Volume 16, No. 2 
April 2012

Fire Ant
Fire Ant

Worker Bee
Worker Bee


Front Page

Translation Journal
The Profession

The Bottom Line

by Fire Ant & Worker Bee

Practical tips for practicing translators.


Hi Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am a fresh business grad and freelance translator (DE-EN) in need of career advice.

I've had some good and some bad experiences in the language industry (I've also worked as a salesman). I've mostly worked as a vendor for smaller agencies to bridge slow times and because I spent a year on Erasmus, but I also have some great private customers.

Right now I’m considering management positions for large agencies (Transperfect, Kern, Star—the big names), but there are so many and I do not really know how to decide. I know most agencies are just resellers for CAT tools and they're not picky about whom they hire.

At the end of the day, I want to have my customer's respect—go the slow route, establish a good reputation, and be able to make enough money so I can live a decent life, with plenty of time to experiment on new ways to provide good work (I’ve just read Ayn Rand, I admit).

As a business grad there's a lot of pressure to run straight into the job market, but I figure the longer you maintain your ideals, the higher your market value. If you're good, you can still sell out at 40, but if you sell out at 26 you'll be a walking corpse at 40.

Are there any idealists in the language industry?

Starting Out, Standing Firm (For Now)


Worker Bee responds:

It’s invigorating to hear from a young translator with experience in sales, and your idealism is immensely appealing—a commitment to doing the very best you can to fight the quality fight, while earning a healthy living (“decent” is fine, but if you’re any good surely you can do better than that).

How about this: if you genuinely enjoy translation and the intellectual challenges it offers, and have received feedback confirming that you’ve got talent, find yourself a mentor and with his or her help stake out a promising area in your language combination. Identify a roster of clients who need your soon-to-be-expert skills. Roll up your sleeves to master the subject(s) and hone your writing style. And harness your business-school expertise to move out on your own. Give it 3-4 years, managing your client portfolio actively the whole time. And revisit things when you hit 30. You’ll still have time to bolt for a salaried job if the freelance bug hasn’t bitten you.

But in the meantime, we think you are selling agencies short. The best ones—OK, not the behemoths—do far more than promote CAT tools. And they are very picky indeed about the folks they hire. Understandably so, since their job is to weave together a winning combination of skilled humans, effective technology and sound admin for the medium to long term. Which is precisely what a good specialized freelance translator does—on a smaller scale, but at higher prices if you play your cards right.

Fire Bee warns:

Ayn Rand? The creator of Howard Roarke, the brooding architect in “The Fountainhead”? The guy who blew up his spanking-new public housing project to protest local authorities’ changes to his blueprints?

That may make for terrific plot development, but take it from us: Howard is not a good role model for the freelance translator, who must find ways to work with revisers and clients—occasionally difficult ones, with their own ideas of how texts should read—without resorting to explosives.


Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I recently got a very interesting assignment from my first direct client—two newsletters. But while doing research before starting, I discovered that the documents have already been translated (the translations appear on the website of one of the corporation’s subsidiaries). They are well done on the whole, although parts could be improved.

I see two options: (1) download the existing texts, tweak them and let the client know that I’m working from an existing text. (If I don’t tell them, they are likely to discover this at some point anyway.) Or (2) not use the existing texts and do my own, totally new translation. I would then bill this at the amount that appears in my estimate (which they have accepted).

What would you recommend?

Yesterday’s News


Dear News,

Something tells us you already know the answer to this one, which for us is absolutely, 100% clear: go for transparency.

You might, for example, tell the new client about your lucky find before starting, and segue into “so if you agree, I’ll be using these existing translations—but checking them and smoothing certain parts, of course. This is great: you’ll get the job back faster and it will cost you less!” You then charge them by the hour.

Reacting like this is precisely what distinguishes a translator who’s in it for the long haul—and for whom clients are definitely not muppets —from the fly-by-nights and grab-it-while-you-can short termers.

Sound personal and professional ethics pay huge dividends in terms of job satisfaction, that intangible “respect” thing that gets some translators so worked up, and, ultimately, income.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I followed your advice on seeking out the waterholes where potential clients gather and went to a symposium on metabolomics organized by the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT).

I was simply blown away by the wealth of information shared, the friendliness of the attendees and the general spirit of doing the right thing—I specialize in medical and biological translation, but sometimes I feel uncomfortable translating texts that are only meant to increase the profit of some global player in the pharmaceutical industry.

Rather than try to gain an in-depth understanding of the presentations and get frustrated in the process, I took notes of the terminology that came up in order to look things up in my target language later (the symposium was held in English). I also chatted with two very nice British professors during coffee break and lunch, although I was prepared to do what you proposed for shy translators and blend in with the background. No need for that, as the people were very friendly and approached me without me having to do anything.

Since I am really grateful that I was given the opportunity to attend (the event was free, too, with little snacks during the coffee break and a free lunch), I am planning on writing to the organizer and telling him just that. However, I would also like to drop a note to some of the speakers whose presentations I found particularly interesting and/or well done. I suppose it would also be a good idea to follow up on the two British experts whose presentations I unfortunately missed because I couldn't attend through the end of the conference. I will be able to download and look at their slides later, though.

Do you have any suggestions how to go about this without sounding as if I am out hunting clients? I would rather express my genuine gratefulness and enthusiasm, so I don't want to end on a line like "should you ever be in need of a translator..." (Although I would be really excited to work in that field, I have to admit.) I don't think they would have much use for the little glossary I'm planning to compile, but I would really like to send it to them or do something useful in return since the whole event was so useful for me. Any ideas?

Out of the House


Dear Out,

Sounds like a terrific experience, and we applaud the way you paced yourself—soaked up information but didn’t get too intense, got a vibe going with the two British professors, and clearly enjoyed yourself—have we mentioned recently that translators produce better work when they genuinely like the subject?

But then… what is this about not sounding as if you are out hunting clients? Surely that, plus learning more about the field, was a prime reason you attended this event, however tasty the canapés. And a very honorable reason it is.

So what you need is a way to move the action onwards and upwards—and ultimately into the realm of commerce. We see at least two ways to do this:

- A short note to the organizer expressing sincere admiration and thanks for the event is an excellent option—and one neglected by far too many people! But when you write, focus on the speakers and professional content, not the food. (Fire Ant note to translators: restore yourself in moderation at client events. Clustering around the buffet is not good, nor is slipping tasty morsels into your pocket or a zip-loc bag; this sends the wrong message entirely.)

- By all means get back in touch with the British academics, who may be natural targets for work in this area. They may not have a budget, but these guys sound motivated—they got themselves all the way to your country, after all—and you want to build your network. But be sure to read their presentations first, and in your note refer to something specific they said. It’s astonishing how little feedback presenters get, and this will help anchor you in their minds. You might also consider a freebie, e.g., attaching a file with a translation of their bioblurbs into your language (“I thought this might be useful for future conferences”). There is no need to offer your services explicitly at this point, however.

As a general rule, avoid mass mailings. Mine your notes and the online presentations for likely hooks—a term you’re unfamiliar with and would like to know more about, for example. A friendly free trial offer based on a mistranslated slide might work, but never in “gotcha!” mode. Rather “I thoroughly enjoyed your presentation and want to congratulate you on presenting it in [language X]. I’m compiling a glossary on Y and would be happy to send it to you once I’ve finished. In the meantime, I’m savoring your insights—but wanted to point out Z, which you may want to take into account for future talks. Thanks again.”

In short, build on your passion—your letter communicates this well—to link up with their passion. Win/win.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

How long does it take you to get up to speed with a new client?

Radar On


Dear Radar,

That depends on how you define speed, keeping in mind that even when you've turned out of the driveway, crossed the county road and swung over onto the highway there will be maintenance. Tune-ups. Pit stops.

But let’s go back a step. If you've won their business, the texts you provide must be sound—at the very least—from the start. And you have a vested interest in consolidating your knowledge from Day One, whether or not there’s a project on the boil. You do this by studying their industry, products, divisions and internal structures to be able to detect implicit messages and possibly handle a wider range of documents.

Concretely? Well, you already track the business news, right? So you'll be watching the wires for any stories on their operations. But why not go further: build a visit to New Client’s website into your daily routine to pick up any new announcements or projects on their corporate radar; these don't always make it into the news.

Read about their competitors, and compile a client-specific glossary/file that covers not only products and industry issues, but geographical markets. And make a note of the senior executives whose areas of responsibility correspond to your skills: it's good to be able to recognize these names if they come up in a conversation or text that your in-company contact passes on to you.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

The global market for translation services continues to expand, we are told. In many parts of Europe and elsewhere, so too does the number of translation courses. I often wonder if a key explanation for the latter is not simply university staff setting up courses to ensure their own employment.

Sure, a small—and hopefully stable or rising—proportion of translators learn how to provide higher quality services at higher prices, but the percentage appears to depend on the market you are working in.

For example, I live in southern Europe. Most customers here don't seem to understand the concept of a spectrum of prices to match a spectrum of quality levels. Repeat, “most”, not “all.” Which means that most translators and all recent graduates are stuck with low and generally falling prices—and that the rewards for several years of university study are pretty meager to say the least.

With that in mind, is it reasonable to encourage young people to embark on translation studies?

When asked, I prefer not to encourage younger people in southern Europe, unless they really are very, very keen on a career in translation and believe that they have the qualities and perseverance to join the ranks of the small number who can work either very fast at standard rates or produce superior work and sell it at significantly higher prices to the tiny, but possibly growing range of customers who are prepared to pay for this type of service.

What do you think?

Concerned Elder


Dear Elder,

An expert translator of our acquaintance has commented on just this problem, albeit without the geographical spin: “[…] new and recent entrants now face more of an uphill struggle than we ever did to make it into the magic circle of high-income specialised translators (and there’s plenty of room for them if they make it, as demand far outstrips supply here). How are they going to survive the rite of passage of eight to ten years (and quite possibly longer) of working for often crap rates for what are (behind closed doors) actually pretty translator-hostile Big Agencies, while at the same time investing in the training and domain knowledge acquisition they need to progress their careers?”

This gentleman has seen many talented young people leave the profession in recent years, he says—all of them graduates of traditional translation programs—and he now advises potential translation students to get at least three to five years’ work experience in another field altogether before they spring for a course. He also judges current translation degree courses very severely: “[Most] are producing translators for a market that stopped existing towards the end of the last century.”

Now, them’s fightin’ words, and this column has already heard from academics whose programs are clearly more in tune with the times.

But we’ve also seen far too many that accept unqualified candidates for advanced programs to keep their numbers up (or face budget cuts), or that give near-automatic passes for work that falls woefully short of standards in the real world. Others, in the name of misguided, misinformed “exposure to the real world,” train their students to produce estimates at unsustainable rates, or even state—explicitly—that students must choose between project management and poverty. Which all sounds dire, yes; clueless, to be sure; and yet even these establishments are better than those mired in translation-as-a-test-of-foreign-language-acquisition or translation-theory-only. One remedial step in the right direction is the European Commission’s Optimale program, set up to gather information and promote closer links between training and the real world.

To that, we’d add: as exhilarating as translation can be, it is also extremely hard to do well, and many translation programs do not emphasize this enough. Lacklustre, unfocused students who choose translation by default, or as a perceived low-stress subject to maintain their student status in periods of high unemployment, should not be encouraged.

But we agree with the expert translator above that demand is very strong indeed for those who have the skills, motivation and dedication. And that’s the message we think you should relay to young people—wherever they are—who ask your opinion.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I’ve just had the most frustrating of phone calls. I make a living delivering high-end translations and recently convinced a new client to work with me despite my high rates. I worked really hard on this translation, had it proofread by a colleague, and delivered it ahead of time. The guy who ordered the translation is the Investor Relations Manager. A former journalist, he proofread my translation, thought it was OK and forwarded it to the CFO. Unfortunately, the CFO thought the style wasn't right. Too journalistic. Not simple enough, not to the point enough. So he had it edited internally.

I've asked for a copy of the final text, in order to know what was wrong in the CFO's eyes. But I can’t help seeing this as damage control: it's hard to justify a high price when “style” is not OK. What should I do?

Aiming High


Dear Aiming,

Ah, style. Even when you've already done the heavy lifting needed to get your big toe, foot, then knee in the door, it takes time to consolidate ties and get into sync with a new client’s preferred style. That’s only natural, and the fact that the Investor Relations Manager gave your work the green light is a good sign.

But in-house politics can be particular, too. The best response we know is exactly what you did: remain upbeat and positive, and ask to see the CFO’s version—not in a challenging, defensive way, but because “it’s extremely helpful for me to know exactly what style you are aiming for". Which happens to be true.

You might also add a forward-looking “... so I can move in that direction on our next text.”



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I am on the executive committee of our translator association and am surprised at the energy some people put into complaining about our events. There is always something wrong. If the topic was good, the speaker was inarticulate. If the topic was timely and the speaker was good, the venue was poor. If the venue was comfortable and central, the timing was inconvenient. If the timing was fine, the refreshments were too bland or skimpy. If the sandwiches were tasty, the coffee was too strong or too weak—or there was no orange juice.

I'm not making this up, we actually have people who carry on like this. How can we bring them around or, if that is not possible, get them to shut up?

Meeter & Greeter


Dear Meeter,

How many people are carrying on like this? And are they doing this orally or in writing?

If you yourself have invested lots of energy in your event, you may be overreacting. Step back and ask a few other attendees: did they notice the Serious Problem flagged by your unhappy campers, and did it inconvenience them? If so, fix it. End of story. If not, consider putting together a feedback form so you can quantify the complaints.

But don’t forget that every association has a few chronically unhappy and aggressive people—guys who gird up for battle before they step out the front door or sit down behind their keyboard. Remember, too, that letting social skills slip is an occupational hazard for the self-employed, who may be unaware that bleating on endlessly about the poor ventilation, uncomfortable chairs and color scheme of your meeting place is offputting and unhelpful.

One approach is to listen attentively for a minute or two, then broaden your one-on-one exchange to bring in those around you: “Fred, can you come over here—Sandra’s unhappy about X, what do you think?” That can add some perspective and bring the complainer the attention she craves. It might even lead to some on-the-spot brainstorming for solutions.

The situation is different if the braying interferes with the event itself. In this case, address the room directly, but phrase your query in a way that allows you to get on with it: “Paul feels that translators should focus on linguistics, not marketing; shall we suspend today’s session on ‘Marketing tips for translators’ or address this during coffee afterwards?” This gets the event back on track and may even prompt the room as a whole to shout down the complainer if he starts up again. As long as things stay good-natured, this is by far the best solution.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I have a lot of bilingual expat friends who are native French speakers and get asked to do translations now and then. Since they know I am a translator, they will often come to me for advice about what rates to charge, etc. The problem is, I am not even sure that they are really qualified to do any translating (most of the time, their request begins with “I have never done this before so I have no idea what to charge”) and it makes me uncomfortable to encourage them to take translation jobs when they are very likely not qualified—I feel like I'm perpetuating the idea that any "bilingual" person can translate or interpret.

I usually just tell them something vague about making sure that what they ask is enough to be worth the time they spend, and advise them that it really depends on the language combination and subject matter as far as what the usual rates are (which is all true, and I actually don't really know what the going rate for English to French is anyway since it isn't my language combination). Do you have any advice on how I can answer this question the next time it comes up?

Tactful Professional


Dear Tactful,

A lot depends on how much time you are prepared to invest in the exchange that may ensue. The one response we’d rule out would be simply citing a per-word price pulled from any of the existing rate surveys found on line—some more serious than others—since that really does relay the message that any ol’ bilingual can do this.

What you want is to get them thinking about the big picture, which you can do by drawing their attention to writing skills and time factors, e.g.:

“Translation is surprisingly time-consuming for people who don’t do it regularly.”

“What kind of text are you being asked to translate? Are you confident you have the subject-matter knowledge to handle it?”

“Are you a good writer?”—keeping in mind that many professional translators are themselves surprisingly skittish about answering this one.

“You’ll need an editor, so be sure to line one up and calculate that into your price.”

Anecdotes are also effective. A friend of ours reports that her cousin once called her in the same situation: “When it was all over, he was horrified at how time-consuming the process was. He had totally lost his shirt on the deal because he'd underestimated the demands of the task.” You might recycle that story, again to get your friends thinking more carefully about the big picture.

Legal liability is another issue that gives amateurs pause, as well it should. And unless your friends are set up in business in a way that entitles them to issue genuine invoices, they could have administrative problems.

But what if the friends, however casual their initial query, have the potential to become good translators? After all, many talented translators have started out just as you describe—using an unsolicited opportunity to dip their toe in the water, and moving on to build a thriving practice.

With this in mind, we suggest that you provide enough information to (1) freak out the superficial wannabe, and (2) get a serious candidate intrigued enough to investigate further. Refer the latter to professional associations and reliable sources of information, starting with brochures like “Translation, Getting it Right” and the new “Interpreting, Getting it Right”, both of which can be downloaded from the ATA website in English, and from the SFT website in French.



Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,

I worked for an agency for a few years and have been freelance for only a short time. Next week I’m scheduled to see a potential client for translations from [X] to [Y] in the banking sector.

I’ve never had a direct client, but definitely want to charge a higher rate here than to an agency. I know there are no hard-and-fast rates, but could you give me some advice on what I might charge (as a beginner in financial translation). Any other tips on how to handle this interview would be very welcome. Thank you.

Step One


Dear Step,

First things first—congratulations on this new potential client!

And three points to watch:

  1. If the field is relatively new for you, make sure you are in a position to actually deliver high-quality work—you might arrange for revision by somebody who has more experience, for example. You will have to cost this in, and will want to explain your procedure to your client. If they are a potentially good client, this will reassure them.

  2. Contact translators in the field who work in your language combination. Explain your situation and simply ask them for an opinion. This is also a way to build your network, which is always good. If you plan to work in financial translation, you should definitely subscribe to the Financial Translators Forum.

  3. There’s no way we can recommend a “base rate” since market conditions vary so much from country to country. But may we suggest that you turn the question around: rather than “How much can I bill?” ask yourself “How much do I want to earn?” Using your typical hourly output, calculate how much work you are likely to be able to produce in a day, week or month, and tally up your costs—including taxes and payment into healthcare and retirement programs. This will enable you to calculate the per-hour net income you are aiming for.

One approach we’ve used successfully with clients we’re interested in is to offer a special price for a 30-day trial period. Don’t present this as a “discount.” Instead, explain that it will give both parties a chance to get to know each other better and ensure that there’s a good fit; it’s a two-way street. You then use the 30 days to prove to your client, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that you are the translation talent they want and need. At the same time, track time spent so that when the trial period is over you have a clear idea of what your net income is likely to be—and know for sure if you’ll have to raise your rate to match your answer to “How much do I want to earn?”