Is it getting harder to make a living as a freelancer?

A version of this post originally appeared in my newsletter, and so many readers responded to me about it, that I decided to run it here as well, in an expanded version.

Here’s a question that I’ve heard floating around lately: is it getting harder to make a living as a freelance translator? As usual with such big-picture issues, the answer is yes/no/maybe/it depends on what you’re actually asking, so let’s take a closer look!

What’s the state of my own business

I think that anyone who offers advice to other freelancers should give real data from their own business, so here you go. For about the past eight years, I’ve earned about 50% of my income from translation and 50% from online courses, consulting, and book royalties. I work about 35 hours a week, take about four weeks of vacation a year, and consistently earn in the low six figures in US dollars, and this year my overall income is on track to be the highest it’s ever been, due to an increase in both my translation income (several new large direct clients) and my online course business.

This year, about 70% of my translation income will come from direct clients, and about 30% from agencies and individuals, although the agency side of my business is shrinking, both in terms of the overall number of agencies I work with, and the size of the projects they send (more on this below).

Lots of people ask me whether I do teaching and consulting because I can’t make enough money as a translator. No. I do those things because I enjoy them, and because I like variety in my work. But I have as much translation work as I want, and I think that would also be true if I translated full time.

Where does this “harder to make a living” perception come from

-As compared to when I started freelancing in 2002, the agency market is definitely more commoditized. It seems almost quaint to think that even my larger agency clients used to call on the phone to ask if I was available for a particular project–and start the conversation with “How was your weekend?”–as compared to the “come and get it” systems that many agencies use now. It seems to me that very few large agencies want–or even have the bandwidth to cultivate–a personal relationship with most of their translators. Most agencies have moved to using online application portals–surely more efficient for them–that force you to enter one number for your rate, leaving no room for negotiation or conversation.

Downward price pressure is also a factor. I work with both agencies and direct clients, and I’ve been charging my agency clients the same rates–14-16 US cents per word–for about eight years, because none of my agency clients can/will pay more than that (I know, because I’ve tried). That–flat rates for eight years–is bad enough, but lately the agency rates situation seems worse to me. I no longer proactively apply to agencies, but when agencies contact me, I do respond, and I ask them to approve my rates before I go through their application process. Lately (let’s say within the past two years), the typical agency’s response has gone from “that’s on the high end of what we pay for French to English, but for certain projects, it would be doable,” to either:

No response at all, which leads me to believe that they’re looking to pay significantly less than what I charge

A “not in a million years” response, such as “That’s actually almost as much as we charge the end client, so there is no way we can pay that” (which an agency responded to me a couple of weeks ago).

To clarify here, there definitely are still high-quality agencies out there, and I love the agencies that I still work with. However I do feel that the agency market in general has gone in this “faster, cheaper” direction in recent years.

But then, there’s the flip side

-My overall income–and the overall incomes of lots of experienced translators I work with–has risen steadily throughout my freelance career, and it continues to do so. This year, I’ve gotten larger, higher-paying projects from direct clients, and more students in my online courses. On my balance sheet, everything is on the upswing.

-I find that direct clients are perhaps more amenable to my rates than they were a few years ago, and certainly not less amenable.

-Anecdotally, I’ve talked to other experienced translators who say the same thing: “I broke six figures this year and don’t even feel like it was that difficult,” or “I’ve increased my income by $20,000 by contacting one new prospective client every week.” For example, here’s a blog post by French to English translator Michèle Hansen, who increased her income by 15K in one year through direct client outreach. I’ve also contacted several translators who work primarily or exclusively with direct clients, to ask them about teaching online courses for me, and who have turned me down because they have so much translation work that they don’t want to teach a class or a webinar. Also an interesting data point.

So, what’s going on?

Of course, I can’t say for sure. But I’ll offer a few theories:

The commoditization of agency work is likely to continue, because (I think) it comes from the pressure agencies get from their own end clients, not from the agencies themselves. I really think that agencies–like the rest of us–know that quality work is not cheap, that pitting five agencies against each other to see who can do the job fastest or cheapest does not result in the best finished product, etc. etc., but agencies also have to stay in business, and I’m guessing that an ever-increasing percentage of their work comes from end clients with the “faster, cheaper” mindset.

Agencies themselves are under more price and time pressure. End clients whose projects are small enough to manage on their own are likely to get quotes from freelancers and from agencies, and to ask the agency if they can match the freelancers’ prices. End clients whose projects are huge are likely to get quotes from multiple agencies and pit them against each other. Honestly I feel more secure as a freelancer than I would as a company owner, these days.

The time to resist downward price pressure in the agency market has passed. Resistance only works if everyone resists, and when agencies started pushing down rates, many translators went along with it, for lack of other options. My sense is that translators generally fall into two buckets: a) those who really need agencies’ work and thus do not resist downward price pressure because they have no other clients, and b) translators who have a lot of other clients, and “resist” downward price pressure by leaving, and no longer working with low-paying agencies. Because more people–at least in the US–are drawn to freelance work, even low-paying agencies seem to have a steady supply of freelancers.

Direct client rates are likely to remain higher and more stable. Again, I’m not an economist–so really, who knows? However, I do think that in general translators who work with direct clients are less interested in competing on price. They/we are more likely to simply turn down a job if a client wants to pay less; there’s also plenty of direct client work out there for people who are willing to assertively look for it. Just this year, I’ve gotten two new five-figure direct clients through a pretty basic marketing campaign–that kind of work is definitely out there if you look for it.

-In my opinion, these changes are most likely to affect translators who have historically earned a high income while working exclusively or primarily with agencies, and who either do not want to or don’t have the business acumen to market to and work with direct clients. Here’s what I mean:

Translators who are comfortable working with direct clients have–in my opinion–a good amount of job security. Personally, my high-end direct clients think machine translation is a joke; they are very concerned with reliability, confidentiality, and personal service, so they prefer to work with an individual freelancer. They really do not (ever) pressure me to lower my rates, or compete with what they perceive another translator would charge. I feel secure with them.

And on the other end of the spectrum, I think that translators who are comfortable in the large agency marketplace are also pretty much fine. There’s tons of that type of work out there, and if your financial goals are met while charging the rates that large agencies will pay, you’re probably also pretty secure. Those rates may still go lower, but in some cases are so low already that they may have reached bottom.

-I think that the biggest market squeeze will fall upon translators who are used to making good, or really good money working with agencies, without working 80 hours a week: translators who don’t want to work with direct clients, or who work in small languages where direct clients don’t generally have huge volumes of work, or in business sectors (pharmaceuticals, software) where end clients tend to use agencies, and who are increasingly being asked to do editing (at fairly low hourly rates) for projects where a cheaper translator has been hired. If I were in that situation, I’d be concerned.

In sum, I think that the translation world is becoming more polarized (perhaps like the world in general). Readers, what’s your experience? Are you having a harder time earning what you want to earn? Any other thoughts on this?

17 Responses to “Is it getting harder to make a living as a freelancer?”
  1. Kerstin September 9, 2019
    • Jennifer Case September 9, 2019
      • Kerstin September 10, 2019
    • Corinne McKay September 10, 2019
  2. Jennifer Case September 9, 2019
    • Corinne McKay September 10, 2019
  3. Laura Hastings-Brownstein September 9, 2019
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  4. michaelschubert September 10, 2019
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  5. Melissa Harkin September 16, 2019
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  6. EP September 21, 2019
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    • Corinne McKay October 3, 2019
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