Thursday, 22 January 2015

Investigating the gap between translator training and the real business of translation

Why not bookmark this article to read later? It's quite long, but very relevant.

Lucy Brooks and Marta Stelmaszak collaborated on a project to investigate what could be considered to be a neglected area. In this article they analyse the results of a survey and propose some solutions.
Today’s economic situation has meant that traditional routes into translation have become scarcer. Previously, many would-be translators left university with their degrees and sought employment in in-house translation departments where they would hone their skills. Others entered different careers and applied their language skills within their chosen career, thus acquiring an extensive background in their field.

But the market in the 21st century has changed beyond all recognition. There are very few in-house or supervised translation positions available, and the competition for those that remain is fierce. Graduates from an MA course in translating are therefore increasingly turning to freelancing as possibly the only practical option open to them. Figures obtained from the Office of National Statistics[1] indicate that, at 15% of all people in work in the UK, self-employment is currently higher than at any point in the past 40 years. And the outlook is for the trend to continue. Freelancers are the key driver for economic performance in the modern economy.[2] 
Many graduates, whether they are just leaving the education system and entering the workplace for the first time, or career changers with a background in another profession, find that they are ill-prepared for running their own business. MA courses throughout the country teach the art of translation and that is what they should do of course. But should they also be providing in-depth business training?

Business training at university

To be fair, many of the MA courses of which we have become aware offer business modules, but in some cases they are not compulsory, and in all cases they are not very comprehensive. Figures shown at a recent conference [3] on the subject of business preparation showed that 64% of the courses surveyed offered no business/professional skills module, and only 12% insisted that all students attend them. Largely the content of such curricula has remained the same, leaving many excellent translators without the necessary business acumen.

The main question here is, does this matter? And how does it affect translators starting on their freelance careers.

Survey of MA graduates working as freelance translators

In order to answer these questions the authors conducted a survey to ascertain the scale of the problem. Respondees from all over the world were asked to tell us how prepared they felt after they graduated from their MA courses[4]. The results were quite alarming.

How much business training at University?

Respondents were first asked how much training they received during their MA course in the business and commercial aspects of running a translation business. Nearly 13% said they had received “a lot”, i.e. several hours. Just over 28% said they had received two hours or less, but the vast majority (59%) said “none at all”. This bears out the information given at the conference mentioned above. While this might seem to be an indictment of the course itelf, at least one person, at a university which offered such training, but without making it a compulsory component of the degree said: Business training was offered for free, over many hours and topics, but as an extra option that didn't count towards the final degree. As it wasn't compulsory, most students didn't bother going, and it makes me angry to hear those same translators complaining today about the lack of business training in their degree!

Of students who graduated from MAs in translation and who responded to the question “When you started out as a freelance translator how confident did you feel in the business world?” only 2% said they were very confident, with 31% stating that they were reasonably confident. 58% felt they were not at all confident while 10% confessed to being “terrified”. Tellingly, when respondents who had not done an MA were included, the figures changed slightly for the better (only 6.6% were terrified!)

What business knowledge was lacking?

We investigated further by asking what business knowledge they felt they lacked when they started. There were many suggestions as the answer was in free-form response, but the comments repeatedly included: finding clients, accounts, billing, communication, marketing and prospecting, pricing, negotiation, legal structures, and more.

Plugging the gaps

So how does this lack of knowledge affect translators and what have individuals done to plug the
gaps in their knowledge? Again, answers were free-form, and included: reading, personal research, workshops and courses run by various CPD organisations, studying HMRC guidelines, small business courses, consulting with colleagues, attending the Business School for Translators, local chamber of commerce, The variety of sources and information obtained by freelancers on their own was huge. Sadly one person who responded to the survey said they had given up.

Another question asked what, despite the efforts translators were making to train themselves, they felt they still lacked. Here the responses included: more specialised subject knowledge, marketing, and negotiation skills.

Satisfactory income levels?

The survey also asked respondents to say if they were happy with their income from working as a freelance translator. It was gratifying that only 5% said they felt they did not earn enough, but the general picture shows that, despite working full time, and with many years of experience, around half of respondents were not particularly happy with their income levels, while only 21% professed to be happy with their income level. (The difference between these percentages and 100% is explained by those who declined to answer that question.)

Responsibility to provide training

All these figures lead us to ask the question: Whose responsibility is it to provide business training for freelance translators and interpreters? Some respondents clearly felt that the MA courses should provide more training. “I had a module called a business of translation and it was quite good, but it was not enough. Covered very basics but nothing about looking for clients and very little on marketing”. “No training and absolutely no follow-up. Pretty much on my own.”. However most stressed that they were at university for the academic side of things, though they would have appreciated more on the practical side of freelancing.

Training budget for translators?

So, who should be providing the training? There is no doubt that post-university business training
exists for translators (see the panel for suggestions). Professional associations are increasingly offering excellent courses for new entrants to the profession, and there are private commercial enterprises doing the same, and but in all cases, freelancers will need to fund it themselves. Launching a business requires a certain amount of start-up funding: equipment, software, advertising and marketing, professional memberships, and also to cover the early months/years while earnings may not have peaked. The survey clearly shows that new entrants to freelance translation also undoubtedly need to budget time and money for training in business matters.

Taking business skills training further

To conclude this article, we considered how the situation may be changed for the better. Based on our survey results, it seems that even when business skills training opportunities are provided, students and graduates do not engage actively in improving their knowledge in this area while still at university. The same may also apply to new entrants to the profession from other paths, such as full-time employment, or career-changers. Concentrating on translation skills and disregarding the complexity of the business setting around translation seems to be creating a significant gap between training and career.

To remedy this situation, we suggest raising awareness of business skills throughout translator training. By opening a dialogue about the business conditions of working as a translator, newcomers to the profession are likely to engage more and understand the importance of business knowledge. This responsibility should lie with all translator training providers. While it is encouraging to see more and more universities providing opportunities for employability skills development, educational institutions remain the first and only point of contact for many translation students. Therefore their awareness-raising activities are likely to have the biggest impact.

Universities also often provide facilities such as career centres, career fairs or services, yet these are
mostly geared towards finding employment and improving employability, which does not prepare translation students for freelance or flexible careers, let alone running a business. With an increasing number of graduates in all domains jumping straight into self-employment, universities should consider providing career advice for entrepreneurs, as well as business workshops across all skills.

The gap in business skills training also calls for a tighter cooperation between universities and professional organisations, invaluable resources of skills, experience and practical business knowledge. Looking across industries, it is worth noting that mentoring schemes are particularly effective. Some of the existing initiatives include Starting Work as a Translator or Interpreter seminar held yearly at the University of Westminster in co-operation with ITI and Routes into Languages.

Finally, neither universities nor professional organisations should be solely responsible for providing business skills training. Private companies, benefitting from the experience and knowledge of their owners, are already making efforts to bridge the gaps. For example, eCPD Webinars, online Continuing Professional Development training provider, apart from its regular calendar of events, is offering on-demand video training for new translators, as well as the Business School for Translators course together with Marta Stelmaszak, an author and blogger about business skills in translation. Other successful translators are also starting to provide training and consultancy services, especially in the areas of marketing and branding. Further developments in this area should include bringing in outside expertise, for example from professional marketers, business developers and strategists, to the world of translation. Career and business coaching also provides an interesting, yet unexplored avenue in the business of translation.

The ultimate responsibility lies, of course, with individual translators and interpreters. Taking a more serious look at business skills needed to start as a freelance service provider is just the first step. New entrants to the profession could manage the gap themselves by preparing structured and comprehensive CPD plans for themselves involving business and marketing knowledge, as well as allocating budget to business skills training.

We recommend that you investigate the following:
eCPD Webinars has a page dedicated to new translators

The Business School forTranslators run by Marta Stelmaszak and eCPD Webinars

ITI website. Look for Setting Up as a Freelance Translator

CIOL website. Look under training. Members of the translating Division also receive a Translators’ Pack, full of advice for new entrants to the profession.

Routes Into languages.

The authors:

Lucy Brooks, Chartered Linguist (CL),FCIL, MITI has been in business for over 30 years, and for the past 24 she has operated a successful commercial and industrial translation business. She is a fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, a qualified member of ITI, and was one of the first to attain the newly created professional chartered status for linguists. In 2009 – 2010 she instituted a series of CPD training webinars for the Chartered Institute of Linguists and drove forward a dynamic programme of professional development. She went on to found eCPD Webinars in 2010.

Marta Stelmaszak is a Polish – English translator and interpreter helping SMEs in Poland and the UK grow their businesses through better online communication. She graduated in Management, Information Systems and Innovation from the LSE. She’s one of top 15 freelancers in the UK as selected by IPSE. Marta runs the Business School for Translators recently turned into an online course and published a book.

[1] Office of National Statistics report.

[2] The Role of Freelancers in the 21st Century British Economy . Professor Andrew Burke, published by PCG - Report

[3] Business skills provision in postgraduate translation courses Portsmouth Translation Conference, 8 November 2014. Karen Stokes, FCIL, MITI, CL (Translator)

[4] The survey results included MA graduates in the past 15 years.

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