translation, translators

Zen-style sanity

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 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


Passionate about getting things right

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)