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Archive for the ‘Freelancing’ Category

After tomorrow, the Thoughts on Translation world headquarters will be closed for vacation through January 4, so before we dig into today’s topic, here are a few end-of-year recommendations:

  • Start thinking about taxes as soon as you get back from your holiday break. You can close out your books immediately, so why not do it in January rather than on April 14?
  • If you achieved your business goals for this year, be a good boss and give yourself a bonus. If you need some ideas, I wrote a whole post about bonuses last year.
  • If you’re an experienced translator with enough work and income, take some real time off over the holidays. Put your auto-responder on and put the computer in the rear view mirror.
  • If you’re a new translator, be aware that the holidays are a great time to pick up new clients; end-of-year panic plus lots of experienced translators on vacation equals a potential opening for a newcomer. Today on Twitter, one agency owner commented that at this time of year, agencies are much more likely to take a chance on a new person…which could lead to a lasting relationship. French to English translator Karen Tkaczyk reported that during her first year as a freelancer, she picked up many new clients by being available between Christmas and New Year’s.

But now, let’s talk about something else: how to select an online course. I’m a big fan of this topic, having taught my own courses for about eight years, and having taken several Coursera classes, a couple of writing classes through Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and most recently Ed Gandia’s Warm e-mail prospecting course. There’s no shortage of online courses out there, but the question is how to choose one; while the range of potential courses might be limitless, your available time and money surely are not. So here are some deciding factors to help you:

  1. Are you interested in a specific topic, or in a specific teacher? When I took Coursera’s class Epidemics: the dynamics of infectious diseases, it was the topic that grabbed me. As a bonus, the instructors were amazing (and just for the record, I learned more from this class than from any other science class I’ve ever taken, including in-person courses in college), but I didn’t know any of the instructors to start out with. When I took Ed Gandia’s class, I was attracted by the fact that he’s a marketing coach whose advice fits with my preferred way of finding new clients (as he says “without the ick factor”).
  2. What delivery method works best for you? Here I’m talking about live versus self-paced, video lectures versus audio lectures, etc. The advantage of a live/synchronous course is that you have to be there, so there’s no weaseling out. With self-paced/asynchronous, you can do the course at 2 AM if you want. My tip: if you take a self-paced course, set a certain block of time aside for it and stick to that. For example I listened to Ed’s e-mail marketing course in the evenings, when I didn’t feel like staring at the computer screen any more. In terms of audio versus video, the topic may dictate your preference. For example the Coursera epidemics class includes tons of animations; that may have driven some people crazy, but for me (person with a strong interest in science but not much of a hard science background), they were tremendously helpful. I also really appreciated the possibility of pausing the video and looking something up on Wikipedia, or listening to a few seconds of the video again. By contrast, Ed Gandia’s e-mail marketing course is audio lectures with handouts; this worked for me because it’s a topic I “get,” and because Ed has a great speaking voice, but if you’ve never done much freelance marketing before, it might be better to take a video course.
  3. Do you get any individualized feedback? To me, this is huge. If you’re taking the course primarily/exclusively to absorb information, individual attention may not be that important. For example in my epidemics classes, I was fine with the auto-graded quizzes and peer discussion boards, because my main goal was to learn facts, not improve my subjective skills. But if you’re taking a course specifically to improve your skills, individual attention makes a huge difference; this is something I always mention when people are considering my online courses. Lots of classes in the $150-$200 price point are going to give you great information, and will be a lot more interesting than reading a book, but you won’t get individualized feedback from the instructor, whereas the whole foundation of my classes is individualized feedback. From the instructor standpoint, individualized feedback takes a lot of of time, which is probably why most courses that offer it are in the $300+ price point.
  4. If the class is self-paced, do you have the discipline to follow through on it? Another big one: with Ed’s e-mail marketing course, I found that I really had to carve out the time to do it, or I forgot about it since there’s no enforced schedule. Especially if the course is a significant financial investment, consider your level of self-discipline before you sign up. Ditto for courses that last a long time: signing up for a year of coaching at a reduced rate sounds good, but if you lose interest after three months, it could be a waste of money.

Readers, any other thoughts on this? And happy 2015 to everyone!

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A student in my online class asks: how do you know who the “big payers” are in a given industry, and how do you find them or help them find you?

That could be a whole course in and of itself; but here are my thoughts in a nutshell:

Every industry or sector has “big payers.” For example, when I tell people that I do mostly international development translation, they often say “But isn’t it all small NGOs run out of someone’s garage on a shoestring budget?” And yes, there are *tons* of those small “garage” NGOs out there that always need pro bono translators. But the real “big payers” in the development sector are companies that get huge contracts from USAID and other entities like that. For those clients, a contract of $50 million would be considered medium-sized. A big grant from an entity like the Gates Foundation would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars; so these clients are much more concerned with quality, consistency and confidentiality than with saving a few cents per word.

Here’s another example: another student in the class is interested in art-related translation, and I suggested looking at art law. Like my example above, you’re going to find tons of small players in the art sector who have little to no money, and might be a good target for pro bono translation. But envision if a large museum in the US is doing a major exhibit on, let’s say, Frida Kahlo, and they’re going to borrow a bunch of paintings from museums in Mexico. Again, here, we’re talking huge amounts of money: paintings that are insured for millions of dollars and have to travel under certain conditions and with an attendant from the “home” museum at all times; and they have to be displayed only under certain conditions, and hung a certain way. And they have to be evaluated by a curator before they leave the home museum to check for damage and all of that stuff, but all of that stuff is in Spanish. Same with the books and brochures associated with a traveling exhibit; they probably already exist, but in Spanish. So again, there would be a lot of translation work there, with an enormous cost of failure for the museum.

So, how do you land those kinds of clients? A few tips: first, you make sure that if they are just blindly looking for someone online, they find you. You are on LinkedIn and you have a website that clearly describes your services. Also, you have a large network of other translators who refer work to you because you are ultra-trustworthy and never let down the clients who someone refers to you. Also, you hang out in places where your target clientele hangs out; you are a member of their professional associations, and you go to their conferences and things like that. But, you also do not wait for them to find you; let’s say that you see a notice in the local press that a museum in your city is doing that big Frida Kahlo exhibit; they just signed the contract! So you fire off an e-mail that’s low-key but well written, and say something like this to the person who’s listed as the contact: “Dear Ms. Simpson: I just read the news in the local paper about your upcoming Frida Kahlo exhibit. How exciting, and what a great cultural opportunity for the art community in town. I’m a professional Spanish-English translator specializing in fine arts, and I can envision that you might need someone to help with translations related to this exhibit. If so, feel free to keep my contact information on file. In any case, thank you so much for bringing this incredible event to our city, and I’ll definitely be looking forward to the exhibition!”

So, that’s very brief, but there’s the basic concept of how the “high payer” world works, in my experience. Readers, other thoughts?

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A student in my online course asks, “What do I respond when a client comments that my rates are really high?” Good question, student! Because if you’re running your business the right way, someone, someday, and maybe even lots of people almost every day, will think that you’re too expensive. Which leads us to rule number one of pricing: If no one ever thinks that your rates are too high, that means that they’re too low. Or at least that you could be charging more. Also remember that numerous wise people who have gone before you (in my case, my accountant) have commented something like “Your rates should make people sit up and take notice, but not jump across the desk at you.” Point being, as long as you have enough work, you want a decent percentage of potential clients to find your rates expensive.

But back to the question: what do you say to the sticker-shocked client? Well first, what is the client actually saying? Note that in this example, the client did not say, “You are an imposter and you’re not worth what you’re charging.” You may have heard that, but that’s not what the client said. So, let’s say that you’re on the phone and the client remarks that your rates are high/expensive/more than they planned on spending. What do you respond? Nothing. Zippo. The client did not ask a question; they simply made an observation, so you don’t need to say anything. All the client did was make an observation: that is more than we planned on paying, for example. But no one likes a big, awkward silence in a conversation, so you can either make a non-committal utterance (“Mmm?” “Mmm hmmm”), or you can quietly and slowly take an extremely deep inhale/exhale breath, to give yourself something to do while the client mulls it over.

Let’s say this happens over e-mail, and then you have to actually respond. Or it’s on the phone, and in addition to the “that’s really expensive” observation, the client actually asks if you can do the job for less. A few options:

  • In my opinion, the best defense is a factual one, like “Your project sounds really interesting and I’d love to work with you. But to be honest, I’m busy all the time at my regular rates, so I cannot offer a discount at this time.” You’re simply telling the truth in a respectful way.
  • Ask, “What budget did you have in mind?” If the client is honest about their budget, this gives you an idea of whether you’re 10% different or 90% different.
  • Educate: tell the client something like, “I agree, high-quality work is never inexpensive. Also, translation might be more time-consuming than you realize if you haven’t worked with many translators before. For example, your 10,000 word document would represent at least a week of work for me, and I would be working entirely on your project during that time.”
  • Be a little snarky. Not that I’m advocating this, but it’s an option, like “Then you might need to find someone whose experience is more in line with your budget.” I do sometimes tell potential clients, “To be honest, I don’t know any professional translators who work for that rate.” A potential client once asked me if I charged “for the little words,” and I responded “Only if you want them translated.” I don’t want to get sarcastic or condescending on clients, but I think that with certain people, a little humor can work.
  • Negotiate on factors other than price: if you do honestly want to work with this client but the issue is their budget and they’re not budging, find non-financial factors that might make a difference. How about a really long deadline so you’re not tied up for days/weeks with their project? Do they produce a product or service that they could offer you for free, as a trade for part of the translation fee?

Wise readers, any other thoughts here?

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A student in my online course asks: How do I decide if a translation specialization is viable?

Hmm, interesting question, and one that nearly all freelancers have to grapple with at some point. Short answer: nearly any specialization is viable, depending on your marketing zeal and income needs. Longer answer follows.

When you’re looking at potential specializations, here are a few factors to consider (and readers, please add your thoughts in the Comments):

    1. What’s your knowledge of/interest in this specialization? That’s undoubtedly the most important factor, and one that outweighs most other factors if you’re looking at a technical subject area.
    2. What’s the demand? Some specializations (like legal translation) are so content-heavy that having enough work isn’t much of a concern. Others (restaurant menus) may have a lot of demand in terms of the *number* of clients, but not in terms of the size of each individual project.
    3. Who are the clients? This is one that a lot of translators overlook. Some specializations (software, pharmaceuticals) are almost exclusively the domain of agencies, because most of the end client companies are so huge that they tend not to use individual freelancers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there an infinite number of niche specializations that are almost exclusively the domain of direct clients. I’ve met translators who specialize in horses, cross-country skiing, stamps, cookbooks, and so on. If you’re outside the scope of the big business areas like legal, financial, medical, pharmaceutical, IT, patents, etc., you need to consider whether you are OK with working only or primarily with direct clients.
    4. How much are you willing to market? Again, this is a big one. Law firms and legal translation companies are easy to find, and there are lots of them out there. Cookbook publishers that need a Russian translator? They’re out there too, but you’ll have to work harder to find them.
    5. What’s the income potential? Of course, there’s a huge variation within every specialization. But in general, you can’t translate poetry if you need to make money from it, and you wouldn’t translate financial documents just for personal enjoyment.
    6. How much do you care about doing work that is meaningful to you? Again, mileage varies widely. But many clients in, say, legal or IT translation are only translating because they have to, not because they really want to. But one of the things I particularly enjoy about international development translation is that the documents affect real people’s lives, and are commissioned by clients that really, really care about the quality of the translation.

Readers, your thoughts?

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It’s been interesting to read people’s reactions to my post about translator rants, and I always love a good and lively discussion. Here’s a followup: it seems to me that many translators look at “successful freelancers,” (with varying definitions of that), and think, “It’s easy to sit around and tell other, less successful freelancers what they’re doing wrong, without saying what you, the successful freelancer are doing right in order to be so successful.” So, since I’m into contentious topics lately, let’s have a go at this one: is freelance success mostly a matter of luck, connections, and external factors, or is it mostly a matter of working like a fiend until you make it?

Short answer: it’s a combination.

Longer answer: I like illustrative examples, so let me give you one. My husband and I are really frugal. As I wrote about in 2009 and again in 2013, our frugal lifestyle has netted some significant advantages, namely that are completely debt-free including our mortgage, despite the fact that a) we’ve only ever had “regular” jobs;  b) we’ve lived in places (Boston, Boulder) with fairly high housing costs and c) we have a kid. When people ask us how we did this, we tell them: we bought a fixer-upper house and renovated it ourselves; the house didn’t have a shower for 3 months and we showered with the hose after the neighbors went to bed; we’ve never bought a brand new car; we use bicycles for the majority of our in-town transportation; we’ve never bought a brand new piece of furniture; we cook the vast majority of our meals from scratch; when we’re going to make a major purchase, we first comb Craigslist and eBay to see if we can get it used, and so on. At times when we’ve been really broke, we’ve gone ever further into blackbelt frugality territory: my husband cut my hair for a couple of years; when our daughter was little, I regularly worked for 3-4 hours every night, even on weekends, so we used very little childcare; most of our vacations involved camping. You get the picture.

Here’s the thing. By the time we get halfway through the “how we did it” spiel, most people decide that this is not something they’re willing to do in order to live a financially secure, debt-free life. Fair enough: but they asked how we did it, and we told them.

You can tell that I’m about to draw a parallel to freelancing. Sure, most successful freelancers, myself included, have some advantages that some other people don’t have. Some worked their connections in industries in which they had experience; some live in places where their language combination is in unusually high demand; I guess that the fact that my parents paid for my undergraduate degree and my employer paid for my graduate degree could fall into that category too. But, it’s also rare that I meet a freelancer who claims to be struggling and is doing everything possible to change the situation.

Illustrative example: here’s a snapshot from my first day as a freelancer. Sitting in my kitchen with my newborn daughter, I theorized that if I wanted to work from home and use my academic and professional background in French, translation might be a good bet. So, literally, I opened up the yellow pages (!) and started cold-calling agencies and asking for work, or what I would have to do to get work from them. Later that year I joined the Colorado Translators Association, then ATA, and when my ATA member directory came in the mail, I started at “A” and sent my resume and cover letter to every single agency in the directory, until I started getting some work. My first year as a freelancer, I made US $9,000 (total), and I was thrilled with that. I set a goal to double my income every year for the next four years, and I met that goal.

Over time, I did make a lot of connections, but looking back on it, I made a lot of my own luck as well. I volunteered as the Colorado Translators Association newsletter editor, which allowed me to meet pretty much everyone in the association. After I attended my first ATA conference, I e-mailed every single presenter whose session I attended and made a contact with them. Every single time a colleague referred me for a job, I sent them a handwritten thank you note. Every single time a potential client responded to my inquiry, even with “We’ll keep your materials on file,” I sent them a handwritten thank you note and then followed up in another month or so. I served in various volunteer roles within ATA; I started this blog; I started helping newbies as soon as I had half a clue more than they did.

Luck? Hard work? Right place at the right time? Probably some combination of all of those factors, but here’s the takeaway: if you’re smart, and you work hard, and you’re good at this job, you can be one of the successful people too (really).

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This post is inspired by something Ted Wozniak posted on Facebook, linking to Sébastien Devogele’s blog post “The Rate Rant.” The issue: translators who complain about bottom-feeding agencies that pay low rates, endlessly try to drive down prices even further through fuzzy match discounts, treat translators as a cog in the production machine, etc. Some would argue that this ranting has a point: it publicly shames these agencies and encourages other translators not to work for them. Others (including me) would argue that this ranting might serve as a catharsis, but it’s ultimately a waste of time and energy, and may even harm the ranter in the end. Here we go:

First, ranters, I hear you: bottom-feeding agencies, offering 2.765 cents a word for 8,000 words in two days are annoying. It’s doubly annoying that these bottom-rung agencies are, as Chris Durban found out in her “Mystery Shopper” experiment, telling clients that they provide high-quality translations by expert translators. As if Target said, “Shop here for heirloom-quality stuff that you’ll pass on to your grandchildren.” It also makes me sad (or maybe I’m just a bleeding heart…) that lots of translators see no way out of the bottom-rung market: they don’t know how to or don’t have the time to market themselves to better-paying clients, or they don’t know how to improve their translation or business skills so that they could work for better-paying clients, or they’re so busy cranking out the hoppers full of words at 2.765 cents each that they can only think about getting through the day.

At the same time, here’s my bottom line: if a client’s business model bugs you, simply don’t work for them and leave it at that. Just as I don’t give my money to Walmart or McDonald’s because I’m personally opposed to their business models and employment practices, I don’t work for bottom-rung clients because I choose to work for clients who value my work and are willing to pay accordingly. Why not rant? Here are my thoughts, but of course you can disagree:

  • It’s a waste of time. I’m not going to put Walmart out of business by refusing to shop there, because tons of other people will still shop there. My goal isn’t to put them out of business, it’s to refuse to support them. You’re not going to put A+ Fast-n-Cheap Xlationz out of business by railing against them, because lots of clients will still use them, and lots of translators (for the reasons described above) will still work for them. If you want to put your emotions to a better use, do client outreach presentations to teach businesses how to choose a (real) high-quality translation provider; do presentations for other translators to teach them how to market themselves to better paying clients.
  • As Chris Durban has commented before, ranting fosters a negative mindset about clients in general (they’re idiots, they don’t know anything about our work, they just want the fastest, cheapest translator out there, we should be suspicious of them until they prove otherwise). I’ll tell you–and lots of other premium-market translators will tell you–that’s not true. There are lots of clients out there who are not only willing but eager to pay real money to a highly-skilled professional who is consistent and confidential and responsive. But that work doesn’t fall into your inbox: you have to be out there looking for it, either online or in person or both; and realistically, most translators aren’t willing to do that or don’t know where to start.
  • If you’re not in the bottom-rung market, it’s a completely different industry. I really don’t concern myself with the lowball market, any more than I concern myself with whether machine translation is going to put me out of business. Because in the end, it’s so different from what I do that it’s not even worth complaining about: sort of as if Major League Baseball complained that a middle school was holding a baseball game right next to their stadium and potentially siphoning off their spectators. When a client approaches me and their first question is “how much do you charge?,” I know that there’s a 90% chance that I’m not the right fit for them. I tell them that I understand the reality of budget constraints, but that I’m busy all the time at my regular rates, so they should find someone else. And I’m busy all the time at my regular rates because I’m “out there”–writing, speaking, attending conferences, meeting other translators who refer work to me, giving out information that potential clients find online, visiting my existing clients so that they keep using me, and so on. If it’s a choice between spending 10 minutes railing about “Get a load of what this parasitic agency asked me to do!!! Can you believe it!!” versus spending 10 minutes reading a potential client’s blog and commenting on it and maybe getting their attention in a positive way, to me, that’s a no-brainer.

Other thoughts on the rate rant?

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A reader asks: On my website and resumé, is it OK to use my clients’ names? Does it matter if I worked for them directly or through an agency?

Short answer: To be safe, never use a client’s name without their permission. If you’re “sure that the client won’t mind,” then why not take two minutes and write them an e-mail, just to make sure. Clients may have their reasons for not wanting you to use their name, so why risk the relationship over it?

Longer answer: Using clients’ names in your marketing materials is a big asset, especially if the client is a big-name one. But if you use a client’s name without permission, you can create a very bad situation for them, and thus for yourself as well. Here are my personal recommendations for using clients’ names, with the caveat that these fall on the conservative side. Only use a client’s name in your marketing materials if:

  • You worked for them as an employee, not as a freelancer;
  • Or, if your name appears in the credits of a published translation for that client;
  • Or, if you have the client’s permission in writing;
  • Or, if the client wrote you a public testimonial or LinkedIn recommendation (or similar) and included their name on it.

I recommend never using the name of an end client that you worked for through an agency. They’re the agency’s client, not yours: the agency presumably found, landed, and retains the client, and you have no direct relationship with the end client. For similar reasons, an agency should never use the end client’s non-payment as a reason not to pay you, but that’s another post entirely!

I think that these (fairly restrictive) guidelines help avoid misunderstandings, and respect the fact that even a client with whom you have a good relationship may decline to be named publicly as one of your clients. By the same token, I always ask my direct clients to put my name on the translation (and many of them agree), but I never push back if the client declines this request.

Other thoughts on using clients’ names?

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