What Translators and Interpreters Can Lean from Pirates

Pirate Marty

We kicked off the New Year with a few resolutions; one of which was “taking control of how others perceive you.” I had promised to take you to the movies again this year and show you how to capture high-paying or “premium” clients and to explain how that relates to your portrayed image.

In Pirates of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs is portrayed by Noah Wyle as being somewhat of a nut: but a very smart and business savvy one. If you pay attention to how “movie Steve” evolves, there is one observation that immediately stands out: His image changes throughout the film, but not to adjust to Apple’s growth and development as one might think. Instead, he changes his image to fit in with Apple’s investors.

Steve goes from hippie to yuppie not as his company grows, but to ensure its growth. So, he shaves off his beard and cuts his hair when attempting to get loans from banks. His explanation? “Banks don’t like beards.” He purchases his first suit when presenting his first computer at a convention. Yet, he wears jeans and shorts and walks around Apple bare foot when outside the public eye and refuses to hire a potentially valuable employee based solely on the fact that he looks like someone who would fit in at IBM.

Toward the end of the film, Steve finally appears as the Steve Jobs everyone knows today: The guy in the turtle neck and jeans–a choice that is neither random nor arbitrary, and which became a significant part of Apple’s image, as well as Steve’s. So, what can we learn from this? A lot, actually…

When we looked at translation business stats last year, we learned that well over 80% of the growing 34 billion dollars that had gone into translation in 2013 had been poured into small and medium sized agencies (or intermediaries). According to industry specific reports, there were over 25,000 intermediaries between end clients and freelancers. Approximately 70% of these intermediaries had 5 or fewer employers. Most of them were located in Europe and the US, and almost all of them outsourced to developing countries.

This means that the big business in Europe and the US is to capture end clients, then outsource to the developing world. As a result, the big business in developing countries is to take advantage of their devalued currencies and work for intermediaries in the US and Europe. Thus, if you’re in the developed world, your encounters with clients are far more likely to be in person than they are if you’re in the developing world.

These facts are important when trying to take control of how you are perceived by others in order to capture higher paying market segments. Professional consultants and trainers have long claimed that other people make up their minds about you within the first two minutes of meeting you for the first time. Thus, they put a lot of emphasis on teaching you how to prepare for first impressions. However, because first impressions are not always made in person for translators and interpreters, then a key component to our first impression is our online persona or online identity.

In 2013, the New York Times published an interesting article titled “You Are What You Tweet.” What this article showed is that what you present online is perceived by others as significantly representative of who you are. Think about that for a second. Think about how you’ve been using your social media, how you interact with others in online forums, what you blog about, what pictures you share, and even what you “like” online. All that is visible to others, including potential clients and colleagues, and what’re more, when there are no face-to-face first impressions, when clients and colleagues are left with no choice but to “Google you” to get a sense of who you are, the first impression they will get from you is that of your internet persona.

So, if you’re a translator or interpreter looking to capture high-end clients, remember Steve and how he adapted to potential investors and to his industry. Think about the clients you want to capture and how you are currently portraying yourself to them. Do you see any room for improvement? I know I do! And I plan to do some experimenting and post my results soon.


Tips for Better End Client-Translator Relationships

client-linguist relationship

It is no surprise that working with agencies or multinational translation companies is radically different from working with end clients (a.k.a. “direct clients”). The former, when serious, have a much better grasp of what translation entails, are familiar with our jargon and tools, and experienced in problem solving. Unless a PM is a total nutcase, they are often much easier to work with than end clients, simply because they too speak the language of translation. Therefore, even though a lot of what I’m about to say can apply to both types of clients, these little things are particularly important when working with end clients.

Educating Your Client

Although some end clients, particularly large companies or firms, are accustomed to having things translated and quite familiar with what we do, many are not. Their lack of knowledge can often lead to unrealistic or inappropriate demands. But, if you’re dealing with a reasonable (and rational!) human being, it is easy to work around these issues by simply educating your client. This does not mean long condescending phone conversations or e-mails; it simply means giving your client a short and sweet explanation of why what they are asking for is not possible and immediately providing an alternative solution that works for everyone (including you!).

Communicating Effectively

Effective communication involves listening, understanding, acknowledging, controlling emotions, efficient decision-making, and problem solving. It is harder than it sounds, but worth the effort. When working with end clients, listening and understanding are essential to ensuring that your end product satisfies their expectations. You can’t achieve that if you are busier telling your client what’s good for them than listening to what they need from you.


Some say it’s pride, others say it’s naive optimism. Either way, sometimes we fail to honestly assess whether we are up to the job. Some honest questions are: Can I really meet the client’s expectations? Will I really be able to make that deadline? Am I really the right person for the job in terms of training and experience? The first person with whom you need to be honest when deciding whether or not to accept a job is yourself; but that honesty should also extend to the end client in every relevant aspect of your professional relationship.

Going the Extra Mile

Contrary to what was recently said on an online translation discussion, this does not mean being a pushover. Going the extra mile simply means doing a little something extra that you know your client will appreciate and may ultimately translate into customer loyalty, which is not an easy thing to achieve in the current market. And, you know what? It won’t kill you or your business!


You catch a lot more bees with honey. People like to work with friendly, easy-going, proactive human beings who get things done with a smile. This again does not mean being a pushover, it simply means controlling emotions, not taking work issues personally, keeping calm, remaining professional and being nice and easy to work with. Your clients and colleagues will appreciate your positive attitude and are likely to be nice and friendly in return.

Do Onto Others…

After so many years in the business dealing with all sorts of translators both professionally and socially, I am under the impression that many language professionals feel unappreciated and try to use verbal force or strong attitudes to redeem the profession. Although I understand where they are coming from and why they do what they do, I don’t think this is the right way to go at all. Too many linguists end up coming off as whiny frustrated people that are simply impossible to work with, and ultimately do more harm to themselves than good. In my personal experience, focusing on doing a great job and providing solutions or creative alternatives when necessary has bought me the extra appreciation I was expecting from my clients and has always translated into more work and word-of-mouth referrals. This, to me, makes perfect sense. I only go back to businesses and service providers who, in addition to offering great products, also treat me with respect and go out of their way to keep me happy as a client. If I like being treated well, why not treat my clients well too? “Do onto others” may be a philosophical oversimplification, but that doesn’t make it less true. So when thinking about the simple and overly obvious tips above, ask yourself this: isn’t that how you like to be treated when you’re the client?