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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