Marketing advice for translators? Enough already!

As I’m sitting here at home admiring my minuscule Christmas tree and just relaxing after submitting a painfully long translation on this Tuesday afternoon, I suddenly remembered Christmas in 1999, which I’d spent in my laboratory, back in my science and engineering days: a Christmas I spent looking at an oscilloscope instead of looking at a Christmas tree, working late instead of being with my family. It is a Christmas I will never get back. I miss a lot of things from those days but spending endless hours in the laboratory is not one of them.
One thing I do miss is that in that field an expert was really an expert. For someone to get recognition and, most important, to become an instructor, he/she needed to have the necessary background: extensive research, publications in reviewed journals, acknowledgment by colleagues, contributions to the field. I don’t see this in translation. In translation I see a lot of “facebooking”, a lot of “tweeting” and retweeting of the same unoriginal idea or advice going around. This seems to be one’s extensive research here: find something interesting a colleague said—or copied—and repost it and get some Likes; the more Likes you get the better known you become. How many publications in reviewed journals do we read or—God forbid—write every year? Sure, translation doesn’t lend itself to breakthrough research and publications of new findings. Translation theories are already formulated and published, and unless one of us comes up with a new theory now, we can’t expect to find many new original articles on the topic. We can conduct other types of research, the equivalent of scientific experiments, if you will, e.g. run surveys and publish our findings to share with the community. I wish we’d see more of those, more carefully designed and objectively interpreted surveys, not like the ones we see run and published by private companies that are self-proclaimed survey experts in the translation “industry” and which have already caused tremendous damage to the market.
No, we don’t see too many articles on translation. What is the general theme of the articles and posts we do see? Advice, marketing, more advice, more marketing, and last but not least, marketing advice. It seems a huge number of our colleagues are marketing experts. And it seems a huge number of them are eager to share their expertise with the rest of us, sometimes free of charge, sometimes at a price, and sometimes free of charge first and then at a price. But who are they, really? When I see a new expert sprung up like a mushroom I take a closer look. One expert has just graduated from college and yet presents himself as a successful and experienced professional (when did he have time to become that? It’s just impossible timewise). Another has been sharing his frustration in the forums of online portals for years, saying that he keeps lowering his rates to be “competitive” and that he’s had too little work to survive, yet on facebook he posts as an expert in translation groups and brags about his success (I mean, if you’re going to project a fake image, at least be consistent). I tend to sign up whenever there’s a new translation group on FB and LinkedIn, and I like following new colleagues on Twitter, but I get tired after a short while, tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. Advice from self-proclaimed experts who cannot back up their expertise except with the quantity of their social network posts. The same names, posting and reposting, trying to establish their presence in our heads (basic psychology) and consequently in the translation field.
I remember one such frequent poster trying to motivate colleagues (yes, we have lots of “motivational speakers” in our field too; they call themselves “coaches”), telling us to aim high, to have big dreams and goals, who even shared his dream of buying a house by the sea. This just seemed wrong. Frankly if I want advice and tips on how to buy a house by the sea I will go to someone who already has a house by the sea, not one that dreams about it. I mean, spend some time actually translating and establishing yourself, buy that house, and then lecture your colleagues on how to become successful. OK, this may be a bad example because it doesn’t really apply to me, I am blessed to live by the water, plus I have different goals in life; my point is that if I did share a goal with someone giving out advice, I wouldn’t want to see his plan for getting there in the future, I would like to see his strategy that already got him there.
So where are the people who got there? Where is their advice? My guess is they are busy translating or enjoying their house by the sea, not in social media trying to make a name for themselves by retweeting and reposting and advising. Others are teaching in recognized institutions like universities and well-established translation schools. Some others write books; though I see a trend in the last few years where self-proclaimed experts publish or self-publish their books; even the word “author” is starting to lose its meaning and its prestige. Translators didn’t start this trend, though. Anyone can publish a book these days. Way too many novelists out there. On the other hand, a new novelist usually doesn’t try to give out advice to other novelists, and the books we see on “how to write a novel” (I have one on my shelf, though I realized after reading it that writing novels is not for me) are written by authors with a proven track record, i.e. with quite a few successful books on their list of publications. And finally, other real experts are actually out there, in social media and at conferences, sharing real expertise and often trying to warn us against the phonies. They are a rare bunch, but they’re there, and I, for one, am grateful that they are brave and altruistic enough to try to warn less experienced colleagues and protect our profession.
So what does all this mean? To me it means that I should be very careful on whom I should dedicate my time listening to or reading. It means being critical and knowing whether someone really has something of value to say or teach me or whether he is just regurgitating information I read last week anyway on another “marketing expert’s” blog (who also copied it from another “expert” who found it on some marketing website and so on and so forth). It means looking at who is handing out advice. It means seeing one’s presence in social media for what it is and not as an attestation to someone’s expertise. It means exercising critical thinking now more than ever, now that the trend of seeing translators as a niche market for “expert” marketing advice has caught on.

24 thoughts on “Marketing advice for translators? Enough already!”

  1. Great post, Maria!

    My impression is that for every translation "guru" who shares his/her dream of a "house by the sea", there are hundreds of potential clients aka "colleagues" who are ready to "like" their future house picture on Facebook.

    You call it a niche market, i think it is a low hanging fruit niche.

  2. Spot on, Maria, and precisely my observation. (And a big part of the reason why I haven't used social media for business in a couple of years or so – the self-audulation and endless retweeting of the same five articles among the same ten people was just unbearable, and it sounds like nothing's changed.) I wrote something similar in a soon-to-be-published guest post, but you said it much better than me. ��

  3. Excellent overview, Maria.

    I think there is also something to be said about the fallacy in the notion that by following the same (generic) advice and applying the same methods and style as everyone else who gets that very same advice one could somehow stand out from the crowd.

  4. I'm looking forward to reading your post, Nicole! And thanks for reading mine. Maybe, just maybe, some of those experts will read our posts and others like them, and stop pretending to be something they're not. And hopefully the focus of training will shift from marketing advice and coaching to actual translation and writing skills.

  5. Maria, this is an excellent article and a true must-read for all.
    And yet, do not underestimate translators. Those that are at the start of their careers but are professional by nature, will be able to determine who is a good example to follow and to listen to and who is not.
    The amateurs are not able to do so, but they were not really going to make it anyway and they are the easy target for the would-be experts.

    What you say also goes the other way. Those who you rightly so call a rare bunch should also watch out whom they give their precious advice to. Not everybody is worthy of their advice.

    In short, the true professional translators (there's another word that is starting to lose its status: professional), both starting and established, will end up finding each other.

  6. I would add though that, personally, I'd only take such translation and writing skills courses through accredited institutions or some (!) professional associations, not through John Doe whose only credentials are his 1000 (probably mostly fake) Twitter followers. 🙂

  7. I like that quote!

    One of the prerequisites to marketing is knowing what is it exactly that you are marketing. The "Translation services" label is too broad and by using it one is positioning oneself to competing on a generic level with those who use completely different business models, offer a different quality of service, in completely different price points and to completely different audiences.

    This type of irresponsible/unqualified/self-serving/all of the above advice leads to commoditization instead of sustainability.

  8. Excellent post Maria, and it's about time someone said this. I may have an MBA in International Marketing, but I would never dream of giving advice or claim to be a marketing expert, even though by some standards, I might be considered one.
    As far as people speaking at conferences goes, I have more or less stopped going to general translation conferences since they offer me very little in terms of 'education' these days unless there are very specific sessions on using certain tools, or for a certain area I happen to specialize in. I am frankly flabbergasted by some of the quality I see in the speakers presenting at conferences – it seems there are too many self-proclaimed 'specialists' giving information that has been given so many times and in so many other places – what is the added value? Merely saying you are a 'speaker' doesn't mean you are qualified to speak at conferences, or that you are able to dispense information that is new or revolutionary. Yes, I have become very disillusioned with all these experts, popping up, as you say, like mushrooms. There are certainly a few speakers out there who are excellent, and who not only really know their stuff, but can deliver it in an interesting, memorable manner, plus they have very valuable information to share. Quite a few however, submit their presentation ideas merely to get their travel, conference fee and hotel accommodation/meals paid for – one or two have even told me as much. * end of rant * Thanks for writing this – I hope it will make at least a few people think twice before promoting themselves as an 'expert'. Oh, and happy holidays, from a fellow Miamian 🙂 (born and raised)

  9. I think you're main point is indisputable: there are too many people in the profession selling feel-good snake oil that it makes you wonder exactly why they're not out there translating… I regularly do the sums on the more prominent of them, and they're not making much money out of their schemes.

    However I would take issue with the idea that "translation doesn’t lend itself to breakthrough research and publications of new findings." We could be going out there and doing research with general applicability – and publishing it – if we wanted to. In many ways, we have more scope for research than the average scientist. We are dealing with language, and languages changes while, as Kuhn points out, scientific revolutions are rare and most scientists are working within paradigms that assume the immutability of their field of study. Not to mention that we don't need expensive laboratory facilities and safety precautions!

    So why don't more translators, especially those outside of academia, spend time conducting and publishing research? I think for the same reason that most scientists outside of academia do not conduct and publish original research. Most of our work is important, but essentially mundane and not generally applicable. To give an example, I translate a lot of validation reports for the pharmaceutical industry: these reports document scientific investigations that are important to ensure the safety of the drugs we are prescribed, but each one refers to a single process (often just a single step in the process) to make one drug in one specific factory… they are not generally applicable, and neither are my translations of the specific jargon that can also change from factory to factory!

    We could do more general research, but it would mean finding time outside of our normal practice. I think more general research in translation by practitioners "at the wordface" should be encouraged, and I hope this post will be part of that encouragement. I also hope that it is something our various professional bodies can take onboard.

  10. Very interesting perspective and comments, Nigel. Thank you! There is a lot of language research going on, and some of it (actually very little, as far as I know) does cover translation, but this is in the field of linguistics, done by linguists (not in the general sense of the term referring to people working with language but rather those that have studied and practice theoretical or applied linguistics). I had translation theories and techniques in mind when I wrote that section but of course there are so many other topics and fields we could research.
    And now let me take issue with your example of mundane and not generally applicable work. 🙂 What you write about those validation reports is very interesting, at least to me. I mean, maybe I don't want to know the jargon used from factory to factory but it's interesting to learn that there are differences in terminology/used, who decides on that terminology, how that changes a translator's (yours, in this case) work process and term research, whether you need to look for new resources every time, whether you need to or are allowed to consult the client frequently etc. Just saying… our work is fascinating and we can always find something interesting to write. I wish we'd see more of that. It should definitely be encouraged.

  11. Hello fellow Miamian 🙂
    Thank you for reading my blog and for your comment.
    Conferences are another problem, and thanks for bringing it up. It is true that many people participate as speakers because that gives them a chance to travel without spending much–or any–money. Some give the same talk over and over, allegedly for the benefit of those that didn't have the chance to attend the previous 5 conferences where it was presented. Well, the good thing is that if you miss it, you'll be given the opportunity to listen to it in the future.

  12. A refreshing, shake-you-by-the-shoulders kind of article. I also grew tired of attending ATA conferences and hearing the same inane marketing advice, recast in different expressions, but offering the same rote (or rotten) fruit: sell yourself!

    Áctually, not every translation theory has been formulated. In the social sciences, of which translation is a part (or in the Humanities, if you will), some of us are trying to focus on real-world translation problems and find theoretical and practical answers to them.

    Some of us are also writing sensible articles, not all of them worth of a journal citation, but they there are. Get closer to those who do (I'm not the most prolific by the way) and you will hear wonderful whispers of intellect at work.

  13. Excellent article Maria, I agree completely! I also write articles, but I have the idea – and that is confirmed by a lot of readers – that they are very usefull. My intention for 2017: not spending any more time on reading all about marketing for translators and other useless stuff.

  14. I have found that satisfactory translations are performed by those who have lived and worked long-term and intensely using both source and target languages on a daily basis. Furthermore, being punctilious and a perfectionist is definitely an asset, at least as far as our activity is concerned. If possible, there being empathy between oneself and the client leads to mutual cooperation with a view to obtaining the best possible end-product by the latest deadline acceptable to the end-user. In-depth knowledge of the subject-matter is essential, and ongoing reading up thereon and its developments in both source and target languages are a must. Translators often find themselves asked to perform a task they can´t refuse, for reasons of their own, or for a lack or absence of those available or willing alternative translators certain clients have learnt to be trustworthy on all accounts, which can lead to a great amount of research into literature, which, while often quite time consuming, can be thoroughly enriching. Perseverance and self-discipline are pre-requisites to our trade. As to marketing, proof of experience, preferably documented, and reliable checkable recommendations from accredited people with sound knowledge and first hand experience of one´s work, is the only kind worth taking into consideration. I am not a coach, and don´t believe translation coaching can be of any use, unless the would-be translator realises that he or she can but carry on from there. Should they lack the foregoing personal qualities and skills, plus accreditation, and unless absolutely sure of what they are letting themselves in for, particularly as a freelancer, then this line of business is not for them.If all this has been said or written before, or both, and no doubt it has somewhere, sometime, it is my contribution after half a century of working and living to the utmost in two languages against a backcloth of surreal economic and political changes, in a career situation in which being absolutely "au fait" with day to day goings-on, both locally, institutionally and around the world, were, and still are, vital. Last but not least the OP is to be warmly congratulated for "holding the ball up" for us commentators to air our views. A big thank you to everyone who is forthcoming and brave enough to provide insights into what is, in general, a grossly misunderstood, underrated (need I say underpaid?)profession.

  15. Thanks for this excellent overview of the state of affairs. I have a question: what peer-reviewed journals do you think we should be reading (and ideally publishing in)?

  16. Hi Vic. I wish I had an answer. I know several for linguistics but for translation -although I can think of several journals- I can't think of any to recommend. When I was studying translation (around 18 years ago) I used to read The Translation Journal; unfortunately it's not as popular as it used to be, now that so many of translators have blogs and can publish anything without a peer review (well, translators do review others' posts but only after publication, when it may be too late to correct misconceptions or misleading ideas). The Translation Journal is still being published online. I haven't read it in years, maybe now would be a good time to do so; it might still be a great resource!

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