I originally posted this article on 21 February 2011 under the very long title of Educating the Client, or Zen and the Art of Sanity Maintenance the ProZ.com platform. As part of the clean-out of my physical and digital space, I have finally closed my ProZ account, something I have been meaning to do for several years.
Translators, particularly those new to the profession, might find the checklist below useful. It is strange to think that this was my first “translation blog”, written two years before I ever went to a translation conference.
This blog is part of the #flashbackfriday series of older blogs I republish here from time to time, although very rarely on a Friday.

Educating the Client, or Zen and the Art of Sanity Maintenance

With partial reference, and apologies, to
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values
by Robert M. Pirsig.

Most experienced freelance translators have an armful of responses to make when clients ask questions. There is a chance that the exchange between a new client and a translator might go something like this:

New Client: What, X cents for every word? Even the “ands” and “buts”?
Translator: Especially the “ands” and “buts”. 
(Translator smiles here, whilst thinking of the possibilities of removing all “ands” and “buts” after translation, then discounting the appropriate number of words from the final charge.)

New Client: This is a pretty straightforward text; it should be easy for someone like you.
Translator: There is no such thing as an easy translation.

New Client: Do you have a good dictionary?
Translator: I have many excellent resources, including dictionaries and my own experience. But you should know that translation begins where the dictionary ends.

New Client: Can you have this [unrealistic number of pages] ready by 09:00 tomorrow?
Translator: Does your organisation employ anyone who can even type that many pages by 09:00 tomorrow, let alone translate them? (Notice how Zen is no longer working in the sanity maintenance department.)

New Client: Well, when can you have it ready?
Translator: I can complete it by close of business tomorrow, but I shall have to charge my urgent rate on this job. 

New Client: Why? You were going to do it by the end of tomorrow anyway?
Translator: Well, because achieving the deadline of, say, 17:00 tomorrow, will mean working outside of my usual business hours.

What has the translator, taught the new client so far? To summarise, the client now knows that the weirdo in his office:

  • finds “ands” and “buts” difficult to translate;
  • types really slowly;
  • wants to rip him off with urgent rates because she does not like doing overtime; and
  • thinks she is special because she knows more than what is in the dictionary.

He is privately shaking his head because he cannot understand why his best golfing friend recommended her.

This is the gist of a real-life discussion I had face to face with a client in the early-Nineties, when a lot of work was still received in hard copy. Surprisingly, I got the job and the client was pleased with the result duly delivered on time, even though he had to pay a premium for it. 

I would guess I got the job, because after this ridiculous exchange, I quickly sprung into action by showing enthusiasm, asking what he hoped to achieve with the translation, who the document was intended for, and why it was important to his business. On the basis of his answers to those questions, I asked one or two pertinent questions of my own. This was the “education” session – his and mine.

I left his office with my prize – a thick wad of papers, and left the client with the impression that his golfing buddy was right, after all. On the way down in the lift, I think to myself, “Ach wie gut, daβ niemand weiβ, daβ ich Rumpelstiltzkin heiβ”- the turning straw into gold part, anyway. This does not translate very well into English, even though it is quite straight forward. Roughly: I am so glad that no one knows my [real] name is Rumpelstiltzkin. 

Not all clients are like that. I certainly would not recommend the above as a normal introduction of oneself as a professional with a service to offer. It is, however, indisputable that clients do need educating. And they need educating right from the very first contact.

Before we educate the client, we have to define this entity so central to the translator’s livelihood.

In the driest sense of the word, the client is the one for whom the translator works, and the one who pays the translator.

Common types of client are:

Direct clients, divided into a number of categories:

  • One-off, short-term clients
    Out of the blue, this client has something to translate, which may or may not result in future work;
  • One-off long-term client
    This client may require the translation of a book, or novel, or defined project which has little likelihood of engendering further work.
  • Regular clients
    There is always the possibility, even if not initially apparent, that one-off clients may become your regular clients. This underscores the need for a solid client education programme. Both client and translator have to establish and maintain a good understanding of each other, for their mutual benefit.

Translation agencies

  • Translation agencies have direct clients as described above, and are normally owned and managed by someone who is a translator, or by a team of translators. Successful agencies have a flair for marketing, delegation and coordination. Translation agencies run two education programmes: they educate the client, and where necessary, educate the outsourced translator.
  • Quite rightly, many translators view agencies they work for as “clients”, since the end client, properly speaking, is a client of the agency. The outsourced translator is honour-bound to keep the agency’s client at arm’s length. In many instances, this means that the translator has to keep two clients in mind. Working through an agency demands more communication, not less, on the part of the translator – and this sometimes involves the translator imparting a little education in the direction of the agency!

Translation agencies and individual translators, then, both compete for the direct client. 

Not Zen or a motorcycle, but Maimonides, 1138 –1204 , a Sephardic Jewish philosopher and polyglot who made a few inquiries into values himself, to put it lightly.

How agencies educate

How agencies educate the client is interesting, and there is ample evidence of this on the Internet. When I look at a translation agency website, I often look at the website from the customer’s point of view first, to see whether I agree with the general ethos of the agency. In other words, if I agree with the way in which the agency educates its potential clients, then it is likely that I would like that agency as my client. If there is little similarity in our way of thinking, then all I am is a customer doing a bit of window shopping. 

Translation agencies put their client education in their shop window. Some agencies may even have spent a considerable sum of money, now in the pocket of the marketing consultants and web designers, to ensure that potential clients become actual clients. Many have well-designed websites, with user-friendly interfaces, and a reassuring “we will take care of all your translation needs” message. I sometimes get the impression that translation cannot be that exacting a task after all. The customer is king. From a translator’s point of view, the agency provides the service, the translator provides the translation. From the end client’s point of view (and the agency’s, to a large extent) the agency provides the translation, and the translator is invisible (i.e. not the chief educator of anybody).

I came across a fantastic sounding translation agency on the web the other night. I received an acknowledgement right away of my desire to register. It was very encouraging, until I realised I was the central character in a sci-fi movie who was receiving monolingual automatic messages from a defunct and uninhabited transcombobulator* in cyberspace. The lights were on, but the crew and all its translators had either disintegrated or dematerialised.

* My made-up word for the entity responsible when things go linguistically awry. Etymologically derived from a 
combination of the words "translate" and "discombobulate".

The reason I mention this is because I am sometimes overwhelmed by the sheer force of professionalism which seems to radiate from the computer screen when visiting such sites. In this case, it turned out to be mere smoke and mirrors. I came out of the experience positively: At least, I realised once again that I am a real live human being with a definite set of skills. These skills have been developed with the combined aid of innate passion for the act or process of translation; training; and constant, diligent expansion and refinement of my general and specific knowledge, all frequently tempered with the ever humbling factor of experience. I am sure I am solid and real – and have no intention of dematerialising any time soon! I am certain that this is true of most other translators too.

When translators say in discussion, “We need to educate clients”, we all agree. Yet what does this mean? Primarily it means that without the client knowing the value of the skill we possess, the client cannot possibly be willing to pay a professional fee for the translator’s service. Ergo, the client needs educating. Where does the client education process begin? Perhaps education is the wrong expression, which not only undermines the very entity from which we derive a living, but also implies a certain amount of arrogance on the part of the translator. Perhaps orientation is a more appropriate term?

So, where does client orientation begin?

Your client’s orientation begins with you.
(Notice how Zen has returned to the sanity maintenance department)

Whilst individual freelance translators could do well to pay attention to the kind of information that agencies publish on their websites, energy would be better spent upon careful examination of precisely what skills, knowledge, and experience you as the individual translator bring to the client-translator negotiating table. 

Translators form a diverse group. We defy uniform definition as a group. How we can be defined individually has already been laid out in template form by our illustrious predecessors and fellow translators. We have all prepared profile pages, and some have websites. We have drafted and crafted our curricula vitae – normally when we would much rather be translating, or walking the dog, or washing the dishes. Anything, but focus on ourselves! 

Orientating yourself first

Nevertheless, it is a good exercise – even for successful, experienced translators – to take a few minutes to do just that. Focus on ourselves. Clear the deck. Start afresh. Without referring to anything else at all (no Internet, no previous documents), write a few notes down. Tools for this job: 1 x A4 sheet of paper, a pen, and utter honesty.

The idea is to get to the core of what you are.
Orientate yourself. It sounds silly, but it works.
This is your private orientation. It is not for disclosure to anybody else.

Your checklist

Your list can include, but is not limited to:

  • Your favourite language pair;
  • Your favourite subject fields;
  • Your best job – and why.
  • Your worst job – and why.
  • What makes you special? If you want to include statements such as “I am bloody good at advertising slogans”, do so.
  • Note down your good qualities which you bring to a job (concentration, interest, experience, perfection)
  • Note down your bad qualities (impatience, poor posture, lack of planning – you know what they are!)
  • Define your parameters by what you are not, if you have to (e.g. not a legal or pharmaceutical translator, not a machine, not capable of more than 2,000 words per day).
  • Who are the other freelance translators you admire, and why?
  • what makes a good client in your opinion?
  • The names of the good clients you have had (or have) and why?
  • Were your best clients the ones who gave you the best jobs?

Now that you have re-orientated yourself, everything is clear, right?
Keep the list. Put it where you can see it. Revise it. Rewrite it. Give it a title, if you like. Something that reminds you about which department Zen should be working in, perhaps?

With your redefined core orientation of self, you now have the bare bones of what is important for you to convey to your clients, whether on their initial encounter with you, or during the course of your relationship.

How much of the above can you fit into, say, a five minute phone call with a client, or an e-mail message ten lines long? Remember that clients are often busy, and have their own professions and businesses to take care of. They need your respect, just as you need theirs. Now that you have discovered exactly who you are representing (yourself!), you are well placed to direct the orientation of your client using as much diplomacy and sensitivity as you wish. 

Once you are crystal clear, you need to ensure that your client orientation pack stands up to scrutiny. If you say you offer a professional service then you must always offer a professional service even if your dog has just died and you have a bad headache. Your sanity maintenance checklist could be useful in such situations.

More client orientation

I do believe that practising a system of referral is one way of demonstrating your professionalism – and a way of re-orientating clients. If I go to a general practitioner, and during the course of our consultation I tell him that I have toothache, it would be wrong for the good doctor to reach for a pair of pliers. I am sure I would rather appreciate a referral to a competent dentist! Similarly, if someone insists that I should translate from a language of which I have no knowledge, or equally absurdly, translate a document in a field where I am at a complete loss, my best option is to spread the love – and take ten minutes out of my busy schedule to assist what could have been a client (if I knew the language and the subject field!) to find someone suitable to the task. This helps give someone else’s new client a good impression. We want everyone to know that “translators are good people”. If all it means is pointing “someone else’s new client” in the right direction, then I have lost nothing. I also know that a fellow translator somewhere on the planet is now giving the re-directed client a whole new education.

©2011 Allison Wright

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