Out and about as an ambassador for the translation industry

It’s already quite an honour when a large company invites its regular translator to its annual reception for suppliers. But if that translator is given the chance to hold a presentation about the “quality of the translation service” in front of around 120 invited guests, that is a great opportunity.

(English version of „Unterwegs als Botschafterin für die Translation Industry“ by Arlette Errington – thank you, dear Arlette)

One of my regular customers that I have been working with for more than 25 years holds a reception for its most important suppliers every year in March. Among the suppliers are prestigious companies like Degussa, BASF, Lanxess, Wacker-Chemie, Telekom, ThyssenKrupp, Still, Fuchs, Brother, Samsung, Wabco, Bosch, Siemens and many more. Companies were represented by their Heads of Sales, as well as by Product Managers, Quality Managers, etc. (at a national level for Germany, or internationally for Germany, Austria and Switzerland). From the 120 or so guests were almost as many women as men – also an interesting observation.

The theme of the event this year: Quality first. The event started at 2 p.m. with a welcome and introduction to the topic by the CEO, followed by an extremely interesting presentation about quality and sustainability. Afterwards, it was my turn and the CEO introduced me with some appreciative words.

As I was walking towards the lectern, I realised that a number of gentlemen were leaning back in their chairs and their countenance betrayed the fact that they weren’t exactly excited about “this” topic. You just wait, I thought. I’ll get you on board.

The main points I elaborated extensively were the following (passages in inverted commas reflect the sense of what I said at the time):

Yes, translating is something one has to learn or even to study. There’s a learning curve to it and it requires practice, even when the text merely concerns general language. Interpreting, too. And, by the way: translators and interpreters do not do “the same job” (I explained this briefly; otherwise I didn’t dwell on interpreting).

Yes, translation professionals are usually specialised, some even highly specialised. They deepen their expertise, continue their studies, are in contact with experts from their field of expertise, etc. A few examples from the areas of contracts, tyre technology, finance and elastomers had an effect: Some of the laid-back gentlemen began to sit up and pricked their ears.

“It’s clear, translations eat into the budget, and that’s an area where money could be saved – couldn’t it, ladies and gentlemen?” (Quite a few nodded). “If a menu abroad offers “extremely pretty rabbit legs” most people find it funny. Cheap translations aren’t just embarrassing glitches like that of the huge Chinese Alibaba Group, whose German-language website was named the ‘biggest language accident in history’ by the German newspaper FAZ in 2014. When translation errors constitute a safety hazard, that really should be the end of monetary prudence. With technical documentation for machines and vehicles, calculations in construction plans and other such texts “economising on translators” is misguided. Imagine if, due to a translation error, damage to an aircraft engine is caused or a car’s airbag doesn’t open when necessary and therefore a costly recall of the whole series has to be carried out …” A murmur went through the rows. By now, everyone had become attentive.

Someone in the second row told his neighbour that not every company has a budget for highly-paid service providers and I reacted immediately: “That’s right. But if I don’t have enough money for a top-notch celebrity coiffeur, I still want a decent haircut and won’t just take the cheapest hairdresser, but I ask around …” And additionally, there are ways of finding good service providers: getting recommendations from partner companies, but also member lists of trade associations like the BDÜ (German Association of Interpreters and Translators) (and, unfortunately, I have to say that only very few knew the BDÜ, which was confirmed later during small talk).

One participant asked whether it really mattered which person translates the text in the end. The main thing is that he or she knows the language concerned. I retorted with a question: “Does it matter what dentist you go to? Or which kindergarten you entrust your child with? Or which garage you take your car to?” The man shook his head, and many women too. I added: “Translations should be done by professionals. The qualification, knowledge, expertise and experience of the translator ensure that you receive an impeccable translation, concerning language and expertise. Clients have to be able to rely on that 100 percent. If you work with the same translator for a longer time, for years even, he knows your texts, your special terminology, the style guide, the style of communication of your company. And if a German text sounds Greek to him, he contacts you or corrects it straight away, because he knows that something must have gone wrong with the original text. Your regular translator delivers exactly the quality you want. Given time, “your” regular translator knows your company culture, he becomes a part of your company structure and thinks like an “internal” employee when working on your texts. He is the missing piece of the puzzle, which contributes towards making your customers happy. That is worth it – it’s priceless. After all, this is about the image of your company and therefore the appreciation you display towards your customers.”

When one of the ladies interjected, saying that agencies ensured that the desired deadline was always kept to, I asked whether her company was always happy with the quality. “Well, sometimes more , sometimes less“, the lady replied, it’s never completely wrong, but … I replied that agencies give the job to the translator who has time to do it there and then, and that’s simply not the same one every time. OK, the terminology list is usually supplied, but every translator has his own style.

I asked if someone who works regularly with an agency could reveal a price per word or line. A lady spoke up and said “24 cents for technical texts for an annual volume of around 80,000 words“, a gentleman said “36 cents for legal texts”. I asked whether they know how much the translator, who actually provides the service, gets. Some replied 60-70 %, one said “half”. We discussed this issue and I emphasised once again the advantages of the direct relationship between translator and end-customer, who I called “text user”, and said: “How about building up your own regular translator, training him, inviting him to see the production process, explaining the work processes to him … and paying him 18 cents at the beginning, and 20 cents later instead of the 24 cents. With an annual volume of 80,000 words, you save 4,800 or 3,200 euros a year. And then you have a direct contact partner completely dedicated to you. Of course, I brought one of my favourite topics into play at this point: the advantages of framework contracts with the translator.

Naturally, there were also reservations whether an individual translator, who you have direct contact with, can even guarantee an annual volume of 80,000 or more words and tie up his time like that; that companies are confronted with lone translators being sick; that it is generally difficult to find the “right” translator, etc. I explained that professional translators like us often work in relatively fixed two- or three-person teams, so that one of the colleagues – who is just as familiar with the matter – can usually fill in if there is a real need – even if we don’t really have time to be ill.

The time I had been given had long been used up, so I closed by drawing two parallels. I stated the first one as a rhetorical question: “Surely there are a few people here who have moved because of their work. How long did it take you to find the right dentist, the right baker, the right garage in the new town? It is always a process before you find the right service provider, but the direct path is always the shortest.” “We are all looking forward to the buffet I can see at the back … The internet is full of cooking and baking recipes. But not everyone is able – even if they are willing – to carry out the instructions in the recipes so that the beef bourguignon or apple pie becomes haute cuisine. Give your translator a chance to be the right partner for you as a direct customer!”

All in all I got the impression that the audience was highly interested. During the small talk afterwards I was all but overrun by questions (I hardly had time to chew my food). What I felt strongest was the fear of getting involved with a “fairly ignorant part-time jobber” (“After all, agencies guarantee that they only work with experts, don’t they?”) or that deadlines cannot be kept to. At the end there was a lot of: “May I contact you, Mrs. Chaumien, if I should have further questions or if I can’t get any further …?” Why, of course. I am convinced that I could get some of them to think about it. And that’s a good thing.


2 Gedanken zu „Out and about as an ambassador for the translation industry“

  1. I really, truly love the article and certainly speak for colleagues all around when I say a heartfelt Thank You, Giselle. Great work, warmhearted and to the point. You’re an inspiration.

    Hats off to you, Arlette. Spot-on!

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