Threats, opportunities and the status quo: ata59 sessions that can help you plan for the future

“Why would I want to work with direct clients, like Huge Company X? They have way too much work for me handle. Agencies are the way to go”

“Why on earth would you want to work as a freelance translator? There’s no money in it!”

“I would not recommend become a translator to anyone. The profession has no future”

“The only way to make more is to become more productive”

These are paraphrased opinions seen in translation forums and industry publications, many of them repeating year after year.

Machines vs human translators, freelance translators vs “exploitative” agencies, freelancers vs freelance competitors, translators vs unappreciative or clueless clients…

… it’s almost as bad as the Game of Thrones (but without the dragons).

Does it mean that the winter is coming for the T&I industry?

This was a question I was hoping to find an answer to at the ATA59 conference.

The feeling of being underappreciated, misunderstood and reduced to a cog in a smooth ISO machine is a real one. And there is no clear single answer that will instantly make things better for everyone.

Here are some of the conversations and sessions at the conference that can help you find your own path, be it becoming an MT trainer, a premium translator, or an entirely different kind of specialist.

Biggest takeaways:

  1. We need to have proof for our claims instead of shoulding all over our clients

  2. We need to be honest with ourselves about our skills

  3. Processes are not enough -> we need to care about the end result and be human

  4. Knowing what industry needs can help us figure out how to "career" better

  5. All it takes now to be an LSP is the desire to outsource the actual translation, build a website and change your mindset -> but shouldn't there be more to it? And why can't translators and interpreters themselves get it done?

  6. "Just" a freelancer is definitely not the mindset to be cultivated. We can learn from other industries and become more valuable and valued, hopefully without turning into an agency, unless we want to.

Planning for the future (with MT or without): be honest with yourself  

The single best piece of advice I head at the conference was being brutally honest with yourself about the level of your skills now — and what you can do about them.

It is also the hardest piece of advice to follow.

Chris Durban had a whole session about translators’ blind spots, outlining many ways in which we are explaining away our failings.

Getting feedback is scary.

Teaching yourself to stop explaining it away is unbelievably hard.

Finding a partner whose opinion you are ready to accept and respect is also not easy.

And yet, we cannot hope to improve and to create a better future for everyone in the T&I industry without shifting the mindset from prescriptive to descriptive.

Honing your messaging: beyond hype, press-releases and “quality”

Should clients really know the difference between translation and interpretation?

Do we really need to jump on every journalist who uses “translation” and tell her off?

Is imploring people with T-shirts and stickers to love their translators ever going to work?

Is there nothing we can offer beyond “perfect translation”, “highest quality” and “I do words”?

In addition to speaking the language of clients’ clients, we should learn to speak the language of our clients. We need to know if there just might be something else they care about, in addition to deadlines, peace of mind or any of the other usual suspects.

If there are case studies showing that using MT leads to higher customer satisfaction, we should really understand the reasons behind the results (special-case conditions, comparing apples to oranges, or - finally! - an MT breakthrough) and also have proof for our own “it’s better to work with human translators” statements.

Moving forward: connecting the dots and ditching the “just”

How do we shift mindset and learn to speak to our clients in a way that makes our case, without coming off as self-serving?

If we are stuck in a neverending cycle of deadlines, revisions and do-marketing-in-5-minutes-a-day hustle, we may not be able to.

Just as we might not be able to connect the dots and figure out how to build our own freelance businesses, in a  way that goes beyond the “just start an agency” model.

I don’t think LSPs (especially if all they have going for them is a different mindset) are going to be affected by technological changes. If all they add to the equation is “you don’t have to manage your translation projects” - there will be more and more solutions making the management part less and less hard to implement.

Why have a middleman between translators and the client, unless they are adding demonstrable value?

If we see technology as a tool, not as a threat, we can use it to our advantage - and to the advantage of our clients.

Which brings me to the last presentation I wanted to mention and the book recommendation from it, Radical Candor.

2 points from the book especially resonated with me.

First point: having to really care about people you manage and have an actual relationship with them - which is clearly missing in the majority of “file-shifting” operations (is the goal to get through the translation - editing - proofreading - client review stages as quickly and painlessly as possible… or to work as a team to create the best translation in this specific case, for this specific client?).

Second point: the need to have time to think - to plan, to find new ways of doing things, to uncover and explore new opportunities, to dream, to research. To become more empathetic.

Once of my favorite podcasts is The Humans Strike Back: showing how automation, processes and focus on revenue are taking the soul out of other businesses and industries - and that there are other ways to do business.

Speaking of which…

Many industries do not have a rigid regional hierarchy, and have freelancers who manage just fine without agencies.

In less than 3 minutes I try to recap the main points of the 1-hour session. Good times.

This was the topic of my session at the ATA conference. Download the slides and resources here.

Ekaterina Howard moved to learning conversion copywriting to become more that “just” a freelance translator. What’s your plan?

Ekaterina Howard moved to learning conversion copywriting to become more that “just” a freelance translator. What’s your plan?


Ekaterina Howard is a bilingual copywriter, the current Administrator of the ATA’s Slavic Languages Division, and a Copy School Graduate. She believes that both freelance translators and interpreters and T&I companies can do better than “great quality at a reasonable price” and blogs about the ways in which they can make their copy more relevant and more persuasive.