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In the course of the past two years, the topic of diversification for freelance translators has become increasingly relevant and is not without controversy. Why should we need to diversify if freelance translation is a viable business model (which I believe that it is)? Isn't diversification just for those who are unable to succeed with their translation business and struggling to make ends meet?
When I carried out a survey among 250 freelance translators in July 2013 as part of the research for my book Diversification in the Language Industry, some very interesting results came to light. Most notably that diversification appears to be contributing – to no small extent – to the increasingly positive outlook adopted by freelance translators when they consider their professional future. In 2013 only 30.8% of freelance translators considered themselves to be successful freelance translators making a living from selling translation services and other services today – that is, diversifying successfully. This figure rises to an impressive 43.6% who expect the same for 2018. What's even more positive is that while 19.2% of respondents consider themselves 'struggling freelancers' today (i.e. failing to secure adequate translation work and considering leaving the translation industry or 'forced' to diversify in order to survive), only 4.4% expect to be struggling five years down the track (see Figure 2), and 6.4% see themselves working in-house or in another industry.
The general mood amongst freelance translators today is encouragingly positive, and as this trend from 'struggling' to 'diversified' shows, the increased level of diversification we are undertaking is contributing to this positive outlook. In my experience, those colleagues who are the most positive about our industry and its future are those who have established themselves as successful freelancers and have also embraced the concept of diversification.
Let's take a look at five diversification strategies for freelance translators that I have identified.
Linguistic diversification can be defined as expanding your portfolio around your core service of translation. This includes services such as editing, transcription, terminology management, post-editing of machine translation, linguistic validation, reviewing of non-native copy, voice-over, subtitling, cross-cultural consulting and online language teaching. Many freelance translators already offer some of these services without being aware that this is already a first level of diversification.
Extra-linguistic diversification refers to the concept of developing new business strategies. The range of options covers offering remote project management to clients, forming strategic alliances with fellow freelancers to offer clients a better all-round package, diversifying by specialising and becoming a recognised expert in a certain field, and diversifying one's client base – for example, transitioning from an agency-only to an agency-and-direct-client business model.
Passive diversification refers to diversification through productisation. We need to at least consider what happens if we fall ill, are incapacitated or otherwise unable to work for an extended period of time. So it makes sense to create a passive income stream by turning your service or expertise into a product clients can buy without consuming your time. The most feasible options for freelance translators are selling publications and teaching online training courses to advance translator CPD.
External diversification is defined as specialised services offered to language service providers and fellow translation professionals. These can include CAT tool training, business coaching and multi-lingual desktop publishing.
Some solopreneurs just strike it lucky: these key players in the industry provide a one-of-a-kind, innovative service that every freelance translation professional has heard of or actively uses. They have boldly created distinct products or services that did not previously exist in the language industry but are household names among freelance translators today. Prominent examples are Mox's Blog, Translator Pay and Translators without Borders.
I strongly believe that the future for freelance translators is positive if we are open-minded and embrace change. This includes exploring options to diversify our businesses in order to have secure income streams in any situation. While diversification is not a 'must', it makes good business sense to have alternatives at the ready in order to account for unforeseen circumstances (whether a broken wrist, market changes or technological advances). We can look at diversification as unnecessary and disregard it. We can see it as tarnishing the image of the translator as an artisan, tapping away at the keyboard in his chamber, surrounded by piles of dictionaries and a few cobwebs – or we can choose to keep an open mind and allow ourselves to take a closer look and perhaps even embrace new concepts to future-proof our businesses. As we have seen, the latter option contributes to a more positive attitude towards our industry and the opportunities it holds.