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.

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.