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8 Secrets of the Translation and Copywriting Industry

Long list of articles to translate, Ottawa, July 2022
A long list of articles to translate, Ottawa, July 2022

I’ve been busy creating sentences in English and in French.

As requested by clients, I wrote about encryption and online security, Canadian culture, food and beverage innovations, top places to explore in Canada, and career development. I translated PowerPoint presentations, travel articles, extracurricular activities sets for kids, annual reports, corporate communications, tweets, survey questions, product descriptions, blog posts and more. I even edited articles on Canadian military history.

Alas, none of these assignments required creating clever plot twists and developing intriguing characters. I get paid to write someone else’s stories, not mine—and the “someone” is usually a brand, an organization or various levels of government. I have to stick to their voice and image, check the style guide if provided, and meet specific requirements defined during comms meetings I’m not invited to. I have to get the message across but it’s not mine.

Welcome to the freelance life. I write about topics on which I’m not an expert for organizations, companies and brands I don’t work for as an employee.

Did I say how much I love my job? Sure, I don’t have much time, energy and words left at the end of the day to write my own stories, but I’m still making a living creating or adapting useful and sometimes entertaining content. I get to see how things work behind the scenes in various industries and I become surprisingly knowledgeable about random topics I explore as a translator or copywriter.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people do their job and how things work—each profession has open and dirty secrets the rest of us don’t even suspect.

Here are a few “insider secrets” from a translator and copywriter who has been working with countless PR, marketing, and comms teams for 13 years!

Typos can make my day

“Speak louder! Otherwise, clients who are dead may not understand instructions clearly.”

I found this gem in a document I was translating last week. It actually made me pause for a second. I mean, it’s hard enough to find customer service workers these days, is summoning spirits part of the new job description?

Then I wrote a note. “Deaf,” not “dead.” Fixed that for you.

Typos can go unnoticed for a long time—until a translator spends a few hours analyzing a document sentence after sentence. We should get bonuses as typo-spotters.

Don’t trust the byline

Guess what, magazine articles credited to “John Smith,” “Paul Lee,” “Josy Nguyen” and “Lisa Sanchez” are typically written by the same freelance copywriter who may or may not have had the chance to enjoy the experience enthusiastically described in the 1,500-word story you’re reading.

This is true for many free or promotional magazines, I’m sure The Globe and Mail foreign correspondents are actually posted abroad.

And don’t trust quotes either

This is the first industry trick I learned—quotes are usually made up by the comms or PR team, and occasionally approved by the CEO or expert they are attributed to at the sign-off stage.

Plot twist, sometimes the big boss does insist on using a very emotional quote but it gets killed by the above-mentioned teams because… ahem, it was not the best thing to say.

I do use machine translation once in a while

I don’t think I’m going to be replaced by AI anytime soon because my clients are looking for adaptations, not translations. I basically rewrite documents and adapt them to a specific audience or country with language and culture differences in mind.

However, if I have to translate a long list of colours or ingredients (typically when I work on product descriptions), you can be sure I’m going to use Deepl or Google Translate to save time—copy, paste, copy, check and edit the output with my human eyes, ta-da!

I sign many, many NDAs

I have a “NDAs” folder because almost every client asks me to sign some kind of confidentiality agreement. It’s a standard requirement since I often have access to business information, marketing campaigns, and other sensitive information.

I have several security clearances

The government’s “NDA requirement” is usually a certain level of security clearance. Once in a while, I work on classified, secret documents and the government has to make sure I’m not a spy or a citizen in debt willing to sell intelligence to foreign agents or questionable organizations.

Meetings and calls are not common in the industry

I translated many minutes and Zoom 101 instructions for clients, but I may be one of the only remote workers who didn’t participate in a single Zoom meeting during the pandemic.

And I can’t remember the last time a client called me either. It’s very rare, past the introduction meeting.

Writers and other word lovers tend to communicate by email. It makes sense for a job where instructions, resources and assignments are invariably “attached to this email, the deadline is yesterday, do you think you could deliver early?”

You can forget about attribution rights

You’ve probably read articles by an unnamed “contributor” or “the XYZ team.”

I’m this unnamed “contributor” or a member of the “XYZ team.” Very few clients credit me for the work I provide.

If I google my full name, I actually find more credits for my work as a photographer than as a writer or translator, with a few exceptions.

Secrets shared; now I have to go back to… yep, travel packing!

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Zhu

French woman in English Canada.

Exploring the world with my camera since 1999, translating sentences for a living, writing stories that may or may not get attention.

Firm believer that nobody is normal... and it’s better this way.

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