Why Translators Should Think Like Scientists

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Once upon a time, I imagined a translation business. It would be boutique, manageable, and specialized, with an interesting clientele, a friendly in-house staff, and, more importantly, it would be pretty. The office would be colorful and we’d always have fresh flowers and natural sunlight. There would be lots of room and opportunity for creativity. My staff and I would never get caught up in boring assignments and our ideas would be able to flow freely…

Then reality slapped me in the face and I grew up. As it turned out, there aren’t enough colors or flowers in the world to make translation a creative-only process. We, translators, deal with deadlines, hideous formats, tedious clients, and a lot of stress. Not to mention, unrealistic expectations from clients who think we can translate a million words per hour or dealing with clueless intermediaries. We market ourselves and our services, we negotiate agreements, we quote jobs, count words, make invoices, keep track of our projects, agendas, etc.

All in all, what we do, when we’re not actually translating, is business. So it makes sense for many of us to have adopted a business mindset. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. However, the idea of what the business mindset should entail is currently being challenged in a very positive way.

Alice Gast, President of Imperial College London and internationally renowned scholar and researcher, recently published a fascinating article (here) in the World Economic Forum explaining why business leaders should think like scientists; and after reading her article (and having partnered with a person with extensive training in science and engineering) I have to admit, I’m sold! Ms. Gast’s conclusions basically boil down to three fundamental things that are easily applicable to translation:

1. Skeptical curiosity: Ms. Gast writes: “Their [scientist’s] work is driven forwards by curiosity, and it is guided by intuition and prior knowledge, but techniques such as external and internal peer reviews and randomized control trials are also embedded in their way of thinking to avoid blind optimism and bias.” The potential applications of this to translation are countless. Think about our editing and review processes, how we approach terminology and background research, even how we approach translation from the moment we turn on our computers. Skeptical curiosity can lead to sufficient questioning and redesign of almost every aspect of our translation process. Handled well, it can lead to increased efficiency and quality control.

2. Collaborative competitiveness: “When the problems get tough, scientists want to build the best team, even if the partner is a fierce competitor,” writes Ms. Gast. Another lesson I recently learned is the power of teamwork and the importance of cooperating with my competitors for mutually beneficial projects. For example, I recently joined forces with a “competitor” and outbid several agencies for an important international client. As individual freelancers, we could never have beaten the agencies, because we lacked the necessary resources to do so. However, by pooling our resources together, instead of competing with each other for the same client, we could offer the same service as an agency with the added value that we both have graduate degrees in the client’s field. Violá! Winning formula.

3. Confidence in the face of uncertainty and the unknown: Ms. Gast points out, “Where something is unknown, it is an opportunity to be pursued rather than avoided.” This was especially true for me when it came to rates; an area that is quite uncertain and confusing to many linguists, especially those seeking to move to higher paying market segments, as described in earlier posts in this blog. As I explained in my Matrix series, I have systematically been increasing my rates, but I could not have achieved the necessary confidence or developed a sufficiently efficient strategy for pulling this off without the help of a scientific approach to business. If you’ve read that series, or any of the follow-up posts, you know that increase required math and experimentation.

I will never be able to explain it as eloquently or efficiently as Ms. Gast, but there is no doubt in my mind that a scientific approach to business can be highly beneficial to translators.

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