Practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I've recently received a spate of emails from price-sensitive translation agencies.
Example: "We want to know the languages you translate and how much you would charge us; please let us know the lowest possible price as we are looking for certain translators to regularly perform translations as our business grows and are obviously looking for an arrangement which would be profitable for you as well as for our company."
Is it ever worth answering these?
You might consider responding if you are, say, researching an article on bottom feeders for your local translator association magazine. Yet with one or two exceptions, such publications do not pay their authors, which puts you in double-penalty territory.
The very positive thing about pitches like the one you quote is that you know from the start what you are, or might be, heading into. The "you're getting in on the ground floor here" argument? Why not (and we have a terrific deal on this bridge, contact us privately).
If you are capable of producing smooth, accurate translations, price-driven buyers should not be your priority. If you are not sure that you can produce smooth, accurate translations, you might nibblethen again, don't count on these companies to give you much feedback, which is what you'll need to break into the lucrative end of the market.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I am if not the best, at least right up there among the top specialized translators in my field. I love that little surge of power that comes when a client has written something that is technically wrong and I can correct it (an error another translator might not even notice). I love knowing that, when the pressure is on, only I can deliver.
So what's the problem?
Recently three of my loyal clients have confirmed that I am their preferred supplier, only to volunteer that because of this they save all the really challenging texts for me and send the easier ones to less experienced, less qualified colleagues. They sincerely thought this would make me happy. It is flattering, but also confirms that the swings and roundabouts that normally kick in with pricing-per-word are now working against me, since I get none of the easy texts. Every job is Everest. I don't even want to think about my per-hour earnings.
Where did I go wrong?
Pride Before Fall
If you are the best you should be charging top dollar/euro/yenand not necessarily by the word. An apple is an apple and an orange an orange; why should hard texts cost the same as easy ones? And why should your (expert) time be worth the same as that of an earnest beginner?
Your clients' admission that you are their gold standard is invaluablea platinum bargaining chip.
Build on it by setting up a lunch or other meeting so that you can tell them in person how fascinating their field and texts are, citing cutting-edge articles from industry journals that they have not had time to read themselves. Exude passion and technical expertise from the first course through to, say, the cheese. As dessert is served, explain that having re-evaluated your business model, you are switching to a different pricing scheme, namely charging by the time it takes you to do a translation to your exacting standards. To a degree, this avoids the "sticker shock" triggered by the dreaded words "price increase", since charging by the word and charging by the hour are not immediately commensurable. You might point out that it will make sense at their end to sort their texts up front, deciding which require your bullet-proof care and which are "less important". Making this explicit is a good move, especially when you are also giving them useful best-practice advice.
To dispel any fears that you are asking for a blank check to take as much time as you like on a translation job and then hit up your client for the cost, note that you will be pleased in future to provide an estimate, free of charge, on reception of the source text, and that your client retains the option not to place the order with you.
Most important of all, make this explanation matter-of-fact, not pleading: the client needs you, and is lucky to have you on their side.
Tackle one client at a time, with a one-month lag between lunches so that you can tally up who of your loyal supporters remains on boardand adjust your strategy if necessary.
Onwards and upwards, and report back please.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
My partner and I manage a mid-size translation company that does technical translation. We are conscientious, very involved in our community, have a good reputation, and get along well with our freelance suppliers.
Unfortunately price pressures are mountingso much so that we recorded our first loss last year. We currently charge customers €0.15 a word and have seen our direct competitors edge down to €0.12 in the past six months, which means they can't be paying their suppliers more than about €0.06 or €0.07. No one in Germany can work at that rate, so we assume they are shopping abroad.
I know you recommend raising prices, but this is our reality and we are about to hit the wall.
Discussions with translators and translation companies in more lucrative niches have convinced me that we must either set up subsidiaries in India, Madagascar and Colombia or leave "general technical" translation and specialize. But how to start? We have offices, staff, overheads, a loyal client base (but for how much longer?) and a stable of competent freelancers.
Can we reasonably hope to upgrade our existing operation to demand higher prices? Even more important, how?
A hard question, yours, and your concerns are well-founded.
As you note, the market has moved on and for lack of specialization you find yourself competing with suppliers who can charge far less than you. Your options will depend to a great extent on how genuinely skilled your suppliers are (regardless of how well you get on with them).
Here are two suggestions (and we invite readers to jump in with their thoughts/comments, too):
- Build/consolidate your reputation for specialization with your clients by organizing highly focused in-house trainingmaking clients an integral part of the event.
Start by identifying fast-growing tech areas where you have particular strengths, even if you are not yet billing enough for them. The very next time a challenging text comes in, use one-on-one contacts during revision to ask if one of their technical experts might be available to give a talk on same to a core group of skilled translators who will ultimately be working on their texts. The freelance translators you want are generally enthusiastic about opportunities to specialize, and by promoting the event (allow a few outside folks in to benefit from the ripple effect) you can start nailing down your position as the employer/translation supplier of choice in this area ("Remember that talk on helicopter parts/tunnel boring/water filters at Acme Translations?").
Another option is to split your company in two. Have one unit be the "boutique" outfit for the kind of jobs that absolutely must be done by top-tier translators and editors with the most experience and best track record (and price accordingly); have the second unit handle the "bulk" translation jobs. Of course this is not a perfect solution; among other potential problems, there will always be discussions with clients who expect top quality but will say, "surely your 'off-brand' outfit can do a good job on it."
FA & WB
Dear Fire Aunt,
Can I call you that just this once? I am a final-year French medical student aged 22 and have fallen like the proverbial ton of bricks for a free-lance translator who lives near Paris. Although this man is 63 years old and comes from a vastly different culture, I have decided, against the advice of my family and well-wishers, to wed my destiny to his and build a future with him, so much so that I have now made up my mind to give up my plans to be a healer of persons and instead become a translator (a "healer of words" as my sweetheart calls himself).
As you must realize, this is a big step for me, practically a leap into the unknown, and so I have three questions for you, dear Fire Aunt.
Firstly, what is the success/failure rate for translator couples? I have been told that male translators, especially of the free-lance persuasion, are not always easy to live with, that they develop strange quirks and need to be humoured on a regular basis. Is this true?
Secondly, what is the tax situation for a free-lance translator couple in France? I know little about money matters but my sweetheart lays great store by them. Would you advise us to set ourselves up as a company? I am sure (and so indeed is my sweetheart) that I could persuade my father to finance us in this area even if he is still in his "tantrum" phase at the present time.
Thirdly, how would you suggest I set about getting work. My sweetheart is vague on this point, he says the market is "down" right now but I am sure you can help.
Madly in love
|Fire Ant (yes, Ant) rasps:
So sweetie "sets great store by money matters". Yeah right. Funding from your father is the cherry on the cake. Give this bounder the gate and get back to something serious.
Worker Bee advises:
Fire Ant has a point. But there is also something that doesn't quite square in your own account (age 22, final year medical student?).
Assuming that was simply a typobut worrying nonetheless: translators who make typos on essential issues don't last long in a competitive markethere's a stab at answering your questions.
- Successful, happy translator couples are pretty thick on the ground, and depending on their language combination have a leg up (so to speak) on meeting the 4-eyes revision criteria of the recently published CEN Standard on translation services, and also information on the SFT site at http://www.sft.fr/dossiers/2006/normeCEN010906.htm. Readers in the UK might note that ITI is organizing a free meeting on this same subject in London on 26 October; for info, contact email@example.com.
The tax situation of translator couples in France is identical to that of other freelance professions (that's freelance without a hyphen, by the way). How were you planning to work as a medical doctorself-employed or salaried? A skilled and market-savvy translator can, through specialization, earn as much as a medical doctor in France, but as yet we (and you, let's face it) know little about your skills.
- As for suggestions on getting work, consult back issues of this column and if you
are in the Paris area, sign up for the next SFT training day on that very subject, set for October 21. (http://www.sft.fr)
This may be going a bit beyond our brief, but the suggestion that your dad might finance a company is unsettling. You should definitely run a credit check on your sweetheart (useful experience for checking out future agency and direct clients should you head down that road) and look into his relations with any existing children.