Practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I joined our national translators' association last year but will not renew my membership this year because their website is awful, incompetent, impossible to update and (above all) not productive financially.
I have no way of knowing, but are all the other translators in this group bachelors/old maids with no children (I have three to support) or metrosexuals (I can't afford that luxury) or gay? (don't get me wrong, this is perfectly respectable, my bro is). Fact is, I have zero time, zero interest and zero budget for their dinners and get-togethers, my rare outings are to the supermarket around the corner.
A few statistics say it all:
Contacts from Proz over a period of 3 years: 143. Of which 84 contracts.
Contacts from the professional association over 18 months: 1. Zero contracts.
From what I see guys like me don't exist in most translators mindsets.
Get Down to Business
We think your mismatch with your (ex-)professional association results from a basic misunderstanding of how such associations differ from commercial platforms. For a start, most associations require proof that you are indeed a professional translator before they let you in. On commercial platforms you pays your money and gets your access. You may be able to participate for free in ancillary activities such as forums, but any structured input you provide is a gift to a commercial entity. Most platforms are very clear about this.
So what are professional associations for?
They are one or more steps back from the market: they facilitate contacts among professionals, raise awareness of best professional practices, offer guidance in ethical and professional matters, organize training courses, and promote the profession as a whole to outside world.
What they are not is mega-translation agencies dedicated to placing jobs. This is true even if they display your contact details for potential clients, or give you an opportunity to meet like-minded professionals with whom you might decide to work on large projects. By networking in a professional association, you will often pick up business tips, too (here's one: if you ever do rejoin and decide to participate actively, don't try to get the conversational ball rolling with your second sentence).
To address your closing comment, guys like you not only exist in translator mindsets, you populate entire neighborhoods of the translator world. You're at the wordface from dawn to dusk, with no time to network or socialize with clients or your peers, so busy are you making the next deadline to pay the rent and put food on the table.
Don't get us wrong. It's good to have your eye on the bottom line. In fact our main objective in writing this column is to get translators to reflect more about business matters. But Proz and other commercial platforms, while entertaining forums for social exchange, are not the best place to build up a client base of demanding, well-heeled direct customers who are passionate about their texts. The reason is simple: this buyer profile does not fish in pools of anonymous self-proclaimed professionals. And of course if you're happy with the clients and prices you find on Proz, that's fine too.
If your national association is really that bad, find another vector for networking. Just remember that you get out of any networking opportunity what you put into it. And to pull in the truly lucrative jobs, you must get out to venues other than supermarkets on a regular basis.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I've been a full-time freelance translator for over a decade, and I've never been out of work for more than a few days. However, this year, July has been flatand I mean zero sales. Now, in July, I was fortunately busy on volunteer work during the first fortnight and on holidays during the secondso that was not too bad.
However, after I came back from hols in August, things looked set to head in the same direction and I invoiced exactly zero again until August 18th. Fortunately, my billings for August 18 to August 31 came to approximately 25k€ on a few extremely urgent and technical documents, which has smoothed things out nicely.
My wife tells me that it's just a matter of clients being on vacation over the period, but I must confess that sitting in front of a silent phone was getting on my nerves.
Do you think I should review my marketing strategy?
Your letter is a reminder of just how important it is to have a cash buffer in the bank or under your mattress for those lean stretches. Small-business gurus in the US put this at about two years' worth of living expenses.
- Good for you for sitting tight and not lowering your prices (speaking of which, sounds like a nice end of August you had there).
Less impressive is the image of you sitting in front of a silent phoneunless that was just a turn of phrase.
Business slack? The lull is in itself a business opportunity. Use it to get out to client eventslog some facetime at business lunches, conferences, and trade fairs, where you can mingle and pick up strategic information about who's doing what and where you might fit in. Be seen, and be seen to be knowledgeable, professional and passionate about your customers' specialties.
While out and about, never ever mention that business is flat or (even worse) in a slump; they don't need to know. You're at the dairy-farmers' convention or insurance brokers' breakfast on tropical storm coverage because you are analyzing their industry in preparation for an upcoming job (which you can't discuss, it's confidential).
It's astounding how many translation jobs materialize in precisely these conditions, when your presence reminds demanding clients of a text they'd shelved, convinced they'd never find a knowledgeable, professional and passionate translator to take it on.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I graduated six years ago and after two years working in an agency set up a freelance business with my partner. We specialize in energy and want to build a direct clientele. Right now we are at 50% agency and 50% direct clients. Our minimum per-word price is 0.20 for direct clients. My partner thinks we are spending too much time actually winning the clients, and I am starting to agree. It usually takes one industry event plus two follow-up meetings with the departments involved for the first job to arrive; during that time we have transport expenses plus hotels plus living expenses and no money is coming in.
Do you have any advice for speeding up the process without looking too pushy?
Rather than look for shortcuts to winning clients, we suggest you raise your prices. As you point out, there is an acquisition cost involved (something agencies know all about) and the more specialized you are, the lower 0.20 a word looks. Track your per-hour net income, not per-word gross. And next time pitch for 0.30.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Last year I attended a translator meeting where a delightful ex-senior civil servant regaled us with tales of her foreign postings and (current) translation assignments for which she charges 0.05/word. People in the room asked why she was charging such low prices. She replied that she "didn't really need" the money, and that she thought it was "unfair" to charge more when she was retired and had a good pension already.
I thought of this when reading a recent discussion in an online forum. In it a semi-retired Translation Elder comments on rising inflation and falling prices, rails against the powerlessness of translators to negotiate good rates, predicts dire things to come. Later in the discussion you learn that both he and another elder are not making a living translating at all. Instead they are using occasional assignments to top up income from other sources.
You also learn that both of these gentlemen work at low (even very low) rates. So despite being articulate and experienced, they are the ones doing pin-money translation at pin-money rateseven as they condescend to "young people" like me. I realize there are other factors in play, but this general cluelessness about pricing and ethics is disappointing.
Globalization opens the world up to cutthroat competition say some, but I'm wondering now if our most insidious enemies are not translation elders and their mindless, cynical ways.
The enemy is not the elders, but the "mindless ways."
A simple example: "lookit lookit lookit the disgracefully low offer I received this morning! It's outrageous/depressing/deserving of a lawsuit, the market is going to hell in a handbasket!" Whenever a message like this goes up on a forum, a certain percentage of the young, middle-aged, graying at the temples and decrepit all pile in for a moanfest on Chicken Little's heels. Before you know it, it's self-fulfilling prophecy time all over again, as less vocal forum members take this nonsense seriously and ratchet down their prices.
Our opinion? If you are in the market for real, you charge for realand make a point of raising your prices every time you realize you are in demand. That's every time you find yourself working more hours than you want. You cull low payers from your client list as you gain experience, you regularly take professional development courses in your existing and potential specialties to keep on top of things and you just as regularly identify attractive new markets and clientslift your eyes off the screen and fingers off the keyboard to go out and win their business.
All that is Economics 101, which your elders may have forgotten or skipped, just as they appear to have missed the class on "dumping" and its consequences.
- Take online discussions with a grain of salt. Some of these guys are teasing, playing devil's advocate. Others are whiling away a lazy summer's afternoon on the wifi-enabled air-conditioned porch before pottering off to the golf course. Still others are bullshitting from their abandoned trolley-car under a bridge.
The fact that so many translators tippytoe around rates leaves the gate wide open for these entertaining gasbags to monopolize the conversation. Speak up!
- Cynicism is more fashionable with elders than with younger people (thank goodness). Victims suck the air and energy out of the roomwho wants to work with them? So perhaps your know-it-all elders have scared all the potential clients away.
- Finally, older translators can be genuinely out of touch with changes for the better in markets, and perhaps too stuck in their ways to deal with demanding clients. Data in the SFT rates survey to be released this week (http://www.sft.fr/page.php?P=fo/public/menu/gestion_front/index&id=144) indicates that price-per-word rises gradually as translators gain in experience and age, but falls off after age 60.
The bottom line? Everyoneevery single readershould be following our advice in paragraph three. We'll stop there so as not to get caught ourselves in another aphorism: Old translators never die, they just rant away.
FA & WB