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I’m wrapping up my work for 2015, which is always a good chance to take stock of the hits and misses of the past year. This is something I think every freelancer should do: no matter how long you’ve been freelancing, you need to keep moving toward your long-term goals (or risk stagnation!). Following are some questions I think every freelancer should ask, and I’ll answer them here; feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments. And thanks very much to everyone who read and supported my blog this year. It’s up to about 1,200 view on an average day, and over 8,000 subscribers, which is exciting!

Five questions every freelancer should ask at the end of the year:

Question 1: Are you happy with how much you earned, as compared to how much you worked?
My 2015 answer: yes, but with some asterisks. When I was a newly-minted freelancer, I finished several years (definitely 2003 and 2004) feeling that I had worked way (way!) too hard for the amount of money I had made. Now, after 13 years of freelancing, I’m very happy with how much I earn, but my problem is that I want to do everything; and “everything” is way (way!) too much to fit into my available time and energy. Income-wise, I have a range of income that I consider “enough.” And as long as I earn within that range, I’m satisfied. It gives me a similar level of financial security to someone with a traditional job; it allows me to invest in my business by attending conferences, buying new office equipment and participating in professional development.  It allows me to take enough time off that I feel excited to come back to work after a vacation. It’s enough. My problem is that there’s a bottomless pit of interesting projects that I’d like to take on, and I have to limit myself to what I can realistically do an excellent job on.

Question 2: What were the highlights?
Happily, this year had many highlights. To sum it up in one sentence, I translated three books (just submitted the third manuscript on Friday!), published the third edition of How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator, and was elected President-Elect of ATA. Definitely some items crossed off the bucket list there; and best of all, I felt happy and energized during nearly every moment of all of those projects. Several of my clients also landed big projects of their own this year, and those were very rewarding to be involved in.

Question 3: Any low points?
As mentioned above, my main problem in life is that I want to do everything. Add that to my subsidiary problem in life, which is that I want everyone to be happy all the time, and that definitely results in some disappointments, because in reality, I can’t do everything, and everyone around me is not going to be happy all the time. The mantra I continually repeat to myself is, “It’s enough…It’s enough…It’s enough,” along with “You can’t do everything…You can’t do everything…You can’t do everything”

And there are always challenges and dilemmas. I’m currently earning about 1/3 of my income from agencies and individuals, 1/3 from direct clients and 1/3 from my online courses, book royalties and consulting; let’s call those “information products.” The challenge/dilemma is that there’s a huge market for information products for translators; enough that I would venture a guess that if I wanted to quit translating and only develop information products for translators, I could. And I *love* teaching and writing. However, I still want to be a translator, not someone who simply pontificates from afar about what other translators should do. It’s a dilemma.

Question 4: Did you do something that challenged you?
This is a resounding “yes” this year. I hate the thought of stagnation, so I really try to do something challenging every year. Branching out into translating books, something I’ve been working on for many years, has been both hugely challenging and hugely rewarding. In addition to the murder mystery I translated for a self-published author, I translated two mountaineering biographies for an outdoor book publisher (more on those when they’re published); I’m an avid mountain sports person in my spare time, so this allowed me to combine something that I’m personally very interested in with my translation skills.

Question 5: Long-term outlook?
I’m a big believer in setting goals for the the short term and the long term, and the very long term. In the short-ish term, I’m excited about the new online courses I’ll be teaching this winter and spring, and I’m excited to start marketing the new edition of my book once it’s in the major distribution channels. This year, I’ve also had a growing sense that in the long term, I’d like to move toward work that is still as demanding as what I do now, but that is less immediately deadline-driven. In concrete terms, if I had to envision what I’d like to be doing in seven or ten years, I’d like to focus on translating books and teaching, so that I can be more location-independent and more flexible with my schedule. But right now, to sum it up in two words, I’m happy!

Thanks again readers, and over to you!

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“The rate isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing.” “It’s not what I’d like to be earning, but you have to start somewhere.” “I wasn’t thrilled about the rate, but working is better than not working.” Stop me if you’ve heard this before… But the real question is: is this a valid way of looking at your freelance rates?

Ideally, here’s the situation you want to be in: you don’t even deal with low-paying clients, because you don’t need to. You are busy all the time at your regular rates, and if clients won’t pay those rates, you simply don’t work with them. Or, when you take on lower-paying work (let’s say a book translation, or work for a non-profit that you find meaningful), it’s for a reason: just because you enjoy it, or because you want to contribute to the organization’s mission, or bring a certain author’s work to a different culture, or something like that.

But when you’re looking for more work, or for any work at all, it’s a different story. Then, an experienced translator’s advice to stick to your standard rates and never offer discounts can feel a bit condescending. When, if ever, is a sub-optimal rate better than nothing?

  • Bottom line: rarely. You tell yourself “it’s better than nothing,” but low rates can become a treadmill that’s difficult to dismount. You’re making a few cents a word, so you have to translate 12 hours a day just to keep the lights on. That leaves approximately zero time to market yourself to better-paying clients, or do some networking, or attend conferences where you might meet better-paying clients, or upgrade your skills and marketing presence.
  • When you’re working within a lot of constraints. In most ways, huge agencies are not ideal clients; but they do have some advantages. One of those is that you can generally turn them down many times without fear of losing them as a client, or you can give them windows of time within which you can work. So, if you’re trying to start a freelance business while going to school, or raising kids, or working another job, a huge agency that pays sub-optimal rates might allow you to do that.
  • When you put some parameters on the low-rate work. Working at sub-optimal rates for decades will a) suck the life out of you and b) destroy any love you have for this job. Really, it will. But if you decide that the low-rate work fits your purposes while you… (finish school, sock away enough money to quit your day job, etc.), and if that time period is relatively short, like a couple of years or less, I think it’s more doable.

When is a sub-optimal rate absolutely not worth it?

  • When you’re doing it out of desperation. Desperation is rarely a good precursor of good business decisions. If you’re in sketchy financial shape, you’re probably better off looking for a stable part-time job rather than taking low-rate freelance work. Take the part-time job and then translate pro bono for clients who work for causes you believe in: in the end, you’ll feel much better about yourself. Out-of-the-box tip: look for a job where you could do some translating while you work. For example, I once worked in a fancy office building that needed a receptionist, but there was actually very little work to do. The owner’s technique (because it was hard to keep people in that job long-term), was to deliberately recruit students from the writing program at the local university, with the stipulation that if they committed to staying for a full school year, they could work on their own writing while they sat at the desk.
  • When you could cut fat from your spending budget and avoid the low-rate work. I’ve beaten the freelance frugality drum here and here. Blackbelt frugality isn’t for everyone (although I did get quite a few compliments on the haircuts that my husband gave me in the early 2000s!), but to me, it’s certainly preferable to doing soul-crushing work.
  • When you have the skills to work for better-paying clients, but you never go out and look for them. As I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, there is *so much* interesting, well-paying translation work out there. But, it’s not going to flop into your inbox with a bow on it; you need to be out there (in person, online or both) being in the places where the good clients can find you, or going and knocking on the good clients’ doors and pitching your services. Otherwise, you’re running in neutral in the low-rate market.
  • When you’re telling yourself that the low-paying clients will love you so much, they’ll agree to a big rate increase at some point. Harsh but true: most times, they won’t. Once a client knows that you’re willing to work at a certain rate, you can’t blame them for refusing to pay more. No matter how much a client likes you, most agencies, especially big agencies, have a fairly rigid rate ceiling above which they absolutely will not go, no matter how much they like you. When you want to make more money, you just have to move on.

Readers: any other thoughts on this? And if you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but how do I find work at decent rates?,” you might enjoy this post: To break out of the low-rate market, change these three things.

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Standing desks are hot right now (with various sources telling us that sitting is the new smoking). If you’d like to try one, the most customizable option is a motorized sit-stand desk. Karen Tkaczyk uses one, and she demonstrated it in this blog post. Another option is a VariDesk that sits on top of a standard desk.

I recently moved to a new co-working office and the desks have a really easy sit-stand option, where the desk surface is permanently set at standing height and you use a tall chair or stool, moving yourself (rather than the desk surface) when you want to change positions. Here’s my desk:
desk

At first I was a bit skeptical about the stool, but it’s actually working out really well. It’s just uncomfortable enough that I get up for a few minutes every hour and go get some tea or run a quick errand; it’s not hellishly uncomfortable (and it forces me to sit up straight), but it’s also not the kind of thing you snuggle into for a four-hour stretch.

I think that my new desk is an Ikea Linnmon/Finnvard, which, at US $109, is certainly an affordable option. Just make sure to get a nice hard stool to go with it!

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The next session of my online course Beyond the Basics of Freelancing begins on November 11, and it’s the last session of 2015. I have some new things planned for 2016, so if you’ve been waiting to take this course, now is the time!

Beyond the Basics is a four-week online course for established translators who want to earn more money, enjoy their work more, pursue new specializations and market to higher-quality agencies and direct clients. This is a “high touch” course in which everyone gets individual feedback from me on weekly homework assignments, we do a one-hour question and answer conference call every week, and everyone gets an hour of individual consulting time with me. Registration is $350 ($50 discount for ATA members) and includes copies of my books How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and Thoughts on Translation.

A recent participant in this class commented:

I took a four-week online course called Beyond the Basics of Freelancing, developed and taught by Corinne. Though I was more or less satisfied with my business, it had plateaued and I wasn’t sure how to up my game. Corinne’s class was exactly what I needed. She asked questions that forced me to focus on the most important aspects of my business and acted as a sounding board for marketing ideas. I especially appreciated that the class included ample opportunity to ask specific questions about nearly anything. I learned a great deal from Corinne and from the other students and came away from the class with a concrete plan and timeline for the next 6-12 months to take my business to the next level

Hope to see some of you there!

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been enjoying hosting In the Balance (video series on work-life balance). It’s a topic I think about a lot, probably not least of all because I live in a “lifestyle town” (an expression that I learned only recently!) where prioritizing one’s non-work interests is very much the norm.

Today, a student in my class for beginning translators asked an interesting question: how would this advice apply (or not apply) to beginning freelancers, who want to have time to sleep, exercise, etc. outside of work, but who also need to actively build up their businesses.

Here’s the two-word answer: pace yourself. The advice that applies to experienced translators applies a little differently to you, but the goal is the same: don’t burn out, and let yourself enjoy some of the “free” in freelancing. Here’s what I mean: for experienced translators, work-life balance is largely about setting boundaries; it’s about achieving a similar level of financial security to someone who has a traditional job, but with the flexibility and independence of freelancing rolled into the mix. So for example I leave work at 2:30 three days a week so that I can be home when my daughter gets home; every Sunday night I sign up for my exercise classes for the week, and I treat them as I would a client appointment–I do not change them unless it’s absolutely unavoidable; I don’t work on weekends, even for my A-list clients; I try to avoid answering e-mail outside of working hours, because I don’t want my clients to expect that they can e-mail me at 10PM and get a response.

But when I was a beginner, things looked a lot different. When a client e-mailed me at 4 PM on a Friday and offered 8,000 words due Monday morning, I was elated. For years (literally, years) I worked from 7-10 PM, even on weekends. When a client called, I dropped everything, because I couldn’t afford (literally and figuratively) to miss a single job. But at the same time, you cannot work in that kind of “always on” mode all the time and remain excited about the job. So here’s the trick: pace yourself. Realize that when you’re building up your business, you have to go into overdrive sometimes. You have to be available at times and in places that experienced translators are not (month of August: great time to pick up new clients; ditto for the week between Christmas and New Year’s). But you can’t work in perpetual overdrive or you’ll absolutely burn out. So, pay attention to your pace!

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Since the beginning of September, I’ve been doing a video series called In the Balance for Andrew Morris’ Facebook group, Standing Out. The series focuses on work-life balance issues that translators, and freelancers in general, face. It’s been a lot of fun to create the (very basic; I’m not much of an a/v person!) videos, and especially fun to read the discussions about work-life topics.

I’ve decided to start cross-posting the In the Balance videos here, with a one-episode delay. I’ll kick things off with the first three videos (episode four, “dealing with low moments,” comes out on Standing Out tomorrow), and from now on I’ll post a new one every two weeks. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think about these topics as well! If you watch until the end of the video, there’s an audience participation component in each one.

In the Balance, Episode 1: Work/life balance and what it means to you to be alive

In the Balance, Episode 2: I can’t, versus I choose not to

In the Balance, Episode 3: Creating positive habits

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Just a little fun thing here: Kidsville News (a “fun family newspaper and educational resource”) recently interviewed me about what it’s like to work as a translator. Here’s the article, and it was actually really interesting to think about how to explain translation to elementary-schoolers!

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