I was thrilled when I found her and I have been recommending her to anyone who will listen ever since. That’s how I want my clients to feel about me.  But it takes work. A lot of people have the capability. Not everyone is willing to go that extra mile.

Anything Can Happen … But We’ll Probably Be Alright

Everything will be alrightI don’t really buy magazines, except for the “Best and Worst” issues; I’m a sucker for those. Most Awkward Moments of 2017? Worst Dressed at the Oscars? I want to know. And come on now, I know I’m not the only one. Chronicle editors, publish a “Best-Dressed at the ATA Conference” issue and see what happens to your numbers. Same for those tantalizing click-bait posts with catchy lists: 5 Worst Translation Blogs; 10 Guaranteed Ways to Find Direct Clients; 3 Mistakes That Will Torpedo Your Business — they’re the fun-size candy bars of the article world.

What makes these lists so enjoyable? Part of it is simply that they’re harmless fun disguised (very thinly) as informative pieces. They also wrap up the news, or the year, or our culture, in a tidy, manageable package. And that is appealing, because most of the world is not tidy or manageable or fun, for that matter, as we are constantly reminded by the never-ending, 24/7 global news cycle we’re exposed to. And our own lives, although hopefully manageable, are usually not tidy for very long.

Because life is change, and change is hard, and you don’t always see it coming. Or worse, it turns everything upside down forever. Last week, one of my son’s classmates from high school died from an OxyContin overdose. I didn’t know this boy personally, but it hit me hard, partly no doubt because he is the same age as my son and tragedies like this speak to every parent’s worst fear. It’s the sudden, horrific finality of it, and the knowledge that for this mom and dad, life will never, ever be alright again.

I know that this tragedy is not about me, but it still colors my perspective at the start of a new year. What helps me is to remember that most of the changes we will face this year will likely not be tragic but merely challenging, and that “things usually turn out alright and will probably turn out alright again.” This doesn’t sound very philosophical or profound, but I read it somewhere and it stuck with me, and it’s gotten me through some late-night vigils when my college-age sons were out late.

Regardless of New Year’s resolutions or 5-year plans, we don’t always get to pick our changes and we don’t always see them coming. But we can choose how we respond, and this is true in business as in life.

I’ve been inspired by some of you in this regard. In a recent post of his  Patenttranslator’s Blog Steve Vitek wrote about his response when Japanese patent translations started to dry up. Instead of giving up or passively accepting a drop in income, he changed course and found a different niche. In another post he described escaping from communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s and making his way to America, and I’m sure the resilience this required has served him well in his career.

The profession as a whole is going through some sea-changes as well, but it’s hard to tell if we’re up or down sometimes: depending on the headline, translators are thriving — no wait, we’re dying — no wait we’re fine. According to a report published by the University of California San Diego Extension Center for Research, Interpretation/Translation was the number one emerging career in terms of job growth in 2017. At the same time, there are many who are happy to explain that the era of human translation is drawing to an end and that our only hope is to “repurpose” ourselves as post-editors of machine translation. (I’m getting “Lord of the Rings” chills just writing that). Judging from the low median hourly earnings of $21.90 reported by UCSD, it could very well be that part of this reported growth is, in fact, in the post-editing/bulk market sector. So now what?

The thing about lists and statistics is that they offer only bite-sized bits of a bigger, more complex picture. For example, I’m a medical translator. The pharmaceutical industry is not likely to stop developing new drugs anytime soon, nor are they likely to risk killing people and lose billions of dollars’ worth of investments by cutting corners with machine translation of handwritten doctors’ scribbles. So these macrotrends are worth keeping an eye on, but not necessarily worth losing sleep over.

The actual changes that affect our careers are much more mundane and specific. For example, an agency I started working for many years ago sent out a mass e-mail asking us translators to lower our rates in light of the economic blah blah blah. I refused to do so, and I have noticed that most of their job offers since then have been for editing. Their strategy is obvious: have the translation done by a cheaper translator and then fix it up in the editing phase. Unfortunately, a) I don’t like editing, and b) the hourly rate paid by most agencies is about $50 at the most, which is much less than I make translating (paid per word, so they have no idea what hourly rate that converts to). So I reject these editing jobs, partly because I don’t like getting played, and partly because I usually have enough translation offers lined up to fill up my schedule.

Except … when I don’t. That’s when my faith in the overall stability of my life and my business is tested. As a matter of fact, I’m in the middle of one of those odd radio-silence weeks right now, when my inbox remains inexplicably empty. This has happened a few times over the years, so I’m learning. The first time I panicked, the second time I cleaned the garage while panicking, and this time I made myself a nice hot cup of coffee and started writing this post, knowing that this, too, shall pass.

I will face challenges and changes this year. And so will you.
But I think we’ll be okay.

When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill


There are countless ways to mess up your business, but here is one sure-fire method: just base your decisions on presumptions and disaster is sure to follow. There are various degrees of presumption, of course, and to be honest I’ve been guilty of a few.

An example of the mildest form of presumption is the mistakes you make when you’re learning a new language and confidence skips merrily ahead of skill.

When I had been living in the US for about a year, I was introduced by my friend Peter to someone he had told me about a few times. Continue reading

Translation: the Business of Belonging

belongingOne of the more awkward moments in my life was dealt to me inadvertently by a close friend many years ago. We had dropped in to admire some handcrafted jewelry in a shop here in California, and she discovered that the owner/artist was Dutch like me. So she called me over excitedly to “speak Dutch” with him, and then left us to it while she stood there, beaming expectantly. The thing is, it was pretty obvious that we both felt put on the spot but we didn’t want to be churlish either, so we performed a forced little conversation about how long have you lived here, where in Holland are you from, do you like it here, can we gracefully wrap this up now.

Why was this so awkward? Continue reading