“Treasured Guests” and Other Trials

I love Disneyland. It’s hopelessly uncool, I know, but the irony-free “Happiest Place on Earth” is a refreshing change from the cynicism required for survival in the rest of the world.

So it was a bit of a “what?” moment when a friend told me that Disney employees have a special code for referring to difficult or unpleasant visitors. So FIY, the next time you send back your burger at the Galactic Grill for the second time and ask to have a sandwich from the Blue Bayou sent over instead, do not be flattered when the waiter calls in a special request for a “treasured guest”; you’re being marked as a certified jerk.

On second thought, though, it makes sense. Disney employees work hard to create this happy bubble for over 40,000 visitors a day, and it’s impossible to keep this up if you don’t have a way to blow off some inconspicuous steam every now and then when fantasy and reality collide. It’s also a heads-up to colleagues so they can mentally prepare for said treasured guest or hide behind a Mickey keychain display until you’re gone.

Come to think of it, I’ve had my share of “treasured guests” as well.

Interactions with project managers are usually fairly painless, because both parties know what to expect. A PM from an agency I have a long-standing relationship with may send me the following e-mail: “Marie, I have CaliClinical project of 6,000 words; can you take care of it for Thursday morning?” There is no need to explain that I will have to use the CaliClinical terminology glossary and style guide, that the document is a pdf so payment is based on the final word count of the translated document, and that Thursday refers to Central Standard Time, which means that I will actually have to deliver by Wednesday night my time.

difficultl-clientsSo any problems that arise are usually due to inadvertent communication mix-ups. Case in point: last week I was asked to do the final “reconciliation step” on a very small (70 words) back-translation project. At first I declined because I had never done the reconciliation step before and I was going out of town so I didn’t want to deal with it. The PM was desperate to place the job, though, and the instructions sounded simple enough so eventually I agreed to help out and completed the job that same day.

I didn’t give it another thought until a few days later, when I started getting calls and e-mails with further feedback-on-my-feedback in the middle of the night and during my trip when I was frequently out of cell-phone reach and could not respond right away. Mutual frustration finally came to a head, and I told her I would not have accepted the job if she had told me beforehand that I would have to be available 24/7 for a week afterwards. That’s when I found out that she had been under the impression, based on another PM’s recommendation, that I had done reconciliation jobs before and knew what to expect, and that it was my lack of availability that was a puzzle to her. Since it turns out I was as much of a “treasured guest” from her perspective as she was from mine, I guess this ended up being more of a “treasured learning experience”.

Communication can be even more of a challenge when the person you’re dealing with isn’t a project manager but an individual client who is instructed by some institution to have his official documents translated, but who really thinks that anyone could do the job — for free.  A few weeks ago I was contacted by a young man who needed his grades and diploma translated so he could submit them to an American school he was applying to.

The first “uh oh” bubbled to the surface when I asked to see the documents and he assured me it would only be a tiny job because he had “already translated most of it.” The pdf file turned out to consist mostly of numbers and complicated formatting, all of which would have to be reproduced and re-keyed to meet the requirements of the institution in question. The only words he had translated (in a separate Word doc) were the course titles, i.e. about 5% of the actual work that needed to be done. As politely as I could, I explained that

  1. I could not use his translation and pass it off as my own, nor would I certify any translation I had not actually done myself, nor would that be in any way acceptable to the institution;
  2. Re-keying the numbers and formatting the pages was not a “tiny” job but rather a time-intensive undertaking and that it was going to cost a lot more than the minimum charge he was envisioning.

Up to that point he had simply been speaking from ignorance, not ill will, but then, instead of listening to me or hiring a more affordable translator (which would be fair enough and more power to him), this treasured guest asked if I had ever heard of those programs that convert pdfs to Word docs, and if he couldn’t just do that and paste in his translation.

[Long baffled silence]

In a last-ditch effort to shake him out of his dream world I converted the pdf for him myself and sent him the crap conversion full of spelling errors, missing text and crazy text boxes, pointing out that trying to salvage that disaster would be much more expensive than translating the thing from scratch. And that was the last I heard of him, so for all I know he did just copy & paste his own translation into this monstrosity and sent it off to be wondered at by the university officials with the power to accept or deny his application.

I’ve been very fortunate that 99% of my clients have been a pleasure to work with, but after this last incident I’m tempted to order “Treasured Guest” t-shirts and keep them on hand for those special people you run into now and then. Then again, that would make me the jerk and I’d have to wear it myself. I need another day at Disneyland.

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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.

To keep the search manageable I limited myself to 3 fields: web design, legal and medical. I specifically looked at a) what the blogs look like, b) what they blog about, and c) what the purpose of the blog seems to be. The results, while not exactly scientific, were still pretty illuminating. This is what I found:

The web design blogs, not surprisingly, are very well done, favoring visual appeal over in-depth content with lots of “click here to read more” buttons to short practical articles. Most use a magazine format with multiple topics and contributors covering industry news, reviews, new products, tech & marketing advice. The purpose seems to be to share product information and showcase the designer’s style and abilities.

The legal blogs I checked out were conservative in appearance and layout, with some attempts at edginess through names like Legal Insurrection, Above the Law, and Lowering the Bar (I suggest Rebel without a Case for any disbarred bloggers out there). The blogs focus on news, rulings & cases, and some offer advice on marketing, technical issues and job hunting. The purpose seems to be express opinions, keep up with important developments and establish expertise.

Medical blogs also tend to be more conservative and text-heavy than the design blogs. Some are in magazine format with multiple contributors, but there are also a good number that use a simple journal format written by individuals. The content is usually medical news, analysis of complex issues, and reflections on life as a medical professional. The apparent purpose is to connect with colleagues, address complex issues and establish expertise.

So how is that relevant for translators?

Well, consider this: In terms of running a business, translators have a lot more in common with web designers than lawyers or doctors. Most of us are freelancers selling a service which primarily requires software + our minds. Our primary presence is online and we usually communicate with our clients through e-mail or over the phone, rather than in person.

Yet most of the translation blogs I know of, including my own, look a lot more like medical blogs in terms of presentation and analytical/reflective content. Doctors are in a completely different position, though. They don’t get hired on the basis of their online presence, nor do they communicate with their patients online. Their professional life depends on face-to-face interaction in brick-and-mortar facilities, not on internet marketing.

So should we talk less and focus more on products and soundbites in an exciting package? Not so fast. Web design, after all, is a visual service, so the content of a design blog not as crucial as the way it looks.

But translators write, and that is what a translation blog does: it showcases your writing. You may have brilliant insight in the meaning of a source text, but if you can’t express that meaning clearly and eloquently in your target language it doesn’t mean a thing.

And it’s not just about style and grammar; content matters as well, and not in the way you might think. While the prevailing wisdom is that our websites should focus on our clients’ concerns, I don’t think this is true for our blogs. By writing about our own profession we give potential clients a sense of who we are and what we are like; it allows them to see us in action, as it were, in our own professional environment. It is the next best thing to meeting us in person, and this is important because people feel more comfortable doing business with someone they know.

I have had new clients tell me on several occasions that they had read my blog before contacting me. The transparent and sometimes personal nature of a blog can lead to interesting situations, though. One time a new client asked me to call him on the phone so we could hash out some of the contract details, and after chatting for a bit he told me he appreciated me calling him because he had just read my post on “Why I Hate the Phone”. Busted. We had a good laugh, though, and moved on to a discussion of my fee, which he accepted without complaint. Now it just so happens that in that very same post I also explained how I don’t accept low-ball offers; this may not have been the sole reason for the smooth negotiations, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

So I look at blogging as an oblique form of client outreach. It’s a low-threshold way for potential clients to scope you out and see if you are someone they would like to do business with. It doesn’t take the place of actively finding new clients, of course, but it can be very effective in nudging a potential client off the fence onto the “let’s do business” side.

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

Patriotism and the Power of Words – an Immigrant Perspective on the 4th of July

I was born and raised in the Netherlands but I have lived in the US for over 20 years and got dual citizenship a few years ago. I love my birth country and my adopted country, and my ideal self is fully Dutch and fully American. The reality of straddling two cultures, however, is that you are no longer one and never fully the other. It manifests itself in countless small ways. When I meet new people, for example, they invariably ask me where I’m from because I immigrated too late in life to shake my accent. Yet when I visit family in Holland, sooner or later someone will poke fun at my alleged American accent. I don’t believe it but then who am I to judge anymore? I don’t hear my Dutch accent either.

Because of this dual perspective, though, I think I’m qualified to offer a few comments on this most American of all holidays, the Fourth of July, aka Independence Day, which celebrates America’s hard-fought transformation from colony to sovereign nation. Continue reading

Respect and the translation industry

respectfulTwo weeks ago I wrote about the way our interactions reflect on the profession itself. This week I came across the website of FIRST, a non-profit whose mission is to help children get excited about science and technology. One of the driving forces of this group, Dr. Woodie Flowers, coined the term Gracious Professionalism®, which he defines as competing and striving to excel in a spirit of kindness and respect.  I think this is a great concept which strikes me as extremely relevant for our industry, as well.

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Business cross-training

cross-trainingAs a translator, I owe a huge debt to more experienced colleagues who have taken the time to give those behind them some pointers for the road ahead. If it wasn’t for your blogs, articles, forum posts, webinars and consultation sessions I might still be under the impression that bidding for 100,000-word jobs at miniscule rates is the only option for translators these days. I’m not sorry it took me a while to learn these things; it’s been a pretty colorful journey so far and I figure it’s when you start thinking that you’re too old to learn that it’s time to retire.
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