Charlie Bavington

Professional French to English Translator - Business and I.T.

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

Event: IAPTI 2013

October 8th, 2013 | Categories: business, translation issues

IAPTI Conference 5 October 2013

And so it was that I was out of the house before I am usually even awake on a Saturday to hit the Hilton hotel for IAPTI’s first conference. Given the calibre of those involved, it will be no surprise to hear the whole thing was impressively well organised with nary a hitch in the smooth running.

The first person to speak was Mona Baker on “Ethics in the translation/interpreting curriculum and profession”.

Her theory is that ethics have traditionally been largely ignored on the grounds that (freelance) translators are mere mercenaries. As she said this, it struck me that another reason might be that we are seen merely as mouthpieces for things that other people have said or written.

She said that she sees the working profession itself as being ahead of academia in translation (unlike in other disciplines), because of the way that we have to deal with issues such as disability (sign language, audio descriptions), globalisation and “rampant capitalism”, increased professionalization and accountability, conflict and our role in the aftermath.

Hence translators are starting to refuse work on ethical or moral grounds. Mona quoted a survey where only 26% of respondents said they would take any work whatsoever with no qualms. Compare this with a 28 March 2013 survey on proz where over 50% said they had never declined work for ethical reasons, and then 30 March 2012 where 74% said they would avoid certain subjects: one can only assume the discrepancy is, all other things being equal, the difference between theory (the 2012 question) and practice (the 2013 question).

After a whizz through the sort of topics people reject (although with just the scantest mention that one’s stance might vary pending on who the work was for and why, which is a matter I have seen discussed in some depth on forums), she then came to the question of “what is ethics”?

Mona proposed that ethics equals balancing the rights of self and others, self and others being inseparable, where the rights of others may refer to different others, and going some way beyond serving either the author or the reader as the discipline of Translations Studies would suggest. No man, I might have said in her place, is an island.

Mona believes we now need “conceptual tools for critical reasoning and reflection”. Conceptual tools include the difference between the teleological (the best results for the largest number of people or the utilitarian view, e.g. torture can be justified where it saves lives) and the deontological (some things are just wrong per se, e.g. human dignity trumps everything else). I’m not entirely sure that the precise category of ethical consideration is of interest to the client whose work you are declining on ethical grounds, but I’m always up for a spot of philosophising, and even typing this paragraph has taken an hour while I ponder this and that…

Mona says that translators and interpreters cannot always just walk away, so they need strategies. For example she has heard interpreters switch from the direct first person to saying “the speaker seems to be saying that…”. It is possible that interpreters are more in need of strategies than translators, since interpreters cannot (usually) know exactly what is going to be said in advance, whereas translators should at least skim through a document before agreeing to translate it.

Taken as a whole, a most stimulating talk.

The second session was an overview of the background to Professional Interpreters for Justice and the whole farrago with the Ministry of Justice and Applied Language Solutions/Capita. I entirely support their position, naturally, and frankly any further comment here is superfluous.

After the coffee break, we had the first parallel sessions. Next up for me, then, was João Roque Dias, his new tie, and the golden triangle of Translator, Client and Money. A presentation, as he put it, for people in translation to make a living.

He stressed that translation is a service not a commodity. By his definition, which seems entirely reasonable to me, commodities can be stored. There is no such thing as an off-the-shelf translation, just as there is no such thing as an off-the-shelf haircut. (Not that I know a great deal about haircuts). If you sell your services as a commodity, then you’ll be treated as a commodity supplier.

João says that in the real world of direct clients, pricing by word is treated with suspicion. They pay for other services by the hour or day or week. They talk about time, they estimate the time, they invoice by time. They are no stranger to the lump sum. Service providers sell their time. All client questions relate to time, and all measurables relate to time.

João says he sees the question “How much should I charge for my translation?” all the time, and this is the wrong question. The right question is how much does it cost to provide this service to this client. There then followed an overview of the translation value chain which I won’t describe in full here, so you have a reason for seeing this talk if you get the chance, which I fully recommend.

João then ran through the calculation to arrive at an appropriate hourly rate. Again I won’t repeat it all here, but suffice it to say it can be summed up as adding your business expenses (don’t forget any!) to your desired personal income (whatever level that may be), and dividing the total by your billable hours (not forgetting there are only 24 hours in a day and 365 days in the year and you won’t be working all of them).

If I had a criticism of this approach it would be that it is entirely cost based (no mention of value-based pricing, which I concede is a tricky issue) and that “desired personal income” can be very variable, and indeed people may (misguidedly) decide to reduce it to be “competitive”.

(As an aside for UK readers about the “lump sum” comment – UK invoices have to include a “unit price” component. However, that unit does not have to be words! At the same time, I’m reluctant to splatter an hourly rate over quotes and invoices that might be handled by relatively low-paid people. Perhaps a “per document” approach could be a solution…)

João is a very engaging speaker and raised some interesting points.

The last morning session was Rose Newell on debunking and exposing translation agencies.

I’ll be brief on this one, not because it doesn’t warrant an in-depth look, but because Rose herself plans to post it on her own blog soon. Plus I imagine most readers are familiar with the pros and cons of working with agencies, and have either experienced or read about the dirty tricks to which some will stoop to avoid or reduce payments or to get something for nothing. When you see them all written down in one place, ’tis a veritable compendium of knavery.

One interesting aspect of agency behaviour Rose raised was that of agencies paying different rates depending on the translator’s location. A point also touched upon by Au in her opening address introducing IAPTI. On the face of it, this does indeed seem to be a practice that should be frowned upon. In contrast, a translator who has followed João’s recommendation to determine their desired rate might well charge less than say, me, while having the self same business expenses (by which I mean paying for the same hardware, software and everything else) and a comparable lifestyle (disposable income and living conditions, etc.) and working the same hours, merely by virtue of living somewhere else. This is indeed the conundrum of globalisation.

The first session after (a tasty) lunch was entitled “Translation rates: breaking their discussion taboo”. I confess this session did not quite live up to my expectations. My expectation was that the main taboo here seems to be that people don’t say what they earn or what rates they charge, in terms of hard figures. This taboo remained unbroken. (It’s a taboo I entirely understand, and I’m fairly discreet about these things myself, which I guess explains my breathless anticipation!) There was a brief review of price-fixing legislation, but then the only hard figures discussed were those which (it seemed to me) are already fairly freely available: the rates paid by various government agencies in various countries where those rates are set in stone, the rates paid by the EU and so on. Lest there be any misunderstanding, the session itself was still interesting, as was the information that was given, but I’m not sure it’s quite what I was expecting, which is no doubt down to my leaping to conclusions (as ever). Let’s move on…. 🙂

Next I toddled off to one of the smaller rooms for Marta Morros on Red Vértice. This is not an organisation or separate legal entity but a “platform for collaboration” between 17 other groups, including APTIC (Catalan Professional T & I Association) to which Marta belongs. They have led successful campaigns against SEIL SA and Lionbridge in terms of “paying to work” (being against it, natch, like yours t.) and are currently lobbying behind the scenes over court interpreting in Spain, which seems to be suffering from a similar situation to that in the UK with work outsourced to a private-sector provider using unqualified interpreters. Probably not too much I could take back and apply to my everyday working life, but it’s always instructive to hear about conditions elsewhere.

After that was Attila Piróth on “Teaming up”. He started with a description of the translation of a physics textbook, which involved very close cooperation with the author. He currently has an ongoing working partnership with another translator, which he used as the basis to illustrate several key points. This session came at a very relevant time for me, having recently completed my first translation (certainly in recent years) working as a pair.

Attila emphasises that the partnership should be of equals, as this helps with capacity management – if a similar fees are charged there is no incentive for a client to prefer to allocate work to one partner or the other. Partnerships more generally can help reduce delays in communication with clients/project managers (more availability), reduce the number of questions put to clients/PMs (two heads being better than one), and reduce the time PMs spend on conflict management as partners (assuming some split between translation and review) will resolve them between themselves.

In terms of the benefit for the individual partner, assuming the other partner is equally good, explaining one’s own preferences can be very beneficial. There is less isolation, less stress, and less fear of making a mistake. An opinion shared with a partner carries more weight with other people. And a partner can be a backup in your absence.

If you think this all sounds rather a wizard wheeze, Attila recommends making use of your existing “relational capital” – that’ll be the people you already know. If you feel you could comfortably recommend them, they will probably make a decent partner. Remember you’re free to pick, or not, who you want. And remember to make sure you are findable by anybody else considering the same thing. All in all, a useful session packed with common sense that certainly gave me some things to think about and consider for the future.

Likewise the penultimate presentation by Ralf Lemster on specialisation and market positioning. His opening remark was that too often we don’t dare to ask a decent price. How do we see ourselves? (As the equals of our clients?) How do clients see us? (As a hired help?)

He views the middle ground as the problem – too many people have too many specialisations. As the owner of a specialist agency, Ralf understands why people do this – fear of removing themselves from too many markets – but he says that the consequence is that it can affect how seriously you are taken (if you must have more than one specialisation, consider having more than one website, for instance).

Project a professional image, appropriate to the target market, and be visible to the people you want to do business with, and then you can negotiate on a level playing field. Don’t undersell yourself. Ralf’s rule is “only by taking yourself seriously will you be taken seriously by others”. Know your value to your client’s business (I think this might be easier said than done – I know I have little idea of the financial value of much of what I do).

And on the subject of value, Ralf’s perception is that prices quoted per word are under more pressure than rates quoted per hour (he didn’t say so, but I wonder if part of that isn’t an agency vs direct client effect of some kind – and indeed a neat link to João’s session).

Wise words interspersed with relevant anecdotes backing up what is fundamentally a straightforward message – don’t be fooled by the relative brevity of this section; Ralf is worth listening to if you get the opportunity.

And so to the last session of the day, all back together in the main hall, for Marta Stelmaszak on “passion and running a business” (I paraphrase). I assume that some, at least, of this session, was a taster of what one could expect from her business course, so I won’t let too many cats out the of bag. It started and finished on the topic of passion, rather neatly.

We started with a scamper through “8 to be great”, Richard St John’s eight traits of successful people. One being passion, needless to say.
Then we had a diversion into the Blue Ocean – uncontested market space where competition is irrelevant, ‘cos there ain’t none – followed by a couple of other business school-y notions, including exercises for us to try (yikes!). The “principles of selling” slide was noteworthy because it mentioned passion (again) as one of the four key factors, along with confidence, which linked neatly back to Ralf’s session.

We then had a blast of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle video: we know what we do, we know how we do it, but do we know WHY we do it? Earlier in the week, there was a #whyxl8 hashtag on twitter, which in retrospect was meant to be connected to this aspect. Not having taken it seriously, I tweeted a reply linking via YouTube to the chorus of “We Care A Lot” by Faith No More, which runs “It’s a dirty job but someone’s gotta do it.”

Upon reflection, it may be a question worthy of more serious consideration. I think the answer is supposed to be “passion”, but at this point, I am either overestimating the strength of feeling meant by “passion” or I’m just going to have to accept I am not, and can’t ever see myself becoming, “passionate” about the kind of work I do.

Anyway, my introspective minor downers aside, Marta too is well worth your time if you’re ever fortunate enough to be passing a room she’s talking in.

And that was that. I hadn’t booked a place at the networking dinner, ‘cos I’m rubbish at networking and dinner was available an hour away, so off I crept into the gathering night.

  1. Nikki Graham
    October 9th, 2013 at 12:56
    Quote | #1

    Thanks for this, especially as we mostly attended different sessions. I find I agree with you about Marta’s talk (even though it was interesting and thought-provoking), as I tend to save my passion for non-translation parts of my life 🙂

  2. October 10th, 2013 at 04:21
    Quote | #2

    Thanks for such an in-depth review, Charlie! I’m glad you enjoyed my session and no, your “why” doesn’t have to be passion. As long as you know what it is, you’ll be able to communicate it in your business. I’m looking forward to discussing it over a cup of coffee; we don’t live too far away from each other!

  3. Cecilia Avanceña
    October 10th, 2013 at 18:06
    Quote | #3

    I’m just so disappointed I didn’t meet you, Charlie! Shall I have to go back to Britain for that? (Probably my fault; I don’t look like my parrot avatar). At any rate, you’d have seen me at the Spanish platform talk.

    Anyway, thanks a heap for the feedback. I’m sure the IAPTI guys appreciate it. See you in IAPTI2014?

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