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?
Maria Baker says
I second the membership to professional organizations: my ATA membership meant some clients found me, and I found a mentor at the ATA that has been heaps of help. I am at a loss sometimes, though, as clients don’t like my prices, and going any lower would be downright insulting. I have credentials to maintain, and, as you said, lights to keep on.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Maria! That’s great to know about your ATA membership!
Mike QUICK says
In France (where I was based for 9 years), the situation for non-specialists seems to be changing, fast.
One woman I know moved from England to France at 18 and completed a full degree at ESIT, then went in-house for years. Now she’s freelance. When a friend asked her to mentor her daughter she had to refuse, as she barely has enough work for herself, let alone an intern.
Mike Quick says
(Part 2) The solution seems to be delving deep into your specialist subject.
SEO + translation is the latest trend which is sought after among direct clients. Maybe a newbie should become an expert in SEO or similar to stand out. There are accessible courses out there, so just a question of making it happen.
Kethrin Johnson says
Thank you for your blog post. I’ve been following a path similar to what you describe you would do here, but I still haven’t been able to break into the translation industry, let alone into the specialty I want to pursue. Honestly, it’s a little discouraging reading these lines because a Master’s program is not a possibility for some of us (even while living outside the USA). Yet, I guess the answer is to not be defeatist and still try your best, the problem is that I feel the clock ticking for me (I’m middle-aged).
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Kethrin, and I’m sorry to hear that you’re struggling to find work. I think that for a lot of people, a simple but consistent marketing plan can help you at least see whether there’s potential for your language pair(s) and/or specialization(s). For example at the ATA conference, one of the marketing presenters said, and I would agree, that he’s never heard of anyone who put at least two hours a day into marketing, every single day, and didn’t end up with as much work as they could handle. Let me know at email@example.com if you want specific ideas!
Kethrin Johnson says
Thank you Corinne! I will send you an email.
Dr Nigel Wheatley says
Hmm, putting two hours a day into marketing, every single day… Do you know many people who actually do that? Sounds like negging to me, setting a target which will not be achieved by most people and then blaming their lack of success on them not achieving it. So that someone can come along and sell them training in how to do it the “right way”.
How about if I suggested spending and hour and a half every day improving ones translation skills and half-an-hour on marketing? I agree that the time outlay is still more than most people will manage, but at least they will be improving the service they are selling. And, unlike a lot of marketing, time spent improving ones skills is incremental, it doesn’t get lost at the end of the week.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Nigel! Overall, I agree with you: I think most translators put way too little effort into actually improving their skills. At the same time, I also agree with the perhaps-exaggerated point that the speaker at ATA was making: so (so) many people rage about no work/too little work/too little income/no good clients out there anymore, when the solution isn’t rocket science, it’s simply to do more marketing, instead of sending out one resume every six months and feeling discouraged that it didn’t immediately turn into a new client.
Everyone I know is doing insane amounts of marketing and almost everyone I know is also finding it pretty tough. I really don’t think more marketing is the solution. I think we’re experiencing market failure.
When I started out I regularly worked 16 hour days and often worked 23 hour days just to get through the volumes of work expected. If you ask for a little more time you just don’t get the job. Adding 2 hours of marketing a day to that just isn’t realistic. That said, when I first tried to get away from the crazy low paying stuff I spent 16 hours a day every day for 6 months or so doing nothing but marketing. It didn’t lead to more work than I could handle by any stretch of the imagination. I just don’t think this marketing presenter has has facts right, or he’s believing the positivity projected by people in the industry who don’t feel they can admit they’re struggling. I wondered if getting a Masters or diploma would help but when I talked to people who had them they all said they were finding it next to impossible to find work too. The only exceptions were people who spoke German or some of the less common languages, -they seemed to be having more luck.
Amy Butcher says
I find it fascinating how everyone has different experiences depending on what part of the world they work in and what language pair they work in, and I think that bears remembering. (Here in Quebec, I am generally booked solid with direct clients and the good translators I know are all booked solid and none of us work for agencies or started out with agencies really.)
This post has great advice, but I would add that newbie translators should remember there is no one silver bullet that will solve all their business problems. Today, you need to get out of your home and into a specific industry to understand translation buyers and the skills they need. Sure, SEO is possible, but what if your ideal clients really need transcreation for marketing materials? What if they are really interested in a top-notch editor who knows how to keep style guides? No skill is wasted, but I would always advise against guessing one’s way through this and getting out to do research with actual translation clients, i.e., over LinkedIn, by volunteering at associations, going to events, getting subject-matter education (and not just translation training), etc. The agency path may be drying up (although I feel like the low rate / high pressure situation has always been present to some degree), but there are other paths to having a freelance business that focuses on translation along with other skills.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Amy! That’s really interesting and thanks for your comment! I also find it interesting to see the differences between the Quebec and US markets given that they’re geographically so close (but so different in many ways!). And I agree with you about getting out of the house. Sarah Silva, a German to English translator who did a really great guest post for me a while ago, said something that really rang true for me: many direct clients don’t know that specialized translators exist, much less are they searching online for someone. And that’s a really interesting data point that most of your colleagues in Canada didn’t even start out with agencies!
JT Hine says
Dear Corinne —
A thoughtful post, as usual. I would add something that seems obvious when you think about it: the old vaudeville line, “Don’t quit your day job!”
I don’t mean this as a put-down, but as a bullet in the list of things an entry-level translator can do. Most of us had “day-jobs” before we came to this profession. That should not be our “day-job”, but a second career that helps us build the goal career of being a translator.
IMHO, the key is to find a “day job” that satisfies us also, or, at least, doesn’t suck. I moonlighted as a translator for 38 years before I went full-time earning enough to replace the “day-job”. Those day jobs were fascinating, and gave me the subject matter expertise to excel as a technical translator (Naval officer, writer, University administrator, evaluator, etc.).
Writing and translating use the same cognitive skill set, so the advice of best-selling author John MacDonald is relevant here; pick a day-job that doesn’t use your creative brain as much as writing or translating. He was a night security guard in a skyscraper. Other writers have been bartenders, bus drivers and other jobs that did not leave their brains useless, so they could write a bit each night.
This is not a surrender; it just makes having a second, more lucrative career part of one’s life-work planning. My formal business plan for going full-time spanned a ten-year period, and the jobs I took while in the Navy for the last ten years of my career (total span of 20 years) were chosen to build my experience as a translator.
Each person is different, and your results may vary, but IHTH.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Jonathan! Really interesting insights there. And honestly I kinda-sorta did the same thing, in the sense that I started freelancing right when my daughter was born and I had financially planned not to work full-time for one to two years anyway. My first year I earned 9K, then 18K, then 30K, and by then she was in preschool part-time and things were less crazy. Thanks a lot for your detailed story, I think it’s helpful to other people!
I think this is less and less feasible in the current market though. When I talk to translators who started out years ago they got plenty of time for their assignments meaning they could fit them around another job. As one of my colleagues commented recently, we’re now in a situation where more or less every jobs requires you start within 15 minutes of acceptance if you’re to have any hope of meeting the deadline and working all night and all day, sometimes for several days at a time is often required. Under these conditions it just isn’t feasible to have a 2nd job. I’ve worked with a few translators who fit their translations round another job and in all honesty they can’t produce the quality in the time they have.
Thanks for this Corinne. This has come at a very useful time, because I am really feeling it. I have some experience, but I am currently not getting any work at all, and would probably still count myself as an entry-level translator. I am an Associate Member of the ITI. I have volunteered for roles in the translation network nationally, I attend national events, have developed my own website, have registered with countless agencies (and trained in the CAT software they wanted me to use), agreed to cut rates and still nothing. Zilch, zero. I am trying to develop a specialist subject area, which I only accept from agencies. Apart from that, I read recently that subtitling rates were pretty much peanuts, which really put me off that. I am considering taking the ITI test to become fully qualified an ITI member, which I figure may help, but I must be able to do more than that! I am really in need of some help to kickstart my translation career!
Corinne McKay says
Thanks for your comment, and I’m sorry to hear that! A few ideas: instead of cutting rates, how about looking higher in the market? Clients who aren’t so price-focused? Perhaps target a micro-niche and become THE expert in that very narrow subject area? Try to meet with local clients in person? Try to cook up an apprenticeship with a more experienced translator?
Robin Bonthrone says
Well, those of us in our 60s actually started with a phone number and a (themopaper) fax machine. There weren’t email addresses back then!
I think you need to put in the marketing effort right at the beginning: Identify the market niches with strong demand in your language combination(s) that’s likely to be sustained in the medium term (1 to 5 years), and then sell yourself, hard, to a mix of potential clients (large agencies, specialized boutiques, relevant departments at direct clients, corporate language services, public-sector agences). And repeat this exercise every year on a rolling basis until you’ve built up a reasonably diversified portfolio of clients who will pay you a range of prices to produce a satisfactory average. And remember that natural attrition will also require you to keep some “spare” clients in reserve.
Back in the day, we used mailshots (as in, paper), and a conversion rate of 5% of more was considered outstanding. The options are considerably greater now, of course, but so is the competition.
Above all, though, remember that there aren’t too many translators for highly specialized texts. But there ARE too many agencies, which is the primary factor depressing prices.
Corinne McKay says
Thanks, Robin! Too funny about the fax machine! Interesting observation about the “smorgasbord” approach (I agree…I have a pretty diverse client portfolio and I think it’s beneficial: when one thing is down, often another is up). And really interesting about the volume of agencies depressing prices; maybe that’s food for a guest post??
Sandra, Italy says
Thank you all for your interesting and concrete comments! I’m lucky enough to have a good workload in my specialties with agencies that I really appreciate (one with the funniest PMs around!) but things could change quickly. Always good to have a few ideas up your sleeve in case they’re needed…
Corinne McKay says