Five lessons translators can learn from a joiner Some lessons my neighbour taught me




  • Greater than 5 minutes, my friend!

    When I bought a house a couple of years ago I got a neighbour with a nice job: he is a joiner. Actually, he is not just a joiner but a pretty good one. He can make everything his eyes see out of wood, from traditional sleighs to great book cabinets. But despite all his qualities there is a dark side lurking: his business is threatened by cheap products from other countries, youngsters don’t read anymore and global warming poses a danger for the market of pretty traditional sleighs. With his years of experience the good old joiner is a source of business wisdom and sense. In this article, I share five lessons we translators can learn from a craftsman that soon will see his business overcome by current industry trends.

    Lesson 1: You’re worth your price

    Like the translation industry – and perhaps for even longer – the market for hand-crafted furniture has been under increasing pressure from global technological and economic trends. In an era in which machine-made tables and chairs are imported from low income countries, asking a fair price to make custom-made products is not cool – especially not when you need to explain to each and every prospect why your products are so ‘expensive’. In the furniture industry in Western Europe, globalisation has caused joiners to work for wages as low as € 6 per hour to satisfy their clients, but it didn’t help them: the craftsmen were still too slow to compete with modern mass production facilities elsewhere. It may also be clear that joiners didn’t support their families or increase their self-confidence with similar actions.

    A lesson that can be drawn here is that despite the market, it is not a solution to lower wages to the very lowest levels. You’re worth your price because it reflects your experience, wisdom, business costs and investments in tools. Like in the furniture industry, doing so will result in missing prospects but clients who value your products will still pay for them – and enjoy them every day.

    Lesson 2: You’re a tool yourself

    Turning lathes, drills, benches, mills: my neighbour produces the best pieces on earth by owning incredible machines – and more important, he knows how to work with them. But that’s the secret: without being in the skillful hands of a joiner these tools would be useless. The worth of the machines my neighbour uses to make the nicest cabinets, beds and kitchens is in his brains and hands.

    It’s just the same with translators. We use astonishing technologies like CAT tools with all their calculation algorithms for fuzzy matches, translation engines that calculate the best sentence from single words in huge corpora and quality control tools that compare results and create reports. But in the end we manage the tools and we create the translations. People cannot simple ask us to use our tools only or to deliver a text that is translated by a single set of rules. A CAT outside the skillful hands of a translator is a dead thing.

    Lesson 3: Stagnation means decline

    From the moment my neighbour started as a joiner he had to learn a lot: tools changed, trends developed and rules for doing business were amended by each consecutive government. Besides all the bustle of creating good products on time he also had to keep pace with a number of developments in every aspect of his job. Apart from that, the quality of sourced trees differed each time or even declined over the years, so he had to change his processes to deliver the great quality he was known for. Not being up to date was not an option: it would have meant that he delivered poor products and lost clients, or had to close his business for being unable to follow new rules.

    For translators, stagnation means decline as well. If we do not cope with current technological trends like adaptive machine translation or if we do not conform to the changing political climate, for instance the new situation after the Brexit, sooner or later we will be caught up by younger or more flexible competitors who are able to deliver the same products with better quality and within a shorter deadline. And to use a metaphor: bad wood does not necessarily mean a bad product – a simple process change can be enough.

    Lesson 4: There is still a market

    Global warming can mean the end of sleigh production and the emerging global visual culture may mean the end of bookcases. However, there will still be a market for hand-crafted products. In some cases it might mean a simple amendment: bookcases can be rebuild into cabinets with a different purpose and wheels can be added to a sleigh that will make it usable on the road. Apart from these necessary inventions, there is still an audience that is looking for products with a story, despite their higher price tag and longer delivery times.

    If there is not a market for one product variant, there can still be a market for another. This requires a kind of inventiveness and a willingness to see opportunities where there no longer seem to be any. That new market is not always obvious and sometimes it takes a lot of time and effort to find it, but finding it proves the worth of continuing your old business in a new fashion.

    Lesson 5: You can use your knowledge in other jobs as well

    Perhaps there will come a time in which my neighbour cannot find orders for his self-employed business anymore – when global warming has made streets flood over and there is no need for wooden boats, or when all books are stored on a single chip and bookcases are only found in antique museums. We both hope that it will take some long time before no one in Western Europe needs a joiner anymore. However, given the trends and the uncertainty of lives there is no reason to exclude that option. That is why my neighbour has broadened his scope. He will do whatever he can as long as it is possible, but when there are no longer any possibilities, he is prepared to go and use his knowledge and tools in another way. Joiners can also find work as fitters in kitchen companies or as construction workers. These options requires slightly different skills – and perhaps a somewhat different attitude – but the knowledge and tools are to a great extent the same.

    I do not expect that translators will soon become extinct, but if there is no need for our jobs anymore we should have a fallback position. Using your knowledge of CAT tools, data research or specialist fields can come in handy if you are on the lookout for a new job. And I believe that perseverance surely is a pre-requisite.

    Pieter Beens

    About Pieter Beens

    Freelance translator English-Dutch. Works for high-profile clients worldwide. Professional. Punctual. Passionate.

    2 thoughts on “Five lessons translators can learn from a joiner

    1. Pieter, I loved this post and thought you were spot-on with all the comparisons you draw. I like the idea of translators being part of a wider community of craftspeople, too, because although there is often art to our work, it has always smacked more of craft to me (and I mean that as a compliment to us all). Slightly tangential, but if you like great writing and carpentry, the Lost Art Press blog is a wonderful source for both (they’re the people being the Anarchist’s Toolbox, a beautiful woodworking primer), and they even engage in occasional translation projects to bring very obscure historical woodworking texts to modern readers. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

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