Volume 10, No. 4 
October 2006

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Select one of the previous 37 issues.

Index 1997-2006
TJ Interactive: Translation Journal Blog

  Translator Profiles
A Career in European Translation
by Emma Wagner
Interview with Gabe Bokor
by Verónica Albin

  The Profession
The Bottom Line
by Fire Ant & Worker Bee
The Power of Saying "No"
by Danilo and Vera Nogueira
Educating the Customer
by Brett Jocelyn Epstein

  Translators Around the World
Translating Freud: A Historical Experience
by Leandro Wolfson
Certification Programs in China
by Jianjun Zhang

  TJ Cartoon
Great Moments in Languages—Voice of Translator
by Ted Crump

  Translation Nuts & Bolts
Translation of Vietnamese Terms of Address and Reference
by Thanh Ngo
Dealing with Abbreviations In Translation
by Adetola Bankole

  Language & Communication
"Heads I win, Tails You Lose": Logical Fallacies and Ethics in Everyday Language
by Elena Sgarbossa, M.D.

  Book Review
Dictionary Review: Hungarian Practical Dictionary
by Catherine Bokor, Ph.D.
Book Review: Corinne McKay’s How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator
by Eve Lindemuth Bodeux

  Cultural Aspects of Translation
Connotation and Cross-cultural Semantics
by Salah Salim Ali

  Legal Translation
Incongruity of Company Law Terms: Categorization of Polish Business Entities and their English Equivalents
by Łucja Biel, Ph.D.

  The Related Arts
Adding Value to Translation with DTP Partnership
by José Henrique Lamensdorf

Spanglish: To Ser or Not to Be? That is la cuestión!
by Eduardo González, Ph.D.

  Translators Education
Translation As an Aid in Teaching English as a Second Language
by Valeria Petrocchi

  Translators' Tools
Electronic Tools for Translators in the 21st Century
by Pablo Muñoz Sánchez
Translators’ Emporium

  Caught in the Web
Web Surfing for Fun and Profit
by Cathy Flick, Ph.D.
Translators’ On-Line Resources
by Gabe Bokor
Translators’ Best Websites
by Gabe Bokor

Letters to the Editor

Translators’ Events

Call for Papers and Editorial Policies

Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I've recently received a spate of emails from price-sensitive translation agencies.

Example: "We want to know the languages you translate and how much you would charge us; please let us know the lowest possible price as we are looking for certain translators to regularly perform translations as our business grows and are obviously looking for an arrangement which would be profitable for you as well as for our company."

Is it ever worth answering these?

Starting Out


Dear Starting,

You might consider responding if you are, say, researching an article on bottom feeders for your local translator association magazine. Yet with one or two exceptions, such publications do not pay their authors, which puts you in double-penalty territory.

The very positive thing about pitches like the one you quote is that you know from the start what you are, or might be, heading into. The "you're getting in on the ground floor here" argument? Why not (and we have a terrific deal on this bridge, contact us privately).

If you are capable of producing smooth, accurate translations, price-driven buyers should not be your priority. If you are not sure that you can produce smooth, accurate translations, you might nibble—then again, don't count on these companies to give you much feedback, which is what you'll need to break into the lucrative end of the market.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am if not the best, at least right up there among the top specialized translators in my field. I love that little surge of power that comes when a client has written something that is technically wrong and I can correct it (an error another translator might not even notice). I love knowing that, when the pressure is on, only I can deliver.

So what's the problem?

Recently three of my loyal clients have confirmed that I am their preferred supplier, only to volunteer that because of this they save all the really challenging texts for me and send the easier ones to less experienced, less qualified colleagues. They sincerely thought this would make me happy. It is flattering, but also confirms that the swings and roundabouts that normally kick in with pricing-per-word are now working against me, since I get none of the easy texts. Every job is Everest. I don't even want to think about my per-hour earnings.

Where did I go wrong?

Pride Before Fall


Dear Pride,

If you are the best you should be charging top dollar/euro/yen—and not necessarily by the word. An apple is an apple and an orange an orange; why should hard texts cost the same as easy ones? And why should your (expert) time be worth the same as that of an earnest beginner?

Your clients' admission that you are their gold standard is invaluable—a platinum bargaining chip.

Build on it by setting up a lunch or other meeting so that you can tell them in person how fascinating their field and texts are, citing cutting-edge articles from industry journals that they have not had time to read themselves. Exude passion and technical expertise from the first course through to, say, the cheese. As dessert is served, explain that having re-evaluated your business model, you are switching to a different pricing scheme, namely charging by the time it takes you to do a translation to your exacting standards. To a degree, this avoids the "sticker shock" triggered by the dreaded words "price increase", since charging by the word and charging by the hour are not immediately commensurable. You might point out that it will make sense at their end to sort their texts up front, deciding which require your bullet-proof care and which are "less important". Making this explicit is a good move, especially when you are also giving them useful best-practice advice.

To dispel any fears that you are asking for a blank check to take as much time as you like on a translation job and then hit up your client for the cost, note that you will be pleased in future to provide an estimate, free of charge, on reception of the source text, and that your client retains the option not to place the order with you.

Most important of all, make this explanation matter-of-fact, not pleading: the client needs you, and is lucky to have you on their side.

Tackle one client at a time, with a one-month lag between lunches so that you can tally up who of your loyal supporters remains on board—and adjust your strategy if necessary.

Onwards and upwards, and report back please.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

My partner and I manage a mid-size translation company that does technical translation. We are conscientious, very involved in our community, have a good reputation, and get along well with our freelance suppliers.

Unfortunately price pressures are mounting—so much so that we recorded our first loss last year. We currently charge customers 0.15 a word and have seen our direct competitors edge down to 0.12 in the past six months, which means they can't be paying their suppliers more than about 0.06 or 0.07. No one in Germany can work at that rate, so we assume they are shopping abroad.

I know you recommend raising prices, but this is our reality and we are about to hit the wall.

Discussions with translators and translation companies in more lucrative niches have convinced me that we must either set up subsidiaries in India, Madagascar and Colombia or leave "general technical" translation and specialize. But how to start? We have offices, staff, overheads, a loyal client base (but for how much longer?) and a stable of competent freelancers.

Can we reasonably hope to upgrade our existing operation to demand higher prices? Even more important, how?

Pressure's On


Dear Pressure,

A hard question, yours, and your concerns are well-founded.

As you note, the market has moved on and for lack of specialization you find yourself competing with suppliers who can charge far less than you. Your options will depend to a great extent on how genuinely skilled your suppliers are (regardless of how well you get on with them).

Here are two suggestions (and we invite readers to jump in with their thoughts/comments, too):

  • Build/consolidate your reputation for specialization with your clients by organizing highly focused in-house training—making clients an integral part of the event.

    Start by identifying fast-growing tech areas where you have particular strengths, even if you are not yet billing enough for them. The very next time a challenging text comes in, use one-on-one contacts during revision to ask if one of their technical experts might be available to give a talk on same to a core group of skilled translators who will ultimately be working on their texts. The freelance translators you want are generally enthusiastic about opportunities to specialize, and by promoting the event (allow a few outside folks in to benefit from the ripple effect) you can start nailing down your position as the employer/translation supplier of choice in this area ("Remember that talk on helicopter parts/tunnel boring/water filters at Acme Translations?").

  • Another option is to split your company in two. Have one unit be the "boutique" outfit for the kind of jobs that absolutely must be done by top-tier translators and editors with the most experience and best track record (and price accordingly); have the second unit handle the "bulk" translation jobs. Of course this is not a perfect solution; among other potential problems, there will always be discussions with clients who expect top quality but will say, "surely your 'off-brand' outfit can do a good job on it."



Dear Fire Aunt,

Can I call you that just this once? I am a final-year French medical student aged 22 and have fallen like the proverbial ton of bricks for a free-lance translator who lives near Paris. Although this man is 63 years old and comes from a vastly different culture, I have decided, against the advice of my family and well-wishers, to wed my destiny to his and build a future with him, so much so that I have now made up my mind to give up my plans to be a healer of persons and instead become a translator (a "healer of words" as my sweetheart calls himself).

As you must realize, this is a big step for me, practically a leap into the unknown, and so I have three questions for you, dear Fire Aunt.

Firstly, what is the success/failure rate for translator couples? I have been told that male translators, especially of the free-lance persuasion, are not always easy to live with, that they develop strange quirks and need to be humoured on a regular basis. Is this true?

Secondly, what is the tax situation for a free-lance translator couple in France? I know little about money matters but my sweetheart lays great store by them. Would you advise us to set ourselves up as a company? I am sure (and so indeed is my sweetheart) that I could persuade my father to finance us in this area even if he is still in his "tantrum" phase at the present time.

Thirdly, how would you suggest I set about getting work. My sweetheart is vague on this point, he says the market is "down" right now but I am sure you can help.

Yours truly

Madly in love


Fire Ant (yes, Ant) rasps:

So sweetie "sets great store by money matters". Yeah right. Funding from your father is the cherry on the cake. Give this bounder the gate and get back to something serious.
Worker Bee advises:

Fire Ant has a point. But there is also something that doesn't quite square in your own account (age 22, final year medical student?).

Assuming that was simply a typo—but worrying nonetheless: translators who make typos on essential issues don't last long in a competitive market—here's a stab at answering your questions.
  1. Successful, happy translator couples are pretty thick on the ground, and depending on their language combination have a leg up (so to speak) on meeting the 4-eyes revision criteria of the recently published CEN Standard on translation services, and also information on the SFT site at http://www.sft.fr/dossiers/2006/normeCEN010906.htm. Readers in the UK might note that ITI is organizing a free meeting on this same subject in London on 26 October; for info, contact development@iti.org.uk.
  2. The tax situation of translator couples in France is identical to that of other freelance professions (that's freelance without a hyphen, by the way). How were you planning to work as a medical doctor—self-employed or salaried? A skilled and market-savvy translator can, through specialization, earn as much as a medical doctor in France, but as yet we (and you, let's face it) know little about your skills.
  3. As for suggestions on getting work, consult back issues of this column and if you are in the Paris area, sign up for the next SFT training day on that very subject, set for October 21. (http://www.sft.fr)

This may be going a bit beyond our brief, but the suggestion that your dad might finance a company is unsettling. You should definitely run a credit check on your sweetheart (useful experience for checking out future agency and direct clients should you head down that road) and look into his relations with any existing children.