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Here’s a question, prompted by a fellow tenant of my co-working office. If you had to choose one word that you hope is used to describe you as a businessperson, what would it be? When he (the fellow tenant) originally asked me that question, I drew a bit of a blank. But then yesterday, after I (hopefully successfully…) mediated a very tense professional interaction, a colleague referred to me as “truly a class act.” And then my answer came to me: if I have to be only one thing as a businessperson, I want to be classy. I want to be the person who never, ever takes personal jabs at people and never, ever operates unethically or puts my own glorification ahead of the good of the project, or the industry, or the association.

I posed this question on Twitter and other translators chimed in, hoping that they would be thought of as “Professional” (Daniela Guanipa), “Resourceful” (Angel Dominguez), “Re-hireable” (Richard Lardi), “Transparent” (Mia Wilson), “Competent” (Filippe Vasconcellos), “Trustworthy” (Kevin Hendzel), and “Appealing” (Karen Tkaczyk). It’s an interesting exercise: over to you for the comments!

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In my Beyond the Basics of Freelancing class, a student asked a really good question: how to stay sane while working on an insane project. No matter how carefully you manage your work flow and your routine, everyone has “one of those weeks” once in a while. A good client needs 15,000 words in a week, and you’re the only person they can trust it to…then the kid gets sick and the car breaks down and the dog has ear mites and the washing machine overflows.

Certainly, the best defense is a good offense: if I were to give one piece of advice to premium-market translators, it would be market in consistent, small increments, even when, or especially when, you have enough or too much work. Hopefully, that will smooth out some of the Everest-Death Valley cycle. But when you have one of those weeks, you need a freelance sanity routine: a few, small things that you do every single day, no matter how crazy the day is.

Here’s mine: I find that it makes me really nuts to be on the computer as soon as I wake up, or immediately before I go to bed. So, no matter how insane the day promises to be, I give myself some time in the morning to drink coffee (my one lifestyle vice) and have breakfast with my family. I never check e-mail or answer my work phone during that time, and this helps me get my day off to a relatively calm start. At the other end of the day, I’m often finishing up work or answering e-mail while my daughter does her homework after dinner. But I never let myself work until the second before I go to bed: otherwise I’m lying there awake, obsessing about some work-related thing. So my end-of-day sanity routine is that I try to log off all of my work stuff an hour before I want to go to bed. Then I practice my lute for half an hour and do a yoga podcast for half an hour, and no matter how insane the 15 hours between my morning coffee time and my evening music/yoga time were, I at least have that little oasis to look forward to.

The secret to a sanity routine is that you can compress it, but you never skip it completely. On a really bad day, like say yesterday, I might head to the office as soon as my daughter leaves for school, and the lute/yoga time might be 10 minutes of lute and 10 minutes of yoga instead of an hour total. But I really try to never, ever skip the sanity routine completely, or it really affects my happiness and productivity right away.

Other ideas for sanity routines?

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Let’s look some more at the “How much should I charge?” question, since it’s such a source of stress and speculation for most freelancers. You might also be interested in these previous posts–What is the right rate for your translation services, and How and why to raise your translation rates.

If you want, you can have an absolutely 100% set price for your translation services. My accountant (who I love), charges $220 an hour, end of story. Phone calls more than 5 minutes and lengthy e-mails are billable, end of story. That tactic could work for translators too. But whereas accounting work is relatively predictable, we’re always balancing factors like the subject matter, the turnaround time, the format of the source document, the high or low maintenance-ness of the client, the appeal of the project in general, and so on. So instead of having a set rate per hour or per word, here’s another option: think zones.

The green zone is a rate at which you would almost never turn down work, as long as the project is within your capabilities. It’s your ideal rate, and ideally, you’re always trying to push it a little higher. Note: the green zone is a good place for your clients to be, because it means you’ll bend over backward for them (worth subtly pointing out to them, too!).

The yellow zone is a rate that’s not ideal, but that’s worth taking a look at. This might be a rate that you consider when work has been a little slow, or if a project is particularly interesting, or when there’s some non-economic reason to consider the project. For example, when I translate books, it’s yellow zone work. It’s interesting, it’s nice to be off the daily deadline treadmill, but it’s at the low end of what is viable for me financially.

The red zone is work that you turn down because it’s too low-paying. Point being: to have a viable business, you have to have a red zone. If you are continually making exceptions to your absolute, I-don’t-go-below-this-number rate, just for this one project and then you’ll really never work for that little again…you will never have a viable business. So whether your red zone is 9, 20 or 40 cents per word, just make sure that you have one.

I find that this zone approach really helps me; having an “I don’t turn on the computer for less than…” rate helps me feel that this is a policy, rather than a case by case decision. Over time, I also find that I’m more attracted to billing direct clients by the hour; they understand where the number is coming from (which, with per-project pricing, they might not), but I also get paid for everything I end up doing (which, with per-word pricing, I might not). But that’s material for another post…any thoughts out there on pricing zones?

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A reader asks: I come across lots of bad translations in my language pairs. How can I use these to pitch my freelance services to new clients without sounding like a hyper-critical tattletale?

This is a regular topic of conversation among translators who work with direct clients, and bad translations can be a great marketing tool if you handle them correctly. Let’s say you come across a slick website, one that indicates that the company or government department has put a lot of time and money into its marketing efforts, but where the translation falls short. There are no shortage of these; in French to English, I recently came across the official site of the Paris Vélib program (“Bikes conceived and improved for your safety and your comfort!”) and the Montreux Jazz Festival (“an ideal platform and an intimate setting for the duration of its two weeks…”) as examples of great programs with great websites and not-great translations. Chris Durban regularly sends me examples of consumer enterprises in France that need better translations. So, there’s no shortage of material out there.

The key here is a three-step process. Before beginning, you have to expunge the “hyper-critical tattletale” part of your personality. If you’re like most translators, you regularly engage in behaviors like refusing to order misspelled items on restaurant menus, because won’t condone that type of behavior. I personally avoid the express lanes at my neighborhood supermarket, as a silent act of protest against their signs that read “15 items or less” instead of “15 items or fewer.” So, first have your judgmental moment, then move on to constructive marketing.

Step 1: Compliment the effort, maybe like this: “Very few U.S. museums attempt to reach out to the non-English speaking public, and I really admire your willingness to do that.” “During a recent trip to Paris, I was impressed by your efforts to create a multilingual rental system for your bike fleet.” “Your recent press release caught my eye; congratulations on your efforts to invite international exhibitors to your trade fair.”

Step 2: Provide a carefully-worded reality check. When I’m writing these kinds of pitches, I try to keep in mind that a) the person I’m writing to may be the author of the bad translation, and b) the person I’m writing to may have no clue that the translation is bad. So, maybe something like this: “As a professional translator, I know how challenging it can be to get a multilingual website right. I noticed that your site’s current English version has some translation glitches, and therefore doesn’t convey the same impression of your film festival that the Italian version does,” or “You’ve clearly put a great deal of effort into the graphic design and French text for your wine labels; as a professional translator, I’d love to help you bring that same quality to the English version,” or “Your slogan is the first thing that people notice about your company, and I’d love to help you create a German slogan that better reflects your mission and values.”

Step 3: Give them a little something for free. I’ve heard this referred to as “the free sample approach,” “the taste my truffles approach,” the get them hooked on you approach,”…you get the picture! Like this: “As an example of what professional translation services could do for you, I’ve taken the liberty of re-translating your home page, and I’m including it here for your perusal.” Or, “I’ve included three Portuguese slogans that better convey the spirit of your music festival. Feel free to run them by your Portuguese-speaking colleagues to get their take,” or “As a professional translator specializing in your industry, I’ve re-translated your press release using more consistent technical terminology. Feel free to take a look and let me know if this approach might help you in the future.”

Then of course, you wait, and then you follow up. You accept that the person on the receiving end of your pitch might know that the translations are sub-par and might not care, that the person might not “get” why good translations are important, or might have absolutely no budget with which to do better. For what it’s worth, I’ve received all three of those responses to pitches that I’ve sent to potential clients. However, you also have a chance to improve your pitch every time, and you have a good chance of landing a good direct client who really appreciates your work.

Readers, any tips or illustrative examples on this topic?

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Let’s just dive on in to this one; a few basic business management things that every freelancer should do, right this red hot second. Not rocket science, just things that are crucial to the survival of your business!

  1. Completely separate your business and personal finances. Even if you are not incorporated, open a separate checking account for your business to keep things clean. This also really facilitates recreating your accounting records if you ever need to.
  2. Have a reliable project and invoice tracking system. Post-it notes on the computer monitor work if you’re doing one translation job every two months. But when you start juggling multiple clients in a week or a day, you need a better system. Whether it’s Translation Office 3000 (not an affiliate link), a spreadsheet or even a whiteboard, make sure to have something in place.
  3. Buy a domain name and use it for your work e-mail. Your own domain name looks professional, and protects you against ever having to change your e-mail address again. You can also use whatever interface you want (i.e. Outlook, Gmail) to manage it.
  4. Put a percentage of every payment into a business savings account. I say “a percentage,” because it depends on your country and your tax bracket. But here in the US, let’s say at least 30% of every invoice if you just want to cover your taxes, and probably 40% if you also want to establish a paid vacation fund in order to pay yourself when you take time off. In a higher tax situation, say if you live in the European Union, you might be looking at more like 50% just to cover taxes and social charges. But the point being, don’t get caught short at tax time with no way to pay what you owe.
  5. Investigate retirement account options. Again, a little vague, but that’s on purpose. Put it this way: although one of the nice things about freelancing is that you can potentially work into your older years if you want or need to, don’t depend on that. I have an individual 401K through Charles Schwab that I’m quite happy with (and it has very high contribution limits, allowing you to put away a lot of money tax-free), but there are lots of other options out there: Roth IRAs, SEPs, etc.
  6. Investigate whether it’s worth incorporating. If you live in the US and are a sole proprietor (non-incorporated self-employed person), self-employment tax is a big hit. Essentially, you pay some taxes as if you are the employER and the employEE. Incorporating can allow you to legally avoid paying self-employment tax on some of your income, and can also give you some liability protection. Downside: having to file payroll taxes and a separate tax return for the corporation, depending on the corporate structure that you use.
  7. Use a professional e-mail signature. An e-mail signature (the few lines of text that get pasted at the bottom of every e-mail you send) is a very basic marketing tool, and also helps people know who you are. Here’s mine:–
    Corinne McKay, CT
    ATA-certified French to English translator
    http://www.translatewrite.com (professional site)
    http://www.thoughtsontranslation.com (blog)
    http://speakingoftranslation.com (podcast)
    303-499-9622

    Even if you have a very basic signature, like “English to Japanese translator,” it’s worthwhile. But overdoing it can be worse than nothing: the original convention was 4 lines, and I’ve clearly broken that rule, but definitely do not double the length of a typical e-mail with your signature.

Any other basic tips out there?

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No matter how long you’ve been a freelancer, rates are always a source of intense stress: charge too much, and you’re afraid of having too little work. Charge too little, and you’re afraid of not earning enough. There are lots of ways to think about rates (see my previous post about deciding how much to charge) and about raising rates, but let’s take a shot at the basics. Here’s a question I often get from other freelancers: how do I raise my rates, and what’s the best time to raise my rates? My take:

If you’re talking about raising your rates with existing clients, my two word answer is: you can’t. That’s a little harsh, but think of it this way. If you have a salaried job and you want to make 30% more than you’re making right now, you’re unlikely to get that raise in your current position. To make that jump, you have to change jobs. And so it is with freelance rates: a longstanding client is probably not going to agree to a significant rate increase, so you just have to look elsewhere. But let’s say you’re talking about a modest increase. A few options here; some may be nothing you’d ever say, and some might work for you:

  1. You could use Chris Durban‘s suggestion and invoke a third-party authority, like “My accountant has brought it to my attention that you’re my last client paying X cents per word/hour.” This can be a good tactic because the mythical third party is the bad cop, and you get to be the good cop and tell the client how much you love working with them, and that you really hope you can continue the relationship.
  2. You could try a human-to-human conversation with the client, like “I love working with you because you offer so many advantages : your staff are so helpful and easy to deal with, your projects are interesting and you always pay on time. At the same time, looking at my bottom line, you’re now my lowest-paying client, which means that I only accept work from you when I have nothing else in the pipeline. I’d really love for you to be one of my preferred clients, and the rate that it would take to get here is X.”
  3. You could just impose the rate increase and see what the client does; send an e-mail saying “As of March 1, 2014, my base rate will increase to X. Please let me know if you have any questions.”
  4. If you sense that the client could pay more but for some reason is resisting, you could try asking them for the truth (always a dicey proposition, but worth a try!). Such as “I’d like to ask for your feedback on what it would take for me to move into your top tier of translators. I love working with you and am committed to always doing excellent work, so this type of feedback would really help me move my business to the next level.”

But my succinct advice on how to really raise your rates remains: look for new clients.

Now, on to the question of when to raise your rates. Short answer: with new clients, and when you’re already really busy. Why? Because then, if the new potential client says no to the higher rate, you’ve lost absolutely nothing. You’re still really busy and you have enough work. And if the new potential client says yes to the higher rate, you know that at least some portion of your target clientele will bear that rate. Try 15% or 25% higher than you’re charging right now; heck, even try 50% higher and just see what happens. If you believe that you deserve that rate and that your work is worth it, there’s a good chance that the potential client will believe it too. And do not forget that if 100% of potential clients accept your rates without negotiating, you could be charging more. That’s not business advice, it’s just a fact. If literally no one thinks that you are too expensive, you’re leaving money on the table.

Here’s another rate truth: I work with both agencies and direct clients, and I like them both for different reasons. With my agencies, I just translate, and sometimes that’s just what I want to do. With my direct clients, I’m in the thick of the action, usually dealing with either the person who wrote the French document or the person who’s going to use the English document, and sometimes that’s just what I want to do. But here’s a truth of the agency market: you can only compete on quality and service to a certain point. Once you hit the agency’s rate ceiling, you’re stuck. For example I recently wanted to raise my rates with one of my agency clients, but they told me (and I believe, honestly) that they’re already paying me 2 cents per word more than any of their other French to English translators, so I can either continue at the current rate or not work for them anymore. This is not to say that direct clients will blindly agree to every rate increase, but they generally have more flexibility to move money from other budgets and allocate them to translation if they really want to retain you.

Readers, any thoughts on this? Any rate increase techniques that have worked for you?

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I’m excited to announce that my new course, Beyond the Basics of Freelancing, is now open for registration! For a while, I’ve been wanting to offer a more advanced course as a sequel to Getting Started as a Freelance Translator (running since 2006!), and I’ve finally forced myself to work on the course materials. The first session of Beyond the Basics will start on February 26, and then I’ll probably offer another session in May.

Every student will receive copies of my books How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and Thoughts on Translation, a one-hour individual consultation call with me, and individualized feedback on: your current and potential marketing materials; a profile of your ideal client, and a list of direct clients you’d like to market to; a plan for raising your profile in the translation industry and meeting your potential direct clients on their turf; a financial plan for your translation business, and a plan of action for the next six months so that you can reach these goals. In addition, we’ll do a one-hour question and answer conference call every week (one of the most popular features of Getting Started as a Freelance Translator!). The cost is the same as for my Getting Started course, US $305 with a $50 discount for members of the American Translators Association. You can read the details about both courses on my website. Hope to see some of you there!

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Here’s a quick burst of inspiration for beginning and aspiring translators. I haven’t been a translation beginner for a long time, but over the past couple of years I’ve had the urge to learn a new musical instrument. I played piano for lots of years as a kid (but never loved it) and then I played a little recorder when we lived in Boston. A few months ago, we went to a lute concert and I was completely hooked: what a cool instrument. Plus it’s portable, unique, and lends itself to playing with other people. So, as my end of year bonus, I got myself a lute and lute lessons.

But first, I stressed out. I’m 42, I’m not a naturally gifted musician, I don’t really improvise or play by ear, I’ve never played a string instrument, and on and on. And then, a translator friend who’s a very accomplished recorder player said this: Look; every musician was once a beginner. No matter how good they are now, they once picked up that instrument for the first time and gave it a shot. So why not you? And that struck me as very simple but very profound: right, why not me?

Flash forward a few months, and now I can actually play the lute a little. Better yet, I love it. It is seriously fun and a really great outlet when you’ve been reading and writing all day. So then, my recorder-playing translator friend suggests that I go play some duets with a friend of hers who plays the viola da gamba. Sounds fun, but again I stress out. I get to the friend’s house with my lute, and immediately start explaining my real and perceived deficiencies (I’ve had five lute lessons, I’m not a naturally gifted musician, I can’t play by ear…stop me if you’ve heard this before). And the friend laughs, and says that she’s been playing viola da gamba for thirtysomething years, and she doesn’t improvise or play by ear,  and she enjoys encouraging beginners, so let’s just get out some easy music and try it, and have some fun. And guess what, I could actually sort of play a super easy duet with her and have it sound like music, and it was really fun.

So here’s the takeaway for translators: every single person in this industry was once a beginner. Even if today, someone like Chris Durban is (as I call her, much to her chagrin) the Michael Jordan of freelance translators, she once sat down to do her first translation, to see if she was any good at it. Even the Officers and Board of ATA once walked into their first ATA conference and thought “Maybe I’ll just head for the exit rather than face this crowd of strangers.” If the “big names” in the industry can make it, why not you?

 

PS: If you’ve never encountered a lute before, here’s what it looks like! This is me playing “The Holly and the Ivy” at our Christmas Eve house concert.
lute

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The beginning of the year is always a good opportunity to take stock: what went right in 2013, what needs to go better in 2014, and where do you want to be a year from now? Let’s look at some questions that every freelance translator should ask. I’ll kick things off with my own answers, and please add yours in the comments.

Think of where you were at this time last year and what your goals were; by comparison, how are things going now?
In January 2013, I made a major change and joined a co-working office, in which I’m sitting right now. This has made a huge and positive change in both my work and home lives, since I now rarely work at home and try to maintain a fairly rigid separation between the work day and the non-work day. I surmised (correctly, as it turns out) that at the office, I would get more done in less time and potentially earn more money. So, overall, this year was a very successful one.

If you’re stuck in a rut (in terms of income, clients, workflow), what needs to change?
I’m not currently stuck in a rut, but I was at this time last year. So here’s my advice: look for the root cause of the rut. At this time last year, I was feeling relatively blah about work in general: wanting to break through to the next level of income, find more direct clients, and earn a larger percentage of my income from teaching, consulting and writing. I realized that I really needed to shake things up, and that the root cause was that I needed an office outside the house. For you, maybe it’s something different. But it’s important to realize when you need a big revamp rather than some small tweaks. Also, accept your reasons for wanting a change, even if they seem weird or superficial. One thing I love about the co-working office: it’s an excuse to wear nice clothes. If I feel like wearing a new dress, or fun shoes, or a cute hair style that I saw in a magazine, I do. So there.

Did you earn what you wanted to earn?
It’s OK, and even positive, to admit/accept that you translate primarily for the money. I love the work that I do as a translator. I love getting paid to read and write all day, and I love learning about new subject areas. I even (mostly) love interacting with clients and colleagues. But I also love that I can earn a healthy income while working largely on my own schedule and living in a place where there are few, if any, in-house jobs for what I do. Over the years, I’ve seen that for me at least, earning a good living doesn’t make life better, but it does make it easier. So be honest with yourself: are you making as much as you want to? Or do you need to up your income in 2014?

Who did you work for?
This one is critical: what are your revenue streams? You can probably name your top two or three clients without looking at your accounting records, because they’re the ones you hear from all the time. But you might be surprised to see who your mid-level clients are. If you do work other than translation, you also might be surprised to see what percentage of your income the “other” work generates. For example this year, every session of my online course was full and I taught 7 sessions of the class, meaning that the class is now one of my top “clients.”

How much did you enjoy the work that you did?
If you’re earning what you want to earn, working for yourself is generally pretty great. But ask yourself this (and I know I’ve harped on this topic lately, so bear with me!): did you take what landed in the inbox, or go looking for work that really turns you on? Was it another day, another dollar/euro/yen, or did you really look forward to diving in to your work on Monday morning?

What are you getting sick of?
I’m generally a very positive person, almost to a fault. Meaning that I tend to ignore the negative until it’s staring me right in the face. But think about this: what aspects of your work are making you nuts, and what can you do about them? For example I’ve recently talked to a couple of translators who are retiring, and who said “I’m not sick of translating, but I’m sick of deadlines, and rush jobs, and clients who want a miracle for yesterday.” Now that I’m over 40, I hear that. I realize that in another, say, 10 years, I’d like to be focused on work that is really, really on my own schedule, such as teaching, writing books and translating books. I’m not really at the “had it” point yet, but I see it on the horizon.

Should you outsource anything?
A couple of years ago, I realized that doing my own accounting was counterproductive. Although my accountant charges more than I do, it takes me approximately 57 times as long to do payroll taxes as it takes her. So I decided to allocate about $1,000 a year to accounting fees and I now pay my accountant to do almost everything. I keep my own income and expense records, but other than that it’s all her, and it’s well worth it.

Where do you want to be at this time next year?
I’m not a big one for resolutions because they’re kind of a setup for failure (for me at least). Also I’m fairly disciplined, so I tend to follow through on long-term goals. So I think more in terms of goals for the new year rather than resolutions. Here are some of mine: I’m planning to launch a more advanced-level online course (Beyond the basics of freelancing) within the first quarter; then I’d like to do a third edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. I also really, really need to work on connecting in person with more direct clients. I work primarily with direct clients, but most of them have fallen into my lap; I need to make more of an effort to actively seek them out.

Now, over to you? How did 2013 go? What’s on tap for the new year?

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Last night, Eve Bodeux and I hosted a Speaking of Translation conference call entitled “The freelance juggling act: balancing work, family and the rest of life.” We had the pleasure of interviewing three freelancers: Andy Bell (Scandinavian translator and dad of 3), Marianne Reiner (English to French translator and mom of 2) and Karen Tkaczyk (French to English translator and mom of 3), all of whom have thriving businesses, young families and significant non-work interests and commitments. We asked them three main questions: how they combat the fear of losing clients or not earning enough money if they take time off, how they set boundaries with their families and the outside world so that they can get enough work done, and what their tips and goals are for a better work/life balance in 2014. It was a very informative and enjoyable hour, and we’ve created a podcast recording of it. Here you go:

Click the audio player link to listen online



Right-click the link below to download the MP3.
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Work/Life Balance

And if you’d like to listen to more Speaking of Translation podcasts (international payment methods, finding direct clients through industry conferences, and more!), hop on over to our recordings page. Thanks to Karen, Marianne and Andy for taking the time to talk to us!

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