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The frugal translator

I learned frugality from my parents. They emphasised thrift, restraint and hard work, and their values have shaped my life—largely for the better. Frivolity, bling, splashing out? No thanks. I love my job and enjoy life, but I’m no spendthrift: I track my budget and work within it.

But frugal as I am, it bothers me to see fellow translators take the ‘spending is bad’ mantra to extremes, since it lands them at the wrong end of the income debate.

Here’s why. Over the years, I’ve seen far too many of my colleagues glorify poverty — even as they complain loudly and bitterly that they aren’t paid enough and don’t get enough ‘respect’ from their clients or the general public. This is what Neil Inglis calls ‘the poverty cult’ — a translator mindset that ‘may develop from the inferiority complex that language professionals have regarding their worth in the marketplace.’

In a rousing 1996 speech Neil described poverty culters as inhabiting or aspiring to a world where the sensitivity to and love of language essential to expert translation is pure and desirable — and any sensitivity to market realities is the first step down the slippery slope to vulgar commerce. The choice is clear: noble, impecunious linguist or tacky money-grubber.

I thought of the poverty cult last autumn when a distinguished linguist acknowledged that she had cringed when she heard me refer to ‘the translation market’ (and not ‘the translation profession’) in a presentation. She was kind enough to cut me some slack, presumably because of my American roots. But she isn’t alone. And while her attitude may be nothing more than a literary specialist’s discomfort with business and money in general, it’s self-defeating for practitioners in our largely self-employed profession.

The fact is, freelance translators are businesses, and successful businesses invest in themselves. But many translators don’t. Here I don’t even mean true business outlays — say, spending 5-10% of revenue on marketing and PR, as is normal in many other industries — rather a constant opting-out-because-it-costs that is so unconscious, so pre-emptive, so seamless that you don’t ever reach the point where critical spending decisions can be made in the first place.

In my online advice column for translators, I routinely have exchanges with translators — earnest, hard-working people — that illustrate this mentality.

Want some respect from your clients? Buy a suit and wear it. Responses often range from ‘No way, too expensive!’ to ‘Great idea; I found one at the flea market for a pittance’ to ‘That would be faking it; it’s not who I really am. And I don’t have that kind of money.’

Hire a graphic designer to produce some striking business cards? ‘Too extravagant! I can do it myself with Vistaprint!’

Speaking of business cards, you should order new ones to reflect a new email address. ‘What? And throw out 750 perfectly good cards? No way, I’ll correct it with a black pen.’

Travelling first class to a client industry conference to mingle with participants en route (and be able to work in peace and quiet on the way) doesn’t even pass the laugh test.

Nor does subscribing to a business daily; investing in computer and software upgrades as a matter of course; forking out for client events at standard non-translation prices (rather than the inexpensive offerings from associations) — no, far too pricey! And on and on.

A good friend and long-time observer of the translation industry has noticed similar reactions in his geographical market. ‘Unfortunately, freelance translators seem to have an almost fanatical devotion to frugality,’ he says. ‘It’s on a level that undercuts their ability to think clearly about why spending money is important.’ A notion that applies whether you’re an individual building a business or a group building a professional association.

So here’s the take-away: for a successful business of any size, not spending money isn’t the be-all and end-all.

Smart businesspeople don’t throw cash out the window, but they do weigh the options, take in the big picture and get some skin in the game. Happily, ITI now seems to have turned its back on this naïve and counterproductive 100% volunteer-driven, frugal ‘strategy’, but many individual translators haven’t. Even when they’re elected to office or appointed to positions of responsibility in their professional groups, these earnest, well-intentioned people often lack the sound reflex that might, just might, lead them to loosen the purse strings and purchase the services and products they need to generate recognition, awareness — and ultimately prosperity — for themselves and the profession as a whole.

Back to my friend the industry observer, who puts it in a nutshell: ‘Frugality as practised by many translators is a philosophical killer. And it is part of the reason why the most frugal people in the translation industry are the least visible to precisely the kinds of clients they really want.’

Or say they want. 

About the author

Chris Durban is a freelance translator based in Paris, where she translates business texts into English for demanding clients – the shareholders, customers and partners of a range of French corporations and institutions. She is the author of 'Translation, Getting it Right', a short guide for translation buyers now translated into 15 languages, and its companion piece 'Interpreting, Getting it Right'. Chris also writes the Fire Ant & Worker Bee advice column in Translation Journal and in 2010 published an updated and revised compilation of FA&WB columns in book form: The Prosperous Translator

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