Volume 3, No. 3 
July 1999

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee



Translation Journal
        The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

A column with practical tips for practicing translators.

Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

In your April column, you said you were "amazed at the number of skilled translators who assume there is no alternative to working through an intermediary". My reaction: is there one?
    I have been a freelancer for five years now, exclusively for translation agencies, and I just can't understand what clients want from a translator. Over the past few months, I have tried very hard to find direct clients (in telecommunications and shipping/maritime transport mostly), but have had very little success. My offer included competitive rates, fast turnaround, specialist knowledge, etc., I used all the Internet resources I could find to customize my offer to potential clients, I even did translation tests for a telecommunication company thinking of setting up in Asia, but nothing came of it. So my question is, where is this "thriving market" you mention? Is it just a matter of being at the right place at the right time or is there something I've overlooked? I am starting to lose hope of ever working for direct clients, so all suggestions are welcome!

Desponding in Slough

Dear Desponding,

Tip of the month: don't start your pitch with "competitive prices". What good clients are crying out for is subject-matter expertise, backed by effective writing. There is plenty of time to discuss prices once they understand the added value you offer.
    As you note, it is important to identify what clients want from a translator. And the only way to find out is to get out and mingle with them. One of the first things you may discover is that many don't really know themselves. Others may be skeptical about your input, especially if they have been burned by sub-standard work from other suppliers in the past. For these buyers, translation is not a solution, but an unknown—and as such a source of worry and trouble.
    This being the case, one of the best ways to establish and consolidate ties with both groups is to shift your focus from language to specialist knowledge of their industry. Train yourself to speak their (subject-matter) language—literally.
    Yes, it's time for that old FA & WB standard: read what your clients read. Trade journals, but also a daily business paper such as the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal, or your source/target-language equivalent (the business pages of your local daily will not do the trick). And don't kid yourself, this will take time.
    Next step: hang around client watering holes— trade fairs, chamber of commerce events, etc.—to sharpen your feel for their concerns and markets. If you are not at ease in business circles, this may seem daunting to start, although by now you'll have been tracking their industry closely for long enough to be genuinely curious about some of the projects they are up to.
    Opening gambits at a trade fair can be as simple as a request for multilingual documentation, or asking reps to explain how their product X compares with competitors' Y. At an industry conference, ask delegates next to you which trade events they would recommend. At this stage, you are not a seller (yet), just an interested observer seeking input from them, the specialists. All of this is to ready yourself for face-to-face contact, for you will at some point have to meet clients in the flesh. Mastering your subject is the best way we know to gain the confidence—and credibility—you need to demonstrate how your skills can serve them. Good luck!


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have ten years of experience in English/French to Spanish translation. A year ago I began reading two international magazines, both with an English (original) and a Spanish (translated) version. I have found and collected a lot of serious mistakes in the translated editions, which is surprising given these magazines' worldwide reputations.
    Question: should I contact the editors to demonstrate that I would be able to do a better translation/quality checking job? Is this an acceptable way of getting translation assignments? If so, who should I contact (I have thought of the International Editions Manager)?

Bad Tidings, Me?

Dear Bad,

Taking the time to correct a published translation is an excellent way to make contact with a potential client. But only on four conditions:

  1. Note your remarks simply yet stylishly in the potential client's language. One of the reasons your target publications goofed in the first place is that editors were unable to judge what they were getting in Spanish. To bring your message home, you'll need flawless English with no typos.
  2. Assume from the start that the publishers really are committed to producing a top-quality magazine. Your letter should reflect this—no berating, finger-wagging and stridency. You enjoy their magazine, and are confident they will seek a solution once you've let them know there is a problem.
  3. Leave scope for face-saving. The mistakes you've identified are almost certain to embarrass someone, somewhere, who may in return seek to discredit your remarks. That's life. One way to keep the temperature down and discussion constructive is to give this person some psychological room. Anybody can make a mistake. Concretely, mention in your letter a few factors that may have contributed to the problems, e.g., "I realize publishers work to extremely tight deadlines, which may explain why 'scalpel' was rendered 'cell-phone' in your March 1999 issue." Suggest how you would deal with these. If you win the contract, you'll have to.
        That said, slipshod suppliers are usually good at playing the "well, it's all so subjective" game, so be sure to include some specific examples they cannot wriggle out of. Your potential client needs this sort of ammunition.
  4. If you decide to pitch your services straight away (rather than wait for the magazines to come back to you with an offer), explain how your expertise might fit in alongside that of the current supplier—as reviser or checker, for example. There is plenty of time for you to move to the fore once the publishers have seen how efficient you are, and how pleasant you are to work with.
Who to contact? We'd advise starting fairly near the top, with the editor of the international edition. These people want their magazines to work (see 2), and will probably be grateful that you've taken the time to let them know something is amiss.


The work just keeps rolling in and I can't keep up! There are only so many hours in a day. It seems like a waste to let all those potential earnings fall by the wayside.

Swamped in Sweden

Dear Swamped,

Yours is an enviable dilemma. Fortunately, there are many different strategies for coping with growth.

  1. Defer it if you can...
    Thank the caller for the inquiry and say, regretfully, that you would love to take on the assignment... if they can extend the deadline. This does three things: (1) it signals to the client that you are in demand, confirming their choice of you as a preferred supplier; (2) you come across as a woman of her word, someone who would rather turn down lucrative business than risk delivering late and wreaking havoc on a client's deadlines; (3) you never know: a couple of in-house phone calls later, your client contact may be back in touch to tell you that as it turns out, the deadline can be pushed back after all!
  2. ...Refer it if you can't.
    Be prepared to make referrals to able colleagues. Yes, we have all met the colleague from hell who turned out to be a venomous snake, badmouthing you to the client and trying to steal your business. May she roast on a spit over an open fire for many millenniae. Learn from this mistake and next time pay attention to your gut instinct. This is another reason why you should go often to translator meetings and keep in touch with the expat community in your town. What is the ratio of translators you personally meet to translators who you can safely refer your customers to? About 50 to 1, so get out of the house and start building up a stable of contacts! Make sure that everybody profits from the referral. Your clients will appreciate your advice when you refer them to another good translator instead of simply turning down work. You can ask your colleague for a commission of, say, 15% (a common practice in the PR profession). Or barter your recommendation for a deposit in the "favor bank", to be withdrawn when you need it. If you want to simply "park" the client with your colleague temporarily, be upfront and clear about that; in this case, the colleague is doing you a favor so do not expect a commission.
  3. Cash in on the bonanza.
    When you ask the boss for a raise and are turned down, it's tough. On the other hand, being in business for yourself means that you get as many chances to do this—and also try out different strategies—as there are clients. It's Economics 101, folks: the best—some say the only—time to up your rates is when you are so busy, you are turning down work.
        Curiously (or perhaps not), many translators are squeamish about plunging in and charging what the market will bear. They claim that their clients will resent this and retaliate by not giving them business in leaner times when the client no longer needs them so badly. We beg to disagree. For one thing, when the cyclical downturn comes there will be less work anyway. You think clients will keep you busy then out of gratitude for your modesty?
        Moreover, charging not one penny less than what the market will bear is the very essence of free enterprise, and as buyers of products and services we face it every day. Provided that you can supply the quality to back up your high fee, you would be an idiot to surrender your chance to turn the principle to your advantage.
  4. Farm out work.
    Assign work to colleagues with spare capacity. But beware of the pitfalls: there is no swifter way to ruin your reputation than to deliver somebody else's sub-standard output under your good name. And make sure that you price the work high enough. You need to budget not only for what your contractors charge you, but also for the time you spend scheduling and tracking assignments and performing quality control: you must review the translation line by line and word by word to bring it up to your accustomed quality. In addition to dealing with your client, you need to communicate well with your colleagues and be ready to support them in their queries. Turn down assignments if the client is unwilling to pay as much.
  5. Share the wealth.
    Translators balk at the idea of hiring salaried workers. They cite the unpredictable nature of the business, the difficulty of reconciling the individualistic nature of translation with an office setting, and fear of losing clients to defecting staff.
        Although these are valid concerns, these are not insurmountable difficulties. Consider the benefits:

    - Year-round availability of your office even when you go on vacation
    - Ability to control outcomes, since you and your staff can work practically shoulder-to-shoulder
    - Intellectual stimulation from a collaborative environment
    - Preserves your bonds with the human community and helps to keep you from turning into a filthy, muttering recluse.

    Finally, let's be very clear on why you should make the most of this surplus demand: This is not a windfall. You earned it through hard work, and it won't last forever. The time to earn beyond your immediate needs—so that you can invest in your business and save for retirement—is now.

    FA & WB