Re-hashes of older blog posts and various guest posts I have written will appear here with a #flashbackfriday tag. I cannot promise I will always publish on a Friday, but the fricative-heavy hashtag will serve to indicate that the blog contains archived material. This blog on revision and the “comma removal process” was originally posted on my previous website in September 2015.
I have written this post in an attempt to convey just one nebulous aspect of the translation process simply because I happened to come across a sentence which serves to illustrate something which is quite hard to explain without examples. The sentence is taken from a biographical article on José Saramago, recipient of the Nobel Prize In Literature in 1988. The full article can be found here. The English text is a translated one. I have been unable to find the original Portuguese.
From a reading of the English target text, I cannot detect any obvious errors in the translation from the Portuguese cited above, and only one place where I could immediately see the source text shining though. The sentence discussed below is a good example of how faithfully transferringsentence length and punctuationfrom the Portuguese into English can make the English rendition clumsy.
I was so excited when I first discovered this particular subtle shift required during the Portuguese to English translation process because it demands a much more elegant performance of acrobatics than, say, German to English translation where seeking out the constituent parts of verbs and relative clauses take precedence. My discovery occurred about 2.5 years after I started learning Portuguese, in case you are interested.
I don’t know if you can spot what I mean by “too many commas” in the following sentence taken from the article. To me, it has several possibilities for the re-ordering or re-grouping of the information to make it more readable for the English reader; more intelligible to the English ear:
I will re-do the first half of this sentence to illustrate how to eliminate two commas and make it more “English” (with only one word change – “during” instead of “in”): Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided….
Do you see? It’s the transforming of the four-part or three-part structure into a two-part one.Now that the first section has no “little humps in the road”, we can continue:
Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman.
There is nothing wrong with “for which job were required…” It is just that the English reader needs some time to process all the information in the sentence so far. A breather; a full stop. You can see that this is necessary merely by looking at all the complications in the final stretch of the sentence: inverted commas, brackets with continuation marks… the second half of a comparison, and a list!
So, here is that original sentence (also a paragraph), slightly rewritten:
Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman. The job required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.
What we now have is two sentences instead of one. The only changes made have been at the level of punctuation and word order.
But we are not finished, because there is still something sticking out like a sore thumb which we could not possibly have dealt with until we had got the main structure right. So, let’s do that now:
Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known surroundings other than those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman. The job required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.
Just so that you do not have to scroll up again, here is the original sentence for comparison with the thoroughly revised one:
Original: Maybe because he had served in World War I, in France as an artillery soldier, and had known other surroundings from those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman, for which job were required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.
Revised: Maybe because he had served as an artillery soldier in France during World War I and had known surroundings other than those of the village, my father decided in 1924 to leave farm work and move with his family to Lisbon, where he started as a policeman. The job required no more “literary qualifications” (a common expression then…) than reading, writing and arithmetic.
Now, read both versions of this sentence aloud. Follow the punctuation (i.e. pause appropriately when you encounter commas and full stops). Which text is easier to read? Which text is less confusing? From which text is it easier to extract information? I think the revised text is the better one, don’t you?
The original sentence was 65 words long. Do you think the changes I have made are worth more than €1.95 (or the most often offered rate of €0.03/word)? What about what the overall effect would be if you had a short story – or even this entire article, say? Or a novel? I think these changes are most definitely worth more than the rate most often paid, and make a strong argument in favour of applying an hourly rate to such work.
And if I had the original source text to hand, don’t you think I would check straight away to see what alternative translation could be found for ‘”literary qualifications”‘ in an attempt to eliminate those horrible inverted commas?
We know that José Saramogo has a particular writing style, very similar, unsurprisingly, to the style and feel of the paragraph I have revised here. But if you look carefully at the second half of the article, he himself departs from this style, so that the article loses its overall coherence. You also have to remember that the sentence structure employed by Saramago in the Portuguese is fairly normal for a Portuguese text, so in this case, it behoves the writers of the English version (the translator and the revisor) to produce a sentence which is fairly usual within the norms applied to English texts. I was not really criticising a Nobel Laureate; I was merely pointing out that his trademark storytelling style was not employed throughout the article. Admittedly the text as a whole does not lend itself easily to a nice, rounded feel given the list of all the works published.
My question, therefore, is this: Surely, tightening up the prose in the initial paragraphs to match the latter ones will render the whole article more palatable, and give a better overall impression? If the reader wants to read Saramogo purely for his written style, there are plenty of works to choose from, both in the original Portuguese and in translation.
Two other considerations:
I wonder whether a non-native speaker of English can see the difference between the original sentence and my revised one?
If I had translated this text from the original Portuguese (which I have not seen), I wonder how close to my revision above it would have been?
Perhaps I should mention for those who do not habitually work with texts that all the changes described in detail above normally happen at speed. There are times, however, where changing just one word in a text might take half an hour, a good deal of research, consultations (while maintaining confidentiality) with colleagues or, indeed, an entire night’s sleep before the correct replacement word or phrase is found. This is true for all sorts of texts, and not just literary ones.
These are some of the things that run through my mind when I translate and revise, and have done so for years. It is called constantly honing one’s craft – an obligation which translators have to themselves and to their readers.
Re-hashes of older blog posts and various guest posts I have written will appear here with a #flashbackfriday tag from now on. The first flashback post, Passionate about getting things right, appeared here last week. I cannot promise I will always publish on a Friday, but the fricative-heavy hashtag will serve to indicate that the blog contains archived material.
The following was originally published on 10 May 2012 as a guest blog on Catherine Jan’s Catherine Translates and entitled, “Translating a 125,000-word book: connections and corrections”. There is no available link, since her website has been disabled for some time.
I was pleasantly surprised to receive a LinkedIn message today from Catherine enclosing a Word document containing the original blog post. For about the last five years, Catherine has been employed full-time as a copywriter and plans starting blogging again on digital strategy and communications. My original guest blog will reappear on her site once her new blog is up and running, but will also remain here illustrated with badly taken photographs of a set of prints I purchased when I did whispered gisting for the keynote speaker at a Sustainable Viticulture Symposium held at the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon in January 2015 during all proceedings except his keynote address.
Here is the guest blog, together with a blurb constructed a full year before I went to my first-ever translators’ conference, believe it or not. Dead links have been updated, and one new link to a presentation on collaboration essentials added, so that you can see it was the experience described below which gave rise in the first place to the ideas in the presentation. It should be noted that these 125,000 words were translated without the use of any CAT tool.
Translating a 125,000-word book: connections and corrections
As one of many scatterlings of southern Africa, Allison Wright, a German/French/Portuguese into English translator, finally put down roots a few years ago in the Algarve, Portugal, from where she relishes every single day working now as a full-time freelance translator. Translation of this work of non-fiction was somewhat of a departure from her more usual engagement in financial, corporate, marketing and non-governmental texts since 1987.
This guest post is about my German to English translation of a book entitled Rebsortenatlas Spanien und Portugal – Geschichte – Terroir – Ampelographieby Hans Jörg Böhm. I am going to discuss aspects of collaboration on a large non-fiction translation project and the idea that a combination of careful research, passionate interest and insistence upon perfection can result in a successful outcome.
Work began on 2 March 2011, and I signed off on the final proofs on 28 July 2011, about five weeks after submitting the “final” translation to the English revisor.
So, how, you may ask, does one get to translate such things in the first place? Am I a specialist on the subject of indigenous grapevine varieties on the Iberian Peninsula? No. Am I well-connected in the publishing world? No. Am I well-known in wine circles? No, once again. Is this even the book (or the language) I proposed to translate when I submitted my formal proposal to the author at the end of January 2011? Why, of course not! How, then?
Pardon the pun: I heard it on the grapevine.
I live in a village in the Algarve in Portugal. A series of haphazard connections and information that the author wanted an English translation prompted me to submit a proposal to him to translate his previous book, O Grande Livro das Castas (The Big Book of Grapevine Varieties) from Portuguese. This book (approximately 100,000 words) was, if you like, the precursor to what I ended up translating. It was a question of asking and receiving – albeit something entirely different to what I had envisaged.
My motivation to translate the precursor to the Vine Atlas was two-fold. I know enough Portuguese to say that there are many bad translations from Portuguese into English being published daily in the local press and in countless brochures for the benefit of tourists. The bulk of this work is being done by people for whom English is not their mother tongue, and whose chief vocation in life is certainly not that of translator.
The thought of one of these “translators” getting their hands on O Grande Livro das Castas was like receiving a double dose of aspirin without the benefit of an accompanying glass of water! This general impression was rammed home by the fact that the published translation into English of the Abstract was unfortunate on so many levels that it presented me with a prime opportunity to show the author what a good translation should look like.
The second motivating factor stemmed from the gradual realisation that much of what is glorious and great and incredibly interesting in Portugal remains “hidden” from the English-speaking world. For want of translators, the English-speaking world does not benefit nearly enough from the cultural, historical and scientific wealth Portugal has to offer. In short, I believed the content of the book I wanted to translate needed a wider international audience.
Meeting the author
The author contacted me by telephone in response to my carefully drafted written proposal. Thus began our collaboration.
I first met the author in Lisbon 17 days after I had begun the translation in order to negotiate my contract (in Portuguese) with the publisher. The author collected me from the train station, and by the time we had reached the publishers, we had exchanged basic personal information and opinions on a wide range of subjects.
Working with the author, query by query
One month after the start of the translation, the author visited me at my home. We sat in my study for two hours while I went through all the queries I had with regard to the completed Part I of the book. He rather disparagingly called me a perfectionist. I took it as a compliment, of course. He left me with Parts II and III. I did not see the author again until mid-June, during which time he and I spent almost five days at his wine estate going through Parts I, II and III with a fine tooth comb.
Going through the German revisions with the author
His German editor had made extensive revisions to the German, and it was important to ensure that the two texts corresponded. I had the singular pleasure of reading out aloud pages 88 to 162 of my translation, while the author followed the German text. Clearly his bilingualism was an advantage here. Queries and anomalies I had discovered in Part IV were also covered. As a test of my stamina at this late stage, I also received about another 2,000 words to translate by way of extra tables and text boxes (Surprise!) and the jacket cover (which was in Portuguese; I never saw the German!), and we had endless fun ensuring the figures and tables were correctly numbered and labelled.
Socialising with other collaborators
The author hosted a lunch at the end of this five-day marathon, attended by one of the collaborating authors who contributed much of Part I of the book, and the two layout and design men and their wives. This socialising stood us all in good stead when it came to signing off on the final proofs.
Making a plan
The translator has a job. It is, simply, to translate the book for a fee by a certain date – to satisfaction. In this case, to the author’s satisfaction. How you do it, and what you suffer in order to accomplish it, is of no consequence or interest to anyone. You do, however, need a plan.
The first prerequisite is to be able to quantify what you have to do. I have been translating since 1987, so I have plenty of practice in estimating how many words are on a page. The trick is to learn what 100 words looks like, no matter what font is used. Then it is easy to gauge what 1,000 words looks like. It turns out that my estimate of O Grande Livro das Castas was accurate. What I did not anticipate is that the German successor book was going to be longer. And most of that extra length was contained in the last part of the book – the ampelography. This brings me to the fortuitousness of my next piece of advice.
Base output on 75% of your daily capacity
Before starting the project, plan your own delivery programme based on 75%, at most, of your average daily capacity. And I mean average. For instance, if I translate 1,000 words for nine days in a row, and 100 words on the tenth day, my daily average is not 1,000 words, it is 910 words. Do not be ambitious. Be honest. You will need this 25% contingency. It is easily soaked up by time spent on research, and the necessity for housework, foraging for food, and very occasional relaxation.
Keep track of daily progress
On a large project it is important to have a clear idea of your own progress – every single day. Determine in advance the number of hours you can sensibly work per day. Then you will know how much you can reasonably expect to translate per day, and per week. It is very motivating for me to mark the place in the text I need to get to by the end of the day, or the week. If bright pink highlighting works for you, use it. It is essential to pace yourself in this way to prevent feelings of disorientation and frustration. This is the “eating an elephant one bite at a time” approach.
You will also discover how many days in a row you can work full-time without a day off. My range is between 18 and 23 days, but it is probably best to make sure you have an entire day off once a fortnight at least. Burn-out is not an option.
Timesheets and scorecards
I kept a timesheet for the first month of the project. After that, it was not necessary; there was not much variation in the number of hours I worked, or the number of words I translated every day. I did keep a “scorecard” though and privately celebrated every time another 5% of the job had been completed.
As a translator of a big book, you are one tiny little cog in a giant machine. You have your part to play, and you do it. For most of the time, however, you are working alone. What you need to do is set up your own private collaborators, who have nothing to do with the contract itself.
Your collaborators are the people around you. Your partner, friends and family need a broad outline of your plan and regular updates on how things are going. I showed my landlord (not that he is a literary man) my complimentary copy of O Grand Livro das Castas to give him an idea of what I was doing and to advise him that money would be coming to him at strange times of the month. Collaborators are support people who help you achieve your objective.
I immediately employed a proofreader. Not a professional proofreader, but someone with a wide general knowledge whose honesty I could rely on. This person was briefed to find obvious typos, but more importantly, to mark passages of my translated texts that still sounded “too German”.
Every Friday, I would print out the week’s work and take the pages to her. In return, I would receive the revised pages of the previous week. Sometimes the thought of this brief “reality check” and chat over coffee was the only thing that kept me going.
Minor collaborators include your routine activities. If you always do something at 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, continue to do it, especially if it gives you a chance to get away from the desk. Life does go on after completion of a large project; there is no reason to stop everything during the project. You do, however, have to achieve your daily targets, even if this means having a longer day to fit in your Wednesday afternoon commitment.
One other important consideration is collaboration with your existing clients. At the start of the project I only had a few clients I could call regular. Once I was certain that the project was mine, I let them all know. When the project was definitely over, I informed them. Some of those clients continue to give me regular work; others do not. If you think you can take on a project of this magnitude and continue with your regular clients, do bear in mind that a large project has a way of consuming your every waking moment (and half your dream life). This, I believe is a necessary part of the process we call achieving excellence. Sustained focused effort judiciously and intelligently applied produces excellence. Believe me, any distractions you allow will reflect in your work, and detract from achieving your objective.
Crazily, though, I did take on a new Pt-En client in early May, and spent a day and a half doing the job. Different subject, different language pair. A change is as good as a holiday, I thought, and indeed it did prove to be a sanity-preserver.
On a project on a specific subject, you have to determine your main sources of research. I already knew from my “sample” translation of the Abstract that there were more than ample resources online. If I could not have found what I needed online, my first port of call would have been the author (who has an extensive private library). In fact, one term had me doing my nut in. I asked the author, and he had the term straight away – with conviction. Job done.
Online research, however, is not always free. Were I to negotiate the contract now, I may well have insisted on about €300 to be used specifically for subscriptions to trade journals for more rapid access to the answers I needed.
Immersion and active learning
Collaboration with one’s author is a fine thing indeed, but it is no substitute for work on one’s own – the kind of work which pushes the boundaries of your knowledge zone, your comfort zone, and even your method.
Immersion in the subject matter while conducting your research is a process of active learning. Even if we learn something in a foreign language, some part of our brain helps us understand it in terms of our mother tongue (hence the need for sleep!). The discernment one acquires as a result of active learning as well as the filtering process our brains do during sleep contribute to the quality and precision of the translated text. The effort can be enormous; the results are worth the effort.
One can never lose sight of the simple objective in this case: to produce a volume in English. The work has to pass the following standard: Would another professional translator in the same language pair, or a discerning reader familiar with this subject be able to tell that this is a translation? If the answer is an unequivocal “no” then – and only then – has the translation been successful.
Dealing with the quality of the source text
The other equally harsh question one must constantly ask: Would another specialist in this field accept this text as valid? Would he or she pick holes in it? Now, as a translator, one cannot be criticised for the quality of the content of the source text, but if the content is erroneous in any way, this has to be raised as an issue.
This is where research and collaboration meet. Simply put, if what you are translating does not make sense, you have to find someone (the author, or someone in his collaborative constellation) who can rewrite the passage so that it does. I can hear some people saying, “I am just the translator – that is not my responsibility”. Yes, it is. Your name is on the title page. Whatever is wrong with the translation – even if it is finely translated nonsense – will be your fault, and yours alone. Channels of command have to be observed in these cases, because this is what engenders the greatest amount of co-operation with you, the translator. This kind of collaboration requires tact, firmness, good timing, and a solid basis of fact (research backup). This could be one of the things that chews into your 25% contingency on time.
Bringing all past experiences to your translation
Collaboration does not only occur with people. In the translation process, it occurs with aspects of yourself.
You bring your whole life’s experience to each and every new experience you have, whether or not you are conscious of it. Similarly, with every new text you translate, you bring to that translation the experience of every single translation you have previously performed in your life. You also bring every other (non-translation) experience you have had.
On the surface, I was contracted as a German to English translator. The text itself has a sprinkling of French and Latin, and has Spanish and Portuguese placenames and names of historical figures, and others throughout. If there was an accent missing on a Portuguese place name, I put it back in. Typographical errors in all of the above languages were corrected and verified. Part of the job of a German to English translator? I do not know the answer to that question. Perfectionism? You bet!
Undated self-portrait. Alfredo Roque Gameiro (1864-1935), watercolour on paper, José Mahloa Museum.
Understanding how the author thinks
Next, a rather nebulous factor: The native German author has lived in Portugal for the last 40 years, and his German has suffered somewhat as a result. He speaks Portuguese and English. The key to occasional strange word use was to say the word out loud as if it were Portuguese. Bingo! He had simply germanicised a Portuguese word. If I did not have the habit of reading aloud problem sentences, and if I had no knowledge of Portuguese, I would not have thought of that.
This phenomenon was not confined to the lexical level either. Sometimes, the ordering of thoughts in sentences followed a Portuguese pattern more than a German one, as did those lexical items which join thoughts from one sentence to another. This required an intuitive approach. I never raised this issue with the author, and I will not criticise him for it, because we all have our own linguistic idiosyncrasies which contribute to the dynamic nature of language itself. Being able to meet the author, converse with him on matters not necessarily related to the book and listen to how he spoke in English and Portuguese gave me an inkling as to “how he thinks” and was a valuable tool in deciphering a number of passages in this work.
Doing research in different languages
Now to the language of research. Let us remember that the broad subject was grapevines, not wine, yet the two are closely linked. Collaborating authors on this work were Spanish and Portuguese. Historically, it is not only these two nationalities which have contributed to the literature, but also the Italians, Germans and French in no particular order, and well as many others. This means that frequently I had a choice of language in which I could read background information. A typical route may have been to go from German to French and thence to the English term I required. Sometimes the only background information available to me was in Portuguese or Spanish. As I have already mentioned, Spanish is not one of my languages, but as many who know Portuguese will tell you, one can have a rudimentary understanding of Spanish if one knows Portuguese. There were various brief incursions into Latin poetry too, and these sorely tested my memory of fragments learned over 30 years ago. The latter also made me realise that only the dullest excerpts are chosen for the school syllabus.
Had I not been able to understand these languages, I would have been forced to engage in more collaboration with someone who could tell me in a language I understand what the information said. This would have been potentially tiresome and costly in terms of time, and may not have yielded the best answers.
Le mot juste
As translators, we conduct research for two basic reasons: to ensure we have a proper understanding of the text to be translated; and to ensure that we use the correct terminology in the target text.
The Yes! feeling of piecing the puzzle together is a very private one, and short-lived. Private, because, once again, no-one wants to know how long it took you to find le mot juste; short-lived because of the next terminological query further down the page. This is the painstaking part of translation where the only collaboration is between the text, you, and the text you are crafting into a translation. Woe betide anyone who disturbs you in these, the purest of moments!
My most valuable partner
My most valuable and cherished experience in the entire process was the true collaboration I experienced with the English revisor who was originally employed by the now bankrupt publisher, but whom the author himself paid to proofread the final translation.
As translator, I had the final say on the copy; something which I insisted on during contract negotiation. This meant that the revisor proofread the entire text, made occasional queries as to content, and returned the documents to me to accept or reject changes prior to my sending the final to the design and layout team at the publishers. She was efficient, professional, meticulous, and had a good sense of humour.
We met first on the telephone, had countless e-mail exchanges, and met in person at the launch. As a Portuguese and Spanish to English translator, she brought a wealth of cultural and linguistic knowledge to her work. Her relative distance from the text provided the impetus needed for it to become truly polished. This is something I freely acknowledge I could not have done on my own. In the spirit of collaboration, we both duly expressed to the author the excellence of our co-operation and the high mutual esteem which had developed as a result.
The final proofs
The next collaboration was perhaps the most difficult for me; signing off on the final proofs. The language shared by me, two layout and design men and the author was Portuguese. Any changes, therefore, had to be documented in Portuguese. This meant a fairly sharp learning curve for me. It is one thing to translate from Portuguese into English; it was quite another for me to express myself clearly in Portuguese when the state of the final proofs depended on it!
This was a type of mental gymnastics I had not performed before. I am glad of the experience and know that the two I collaborated with found it rewarding too. I am sure I made several linguistic gaffes; we all needed a bit of laughter by deadline stage and I did not mind being the one providing the humour. The fact that we had met in person at the author’s home in mid-June reveals that the author certainly knows a thing or two himself about successful collaboration.
Launching the German- and Portuguese-language versions
The launch of the published hardcover German and Portuguese versions took place at the Academy of Sciences of Lisbon on 15 September 2011.
In search of a publisher for the English-language version
I have a soft cover copy of the English volume. Some discerning (English) readers have read it and given positive personal reviews.
I have continued my collaboration with the author and one or two others in the search for a publisher. Now, all the book needs is for the head of a major publishing firm to holiday in the Algarve this summer.
The trilingual BETA version of the Vine to Wine Circle portal was launched on 3 January 2013. It contains the Vine Atlas of Spain and Portugal, and its German and Portuguese counterparts, substantial content from O Grande Livro das Castas (in all three languages), and an extra section on the wine regions of Portugal drafted especially for this portal. Work on the portal involved translating a further 80,000 words, more or less.
My collaboration with the author and co-ordinator of this work continues to this day. Late in 2017 the quadrilingual Illustrated Wine Glossary picture above (primary language: Portuguese) was published. I revised the English terms (and made a good many corrections elsewhere, but not before I travelled up to Montemor-O-Novo to the author’s wine estate and thence with the author to Tomar where we spent the day working closely with the same man co-responsible for the layout work in all books mentioned in this blog (except the one for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, of course) and the Vine to Wine Circle.
I also got to do really interesting things, such as a guided tour of the winery just for me given by the marketing manager (reward: seeing the interior of an empty 2,000 litre fermentation tank), working for a couple of hours feeding bottles into the bottling plant at the author’s wine estate (reward: a bottle of wine), examine the stationary mechanical wine harvesters to my heart’s content (reward: curiosity satisfied), and, best of all, agreeing the plan of action with the author for his next book over a couple of bottles of some of the best French white wine in the world; the author’s attempt in vain to convince me that that exceptional white wines do exist. Give me an Alentejo red any day. I am particular about which varieties I drink, but that is another story.
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.
What was the common denominator among delegates at the 2013 ProZ.com 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.
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 Amazon.com. 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.
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 http://www.businessmodelgeneration.com 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.
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.
I 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.
The allisonwrighttranslations.com domain is now hosted by WordPress. WordPress made the whole process a pleasure, and I am pleased to say that I did not require any support, other than the very clear explanations contained in the WordPress Help files. I would recommend others doing the same for this reason alone.
The content of my website remains largely unchanged. I hope the simplistic collocating of the Portuguese and English copy is straightforward enough to navigate.
My own reason for doing so was that I found blogging at my former domain host an unwieldy process, so I seldom blogged there. I intend to repost some of the blog content from the former site here in due course, but for the time being, I look forward to having a dedicated space to express my thoughts on translation matters on this blogging platform that I so enjoy.
With a conference to attend in the next few days, and all the GDPR documents to finalise, I imagine that a few updates will appear here quite soon.
Escrevo sobre temas de relevo na tradução porque a tradução é relevante. Este blogue centra-se apenas em aspetos relacionados com a tradução.
O meu blogue pessoal (em www.wrightonthebutton.com)
tem conteúdos mais variados, mas ocasionalmente também aborda assuntos relacionados com a tradução.
Nada agrada mais às pessoas do que uma conversa interessante, por isso, esteja à vontade para comentar os meus blogues aqui.
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This blog deals with aspects related to translation only. My personal blog at That elusive pair of jeans contains more varied blogs, some of which explore translation-related topics. I welcome comments on both blogs, since I have yet to find a person who does not enjoy a good conversation.