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.

Checks and balances in professional associations

Catherine Howard, Maria Karra, Attila Piróth
A society is democratic to the extent that
people in it have meaningful opportunities
to take part in the formation of public policy.
(Noam Chomsky)
In democratic structures (from associations to states), separation of powers (legislative, judicial and executive), regular elections, and diverse checks and balances ensure that no small group can obtain total control over the structure. In autocratic systems, checks and balances are dysfunctional or absent, the separation of powers is incomplete (the person/group in control of one power, e.g., legislative, is also in charge of appointing the people in control of other powers, e.g., judicial and/or executive), and often election rules are tailored to the needs of the ruling elite. Governments with autocratic tendencies are often tempted to declare a state of emergency, in which governing by decrees allows them to bypass democratic decision-making protocols (parliamentary votes). This is akin to suspending the application of the bylaws in an association, allowing the board of directors to take decisions without the regular checks and balances ensured by the bylaws.
Members of professional associations usually have a sufficiently deep understanding of the stakes of their own professional situation and the various factors that are at play. This allows them to make informed professional decisions. Taking an active role in a professional association often proves to be an emancipating experience – and also a step towards becoming an active citizen. Someone who has experience in how small democratic organizations are run will be better informed about taking an active role as a citizen. In the case of an international professional association, the experience can be particularly enriching.
States and local governments grant important privileges to associations and other nonprofits (tax exempt status, sometimes tax breaks for financial backers, free access to municipal facilities, funds, free promotion in local newspapers, etc.) because these nonprofits play a vital role in enabling collective action, creating social cohesion, etc. As a safeguard against the abuse of these privileges, governments impose external checks and require internal checks and balances.
The first set of external checks is imposed when the organization is registered. Only when the registration has been fully approved by the authorities does the organization obtain a legal personality. Tax authorities and banks (or other financial service providers such as PayPal) require proof that the organization has obtained a legal personality to issue a tax number or to open an account. Without a tax number or a bank account registered in the name of the organization, the organization can only function in a rather limited way, since regular governmental oversight is not yet in place. This limitation usually applies to all kinds of income-generating activities, including services provided in exchange of membership fees (there can be no paid service without an invoice, and no invoice without a tax number). Obtaining a tax exempt status usually requires further, even stricter checks – for which the full registration of the organization is only one of the prerequisites.
Once legal personality and the association/nonprofit status are obtained, authorities monitor the organization on a regular (often yearly or quarterly) basis. The external checks include monitoring the formal compliance of the bylaws with the relevant regulations as well as financial reporting obligations.
The internal checks and balances are set forth in the bylaws (which cannot be changed by the board of directors alone, only with the general assembly’s approval). These internal checks and balances include elections as well as publishing the financial reports to members – who understand much better than external auditors what certain projects or items cover. (External auditors can much better check formal compliance.) The financial report put forward by the treasurer needs to be approved by the general assembly of the association.
Internal and external checks and balances are complementary. Members and potential members rely extensively on external checks. If an organization is called an “association,” members and potential members take for granted that its registration has been fully approved by the authorities, it has obtained a legal personality, it has a tax number, it has bank accounts registered in the name of the association, etc. They assume that the possibility of financial checks by the tax authorities guarantees that the financial reporting obligations of the association are duly met.
Authorities, in turn, count on the general assembly of the association to ensure transparency, and if necessary, to exert pressure on the board of directors and the various committees to this end. Committees report their project spendings, the board provides a detailed list of costs related to representing the association, etc. Members of the association, whose membership fee is used to pay these expenses, are thus informed of how their money was spent and can question certain decisions. The verification and acceptance of the financial balance is a key part of the annual general assembly (and always precedes elections in election years).
To inspire further trust from members and potential members, many nonprofits voluntarily undertake external financial audits to prove their transparency. The results – as well as all relevant data – are readily available to members and potential members. This helps existing and potential members avoid the dilemma of whether they should risk the accusation of being distrustful or somehow acting in “bad faith” by asking for information that they are entitled to have access to. Likewise, national and local governments are obligated to publish key financial data for transparency and to answer questions from the public. This transparency facilitates the succession of power – without which the democratic functioning of the structure remains an illusion.
Setting up proper checks and balances in a professional association is a challenge that is crucial for its success but which many have ignored. Especially in the early days of an association, personal ties, charismatic leaders, a shared sense of mission and enthusiasm may lead the organizers and members to overlook many of the principles guaranteeing checks and balances. But, just like new nations that intend to establish democratic states, professional associations must have the vision to set up solid structures that go beyond personalities, friendships, and the fleeting emotions that impelled the creation of a new entity. Power cannot remain in the hands of the founding elite, but must be embodied in the structure and practices of the association, refracted through a myriad of intersecting, overlapping, balancing interests and perspectives. Functioning without external controls, such as formal government authorization to operate or financial oversight from tax authorities and auditors, undermines the legality of a professional association. Functioning without internal controls, such as transparency in the flow of information among the board, committees and members, shared decision making, or elections, endangers the association’s legitimacy in the eyes of its constituency. Officers holding power in a professional association cannot flaunt the need for checks and balances for long without being questioned by the authorities and its members. When such questions are finally raised, it is a healthy sign that those in power should welcome if they are truly committed to the association’s success and longevity.

Replaced by Machines

“The pilot is the last line of defence when things go catastrophically wrong. In January 2009 an Airbus A320 hit a flock of geese over New York City. With no power, the captain, Chesley Sullenberger, had to weigh up a number of options and act quickly. Using his extensive flying experience and knowledge of the plane’s handling qualities he elected to ditch the aircraft in the Hudson River. The 150 passengers were not saved by computers or any other automated system. They were saved by the two pilots – the very components that techno-enthusiasts claim can be replaced by computers and ground controllers.”

You see, the claim that humans can be replaced by machines is not made only in the T&I industry. I recently went to Panera Bread (a fast-food chain, though much more healthful than McDonald’s) and placed my order on a tablet that was docked not too far from the entrance. The sign by the tablets claimed that this would expedite my order. A little further inside were actual people taking orders behind a counter, for those customers unable or unwilling to use the tablet. I felt guilty for using the tablet and promised myself to place my order with a person next time, even if that means having to wait in line. I refuse to use a machine and contribute to making a person lose his/her job just to save a couple of minutes.
Last year on a trip to Boston I had to rent a car at a very late hour because my flight had arrived late. Most rental car desks at the airport were closed. I saw that in a couple of them there were machines which you could use to rent a car, without the help of a person. In fact I saw something similar on TV a few weeks ago, in a commercial claiming that now you can rent a car even if you don’t feel like talking to a person. So not only was that ad discouraging human contact (all right, maybe one is anti-social and really doesn’t want to talk to anyone; fine) but it was also suggesting that it’s OK to replace a human being with a machine.
However, when that machine breaks, who are you going to call? You are going to call the specialists, the ones that know how to rent you a car, the ones that know how to land a plane even when things go wrong, and the ones that can recognize immediately why a machine translation may be nonsensical and even deadly (numerous are the examples we’ve seen of bad medical translations produced by a machine, such as incorrectly translated directions for taking medication; and don’t even get me started on how many translation errors I’ve corrected in aircraft specs and assembly instructions).
So those that still think they can save money with machine translation should probably do a more detailed cost analysis and take into account the cost of fixing what will be broken. Because chances are, something—or many things—will be broken. One of the most important things that will be broken—and that will be really difficult to fix—is the reader’s/user’s trust. The other day I was reading an article in Deleátur (the journal published by the Union of Spanish Editors) on the importance of proofreaders and editors and on the negative impact of language errors found on websites ( The article referenced another article, published on the BBC website, which claimed that bad spelling on English websites costs the UK millions of pounds and that errors on websites can reduce online sales by up to 50% (the author went on to explain how this was measured). So we are making people all the more redundant, and for what? For the better? Are we really saving money or are we wasting more money and time? Because when I saw that the order wizard on that tablet at Panera Bread did not ask me whether I wanted chips or bread or an apple with my sandwich (you have to pick one of the three to get with your order), I realized that I had to go talk to a person, for which I’d have to wait in line, which of course would defeat the purpose of the tablet. And I was afraid to use the machine to rent a car at the airport in Boston because what would happen if it charged my credit card but didn’t give me a key? So I chose to go to the only desk that was open at that hour and where someone capable of a meaningful dialogue was present (well, as meaningful as a dialogue can be at 2 a.m.).
But are humans useful only for debugging and fixing what’s broken, used only as a safety measure? Numerous articles have been written on why humans cannot be replaced; many of them by translators, explaining why translations should be done by humans and giving innumerable examples of bad translations and the damage that they have caused companies and individuals. Many articles have also been written by business people claiming that a company can save money by using machine translation. In fact I recently read one on the IAPTI (International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters) LinkedIn group. Think about it: somebody who isn’t a translator published a blog post in a translators’ group, claiming that it’s a good idea to use machine translation instead of a real translator. It’s not the first time I see this. In fact a few years ago in one of my talks at a translators’ conference I talked about “infiltrators”, who come to our conferences and our online groups and try to sell us the idea that machines are better/more productive/more cost-effective for translation, that machines are preferable to us translators, and that the smart thing for us to do is embrace post-editing because allegedly it’s the future and it’s inevitable. The nerve!
In any case, I don’t mean to go on and on about why translation must be done by professional translators and not by machine pseudo-translation. Like I said, a lot has been written already. This is a more general reflection on the “evolution” of several professions and the tendency to modernize them by reducing or eliminating human interaction and involvement. No, I am not a Luddite nor do I know of any engineers-Luddites; I am very much in favor of technology but only when it is appropriate and actually contributes to progress and quality, without causing harm.

Starting out in translation? Find a mentor!

I was reading one of Kevin Lossner’s blog posts from 2010, titled “No Monkeys!”. He gives 12 pieces of advice—a twelve-step program, as he calls it—for those getting started in the translation business. All of it is great advice and I think everyone should follow it, newbie or not; however, there is one point on which I’d like to expand to impress upon any new translator coming across this blog how important it is to follow.
“Find a mentor. This one is not optional. Most twelve-step programs involve a sponsor, usually one who has struggled with the same issues in the past. In our movement we offer more latitude: you don’t have to seek out a recovering monkey as your mentor. You can also work under the watchful eye of someone who got things right the first or second time.”
When I did my traineeship at the European Commission’s Translation Service fourteen years ago I had a mentor. “The Godfather”, they called him (I still laugh at this). All trainees had a godfather. Mine was a walking encyclopedia, a Greek translator from Alexandria, Egypt, who taught me a lot; though it would be fair to say that most Greek translators in the technical/scientific translation unit of the DGT (Directorate-General for Translation) went out of their way to teach me translation methods as applied in the EU. Business practices I learned on my own and from other freelancers later on; it is difficult to learn the tricks of the trade and how to handle your own projects, do your own marketing, and interact with clients from non-freelancers.
Finding a mentor “is not optional,” says Kevin Lossner. It really shouldn’t be. Having a mentor will make your life so much easier. It will save you time and mistakes. Sure, after hours of looking for good online FR-EN dictionaries you may come across Termium and proudly celebrate your discovery when you realize what a gem it is; or you can skip to celebrating a FR-EN job well done after your mentor saved you those hours by telling you from the start “Make sure to use Termium, it’s an excellent resource, here’s the link.” Or he can save you the embarrassment (and perhaps the legal trouble) of finding out that Google Translate is not reliable and could not care less about the confidentiality of the document you need to translate by explaining to you how it is being developed and how it works. (I am assuming that all seasoned translators know about the dangers of using Google Translate. If not, please read on this topic, e.g. article Confidentiality and Google Translate.)
What should you notexpect to learn from a mentor? How to translate! You should already know how to do that. Comparative stylistics and translation techniques should be well engraved on your brain by now. Expect to learn things you’re not exposed to in your translation studies. Use your traineeship to learn how to run your own business.
So what should you learn from a mentor?
  1. Research: how to do research on the topic of the text you’re translating, what resources to use. Resources include paper and/or online dictionaries in your language pair(s) and field(s), online encyclopedias (Wikipedia is the most popular one but please use it with caution—some colleagues and I had a blast with some outrageous errors in several Greek Wikipedia articles, and then didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the Greek entries machine-translated from the English ones. Your mentor will tell you which resources are reliable, which ones should be used with caution, and which ones should be avoided), journals with articles in your field(s), websites on the subject matter of your texts (could be a section of the Airbus website if you’re translating about airplanes, or the online Health Library of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute if you’re translating the medical records of cancer patients and need to know more about cancer).
  2. Proofreading. I wrote previously that you shouldn’t expect to learn how to translate because you should already know that before starting your traineeship. Proofreading, on the other hand, is a different story. How many of us who formally studied translation were taught how to proofread a text? How many learned how to edit a translation? And how many of us learned in our studies the difference between proofreading and editing? Sure, we knew how to use the Track Changes feature in Word, but were we shown what to change and what not to touch, what constitutes an error and what is simply a matter of personal preference and style? Were we taught how to charge for proofreading and editing and how to determine our rate? These are all things that your mentor can help you with.
  3. CAT tools. There are several: MemoQ, OmegaT, Wordfast, SDL Trados, among others. Should you use any of these? Which one is more user-friendly? Would the tool of your choice work on your MAC? Are the more expensive ones better? How do you answer to a client that might ask for a discount due to repeated terms as calculated by the CAT tool? These are questions your mentor can help you answer. See which tool he uses, if any. Watch him use it. Get your hands on it (don’t get nervous if your mentor is standing right over your head while you use it; many of us are very picky about what goes into our translation memories), or perhaps you can just use a trial version. How about voice-recognition software? Perhaps you’ve heard of Dragon Naturally Speaking. Is it available in your language? If your mentor uses it, take a shot at it and see whether it increases your productivity or not.
  4. Project lifecycle. A good mentor will give you exposure to the entire lifecycle of a project, including a translation request, a PO (purchase order), acceptance or rejection of a project in the beginning, and delivery of a project in the end. Look at a request with your mentor: sometimes (quite often, actually) requests are incomplete and make it impossible to judge whether we can take on the project or not. Sometimes a client will ask me if I can translate a text of X thousand words by such and such date, without telling me the subject field and sometimes without even telling me the language pair! Your mentor will tell you what to look for in a request before you jump into accepting it. He will also tell you when to say no. Look at some POs. What information do they contain? Does the client need the translator to sign an NDA? What is an NDA? Should you always sign it?
  5. E-mails. All projects involve some correspondence between the translator and the client. Sometimes communication takes place over the phone but most often it is done by e-mail. The speed and convenience of e-mail communication does not mean that your e-mails can be sloppy. Shadow your mentor when she replies to a client: watch how she addresses the client, how careful she is with punctuation, what register she uses (which of course may vary from one client to the next, but not by much, a client is a client, and even if you’ve worked with him for a while and are on friendly terms, you wouldn’t use the same register as with your nephew), how she re-reads her e-mail before hitting Send to make sure it is linguistically and semantically correct, knowing the bad impression a message with errors written by a language professional would make. I’m stating the obvious, I know, but unfortunately I’ve seen too many e-mails full of spelling and grammar errors, even some e-mails starting with “Hey there,…”, to omit this point.
  6. Invoices.At the end of a project or at the end of the month you’ll have to send an invoice in order to get paid for your work. It is surprising how many posts we see in online forums by new translators asking how to write an invoice. I don’t know why so many university translation programs don’t dedicate a lesson or two to this. Ask your mentor to show you a couple of old invoices. Make a note of the information they include. Ask her to let you write the next invoice. Ask her also to tell you about different payment methods.
  7. Project-management tools. By this I don’t mean any complex software that a full-time PM might use. But whether you like project management or not, you’ll have to manage your own projects, so you’ll have to find a way to organize your work. There is software you can buy or you may opt for an Excel file or plain old paper and pencil. I use a weekly planner—which is always open in front of me—to write project names and deadlines, and an Excel sheet to write all my project details such as client, project number and/or PO number, project name, number of words, rate, total price, assignment date, and delivery date. These details come in very handy when it’s time to write invoices, that way I don’t have to look for this information in POs and e-mails. After I send my invoice for a project I write the date on that sheet, as well as the payment due date. After I receive payment, I mark the date of payment and move that project (that Excel line) to another sheet of the Excel file. You may use one or a combination of these and/or other tools. See what your mentor uses and ask for her advice on how to organize your first projects.
  8. Translation portals. You don’t have to ask your mentor which translation portal/site to join (I wouldn’t recommend them, except for Stridonium if you work with German and qualify to join) but do ask her to tell you everything she knows about them (hopefully she will know about them), including which ones to avoid—or at least which sections of them to avoid. You may have heard of,, (this last one is not just for translators but for freelancers in general, and I would stay away from it unless you want to work for a month to make enough to buy a sandwich). used to be a great resource for the first few years after it was launched—which happened to coincide with my first years in the business and I cannot deny that it helped me immensely. Unfortunately it has changed focus from serving the interests of translators to serving the interests of big translation companies that seek lower prices and treat translation as a commodity. So this site should be used with caution, if used at all. I would avoid the jobs section like the plague. The forum archives can be very useful, though for any new questions you might want to ask, I would opt for translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. Ask your mentor to recommend some translators’ groups; they can be general or language-specific or domain-specific. For example, I am a member of the following groups on LinkedIn: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Applied Linguistics, Polyglot-Multilingual Professionals, Aviation Network, International Aviation Professionals, Aircraft Maintenance and Manufacturing, Boston Interpreters, IMIA – International Medical Interpreters Association, and Translation & Localization Professionals Worldwide, among others; and the following groups/pages on Facebook: International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters, Certified Medical and Healthcare Interpreters UNITE!, The League of Extraordinary Translators, South Florida Business Owners Networking Group, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Interpreting and translation forum, ESA – European Space Agency, Translation Journal, Interpreting the World, etc. Of course some of these may not apply to you (I have aerospace engineering background and translate for aircraft manufacturers, hence the aviation-related groups); your mentor, who is working in the same language pair(s) and probably also in the same field(s) will be the best person to recommend the most helpful groups for you.
  9. Associations. It is a very good idea to join a professional association. Look into local associations (e.g. NETA if you live in New England in the USA, Société française des traducteurs (SFT) if you live in France, etc.) and domain-specific ones (e.g. IMIA if you are a medical interpreter and/or translator). Ask your mentor which associations she is a member of, what she has gained from her membership, what the mission of those associations is and how they are contributing to the profession.
 Where to find a mentor:
There are plenty of translators’ groups on LinkedIn and Facebook. I mentioned some above but there are many others. Join some. Actually join many; later on you can unsubscribe from the ones you don’t find interesting or useful. Browse some old discussions, learn from them, start participating, make connections. Introduce yourself, say that you’re a new translator and that you’re looking for a mentor. Try to find a mentor that lives in your area so that you can work at her office (even if it is a home office and even if you do so only once or twice a week) and so that you can practice all the points mentioned above, i.e. shadowing her while she e-mails a client to accept/reject a project, see in person how she uses a CAT tool so you can learn quickly, have her watch you write an invoice, etc. If that is not possible, you can still take advantage of a traineeship by finding a mentor willing to spend some time explaining things to you over the phone, by e-mail, skype, etc., guiding you as you take your first steps as a freelance translator.

Using Cloud Solutions for Translation: Yes or No?

We read about the benefits of using the cloud for work—using cloud applications and storage, for example. What we don’t see are warnings of the risks. You have to look for these specifically; the information doesn’t come to you as do the claimed benefits. This morning I got yet another e-mail from my web hosting service, encouraging me to use their new cloud storage, and I am tired of receiving iCloud notifications on my phone when I specifically chose not to use that service. So I’d like to share some things I learned in a graduate course on cloud computing at Boston University a couple of years ago, including some essential information from “Cloud Computing, A Practical Approach” by Anthony T. Velte, Toby J. Velte, and Robert Elsenpeter, to explain why using the cloud may not be such a good idea, at least for our work.
First of all, we should understand that cloud computing is not for everyone and it is not for everything. Just because it’s there and offers some benefits doesn’t mean we should use it.  According to the author, whether or not we should use cloud computing depends on a number of factors, including whether our data is regulated. Is our data—i.e. the original texts we translate and our translations—regulated? Well, the original text is not even our data, it is the client’s. And our translations are different-language equivalents of someone else’s data. So even if it is not regulated by the client, it’s still not our data to share.
Now I could just stop the blog here. It is not our data, we simply do not have permission to store it on third-party equipment or manipulate it with third-party applications. End of story. But for the curious, I’ll give some more information.
What does “using the cloud” really mean? What would we use exactly? What is the cloud?
Based on conversations I’ve had with colleagues, many see the cloud as something obscure, something abstract, pretty much like a real cloud without a specific shape or form, something up there, hard to conceive, something shared by many or by all. Actually it is something very specific and definitely not abstract.
These are the three major implementations of cloud computing:
1.  Compute Clouds
2.  Cloud Storage
3.  Cloud Applications
Compute clouds allow us to access applications and on-demand computing resources maintained on a provider’s equipment; examples are Amazon’s EC2 and Google App Engine. (On demand resources means that you don’t have to have the infrastructure on your own equipment and run the code; the resources are on someone else’s equipment and you use and pay for them only when you need them.)
Cloud storage is the most popular implementation. It allows us to maintain our files on a cloud-storage vendor’s equipment. (This is what my website hosting service keeps bothering me about. I am not interested, thank you very much.)
Cloud applications are similar to compute clouds in that they allow us to use applications maintained on a provider’s equipment; the difference with compute clouds is that cloud applications use software that rely on cloud infrastructure, i.e. they depend on the infrastructure of the Internet itself. Examples are Skype (peer-to-peer computing), MySpace or YouTube (web applications, delivered to users via a browser), and Google Apps (Software as a Service – SaaS).
Let’s consider the translation of a medical record. I won’t even go into discussing the habit of some translators to ask terminology questions on sites like AmateurZ (aka PrAdZ, SuckZ, etc.) and include the patient’s name, because that is simply beyond me. It is inconsiderate, unacceptable, inconceivable! But that’s another story. Let’s focus on the cloud. So let’s say that you want to store the translation on some backup directory you have on the cloud, i.e. on someone else’s equipment, or translate a few sentences with an online translation tool or a CAT tool that uses a shared memory stored on a cloud server (requiring you to also save your translation in the shared memory). What is the problem with that? From the horse’s mouth (the horse is Velte et al.):

“If you want to use cloud computing and post data covered by Health Insurance Portability and Accounting Act (HIPAA) on it, you are out of luck. Well, let’s rephrase that—if you want to put HIPAA data on a cloud, you shouldn’t. That’s sensitive healthcare information and the fact that HIPAA data could commingle on a server with another organization’s data will likely get the attention of an observant HIPAA auditor.”

No matter how much cloud giants like Google and Microsoft try to reassure us that the data placed on a cloud are safe, all it takes is one tiny breach to let sensitive data loose. And of course this raises another question: if the data is let loose, who is liable?
According to the authors: “If you have data that is regulated—like HIPAA or Sarbanes-Oxley—you are well advised to be very careful in your plans to place data on a cloud. After all, if you have posted a customer’s financial data and there’s a breach, will they go after the cloud provider or you? […] It is probably best to avoid a painful fine, flesh-eating lawyers, and possible jail time.” Note that jail time can be 1 to 10 years for HIPAA and up to 20 years for Sarbanes-Oxley data. I won’t mention the financial penalties because I’d like to spare you the heart attack, but if you’d like to know about them, I refer you to this book, page 26.
Even if the customer considers going after the cloud provider too, chances are the cloud provider has already foreseen this possibility and has made sure to absolve itself of any responsibility in its agreement with you. If you want to know Google’s attitude towards confidentiality, I refer you to a couple of old blog posts of mine, “Confidentiality and Gmail” and “Confidentiality and Google Translate” where you’ll see that by accepting Google Translate’s terms of service we grant Google permission to use our content to improve its services.
I’m not saying that cloud providers like Google are after you. And not all applications are like Google Translate which wants to gain something from your translations. In fact the big vendors have strict security measures. What I am saying is that you should not count on the cloud provider to protect or respect the confidentiality of your data or your client’s data. In spite of the provider’s security measures, you are responsible for keeping your data secure.
So the cloud provider is not after you. But you know what? Someone else is. Take a guess. Going once, going twice….
Hackers! Yes, hackers can cause a lot of damage if they get access to your data or your client’s data. They can get access to the company trade secrets you translated and sell them to the company’s competitor. They can get access to a company’s proprietary information and threaten to disclose it if they don’t receive a very generous sum. There are too many scenarios to list. Use your imagination and know that these things do happen. And on a not-so-funny note, when I took a “certified hacker” course (wait, let me explain, I worked as a software quality engineer for a while, where testing the quality of software products also meant testing security, and to test security you need to know how to break the software, hence the course, paid for by the company.) I was shocked to learn that some hackers do it for …fun! Just because they can and just because they want to test themselves. This too happens. You don’t want them knocking on your door and telling  you “you either pay me 20,000 dollars and you get all those financial records back or pay 100,000 dollars in fines for confidentiality breach”. It sounds far-fetched and maybe it doesn’t happen often, but it can happen. Hackers are mostly after larger corporations, not individual translators; on the other hand, when they hack into data stored on a cloud, they care more about the data than about who put it there.
What does all this mean? Should we never store data on a provider’s cloud or use cloud services?
Not necessarily. If you want to store data on a provider’s cloud, one thing you can do is encrypt it. Look for programs like TrueCrypt ( to do this. That way, if someone gets access to your data, they won’t be able to read it.
Another important thing you should consider is to look for paid services instead of services funded by advertising. When it comes to free cloud services, Velte et al. point out that they “are most likely to rummage through your data looking to assemble user profiles that can be used for marketing or other purposes. No company can provide you with free tangible goods or services and stay in business for long. They have to make money somehow, right?”
Last but not least, always, ALWAYS read carefully your agreement with any cloud service provider. Make sure you understand the privacy and security implications of using said service and that you understand and agree with the terms of service.
Now, what if you are working in a translation team and need to exchange terminology databases or translation memories? It may be convenient to use a cloud service, but is it safe? And what if you don’t have a say in this, what if your client does not provide an in-house server but wants you to use a cloud-based service/application? In that case using a cloud service may actually be a good idea and make your team’s work easier. But what about confidentiality? Well, if your client is the one that requested you to use that service and is coordinating the workflow, then you are not liable if the cloud provider’s security measures are breached (though it’s a good idea to double-check with the client anyway). If you are using a cloud solution for a project for a direct client, then you may want to follow the above advice and look for a paid service and read the user agreement very carefully. Tell your client that you are using a cloud service and make sure he gives you permission in writing. Most end clients don’t care about the details of your process, they don’t care if you’re using such and such CAT tool or terminology-management tool, but when using a cloud service it is advisable (read: advantageous to you, in terms of liability) to have your client’s permission.
So to the original question, “Using cloud solutions: yes or no?”, my answer is this:
– If you don’t need them, don’t use them.
– If they increase your efficiency or generally improve your work process, use them but make sure your client knows and make sure you agree with the terms of service. It is safer to use a paid service.
– For storage, if it makes sense for you to store sensitive data (your own data, not a client’s) on a cloud, encrypt it first.
And keep in mind that you don’t have to follow the crowd; just because many people use a certain cloud service doesn’t make it any safer. Consider your own needs and the sensitivity of your data; that is, your clients’ data.

CEO, freelancer, or what should you call yourself?

Over the years I have seen many colleagues just starting out and presenting themselves as CEOs, Directors of their “company”, Owners, etc. I think it is great to be CEO if that’s what you want. But is that what you really are? And is that what you really want?

In order to present yourself as CEO, i.e. use it as a job title in your resume or your social-network profiles, you need to actually be a CEO. Being a freelancer / having your own business/ working for yourself is not the same as being a Chief Executive Officer. Chief Executive Officer means you’re someone’s “chief”, that you have people under you. Calling yourself a Director implies that you have people to direct. Directing yourself does not qualify. Does anybody report to you?

Several times I’ve seen the title of CEO under the names of colleagues that had just presented themselves in a translation forum to say they were new in the translation world and needed advice on how to find new clients or what to charge. This makes me very skeptical. There’s a discrepancy here that simply makes those translators look somewhat unreliable or insincere. The above titles require experience, some prior steps/titles, and usually people under you, and I don’t think they should be used lightly.

“Owner” is somewhat different. You can be the owner of a company and be a sole proprietor. If you have your own business, you are a “business owner”. For example, I do business as “FRESNEL technical translations”, I have registered this as my business name in Massachusetts. I am a sole proprietor, so I don’t have anyone reporting to me. I have regular collaborators (e.g. for large projects or for when I don’t have time or when the language pair requested is not one I work in); when I offer them a job the PO says FRESNEL, when I pay them the check says FRESNEL, my bank account is under the name FRESNEL technical translations. To cut a long story short, this is a registered business and since I own it, I can call myself its owner (not that I do, really, it’s of no use to me, but I could). But I wouldn’t dare call myself a CEO. And frankly, I don’t want to. It would be bad for my business. Why?

Because I don’t want to run the risk of having clients see me as an agency. I am not an agency. In fact I state this clearly on my website: “FRESNEL is not a translation agency. There are no intermediaries or non-experts ever involved in your project. In order to handle large projects with tight deadlines, FRESNEL has a small, highly reliable network of expert translators and editors.” And it is for the same reason that my team consists of freelancers and not CEOs or Directors or Chiefs of any kind. Also because I want to make sure that what I pay them goes directly to the person that does the work.

So to be brutally honest, when I see CEO, Director and the like next to a colleague’s name, I stay away. I’m not saying you shouldn’t use such titles; but if you do, make sure they reflect reality. When you ask in a Facebook group how to do a word count in a PDF file or what the cheapest CAT tool is or how to determine your proofreading rate, and at the same time write CEO on your resume or on your online profile (or on your website, if you have one; many people don’t, and that’s even worse because if you’re a CEO of a company, the company should have a website), how do you expect a potential client not to be skeptical? And if the client is skeptical about your title, how do you expect him to trust your description of your qualifications, skills and experience?

On minimum rates

When I first started in translation and was about to write my first invoice, I asked a colleague and friend to check if I had forgotten to put anything on the invoice. He gave me his template as an example and there I saw that he had a checkbox for a “Minimum fee”, which in his case was 35 euros. That was in 2000. Maybe it’s worth repeating: thirty-five euros in the year two thousand. That was back when translation rates were actually higher than today, in many countries. When I saw that, I didn’t ask any questions, I assumed it was the norm. So I included that in my invoice as well, and I’ve had a minimum fee ever since.

How do you determine the minimum fee? Even if the job is 30 words, you still have to read the client’s instructions, save the file, perhaps import it in a CAT tool, translate it, proofread it (sometimes you have to read it multiple times, e.g. if it’s a marketing text), clean it up, check the final layout, and send it off. That takes time. It can take half an hour or even one hour. [To translate Gilette’s “The best a man can get” in Greek may have easily taken several hours, although it’s only 6 words, because the translator would have had to make sure the Greek equivalent is short and catchy and meaningful and equivalent to the original.] Then of course you have to prepare an invoice. I don’t know about you but it takes me a while to prepare an invoice and make sure everything is accurate. My minimum fee is equivalent to my hourly rate. I know people who charge less (25 euros). When I outsource work, translators charge me a minimum fee of 30 euros and I pay it gladly, no questions asked. I find it more than fair. Of course there are exceptions: When a good client asks me how to say something in X language and I see that it will only take me 10 seconds to translate it, I do it for free. Again, in exceptional cases and for good clients only. If I do not know the person I don’t offer a free translation even if it’s one word.

How to break it to your clients: I think the easiest thing to do is tell them straight out: “I’d be happy to do this job. I’ll charge my minimum fee which is X, is that OK with you?” If they say anything, you could answer that you’ll be applying a minimum fee starting in January of next year. Don’t be afraid to tell them that you know it’s the norm in the industry, they surely know it already.

I have some direct clients but they never assign me small jobs, so I’ve never had to charge them a minimum fee; I’ve only had to apply this fee for agencies. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but in my 13 years as a translator, no agency has ever complained about my minimum fee -for having one or for it being as much as it is. I assume it’s because they expect it.

Keep in mind that once you’ve set your minimum rate and informed your clients, it will be hard to increase it next year, you’ll probably face some resistance, so don’t start too low.

Please stop the please™

Please read the following sign and see if there’s anything that doesn’t sit well with you.
Done? OK, now let me point out that when I wrote that first line, I started it by “Read the following sign”. Then I went back and added “Please”. It does not come naturally to me. It’s not because I’m rude, it’s because I’m Greek! Yes, it’s a cultural thing. When I read that sign I immediately thought of my colleague Lefteris, an excellent Greek translator whom I hold in very high esteem, and who brought up this issue in a translation forum a few years ago. His posting was titled “Happy new year and please stop the please” (hence the TM in my title). Two seemingly irrelevant things, but perhaps the latter was actually his wish for the new year. I searched for that posting and just read it once again, and I found myself thinking and saying out loud the same things I had said when I first read it: “Yes! Exactly! Thank you! I know! Amen!”
If I had to translate this sign into Greek, all these pleases would fly out the window. This is not something that only I would do; it is not personal and has nothing to do with politeness or lack thereof. It would actually be the right thing to do, from a translation/adaptation point of view. You don’t see that many “pleases” in Greek instructions. When you dial a number and you get to have a “dialog” with a machine (alas, this is no longer an American privilege), the Greek voice on the other end of the line won’t say “Please press one, please press star, please dial 12345, please don’t curse at me because I’m a machine and you’re wasting your energy”. It might say “please” the first time only; the rest of the instructions are not adorned. And if you think about it, why should they? They are not requests. They are instructions. You don’t need to be asked politely, you’re not doing anyone a favor by pressing the star key; if you don’t want to press it, then don’t, it’s your job that won’t get done.
The liberty to omit the word “please” is actually a blessing in interpretation. Why? Because the Greek equivalent is long! In English it is one short and sweet syllable. In Greek it has a terrifying grand total of 4, 5, or 6 syllables (parakaló, se parakaló, sas parakaló, parakalíste, sas parakalúme – depending on whether you’re talking to one person or more, or depending on whether you –who are saying please- are one person or speaking on behalf of a group, or depending on whether or not you’re using the polite form – it´s similar to saying in English “I ask you to.., we ask you, we ask all of you, you are asked, etc”. And you thought Chinese was difficult.) I remember my very first interpreting exercise in Lucille Barnes’ school in Buenos Aires: the speaker was using the word “coup” (as in coup d’état) repeatedly. By the time I managed to say the 5-syllable Greek equivalent (πραξικόπημα [praxikópima]), the speaker had gone off to another sentence. The 4th time it happened is when I decided that I would never become an interpreter and that I’d rather stick with translation than deal with all the stress caused by a bloody little coup. (I know, never say never, things changed since then and I became a medical interpreter.)  But I digress. My point is that if you don’t have to interpret the word “please” 50 times, it’s easier not to fall behind.
As to the sign in my building’s laundry room, it was taken down sometime in the last couple of weeks. Hopefully by a linguistically sensitive neighbor of mine. (I’m saying hopefully because I’d hate to think that I’m the only one that had her blood pressure rise exponentially with every please.)
Please excuse the rambling (now this one was intentional!) and thanks for reading.

The absurdity of outsourcing Greek translations to India

Fresh out of the oven, yet another job ad on ProZ, for a Greek-to-English translation.
“We have a small certificate to be translated from Greek into English.
We are looking for translator who is immediately available.
Please send your resume with your best possible price per word in subject line at [ e-mail address ].
Source format: PDF Document
Poster country: India”
First of all, why on Earth is this request coming from India? The original certificate is in Greek, so the person who wants it translated is most likely Greek. Why would that person send it to an Indian translation agency? Or maybe he sent it to a Greek agency which then sent it to an Indian agency, which in turn posted it on ProZ. The point is that some Greek person sent it over to India. Why? It baffles me. Do they think there are many Greek-English translators in New Delhi? Or do they expect Hindi translators to speak Greek and English fluently and to be able to translate an official document from Greek to English? (side note / question: Who would notarize the translation?) What is the logic here? I guess the Greek person/agency hopes for a very low price. Fine, but in the end, who receives that very low price? The Greek-English translator. Does the Greek-English translator live in India? Probably not. Can he survive with Indian rates? Probably not.
So let’s follow the journey of our Greek certificate. The Indian agency receives it from Greece and posts an ad on a site like ProZ to find a Greek-English translator. Then it selects one of the translators that bid on the project. This translator most likely lives in Greece (statistically speaking), or maybe in the US or the UK or Australia, in any case in a country where Indian rates are probably not a viable option. Let me repeat this, to stress the absurdity of the process: the document is sent from Greece to India and it ends up back in Greece or another country other than India for translation. It gets translated and then is sent  back from Greece (or that other country) to the agency in India, and then from India back to Greece to the person who first requested it. So the certificate takes a very long and uninteresting trip, and in the meantime the price has dropped to sewer level. Doesn’t this even cross the mind of the person that needs the translation? And doesn’t it cross his mind that, in the end, the person receiving the sewer-level price will be the Greek translator, who lives in a country with the same standard of living as him? He probably thinks “Great, I got a good translation and I saved some euros, no harm done”. But no, there is harm done, and it’s significant; to that particular Greek translator, to all translators, and to the translation market in general. In this case we’re talking about a one- or two-page document, at a rate of $0.04 per word versus an average rate of $0.14 per word, i.e. a total of $8 versus $28. We could be talking about a much larger document, of 10 pages, and then the price would be $120 versus $420 (assuming about 300 words per page). Or it could be a 30-page document, $360 vs $1260; you get the picture.   
Now, as if the low price requested in the ad weren’t enough, the agency needs a translator that is immediately available. This normally calls for a surcharge for urgent work. Also, note that the source format is PDF, which means that the translator will have to use OCR (not always very successful with Greek) or recreate the layout manually from scratch; another surcharge would be in order. Would the agency be willing to pay these surcharges? My guess is that no, no way, what a funny thing to say… Not only may the translator not charge extra, but according to the ad he should give his/her “best possible price”. “Best”, as we all know, means “lowest”. They want the lowest possible rate. Why? Why should the translator give his lowest possible price for an urgent translation from a PDF?  
Some years ago, when translators responded to such ads, it was very often to complain about the ridiculous conditions of the work. Of course when ProZ went from being “The Translators Workplace” to “The Translation Workplace”, a new rule appeared that forbade translators to contact the outsourcers for anything other than bidding for the project. So there you have it, you’re not allowed to complain on proZ, it’s a free market, if you don’t want to do the work, don’t do it, but don’t bother the outsourcer with your complaints and don’t try to influence other translators who might agree to do the translation for a fraction of the cost and spend two hours on a certificate so they can buy a small bag of peanuts. On the other hand, is it really the Indian agency’s fault? They simply agreed to take on a project someone assigned to them. I think the problem lies with the lack of common sense of the person or agency that decided to outsource the project to India; lack of common sense and blindness caused by a frantic search for low prices.

Confidentiality and Gmail

This morning I was reading a blog post written by Marcela Jenney, encouraging freelancers to get their own web domain. Marcela says that domain names build credibility and create a sense of professionalism. I agree 100% with that, in fact I’ve had my own domain for years. But there is another reason why we should have our own web domains. A very important reason. These days it may be the most important reason of all.

If you have a Google account, you must have received an e-mail from Google describing the changes to their privacy policy, which will take effect on March 1, 2012. According to the e-mail, the text of which can also be found on,

We [Google] are getting rid of over 60 different privacy policies across Google and replacing them with one that’s a lot shorter and easier to read. Our new policy covers multiple products and features, reflecting our desire to create one beautifully simple and intuitive experience across Google.

This stuff matters, so please take a few minutes to read our updated Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service now. These changes will take effect on March 1, 2012.

I agree with them, this stuff matters. It matters a lot. The single privacy policy that will cover multiple products and features as of March 1st states the following:

Your Content in our Services

Some of our Services allow you to submit content. You retain ownership of any intellectual property rights that you hold in that content. In short, what belongs to you stays yours.

When you upload or otherwise submit content to our Services, you give Google (and those we work with) a worldwide license to use, host, store, reproduce, modify, create derivative works (such as those resulting from translations, adaptations or other changes we make so that your content works better with our Services), communicate, publish, publicly perform, publicly display and distribute such content. The rights you grant in this license are for the limited purpose of operating, promoting, and improving our Services, and to develop new ones. This license continues even if you stop using our Services (for example, for a business listing you have added to Google Maps).

I’ve already talked about the “service” called Google Translate in a prior post and explained why we should not be uploading onto it the documents we are to translate. But that was only one “service”. (I do need to put it in quotes because otherwise I’d have to call this particular application a disservice.)
The big change made by Google now is that this privacy policy will be covering ALL of the services offered by Google. Now do you agree that Gmail is one of those services? (No quotes here, Gmail is indeed a service, a great one, at least up till now.) This means that the above privacy policy applies to Gmail. Hence when you upload or otherwise submit content to Gmail, you give Google (and those [they] work with) a worldwide license to use, […] publish, publicly display and distribute such content. I have read this statement at least 5 times trying to convince myself that I misunderstood, that I missed something, that Google cannot possibly be saying or doing this. But the way this policy is written, it says that Google can use the content of our e-mails and publish it, distribute it, use it to improve its services. As to the first two lines, the statement that “what belongs to you stays yours” is pretty useless, because right after that they say that they can use content that is ours. In other words, the policy says that our stuff is ours but we grant Google a license to use it and publish it and share it. I’ve been reading many online articles on this matter and so far they all confirm this. Can you say for sure that you never included in your e-mails any private information that you don’t want the world to see? Credit card information? Passwords? Received password-confirmation e-mails? Your home address? Your social security number? Your negotiations and agreements with your clients? Attachments with confidential documents that you translated? Your invoices? So Google can use our e-mails along with our translations to improve Google Translate, but this is really nothing compared to the damage that can be done if that information is made public. Maybe Google itself remains true to its motto not to be evil, but it certainly facilitates people to do evil, and with our private information suddenly becoming public, you don’t even need to be a hacker to do evil. Confidential information is offered to everyone on a silver platter.
So get your own web domain. Look for a web-hosting service that also offers e-mail hosting and use it for your professional website and for e-mails. I don’t know if Google plans to use e-mails sent or received before March 1st of 2012. The privacy policy doesn’t mention anything about that. We don’t really know whether they plan to use e-mails at all, but unless they state explicitly in their privacy policy that Gmail is excluded from the services covered by the policy, I suggest we play it safe. And although we may not be able to do anything about past e-mails, we can do something about future ones. Buy your own domain, they are very cheap nowadays. And buy it from a good hosting service. I use hostmonster because when I was planning to set up my own website I did some research and hostmonster seemed to be one of the most user-friendly and great value-for-money options with really good user feedback, but there are plenty of other options out there (I’m just mentioning my own in case you have no idea where to start and would like a recommendation). As a self-employed professional, having your own web domain shows that you take your business seriously and invest in it, it does contribute to your credibility, and it lets you have some control over the information you exchange via e-mail with your clients and colleagues.

NB: I highly recommend reading these two related articles:

Google knows too much about you (from

What Google knows about you (from