My Five Biggest Newbie Mistakes in Translation

Young Marty

In my soon-to-be 15 years in translation I haven’t done it all, but I have done a lot. I’ve worked in-house and freelance; I’ve won some and lost some; followed the rules, questioned them, and ultimately broke the ones that made no sense; exposed myself to harsh criticism for speaking my mind; stood my ground against bottom feeders and their knights; shared my views in two failed blogs prior to Translator’s Digest; started a business, left that business, started a new business… alas, a lot of trial and error, falling down and getting back up again. Translation can be quite a ride if you’re willing to leave your comfort zone; and though I haven’t been riding the crest of any record breaking waves, I can’t really complain about the surf either.

So now I’m about to turn 37 and when I see all these younger people trying to start out as translators I’m reminded of my rookie years and the challenges I once faced. And, naturally, I want to help; not by trying to shield newbies from some of the harsh realities of the professional world, but by sharing experiences and views that might be useful to them. I would not be doing anyone any favors by denying them the opportunity to try and fail time after time until they succeed or by trying to pass my personal experience off as some sort of winning formula. As I’ve said in the past, we each have to write our own story. But now that I seem to be suffering from what my Argentinean friends have mockingly labeled “el viejazo” [midlife crisis], I’ve come to believe that I have benefited as much from my achievements as from my failures, and that others might be able to benefit from them too. As it turned out Lincoln was right (as if there was ever any doubt); and these are the mistakes I’ve learned from the most:

1. Letting clients dictate my fees

When you are a freelancer and/or business owner, you know how much time, effort, and resources you will put into your work. You know your opportunity cost and BATNA. Yet, sometimes, we let clients dictate our fees. Accepting the fees that clients were “willing” to pay as if I had no say in my own income was my number one newbie mistake before I learned how to calculate my fees and negotiate.

2. Fearing the word “No”

I didn’t just have a hard time saying no, I avoided it altogether, always, no matter the cost of saying yes. When my business started to grow, I was afraid that if I didn’t accept every single job that came my way (regardless of the terms and conditions of the job), clients would take their business elsewhere. But the question isn’t whether they did or not. Of course many did; so the fear of “no” is not completely irrational. The question is, though, whether the ones that did were worth my time in the first place. Good clients, reasonable clients, professionals who understand the business world, and people who value your work will come back if you have rendered good service in the past. And if they don’t, and you have a solid business plan and marketing strategy, you will always attract other clients anyway.

3. Overbooking

Fearing the word “no” has a second drawback and it’s that it can affect your credibility and ultimately lead to more loss. If you’re saying yes to everything, you are overbooking; and if you are overbooking, important details of your work are inevitably falling through the cracks. That’s when you really loose clients and money.

4. Being clueless about finance and economy

Most of my friends and people close to me who are also translators confess to reading about “business” and “marketing,” but not hardcore economic and finance literature. Even fewer actively work to develop strong math skills. Your ceiling is much lower when you don’t understand the economy in which your business is emerged or when you struggle with numbers. You need to understand market economics to make sound business decisions, and the only way to do that is to hit the books and get informed. But not the light stuff you find online, the tough stuff that can help you calculate key economic factors that can affect your growth and indicate which baskets to put your eggs in. I took several economy and finance courses during my master’s and later my PhD studies and am currently studying a specialization in finance, and it has made all the difference in the world for me.

5. Marketing only when business is slow

Here’s the one thing I’ve learned about marketing: it takes a lot of ant work. When you don’t have a large budget to hire marketing professionals and launch a full-blown campaign, then you need to make small efforts every day to build your network, get referrals, get testimonials from your clients, get the ball rolling. It’s not going to happen on its own or overnight. And it’s certainly not going to happen at all if you only concentrate on marketing when you have nothing better to do.

Greek biographer and philosopher Plutarch is often credited with saying that, “To make no mistakes is not in the power of man; but from their errors and mistakes the wise and good learn wisdom for the future.” To the wise and good people out there reading this post, may my mistakes help you succeed in the future!

11 thoughts on “My Five Biggest Newbie Mistakes in Translation

  1. I liked reading the paragraph about reading serious articles or books on economics and knowing the economy. My advantage prior to beginning my career in translation was having a solid basis on commerce principles; I attended a business high school (“escuela de comercio”) which has no parallel in the American education system. I feel so proud!

    Sooner or later, though, any professional —not just translators or interpreters— needs to understand commerce and market principles, and not just assume they know about economics simply because they have an opinion on capitalism, socialism or communism (which is the main driver on featherweight arguments I’ve heard from/and had with some colleagues in the past).

    One of the many things I’ve learned myself in my 25 years as a translator is to stay away from buzzwords, politically correct talk and marketing jargon. It’s not merely a matter of word preference, but shows how much I abhor superficial talk (and writing). A habit secondary to my ongoing specialization as a translator has been to subscribe to certain newspapers and magazines.

    Translators soon discover what amounts to wonderful writing, even if it is about garden slugs, that will enrich their own translation writing. By the same token, they also realize how much fluff is being written in different fields. As creatures of the pen, we ultimately learn (whether we are 20, 30, 37 or 50) that bad writing happens in any language and, while it is beneficial to recognize it, it is also useful not to engage in it.

    Thanks for this article. It made me think and grow a bit nostalgic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Mario! It doesn’t take much to make you think, which is why I enjoy exchanging ideas with you. I’m sorry it made you nostalgic though. I would have preferred to make you smile. 🙂

      I agree in that you are not doing yourself any favors by confusing views on economic theories that may sound more or less appealing with actually understanding economic theory or, more importantly, how economies work in practice at a micro and macro level. That’s one of the many problems with buzz words and popular pre-conceived world views. Sometimes we use them without fulling grasping their meaning; or without giving them meaning ourselves (as the great thinkers of years past have taught us the importance of doing).

      I’m OK with light writing, obviously, I do quite a bit of it myself; but I’m not OK with light thinking. One can present deep thoughts in light ways, but should still act responsibly when doing so. Our writing has an impact on other people and that should not be taken lightly. You have actually brought that to my attention in other comments when pointing to the dangers of generalization and I really appreciate that!


      • Gracias, Paula, for sharing your view just now. Allow me to fix a perception: to me, nostalgia does not necessarily imply sadness, regret or similar feelings. Another shorthand for buzzwords is how some people might perceive us and tell us “Oh, you are writing your blog in categorical terms; you must be very dogmatic!”

        This is just a silly example and has no relation to the way you write. I don’t like light thinking either. Of course, there is a time for lightheartedness, silly jokes and absurdist thinking (Les Luthiers, Pagagnini come to mind). That kind of thinking (of absurd things and connections) is a much needed mental exercise, I believe.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Parmesh says:

      Paula, loved reading every bit of your write-up.

      What a journey!
      Am into my 16th year as a translator and interpreter and still learning, like I just did from your blog!!



  2. I absolutely agree with item number 4. One of the first things I did after quitting my previous job and starting my own business was to take a course on finance on Coursera. The course was not about accounting or covered topics in detail, but for somebody who previously didn’t know anything about finances and the economy it was a great starting point, and I can really recommend the course. I wrote a review about the course here:

    Liked by 1 person

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