Jost Zetzsche: "We are doing a great job in telling poor stories about ourselves as translators"

During the 55th Annual Conference organized November 5-8, 2014 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Chicago, I attended a session entitled Why We Need to be Good Storytellers, presented by Jost Zetzsche, tech-savvy English-to-German translator, editor of The Toolbox Journal, and co-author of Found in Translation (read review here).

Jost started out by highlighting the power of translators and translations in worldwide communications, mentioning two fascinating examples:

  •  the Inuit people needed to create a word for Internet, considering their lack of technology use, and came up with ikiaqqivik, which means “traveling through layers”
  • the Chinese had to create a special character for “God” that would be a gender-neutral and match their all-encompassing philosophical interpretations

The speaker then moved on to point the finger at the translation community: “We are doing a great job in telling poor stories about ourselves as translators,” he pondered. “Disagreements are fine, and there are great reasons to have disagreements, but we don't do it in public. We're not helping each other when being so critical.”

He was referring to discussion forums and social media posts in general, in which translators seem to be always complaining and being negative about everything related to our industry―from prices to competition and especially technology.

Jost then highlighted a couple of headlines that support his idea that we must tell better stories about ourselves as professionals, and as the translation community as a whole. “Success demands that we harness the power of telling a killer story,” he read from Psychology Today. “Telling stories is the best way to teach, persuade, and even understand ourselves,” he read another headline.

"We need to present ourselves well and be aware of who we are.
We identify ourselves with St. Jerome, who wasn't really
tech-savvy when he translated the Bible."

For more positive stories about translation, check out "Found in Translation," Jost co-wrote with interpreter Nataly Kelly

For more positive stories about translation, check out "Found in Translation," Jost co-wrote with interpreter Nataly Kelly

He moved on to talk about how the media is covering stories related to translation. For example, he mentioned the first Skype translator demo and emphasized that it was kind of a fiasco. “But the press loved it, so the story was positive,” he stated. “The press was really interested in translation; maybe not just the type of translation that we want to talk about.” As a contrast, he indicated that for 350+ articles found online about the Skype translator demo, there were only 13 articles on the International Translation Day. “The latter is not an attractive story,” he concluded.

We are right now in the process of a supernova”

The speaker reminded those who attended his session how there wasn't much of a translation industry before the 1980s. Back then, there were mostly individuals offering their services, but then translation technology came along and things really changed.


Here's the time line Jost presented to the audience:

  • 1980s ― Translations (Documents, paper) > 10 languages
  • 1990s Localization (Software, digital) > 25 languages
  • 2000s Globalization (Simship, static web) > 40 languages
  • 2010s Integration (Integration in enterprise systems, dynamic web) 6 < > 60 languages
  • 2020s Convergence (Embedded in every app, on every screen, personalized) 150 < > 150 languages

“We, individual translators or small business owners, can't offer what large corporations have to offer, because we're using different technology,” he explained. “But the demand for boutique-style specialist translation businesses could grow. We're no longer an industry; we're a supernova!”

Where do we tell stories?

In the last part of his session, Jost listed a few ways translators can tell better stories about themselves and our collective activities.

  • Professional websites and blogs
  • Social media posts: “You can create a good on-line persona with 100 tweets; but it only takes 1 tweet to kill that persona!”
  • Other forms of electronic outreach: podcasts, YouTube channels, Tumbler, Pinterest, Instagram, etc.
  • Industry-specific engagements: conferences such as the ATA's
  • Not-for-profit engagements: Translators Without Borders's take on how translators have helped spread news about ebola
  • Talks: sharing your knowledge with peers or educating potential clients
  • Publications articles, books, etc.
  • Any kind of communication with potential clients

Jost's Recommended reading on positive stories that shed a light on the translation industry:


RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS),  a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.