Archive for the ‘Translation quality’ Category

I’ve noticed a trend, or at least a micro-trend, among the students who take my classes for beginning freelancers: more and more of them are interested in working with direct clients right off the bat. Typically, these are students who know that their language skills are solid; for example they currently work in a job where they use their non-native language all the time, or where translation is one of their job tasks, and they have significant experience in the business world, just not as freelancers. Is this a viable pathway? Is it a smart pathway? Let’s take a closer look.

In my mind, a translator has four core skills: language(s), writing, specialization(s), and business skills. In an ideal world, we’d all have those in equal measure. And certainly, some of those skills are deal-breakers: if your source language reading skills or your target language writing skills are terrible, you’re simply not going to make it as a translator. And in countries/regions where, when you say “I’m a translator,” it’s assumed that you have a degree in translation, that may be a deal-breaker (for better or worse, not the case in the US, where translation programs seem to be dwindling rather than expanding).

I’d also theorize that there are some market factors underlying this trend. The hardest market niche to break into is the middle; the edges of the market are easier. And in our industry (my take here…feel free to disagree), the edges are huge agencies, which base their hiring primarily or even exclusively on their own tests, and direct clients, who will trust that you can do what you say you can do. In the middle, you’re mostly looking at small to medium agencies, which often, and understandably, have barriers to entry such as three to five years’ experience, ATA certification or a Master’s in translation, and thus are not a great option for people with solid skills but not much experience. A typical student in this situation will tell me something like The higher-quality agencies won’t take me because I don’t have enough experience, and I’m not interested in working for the Wal-Marts of translation or they don’t need my specialization, so I’m thinking of just going straight to direct clients.

My honest answer to the direct-to-direct client question is “I’m not sure…I see pluses and minuses.” On the plus side:

  • For translators who work in specializations that many agencies don’t handle (sports marketing, art history, nanotechnology), it may be the only way to pursue that specialization.
  • For translators who work in language pairs with a lot of downward price pressure (English-Spanish, English-Russian, etc.), direct clients offer a way around the reverse auction scene that prevails on online job boards.
  • I think that many direct clients are less concerned with formal qualifications than with what you can do for them: if you can solve their problem, you’re in.

But then again:

  • To do this, you have to be really, really sure that your language skills are good enough. The direct client market is not the place to be working on your language skills.
  • You have to get some objective assessment of your translation skills: if you’ve never done a translation that anyone else has reviewed, don’t start pursuing direct clients just yet.
  • You don’t know what you don’t know, and that can lead to a lot of problems. Example: I recently translated a marketing brochure for one of my direct clients. When they sent me the pre-press PDF, it included a bunch of errors (text pasted incorrectly, etc.), and a tagline that didn’t make sense. But I never would have seen this, had I not told them to send me the pre-press PDF; things can go wrong when you don’t even know what to ask.

Wise readers, over to you: thoughts?

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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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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: 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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About 11 years ago, I went on my first informational interview with a translation company. The project manager’s first question, “What are your languages?” was one that I expected. Her second question, “And what are your specializations?” caught me completely off guard. Specializations?? You mean it’s not enough that I speak another language? Well, as it turns out, language skills alone are not enough to make a successful career as a translator, so here are some thoughts on identifying and pursuing translation specializations.

First, here’s a tip from veteran translator Jill Sommer. Pick an area that you enjoy researching. You’re going to be doing a lot of reading in your specialization, so make sure that you find it interesting. You also want to make sure that your target specialization generates enough paying work for you to have a viable business. Lots of people start out focusing on their avocational interests: weaving, violin-making and the like. There’s undoubtedly work in those areas, but it’s probably not enough, or not well-paying enough, to keep you busy full-time. If you want to work with direct clients, there’s work in pretty much any specialization you can imagine. If you want to work with agencies, you really have to target one of their core areas, for example financial, medical, legal, pharmaceutical, IT, patents, etc. It’s also helpful to identify some of your non-specializations: areas in which you definitely do not want to translate.

It seems to me that some specializations are increasingly dominated by people with significant work experience in the domain. For example in the US, I meet more and more lawyers who either hated practicing law or couldn’t find a satisfying job and thus turned to translation as an alternative. For dense medical texts, you really need a strong medical background to produce a good translation. But many translators are self-taught in their areas of specialization: they pick an area that looks interesting, start with work that isn’t too technical, and learn as they go along.

In some sense, you also want to follow the money. I tell all of my translation students that somewhere, there is an intersection between what you want to translate and what clients will pay good money for. If your passion is art, there may be a well-paying niche translating for art museums that loan and borrow works of art internationally. If your passion is weaving, maybe you can work for textile companies that want to sell their products overseas. In one sense, it’s smart to focus on an industry (law, pharmaceuticals) in which clients have to translate in order to do business. But in another sense, it’s smart to focus on an industry (corporate communications, hospitality) in which clients hope that a really good translation will bring them more business.

Finally, if you’re interested in working with direct clients, don’t fear niche markets. As French to English chemistry translator Karen Tkaczyk will tell you, all you need is enough work for one person! I’ve met successful translators who specialize in horses, philately, fisheries and recycling. And if you want to expand your knowledge in your specialization, a MOOC provider such as Coursera is a good place to start. You can read about my experience in a Coursera epidemiology class here.

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Every now and again, I feel inspired to post a random freelance tip on my Twitter feed. I could say that these are Zen master-esque pearls of wisdom that distill in my mind over the course of a few years, but they’re more like out-of-left-field thoughts that come to me while I’m washing the dishes or folding laundry. Here are two for today; feel free to add a comment with your thoughts on them!

The freelance startup phase: give it time, or pick another business.

One of the most common laments I hear from beginning freelancers is that it’s taking so long to develop a solid client base. “So long” could be defined as anywhere from a month to the better part of a year, depending on the person’s situation. First, I tell the discouraged beginners that for the first year and a half that I was freelancing–a time during which I had planned to work very part-time or not at all, since I had just had a baby–I wondered almost every day if I would be better off getting a full-time job. After about 18 months, I still wasn’t earning a ton of money, but it was enough that I felt encouraged to stay the course. It took about three years of freelancing until I got to the point where I no longer considered the option of returning to full-time work for someone else. Looking back, that was a long three years. But here’s the thing: now, after almost 11 years of freelancing, there is no way that I could replace my freelance income if I worked at an in-house job, especially if I looked for something with similar hours and flexibility. Partially this has to do with location: if I lived in a major East Coast city, there might be in-house jobs that pay more than what I make freelancing and offer generous vacation. But in groovy college towns in the foothills of the Rockies: no way.

If you need quick money–and there’s nothing wrong with that…haven’t we all been there?–pick another business. Another mom from my daughter’s school recently told me that she was in that situation, and although she’s bilingual, in a marketable language, she started a housecleaning business. Within three months, she was bringing in a full-time income. Is the work intellectually stimulating, or creative, or self-directed? Probably not so much. But if you need a source of income ASAP, cleaning houses or walking dogs is a much better option than starting a freelance language business. And I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, since my fantasy sideline career is to become a service dog trainer!

Well-paying work is out there if you look for it. But most people don’t look for it; they wait for it to find them, and meanwhile they complain.

I’m not sure how much explaining this one needs: it’s all right there. Yes, our industry has its share of low-paying work and bottom-feeding clients. In addition, as freelancers we often take that aspect of the industry very personally, as if it’s a reflection of our personal worth. For more on that, see Walt Kania’s insightful post Charge what you’re worth? Please, no on The Freelancery.

But here’s the thing. There is so much well-paying work out there; even clients who are looking to pay high rates to someone who does a really good job. But those clients are too busy with their own work to comb the web looking for you. Maybe they don’t even know that you exist. Seriously: when I interviewed Joanne Archambault about how to find direct clients at industry conferences, she commented that a lot of her clients said that they never knew that someone like her existed, although they desperately needed her. You can go find those high-paying clients at their industry conferences; you can send them postcards; you can give webinars for them; you can write articles for their industry newsletters. But you cannot wait for them to find you, and meanwhile complain about the bottom-feeders and non-payers. It’s tough love, but there you go.

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I’m not a great “tough love” advice-dispenser, but I’m going to give it a try. I work with a lot of beginning translators in my online course (shameless self-promo: the next session starts on April 3 and there are four spots left!). When I follow up with students over the months and years after they finish the course, or when I talk to beginning/aspiring translators in general, some of them have “made it” as freelancers and some of them haven’t. In thinking about advice for translation newcomers and translation students, I’ve unscientifically identified a few pitfalls that can cause serious problems for people who are in the freelance launch phase. I’m sure that readers have great tips and anecdotes too…so feel free to add them!

  • Expecting too much return from too little marketing effort. I get a lot of inquiries from beginning freelancers who are “very discouraged because they’ve applied to over 30 translation companies and received no work.” I know I’ve said this a few (hundred) times before, but here it is again: during my first year as a freelancer, I applied to over 400 translation companies. Then, I sent every single company that responded positively a hand-written note with a business card, thanking them for their response and letting them know that I looked forward to working with them in the future.
  • Expecting the startup phase to be shorter than it is. I think that six months is the bare minimum that anyone can expect–two months to look for work, two months to do the work and two months to get paid. A year is probably more realistic, and I think that most freelancers reach “cruising speed” after about three years.
  • Having weak language skills. As often stated by Chris Durban, author of The Prosperous Translator, it’s hard to develop the linguistic and cultural competence that a translator needs, without spending at least a year in your source language country/ies. And don’t hang out with speakers of your target language the whole time you’re there!
  • Not putting yourself out there. I get it: you’re not good with strangers, you don’t want creepy exes finding your address online, and so forth. But the simple truth of freelancing is that people cannot hire you if they cannot find you. They can’t refer work to you if they don’t know who you are. So whether it’s in person or online, or preferably both, you have to come out of hiding.
  • Getting stuck on the low rate treadmill. This is a tough one. Most beginning translators don’t set out to be underpaid, but working is better than not working, and you have to start somewhere if you want to break in to the industry. Many beginning freelancers tell themselves that in a few months or years, they’ll trade up to better-paying clients. But if you’re translating 10 hours a day just to pay the bills, it’s hard to find that time, so you’re more likely to stick with the low-paying bird in the hand.
  • Remaining in denial about how much work it is to be self-employed. A wise self-employed person once said that being an entrepreneur means working 60 hours a week for yourself so that you don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else. I’m a firm believer in avoiding perpetual overtime, but the essence of this statement is true. I recently gave a talk on self-publishing, after which many of the attendees commented that the idea sounded intriguing, but “like a lot of work.” Um…yeah! It is a lot of work, but I’m more interested in putting that work into my own project than into lining a traditional publisher’s pockets. The same is true of being a freelancer. It’s a lot of work! Did we mention that it’s a lot of work? But the ability to make your own decisions and take responsibility for your own future makes it worth it.

Wise readers, over to you! Why do you think some beginning translators don’t make it?

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