A reader asks: It seems like when I talk to experienced translators and ask how they started out, nearly all of them started by working with agencies that gave a lot of feedback or at least let them see the edited versions of their translations. Then after some amount of time, they started working with direct clients in similar specializations. These days, I feel like entry-level agencies provide no feedback at all, and want crazy volumes translated in crazy amounts of time, for very little money. What can I do?
What happened to feedback and mentoring?
I addressed a bunch of these same questions in a post in December, Is the career path for beginning translators changing? And in general, I agree with the reader who asked this question. Back in 2002, my first few agency clients did exactly what the reader describes: they knew I was competent for a beginning translator, but they had all of my work edited and either showed me the finished version, or in some cases the editor actually called me (I know…how quaint!) to go over the changes and explain them.
As a result, I was very loyal to those clients; at least one of them I still work for occasionally today, almost 18 years later. And I still silently thank those editors who were so patient and taught me so much.
What happened? My sense is that agencies themselves have just felt more and more of a price and speed squeeze from their own end clients as time has gone on. From my experience, the first thing to go was feedback and mentoring, then some gave up on bilingual revision all together, then some gave up on any kind of revision, or went to the “sloppy translator/good editor” model that squeezes a lot of good translators out of the agency market today.
Are agencies to blame?
I mean, yes and no. No, and yes. I think that part of the problem lies with agencies capitulating to end clients’ price and speed squeezes, and part of the problem lies with translators capitulating to agencies’ price and speed squeezes. The problem is that resistance only works if everybody resists, and here’s a typical situation I hear about from translators these days:
I got an inquiry from what I thought was a dream client; a highly specialized scientific translation agency that I had been stalking for a while. They have really interesting projects and I couldn’t wait to go through their application process. Come to find out, their absolute maximum rate for my language pair is barely higher than what I’m making for the mega-agency I work for most of the time, and I have to do additional QA steps for no extra pay. Total bummer.
Yes, I agree, it’s a bummer, it’s not the first time I’ve heard this type of story, and I think there are two factors at play:
- Agencies having a hard time differentiating themselves in the marketplace, and feeling like they have to compete on price and speed or go out of business. An agency exec I recently spoke with told me that it’s now the norm for them to experience things like: end clients threatening to dump them for an agency that charges one cent per word less; end clients outright telling them, “We’re putting this out to bid to five agencies and we’re looking for your absolute best rate.”
- Translators feeling like they have to compete on price and speed or not have enough work, at least in the agency market. Again, if every single translator had resisted this downward price pressure, agencies would have no choice except to pay more or not be able to find enough people. And you also can’t blame translators for wanting to do things like eat and keep the lights on. But it does seem like even high-quality, specialized agencies are getting thrown into the same bidding barrel as mega-agencies, and thus asking their translators to lower their rates by quite a bit in many cases.
Is there a bright side here?
Well, sure. If you’re not an entry-level translator. The same forces (see: the Internet, globalization) that have given agencies access to bigger pools of translators–and thus generally decreased the chance that they’ll pay more or offer better working conditions to their more loyal translators–have given translators greater access to direct clients. I still have a couple of good agency clients holding on, and my overall income and work volume continue to increase, thanks to larger projects from my higher-paying direct clients. I’m not looking to change careers anytime soon.
But if I were a beginning translator starting out today, I’m honestly not sure what I’d do, unless I were able to pursue a niche route like moving to Europe, getting a Master’s in translation/interpreting in a French-speaking country and then working there for a few years. And to be clear, there are still good agencies out there. But those good agencies also have a lot of translators wanting to work for them, so it’s harder to break in. And I do feel like, even if you have a lot of work, it’s increasingly difficult to make a living on mega-agency work, and lots of non-mega agencies aren’t paying much more than the behemoths do. It’s definitely a dilemma.
What would I do if I were starting out today?
If I were a beginning translator in today’s environment, I think I’d do a few things:
- Build up a significant savings cushion before going freelance. This avoids the “any work is better than no work” syndrome that causes a lot of people to take on work that they really shouldn’t take on.
- Identify a marketable specialization (like, yesterday!). I think the days of “jack of all trades” translators are going, going, gone, unless you work in a very small language where people don’t tend to specialize as much.
- Consider a Masters in translation from a strong program in the US or your source language country. Of the beginning translators I know who are doing really well, a significant number of them have a Master’s (not just a certificate) in translation, and several are native English speakers who went outside the US to do a Master’s in their source language country.
- Join reputable professional associations and earn credentials if possible. In a market with more freelancers available, you need to do whatever you can to stand out: memberships and certifications are good ways to do this.
- Diversify your range of services if you’re qualified to do so: offering services like editing, transcription, interpreting, and language teaching can help bring in enough business to keep you afloat as a beginner.
- Look for steady contract work, even if it pays less than your other work. I worked for several years as an FBI contract linguist; it was interesting work and I learned a lot. After a while, trekking to the Denver field office to earn $35 an hour was no longer worthwhile, but it allowed me to keep freelancing until I built up a slate of regular clients.
- Consider interning or apprenticing with an experienced translator. This could be a good way to see “under the hood” of a successful freelance business.
- Offer concessions *other* than low rates: for example working at night or on weekends when clients may have trouble finding other translators.
I’d sum up the situation as follows: the generation of translators ahead of me (I’m 48, so let’s say translators who are now in their 60s or older) might say, “I started my freelance business with a phone number and an e-mail address, and in not very long I had more work than I could handle.” Actually a translator in that age group recently said that to me: “I just hung out my shingle, and in six months I had to hire another translator because I had so much work.”
Then there’s my generation of translators who might say, “Yeah, that didn’t happen anymore by the early 2000s. When I started, I applied to hundreds of agencies, went on informational interviews, networked within my local translators association, became ATA-certified as fast as possible, etc. etc.” And now, I think the new generation of translators might need to say, “Yeah, that doesn’t happen anymore, because it’s very hard to make a living on entry-level agency work, so now you have to get even more creative, or pre-emptively get a Master’s, or have a side job, or partially live off savings, etc. until you have a sustainable volume of work at decent rates.”
Readers, over to you: do you have thoughts on viable entry-level clients for beginners? How do you see the entry-level market changing?