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52nd ATA Conference, Boston, USA

How Virtual Networking Is Changing the Mentality of Russian Freelancers (Case Study)

Dear all,

My name is Ekaterina Ryabtseva. I am a freelance translator based in Moscow, Russia. Besides, Ive been running a web-site for Russian language professionals, which, much to my surprise, somehow managed to become not only a mirror of the translation market in the Russian Federation, but apparently a market-maker of sorts as well.

First of all, please excuse me, because I’ll be mostly reading to you. This should help me not to miss a thing and not to lose track of my presentation, as I am an introvert type, and can easily go off track into things that are too broad or too narrow instead.

Next, I would like to thank a group of my colleagues, Russian language professionals, who made me come here so that I could introduce a rather unique but not, as I’ve just learned recently, totally unprecedented story of my project to the American audience, and contribute it into the global story of the modern translation and interpretation industry.

This project has influenced the Russian freelance translation market in an effort to bring it to the sunny side.

I’ve already been told that 'Gorod Perevodchikov's somewhat resembles FLEFO and its effect. So, now I guess some, if not most, of you can imagine what my story may be about.

I will try to retell the 10-years story of my Internet project named ‘Gorod Perevodchikov’ in short, and to touch upon its influence on the Russian freelance translation market and Russian freelance translators’ way of thinking. And, of course, I’ll talk about its influence on me, as it made me undergo some serious transformations.

And thus begins a fairytale...

Once upon a time... there was me who worked as an in-house interpreter-translator-secretary, all in one, and entertained myself playing with HTML code. So, one day I figured that I wanted to try it on a real website, and started out with a diary of my professional notes that I still keep writing, and with a guestbook that soon evolved into an online conference board, because the first visitors appeared to be as hungry for discussing professional stuff as I was. This happened in 2001, when I went freelance. Very soon we’ve got a small community of translators and interpreters from different parts of Russia. And I already felt less lonely because this website connected me to others willing to share their experience and to brainstorm. The online conference section was the most active one, and it was the only interactive part of the website.

More or less awkwardly, we began discussing our professional problems. Most of us had read some books on translation and interpretation theory, some of us had translation-related educational background, few of us had any freelance experience at all, and even fewer had any positive experience. So we had a lot to ask each other about and a lot to think of. There was no freelance market in Russia, only some pioneers from amongst translators and software engineers. The word ‘freelancer’ sounded like a ‘fabled being’ and the Russian law considered freelancers as ‘jobless’, or ‘drone’, or ‘parasite’. Any able-bodied person had to be registered as an employee. And family members or friends casually inquired if a freelancing person managed to find a decent job.

Believe it or not, but a major part of today’s Russian language freelance market in Russia is the direct result of our public debates. First we learned how to talk, interact and relate to each other. Then we learned how to handle professional issues: specifically how to talk to a client, how to figure out deadlines, how to advance in skill. And we had to figure out what sets professional freelancing apart from both moonlighting and working in-house.

Although there were three specialized universities and a few special courses for translators and interpreters in Russia, back in 2001 the individual language service providers had little idea of how to do things right, and were weak market players, full of fears and misconceptions. And I was one of them, also full of fears and misconceptions, making my own mistakes, and eager to puzzle out the quest.

Our website was becoming more or less visible – I mean more or less known, but the professional community was still a small one, and there were few sophisticated specialists sharing their experience with the beginners.

At that time, I was proposed to leave this so-to-say ‘kiddy-pool’ and join other online communities consisting exclusively of experienced translators and interpreters. Fair enough, I had no spare time to follow new groups, even though I was very curious about their experience in virtual networking. Well, I never left my ‘kiddy pool’ because I felt at home there and I strongly needed that feeling. I kept searching for new forms of virtual networking and absorbing other peoples' experience.

By that time I’ve got a team of soul-mates – our so called site-administration team. Every now and then, we discussed administrative matters, made efforts to solve problems of social or legal nature facing the translators' community, brainstormed or searched for new ways of transformative but smooth evolution, and kept experimenting with website sections.

All these years the site administration team worked as volunteers. The whole group consists of clear-headed practicing translators and interpreters. May be this is why the project is still growing, even ten years after it was started. We strongly believe in what we do and we are driven by the feedback from site visitors, and from the market at large.

By the way, I’ve been told several times that this online project has also become a virtual Russian-language motherland for those who live abroad.

Back in 2001, no one paid any attention to grammar on the Internet.

Yet, despite the general trend to write grammatically sloppy, on our website, we brought into the rule the culture of grammatically correct writing as we understand our societal responsibility to others, including actual or prospective clients, and future colleagues, given that, after ten years of free floating, the visibility of our site is still going up.

Besides, translators’ eyes get tired of texts they work with, especially if you do editing or proofreading, or if the source text is poorly written or badly formatted. So, when translators come online visiting their professional community, it would be only fair if they could read nicely written postings. Some call us grammar snobs. But why shouldn’t we be them as long as grammar is part of our daily life. Of course, we all tend to focus on our own individual problems and issues, but we should also keep in mind that all our public actions contribute to the overall image of our profession.

Back in 2001, and later on, many freelance service providers complained online about troubles they had with clients, more often about non-payment. We used to support the offended freelances, but very soon we realized that most of the troubles occur due to the lack of proficiency in building relationships between the parties. And we tried to increase the professional awareness of the importance of negotiations’ in freelancing. The same problem faced the Russian translation agencies, being the other part of the market. Some Russian agencies, that were following our discussions, studying the experience of international translation companies, tried to reform their business accordingly.

I know, this may sound very self-important, but that’s what their project managers have been telling me.

One day, somebody contacted me and said that he wanted a second opinion on quality of his translation. And we started a new section of our website named ‘Referees court’. One can post there in case of a disputable situation. No confidential information or proper names are allowed to be posted there. Actually this is kind of a linguistic evaluation board consisting of volunteer experts.

At the same time we kept on our educative activity, and as a result here in 2011 we have few complaints and almost no applications to the ‘Referees court’, which hopefully means that we've managed to reach hearts and minds of our visitors. (By the way, my ‘we’ is not a royal ‘we’, I just don’t know any better. :))

As more freelancers wanted to go legal, the business law section of the website became active. Some freelancers got registered as private entrepreneurs, which is the only legal form available to freelances for private business activity. And I was one of them. We discussed such things as pros and contras of getting registered with the Russian tax agency, good bank for freelances, and specifics of doing jobs for foreign translation agencies. And here we go now with private enterprise as a trendy form of freelancing in Russia. This section deals legal forms of going freelance mainly in Russia, but freelancers from other former Soviet republics do seek help there, and in most cases they succeed in finding the advice they need.

Back in 2001, most in-house positions imposed translation, interpretation and secretary duties on one person. Today many do understand that speaking a foreign language does not make one a translator, and that translation and secretarial services are of different nature. Besides, we contributed to the general understanding of our profession, which includes uncompromising knowledge of your mother tongue, perfect knowledge of one or more foreign languages, and subject specialization. We used to have heated debates on linguistic vs. technical education, trying to figure out whose tricks are trickier, and came out with an inevitable simple conclusion: both, language specialists and technical specialists, have to gain additional knowledge respectively and equally.

Nevertheless, there are still many of those who never heard of our online community, and still believe they can translate anything, since they know a foreign language, and those who provide language services considering themselves Gods because they can speak different languages. So we keep working on a comprehensive insight into our profession, the one that would make anyone think twice before mixing ‘I can speak another language’ with ‘I can make money with translations’.

And my dream is to get language professionals hooked on linguistic archeology that would take them away from routine dictionary work and thinking. (By the way, I’ve borrowed the term ‘linguistic archeology’ from a wonderful Sanskrit specialist who was teaching here at the ATA conference yesterday. His name is Terence M. Coe. Before that, I wanted to use ‘language investigations’ but happily replaced it with ‘linguistic archeology’.)

And again, back in 2001, we had no professional conferences in Russia, or, if we had any, then very few knew about them, or considered them of any importance. Since that time, our online community proved to have deep interest in transforming the Russian translation market and, going forward, making its professional life smooth and balanced. Through the years of leading the way in the wilderness of Russian freelance translation market, we attracted lots of attention to our profession and helped translation market players to get out of their loneliness.

This market evolution inspired three companies to set up a regular real-life conference for translation market players, named Translation Forum Russia, and fearlessly gain new experience in this field. I've seen their events with my own eyes and consider their undertaking as hopefully prospective. Our site assists Translation Forum Russia organizers in approaching their audience and following discussions about Translation Forum Russia in order to collect impressions and opinions about the event. We support this conference all the way, and I’ve been speaking there as I do speak here before you.

Back in 2002, we started a tradition of real life meetings or, how they call them nowadays, powwows. These meetings became more or less regular in Moscow, Kiev and Saint-Petersburg. Spontaneous meetings are also held in different places on Earth, where our visitors live or travel. For example, if I go to London or Vladivostok, I can post a message with the dates I’m going to spend there and ask if anyone would join me for a cup of coffee or a jug of beer. These meetings made the world even smaller for regular visitors of the website. These casual meetings contributed to networking too. One could hardly argue the fact that there are things that cannot be discussed publicly or posted online. Besides, offline meetings force freelance translators to get out of their dens and expose themselves to the sunbeams.

We also have webinars for literary translation of short abstracts from any language into Russian. These webinars are held by website visitors and bring no certificates, but a wonderful experience of literary translation, discussing hot spots, working in a group, accepting mistakes, getting excited about adequate transformations in translation and so on. These webinars seem to be a good training for everyone tending towards literary translations.

And yes, we do have a website section for job postings. In the future we will introduce a resumé section too, because some visitors demand resumé posting feature and accuse us of constraining the market. They want a distinct opportunity to describe their services and place this info on our site. And, of course, we do discuss money and payment issues, thus contributing to the overall awareness of the professional freelance arena.

As our community promotes a supportive style of networking, we also discuss software and hardware that are of any possible use in our professional life. I’ve been told that technical support our visitors provide to each other is much better than the support provided by software developers. And I was really pleased to hear that.

We used to have a perfect stranger who spent years consulting our visitors on any and all software issues, and last year he passed away. What he contributed with open heart still helps the others.

This actually is a bright example… If you happen to ask yourself why you should do this and that, why you have to share any of your experience and sometimes for free, simply recall this story just to understand that knowledge contribution and intellectual courage are perhaps the only pillars of anything worthwhile here on Earth.

And, at last, recently we’ve opened our cyberdoors to curious students, who want to become translators, so that they could bravely ask naïve questions about translation industry and going freelance and be patiently treated like students, because market players are treated in a bit different way, and they are supposed to be somewhat sophisticated and enriched with experience. We support our future colleagues, but we never do their homework. :)

A couple of years ago we injected a blogs’ section in order to add interactivity and to provide more tools for self-expression, and welcomed all linguists to publish notes concerning their experiences, impressions and observations in the field of translation, interpretation, language learning, freelancing, establishing relations with clients, trends analysis, problems solving and so on.

I always thought that nothing was easier; all you need is to write down things that run through your head anyway, but we still have to motivate others to compile notes and share findings in a way different from Twitter-style. Thousands of people prefer reading ready-made notes or passing links to sharing their own observations. Many are too shy to write about their own experience, and many do think that there is nothing special about their professional life. Some have got standalone blogs, and some prefer the live journal where they can write about their cats and dreams along with rare professional notes. Once I’ve been told that writing professional things demands too much of thinking. Go figure.

Then, one day we realized that the conference-board became a huge one and most novices ask same old questions, so it became evident that we needed to set up an online encyclopedia or guide and fill it with facts about translation industry. We have set up a group of enthusiasts who compile or write articles, or contact new people who possess the necessary expertise to contribute. Surely we welcome new authors.

By the way, working on this, we faced a problem that maybe you know how to deal with. I address those who are not sleeping yet. :)

We wanted to enter into this encyclopedia articles about translation industry standards but it seems that we have no right to translate them into Russian and post online, or post translated excerpts. Our online encyclopedia is in Russian, so everything in it should be in Russian. May be we’ll have to deal with a list of standards and that’s it. But in this way non-English speaking people will never know what these standards are about.

If anyone has any ideas on how to introduce our standards to the direct audience please fill free to share them with me later today here or email me whenever you find it comfortable.

No wonder that our online encyclopedia for translators and interpreters became popular and attracted interest of novices and newcomers. Experts too may find something there. I received feedback pointing that the content of our online encyclopedia is widely used in the universities. One of the first articles was about our professional holidays, and we’ve got four of them: May 21 — Day of military translators and interpreters in Russia, September 30 — International Translation Day, October 4 — ‘Gorod Perevodchikov’s Birthday’ and Whitsunday — Day of Bible Translators. And we keep collecting data about relevant professional holidays throughout the world.

Sounds strange, but there are still many of those who never heard of the International Translation Day and never celebrated their membership in the translation profession. Thus, we come to the main mission of the project which is educating. The more issues we discuss, the more we know. Nevertheless, there are many of those who prefer to stay in the read-only mode for years, and some of them come out one day with only one post saying ‘Thank you. I’ve been following your discussions and succeeded on freelance. You are great, guys!’

These online talks are being used differently by different people. Some take part in order to increase their visibility, because nowadays everybody knows that most of Russian translation agencies, some international translation agencies and potential direct clients monitor professional websites. With that in mind, visitors often name their rates that are intended for potential client eyes only.

Now imagine a regular translator or even a student seeing high-end figures and becoming depressed about his own regular rates. Next, he tries to raise his rates and his career goes wrong. Why? Because he doesn’t know what a rate consists of and why his rate can be different from, let’s say, yours.

Thus, we have to get out a message about underlying factors too, and make them clear to the others. Besides, we promote the idea of being flexible and diplomatic with clients, helpful with colleagues, sensitive to close ones, and not getting overwhelmed with freelance activities.

I’ve heard of freelance translators who reduced their life style to ‘the Bermuda Triangle’ and cruise between computer, refrigerator and bathroom only.

This is not what translation is about. And this is not what freelancing is about. So we have to talk such things through, along with others, such as what a rate consists of, how to get more help and information from the client, why it is important to have a good rest and to stay healthy, how to write a resumé, how to search in the Internet, and so on.

Back to online talks and their possible effects. The more a translator takes part in professional discussions and the more he is thoughtful about his postings, the better is his personal online image and the better are his chances to be noticed by potential clients. And the better is the overall image of our profession too.

For years we’ve been trying to keep our site environment warm and convenient for professional discussions. Even skeptics turned their heads to us and realized that our industry has a great potential, and that it is too wild to be sad about failures. It is like a newborn full of opportunities. Globalization came to almost every household along with the Internet. More and more translators get wiser following news and trends, discussing professional issues and solving professional problems online. Most of them are still too passive and too shy about professional transformations. But again most of them took off their rose-colored spectacles and nevertheless remain proud of being a part of the translation industry.

Now let’s see what we’ve come with. From my observations, I can say that translators don’t want to be entertained. Instead they want guidance and support. Some things are so simple that they are not evident. We live in speedy times when everything breathes with acceleration. Clients become more pushing and one has to be deeply versed to work out the best job conditions. No universities will teach us that, so we have to teach each other ourselves.

Nature abhors a vacuum, and contrivance, too. There is a professional translators' association in Russia. Yet it enjoys a predominantly representative role and is not very involved in shaping the market. The market we are talking about was created in the early 1990s from scratch, its regulatory issues are consistent with those of a semi-mature (or perhaps even an immature) market. In case of our semi-mature translation market this means:

  • professional ethics;
  • quality standards & quality assurance best practices;
  • consistent pricing policies;
  • induction of newly qualified professionals.

Thus, ‘Gorod perevodchikov’ accomplishes its mission, because we provide a good environment for public debate that gave somewhat sizable results. We are not simply a part of the market, but apparently a market-maker of sorts as well. We’ve been working on “local virtual environmental issues”, if I may say so. Yet, we ended up with the role rather than a role. Concerning professional associations in Russia, I would name two, both are registered: the Union of Translators of Russia, which is a member of International Federation of Translation and this year turned twenty, and the National League of Translators, which is a not-for-profit professional association established in 2004 in Moscow for translators and interpreters. The second one is based on the idea of networking between high-caliber translators and interpreters. I would say that there is more room for professional associations for translators and interpreters in Russia, and I deeply hope and sincerely expect that we’ll see the day when a new association will be born with new ideas and activities. Russia is big and this makes it a perfect field for diversity in the name of integrity.

Meanwhile ‘Gorod perevodchikov’ remains a naturally formed community taking a neutral position between the market players, and thus being open to all non-aggressive approaches.

And the market becomes more colorful and vivid. I closely follow the tendencies and see that the most often asked questions are about rates and payments, next come marketing and jobs search, CAT issues, building resumés, parties relations and protection of rights, and only then some ask about the daily schedules and time management. So we have to talk through all the evident and concealed issues of being a translator or an interpreter in order to find some new underlying potential problems and talk them through too.

The certification issue is becoming more or less debated at times. The issue is quite complex for such a big country as Russia. We talked about it online and then, one day the Union of Translators of Russia came up with a couple of real-life conferences on the subject. But as to me, I think that the only way to fairly certify a translator is to chip him or her with standard or default settings of translation basics. :)

And that will for sure guarantee some sort of professional ethics worth to be certified. Well, I just wanted to say that any certification process is a big job and let all the bravehearted come up with bright and practical ideas…

So passed ten years... […and thirty minutes...]

Every fairytale has its own Cinderella…

When I started the project I was just a wild child who graduated from the university and spent a couple of years working in-house. Evidently I didn’t like it because I kept searching for the new ways of existence. I quit the office for good after they had accused me of being a hacker (I helped with an anti-virus system). That was in 2001 when I just started the project. And that’s when I became a freelance translator and a website administrator in one. I did not realize the bunch of problems I would face, I did not have any far-reaching plans or strategies, I simply did what I thought was best for the moment and still follow this rule in my everyday life.

Thanks to ‘Gorod perevodvhikov’ and its virtual citizens who in fact were and are Russian language professionals working freelance, in-house, running translation agencies and managing translation projects, but who were and are still just humans, I learned how to organize my freelance activity, how to help others when they are moody, how to manage a professional community, how to solve problems, how to build bridges between market players.

I learned how to think globally, how to be patient, and how to pass my knowledge to the others for I’ll never take it to the other world. Well, I even learned how to speak before the audience and that’s a big step for my kind of autistic nature: this is the 4th time that I take part in a professional conference for translators and interpreters, and couple of times I had long talks with university students on the challenges of translation market.

One day, I am planning to publish my online professional diaries full of rights and wrongs about going freelance and becoming a professional translator, and about virtual community administration and observing market evolution, so that those off the Internet could have a glimpse into the daily life of a freelance translator in Russia.

I’ve heard that my notes have already been used as real-life examples in translation courses. In the emails, and at real-life meetings, I've been told that my online diaries helped people to realize that different translators may face similar difficulties, and that being a professional means being capable of solving professional issues.

I’ve been already asked if I would consider getting it translated into other languages. Well, I’d love to, but this remains to be seen.

As I study other countries' experience, I see that everything has been invented long before we came. What makes the history repeat itself? When I started the project I knew nothing about the relative precedents. If I knew, would it have stopped me from running this website?

Meanwhile we continue contributing into the global climate of the Russian language translation by warming up the cyberspace.

— Why am I doing all this?

— Because it helps me feeling alive.

And nothing can stop the dance.

Edited and adapted for web by a friend.

См. «Город переводчиков на отраслевых конференциях»

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