The Prosperous Translator: Advice from Fire Ant & Worker Bee, compiled and edited by Chris Durban, is simply jam-packed with wisdom. It answers questions on every imaginable scenario under the sun, including many you may recognise but would never dare to admit. It’s not a guide to translation, nor is it a manual on getting up and running in business. What it does offer though, is a realistic, well-balanced view of the profession and the wider industry in which we operate.
The book is based around problems, yet these sticky wickets are transformed into golden opportunities. Challenges are re-framed in a practical and insightful way. Advice usually comes with suggestions of concrete actions or scripts, which apply regardless of language combination, specialism or circumstance. Every path, every option, every scenario is considered with the following in mind: Is this where I want to be as a professional translator? And I kid you not, this mindset alone could change your life. (Or your bottom line, at the very least.)
I got this book late last year with the intention of reviewing it before Christmas, but it was a victim of its own awesomeness. When it came to writing up a review, I needed some serious time and liquid preparation before I could even attempt to do justice to the quantity and quality of information contained within its covers. But enough about me: you’re here for the book.
The Prosperous Translator
Chris Durban and Eugene Seidel, aka Fire Ant and Worker Bee (FA & WB), have run an agony-aunt column for practising translators in Translation Journal since 1998. All the questions are real, which is funny, impressive and just a bit scary. In this book, Chris Durban has edited and updated a compilation of some of the best of these columns, across 267 pages and 12 chapters:
- Is this a real option for me?
- Getting started
- Doing the job
- Client/supplier relationship
- Pricing and value
- Marketing and finding clients
- Payment issues
- Quality of life
- Professional associations
- Kitchen sink
I’ll admit to not being a regular reader of the column for a couple of reasons. First, while I’ve always appreciated the advice, as an only occasional passer-by I didn’t immediately “get” the FA & WB style (probably the only thing I have in common with Professor Peter Newmark then, cf. pg. 263). Second, I’m not a regular reader of Translation Journal, not because I don’t like it (I do – a lot), but for the same reason that I don’t tend to frequent email discussion groups or the ITI website: if it’s not RSS-ed, it’s likely to slip off my radar.
So I think the book is an excellent idea. It may sound strange coming from a self-confessed technophile, but compared to the column’s original online format, this book allows for a more thorough reading experience, which is definitely warranted given the quality of the information contained within.
It is also infinitely more accessible and easy to refer back to. And believe me, this is the kind of book you will want to refer back to throughout your career. As a result, this book should and will bring the combined wisdom of FA & WB to an even wider audience.
Something for everyone
The Prosperous Translator has something for everyone.
For aspiring translators and translation students, there’s plenty of advice on what to look for in a translation programme, as well as food for thought for anyone considering further qualifications in translation.
There’s even more to mull over for the established translator. Chapter 6 contains over 40 pages of ideas and suggestions on identifying lucrative sources of work and increasing income, in hard times and in good.
There is an entire chapter on professional associations, and plenty of advice for translation companies and translation buyers too.
This 360-degree perspective is an education in itself. It encourages an increased level of professional self-awareness and an ability to look at oneself through the eyes of a range of different industry stakeholders. Fascinating stuff.
Best of all, many of the tips require no investment of money: just time, initiative, and energy. And there’s no country-specific tax, accounting or legal advice to trip over either. Just honest-to-goodness, cross-border applicable opinion and advice from two very savvy and experienced professionals.
The devil is in the detail
On positioning and marketing, Durban and Seidel drive home the fact that the way you pitch your services helps define the kind of clients you end up with. We already know that if you look, smell and sound like a monkey, you’ll get paid peanuts. What this book will tell you is how to look, smell and sound like a rockstar.
I was also especially interested in the points on internships. The work placements I’ve undertaken have all been extremely valuable, both at the start of my career and later, when I moved into translation. I’ve long considered how I might be able to offer the same opportunity to up-and-coming translators, and this book has helped me see how it might be possible, even as a freelancer.
I found the section on client outreach especially inspiring, as will anyone interested in learning more about getting out there to meet the end-users of our translations.
On networking, three key points in particular stood out for me:
- No serious business is going to outsource high-paying, critical work to an anonymous supplier.
- Even in today’s global economy, physical proximity to target market matters. (As an Australia-based translator who has just spent six of the past 24 months on working trips to Europe, I can attest to that.)
- Networking with fellow translators exclusively is a waste of time at best, counter-productive at worst.
This last point is one that needs making. A quick poll in a recent eCPD webinar on working with direct clients revealed that 54% of translators in attendance had never been to a business meeting unrelated to translation or interpreting.
In addition to all this, the book contains specific and actionable advice on:
- getting into subtitling (pg. 11), literary translation (pg. 24), and academic book translation (pg. 112)
- working in teams of translators (pg. 47) and outsourcing for agencies (pg. 53)
- two different ways to deal with the fallout when your client’s family members start to meddle (blunt or diplomatic, on pg. 61)
- how to offer feedback as a reviser without being perceived as a smart-ass and alienating clients (misplaced this page no. I’ll let you find it for yourself)
- the best ways to work with other translators to manage peak times (pg. 228)
- handling dismissive comments about translators on the cocktail circuit with grace and style (pg. 256)
- drafting letters to the editor that make the cut (pg. 261)
Show me the money
As you might expect, pricing loomed large in this book, with a range of strategies to ensure your pricing reflects your experience and not your desperation. The negotiating techniques were also powerful, and were sprinkled throughout the book.
Particularly interesting was the suggestion to calculate your per-hour net earnings (i.e. not your per-word gross rate) for each of your clients on a regular basis. This will give you a good idea of the areas you might want to develop further, but also highlights the real cost of any predilections for certain client or translation types.
In addition, there was an entire chapter dedicated to payment issues, covering payment scenarios of every kind imaginable.
I also liked the pointers I picked up on terms and conditions. Specifically, how to turn them from a stick with which to beat the heads of my clients into a valuable tool for managing client relationships and satisfaction.
Fire Ant and Worker Bee’s tough love approach gives them a high degree of credibility, in my eyes. To a translator complaining about being forced to accept low rates, they say “if you accept, you become an enabler, which makes you just as guilty as they are – only more so, since you ought to know better” (pg. 113). To a another who paints translation agencies as the sole source of all evil and their career dissatisfaction, “if you are still laboring in agency hell…, it’s clear that you have made a few bad choices over the years” (pg. 120). Heck, yeah!
That’s not to say they’re not sympathetic to the challenges of the profession. On dealing with freelancer burnout or overwhelm, FA & WB suggest some simple but effective steps to clear your plate to enable you to focus on what really matters, without giving in to the crash-and-burn.
What’s more, they’re funny. Very funny, in fact. They diagnose Stockholm Syndrome and educate us on the symptoms of “translator twitchiness” (“alternating bouts of belligerence and forelock-tugging, with regular time-outs” pg. 65). Their wise words on translation discussion groups should appear in a pop-up window at the top of every online forum:
Take online discussions with a grain of salt. Some of these guys are teasing, playing devil’s advocate. Others are whiling away a lazy summer’s afternoon on the wifi-enabled air-conditioned porch before pottering off to the golf course. Still others are bullshitting from their abandoned trolley car under a bridge. (pg. 93)
Incidentally, the same might be said for bloggers.
Fire Ant and Worker Bee’s down-to-earth approach means they don’t suffer fools. Yet a willingness to offer genuinely helpful advice and a perceptive grasp of what is really at stake, combined with a healthy dose of humour, makes them akin to a wise old grandma. The kind of grandma who has lived and loved well, who won’t tolerate any nonsense and who cares for you through the ups and the downs, no matter how much of an ass you make of yourself. Every self-respecting professional needs and deserves one of those.
Because of the Q & A format of this book, it would be easy to dip in and out of various sections, willy nilly. But busy professional and personal lives notwithstanding (come on, you found the time to read this blog ;)), I think it deserves to be pored over, cover to cover, with a pen and paper to hand to capture all the amazing business ideas that will explode into your head as you read it.
These guys KNOW what direct clients want and are willing to pay for. If you read this book, you will too. And if you follow their advice, you can’t fail but be a prosperous translator.
Seriously – you need to buy this book.
The Prosperous Translator has also been reviewed by:
- Miguel Llorens on Traductor-Financiero.com
- Zwei Urgestein in Issue 11-2-186 of The Tool Kit
- Margaret Marks on Transblawg
- Fabio M. Said on Fidus interpres
- Isabel Hurtado de Mendoza in the Jan – Feb 2011 issue of ITI Bulletin (subscription details here)
In the interest of disclosure: I was delighted to be sent a review copy of this book, but I had already bought a copy and so was doubly delighted to end up with two 🙂 Other than that, I have no vested interest in this book. All links in this post are non-affiliate links.