Stop press: Wellington, NZ—27/1/16

Business Acceleration Masterclass for Translators and Interpreters in Wellington, NZ, with Chris Durban

January 27, 2016, 2-6 pm.

Many thanks to this inaugural group for your active participation and questions. (And… watch your mailbox!)


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Post #8 — Meanwhile back in Hastings-on-Hudson

For their early March meeting, Ruckusmakers converged on a well-kept Hudson River village a short train ride from Manhattan, a 50’s kind of place. In the nicest possible way.

And as they made their way up Main Street from the railway station, they passed a number of attractive bilingual panels—part of a Museum in the Streets© project guiding visitors to local landmarks.

“Bilingual”? Readers, you can see where this is going.

Seth Godin emphasizes the importance of seeing—of taking things in and developing a vision—and today I’m interested in what happens when language barriers mean you don’t see. And a voice is diminished and possibly lost.

It works like this: when a pair of eyes confronts a text in an unknown language, the attached brain seems to figure out early on that the content is not for them, and helpfully shifts their gaze away, over to a more welcoming place. (For Westerners, this happens even faster if the text is in a non-Roman alphabet.) Foreign-language texts become invisible.

Which can be a good way to avoid information overload, but can backfire, too. Because the whole point is that someone, somewhere, should be reading that foreign-language text; that was why it was created it in the first place. If the translation doesn’t say or do what it was supposed to do, the originator has lost an opportunity to connect. And may even have offended.

Take the strings of striking Chinese characters featured on the cover of a science journal’s special report on China a few years back. Let’s make this look really Chinese was the angle. Designers working for the über-sober Max Planck Institute were convinced they were using a classical poem, but it was a flyer for a Macau brothel. Housewives moonlighting as strippers. No one on their team spoke Chinese, no one had “seen”. And so the journal went to press. A process problem.

In director Luc Besson’s 2014 film Lucy, one scene has Scarlett Johansson sitting against what appears to be a prison wall, threatened by tough Chinese gangsters—an impression heightened by bold Chinese characters on the wall. This is a scary, foreign place. Suspense—even terror—reigns, unless you read Chinese. The characters say “Keep hygienic” / “Scallop” / “Grape”/ “Tomato” / “Orange” / “Ginger”. (Dude, you want fried noodles with that?) How did this happen? Another process problem.

But let’s return to the banks of the Hudson.

The Hastings Historical Society is a group of dedicated, community-minded people who definitely care. But for their signs, they had no idea how to find a translator—a common dilemma for first-time buyers of translated texts. While brainstorming, someone suggested contacting a local school. To the layman, it sounded like a great idea (languages = learning = school = reading and writing) and a Spanish teacher from a middle school in the next town was brought on board.

Unfortunately the skills required for teaching a foreign language are not the same as those required for translating professional copy. And no revision stage was built in. So the panels’ Spanish texts, while not the history buff’s equivalent of hot young housewives or a take-away menu, are still an amateur performance. The impact of the very positive outreach-to-Spanish-visitors impulse has been diluted. Spelling and other mistakes say “we don’t really care about you.” Oh, and the physical signs, produced at a cost of $25,000, are extremely well-made and carry a 10-year guarantee, so won’t be corrected any time soon.

So again we have flawed translation resulting from a process problem, with more energy and attention devoted to producing the physical sign (post, panel, lamination) than its Spanish language content.

As with Post #7’s French entrepreneurs, the cynic might sneer. Does any of this matter? Hey, it’s only a bunch of signs in a village/the cover of a periodical/a scene in a movie.

Which is where the militant word geek responds, well, yes, it does matter. Because man-made barriers that detract from the effectiveness of work produced or commissioned by people who care needn’t be. Those people and those projects deserve better. Their ripple effect has been cut short.

The good news is that translation breakdowns are more often due to ignorance than to stupidity, ill will or avarice. After all, someone who doesn’t know but does care can be informed, can be convinced—and is more often than not eager to get it right once the process and investment is made clear.

So as the #RuckusMakersChallenge draws to a close, I would like to challenge linguist readers to a translator version.

It goes like this: choose yourself. (Seth’s input is the driver, after all.)

Decide that you can make a difference in the way your profession is perceived and the way you yourself work. Hone your skills, up your game and focus on clients who care; get on their radar screen by getting out into their world. Connect with serious, passionate customers—not off and on as the mood takes you, but regularly. Then, to really ramp things up, identify windows of opportunity: timing counts.

Serve these people well and they will embrace the “People like us do it like this” mantra.

Translation: We savvy [businesspeople/researchers/healthcare teams/investors/regional development authorities/museum curators/etc.] get our texts translated by skilled, specialized human translators who work in teams and know our business inside out.” Sub-text: use the self-proclaimed bilingual brother-in-law of your cousin to translate our marketing plan? C’mon, be serious! Rely on machine translation for our mission-critical documents? You must be kidding. Yes, of course those vendors make all sorts of claims; sure, they can sometimes do gist. But, hey, when your texts are really important to you, get yourself a professional translator. That’s how people like us do it.”

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Post #7 — Out into the fray

Slice of life: every month or so I attend a networking event for entrepreneurs in central Paris, less to connect with clients than to keep a finger on that pulse and enjoy the buzz and enthusiasm.

Last night’s get-together celebrated a dozen heads of tech start-ups who had done remarkably well highlighting “La French Tech” at the 2015 CES in Las Vegas, ruckusing up a Gallic storm that was heavily promoted in the French press.

Their energy was infectious, with each bringing an innovative gizmo along to our event for show & tell. Not concepts, not visions, but amazing projects they’d either prototyped or were actually shipping, with rounds of funding on the horizon.

As the evening went on, these trublions (a stab at a French equivalent of ruckusmaker) showed us clips featuring their products in action, one stunning sequence after another, with running commentary.

But here the plot thickened, at least for the translator in their midst: each of the first three films was saddled with distractingly odd English subtitles. (“Where only the bests is about the most important show of the world […]”).

When there is such a clear mismatch between cutting-edge technology and clunky, incoherent language, surely a learning moment is at hand. No?

Yet as I winced and re-winced and looked around that elegant wood-paneled room, one thing was clear: I was the only one wincing.

The explanation? Everyone else was a native French speaker. They all spoke English fluently enough for meetings, but just didn’t see the written mistakes.  That’s language for you—non-natives rarely have the same sensitivity to grammar and style glitches in writing their foreign language, which is one reason why professional translators work only into their mother tongue.

Speaking out during the public session was not an option. It would have smacked of language police or schoolmarm, never a good move when trying to get someone to see a new angle. But the experience did make me think again about Seth Godin’s comment ten days earlier: “Getting people to realize they have a problem is more expensive than talking to people who know they have a problem.” These otherwise brilliant people in place Vendôme didn’t know (yet) they had a problem, although it’s inconceivable that the steady stream of American visitors to their booths at CES hadn’t noticed.

No big deal, mutters the cynic. After all, these guys had a successful show, who cares about the weird subtitles already?

Ah, but people do care, especially people who have poured so much effort and energy into their projects. So as we moved from the presentations to the buffet, I latched on to the sole American presenter and spoke privately with the French organizers. Who were very receptive. In the frantic countdown to the show, they explained, preparations had got out of hand and the subtitles had most likely been done in-house. (Confirmed by one of the CEOs over food and drink; he was not shattered, but still not happy—and determined to get it right next time.)

The good news: a language review is on the check-list for 2016. Because these people do care once they’ve been made aware of a problem.




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Post #6 — Healthy lucre

Here we take a look at a few money issues.

We’ve agreed that generosity is good, even essential. But what about passionate, generous freelancers and entrepreneurs who are so engaged with their clients’ concerns that they give away too much? Who undermine the sustainability of their own business by invoicing only a fraction of the intellectual input they provide or the hours they log?

It’s an easy behavior to slip into, especially when start-up energy is pulsing through your veins, you love your work and you take your clients seriously. Literate but often non-numerate freelancers like translators seem particularly susceptible, one sub-text being that money is tacky and vulgar. Or simply an uncomfortable issue to address.

A few rules of thumb:

•   If you’re self-employed, each day has billable and non-billable hours. Your fee for the billable ones must cover both, and include provision for, say, retirement regardless of your age.

•  The price you quote to a first-time client reveals your pain threshold. Unless you indicate clearly that this is a special introductory rate—with a defined cut-off point—it will be all but impossible to raise it significantly with that same client further down the road. Not a problem if you plan on perfecting your skills with one set of clients and then moving on to a new group… but worth thinking about all the same.

•  Money can focus the mind in a very healthy way. Client dithering and disorganization impact your ability to manage capacity. So specifying in your quote that the meter starts running after a second mark-up can light a salutary fire.

•  Free trial offers can work both ways. For potential good customers who have no idea how your input can help them (even save them), they’re a terrific idea and a great way of creating trust. If you’re tackling a prospect who gives out bad client vibes, less so (but why would you want bad clients, anyway?).

Bottom line: “How much should I charge?”—a constant refrain among new translators—has only one real answer: “It depends”. On what you’re selling, when you’re delivering, which market segment you’re in and a multitude of other factors.

In the meantime, Seth Godin’s freelancer math guidelines resonate. Read them and ponder.

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Post #5 — Word geeks in the hot seat

There was some finger-wagging in Post #4.

That’s a turn-off—almost as bad as a translator/language cop lecturing a potential client about misused subjunctives and conjugations until ze eyes glaze over, then wondering why projects fail to materialize. No way to build a tribe.

So today we’ll head over to a win-win-win-win scenario where fear is conquered, a narrative is born, a tribe takes shape.

Seth Godin has suggested one way Ruckusmakers can get people on their side: “You tell them a story in a way they will hear, then teach them something. Make it so that someone who ‘gets it’ has the language and incentive to tell people around them.” And so the tribe grows.

But even without overdosing on conjugation, translation is not immediately perceived as dynamic or exciting. Photos of translators at the wordface are generally bland and generic, bespectacled geeks at a keyboard and screen. No exotic gowns or Kevlar vests.

This is only natural. Because for translators, producing the art—the suspense, drama and high-wire feats of wordplay—takes place inside their wetware. Invisible. No wonder most non-linguist journalists writing about translation are suckers for technology; Star Trek’s Universal Translator is just so much more enticing than screen/cursor/furrowed brow/keyboard/cursor/pursed lips/glasses.

One way to lure non-tribe members into the excitement of wordplay is a Translation Slam. It lifts the words off the page—literally.

Ingredients: a large room, a large screen and projector, a moderator, a short text (100-150 words) and… two translators willing to stand up and put their art out there. (Yes, we’re back to conquering fear.)

Spectators get a copy of the original text. The two slammers have prepared their translations beforehand and these are projected on screen, side by side. Naturally, the two translations are very different; that’s how language works. There’s never “one right answer.” We’re not just replacing words, people, it’s about meaning and connections and flow.

The slam begins. The moderator highlights a formulation; the translators explain their choices, the forks in the road, the stops and the starts. Revisiting their work together, they weigh the music. And analyze, out loud, what works and what doesn’t.

As they do, the words come alive, stretched and juxtaposed in a collaborative process that is more riveting-discovery-of-how-language-works than winner-takes-all joust.

In January, a hundred parents, kids, teachers and students sat in on a slam at a language trade fair in Paris and were mesmerized.

Last August, a slam in Berlin  had a capacity crowd of language learners and professionals on the edge of their seats for 90 minutes.

In both cases, spectators (and professionals) exited the room abuzz, with new enthusiasm and respect for the expertise on display.

They’d seen how language fits together and were heading out to relay their enthusiasm.


HT to serial slammers Laurence Cuzzolin, Iwan Davies, Grant Hamilton, Dominique Jonkers, Hugh Keith, François Lavallée, Clémence Malaret, Lisa Rüth, Ros Schwartz and Steffan Walter.

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Post #4 — That soft underbelly

Fear was on the agenda at the recent Ruckusmaker workshop—a Gollum-like creature writhing and muttering within even the boldest of hearts.

For both freelancers and entrepreneurs, we’re talking fear of failure.

Fear of your prototype exploding or the bank manager cutting your credit line. Of your brilliant new app finding no users at all. Or simply the conviction that people will laugh, point fingers, or say nothing at all when your art is displayed (but man oh man, you just know what they are thinking and whispering…).

So speaks the lizard brain.

The message from Seth Godin: if you’re really interested in promoting change, be prepared to face down fear. It’s natural, part of the vulnerability you embrace when you do new things. So get over it, get out there and take your turn.

Now a little riff for linguists.

In the translatorsphere, most practitioners still work in isolation—a long tradition. Translator receives text. Translator translates text. Translator shoots translation into black hole in space and awaits new text. (Translator often lives in cave on mountaintop.)

In the language industry, we all know that most clients can’t judge our output in what is for them a foreign language—that’s why they commission a translation in the first place. So we know, too, that our frontline readers and payers-of-invoices probably won’t give us too much grief if the work is adequate but less than stellar. Because they won’t know.

My own focus is the high end of the market, which I’m inclined to believe is populated by skilled professionals with enormous integrity. I really want to believe that. But over the years, I’ve often asked experienced translators how they know their work is good and the answers are inconclusive. Usually an uncomfortable silence, followed by “Well, clients have never complained” or “Well, clients keep coming back for more” or even “Well, I’ve been doing this for 25 years.”

Not to feed the lizard, but all of those answers are non-starters. Clients may be sticking with you solely because it would be even more work to go out and find somebody else; you are their path of least resistance.

Failing spontaneous and enthusiastic feedback, your position is weak until you’ve sat down and had a serious conversation with your client. And it’s a short step from awareness deep down inside of that weak position to feeling like an imposter. Uneasiness. Fear. Which may be one reason why translators are so twitchy in, say, price negotiations. And so reluctant to show their work to peers: at the monthly Translators’ Café in Paris, a table reserved for show and tell (“Vois-là mon travail”) tends to collect promotional brochures and business cards more often than actual samples of work.

One solution is to team up with a reviser or editor. True, that person will get to see whatever it is you are actually delivering (ah, scary). Yet the give and take will almost certainly make the product you ship better. And your reviser’s insights will make you a better translator.

Imagine, the two of you might even feel secure enough to sign your work—a promise to yourself and clients that you take this translation stuff seriously enough to put your reputations on the line. Taking responsibility and credit.

One way to overcome fear is to face it head-on and connect with peers.

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Post #3 — Your world view

Seth Godin has commented that the connection economy thrives on art and generosity, and today I want to consider both.

For the translators among us, art is the mastery of our craft—the ability to create texts that go beyond accurate (the bare-bones minimum) to embrace style and flow and rhythm. That go beyond the words to the ideas behind the words. Compelling texts. Texts that entice readers to jump aboard and keep reading clear through to the end. Texts that give authors a voice in a different culture and language. That open windows and doors.

At the premium end of the market, this can also mean making clients shine regardless of what they put on the page in their native language. That’s right: if you take this work seriously, your texts will often be better than the original. Because as a translator you’re a professional writer (unlike many customers, who are professional business people, scientists, patent attorneys, film-makers and so on).

It’s part of your art; it’s what you do.

The minute you ship bumpy translations and hide behind “well, the original didn’t make much sense either” or “did you see what they’re paying; what did they expect?” you’ve self-selected out of the circle of trust.

And it was your choice, not theirs.

If your clients do pay peanuts and send disconnected bits of murky, misspelled documents to translate, and this bothers you—well, it’s time to leave the commodity end of the market behind. Raise your bar. Your choice.

But that will be much, much harder if you’ve let your own world view, skills and track record get contaminated by commodity thinking.

On to generosity.

I can’t read my notes here, so Seth may have meant something else. But in my own practice, generosity means genuinely caring about outcomes.

So much so that you lend a hand to fellow translators who dare show their vulnerability by asking for help with a passage or term. You pitch in when your professional association needs manpower. You welcome newcomers to the profession and do what you can to help them find their feet.

So much so that you put in the extra time and effort to make your client or author look really good. Not in payback-comin’ mode, rather because it’s more satisfying to do work that makes sense and has meaning. Work that you can refer back to yourself with pleasure and pride—and refer potential clients to with confidence.

This commitment to yourself is also why you sign your work.

But more on that tomorrow.

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Post #2 — Times have changed

This will be a short one.

After the Ruckusmaker weekend, I headed north to rural New York State to visit my father, a spry 97-year-old Iwo Jima veteran who spent his working life at the GE plant in Schenectady, NY. Before retiring, Glenn was at work every weekday—and many Saturdays, too—bringing home the bacon to support his stay-at-home wife and five children.

Today he’s retired but connected, perusing the daily press from his native Denmark on the web, along with US newspapers and magazines. He has all his marbles, a great sense of humor, and a huge pile of books (mostly non-fiction) next to his fire-side easychair. He is politically engaged. Oh, and he still drives—locally only, however, “until spring gets here.”

But Glenn is not a Ruckusmaker. In his day, the man of the house was in salaried employment and had a single boss throughout his entire working life.

A model no longer possible or viable for many, and no longer desirable for the likes of most Ruckusmakers.

Yet habits die hard. As I waxed enthusiastic about how invigorating the workshop had been, Glenn confided that he had researched Seth Godin on the internet and was reassured: this was a person who made good sense, a guy worth listening to.

Yet after skimming through my print-out of the workshop participants’ bios, he was nonetheless uneasy: “Have you noticed how many of these people have [… pause … ] moved around quite a lot?”

An INSTABILITY balloon with flashing lights was anchored over the easychair at this point. (Have I mentioned that habits die hard?)

A reminder that times do change. Because in discussions in Hastings-on-Hudson, it became abundantly clear that the itchy-footed, the people who embark on a project (or two or three), the folks who “move around,” can, if they do the work, be far more resilient than those who stay put. Far stronger.

In Seth’s terms, they take on and triumph over one challenge, reaching their “local max” (where things are already pretty cool). Then—forever curious, forever raising their own personal bar—they choose to navigate the dip and move on to another peak, with all of the uncertainty and tension that involves. Negatives become positives.

We have only one life, after all.



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Post #1 — People who care

Bear with me, please.

Outstanding translation is usually draped in a cloak of invisibility: seamless and compelling, it passes for original text. That’s right: people forget that the report/article/maintenance manual/essay/speech they’re reading was born in another language.

Meanwhile, translators are a reclusive bunch, often happier with the word-on-the-page than with social interaction. Many have never met a client in the flesh. Discretion is the watchword: although most love language, few sign their work.

Is this a problem?

Well, yes. It means that most potential translation buyers know nothing about how translation is actually performed. How practitioners actually work.
Often clients don’t even think about translation until the crunch comes. Cue panic, tight deadlines, sucker solutions via machine translation, desperate scribbles by inlaws of friends-of-friends—flawed, even comical “translations” that yank the profession out of the shadows only to discredit it.

Today’s Ruckus Message for translators who want to turn this situation around: Forget the general public.

Instead target smaller groups—people with a vested interest in getting it right in areas they care deeply about. The meaningful specific rather than the wandering generality.

Healthcare providers intent on saving lives (or avoiding lawsuits) in Brooklyn—or Rennes.
Schools reaching out to immigrant parents and kids in Akron—or Aubervilliers or Furuset.
Legal counsel defending undocumented immigrants in East Anglia.
Businesses promoting painstakingly developed gluten-free products in a fiercely competitive global market.
Humanitarian groups bringing drinking water to villages in rural Cambodia.
Film makers reaching across national borders to connect with the hearts and minds of   viewers around the world.
Start-ups on the cusp of stock-market listing, eager to attract international investment funds (and ultimately cash in their stock options).
International authorities dismantling nuclear weapons.
Crazed, passionate inventors seeking international patent protection for their latest breakthrough.

You get the picture. People who care.

And to connect with them, show them that you care, too. That you’ve cared enough to hone your language skills and writing skills—your art. That you’ve done the work; you’ve mastered their specialized subjects so well that you can pass a Turing test with your eyes closed. That you’ll go the extra mile, you’ll find solutions for even the trickiest language and cultural issues. You won’t bail when the pressure is on.

Once passionate folks who care have seen first-hand what you do, they’ll not only seek you out with more assignments, they’ll become your mouthpiece. They’ll talk you up to their tribe—enthusiastically and often spontaneously. And you can use their success stories to tell yours. To the general public, if you insist.


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The #RuckusMakersChallenge

Testing, testing. The first of eight blogposts. Trial run.

In early spring 2015 I took part in an exceptionally stimulating RuckusMaker weekend led by Seth Godin, whose blog and other writings I’ve long admired.

Eighty fired-up participants brought enthusiasm, energy, curiosity and an urge to change the world for the better. (Plus some jitters.) Seth contributed the big picture, along with concrete advice on overcoming obstacles, maintaining focus and transforming visions into projects that can actually ship.

In this initial eight-post series, I explored how some of his insights apply to hot issues in translation and to my own personal challenge: raising awareness in the general public of how expert human translators work, and how that expertise can be harnessed to make life better. Allowing translators to secure the income and recognition they need to shape their working environment—and get even better at what they do.

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