When a client asks, “can you lower your rate?,” you can respond in various ways. You could get defensive and belligerent (“For your information, I’m a serious professional whose work is worth real money”). You could offer some snarky feedback on the rate the client is proposing (“No serious professional translator would work for what you’re offering”). I don’t recommend those strategies, but lots of translators go that route. You could justify why you charge what you do (“I have 20 years’ experience and a Master’s in Translation”). You could just say no, and suggest that they find another translator; fair enough.

But the best response is, “I’m unable to offer a discount, because I’m busy all the time at my regular rates.”

First, if you’ve already told the client your rates and they want to pay less, let’s be honest: they’re asking for a discount. Asking is fine; some clients will ask just on principle, to see if they can save some money. Don’t freak out just because they asked. But from the freelancer’s point of view, the best defense is to simply be busy all the time at your regular rates. That way, you don’t need to get angry, or defensive, or engage with the “how low can you go” clients. If it’s within the client’s budget to pay your regular rates, great. If not, no problem (for you at least!) because you’ll just continue working with the clients who will pay your regular rates. When I use this strategy with clients, I feel that this has the advantage of being true (never an absolute must in a business negotiation, but always a plus!). I’m not getting nasty, or superior, or defensive; I’m just saying that, truthfully, it makes no sense for me to work for less than what all my other clients pay.

Getting to “I’m busy all the time at my regular rates” is a long-term project; lots of posts on this blog and others (check out Marketing tips for translators in particular) can help you get there. But keep that goal in mind: yes, the client’s proposed rate may be laughably low; yes, you may have 20 years’ experience and certification and a Master’s in Translation; yes, you’re a serious professional. But there’s one real reason not to offer discounts: you don’t need to.

The first session of my new course Breaking Into the Agency Market starts on Wednesday (May 13); we have a good group signed up, but there’s room for a few more people if you’d like to join.

This is a three-week, quick start course for people who want a lot of individual attention without much homework, and are interested in working with translation agencies. We’ll focus on how to find agencies to apply to, how to develop and execute a marketing campaign, and how to work successfully with agencies; each week you’ll watch and/or listen to some pre-recorded lessons, then we’ll do a group conference call every week and everyone gets an hour of individual consulting time with me.

Registration is $190 ($175 if you’re an ATA member) and the details are here.

A student who completed the most recent session of my online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator commented:

“When I completed my certificate in translation I had some confidence in my ability to translate, but no idea how to go about starting my career. After struggling on my own for a while, I finally signed up for Corinne’s course for beginning freelancers. What a life saver! Her sessions cover everything I needed to consider for my business and her individual attention to my specific situation answered all of my questions. I now feel ready to conquer the translation world.”

A reader asks: I come from a court interpreting background, and we have to be super-faithful to the original–how much do you advise a translator to deviate (if that’s the right word) from the original?

Short answer: In 2003, PEN held a tribute to Gabriel García Márquez. Edith Grossman, (legendary translator of García Márquez and other Nobel laureates) was one of the speakers, and she explained her translation method by saying, “Fidelity is surely our highest aim, but a translation is not made with tracing paper.” I guess you have to be old enough to know what tracing paper is, but I love this quote so much that I have it posted above my desk. So that’s my short answer: be faithful to the original, but don’t be enslaved to it.

Longer answer: Every translator is going to have their own take on this question, and it depends on the specifics of the situation: are we talking about a patent or a marketing slogan? A legal brief or a poem? And what’s the purpose of the translation? To be used as a marketing slogan in another language, or just to know what it says?

Personally I’m more interested in the effectiveness of the target text than in an exact reproduction of the source text.  If a client sends me a corporate communications document that’s written in typically French style (“the company” instead of “we;” lots of passive voice), I’ll nearly always rewrite it in a more active voice. Unless the client tells me otherwise, my assumption is that they want something that will work in the target culture, and passive voice and impersonal forms of address are not going to do that.

Also, there are situations in which you have to deviate from the original because your language has no way to express the individual words in the source text. An example of this would be the formal and familiar forms of address that most languages (but not English) have. If you’re translating a corporate video script and the employee calls the boss “vous” but the boss calls the employee “tu,” you have to find another way to deal with it. Maybe first name versus Mr./Ms.; but just translating the words as “you” isn’t going to get the point across.

However I do think this emphasis can go too far: a translation can be beautiful but totally inaccurate; smooth and flowing but completely different in meaning than the source text, and that’s no good either. I’ve heard translators argue that, for example, no one makes French people write in the passive voice. Presumably they’re doing so because they like the way it sounds, or they find a more active voice too harsh, like asking someone “What the %^&*& is your problem?,” rather than “Can I do anything to help you?” I’ve also heard translators argue that when someone deviates significantly from the source text, it’s because they don’t understand it thoroughly: they figure that if they make the source text very different from the original, it’s easier to cover up the lack of understanding.

There are definitely documents that call for a fairly direct translation. Birth certificates, patents and legal briefs don’t cry out for creativity. On the other end of the spectrum, literary translators have to be just as skilled as the novelists, playwrights and poets they translate for, only in two languages instead of one.

Readers: thoughts on this? Thoughts on explaining this fine line to clients?

If you missed the webinar that I presented for SDL last month on “Breaking into the direct client market,” here’s the link to the recording. About 800 people attended live and the feedback was positive; as I mentioned in the Q&A section, I’ll be writing a blog post to answer some of the questions that we couldn’t get to during the live session. Thanks to everyone who attended!

I’m excited to announce two new online courses that I’ll be offering this spring/summer. I’m still running my flagship courses for beginning and experienced translators (Getting Started as a Freelance Translator and Beyond the Basics of Freelancing), but I’ve developed two new quick-start classes for people who want a shorter course with minimal homework, but with lots of one-on-one coaching. Here they are!

Breaking Into the Agency Market starts May 13 and runs for three weeks. I’ll send you three slide show lessons (finding agencies; marketing to agencies; working successfully with agencies), we’ll do three group conference calls and you’ll get an hour of one-on-one coaching with me, which you can do by phone or e-mail. Registration is $190, or $175 if you’re an ATA member.

Breaking Into the Direct Client Market starts July 1 and runs for three weeks. Same format as above (three slide shows, three group calls, an hour of one-on-one time) but for translators who want to work with direct clients. Same price too! $190, or $175 if you’re an ATA member.

I’m excited to launch these new formats and hope to see some of you there!

A quick but important piece of advice, especially if you’re in the trenches of your first few years of freelancing. Raise your hand if you’ve ever lamented a lack of progress in your freelance business by saying something like, “The problem is that most clients won’t pay my rates,” or “The problem is that most clients don’t need someone who does my language/specialization,” or “The problem is that most clients want someone who can do large projects on short notice.” If you’re honest, you’ve probably said or thought those things at some time: I certainly did during my first few years in business.

But here’s the thing: to build a viable freelance business, you don’t need 100 clients. You need, I’m going to say, four to seven regular clients and then some occasional clients to fill in the gaps. When I looked over my accounting for 2014, I earned about 60% of my income from my top four clients. While you want to be careful about being too reliant on any one client, A-list clients are a good thing: they fill your inbox instead of the other way around; they know and trust you; they take less administrative time because you’ve worked together before.

So this is one situation where you want to think small, rather than thinking big and being needlessly discouraged. Think three clients; five clients; maybe 10. As an example, the American Bar Foundation reports that there are over 47,000 law firms in the US. If you do legal translation, even if 99% of those law firms don’t need your language pair, already have a translator they like, or don’t have any translation needs at all, that still leaves you with 470 clients. So in that case, let’s hope that at least 99.9% of them don’t need you, because then you’re only down to 47 clients which is still too many. That’s an extreme example, but you get the point: now go hunt down the small number of clients that you do actually need!

If you have the drive and discipline to launch your freelance business, you have the drive and discipline to improve your freelance business, but we all struggle to force ourselves to work on those improvements incrementally (or at least I do!). In this video I talk about three approaches you might try: the carrot, the stick or the temptation bundle. If you really want to geek out on temptation bundling, you can listen to this episode of Freakonomics Radio.


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