May 29, 2010

No Monkeys!

The recent launch of colleague Wendell Ricketts' No Peanuts blog got me thinking. I endorse the basic concept that translators who do decent work deserve a decent living or better yet an indecently good one, but in our discussion of "living wages" and "sustainable fees" let us not forget the elephant in the room... and the monkey riding on its back.

Frankly I wouldn't pay peanuts for some of the work we've been asked to review in the past. I doubt that a bad rate was a primary determinant of the quality in those cases; though a hurried, overworked translator is likely to deliver sub-par translations at least occasionally no matter how good her skills, it's those monkeys banging away at the keyboard on the way to randomly reproducing the works of Willie Shakespeare that do the really spectacular damage. And there are, alas, quite a few of these. It's a scary day when I have to agree with a PM that a machine translation would at least be consistent in its awfulness, but I have more weeks of those days in a year than I have vacation.

So in the spirit of quality, reform and professional development, I urge you all to join the No Monkeys movement. Ours is not an exclusive movement; we welcome even those stricken with Simian Syndrome and support them in their search for a cure. Career change is an obvious step in this direction, and I have long suspected that many of those slaving away at new translations of Dostoevsky would make better plumbers and bricklayers. But for those who have dreamed since childhood of translating corporate financial reports, instructions for use for toothpaste and high school diplomas, I propose a twelve step program for shedding the tail, thinning out the fur and participating in the Ascent of Translators.
  1. Acknowledge that you are powerless against Human Stupidity, including your own, and follow the plan of a Higher Power. That HP would be me, so pay attention.
  2. Do your homework on sustainable rates, quote them and stick to them. This one is just so basic that you'd think the discussion would have ended long ago. If you think that as a house hubby, student or a reeking rank novice you shouldn't be charging full professional rates, think again. Forget all those whining arguments about undercutting your colleagues by charging less than the typical translator in Peru or Bangladesh. Heck, you might live in those countries for all I know. No, there are better reasons to do this. Greed first of all. Greed is good. Just ask Gordon Gecko. Or your favorite outsourcers. There's also the little matters of self respect (ignore that, it's a vicious myth intended to inspire peasant and worker revolts), the need to pay bills even if the main breadwinner ends up on the dole or worse (on second thought, who needs to eat? lean translation, like lean software development and all the myriad starvation diets are surely healthier alternatives....) and a professional future. If you're not at the top of the game, give yourself a chance to develop and charge a top rate and pay the extra to the best editor willing to overhaul your junk language vehicle and make it run like a well-tuned Ferrari.
  3. Do your homework on sustainable rates, quote them and stick to them. Yes, yes I know. This was Step No. 2. It's good that you've noticed; there's hope for evolution. But I'll bet those simian synapses are still not firing fully. Just for fun, take your current rates and double or triple them. If you live in Bangladesh or Peru, please pentuple them at least. Make that the goal for your evolutionary plan and set a date for new clients to pay those rates. Now move the date up by a few years. Try setting it about three months from now.
  4. Now think about what you can add in value to your translation and other language service work to achieve those rate goals. What? You lack the education to offer a credible specialty? McDonald's is hiring I hear. Or we can start with an English lesson. If you don't know the word autodidact, look it up and become one. Good translators who get top rates are usually autodidacts, and that club's membership is open to any aspirants. Of course you've already created style guides for your target languages which you share with clients and prospects when planning projects and adjust to fit their interests and specifications. But have you thought about how you might leverage your terminology expertise to squeeze a little extra out of a project, even if it's just extra smiles and warm thoughts of a client looking forward to the next project with you? Do you have a colleague who's a super proofreader or editor and has capacity? Have you made arrangements to join forces for greater client satisfaction?
  5. Join a real professional translators' association, and if you don't qualify, figure out how to close the gap and do so. Sure, some of these people are snooty twits who waste far too much energy wishing that it were possible to close off a wide-open profession, and there are just as many clueless newbies (including many with translation degrees) who have never learned how to write an invoice as you'll find on the ProZ forums. By professional association, by the way, i most definitely do not mean public translation portals, even if these do pass out shiny red virtual "pro" badges and the like. Think ATA, ITI, those NAATI Australians, AdÜ, BDÜ, all those French associations that I'll never learn to pronounce or spell or whatever else may be within your reach. It's best if the association offers a member's directory which is popular with local or national businesses looking for a good translator. Oh, you don't want to evolve into a good translator? Like I said, McDonald's is hiring. And that's a disciplined company that might teach you some skills you need to succeed in translation. 
  6. 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.
  7. Develop your writing skills in your target language. If you think this is for monkey only, think again. If you think you've got this one down, learn more about when to break the rules. But make sure you actually know those rules first and are capable of applying them. Seek lots of feedback from your mentor and other Higher Powers, because it's easy to develop blind spots on this point. How often have I re-read my own texts and thought "quam tauri merda!"?
  8. Improve your source language comprehension. Doh. Or maybe not. Those with very long tails may need to brush up on grammar basics, learn about false friends and other beginners' stuff, but for those who are new to the business or are simply thick as bricks with respect to linguistic awareness, it may be important to point out that most authors of texts are not fully in control of the language they write, even if it is presumably their native language. Learn about screwups. Dialect. Guess what? Engineers writing repair manuals in Stuttgart are too often heavily influenced in their writing by the Swabian dialect. You might think of them as linguistic monkeys, but get over it. You have to make something comprehensible out of that mess, preferably something which will keep the client from getting sued very often.
  9. Just say no! This one works for drugs, excessive alcohol, extra-marital affairs, the seduction of translating into one's second, third and fourth languages and taking on that extra 20,000 words for the weekend. No is a wonderful word, worth learning in every language, even if you learn nothing else. Can you really, honestly handle the subject and register of the text on offer? Not sure are you? NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!!!!!!!
  10. Learn an effective project management system and apply it religiously. This can start with something as simple as the project folder system I developed for myself years ago. It might involve software tools, such as Translation Office 3000 or OTM, but a good spiral-bound notebook with tab dividers or a paper-based organizer or chalkboard on your home office wall or some combination of these and other options might do as well or better. Find a system that works for you and improve it as you make mistakes. That improvement is critical to evolution.
  11. Get a good translation environment tool, but understand clearly that it's your brain that does the real work! Even if you have Jurassic aspirations, you can use these tools to filter much of the crap people want translated and put it in a nice format you can handle in any word processor on most any computer platform. MemoQ version 4.2 with its exportable RTF tables for any source file format is a good example of this, but by no means the only useful one. But never forget: a fool with a tool remains a fool and trägt er auch 'n goldn Ring, der Affe bleibt a häßlich Ding.
  12. If you can't handle Steps 1 to 11 and anything else necessary to evolve as a translator in the modern world, consider joining a monastery or choosing a different pursuit. Actually, the monks I've known (I used to teach for the Capuchin Franciscans) won't cut you any slack, so think about doing gardening service, cleaning houses, dog sitting or anything else you can enjoy some measure of real success doing. My first choice would be gardening. It's how I earned a lot of my pocket change as a kid and college student, and it gets me out of the house into the sunshine and fresh air. Or the rain, which is also pretty cool for someone who grew up with the perpetual curse of heat and dry, polluted air in the LA basin. I would dearly love to be a professional musician or at least a singer, but I can't carry a tune and Chopsticks is the best I can manage on the finest grand piano, so I'm doomed to pursue the lesser path of the linguist. Any honest work is honorable, even the much-maligned role of the translation project manager or agency owner. (Just be careful not to follow bad examples.) Pursuing something you're not good at and never will be good at is of no sustainable use to anyone. I'm not one of those who believe that translation is an art requiring an artist's talent and temperament; it is a craft with many aspects, at least some of which can be mastered by most people with sufficient basic competence in two languages. But success requires more than just talent or desire. Commitment and right action are absolute fundamentals.


  1. Hi Kevin,

    Your Twelve Step Program reminds me of Wendell's Twelve Step Program for Self-Injuring Translators. Well, our business is pretty toxic. Do you have an exit strategy yet? :D

    Honestly, I like peanut butter for breakfast and I play monkey from time to time to get some peanuts for making peanut butter.

    - Wenjer

  2. Well, Wenjer, 12 step programs are big business. I think they started with AA, continued with Narcanon and God-knows-how-many support organization. Twelve is a number with great significance in primitive Western religions, and these programs have a very real religious tone to them, even if they are usually fuzzy about it.

    I've already hit one exit as of two days ago. I'm officially a staff PM/translator as a way of getting better backoffice support as noted in a different post. Not much changes, really, except that I get better access to some cool technology and occasional invites to penthouse grill parties (tomorrow), but it will give me a little needed simplicity in my life for a while and let me focus better on translating and writing, less on endless administrative mazes.

  3. Great article Kevin - really enjoyed it!


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