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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (June 2011)

 

To Sign or Not To Sign? Chris Durban Answers the Question
By Catherine Jan

Should translators sign their translations? Chris Durban thinks so.

A Paris-based freelance translator specializing in finance and capital markets (French-to-English), Chris is a past president of the Société Française des Traducteurs. She co-chaired ATA’s Public Relations Committee from 2002 to 2005, and was the recipient of ATA’s Gode Medal in 2001. A Fellow of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the U.K., she is the coauthor, with Eugene Seidel, of the “Fire Ant & Worker Bee” advice column that has run in the online Translation Journal since October 1998. In October 2010, they published a revised compilation of past columns in book form entitled The Prosperous Translator.1

Chris regularly gives lectures/workshops on specialization and working with direct clients, and has published many articles emphasizing the benefits that accrue to translators and clients alike when linguists take a proactive approach. She recently explained why it is in translators’ and agencies’ interest to take credit (and responsibility) for their translations.

Catherine: Why are you so adamant about translators getting credit? What is the point of signed work?

Chris: The quick answer: to promote transparency and let everyone reap the benefits it brings. Well, let me temper that: everyone who takes this business seriously.

I would prefer that the cynics, jokers, sellers of snake oil, and just-making-a-buckers exit left ASAP, and I see signed work as one way to achieve that. Note that when I talk about signing your translations, I am referring not just to books, but to corporate, technical, and other types of translation as well.

One feature of our market is that many (most?) buyers simply cannot judge what they are getting when a translation is delivered. This distinguishes us from providers of many other intellectual services. And it makes clients particularly vulnerable to glib or clueless vendors who weave a convincing quality narrative to clinch the sale, only to deliver shoddy or downright unacceptable translations.

Catherine: You sound like you are speaking from experience.

Chris: I am. For years I wrote a column called “The Onionskin” that ran in various professional magazines. This ultimately led me to write Translation: Getting It Right, a client education booklet containing advice for translation buyers, which has now been translated into a dozen languages.2

For my “Onionskin” columns, I researched good and bad translations in the public domain. The column celebrated the good translations (and yes, there is some very good work out there), but also moved up and down the supply chain to identify exactly how, when, and where flawed work had skidded off track. It was fascinating but also frustrating. And beyond a certain point, what was uncovered was downright embarrassing for the translation industry as a whole.

Because when singled out, the vast majority of slipshod suppliers (both freelancers and agencies) ran for the hills, declining responsibility for the work they had produced and/or brokered and sold. A surprising number refused to admit their paternity/maternity, or spent vast amounts of energy hiding their connection to their offspring. When pushed, others admitted their powerlessness to enforce quality standards—and with it, the hollowness of the claims on their websites and in their own brochures.

Catherine: So at one level this “sign your work” campaign is a truth-in-advertising issue.

Chris: That’s right. I am aware of no suppliers who claim in public that they are producing “so-so” or “moderately good” work, and certainly no one is crowing about selling garbage. But, hey, the mediocre translations are out there for all to see. And one thing is sure: they are not all being produced by low-cost suppliers in the third world, students grubbing for pocket money, or wannabe bilinguals concocting silly texts in-house with a dictionary in one hand and a grammar book in the other.

It is time for our industry to face up to it: many language services providers (again, both freelancers and agencies) are producing and selling work that makes the cut only because clients cannot judge how poor it is. I like to think the chickens will come home to roost at some point, but in the meantime, sloppy translations tarnish everyone’s image.

Catherine: What are some of the benefits of signed translations?

Chris: The beauty of signed work is that everybody sees who does what—clients and peers alike. So genuinely skilled translators and quality-oriented intermediaries can get their names out at zero cost. (Did I mention that inserting your name in the credits costs nothing?)

It is also straightforward: there is no need for a costly certification procedure or endless negotiations by industry leaders at venues around the globe over a 5- or 10-year period. Anyone who understands the point and wants to buy in can simply agree it is a good idea and do it. Starting tomorrow morning at 8:00 a.m. or tonight at midnight. Whenever. You take responsibility for the texts you produce and sell by asserting your maternity/paternity.

The good news is that taking responsibility means you get the credit too. And with that comes leverage that most translators and translation companies do not have now (along with a superb client education tool). More about that in a minute.

Finally, signed work promotes best practice among translators by encouraging us all, whatever our size and market segment, to think twice before overcommitting ourselves.

So if you claim to sell high quality work and your name is going to be out there on the text you deliver, well, you will probably decide to decline that 15,000-word job for delivery a day from tomorrow—either that or negotiate a longer deadline. With signed work, good translators and agencies that might be tempted to cut corners are actively encouraged not just to talk the talk but also walk the best practice walk.

Catherine: When do you request that your name be added to your translation? When you send in the quote or when you deliver the translation? Do you mention it in your terms and conditions?

Chris: It appears as Point #3 in a one-page summary of the terms and conditions that I send to first-time clients before a job starts. As readers of the “Fire Ant & Worker Bee” column know, I am not a big believer in glossy brochures, but a sheet like this is a useful way to give new clients a clear idea of what they are getting into and what their role is.

Catherine: How do you word your request?

Chris: It is a statement, not a request. That is important. Just like when you make annual adjustments in your prices and announce this to your clients, it is not a good idea to phrase it as a request.

Most of my clients are native speakers of French, so I communicate with them in that language, but an English version of Point #3 would go something like this: “If texts are changed in any way or reset, we revise and sign proofs before the document goes to press, failing which we apply a 100% surcharge (since translators’ names appear in the credits for most of our translations).” You can raise that to 200% or 500% if you like. The point is not to apply it, rather to draw your client’s attention to this particular condition.

Catherine: Yes, on page 49 of The Prosperous Translator, you refer to this penalty surcharge for unapproved changes. To me, this appears threatening and I do not want to ruffle any feathers. How do clients usually react?

Chris: In most cases, first-time clients call back immediately, concerned that a hefty price might head even higher. And this is the magic moment—the chance for me to explain, pleasantly, that I do not want to apply the surcharge: that is not the point.

The sentence is in there, I tell them, because I have found that money focuses the mind and experience has taught me that it really is very important for the client’s image and my own to run a final check.

I give them an example or two. If a well-meaning French client or printer adds an “s” to “information” on the grounds that “there are several” (or removes an “s” from “headquarters,” for that matter, because “there is only one”) and my name appears as the translator, I am the one who takes the hit; my reputation and brand suffer. I may also remind them that they do not fiddle around with the content of their financial statements once the auditor has signed off. Above all, I point out that it is silly for them to have spent a lot of money on their translation and then trip at the last hurdle.

Concretely, I have them make note of this essential revision-of-proofs stage and include it in their production schedule. If for some reason time runs out and there is no time for revision, I inform them, regretfully, that they will then have to take my name off, explaining that “it’s too risky for my reputation.” Interestingly, that sentence alone is often enough for them to find the time and extend the deadline. If not, they strike my name from the credits and pay me my normal fee (of course). Encouragingly, I have not yet had to apply the surcharge.
Occasionally a new client will say “Right! So this clause is a standard thing for professional translators, then?” To which I always reply, “Yes, for the serious ones.” Because, in my opinion, it should be a standard thing.

Catherine: Do you ask for a link back to your website or social media profile?

Chris: My customers find me almost exclusively through word of mouth and my presence at client-industry events, so this does not really apply. But for translators who rely heavily on a website, blog, or other social media, yes, this would be a good idea.

Catherine: Any other comments about this public display of who translates what?

Chris: I have been going on about signed work for about 30 years, and run into the same reactions from translators all the time. Some get it immediately. Others start “yes, but-ing,” which I think is a pity. Let me recycle a few of the latter reactions here:

“My clients would never allow it.”

Response: have you asked them? I used to nod understandingly when translators pulled this one, but have now stopped. The fact is translators tend to project their own worries and fears onto clients (this applies to jitters about prices, too). They may be the first to weigh in with opinions on discussion lists and blogs, often expressed very articulately. But when it comes to standing up in public with “this is what I produce and sell,” they twist, turn, and shuffle, using a million tactics to keep out of what they apparently see as the line of fire. Which says a lot about their self-confidence.

In contrast, quality-oriented clients understand exactly what the point is. Many have experience with formal quality control and quality assurance procedures, in which identifying who does what at each stage is a given. So they do not have a problem with signed work. On the whole, it is insecure translators and brokers unwilling to stand behind their work who do.

One of the very few exceptions I have experienced first-hand is in-house client departments that want to pretend they have done the translation themselves. I have no problem with that. As I have written elsewhere, you certainly do not have to sign every single text you translate. But if you do not sign any at all, well, that says a lot.

“I’d love to, but everything I do is 100% confidential.”

Er, yup. And agreed if we are talking about, for example, contracts and such. But let’s be serious. Claiming that every single translation you have produced for the past 10 years has been confidential is the sign of a terminally anxious translator, full stop. Get a grip. Be brave. Translator up! (In fact, your work is probably very good, but how will the praise and future clients reach you if you do not dare tell anybody you did it?)

“Clients change things after I’ve finished; I have no control over what happens to a text when it leaves my computer.”

That can happen. But isn’t it about time you reclaimed control of at least a few projects a year? The penalty clause discussed above gives you that control.

If you do not participate actively in client education, if you buckle under each time and accept conditions that you know are incompatible with quality, surely you are part of the problem. Here is a free tool that will help you move everybody ahead!

It is even more interesting to me to hear large agencies use a variation on this “clients insert errors” argument to explain why they must remain anonymous. Hang on: does this mean a freelance translator can gain control of the process while you, with all your staff and processes and giant contracts, cannot—even as you continue to write screeds about your company’s 100% commitment to excellence? Surely there is something wrong with this picture. At the very least, you might consider adding “platinum service” to your portfolio. In this case, you proudly sign a small percentage of the work you have produced because it is so very, very good. And leave the—How to put this? Pretty darn good but not signable?—gold-, silver-, and bronze-level jobs as orphans.

“By signing my work I reveal who my clients are, and a rival might steal them away.”

If you can lose your clients that easily, the problem lies elsewhere.

In translation, there are many ways to reinforce your ties to the businesses in your client portfolio. Making signed work your standard actually reinforces your value proposition: it is a differentiator that confirms your pride in your work and helps you stake out your section of the premium market.

“We are a top-end translation agency; we add massive value. Why should the translator’s name appear when we do most of the work?”

If you are convinced that is the situation, by all means sign with your agency’s name. But somebody sign, please. And in a few years, your agency may be brave enough and secure enough to use both the agency’s and translator’s names: Spanish text: José Bloggs for International Global Translation Excellence Group & Partners.
The fact is, when nobody takes responsibility (and credit) and opacity reigns, the people who interest me—clients and good translation suppliers—all suffer.

If language services providers (both freelancers and agencies) were to get into the habit of signing even 50% of the commercial, technical, and other translations found in industry and elsewhere, we would be well on our way to a healthier market in just two or three years. And that is a shake-out I would really love to see.

You can reach Chris Durban at chris.durban@gmail.com.

Notes
1. Durban, Chris. The Prosperous Translator (Lulu.com, 2010). Copies can be ordered directly at www.lulu.com  or through ATA’s website at www.atanet.org/publications.

2. You can download a copy of Translation: Getting It Right as a PDF file from ATA’s website at www.atanet.org/publications/getting_it_right.php.

Additional Reading

Catherine Translates
http://catherinetranslates.com

Translation Journal
www.translationjournal.net