Icebreaker 19, November 2015

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Welcome to the nineteenth issue of Icebreaker, the STP newsletter.

In this edition, there are landmarks and milestones as STP greets a record number of new recruits and holds its eleventh annual integration weekend. We also shine the spotlight on our talented Polish contingent, put per-word pricing under the microscope, and ask: is Norwegian TV the most boring on the planet?

Company News

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STP welcomes record intake of new staff

STP welcomed 14 new members of staff in September 2015, the highest single intake in the company’s 20-year history. It takes the number of new starters this year to 25 and raises STP’s total workforce to a new high of 102.

The new arrivals include eight project managers, two translators and four account linguists, all recruited to serve STP’s increasing volumes and growing client portfolio. They have all completed a comprehensive induction programme and are now settled in their respective teams, with access to ongoing training and support from their more senior colleagues.

Greeting the new starters, Anu Carnegie-Brown, Managing Director of STP, said: “We are thrilled to welcome so many bright new faces and mark such an important milestone in the company’s development. In early 2012 we had 43 employees, so to have more than doubled that number in just under four years is a fantastic achievement.

“For a medium-sized business like ours, with three offices and a significant number of remote workers, any large intake of new employees will always be a challenge. But thanks to the brilliant efforts of our existing staff, we were able to train and integrate our new recruits with as little disruption as possible.”

She added: “I would like to thank our clients and freelancers for their patience and understanding over the last two months. Our latest round of recruitment further increases our translation and customer service capacity, and, with our new starters fully trained and settled, we are confident that everyone will now start to feel the benefits.”

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Ten years’ proof that team building works

How do you build a sense of spirit and togetherness when most of your company’s interaction is by email, your staff are spread over the map, and some team members have never met face to face? In STP’s case, the answer is simple: invest in bringing as many employees as possible together in one place, every year, for a residential weekend of fun, socialising and team-building activities.

STP has held an integration weekend every year since 2005, with previous venues including Dublin, Dartmoor, Canterbury and the Brecon Beacons. This year’s event, the eleventh so far, saw 60 members of staff from across the company – and across the continent – travel to Avon Tyrell, an activity centre in the New Forest in the south of England.

The 2015 weekend, held in early November, coincided with STP’s largest ever intake of staff, and gave recent arrivals the perfect chance to mix with their new colleagues. Attendees braved wind and rain to go hiking, pony trekking and mountain biking, while laughs were shared in group quizzes and friendly rivalries played out on the pool, foosball and ping-pong tables. There was even the chance to sample a new language, with taster sessions hosted by STP’s resident speakers of Finnish, Japanese, Norwegian, Welsh and Mandarin.

Project Coordinator Emily Loveday, who joined STP in June 2015, said that the weekend helped bring her team much closer together: “Some of my teammates work with me in our London office, some are based at our HQ in Whiteley, and one even works remotely from Denmark. With little face-to-face contact, it can be hard to get a true feeling of togetherness.

“But thanks to the weekend away, it feels like we all know each other much better. We have some great shared experiences behind us now, and we can also put faces to names. It may sound like a small thing, but it really helps and I’m sure it’ll make a big difference to how well we perform as a team.”

Staff Spotlight

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Nordic Poles: Meet STP’s Polish contingent

You might not expect to find many Poles in a Nordic translation company based in England. But Poland is, in fact, the most represented country at STP after Denmark, the UK, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Anna Lenartowska, Edyta Wróbel and Natalia Kwiecień work in STP’s project management teams, while Anna Norek is one of our resident translation technology specialists. All are qualified translators, all have a knowledge of English that would put many natives to shame, and all have overcome the personal and professional challenges of forging a career overseas.

So what inspired them to choose a career in translation? And is there something special in the water in Poland when it comes to mastering foreign languages? We asked them each a couple of quick questions to find out.

How did you get into languages and translation?

NK: English, German and Latin were my favourite subjects in school. I started Italian at Warwick University, where English was the language of instruction. I had the rules of my fifth language explained in my second language, which was crazy. But I loved it and it improved my skills in both languages tremendously. I found my flair for translation on my Erasmus year in Forli, Italy. That led to an MA in Translation and Interpreting in Swansea, and I haven’t looked back since.

AL: I got into languages in primary school, where I started learning German and then English. I didn’t start to think about translation until my undergraduate course, though. I realised quite quickly that I didn’t fancy teaching, so translation was a good alternative.

EW: I always loved the idea of speaking other languages and excelled at German in school. From there, a career in languages was the natural choice, and I set my sights on becoming a translator or interpreter. I’m also really interested in technology, though, and that was what drew me to project management.

AN: I did a short UNESCO-sponsored Russian course while in high school, and I was instantly hooked. I dropped my plans to study law and went on learning Russian intensively for a year, to pass entry exams for a philology degree. My parents, impressed by my sudden passion for languages, encouraged me to study English as well, to boost my employment prospects. So I did, and my translation career took off from there.

Why do you think so many young Poles excel at languages?

AL: It’s a mixture of things. Most Poles start learning languages from an early age at school. Also, since Polish isn’t a very international language, you need to know at least English to get by abroad. I also think a lot of us learn English subconsciously while watching TV, since pretty much everything on Polish TV is voiced over.

NK: Young Poles have more opportunities than our parents could ever have dreamed of. Now that Poland is part of the EU, travelling in Europe has never been easier and the younger generations are keen to make the most of it. We love travelling and getting to know different cultures, and we know that the best way to do it is by learning the relevant language well.

AN: I’m actually not sure there’s anything exceptional about young Poles learning foreign languages. Many young people in continental Europe excel at it these days, but perhaps people notice us more because we travel so widely.

EW: I think it’s linked to Poland’s difficult past. We’ve been through many wars, we disappeared from the world map for 123 years, and at one point our own language was banned in some schools and replaced by Russian or German. Most people had no choice but to speak a foreign language. We also have a long history of emigration, so our need and ability to integrate quickly in other countries is quite deep-rooted. These days, though, we have a much more positive reason to learn. Many foreign companies now have bases in Poland, and young Poles know that if they have another language or two, their career prospects will be so much better.

Industry Issues

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Has per-word pricing had its day?

The smiling hair stylist takes your coat and sits you in front of the mirror.

“So, what would you like today?” he asks.

“Hmm, not sure. What are the options?”

“Well, a cut and blow-dry is £0.0003 per hair. Cut and finish is £0.0004 per hair. And a restyle is £0.00045 per hair.

You think it over for a moment.

“I’ll have a cut and finish.”

“Great,” the stylist says. “Now, just pop your head under this scanner.”

After a few seconds, the scanner beeps.

“98,458 hairs,” the stylist says. “At £0.0004 per hair, that makes £39.38.”

“Lovely. I don’t suppose you do discounts for frizzy matches?”

This scenario is, of course, made-up nonsense. When you have a haircut, you pay a fixed price for your whole head. Your money covers the stylist’s skill, time, materials and overheads, and the perceived value of the product: the fact that a good haircut makes you look and feel better.

In that sense, a good haircut is not unlike a good translation. A translation, done well, is the result of years of training, lots of care and attention, and a great deal of professional investment. It also creates value for the end client – sometimes to the tune of millions of new sales. So why is per-word pricing still the dominant model in the translation industry? And is it really any less absurd than the concept of per-hair rates for haircuts?

It’s easy to see why per-word rates have stuck. Clients need speed and simplicity when calculating costs. And with so many intangibles in the translation process, the source word count is the only concrete starting point for creating quotes. It lets you agree a clear, fixed price up front – which is good for everyone.

Or is it? Because while per-word rates make sense for clients, they can sometimes leave vendors short-changed. A project manager can set up and assign a simple 500-word text in a few minutes, and a good translator can hammer out the work in well under two hours. But if the source file is in an unusual format, or the subject needs any kind of research, the work could equally take double the time and become unprofitable.

Per-word rates also fail to factor in the translation’s value to the end client. A software company, for instance, might need a 30-word advert in 20 languages. Even if they pay a minimum fee for each language, the costs are minimal – especially when you think how much new business the ads could generate. The client’s potential return on investment is huge, but the translation vendors, earning basic per-word rates, share none of the rewards.

Is it time, then, for us all to change our approach to pricing? Should we follow our old friend the hairdresser, quoting fixed prices that reflect the commercial value of our translations and not simply the number of words they contain? For high-profile jobs, could we even start negotiating commission agreements linked to sales in the target market?

Rates are being squeezed all the time, with LSPs and translators under constant pressure to stay competitive and profitable. Value-based pricing could be a way to earn similar margins to other creative industries, and to help make translation businesses more sustainable. It could even stave off the creeping mindset that speed and savings matter more than quality and skill.

It’s certainly a nice thought. But for it to work, the whole translation industry would need to change. LSPs and freelancers would have to overhaul their business models. Each quote would have to be negotiated, and not just taken from a price list. Clients would have to agree to pay more for the same service. And with the need for speed and cost-efficiency so deeply entrenched, it’s hard to see any of this happening on a large scale.

So it looks like per-word pricing will be around for some time yet. If we’ve all survived with it for this long, we can probably keep it for a while longer. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question it – and for the daring souls who are prepared to test the alternatives, who knows what the rewards could be?

Nordic Focus

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Norway – home of the world’s most boring TV?

Labelled by Lonely Planet as “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage,” Norway’s coastal roundtrip with Hurtigruten, an Arctic cruise company, takes passengers from Bergen to Kirkenes and back in 12 days. Kirkenes lies on the final frontier: further north and east than most of Finland and only 15 km from Norway’s border with Russia. Along the route the liner visits 34 ports, 22 of them north of the Arctic Circle.

In June 2011, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) showed live coverage of the 134-hour journey aboard MS Nordnorge. The event gained widespread attention in both Norwegian and foreign media, and was considered a great success, with its ratings exceeding all expectations.

Billed by the NRK as “Watching paint dry – live on TV,” the event saw half the population of Norway tune in to follow the voyage. People threw “Hurtigruten-watching” parties, crowds gathered to light bonfires on the shore along the route, and water cannons had to be used to fend off attention-seekers who followed the liner in smaller vessels. Coverage was streamed online by viewers all over the world, and the event went on to become one of the most popular Norwegian shows of all time.

The programme was also a hit on the internet and social media. On the last day, the ship was greeted by the Queen of Norway, which sent Twitter into overdrive. NRK streamed more than 100 years of video of the event to 148 nations, and the show’s websites have yet to be taken down. In fact, they are guaranteed to remain online for posterity, since the programme was chosen to be part of the Norwegian UNESCO document list. It is also in the Guinness Book of Records as the longest documentary ever.

The Hurtigruten event was not, however, the first of its kind. The first Norwegian example of what has since been dubbed “Slow TV” was a seven-hour train journey between Bergen and Oslo, televised in 2009. Producer Thomas Hellum, a Slow TV pioneer at NRK, explained that the idea was born while discussing a radio programme to mark the day of the German invasion of Norway in 1940.

Hellum and his team wanted to tell the story of the invasion through the night, at the exact same time as it had originally unfolded. This led them to see if any other stories could be told in a similar way, in real time. The Bergen Railway, for instance, had its 100-year anniversary that year, and the journey from western to eastern Norway takes exactly the same time today as it did 40 years ago. So, in September 2009, they filmed the seven-hour journey with four cameras, three of them pointing out from the train at the beautiful natural surroundings. The train goes through 160 tunnels en route, but that was clearly considered a minor detail.

Since the success of the Hurtigruten coverage, there have been more train journeys, a national firewood night – essentially hours of footage of wood burning – and, most recently, National Knitting Night, in which a sheep was shorn and its wool turned into a jumper over the course of eight and a half hours.

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