July 4, 2010

Interviews with Karen: Ann Wiles

Ann Wiles
An interview by contributor Karen Tkaczyk.

For those readers who don't know you, can you tell us a little about your personal and educational background?

It took me longer than most to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up. The School of Music at the University of Michigan was my first stop on a long journey. My next choice for my college major was German, but I didn't think there was any way to make a living with a language major, so I transferred to the School of Nursing out of a strong interest in anything medical. After receiving my undergraduate degree, I worked as a registered nurse (RN) in public health for four years. I then began work on a Master of Public Health at the University of Michigan but switched to the Master of Business Administration (MBA) program at Oakland University, which would give me broader opportunities to be involved in business management.

I returned to hospital work as the Department Manager of Management Systems. After being promoted to Assistant Hospital Director at one of the largest hospitals in the country, I was responsible for managing large budgets, multiple departments, large groups of people, and several outpatient facilities. After 10 years in hospital administration, I had tired of the stress of a high-powered job, so I decided to take one more stab at the perfect career. Through a series of lucky coincidences, I became hooked on French and learned that there was a profession called "translation." I needed the time and freedom of mind to acquire the necessary expertise in both French and translation, so I became a Certified Coding Specialist (CCS). Coders read and analyze medical records and then assign the proper diagnosis and procedure codes. This provided me with unexpected benefits in translation later on.

How or why did you get started in T&I?

The United Nations was a favorite destination for school trips when I was growing up. The buildings were impressive, but I was the most fascinated by the simultaneous interpreters. I never wanted to be an interpreter and didn't discover until many, many years later that there was such a thing as a translator. I found out through my umpteenth version of "What Color is Your Parachute?" and a particularly good career skills test that led me to the codes in the U.S. government's "Dictionary of Occupational Titles" that best suited me. One of those occupations was translator, and I knew immediately that I had found my career.
When I was finally ready to take the plunge, I decided that I wanted an official credential in translation, but no programs were available locally. I couldn't even find a translation course until I realized (duh!) that where I lived in Michigan was right next door to a country with French as one of its official languages. My first course in translation was at the University of Windsor in Windsor, Ontario, Canada. The Windsor course helped me get admitted to the translation program at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. The Georgetown program was exactly what I needed to learn translation (French to English specifically), translation business practices, and knowledge in both languages of a broad range of subject areas. I commuted from Detroit to Washington for two semesters while working full time as a coder. I had a ball and even got to see the cherry blossoms that year. In 2001, I received a Certificate of Proficiency in French to English Translation, which was a great help in becoming ATA certified very early in my translation career.

Do you have a good early story about your business?

Given my productivity and MBA background, I never had problems with such things as estimating how long a project would take or getting paid. Early on, however, I found it difficult to resist the temptation to translate too "literally" for editors who seemed to prefer it. I had one very painful experience with taking a job I shouldn't have taken because it required a style very different from my technical writing style. I compounded the mistake by translating too "literally" and not the way I was trained. The job was sent back to me for a redo. I was crushed and terrified, but I used everything I had been taught and desperately called on skills I didn't know I had to rewrite the translation. The agency loved it and was enthusiastic about how much their end-client would love it. I learned my lesson and never received a redo again.

Do you have a typical customer?

I have been translating mostly for agencies in the U.S., Canada, and Western Europe. Recently, I started adding direct clients for medical records translations with a good response so far.

What is unusual or unique about your practice in comparison to your competitors?

• I have real-life, professional (non-translation) experience related to most of the translations that I take, from operative reports to human resource management to standard operating procedures to deciphering physician handwriting. My clients sense the difference in my translations, which stems from the fact that I have personally worked in an operating room, managed people in a large corporation, and written procedures in a business environment.

• I track quantitative indicators for my translation business. The greatest benefit is knowing ahead of time how long a project will take, since I have a strong aversion to staying up all night working on a translation (or anything else). Although I generally charge by the word, I track how much I make per hour, which assists me in determining, for example, if a certain payment "discount" makes sense. Surprisingly, it often does.

• I get much of my continuing education alongside physicians through the University of Michigan Medical School and receive credits approved by the American Medical Association.

Do you have a customer experience or feedback that you are most proud of?

A number of years ago, a new agency client asked me to translate large volumes of handwritten physician progress notes. Their medically related end-client was quite concerned about translation quality as the result of previous bad experiences elsewhere. I had a tough time with the first few pages, which they wanted up front as a sample, but they gave me the go-ahead. After I submitted the 90 or so pages, the agency owner called to tell me that their end-client was "drooling" over the translation.

Does your business have an online presence?

My Web site is www.awiles.net. Having developed it mostly for informational purposes, I was very surprised when my most recent new client told me she found me through a general Google search. My listing in the ATA directory has been a great source of work. As for more popular avenues such as Facebook, their signal-to-noise ratio still seems less than optimal to me, but I am investigating LinkedIn.

Do you do any non-profit work related to T&I?

I have been translating as a volunteer for Traducteurs Sans Frontières/Médecins Sans Frontières in Paris for many years.

Do you have an interesting story about a customer interaction you had?

Yes, but it's not printable. I have a good one, though, about searching for terminology. Medical records are notorious for their abbreviations and symbols. I can usually figure out symbols from the context, but nursing notes from France have arrows (some up, some down, some on the diagonal, etc.) that I couldn't figure out even after one 200-page job. I keep a list with me when I travel in case I find someone who can help. I came down with a minor illness that nevertheless needed immediate treatment while I was on what happened to be a French cruise ship in the Antarctic. The doctor was ashore visiting the penguins (I had already had my turn), so I struck up a conversation with the French nurse while waiting for him to get back. She had the answer to my question and was thrilled to be having a conversation in French. It turns out that no matter what direction the arrows are pointing, it always means the same thing, and it is true across hospitals in France. It refers to stopping or removing something such as a catheter, an IV, oxygen, etc. According to her, there is no symbol at all for starting a treatment. No wonder I was confused.

What are some of your greatest challenges in your business?

• Dealing with too much work.
• Dealing with not enough work.

Ann may be reached at ann@awiles.net or +1 734-347-8183.

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