Lesson 91: Can we (and should we) sell the same translation to all clients?

Lesson 91: Can we (and should we) sell the same translation to all clients?

At the recent conference in Budapest where I had the pleasure of attending and presenting, the first conference morning included a panel discussion with the representatives of LSPs and freelance translators. One of the claims made, to which I opposed, was that LSPs (no matter if large of single freelancers) should offer their clients “fit for purpose” translation, thus of different levels of quality depending on the intended use. Quite on purpose, I played the devil’s advocate and asked the proponent of this claim to consider whether a doctor should be advising his or her patient to use lower quality medications or surgical appliances, for whatever reason. Of course this metaphor is out of place and you should never compare issues so drastically different (or are they?). Yet the doctor and medicine metaphor caught on.

Voicing her opinion from the audience, Tess Whitty from Swedish Translation Services suggested that, while administering different quality of translation may be out of place, perhaps translators should use their expertise to discern which medication to apply, and in some cases even act as one.

I’ve been playing with this idea for a couple of weeks now and asked myself whether we actually can (and should) sell the same translation to all clients? In the end I have to admit that I do agree with Tess, hence I even thought of writing about customer segmentation.

Let me tell you another anecdote. Recently, I have visited a new accountant who spent an hour talking to me about my business to understand it properly (even was curious about my book!), wrote down all that my business activity consisted of and based on that offered a tailored service that I know I’ll be happy with (and I’m prepared to pay). I’m quickly becoming their biggest fan, mostly because they took the time to analyse my needs and offer something that will work best for me. Yet still, all they’re doing is selling accountancy services.

Again, this made me wonder about how the majority of us is selling translation. With some exceptions, we tend to offer just one service, manifesting itself in the words translated. We hardly ever use our expertise to advise the client on what should be translated and how, and even more rarely we discuss additional services or indeed the purpose of their translation.
Perhaps this is wrong. Perhaps this is the source of commoditisation of translation services. Perhaps this leads to the conviction that anybody can translate because it’s just replacing words in one language with another. A part of being an expert is admitting that you have the expertise to advise your client on the best translation services needed in their case. And acknowledging that translation is a tailored-made service is the first step to customer segmentation.

This week I offer a rather simple list of points for you to consider, especially when working with direct clients.

1. Acknowledge translation as a tailored-made service.

It’s not about churning out words, it’s about putting your intellectual powers, experience and expertise into a piece of text that has to serve a certain purpose for your client.

2. Accept your responsibility as an expert.

When I visited my accountant, I trusted his expertise and relied on his best advice. This is what I’m paying for, not going through my receipts every month.

3. Discuss the text with your client.

One of the first questions I always ask is: what do you want to achieve with this translation? I need to know that to be able to deliver texts that really work for my clients (help where it hurts, solve a problem, whatever you call it).

4. Make suggestions.

As I said at a recent workshop in Madrid, some of my clients rely on my expertise to translate but also to suggest how they could improve their message for its target audience and purpose. I’m not hesitating to tell my clients that this font/colour/image/metaphor/slogan/campaign may not work in Poland.

5. Offer additional services.

I’m never afraid to tell my client that yes of course, I can translate this press release for them, and if they want me to, I can also look for places where they can publish it and contact the relevant people on their behalf, for a fee of course. Doesn’t it make sense to make sure that my translation is as effective as it could be?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about that. Do you have any other ideas how we could turn translation into a more tailored-made service? Like I said, this is the first step towards customer segmentation, so you’ll see why this is so important.


  1. Lukasz Gos , on May 14, 2014 at 22:43 Reply

    In some cases the patient’s budget is limited, and yes, at that point both the doctor and the pharmacist should assist the patient in finding the best and safest cure for the money. They can’t say they only deal in the newest and most expensive drug with no side effects. In other words, that it’s either the best and priciest medicine or nothing.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Nov 6, 2014 at 23:29 Reply

      I think you summed up why it’s a bad metaphor for translation services in your usual concise manner. I definitely agree on this, but this is where medicine differs from translation. I think patients tend to spend as much as they can for medicine and we know this is not the case with translation clients…

  2. Lukasz Gos , on May 14, 2014 at 23:15 Reply

    Now regarding added services. One-stop shops are always attractive, but, just like taking clients to lunch instead of interpreting, if you spend too much time (wo)manning the phone for the client to make things happen, you’ll be translating less. Plus, the more fixing you do, and the lower profile you keep while at it, the more will your job resemble concierge work.

    Not that you can’t do, say, PR translation plus publisher relationships plus media liaisons and even lobbying if you want to, but at that point it isn’t really translating, it’s some sort of PR firm. Similarly, if you do a lot of monolingual copywriting apart from transcreation, and if you throw market research and graphic design in, then you effectively run a small ad agency. Again, nothing wrong with that, except you should redefine your own services rather than translation itself (or translation services). That’ll do a fine job of differentiating you rather than just simply unloading a bunch of additional tasks on you for the same price or a little premium.

    When the list of tasks no longer fits comfortably inside a translator’s billet, bill yourself as a consultant or agent or, heck, even facilitator or whatever else works (and I do think actually having the gall openly to brand yourself as a facilitator would work). Again, don’t make them think translation now includes handling the calls for them. Rather, raise the profile of what else you do and call it business consultancy or mediation or facilitation or whatever is appropriate. And charge accordingly.

    For example, in a couple of years I might want to go back to legal practice while retaining some vestiges of my current translation work. It would make sense to consult on contracts and all sorts of things that can go wrong due to language, including monolingual issues such as lack of clarity. I’d be billing hard at the rates of a very narrowly focused legal expert (nobody else here focuses on language) while still having the (former) translation career in my CV, lending me more credit in that lawyering. The translation past would be an asset, not a burden, just like the lawyering past was an asset in translation.

    But the last thing I wished everybody to think would be that translation — or legal practice, for that matter — were just that.

    I’d probably try to make it into some sort of a complete thing, a whole, a unique entity, or at least brand myself as a unique person who does a unique kind of thing, where the job title really isn’t important. Not added value. I’d want to make it core value. With a premium for completeness. Because a whole is more than the sum total of its parts.

    For the record, a puzzle composed of 1000 pieces will probably always sell better than 1000 pieces composing a puzzle. A train station or beach hut or pirate castle or whatever else can be made of Lego blocks and sold in a nice package with a photo of the complete thing, with a DIY instruction attached, will sell better than a collection of blocks of specific colours, sizes or shapes out of which you can make something.

    So don’t sell added stuff or throw in gratuities, rather create a new kind of service (along with demand for it). Do some culture hacking. 😛

    Forgive the tone if I sound a little know-it-all, you do know like 100x more about this stuff than I do. 😛

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Nov 6, 2014 at 23:35 Reply

      I have to say I really enjoy your comments, thought-provoking as usual! Of course branding yourself as a translator and when to change your business title is another kettle of fish altogether. I think I might write a post about this in the future.

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