Update: this session of Getting Started as a Freelance Translator is full; the next session starts September 24

The next session of my online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator starts tomorrow (Wednesday June 11), and I have one or two spots open, depending on how many people register today. This four-week class is for people who want to launch and run a successful freelance business, and we focus on four targeted assignments: your resume and cover letter, marketing plan, rates and billable hours sheet and online presence. Everyone in the class (maximum of 12 students) gets individual feedback from me on all of those assignments, and we round things out with a weekly question and answer conference call (recording provided if you can’t attend live). You can view the full description and register on my website.

This class is for people in the startup phase, and if you’re past that phase, you can also check out the August session of my more advanced class, Beyond the Basics of Freelancing. Registration for either class is $325, with a $50 discount for ATA members. Hope to see some of you there!

Eve Bodeux and I recently recorded a new episode of Speaking of Translation, entitled “Software localization: insights from the translator and PM perspective.” Eve and Tess Whitty discussed their roles in the localization project process and I moderated. We just posted the recording on our website, and it’s available for streaming or download. As someone who does not do localization, I learned a lot from this episode and I hope that you (whether you’re a localizer or not!) will too.

…and remove:

  1. Vague blah blah that applies to 10,000 other translators (possibly even 11,000). “I help clients communicate across cultures” (let’s hope so…), “Accurate and efficient,” “Detail-oriented,” “Committed to meeting deadlines.” Instead, get specific: “In 12+ years of freelancing, I have never missed a deadline.” “More than just a word-replacer, I’m a key member of my clients’ communications teams.” “I regularly decline assignments that aren’t within my scope of expertise; instead I concentrate on what I do extremely well.” “In addition to working with words, I’m committed to working well with people, and my goal is for the translation process to be as painless as possible for my clients.” I just made those up, and they may not apply to you, and you may not like the style (but if you do, you can steal them). But they’re examples of statements that get your specific story out there.
  2. “References available upon request.” Either include testimonials from clients directly on your marketing materials, or get this sentence out of there. It goes without saying that the client will ask for references if they want them.
  3. “Objective: freelance translation projects using demonstrated expertise in Japanese to English translation.” Again: a message from the department of redundancy department. Clearly, the objective of marketing materials is to find work, and hopefully you have some demonstrated expertise, or you’d be doing something else.
  4. Any reference to “the best.” Translation is very subjective: Usain Bolt can safely say that he’s “the best” at the 100 meter dash, but you can’t measure translation skill with a clock or a meter stick. Plus, every client’s preference varies. If you want to look at every word in the French document and see a direct equivalent in the English document, I’m not your woman, because I like to rewrite more than I like to replace words. Some clients disagree, and that’s OK.
  5. Photos of you with animals (unless you’re a vet), or anything that looks like a selfie. It’s surprising how many people’s “professional photos” are anything but. Translator next to a horse? Snuggling a puppy? Cruise LinkedIn and you’ll find these and more, plus lots of photos that are clearly selfies. To me, a crummy headshot photo is sort of like business cards with the “Get your free business cards at…” logo on the back. It shows that the person isn’t willing to put forth even the small amount of effort required to do better. For example, my current headshot was taken by a friend with a nice camera; our local translators association offers discount group headshot sessions every few years. A professional session is absolutely worth it, but there are also alternatives that still look good. Again, people’s preferences will vary: for my own photos, I lean toward a more natural, less posed look. I wouldn’t cuddle my cat in the photo, but a little wind in the hair doesn’t bother me, whereas other people prefer a more posed, studio look.

Readers, anything else that needs to get the ax?

Tomorrow, Thursday May 29 at 12 noon New York time, Eve Bodeux, Tess Whitty and I will be doing a Speaking of Translation conference call on “Software localization: insights from the project manager and translator perspectives.” The call-in information is here, it’s free, and hey, we won the ProZ Community Choice Award for best podcast about translation, so you should join us! We’ll also provide a recording afterward if you miss the live call.

Based on their hit presentation at the recent ATA conference, Tess and Eve will tell us how the localization PM and localization translator can work together to make the overall project a success. I don’t do localization, so I’ll just moderate and ask a few questions! Eve has 15+ years experience as a localization project manager, and Tess is an expert English to Swedish localization translator (and the host of the Marketing Tips for Translators podcast), so don’t miss their advice if you work in localization or would like to.

A short post, because I’d really like to hear from you. What would our industry look like if agencies were more transparent about what services they provide and what percentage of the total project fee they earn? For example:

In other types of “agent” relationships (authors, athletes, etc.), the client knows exactly what the agent will do, and what percentage of the total billings they will take in exchange. If you find a salaried job through a recruiter, they get a percentage of your first year’s salary, and you know what that percentage is.

This idea came to me for a few reasons. Good agencies have trouble finding good translators, even if they are willing to pay/interested in paying/desperate to pay real money for their services. Partially, this is because some good translators have had it with agencies and will only work with direct clients. A more transparent model could solve some of that problem. In addition, a more transparent model would make it clear that the agency is adding value (or not), and translators could choose to jump on that value (or not).

For example, I understand it when translators rail about “agencies that add no value,” and simply forward e-mails back and forth from the end client to the translator. I get it, and I also avoid working for those types of agencies. But I also think that agencies add a value that they don’t always trumpet: finding the client in the first place. As anyone who works with direct clients will tell you, finding them is a lot of work. It takes time and creativity and persistence and research, so the fact that a translator who works with agencies is freed from that step in the process should be worth a lot, and agencies don’t always point that out.

So what about this. The agency tells the translator how much they’re charging the end client. Sometimes translators already know this, because agency staff mistakenly send us e-mails meant for the end client. In any case, my assumption is that my agency clients are charging the end client 2-3 times what they’re paying me, and I’m OK with that. Then, the agency takes a set percentage of that amount, just for having found the client in the first place. Then, the rest of the agency’s fee is based on what they actually do; the translator knows whether the document is being edited by another translator in the same language pair, or proofed by a speaker of the target language, or not reviewed at all, and the agency charges accordingly. It seems like this would also allow translators to gravitate to agencies that provide the level of service that they want or need. For example, I spend a lot of time researching and marketing to direct clients, and I’d rather work with my own editors than with an anonymous editor provided by an agency. So, I’d be interested in working with an agency (or perhaps more accurately, an agent) who would simply find clients for me, forward the work back and forth and take a percentage of my billings.

Further disclaimer: I’m not at all anti-agency. I disagree with translators who call agencies “parasites,” and I really enjoy working with my agency clients because they let me focus on the parts of the job that I enjoy and am good at. But I think that a) agencies need to do a better job of highlighting their strengths (such as finding and retaining clients), and b) there’s room in the market for more of a commission-based “translator’s agent.”

An idea whose time has come, or a non-starter? Over to you!

Update: the May 14 session of Beyond the Basics is now full. Registration is open for the August 20 session (same links as below)

The next session of my online course Beyond the Basics of Freelancing starts next Wednesday (May 14) and I have four spots left. The course lasts four weeks and is for established freelance translators who want to work with higher-quality agencies and with direct clients. Everyone gets individualized feedback from me on four homework assignments: the current state of your business; marketing to the clients you want rather than taking the work that falls in the inbox;  money matters (rates and income) and creating a plan to move your business forward. In addition, everyone gets a one-hour individual consulting call with me, and we do four one-hour question and answer conference calls with the whole group. The last session went quite well, with this feedback from a student:

This course boosted my confidence immensely in terms of how to look for work and it gave me a sense of direction and of what I need to do in order to find long-term success as a freelance translator. Before, I felt as though I was reaching around in the dark and this course has really clarified the “how-to” business aspects for me.

Registration is $325, with a $50 discount for members of the American Translators Association. Read the full description or register on my website, and you can also read about/register for my beginner-level class, Getting Started as a Freelance Translator, which starts on June 18 (seven spots left in that session).

If I may, I’m going to start this post with a rant. I think there’s room in the translation industry for all kinds of service providers: from freelancers who want to work 10 hours a week to mega-agencies that operate around the world and around the clock. I just wish that all of these providers would be more honest about the advantages that they offer, and likewise about what they cannot do. For example, I don’t work for mega-agencies, but I think that they fill a niche: they can turn huge projects around in a short amount of time, they can manage really complicated projects with tons of languages or components, and they (hopefully) take a lot of responsibilities off the client’s plate because they can find people who provide nearly any linguistic service imaginable.

But by definition, mega-agencies have some limitations: there are many layers between the end client and the person who actually does the linguistic work,  the client will almost never communicate with the person who does the linguistic work, and it’s difficult for the client to have a lot of input into a project that is parceled out to many different freelancers. When something goes wrong in a mega-agency project, it can be difficult to even identify where the mistake happened (the salesperson? the PM? the translator? the person who the translator subcontracted to, in violation of the NDA? the editor? the proofreader? the DTP person? the QA reviewer? the PM who filled in when the original PM went on vacation?). So, here is my wish for our industry: that everyone, from the part-time freelancer to the mega-agency, is honest about their capabilities and limitations.

In that vein, I think that a lot of freelancers who want to work with direct clients make a big mistake: they don’t sell the advantage of using an individual freelancer. Tip: if you’re an individual freelancer and your website refers to “we” or “our company,” you’re not selling the freelance advantage. You’re trying to compete with agencies, and agencies surely handle high-volume, fast-turnaround projects better than you do. So instead, how about selling this instead:

  • You assure your direct clients that you know your limits. A mega-agency may take on virtually every project that comes through the door. You never (never!) take on a project if you’re not confident you can do an outstanding job.
  • You are an “I,” not an amorphous “we.” Even if (as I do) you have a corporation for administrative purposes, you have a one-on-one relationship with your clients. They hire you, they get you. You never subcontract work without permission from the client. When a client really needs you, you answer the phone whenever, wherever. The buck stops with you: if you make a mistake, you take responsibility for it. Drawback of the mega-agency model: so many people touch each project that responsibility gets diffused. You can always convince yourself that someone else will find the mistakes that you don’t find. So when you sell the freelance advantage to direct clients, assure them that you do not work this way: you assume full responsibility for every aspect of your work.
  • You maintain complete confidentiality. It always mystifies me when mega-agencies send a mass e-mail to a huge group of translators, including documents marked HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL (uh, not any more!). When you sell the freelance advantage to a direct client, you emphasize that you can keep the documents as confidential as the client needs: I even have a few clients whose documents I will not work on at my co-working office, to ensure that no one but me ever sees them.
  • You get to know your clients’ projects inside out. A mega-agency can try to have the same translator work on a client’s projects every time, but they can’t guarantee it: said translator may be unavailable, or they may raise their rates. When you sell the freelance advantage to direct clients, you emphasize that over time, your translations will be more consistent than an agency’s, because you will be the only one working on them. For example, I maintain a customer preferences file for all of my direct clients, including their in-house style preferences, their standard instructions for formatting, the names and titles of key people in the company, and any company-specific terms that they use.
  • You bring up questions as soon as they arise. With a mega-agency, the chain of communication between the translator and the client includes many other people. Some agency clients I’ve worked with even discourage translators from “pestering” the client with questions. I agree: don’t pester. But don’t “just translate” either. Example: one of my clients is a European business school. When I translated their admissions materials into English, the entrance requirements were clearly not applicable to American students, who don’t take the French Baccalauréat. I brought this up with the client as soon as I saw it, because the entrance requirements section needed to be completely rewritten for an international audience. This saved the client time and money, since they would have received a useless document, had I “just translated.”

Following these types of tips can help you focus on the clients you serve best, while you let mega-agencies do the same!


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