A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Does the evolution of machine translation mean that the death of the professional translator is nigh?
Try again. The truth is exactly the opposite. Machine translation is the "click! the penny dropped" mechanism that reveals to savvy clients (who are also the ones you want) why they absolutely must have an expert human translator. Someone who knows their industry and company inside out and who writes extremely well. Who can transform what they intended their glossy brochure to say (never mind what they actually put down) into seamless prose that will get their message out to foreign readers.
For bottom-end translators (the plodders, the line-'em-up-word-by-worders) MT may represent a threat (some day). As the man said, who is going to pay money and wait around for a poor translation when they can get one instantaneously, for free, over the Internet?
FA & WB
I get the impression that every time you do a translation, you negotiate a price with the customer. Since I am not very experienced at negotiating, I generally just use fixed-rate pricing. Any hints?
Puzzled by Pricing
We agree that it is useful to have a basic rate scale, if only to be able to quote a ballpark figure when potential clients phone. But if you are supplying a premium product, you should look for opportunities to turn your relative rarity to your financial advantage. The same applies if you are prepared to accept particularly difficult working conditions.
Don't get us wrong: we will all walk that extra mile for customers. But since translation often comes near the end of the document production chain, you are certain to run into cases where someone else's poor planning affects your quality of life. In such instances, special compensation is in order.
In practical terms, you can charge by the word, page, hour or any unit that suits you and your clients.
But make it clear to those clients that you have a life beyond the work you do for them, including other customers, family obligations and the leisure activities you need to keep a smile on your face and your blood pressure down. Inroads on that time are available at your discretion and at a price. If your work is good, they will respect you all the more.
Do charge a premium for rush jobs, night jobs and weekend work. Announce this up front, and don't make any exceptions; rest assured that the lawyers and accountants who work for them charge overtime, too.
If you are swamped in work, your base rates are too low and you should start testing the upper limits, perhaps by quoting a higher fee when new customers call.
What you must avoid is anything that smacks of arbitrary pricingannouncing higher prices for weekend work, then not applying them, or caving in immediately if challenged. This sends out a very unflattering message: "just testing the waters here, this guy looks gullible, let's give it a try!"
In the end, transparency is your best ally. You value your good clients, but you also know your value to them, which is your ability to get their message across to target readers. And you are willing to pull out all the stops to make their projects a successfor a price.
FA & WB
I am a university student in the US, halfway through my junior year. I'm a Spanish major, and am studying French on my own (successfully). I plan to study many languages as time goes by.
The thing I value the most is being able to travel for extended periods of time in different countries. As I love the study of language, translation seems one of the very rare ways to support oneself and have total freedom of location. I would just like to know if I am pursuing an impossible dream, or if there really is a solid freelance translation market in which I could carry out my plans, even if I have to get a few clients here in the U.S. before going abroad.
World is My Oyster
Working as a language teacher or translator is a time-honored way of supporting yourself while visiting foreign countries. If you are just out of college, your financial needs are unlikely to be huge, which makes it all the more feasible. Enthusiasmwhich you seem to have in abundanceis also a tremendous resource and will serve you in good stead.
But before you pack your bags, two comments:
Unless you're prepared to make a serious commitment to honing your writing skills (to a level far beyond what most people pick up in college) and specializing, you may find yourself stuck with low-prestige, low-paying jobs. Not that this need interfere with your enjoyment of an overseas experience, but it mightespecially if you pick up a spouse, mortgage and kids en route, as sometimes happens.
- Immigration laws are increasingly restrictive, at least in the European Union. In general, Americans receive only a three-month tourist visa; work permits are almost impossible to get unless you work for a major corporation or are able to invest millions. If you want to extend your stay in Europe, you may want to think about enrolling as a graduate student in a university. Unlike tourists, foreign students are allowed to work a certain number of hours every week in most EU countries.
- The real question is not whether a solid freelance market exists out theredon't worry, it doesbut how solid your own skills are. While non-translators often view translation as a natural spin-off of fluency in foreign languages, successful practitioners know that it is first and foremost about writing smoothly and accurately in your native tongue.
Our advice? Define your priorities. If you want to delay your choice of a career while you indulge in the freedom of travel, set yourself a time limit. The streets of Europe are littered with expatriates who drift into a kind of limbo they find difficult to escape.
Oh, andbon voyage!
FA & WB
OK, translators are often poorly paid. But what you advocate is what I call gougingtaking unfair advantage of clients who are up against a deadline, or in a bind. Aren't you worried that this is going to backfire?
Fair Play Please
Dear Fair Play,
Ah, the G word plus the U word! Sounds like you've been working too many late nights.
Charging as much as the market will bear makes sense for many reasons. To name just a few:
We assume most people would rather earn more than less for a professional assignment. We certainly would.
Your price must factor in not only your hours at the keyboard, but the time and money you invest to keep up to date on developments in clients' markets. You cut corners on the latter at your own peril.
- Demanding a high fee is more likely to secure the conditions you need to produce a good job. A translator paid peanuts is usually viewed as an expendable member of the teamif she is a member of the team at all. In contrast, if you are paid a lot, clients are more likely to ask your opinion and follow your advice (advance notice of work, background documentation, that all-important "respect" thing).
- Even more important, the texts you translate have been "pre-selected"; they are more likely to have been fine-tuned before they hit your desk. And as most translators will confirm, many of the real problems in moving from one language to another come from poor source-text writing.
- "Gouging" does not come into the picture if you are up front about what you are charging and why. What you do not want to do is play the prima donnacombining your expertise and awareness of your scarcity with arrogance. Nobody wants to hear "I've got you over a barrel, buddy, and I'm going to take you to the cleaners."
We'll stick to our guns, Fair: many translators charge far too little, and their very humbleness helps maintain the poor working conditions they complain about so bitterly. Worse, it saps the quality of their output, disserving their clients and trapping both in a downward spiral of high volumes/so-so quality/poor pay/lower quality/rock-bottom pay/garbage.
FA & WB
I head the translation department of a large bank. I think I can confidently say that we are good customers: when we commission outside work we plan ahead, we provide glossaries, we make it clear that we are available to field questions, and we pay promptly.
In the past two months we have nonetheless been seriously burned three times. In one case a trusted freelancer subcontracted the job to a student, with catastrophic results; twice translation agencies' supplierstranslators and revisersdid the same thing (without telling anyone).
In all three cases we ended up with bad texts, and while our in-house reviewers caught the problems before publication, I was and am furious at what I consider unethical behavior. After all, no one forced these people to take on our work, yet not one bothered to tell us that our jobs were being passed on to an unknown quantity.
I should add that I alerted our national translators' association (the suppliers were members), and there was a round of finger-wagging, but little more.
What can I do to make sure this never happens again?
Some things are just not done, and in our opinion, subcontracting work on
the sly while holding yourself out as a hands-on, first-person proprietor
is on a par with poisoning the neighbor's cat and pissing in the town well.
You will note that it is also strictly forbidden in the model terms of
business published by at least one national translators' association. In
the case of translation companies, subcontracting is usually part of the
package, but these suppliers earn their cut by thoroughly reviewing the
work they deliver. If they fail to do so, they should pay a penalty.
To punish your less-than-ethical suppliers, simply withdraw your custom
from them. And with the new translators you choose, state your expectations
regarding subcontracting up front and in writing: do you want to be told in
advance, do you never accept it under any circumstances, what safeguards
would you consider adequate to maintain quality? Write these conditions
into your contract with your suppliers, including a financial penalty for
If you feel strongly enough about this issue, consider offering a short
account of your experiences to the translator association's journal.
Raising the subject in public will clear the air and be a salutary reminder
that clients deserve better.
FA & WB
I was very interested in what you had to say, in your last column, to the person who translated
in Indiana and who wasn't earning very much. I currently
live on the U.S. west coast, but would not want to raise my family
here and am considering a move to the Great Plainsmy original home. I
have a presence on the Web and have already worked for some clients in the
U.S. and Germany, but have only been in the business for about a year
(just got my translation degree in 1998). Do you think that if I were to
move north it would affect my business at this point? I would think that if
a person marketed him or herself well, where one lives wouldn't be that
much of a problemespecially since most of the work I do is via the
Internet or faxes. I think that having a degree from a well-known school
would also be helpful in building a client base, no matter where you are.
What is your opinion?
Dear Big Sky,
We're glad you've given us the opportunity to revisit last column's reply
to Injured in Indiana. Others, too, have e-mailed us, asking whether our
comments were meant as a secret dig at them personally (the answer, in each
case, is no).
We understand that it may sound paradoxical to sing the praises of locality
in this age of globalization and burgeoning interconnectivity. But our
position has support from no less a management guru than Michael E. Porter
from Harvard University.
Prosperity depends on productivity and productivity growth, and these are
highest where there is a cluster, not isolated firms or industries. As
defined by Porter, a cluster is a critical mass of companies in a
particular field in a particular location, whether that is a country,
state, region, or even a city.
Let's examine how this concept of clustering relates to the translation
market. A vast portion of the market is probably location-insensitive.
Dominated by translation companies who are themselves under severe
cost pressures, this is a world populated by translators typically selling
their work at rates that may look attractive to someone just starting out
as a translator, but are notin our opinionsustainable beyond the age of
thirty-five or thereabouts. Especially if the translator is the sole or
primary breadwinner for the family, a fee of thirty dollars per hour
(gross) will be woefully inadequate and doom the translator to laboring
under a crushing workload, struggling to make ends meet, or both.
As the Bottom Line never tires of pointing out, there are smaller segments
of the translation market that are far more lucrative. Example? Press
releases that must impress the target audience with style as well as
substance. When performed for quality-conscious direct clients, such work
can fetch far more. Contact the authors directly for specific figures.
But can you tap into the high-priced end of the translation market from
anywhere? One of us sat down and diagrammed how a half-dozen of his most
lucrative clients came to him. In all but one of these cases, location
played a critical role. Clients were acquired through (local) direct-mail
advertising, referrals from (local) busy colleagues, word of mouth from
(local) happy clients, or a combination of factors. In only one case was a
client acquired through attendance at a professional seminar in another
Our conclusion? It is not enough to know one or two colleagues nearby who
also target the high-price segment and can give you referrals and pointers
about the market; it is not enough to have one or two clients nearby who
are relatively price-insensitive and will gladly recommend you. For your
weblet of contacts to grow and snowball into a strong network, there has to
be a critical mass of both factors. We believe it will be far more
difficult to tap into a higher-end market if you are not physically
presentif not all the time, at least at regular intervalsin such a
FA & WB
Where do you find your clients, FA&WB? My customers are in North America and there is no way they are going to pay a premium for quality. It's easy to say "time to raise prices!" but that is simply not possible here. They go for the cheapest supplier every time.
It Won't Work Here
We have a suspicion that translators who keep saying "Yes, but...", "You are dreaming when you talk about charging such prices," and "Clients are not interested in paying a premium for quality" belong to one of two groups:
Amateurs and semi-amateurs. These include housewives/househusbands earning pin money, retirees collecting healthy pensions, university teachers and students moonlighting as translators, and heirs supplementing their trust-fund income. Sometimes they leave this group to join the ranks of group 2 below.
- Professionals who do not make enough money sustain their practice. They are scared that they might lose their present clients if they raise their prices, yet these clients do not pay enough for them to stay in business. Such translators have three options:
Their slide into genteel poverty accelerates, they get evicted from their apartments, they discover there is no safety net for them, they become bums and then die from exposure on a park bench one November morning.
- They get a salaried job, move into a different profession or marry someone with money, so becoming a member of group 1.
- They decide to bite the bullet and raise prices high enough to earn a decent living. They specialize. They invest in marketing and advertising, and they accept that they are full-time entrepreneurs with all the risks and benefits that entails. There are no guarantees, no magic formulas. Failure is always possible. But there is no alternative. If you want to stay in business, do your math, figure out the prices you need to charge, and then do what it takes to find and keep clients willing to pay those prices.
FA & WB