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The Prosperous Translator Paperback – September 28, 2010
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But are the only options open to the stressed-out freelancer either "Remember the Alamo!" or signing up for an MT webinar?
The publication of The Prosperous Translator, a selection of twelve years' worth of a regular advice column on the translation business written by Chris Durban and Eugene Seidel, is timely. However, it probably will remain useful for some time to come, despite the daily drumbeat from some corners that technology is shaking up everything ("soon you will be working with a Bing app on your iPhone!" "Uh... why?"). Even the messages from some of the columns that are now more than a decade old remain relevant. Reading the book feels like sitting down and talking shop with experienced practitioners of the treasonous craft. And mostly from the point of view of dollars and cents, which is so yummy but so infrequent because of what the authors call the "poverty cult." As in any good semi-structured conversation, the truly memorable comments are serendipitous. And not just valuable for people taking their first baby steps. The book is well worth reading even for the experienced translator.
One pearl: "[T]here is not one translation market, rather a multitude of segments, including those driven by rock-bottom rates and/or lightning turnarounds, with quality a distant third" (p.75). Why is there always someone ready to charge less than me? "In translation, the barriers to entry are so low as to be non-existent. Every single day new people are coming in hoping to undercut you and take away your business" (p. 106).
So, are you stuck in the lower-end of the market and frustrated by increasing pressures? One of the authors' central messages, reiterated gently but frequently, is to go upmarket: "[U]se this as an opportunity to detach yourself from the clutches of slap-dash agencies like this one and go after your own direct clients" (p.179). Throughout Fire Ant and Worker Bee's interactions with their readers, a recurrent theme is to strike out on your own, be more entrepreneurial, and seek greener pastures when the current ones become overrun by penny-a-word crowdsourcers. And they do this with varying degrees of softness or grouchiness. Witness one reply to a Ph.D. with almost two decades of translation experience who complains that direct clients are not beating a path to his door: "What you seem to want is a fairy godmother to wave her wand and bring you high-paying work without you having to do a thing. And maybe give you a little kiss to make it all better" (p. 120). Ouch.
Tough love. Because the authors aren't selling an easy or guaranteed road to success. Translators faced with worsening conditions "bite the bullet and raise prices high enough to earn a decent living. They specialize. They invest in marketing and advertising, and they accept that they are full-time entrepreneurs with all the risks and benefits that entails" (p. 92).
The authors don't address faddish buzzwords such as crowdsourcing and machine translation, because they don't really need to. When you take a step back (and this book helps), the barbarians at the gate all really come down to the same phenomenon: commoditization. If you're stuck in the subprime side of the market, the pressures are only going to increase. You only have two ways out. Ape the machine. Take the MT webinar. Try to ride that hamster wheel faster and faster. Reach the goal of picking 10,000 words a day from the cotton fields. Until the next wave of pricing pressure comes along.
Or follow Fire Ant and Worker Bee's advice. Swim upstream.
After all, if a company is paying a supplier $0.40 per word today, do you think they're really going to be interested in the output of a post-editor with a humble undergraduate degree and no knowledge of the industry? If you are paying top dollar, even MT that improves 200% will still not fit the bill. You pay top dollar for that little extra something. The machine translation push is designed to vacuum up the pennies-per-word segment. And that is OK. Probably 90% of the text produced for commercial translation is well-suited for commoditized outsourcers, some of which will be driven into the ground by slightly better machine translation.
It is not a moral issue. If you are an independent translator working for direct clients and you want to use machine translation, that is up to you. It is a business decision. Just like using translation memory.
Now, if you're down in the holds of an LSP trirreme, bound and shackled and forced to use the MT oar (because it is just soooo much more productive than that old wooden oar), it is a whole 'nother ball game. And that can be scary as heck. But as The Prosperous Translator reminds you, the commodity end of the market is not the whole market.
My intuitive view is that anyone charging below $0.20 per word is a future victim of the subprime barbarians. I'm not quite there yet. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard. Because every time I hear that computers won't replace translators, I think: "Yeah, and that's the problem!" Those bells are tolling mighty hard and methinks they toll for thee and me.
I am not a libertarian. I realize that jumping overboard is not that simple for someone who depends on the trireme for a large chunk of his or her income. And the whole "you're free to reject our crud" from vendor managers is appalling. I fully realize that. Believe me, I find the sleaziness of large outsourcers contemptible too.
But the metaphor of being chained to the trireme is just a metaphor. If you're reading this, chances are very good you live in a free society. And you are free to strike out on your own. If you hail from Eastern Europe or from places like my native Venezuela, you probably know (or at least have heard of) people who literally went to prison to bring you that kind of freedom. Don't understimate that.
Is jumping overboard a sure-fire road to success? Hardly. The downside of liberty is the liberty to fall flat on your face. "For the record, we've never said that creating a successful translation practice is easy. It takes language skills, business savvy, hard work and a willingness to strike out in new directions" (p. 120). As Durban and Seidel soberly intone: "There are no guarantees, no magic formulas. Failure is always possible. But there is no alternative" (p. 92).
A refreshing blast of fresh air - part wake-up call, part tough-love and part an earnest appeal to practicality - this book stands in stark contrast to the endless parade of post-recession books and Internet 10-step guides on how to become a madly successful freelance translator by standing downwind of a person speaking kitchen Spanish and absorbing all the expertise you'll ever need by pure osmosis.
The book draws on a wealth of material at the core of the 12-year-old "Fire Ant and Worker Bee" advice column for translators and interpreters which itself grew out of relationships formed in the pre-Cambrian CompuServe Foreign Language Education Forum (FLEFO), an ancient watering hole for translators, some of whom would gather around the campfire to grumble about how mistreated and misunderstood they were in this vast, cruel, English-speaking, monolingual world.
It turns out that some of the non-grumblers were making a ton of money all along. This book represents the countervailing philosophy of those people - in this analogy, the masters of the Iron Age - who gave up on the fireside navel-gazing to seize their own destinies and reshape their world.
The format of the book is Q&A, the tone is frank, clever and often funny, but the message is utterly practical: You too can succeed as the author herself has, but the path is trickier and far more perilous than it at first seems.
The most hazardous tar trap for beginning translators turns out to be their own assumptions. The first chapter, wisely entitled: "Is This Option Really For Me? Straight Talk on Who Is Likely to Make It and Who Should Look Elsewhere," contains detailed questions from people who are considering becoming professional translators themselves. But the questioners reveal an inordinate fascination with their own relative strengths and weaknesses in various languages, which is truly the wrong focus. While it's admirable that these people are passionate about language and words (good!) it turns out that they are not very passionate about much else in the world. This is what my daughter would call an Epic Fail.
The reason this fails is that translation is not about words. It's about what the words are about.
It's not just beginners who are ensnared by this idea. David Bellos wrote several thousand words on the topic of the elusiveness of meaning and uselessness of individual words in the otherwise fascinating and often insightful Is that a Fish in Your Ear?, yet never got even remotely close to capturing the same idea I did using the two short phrases above. (Disclaimer: those phrases represents the distillation of a lifetime translating and thinking about the nature of translation.)
It turns out that the most successful translators are at their core rabid philosophers of meaning. They mix and mingle and blend seamlessly into crowds of investment bankers and attorneys and physicists and engineers. And that's because those translators speak the same meaning. This is the core of the dictum that all successful translators must have "subject-matter expertise," an unhappily turgid and dense way of saying that you must know a lot about how the world works to people who can pay you to know these things. Budding translators seeking to work in today's commercial translation market are best advised to attend law school or spend years in commodity trading pits or solder printed circuit boards or do any number of other dirt-under-the-fingernails jobs rather than obsess about memorizing pocket grammars.
This is also why professional translation is an excellent second career. And often a trying, difficult and sometimes futile first one.
The chapter headings in this book all pull double duty - they are instructive in their brevity - and posit both the question and answer in a Zen-koan-like way: "Pricing and Value," "Specializing: Establishing Your Brand" and especially, "Marketing and Finding Clients: Regaining Control and Building a Strong Client Portfolio."
The fact that the author must come right out and say "regaining control" in a chapter heading on how to find the right clients in today's global commercial translation market - a multibillion dollar (that's billion with a Carl Sagan plosive "b") market by any reckoning - is instructive and illuminating. Translators' market passivity, e.g. their startlingly near-universal willingness to take whatever fees are offered and to accept work from whatever clients are standing athwart the road they happen to be walking on, remains an endlessly persistent headwind that even this author must overcome to be heard.
It's unclear why this is so. It's been suggested (uncharitably) that translators are by their nature passive. After all, somebody else wrote the original text and created the original ideas. But such a statement is far more revealing about the painfully limited perspective of any person who would attempt to make such a claim. To cite just one example, in every meaningful way the Renaissance was above all else the work of translators, and the formative structures of the written form of the major European languages today were built foremost and principally on the labor, sweat and creative passions of translators. Often at the cost of their own lives.
It's far more accurate to say that translators can do what authors do, but can do it in more than one language.
Perhaps the greatest challenge to insisting that translators and interpreters grab the reins and lead the charge on the commercial stage as the author of this fine work has done is that translators and interpreters are perfectly happy secretly standing to the side, defining, determining and in every way controlling the meaning of every multilingual conversation, statement, claim, patent, invention, ad, novel, poem, lawsuit, theory, proof, negotiation, settlement, movie and play that take place in any medium.
Which - when you think about it - is way cool.