Is there such thing as USP for a translator?
Thread poster: Thomas Seligmann

Thomas Seligmann  Identity Verified
Luxembourg
Local time: 23:04
French to English
+ ...
Jan 11, 2015

I see so many profile intro sentences with "strong focus on quality" or words to that effect. The same with "medical/legal [etc.] expert" and "[xx] years' experience".

Firstly, no conscionable translator would not have a strong focus on quality, so although it's a great philosophy to have, at the same time it should be normal.

As a native English speaker, the market is saturated and highly competitive. For a translator, having English as your native language is both a blessing and a curse! Always demand and potential work out there, but so many more people to compete with than for any other target language (you can see the numbers in the language-pair rates part of this website). So it's particularly important to stand out from the crowd.

Can a translator really have a USP? If you had one sentence to sell yourself, what else would you say apart from your high quality and experience? No-one amongst us has identical experience, academic background and skills but at the same time hundreds of us have the same degrees, experience in particular fields, etc.


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Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 23:04
English to Russian
+ ...
Depends on the market segment you work in... but do you really need one? Jan 11, 2015

Even though it seems natural for translators to progress during their careers from simple and cheap translations to complex and expensive ones, this isn't always the case. Some translators prefer to stay on relatively simple jobs and use accumulated templates, and very few progress to jobs of extreme complexity. It's in that latter category that the translations are no longer a commodity and one can actually formulate a true USP. I'd say it would usually involve one's professional experience outside linguistics - that is, being a doctor if you do medical translations, or a pilot if you do aviation-related ones. However, such a USP would not be appealing to everyone but rather to discriminating clients only. In my experience, most clients are unaware that excellent translations actually exist, and think that any translation is by definition somewhat stilted and contains errors. Indeed, I've seen profiles here on ProZ claiming 'not a single unsatisfied customer since 19xx' yet providing a sample translation full of blunders.

On the other hand, is such a USP really necessary? Contrary to your impression, I see neither serious competition nor market saturation among seasoned professionals. In fact, high-level professional services of any kind are rarely competitive, and I believe we are closer to doctors and lawyers by the nature of our work than to plumbers and electricians. Accordingly, our primary means of acquiring new clients is our reputation - or the grapevine, if you will.


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 05:04
Chinese to English
Agencies vs. direct clients Jan 11, 2015

When you're marketing to agencies, there is no such thing as a USP. Agencies can't afford to treat us all as special flowers because we might not be available for their next job. It is in the very nature of the agency business that they have to be able to satisfy their customers with whichever translator picks up the phone. So to them, our product is a commodity, and the only questions are (a) is it good enough, (b) is it cheap enough, (c) is it on time?

When you're working with direct clients, it's a different question. They have an interest in the product, and they might care about how we treat it. Obviously this comes out most strongly with literature, where finding the fit between translator and text is very important. But it can also be a big factor in marketing, technical and legal texts.

USPs are often quite difficult to sell, though, because the translation process is so mysterious to so many people. Knowledgeable buyers who understand what your USP means are often few and far between, so often we have to "translate" them. For example, my USP is actually understanding Chinese abstract nouns and nouning non-semantic verbs, but that's not going to inspire clients, so I usually express it as: Many satisfied customers!


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Gabriele Demuth  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:04
Member (2014)
English to German
Really! Jan 11, 2015

Thomas Seligmann wrote:

As a native English speaker, the market is saturated and highly competitive.


I am surprised because in my experience English native speakers are not the most enthusiastic language learners, therefore I thought you would be in a privileged position?


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Kevin Fulton  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 17:04
German to English
@Gabriele Jan 11, 2015

Gabriele Demuth wrote:

I am surprised because in my experience English native speakers are not the most enthusiastic language learners, therefore I thought you would be in a privileged position?


Because of this, there is little understanding/appreciation of the translation process in the US. I can't begin to count the number of inquiries I've received that begin "I'd like to have a document typed into German." They assume that translation should cost the same as typing. If these customers look hard enough, they can find someone who will meet their price.

This is in part due to the number of non-native speakers who attempt to translate into English because they had it for 10 years at school and want to pick a little money on the side. This is not to say that non-natives should under no circumstances be translating. There are also a number of native speakers who shouldn't be translating as well.


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Sebastian Witte  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 23:04
Member (2004)
German to English
+ ...
Agree with Phil in that I think most prospects Jan 11, 2015

don't understand the USP I'm using as a marketing argument on my ProZ.com profile (Focus on technical literature, which, besides requiring some abilities as regards abstraction (I'm using "focus on" when what I really mean is that I read it) requires quite an insight into the nature and requirements of a skilled specialist translation in the first place (understanding the given text technically through reading up on its subject matter in profound documentation).

On another note, although I don't have time to explain my theory in detail right now, I think a translator can only survive on a combination of relevant USPs.


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Alexandre Chetrite
France
Local time: 23:04
English to French
Electricians and plumbers depend heavily on reputation too... Jan 12, 2015

Anton Konashenok wrote:

Even though it seems natural for translators to progress during their careers from simple and cheap translations to complex and expensive ones, this isn't always the case. Some translators prefer to stay on relatively simple jobs and use accumulated templates, and very few progress to jobs of extreme complexity. It's in that latter category that the translations are no longer a commodity and one can actually formulate a true USP. I'd say it would usually involve one's professional experience outside linguistics - that is, being a doctor if you do medical translations, or a pilot if you do aviation-related ones. However, such a USP would not be appealing to everyone but rather to discriminating clients only. In my experience, most clients are unaware that excellent translations actually exist, and think that any translation is by definition somewhat stilted and contains errors. Indeed, I've seen profiles here on ProZ claiming 'not a single unsatisfied customer since 19xx' yet providing a sample translation full of blunders.

On the other hand, is such a USP really necessary? Contrary to your impression, I see neither serious competition nor market saturation among seasoned professionals. In fact, high-level professional services of any kind are rarely competitive, and I believe we are closer to doctors and lawyers by the nature of our work than to plumbers and electricians. Accordingly, our primary means of acquiring new clients is our reputation - or the grapevine, if you will.


Hi,

I can assure you that plumbers and electricians rely heavily on reputation for most of them too. I am talking about independant ones. Like in every business there are those who rely on cheap rates and simple tasks, and those who rely on higher rates and complex services. And there are those in between.


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Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 23:04
English to Russian
+ ...
To Alexandre Jan 12, 2015

Alexandre, you are certainly right. I meant a slightly different thing: tradesmen can and do openly advertise their services, whereas advertising of medical and legal services is either traditionally very modest, or considered generally unethical, or prohibited altogether, depending on the country.

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Michael Wetzel  Identity Verified
Germany
Local time: 23:04
German to English
of course! Jan 12, 2015

Otherwise we would all be earning the same rates and they would continually be spiraling downwards.

Professional experience or professional credentials (related to the subject matter and not to translating/linguistics/languages) are the main thing, but being able to converse comfortably and clearly in your clients' language(s) is also a big plus.

Once the issue becomes maintaing a relationship with an existing client, then all kinds of things come into play (including [surprise, surprise!] the actual quality of our work and the ease of doing business with us).

And "unique" doesn't really mean unique, all it means is that you can position yourself within a market where the demand for services like yours exceeds the supply (or even just the perceived supply). There are dozens of translators who have the same combination of credentials, experience and source/target languages as I do, but there is a steady stream of work for hundreds of them.

The fact that traditional agencies themselves lack any kind of USP (which then makes pricing an important factor) and the fact that the cost of translations has a significant impact on their bottom line ought to make them very uninteresting as a potential client base. After all, a USP is only a USP relative to customers who actually want and are willing to invest extra time and care in what we have to offer.


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polyglot45
English to French
+ ...
Of course translators can have USP Jan 12, 2015

If I had to advertise myself, there would be several points I would highlight:
a) my familiarity with my specialist fields.
b) my years of experience
c) and, if relevant, language knowledge with details of how I got it

Those of us who have years of experience in particular fields, and credentials to prove it, should use that as our USP. Or am I missing something? It seems so obvious


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 23:04
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Maybe not a single USP, but a combination that a group of clients want Jan 12, 2015

Translation is too complex and too widespread for an actual USP, but you do need a specific combination that attracts a particular group of clients. That combination will vary enormously from one translator to another. Freelancers don't have the capacity for large numbers of clients, so the ideal is a core of good regular clients who provide a continual stream of work.

My first thought was that my USP is just being me! Of course, that is not how I sell it. In fact I do very little marketing on the face of it.

I spend a fair amount of time in dialogue with clients and make myself visible in discussion groups here and elsewhere on the Internet.

I concentrate on my subject areas and live where my source language is spoken, so I pick up on little idoms and cultural allusions or current affairs that are not so easy to catch from a distance.

Above all, once a good client finds me, I go the extra mile for them. Some only occasionally have jobs in my languages, so I really want them to remember me a year or two later when the next one comes up. Others specialise in my languages or the kind of work I do, and there are not too many of them. It's a small world, so I make sure they come back too, and are satisfied with what I can offer.

I also know what kinds of work I DON'T mess with, and if possible try to find colleagues I can recommend who would do a better job. This pays off very well - clients can't complain about my work in areas I am less good at, and colleagues refer clients to me, especially when they need an English native.

When I turn down work, I am not unique - luckily the agencies can usually find someone else. They do occasionally negotiate or extend the deadline because they really do want me to do the job, but I would be a nervous wreck in no time if I was really irreplaceable.


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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 02:34
Member (2006)
English to Hindi
+ ...
My USP Jan 13, 2015

The USP that I advertise with all my clients (mostly agencies) is that I am ambidextrous in Hindi and English, my two working languages, and that I do creative writing in both these languages. I claim that because of this I understand the nuances of the source document and produce a translation into Hindi (or English, as the case may be) that is accurate and elegant and that reads like original writing in that language..

I also play upon my fast responses to translation requests and fast turn-arounds (which partly depends on my equal felicity with both my working languages, because of which I need to do less research to understand the source documents, thus saving time).

My USP statement is "fast, accurate and elegant translations".


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