A strong media presence is essential if you want to succeed as a freelancer. About a year ago I decided to get serious about growing my business, and that meant taking some very intentional marketing steps. I Got my ATA certification, picked a business name, hired professional designers for a logo and website, started a blog, joined Twitter and LinkedIn and started engaging with colleagues on professional platforms.
It took a lot of effort, time and money, but it’s finally starting to pay off. My average income right now is 150% of what it was before my media campaign. Plus, I’m getting to know people in the larger translation community which is a lot of fun when you mostly work alone.
But this is not a how-to-promote-yourself post. Most of you know how to do all this and have been at it longer than me. My point is this: The health of the translation industry as a whole depends as much on PR and marketing as our individual businesses do. Unless we are content to have our profession defined by groups who have a vested interest in pushing MT and crowdsourcing as tools that render human translation obsolete, we will need to counter this offensive with an intentional, assertive media presence of our own.
I’m not saying that the machine vs. human translation debate is a simplistic issue. I think right now there is a place for it in situations where speed and convenience are the main factors and accuracy is not a concern — think random Facebook comment or occasional e-mail. In professional contexts it requires considerable standardization of language, and even then you need human post-editors. I did some post-editing in the early years of my career and personally I’d rather stab myself with a fork than have to earn a living doing that. I’m sure I’m not the only one, and I think the likelihood of enough top-level translators making the switch to post-editing to create an adequate qualified labor pool is, shall we say, minimal. Theses subtleties will be lost on the public, however, as long as the only voices shaping the debate are the ones casting translation as a commodity or as a budget issue.
Other industries have faced hostile takeovers in the past, and the ones that are still around are those that stood their ground with effective marketing campaigns of their own. A good example is the “Beef, It’s What’s For Dinner” campaign in response to an onslaught of health reports linking red meat to heart disease and a subsequent surge in sales of pork, cleverly marketed by the pork industry as “the other white meat”.
It’s not like we’re new at this game. In fact, between the late nineties and 2012 the ATA did a brilliant job advocating for human translation and keeping ATA at the forefront of the debate through the efforts of people like Chris Durban and Kevin Hendzel, among others. A turning point in convincing the ATA Board at the time that PR was a great investment was the “Translation and Terrorism” session, organized by Kevin Hendzel during the 2002 ATA conference, which was covered on national news. As Kevin explains, it was a watershed event for several reasons:
The topic of translators’ role in national security had not yet been officially discussed by the US Intelligence Community. It happened for the first time there in Atlanta at the ATA conference. There were also TV cameras all over the floor and the rest of the conference, where the media was interviewing not only Chris and me but other translators and interpreters as well. The idea was that we could promote one issue like national security but also take advantage of the media’s presence to talk about a whole range of other areas of the market and to discuss how important translators and interpreters are to the global success of US business. Another important aspect of that event is that it marked the beginning of ATA’s jump into the media big leagues. The ATA Board at that time needed some proof that spending on “earned media” like this was worth it. So I organized this event and funded it as well as a “proof of concept” to show how ATA could play in the media big leagues successfully. And it did for nearly a decade after that time.
For over a decade, the ATA was a powerful advocate of human translation. In recent years, however, the financial picture has changed and time and money is no longer spent on aggressive PR. The results have been dire: between 2002 and 2012 the ATA was featured in the media thousands of times. Number of mentions over the course of the past year and a half: four. As a result, MT and crowdsourcing proponents have filled the void and are now dominating the debate. The media environment is extremely competitive and aggressive, and every inch of coverage we are not prepared to fight for we have already lost.
- The ATA board is meeting on May 3 & 4 in Alexandria, Virginia. You can write to Corinne McKay, who is one of several people who have worked hard to promote PR efforts, at Corinne@translatewrite.com to voice your support for spending time and money on PR and marketing.
- Also write to ATA President Caitilin Walsh at email@example.com and President-Elect David Rumsey at firstname.lastname@example.org. The more people write, the more they will take notice.
- ATA is always looking for volunteers. A few ideas Corinne has mentioned:
1. Write blog posts for The Compass
2. Research associations that might be open to having translators write articles for their journals
3. Get trained to do media interviews
We can have great-looking websites, popular blogs and reams of Twitter followers, but if no one believes that human translation is necessary in the first place because we have ceded the debate to our competitors, all of our individual marketing efforts will ultimately be irrelevant.