Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Just Say…A) Yes or B) No

It’s time for me to come clean about my biggest problem as a freelancer – saying “no”. I confess that I am terrible at it. I have a lot of energy and I manage to get many things done, and that combined with my desire to please makes me accept many of the projects people offer me, no matter how much else I have going on in my life. When a customer contacts me about a job that I know I have the skills for, I tend to just say “yes,” even if I know I have many other things to do or if I have planned to take a day off.

Some other freelancers I’ve spoken to have mentioned that they have a similar problem. After all, since most of us freelancers support ourselves with the income we bring in from our work and since we never know if assignments might stop coming in, we tend to take on jobs when they are offered. We worry that if we say “no” to a customer now, that person will find another translator and never return to us, and thus we will have lost more than just the one assignment. Friends and relatives of mine who are not freelancers do not understand what it is like to not have a steady paycheck, and these are the people who always say to me, “But it’s so easy to say “no.” Just do it!” I can point out, though, that this concern about having a steady income is in fact what stops many wannabe-translators from achieving their dreams.

I’ve been working on improving this bad habit of mine. On my recent birthday, for example, a customer I’ve done editing for before asked me to edit an entire book within a 24-hour period. Obviously, that was a ridiculous assignment anyway, and I told the company in question that my professional pride would not allow me to accept editing a book so quickly since I knew it was not possible to do a good enough job given the time constraints, but I also reminded myself that I had promised myself a day off for my birthday, and that I had to turn down the job for that reason as well.

The next day, however, I was back to my usual behavior, and I accepted a translation job and an editing job, though I knew I really did not have the time, and that by taking on that work, I was ensuring that I would not have any time for pleasure reading for the next week or so.

The only situations in which I confidently turn down assignments are if I know I do not have the knowledge or qualifications necessary for a particular job or if the potential customer refuses to pay a reasonable fee or in any other way treats me disrespectfully. When it comes to my own priorities, however, they tend to come last.

So, I ask you other freelancers: When do you say “no” to assignments? How do you do it? And have you noticed whether clients you say “no” to in regard to one particular job still ask you to do other work for them?

I know many of us would benefit from saying “no” more often, but somehow my “no”s tend to turn into “yes”es.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No Surprises: Once Again, People Prove Not to Understand Translation

This article suggests that a county council in England is using language students to do translations as a way of increasing business for companies in their region. What is upsetting is that the Norfolk County Council seems to believe that just because some students have done well in foreign language courses in high school, they are able to translate to that language or write documents directly in the language. Clearly, this is yet another case of people not understanding what translation is or what skills are involved.

In the article, a communications manager is quoted as saying, “Students need to understand that having good, relevant language skills can add value to their CV, and are just as important as their technical and other academic skills. It’s all too easy for those skills to lie dormant and only be brought out when ordering a meal on holiday!”

Of course this is true, but having language skills alone is certainly not enough to make a successful translator, as
has been mentioned many times on this blog before.

I am sure there are some talented students involved in this project and maybe one day some of them will even become translators. In the meantime, however, I hope businesses will hire experienced, expert translators if they are serious about realizing their “true business potential” and increasing their business abroad.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

In Praise of Excellence, or, How to Retain and Get More Customers

On this blog, I have given practical advice for getting started in translation, and how to get a freelance translation business going is probably the most common question people ask me. But it is not enough to set out your shingle and call yourself a translator; you also have to ensure that you get a steady stream of assignments. And that means that you need to make sure you get new customers.

I have found that word-of-mouth is really the best method for getting new customers. People are more likely to accept a recommendation from a friend or colleague than they are to be convinced by advertising. But in order for customers to recommend you to other people, you must do an excellent job. So how can you be a successful translator?

Here are a few tips from my years as a freelance translator. I think this method has been working, since nearly all of my assignments come from regular customers or people they have recommended me to (who often in turn become regulars, too). I do not actively advertise and I no longer spend time signing up with translation agencies or contacting potential direct clients. The “only” thing I consistently do is the best work possible.

First of all, it is vital to keep your language skills fresh. Just because you have taken courses or have at some point lived in the country where the language you translate from is spoken does not mean that you are still perfectly fluent. And sometimes you can even forget things in your native language (I certainly have been embarrassed to experience situations when I remember a word in Swedish, but not in English!). To combat this language-slippage, read widely in both the source and text languages, across as many genres as you can. Read books and online newspapers, and even participate in chat groups. The style of writing and the choice of vocabulary varies according to who is writing and for what purpose and what audience, so any texts you read can help refresh or update your language skills, and can also inspire you when it comes to how you write.

Besides reading texts, I also make a point of learning new words in both English and Swedish. Building your vocabulary is both interesting and helpful.

Also, try to regularly speak both languages, since even if you work primarily with the written word, speaking practice can positively influence your reading and writing. Except in certain circumstances, you probably can not live in a country where both (or all, if you have more than two) your languages are regularly spoken. That means it is up to you to find a way to practice hearing and talking. I’m lucky in that my partner is Swedish. We used to have a schedule in which we spoke Swedish for two weeks and then switched to English for two weeks and so on, since that way we each had an opportunity to use our mother tongue, which is important for us both personally and professionally. At this point, we haven’t spoken English in a very long time, but I do get to speak English with people at the university and when I am out, since I live in an English-speaking country. For people who do not have the asset of having a more or less built-in language partner, find some people in your area who speak the language in question and try to plan occasional get-togethers. This need not be formal; having coffee once a month and chatting in Gaelic or Tagalog or Italian can be enough.

But making sure you are fluent in both source and target languages isn’t all that you need in order to retain customers and impress them with your skills. There are certain personal qualities that have an impact too.

You should be curious and willing to learn new things, since many jobs will require that you do at least some research. Translation is not a matter of just looking up words in the dictionary; for many assignments, I have spent quite a bit of time reading other texts, searching the internet, or talking to experts or other translators, all for the goal of getting more information about the topic the text is about. And do not be afraid to ask questions of your client or other people. You can not do a good job if something about the document or the assignment confuses you or is unclear. You are definitely not stupid if you ask a question, though some people seem to feel it proves they are not intelligent enough for the job; on the contrary, it shows that you are intelligent enough to know when you need help. Doing it alone doesn’t mean much if you have done it incorrectly.

You should also be thorough. It is amazing how many people do not reread their work, leaving careless typos or other errors in the text. Edit the text before you send it off. Do not complain that it is boring to proof-read or that you don’t have time; it is a part of your job. I always compare the source and target texts after I have translated and then I read the target text again to check how it sounds in English. I do each of these things at least once; if I make any changes while doing them, I reread the text yet again. In other words, I edit until I feel the text is as good as it can be. It takes time, but it is worth it.

And speaking of time, an essential quality is punctuality. Always, always, always turn your work in on time, barring an extreme event such as a computer problem or an accident. If possible, give the translation to the client early. When I estimate how long a job will take me, I try to add on an extra few hours or days, depending on the type of assignment, to cover for particular situations or for anything unexpected happening. For example, about a month ago, one of my hard drives crashed, and that took some time to deal with, but not a single one of my projects was delayed because of it. There was no need for me to write embarrassing emails to customers about how I couldn’t do their work because I had a computer issue, since I had already estimated in a little extra time for my jobs (and also because I never wait until the last minute to start an assignment). Some people also like to estimate more time around holidays or in the busy seasons, since they know they will get more work in or have other activities, and they want to have room to prioritize. Usually, of course, the unexpected does not happen, and then you will be able to send the customer the work early, which tends to make them grateful. But don’t estimate that a job will take you two weeks when you know it will only require a few hours; that just makes you look bad, and it may even prevent you from getting assignments. Schedule reasonable deadlines and keep to whatever timeline you have agreed to.

A related point is to respond to all phone calls or emails from clients in a timely fashion. I try to reply within a few hours, or one day at the most. If I am out of town, I have an automated response set up on my email that lets them know when they can expect me to reply. It is annoying for customers if they have asked you to translate a text but you take a long time to reply; since then they don’t know whether you are available or not or even whether you have started translating the text without confirming the price and deadline with them, they may just decide to ask someone else. And if that someone else does a good job, the customer may go to that person for the next assignment, too.

In all your dealings with customers, be polite but firm. Customers may need to be educated about what translation is, but do so as politely as you can. If you snap or shout or send an angry email, you will likely lose the customer and he or she will ignore whatever point you were trying to make, too. Yes, customers sometimes complain about things for no reason, or act as though they are the language experts and not you. If their requests or comments are out of line, explain why and stand up for yourself, but don’t get yourself too worked up about it because it doesn’t help matters and it causes unnecessary stress for you, too. In certain situations, you will find that in fact you are better off without a particular customer. Remember, if you do good work and are polite, you are worth decent pay and respectful treatment from clients, and if you do not get that, move on to jobs from elsewhere.

Does this all seem obvious? Well, yes, it does. However, it is surprising how many people don’t seem to follow these suggestions. I know translators, for example, who see no reason why they should keep up their speaking skills in the source language, or who think project managers or end customers will edit the translation and they therefore don’t have to. I have also talked to people who are rather lax about deadlines or who don’t know how to plan their time. And I’ve heard stories about translators who argue with their customers or don’t let them know when they are going out of town. It is true that we translators offer a necessary service; it is not true that that means we can treat our customers and their documents any way we want. There is a lot of competition out there, so it behooves us to do the best job we can and to be polite, time-conscious, and careful while doing so.

Strive for excellence and I believe you’ll find that customers who care about their texts (i.e. customers who don’t just care about getting the job done as cheaply and quickly as possible) return to you again and again, and recommend you to others as well.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Translation in Novels

Over the weekend, I read Nobel Prize-winner Doris Lessing’s The Summer Before the Dark. I can’t say I felt too drawn to her writing, but I’m not going to write a review of it here anyway. What is interesting is that the first section of the book I chose happened to mention translation (well, actually, interpretation), and I had some definite issues with how our field was portrayed.

The main character, Kate Brown, is good with languages and her husband agrees on her behalf for her to fill in as a conference interpreter for a few weeks one summer. First of all, though she interprets at meetings, her job is always described as “translator”. Readers of this blog, of course, know the
difference between a translator and an interpreter.

Also, Kate Brown is very well-paid; she earns enough from what probably amounts to no more than two months of work to be able to buy designer clothes, go to a fancy hairstylist, travel in Turkey and Spain, stay at an expensive hotel in London, and then still have enough to live on in a rented room in London for more than a month. Are any of you interpreters doing that well?

Finally, after working as an interpreter (not a translator!) for only a short while, Kate Brown’s boss tells her that she is wasting her talents as an interpreter and should instead work as an…(wait for it!)…administrator! That’s right, since you don’t need any talents or skills to be an interpreter (or translator), even though you are apparently very highly paid (to be fair, Mrs. Brown does earn more money as an administrator, but she still got a good salary as an interpreter). Maybe I’m not a good translator, since no one has suggested I go into administration instead!

Besides getting annoyed at all this, Lessing’s novel also made me wonder about how translators (or interpreters) are described in other novels. You’d like to believe that novelists would do research before writing about a field they don’t know much about, but did Lessing? Do you know other novels or short stories that feature translators or interpreters? If so, how are they portrayed?

Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Round-Up of Articles

Here is some reading material for the weekend.

A few of
my previously published articles are now available on the website for Sveriges Facköversättarförening (the Swedish Association of Professional Translators).

There is an
article in the New York Times by Richard Pevear about translating Tolstoy’s War and Peace with Larissa Volokhonsky. Pevear and Volokhonsky are known for their English translations of Russian classics.

Steven Pinker discusses why we swear in this

piece from the New York Times is on a Spanish-based creole language in Columbia.

Some interviews with translators were posted this summer on
Conversational Reading. See here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Prose-Poems

Last week I went to a reading by the prose-poet Louis Jenkins. He read from his frequently humorous poems and spoke a little about his experiences with the form. He said that his goal in writing a prose-poem is to “write about the extraordinary in an ordinary way”. This interview with Mr. Jenkins is worth a read, as is his poetry.

He mentioned that this form is getting more popular these days in English-speaking countries. Perhaps this is related to the general shortening of attention spans (and therefore also to the increase in popularity of flash fiction, or short-short stories). I personally can’t recall having read a prose-poem in Swedish, though of course that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Is this type of poetry popular in other countries? And does their form making them easier to translate than other kinds of poetry?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Dictionary Day

Today is yet another language-related holiday, Dictionary Day. I’m one of those people who finds that when there is a need to look up one word in the dictionary, I notice other interesting words on the same page, and then I start turning pages and reading more definitions, and before I know it, a lot of time has passed during my dictionary-browsing. So I certainly am a grateful and enthusiastic dictionary-user and I appreciate all the hard work that has gone into creating them. On Oxford University Press’s blog, they write the following:

Commemorating the anniversary of Noah Webster’s birth in 1758, [October 16 is] largely an opportunity for US school teachers to organize classroom activities encouraging students to build their dictionary skills and to exult in the joy of words. Those of us who are out of school can celebrate too, of course.

Then the post continues by discussing other lexicographers, and it is worth a read.

So pick up a dictionary today and
learn a new word in honor of this holiday and all the lexicographers who made English dictionaries!

Saturday, October 13, 2007

An Erotic Relationship

In today’s Writer’s Almanac, the following information was included about the prolific translator Richard Howard. I like his quote about the eroticism of translation:

It’s the birthday of the poet and translator Richard Howard, born in Cleveland, Ohio (1929), who started out as a poet and won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his book Untitled Subjects (1969). His collection Inner Voices: Selected Poems, 1963–2003 came out in 2004. But he’s also known for his translations — more than 150 books, most of them from the French, including The Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire, which won Howard a National Book Award for translation in 1984. He said, “The relationship of the translator to the writer is an erotic relationship always, and you learn something about the person that you’re working with in an almost plastic, physical way that you can almost never learn about your friends.”

Friday, October 12, 2007

What Have You Translated This Year?

I got this idea from Engimatic Mermaid, except I have chosen just five of my many translation projects.

Five Things I Have Translated This Year

1. Contracts (a surprising number of them!)
2. A short story
3. Lots of recipes and texts about food
4. An analysis of nurses and their workplace situation
5. A text on eggs and microbiology

Who else wants to play?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Nobel Prize in Literature

So, yes, the winner of this year's Nobel Prize in literature is Doris Lessing. I heard the news one minute after it was announced, but unfortunately couldn't post until now.

I have read some work by her, but it was some time back and I can't say it was my favorite. However, I stopped by the university library today and picked up one of her novels, so I will try again.

As usual, I am sure this announcement will spark a flurry of translations!

What do you think?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Nobel Prize in Literature

This year's Nobel Prize in Literature will be awarded on Thursday. For some years, both the Syrian poet Adonis and the American novelist Philip Roth have been mentioned as possible winners, and that's true of this year as well. Other possible winners are Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami, Milan Kundera, Claudio Magris, Les Murray, Tomas Tranströmer, Ian McEwan, and Amos Oz.

The Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet has a
list of potential winners and the current odds on each of them.

Who do you think deserves the prize? And who do you think will win?

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Learning Portuguese

Last year I took a Welsh course and while I enjoyed that (though, frankly, I mostly learned how to talk about rugby matches and order beer in Welsh), I thought I’d try a different language this year. Hence, I’m taking an introductory Portuguese course (and not just because some of my articles have been translated to Portuguese!).

So here are some online resources for those of you who might also want to learn Portuguese or improve your skills in the language:

BBC Talk Portuguese

Learning Portuguese

Brazilian Portuguese

Boa sorte!

Friday, October 05, 2007

John Dryden Translation Competition

Readers of this blog may be interested to learn about the following competition:

The John Dryden Translation Competition

This is an annual competition, run by the British Comparative Literature Association, and sponsored by the British Centre for Literary Translation.

You can enter a prose, poetry or drama text translated from any language into English, but it must not be longer than 25 pages. An entry to the competition consists of the original text, your translation, and an entry form. The latter (with the full competition rules) is available on the competition website at or can be obtained by post from the organiser, Dr Jean Boase-Beier, School of Literature and Creative Writing, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ.

Entries cost £7 for one, £12 for 2 or £16 for 3. There are prizes of £350 (First Prize), £200 (Second Prize) and £100 (Third Prize), and entries may receive commendations. The competition judges are Peter France, Stuart Gillespie, Amanda Hopkinson, Elinor Shaffer and Glyn Pursglove, and they are assisted by a large number of specialist readers.

The closing date for the competition is in February each year; reading then takes place during the spring and the judges usually meet in June to make their decision. Announcements are made straight after the judges’ meeting, and there is a prize-giving event every year in the summer or autumn, to which winners are invited.

Entries received after the closing date will go forward to the following year’s competition, so it is possible to enter at any time of the year, using the form for the current year.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Finding Sources

Translators are language experts. Ideally, we’d also be experts in all the topics that the documents we translate are about, but that’s not always possible. Of course, we tend to be good researchers and many of us are curious and enjoy learning new things. But sometimes, there is a word or a concept in a text that we just can’t figure out, or there’s a description or a phrase that we just can’t picture, and therefore, we need help from other people. On occasion, we can ask our fellow translators, but there are situations when we might need to talk to, for instance, an accountant, an architect, a chef, or a person who grew up in another country.

Last month when I was in Sweden, I spent a couple of days in lovely Karlskrona with a friend of mine, who translates to Swedish. We discussed the memoir she was currently translating and some of the challenges it posed. For example, the book takes place in Australia, and some of the plants discussed don’t exist in Sweden, much less have Swedish words. So what did the translator do? She called a botanical garden and asked for advice about one plant in particular. Together with a scientist, based on names for similar plants, she helped created a new Swedish word. Another problem was a description the author used; it seemed to reference geology and evolution, but in a slightly unusual way. My friend asked me and some other native English speakers to read the sentence and to give our impressions and to tell her how the description sounded to us. Then she happened to hear a radio program featuring an earth scientist at a university in Göteborg; she took the chance to email him and ask for advice on what this phrase meant and how it could be translated, and he did in fact reply with information.

I was impressed by how she managed to find answers to these questions, how she was willing to request help from others. So often I struggle alone or, once in a great while, ask other translators or Swedish-speakers when I get really stuck. But this is how she regularly solves such problems; she told me that knowing people in different professions and from different cultures is a great way of getting help, and as long as you are polite, there is no reason why you can’t ask for suggestions even from people you don’t know. She said that when translating a South African novel with a lot of slang and cultural and political issues, she called a local university to ask if they had any South African exchange students. They did and she invited them over for tea and they helped her work through some of her queries.

So I thought of her last week when I was working on a cookbook and was stuck on one word that kept appearing in recipes. It referred to a specific kitchen tool that does not exist in English (and, frankly, is one of those tools that don’t need to exist either): a “potatissticka,” or a “potato stick,” which you use to check if the potatoes you are boiling are ready. I always use a fork myself, but I thought I should make sure that there really was no such item.

First, I asked some people I know who like to cook; no one had anything like it. Then, I was in the suburb of Swansea called Mumbles, where I take a ceramics course. I was early for the class and was just strolling around the cute streets when I noticed a store that sold only – you guessed it – kitchen tools and cookbooks. I said to the woman behind the counter, “I’m sure this sounds a little odd, but I’m a translator working on a cookbook and I wonder if you can help me with something.”

She confirmed that there is no “potato stick” in English-speaking countries, but that people use cake testers, skewers, forks, toothpicks, or meat thermometers instead.

So the point is that not only is it interesting in and of itself to know people in different fields and with different backgrounds and interests, but it is also helpful for your translation work (or your writing or editing work, for that matter). And don’t be afraid to talk to people or to ask for their assistance; many are genuinely glad to share their knowledge.