Practical tips for practicing translators.
Though I'm a few years late, I'd like to revisit your comments to "Injured in Indiana", in
which you referred to Indiana as "the sticks." I am not and never have been a resident of Indiana, and have no desire to protect the reputations of
Hoosiers, but I wonder how familiar you are with the geography and population distribution of the United States.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
My son has just taken a job as an in-house translator in Indiana, with hopes of eventually using the experience as a basis for building a freelance
practice. When he was looking for work, both freelance and in-house, he found that many of the listings were from Ohio, Michigan, and points south. Like
many of those that listed jobs, the company that hired my son is in the auto industry, and the area contains many auto parts and accessories manufacturing
plants, being relatively near Detroit. Also inside a 3-hour radius are Chicago, IL; Toledo, OH; Columbus (Ohio's largest city); Dayton, OH; and
Indianapolis, IN, not to mention many smaller midwestern industrial cities. Indiana has 3 major universitiesIndiana, Notre Dame, and Purdueand two
others, Michigan and Michigan State, are within the 3-hour radius, again, with many smaller universities much closer. Cleveland and Cincinnati are just
outside the 3-hour radius, but not counting them, this part of Indiana is at the center of nearly 20 million people in urban areas alone.
This is the sticks? What kind of population, industrial, and academic density would it take for you to consider the area suitable for a translator to find
work? How local is local? If you can drive there for lunch, have a meeting, and be home by dinner, isn't that close enough? My son's language isn't German,
but BMW, Mercedes, and Volkswagen all manufacture cars in the southern US. Volkswagen America's office is at an unincorporated location in Virginia. You
know, the sticks.
Furthermore, I have a friend who has been a freelance translator for 35 years. He lives in a western state with half Indiana's population, more than three
hours from the nearest real city, which is 3/4 the size of Indianapolis, and twice that far from any other big city. Indeed, he's half an hour from any
town worthy of the name.
We’ve calculated that my son would have to make four times his current salary at his new job to match my friend's buying power at its peak. So it may
be unusual, but it was clearly possible to make quite a good living from the sticks even before the internet.
Big Picture Revisited
Dear Big Picture,
Injured in Indiana wrote us back in 1999. Giving the blistering pace of technological change, we figure that’s nearly a generation ago, and not
surprisingly some things have moved on. But not all, and we’re delighted to revisit the main issue: can freelance translators work from anywhere in
the world (including Indiana)?
The answer, of course, is a resounding yesassuming you’ve got a high-speed internet connection and the right hardware, software and wetware.
Can you do so and build a lucrative practice with a portfolio of well-heeled, demanding, premium clients?
In fact, when we polled a selection of successful translatorsmany of whom now live happily in rural areasall cited hours, days, months and years logged
earlier in their careers to establish ties with the clients they were targeting, followed by unstinting efforts to maintain those links through periodic
business trips with face time or, at the very least, regular phone conversations. All in the client’s language, of course.
One insists that all of his big breaks or big deals have come from personal encountersthe face-to-face, smell-my-breath-and-get-a-whiff-of-my-armpits
kind of encounters.
When challenged by flashy ad agencies in the nation’s capital, another country-dweller points to the proximity of two major clientsboth hugely
successful companies firmly and intentionally based in the boondocks. Yet the best solution, this translator says, “is to visit doubting Thomases
with a big-city mentality so that they can see that I’m not a country bumpkin in my attitude to business, and so that I can convince them of my
commitment to deliver a highly professional product that meets or exceeds their expectations.”
A third contacts recalls travelling regularly from his rural abode to the Big City to see customers in his specialist areaspace technologyabout
upcoming, big or challenging jobs, then making a point of eating with them in the company cafeteria before lingering in the café area. Why?
“Because chance meetings with the customer’s colleagues or other people I knew nearly always triggered thoughts in these people’s heads
about new upcoming jobs.” Mind you, this worked because he has a degree in physics, kept up with space news and could understand space industry
engineers when they spoke about their work.
Sure, nowadays you can also hang out online in forums and egroups, especially subject-matter specialist venues. And by participating actively in specialist
discussions, you may meet clients there. But we’re convinced you’ll build better quality business faster if you also hit customer venues and/or
make the effort to travel to places where you can meet and talk with the people using your services.
So our point then, as now, is not to criticize anyone who chooses to live off the beaten track, from a wifi-equipped little house on the prairie to a
Unabomber shack in Montana, rather to remind readers that (1) clusters countyou describe that in your letter, just as we did in our follow-up response to Big Sky. And (2) face time with customers is one of the best ways we know
to get on their radar screen and stay on their supplier list. How you achieve that is up to you, and driving a few hours to tour a plant or meet up with a
creative team is certainly one option.
Your friend in the West is an interesting example of how expertise and hard work can and should pay off, although we’re betting he’d built up a
portfolio before he headed out to boondocks. It sounds like your son is doing just that in his new job. (Do make sure that the two of them get some
face time so your son can plot his next career move three or four years down the road.)
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
When quality issues come up, a translator I sometimes work with limits her comments to saying that whatever she produces it’s a whole lot better than
X, where X is the work clients were getting from suppliers before they linked up with her, or the clunky translations provided by teachers at the local
school or the dreadful work supplied by Giant Agency Y, etc. That is her final word; I am thinking of stopping all work with her.
What do you think?
In our experience, translators with a future measure themselves against the best, then do what it takes to get themselves there.
The unskilled, desperate, burnt out and cynical measure themselves against the worst or the flailing. Not surprisingly, this allows them to wallow in the
status quo, jabbering away about the dire state of the industry.
It is one reason why we find translator complaints about competition from au pairs, students and moonlighting teachers so revealing. Move on, people,
they’ve tipped their hand.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
About 10 days ago I had a new ideanew to me, anyway. It was based on ideas that have been swirling in my head for a long time, but the trigger was
someone's comment on a listserv that agencies in the language business act quite differently than agencies in other big business, entertainment, sports.
A professional athlete has an agent who negotiates the contract with a team, or with the companies who want him to endorse their projects. (Did you seem
the movie, "Jerry Maguire"?) An actor or musician has an agent who signs their movie and TV deals. Authors have agents. Everybody can see who actually
performs the work.
What if someone offered to be a "translators agent"? Or an "interpreters agent"?
My first thought was to round up a group of competent translators and be their agent. The translators would be the star, the product, and would be
identified by name. I wouldn't hide their names, and I would tell them about the companies that I was working with on their behalf. In fact, I would make
sure they knew this.
Part of the job would be customer acquisition: for instance, as you’ve mentioned here, visiting trade showswherever the customers are. The agent's
compensation could be a percentage of the gross sales, or a flat amount per month, whatever: as long as the translator feels that the agent is doing
Now, to be honest, I'm sure somebody has thought of this before. Also, if I started such an agency, I would probably not deal with 75% of the translators I
know. There are many unknowns and I'm not sure whether I'm cut out for it. And most of all, at this time I'm a well-paid employee in an engineering firm,
with some upside potential. It's nice to have paid benefits.
But if something happened to that job and if I was thrust back into the language business full-time, I would certainly think about doing this.
Will This Float?
No, you’re not the first: the late Derry Cook-Radmore, former head of translation at the European Space Agency, mused about just such a niche in
debates at the translators’ watering hole Flefo in the early days of the internet. Like you, he envisaged specialists representing a stable of expert
translators, as a theatrical agent might.
[Speaking of business models, another participant countered with a proposed futures market for top translators’ hours: he offered to sell contracts
representing chunks of a named specialist’s time at a point in the future, which could be traded on his (presumably online) marketplace until the
contract matured. We’d want to read the fine print on that one.]
But to return to the “exclusive agent” option: to our knowledge, this has never really taken off. Perhaps it’s because many agencies
don’t seem too sure themselves about the value they add, or have failed to communicate it to their clients. For them, identifying a subcontractor to
an end client would be foolish if not suicidal: “the end client would go straight to the horse’s mouth, [bypassing us],” says one.
Other agencies insist that their input goes well beyond matching job to talent; they provide essential quality assurancesomething that even top-tier
translators can benefit from, but can react negatively to. (You said diva?)
But we think the real obstacle lies elsewhere: the top translators you might want to represent are often selling their own services quite nicely already,
thank you. To sign them, you’d need to offer a plussay, negotiating services that would double their price. Or possibly premium professional
services like secretarial assistance, tax advice, IT backup, manicures, massage and personal trainers. Could get pricey and would definitely get
complicatedgo back and watch Jerry Maguire again.
We’d love to hear differently, but for now don’t see this one catching on any time soon.
FA & WB
I’ve followed your advice on raising prices and now face a dilemma. My rates currently range from €0.12 to €0.28 a word, but that is all
within the same company: I work for different subsidiaries and departments. I worry about the different teams finding out that my prices are so different;
the high-priced ones will think I have been cheating them. How can I sort this out while keeping everybody happy, including me?
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Caught in a Web
Well, if the client wakes up, the low-priced teams will be jubilant, right? But their accountants could then work on your insecurity (yes, it’s
shining through) to bargain you down.
Here’s the problem: you followed only half of our advice. Having announced higher rates to new buyers and won their business, you neglected stage
tworatcheting up prices for the clients at the low end of your spread or culling them.
Do this now. If you feel nervous, try the good cop/bad cop approach. Phone and set the tone by mentioning a successful project you worked on with them;
tell them how much you enjoyed it. Then say that your accountant has been on your back again, reminding you that your prices with them are far lower than
those you charge your other clients. On reflection, she’s right (you can heave a sigh at this point), so you’ll be raising their price on
September 1. You hope they’ll stay on board and look forward to working with them after the summer break.
In the meantime, you might try switching all the departments at your client company over to hourly rates. This gives you an opportunity to point out that
certain texts are faster to translatewhen they are written particularly well, for example, or concern straightforward information or argumentswhile
others are much slower. Phrase it like that to remind your clients that they, too, have a role to play in preparing their text prior to translation.
FA & WB