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Archive for the ‘Money’ Category

Translator mailing lists and message boards are full of translators asking, “Can you charge extra for…?” (formatting, translating from a poor-quality PDF, talking to the client’s staff on the phone, and so on). If the client is an agency, you have to negotiate those extra charges (or extra unpaid work) directly with them. But here’s my solution for when you’re working with direct clients (and of course you can agree, disagree, or offer your own solution).

  1. Charge the client an all-inclusive rate that’s high enough to cover the occasional unexpected “extra” service: for example the client needs hard copies of a translation with your Certified Translator stamp on them, necessitating an impromptu run to FedEx. What’s that you say…you passed the ATA exam and you never downloaded your Certified Translator seal to have a stamp made? Well, you’d better take care of that right now!
  2. Then, don’t nickle-and-dime the client for these small extra services. Of course if you spend hours on an extra task, you should charge for it. But the FedEx run, the 15-minute phone consultation, the 33-word e-mail that the client forgot to ask you to translate…don’t make a big deal out of those.
  3. But don’t let the client simply forget about them either; it’s a good reminder of the value of a professional translator, and of why the client pays you a premium rate in the first place. My solution: put those items on your invoice, and in the column where you would normally include the cost, write “Courtesy.” “Overnight delivery of hard copies: Courtesy.” “Press release headline suggestions: Courtesy,” and so on. This will jog the client’s memory, remind them of how you helped them out in a pinch, and hopefully help you retain them as a premium client. To me, adding an extra charge for a task that took 10 minutes looks a bit petty and desperate; better to charge a higher rate overall and then do those Courtesy services without additional billing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wise readers, any other thoughts here?

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

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

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

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

Readers, your thoughts?

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

Short answer: it’s a combination.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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This post is inspired by something Ted Wozniak posted on Facebook, linking to S√©bastien 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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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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