A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I like the way you get right to the point, so I will, too. I live in California and Ive been translating legal documents from English to Spanish for two years. How much should I charge? (A ballpark figure would be fine).
A good question, Ballpark, although there is no single answer.
Keep in mind that a lot of direct clients are monolingual. They do not really know what you do, how you do it, or how it might benefit them. This makes it easy for them to view your work as a cost, not a potential income-generator.
But if you can make the payoff clearer, you will be able to charge more. Generally speaking, the more proactive you areproviding your own insights and input above and beyond text-on-the-pagethe more clients will value your services.
Best of all is helping customers judge results themselves, through, say, positive feedback from their clients on work youve produced for them. Or by flagging flawed translations into their language. This reminds them how fortunate they are to have you looking out for them.
The bottom line? The right price is not one that has you swamped in work. That is too low. The right price is one currency unit below the level at which clients start looking for another supplier. You find this by regularly testing the upper limits, and arranging your price structure so that you can ease back without loosing face if necessary. This is the fun part. Seriously.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I worked in-house at an agency for four years but only went freelance (F>E) last spring.
The transition has been difficult. My former employer and I are on excellent terms, but they dont do much into-English. I met some great translators through them and have kept in touch, but these people work in other directions and Ive had no referrals. Ive done a Glenns Guide mailing and have received many Translator Information Sheets to fill in, but not a lot of actual jobs.
In short, I am beginning to wonder how a fledgling freelancer can get her foot in the door! I know that I am an excellent translator (from glowing colleague/proofreader/agency feedback), but finding clients is turning out to be much harder than I had imagined.
I should mention that my preferred subject matter is medical, and I have also done quite a bit of legal translation.
Do you have any advice?
Awaiting Big Break
First the good news: the positive feedback you have received puts you in a stronger position than many fledglings. Without this, we would have advised you to solicit or commission a detailed critique of a few pieces from an agency or fellow freelance (or subject-matter specialist).
More good news is that youve already got a preferred field: medical (+ legal?). But even medical is vast. Try to identify some particularly attractive translation products (pharmaceutical inserts? research papers? medical reports for insurance companies?...). Build up a library of examples from different sources. Study them. Identify what makes them good, then locate companies likely to commission such work.
Networking with fellow translators is a good first step. But if you want to build up a clientele, you must target translation buyers, preferably direct clients.
Here are some suggestions.
- Set aside 4 or 5 hours a week to find out who/where your customers are and what products they are buying.
- Take out a 3 or 6-month subscription to a business dailyeven if you are not targeting the business market, your potential clients are. The business pages of your local paper will not do the trick; if you work into English, its got to be the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. Remember; your market is international. Ideally, you will be working for companies outside the US, trying to sell their products and services to English-speaking buyers.
- Every dayevery single dayskim through the paper for 30-45 minutes. Note developments in your target markets. Watch for big-picture newsan EU decision; release of an industry report, etc. But dont neglect the details: Company A moving into market B, Institute C teaming up with Association D, launch of a new drug for treating malaria, breakthrough in HIV research, etc. etc.
Notice namesof companies, people, products.
Clip relevant articles and set them aside.
After two or three weeks, you will start to recognize names and issues that are hot.
[Note: 1 to 3 can be done on the Web, as one of our correspondents reminds us. Your costs will be lower. But a newspaper will bring in a more varied haul and let you do your reading away from the screen].
- Short-list the companies that seem to be most active or aggressive in tackling markets where your language combination is needed.
- Use the Net to obtain information on them: order annual reports and/or brochures in your language combinations. Study this material. If the bilingual documents are well translated, use them to build up subject-specific glossaries. If they are poorly done, you are in luck: these people need your services.
- Establish contact, preferably not as a workseeker, but as a language expert seeking background information from themthe subject-matter specialists. The work arrives automatically when they see how informed and enthusiastic you are.
Three options come to mind:
- The glossary: contact your target companies. Explain that you are a translator, currently specializing in their field. Mention in passing some international project that theyve got on the boil (shows youve done your homework). You are working on a glossary. You have questions on three or four terms. Could one of their engineers/researchers help?
You can do this by email, but phoning is more effective. Experts love to explain things; chances are, they will be flattered by your request and genuinely helpful.
But do not wear out your welcome. Ask about three or four termsno more. Offer to send your contacts a copy of your glossary as thanks for their assistance. If the opportunity comes up, visit their lab/plant/office.
- Attend a trade fair or two in your specialism, and hit the booths with your glossary project or simply to collect bilingual documentation. Any of these contacts may develop into work; even if they dont, you will learn a lot.
- The free trial offer Locate a poorly-translated document in your field and retranslate a chunk of it. Poor foreign-language websites are obvious candidates.
Send your translation + photocopy of original text + photocopy of first translation to the company. Your cover letter should be short but pleasanta sentence or two indicating that you know their industry, that you appreciate the outstanding quality of their products/services, that you think the text theyve got does not do justice to these products/services, that you think your text is more suitable. Do not harangue them about their original bad text.
Suggest that they show both versions to a language-sensitive mother-tongue partner for an opinion. And end with a sentence like I will take the liberty of phoning you next week to discuss this further.
Send your letter to the chairman of the company (w/copy to head of communications). If you target the head of communications alone, it may well go in the bin (who commissioned that poor translation, anyway?). Andthis is important actually phone them.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Id like some advice on starting a glossary for a large client I just took on. I already see the need, but I have never compiled one before. I work on Word 7 (Windows 95) and would appreciate any tips you may have to offer (both conceptual and practical).
Musing in the Mideast
Start by thinking about use and users. Is your glossary an aide-mémoire for you alone, or a tool to help the client ensure consistency? In the second case, you will have to be far more explicit.
At a basic level, you can use the table function in Word: one column for language A, a second for language B, and a third for sources and/or client-specific information. The advantage of the table format is that you can inverse your two language columns and rearrange them in alphabetical order for the second language if you want a two-way glossary.
Although Word in table mode gets messy when working with lots of fields (i.e., your terminology database (TDB) cant easily be printed out as a sleek, esthetic document), Word TDB files are exportable and convertible into almost anything you want.
But you can also develop something more sophisticated. Concretely:
If you get really hooked, there are university courses in terminology practice and theory. You might also consider a short or summer course in terminology (there are now quite a few of these, in Europe at least).
- Surf the net to find out what is already available in your clients field and in the languages you require. There is plenty out there, particularly in English, but increasingly in other languages. Examine existing documents and decidewith the client, if possiblewhich might be included as source texts.
- Surf the net for information on terminology in general and how to build a terminology database (TDB).
The overall procedure can be summarized as follows:
- choose a software tool,
- define your fields,
- write up a brief spec to remind yourself what you plan to put in each field
- do a trial run on, say, 50 terms,
- review decisions 1 and 2; review spec; update spec,
- do a larger trial,
- repeat 5 and 6.
Last but not least, consider how to get added value from your TDBabove and beyond using it in your own work. Options include sharing it with your customer to enhance your professional image; selling it to your customer; sharing it with colleagues; selling it or giving it away via an Internet site; selling it or giving it away in print form.
However you decide to use it, the message glossaries convey to clients is a good one: I track your market; my skills go beyond terminology, but weve got to get this part straight first so that you can benefit from everything else Ive got to offer.
FA & WB
Fire Ant and Worker Bee are Chris Durban and Eugene Seidel, who live and work in Paris and Frankfurt, respectively. Both enjoy making a beeline for the pot of honey that rewards hard workers. Drop them a line at ChrisDurban@compuserve.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.