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Archive for the ‘Freelancing’ Category

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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I often refer to LinkedIn as the most underused social media resource out there: most of us have a LinkedIn profile, but we just “set it and forget it,” rather than using the site’s more sophisticated capabilities. At the very least, LinkedIn is a great way to connect with people in your target industries, by joining Groups that they also belong to (direct client 101: you don’t find them if you only hang out with other translators). You can also use LinkedIn saved searches–even with the free account–to keep track of business prospects. You can use LinkedIn like a virtual Rolodex so that you’re not scrabbling through your desk drawer for the business card of someone you met at a conference five years ago. LinkedIn is also really useful for doing research about your potential clients: finding out who’s hiring, who changed jobs, and so on.

But first, you have to contend with the sticky issue of how to handle LinkedIn connection requests. When I first joined LinkedIn, I was pretty liberal about who I connected with, theorizing that anyone who worked in our industry was potentially a good connection. Over the years (and many hundreds of connections later), I’ve become less of an “open networker,” so I only accept connection requests from a) people I know or b) people who personalize their connection request message and explain how we know each other or why they want to connect with me. If I don’t know the person outside LinkedIn and they don’t explain why they want to connect, I hit “Ignore” and then “I don’t know John Doe,” because I see little value in these types of blind connections.

“But LinkedIn just sends the connection request automatically!,” I hear you cry…”It’s gone before I can personalize it!” Well, not if you do it the right way. Yes, if you’re just looking at LinkedIn’s list of “People You May Know,” and you click the “Connect” button, there goes the invitation with the stock message “I’d like to add you as a connection on LinkedIn.” However if you are looking at the profile of the person you want to connect with, and then you click Connect, you’ll get this popup:
ATA_LinkedIn

Then, you can indicate how you know the person, and you can write them a personal message. Everyone has to come up with their own LinkedIn strategy: some people will connect only with people they personally know and work with, while others are open to networking with anyone who hits the Connect button. But personalizing your connection request looks more professional and will undoubtedly result in a greater success rate than mass-connecting anonymously.

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Tess Whitty’s Marketing Tips for Translators podcast is a great resource for freelancers, and Tess recently interviewed me for an episode called Beyond the Basics of Freelance Marketing. We talked about how to market your translation services to higher-quality agencies and direct clients, how to make a financial plan for your freelance business, and about the new Beyond the Basics of Freelancing class that I’m teaching. Thanks to Tess for the great questions, and I hope you find the information useful!

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The next session of my online course for established freelancers, Beyond the Basics of Freelancing, starts tomorrow (August 20), and I have three spots open. This class is for freelancers who have established freelance businesses and want to focus on refining their specializations, marketing to higher-quality agencies and direct clients, and on earning more money and enjoying their work more (why not, right?). The course runs for four weeks and registration is US $325, with a $50 discount for ATA members. Everyone in the class also receives a one-hour individual consultation with me after the class ends. If you’re interested, hop on over to my website to read the full course description or to register.

Here’s some feedback from a recent participant in the course: “I can’t recommend Corinne’s course highly enough. There’s so much advice out there to read that it can be overwhelming. But Corinne gives you practical advice, examples and techniques you can actually apply to your own business. Incredibly valuable. “

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