The 9 out of 10 factor

A few years ago, I wrote an article for NewsForge about Linux consultants, and in the course of researching the article, I interviewed Sean Reifschneider, the founder of Colorado-based Linux consultancy ltd.. When I asked Sean to compare working for someone else with working for himself, he said “At the large company [I worked for], I watched while a few people around me worked hard and the rest mostly were waiting for retirement. When you’re a one-man show, EVERYTHING depends on how well or how poorly you do your job, and I’m not just talking about the technical side.”

Since then, I’ve paraphrased that quote in nearly every talk I’ve given to beginning translators, and I’ve often referred the phenomenon Sean’s talking about as “the 9 out of 10 factor.” While a corporate employee who is overall a C+ kind of worker (let’s call that person a 7 out of 10) is maybe not going to be promoted but likely will not be fired either, a C+ freelancer is going to have a hard time staying in business. When clients have a vast array of potential freelancers to choose from, most will choose to work with the best people they can afford, who we’ll call the 9 out of 10, or A+, people.

To be fair, there are reasons for this other than the fact that it’s hard to fire someone from a full-time job simply because they’re not outstanding at what they do. In big corporations, employees contribute skills other than those that directly apply to their jobs, whereas the expectations of freelancers are much more targeted and quantifiable. For example when I was a high school French teacher, I did lots of other things in addition to teaching French, such as advising the yearbook club, serving on faculty committees, chaperoning school dances and trips and running a dorm of 9th-12th grade girls (why I left teaching: a topic for another post!). So, while I would rate myself maybe an 8.5 in teaching skills and much lower in discipline and classroom management, I did a decent job overall at the three schools where I worked because I got along well with my colleagues and students, volunteered for a lot of extra duties and even survived 4 days in Quebec City with 75 middle school girls.

Now, my job description is much more limited: take this French document and put it into English, or proofread the document that someone else already put into English. Certainly, clients enjoy working with translators who are flexible, friendly, generous with their time and get along well with their project managers and other translators, but a translator who is mediocre at their core job is, I believe, much less likely to be forgiven than a corporate employee in the same situation.

So, let’s take a look at what it takes to be an A+ freelance translator:

  • Meet every deadline. This is an absolute requirement for developing a base of regular clients. In addition, don’t “meet” the deadline but send in a huge list of questions along with the file, or untranslated portions of text that need clarification. Allow time before the deadline for these tasks.
  • Have A+ target-language writing skills. Of all the issues that a freelance translator can have, this is perhaps one of the stickiest: not being a good writer in one’s dominant language is a serious handicap.
  • Have A+ source language comprehension skills. Don’t launch a translation business based on “adequate” comprehension of your source language(s); your source language comprehension skills need to be near-native.
  • Translate into your native/dominant language only. This is an important factor in producing a translation that doesn’t sound like a translation and is linguistically accurate. Except when no other option is available, the translator should not be translating into his/her second, third etc. language.
  • Stick to subject areas you know well. If there’s a subject that you struggle to understand in your own language, it will be even worse in your source language(s).
  • Don’t overcommit. It’s always hard to say no to a client or a desirable prospective client, but it’s important to avoid the working too much/working too fast/working too late trap that ends in poor quality work.
  • Be open to feedback. An error on your part doesn’t have to be the end of the client/translator relationship if you handle it correctly. Thank the client for taking the time to go over the issue with you, and assure them that their feedback will help you better meet their needs in the future.

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