Reclaiming our Voice

speak up2A 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.

speak upWe need to take it back the debate, and urgently. But it’s going to take time and money, both of which are in short supply. If you’re an ATA member, here are a few things you can do:

  • 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 to voice your support for spending time and money on PR and marketing.
  • Also write to ATA President Caitilin Walsh at and President-Elect David Rumsey at 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.

12 thoughts on “Reclaiming our Voice

  1. Thanks Marie! I think the main takeaway here is that if we’d like equal airtime for the voice of the premium-market translator, there are two options: a) wring hands and lament or b) be that voice. Personally I choose b!

    • Yes, exactly! Judging from the fact we successfully manage our own businesses we’re all fairly smart and competent people, right? So we should be able to take some action and hold our own in the debate.

  2. Thank you for an excellent, thoughtful post, Marie. I’ve heard several people talk about the ATA’s disastrous retreat from PR after the FIT debacle, but the numbers you present here make it clear just how bad the situation is. And there are too many abusive charlatans able and willing to fill that void.

    • Thank you Kevin! I appreciate the kind words. I really hope that the Board will decide this weekend to allocate funds and renewed energy to re-establishing a strong media presence. I’m also trying to think what I can do as an individual, in the spirit of “all for one and one for all”. 🙂

  3. A great post, Marie.
    I completely agree with you. The debate about the profile of our profession is usually reduced to professional claims, talk about quality, and other arguments that fall on deaf ears because the translation buyers don’t care nor really understand them, like any other buyer they are not expected to understand the ins-and-outs of our profession, but to care about the value they get, and what we – the (true) translation service providers can do for them; not to mention that most of these claims and arguments are raised in closed professional or semi-professional fora in which digital venting and endless complaining with no subsequent action seem to be where the effort and care end.

    Therefore, the fight is not about who is “right” – because there isn’t one universal true solution that applies to everyone – but about putting things in perspective and raising awareness, that should be taken to the ‘information space’.

    In addition to coordinated efforts (that in the current climate of some associations is not likely to happen in my opinion) I think that we can do the best we can to try and raise awareness. It is not surprising to learn who the previous commenters are, because they stand in the forefront of this battle against the many charlatans and snake-oil vendors, as well as legitimate people and businesses that truly believe in what they do but mistaken their little sliver of the market to be universally applicable.

    We can raise awareness in our blogs, participate in event and conferences and talk about it, by supporting associations that take a firm stand when it comes to ethics, and so forth, but also by taking some time now and again to try and educate some colleagues on LinkedIn and other forums that are controlled by the technology lobby and serve as a mechanism to train newcomers, naive, and easily impressionable colleagues on the principles of the bulk-toxic market segment, shaping them into yet another interchangeable cog that serves the brokers.

    Thank you for this great post.

    • Thank you for the taking the time to respond and for your encouragement, Shai. I’ve also noticed different groups: those at the forefront doing 90% of the work promoting our profession, the majority who are not really aware/involved, and a minority of complainers who bite at the ankles of the ones actually trying to make a difference. I’ve only recently become more aware of all this myself and I’d like to get more involved and do my share, so this post is a start — a call to action to myself as much as anyone else. You mentioned conferences, and I agree that’s a great platform, especially if we could get ourselves invited to non-translation events!

      • Conferences of the industry you specialize in are a good place to meed new clients and network, but it is not as easy as just going there. Some people are more comfortable in those scenarios, others have to work on it and muster up the confidence. I’m not sure, though, how interested they will be in a presentation about the translation business, the majority of them probably couldn’t be bothered with it. They want the service and that’s it, and I think that this is very understandable.
        Translators too often expect others to save them from themselves, and they must change that mindset. Furthermore, translators and professional practices really don’t want for their service to be perceived as charity, and for people to “give them” work out of pity.

        Your post describes very well the proper mindset and business culture that more translators that aspire to be more than an interchangeable cog in the big corporate model type of agency should adopt.

  4. True, the message would have to be presented in a way that is relevant to the field(s) of the audience. I’m convinced that many of us have the ability to go out and give presentations like that, but to paraphrase your point about mindset, we have top climb out of the box ourselves; no one is going to take the lid off for us. Again, I have to start with myself. I’ve never given a presentation yet and I think I’d want to start with a friendly “home” audience of linguists, but then, who knows 🙂

  5. Great post, Marie! I particularly like your comment “The health of the translation industry as a whole depends as much on PR and marketing as our individual businesses do”. We all need to play our part in this and raise the profile – of our own businesses and of our profession.

    • Thank you Marian! Yes, I’m hoping as more of us become more proficient in the marketing aspect of translation and keep this conversation going, it will build momentum and start bearing fruit on a collective level.

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