Next Level Interviews: Jost Zetzsche
In December 2021, Next Level had the opportunity to interview English to German translator Jost Zetzsche. Jost is known in the industry for his expertise with technology, but he spoke with us about his thoughts on the business side of being a translator. Please leave a comment with your thoughts on our discussion and ideas for other translators you would like to hear from!
[00:00:00] Danielle: This is for the Next Level blog and I am Danielle Maxson. And I’m here with Sarah Symons Glegorio. The two of us are the editors of the blog. And we’re here today talking to Jost Zetzsche, who, I think most people who are going to be watching or reading this will be familiar with who you are.
But I’m going to just give a really quick summary of kind of how you got started in the translation world. You actually are, I knew that you had studied Chinese before, but I did not know that you are Dr. Zetzsche, that you actually have a PhD in Chinese history and linguistics, and now you are an English to German translator, and you’ve done, you do a lot of translating in software and technical translation and I believe localization as well.
Is that right? [Jost nods] Okay. So that’s a pretty far cry from where you started. So can you tell us, you don’t have to take us through the whole trajectory, but somewhere between then and now, can you tell us about one change that you made in in your business, in the way that you wanted to work or the work you wanted to do? And tell us a little bit about why you made that change and what the result of it was, how it worked out for you.
[00:01:06] Jost: So one thing I think that, actually, it was not a change because I did that from the very get-go. One thing that I think differentiates the way that I work from most other translators and freelance translators that I know is I have an office outside my home. And that has been just really important for me. In fact, I just moved offices. I… You know, this is… But it’s still outside the home. I always used to be outside them. So outside the home. And now, I started working as a translator when my kids were really small and that was really the main reason why I thought it was important to work outside the home.
But now we just talked about that before the talk. Now, now they’re adults and gone, and I still value the fact that I can go to my office that is not in my home in the morning and then work throughout the day and then come home at night and have no, no draw to my work anymore because of my office. It’s not far away, but far away enough to not wanting to continue my work. So that’s a, it’s not a change per se, but it’s a change as far as different than many other translators I know. I think another… Go ahead.
Danielle: Oh, I was just wondering, is it is a dedicated office just for you or have you had a co-working space?
[00:02:24] Jost: Yeah, that’s a really good question. I would actually love to have a coworking space, but I live very remotely and there is no such thing as a coworking space and there… You know, so I live in this 4,000 people post-industrial town sort of that used to be industrial. There used to be industry and it’s all gone. So people… It’s an economically very deprived little town. And there, you know, I wouldn’t even know where to start to find somebody to do a co-office with so, no, it’s just myself and my dogs.
[00:03:03] Danielle: Okay. How many dogs?
[00:03:05] Jost: I have two dogs. I have a little Dingo that sits right there and a Lab. And they actually… I love those. I mean, of course I love my dogs. Everybody loves their dogs, but, but they play a really important role throughout my day, partly because they’re here with me. And the other part is that I live at the Oregon coast and I go to the beach for an hour every day, which is part of my working routine kind of, and often my most productive time actually, because I have ideas there while I walk. And I’m very thankful for my dogs that they make me do that everyday.
[00:03:40] Danielle: Oh, that’s great.
[00:03:41] Sarah: Nice.
[00:03:41] Danielle: Yeah. So that’s wintertime too? That’s year-round?
[00:03:44] Jost: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I just got back. I was just to the beach half an hour ago. Huge waves today. We had a big storm system come through the last few days and the waves today, they must’ve been, you know, I’m six, seven tall, so I’m really tall, but the waves were twice as tall as I am. So, so large.
And another, another change since you asked me for change was, and I’m not sure that it was a decision per se, but it just kind of happened that I you know, so I’ve been working as a translator now for 25 years or so. And I at some point started to try to diversify a little bit, not so much in what I was translating, but I took on, I started to work in other things that still had to do with translation, but did not have me translate directly. And that was a change that I’m super grateful for. You know, you mentioned that I’m a technical translator. Actually, most of my translation today is in heavy machinery, which, you know, I like to do because I know I’m good at it at this point and all that, but it’s not always super exciting to me quite often.
And so I’m very grateful that I do other things that have to do with translation that, well, that allow me a more diversified professional life, and that was a really good change.
[00:05:23] Danielle: So out of all those things, what’s the favorite thing that you do? What’s the favorite part of your work?
[00:05:30] Jost: I was going to say my favorite part is I’m working on this really big project for kind of a strange thing for United Bible Societies where I’m collecting hundreds of languages, specific translations of biblical words and terms and grammatical concepts. And that’s… I enjoy that very much, but honestly, I, I you know, so today for instance, I was I was working on my newsletter. I’m writing a newsletter that I send out once a month or so. And I really enjoyed that and I think the point about diversifying is that you hopefully enjoy all the aspects of it. I mean, that’s, of course that’s not always true, you know, you don’t always love everything you do, but overall, I think that’s the idea. And if something, you know, really does not fall into that enjoyment category, then you should really question whether you should continue to do it or not, unless it’s so, you know, financially viable or important that you have to. But, yeah.
[00:06:44] Danielle: Okay. I’ve got one more question before Sarah gets to her questions. My last one is, in your opinion, just given your career, given what you’ve seen in the industry, what’s the most important thing that a translator or an interpreter can do to improve as a businessperson?
[00:07:02] Jost: You know, even though it sounds like I’m just repeating myself but I think that especially now in the time of the pandemic, you know, it’s hard to believe that we’re still having to say in the time of and we’re still in the time of and it looks like it’s going to continue for awhile. I think, especially right now, the lesson I think that translators should have taken away from the pandemic is specialization is really, really important, but diversification is also important. I think that is… I mean, to me, that’s the key learning element of all of this. So whether we personally, or colleagues of ours have experienced in the beginning of the pandemic, that work completely fell away.
You know, some of us haven’t had that experience because we happen to work in fields that maybe even had more work in than before. But others had virtually no work and that’s because they were specialized in an area that was just, that just fell away during this crazy time.
And so one thing I think that we must have taken away is, specialization obviously is important to be a qualified and professional translator, but you need to specialize in more than one area, or you need to specialize in more than one thing, you know? I think I’m still, as a translator, specialized in one particular area and really only in one area at this point.
But I have other things that I’m doing, which I think does this, it has the same purpose essentially, but so diversification is really important, I think. And I think that, honestly, I think if you would have said that three years ago, people would have gone, “That’s kind of weird. Are we talking about specialization? Is that what we’re all focused on?” And you’re right. We were all focused on that and we should still be focused on that, but to multi-track I think it’s really, really important.
[00:09:14] Danielle: Yeah, I agree. I even saw it with my own work. I specialize in medical translation and I lost a lot of work during the pandemic. And people were definitely still getting sick, but it just wasn’t in the area that I was working in.
[00:09:25] Jost: Isn’t that crazy? I mean, that’s, you know, I think that was so unexpected that I know a lot of medical translators who had exactly your problem that you know, you would expect, well, we are in the midst of a pandemic, so of course medical translation there will be a whole lot of, but no, it was just the opposite, I think, unless you, you know, were in the right fields where of course there was added work, but I think virtually all other medical fields just fell away for a few months right before they then came back. Most likely, I assume for you anyway, but yeah.
[00:09:58] Danielle: Yeah, absolutely. So, okay. Okay, Sarah?
[00:10:03] Sarah: All right. Next up is: what business systems would you like to refine or streamline?
[00:10:13] Jost: So, I don’t know. So the business system that I have is really not a business system. It’s, you know, my wife who also works and we usually ask each other, which she’s a pastor, I’m a, you know, I’m a translator and we ask each other every morning what’s on today’s schedule. And it’s because of the kind of work we do. It’s usually very varied. And it’s kind of an important little process to go through because it helps—well, I can only speak for myself. It helps me to focus and know this is what I’m going to do today. So those three tasks, you know, I have three hours of translation and then three hours of this and then two hours of yet something else.
So that’s kind of the outset that I have, not much of a system but, you know, it still is something that happens regularly and helps me to get stuff on track. And then I take that seriously enough usually to kind of organize my day around that. But I wish, what I wish that I would do better sometimes is to be able to switch more quickly. So I am lacking, I think when I have to change gears from one task to another. It takes me more effort and energy and time than I sometimes, than I would prefer. I would love to be able to switch gears, you know, from one task to another. And that’s part of the system, if you want to call it a system that I wish I could, I would do better.
And I don’t really know how to fix that. I try, but, but there’s always this 20 minutes or half an hour or so in between where I really am not very productive and just kind of lose time. And also what I notice is I think translators are privileged in the sense that they have something they are being given to do. I work for a, you know, like we all do, we work for clients and the clients give us something to do. They give us, whatever, 10,000 words to translate or these documents to translate or videos to translate, whatever it might be. And this is the task. And since they also give us a deadline, we know that we have to finish the task in this and that amount of time, which, you know, it’s very stressful sometimes, but it’s also a real blessing, I think, because it doesn’t give us much of a choice really. You know? I mean, usually we try to negotiate the deadlines so that we can accept more than just that one chunk of work during that time, because we know that things change and we need to accommodate not just one client, typically, et cetera, et cetera, but it is not up to us really to mess around with that.
And we’ll end up delivering on time and what I’ve noticed for me is that in, with tasks where I don’t have, where I have to create something from scratch. So for instance, I mentioned that I’m working on my newsletter today, which is always kind of starting from zero because, you know, what am I going to write about this time? That is, I think I am overall self-motivated, but it’s not easy for me. I usually lose quite a bit of time to get started on that. You know, the translator doesn’t know that, doesn’t have that because he or she gets a text and we start to translate and that’s it. And you know, we might have to think about stuff and research stuff and all that, but you don’t need to be very self-motivated to do that, I think because it’s being given to you. Something where you have to create something out of nothing is much, much more difficult to do, I think. And I wish that my business system, if you want to call it that, would be better in allowing me to be more proficient with that. Does that make sense?
[00:14:32] Sarah: Yes, it does. Thank you. I completely agree about the transition times between tasks are hard .
[00:14:44] Jost: They shouldn’t be, you know. I mean, I’ve been doing this for so long now, probably just like the two of you, and we should have, that should be something that, I mean, we have transitions every single day, right? More or less every single day. And it’s a shame we lose so much time between those things. You know, I guess in a way you could say, we do things that require our full attention and require our whole selves and no wonder that the whole selves can’t switch quite so easily into something else, but still, I wish we could be better at that. Computers are better at that. And not that I want to be like a computer!
[00:15:32] Sarah: All right. Thank you. The next question is: what business systems have been working well for you?
[00:15:45] Jost: You know, I’ve mentioned that before and clearly that also is not a business system per se, and people roll their eyes when I say this now, but truthfully my most productive time almost every day is my hour at the beach. You know, I don’t carry my phone to record anything or anything like that, but, but there’s rarely a time when I don’t walk at the beach. So my beach is like, I’m always the only one there. There’s very rarely anyone else at the beach and it’s huge. It’s 40 miles long and it’s just, it’s wild and all of that. And, you know, you’ve got to do something there. I’m not listening to podcasts. So, my mind is just kind of casually running and of course processing the things that I was doing before, or that I know we’ll be doing afterwards.
And that hour that I seem to be losing, I gain tenfold, I think because I come back not only refreshed and more energetic, but with really good ideas. I mean, relatively speaking. So if I look back, I’ve done a lot of book projects and other kinds of projects. Every single one of them, I mean, I think literally every single one of them has come to me at the beach. Is that a system? I don’t know. It’s just something that I do. And so maybe it is a system and that has been really successful to me.
[00:17:20] Sarah: That’s fantastic. That’s a great source of inspiration, the beach.
[00:17:25] Jost: Yeah. And of course the beach can be a forest or can be whatever, right? I mean, clearly not everybody… Nature, I mean, or it can also be a workout or something, but I think the point is that things that from the outside might seem like a not particularly productive use of time or maybe even a waste of time can be just the opposite if they help you to become more productive or better through it.
[00:17:58] Sarah: Sure. Allowing yourself to disconnect, I think, is the key to being able to continue or move forward.
[00:18:05] Jost: Exactly. Well, to disconnect, but not completely disconnect because that’s why we have a hard time switching between things, because it’s hard for us to completely disconnect from the thing that we’ve just done for three hours. And so it’s hard to disconnect when you do a workout or are at the beach or something, but that’s helpful also because you keep on thinking about the translations that were so difficult and you couldn’t get ahead or, you know, whatever you were just writing or whatever you were doing. So, so I think that’s… yeah, that’s really helpful, I think.
[00:18:41] Sarah: Very good. Thank you. The last question I have is: what are your one and five-year business goals?
[00:18:50] Jost: Not to retire. So I’m 57 now. Of course I’m not quite ready to retire anyway, but I wish I never come to a point where I want to retire. And of course, I have MS [multiple sclerosis], so I’m not physically in the best health, so maybe that’s going to force me to retire at some point, but I really enjoy being productive and I get a lot of, I mean incredibly much value from it.
And I hope that I will continue to find new projects that I can work on. So this year actually has been a really interesting year for me. I’ve published two different books this year. [Congratulatory gesture] Thank you. I cooperated with two colleagues to put on a really interesting conference, I think, this year.
And so that has been while exhausting sometimes, I mean, especially the conference was quite exhausting to put on, it has been really, really good too. It feels like I feel enriched by having done those different things. So what I hope, but my one-year and five-year goal really is to find, to come up with new projects that I can put in the diversification of my professional life and do other things or maybe do repeats of things that I’ve done before or things like that. So that’s been, I think that would be what my… you know, I don’t think I can say that I really want to make a lot more money. I’m not making a whole lot of money, but I’m making enough money to be okay with, and, so rather than saying, I really want to ask for higher rates, which, you know, of course you do ask for higher rates when the time is right and all that, but that really is not my goal. My goal is to do more interesting stuff and more varied stuff that still falls into my expertise. See, I’ve given actually quite a few presentations about this diversification idea that we talked about earlier. And I think one thing why diversification is so interesting for translators is that as translators, we naturally have so many areas of expertise. To be a translator, to be a successful professional translator means that you don’t just have one little area where you are skilled. You have a number of areas where you’re skilled, whether it’s technical areas, whether it’s linguistic areas, whether it’s subject matter specific areas, you have all kinds of levels of expertise. And I think that is a real possibility and opportunity for translators.
It’s also, I think, really important, and this goes beyond your question though, of course, but I think sometimes we have this maybe slightly strange idea that we need to, that we have this pride in being a translator and it’s a totally okay pride. I mean, we should be proud to be translators, but that anything that isn’t directly associated with translation therefore shouldn’t be part of a professional life because we are translators and that’s who we are.
Well, I think I don’t completely agree with that. I think we can be totally proud and fulfilled to be translators, and the fact that we are also doing something else is not a sign of being less fulfilled of being to be a translator. It could just be something that would actually make us enjoy translation even more, maybe, you know? Does that make sense?
[00:23:11] Danielle: I really like that perspective. Yeah. Yeah. And so thank you very much. I think we do have to wrap up now, we’re running out of time, but thank you so much for being here with us and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you a little better and hearing more about how you work and what you do and what you think. So, thanks for sharing that with us.
[00:23:31] Sarah: Yes. Thank you so much.
[00:23:33] Jost: Thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.
About the Author
Jost Zetzsche is a professional translator and language consultant who lives at the Oregon coast. Originally from Hamburg, Germany, he earned a Ph.D. for a dissertation on the history of Chinese Bible translation at the University of Hamburg in 1996. In 1999 Jost co-founded International Writers’ Group, LLC, on the Oregon coast. Since 2016 he has been contracting with United Bible Societies to help create and maintain the Translation Insights and Perspectives (TIPs) tool at tips.translation.bible. His two latest books are “Characters with Character: 50 Ways to Rekindle Your Love Affair with Language” and “Encountering Bare-Bones Christianity.”
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