Jost Zetzsche Tool Kit

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

My 2 cents about dealing with the clients - 1

I have been practising the profession of translation from 1975 onwards. I guess I can say a few words on the ways and means of attracting clients. One thing is certain. One should know what one wants and should have clear ideas as to how one goes about getting it. Once this is achieved, half the battle is won. The rest is just doing things as per plan.

1. The most important thing is identifying and capturing new clients. This is an ongoing process. A separate post is required to talk about the ways of reaching up to a potential client. The aspiring translator has to write to him. What to write and whom to write and so on form the subject matter of the second part of this post.

2. Know thyself. Be clear about your capabilities and non-capabilities. If you promise impossible things and fail to deliver, your credibility will be the casualty. For example, if the client mentions a deadline for a given job, you should agree only if it is possible for you to meet it. Nine times out of ten the client will just be bluffing about the urgency of the job. If you are browbeaten into accepting the deadline and are unable to meet the deadline, you have only yourself to blame. So, this aspect will form the subject matter of a separate post.

3. Be clear about the rates. Many translators lose out on this aspect. It may be true that the job is easy for them and they love this work. But there is no need to tell this to the client. If you do so, he will start behaving as if he is doing you a favor. So another post for this aspect.

4. Do not for God's sake accept at face value whatever the client says. Some clients are in the habit of saying that they have thousands of jobs in the pipeline and expecting to get some reduced rates from you. This too will just be a bluff. Most probably the job in hand will just be a one-time job. No further work can be expected in the near future. Their stake is in lowering the price. I will tell you how I deal with just ploys in one of my future posts.

5. Do not give unnecessary details. For example, you are working full-time in a company. This freelance translation is just a side-business for you. In such a scenario, you cannot be too careful. You should keep the two activities in water-tight compartments. You should never tell the translation clients as to where you are working full-time and the full-time employer should not know that you are working freelance elsewhere. This is an extreme example and I will elaborate on it in a later post.

6. Be always accessible. Keep your communication channels open. In the present-day setup it is easy to execute. We will deal with this at the appropriate time.

7. Always try to make the best of your situation, whatever it might be. Till 2002, I had no computer. Now I do. I converted both the situations to my advantage. More about it later.

8. Doing the translation is just half the job. Collecting the money is equally important. I will come to this later.

How am I qualified talking about these things and more? I practised them myself from 1975 onwards. At present I am a very successful translator in Chennai, India. No false modesty shall hold me from saying this.

Dondu N.Raghavan

Monday, September 26, 2005

Disturbing thoughts: Is translation a non-value activity?

At times I am asked to come to the client's premises to do translations, whenever the work is of confidential nature and/or is too cumbersome to handle at home. In the case I am going to cite here, there were bundles of French technical drawings in hard copy and I had a merry time translating them.

Enough of background. The contact officer and I were discussing the company's translation requirements. He told me that his bosses wanted him to make do without translation, as the work was at a preliminary stage and one was not sure of getting the order. Hence cost has to be cut. Here the offending word comes in. The bosses said to him that translation is a "non-value service", as it does not bring in money directly. Though taken aback, I was delighted with the opportunity to talk and talk about translation.

My arguments in a nutshell:
Translation is vital, as the client has to understand in the first place the principal's requirements expressed in another language. At this point of time, it is an investment and as is the case in all investments, there can be no 100% guarantee of getting fat returns. After all, the principal may not like the client's rates and not give the order. It is not the fault of translation. Without translation no meaningful offer can be given.

The above mindset of a typical client results in there being no budget provision for translations and in the translation activity not finding a place in the bar charts. Everybody assumes that translation involves just copying into another language and it is just common sense. This is an important drawback for projects involving two parties speaking different languages. Poor fellow, the contact officer had a glazed look after nearly 30 minutes of my onslaught of words.

A few words about the situation obtaining in India. Indian companies have English as the working language and this language is known to many people in Europe, especially in the German and French speaking countries. The top people going to Europe for negotiations get by almost without interpreters and if at all any interpreter is required, the host looks after that. Foreign visitors to India do speak acceptable level of English and more often than not interpreters are not required.

This situation is the main reason why our entrepreneurs are lulled into a sense of false security. Because they were able to pull along without interpreters, they think that their engineers and other officials in the next rung of management can do the same thing. Unfortunately this does not apply to translations of the vast documentation and they are obliged to hire us. But this is bothering them and hence they give statements such as those indicating that translation is a non-value activity. They try to use this argument to browbeat us translators into accepting low rates. This cuts no ice with me, as given half a chance, I start waxing eloquent in favour of my profession. And I stand firm and manage to get good rates.

The reason for this posting is to share my thoughts with my friends in a sympathetic atmosphere and get more points in favor of our case. I request my translator / interpreter colleagues to give more inputs on this question that touches us all.


Saturday, September 24, 2005

Life is very beautiful - 2

When I started learning German, a remarkable thing happened. Till that period whenever I watched a Second World War film, I was seeing the Germans as the bad guys. But once I started learning the language, I started becoming sorry for them. That is the magic of learning a new language.

I was fortunately posted to Madras in 1974. In 1975 I enrolled in the French class of Alliance Francaise. My professor was Madame Sharada Lartet, an Indian married to a Frenchman. Believe me, she was wonderful. Here too I repeated my German experience. I completed all the lessons of the Mauger Rouge - 1 within the first three months after the start of my course in July 1975. With a feeling of deja-vu I started taking books from the library. Then I purchased Mauger Rouge - II and completed that as well within the next month. This was folloed by Mauger Rouge - III. It was really hectic in those days. Sharada encouraged me in all my endeavors. I started speaking French within the first three months. I passed the Certificat exam in April 1976.

Pre-diplome class started July 1976 and I was fortunate to be again in Sharda's class! But catastrophe struck at the end of the first trimester. Our class was cancelled as there were not enough students in our session. We were asked to come to another session but it was not convenient for me. Here Sharada rushed to my aid. She packed me to the third trimester session for students writing pre-diplome exam in Dec 1976. I saved one trimester in this manner.

But wonders did not cease. After one week of this session, the new Professor Maureau took me aside and said that my level was far superior to that of my fellow students. He and Sharada consulted together and Sharada sent me to the third trimester of the Diplome class being conducted by her husband Professor Lartet. I gained three more trimesters in this manner. Dec 1976 I passed Diplome with the mention "tres honorable." Then followed the class for the Diplome Superieur in July 1977, which I passed in April 1978.

Looking back, I wonder what made me tick. Without the help of Sharada I would have been nowhere. She came in my life like an angel. I was overwhelmed with her kindness and was also scared on seeing her trust in me. This made me work hard, at least to justify her faith in me.

It was in this manner that I got German and French, from which I have been translating respectively from 1975/1978 onwards. This has given me a fine opening as I start negotiating with a prospective client. I tell him that I have 23 years' experience as graduate electrical engineer, 30 years as German translator and 27 years as French translator. Thus I have a cumulative experience of 80 years whereas I am just 59 years young. The client would invariably ask "how did you manage it?" and I will say with a straight face "Overtime, sir". This always broke the ice and further negotiations proceed smoothly.

Life is really so beautiful!


Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Life is very beautiful -1

Let me start with Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras, India (a branch of Goethe Institut, Munich, Germany).

It was June 1969. I was awaiting the results of my final year engineering exams. Results came. I failed in 2 out of 9 subjects. All my hopes of getting a first class lay shattered, in spite of the fact that my general marks were far above the threshold for first class. Everything came to naught just because of this failing in two subjects.

My father gave me moral support. He comforted me and said that not getting first class was not the end of the world. My next exams were scheduled for November that year. He suggested that I do something else to distract me from my blues. It was in this manner that I enrolled in German language course being conducted by Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras, a branch of the Goethe Institut Munich. Little did both of us have an inkling of things to follow.

Right from day 1 of the course I took to German like a duck takes to water. The medium of instruction was German. Our professor Herr Sharma made us all feel at home with his wonderful lectures. As far as I was concerned, the moment he taught us a point in German grammar, it appeared to me to be the most obvious thing in the world. Especially the verb having second place in a normal sentence and the last place in a subordinate clause looked so beautiful and poetic.

The course I attended was a normal one with classes of 1 hour each, 3 days a week. We had to pay monthly fees amounting to Rs. 12 (in those days 1 US dollar was equivalent to Rs. 7.50). Exams were conducted at the end of each semester. My first semester exam took place in November 1969. I came first with the grade "sehr gut". Here there was a pleasant surprise. Persons getting "sehr gut" need not pay fees for the first month of the next semester. And they can retain this exemption from paying fees as long as they continued getting this grade in every monthly test. The moment they failed to get Sehr gut once, they had to start paying fees and this was irreversible till the semester-end.. I did not pay a single rupee afterwards. Therefore I learnt German for just Rs.48/ (four months' fees in the first semester)!

In order to avoid problems due to possible missing of classes, I took up the habit of doing the lessons in advance. Before the first semester was over, I had finished the entire book by doing all the grammar exercises of all the 27 lessons in writing. This book covered portions meant for the Grundstufe-I & II requiring four semesters. Classes became a delight and I started speaking German with my professor. He suggested that I start taking books from the library. A new life opened before me. I cleared my engineering exams in November 1969 and concentrated more on German, if such a thing was possible. April 1970 saw me writing the exam for G-I. In July that year I joined the rapid course offering 5 classes a week leading to G-II exam in November 1970 itself.

Here another incredible thing happened. With the encouragement of my professors, I purchased the book for the Mittelstufe and started doing the exercises on my own. In September 1970 I took special permission to attend classes for M-I simultaneously. Fortunately the timings of G-II and M-I classes did not clash. I was taken as a "Gasthörer" in M-I.

G-II exams were conducted in November 1970, M-I exams in December 1970. I came first in both exams. In January 1971, I got a posting as electrical engineer in the Central Public Works Department of the Government of India. Posting was in Bombay. I took tearful leave of Max Mueller Bhavan, Madras and went to Bombay. After settlig down I went to the MMB at Bombay but no MII classes were offered at that time. Around April 1971, I wrote to Max Mueller Bhavan in Poona, a city near Bomay. This MMB offered courses full time and exams were conducted every 2 months. I asked for permission to write the M-II exams in August 1971. It was granted and I passed M-II exams as well. I had to satisfy myself with second rank only. With their encouragement I took the exam for Kleinessprachdiplom in November 1971 and passed that as well.

In retrospect, I see that my failing in the final year of engineering was not at all a catastrophe. It gave a big twist in my life, whose effect is felt even today. More about that later. For the present let me say one thing. Life is so beautiful!


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Reverse translation

We translators are supposed to translate into our mother tongue only and not away from it. In this connection, let us be clear as to what is meant by mother tongue. Let me take my own case.

My mother tongue is Tamil and I studied in Tamil medium till the 9th standard. All subjects other then English were taught in Tamil only. In my 10th standard, the situation took a 180 degrees turn. I had opted for the bifurcated course in engineering. Now except for Tamil all the other subjects were taught in English! Fortunately, thanks to my mother and my 8th Standard teacher Mr. Jayarama Iyengar, I had a strong foundation in English grammar. And I am a voracious reader. These factors helped me in coping with the changed scenario. I had however a small problem in spoken English, which I solved within a few months thanks to constant practice. Sorry for the digression but then this explains my statement that I consider English too as my mother tongue for all purposes.

Hence as per the conventional wisdom, I am supposed to translate from German or French or Italian into English and not vice versa. Well, I do not accept jobs translating into Italian but I do accept assignments translating from English into German or French.

During the first six years of my translation activities starting 1975, I translated into English only. But then in the year 1981 I joined IDPL as Design Engineer cum French translator, a unique designation without any precedent, but more about this later. In retrospect I see that it was good that I was not aware of this restriction concerning reverse translation. Right from the day one of my stay in IDPL, my bosses started giving me jobs of translation in the pair French<>English. So in this case there was really no choice about declining reverse translation jobs. It was either doing the job as demanded or being shown the door!

Contract specifications in French will come from Algeria. I will translate them into English. Our engineers will then go through them and give their quotation in English. I will render them into French and the whole thing will be sent to the Algerian principal. Here my engineering knowledge stood me in good stead. Not one French translation was returned by the Algerians alleging incomprehensibility. This was actually the routine when my predecessor was there. She was an MA in French and nothing more. Not at all in touch with technical jargon. She had a very bad time.

Now my two cents about reverse translations in general. At the outset let me say one thing. This restriction is a must for literary translations. Hence I will not dream of translating Harry Potter books into German or French! Nor will I be very enthusiastic about translating into German or French the Websites, which will be viewed by native German or French people. The native touch will just be missing in that case.

But then the translation assignments that I usually come across are, more often than not, concerned with technical literature. These are to be read by specialists, who will be more interested in the technical information and less in the language nuances. Here I take the plunge and till date I have been getting along without mishaps.

Another aspect is the question of pricing. In India, the cost of living is less than in advanced countries. Hence our rates are on the lower side. This acts as attraction especially for the Indian clients, who otherwise will have to pay more and that too in foreign currency to native German or French translators.

There is another side to this question. The Indian client will require me to translate from Indian English into German or French. Indian English is a class in itself. It is affected by the mother tongue of the Indian writing the text in Indian English. In that case an Indian translator is more apt to understand the nuances of the original text.

The combination of the above two points is mainly responsible in our getting such reverse translation assignments. Needless to say in my profiles of, Translatorscafe as well as Go translators I offer only translations into English and not into French or German. Thanks to my exposure to the views expressed by other translators in various translators' fora, I have started drawing the Indian client's attention to the necessity of his getting such reverse translation jobs done by native German or French translators. In addition, I bring his attention to the fact that the native touch will be missing in reverse translations done by me. Once the client still decides to give me such work, I take a lot of pains to render them as native as possible.


Thursday, September 08, 2005


The Indian National Scientific Documentation Centre (INSDOC) is a component of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), Government of India. It was by chance that I heard of Insdoc for the first time in the year 1976. At that time I was not to know that this chance encounter was about to bring about a radical change in my way of life.

I was at that time on the lookout for some translation assignments. I knew German and I was working as electrical engineer in the Central Public Works Department of the Government of India. This article about Insdoc appeared in the Sunday edition of The Hindu. It described the Insdoc activities concerning translations from foreign languages especially into English. It employed a battery of fulltime translators translating from European, East Asian and other languages. The article mentioned among other things the translators panel maintained by Insdoc covering freelance translators translating from those languages.

On an impulse, I took an inland letter and dashed of an application to be included in the Insdoc panel. It was a handwritten letter and cost me just 0.20 rupees. Within a week I received a letter from one Mr. Swamy, Translation Coordinator, Insdoc. He sent me a test piece for translation. I did the translation and sent it back. Next week I received confirmation of my being included in the panel accompanied by a small job. It fetched me Rs.81 (Rs.9 per page)! Since then I received jobs from time to time. These and the other Chennai jobs gave me confidence and I was able to land the job of a full-time French translator (I had learnt that language too in the meantime) in Indian Drugs and Pharmaceuticals Limited (IDPL) in New Delhi. Now this shifting to Delhi reinforced my Insdoc contact and I did a lot of work for them as well. This continued till 1995, when Insdoc activities were very much reduced on account of globalization and people favored private agencies to Insdoc on account of its bureaucratic slowness in returning jobs.

By that time a lot of water had flown down the Yamuna and I developed a lot of contacts including agencies and direct clients. But in retrospect I feel that all these developments were initiated with the help of a single inland letter sent by me nearly 30 years back. My gratitude to Insdoc is ever green in my memory.

Dondu Raghavan

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Life before Internet

An interesting question was raised the other day in the French forum of the translator portal A member was curious to know how translators got along before the advent of Internet. For the younger generation of translators the very idea of not having the Internet and computers is quite unthinkable. But oldies like me remember well the life before Internet. This is what I wrote in that topic in English after excusing myself for writing in English in a French forum.

I remember very well the life before Internet. Since March 1975 when I started and till Feb 2002 when I purchased a computer, I have been translating manually. I will write the translation by hand and get it typed by a job-typist. We were expected to deliver the translations in duplicate, typed in double space. Each page was expected to carry 30 lines at 10 words per line. These were the specifications prescribed by INSDOC, a government agency in India.

As I gained confidence and my clients became numerous, I started delivering just the handwritten manuscript and charged by the words in the translated text. Needless to say, I did not have anything to do with a computer, much less the Internet. Counting was done manually. Thus, when in the year 1998 I borrowed a book on translation from the local British Council library, I was amazed to read that having a computer is the first requirement for a translator! In those days, the agencies which gave me work would accept the handwritten manuscript and type the same on the computer. I was asked to proofread the typed copies and that was that.

But things were slowly changing and the clients wanted me to deliver soft copies. But I persuaded them to accept my services as described above. As by this time I had become a full time freelancer, I offered to come to the client's premises for the day and do the translation. I used to point out that since typing is done directly on his computer, the confidentiality of the documents will be maintained. Clients liked this argument. On a typical day at the client's premises, a typist will be assigned to me one hour after I start writing the translation by hand and she will go on typing the sheets on the computer. At the end of the day, the typed copies will be proofread and the corrections carried out. The combination of a fast translator and a fast typist was really explosive. Gradually I used to do the editing in the computer. My typist taught me the art of mastering the keys of the computer.

But things could not continue in this manner and in Feb 2002 I purchased my computer. The first translation was to be done in Excel and with the help of the typist I managed to type the translation by myself. What a relief! Since then I have not looked back. With the advent of the computer in my life, Internet cannot lag behind. In fact it has been a big technology leap for me. At present I do work without any paper being involved. I download the file to be translated, take its save-as copy, tile both the files horizontally and edit the top layer file by reading the bottom layer file. At the end of the day I get two documents that are identical in all respects except the language! During the translation I keep a few online dictionaries open for consultation. One google page too is kept opened.

Looking back, I wonder. What made me tick? Things have happened to me and fortunately all of them were favorable or I was able to turn them to my advantage. Even now I can do the translation in handwritten manuscripts. In fact I still do it now and then. There is this client who is having bunches and bunches of engineering drawings. I go to his place and start doing the translations by hand on the blueprint itself. One draughtsman is assigned to me who incorporates them with his CAD software. I charge by the hour and believe me it is a very good rate. Main thing is, both the client and I are happy with this arrangement. Here too I tell the client to place me near a computer with an internet connection, which I consult for difficult terms. I carry my dictionaries with me of course.


P.S. The French translators welcomed my contribution but the main consensus was that it would have been better had I posted in French. Here my colleague Lien came to my rescue. She translated my post in French! Here it is:

La traduction (enfin... a peu pres) Jun 16, 2004

Je me souviens très bien de la vie avant Internet. Depuis mes débuts en mars 75 jusqu'en février 02, ou je me suis payé un ordinateur, je traduisais tout à la main et je le faisais taper par une dactylo. J'étais censé remettre les traductions en double, tapées en double interligne. Les pages devaient faire 30 lignes de dix mots par ligne. Ces exigences étaient dictées par le INSDOC, un organisme du gouvernement indien.

Comme je prenais de l'assurance et que mes clients devenaient de plus en plus nombreux, je me suis mis à rendre directement les manuscrits en faisant payer au mot le texte cible. Inutile de vous dire que je ne connaissais rien aux ordinateurs et encore moins à Internet. Je comptais les mots un par un. Donc, quand en 98 j'ai emprunté un livre sur la traduction à la bibliothèque du British Council, j'ai été étonné d'apprendre que de posséder un ordinateur était la première condition pour être un traducteur ! A l'époque, les agences qui me donnaient du travail acceptaient mes manuscrits et les retapaient sur ordinateur. On me demandait juste de relire et corriger les copies, était tout.

Mais les choses ont commencé à changer, et les clients ont voulu que je leur remette des textes faits sur ordinateur, mais j'ai quand même pu les persuader de continuer à travailler à ma manière. Comme à l'époque étais devenu un traducteur indépendant à plein temps, je leur ai proposé de venir une journée dans leurs bureaux et de faire la traduction sur place. Je m'en tirais en leur disant que, puisque je faisais directement la traduction sur leur ordinateur, la confidentialité des documents était respectée. L'argument plaisait aux clients. Dans une journée normale au bureau, on m'allouait une dactylo qui arrivait une heure après que j'aie commencé la traduction à la main et elle la tapait au fur et a mesure sur l'ordinateur. À la fin de la journée, les copies étaient relues et corrigées. L'association d'un traducteur et d'une dactylo rapides donnait des résultats spectaculaires. Peu a peu je pris l'habitude de relire sur l'écran. Ma dactylo m'avait appris l'art de taper sur les touches.

Mais les choses ne pouvant plus continuer comme ça, en février 02 je me suis offert un ordinateur. La première traduction était en Excel et avec l'aide de la dactylo je réussis à le faire tout seul. Quel soulagement ! A partir de ce moment la je n'ai jamais eu aucun regret. Puisque l'ordinateur était entré dans ma vie, Internet ne pouvait plus se faire attendre. En fait, pour moi, cela a été un grand progrès technologique. Maintenant je travaille sans plus aucun papier. Je télécharge le fichier à traduire, j'en fait une copie, je travaille avec deux fenêtres sur écran l'une au-dessus l'autre, je traduis dans la fenêtre du haut en lisant dans celle du bas. A la fin de la journée j'ai deux documents identiques en deux langues différentes. Pendant que je traduis, j'ai d'autres fenêtres ouvertes pour les dictionnaires en ligne dont j'ai besoin. J'ai aussi une fenêtre pour google.

En y repensant, je me demande : qu'est-ce qui me fait courir ? Il m'est arrivé des tas de choses et heureusement étaient des bonnes, ou j'ai fait en sorte qu'elles tournent à mon avantage. Même maintenant je pourrai refaire des traductions à la main. En fait, j'en fais encore de temps en temps. J'ai un client qui a des tas et des tas de dessins techniques. Je vais chez lui et je fais les traductions à la main directement sur les plans. J'ai un dessinateur qui les saisit sur ordinateur avec son logiciel CAD. Je me fais payer à l'heure et croyez-moi que ça rapporte. Le plus important de la chose, c'est que le client et moi nous sommes tous les deux très satisfaits de cet arrangement. Là-bas je demande être près d'un ordinateur relie a Internet pour pouvoir faire des recherches pour les mots difficiles. J'amène aussi mes dictionnaires, bien sûr.