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.

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Pattern Recognition for a Thriving Translation Business

Humans are strongly predisposed to recognize patterns. Music, math, language, and art all appeal to this part of our brain, but we also use this ability thousands of times a day for more mundane purposes, such as picking out a familiar face in a crowd and or finding a bottle of Heinz ketchup at the grocery store. So strong is this innate tendency, in fact, that we even see patterns where there are none, imposing order and meaning where none exist. This need to impose order is the basis of the Rorschach test, where the subject is invited to interpret random or ambiguous images.

So what does this have to do with translation? I’m glad you asked. Continue reading

The Translator’s Dilemma

prisonersThere is a famous scenario in game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this scenario, two suspects are arrested and brought in for questioning in separate rooms. As it stands, the prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charges, so they really need at least one of the two to confess. Continue reading

When No One Calls — Making It through the Dry Spells

A few months back I was faced with a bit of a moral dilemma.

You may recognize the scenario: I had been asked by an agency with which I have a long-standing relationship to evaluate the work of a potential new translator. The translation was excellent and earned a high score on the evaluation sheet; simple enough. But when I emailed the project manager with the results I found myself hesitating, as it occurred to me that having another talented translator around might mean less work for me. Did I really want to add fuel to the fire by adding a personal note of praise for this potential interloper? Continue reading

Blogs – What Are They Good For

Blogging, what is it good for

Image by Mike Licht on Flickr

If your response to this title is “Absolutely nothing, HUH! (say it again y’all),” to the tune of War, What is it Good For, you are probably thinking in terms of how effective blogs are as marketing tools. A common complaint is that blogs do nothing to bring in new clients and are therefore a waste of time.

It’s an interesting debate which surely does not just apply to the translation industry, so out of curiosity I decided to look at a few other professions to see how their practitioners use blogs. Continue reading

Christmas Gifts for Clients: Strategies and Pitfalls

business giftsIt’s almost December, and that means it’s time to start thinking about business Christmas gifts. Gift-giving can get complicated fast. There are thousands of websites and stores that offer gift ideas for businesses, but just because you can give your clients a tub of tootsie rolls with your logo on them, does that mean you should? Here are some thoughts on the why, the who and the what of giving. Continue reading

Deal With it: Developing Thicker Skin as a Translator

feedbackAs translators we spend a lot of time in the safety and comfort of our office, and those of us who are also introverts are just fine with that. (If you agree that e-mail is the best invention since the answering machine you know what I’m talking about.) So while we’re not exactly out there putting our fragile selves on the line like stand-up comics in front of a tough crowd, there are some aspects of our profession that do require thick skin. Here are two I’ve had to deal with. Continue reading

It’s Not About You — Pitching to Clients

“Your sales pitch should focus on the client’s needs, not on you.”

It’s not like I’d never heard this before, and in fact some of you have given similar advice on your own blogs. But you know how it is, sometimes you need to be told ten times before you do anything about it. So after attending a webinar by a consultant named Brennan Dunn in which he also hammered home the fact that clients are interested in your solution to their problem, not the boring details of your life, I finally decided to take a good, objective look at the text of my website.

BoringWhat an eye-opener that was.

What I thought was an interesting, solid spiel, was, in fact, a showroom display of every mistake in the book. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

“We’re Very Sorry to Hear about Your Problem ….” – Retaining Your Sanity in a 24/7 Economy

clockI’m starting to feel like I’ve wandered into some sort of Customer Service Bermuda Triangle. I place orders, submit my payment, and the item inexplicably disappears. Last week I wrote about a run-in with a local company. Yesterday I checked on an online order I placed with a different company two weeks ago, only to discover that unbeknownst to me, it had been cancelled because the order form was apparently incomplete.

Fair enough, but my question to them is: you had my email, so why did no one bother to tell me that the order had been cancelled, or better yet, ask me for the missing information so the order could be completed? Their only response was that they were very sorry to hear about my problem, and that next time perhaps I should order by phone so a representative can place the order for me. Translation: “You are clearly an idiot who should not be using a computer. Next time pick up the phone. Can you handle that?” Thank you, but I don’t think there will be a next time. Continue reading