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August 2012

Speaking of Success: Jenn Mercer, Professional Translator

The field of translation is not one you read or hear about very often–or at least I don’t. It requires great communication skills in more than one language and can lead you down interesting life paths. So I was intrigued when I recently met fellow freelancer and professional French to English translator, Jenn Mercer.  Jenn happily agreed to be interviewed for Vox Laurus and shares her career experience below.

1. What prompted you to start working as a professional French-to-English translator? How did you know you were ready?

There were so many signs that translation would be a good career for me that I cannot believe it took me so long to realize. I enjoy writing in English – which is critical, and I love learning languages.  In addition, I need a job where I can control the time, place, and manner in which I work due to both practical and personality reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I work well with other people and have a broad tolerance for coworker eccentricities. By the same token, I have very little tolerance for arbitrary restrictions.

The immediate impetus was that I was no longer able to pursue my college degree(s) [while working] a full-time job. I tried, I really did, but due to a number of reasons the 24/7 call center I was working with developed a lack of flexibility. At the same time, I was hitting the courses I had put off because they were harder to schedule.  I had only a semester left at the time, so I started my freelance writing and translation career and have been working for myself ever since. While I do still enjoy pure writing (as opposed to the restricted form of writing I do as a translator), this is no longer a major component of my income.

As for how I knew I was ready… I just had to give it a shot. I had taken a translation course in college and then did an Independent Study in which I translated French poetry. My translation professor referred me to one of my first clients, which was a great vote of confidence. However, my real feeling of “readiness” did not come until I had completed a half-dozen projects, dealt with some midnight demons, met my deadlines, and received good feedback. I think you will never really know if you are ready to be a translator without actually doing the work. Taking French classes – and even living in France – do not give you the vocabulary you need to translate complex business documents.

2. What were the major challenges you faced when you first started translating?

I think my main challenge was the same one that most freelancers encounter – getting those first few clients. I was also surprised to learn how much IT work was involved. I have had to deal with corrupted files, backing out software upgrades, converting files, etc. It is much more stressful to deal with computer problems when you have a deadline than when you know you will go home at a certain hour regardless of whether the work is done.

3. Have technological advancements affected your work as a translator at all? If so, how?

Technology has had a strong influence on the entire field of translation. It offers competition in the form of globalization and machine translation, but also helps translators perform their jobs better. It has had a net positive effect. I can work anywhere in the world and I do not have to worry about manipulating and shipping physical documents. I can run errands and respond to client emails on my smartphone. CAT tools (Computer Aided Translation) ensure that I never have to translate the same sentence twice and relieve me of most of the formatting work. Note: CAT tools are not the same as MT (Machine Translation) in which the computer (tries) to translate for you. CAT tools are more of a memory aid than anything else.

I do not know where I would be without being able to research terminology on the Internet. I can verify usage, consult online dictionaries, ask colleagues for help, etc. I have a lovely collection of physical dictionaries, but it is impossible to have enough.

4. What kinds of material do you love translating? What do you dislike?

I enjoy translating documents that hit that sweet spot between being challenging enough to be interesting, but not so challenging that I have to research every word and cannot be sure that I have made the right word choices. I specialize in business, legal, and financial translations so many of the projects are in those fields. However, I am also a curious person with an eclectic range of interests (like many translators) and I love projects that let me learn something new or involve one of my many hobbies.

I also prefer projects which emphasize the translation portion of the work rather than formatting and administration. Sometimes the translation work itself is fairly simple, but the project is composed of dozens of tiny files and I spend more time renaming and saving into the correct folders than I do on the translation itself.  [Further to] the previous question about technology, I have purchased much of the software I use because it relieves me of parts of the work I do not like to do. In this way, I stay happy while meeting the needs of my clients.

5. You’re not just a translator, but also a writer. Have you found that being one has proven beneficial to you with the other? Have you done any creative writing in French?

While the ability to speak a foreign language, French in my case, is seen as the obvious prerequisite to becoming a translator, the ability to express yourself in your native language is much more important. A translated document should be the same as the original, except for the language. Although I do a lot of terminology research, much of the real brain sweat comes from trying to form and rearrange the best English sentences. This last twist is nearly indistinguishable from trying to express an idea in your head into words.

The only creative writing I did in French was in school. It was a helpful exercise to develop my French skills, but not one that is a real creative outlet for me. I may feel differently in another twenty years as the language seeps deeper into my bones.

6. What advice and educational preparation would you recommend for someone who wants to enter and then advance in the field?

Well, my translation professor advised me to learn “everything” and it is hard to argue with that advice. You need to have excellent writing skills in your native language, which will be your target language,  and excellent comprehension skills in your source language. It is useful to develop writing skills in your source language as well, both as a way to aid your language skills and to communicate with clients. However, in addition to all of these essential language skills, you also need to be familiar with the fields in which you translate.

The best preparation for a specialized translator is to actually work in an industry for a number of years and then switch over to translation. This is somewhat impractical, especially as many translators have advanced translation degrees as well. How do you plan for such a chaotic career path? Many translators don’t. Instead it is common to fall into translation midway through another career entirely. Like being a good writer, sometimes you need to live a bit before you can really be a good translator.

Oh, and don’t forget you also need to know enough accounting and marketing to run a business…

7. Does translation work typically involve any lifestyle changes, such as frequent travel?

Yes and no. I travel less on a daily basis since I work at home, but as a business owner I attend translation conferences and travel to French-speaking countries to keep up my skills. The main lifestyle change is that I get to work at home, which has been wonderful.

8. Do you think it’s necessary to be immersed in French culture to do the type of translation work you do?

Legal translation can be learned through research and education to a large extent; however every bit of immersion helps. For this reason, I went to Paris last summer to attend a conference located in the Palais de Justice:

Seriously, just look at this.
(Photo credit: Tristan Nitot, Wikimedia Commons)

The experience of sitting in a French courtroom for three days, listening to French legal experts, and talking with other translators and interpreters – for the most part in French, was invaluable. I returned home feeling more comfortable with legal French and more confident in my abilities.

9. How do you find new clients? Do you do a lot of one-term assignments?

I find new clients passively by maintaining a web presence on the ATA and CATI websites, translation portals such as ProZ, and my own website. I also market my services actively by sending out résumés and responding to job opportunities. In addition, I network with colleagues at translation conferences and online.

I strive to keep clients happy enough that assignments are not one-term, but this is often more a function of the type of client and the nature of the work than anything else. An individual who needs a birth certificate translated for immigration is unlikely to need future documents, while a translation agency specializing in legal documents will have a lot of work for me.

10.  What do you need to feel successful in your career? What would you still like to accomplish?

I have income goals, which I assess and update every year. Part of this goal is to make my work-flow more even.  As I gain experience and establish a good reputation, I have had more clients finding me rather than having to seek them out. This is preferable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that this means I spend more time translating and less time prospecting.

In addition to my income goals, I would like to obtain ATA certification. This requires passing a rather difficult certification exam with an 80% failure rate. I have taken it once, and unfortunately I was one of the 80%. At this time, the exam is pen and paper with no online resources allowed. This adds to the difficulty and has no resemblance to how translators have been working for some time. A keyboarded exam is currently being tested and I plan to take this exam again once it is ready.

11. Is there anything else you would like to add or think that people should know about you or a career in translation?

The most important thing to understand about a career in translation is that it requires constant learning. If you get bored easily, you are in the right place. You should also know that translation is a rather solitary career with most translators working at home. Depending on your personality, this will either make you very happy or very sad.

As for me, you should know that I am ridiculously happy to have found translation as a career. Back in the dark days when I worked at an insurance company, we would joke about “going to our happy place” when the latest crazy edict came down from management. This is my happy place.

Jenn is also a poet and writer. She delights in knowing that anything she learns, no matter how esoteric, may somehow come in handy some day. Jenn lives in Raleigh, NC with her husband, daughter, cats, fish, and as many dictionaries as she can fit on her shelves. You can read more about Jenn by visiting her website (link highlighted in red): or follow her on Twitter: @jennmercerFE

Positively Successful: Lisa Hagan, Literary Agent

I first learned of nonfiction literary agent Lisa Hagan through fellow members of a freelance writing organization I belong to, Triangle Area Freelancers. Her name came up at one of our meetings. Everyone there who had met Lisa or had worked with her had nothing but positive things to say. Words and phrases like wonderful, fantastic, amazing, friend to writers, gets results, sweet, and professional were used to describe her. I took note, went home, and searched for her name online and found similar adjectives attributed to her in every search result. So then I started following her on Twitter, where her affirming and positive tweets began to show up in my feed every day. That’s when I knew for sure I wanted to interview her for Vox Laurus.  We chatted back and forth via email and I was very happy when she granted my request. And what do you know — all of those descriptors that I had heard from others were confirmed.

LISA HAGAN LITERARY has a history of anticipating future book trends and creating appropriate projects with its clients — scientists, writers, and innovators from around the world. Lisa Hagan began her literary career with PARAVIEW LITERARY AGENCY in 1993 and purchased it 1999.  The PARAVIEW LITERARY AGENCY was among the first to successfully develop literary properties for a rapidly growing worldwide audience known as cultural creatives. Lisa will continue to follow this path and is excited to announce the new name change to LISA HAGAN LITERARY. The agency handles only nonfiction properties at this time.

Lisa discusses with me how she got her start as a literary agent, how she views the future of the publishing industry, and how she defines success.

1) How and why did you become an agent?

I was working in the documentary film division of Paraview and while we were in between projects I picked up a manuscript from the slush pile and have never looked back. I was hooked by the process of turning a dream into a book.

My love of books started at a young age. We went to the library every Saturday morning. I was allowed 4 books each week from the public library plus the books from the school library. As my best friend since school says, “Lisa is never without something to read.” Which is true. I wasn’t taught that you could do something that you loved to earn a living, but I was in the right place at the right time, it fell into my lap and it was meant to be. Being an agent and helping writers become authors is the best and most rewarding career that I could ever imagine for me.


2) Is there a particular reason you handle only nonfiction properties?

The first manuscript that I picked up was a novel. I did not sell that novel; the author and I are still friends though. I represented fiction for a few years in the beginning because I love a good story. I found that the editing process was not one that I enjoyed as much as discovering a new author and the thrill of the sale.

Paraview was famous for non-fiction works in the genre of mind, body, spirit. Sandra Martin, the founder of Paraview, was the first agent to really become successful in this genre back in the ’80s.

I realized that I preferred to sell books that I felt would make a difference in someone’s life, to help them be a better person, to share a story that would empower them. I slowly stopped representing fiction until my focus solely became non-fiction.


3) What exactly does an agent’s job entail?

Reading. I read an incredible amount of queries, proposals and manuscripts. Once I find an idea that takes my breath away, I contact the writer to discuss our options and decide whether we would make a great team or not. Then it is on to perfecting the proposal with the author before pitching the editors and then on to negotiating contracts after I make the sale. I assist with navigating the publishing process and PR. Then we start all over with a new book idea.


4) My research tells me it’s virtually impossible for someone to become an agent straight out of college or on a whim. What preparation does it take for someone who wants to enter and then advance in the field?

No, I don’t think you have to be with an agency, but I would definitely recommend that you have a mentor to become an agent. It is not an easy business. In fact, it is quite cliquish, just like high school. You have to be willing to pick up the phone and introduce yourself, go to NYC, and make appointments to meet with editors.

You have to have a love of books but you also have to be an aggressive salesperson. I have been told on more than a few occasions that if the proposal was only as good as my pitch…. Becoming an agent requires cold calling, networking and putting yourself out there. The editors need agents to send them material, they rely on us. It is my job to know who the editors are and what they are looking for. I am in constant contact with editors. I know what they want and they know what I represent. Editors come to me with ideas looking for a writer. I call those easy sales. I am known for my authors and I am ecstatic about that.

You have to be able to handle rejection in this business. It takes a lot of no’s to be successful. My motto is, “NEXT!”


5) How have e-publishing and self-publishing changed the agent’s current role in the industry? How are they affecting an agent’s future career potential?

At first we were all concerned about e-books, but as we are now seeing, it doesn’t make any difference. People are reading and that is all that matters. As long as writers can write and we can sell and the publishers can publish good works, it’s all good.

I did feel a disruption in the business starting in 2008, but we all weathered the economy storm and publishing is getting back to a better place.  I am still selling terrific proposals and people are still buying books.Whether they are an electronic book or a hard copy, it is still a sale.

Self-publishing has been around longer than I have been an agent. We would not touch a self-published book with a ten foot pole back in the day. Now, it is common place. I’ve represented quite a few self-published works and have sold them to one of the big six. Publishing is not as stuffy as it used to be.


6) You have a reputation for being a very positive, affirming professional in a tough industry. What does it take to be a happy literary agent?

I was told early on by an editor that I was too nice to be an agent. Yes, you do have to be tough, demanding and sometimes I do have to yell, but for the most part, I get what I want by being me. I am tenacious and I think that, and knowledge of the business, is all it takes. I don’t give up and I am always thinking about my authors and what will help them to be successful. When I was a kid I used to say, “If I am not reading, I am not breathing.” I love what I do and everything in life can be in a book or pertains to a book. My research for my authors is constant.


7) How do you define success? To what do you most attribute your success?

For me, if a book that I have agented helps at least one person, then I am happy. Changing people’s lives through words is my mantra. I just want to leave a positive mark in the world to make a difference. This is the way that I have found I can do that and I am good at it and I am grateful for that.


8) What is the most helpful piece of career advice you have ever received?

I’ve said this in every interview. I thank literary agent Jeff Herman. I read an interview with him early on in my career and he said, “If you dread a client’s phone call then let that client go.” Wow. That was some of the best advice I have ever received still to this day. There are a lot of writers out there; I only want to work with the best — writers with integrity and writers that share my goal of changing the world one book at a time. Leave your ego at the door and let’s do this.


9) Is there anything else that you think is important for readers to know?

Agents are not scary. We need writers. Editors need discerning agents with excellent writers. If you love to write and have something that you think is worth sharing with the world then keep writing. Don’t give up.

If you would like to learn more about Lisa, click on the following links highlighted in red:

Publishers Marketplace – Here you will find Lisa’s contact information, as well as a listing of her leading clients and best-known projects.

LinkedIn – Lisa’s profile

Shelfari and Goodreads – See what Lisa is reading and which books she has sold.

You can also follow her on Twitter by clicking here (@LisaHagan123).

9 Tips for Social Media Success

There is a lot of buzz in professional circles, especially in media and communications, about building your platform or your brand. That’s just another way of saying you have to market yourself online to get your service or medium noticed. Social media technologies, in their myriad forms, are a useful means to that end.

I’ve been playing around with social media for a long time, and while I have learned a lot, I still have quite a way to go before I consider myself truly savvy. Part of the problem is that it’s always evolving. Just when I think I have one thing down pat, something new pops up that I need to learn and master. Luckily I love learning and staying up on current trends, so I guess it’s not a problem so much as it’s a challenge. As with everything else in life, I struggle to find a harmonious balance between learning new things to stay up to speed and focusing on the tasks that need to be done right now.

It’s a good thing, then, that there are plenty of social media pros out there who are willing to impart their advice for free or for the cost of a book. There are also lots of free online tools available that can make learning about and managing social media fun and easy.

Here are 9 tips or tools that I have used or am using to try to achieve social media success:


1)      Read other blogs. This is generally a given, but it bears repeating. The best way to learn what works and doesn’t work from a blog reader’s standpoint is to be a blog reader. If there is a particular blog you have gone back to repeatedly, ask yourself why. What content does it offer that you find useful or interesting? Is the blog visually appealing? Is it easy to navigate? Is it updated regularly? Examine your answers to those questions and use them to inform how you create and maintain your own blog.

2)      Support other bloggers.  What goes around comes around. Pay it forward. All of those clichéd sayings still impart some value. It’s good if you regularly read or subscribe to someone’s blog. It’s better if you leave comments on their blog, tell them why you enjoy reading it, start a conversation. That’s why it’s called social media.

Tell bloggers if you want to know more about something. Help them to help you. If you have your own blog, you know what I’m talking about. Do the same for others and you will reap the rewards.

Also, bloggers, respond back to people’s comments. It continuously works both ways. Let your readers know you value the time they took to read and respond to what you wrote. Keep the conversation going and give your readers another reason to come back to your blog. The resulting back and forth may even spark an idea for a future blog post, so it’s all good.

3)      Read books and online tutorials. I learned and continue to learn how to create and maintain my blog by reading books and consulting free online tutorials. My blog is self-hosted and done in WordPress. I have found TEACH YOURSELF VISUALLY WORDPRESS to be a great beginner’s guide (click on it to read more about it):

Also, it’s not necessary to know HTML or CSS to have a nice blog, but it can help if you want to achieve a certain look not available in any of the numerous free WordPress themes that are available (if you decide to use WordPress). Or maybe you just want to tweak things a certain way and can’t afford to pay a web designer to do them for you. I actually took a beginner’s class in HTML/CSS and we used an excellent book from the Head First series. A newer edition of the book is coming out in September: HEAD FIRST HTML AND CSS. It breaks things down quite nicely and is cheaper than what you’d spend on a class or web designer.


As far as online tutorials are concerned, one go-to person who has a very informative blog is Jane Friedman, former editor of Writer’s Digest. I find myself bookmarking her tweets an awful lot, too. Her blog is geared toward writers, but she gives some great advice here about getting started blogging that just about anyone with a blog could find helpful.


4)      Learn how to Tweet well. There are a bevy of Twitter tip tutorials online.  A few that I have found offer valuable guidance on how to get the most out of your Twitter experience are:

5)      Practice good Twitter etiquette. Besides trying to follow the tips offered by the sites in #4, I recently picked up this book up by JS McDougall. He offers ideas on how to use Twitter to your advantage without turning into a human spam-bot and annoying your followers. It’s a good resource and at the very least is worth the money you would spend on the Kindle edition (which you can download to your PC).

6)      To follow or not to follow? Try not to be concerned with how many followers you do or don’t have. I don’t follow everyone who follows me. I’m not followed by everyone I follow. That’s just how it works. I have had to become very particular with my follows because it is just too much to manage, even with the use of lists and Twitter dashboards like Hootsuite. If your personality comes through in your tweets, if you tweet about things that inform and/or engage, if your timeline isn’t just a series of re-tweets, people will probably follow back. I like to keep the number of people I follow to a minimum so that I can interact with them more meaningfully.


7)      Personal vs. professional networking. I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. It can either be a great networking tool or a big pain in the tool. I know people who have created separate accounts for their professional self and their private self. I have one account and use it solely for professional reasons. With all of the other responsibilities I have in life including being a mom, freelance writing, maintaining a blog and my Twitter account, I don’t have time for a personal Facebook page. The most personal I get on there is posting pictures of my dogs.

That said, Facebook can be useful for posting a link to your most recent blog post, to announce good career-related news, to promote your book, etc. I try to vary what I post on Facebook from what I put on Twitter. If the same people are following you on both, they may be put off by reading the same thing over and over in two different places.


8)      Make meaningful connections. LinkedIn is a powerful professional networking platform. Keep it professional. It’s probably not a good idea to invite everyone in your email address book to connect with you. With a few exceptions, it’s best to only link up with those connections who have or will have first-hand knowledge of your professional expertise and can vouch for your work ethic and job performance.

Also, there are most likely many professional networking groups that you can join on LinkedIn that are related to your career field — and if there aren’t, why not start one? I belong to a few LinkedIn groups and have been able to communicate with other writers not only in my geographic area, but around the world, which has proven a great learning experience.

9)     Avoid oversharing. Think twice about connecting your other social media platforms with your LinkedIn page. Hopefully you’re smart enough not to publicly bash your boss or complain about clients on Facebook or Twitter. You really don’t want that info to show up on LinkedIn. It’s unprofessional and may sabotage your chances of being taken seriously.


So that’s my list, and it’s a dynamic one at that. Ask me six months from now which social media resources I recommend and the list could look completely different. It’s reflective of what I find useful right now and of course I am still learning. I have not mastered all of the good advice given in the books or on the sites I recommend, but I’m trying. Hopefully you’ll find something beneficial on the list. Please also share your own tips and resources in the comments below.

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