METM19 Chronicles: David Jemielity

David Jemielity gave a riveting keynote speech at METM19 entitled “Translation and writing in a corporate environment: making it count in the C-suite”. It was an account of David’s personal journey, which demonstrated in practical terms how translators can stop being viewed as “magic photocopy machines with extra buttons” and start being given the seat at the table they deserve. Some of the key points I took away from his talk were:

a)    Ensure effective communication rather than just a good translation, because making that change in quality can drive many process changes, resulting in a seat at the table.

b)    “Play the long game”: be obstinate and plant the seeds of terminology or style choices in your clients’ minds. Eventually they will come around.

c)    “If you really commit to effective communication in your target, you’ll be enfranchised as a writer.”

d)    You have to show business people that you are a business field specialist and not just a “poet” in order to have your choices taken seriously, which means speaking to business people in terms they can understand and relate to (i.e. “Improving operational risk management processes for image critical texts” rather than talking about “bad grammar”).

The talk, as its title implies, was focused on the corporate environment and specifically in-house translators, though much of what David said can be applied to any translator. As a freelancer and a woman, I had some lingering questions when leaving the lecture hall on Friday evening. Not working as an employee in the corporate field but only venturing in for brief sojourns as a trainer, I wondered whether the often repeated talk of gender inequality and ageism was true and whether such biases could have any impact on the efficacy of a translator’s efforts to obtain Q&A meetings with clients and take part in essential decision-making. I chatted about this with some fellow 30-something female freelancers and they shared my doubts. Therefore, I decided to ask David some follow-up questions. Here, below, are his answers verbatim.

1. When asked by an attendee if we should brush up our consultancy skills to guide our clients towards a better source text before moving into the translation phase and choosing a specific style and specific terminology (“corporate voice and key differentiators”)  to improve the brand image, your response was that in your opinion, that’s not consulting, it’s just good translation. I agree with you if you are an in-house translator, but I believe the question was asked for those of us who are not. Many of us work with agencies and never meet the end client, let alone the author of the source text. What advice could you give to us about how to achieve greater influence over the source text or the freedom to truly localize the text and/or transcreate when you are a freelancer?
DJ: I think it’s really, really important both for the buy-side (people like me and my bank, or your clients) and the sell-side (people like freelance translators, or my team) to set up what I call “Q&A-enabled” client relationships between translators and the “owners” of the source text. It’s the only way to produce translations that are truly effective as multilingual communication.
I didn’t mean for my answer to the audience member’s question to sound flip, but the fact is I do think that giving that sort of dialog a name like “consulting”, which implies that it’s somehow separate from “translating” or “straight translating”, is a being a bit naive about the sorts of processes it takes to get your translations as good as they can and should be.
To put it another way, it might not always be possible to have those “Q&A-enabled” client relationships. But I think we all need to (a) be very clear-eyed about what the consequences are when you don’t have one with a given client, starting with not being able to produce target texts that are as good as they could be and (b) therefore striving to have as many client relationships as possible that are, in fact, Q&A-enabled. And when I say “strive” I really mean strive: you gotta work at it!

2. As a female translator and entrepreneur, I’m always interested in how suggestions are perceived in the corporate world when coming from a man vs. a woman. When discussing this point with other female colleagues in our 30s, we doubted whether we would even be granted a meeting, let alone be taken seriously. Based on your experience, do you believe that a woman would have been able to make as much progress as you in such a male-dominated industry? Do you believe she would be granted that crucial meeting with the CFO and would his consideration of her criticism and suggestions be taken as seriously as yours were?
DJ: I took a poll of some of my women colleagues on this one. Some said there wasn’t a problem – that what you need to fight against are perceptions of translators, not women. Others felt being a woman would make it even harder. But the general feeling was that compared to the overall, years-long challenge of working our way up, meeting by meeting, until as translators we got meetings in the C-suite, whether you’re a man or a woman is more or less to the right of the decimal point. That’s not the hard part. The hard part is getting businesspeople to really care about getting their multilingual communications processes right. One of my (female) colleagues was a bit more direct, and said, “Oh, that just sounds like translators looking for reasons why ‘you could never do that where I am’. If they knew how hard it was for us, they’d realize that they haven’t tried hard enough.”
Although that might sound kind of harsh, I must say I partly agree with my colleague. Translators do tend to look for reasons why more ambitious approaches to process “could never work for me/us”. We need to challenge ourselves on our processes as much as we do on our writing.

3.  I really enjoyed your comment about metrics. You stated that source content authors do not count their words as a way to measure productivity or cost, so why should we. “As words are not a very meaningful metric”, it is the value that you bring to the company that should be measured. Again, what advice could you give to freelancers to help them quantitatively market and promote their value to potential clients and agencies?
DJ: Pitch your work like ad agencies do. And price it like them too. By the job, or at least by the hour. (And when you underestimate, you swallow that).

4. You stated that after several meetings, your translation team was able to provide slightly different content in the target language than in the source. These changes were agreed upon in advance to modify perceived quality thanks to discussions about process rather than only the judgment of the product, i.e. creating greater client buy-in. This is generally what we would term “localization” and “transcreation”. Are those terms you would use to describe what you are doing, and if not, how would you describe it?
DJ: I’m afraid I don’t really understand your question here.
The point I was trying to make was this: I showed you a fairly radically changed text (you could label it as “transcreation” if you like; I’m agnostic on the labels). And my point was, if you take that exact same translation, it can produce two outcomes in terms of what your colleagues/clients think of you and your work. The first outcome occurs when, as part of your translation process, you have a meeting to work on it together with the client. In that case they buy in, if you handle the meeting right, because they were part of it. So their perception of the quality of the translation is very positive.
In the second outcome, you end up with the exact same translation, but in this case, you and your translator buddies came up with it yourselves, without involving the client in the discussion. In that case, although the objective quality of the translation is of course the same (it is, after all, the exact same translation), the perceived quality (i.e., what the client thinks of it) is likely to be a lot lower. S/he is likely to say: “they mistranslated my stuff!”
So that means that your process (most notably, whether you have direct interaction with your clients and how you handle those interactions) directly influences the perceived quality of your work. And in terms of corporate survival, perceived quality (what people think of your work) counts at least as much as actual quality (how good your work actually is). This is something a lot of translators simply don’t get.

David’s experience clearly shows that with patience, perseverance and the right approach, translators can exercise their knowledge and expertise throughout the writing process to help end clients achieve top quality results. He has definitely inspired me not just to translate, but to communicate; not just to deliver a job, but to be a crucial part of a process; not just to do my work, but to be proud of what I do – as should we all.

This METM19 presentation was chronicled by Courtney Greenlaw.

Featured photo by METM19 photographer Mario Javorčić.

2 thoughts on “METM19 Chronicles: David Jemielity

  1. Great review, Courtney! I very much appreciate the added value of your follow-up questions and David’s answers.

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