This post originally appeared as a newsletter to my mailing list; I’m reprinting it here while taking some time off from blogging this summer!
Lots of us have heard the advice that “it’s time to move up in the translation market,” in response to changes in our industry brought about by–among other factors–technology and globalization.
“Move up in the market” is great advice, but what does “moving on up” entail? You’re unlikely to double your rates with your current clients, so you need a new strategy. Let’s take a look.
Tip 1: See and believe that it’s possible. This sounds a bit new age-y, but mindset makes a huge difference when you’re trying to up your game. Think of it this way: behaviors, just like illnesses, are contagious. If you’re surrounded exclusively by translators who are struggling to make ends meet, it’s not surprising that you see that as the norm. If you’re surrounded by translators who have a full stable of high-paying clients, and who have a similar level of financial security to people with salaried jobs, you start to see that as the norm too. And there are clients out there who will pay high enough rates for you to earn a six-figure income, but you need to be actively looking for them, not waiting for them to find you.
Tip 2: Attend professional development events for successful translators. In about 2008, I decided that it was my time to “move on up” and start working exclusively with high-end agencies and direct clients. In 2009, Chris Durban and other premium-market translators launched the Translate In… series (that year, we translated in the Catskills), which has continued and expanded, with summer master classes in France and Quebec. That first session was such an eye-opener to me; to see the changes that I needed to make in my translation skills, workflow, and business model in order to move up. Whatever your language pair, you need to start attending those types of events: being a better translator is an often-overlooked element of moving up in the market.
Tip 3: Set a red zone rate and don’t budge. Because we generally price our work in cents per word, discounts can seem inconsequential. It feels petty to argue over a cent, or half a cent. But…those cents add up when you translate hundreds of thousands of words a year. Those cents show clients what you think your work is worth. Those cents make you feel devalued and demoralized before you even start the project. Rather than negotiating on a case-by-case basis, you need a rate below which you never go. I recently heard a colleague say, “I don’t turn on the computer for less than…” That type of policy can help you avoid making those small concessions that add up over time.
Tip 4: Fish in smaller ponds. For lots of translators, aiming higher means targeting huge companies. But the Microsofts and Sanofis and Deutsche Banks of this world aren’t usually the best place to start. It’s difficult to know who to contact. Some–although certainly not all–large companies aren’t willing to work directly with freelancers. You’re often better off targeting smaller companies in your specializations, where you can find the name of the appropriate person to contact, and send them a personalized e-mail, paper letter, or LinkedIn InMail.
Tip 5: Watch for new trends. One key to moving up in the market is to look for hidden gold mines; types of clients who are–perhaps suddenly and urgently–in need of a good translator. As an example, I enjoy translating content marketing materials like blog posts and e-newsletters. I’ve recently started working with two environmental foundations that feel–perhaps correctly–that in order to broaden their base of fans, supporters, and donors, they must be on social media in English. These clients generate a steady flow of work; each project may be small, with a 500-word blog post here and a 750-word e-newsletter there, but I hear from them at least twice a week. I’d call this a micro-trend, but it’s prompted me to consider actively looking for more of these types of clients.
Tip 6: Thicken your skin. Again, another mindset shift, but an important one. It’s hard to up your game if you feel broken and demoralized after every interaction with a client who won’t pay your rates, or every marketing contact that goes un-returned. You simply have to keep plowing forward until you have the base of clients that you want, and you have to adopt the mindset that it’s better to find out up front that a client won’t pay what you want or need to earn.
Bonus tip: be realistic about what you need or want to earn. This is a real struggle for a lot of freelancers. When you add up the amount of money you want in your bank account every month, plus taxes, health insurance, vacation time, professional development, computer hardware and software, retirement account contributions, etc. etc., it’s a big number. But in order to make freelancing sustainable, you need to earn an income where you have a similar level of financial security to someone with a salaried job.
Readers, over to you! Tell us your best tips for moving up in the translation market!
Gabor Nemet says
Ignore inquieries that simply say “Hello,” without mentioning your name.
Corinne McKay says
Yes, that’s definitely advisable! Thanks for your comment.
Kevin Hendzel says
Corinne, I’m sort of gobsmacked (I’ve wanted to use that word for a long time) 🙂 about your comment under “Tip 2:” “Being a better translator is an often-overlooked element of moving up in the market.”
That’s like saying Donald Trump’s hair is an often overlooked element of his appearance.
Perhaps it would be helpful if I went down the list of premium-market translators who have spent the better part of the last two or three decades hammering home the point that “hard skills” and “becoming a better translator” were the single most important components in moving upmarket.
My very first blog post, guest hosted by the NCATA, was firmly based on that very point — and it dates to 1997 (!!) (found here: http://www.ncta.org/?15), and a whole host of other translators since that time have spoken, presented, debated, and promoted that very idea, from Chris Durban to Lillian Clementi to Paula Arturo to Rose Newell to Grant Hamilton to David Jemielity to Neil Inglis to Roz Schwartz to Jayne Fox to Dominique Jonkers to Gary Smith to Marta Stelmaszak Rosa to….well, you get the idea.
I’d say it’s not only axiomatic at this point, it’s almost instinctual for those who have worked in the premium market to emphasize that you are going nowhere without the skill set to do the very hard work of that last mile of technical ice-climbing before you get anywhere near the summit (as a hiker/backpacker, I thought you’d enjoy that.)
So in brief, let’s review what is required — what has worked consistently, reliably and without exception — for decades for translators wishing to make the move upmarket.
1. First and foremost: Specialize. Intrinsic to specialization is expert-level knowledge of the subject-matter, so the best advice is that the translator must be able to be indistinguishable from an expert in the field she is translating.
That means university-level formal training, education and practice (to be crystal clear: a generalist taking a few CPD courses does not qualify, although online training to the degree level often does.) I’m a trained physicist and electrical engineer, so it’s no surprise that my specialty for the last 30 years has been in that area, mostly the nonproliferation regime to prevent the proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, as well as the actual dismantlement and disposition of nuclear weapons, but also 34 published books in that field.
Specific, targeted formal university-level training is what every person in the top paragraph has completed in their specific area of specialization. Some before being trained as translators (Dominique Jonkers and David Jemielity , for example) and some after training (Rose Newell and Lillian Clementi). But in every case, they became experts in the actual subject-matter.
Second is collaboration. By that I mean that every single word you translate is reviewed, examined, revised and debated — often through several cycles — with MULTIPLE people who have skills superior to yours.
I was practically disemboweled for a decade by brilliant physicist-translators with whom I collaborated, and I surely could have never even approached the premium-market without that decade of brutalization (I did my share of correction to their work too, but it’s essential for us to admit up front that we urgently need help as translators at every stage of our careers and no matter how experienced we may be, given the enormous challenge every text presents, if we are to deliver on the premium level).
Every premium-market translator listed above has a robust network of reviewers built into their work process (as do all translators in the premium market), and that extends beyond just one single person (with whom you tend over time to become “comfortable,” and you surrender the extra perspective, insight, experience and talents of the additional reviewers).
Finally, there are writing skills in your target language. Since translation involves conveying exceedingly complex ideas in one culture, domain, specialty field and context into an entirely different such set, it is imperative that the translator be able to write in a way that the target language itself serves as a perfectly transparent, cogent, articulate and lucid representation of the source-language idea.
The “Translate in” series of seminars you mentioned in passing is now in its fifth year (“Translate in Quebec City” just wrapped up) and aside from assembling one of the best collection of master-class instructors in the world, it emphasizes writing skills on a level seen nowhere else in the industry. It’s incumbent on any translator working in the FrEng. language pair not only to attend every year, but to participate in the translation discussions — translators share their translations openly and in public, a practice I followed during my master classes as well — and especially the translation slams, where two translators separately and independently take a whack at an exceedingly difficult text, all under the eyes of a judge and the entire audience of translators, and then discuss their various interpretations, opinions and renderings in a collective, positive and helpful atmosphere.
Yes, it’s quite a different experience than sitting alone in front of your keyboard and trying to figure out why Trados keeps freezing. 🙂
Three simple ideas. Specialize as a trained expert. Collaborate on every single text. Be exceptional in your ability to express challenging concepts.
It’s a simple recipe, really. The trick is sticking to all three ingredients without wavering.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Kevin! To clarify, I actually think there’s a reason that many translators overlook the “be a better translator” angle: because it’s something clients often cannot assess or comment on. Case in point: the majority of my direct clients are either in the US and don’t speak much French, or are in Europe and don’t speak much English. By definition, they can’t evaluate the quality of my translations on more than a superficial level. Some can, but most cannot. So when I do some customer satisfaction research and ask why they chose me, or why they continue to work with me, they’re *much* more likely to say something like, “Because you always respond to our e-mails right away.” “Because you’re so flexible.” “Because you’re so easy to work with.” I get detailed feedback on my translations from my revisers, but rarely from clients, and I don’t think that’s atypical in the specializations in which I work. So I think that for a lot of translators, it’s–oddly–an aspect of their business plan that gets too little attention.
Kevin Hendzel says
Corinne, I agree that your inclination to be responsive to clients and flexible to their needs is also important — crucial, even — but you do see the conflict with your earlier sentence:
“By definition, (my clients) can’t evaluate the quality of my translations on more than a superficial level.”
That statement is not true in the premium market. It’s not true in the scientific publications market, either, but that’s a different subject.
In the premium market, especially in law, finance, technology, industrial engineering, fintech, C-suite press releases, and corporate communications at the highest levels, especially investment banking, most clients who are paying $0.30 – $0.50 per word — and have worked hard to find you in a global sea of translators — not only can understand your translations quite well, they are likely to be part of the review and feedback team.
Let me give you a concrete example from the ATA panel session that Chris Durban, David Jemielity and I gave in Chicago in 2014.
David recounted his experience working with his translation team at the bank. The client in this case is a bilingual banker who is fluent in English, and educated in the U.S. Your job as translator is to take the (Swiss) French text and translate it into English in the actual client’s own specialty (banking).
So what that means in practice, David explained, is that you need to be able to give the bilingual banker 3 or 5 or 7 options of how to best capture the nuance of the French text in an English he already masters. In a subject he is expert.
My experience was quite similar in the scientific publications market (and later, working in the multilingual Nonproliferation Regime community), where the worldwide language of science is English. EVERY SINGLE scientist could read my English translation with an extremely high degree of understanding — most of the published research is in English — so if I stumbled anywhere, there was howling you could actually hear from Moscow.
Another example: On a recent rush text for a press release for a Paris multinational, four translators collaborated on revising a text one translated by working in very close collaboration with the client’s Chief Operating Officer who is fluent in English. Each translator was paid 170 Euro per hour for 3 hours of highly collaborative work.
The premium market is not a market where the clients are language-blind. Their level of sophistication may vary, but I can’t think of a single case where my clients — again, in the premium market — were anything less than fluent in English.
The bulk market is something else entirely. I don’t know anything about your clients specifically, so can’t comment, but I am and have been intimately familiar with the premium market for a long time.
The calculus there is simply something different altogether.
The difference lies in their ability to understand a text on a very intimate level — something all of them could do — yet their lack of ability to craft in English the 3 or 5 or 7 English-language versions, one of which was deemed perfect.
So you see how the combination of subject-matter expertise, collaboration and writing language skills in English are so essential to servicing this market well.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Kevin. Yes, I’m referring to premium-market clients in the rate ranges that you mention, but I’m sure everyone’s experiences are different. I’ve heard David give that example and it’s very interesting.
Rose Newell says
I have to corroborate what Kevin Hendzel has said regarding the premium into-English market.
When any English native-speaker talks to me about their clients not speaking good enough English or French to assess the quality of their work, my heart bleeds.
First, my heart bleeds for the client, because it’s a very awkward position they are in – booking services without really knowing what they are getting. My heart bleeds because often they end up getting something less than they imagined, without even realising it.
Second, my heart bleeds for the translator, because it is a sure sign that they have yet to experience the delight of working with savvy clients – demanding clients who reward top-notch language skills, subject-matter expertise, and writing skills with loyalty, flexibility, and substantial remuneration.
When the client is unable to assess the quality themselves, they are likely to pay closer attention to these traditional service elements when assessing their level of satisfaction with what you are providing. You gave some nice examples yourself, Corinne, which can be summarised as “responsiveness”, “timeliness”, and “friendliness”.
In an excellent book on pricing and positioning I read not so long ago, called Mastering Services Pricing, Kevin Doolan, the author, defines the three pricing segments and the characteristics of the people serving these different segments.
The level you’re referring to there – with clients who are not as price-sensitive as those in the routine work segment, but also not savvy enough to know why they should pay more – is called relationship advice.
The client feedback you shared here is extremely typical of this segment – it’s the segment where it’s all about the relationship. They want a great bedside manner. They want someone who can minimise their stress, especially because they don’t want to get too engaged and they view the work itself as not overly complex or mission-critical. Being “easy to work with” is a classic, as is being timely and responsive. Doolan remarks that the most successful people in this segment are people-focused and less task-orientated. They take a genuine interest in helping the business succeed rather than just delivering services.
Interestingly, when you get to the next level up, the rocket science, the relationship and the kind of feedback people receive completely changes. At this level, you don’t need to be their friend. The book is based on observations from the legal field, but completely applicable to translation. Here, it is all about the unique expertise. For example, clients will ask for the specific partner at a firm, looking at their specific track record of work with similar clients. They will, where able, be more flexible so they can guarantee that expert’s dedication to their project.
Fascinatingly, Doolan’s study revealed all these relationship-building aspects suddenly become less important. At this level, clients are reassured by a confident and perhaps aloof demeanour. They don’t particularly care if they are less responsive, less friendly, or even abrasive and arrogant in their style. All that matters is the expertise. Here, common feedback is along the lines of „unequalled expertise“, „wonderful ideas“, „masterpiece“, „incredible“, „indispensable“. And this sort of praise will come volunteered, willingly, because they have an interest in making the expert feel flattered and appreciated enough that they will continue to make time for it.
In a case like law, a lawyer’s reputation is relatively easy to judge with a little research. In a case like translation, it is more the savvy clients who will end up on this level, discerning because of their own carefully honed subject-matter expertise and, in the case of translating into English, excellent comprehension of English. Generally, the savvier they are, the more bothered they are by the little mistakes typical of relationship advice versus rocket science translators. For example, misunderstanding the source text, inappropriate terminology due to missing subject-matter expertise, or clunky style. After all, they *really could* do some of these things better themselves – or at the very least, they know enough to know what they do and do not like.
Doolan remarks that the most successful people in the rocket science segment – which we can of course translate to “the premium translation market” – are those with strong expertise, and despite all the soft relationship-building seen in the relationship advice segment, it’s actually only here that clients declare extreme loyalty to their services provider. In the case of lawyers, clients declare such loyalty that they would change company if their preferred rocket scientist moved firms.
Now, talking work and rates, relationship advice clients are certainly a lot less price-sensitive than routine work clients, where price is a top priority and all service providers really are seen as interchangeable. However, they are still price-sensitive, in that they do indeed have some kind of mental limit, and if you go too high, however nice you are, they will swap you with someone else – not because they are cheap per se, as otherwise they’d simply always go with the cheapest – but because you’ve become too expensive.
At the top is rocket science, both in terms of how demanding they are of the rocket scientist’s expertise and how willing they are to bend their rules to work with the rocket scientist.
In translation, it’s simply about how important something is. Will it have a direct impact on the likelihood of their patent being awarded? Of them winning an important contract? Of them selling enough widgets at the right price?
Mission-critical and especially time-critical work will always attract a premium. In some cases, it means clients will accept almost any price thrown at them if it means they can get their one-of-a-kind expert to help with the work. They’ll also be patient, understanding, and flexible in a way they won’t with a translator whose major selling point is their responsiveness.
In one recent case, a translator was asked to complete 4,400 words over the course of a weekend, for a very demanding client, involving a lot of creative and strategic thinking. The client said an alternative could be sought if the translator was unavailable, but opted instead to pay a surcharge of more than 100% on the existing rate of 50 cents per word (taking the rate over one euro). This is not especially unusual.
Similarly, clients will frequently wait until the translator is available – even if that is three weeks, a month, or more. This is particularly relevant to the responsiveness that is praised in the relationship advice segment. In the premium segment, people will wait for the expertise.
The kind of work is also different. These tend to be high-visibility, high-priority projects. Almost every field has its rocket science, relationship advice, and routine work elements. In marketing, glossy brochures for incredibly expensive investments might go in the first category, then you might have web shop descriptions for mid-price consumer goods in the middle, and then finally you’ll have the SEO-driven blog content that is mostly there for SEO and read by few humans. Of course, there’ll be a little deviation either way depending on the company, industry, and their positioning (e.g. a fintech giant with major banks as clients may even pay premium rates for blog content, but that’d be the exception and not the rule).
In my experience (and I network a lot with other translators serving the premium segment behind the scenes), you see a lot of bottom-feeders scrabbling over the routine work, and then a lot of translators slowly establishing themselves in the relationship advice segment, perhaps with smaller companies or individuals as direct clients. Essentially, as a translator, one can probably do okay here if one is a relatively nice person and very responsive to customer queries. But that should not be confused with the rocket science segment – the premium translation market – because that requires an entirely different, higher level of skills and expertise, as already detailed by Kevin Hendzel.
And now we get to the crux of my argument, and the reason I wrote this extended explanation. Corinne, this post contains a few useful tips that could genuinely help a translator who is trying to move up from routine work to relationship advice. But advice that really would help people meet the needs of the premium market is glaringly obvious in its absence, and if you really had managed to achieve rocket science rates with relationship advice service, well, that would be an impressive anomaly.
Corinne McKay says
Peter Winslow says
Perhaps legal translation is the odd man out in all this.
Entering the premium market through formal training at the university level is often impractical and – so it has been my experience – sometimes even undesirable. It is impractical because, depending on the country, it can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and/or several years of full-time study to acquire that kind of formal training in just one of the legal systems one wishes to translate into and from. It is sometimes undesirable because attorneys turned translators are sometimes (but not always) very bad legal translators: their language skills are not always up to par, and they – so it has been my experience – often want to re-draft the contract, not translate it.
But even university-level training in translation will not suffice for the aspiring legal translator. University courses do not provide – because they simply do not have – access to the kinds of legal documents that legal translators translate; by extension, translation students receive no training on the kinds of documents that legal translators work on day to day. Give a recent translation graduate a purchase and sale agreement constituting part of a complex cross-border M&A transaction and see how far s/he gets under normal business conditions (s/he will not get past the first 5 or so pages).
Legal translation is difficult because it of necessity involves two different legal systems with differing, but equally complex requirements of exactitude and other things. Finding the equivalencies and understanding how to handle the non-equivalencies between two different legal systems does not require formal university-level study. It requires lots of practical experience involving the transactions, contracts, litigation, and other legal matters that one wishes to translate on. Even bilingual university-trained attorneys do not always have that experience. What is more, one can gain that experience without ever having received formal university-level legal training.
The issue, I would venture, comes down to whether a translator has invested enough time in understanding the equivalencies and non-equivalencies between the two different kinds of legal systems which s/he wants to translate into and from: be it through formal study, be it through on-the-job training, be it through private research & study, be it through a combination of these things. In my experience, on-the-job training – preferably in the form of a mentor/mentee relationship – is a necessary and the most efficient way to succeed as a legal translator.
Corinne McKay says
Really interesting point, thanks Peter!
Thomas Gieryn says
Thanks, Corinne, for your very helpful post! Wow, many of these comments seem pretentious, self-important, and have convoluted arguments, especially the ones from Kevin Hendzel and Rose Newell. Are they engaging or looking for a soapbox? I’m wondering, is this representative of the translation community? I’m considering making a transition to the translation business, but if I have to deal with people like this on a consistent basis, I think I’d rather not.
James Pavel says
If you’re considering reaching the pinnacle of the profession, Rose Newell and Kevin Hendzel are exactly the kind of people you want to be dealing with. 🙂
I liked what you had to say about fish in smaller ponds. They CAN’T all be Microsoft, can they? Slow and steady wins the race and all that.
Oleg Gordeev says
Thank you for great tips! I liked the one about fishing in smaller ponds. Good idea for marketing and self-promotion.