The Humility Factor

Much has been written about what makes entrepreneurs successful, and in recent years, many books have also been written about success factors in the languages industry. We have also done quite a bit of writing about what one should do to succeed in our fantastic industry. Of course, while there are no secrets (which we would gladly share if they existed), there are many factors that contribute to one’s success. There are the basics, such as top-notch language skills and outstanding writing skills for translators, business skills, and a pleasant speaking voice and stamina for interpreters, among hundreds of other factors, both large and small. However, we’ve recently started noticing that not too much has been said about the importance of being humble. Allow us to elaborate.

We think being humble and recognizing one’s limitations and shortcomings can be a significant success factor. It keeps you honest and grounded, and if you are humble enough (and smart enough) to understand that you cannot take on a translation on say, quantum physics, it will serve you well because you won’t deliver a terrible translation. It will also serve you well because hopefully you will be humble enough to recommend a brilliant colleague who happens to have a doctorate in physics from.  The colleague will probably be happy to get the business, and the client should also be happy that you didn’t decide to wing it and instead sent her to the expert. In addition, humility is good because it helps you build a good reputation as an insightful analyst of your skills rather than show-off. We started thinking about this, and turns out that some of the translators and interpreters we admire the most are also the first ones to say that they don’t know something. Now, I don’t think there is much about legal interpreting that our court interpreting heroes Holly Mikkelson and Esther Navarro-Hall do not know, but we really like how they rarely speak in absolute terms and always allow some room for better ideas and other approaches. We have also noticed that the most experienced linguists are the ones who know exactly what they are good at and what they are not, while some newcomers tend to overrate their own abilities, which is a dangerous thing. It’s important to have confidence, but that confidence must be backed up by skills.


Humility has served us well in our years as a court and conference interpreters. Judy gladly confesses that she was initially terrified of the new interpreting territory in court, but that fear and that humility motivated her to acquire vocabulary at a fast pace. It’s not normal not to be humbled by what experienced court interpreters know, and of course you will be a better interpreter five years in than you are on day one. We have been flabbergasted by newcomers who insist that they know everything and that there is nothing they can learn from experienced interpreters (or translators, for that matter). 

These newbies are of course wrong, and going around saying you know everything certainly won’t endear you to your colleagues. Our best advice to newbies and to my students is to be a sponge and to follow around an experienced interpreter if they allow it (be sure to buy lunch!). This endeavor is a bit more difficult on the translation side, but the ATA listservs are a great opportunity to get advice from the best in the business, especially if you are new to translation. However, it’s important to keep one’s ego in in check and eat some humble pie if necessary – for instance, when an experienced colleague disagrees with your own crack at translating a particular sentence. Rather than getting defensive, take this valuable advice as what it is: a gift, and then, 10 years from now, you can pay it forward. However, regardless of how long we have been in the business: we are continuously humbled by all the things our colleagues know and by how much we still have to learn.  We will never know everything, and that’s a great gift for our brains and for our career. 

What do you think, dear colleagues? We'd love to hear your feedback.

Win a Book: Happy International Translation Day!


Yes, we love September 30th -- happy International Translation (and Interpreting) Day to all our friends and colleagues around the world! Last week, we helped UNIVERSITAS Austria Interpreters' and Translators' Association celebrate both our big day and their 60th anniversary in style in Vienna, complete with a reception at Vienna's legendary city hall, a one-day conference at the University of Vienna, and a memorable event at Europe House (co-sponsored by the European Union) with a fantastic keynote speech by industry expert and VP of SmartlingNataly Kelly, who flew in from Boston for the event. Speaking of Nataly Kelly: as you know, she co-authored a fantastic book on our industry with Jost Zetzsche, which has been selling quite well and is meant for the general market. The book is called Found in Translation, and Nataly donated several books to Translation Times earlier this year.


Now, to celebrate International Translation Day, we'd like to raffle off a copy of the book. The first person to correctly identify where the pictures on this blog post were taken will win the book. They were both taken in the same city. We are not looking just for the country or continent, but the name of the city where these two pictures were taken. We will pay for postage to send the book to you, regardless of whether you live in Santiago de Chile or Sydney.

Best of luck to all of you!

AUSIT Conference Down Under: November

Our friends at AUSIT (Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators) are hosting the Biennial National Conference (titled "Transition into the future") this upcoming November 1 and 2 in Brisbane, and it's shaping up to be a great event. AUSIT was kind enough to invite Judy to speak at this event, but unfortunately, it's just a few days before the American Translators Association Annual Conference in Chicago, where both of us are presenting workshops, so we will be there in spirit!

The conference location looks gorgeous, and the gala dinner will feature a mariachi group from Mexico and fantastic views of the Brisbane skyline. The conference lineup is promising as well, and the workshops include a full day pre-conference session on MemoQ on October 31. We've never been to Australia or New Zealand, and it's certainly true that most translator events focus on the US and on Europe, but let's not forget about these lovely events in Australia and Asia. We've never met anyone who didn't enjoy a trip to Australia, and while it's a long flight from Europe, this event might just very well be worth it. AUSIT has produced a funky video, which you can view here. 

We hope to make it to Australia for the 2017 FIT Congress!


The 3 Best Things

There's no doubt that being an entrepreneur in the languages industry comes with many joys and challenges. We oftentimes talk about the challenges, as it's important for newcomers to know which they are, but today we want to focus on the joys. We absolutely love working for ourselves and wouldn't have it any other way. Now, in no particular order of importance, are three things we love about our small translation and interpretation business. These are things that go beyond the fact that we love languages and really enjoy solving linguistic puzzles.


  • Freedom. We have the freedom to decide who our clients will be. We don't have any obligation to work on projects that don't offer the right terms (think payment, deadline, etc.) and we are independent contractors to all our fantastic clients. We have the freedom to turn down work and the freedom to choose our clients, which is fantastic. We also have the freedom to work as little or as much as we'd like. We usually do work quite a lot, but we love it.
  • No boss. We are our own bosses, and we are tougher on ourselves than any boss we've ever had. However, it's incredibly liberating to not have to ask for vacation days, raises, sit through boring meetings, etc. It's empowering to be in charge of our own destiny and to make the decisions we believe are right for our company. We don't always make the right ones, but we are willing to assume the risks and the consequences of our decisions.
  • Location independence. We both travel a lot for both business and pleasure, and routinely run our businesses from Europe, Latin America, South America, the US, etc. We usually discourage newcomers from getting too attached to the notion that being a freelance translator means you will sit on remote beaches with a laptop, as that's just not the long-term reality of any professional business, but it certainly is true that translation doesn't tie you to one place. The only aspect of our business that suffers when we travel is the interpreting side. 

We love many other parts of our business,  but if we had to pick three, we'd probably stick with these. What about you, dear colleagues? We'd be most interested in knowing what you enjoy the most about our profession.

Professional Suicide

The internet is a great thing, but it comes with many dangers, and too often we've heard of and read about professionals committing what amounts to professional suicide online. We aren't just referring to professionals in our line of work, but in any other. 

This can come in a variety of shapes and forms, including leaking confidential information, writing mean things about clients, colleagues, and vendors, spreading rumors, etc. It can seem very easy to vent on Twitter, Facebook, listservs, LinkedIn groups or any other public (or even protected) forum, but our short piece of advice here is: don't do it. Resist the temptation to make anything public that you might regret later. We don't want to scare you at all, but here are some things to keep in mind when it comes to netiquette. Remember that your reputation is one of the only things you have. Let's delve into some more specifics here:

  • It is completely normal to be mad/annoyed/incredibly ticked off once in a while. It happens to us, too. However, as tempting as it may be, the internet is not the place to air your grievances, especially if you are going to be naming names. There are, as always, no black and white rules, but while we think it's of course completely acceptable to tweet that you are exhausted and not having a great day, we'd say it's not acceptable to say you are exhausted because annoying client XYZ won't stop bombarding you with e-mails. Without clients, you have nothing, so be careful what you say about them. We generally don't ever have anything negative to say about our lovely clients, but if and when we do, we discuss this in person with each other or our inside circle.
  • Use the newspaper rule. If it could potentially make you unhappy to see anything you are about to type in next morning's newspaper, then don't do it. If you hesitate about whether you should post something, don't do it.
  • Think twice before sending an angry e-mail. Invasion of privacy and computer hacking issues aside, e-mail can be viewed as a somewhat private form of communication. However, e-mails can be forwarded and shared, and while it's tempting to fire off a snarky response to an e-mail, we suggest thinking twice before hitting the send button. Better yet: have someone you trust read your e-mail to make sure it's acceptable. While it's entirely possible that the person who sent you the e-mail is rude and unreasonable, you don't need to respond the same way. Being nice is always better.
  • Stay away from gossip. We don't see any good reason to gossip about others. Nothing good ever comes out of talking badly about others. A good rule would be: if you don't have anything good to say about someone, just be quiet and try to surround yourself with positive people.
  • The beauty and danger of listservs. We truly love the listservs of the many professional associations we belong to, but they can also be a minefield. E-mail certainly isn't the best form of communication, especially when there's conflict, so we avoid getting into any sort of argument via e-mail. These lists are meant to be a positive place to exchange ideas and to solve linguistic puzzles, and everyone tends to be very, very helpful. However, once in a while 1,000+ people have to witness a personal spat between two members, and that's not a great idea. There's never any reason to air any grievances on a forum that thousands of people can read. Our tip: if you have a dispute with a colleague, take him or her to coffee and talk about it privately. If you don't live in the same city, set up a phone call. It's sad to see that some users have to get banned from listservs because they cannot stick to the netiquette rules, and unfortunately, others remember very clearly who they are.
  • Go for a walk. Again, we all get angry and annoyed. Customers and even colleagues can be unreasonable and treat you poorly, which is a fact of life. Before you make your next move, clear your head, go for a walk and ask yourself: "Will this matter a year from now?" It probably won't. Pet a friendly dog while you are out on that walk and remind yourself that no matter how tough business can be, working for yourself is truly marvelous.
What about you, dear colleagues? Do you have any other recommendations on this important topic? What's the behavior that should be avoided? We look forward to your comments.

Just Pay Me!

Sooner or later, every professional linguist will be confronted with a customer who doesn't pay for services rendered. While this is highly annoying, it's important to remember that it's usually not personal, but it sure does feel personal when you aren't compensated for your hard work, doesn't it? Now, just like most of our colleagues, we have been very lucky that in more than a decade in business, as we've only had a few non-payers. 

Photo by Judy.
We've had this great payment record because we ask for payment in advance when we work with non-corporate clients, only work with people we trust, and make sure that we have addresses and contact information for all new customers in case a dispute arises. In addition, every customer has to sign a contract agreeing to our price and terms, and that document would come in really handy if we had to go to court. In addition, in the rare case that we work with an agency for an interpreting case, we check their rating on the invaluable Payment Practices website. In spite of all these precautions, once in a while a customer hasn't paid, and here are some of the steps we've taken to remedy the situation.



  • Our payment terms are usually net 30, and if payment has not arrived after 45 days or so, we send a kind follow-up e-mail in very nice terms. Sometimes the check is in the mail (whether that's true or not) and sometimes something has slipped through the cracks, which can happen. If the customer did not have the intention of paying us promptly, this e-mail serves as a nice reminder that we are very much on top of our accounts receivable. In those cases, the situation is usually remedied very quickly.
  • If we don't hear back after that first e-mail or the customer is not too responsive, we call a few days later and/or e-mail and calmly remind the customer that we had a signed agreement, that services have been rendered and that we would like to get paid for our services in accordance with said agreement. If we don't get the response we need via e-mail or phone, we send a certified letter that the customer has to sign for and include the overdue invoice.
  • If there is still no appropriate response after several e-mails, phone calls and the certified letter or if we get an excuse along the lines of "the check was lost in the mail" and more than 90 days or so have passed, we send another letter saying that we need to resolve the matter by X day before getting a third party involved. We've only had to use that strategy a few times, and it's worked.
  • If all else fails, we take the matter to a collection agency (the ATA partners with RMS; we once referred an account to them that they did not manage to collect, so there was no fee) or, if the client is in the same jurisdiction as we are, another option is to take the client to small claims court. With a signed contract in hand, the case should be relatively clear, but even if you win, it's up to you and not the court to collect the outstanding amount. We've never taken anyone to small claims court, but in Europe, one of our clients filed for bankruptcy and we have a collection agency representing us in the bankruptcy proceedings. We are basically a low-level creditor to the company, and the odds of collecting are low, but it's worth the try.
  • On a few occasions, and if the client is in the same city, we have asked someone we trust to go the client's office and kindly tell them that they would wait until the check is issued. This is uncomfortable for all parties and usually yields the intended result: payment.

What about you, dear colleagues? How have you resolved non-payment issues? And how do they make you feel? As much as we know non-payment is not personal, it's still tough to deal with. We'd love to hear your comments and ideas. 

Fall Conference Schedule: Michigan

We are delighted to announce that Judy will be one of the two keynote speakers at the  MiTiN 2014 Regional Conference on Interpreting and Translation (Michigan Translators/Interpreters Network) on Saturday, October 2. She is quite honored to join Lori Thicke, founder of Lexworks and, most notably, the lovely Translators Without Border, which we proudly support through donations. In addition to her keynote titled "10 Habits of Highly Successful Interpreters and Translators," Judy is also giving a workshop titled "Pricing Strategies for Language Professionals." The motto of the 5th Annual MiTiN conference is "Breaking Out of Your Comfort Zone," which should make for very interesting sessions. The MiTiN conference committee has been working very hard to put on this one-day event, and we hope that many of you can join us in Novi, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. Please help us spread the word! The conference, which includes lunch and a networking session, will take place at the Crowne Plaza hotel, and there will also be some exhibitors.

Here's the conference schedule with all the sessions, and you can also visit the conference website.

Two Hands = Violinist?

Today we'd like to discuss one of our favorite topics -- why the simple fact that being bilingual doesn't automatically make anyone either a translator or an interpreter. There's significant training involved, but oftentimes outsiders to the profession equate bilingualism with professional translation and interpretation because writing and speaking is something we already know and do, so they don't perceive it as a learned skill. We've spent a few years trying to collect some convincing analogies, and depending on who we are talking to, we select from this list. Some might be more direct analogies than others, while others might be funnier. As always, take some of these with a grain of salt.

In addition, we like to add that just because you like to do something, it doesn't mean you do it well or that others would pay you to do it. For instance, just because you like to crochet doesn't mean that it's good enough that anyone wants to buy your work. Just because you like to dance doesn't mean that event planners will hire you as entertainment for their events. Passionate chess players might very well not be good enough to play payed exhibition matches -- but the professionals are. Enjoying something doesn't necessarily mean you are good enough that others will pay you for it, or, in other words, that it will have value in the marketplace. However, oddly enough, this is what the general public usually incorrectly assumes about languages skills and translation or interpretation. We rarely hear anyone say that they like numbers, ergo they are an accountant, perhaps because there are significant barrier to entry to becoming an accountant, but we digress.

We've written about this many times before, but we'll state it again: being bilingual is the minimum requirement for this job, just like having two hands is the minimum requirement for being a violinist. But having two hands doesn't automatically make you a violinist. And being bilingual doesn't automatically make you an interpreter or a translator, but all interpreters and translators are bilingual.

Now, without further delay, here are our analogies. Some might be better than others, and we look forward to hearing which ones you like!

Being bilingual doesn't make you a translator just like.....
  • being able to write in English doesn't make you a journalist.
  • being able to write in English doesn't make you an advertising copywriter.
  • being able to write in English doesn't make you a public relations professional.
  • being able to type doesn't make you a court reporter.
  • enjoying cooking doesn't make you a professional chef.
  • driving every day doesn't make you a race car driver.
  • being tall doesn't make you a basketball player.

Being bilingual doesn't make you an interpreter just like...
  • speaking English doesn't make you an actor.
  • speaking English doesn't make you a TV anchor.
  • speaking English doesn't make you a professional comedian.
  • speaking English doesn't make you a voice-over talent.
  • liking to argue doesn't make you a lawyer.

I Was Bored Before I Even Began

We created this image on www.canva.com.
Many times, we hear from newcomers to the profession that they want to become translators and/or interpreters because they love languages and really enjoy working for themselves. Those are two excellent reasons, but of course those two things don't make anyone a translator or interpreter, nor do they guarantee success, but we digress. Today we wanted to address some lesser-known facts of the business: much of it won't have anything to do with language at all, and some can be, well, a bit boring. We are not saying, by any stretch of the imagination, that all adminstrative tasks are boring, but it does make for a catchy title. 

Most readers of this blog are experienced linguists and will certainly know that self-employed translators and interpreters have to devote a significant portion of their time to tasks that have absolutely nothing to do with language. These are neither fun tasks nor tasks that you can romanticize at all: they are the nitty-gritty basic tasks (some very easy, some challenging) that are necessary to run a business. They include highly interesting (yes, we are being sarcastic here) things such as:
  • Logging our mileage and our business expenses so we can deduct them from our taxes 
  • Calling customers who have not paid their invoices (does not happen very often)
  • Sending customers the requested paperwork (W-9s, confidentiality agreements)
  • Dealing with tax-related paperwork
  • Paying our bills and your vendors
  • Renewing business licenses and dealing with government bureaucracies
  • Going to see our accountants and lawyer, etc. 
On the other hand, there are many routine tasks that we enjoy very much, such as:
  • Issuing invoices
  • Working in our trusty accounting system, Translation Office 3000
  • Corresponding with clients
  • Depositing checks
  • Checking the online balances of our accounts
Others are not boring, but can be taxing, such as:
  • Dealing with computer challenges
  • Doing software upgrades
  • Calling the bank again to deal with an incorrect charge
In addition, we frequently outsource work to a small group of our superstar contractors, so we oftentimes do project management and edit others' work, which is not boring at all, but can be quite cumbersome on the administrative level.

The point of this post is the following: newcomers to this profession must realize that while of course we work with language on a daily basis, all linguists devote part of their time to administrative tasks. Sometimes it's 30% of our day, sometimes it's 50%, sometimes it's even 100% (as happened during a recent computer crisis). We think it's important that newcomers know about this reality, which is why we share it here on this space as food for thought.

What about you, dear colleagues? How much time do you spend on boring (read: administrative) tasks every day? Which one is your least favorite? Do you have one that you actually like?

And surely music fans were quick to recognize the title of this post: it is a favorite line from an 80s song by The Smiths. The name of the song is "Shirtlifters of the World Unite." Yes, Judy is a huge The Smiths/Morrissey fan.

Spanish Grammar and Writing: In Pictures

Our friends over at Ortografía Real have been tweeting up a storm and have been sharing a large amount of interesting tidbits about the Spanish language. We really enjoy their tweets and their Facebook page, and highly recommend you follow them.

They recently tweeted two images that nicely illustrate some very common mistakes. If we had a penny for every time someone sent us an e-mail with Hay nos vemos (correct: Ahí nos vemos) or Haber si te quedas a cenar (correct: A ver si te quedas a cenar), we would be rich. Perhaps this will clear up some of these common errors. Enjoy!

Thank you, Ortografía Real, for this gem.
Simple and priceless. A ver si se acuerdan.

Join the discussion! Commenting is a great way of becoming part of the translation and interpretation community. Your comments don’t have to be overly academic to get published. We usually publish all comments that aren't spam, self-promotional or offensive to others. Agreeing or not agreeing with the issue at hand and stating why is a good way to start. Social media are all about interaction, so don’t limit yourself to reading and start commenting! We very much look forward to your comments and insight. Let's learn from each other and continue these important conversations.

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The entrepreneurial linguists and translating twins blog about the business of translation from Las Vegas and Vienna.

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