In today's digitized world, the barriers to entry in the translation field are almost non-existent. Anyone who speaks a lick of another language can purport to be a "translator," no matter how bad their work actually is. This makes it harder for the legitimate translators to stand out even if they target a different level of clientele. At times, the competition in our industry is vicious and it seems we can't get a word (see what I did there?) in edgewise.
So... how do you stand out from the pack? How do you ensure that you are not only a competent translator, but a prosperous one?
By not committing these fatal translation business errors.
1. Charging low rates. This goes without saying. The most prosperous translators charge higher rates. It's simple math.
2. Consistently bidding on jobs along with tons of other people as your sole means of finding a client. Unless you are highly specialized and completely fit the profile of the job seeker, you probably won't get the job. Why? Bidding portals attract clients who (usually) seek the translator who asks the lowest rates. Which brings me to my next point: if you're specialized enough, clients will be seeking you out, not the other way around.
3. Neglecting to specialize. One sure-way of harnessing high earning potential is finding your niche. Not everyone needs to, or can be specialized; for those who can, becoming highly knowledgeable in one or two subjects is key. Not only can you charge a higher rate, you can take advantage of the next point...
4. Underestimating word of mouth marketing. Say you're highly specialized in aeronautics and you knock it out of the park on a translation for Company A. Company A has a meeting with Company B, which notices the impeccable work. Company B asks Company A for a translator contact, and the rest is history. Specializations = word of mouth marketing = steady stream of clients. And in my experience, most clients who need specialized translators really "get it." They know quality doesn't come cheap and they are willing to pay for it.
5. Accepting bad payment terms or not asking for payment up front from new clients. You are the service provider. You set the terms of payment. It's not personal--it's business. This is especially true with direct clients; they are contacting you because you provide a service that they deem valuable. This means you are in the position to set your own payment terms (and rightfully so!). It is never out of line to ask for partial payment up front from new clients. If a client refuses, it's best to move on. Lesson learned.
6. Doing bad work. This really should be number one, but I was on such a roll that I just thought of this now at number six (but I digress...). DO NOT do shoddy work. Period. I beg of you! In doing so, you are contributing to the erroneous public image of the "translator" as someone who can hold a basic conversation in a foreign language and thus appears fluent to the untrained ear but who churns out incomprehensible dreck. I hate to be a stickler, but if you can't do the work, you really should find another profession.
7. Not checking out your client beforehand. Always check out new clients to make sure they’re not known scammers. Unless you can snag payment up front, or payment in stages, this is a sure-fire way to commit business seppuku. One website I love is the ever helpful Translator Scammers.
8. Not thoroughly examining work before accepting it. Before you accept a job, you should know if you can handle it. You never want to disappoint a client, because it’s both bad business practice and bad human practice. You need to know if you can decipher the terminology, complete it within the deadline, read the handwriting (if any), turn out fantastic work, etc. Otherwise, you shouldn’t accept the job.
9. Neglect to be honest with yourself and clients about your skills. You should only translate subjects you thoroughly understand, need minimal or no assistance with, and can complete in a timely manner. Being honest with yourself and your clients will build your reputation as a person of integrity and a translator of excellence. There is no shame in saying, “Hey, I can’t do this. I want this job to be done well, and so I can recommend a colleague who can.”
10. Being rude. I know, I know. Most of us are translators because we love the freedom of not having to interact with a boss or coworkers. We’re solitary creatures who often prefer the company of a book rather than a human being. But please don’t be rude! The very nature of our business depends on our dealings with clients, and so a little humility and kindness goes a long way. A pleasant interaction will leave a permanent positive impression. Gain a reputation as being easy to work with and the work will pour in.
11. Not learning about business. Like it or not, you are your own little business. A lot of us are woefully inept at acting as such. Exceptional translators Judy and Dagmar Jenner say it best with their book The Entrepreneurial Linguist:
“We would like to turn every single one of our colleagues around the world into an Entrepreneurial Linguist instead of “just” a linguist. It can be overwhelming to be both a languages professional and a businessperson, but there’s a lot of collective knowledge in the languages community. [...]
Let’s start with a small paradigm shift that will benefit us all professionally. Most of us are humanists, and as such, we don’t have much of a business background. Are “money” and “compensation” things we don’t feel comfortable discussing? Why? After all, we are running businesses. Linguists are very much in demand in the global marketplace, we have very specific skills that are of utmost importance for any corporation that does business on a global scale. Start thinking of yourself as an essential part of the international communications chain, and price your services accordingly...”
A good place to start would be by purchasing the above book or by signing up for Business School for Translators here: Business School for Translators.
12. Not answering your phone or e-mails. Be reachable, be kind, and be prompt. It can sometimes be annoying to be constantly at the ready, but if you want the work, sooner or later you're going to have to be available. This is not to say that you need to be attached at the hip to your gadgets, but it might be good to get in the habit of at least regularly checking e-mail and always giving a response even if you can't take on work. Feel free to take as many days off as you like, but make sure to always communicate and let your clients know beforehand.
13. Breaking confidentiality. Be very careful about this. Never, ever, ever break a client’s trust. Not only is it a jerk thing to do, there are also very real legal consequences.
14. Excessively depending on the internet. The internet is a tool the importance of which for our industry simply cannot be understated. However, good dictionaries are an invaluable resource for translators, just as are television programs, newspapers, radio broadcasts, books, classes and conversations with native speakers! When in doubt, by all means, use the internet, but don’t make it your crutch.
15. Taking large jobs, splitting them up and then not checking and unifying each submission. If it can be avoided, work should never be split up. A translation with one single voice is always ideal, and you’d be hard pressed to find any two translators who work the same way every single time. The whole lot of it needs to be unified under a strict quality assurance process. And you’d better believe that before you do this, you need to ask a client’s permission. Lying to, or omitting information from a client is a one-way ticket to the blacklist.
16. Neglecting to keep learning. Our profession is pretty cool because we can count learning as a tax-exempt item! So why not invest the time and money into attending classes, conferences or purchasing new industry tools? Not only can they be expensed, they also pay off in another way: lifelong learning. A translator who stops learning is a translator who isn’t committed to doing a great job. The name of our game is curiosity.
17. Forgetting to network and interact with other industry professionals. It can be extremely easy to fall into the trap of being a solitary worker. Sitting behind a keyboard day in and day out can be tiring, disheartening and isolating. That’s why networking is so important—not only do you get to breathe some fresh air (finally!), you also get to make new friends, learn about new tools before they come out, and meet like-minded people who are just as interested in this profession as you are!
18. Neglecting your native language. A translator’s best tool is his ability to write in the native language. If you constantly pay attention to your source language and neglect your target, your translations will have something missing and won’t flow as they should. Your native language writing should be polished, precise and without error.
19. Falling into the “volume for lower rates” trap. This one is a silent killer. It sneaks up on you when you least expect it, initially seeming like a good deal. You ask yourself, “Well, why can’t I accept a low rate if it means consistent volumes of work?” The answer is that it ties up your time, leaving you unavailable for better paying work!
It stands to reason; if you have an 8 hour work day, wouldn’t you rather work for 4 hours at .10 cents/word than 8 hours at .05 cents/word? If a client guarantees you with a steady workload of low paying work, know this: if at least one client wants you, you can get another... and that the next client might be willing to accommodate your higher rate.
20. Blindly following unsavory market trends. Translation is interpretive, approximative, creative. Some people who have never even translated professionally have a knack for it, and after following good advice can flourish in this field. Some people have to continually hone their skills. Many translators—newbies and experienced alike--are often eager to heed the suggestions of every person they come across that they work themselves up into a frenzy. This might be counterproductive. Alex Eames said it best when he asserted,
“There seems to be a large number of translators out there on the Internet, who think that the way to go is to continually keep dropping rates and chase the work all the way down to the bottom. [...]
To all of you out there, who are worried about these people: STOP! There is nothing you can do about it, so spend your time on something more worthwhile. You will never get rich by chasing after the bottom end of the market. [...]
Bidding for jobs might be a good way to get some experience when you are first starting. But it is not the right way to go if you want to build a successful, satisfying, high-earning business as a freelance translator.
It seems almost too obvious to state, but the secret to high earnings is high rates. [...] There will always be people out there who are willing to pay decent prices to get decent service. How cheap is the translation which costs your company millions of dollars in lost business?
You need to educate clients. It takes time. It might not be easy. But it is certainly worth it. How is it possible that a company will spend thousands or millions creating their corporate communications and then let some fairly low-grade secretary who knows a bit of the language translate a very important document for them? [...]
Educate those clients, win them, keep them. Build your own future. There is more than enough work out there for those who can do this.”
21. Bonus! Not taking time off to recharge. The best part of freelancing is being able to do what you want to do, when you want, and where you want. How liberating it is to know that we are not, for the most part, bound by rigid 9 to 5 schedules or soul sucking commutes! Where there's an internet connection (and a visa), there's a way. Sometimes unplugging and going back to basics is exactly what we need, and we are lucky to be able to do so.
Turn off your computer one day and translate your printed document by hand (I love it and do it often; it forces me to concentrate better, read more thoroughly, and do a test translation for the initial gist of the work without any other help). Take a walk outside. Drink a coffee. Pet your cat or dog (or turtle!). Relax. Drink some tea. Go out in nature. Go to a museum. Go to the park. Go dancing until 3 am. Recharge your batteries... you work hard, and you deserve it.
About the Author
Audra de Falco is a freelance Italian, Spanish, French and Sicilian to English translator based in New York, NY. She has been working in the industry since 2003 and is an advocate of fair industry practices and translators' rights.