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Unethical behavior when acquiring a new customer April 16, 2009

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Business practices, Marketing ideas.

There is an interesting discussion on the PT listserv this morning on one particularly questionable method of acquiring new customers, and I felt the need to share my thoughts on it with all of you. One of the colleagues on the listserv reports that one of her customers, who publishes a magazine in several languages, receives mails practically once a week in which one of the foreign language articles is copied and edited within an inch of its life (emphasis mine – what she really said is “mit viel Farbmarkierungen versehen” = with lots of colored changes/highlights, but I have a feeling that is what is being implied…) to show that the translation is not very good – but there are no concrete suggestions for improvement. They must be corrections for corrections’ sake – we are all familiar with this kind of “proofreading” (in German we call it “verschlimmbessern” – making something worse by trying to improve it). The person sending these mails simply marks up the text and then encloses a letter in which they claim that they can do a much better job translating the texts – and at a lower price. Luckily her client values her translators and tosses the letters out, but anyone would get upset if they got mail like this every week. The client made the comment today that she has only seen such “uncollegial” and unethical behavior from translators. I certainly hope that isn’t the case.

This kind of behavior to win over a new customer is appalling. As one colleague pointed out, the method is not only unethical, but also stupid. The person sending the e-mail and trying to win over a new customer is merely showing how devious and underhanded they are and cutting off the branch they themselves are sitting on. As one other colleague so aptly pointed out, “Das Erste, was ein Vertriebsmensch lernt: Weise auf die Vorzüge Deines Produkts / Deiner Dienstleistung hin, aber rede nie schlecht über Mitbewerber” (The first thing a salesperson learns is to point out the advantages of your product / your services, but never talk bad about your competitors). I couldn’t have said it better myself.

This is different from seeing a badly translated website or sign and making fun of it. Let’s face it, there are a lot of badly translated texts out there, and some clients probably used their secretaries who speak the other language to translate them – or thought they could do the jobs themselves because they studied in the U.S. for a year ten years ago. You can tell when a translation has been written by a professional and by an amateur. There’s nothing wrong with correcting these texts to make the company realize they need to use professionals in order to come across as professional. But tooting your own horn and making corrections for corrections’ sake in the process to try to win over a new customer is not a good way to go.

When you are marketing yourself to new customers, please try not to use this method. Point out the advantages of working with you without making their existing translators look bad. There is a huge difference. Besides, the client and translator might have a really good, long-standing relationship, and it could blow up in your face.



1. Kevin Lossner - April 16, 2009

On those rare occasions when I criticize a translation I find in public sources (like my recent blog post about the RG Rapid-Launcher I bought to train my dog or some really horrible hotel web sites I’ve found), it’s anything but an attempt to drum up business. Usually it’s for a product or service I’m interested in, which I think monolingual friends or family might also need or like, and the bad translation just pisses me off, because it would impair their ability to benefit from that product or service. I usually figure that the owner’s favorite nephew did the work and I’m making an enemy no matter how polite I might try to be.

In any case, you are quite right that “positive rules” when it comes to sales, and slash and burn tactics are for droolers. If that overeager translator wanted to try a better approach, an expression of interest in the subject matter and an example of an article translation might be better – with little or no mention of the existing translation.

2. jillsommer - April 16, 2009

Hi Kevin, and that is the difference! As long as you aren’t doing it to drum up business, it is acceptable to point it out to the company (they probably have no idea) or vent to the translation community in general :-).

3. Ofer Tirosh - April 17, 2009

I don’t see what’s bad in showing you can do better than you competitors?
I think it’s a rather creative method to acquiring new clients although I had never and will never use it.

jillsommer - April 17, 2009

It’s one thing if the client asks you to do it – and quite another when you send them corrected texts unsolicited several times (without receiving a response from them). Plus, in this case they are not justified changes. They are changes just to change something and try to look good. My new CPA criticized my last CPA’s work, but I knew there was a problem and came to him – not the other way around. If you think it’s a creative method, why would you never use it then? Just off the top of your head – why wouldn’t you? Because it would probably make you feel like a bottom feeder. I know it would make me feel like that…

4. Ofer Tirosh - April 17, 2009

Hi Jill, answering your question, I assume the conversion rate of this method is low.
In other words, let’s assume that the quality of the translation is really low (I can really do better).
If the client was aware of that, I guess he had either accepted that or is already looking for another translation provider.
If the client is not aware of that, he will probably ask his current translation provider to revise his translation.

Anyway, I don’t see any ethical problem as mentioned although I assume some client will not like this approach.

5. Kevin Lossner - April 18, 2009

I think one of the key phrases in Jill’s post is “no concrete suggestions for improvement”. This reminds me a lot of the perpetual discussions on translators’ portals about overcorrection and client poaching. First off, if I make a general comment about a translation, like “it’s garbage”, I like to precede that with a dozen or so examples of errors that might have made the client a laughingstock or landed him in court. Then the word “garbage” comes across as rather restrained. Showing alternatives – a better translation for a large part of the piece perhaps – is also a better demonstration of one’s skill. However, in general I am not very receptive to most negative presentations like the one described unless they are clearly a matter of public interest or the presenter does not push himself to the forefront of possible solutions. That’s probably why when I send a note to a vacation hotel about the horrible English on its web pages, I don’t suggest myself to re-translate them (and even if I liked tourist stuff I wouldn’t), I give him the URL for the BDÜ’s “find a translator” search engine or something similar.
Some people are so obsessed with the need to correct that they do so in inappropriate contexts. Yesterday I made a useful discovery about how to change the segmentation of Trados TTX files in other CAT tools, and at 5 am I prepared some files and screen shots to demonstrate the procedure. So far the only comment on the blog post was to bitch about a missing comma and other errors in the German source. I responded rather testily that this was irrelevant and that I’m not prone to writing good German early in the morning, though I might just as well have pointed out that most of the source texts I see from natives have worse errors. In any case, if the anonymous poster were looking for a translation assignment from me, I’m afraid it would be a looooooong wait. In nearly all cases, the positive approach will sell better.

6. Ofer Tirosh - April 18, 2009

Kevin, well written. I read about your discovery in your blog and laughed reading the comment and your reply.

7. Holly - April 19, 2009

After lurking for a while I am finally commenting! Wanted to say thanks for addressing this topic from a veteran’s point of view. As a relative beginner in the freelance world I have sometimes teetered on the edge of contacting a company after seeing a translation that is, in my opinion, sub-par. But my instinct has always been that this message will rarely be well-received (if ever). There are so many ways it can go wrong and there are definitely better methods to demonstrate the potential benefits of higher quality translations.

8. Sarah Dillon - April 28, 2009

Great debate, Jill. What struck me here was that your client felt this kind of unprofessional behaviour was specific to translators!

I have to admit that I’m not surprised your client felt this way because until recently I also suspected this was true. Our profession’s most popular translation forums are rife with negativity, and just not from these mysterious scapegoat “untrained wannabes” we like to point our fingers at either. I regularly see perfectly acceptable contributions met with anything from general pettiness to blatant and aggressive rudeness from people who frankly should know better. (I’m not talking about just letting off steam either by the way). A snide, know-it-all tone seems to be a requirement if you want to call yourself a translator, and pouring scorn on the skills of others a badge of honour… Or at least, that’s the impression I got when I started out.

If I hadn’t been in contact with some very supportive translators throughout my masters studies and in the ITI, I would definitely have decided that translation wasn’t for me. I’d worked in other industries before re-training for translation and I’d not seen anything like this level of backstabbing before.

Of course, now that there are more of us blogging, and actually blogging with the aim of promoting a positive image of ourselves and what we do, I can see that these trolls don’t speak for everyone in the industry.

We still have SUCH a long way to go in promoting a positive, can-do image to the business world, let alone to aspiring translators looking to enter the profession. My take on this is that we owe it to ourselves as professionals to think twice before ripping shreds off our colleagues no matter what the reason, and especially in public. We only make ourselves look bad. Surely we can find other ways to get our message across – we’re supposed to be communicators, after all!

Thanks for the chance to let off some steam 😉

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