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I was recently interviewed by Tess Whitty from Marketing Tips for Translators about a presentation I held at the 56th Annual ATA Conference in Miami last November. The subject of my presentation was how to improve your writing skills because, as translators, we are expected to do more than just convey the meaning of a text into another language, we also have to be excellent writers. In the interview, I talk about some of the methods that I have worked for me, both in improving my writing skills and in marketing my services.

Listen to the interview.

This is the article, titled “Translating Fashion”, which I wrote for the Spring 2015 newsletter of the British Costume Society (click the image for a more readable version):



One of my main areas of specialisation is fashion. Last year I joined the British Costume Society, because they offer a lot of useful information on both historical and contemporary fashion and they regularly organise events on the subject of dress, fashion and textiles. They also publish a newsletter for their members. Last year I contacted the editor of the newsletter to ask whether they would be interested in an article about translating for the fashion industry and they said they would be.

I decided to focus on the translations from English into Dutch which I did for the exhibition “The Fashion World of Jean Paul Gaultier”, which was held in Rotterdam in 2013, since the previous Costume Society newsletter contained a review of this exhibition, which was on display in London in the summer of 2014.

The aim of my article was to show how a translator works and what he or she needs, so I started by explaining that I need to know what kind of style the client is looking for and that it is helpful to have previously written texts, glossaries and/or style guides as a guideline. I then went on to explain how important it is to have proper visuals, especially if you have to translate detailed descriptions of the designs, as was the case for this exhibition. I gave a couple of examples of texts that were really unclear without visuals and how I was able to solve this (I sent them photographs I had taken myself at the exhibition to illustrate this and they were printed along with the article). I ended by listing some other problems I encountered, such as typos in the text and phrases that were in French instead of in English (my working language; I do not translate from French) and how I managed to work around those issues.

Before I sent the article to the editor I had it proofread by Elise Reynolds, as English is not my native language.

I really enjoyed writing the article and I hope it gives people who have never worked with a translator before some idea of how translators tend to work.

Rates are always a hot issue among translators, especially low rates offered by clients. Some translators are tempted to accept these low rates or to lower their rates just to get work. However, there is no excuse to accept low rates.

“If my rates are too high, I won’t be able to find any clients”
If you raise your rates, there will always be clients who will find them too high and who won’t hire you. But do you really want to work for clients who underpay you for a job that requires specialised skills? There are plenty of clients out there who know what it takes to create a professional translation and who are prepared to pay a decent rate for quality. There are even clients who will not work with translators offering low rates, because they don’t trust “cheap translations”. If you offer quality translations, you will be able to find quality clients who are willing to pay for what you have to offer. It will take time and effort, but that’s all part of running a business.

“I only see job offers on the internet offering low rates”
There always have been, and always will be, clients who are only interested in making a quick profit and they won’t go away, not as long as there are translators who are prepared to work for these low rates. If you are serious about your business and you are able to offer quality translations, you don’t want to work with these clients. And you don’t have to, because there are plenty of serious clients out there who are willing to pay for quality. It just takes more effort to find them, or have them find you. Make sure you market yourself professionally, provide samples of your work and be active on the internet and/or in networks so clients can actually find you. You are in charge of your business, so you set your rates.

“I’ve only just started and am not very experienced yet”
Obviously, more experienced translators can ask higher rates than less experienced translators. Be careful, however, not to charge rates that are too low when you are just starting, because it will be very difficult to raise those rates to a decent level once you have gained some experience. If you start too low, you will most probably lose most of your current clients and you will have to find new clients, which means you will basically have to start all over again.

“A client asked me to lower my rate in exchange for a high volume of work”
Whether you are working on a 1500-word job or a 15,000-word job, the average number of words you translate per hour will remain roughly the same. So why should you be paid less for a big job? In addition, taking on a big job also means you will have to turn down other jobs and may lose (potential) clients. So why should you settle for less during the whole time you are working on this big job?

“I don’t need to earn that much, my partner earns enough to pay the bills”
Good for you, but that doesn’t mean that your work is worth less. Besides, there are plenty of translators who do have to earn a living translating. By underselling yourself and your work, you are damaging the profession’s reputation and you are ruining the market for others.

What are the benefits of joining a professional association for translators and interpreters?
The benefits of membership of a professional association depend of course on what the association in question has to offer, but most associations offer the following benefits:

  • Representation and promotion of interests of translators and interpreters
    Many professional associations take part in discussions about the translation and interpreting profession and are involved whenever new rules and regulations affecting the profession are being developed.
  • Information about new developments in the business
    Most associations publish their own newsletter or bulletin with information about whatever is of interest to their members: new rules and regulations, information about and reviews of software and books, articles on how to market your services, interviews with fellow translators, etc.
  • Continuing education
    Professional associations often organise workshops and/or conferences on subjects which are important for their members, allowing them to improve their language and business skills and to keep up to date with the latest developments in the business.
  • Networking with other translators and interpreters
    Membership of a professional association gives you an opportunity to meet fellow translators and interpreters, either at meetings of local chapters or at workshops or conferences organised by the association.
  • Professional services
    Many professional associations offer professional services such as model terms of business, professional insurance, debt collection services and legal advice for free or at a discount and specifically tailored to the translation profession.
  • Searchable member directory
    Professional associations often have a searchable database of their members, which potential clients can use to find a service provider.
    [Thank you Céline Graciet for adding this one]

Can anyone become a member of a professional association?
No, all professional associations have minimum requirements for membership. Some offer different types of membership. For some associations/memberships, sending in copies of credentials and references will suffice, while others require passing an exam or work assessment.

Which professional association should I become a member of?
It is always useful to become a member of a professional association in the country you live and work in, so you can visit their meetings and use any professional services they offer. In addition, it might be useful to join an association in a country of your working language(s), to be able to keep up to date with developments in that country/language and to meet other translators working in the same language.

Where can I find a list of professional associations?
The website of the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs/International Federation of Translators and Interpreters (FIT), the international umbrella organisation of associations of translators, interpreters and terminologists, contains a list of FIT members all over the world.

Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of misconceptions about translation, most of which basically imply that translation can’t be that difficult and that anyone can translate. Here are some of them, with my response to them.

“I speak a foreign language, so that makes me a translator”
Just because you speak a foreign language, even if you speak it fluently, doesn’t mean you are a good translator. Spoken language is very different from written language, so just because you are able to have a conversation in a certain language, doesn’t mean you are able to write in that language.

“I was raised bilingually, so that makes me a translator”
Being raised bilingually doesn’t automatically make you a translator. There is more to translating than just knowing two languages: you should also be able to translate, ie. convert one language into another in such a way that the translation reads like an original text. There is a difference between being able to understand and use two languages, and being able to translate between them.

“Modern translation tools are so advanced, they can easily replace human translators”
The translation tools currently available are only able to translate a sentence word for word. Since they cannot understand context, they cannot distinguish between different meanings of the same word. In addition, they simply copy the word order of the source language, which often leads to awkward, even unintelligible sentences in the target language, which the translation tool is unable to rewrite. Translation tools can be useful to find out what a text in another language is (roughly) about, but they are as yet unable to create a good, reliable translation.

“I have a text of around 2500 words. Can you get the translation back to me in an hour?”
Most people can’t even type 2500 words in one hour, so translating 2500 words in one hour is out of the question. How many words a professional translator can translate in one hour depends on different factors, such as the type of text (a creative marketing text takes longer to translate than a straightforward manual) and the level of technicality (a text on a highly technical subject with a lot of specific terminology takes longer to translate than a general text without any specific terminology). On average, a professional translator can translate around 250 to 350 words per hour, so it would take 7 to 10 hours to translate a 2500-word text.

“We don’t need to translate our website and marketing materials, all our customers can read English”
Even though these days a lot of people do read English, they often aren’t comfortable enough with the English language to understand all the details and subtleties of the language. As a result, they will be reluctant to buy a product or service which is not offered in their own language. Research shows that even people who speak English confidently still prefer products in their own language.

“We offer advanced dictionary and search tools which will help you create your own translations”
Good (online) dictionary and search tools are extremely useful for translators, because they can save a lot of time in looking up terminology or background information. However, even though correct terminology and a good understanding of the subject matter is very important, it is not enough to create a good translation: you also need excellent translation, language and writing skills to be able to produce a good, correct and readable translation.

“Translation can’t be that difficult, there’s only one possible translation for every text”
Language isn’t an exact science: there never is just one correct answer. Ideas can be phrased in many different ways. Ask ten translators to translate the same sentence and chances are you will get ten different translations which are all correct. Some translations may be more appropriate for the context and the intended target audience than others, which is why it is important to hire a translator who is familiar with the context and target audience.

“What do they teach you at a translation course, do you have to learn all the dictionaries by heart?”
Even if it would be possible to learn all the dictionaries by heart, it’s not very useful for translation, apart maybe from the fact that it will save time because you never have to look up a word again. But knowing the translation of every single word in a specific language doesn’t make you a translator, because translating is more than just translating individual words, it involves translating concepts and images rather than words. This requires a thorough knowledge of the source and target language and of the cultural backgrounds of both languages. And this can only be achieved through talent, training and lots and lots of practice.

About this weblog

Translation is not a matter of words only: it is a matter of making intelligible a whole culture
-Anthony Burgess

To know another’s language and not his culture is a very good way to make a fluent fool of yourself
-Winston Brembeck


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