Earning six figures (meaning over $100,000 US dollars per year) is a significant goal for lots of freelancers. It’s an ambitious but achievable goal for most translators and interpreters who are good at their work, are ambitious, have good business skills, and are willing to work hard. One confusing thing in our industry is that there are lots of paths to six figures; if it were as simple as “raise your rates,” or “work longer hours,” the goal wouldn’t be so daunting. Let’s look at three ways you might hit the six-figure mark in the next year. If you’d like a first-person account of the six-figure journey, read this excellent post by Spanish translator Paula Arturo.
Work for agencies, and work a lot
I’m not saying this is the preferred path, but it’s a path. I know several translators who work exclusively for agencies and make six figures, because they aim for the high end of the agency market and they work a lot. To do this, you have to have a high tolerance for being in the translation trenches; you have to be willing to crank out 3,000+ words a day, every single day, and you can’t take a ton of vacation. But if you prefer working for agencies, your administrative overhead is a lot lower than someone who works with direct clients. You might only issue a few invoices a month, and you might spend little to no time marketing.
The risk here is burnout: just make sure that in your six-figure quest, you’re not sacrificing your enthusiasm for the job, the quality of your work, or your future sustainability. You also want to pay attention to your vulnerability to client vicissitudes. If you’re working for four agencies and earning 25% of your revenue from each one, think about what you’d do if a client lowered their maximum rate for your language pair, or lost the end client that you primarily work for, or stopped sending you work all together.
Work for at least some direct clients
If there’s one major downside to the “work for agencies, and work a lot” model, it’s that your options, if you choose that route, are fairly narrow. Translate, translate, and translate some more, until you reach your target income. By working for higher-paying clients, you open up various options: you can work the same amount and earn more money, or work less and earn the same amount of money, or use the higher-paying clients to “subsidize” lower-paying work that you take on just because you enjoy it.
Realistically, hitting six figures gets a lot easier if you work with at least some direct clients. Make sure to account for the fact that direct client work is often more time-consuming than agency work. You may be doing a lot more than just translating. When I entered the direct client market, I also found that I worked a lot more slowly, because more of my direct clients used my translations for publication or distribution (grant applications, program reports, etc.) rather than for in-house, informational purposes. Remember that direct clients come in many forms; for example I do a lot of work for individual clients, and I really enjoy it. Direct clients don’t have to be Fortune 500 companies, and many freelancers fail in the direct client market by aiming too high, targeting clients that need more (volume, availability, languages) than a freelancer can realistically deliver.
Another caveat here: working with direct clients isn’t an all or nothing proposition. I work with both agencies and direct clients, and I enjoy them for different reasons. But if you want to hit six figures, you’re going to have an easier time if you filter at least some direct clients into your mix.
Have multiple revenue streams
As Walt Kania says, “A few prongs is good. With twelve prongs, you have a manure fork,” and you definitely don’t want that. But multiple revenue streams can be a big boost to your six-figure goals. For example, I work for agencies and direct clients, I earn royalties from my books, and I teach classes and do consulting for other translators. Personally, I enjoy the mix. Sometimes, when one thing is down, another is up. Or when I don’t feel like sending out warm e-mails to prospective direct clients, I do feel like marketing my classes, or the other way around. Some weeks it feels great to dive into a meaty translation project, and other weeks I really enjoy making a new set of videos for one of my classes.
The key here is to find revenue streams that complement each other and don’t make you feel pulled in a million directions. It also helps to have a relatively easy time shifting gears (translate in the morning, edit in the afternoon, teach at night, or whatever your revenue streams are), and you also need to pick the right niches when you look at these multiple streams. Another aspect I enjoy is that I don’t have to worry too much if I want to take on a lower-paying or pro bono project just because I enjoy it; it’s nearly always balanced out by some higher-paying work.
Two things are true about becoming a six-figure translator: it’s doable (if anyone tells you otherwise, seek a second opinion), and it takes a lot of work and some creativity. And you need a motivation; earning more for the sake of earning more isn’t going to carry you through a whole year of hard work. My motivations are that I love to take chunks of time off to travel with my family, and that I hate worrying about money. Together, those things motivate me to keep working at all of my revenue streams so that they add up to what I want to earn.
Readers, over to you: thoughts on breaking the six-figure mark?
Clark Gillette says
I have been making 6 figures for the last several years. I am primarily in the “work for high end agencies, and work a lot” category. I am comfortable working for agencies because they funnel the work to me, and there is a lot of variety. I work for 1 very large agency, 2 medium-sized and several small agencies. My only direct clients have been individuals. But what you say about the risks of doing this is correct: over the summer my largest agency with whom I’ve worked at least 10 years suddenly stopped sending me work for over 2 months and my income went down suddenly and unexpectedly. Your article has made me think I should be exploring getting a few direct clients. Do you have articles about good ways to do that?
Corinne McKay says
Thanks Clark! Interesting point about your agency client who dropped off the map; definitely a risk! In the search box on my blog, just put in “direct clients” and you’ll find some posts that might be helpful.
Łukasz Gos says
Sorry to chime in like this between you and Corinne, but you could do what I did once: set up a website and introduce yourself as an experienced agency translator now accepting direct business clients. Make it all about B2B. Make it scream B2B. Just no guru nonsense or excessive babbling, at this point in your life you don’t need such conventional gapfill. List your pairs and fields. Write something about the types of texts you’ve been doing, but avoid ‘selling’ patents, wills, invoices, registration forms, safety sheets etc. like cheap itemized commodities on a starving village lawyer’s price sheet. Explain how you’ve already worked for the largest and the most powerful companies in the world, just not for your own account, which is the part that is changing now. Hence also small and medium entrepreneurs can now get a piece of that tasty cake (i.e. they can get the quality that the top players were getting), and you’ve probably already worked for one or two (or 20) startups too anyway, so it’s not like they’re alien to you. Just like anybody else, you need to sell your story. (But don’t forget about anchors / attention grabbers relating directly to your prospective clients’ needs and wants, essentially enhanced keywords, not necessarily verbal.) In most cases selling your story means projecting competence and authority, while making you an interesting person and preferably nice to work with, with a human touch and not too much of a stick (except in certain fields). Look up ‘golden circle’ (why-how-what presentation) and, if you really, really want to get involved, ‘blue ocean’. But since you’ve been making six figures already, you can afford a professional marketer — don’t DIY it (or it could end up looking like DUI). You’ll lose more money fiddling with a website, PowerPoint presentations etc. then if you spent that time working and just paid a pro’. And pick from the top regions of pro’. The lower segment aren’t much better than a smart amateur (I would know, I am one — amateur, I mean).
Not there yet, but I do not exclude the possibility of hitting the $100,000 mark (which sounds a lot better than the €89,000 mark, doesn’t it? 🙂 in 2017 or 2018. What I find most rewarding in terms of money are large texts within my “hyper specialisations”, for direct clients: overhead is relatively small, I can spend the majority of my time on billable work, I know the subject matter so well that I do not need to spend a lot of time on terminology research, and I can charge my full rate for all repetitions and let my CAT-tool do part of the work (sometimes a really big part of it).
Corinne McKay says
Thanks Edith! Yes, that’s true about 100K versus 89K euros! Excellent point about “hyper specializations” (I translate for several European universities and I agree!).
Łukasz Gos says
Judging by the large texts and hyper specializations chances are you aren’t coming from a business background, so learning a bit about the mindset of those people who are could be helpful. If you brush up on some basics of running a business (translation agency or otherwise), it will help you talk to them in their own language, translate your services into their needs and wants and benefits for them, and find out when they’re just bluffing or exaggerating to negotiate your rates down. About the latter, I’d start from this page (but the market is full of books about that too): http://changingminds.org/disciplines/negotiation/tactics/tactics.htm
Łukasz Gos says
Woah, what a nice choice of subject, Corinne.
Before discussing the details I’d like to point out that barely reaching six figures is not necessarily an ambitious goal in many job lines — and translators aren’t much different from those. What’s different is that we are having the shackles of poverty and indenture imposed on us by the industry. A hostile industry. A translator arriving at six figures should no more raise eyebrows than a lawyer, doctor, architect, realtor (etc. etc.) getting there.
Yes, it’s possible to make quite a sizeable income working for agencies, as long — in line with your apt caveat — one sticks with the top end of agencies (for the sake of beginners: this doens’t mean the biggest agencies). I would like to develop on that a bit, first: Simply landing the highest rates you possibly can is not everything. If you get 20% extra but put in 80% more time, you lose, in economic terms.
Supposing you work 250 days a year, to meet 100,000 p.a. your daily average needs to be 400. Good luck getting to 400 if you’re translating something ridiculously difficult at even the high end of agency rates.
Next, yes, you don’t have to do a lot of marketing. More technically speaking, agencies come somewhat educated, they already know they need your type of services (if not you specifically), and they aren’t normally interested in a lot of talking. Hence, there is less work to be done, and a little time and effort can go a long way. The variables work in your favour. However, obviously, the rewards are capped. It’s a trade-off. For the record, there are also direct clients who are more of a sophisticated buyer than the average agency is, and who really mean business, unlike the ever-present risk that whatever agency you’re talking to is simply recruiting for recruiting’s sake, along with some other typical agency aberrations.
Where I differ, based on personal experience, is the relative admin hassle. At this point in the evolution of the market, agencies are bigger time-wasters than direct business clients.
Furthermore, working with agencies you usually have to play by their rules. By contrast, direct clients often play by yours. And that improves your comfort and helps you remain a respected professional and not a plantation slave.
Now, as for the 3K+ per day. You can do that for direct clients too, and the difference is that direct clients are more likely to pay rush fees. Obviously, agencies are more likely to either drive the price down for their client or pocket the difference for themselves.
Furthermore, business clients are not systemically opposed to you — there is little in terms of an adversarial relationship. Exceptions happen, but normally they are less likely to feel the need to downplay your importance and degrade your status as a threat to theirs, because you are no such threat (normally).
The key thing here is respect. Once a corporate manager with some serious purchasing authority sees some serious competence and authority in you, you’re set. So you need to project that competence and authority, but news flash: it’s not an uphill battle against an organization whose evolutionary goal is to make sure you get as little recognition as possible and then less and less.
Once corporates get over trying to see you as a production employee, your life improves. The moment they realize you’re a one-person conduit for the efforts of many (which is the whole point of running an organization), you’re golden. Scale works in your favour now, just like it does for the manager, analyst, consultant or some other person in an important role whose work you’re translating for the benefit of the entire organization.
Incidentally, agencies that don’t exhibit the negative patterns I’ve just mentioned are agencies you want to work with. You probably want to give them some information that will help them and discuss some arrangements to make your relationship more productive.
Re: ‘clients that need more’, I think this is a good opportunity to expose one of the biggest fallacies of the ‘industry’. Clients with large demand, multiple different fields, multiple languages etc. are not incapable of managing that workload. They don’t need to find a translation agency to outsource the hassle to, ASAP. That’s what the combined marketing efforts of many agencies and easily influenced translators (who spread the message) would have you believe. But it’s not true.
Neither are large institutional clients intellectually and organizationally incompetent to the point of being incapable of managing translation flow or realizing that different people are good at different things, or lazy to the point of being unable to overcome the compulsion to buy everything from a one-stop shop. The kind that agencies pretend to offer — often by forcing translators to do DTP etc.
For the record, agencies aren’t always particularly competent organizers, either, to put it mildly. And their contribution comes at the cost of severing the client-translator link.
Again, it’s neither something that exceeds high-volume clients’ competence or imposes an intolerable burden or inconvenience on them, contrary to the oft-repeated lies of agency marketing. Don’t allow agency sales proposals to poison your view of the market (and of yourself, your abilities, your potential to be useful etc.).
However, yes, you may have some persuading to do. Shouldn’t be much of a problem if you have a somewhat impressive CV, though, unlike with agencies, who will always or at least often try to downplay your qualifications, status, importance and everything else that is yours simply so that they can negotiate a lower rate with you and keep more control.
It’s very important to keep the radar on — even the most successful premium translators are not totally immune to agency propaganda and sometimes end up repeating assertions that aren’t true but certainly work in agencies’ collective interest. That’s something to spot them by (if one doubts the veracity or accuracy of it and if it seems to benefit agencies, then one needs to adopt a more critical approach).
Corinne McKay says
Hi Corinne, It’s fun to read this post alongside “Secrets of six-figure translators” — the one you published on the same subject in 2008 that appears in the sidebar.
I do recall an animated discussion at the time (and may even have contributed a thought or two, hmm). 🙂
But I admit I’m very uncomfortable with at least one piece of advice in the current post.
“Make sure to account for the fact that direct client work is often more time-consuming than agency work. You may be doing a lot more than just translating, and you’ll probably need to slow your translation pace down in order to meet direct clients’ quality demands.”
First sentence: yup. Second sentence: huh? Are there really deux poids et deux mesures ?
That is, while I agree that there is probably more marketing and admin with direct clients (offset by higher prices and other benefits), why would the *pace of your translation work* proper change? Agencies expect to get the same quality you’d provide to a direct client, don’t they? Do their subcontractors state out loud that they are getting quick & dirty, or less good than a direct client?
Yikes, I find myself in the curious (for me) position of defending agencies’ right to expect top-notch work. But maybe you meant something else altogether.
Łukasz Gos says
There are agencies, and there agencies. Then there is T and there is TEP. Yes, agencies have the right to expect top-notch work, but top-notch work comes at top-notch price. You get what you pay for. In many situations the difference is produced by several rounds of additional revisions, and that’s something which costs time. Consequently, it costs money. If there is already a dedicated competent editor/reviser in the picture, then it actually makes sense to avoid overlaps and leave the additional rounds to the second competent pair of eyes.
Plus, an agency does not, after all, in my opinion, have any right to expect top-notch work from the countless crowds of underpaid translators filling the database after being forced to offer their ‘best rates’ in this or that ‘exciting opportunity’. They’ll get that right once they stop destroying the ‘industry’ by forcing poverty rates on translators either directly or directly. Indirectly means by undercutting quality providers on the price and lying to clients about what quality they’re actually paying those ‘guaranteed best prices’ for.
On a different note, I failed to spot: ‘You may be doing a lot more than just translating,’ which I’d like to comment on too. In my experience direct clients don’t ask for non-translation work (except perhaps for consumers and small businesses who ask you to make a call or check some data for them or draft something). On the other hand, agencies increasingly do just that, in addition to making translation tasks more and more complicated. Clients usually don’t have the gall to timidly ask for things PMs brazenly demand and make it look like it’s your job to do.
To wit, not only do agencies bully you into revising and upgrading the originals, in addition to ingratiation through flattering translatio, all the while acting like doing that is required by professional standards inherent to translation itself*, they offer more and more additional services of all sorts, often simple, cheap, deskilled secretarial and copy-shop activities, or, on the contrary, advanced professional-grade graphical editing, DTP etc. within the price simply because ‘the client requires’, all of which they expect to delegate to the translator.
(* Notably, this particular fallacy is something which some premium translators also engage in, disingenuously, as opposed to properly referencing those as *additional* services or *added* value, which would require them to actually convince the clients they need those services, making them harder to sell. So instead they bundle and disguise the bundling. Some additionally accuse those who don’t bundle and disguide of failing to provide the core service up to the proper professional standard for it, which is a shame. I wish they would stop doing that. I don’t really sell pure T myself, but I defend the right of translators to provide T, not TEP, when asked for and paid for T. Agencies do it both ways, i.e. either bundle to get more money from the clients or bully translators into providing TEP at the price of T by alleging that’s what T requires.)
Allison Wright says
I see Chris has beaten me to it. I also came out in hives over the same passage (emphasis mine):
“Realistically, hitting six figures gets a lot easier if you work with at least some direct clients. Make sure to account for the fact that direct client work is often more time-consuming than agency work. You may be doing a lot more than just translating, and *you’ll probably need to slow your translation pace down in order to meet direct clients’ quality demands.*
My immediate response first thing this morning remains the same last thing at night:
1. My pace is my pace, regardless of who the client is. My pace is determined by a host of factors including the nature of the text, familiarity with the subject, and the readiness of coffee supply.
2. *My quality criteria* that I apply to a text do not change from client to client. Am I to understand that you are implying that if a translation is for an agency, one can simply throw caution to the wind and write any old manure that pops into one’s head? If you meant that, then obviously, I have been labouring under a misconception all these years!
3. Granted, I will call in a colleague to revise/proofread or give an opinion on weak areas in my translation prior to delivery to a direct client, but by the same token, I will raise issues I have with an agency either before or at the time of delivery. In my book, achieving quality on every single text is key, no matter who the client is.
4. Every client is someone’s direct client. I do not care if there are two agencies between me and the direct client, but I do care about what, exactly, the end client is going to receive.
5. Sometimes direct clients need you to *pick up the pace*, not slow down: those short, urgent texts do have a way of popping up occasionally, and needing translation on the turn. You need to pick up the pace in translation speed, in bright ideas – sometimes over the phone – and pick up the pace in developing a meaningful professional relationship with that client which points to your availability, within reason, and your reliability. It seems that my last point applies to agencies too.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks for your comments; I’ve updated that sentence for clarity.
Much clearer now — thanks, Corinne.
So your agency work was explicitly for internal use, whereas the direct-client assignments were for publication/client-facing situations. Makes sense.
Very good to focus attention on this, since time and again I’ve seen translators eager to move upmarket stumble at this juncture — assuming that all it takes is to market themselves better or more aggressively to crack into the (oh dear, that word :)) premium market. Doesn’t work, as there will likely be quality issues in play.
@Łukasz — reading you, I wonder: if translators accept an assignment for a mid-market translation agency (and accept said agency’s hard coin in so doing), do they also explicitly say “since you are not paying enough, I’m going to do a so-so job”? Or is the agreement (contract?) clear that their work will be professional and very well done? I’m trying to get my head around this.
Marga Burke-Lowe says
Thanks for a really interesting post, Corinne. I came to it after it was edited, and my experience has very much been the same as yours, that I tend to translate more slowly for direct clients. This is basically because they send me different types of text: I do more marketing and publications for direct clients, and more “information only” stuff for agencies. This split seems to be very common in medical translation (and probably in several other fields too).
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Marga! Very interesting that the in-house/publication breakdown is similar for you too!
David L. Lauman says
Thank you for your interesting post. I’d also like to thank the colleagues who have shared their thoughts.
Just curious: how many freelance language specialists do you know who claim to gross $100K or more? What are their language combinations? Are they mostly translators or are there any interpreters? Do they all tend to work in extremely specialized niche areas? On average, how many years had they been working as translators and/or interpreters before clearing the 100K mark?
It would be great if there were a publication available on this topic like “The Millionaire Next Door”, to get a more in-depth picture about what high-grossing language specialists have in common.
Thank you in advance for your insight.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks David! For me, those questions are a big “I don’t know.” All of my information about six-figure translators is anecdotal, from other translators I work with. My guesses (emphasis on guesses here would be):
1) How many: Maybe the top 20% of the industry?
2) Languages: Not sure if there’s any pattern. Japanese seems to be a plus 🙂
3) I know six-figure interpreters as well as translators
4) Specialized: I think you have to be, in order to move above the median income.
5) Years in the business: Mostly experienced people, but some newbies with the go-getter spirit or more stamina than us oldies 🙂
Timothy Friese says
These are interesting questions, and ones I think about as I have quickly moved up in the industry to become a six-figure earner myself. One of my ‘secrets’ is aggressively turning down work that won’t pay what I want. Another key is asking for overload rates when I’m already mostly booked for a week. Rather than turning down work, I say I am quite busy but I can do it for 150% of my normal rate. Many clients walk but some agree to pay it. That makes for a long but very profitable week for me.
To answer Corinne’s same points:
1) How many: Really couldn’t say.
2) Languages: I hear certain markets like German and Japanese are strong, though I don’t know. In my language pairs (Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Hebrew > English), I find that good Arabic or Hebrew work takes a lot of time because of how much you have to change sentence structure, how much research is involved, and how poor the resources are. As a result, these two actually pay less per hour. I have gotten very fast in Spanish and Portuguese in my areas (legal, especially legal cases involving oil, gas, and mining companies)
3) A minority of my work is interpreting, and I try to be choosy and take interpreting work that pays well, enough to compete with my translation. Plus, the mix of different kinds of work keeps me from burning out
4) Specialized: I certainly am specialized, but not super-niche. I am a legal translator, and I tend to work on what is current. Since there are certain legal issues in Brazil right now, I am working a lot on those. At the same time, however, I don’t turn down what has turned out to be ~150,000 words of plant genetics this year (which I studied in college).
5) Years in the business: I hit six figures in my third year (in around 44 weeks of work + 8 weeks of vacation) and will do the same or slightly better this year, my fourth year, with a little less vacation. I think I am an exception, however, in having this kind of success.
And with regards to technology, I use a CAT tool when I can tell it will be helpful, and have not yet tried voice recognition.
Lukasz Gos says
Six-figure earners don’t necessarily have to be the ‘top’ professionally, as long as they have a steady stream flowing in. It’s enough that they make 2000 hours x $50/hr = $100K (p.a.).
Interestingly, in this model an interpreter would have to work a lot, take assignments that don’t require massive preparation, and still charge way more than is the average, considering that no matter what, the hours worked will always far exceed billable hours.
A fast-churning translator doesn’t have the problem unless the agency or client is monitoring speed statistics for use in aggressive negotiation of future fees. If you manage to do 750 words/hr, you can get to six figures on six cents a word without extreme overtime.
… You just need relatively easy texts and a lot of them, plus minimum negotiation time, a high conversion rate etc. Comparatively low rates for one’s qualifications help keep negotiations short and conversions high.
By comparison, premium translators often actually lose money by charging higher fees and consequently getting more difficult texts, more hands-on/high-maintenance clients, more negotiation time, more negotiations that don’t lead to a successful sale.
Simple exercise: Suppose two scenarios, each starting from X words at Y per: (A) make 20% more per word but put in 80% more time due to receiving only the most difficult texts from the relevant client or agency (which is a realistic ratio, as nobody wants to pay 1:1 for added difficulty); (B) make 20% less per word but start receiving easier texts that save 80% of your time.
Let me help:
For simplicty let’s say Annie, a translator with 20 years of experience and an advanced degree in her field in addition to her translation or language degree, does 2000 words a day at $0.10 per. This means she makes $200 a day, so she’s in the $50K p.a. range with some modest overtime. Now: (A) She starts charging $0.12 but can only do 1111 (approx.) words per day. This means she has dropped to $133 per day despite having raised rather than lowered her fees. Or (B) she starts charging $0.08 and just skipping the more difficult texts (altogether or unless there’s extra pay), so she can now churn out 3600 words a day. She now makes $288 per day, i.e. more, despite having lowered rather than raised her fees.
Theoretically — and some people do do this practically — you could go down to $0.06 per as long as it allowed you to get close to 7K per day, and you’d be making 6 figures. The schedule wouldn’t be as bad as in big law firms, for example, but it would still be quite brutal, unless you did simple text for a happy client that didn’t have an incompetent QA department questioning a lot of things that are perfectly okay and wasting your time and taxing your nerves.
I’m pretty sure this is done a lot more than some of us would think, and those translators aren’t identifiable as the ‘top’, if identifiable at all. They may very well be bunkered up in their little caves churning out those words by the thousand and not interacting much with the broader freelance scene.
Tom Hoar says
Corinne, Thank you for this insight into a translator’s path. I’m a technology vendor making desktop translation software for professional translators (http://www.slate.rocks). I’m curious. Why your suggestions didn’t include mastering technologies (software or hardware tools) that enhance/augment your productivity? Wouldn’t mastering some technologies, without degrading your quality, help you “crank out 3,000+ words a day?”
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Tom! Mmmm. That’s a big can of worms. In a word, yes, technology that helps translators work faster and more consistently without degrading quality should definitely enter into the equation. I’m not a technophobe: I use Trados Studio and I like it a lot for certain projects. The automated glossary function alone can be a real lifesaver. However, I find that it kills the flow of my writing (sentence, sentence, sentence). It’s hard to combine or split sentences, or reorder ideas in a paragraph, within the confines of the tool, and my higher-paying clients want/need that kind of rewriting, not just a French sentence = English sentence kind of translation. Additionally, you have the factor that when you work for agencies, you have at least three parties (the end client, the agency, and the translator) gunning for a slice of that productivity gain. The end client and the agency often want to pay the translator less for repetitions, while the translator argues that they paid for the tool and used unpaid time to learn to use it. Personally I feel that competing on price and speed is a losing battle, because someone is always faster or cheaper. So there’s that. But yes, technology is definitely a factor.
Łukasz Gos says
The problem is that ‘productivity’ is largely a misnomer. It’s a polite word to describe the invasion of translation by the IT industry, where both IT companies and translation agencies use the technology to prove to translators that they don’t deserve to be paid and that the best they have to offer is consistency and compliance, never any personal input. A once proud profession is being reduced to bluecollarized, deskilled, entry-level office staff in the form of tool operators. Meanwhile, IT people don’t even know how and how much something like a ‘70% match’ really contributes to a translator’s work. What they want is to assert control and remove the human factor from translation. This is why ‘productivity’ is such a sore spot with translators. And I’m saying this as someone who has programmed since age 13 and tinkered with hardware since a while later, not an abnegate.
The way agencies are using technology right now is detrimental. They divide large texts into pieces to be glued back together after 5 different translators are done, using the same glossary or term base or dynamically updated TM. They expect translators to use other people’s TMs and thus either go out of their way to emulate the style of the previous translator — sometimes multiple previous translators, each with a different set of habits reflected in the (internally inconsistent) TM — or just forget about quality and keep churning out weighted words.
They go as far as preventing translators from making typographic changes, ignoring the fact that typography, not just punctuation, differs from one language to the next. They impose their glossaries, termbases and TMs as Something That Must Be Obeyed And Never Argued With — sometimes Accepted by the Client™ too — and there must be no deviation, no matter how evidently dumb it is (or the outcome).
And the rules are made by people who don’t know much about language; in fact, often less than a child of average intelligence should know midway through primary (elementary) school. Often people who actually lack general knowledge and any particular smarts but are completely focused on either IT or sales. And conveniently controllable by those above them in the chain.
Then there are the marketing lies of agencies and exaggerations of CAT vendors.
What makes you capable of ‘cranking out 3000+ words a day’ (I know people who get up to 10K and more) is human skill in translation, language skill in general, writing skill in general, general knowledge, specialist knowledge, intelligence and imagination. Not some tool. A hammer does not a carpenter make.
Then there’s also the cost. No IT person knows in what state it leaves a translator to have done e.g. 10K words, forget 20K or 30K non-stop on an emergency call, where you have no option but to go on. Not unless that person draws on his or her own comparable experience from his or her own profession and life as opposed to making (not so very) educated guesses about translators and translation.
I once wrote a parser in a programming language I didn’t actually know at the time of first using it, then I spent the night feeding the replacement tables and then feeding that parser to convert a whole portal single-handedly overnight to avoid problems and just be done with it. That sort of experience doesn’t even begin to compare to those extreme translation projects — the kind that agencies, assisted or even owned and managed by IT companies at every step — think it’s okay to just ask, and call it an ‘exciting opportunity’ or say something about a key client, or, instead of paying you a significant bonus for overtime, have the gall or the idiocy to ask for a volume discount because it’s sooo maaanyyy words.
Enough for now. I didn’t mean to be unkind, just to give you an honest opinion.
Tom Hoar says
Łukasz, I didn’t perceive any unkind comments. I’ve witnessed most of your observations. When we launched Slate Desktop, our largest customer (“top 10”) retaliated by dropping our relationship. They were convinced that a translation engine running on a translator’s desktop cuts into their margins. You are quite correct that agencies develop and use technologies to lock-in customers and squeeze margins from translators.
Cloud-based subscription CAT services extend that business model by tracking a translator’s activities and reporting your production rates to the agency. Agencies, in turn, lower their per-word rates for faster translators to keep the overall compensation within a very profitable range for the agency. As you know, these CATs and agencies collaborate to keep rates well below the 6-figure subject of Corinne’s blog.
Still, there are a few independent vendors selling real technologies who offer real ownership, not rentals. I hope you find some time experiment with Slate Desktop.
Tom Hoar says
Yes! Talk about a can of worms. Funny you should mentioned “technophobe.” I’ve typically played the role of middleman in the battle between nerds and technophobe translators. I think the translators are winning the battle, gaining savvy while phobia fades. Nerds, on the other hand, still haven’t a clue. Also, thank you for your unsolicited (and very welcomed) input about faster/cheaper. I’ll compare with graphics software, I prefer Adobe’s strategy over Corel’s. From the beginning, Corel pursued novice conveniences with commodity pricing. Adobe focused on features for professionals with pain-point pricing. Now 26 years later, Adobe rules.
Łukasz Gos says
P.S. For the sake of clarity, though: I rely on concordances and the Biggest Boon Ever(™) that is the table layout with source on the left and target on the right, which makes the revising and editing and a bunch of other things so much easier in legal translation, which is a field often thought to be CAT-free (except by ignorant agencies who will apply localization methods to that sort of translation and even copy a judge’s signature and stamp over because, to them and their minds dead-set on interface localization, a translation has to keep the exact look of the original (whereas even designers within the IT field know that content is king and you adapt layout to content, not the other way round, but I digress). Even TM is of great help there, as it does in fact enhance my consistency by not having me scroll over (and inevitably fail to realize the need to do so at least some of the time, especially for isolated sentences that don’t otherwise stand out much). I’ve even used CATs for marketing and literature, though not exclusively and not without learning to overcome that structure/flow problem Corinne mentioned. Again, I’m not an ignorant person, just someone who refuses to play by the industry’s rules and put a polite shroud of silence on certain taboo subjects, uphold the agencies’ marketing fiction etc. There is definitely a speed gain, but no magic is going on and the tool itself — always remaining just a tool, not replacing me as the core provider — does not produce any sort of inexplicable quantum jumps or metaphysical transformations, which is what PMs, IT people and sometimes clients seem to think about because of agency marketing and the marketing of IT companies producing translation tools.
Steve Rainwater says
Corinne, great article! Wish I’d have read it or you had written it several years ago. Not sure if you remember but you and I exchanged a few emails several years ago when I was first thinking about becoming a translator. You suggested that if I “required” this kind of income as a translator that I might be better off looking at another career as this is not common or easy. Well I stayed in my same career for 4 more years. But I wish I’d made the jump sooner.
I’ve found what you say above to be exactly true, and am happy to report that now in my second calendar year as a translator I’m on track to pass the 100k mark sometime in the last two months of the year (I’ve been a freelancer in another field for years, so I know “anything can happen” in the last quarter.) But I’m already close enough now at of end Q-3 I should be in good shape to get past the finish line.
I’m doing it via your method #1. It’s actually fairly simple and enjoyable, I’m averaging about 4.5k words a day, and I can pull this off in 6-10 hours a day, depending on the kind of content I have, and going at a fairly even pace. I have a couple of agencies that give me all I can handle and more, my kids are out of the house and life is pretty good. For example, today I actually did 8k in about 9 hours, but spoke some of it.
So the income will be good for now, but I see where you’re coming from in terms of getting a little spent, and not taking much time off. I would not want to keep this pace for 10 years, but I can do it for 3-4 and don’t think I’ll be too worse for the wear. In the meantime, I’m working on the diversification you speak about in your third point. A little mix will be perfect. I won’t offer classes or such products, but I’ll publish a few things (in progress now, coming soon) and probably outsource some stuff with direct clients (my background). Brick by brick.
But good to read this now in retrospect. Glad you didn’t scare me away for good—Thanks again!
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Steve! I’m also glad I didn’t scare you away (unfortunately I don’t recall that e-mail exchange!). Thanks very much for that update.
How do you find these ‘premium’ agencies? There are so many agencies out there. Where do you even start?
I currently make a significant amount of my (very small) income from direct clients (mostly education/research/public sector). However, I think I might be undercharging when I take on high-level work. I recently translated a university research funding proposal (worth several hundred thousand euros in funding) from German to English. It was *extremely* demanding, but I think I did a great job with it. What should a person charge for that kind of work?
I think you can’t hit the 6-figures mark by purely translating. This is because of a number of factors. Top three that pops to my mind are: 1) it’s mentally-intensive work, you can’t really sustain too a high rhythm for very long. It wears you down. 2) Somehow people think about translations as a commodity with no added value. They are just expecting you don’t “screw” the author’s work, and that your role is marginal. Reasonably, I can’t think of a case where there is no higher limit and you can ask whatever rate.
3) If you are getting paid – say – $0.50 per word, people are expecting a $0.50 per word quality, and this takes time, a lot of editing, re-reading, etc. If you’re alone doing this, admitting you can ALONE do all of this, it will take you time. Even authors have editors and proofreaders, and this is because perfection needs honing, and honing requires a fresh mind, maybe a new pair of eyes or two and time.