n October 2009, I celebrated 20 years as a full-time translator and 10 years of working on the international market. So, this is a good moment to summarize what it takes for a freelance translator to ensure a constant workload all year round (and to be overloaded on a regular basis) at the maximum rates possible for my language direction: English to Russian. Below are some of the basic lessons that I have learned over the last ten years. In my opinion, they could well be valuable for beginners, and not only for them...
1. Always divide your time wisely between taking on profitable jobs, marketing your translation services and learning (new technologies and businesses).
Alex Eames' book "How to earn $80,000+ per year as a freelance translator" became my bible, and indeed it remains so, even though I exceeded this annual bottom line a long time ago. Many people are able to translate, but far fewer can sell their services effectively enough to stay afloat as full-time freelancers. For me, learning means getting acquainted with the new technologies developed and marketed by my customers, learning new English and Russian terminology (and creating corporate glossaries) and familiarising myself with new CAT/QA tools.
If you are overloaded practically every day of the year, it is all too easy to neglect marketing. However, I try to allocate time to ongoing marketing efforts no matter how big my monthly workload is. This helps me to 1) increase my rates; 2) avoid slack days/downtime; and 3) work on those projects that are of more interest to me and closer to my main areas of knowledge/interest.
Try to read all the marketing manuals that are worth reading. And never think that you are so successful and popular that you need no marketing. For example: many years ago, a huge US electronics company decided that it was so famous that it no longer needed to advertise, which immediately resulted in a drop in sales. The company recognized this mistake and rectified it.
Typically, your marketing budget should be ten percent of your annual earnings.
2. Make your translation services as customer-oriented as possible.
The customer is the beginning and the end of any service, and translation is no exception. Customers are the origin of our work, and the source of our payment. Translation is not an "art for art's sake". It is good as long as it makes the customer happy (even if, as sometimes happens, the customer is almost illiterate). As far as customers are concerned, a good translation is one that contains the terminology, and even the mistakes, to which they are accustomed. My validator/proofreader from the Russian office of an elite UK automotive manufacturer is sure that "grabbing" should be translated into Russian as "грабеж" (robbery), while my Russian validator from a Swedish company translates "two-stroke oil" as "двухтактное масло" (instead of "масло для двухтактных двигателей"). Who am I to enlighten them? They have got used to these versions and are quite happy with them.
However, in most cases the customer is the best source of corporate terminology and knowledge about corporate technology. That is why I always try to attend the marketing or technical training programs run by my long-term clients such as Volvo Cars and Ford, and test drive their cars. I also discuss new terminology with those of their engineers who are competent in specific fields. Reference materials cannot hope to replace such 'live' consultations when determining the precise terminology to ensure an accurate translation. It is also very important to create corporate glossaries and have them validated by the customerespecially since in Russia different departments or even people at the same company often use different terminologies (because of personal, and often quite arbitrary, preferences).
3. You cannot afford to ignore small, time-consuming non-profitable jobs.
Several years ago, while translating a text for a mining company, I found out about the so-called "Pareto law", which in that context stated that 20 percent of reasons cause 80 percent of technical emergencies in the mining industry. This law was 'discovered' at the beginning of the 20th century by Italian economist Pareto who noticed that 20 percent of Italians owned 80 percent of the country's land. This universal law has numerous interpretations in all areas. E.g., 20 percent of males (so-called alpha males) of all species satisfy 80 percent of all females worth satisfying. In any business, 20 percent of clients bring in 80 percent of your profit. Does this mean that you should get rid of 80 percent of your clients and concentrate on those 20 percent which bring you 80 percent of your earnings? Not at all! This would be to misinterpret Pareto's law. Just one example: in 2006 I received a small but time-consuming job from a new client (a Belgian agency). I spent a lot of time researching the terminology for this job. Nevertheless, I still delivered it before the deadline, and without even billing for it (the job was worth only 20 euros). However, in the summer of 2009, I received a huge job worth several thousand euros from this grateful client.
4. QA procedures, both human and software, are critically important for success.
My main QA methods are as follows. I only accept jobs in those areas with which I am familiar, I only translate into my native language, and I hire proofreaders, technical consultants and terminologists (and pay them generously, within my budget).
As to software QA tools, I always use SDL Trados QA Checker, QAD from Yamagata or Wordfast QA tool (depending on the project). While all of these QA tools have their limitations, they are useful no matter how seasoned you are. And of course I always use TM tools, as they help me to ensure consistency, deliver jobs well in advance of deadlines. and increase my throughput capability.
5. Writing articles on the translation business is an important part of my marketing efforts.
Articles written by seasoned translators are helpful for beginners. They also increase the visibility of experienced translators. Last, but not the least, they improve understanding between clients, agencies and translators. My next article will be dedicated to resolving typical misunderstandings between freelance translators and clientsagencies and direct clients. One of the typical misunderstandings is that some agencies think nothing about reserving my time for a potential job, even if they are not sure about start date, deadline and word count of the expected project. Reserving time for such jobs is the shortest way to downtime and losses. If you reserve your time for a potential job, you assume a unilateral commitment and might lose a real job and actual profit. Some agencies pretend that they do not understand this. When asked to reserve my time for a forthcoming job I always respond politely: "I shall do my best to make myself available for your potential job. Feel free to contact me when you get the source files." This, I find, is the most diplomatic way of handling such potentially dangerous situations and avoiding unilateral commitments. Or you might respond as follows: "I shall be happy to reserve my time for your job beginning from [date]. One day of my downtime will cost you 300 euros. Please confirm that this is OK with you." So far, not a single agency has offered me compensation for reserving such downtime.
6. The main enemy of any translator is not competitors but laziness.
Translation is a very competitive business, especially since there are thousands of people without the proper knowledge and qualifications who pose as translators and offer their services at degradingly low rates. However, I am always on friendly terms with my strongest competitors. I need them because they make me raise the standard of the services I offer, and even teach me sometimes (voluntarily or not). The main enemy of every freelancer is his or her own laziness. Sometimes we are too lazy to market our services aggressively enough, to undertake the necessary research into new terminology or to find a good consultant/reference material/terminologist. This laziness is much more dangerous for our success than healthy competition.
7. Qualitative growth vs. quantitative growth
If you work hard and achieve success as a freelance translator, at one point your workload will start to exceed your throughput capability. At this moment you have two options: establish an agency (i.e., hire other translators) or limit your specialization areas and increase your quality and rates.
In other words, you have to opt between qualitative and quantitative growth. Qualitative growth means working for a select group of the most generous clients at higher rates. Quantitative growth means subcontracting your jobs and becoming a manager instead of a translator.
I opted for qualitative growth and am happy about this choice (since 2006, my annual bottom line has exceeded that of the average US translation agency). Remember, some cars are handmade while others are mass produced. This comparison helps to clarify the difference between a good freelancer and an average translation agency. They are not competitors: they provide services to clients with differing requirements (in terms of quality).
8. Wise reaction to proofreading
Proofreading can be done professionally (which is rare), unprofessionally (when a proofreader simply replaces your terms with less appropriate synonyms to give the impression of improvement) or maliciously/politically. It is important to differentiate between these types of proofreading. And do not hesitate to explain the situation to your client (that is, defend your translation). Good proofreaders should be included in the Red List of Endangered Species and I am always grateful to them because they help me work even better. Never let an unprofessional or malicious proofreader discourage you. Always remember, or even save, important valuable revisions in your notebook for future reference.
Professional, well-established proofreaders/editors always keep their individual preferences under strict control and do not need to prove that they are worth their fees by putting down the translator. However, such proofreaders are a rarity.
More detailed advice, based on my 29 years of translation experience, can be found in my previous articles; see http://www.eng2rus.ru/eng_articles.phtml.