ATA Conference Notes from a Buyer’s Perspective

I saw and learned so much last week at my first American Translators Association conference that it will definitely take some time to process it all! But I had the unusual experience of attending for the first time both as a translation vendor and as a translation buyer, and there were definitely some things I noticed from a buyer perspective that I found fascinating.

So, all you freelance translators out there: here are four things that make you leave a good or bad impression on a potential client.

1. Know Your “Getting to Know You” Rules

Most translators I saw introduced themselves with their elevator speech or made friendly first-meeting conversation that was totally appropriate: “Where are you from?” “What are your languages?” “Having a good time?”

A few, however, threw me off and made me uncomfortable by launching into very personal topics after only a couple of minutes, talking about their boyfriend/girlfriend, their coworkers, their religion, etc. I didn’t follow up with any of these people about their translation work. A good rule of thumb is, don’t bring up your love life, your office politics, or your religion with someone you’ve just met—especially someone you want to hire you!—until you at least know each other’s names, occupations and areas of interest, and a few innocuous personal details like where they grew up, their hobbies, etc. Love, politics, and religion are “friend” topics. So if we just met, and we’re not yet friends, we should not be talking about them. It’s not professional, and I’m looking to buy translations from the professionals. After you bring one of these topics up, I decide not to contact you for work.

Now, if we chat for a while and become friends, go for it! I chatted about all these topics with friends I made at the conference, and it didn’t feel unprofessional at all.


2. Ask Rather Than Teach

When I explained to potential partners what I was looking for, I loved it when they asked questions. That made me feel like they wanted to know more about my needs or were interested in my field. When I’m a buyer, I’m all about my needs and my field, so I want to talk about me. :)

What I didn’t love so much was when people immediately tried to teach me more about what I needed—or worse, told me I was wrong about what I needed! When I’m hanging out in my “just another translator” persona, I like to be taught. When I’m a buyer, though, I am not there to learn about what you think I should want. When I’m just a translator, I’m interested more in you than in myself, because I know me already and I don’t know you. But it’s different when I’m a buyer! As a buyer, I’m interested in you, but I’m interested in you within the context of what you can do for me. See the pattern? Buyers are all about me.

So if I describe what I’m looking for and it seems weird or misguided to you, it’s time for your inner diplomat to come out and play. Don’t tell me, “Actually, it doesn’t work that way,” or “I think you’d get better results with x instead of y.” Even if you’re right, that feels insulting, and you’re making it about you. Instead, ask me a question! “Oh, really? What makes you prefer y over x?” “Why do you find that works best for you?” Now I’m all excited because we’re talking about my needs. Now I’m in a teachable mood. So when I answer, you can follow up with a teaching moment, like “Oh, I often do that this other way,” or “I wonder if you could get good results by…”

This is especially key because you just might find your potential client does know what she wants! Sure, clients often don’t get what we translators do, and they often ask for the wrong thing. But they may have a good reason for what they’re requesting, and you just don’t know what it is yet. Telling them they don’t know what they’re talking about never makes them happy!

(And I’ll be honest: I taught instead of asked with a client of my own once… and that may be why I haven’t heard from them since. So trust me, I’ve seen this go wrong for both ends.)


3. Why Are We Talking to Each Other?

I met some great contacts at the Resume Exchange! My favorites were the ones who listened to what I was looking for and either (1) told me how they could help provide it, or (2) said they couldn’t provide the services I needed, but gave a SHORT description of what they did, or were interested in the topic and started a fun discussion about it. Some people who didn’t work in the fields/languages I was looking for just then were still a blast to talk to, because we had common interests. Sometimes we were unexpectedly useful to each other, providing information we didn’t even know we’d needed! And once, someone who gave a short description of what they did turned out to offer something I’d forgotten I needed.

Then there were the freelancers who asked what I was looking for and then launched into a long pitch about their totally unrelated services. If I say, “I’m looking for translators who specialize in x and work in languages y and z,” it’s okay to say, “Oh, then we may not be a match, but here is my card and a one-sentence description of what I do.” That’s totally fine, and if I have time, it could lead to cool things, like I mentioned above. But it’s disrespectful of my time to say, “Okay, great! I specialize in [something else] and work in [totally different languages]! I was born in raised in Country X and educated at College X and my qualifications are…” It makes me think, “Were you even listening to what I just said? Why are you talking to me? Do you even know why you’re talking to me?” It also seems kind of desperate.

Remember: normal me is super interested in hearing about your specialties that are unrelated to mine. Normal me thinks “You’re talking to me because we’re both translators, which is great!” But buyer me is all about my needs.


4. Bring the Right Business Card.

I took dozens of business cards from freelancers and gave out dozens of both my freelance and company cards. For about the first two hours, most of them looked interesting and distinctive! But after that, I hardly did more than glance at most of them, because they’d started to blend together into a sea of vague impressions. Here’s what made me look or not look closely:

  • Business cards made of normal letter paper aren’t good. Yes, this happened! And not just once! Two or three freelance translators who seemed very professional when I spoke to them gave me business cards that were not printed on normal card stock, but on ordinary paper—as in the type of paper sitting in your printer at home that you use to print coupons. Immediately my impression was “Cheap! This translator didn’t invest money or time.” Then came “Unprofessional!” Before this conference, I’d never seen a business card like this in my life before. And quickly on its heels, “Flimsy! This is hard to slide in between the other cards, and $5 says it gets all crumpled up before I even sit down to read these later.” Hear me, fellow translators: No. Please don’t do this. You may be wonderful at translating, but a business card that’s a piece of paper instead of a card immediately casts you as unprofessional and turns the buyer off.
  • Light-colored backgrounds are awesome. I noticed that the cards which were either lighter in color or a mix of light and dark but with the text on the light parts were most effective with me. I don’t mean dark colors are no good to have at all; dark colors are striking and can be very effective. But if most of the text was printed on a darker color, I kind of thought, “Aw, maybe I’ll look at this later.” It was just harder to read and made me not want to exert the effort when I knew how many business cards I was getting that day. Now, I can’t throw stones here—the old version of my website had the same problem. (And others tried to tell me, too!) But it really is true: text on a very dark background is hard to read and unappealing. The most appealing dark colors I saw were used for parts with no text.
    • There were two exceptions to this rule! The dark cards that I saw and wanted to read shared these traits: (1) The font was slightly larger than average. (2) The font color was light and bright: one was pure white; one was a flashy magenta-pink that stood out cleanly from the background.
  • Oddly, some languages congregated around the same design. While it’s not ideal, it’s also not a disaster to use Vistaprint or FedEx designs. My previous business card design was FedEx, and it turned out looking nice and still stood out as unique. But I was surprised to see that people tended to flock to this Vistaprint design in particular, so at least once a day I got business cards from different people that looked exactly the same… and they had dark backgrounds… (Always from translators working in East Asian languages, for some reason. I have no explanation for this.) It’s nothing I held against these translators as a buyer; I was interested in them anyway. But it’s probably not good when your business card stands out for its sameness. Sure enough, when I checked, this design is on the first page of Vistaprint’s premium business card designs. So it might be a good tip to go beyond the first page when you’re looking at prepackaged designs.
  • I learned some things about my own business card, too! I learned more about my own business card from others at ATA 54 than I could have almost anywhere else.
    • A professional design really works. I paid for my logo and my business cards to be designed by a professional artist, and they got a GREAT response from colleagues and vendors alike. Almost everyone I gave my card to seemed to really look at it. Several people specifically told me they loved the logo. It felt great to see such a positive response to my brand.
    • Even a professional design may need some tweaks. I got spontaneous feedback from two people that my name was too small in comparison to my logo. Most people seemed fine with it, sometimes even asking questions about my name origins, but when two different people tell you the same thing, you take it seriously. I reevaluated, and I can see their point. So, when I run out of this batch of cards (which won’t be for a while), I plan to ask the artist to increase the font size on my name a bit. Yay feedback!
    • Pro tip: never, ever use OvernightPrints as your printer! Sadly, I learned this the hard way. I had to fight hard for those gorgeous business cards that people loved, because OvernightPrints messed up my order twice, to the point where I was afraid that I wouldn’t have cards in time for the conference, and had to place an expensive rush order with a different printer! It turned out that OP got my order right the third time and it reached my mailbox the morning I left, but it was a close call. And I spoke to another translator at ATA 54 who was unable to give me a business card because OP had also done her order wrong! Since then, I’ve spoken with people in multiple professions who have all had bad experiences with them. I’m told they’re okay with their corporate clients, but small jobs or jobs for individuals frequently get screwed up. Buyer beware! You can’t afford the stress this causes. I’ve also reported this issue to my artist, who thanked me for letting her know so that she can steer her clients clear of them in the future. Always good to keep your business associates in the loop about problems.
    • Any business card is better than no business card. Enough said!


    And that’s a wrap! I hope it was useful, and let me know if you’ve got tips of your own (even for buyers!).

3 Replies to “ATA Conference Notes from a Buyer’s Perspective”

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