Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Time to make the big jump?

To the best of my knowledge, there is not another person who can provide a near 360º view of the translation industry. I have worked as a translation project manager in marketing agencies and as a translation buyer working closely with translation agencies, freelancers, large multinationals and their overseas offices, IT developers, DTP operators, printers, etc. I have been, (oh dear me!), a client. I am now a freelance translator. I am not aware of someone with a similar career switch.

Attending a translation industry event early after the career change, my first impression was how much translators and interpreters rant - and I mean really rant - about their clients. For most of my career, my role has been facilitating communication between clients or stakeholders, agencies or freelancers. Clients rant about translators too. They just don't generally write or speak about their experiences. When they do, I get the impression that they learn to shut up pretty quickly. Argue with wordsmiths at your peril.

As was recently drawn to my attention, it shouldn't feel like changing sides. Both sides should feel that they are on the same side. Moving home this summer, I was struck by how poor client service has often become. There are so many automated call-lines. Press 1 for this, 2 for that, 3 for something else, etc. Having pressed 2, you get another complete set of decisions. Then you get charged a premium rate for the privilege of waiting around. When you reach a human voice, they can't help much because they often don't have access to all necessary areas of the computer and you have to wait for another operator. Many companies are geared up to their own maximum efficiency. Arggh!!! Come on translators and specialist small agencies, clients won't like machine-automated translation services anymore than they like automated call centres. The big agencies don't provide a tailored, personal service. They are aimed at a different sector of the market.

Clients are human. Many highly educated clients are at sea when it comes to handling translations. It is hard to trust when you cannot understand the end-product. When the translation process runs smoothly, no-one comments. When it goes wrong, you can guarantee that everyone all the way up to the CEO knows about it.

Translation therefore becomes a poisoned chalice. It is a hot potato that no-one wants to handle. A failed translation project has the potential to ruin the career of someone who cannot judge whether the product is good or bad. It frequently gets caught up in all sorts of internal political wranglings that have nothing to do with the words on the page.

Translators do not help the situation by arguing pedantically over one word or being hypercorrect over a grammar point. Frankly, some translators treat clients like complete idiots, not respecting that their client has a skillset, knowledge and experience that goes far beyond grammar and languages. Is it surprising that a client switches off?

There is a tendency to see client changes as purely stylistic. Some are. However, 15 years on different sides of the industry show me that something is missing in the service.  Even the best translation often leaves a client or local office dissatisfied. It strikes me that while many fear the impact of technology on our industry, the answer to our survival is to deal with this dissatisfaction. Even the best future machine translation cannot hope to get beyond human capabilities then.

Since my career switch, I have been listening, observing and researching intensely for the solution. It is a strange situation to have much knowledge and experience of the translation industry, but to have been reduced to the status of recently graduated newbie. It is an eye-opener. I have the utmost personal respect for long established and very experienced translators. However, the situation for setting up a freelance business today is very different to their experiences, as related in my recent ITI Bulletin article on internships. It is sometimes odd to think that I may be with translators who have worked on my projects in the past. As the work was usually through agencies, we do not realise that we have worked together many times.

Lack of communication and trust is at the heart of many of the issues in the industry. I am well-accustomed to clients' lack of trust of the translation industry. I have been astounded by the lack of trust shown between agencies and freelancers. At times, I have been absolutely flabbergasted that freelancers do not even trust each other. Everyone sees everyone else as a competitor.  Yet, we all have different strengths and weaknesses. As a project manager, I knew to place different types of work and subject matter with different agencies and freelancers to play to their strengths. Not all clients do this. Many agencies take on work for which they are not suited and claim to be able to do everything. When they fail, the client is not just dissatisfied with a single agency or translator, he learns to take a dim view of the whole industry. And then he doesn't want to pay...

In discussions with experienced translators I find that many already do much of what a client needs without theorising about it. They warn their clients that something will not work for cultural or linguistic reasons. We need to take that further to understand more about the client's whole project and issues that our work fits into.

When working on my own bilingual website, I really struggled to find the advice and information that I needed. Clients struggle even more. Most multilingual websites are carbon copies in each language. Yet, my project management experience teaches me that this does not work.  Cultural expectations are different. Corporate branding wants consistency across nations. I remember working on a brochure and fact sheet that was intended for the US, South America, Italy, France, Spain, Switzerland, Nordics and Japan. The Japanese office sent an example of a document that they liked. It was full of bright, pictures and not as dense in copy as our US versions. We had to compromise on merely introducing a corporate history section. It was of great importance to the buying decisions of our Japanese clients to display a solid corporate history. A machine translation could never hope to help a client to depart from a source text in this way, only human translators and language consultants can.

When I compare French and English marketing materials, they vary not just between our two countries, but also between industry sectors. The rate of digital progression is different between countries and regions.  The devices used are different. The preferred advertising methods are different. And that is just between France and the UK. What if translators were able to inform clients well beyond a word for word translation on the page? Somehow I suspect that there would not be quite so much ranting around.

When you make a split-second decision to click on a Twitter link what makes you do it? It is usually a deep emotional connection of some sort. I have been somewhat surprised by some reactions to my blogs and tweets. What is the point in writing a bland blog? You want to incite some sort of debate with a blog. The translation industry is largely formed of language-loving introverts. Speaking out is largely seen as political or ranting.

One of the difficulties in writing or tweeting is in how much of ourselves we should reveal in a professional context. The financial industry is very conservative, environment and innovation twitterers are much freer. Apparently, many in the translation industry feel that I am being too political or too much on the client's side. Funny really, in one past appraisal, I was accused of being too much on the translators' side. If you met me, you would soon find that I am unsure of more than the basics of political policies. My Twitter feed reflects my eclectic range of interests. It may appear erratic and undisciplined against standard marketing advice. It is authentically me - not a rigid and anaesthetised, fluffy marketing strategy. It reflects the people, places, interests and issues I care about. You don't reach, (how shall I say it?), a certain age without developing quite a range of interests.

At school I would not say boo to a goose. Countless reports described me as "quiet". Until the day, my parents had had enough, complained that there was much more to me than that and the school simply wasn't making an effort. Well, my tutor baited and challenged me for the rest of that year. The next report mentioned "my mischievous sense of humour".  There is much more to clients beneath the surface too to connect with.

I like writing, blogging and tweeting about issues that I care about. I care about being British and a linguist. I care about social (not political) issues that affect my family. I care about education, because I have children. I care about the healthcare, because my family have had both good and bad experiences. I care about the disabled, because one of my sisters is disabled. I care about linguists (especially the plight of the British linguist), because I have struggled throughout my career to maintain my languages. I do not find that focus group reports reflect my experiences accurately. Twitter suits the life of a busy professional woman. It is a great channel for comment, to reach out and speak out.

From my own personal experiences of setting up as a freelance translator, I now know that the ranting has some very real foundations. The translation industry needs a major realignment in its pricing to meet client expectations in the future. We need to secure the succession of the next generation of translators and interpreters on a liveable wage. It is very necessary to speak up (or "rant" if you prefer). It is possible to push for changes by working together.

At the 2014 FIT conference, one agency spoke of being under considerable pricing pressures. Yet, once when I budgeted for an increase, not a single supplier asked for one. One freelancer worried about the pricing discussions in the industry, even insisted on a price reduction. It's a trifle tricky to increase someone's rates when one's performance is measured by reducing costs. When working in marketing agencies, I would persuade clients to spend more on a quality translation and look for the savings in a more cost-effective revision process, multilingual design and production costs. 

Change is possible.
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