Chris Durban and the Chamber of Secrets

by Maria Leridi

ChrisDurban2011PhotoI met Chris Durban in the flesh last October during an event held by the Association of Government Authorized Translators in Oslo, Norway. Her speech was inspiring and talking to her in person was a real pleasure.

But the first time we interacted was years ago when I came across a really useful guide published by ATA that made me change the way I approach my clients. I’m sure you are all familiar by now with the little booklet entitled “Translation: Getting it right” (recently available in Greek with the support of PEEMPIP) — a compilation of tips and best practice advice that Chris wrote for a client education column called “The Onionskin” that was a regular feature of ITI Bulletin and ATA Chronicle. The great success of this guide, which has now been translated into 14 languages, lies in the fact that Chris is not just a freelancer herself but also an effective “consolidator” of insights and experiences into practical tips to guide clients and help translators survive in our rapidly changing world.

Her book, “The Prosperous Translator”, includes helpful business advice in Q&A format and is a true gem on any translator’s bookshelf. More recently, she has contributed to a joint project entitled “101 Things a Translator Needs to Know”. Both books are available online at

  1. So, Chris, first of all I would like to thank you for agreeing to publish “Translation: Getting it right” in Greek — confirmation that you think clients can be educated. What is the best way to accomplish this?guide

First, many thanks to the translators — Catherine Christaki and Emilia Prekate — for their fine work.

For true client education, I think it’s important for translators to get out into the client world to a far greater degree than at present. We all know that many translators work in isolation. And even if they participate in online discussions, these are often in the translatorsphere — talking only to other translators. Which means that a lot of the chatter about clients and their needs is taking place in an echo chamber.

How about this: the first step in establishing any kind of genuine exchange with clients is to be able to deliver top-flight work to them and discuss that work in their terms, with their discourse. Otherwise they won’t even begin to listen to you (and at one level, I agree entirely with them on that point).

I sincerely believe that translators can’t deliver the goods if they haven’t talked with their clients and connected with their priorities and concerns. At which point the good clients (and what point would there be in pursuing the bad ones?) will often be very receptive to more information about how we work and the best ways to spend their budget.

But to make that connection, you have to venture out into their world. Not monologuing about your issues, not jabbering about “respect” and what is due to you as a translator, rather listening very carefully. To get a handle on their concerns.

  1. Freelancing can be a very prosperous way of working if you have a steady flow of work, but it can also be tricky and unpredictable. I think it is safe to say that all translators have experienced lulls when there is no work on the table — or even on the horizon. With that in mind, do you think that being frugal is a lifestyle necessity for freelancers?

How about breaking it down into different stages.

When you are starting out — straight out of university, or having transferred over from another career — it’s only normal that you don’t have regular clients. That’s precisely when you need to focus on building up your network, which may include outreach to other, more experienced translators (who may well be the source of your first jobs). But also to potential buyers.

As I see it, you should be looking at investing two half-days a week to simply get out there — attending events that are of interest to your potential clients and peers, plus training, if only to develop your knowledge base. (Possibly more if you have no work on the boil; sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring doesn’t make much sense.).

quote2At this stage in your career you will want to — and have to — be pretty frugal. But if you do have something to sell, and are focused in your actions, you should start getting jobs within six months or so, and you then build on those.

Note that this whole while (even at the very beginning!) you shouldn’t be projecting an image of poverty — you should have a reasonable set of clothes for meetings and such, and you should be investing in the barebones basics such as business cards and suitable IT equipment, not to mention a high-speed internet connection. Without those, you are not even in the game.

Then, as time moves on and you start building up a clientele, you should start setting money aside for outlays above and beyond rent, food, transport and taxes. I’m thinking here of training in particular, which can also be marketing if you select the right events. As I’ve written elsewhere, translators who are ten years into the profession and still reluctant to invest in themselves are shooting themselves in both feet. 24/7 frugality can become a habit, but it is not a business plan.

  1. If frugality is not the best business choice, how can we make prudent financial decisions? Where do you think freelancers should actually spend their money on in order to grow their business, and how can this enhance visibility?

At the risk of sounding superficial, I’ve mentioned the business outfit and the business cards.
Another essential in my view is a subscription (digital and/or print, I personally like print) to a business daily. Even if you work in other areas, tracking developments on the national, international and business news front will give you an essential window into major decisions that shape the world we live in — including financing for all sorts of scientific, cultural, medical, legal, commercial, technical and political projects. This is the kind of information that serious end clients track very closely. Which makes it a no-brainer: we should be doing so, too, since it tells us where to focus our efforts (in addition to educating us about the world in general). Once you can afford it, you should add on more publications in your areas of specialization.

You can then focus on opportunities for face-to-face meetings — with other translators but also (as noted above) with potential clients. And possibly buying a second business suit!

  1. In Oslo, you referred to the poverty cult and its “Seven Deadly Sins”. Can you please explain?

Ah, this wasn’t my phrase or analysis, rather an insight from Neil Inglis, senior translator with the International Monetary Fund. He was speaking at an ATA Regional Conference in Washington, D.C. and later at the ATA Annual Conference in Colorado Springs way back in 1996. Neil speculated that the poverty cult “may develop from the inferiority complex that language professionals have (and others have about them) regarding their worth in the marketplace.” All pretty negative stuff.

He went on to define the “Seven Deadly Sins of the Poverty Cult” as:

  • envying the success of others
  • gloating over the failure of others
  • a pervasive sense that it is better for everybody to fail than for a few to succeed
  • a sickly squeamishness where the subject of money is concerned
  • shabby gentility, more shabby than genteel
  • a widespread conviction that it is better to have a little and be secure than to take a gamble and risk losing everything
  • Schadenfreude mixed with sour grapes

For Neil, these attitudes were one of the reasons so many translators spend much of their career going around in circles. I agree with him.

I myself have criticized some translation teachers (and experienced translators, for that matter) for actively promoting the image of professional translators as “noble losers” with statements like “There’s intellectual satisfaction to be had in the field, but you’ll never make any money” and “Translation will not earn you a good living, so you’ll have to be very motivated to stick with it.” Those statements are untrue — and the attitude is lunacy — but they can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  1. How can we deal with this poverty cult and at the same time not lose control over our finances?

I’d rephrase that: it’s by consciously refusing to buy into the poverty cult and its ravings that you gain control over your finances.

You decide to organize yourself differently, and you take action.

For example, I think it is neither noble nor intelligent not to acknowledge that you are in the profession to earn a living. Yes, we sell our work. And the higher the price, the better; I subscribe entirely to that. (Is it preferable, or somehow “purer” to work for as little as possible?)

I’ve recently heard various snide remarks about “premium translators who are getting too big for their britches”. I don’t know who they are referring to in particular, but I do know that all of my comments about the work currently going begging at the top end of the market are aimed at alerting translators who are not aware of this (because they are card-carrying members of the poverty cult, perhaps). Signaling to them that those segments are there. But as a colleague has commented, this work is only open to translators who invest the time to hone their skills — to quote a friend, you can’t deliver Walmart quality and expect to be paid Boeing prices.

  1. Do you believe translators have the power to shape the market and not let rates tumble? What can we do to keep rates at a reasonable level considering the fact that some countries like Greece are facing a financial crisis and as a result many new translators (beginners, unemployed etc.) are willing to work for hardly any pay or even as unpaid interns?

I do not have direct experience of the Greek market, but have discussed a similar situation with translators in Argentina, who suffered terrible price pressure in the not-so-distant past. And in my own field — financial translation — a flood of unemployed and increasingly desperate financial analysts entered the translation market during the big crash. (They had no staying power, however — and most couldn’t write well enough to survive, much less flourish.)

I don’t doubt that things are tough, but as always I see specialization providing a path to a solution. As a freelance professional, you should be focused on establishing your name and your brand as the reference in whatever field you work in. It will then be much harder to circumvent you in favor of a cheap alternative. I’d also look at who, exactly, you’re selling to — buyers in Greece (yup, pressure) or buyers outside Greece (probably a better bet for the present)? And how about this: how many times have you interacted with a direct client (or potential direct client) in the past six months? That interaction is absolutely critical.  Also, assuming your family circumstances allow it, have you considered moving abroad for a few years? That’s essential to developing top-tier language skills that will serve you throughout your career.

Those are the types of questions you should be asking — and answering.

You hear stories, some probably true, about translation companies paying peanuts and hiring students to do all the work at sub-peanut rates. But I think it’s a mistake to fuss about them; that same energy can be put to better use focusing on areas that the peanut distributors and gatherers are simply not capable of working in. Also, if there is not a qualitative difference between your work and the work the students are producing, you have a problem that goes well beyond the financial crisis.

For the same reason, I think it’s a pity when translators spend all their time (or any time, for that matter) moaning about how bad things are, how unfair it all is. That’s life. We live in a market economy. We are self-employed. Deal with it. Do you think your complaining is going to shut down a low-end translation agency? Not likely. Instead identify areas where your expertise can leapfrog you into markets that the low-ballers cannot hope to attain — and do the work to get yourself there.

  1. How important is it for a freelance translator to gain and maintain visibility? Who is to blame for their invisibility? 

The first question is simple: if you are invisible to clients, there’s no way anyone is going to come to you with work. So it’s important to address that. Likewise, if you are visible only to fellow translators, you may get work — I mentioned overflow from swamped experienced translators earlier — but you may also get trapped in an echo chamber, with no translation buyers in sight. It’s one of the questions I’ve raised about translators’ presence in social media for translators; I’m a novice, but I sometimes wonder how much genuine exposure to the client world is happening.    

Insofar as visibility/invisibility is concerned, it’s also worth pointing out that some of the theory folk and literary translators’ claims that “the successful translator must be invisible” are unhelpful. They are confusing theory and text-on-page with the professional skills that we sell (yes, sell, as Neil reminds us) to buyers. So sure, as a translator you give “a voice” to your author, whether in literature, commerce, science or other fields. You’re in the background at that point. But you must make it very clear to the buyers of your work who you are and what your contribution is; my own “invisibility” in the translations I produce is possible because I also have ongoing exchanges with clients to fine-tune the texts they give me to translate. I’m not invisible to them; in my fields it is next to impossible to create a good translation without their input.    

Last but not least, you should sign your work — put your reputation on the line.   

  1. How important do you think it is to join a professional association, and do you believe that we can actually make a difference in the translation market in that way?

I view joining a professional association is an essential step in the life of any translator who sees herself as a professional. There is no comparison with, say, membership of commercial online platforms; we’re talking apples and oranges. But it doesn’t stop there; you then have to contribute time and energy so that your association is as active as it might be. Associations can do lots of things that individual translators — however dynamic — simply can’t do on their own.

  1. In a few words, what piece of advice would you give someone who is just starting off as a freelance translator?

Be prepared to do the work needed to become an expert translator. There will be a lot of work.

quote1I realize that young graduates often have to start making money to pay the rent and so on immediately once they leave school, and I understand that. But from everything I’ve seen, you only start producing seriously good work some two or three years in — and then only when you’ve been revised by very skilled people during that time.

So work to get yourself into that situation.  Then, once you’re hitting your stride, leave the easy texts for somebody else and aim for the difficult ones. The challenging ones. The ones where there is more risk. They will be both more intellectually challenging (= the fun part) and more highly paid (= also entertaining). Plus they will raise your profile with the right kind of client, creating a virtuous circle.

Thank you very much, Chris, for this interview. Looking forward to seeing you in Athens in October.

Chris Durban will be the closing speaker at PEEMPIP’s event “Shaping our common future” on October 31st at Technopolis, Athens.

Maria Leridi is a professional translator, and Vice President of PEEMPIP. She is a graduate of the Department of Foreign Languages, Translation and Interpreting (Ionian University) and co-founder and Head of Operations of “Ennoema Translation Services”. Before wading into translation she worked as a graphic designer, quality assurance manager, and communications and public relations manager. She has also worked as an intern at the UNHCR office in Greece (Public Information Unit). She is a very skilled user of computers and translation tools, and has been trained in designing web pages and managing blogs. She is a great supporter of volunteerism for a good cause as she believes that this type of activity, besides giving us a chance to socialize both personally and professionally, is what makes us a better person.

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