Practical tips for practicing translators.
I’ve been working since 2007 as a freelancer for a Spanish translation agency where I did a six-month internship during my master’s course.
They say they like my work and consider me their “preferred translator” into French, but I’m still only getting 0.055 eurocents a word.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
At this point, I figure I’ve paid my dues, learned my craft and, as “preferred translator” want to raise my price.
How should I broach this topic, and how much can I raise my price by without losing this regular client? Ideally I’d like to charge at least 0.08 and
possibly 0.09 per word.
No offense, but perhaps you are this agency’s preferred into-French translator because you are so nice and inexpensive.
The best way to secure higher prices is to manage your client portfolio dynamically, announcing higher prices to new customers and culling those at the
bottom. Yes, we realize that this means actively seeking out new clients, who may or may not include agencies in Spain. But unless you do sobroadening
your client base so you have a fall-back positionyou will have a very hard time announcing even an incremental increase with any confidence.
The real problem with low prices is that they keep you far too busy to plan a way out of the dead end you’re stuck in: you’re working flat out,
with no time for the training and marketing you need to move up to the next level.
In your case, we advise scaling down the amount of time you are giving this agency and looking for some entirely new clients in more attractive segments. You
might also simply announce a price rise using the good cop/bad cop gambit we discussed at the end of the last issue.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am a technical translator working into English with just over a decade of experience.
I joined my national translators association two years out of a college translation program to seek guidance on how to best navigate my new career. My
university program was good on practice and translation tools, OK on feedback and guidance, but truly miserable on providing skills I would need to succeed
on the actual translation market.
Joining the association turned out to be a great decision because I learned a terrific amount about how to market myself, improve my own professional
skills and learn more about my subject areas.
But now, five or six years later, the utility of the association has fallen off a cliff for me. It seems from my perch of (relative) experience that the
association is targeted for beginners and expects us veterans to just fend for ourselves.
I'm writing for a different reason, though. The association nominating committee has asked me to run for office and I'm not sure that's a great idea for me
personally. I'm very driven and opinionated and have certain ideas about what needs to be doneblind spots to be fixed as well as upgrades to the
association to meet the needs of veterans like mebut in my view the governing body of this association appears to specialize in avoiding decisions.
These are all very nice people and I appreciate their volunteer commitment to the association, but I don't see a good end if I'm thrown into that mix.
My greatest concern is that this "smile at everybody but do nothing" trend has even accelerated in the last two years and shows no sign of getting better.
Please understand that I don't mean to be disrespectful, but it's like they have ossified into states of Emersonian catalepsy.
Do you think I should run for office, and if so, exactly how do I deal with that?
Congratulations on your career path to date; it looks like you’ve made some good choices.
Re strategies for the future, here are some thoughts:
Like you, we’ve noticed that many translator associations appear to be targeting beginnersno doubt because it’s easier, and because this
group tends to be so grateful. Think low-hanging fruit; hey, think of yourself at the beginning of your career!
And let’s not forget the huge pool of potential new dues-paying members, mutters Fire Ant. Earnest observers like Worker Bee counter that early
mistakes in marketing, pricing and perception of required skill levels can be fatal; it is only natural that newcomers look to associations for help, and
that associations provide guidance.
Time then marches on. Inertia alone will ensure that some of these early joiners remain members, but even the most dedicated veterans will take a back seat
or drop out if there’s nothing on offer for them. Which is a pity, since they, like associations, can get into a rut. Even the best, most experienced
translators need constant exposure to new ideas and developments in their specialisms to stay on top of their game.
Recognizing this, some associations have started offering master classes and events especially for experienced translatorsand are busy reaping the rewards. So here’s a
thought: if you feel your association is pitching too low, team up with some experienced peers in your specialist field or language combination to offer a
high-level course, webinar or presentation. By showing how it’s done, you’ll create demand for more. And it’s always invigorating to
network with people who aim high.
Serving on an association’s board (which one European retiree of our acquaintance refers to as “rowing through treacle”) is a
time-consuming and in some cases thankless task. Yet if you and other veterans limit yourselves to kibitzing from the sidelines, let’s face it:
you’re at least partly responsible for the association’s flailing strategy and endless dithering. You left the playing field clear and the
Granola Gang moved in.
As one expert reader commented in the early days of this column,
the license for criticism comes with the understanding that critics must be willing and able to pick up the torch and show how it's properly carried.
So let’s take a closer look. Strong opinions are fine, but if you are not just ventingif you genuinely want to see them take shape in the real
worldyou’ll have to lay them out clearly and deploy the people skills necessary to win over the Board and the membership at large. Which takes
effort. Compromise. Then more effortnever once losing sight of the ball, or your good humor.
Why not dedicate this year to raising the bar in translation skills proper through your expert presentations, thus boosting your profile in the
association? You can then link up with some like-minded veterans to run on a common platform next year. Assuming you make your case effectively and your
entire team gets elected, it will be much easier to enact the reforms you feel are necessary. At which point, you can start preparing your response to
criticism from the next line of driven and opinionated onlookers, ideally by pointing to the association’s achievements under your leadership.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately: translators living in their native countryor anywhere other than in the country of their
source languageare at a disadvantage.
Why? Because direct clients (manufacturers, software developers, etc.) in that country are generally looking for outbound translation. They are more
interested in translation into the language of foreign countries (to sell to those markets) than translation out of a foreign language into their own.
Concretely, this means that expatriate translators have business opportunities closer at hand.
(Although I can imagine some clients might prefer a translator living in the target-language country, as that might give an impression of "fresh and
ongoing contact" with the language.)
My question: have you noticed this phenomenon, and if so are there any business advantages for "domestic" translators that an expatriate translator doesn't
have? How can a translator living in his or her native country make up for the difference?
Are we correct in assuming that you are an Elbonian translator living in Elbonia?
The easy answer is to travel to your foreign clients’ home countries or other international venues at regular intervals so you can attend their
events and cash in on what is for them “outbound” work.
OK, that requires a budget; it’s up to you to make sure you’re pricing your work high enough to afford it.
Yet we also think you may be selling other segments of the into-Elbonian market short.
For example, as cross-border deals and commerce gather pace, we’ve seen an uptick in translation between subsidiaries and head offices; think human
resources and strategic planning. Think international teams and consumer research, tooareas where your greater familiarity with the latest social
trends and expressions in your native language may give you an edge on expatriates. To get a better feel for the margins and trade flows you may be missing
out on (and might well be able to negotiate more effectively for), read the letter from Priced Out below.
FA & WB
I work into English and specialize in high-end legal texts. A Minneapolis company just called to get their 6000-word employee newsletter translated into
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
The translator I work with in Argentina is one of the best in the world for into-Spanish translations, and I gave an oral quote of $1800 (30 cents per
But they were calling because they had been getting quotes of $700 to $850 and found those too high. Obviously the woman almost fell off her chair
when I named my price.
So much for that.
What is the moral of this story?
P.S. I know for a fact that US agencies are getting into-Spanish done in, say, Mexico or Honduras, for 2 or 3 cents per word, then charging 10 to 12 and
making more of a profit than I would charging 30 cents per word (since I pay my fabulous translator in Argentina more than half that).
Well, your client’s query was a mismatch for sure.
But we’re curious. Why were they calling you? Were they familiar with your work and expertise in complex legal documents, or phoning out of the blue?
Did they find you in an association directory or in the Yellow Pages? (Do you advertise a sideline in into-Spanish newsletters?)
We ask because generic we-need-a-translator calls often start with pricing, which is not a good sign for anyone selling a specialized service. What you
want are venues and situations where legal liability, procedural nuance and contractual intricacies are the hookwhere your expertise will shine and
your pricing will not raise a stir.
The moral of this story might be “Don’t sweat the flukes” or, possibly, “This freelance thing screams to be practiced narrow and deep.”
FA & WBQ:
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I’ve been a freelance translator for a year now, and this summer I translated 40,000 words from French to Russian, working in tandem with a native
Russian-speaking translator, for a large international organization.
When it came time to pay my bill, the client claimed that their in-house revisers had been forced to rewrite 40% of our work.
Yet for part of the documents, the errors they corrected were not in the final files we delivered (their project manager was on vacation at the time and
their revisers worked from provisional files because the staffer who replaced the project manager neglected to forward our final texts).
In the other documents, we did make some errors, including some unfortunate repetitions of poorly validated Trados segments. But these arose when one of
their in-house experts from another department asked us to completely change the style of the document four days before our deadline. We foolishly agreed,
then worked night and day to make the changes, instead of simply telling him that our initial instructions were different and that such extensive changes
would require additional payment and a longer deadline.
As things now stand, they are asking me for a 30% reduction for the revisions they say they had to make. I have no idea how much time that revision took,
since they’ve only given me a few examples.
Should I ask them for a full list of errors to justify the huge reduction they want?
Dear Getting Tired,
Congratulations on winning such a big, juicy contract just one year out, but don’t you wish now that you’d insisted on written specs and
confirmations at each stage?
We’ve often said that summer can be a great period for launching a career in translationso many established translators off on vacation! But your
dilemma highlights a worst-case scenario where clients also head off on holiday and their own backup is not what it should be.
Too many vacationing cooks spoiling the broth is our take here.
To sort things out, pull your documentation together and draw up a concise table with four columns: dates, names, instructions received and your efforts to
comply. Make it simple, and keep in mind that all of your contacts at the big international organization are currently scrambling to get out of the line of
fire. (Do ask for a copy of the final files, as these will almost certainly back you up.)
Then call the organization and set up a meeting with your first contactthe person who engaged your services and who signed the purchase order.
Don’t be accusatory. Stick to the facts as you received them, including original instructions and changes down the line. Sympathize if you like: tell
him that you realize scheduling can be hellish in summer, but point out that you’ve been poorly done by. (If we’ve understood the details you
provide here, that is certainly the case.) Some face-saving may be needed at their end, and you might consider a 5% reduction for that. But in the
circumstances 30% seems entirely out of line.
FA & WBQ:
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am a French citizen with a French law degree. I did my postgraduate studies in England and have been working as a solicitor in London for the past eight
My main area of practice is finance (in particular drafting/reviewing various contracts where wording and interpretation are key). I was asked on various
occasions by colleagues to prepare translations of legal documents (court documents, correspondence, financial documents and contracts) mainly for internal
purposes but also for external clients on a few occasions. I translated from French into English and from English into French and really enjoyed it. Having
now started a family, my husband and I are considering to relocate in around 3 years' time to be closer to our close family. I would therefore like to
change my career to be more flexible in terms of hours of work and location. I would like to use my skills (legal knowledge and experience and languages)
and translation seems the best option for me, especially as I really enjoy my experience when doing it for the firm.
My aim at the moment is to get some proper training and experience during these 3 years while working as a solicitor so that when the time comes, I have
acquired very good skills as a translator (a must!) and a portfolio to show to potential clients. To this end, I have enrolled in some distance course at
the City University London for a year so that I can have some introduction, practice and preparation to take the TransDip in January 2015. I have also
started reading books about the profession, about English (to improve further my writing skills), about translation between French-English and about French
legal terms. I have also met with some marketing people at some big legal translation agencies in London which often contact me to propose their services
to (I) meet face to face with them, (ii) ask for more information about the way they work, their client and their requirements for freelance translators
and (iii) for future reference when I actually apply to be in their database of translators.
My questions are the following:
1. Although my native language is French, I feel much more confident in writing in English as far as legal translation is concerned. When translating in my
firm, I found that I was constantly looking for terms in the dictionaries and legal texts to refresh my memory of French legal terms, whereas writing in
English almost came naturally (I will work on my English to be able to delete that "almost" in three years!). Therefore it makes more sense to me to
propose legal translations from French into English. What do you think? I intend to improve my French glossary in any case by reading French legal reviews
and relevant publications but this will never beat the everyday use of legal English at work. In addition, it seems that there is more demand for this
direction of translations.
2. In terms of gaining practical experience, I am not sure where to start. The marketing people at the legal translation agencies suggested that I propose
pro-bono translations to charities but this seems a very wide concept, especially if I want to specialise for legal translations. I was thinking to write
to legal translators in my combination language and propose to help them for free either by translating parts they would review and share their work or by
proof reading. Do you think that would be appealing to them? Do you have any other suggestions? I cannot openly propose to translate in my firm as my
career change project should remain for the time being unrevealed. In addition, I will not be able to do this full time (only evenings and weekend).
3. I was also thinking to develop my specialisation in Finance translations too as this is my field in law. Again, do you have any suggestions as to where
I should start to obtain some pro-bono work? I cannot really propose this to my clients (although I intend to increase my database for future reference).
4. In the long term, it seems that legal translation agencies get the bulk of the legal translation work. At least this is what I see from my firm's
practice. I therefore intend to target them and will attend their regular events (I am already on their mailing list) to keep in touch and meet more
people. Would you recommend targeting some clients directly as well? There are so many possibilities in terms of clients that it will be difficult to
choose. In addition, if we relocate, it will be harder to market them, whereas I would (hopefully) have already built some ties with the legal translation
Language & Law
It’s great to see how methodically you are preparing for your career change, and your expertise should serve you well. We also enjoyed this
opportunity to bounce your queries off three industry experts and are happy to summarize comments from them and others below.
But let’s start with your last remark:
True, huge volumes alone mean that large translation agencies spend heavily to win contracts with law firms. But many of those lawyers are not happy with the
pseudo-legal translations they receive at cut-rate prices. Moreover, law firms tend to be furiously compartimentalized; even with an umbrella contract in
place, it’s not unusual for individual lawyers to commission their own translations. So when the time comes, don’t hesitate to make your
pitch. It’s unusual for law firms to be approached directly by people of your caliber, and lawyers surely prefer to deal with other lawyers than with the
commission-hungry sales forces of translation agencies itchy to gain market share rather than provide professional services by professionals for
But consider, too, that law firms are not necessarily the most attractive clients for you. One of our experts comments that law firms are erratic clients
who pay erraticallyand who don’t hesitate to put the screws on their own suppliers. So you might consider moving one step up the food chain by
contacting General Counsels in the corporate world. These guys are legal experts like yourself who have every reason to want outstanding quality, and who
deal with the type of documents you’ve worked on. Look into attending World Trade Association meetings and Franco-American Chamber of Commerce
get-togethers if you want to pursue this.
But you also need something to sell, and we appreciate your concern with getting this right.
A few thoughts:
First, while your English is very good, a few awkward passages in your letter show that it is not native, so you should definitely plan on lining up a
reviser if you want to work from French to English. There’s not necessarily more work in that direction, incidentally, but one of our experts points
out that people learn to write like lawyers by practicing law at a firmwhich means your French law degree may not mean much in practical terms. In
fact, at this point you may actually write legal English better than legal French. Dictionaries are particularly unhelpful in legal translation, so it will
be up to you to study and sort things out. “The more sample documents you can save from your current practice, the better,” this observer
advises. You’ll then want to find similar documents from Franceperhaps from a friend who practices law in France.
It’s great to deepen your specialty, but what, exactly, would pro bono financial translation be? Pro bono legal translation is clearer; it might
cover documents connected to a petition for asylum, or a divorce for a battered spouse who has no money, or a poor person seeking to immigrate. Still, the
documents involvedbirth certificates, marriage certificates and so onare unrepresentative of the rest of legal translation (especially the complex
financial documents that will likely be your ticket), so if you’re looking for experience you’d probably be better off proofreading an
established translator’s work (“for free, if you insist,” says this contact helpfully). Finally, do plan to attend the 2014 summer school
for financial translators, provisionally scheduled for the first week of July in Brussels.
Best of luck as you head down this endlessly interesting career path.
FA & WBQ:
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I’ve been translating for three years and plan to attend our national association’s annual conference for the first time this year. I am
looking forward to it. But at local translator meetings I’ve often found my time monopolized by people who, while possibly good translators, are not
very socially adept. I’m there to network; they’re there to tell me (or whoever they manage to latch onto) all about their life and issues and
last job and next job and personal enemies and silly clients and so on. It seems rude to cut them short, so I tend to listen and nod politely.
But attending the annual conference represents a significant expense for me. I want to use my time well and avoid negative energy. Do you have any advice
for keeping out of the misfits’ grasp once there (or perhaps they don’t attend?).
Preparing My Trip
They’ll be there. Keep an eye out for eccentric attire, odd hairstyles and beady eyes, and if in doubt try the Gasbag Test.
Here’s how it goes: when meeting new people at a translator event ask a few questions and listen to the replies. Stop prompting after your third
question. If you get no questions back, you’ve got yourself a gasbaga tedious self-centered monologuerand you can let the conversation slide.
Cut your losses: spot a real or imaginary stranger across a crowded room, gesture in that direction, and bow out with a bright “Sorry, I’ll
have to get back to you…”
But your question should also remind established translators reading this column that it really does make sense to do some membership outreach at
conferences and other events. This is much easier if your group uses name tags and can attach a sticker or other alert indicating “first-time
attendee”, then remind old-timers to make newcomers feel welcome. It’s hard enough to break into client clusters. If you
actually do want newcomers to get involved in your association, a friendly word goes a long way.
FA & WB