In the spirit of the aphorism attributed to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards”, I thought it apposite to start hauling blogs out of the archives in advance of the Aptrad’s second international translators’ conference, 17–19 May 2018. The theme of the conference is centred on issues we need to address in the decade ahead; this post is a half-decade retrospective.
When you have ploughed through the article below, there are some more thoughts about the process at work when you attend conferences aimed at professional translators on my other blog, entitled, What your translation business deserves, written in September 2014.
This blog was originally posted as a guest blog in June 2013 on Moira Monney’s blog, The Successful Linguist. Since then, although still running her translation business, Moira has decided to focus on her other passion in life – nutrition and an holistic approach to wellness. I was pleased to have met her in person in September 2014 after working together with her for almost three years, when her enthusiasm for what she does beyond the sphere of translation was more than evident.
Allison-Scatterling-Head facing left


What was the common denominator among delegates at the 2013 International Conference held on 8 and 9 June 2013?

If anything – apart from a love of good coffee, fine wine and fine food – it is that they are all passionate about getting things right.

For many, this was probably the main motivation for attending the conference. It certainly was for me.

Whether you are new to the game, or a seasoned translator with so many tricks up your sleeve that your jacket is bulging, there is always room to improve some aspect of your translation business.

Your translation business

When many of us started out, people seldom uttered the phrase, “translation business”. It was a rather foreign concept, for which no formal training existed. We simply learned the freelance ropes as we went along, and got by with a little help from our friends – as the line from that song goes.

I have vague recollections that I made a conscious decision to refer to the place at home where I work as “my office” rather than “my study”. Concepts, as translators know, are incredibly important. Active visualisation of concepts, together with their integration into the activity from which we earn a living, is even more so.

The simple implementation of efficient administrative systems, is one thing; having a business model which works for you is quite another.

Business models

This is why I found the first of the workshops I attended at this conference interesting. Daniela Zambrini’s presentation entitled, “Drafting a business model canvas: First steps towards personal branding”  was based on the methods advocated by Alexander Osterwalder, whose published works are available on Given the plethora of business models on the market, it could have been tempting to dismiss this model as just one more.

Yet, fresh perspectives are just that: Fresh. The first element of freshness was the “canvas” itself presented to us in the form of a sheet of A3 paper divided into rectangles with headings referring to various interactive elements in a business. We each received two little pads of adhesive notes, each of a different colour upon which to write things which we thought should be assigned to the different building blocks, or categories, of our translation business. Once we had defined for ourselves what should go in each rectangle, the placement of low-tech sticky labels on our own canvas became quite satisfying.  The idea behind using sticky labels is that you can reassign them to a more appropriate rectangle as your understanding of the process – and your business – improves.

I heard someone saying after the presentation that he was disappointed that Daniela had to explain in such detail what a business model is, since everyone should already have one. Really? Is that a prerequisite to being an excellent translator (my primary, and constant, objective)? I, for one, would rather employ a good translator with a fuzzy business model or none at all than a mediocre translator with a fantastic business model. I am not a fan of the dismissive approach; it is, quite simply, no fun at all. It is no fun because it curtails the possibilities to be discovered simply by following the steps.

Be serious about what you do

I admire Daniela Zambrini for having tackled such a huge subject with such a large and diverse group of people whose degree of experience in managing their translation business was just as diverse. Within the allotted 90 minutes, Daniela even managed to get us working in groups effectively. I delighted in the enthusiasm of those in the group I was part of and the lively, cheerful discussion which ensued. It confirmed my long-held theory that being serious about what you do is fun.allison-scatterling-head-319x435

Daniela gave the 54 registered participants a wonderful gift, for which I heartily thank her: A handout. If you read the handout, you will discover that it is part of a larger document to be found at where you can download a 72-page preview of the book entitled Business Model Generation for free. You will also discover that you do not need to design your own canvas on your own computer. A web-based app for this purpose already exists! Yay! No more real-life sticky labels!

Just as soon as you have factored “making a good business better” into your “Cost Structure” building block, you can take full advantage of it. Explore the website for yourself. You owe it to yourself to invest in yourself and your translation business.

You are part of the business model generation, after all.

Take my breath away

If I had to take a deep breath after Daniela Zambrini’s presentation, then it will come as no surprise to learn that my breath was completely taken away by what Marta Stelmaszak had to offer under the title of “Exploring the Freelance Advantage” in the first session on Sunday morning.

Marta had also prepared a hands-on presentation. She is an ardent time-keeper, and passionate about her profession. These two facts were immediately evident.

Her first step was to give us about 180 seconds to write down on a piece of paper why we translate. And then we had to hand her our scribbled bits of paper. Marta says she pins these statements to a board and uses them for inspiration.

I wasted a good 20 seconds fishing out my favourite purple roller ball for this important statement, and then got nervous – inexplicably, perhaps, because this piece of paper was destined to be read more than once by a fellow translator! Then I panicked about legibility!

These stages of the creative process were peppered with Marta counting down the seconds left until completion of the exercise. This was not entirely conducive to a well-crafted sentence, but I suspect that it was intentional. Even though I had done some early-morning brainwork before the 9:00 start, this rapid-fire writing under pressure was a shock to the system. A jolt of Marta-energy!

Why I translate

You are all curious, now, so here is my why:

My why
Why do I do this?
I translate and edit because I love the process and the outcome.
It is creative, demanding and precise.
I love the structure of it all.
I do this better than any other thing!

I am happy to share this inelegant statement publicly precisely because it is raw, honest, and passionate.


Marta’s targeted, well-structured advice

We each offered up a few words in exchange for the wealth of targeted, well-structured and motivational advice Marta has to offer. She packed plenty of activities onto the six-page handout spanning her well-devised three-part presentation. More of these gems can be discovered at Wantwords.

With deft precision, Marta led participants through the basic activity of defining their “why”, describing the “how”, and finally saying “what” they do. The simple graphic shows three concentric circles, with WHY in the innermost circle, HOW in the middle, and WHAT in the outermost one.

Despite the plainness of the diagram, I found myself thinking back to those old cut-away models of what lies beneath the Earth’s crust. So, when Marta exhorted us to “rediscover the why”, and tells us that “clients buy the why, not the what”, and that “inspired leaders think, act and communicate from the inside out” (i.e. starting with the why and progressing to the what), I am thinking “magma”. At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me simply say that my why – at the core of my being – could be likened to magma; molten, fluid, powerful, brimming with actual and latent energy, ready to burst forth with force at every opportunity! What a hot image! You may think it grandiose. Grandiose, but necessary. Powerful images sustain you.

Marta’s dynamic presentation  elicited a strong response in me. One week later, I am still trying to cope with it.

A strategic graph

The second activity pertaining to the “translator” section of this workshop tempered my fiery daydream somewhat with an ingenious graph which invites you to work on your “strategy canvas”.

This is the place where you rate yourself against others on such diverse aspects as price, personality, customer services, brand, pre-purchase, purchase and post-purchase performance, additional services offered (upselling/cross-selling), payment terms, specialisation, and seriousness/formality – and any other quality which may be relevant to you. It is a personal, translator-centric vision of your very own world. Use the Internet to evaluate how “others” (your competitors) measure up.

I love this graph!

My reason is this: I am well practised in the art of eschewing the very idea of being competitive. I much prefer pursuing excellence for its own sake.

This graph, though, makes excellent sense. It is a SWOT analysis and market-positioner all rolled into one. I delight in the fact that I have very many coloured pens, and I quickly realise just how different the markets are for my different language pairs, and how different my strengths are in each language pair. My coloured pens allow me to plot a profusion of coloured dots representing others and me. There should actually be six different colours on this graph. So far, only three. I am working quickly, but Marta is speeding right ahead.

She has an image on the screen of the Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy® and is telling us that this concept and the little dots on her personal graph have enabled her to create her own “blue ocean” in which she no longer has competitors, but collaborators.


Unique selling point

I hear her mention “homework”. Our homework (and the very word assumes an ongoing collaboration with those of us in the workshop) is to do the same, and define our USP (unique selling point). Much to my utter surprise, I actually come up with a decent USP from my haphazard, off-the-cuff graph exercise – and  the plump seeds of an idea are beginning to germinate. I have been inspired by a legal translator, the phonetics of whose mother tongue (Polish) are a complete mystery to me. Life is beautiful.

Quick sketch

Imagine my horror as we seamlessly slide on to the second part of Marta’s presentation which deals with the Client. We are tasked with drawing our “Ideal Client Avatar” (ICA). Our worksheet has a blank outline of an androgynous human being. I am flummoxed. I draw a hat on my politically-correct gingerbread person, because, at least a hat does keep the humour dry, and an optimistic open expression, with a smile which could be the way someone smiles when in the act of speaking at the same time. We have questions to answer about our ICA which force us to attribute human, personal characteristics to this avatar. In the five minutes of time allotted to this task, I get hopelessly lost in a sea of madness.

Allison-Scatterling-Head facing leftI question which of my current clients are, in fact, ideal. As I think of the attributes of some of my clients, I become confused trying to marry a liking for the works of Bob Marley to the intricacies of certification of manufacturing processes in the logistics industry. I also wonder about the ethical correctness of drawing what will, in my hand, inevitably end up being a caricature of a leading figure in Portuguese viticulture. It would only serve to strip away the very great respect I have for this person. Oh, dear! Hopeless! Clearly, I need more than one avatar. A close-knit multi-culti bunch of good-looking people – and a portal or two for good measure.

I mention my stumbling block because I am fairly certain that I was not alone in my dilemma at this point in the presentation. It was also the most depressing ten minutes of the entire conference for me.

Know your client

The Big D-word notwithstanding, Marta does make a compelling and important point: You have to know your clients in order to be able provide them with what they need. Knowing your clients includes knowing what motivates them, their strategies, and even their dreams. One should add that knowing your clients means knowing as much as possible about their business, their industry, and where relevant, their origins. For what it is worth, I agree. You simply cannot be a stranger, or a casual observer, and hope to produce translations that work for your client in the best way possible.

Likewise, in order to do your job to best effect, you need to acquire knowledge which comes from cultivating a relationship with your clients. This knowledge is every bit as much your stock-in-trade as your linguistic expertise.

Marta is of the view that you need a well-defined Ideal Client Avatar (hers is in giant Technicolor® and still has some of his real human hair) because this will determine such things as your business name, business card, your clothing, your e-mail signature, and what your website looks like.

My non-conformist nature prevents me from agreeing wholeheartedly with this view. I do agree that you do need to win your clients over by adopting their world view to a large degree. Where you as the translator differ from your client is that you have at least two different world views with which you deal every single day – more, if you work with more than one language pair. This is the value you bring to the relationship; this is the difference you need to accentuate. This is your sacrosanct why.

A kind of magic

The third part of Marta’s presentation deals with the place where translator and client meet; where the magic happens. The level of precision required to complete the three activities on the worksheet is certainly not for the faint-hearted. Rigorous self-examination is part of the deal. The reward? Success in your translation business.

Both Daniela Zambrini and Marta Stelmaszak gave workshop participants concrete, practical suggestions for improvement of their translation businesses. These are methods which have been proven to work on a sustainable basis.

All the exercises and activities require effort and application. This kind of visualisation has nothing to do with the beach, a hammock between two palm trees and a goodly supply of  pina coladas. It is the vision of a much bigger picture which you as a freelance translator determine yourself.

It is worth a try, don’t you think?

Besides, Marta’s closing words were, “Be ready in two weeks”. You have less than one week left.

At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me simply say that my why – at the core of my being – could be likened to magma; molten, fluid, powerful, brimming with actual and latent energy, ready to burst forth with force at every opportunity! What a hot image! You may think it grandiose. Grandiose, but necessary. Powerful images sustain you. 
bottle of ink_2_blog
©20132018 Allison Wright
Illustrations ©20132018 Toni Le Busque (except for the bottle of ink ©Allison Wright)

4 thoughts on “ Passionate about getting things right ”

  1. I’m with you on the business concept thing, Allison. I’m more of a Cartesian when it comes to translation. And my client avatar is as chameleon-like as I am myself. (Maybe there’s a presentation in that? We should get together some time and talk about it.)

    But I share your enthusiasm for this kind of workshop process as applied to an existing translation business – it’s a real eye-opener. And isn’t Marta wonderful? I’ve not yet experienced her presentations in person, but I’ve seen a couple online, and she always makes me think of a very benevolent steamroller. You come out of the process much wiser but feeling rather like you’ve been run over! Clearly I’ll have to watch out for Daniela Zambrini too.


  2. While I suffer from versatility issues (as opposed to being a generalist), I have now realised that my concerted effort in the last five years to whittle my subject field range down to a couple of areas has indeed brought with it advantages of greater enjoyment of the work of translating because of the in-depth knowledge thus gained, greater speed because of the wealth the internalised info—thus reinforcing the notion that our brains are the best CAT tool (waits for rash of naysayers)—and far, far less stress because “you know what you know”.
    The problem for me is that I see everything as interrelated on some level, and I seldom see the divisions between disciplines of knowledge that others impose. As to clients, I have come to realise that every client is different. I will know whether they are a good client for me to work with once I get to know them. No avatar will help me with that!
    I believe that you and I will both be Girona in October at METM18, Jane. 🙂


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