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Archive for the ‘Getting started as a translator’ Category

The next sessions of my online courses start on August 20 (Beyond the Basics of Freelancing) and September 24 (Getting Started as a Freelance Translator). Getting Started is for students who want to launch and run a successful freelance business, and Beyond the Basics is for students who have established freelance businesses. Each class is four weeks long and consists of four lessons on which you get individual feedback from me, plus a weekly question-and-answer conference call for the whole class. Additionally, students in Beyond the Basics get a one-hour individual consultation with me.

Getting Started focuses on the basics of getting your freelance business up and running: writing a translation-targeted resumé and cover letter, creating a marketing plan and rates sheet and establishing an online presence (LinkedIn profile, translators association directory profile, website, etc.). Beyond the Basics focuses on marketing your services to high-quality translation agencies and direct clients, creating a professional profile document and identifying ways to meet direct clients on their turf.

Registration for either class is US $325, and after these sessions I’ll be raising the price to US $350, so now is a good time to register if you’ve been thinking about it. All sessions of both courses have filled up before the deadline for the past year, so hop on over to my website and read the full descriptions if you’re thinking of joining one of these sessions! ATA members receive a $50 discount on registration for either course.

Here’s a comment from a participant in the most recent session of Beyond the Basics: “This course really helped me define a path for moving my business forward, as well as giving me some helpful tools for getting there. I received valuable input and tips not only from Corinne, but also from the other students, and it was great to be part of a little virtual community.”

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Here’s a common question from beginning freelance translators, and from people contemplating freelancing: how long does it take to start a viable freelance business? The usual disclaimers apply. Is your non-English language Spanish or Japanese? Do you have just a language background, or a PhD in nuclear physics and a language background? Do you live in Tokyo or Montana? And what do you mean by “start”? But here’s a stab at an answer. To me, there are two milestones in starting a freelance business: 1) the point when you know you’re going to make it as a freelancer (meaning that you no longer stress out every single day about whether to plow ahead or just give up and get a regular job) and 2) the point when you basically always have enough work (meaning that you can focus on doing what you enjoy and are good at, rather than whatever pays the bills).

My own answers: 18 months, and three years. After about 18 months of freelancing, I knew I was going to make it as a freelancer. Halfway through year two, I had already earned more than I did in all of year one. One-time clients were becoming regular clients; a “big project” was $1,000, not $200. By the end of year three, I no longer stressed out about where the next project was coming from, because I had enough work almost all the time. I started to ease out some low-paying clients and ease in some better ones. I started to think about what kinds of translation I really enjoyed and was good at, and I looked for direct clients in those areas.

Mostly, I think that the answer to the “how long does it take?” question is, “Probably longer than you think.” Not to be sarcastic or cynical, but when beginning translators ask me this question, I often advise that if you want a booming business within a few months, offer a service that a lot of people need, and that lends itself to direct advertising. Clean houses, walk dogs, do tutoring. Don’t start a freelance translation business if you have to have a full-time income within a couple of months, unless you do a language or specialization that is both very high-paying and very in-demand.

Another question: what percentage of freelancers make it through the startup phase, and with what degree of success? I’ve been teaching my getting started course for beginning freelancers for about eight years, and I’d say, unscientifically, that the graduates I’ve followed up with are about evenly split into three categories. About a third of them launched successful freelance businesses and are doing great; about a third are translating in some capacity, but combine it with another job, and about a third either decided the whole freelance thing was too much work, or were never able to find the kinds of clients they needed to work with in order to make a full-time living.

Readers, your thoughts on the length of the startup phase?

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This morning I had lots of fun interviewing translation industry veteran Steve Lank (Monterey graduate, former ASTM translation QA standard subcommittee chair, longtime senior-level manager in agencies in the US, Ireland and Spain). Steve is currently Vice President for Translation Services at Cesco Linguistic Services, working from the Washington, DC office.

I put Steve in the hot seat and asked him:

  • Chicken/egg: how can beginning translators find their first clients?
  • What’s up with downward price negotiations? Why do agencies apply them, and how can translators best handle them?
  • What are the top dos and don’ts of translator resumes? What errors pop up again and again? How can a translator stand out among the many unsolicited applications that an agency receives?
  • How about following up on agency applications? How often should freelancers follow up, and using what method?
  • How does a translator turn a first-time client into a regular client, and become one of an agency’s preferred providers?
  • How about the increasing emphasis on specialization in our industry? Is the “learn by doing” mindset OK, or do translators need more formal training in their specializations?

To listen to the episode, cruise on over to the Speaking of Translation website.

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The translation business book genre has really exploded in recent years, fortunately for those of us in the trenches who need to know about these things. Newest on the scene is a little gold nugget of a book, 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know, written by a group of highly experienced translators known as WordLink. With members like Chris Durban, Ros Schwartz, Nick Rosenthal (many of whom have been translating since before I graduated from high school!), these are people you need to listen to.

101 Things has everything you need and nothing you don’t: each “thing” is about a hundred words, and the topics range from how to translate an idiom to how to turn lousy writing into a great translation, to how to create an ergonomic setup in your office. Each tip is accompanied by an illustration, making this book the perfect thing to grab when you need a little bit of wisdom to adjust your mindset or move your business forward. No bombastic pronouncements about what you must do if you want to claw your way to the top of this industry: expect wise, witty, well-grounded advice from translators who have walked the path that you’re walking.

Plus, it’s cute! Check it out, and then hop on over to Lulu and grab a copy for yourself (available on Amazon, etc. in 6-8 weeks).
101things

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Congratulations to English-Swedish translator Tess Whitty on the launch of her new podcast, Marketing tips for translators! Tess has a degree in marketing, and in each episode of her podcast she’ll be interviewing a guest about a niche aspect of marketing for translators. Tess has four episodes currently available:

Right this minute, I’m sitting in the New Orleans airport, listening to Tess’ interview with Anne about LinkedIn tips, and it’s really great material. I’m looking forward to listening to Marta’s interview on the plane! Tess’ hosting style is very natural and conversational, and she’s targeted guests who are very passionate about their topics. You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes (I just did this, so I can attest that it works). Thanks Tess for this great initiative, and here’s to a long and happy life for this new podcast!

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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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I spend a lot of time explaining the merits of agencies to translators who work with direct clients, and explaining the merits of direct clients to translators who work with agencies. So, I thought I’d offer my explanation to the whole translation blogosphere and solicit your thoughts! Here we go:

Translation agencies are great, because:

  • If the agency does its job right, you just translate. You are freed from such tasks as explaining to the client why the words aren’t in the same order in the translation as they are in the original document, or explaining to the client that words like “software” and “information” are not pluralized as “softwares” and “informations” in English.
  • If the agency likes you, they will keep you busy. They will fill your inbox with requests, rather than the other way around.
  • They have a sense of what you do, and what the constraints of your job are. They know not to ask whether you could translate 25,000 words for 3 days from now, or whether you charge “for the little words.” By the way, that was an actual question I received from a potential client. I apologize if my answer, “Only if you want them translated,” sounded rude or glib.

But translation agencies have their drawbacks, such as:

  • In the agency market, a translator can only compete on quality to a certain extent. It’s in an agency’s best interest to use the cheapest translator whose quality and reliability fit the agency’s purposes. An agency that really likes you might pay you 10% more than what they pay their other translators, but they’re not going to pay you 100% more, whereas a direct client might.
  • They can’t afford to be loyal to you. A direct client might shuffle deadlines, pay rush printing charges or have their own staff work on a weekend in order to snag a translator who they really love. But agencies rarely will: if you’re not available within a reasonable amount of time, they’ll call the next person on their list.
  • Many agencies are not transparent about their teams and processes. When you work on a large project for an agency, the agency may refuse to let you communicate with the other translators. They may decline to tell you whether your work is being proofed a) by another translator in your language pair, b) by a speaker of the target language only or c) not at all.

Direct clients are great, because:

  • At a certain point, you will reach “terminal velocity” in the agency market. You will be charging as much as even the highest-paying agencies will pay, and you can’t increase your speed beyond a certain point if you want to maintain quality. So, the next logical place to look is the direct client market, where the price ceiling is much higher.
  • The business relationship is between you and them. Normally, you can communicate either with the person who wrote the source document or the person who is going to use the target document. In 11+ years of working with agencies, I’ve been in contact with the document’s writer or end user exactly zero times. To put it diplomatically, this model has its problems.
  • Quality is a major competitive advantage. I know for sure (and Chris Durban has said this as well), that some of my direct clients use me for their mission-critical translations; when they’re applying for a large grant or producing a report that will go to potential donors, they’re willing to pay my rate. But for other, less mission-critical things, they use either agencies or less expensive freelancers.
  • Questions and feedback are not only possible, but welcome. In the agency model, there’s pretty much an impenetrable membrane between the translator and the end client; in the direct client market, the back-and-forth flow is what makes the work more satisfying and the translation more accurate and more readable.

But direct clients have their drawbacks, such as:

  • Sometimes, they have no idea how you work, other than that you change documents from one language to another. 12,000 words for tomorrow? Some direct clients don’t know that that’s laughable. And while you’re at it, why don’t you translate into your non-native language? Or interpret for their upcoming conference? It’s not their fault, it’s just not their industry.
  • They may need you only sporadically, or for huge amounts of work at one time. Some direct clients only need a translator for a small job a couple of times a year, for example when they issue earnings reports or press releases. Others may have an onslaught of documents (grant applications, RFPs) a couple of times a year, and then they need 100,000 words in a month. So you absolutely must have a partner or backup person (more on that in another post).
  • Corollary: you really don’t want to turn down their work if you can help it. In the agency market, you can pretty much accept and decline projects at will. As long as you accept at least some of the time, the agency will likely call you again. But if you bail out on a direct client at a key time, your relationship with them may be over, because they have to find someone else immediately (see reference to partner/backup above).

Now, over to you! Thoughts?

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The next session of my online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator starts on November 13; all other sessions this year have filled up before the start date, so please hop on over and register if you’d like to join us. It’s a four-week online course with a maximum of 10 people, and we focus on the basics of launching and running a successful freelance business. You leave the class with four main projects: your resumé and cover letter, marketing plan, rates and billable hours sheet and online presence plan. Everyone gets individualized feedback from me on all of those projects, plus we do a one-hour question and answer conference call every week (recordings provided if you can’t attend live). Whether you’re totally new to the industry or need a nudge to reach your business goals, I think it’s a good resource. The registration fee is $305, or $255 if you are a member of the American Translators Association. For a full description or to register, please visit my website.

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Here’s a very common question from my beginning translation students: “Do I need a…(Bachelor’s degree, Master’s degree, translation certificate, translator certification, etc.)” with corollaries such as “Am I better off getting a foreign language MA or a translation certificate?” “If I don’t have a Bachelor’s degree but I’m ATA-certified, is that OK?” and so on.

I can answer all of these questions with two words: it depends. There you go! That’s somewhat tongue in cheek, but it does really depend on your background, your goals, who you work for and what you do. And in this post, I’m talking about the norm, not the exception; I know a couple of self-taught conference interpreters who have tons of work, people without Bachelor’s degrees who are doing fine, and lots of people who are not ATA-certified and still make a squadrillion dollars a year. But here I’m talking in general, and I apologize in advance if this gets long!

Also, there are some very notable exceptions to these observations. For example let’s say that you want to be a court interpreter at the state level. In many U.S. states, the only pre-requisite to take the court interpreter exam is that you have to be 18 and legally eligible to work in the US. In theory, even a smart and motivated high school student could study for and pass the exam. And once you’re certified, everyone generally is paid the same rate. So in that case, and for that specific job, there may be absolutely no advantage to having a Bachelor’s degree.

Do you need a Bachelor’s degree? Yes, in most cases, I really think that you do. As with the court interpreter scenario above, of course there are exceptions. But at least in the US, I think that if you don’t have a Bachelor’s degree, you are seen as A Person Who Did Not Go to College; whereas whether you have a BA, MA, PhD, law degree, whatever, you are A Person Who Went to College. Corollary: if you’re not 18 and your parents aren’t going to fund this educational endeavor, is a Bachelor’s from an online university better than, say, a high school degree or an Associate’s, plus a certificate from a reputable translation certificate program? Honestly, I don’t really know. First, you’d need to find a reputable translation certificate program to accept you without an undergraduate degree, but that might be doable if your language skills are strong.

Are translation/interpreting MA programs worth the investment? You had to ask a tough one, didn’t you… Here’s my opinion: before you undertake a graduate degree, ask yourself, “What do I want to do, that I cannot do now, that I can do if I earn this degree?” If your answer is that you want a job as a staff translator or interpreter at a high-level entity such as the U.N., Department of State, European Union, etc. then yes, I think that a translation/interpreting MA, preferably from the top program in your country, is probably a good investment. If you are completely convinced that you want to do conference interpreting, ditto: go for the interpreting-specific MA if possible.

On the other hand, consider this: in the US, tuition, fees, meals and housing at a private university will run you about $50,000 a year; an MA will generally last two years. Schools in Europe generally charge less in tuition, but the cost of living in the European capitals will bump the total cost up significantly. And you also have to consider the issue of lost income, especially if your other option is to simply start freelancing right away. Statistics tell us that the average full-time freelance translator/interpreter in the US earns about $75,000 per year. So during those two years, you’ll forgo some $150,000 in income, giving you a total investment of about $250,000 in your degree. That’s a pretty big number by anyone’s standards, but it’s probably worth it if your heart is set on a staff position at a major international organization; hopefully you’ll get an outstanding education, you’ll be taught by highly experienced professors, you’ll make great contacts, you’ll probably have a leg up in terms of internships, and so on.

However, in my opinion, and I apologize if this verges on “rant” territory, most translation/interpreting MA programs do not offer nearly enough education in business and entrepreneurship, given the career paths that a lot of their students will take. Will some of their students work on staff at places like the UN for their entire careers? Sure. Are there enough of those jobs open every year to employ the majority of graduates? I would say not. So, realistically, a lot of people with translation/interpreting MAs, even from top-tier schools, will become freelancers.  A lot of people who earn translation/interpreting MAs want to be freelancers, whether in-house jobs are available or not. And if I invested a quarter of a million dollars in that type of degree, in an industry that is highly freelance-oriented, I would expect a top-tier education in language entrepreneurship in addition to my language skills education. Here’s an example: several top-tier music schools in the US have music entrepreneurship centers. The University of Colorado here in Boulder has one. So does Manhattan School of Music, with the lead-in, “In today’s marketplace, musicians need more than artistic excellence: they need the added edge of entrepreneurial skills to create opportunities and build successful, sustainable careers.” Substitute “linguistic” for “artistic” and I think you’ve got the idea of what our industry needs; and to my knowledge, none of the major translation MA programs in the US or Europe are really addressing this. (End of rant!)

How about certification? Being certified, by ATA or any other national translators association, will never be a negative. Compensation surveys tell us that ATA-certified translators earn more than non-certified translators.  I have also heard from several translation companies with government contracts that they are under more pressure to use ATA-certified translators whenever possible. If a client is browsing the ATA online directory, they will probably contact the certified people first. So I think that the ATA exam is absolutely worth attempting if it’s in your budget. However, translator certification, in any country, is not like the bar exam for lawyers or the CPA exam for accountants. Lots of people make lots of money without ever becoming certified. I would consider certification a definite plus, but not a must.

Translation certificate programs? Translation certificate programs are great, because they teach you how to actually translate. They’ll help you avoid the litany of mistakes that I, and lots of other beginning translators, committed early in our careers. They’re also a good deal less expensive and less time-consuming than graduate degree programs. Most translation certificate programs are taught by practicing translators and interpreters who teach in their areas of specialization, so you’ll get real-world feedback from the instructors. Caveats: expect to pay $700-$1,500 per class, and don’t assume that completing a translation certificate program will enable you to pass the ATA certification exam.

What about subject-area degrees or training? I think this is the cutting edge in terms of credentials in our industry. Subject-area knowledge has always been important, but I think it’s becoming more so. For example, translation now seems to be a popular option for career-changing lawyers: possibly because lawyers have some of the lowest job satisfaction rates and some of the highest rates of substance abuse and depression of any white-collar profession. Whatever the case, if you’re already established in the profession and want to take your credentials up a notch, subject-area training would be my pick. Whether you do free, online courses through an entity like Coursera or enroll in a full-on graduate program in your specialization, I think it would be energy well spent.

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