Yes, Word Choice Matters

How can we succeed in considering ourselves business people if the vocabulary we use reflects uncertainty or even a lack of self-respect? In forums about money matters and payment practice lists, I all too often come across expressions like “Agency X has nice PMs and interesting projects, but their rates are very low,” “Agency Y? Go for it! They have good rates,” or “Agency Z pays only after 60 days.” And I have to stop and ask myself what kind of world I’m living in. Why do we translators have so little self-esteem?

Just imagine a lawyer, dentist, baker or hairdresser asking her/his clients what they are willing to pay for a certain service. Or a client entering the lawyer’s office, the dental clinic, the bakery or hairdresser’s yelling: “Hey, could you do this or that for such-and-such an amount of money? And, oh yes, I can only pay you in 60 days! And, of course, I won’t pay any bank fees!” Unimaginable, isn’t it? Are we translators, perhaps, worth less than other professionals?

First of all, translators should make it clear to the world that they were not born with their skills, but that they have had to  acquire them through years of hard study (which not only implies a lot of work but also a lot of money). Many of us have studied as long as any lawyer or dentist and longer, certainly, than a baker or hairdresser. High Schools and Universities did not teach us to market our skills, but it is never too late to try to do things better.

Since what we’re running is a business, we should use the vocabulary that other business people use and not the words we would choose if we were applying for some minor job in a company. When we’re looking for new customers, then, we should talk in terms of  “acquiring new customers,” not of “filling out an application” or “applying for a job”. And if we respond to a project offer published somewhere, what we do is “give an estimate” or “communicate our rates,” not “bid”. Moreover, we should never forget that, as service providers, we are the ones who set the rates, not the clients! They may or may not accept our rates, because they find us too expensive or even too cheap and thus not serious contenders, but they are not the ones who offer us “good rates” or dictate “low rates” to us, the service providers. The unconscious use of such vocabulary is systematic: It leads you to slip into the role of the one who is in the inferior position.

Doing business, of course, means working out deals. Rates and terms of payment can always be subject to negotiation if we should decide that a deal is worth it. But we are free to do so or not. We don’t have to just accept the rates that the clients are willing to “offer” us, most of the time without even having a clear understanding of what  our work entails, or of what kind of knowledge, research and stylistic work are necessary in order to achieve the translation.

The words we use will not change our world. But if we want to improve our image, we should begin by gaining self-esteem, and this cannot be achieved without the right choice of words.

Chani Demuijlder

Illustrated by Juan Manuel Tavella