Copywriting: A natural evolution for translators?
A few weeks ago at the ITI Conference in Sheffield, Adam Fuss, a Russian to English freelance translator and strategic communications consultant, gave a presentation entitled “Translators as communicators – diversifying your career’. During his talk, Adam argued that there is plenty of scope for translators to diversify their service offering. Rather than confining himself to a very narrow definition of translator, Adam sees himself as a communicator and facilitator through languages. Over the years, Adam’s role has evolved from pure translation to include academic editing, corporate communications consulting and copywriting.
It’s copywriting-as-a-service that particularly resonated with us. Here at AJT, we always encourage our translators to spend time honing their native language writing skills as part of their continued professional development. In marketing translation, and even more so in transcreation, the line between translation and copywriting can become increasingly blurred the further we move away from the source text to convey the essence of the meaning in the target text. For the more creative translators, copywriting is essentially already part of their daily craft, and could present a natural evolution in terms of service offering. In other words, it may just be a matter of formally offering a service they’re already performing for clients. And in the context of the encroaching automation of our industry, being able to offer additional language services that go beyond translation, is naturally an attractive proposition.
But is it really that easy to move from translation to copywriting? Although copywriting ‘rubs shoulders’ with translation, it does demand an additional set of skills. Whereas translators work with an existing text that they have to ‘transpose’ into another language, copywriters must create the text from scratch by working to a brief, which will generally contains information about the objective of the content, the desired length, where it will appear, the target audience etc. Copywriters need to be able to carefully structure their arguments throughout the text, apply storytelling techniques, express themselves in a certain tone of voice, and write eloquently, of course.
We wanted to dig a little deeper. We were so impressed with Adam’s talk and asked him if he’d be kind enough to chat with us about how he got started in copywriting and what tips he can offer to translators who aspire to offering copywriting services. Here’s what he had to say.
Interview with Adam Fuss, Russian to English translator
AJT: Adam, how did you become involved in copywriting?
It was really very early in my career when I took a job, ostensibly as a translator, for a communication consultancy that was servicing a major Russian oil and gas company. One of my first tasks was to translate content for a new version of the company’s English-language website. But in referencing source material from the Russian website and other documents provided by the client, it quickly became apparent that simply creating a mirror site in English would not be the right approach. Sure, some of the texts could be incorporated as straight-up translations, but a lot of what the company needed to communicate in English – primarily to foreign investors, analysts and journalists – required a different approach. I found myself writing new texts using the Russian sources as inputs. What we ended up with at times looked completely different given the different audiences each version of the website needed to reach. While I have continued to do a lot of traditional translation work, I’ve found that a more creative copywriting approach really resonates with many of my clients.
AJT: In your experience, which translation skills also apply to copywriting, and which new skills (if any) did you have to acquire as you moved towards copywriting? Are there any skills or experiences from your work as translator that particularly helped you with copywriting?
All good translators should be good writers and editors in their native languages, and it goes without saying that those skills also apply to copywriting. But copywriting also requires an ability and willingness to do research in a way that may be unfamiliar for most translation work. Sure, translators research terminology, but a good copywriter will have to spend a lot more time reading about a given topic, especially since it can be a little more difficult to specialise in the same way that translators can specialise. Additionally, copywriting tends to require a lot more interaction with clients. There can be a considerable amount of back and forth by email, on the phone, and in person, not to mention time potentially required to interview people like subject matter experts. You have to be comfortable with that!
AJT: What do you find challenging in copywriting, compared to translation?
In addition to the research and client interaction, which can sometimes take longer than expected, if you’re using a lot of source language material as an input, you can sometimes second guess yourself as to whether you’ve included enough detail, or the right detail. There are always judgement calls that translators have to make, but sometimes the intensity of those can seem magnified in copywriting. Another challenge is losing your way as a multilingual language professional. Copywriters who become really good at what they do can sometimes find themselves focusing solely on monolingual work because it’s abundant and can often pay better. Finding the right balance in order to leverage your source language knowledge can be a challenge.
AJT: What’s the biggest mistake you made when you first started copywriting?
I think not being assertive enough with one of my first clients. I had been asked to include material in a text that I knew would weaken the final product, but in an effort to avoid bruising egos, I went ahead and found a way to include it rather than push back. I wasn’t sophisticated enough as a communication professional at that time to think up alternative options for how my client could use the questionable content, so I simply went with it.
AJT: In your opinion, what’s the best way for translators to hone their copywriting skills?
Reading the types of publications or channels that you hope to write for or at least imitate is a good place to start. For example, if you want to write for a major publication like the FT or Harvard Business Review, read those publications religiously! If you want to write copy for the website or annual report of an oil and gas major, read similar materials in that industry, ideally by companies that are recognised as having good content. Start publishing well-crafted articles on LinkedIn or another platform where you can share content. Try to create content that will spark interest among potential clients.
AJT: Did you find any useful resources that helped you when you first started copywriting?
I didn’t seek out any intentionally, and a lot of what I learned initially was by trial and error. I also learned quite a bit from the feedback I would receive from employers and clients. If I had it to do again, I probably would have taken a business writing course earlier in my career. And I definitely would have been more deliberate about reading the kind of texts I hoped to emulate.
AJT: How do you tend to price copywriting services (by project, by piece, by the hour etc)?
I always like to do project pricing, because I believe in being as up front as possible with clients about the expected costs in order to minimise surprises. That said, you should have an hourly rate in mind so that you know how to quote that final price (or in case the client asks for hourly pricing). What you don’t want to do is end up working for pennies, which is easy to do if you’re not careful about thinking through all the time required to complete an assignment, especially the research and any revisions the client may want.
AJT: Is there anything else you’d like to share that we haven’t covered here?
I love what you’re doing with this blog post. In our industry, it’s so easy to be isolated and work in silos outside of conferences and similar events. But for us to continue growing and improving, it’s important to listen to what people are saying in the industry – and to make your own voice heard. I’d encourage everyone to go out on LinkedIn and other platforms, follow thought leaders, and become one yourself!
So, do we think that copywriting is a natural evolution for translators?
Honing your native-language writing skills, attending writing courses and immersing yourself in the kinds of texts you’d like to produce – these are all excellent tips on how to get started in copywriting. However, reading through Adam’s answers, it’s apparent that the pure writing element is just one aspect of what makes a proficient copywriter.
The ability to research topics well is just as important as the writing itself. As Adam mentions, translators are familiar with researching, as they typically spend some proportion of their time during translation projects carrying out research to familiarise themselves with the topic at hand and to verify what the author has written. However, in the copywriting process, research plays a much bigger role. In copywriting, they arethe author. In order to write confidently about a topic, they need to be able to research carefully, present their facts accurately, and make their arguments convincingly. There is a ton of advice out there on how to research for copywriting specifically, so it’s worth getting clued up on research methodology.
Pricing is another important factor in copywriting. At the risk of slightly oversimplifying pricing, translation work is usually charged on a per-word basis, so the longer the text, the more time it will take to translate, and consequently the higher the price. In copywriting, however, charging by the length of a text doesn’t really work. The time involved in producing a text of 1,000 words, for example, can vary greatly depending on the subject matter (general, marketing, specialised etc), the type of the text (blog post, landing page, whitepaper, etc) and the ultimate objective of the text (providing information, raising awareness, driving conversions, etc).
Adam suggests project-based pricing for copywriting, and that seems like a very sensible route. Getting copywriting pricing right does take time and experience, and perhaps as a starting point, it would be an idea to go ‘through the motions’ a few times first. For example, translators could write a blog article for their own website or craft a LinkedIn opinion piece, and time themselves throughout the process. How much time did the research part take? How many hours did they spend crafting the actual copy? This could provide a good starting point for putting together pricing.
Finally, Adam mentions that in copywriting, there tends to be a lot more people interaction than in translation. There is generally more back and forth with the customer in copywriting, discussing the initial brief, liaising throughout the writing process, talking through and actioning feedback, etc. Writers also interact with more people during the research phase. For example, they speak to people to gather information, interview subject-matter experts, check facts, etc. This may include emails, phone calls and face-to-face meetings. Adam makes a good point when he says that translators (who often work behind the scenes and behind their screens) need to be comfortable with that extra level of interaction with clients and the general public.
It’s fair to say that there is plenty of overlap between translation and copywriting, but there is much more to it than merely the ability to write well. As with any craft, transitioning into copywriting takes time and dedication to develop the necessary skills, learn from feedback and build up confidence in one’s own writing and in one’s own processes. And it’s worth bearing in mind Adam’s point about keeping a good balance between translation work and copywriting work, so as not to slip solely into monolingual writing and risk losing some of the bilingual skills translators have worked so hard to acquire.