Greatest Women in Translation: Sabine Lammersdorf

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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series – the last one of 2015.

As it’s been happening with this series, I didn’t know today’s interviewee. So I’ve been thinking that it has been a sort of networking for me. I get to e-meet the person and to know more about her in order to make up the questions. Fantastic, right?

Now, let’s welcome today’s interviewee, Sabine Lammersdorf, nominated by Giselle Chaumien.


sabine lammersdorf

1. You have two ferrets, Luciano and Mephisto. How is it like to have them around the house being a freelancer?

They are pure joy, fun and distraction. They allow me to escape from my desk and take breaks, although this is not the reason for having them around. I spend many hours at my desk and so Luciano and Mephisto provide the much welcomed mischief, laughter, carefreeness in an otherwise serious work environment. As any other pet would wish for, I take good care of them and attend to their needs; in other words: They enable me to forget work for a little while and help me clear my mind.

2. After your son was born in 1993, you used your long-term maternity leave to attend lectures in mechanical engineering as a guest student and do your Abitur (A levels). How did you manage to study and raise a kid?

Doing my A levels and attending guest lectures in mechanical engineering was part of a long-term plan. After giving birth to my son and at the time I was convinced that he would be content with someone looking after him for several hours, I put a schedule together and started looking for a babysitter. I was very lucky to find a wonderful elderly lady who not only agreed to take care of him whenever I attended night school or lectures, but also became an additional grandmother for my son.

3. What made you decide to attend lectures in mechanical engineering after having worked for 11 years as an in-house translator and interpreter in IT?

My father was a passionate mechanical engineer and I used to spend the better part of my childhood together with my father at his drawing board. I was fascinated to see the sketches on his drawing board come to life, first as small scale models and later as huge and live equipment. He constantly encouraged me to experiment, to play with the most basic laws of physics explaining why they worked – or not (more often than they did).

After completing my studies, I happened to land my first job at a company selling and servicing, including repairing, hard and floppy disk drives. Back then in 1982, hard and floppy disk drives were very expensive, so they actually repaired them. The parent company was Indian, supplying all the then big players in the industry with their hard and floppy disks. My main task was to translate the complete documentation into German and act as an interpreter for the trainer during training sessions and conferences. In order to understand what I was talking and writing about, I spent quite a while in the workshop actually repairing disk drives. Admittedly, I enjoyed this combination of “theoretical” and hands-on work – which is entirely based on physics and mathematics, just as mechanical engineering is.

As disk drives became more affordable and the development focussed more and more on software it was fascinating to learn how strings of electrical impulses made things happen on the screen, offering the possibility to scale down the necessary hardware. I never got round to learn how to programme; at that time, I still worked as a translator and interpreter with a gradually changing focus on software, as I did not feel that my knowledge was sufficient enough at that point to specialise in mechanical engineering. It was really fascinating to learn how computers and large machinery items were combined, especially in the area of high precision machinery.

4. Why have you decided to relocate to Spain after your son was born, after having lived so many years in Germany?

Well, the long-term plan had always been to work as a translator and/or interpreter for a major multi-national company and to relocate to Asia. For many reasons, I found this too difficult with a small child, so I began thinking about European countries which could provide career opportunities for me and a stable, safe environment for my son. As I did not want to learn another language and because I loved the Mediterranean, Spain and France were on the cards. The dice fell on the Spanish Mediterranean Coast which is where we now reside, within a multi-national environment which I actually enjoy. The internet and computer era not only liberated us from typewriters, they also granted us the opportunity to allow us to live and work wherever we wished or to travel the world whilst working, as some colleagues actually did.

5. You and Giselle Chaumien have a blog together, Wissenswinkel, where you both share lots of information for newbies in the translation industry. Why do you feel it is important to welcome and help newcomers in the translation industry?

“Wissenswinkel” is in fact the result of a failure. It all originated from a discussion about mentoring in general on Facebook and as a result of some newbies informing us that they would appreciate guidance and support when starting their own careers. And thus I founded a mentoring group on Facebook, which was in fact far too spontaneous – without any planning in advance. Giselle Chaumien became a member of this group, this is where we actually met and soon discovered that we both felt the same about sharing our knowledge with newcomers. The former Facebook mentoring group failed, and Giselle Chaumien and I decided to find another way of relaying our knowledge and experience free of charge – that is how “Wissenswinkel” was born.

Generally speaking, newcomers leave university or any language institute with plenty of theoretical knowledge; they usually learn everything connected with the translation and /or interpretation process, but are not introduced to real-world practicalities such as company procedures, processes, organisational issues which inevitably arise when being self-employed. This has not changed since I passed my exams, and having had something like “Wissenswinkel” at hand would have saved me a lot of time and would have helped me to avoid many mistakes. 

There are countless workshops, conferences, webinars, etc. subject to attendance fees. However, a newcomer with very little income, if any, might not be able to afford to attend them. The number of limited resources available which are free of charge mostly focus on marketing aspects. Marketing is undoubtedly an important topic, however, there are many more equally important topics which are hardly ever covered and newcomers might find it difficult to obtain further information or answers to their questions. I had the opportunity to learn so much, gather so much information, sharing this is my pleasure and joy.

“Wissenswinkel” continues to grow at a steady pace. We want it to become some sort of knowledge database covering topics from advice and pricing to case studies to explanations of technical terms and terminology. Our aim and hope is that it shall be helpful and that newcomers will not find themselves completely lost at the beginning of their own working careers. Besides that, newcomers are always welcome to contact us via other channels.

6. Giselle describes yourself as “very reliable”. Do you think reliability is an essential quality as a translator? Why (not)?

Well, the translation industry belongs to the service sector and everything related to service in its broadest sense is based on trust and reliability. This is even more important if someone works in a field where they never (or hardly ever) meet their clients. As we all expect our clients to pay our invoices, so they expect us to deliver our product – the translation – as to the specifications agreed beforehand. 

Reliability, trust, and the delivery of mutually objectives are the foundations of any business – and the translation business does not differ from any other business within the service sector.

7. Contracts and other legal documents were always part of your work, so you recently decided to study Business Law. Do you think it has helped doing a major after already working in the area?

I adore legal language and I very much like translating such documents. Legal language is beautiful and sometimes a challenge, as one single sentence may cover an entire page. The more contracts I translated over the years, the more interesting they became and I began researching the possibility to broaden my horizons without having to interrupt my career. Thanks to modern technology and “newish” types of study courses this is now possible, providing me an option to further dig into this very interesting subject, and to explore new fields of business in the long run.

Contract translation work is the somewhat logical consequence of technological product translation work, as whatever the result of a development is going to be sold. I would not say that this helped to take this decision to study, but love of legal language was certainly its root and the beginning of a very interesting open-ended journey 🙂  

8. One can hardly find information about your business online. Your website is still under construction. Do you think that not being visible online hinders your possibility of being found by potential clients?

Actually, I do not think so. A website is nothing but an extended business card or an extended entry in the yellow pages. Just as back in the pre-internet days nobody would actually file through the yellow pages to find a translator, nobody, nowadays looks at the numerous translator websites available. For sure, access to a website certainly makes it easier to showcase one’s work and capabilities, and thus the marketing element becomes easier; however, I personally do not consider it as a major pre-requisite. I do believe in the principle of meeting potential clients where they are visible, for example, at conferences, trade fairs, specialist forums, etc. My approach might be very old-school, however, this approach allows me firstly to establish the client contact and then explore the needs of a potential client somehow more detailed than just being contacted through a website without really knowing anything about the background of such an enquiry. I find it easier to establish long-term business relationships via my old-school approach, many of my clients come through recommendation anyway.

Nevertheless, my website will be completed sometime next year, and I will then see what it can do for me and how to use it. 

9. Now it’s your turn to nominate a Great Woman in Translation. 

I would like to nominate Allison Wright, she is a German, French and Portuguese to English translator based in Portugal and an accredited member of SATI/SAVI (South Africa), and more recently became a member of the Association of Portuguese Translators and Interpreters, APTRAD. Besides her translation work, she has her own blog “That elusive pair of Jeans” and I really enjoy her eloquent writing.

I feel a bit like standing on the red carpet and I would like to thank you, Caroline, for this forum and also I would like to thank Giselle Chaumien for nominating me. A special thanks goes to Isabel Wilkins, who took on the task of putting my “Germlish” thoughts into proper English. She is a market researcher, a true professional in her own field and a very dear friend.


Thank you, Sabine, for promptly accepting Giselle’s nomination and my invitation to be interviewed for our series! It was a real pleasure e-meeting you and getting to know you better. 🙂

 

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Greatest Women in Translation: Giselle Chaumien

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Welcome back to our interview series Greatest Women in Translation! This month the interview is a bit later than usual because yesterday was a local holiday here, so I took the day off. 😉

Please welcome this month’s Greatest Woman in Translation, Giselle Chaumien, nominated by Nicole Adams.

Welcome, Giselle!


GISELLE CHAUMIEN

1. Your mother is German and your father is French. Was your upbringing bilingual at home? If so, how was the experience?

Yes, we spoke both languages at home – with our dogs as well, who understood the commands in both languages. I believe that bilingual upbringing works well only when both parents speak both languages well and use them with the family. Time and again we hear or read that it’s difficult for children, but I can’t confirm that for me and my siblings. My mother told me that we spoke a mishmash of both languages in our first few years, but then at the age of 3-4 everything straightened out. We lived in Germany, and I attended a private boarding school in France. Today, when I count or do arithmetic, it’s always in French, but I dream in both languages. Oh, and with my office assistant Filou I speak only German. Do you think that’s a mistake? 😉

In my opinion, there’s something that’s much more important than a bilingual upbringing: our parents taught us that random acts of kindness enrich your life. That’s something that’s much more widespread in the United States and the United Kingdom than in Germany. This principle has come to play an increasingly important role in my life – perhaps it has to do with my age. The life that we share with everyone else is like a big pot of soup, with chunks of meat, slivers of vegetables and noodles floating in it. You pick something out of the soup that you like or need, and that makes you happy. And you should put something else back into it, so that others find something good as well. Thus, in my own small way, I try to give back some of what helped me in earlier years and from which I still benefit today. This approach to life is the real legacy of my parents.

2. You studied in Germersheim, at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, Faculty of Translation Studies, Linguistics and Cultural Studies (one of the best universities for translators and interpreters in Germany), where you later became a lecturer. What was it like to switch roles and become a lecturer where you were once a student?

I had already held a teaching position while I was studying there, as one of the instructors who headed the tutorial for German/French legal translation became seriously ill and it was not possible to find a regular substitute so quickly,  so that was not a problem for me. In the early 1980s I then had a half-time position on a two-year contract; my employment contract with Michelin was reduced to 60% during this period – otherwise I would never have managed such a full schedule. I was teaching German/French legal translation and French commercial correspondence to 3rd and 4th semester students on the one hand, and on the other I was in charge of the tutorials in German/French technical translation for those students taking their comprehensive examinations. I also supervised a number of diploma theses. I greatly enjoyed working with the students. Unfortunately there are hardly any permanent positions at German universities. Teaching people, awakening their enthusiasm for a subject, accompanying them through a part of their professional development – that’s very fulfilling.

3. You have been working for Michelin for nearly 30 years! You began as a French and German teacher for managers, but then had the chance of implementing a translation department there. How cool is that? You programmed CBTs (computer-based training courses) for factory workers, organized professional development courses for managers, installed an intranet for Michelin Germany, Switzerland and Austria, and implemented an Internal Communications department in those three countries as well. I clearly see why Nicole nominated you! How does this impressive professional experience help you nowadays as a freelance translator?

I had the privilege of pursuing an unusual path at Michelin. I gained incredibly valuable experience from the implementation of the projects you mentioned as examples, and I still reap the benefits from that on a daily basis. When you manage a project and you’re responsible for a budget of six figures or more, and you have to procure external services and manage and monitor the implementation in multiple plants, you learn what doing business with an entrepreneurial approach really means. Nobody can ever take that away from you. I should add that Michelin is a very special company, in which people are given numerous opportunities regardless of where they come from, their gender, their disabilities, etc. I had the great good luck and the honor to accompany the executive directors at that time on numerous business trips in Germany and to interpret for them: François Michelin and his son Edouard, two unique and impressive human beings. And yet I took the risk of going into business for myself, because I wanted to put myself to the test once more.

4. Giselle, you have your “Rüsterweg” blog, the knowledge database “Wissenswinkel” and the “Tips for Translators” on your website; recently you also began your newsletter “Café Umlaut”. Honestly, that’s an amazing amount of work. What motivates you?

As I just explained, I had the good fortune to learn a lot and gather valuable experience over the course of my career. I’d like to share all this experience with those who are interested, or, to return to the example of the pot of soup, I simply want to put a few good pieces of meat into the broth so that others benefit from it as well.

It all started with the section “Die Welt des Übersetzens” (“The World of Translation”) on my “Rüsterweg” blog. At some point I wrote about a subject specifically for translators – that was the article “Langatmig, aber zielführend” (“Tedious, but Productive”), about customer acquisition, and suddenly I had loads of subscribers. My post entitled “Honorarfreie Übersetzung” (“Pro Bono Translation”) – an article that was translated into English, Italian, Spanish and Russian and which I translated into French – is surely the most popular of my blog posts with 1,660 “likes”. In spring 2015, I launched the “Wissenswinkel” website – a knowledge database for young language professionals – together with my colleague Sabine Lammersdorf. And then in July 2015 I began writing my “Newsletter”. None of this is aimed at customers – it is neither sales-oriented nor is it financed by advertising or similar means.

Since you asked about the time involved – yes, of course it is a lot of work, but it’s worth it, because in the meantime so many interesting contacts to younger and older colleagues in the translation industry have developed that I really enjoy it.

5. You don’t use CAT tools and never have – why not? Don’t you think it could help you be more productive?

Well, many of my texts are simply not suitable for them, and in many cases my translations are adaptations. Quite honestly, I can’t say much about CAT tools. I hear about “segments” and imagine that in the end, the work of the translator consists of inserting the missing pieces of the puzzle – that’s not my style at all. My translation memory is my brain, and yes, a few glossaries I put together myself. I’m an avid user of the voice recognition program “Dragon Naturally Speaking” and with that I am extremely productive. In my specialist fields such as tire technology, financial reporting, plastics technology, etc., I rarely have to do any research any more – I can simply start dictating and wander around my office while doing so – yet it’s not at all boring. Besides, translation is only one of my sources of income. I also work as a freelance author for several companies, e.g. for corporate blogs, customer and online magazines, and so on, and for many years I’ve done intensive writing coaching for top-level managers. I’m currently expanding the two latter activities and reducing my translation work slightly. And I’ll let you and your readers in on a secret: I’m also working on two of my own books. I can’t tell you anything more about that at present.

6. You are an advocate of high(er) rates, premium markets and the like. Could you tell us a bit more about those topics?

Well, I’m firmly convinced that there’s a place for everyone in the global translation market: the big full-service agencies for the so-called bulk market, the smaller SME service providers that operate in defined market segments and/or have their regular customers in niche markets, and of course for the individual translators who provide their services in their (premium) market, in their own particular playground, so to speak. The market has all those elements, no question about it – just like there are premium tires and low-budget tires. And here we’re not debating what’s “better” or “not as good” or “worse”. As a customer, I have to decide what I want, no matter what the product is: a 13-cent roll from a discounter or bread from a baker who still grinds his whole-grain flour himself; a low-priced tire, because I only drive my small car to town, or a premium tire for a powerful car and long drives on the autobahn; an 11-euro haircut by a hairdresser who doesn’t give appointments, where I have to blow-dry my hair myself; and last but not least the translation of an internal working document or of the financial report that’s sent to shareholders, the customer magazine that’s really an adaptation rather than a translation, and so on.

What makes the difference (and I am speaking here exclusively for “non-literary” translators, as I have no experience with literature translations), is, in addition to the talent required for this profession, outstanding qualifications in the relevant field and above all specialization, which however becomes increasingly differentiated and narrowly focused. I don’t work for agencies, but once in a while agencies contact me because they can’t find anyone for certain niche specialties in my language combination (French/German or German/French – I don’t work in any other languages). Then they are willing to pay nearly my direct-customer price.

Of course, the so-called soft skills are just as important. I conducted a small, non-representative survey on this subject in summer, and described the results over the past few weeks in a three-part blog post on “Rüsterweg” (in German). The major German professional associations and even the FIT shared the article in the social media. This series has now been reprinted by the magazine of the German professional association ADÜ Nord.

In general, the following can be said of the market: there are more and more translators willing to work for very low prices. I’m not talking about countries or continents where the prices are low due to the low cost of living. The agencies are under pressure and competing with platforms via which even students are offering their translation services for little money. On the one hand, I believe our colleagues have an obligation to persuade customers to accept reasonable prices using appropriate arguments. That is possible – I am speaking from experience. But there are many agencies as well that need to educate their customers about the complex process of translation. If all of the discounters in Germany priced their rolls at € 0.26, i.e. double the present price, they would still be cheaper than the rolls of “real” bakers, but the producer and his employees, suppliers, etc. would be happy. The key word here is fair working conditions. I always ask myself how it affects us when we see a T-shirt for € 2.99 in a shop. Doesn’t anyone think about that?

7. On this same topic, it seems that your opinions, even though they are similar to Kevin Hendzel’s and Chris Durban’s, for example, are sometimes criticized quite harshly by some people. Do you think people are more influenced by what “famous” translators say as compared to what we, for example, say? If so, why do you think that happens?

It’s not my ambition to become “famous”. And by the way, I don’t count myself among the “greatest women in translation”. Over the course of my career, I’ve been an employee, as a department manager in an executive position as well; I’ve also been an employer and I am an entrepreneur – in my heart I always have been, even when I was working at Michelin. Against the background of this comprehensive experience, I’d like to highlight a few subjects and problem areas, make people aware of options for optimization and provide a bit of support to young colleagues. Some of our colleagues forget that before you can optimize anything, you have to determine where progress can be made and how shortcomings can be rectified. Why do people attack me, even though I don’t do anything differently than Kevin and Chris? Several highly esteemed colleagues have asked me that recently. It’s certainly easier to throw punches at someone who’s within arm’s reach. 😉 I’m “close” to my colleagues, I’m accessible, and therefore attackable. Those who take a public stance have to expect that. I can live with it – my motto is “Strength lies within serenity”. In the end, my professional success shows that my strategy and my way of doing things can’t be wrong – which of course doesn’t mean that it’s the only way. Lots of different roads will take you where you want to go.

Criticism is important when it’s constructive. Discussions that bring together very different opinions and experiences are extremely interesting when they are conducted in a factual, objective manner. But there’s the rub: critical reactions are not always factual or objective – apparently some people (only a few – I’d like to emphasize that) think that in the virtual world of social media they can just chuck all of the basic principles of respectful interaction with one another out the window. That’s not my style.

But to be honest, I receive so much nice feedback, colleagues call me up and ask for advice or tell me about their success in implementing one of my suggestions, ask interesting questions… it’s wonderful! Whenever my work gives colleagues food for thought and helps them professionally, I’m happy. And that’s all that counts.

8. During the time you worked at Michelin, you also worked as a freelance translator and consultant in your spare time (in the evening, on holidays, weekends, etc.). What advice would you give someone who has a full-time job, but wants to become a freelancer? How can they make the most of their spare time to start their freelance work?

When I started working at Michelin as a German and French teacher for managers at the end of the 1980s, I didn’t earn very much, so I went looking for a second job. I taught at language schools and translated. And yes, I worked very long hours, but I must admit I’m a workaholic. To me, the word “work” does not mean an oppressive burden or stress, but rather passion and joy. I’ve no idea where this mindset came from.

During all the years at Michelin, I held other jobs on the side, and thus built up a solid customer base, pursued my specialty fields in-depth, talked to experts, developed a network, long before the term “networking” in its current form became a buzzword. You mustn’t forget that when I started out, there were no computers, no Internet, no e-mail, no mobile phones. Of course I had leisure time, weekends and vacations, but probably not to the extent of most of my colleagues. I don’t regret that at all – on the contrary. Thanks to all that hard work (and solely that hard work) I am now in a position in which I can lean back, to help my colleagues with tips and suggestions, to reduce my customer base (which consists only of direct customers), and to focus on personal projects like a planned foundation and my books, and I don’t have to worry about what comes after my active professional career.

You asked what I would recommend to our colleagues. I’d like to start by saying that there are simply too many people who become freelancers immediately after completing their studies or give up a salaried position without having any financial reserves. They then accept practically “every” job, even at low prices, work under great pressure and end up in a vicious circle because they don’t have the time to acquire better-paying customers. That’s not a good situation for anyone. I think it’s better when you prepare your entry into the world of self-employment from a secure position, i.e. from a salaried position. That doesn’t have to be in translation.

9. Now it’s your turn. Who, in your opinion, is one of the Greatest Women in Translation?

I could name several colleagues who do great work and successfully reconcile their family and professional lives. They have my full respect. I’d like to nominate our dear colleague Sabine Lammersdorf as one of the Greatest Women in Translation. She raised a son, developed her customer base, specialized in her fields and is pursuing a university degree “on the side” as well. Chapeau! Sabine and I share not only the love of our wonderful profession and our mindset in that regard, but a friendship as well and a pet project – the knowledge database “Wissenswinkel”. I could not possibly imagine a better partner for this project!

Now I feel a bit like I’m at the Oscars, but I’d like to thank you, dear Caroline, very warmly, for giving us Women in Translation a forum here, and Nicole Y. Adams for nominating me. I hold her work in high esteem. Thanks also go to my colleague Monique Simmer for putting my Franco-German thoughts into English. Without a doubt, she is also one of the “Greatest Women in Translation”, a genuine professional.


Thank you, Giselle, for kindly accepting Nicole’s nomination and my invitation to answer my questions for our interview! It was a pleasure connecting and getting to know you better.