Volume 5, No. 3 
July 2001

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee





Thank You!
by Gabe Bokor
Index 1997-2001
  Translator Profiles
The Making of a Translator
by Louis Korda
  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
  Legal Translation
La traduzione giuridica
by Deirdre Exell Pirro
  Arts and Entertainment
In the Footsteps of Giants
by Robert Paquin, Ph.D.
One Translator's Thoughts on Localization
by Dag Forssell
  Translation Theory
Translation and Language Varieties
by Magdy M. Zaky
  Translators Around the World
The First Three Years
by Timothy Howe
  Translating Social Change
Translation as Rewriting
by Berrin Aksoy, Ph.D.
  Science & Technology
A Translator’s Guide to Organic Chemical Nomenclature XXIV
by Chester E. Claff, Jr., Ph.D.
  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
  Translators’ Tools
An Effective and Inexpensive Translation Memory Tool
by Andrei Gerasimov
Translators’ Emporium
Letters to the Editor
Translators’ Events
Call for Papers and Editorial Policies
Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

A column with practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have been wondering about the apparent stagnation of translator fees for those of us working for German companies.

In the 1970s and 1980s, up until the Wall opened, many colleagues (most working from German to English) were very aggressive about raising their fees every year. I was actually quite timid about following suit. But since 1989 this practice has disappeared. Most translators were working for DM 2.20 to 2.50 a line in those days, and from what I can gather, they haven't budged much since then.

Why is this? German companies have not done poorly over these years. I was very hesitant right after German reunification to press things, what with the uncertainty, all the extra tax burdens, and the like. But Germany seems to have weathered this big change, at least financially. Still, my G-E colleagues of long years refuse to raise prices - strange, when you think of all the added taxes, etc. And for those of us living in UK and working for the continent, the euro collapse has really hurt.

Somehow I feel that 12 years at the same price is far too long. What do you say?

Too Timid?


Dear Timid,

If you are an established translator with a steady flow of work and more inquiries than you can handle, it is not a good idea to base your pricing on what colleagues are (apparently) charging.

The reason is simple: translators, as you yourself note, are generally timid people. If each person waits for a trend to raise prices, you can end up waiting a long time indeed. Over the years we have become convinced that nobody—nobody—knows where prices at the top end of the market actually are, which makes us suspect that talk of "what the market will bear" is generally a reference to less attractive segments. If you are good, why not aim higher?

As noted in our previous column, we advise translators to raise their prices one prospect at a time. Ignore what other translators seem to be doing entirely. From the perspective of your clients, it really doesn't matter if translation is 0.25% or 0.475% of the cost of doing business. For critical assignments—ones in which a lot of money is riding on the outcome—clients are not worried about price as much as quality and success.

You might also consider changing your pricing scheme to per-project quotations or an hourly rate. This makes it more difficult for bean counters to engage in bargain hunting. Your immediate contacts will probably prefer per-project advance firm quotes because they get a definite figure for their budget right away.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I'm a Bulgarian translator, now living in France, with three small children. So far, freelance work (F>B) has trickled in without me making too much effort. Nothing too well paid or interesting, but a steady stream nonetheless.

However starting in September all three of my kids will be in school, and I think the time has come to move up a gear. Basically, I want to leave the poorly paid, rush work to newcomers to the profession, and, building on my experience and skills, seek out and serve better-paying, higher quality clients—direct if possible. I'm sure they are out there. What I'm not sure of is where, or how to get them to take me seriously. Any marketing tips?

Diving Back In


Dear Diving,

You've picked a good time—not just on the home front, with your kids in school, but also on international markets. Eastern Europe is clearly poised to develop closer ties to the West, which is where you, the interface person, come in.

If past openings to the east are anything to go by, there will be plenty of competition among translation providers as barriers fall. You will not be able to compete on price with suppliers back in Sofia, so don't even try. Instead, position yourself in the quality segment of the market, using the suggestions below to help get your bearings:

  1. Subscribe to at least two business magazines or newspapers: one Bulgarian, one French. General newsmagazines will not do the trick; you must be reading what your potential clients read in their offices every day. Elections in the offing? Track what the bankers and investment specialists say; how will this affect business? Who is hiring/expanding/divesting?
  2. Identify promising sectors: spend 30-45 minutes a day scanning the wires and business press for mention of Bulgaria and neighboring markets. Nothing on Bulgaria today? Use the time to read up on French companies now operating in the country or planning to do so, and Bulgarian firms seeking contacts abroad. Study the industries and markets they deal in, and attend a few trade shows or chamber of commerce events (in France, for a start). Translators are still far far too thin on the ground at such events—and often ill at ease in simply talking with their fellow businesspeople. Practice makes perfect: attending such meetings, first as a spectator, and only later to market your skills, is an excellent way to acquire a feel for the business world. See also our advice given in a previous issue of the Translation Journal to a colleague in a similar situation.
True, the French>Bulgarian market may seem small compared to, say, French>English. Yet a quick poll of our contacts in Paris and London reveals that there are also very few names circulating—the case for many minority languages. These same colleagues indicate that they would welcome reliable names to pass on to their own customers should your language combination come up. Get out to translator events and link up with them!

No doubt about it: meeting people, meeting people and meeting people are the three top priorities when you don't have enough (lucrative) work. Over to you!



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I will soon be attending a University directly from high school. I love languages and dream of becoming a translator; French is my chosen foreign language, and I plan to major in it. Is this enough to work as a translator or is there a special school that I need to attend?

If there is a special school, what is the amount of time to get the certification?

Is demand high for French/English translators in France? Do you think there is a large demand for French/English translators in the United States?

Language Student


Dear Student,

We'll let the head of a premium US translation company answer this one:

"Forget about language schools. Professional translation is not about language, it is about ideas, mostly very technical or complex ones. Get a degree in mathematics or computer science. Go to law school. Learn how to assemble a lathe. Trade equities on a stock market. Above all, focus on how to write very well in your native language. When you learn your foreign language(s) of choice, go all the way—take courses taught in the language, live in-country for at least a year, fall in love with a native speaker, etc. But don't kid yourself: it will be your ability to write well in your native language combined with your technical knowledge of a specialty field that will determine your future in translation, not how cool French sounds to the novice ear on a fine spring afternoon. Also, get over the "certification" insecurity. Insecurity is very unattractive and you need to work on that if you hope to attract a young French woman (see "fall in love," above)."

This guy is in North America.

We are based in Europe and have precisely the same experience.

What the best translation programs can bring you is feedback on your work, and a chance to interact with other members of the profession. They can help you get your computer skills up to speed. The best teachers will also help you devise a strategy for internships—an essential means of positioning yourself for an enjoyable and lucrative career.

For information on translation programs in North America, contact the American Translators Association for a copy of its Translation and Interpretation Programs in North America, A Survey (latest edition: 1998; $20 to members/$25 to non-members).

But don't lose sight of the fact that in professional translation you are judged by the quality of your work on the page, not the letters after your name.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have an idea for improving the exposure of translators to the public. What about a motion picture? I think translation lends itself pretty well for a conspiracy theme, where in the end a translator saves the world or civilization as we know it. There is lots of material from secret messages in the Bible, cryptography and spies, prophecies and lost treasures, etc. The modern touch would be something involving a financial translator going to an heroic end, a sort of "Independence Day" to save the world, or at least the stock exchange, by struggling with a translation.

Donīt you think a Hollywood production would help us gain public appreciation?. Any ideas? any script? On second thought, the book should be first; sort of a Michener saga spanning the whole world and all ages.

Lights! Camera! Action!


Dear Action,

An interesting option. We suggest you submit a detailed proposal to the Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs. Be sure to include information on funding. Tell them Fire Ant & Worker Bee have agreed to play bit roles (see our agent).

To arouse interest, you might suggest to your national translators' association that they organize a film festival featuring screen portrayals of translators as part of their annual conference—an alternative offering of mid- to late-evening fare for delegates not into Slavic singalongs, poetry readings and clog dancing. For ideas, check the article "Translators and the Media" published in the January 2000 issue of the Translation Journal. Don't forget Peter Greenaway's "The Pillow Book". In this adaptation of the erotic 10th century Japanese literary classic, the male lead is a bisexual translator named Jérome who spends most of the film with his uncircumcised penis flapping in the wind, sez our web source, while the female lead, a model and aspiring writer named Nagiko (Vivian Wu) "attempts to win over her publisher by sending to his offices a series of men whose bodies she has covered from head to toe with exquisite calligraphy—a kind of sexually-charged, high-concept book proposal." Heady stuff.

Fire Ant & Worker Bee agree to sit on the jury if you get this one off the ground (see our agent).



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I write to you for your financial assistance. I am a 20yrs old aspiring interpreter/translator from Nigeria. I speak English, French. At present, I am in Lomé Togo taking a German course which would end by March.

I lost my dad in 1996, August, and since then things haven't been easy. My aim in life is to become a translator/interpreter and this I hope to achieve by schooling in Canada. At present I have the admission form of a Canadian university here with me in Africa, already filled and ready to be sent but I am left with the payment of the school fees.

I believe in you/your organisation and that is why I have written to you.

Believing you'll help me, I would be very glad to send to you a copy of this form as proof and verification. This documents, will be sent to you as soon as you write me back deciding to help me out.

Sir/Madam, I am to resume with the September semester and all payments has to be made starting from now.

Expecting your favourable reply.

Gold Coaster


Dear Coaster,

We are sorry to hear about your loss. Unfortunately, Fire Ant & Worker Bee cannot provide financial assistance. We hope that our readers find some of our advice useful or at the very least stimulating, even when they disagree with our opinions. But we can't send money.

We wish you well. If it is any consolation to you, we find that adversity does build character—you may not achieve your goals in life as quickly as others more privileged than you, but that makes your triumph all the sweeter.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

We are two students of English Philology in Poland. We are very interested in perfecting our skills as translators (Eng - Pol) but are a bit worried if there is any demand and what field we should specialize in. Could you give us any hints?

Desperate Poles


Dear Desperate,

Talk about being in the right place at the right time! Follow the strategy we outlined for Diving Back In above, and—if you do nothing else this year—bone up on European Union terminology (if you can't see why, take out a 3-month subscription to the Financial Times and come back in September).

Now is also the time to arrange internships with foreign companies present in Poland, including stints at their head offices and subsidiaries in the rest of Europe. Two weeks, four weeks, four months—there is simply no better way to start building the network of contacts you need to break into the profession and prosper.