What Translators and Interpreters Can Lean from Pirates

Pirate Marty

We kicked off the New Year with a few resolutions; one of which was “taking control of how others perceive you.” I had promised to take you to the movies again this year and show you how to capture high-paying or “premium” clients and to explain how that relates to your portrayed image.

In Pirates of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs is portrayed by Noah Wyle as being somewhat of a nut: but a very smart and business savvy one. If you pay attention to how “movie Steve” evolves, there is one observation that immediately stands out: His image changes throughout the film, but not to adjust to Apple’s growth and development as one might think. Instead, he changes his image to fit in with Apple’s investors.

Steve goes from hippie to yuppie not as his company grows, but to ensure its growth. So, he shaves off his beard and cuts his hair when attempting to get loans from banks. His explanation? “Banks don’t like beards.” He purchases his first suit when presenting his first computer at a convention. Yet, he wears jeans and shorts and walks around Apple bare foot when outside the public eye and refuses to hire a potentially valuable employee based solely on the fact that he looks like someone who would fit in at IBM.

Toward the end of the film, Steve finally appears as the Steve Jobs everyone knows today: The guy in the turtle neck and jeans–a choice that is neither random nor arbitrary, and which became a significant part of Apple’s image, as well as Steve’s. So, what can we learn from this? A lot, actually…

When we looked at translation business stats last year, we learned that well over 80% of the growing 34 billion dollars that had gone into translation in 2013 had been poured into small and medium sized agencies (or intermediaries). According to industry specific reports, there were over 25,000 intermediaries between end clients and freelancers. Approximately 70% of these intermediaries had 5 or fewer employers. Most of them were located in Europe and the US, and almost all of them outsourced to developing countries.

This means that the big business in Europe and the US is to capture end clients, then outsource to the developing world. As a result, the big business in developing countries is to take advantage of their devalued currencies and work for intermediaries in the US and Europe. Thus, if you’re in the developed world, your encounters with clients are far more likely to be in person than they are if you’re in the developing world.

These facts are important when trying to take control of how you are perceived by others in order to capture higher paying market segments. Professional consultants and trainers have long claimed that other people make up their minds about you within the first two minutes of meeting you for the first time. Thus, they put a lot of emphasis on teaching you how to prepare for first impressions. However, because first impressions are not always made in person for translators and interpreters, then a key component to our first impression is our online persona or online identity.

In 2013, the New York Times published an interesting article titled “You Are What You Tweet.” What this article showed is that what you present online is perceived by others as significantly representative of who you are. Think about that for a second. Think about how you’ve been using your social media, how you interact with others in online forums, what you blog about, what pictures you share, and even what you “like” online. All that is visible to others, including potential clients and colleagues, and what’re more, when there are no face-to-face first impressions, when clients and colleagues are left with no choice but to “Google you” to get a sense of who you are, the first impression they will get from you is that of your internet persona.

So, if you’re a translator or interpreter looking to capture high-end clients, remember Steve and how he adapted to potential investors and to his industry. Think about the clients you want to capture and how you are currently portraying yourself to them. Do you see any room for improvement? I know I do! And I plan to do some experimenting and post my results soon.

6 thoughts on “What Translators and Interpreters Can Lean from Pirates

  1. gueibor says:

    Hi Paula! I’ve been following you for a while and you have quickly become one of my favorite, most level-headed and insightful commentators.
    This post touches very close to one of my main concerns, namely – what happens when the very traits that make you a good translator are generally regarded as unmarketable if not outright misanthropic? How do you turn a deeply ingrained distrust for sales pitches into a convincing sales pitch?
    I’m not asking for a magic formula, mind you – just curious about your views on this.


    • Wow! Those are great questions, Gabriel! I wish I had answers!

      All I can do is share my personal experience with you, so I’m going to make a little confession: A very long time ago, back when I was putting myself through school, I worked in sales. Not just any kind of sales, telemarketing! Yes! In my late teens and early twenties I was one of those annoying telemarketers calling people up and trying to get them to buy stuff they didn’t need from a large multinational company that paid me peanuts. It was not the most pleasant job I ever had, but those peanuts paid for my education, which was all that mattered to me at the time. I eventually turned into what the company called “top seller” and was promoted to “team leader” and then to “training manager” (Yay! That meant I could both pay my tuition and have enough left over to purchase books!).

      Anyway, when I was working in sales, I learned two things that continue to be helpful in translation: 1. Good sellers are also good listeners: people will volunteer information that helps you close sales if you show genuine interest in them and their needs. Most of the time, we’re too focused on telling people why we are the right person for the job. That’s a mistake, the first step is to understand the potential customer/client. 2. Closing sales is about painting the right picture: once people give you information about their needs, you need to show them how you can satisfy those needs. It’s all about what you can do for them. That works in translation, too. I could talk to my clients about my degrees and all the cool stuff I’ve translated over the years, but they don’t really care about that. They came to me for a reason: they need something and what they really want to know is how I can satisfy that.

      Sales pitches never worked for me. The only thing that’s ever worked for me is listening and showing people why they can and should trust me. The key is sincerity, but the price of that “strategy” is that if you’re not the right person for the job you have to be honest and let them know, preferably referring to someone who is the right person. That fosters cooperation and loyalty between clients and colleagues, and leads to very positive results.

      It’s not always a winning formula, but it has worked me with many direct clients. However, I must also confess that this has not been a wining formula with agencies. That’s a whole other world I’m still struggling to figure out!

      Liked by 1 person

      • gueibor says:

        Our Holy Lady of the Answers!
        Wow, I wasn’t expecting this much, this soon.

        Sorry it took me so long to come back to you – I’m working like crazy and absolutely shouldn’t be taking time to do this, but you’ve been so generous that I at least wanted to acknowledge your answer.

        I agree with you completely about listening, and is speaks volumes about myself that I have been doing it forever but never thought of it as a sales-related technique.
        But you’re right – it’s such a sensible approach and yet so seldom seen in this era of relentless attention-grabbing tips on how to grab more attention.
        I could go on for chapters about the kind of buyer I am (an appalling one) and how that informs my approach to selling, but hijacking your blog would kind of defeat my point.

        However, I would like to contribute my grain of sand on your attempts to figure out agencies. And my advice is don’t.
        Do not even bother.
        If you have managed to build a direct client portfolio, keep on doing exactly that and hold on to those clients like Gollum to that ring. Maybe with less lava involved.
        I’m saying this from my own experience, which is so hilariously opposite to yours I don’t even have to summarize it.

        As a self-perceived sales ignoramus, I naturally kicked off by approaching outsourcers when I started to translate a few years ago. You see, I needed the magnet/buffer combination between myself and the actual clients. This led me to work for a wide range of agencies, both large and small.

        In time, and with largely scarce influence from myself, my portfolio pared itself down to a few excellent clients who notably share a number of traits. They are small, boutique agencies managed by actual translators, who are bent on providing quality work for high rates and who are always ready to put on a fight for their teams.
        Finding these clients, however, took me years of toiling away for all types of bloodsuckers, carpetbaggers, and self-appointed industry visionaries.
        And that is the kind you want to avoid at all costs.

        Today, I consider myself fortunate to be working for such a rare brand of outsources, but of course I still would like to have me some shweeeet direct clients, because rates aren’t particularly prone to spontaneous growth spurts and I’d like to achieve a modicum of balance between income and working hours at some point in the future.
        So that’s it, in a nutshell.


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