In translation, a recurring question is “What is your area of specialisation
?”. The translation agencies you work with want to know, your Proz
or Translator’s Cafe profile has a dedicated section for it, and your colleagues will probably be curious about it as well. As such, many translators define themselves as “technical translator”, “legal translator”, or “medical translator”, and the like. As a result, the idea that there is a difference between 'specialised' and 'general' translation has developed
, with offering the former seen as more desirable a career move than the latter.
However, this has never seemed 100% correct to me. How do you unambiguously and completely define what ‘general’ versus ‘specialised’ means? And is being a “specialised translator” always better than a “general” one? In Specialization in Translation - myths and realities
(Translation Journal, Vol. 16 No. 2, 2011), Charles Martin asks whether it would be better to see 'generalist' translators as those who “know their limits, don't take on work in areas they know little about and often offer a more varied background than the specialist, and above all a broader and deeper understanding of the source language, not to mention fine writing skills
Martin also questions the idea that calling yourself a specialist in legal translation necessarily has any real meaning, because of the vagueness of the term. It “would naturally include documents that are used by lawyers and judges in criminal and civil proceedings and which require a good knowledge of legal principles, systems and institutions, documents that require familiarity with a given field of law, such as commercial or intellectual property law, and also contracts and other legal instruments that may require very little or even no real knowledge of the law”. Can many ‘legal’ translators really claim they successfully specialise in all of these separate sub-fields? Can translation agencies claim to offer true specialisation in “financial translation”, “business translation”, AND “legal translation”
, as many do?
Finally, Martin dispels the idea that in order to be a ‘specialist’ translator in a particular field, one must be an ‘expert’ in that field. Rather, “translators need a more basic level of knowledge that enables them to understand underlying principles, do the research necessary to figure out what they don't understand, and find the right term in the target language
.” I couldn't agree more. I’m neither fully trained as a patent attorney nor as a physicist, but I have studied the fundamentals of physics and patent law sufficiently to be able to translate documents in these fields, and translate them well. In addition (and perhaps more importantly), I know exactly when my research skills will enable me to deal with a topic I’m not as familiar with, and when something goes completely above my head. Here, honesty is key...
Despite agreeing that the terms ‘specialism’ and ‘expert’ are misleading, it's nevertheless undeniable that the industry still wants to know what you ‘specialise’ in. I understand that translation buyers need to be able to make a judgement on whether or not a particular text is beyond the scope of their supplier's knowledge or not
. In certain fields, including patent translation, not being certain of when to choose one term over another can have serious consequences. I would personally never trust someone who had a background in contract law to translate a patent, but I might give someone with a background in physics a chance as patent law
is easier to research than physics! I therefore do think that, when talking about 'specialised' translation, it makes a lot more sense to say "I'm looking for a translator with experience in electronic engineering" than "I need a technical translator"
, for example.
From a practical point of view, then, this question of specialisation matters and translators need to be able to define what that means for them and respond accordingly. In doing so they should avoid both appearing unrealistically knowledgeable and unmarketably under-specialised
. When you are first starting out in the business, however, it can be hard to fathom exactly what is meant by ‘specialisation’ and how you go about finding yours. This is especially true if you come from a linguistics background and you feel like the only thing you’re good at is getting to the bottom of literary texts (there was certainly a heavy bias towards literary translation when I did my language degree, though luckily less so at MA level).
There are nevertheless a few ways of identifying your specialisations and therefore meeting this market requirement. The best overall approach is to not to sell yourself short, and to look at ALL your areas of experience and interest
. At the end of the day, a good translator is like a sponge - s/he looks everywhere for reliable target language vocabulary, and discounts nothing as a potential source of knowledge! By building on that, combined with developing excellent research skills, you’ll find that you are more of a ‘specialist’ than you thought you were. To give an example, my own thought process on this has gone more or less like this:Subjects I have studied:
Subjects I have professional experience in:
- Physics at 1st & 2nd year undergrad level. This is my “basic training”!
- Patent Law
- How to draw up Confidentiality Agreements
- European and Japanese History
- European and Japanese Art History
- Japanese Economic History
Subjects I feel personally passionate about:
- What is involved in researching the physics and electronics of making flat-screen TVs, LED lighting, solar panels, mobile phones, etc. Nuclear physics, on the other hand? Not a clue.
- Managing a corporate patent portfolio
- Editing a 100,000 word textbook on European business history. Doorstops like that can teach you a thing or two about a particular subject!
- Translating texts on fashion, jewellery and retail, particularly the marketing side of things (in the form of presentations, press releases, etc.)
- Editing CVs and cover letters written by native and non-native speakers alike.
- Travel and tourism. My article on a yoga holiday to Thailand was published in the magazine Kansaiscene in 2006.
- Food and drink. I might be a little obsessed with food, so one of my favourite projects to date was a series of translations on the legendary elBulli (or more specifically, on the closure thereof...).
- Green technology, especially solar panels. Being married to a solar cell technology research scientist is a bit of a bonus here.
As you can see, not all my subjects of "expertise" are based on academic study, and even in a field as seemingly narrow as "physics" there are clear are areas that I don't venture into. Nevertheless, I feel confident about calling myself knowledgeable in all of the above, and hence I also work in all of them. How my colleagues have gained their experience and defined their specialist areas is something that has always interested me - care to share in the comments?
Lately there has been a lot of talk among freelancers on the blog and twitter spheres about rates. In relation to translation: Per hour or per word? Source (original) language or target (translated) language? To offer volume discounts
or not? More generally: To publish on your site or not to publish on your site?
The last question in particular has been extensively debated (See this recent article
by the Freelancery and the response
by Thoughts on Translation). I’ve thought it over too, and done the “put them up, take them down” thing several times. For now I've concluded that I’m sitting on the fence, with leanings towards the no-camp. Hence, my site doesn’t have a “rates” or “fees” tab. I do mention cost at the top of my FAQ page, where I explain that prices depend on the complexity of the text, the formatting, etc. At the moment I also have a “prices start from X” type sentence, but I’m still pondering the usefulness of it.
What might be more useful is to explain what factors influence the cost of a (human) translation. While I understand potential clients might prefer to see immediately what they can expect to pay, it simply is true that cost depends on many things, and that giving a standard ‘price per word’ isn’t particularly helpful. Not to the translator, at least - all it seems to do is leave me out of pocket when said standard rate is applied to a document that is decidedly un-standard.
So what is it, then, that makes translation jobs non-standard? When you pay for a translation, what do actually get for your money? Or, conversely, what do you need to think about before you quote your price as a translator? Thinking about that might not answer the publish/don’t publish question, but at least everyone will know what to expect (ish).‘Reading’ the thing
In an ideal world, I’d get everything sent to me as a word file. It takes second to feed into a CAT
(Computer-Assisted Translation) tool and if I need to look something up I simply copy-paste the term(s) into an online dictionary
However, often the reality involves reams of un-editable PDFs. If I want to use my CAT tool (which I usually do) these PDFs have to be converted into readable files using OCR
(optical character recognition) software. OCR processing can be time-consuming, especially with Asian characters or poor quality scans. The same goes for image files, with colour images being particularly difficult to process.
If I don’t do the OCR processing to use a CAT tool I’m slightly slower too, so either way: un-editable file = extra time = more expensive. Research
Most translators specialise in a limited number of fields. The theory behind this is that the best translations are produced by those who have an understanding of the broader context of the original document. Nevertheless, even so-called ‘experts’ don’t know everything about their field, particularly if that field is fast-moving. I see this with patents; a 15-year-old physics patent may be straightforward and involve only well-known technology, but a recent one could throw up concepts so new that no equivalent term has yet been thought of in my target language. Coming up with one requires significant research.
Even in less extreme situations, any translator worth their salt will have homework to do. Who is the target readership? Does the text need adapting to suit the conventions of this readership? Are there multiple ways of saying the same thing in the target language, and if so, which is most commonly used whilst still conveying the original meaning? Answering these questions takes time, which should be reflected in the final price. Format fiddling
Japanese text takes up less space than English text. As a result, I often spend hours trying to squash my translations back into their little powerpoint text boxes. Dealing with tables and graphics also takes time. Indeed, formatting the translated text as a whole to look the same as the original can be quite a job, especially if that original was not an editable file (see above). Hence, if you want to preserve formatting, you can expect to pay for more than just the word-for-word translation.
I’m sure there are other factors that influence the cost of a translation. What do you think?
As a freelance language service provider, I collaborate with a mixture of agencies
and direct clients. For the past few months I have been working on a very large project for one such direct client: correcting the English in a 100K-word doorstop of a manuscript. Eventually the book will be published in the US. It has probably been the largest project I have done to date, both in terms of its size and the amount of time it has taken to do. I was first approached by the client in July 2011, and we’re still going!
I have always tried to prepare myself and my business processes as fully as possible for the different requirements/questions/challenges that projects may involve. I’ve got rates sheets, quotation and estimate templates, checklists of questions to ask clients, etc. Nevertheless, each project is different. Perhaps because of its size and scope, this particular job has involved a lot of eye-opening moments. I certainly learned a great deal from it, and in this post I would like to share some of the most important points.
- Face-to-face meetings are invaluable
Although our profession is conducted mostly through the Internet these days, and quite effectively at that, whenever circumstances allow it is still worth making the effort see the client in person. When someone hands you a large project, such as a manuscript of their book, you can bet that it is important to them. I think one needs to be sensitive to that. By talking through everything involved in the project in a face-to-face meeting, it’s much easier to give the client the feeling that you are on top of things in terms of organisation, that you are well-informed, that you are on their side. In essence, you want to let them know that the project involves teamwork and you’re both part of that team.
Face-to-face meetings are also useful for getting all the details of the project straight. Making clear, extensive notes is helpful, as is sending a summary of the points discussed in the meeting to the client afterwards. The aim is to be unambiguous about every aspect of the job (see next point).
- Certain aspects of your job will be a mystery to the client
Some clients know exactly what is involved in a translation/editing/proofreading project, but many don’t. Unfortunately, they are unlikely to realise that they don’t understand something, and even if they do they may not tell you.
When I worked in a research laboratory, I attended many meetings where researchers proposed new inventions for patenting. 95% of attendees were also research scientists, but they often worked in different fields. On several occasions I overheard people commenting they had not understood this or that aspect of the invention, but always after
the meeting and rarely in front of the presenter. People generally don’t like to admit that they don’t understand something. As a result, the presenters who took it down a few levels and did not make too many assumptions about what their audience already knew were usually more successful.
I think the same holds true in this industry, especially if the client is not an agency. Misunderstandings can easily occur if you don’t spell out exactly what your service does or does not involve, how long each task will take you to complete, which aspects incur extra charges, etc.
- You don’t control how your client manages their project
Ideally, the schedule would be clearly defined, deadlines would not change, the draft that lands in your inbox would be the final one, etc. However, how you would prefer to manage a project has absolutely no bearing on what your client does. If they keep amending the project schedule because of other commitments, the best you can do is keep insisting on certain minima (say, at least a week to translate x number of words) and hope the message gets through.
It’s worth bearing in mind that your client (i.e. the person you’re dealing with) might not even control how they manage their project themselves. They could be bound by what their publisher/supervisor/co-workers require. Other people may be revising the text, for example, but you might never deal with them. It certainly makes organising your own schedule interesting...
- You had better love the project, or at least know how to motivate yourself
100K words on one topic is a lot. Really a lot. No matter how interesting the topic, such a long project can make you feel weary at times. Deadlines are deadlines though, so it’s clearly important to find a way to self-motivate
and to keep standards consistently high. Personally I prefer to spend a set number of hours on a large project every day, and intersperse those with different, shorter jobs for a bit of variety. Every 4-5 days I take a break from the large project completely to avoid getting stuck in a rut (see below). Obviously, every freelancer has their own way of making sure they stay sharp and on top of their work.
- Extra Quality Assurance steps to ensure consistency are important
When a project takes weeks or months to complete, it is inevitable that you will not approach it with the same mindset every time you take a seat at your desk. What might seem like a monstrously awkward phrase one day might appear perfectly reasonable a week later. Or you might find two different solutions for the same problem. For this project, therefore, I found it helpful to keep a list of recurring issues, and how I solved them. Regularly consulting an appropriate style guide (ask your client, or suggest one if they don’t provide it) is also crucial.
Another potential issue is getting stuck in “language rut”. I’m the first to admit that I have favourite words, expressions and turns of phrase. However, over a long text and with a repetition-averse language such as English, it’s a sure-fire way to send your reader (and possibly yourself) to sleep. The solution for me has always been to read extensively, especially material that is related to the subject I’m working on. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as finding a juicy new word or expression to use!
These are some of the lessons I've learned first-hand from working on a very large project. As part of your own work (or when you've commissioned someone to do a large job for you), have you noticed any other important points?
Over the last month, on translation-related forums and blogs, I have come across several new translators asking for advice on how to succeed in this industry. Interestingly, there is usually an undertone of ‘why is this so hard?!’ Some excellent and very relevant advice has been given - have a look at this post
by Jill Sommer, this one
by David Turnbull and this one
by Riccardo Schiaffino). I won’t elaborate on what has already been said. Instead, in this post I want to bust some myths. These are points that I believe are important to bear in mind, but that many inexperienced (and perhaps even some experienced) translators seem to forget about. Myth 1 - If I advocate quality, clients/agencies will flock
You know that you produce high-quality translations, so that’s what you tell people you do. You expect them to come flocking, as surely they need a good translator such as yourself. The thing is, do you think there is a single translator out there who doesn’t claim their work is good? Of course not, which means that by using ‘quality’ as your selling point you are merely equating yourself with thousands of others. It’s similar to using hackneyed terms such as ‘team-player’ or ‘highly-motivated’ in a CV. Again, would any job seeker not wish a potential employer to think these words describe them?Quality should be a given, not a marketing ploy.
Instead, think about what it is that you offer but that others don’t. So, are you particularly fast, particularly good at researching the topics for your translations, do you have a particularly rare or commercially important area of expertise? Use that as a selling point instead, and set yourself apart from the masses. Myth 2 - I just need to publish my website and it will do its own work
I’m always pleased to see translators that have made the effort to invest in a good site. However, it also surprises me when they complain it doesn’t get them any clients. Of course, there are many aspects to having a ‘successful’ website, but one thing that is important to look into is the question: Can my website even be found
If you google the most obvious search terms for your language combination - for me: Japanese to English translation - the first page of results is completely taken up by companies offering free online translation. The first freelancer appears halfway down the second page, and only then because the clever boy managed to get the URL japanesetranslations.co.uk. Most of us, however, use less obvious site names, forget about adding keywords, and are way down in the rankings.
The significance of this is that site traffic drops almost exponentially the further down you are in the search results. On average only 2% of visitors end up converting (filling in a quotation form), and only half of those actually go on to place a job. So, if you are high up on the first page - say fifth - you’d get 500 odd visitors a month, 10 quotation requests, and 5 jobs. If you’re first you’d get thousands of visitors, but if your tenth you’d get less than a hundred a month. And that’s just the first page! The way to get yourself higher up on the list is through Search Engine Optimisation (SEO
), but SEO specialists are expensive - 100 EUR an hour on average in Europe, and a succesful SEO campaign might take near 30 hours over the course of a few months.
So, assuming you can’t afford this kind of a fee, how do you increase the number of people that visit your site? The most obvious solution is to basically let the whole world and their best friend know it’s there. Tell all your friends, post it on facebook, include it on your LinkedIn profile, shout about it on Twitter, etc. etc. And don’t just tell them about it once - tell everyone about every change or update you’ve made. Have a look at this short presentation
if you’re not sure how.Myth 3 - It's only me and a computer - why would I need a business plan/accountant/start-up capital?
If you were opening a garage, starting a logistics firm or building a new factory, you wouldn’t dream of doing so without having all of the above, would you? Yet countless translators go into freelancing without giving much thought to the business side of things at all. They don’t even think of themselves as a business. It’s easy to see why - we don’t need to buy expensive machinery, lease a warehouse or employ other people. We can literally grab a laptop and set up shop in our own bedroom. Nevertheless, freelance translators should not ignore the fact that as many as 1 in 3 new businesses in the UK fail within their first 3 years. We sell a service, so we are a business and we should act and plan accordingly.
As a budding freelancer, ask yourself what equipment you need to buy
(e.g. a workstation, a CAT tool, any other software, a fast internet connection, etc.). Do you have the money to buy these things or do you need a loan? In case of the latter, you’ll immediately need to deduct repayments from your first income.
There are many more relevant questions in this area: Do you know how much you need to earn to support yourself? How will you cope if you have a few quiet months? What do you want to earn in your first, second and third years and how will you achieve this? Do you know enough about the tax and social security laws in your country to be able to do your own tax returns or do you need help? If you work from home, are you sure you know how to calculate what percentage of your utility bills you can claim back? Would you know how to prove to a mortgage lender that your annual income is high/stable enough to buy a house?? And that’s just the beginning - I haven’t even mentioned pensions and childcare!Myth 4 - Be afraid of Machine Translation. Be very afraid...
As a human translator who has spent years honing their language skills, of course I hold fast to the view that human translators will always do a better job than Machine Translation (MT). Like many others I’m a bit baffled by the hype that currently surrounds MT, because I have seen what kind of gobbledygook it can produce (see Steve Vitek
’s little test on MT of a JP patent here).
Nevertheless, MT is big business. The likes of Google are spending huge resources on developing their MT service, so it’s clearly something that isn’t going to go to away.
However, in my opinion this trend doesn’t mean we have to be afraid of losing our livelihood. Nor do we need to be bullied into accepting lower rates because ‘MT lowers the value of translation’, or into doing work as a ‘post-editor’ of MT content (unless you really want to, of course).
Instead, I see MT as one of the many reference tools available
to me. There’s no shame whatsoever in getting a feel for terminology with an MT as part of your research process. Equally, if a client prefers to save money by getting the gist of an unimportant text with an MT, that’s absolutely fine. I know that to get a high-quality, reliable translation of an important document, they’ll have to invest and come to me. Myth 5 - As a translator, I only need to be good at translation
Obviously being a skillful translator helps a great deal when you want to make it in this business. However, your wordsmithery is not the only thing that counts. Over the past couple of weeks I have come across some very unprofessional behaviour (in one instance by another freelance translator, in another by a business in a completely unrelated area). In each case I was turned off the idea of ever working with these providers again, despite them having delivered work that was essentially good.
‘Professionalism’ is a broad term, but to me it means that you fundamentally care about providing a great service. It means not only working out every detail of your modus operandi
, but also being able to communicate this effectively to clients. It’s being able to show them that you can deal with any eventuality, without bamboozling them with industry jargon in the process. At times, it’s also about being firm about why you won’t stand for an acceptable situation, or, conversely, being graceful when you’ve made a mistake. Understanding corporate professionalism, and being able to demonstrate it, is crucial to succeeding in this business
In addition, for the sake of your own sanity you also need to have an understanding of the administrative palaver that comes with running your own business. Make sure you know how to keep financial records, spend time finding out what marketing strategies are likely to help you attract clients, and above all don’t forget to set up a good IT back-up system (have a look at this post
by Philippa Hammond). It’s also worth spending time getting to know the laws and regulations that affect things like contracts and payments in your country, just in case you run into a conflict with a client.
Essentially, our job in the language services industry is to facilitate international communication. We cross linguistic and cultural boundaries to help our clients get their own ideas across, or understand those of others. This holds true, for example, whether you’re an independent translator or whether you run an agency. However, when it comes to the relationship between the parties involved in the translation process, why is it that the word ‘alienation’ rather than ‘communication’ so often springs to mind?
Negativity seems to abound in this industry, with translators moaning about poor pay and ill treatment, agencies complaining about perpetually late freelancers, and clients despairing they don’t even know where to begin looking for someone
who’ll simply get the job done, end of. Clearly something is going wrong and as is so often the case with a soured relationship, I believe a lack of effective communication to be at the root of this.
I’ve already written about why the relationship between independent translators and agencies can be a positive one
. In this post I want to keep spreading that positivity and list some suggestions on how freelancers, agencies and direct clients can keep those communicative cogs well-oiled.Freelancers ♥ Clients
Freelancers ♥ Agencies
- Provide feedback. Let your freelance suppliers know what you think of their work and services. Good freelancers are highly motivated, so they will use your feedback to help them improve further. Also, do share positive feedback with your colleagues - word of mouth advertising is very valuable to freelancers, who often don’t have a large budget for marketing activities.
- Respect the fact that freelancers have multiple clients and commitments. A good freelancer will always do their best to meet your needs, but they also have to stick to previously agreed deadlines. Also bear in mind that freelancers can’t be expected to stay ‘potentially available’ for too long, as the risk they run of losing money is high.
Clients ♥ Freelancers
- Demonstrate that freelancers are more than a nameless cog in a vast system. They are all pretty strong-minded individuals, but they’re also easily pleased; a personally addressed email rather than a generic round-robin, an indication that you have noted what they specialise in, a thank you upon completion of a job will go a long way.
- Provide detailed instructions, and preferably all in one go rather than in an endless string of emails. Freelancers know that every client is different, so remember to specify what timezone your deadline refers to, what you want the formatting to look like, whether you want comments to be added into the text or written up separately, etc. It’s all in the detail.
Clients ♥ Agencies
- Be clear. Just because someone asks you for a translation, doesn’t mean they know what it’s involved. Don’t get mad at your client’s ignorance, and don’t bamboozle them with industry-speak. Who cares whether you’ve got this or that CAT tool or you don’t like PDFs? Ask pertinent, practical questions and get the job done.
- Be impeccably, infallibly professional. Even a (very) small business is still expected to meet certain standards in the eyes of a client. Having a good website, a clear pricing structure and robust procedures to deal with every eventuality all make a freelancer appear professional. On the other hand, it only takes one customer service malfunction to appear amateurish and put the client off for good.
Agencies ♥ Freelancers
- Remember the personal touch, especially in email communication. Part of providing a good service involves assuring the client there will always be someone available to help them. Make sure your quotes are accompanied by an email addressed to a specific person, and let them know you have considered all aspects of their specific request.
- Take the slack, even if it’s technically not your fault. The client entrusted the job to your agency and your agency only, so if something goes wrong it is your responsibility to fix it. Yes, it may have been the freelancer that submitted the project late, but that’s not the client’s concern. They rely on the your ability to select good suppliers, so pointing the finger of blame elsewhere will appear as though your making excuses.
Agencies ♥ ClientsAs I have personally never dealt with clients in this capacity, I’m unsure of what to put in this section! If you run an agency, do share your thoughts on what makes you love your clients. Equally, I’m sure there are lots of points that can be added to the previous sections, so feel free to pitch in!
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Freelancers are often worried about appearing unprofessional or even incompetent if they admit they’re stuck, but by suffering in silence and turning in something below standard you will truly shoot yourself in foot. Accept that even the best can be stumped sometimes, and be open to discuss problems in a professional, cooperative manner.
- Keep all the agencies you work with updated. Let them know if you are going to be unavailable for a while, what new PC skills or bits of software you acquired, etc. Although I haven’t tried it (yet) myself, you could send them a regular newsletter.
A Master's Degree, a CAT tool, a copy of the Prosperous Translator
and a comfy desk chair are important to fashioning a career as a professional (freelance) translator. In addition, here is a little list of oft-forgotten things that will also help see you through both the light and the dark days:A computer gremlin
I’m a firm believer in the need for translators to be fairly tech-savvy. All sorts of file formats come our way, CAT tools
are pretty much ubiquitous, and if you’re so inclined there are all sorts of toys
to make this job about more than just typing. However, there are many, many things that I don’t know how to deal with. Cue my computer gremlin. Of a naturally geeky disposition, he happily finds solutions to my PC problems whilst I hover nervously in the background, cup of tea in hand. Unless you’re very good with computers, everyone needs a go-to specialist on 24h call. Our livelihood depends on those silly machines! Rhinoceros hide
A translator’s work is (and should be!) always checked by somebody else. For various reasons - to fit in with a certain style, to make a more coherent whole, to provide a better choice of wording - our work may be amended. Unfortunately it is far too easy to dread this red penmanship and take revisions personally
. In fact, I dread it because even the slightest amendment leaves me wondering whether I’m staring over the abyss into failure and about to be tossed aside for a more competent colleague. A little dramatic? Certainly, but translators don’t have a reputation for being perfectionist pedants for nothing. The only way I cope is to make a cuppa, calm the hell down and remind myself that a) revisions make a good text great, and b) I might actually learn something this way. A wicked set of mental gears
I started off with just one client, who always sends the same type of document, in one language combination. With time, my client portfolio expanded to reflect my various areas of expertise
in both my language combinations. The result: all sorts of projects end up in my inbox. For example, I recently translated a Japanese article on cosmetics one day and a Dutch patent on photovoltaics the next. Not only did I have to switch languages, the former job had me happily flicking through beauty magazines for ‘research’ while the latter saw me quizzing my (physicist) other half on the prevalence of a particular acronym. Although the variety is precisely what I love about freelancing, finding strategies to deal with word soup
is a must. An infallible sense of humour
The internet and its many freelance portals (e.g. Proz
etc.) bring endless marketing opportunities for independent Language Service Providers. As an unfortunate by-product, however, they also seem to bring a consistent stream of what someone who needs to pay rent, taxes and bills can only call ‘crap’. One such gem:
Sent on: 07/07
Word count: 500000
Subject matter: Legal
Deadline: 09/07 at 8 AM GMT
Rate : 40 $/1000 for target words
500K words in two days? The guy did ask whether I knew anyone else who might be able to help, but still: Yer gotta larf. A plethora of minor distractions
The mantra “revise, revise, and revise again” rings just as true for a translator’s work as it does for a writer’s. One draft is never enough, and between drafts it is good practice to go off and do something completely different for a while. I find tackling a mountain of laundry is mundane enough to relax my mind, and boring enough to fire me up again before starting the next draft. Small distractions work for me too. When I’m having trouble coaxing a word off the tip of my tongue and onto the screen, making a cup of tea or reading a few well-written articles can really help. So distractions are a good thing - it might look like I’m faffing but my brain is actually still going.An industrial-strength kettle
As you might have guessed, I’m not actually capable of much without a cuppa. My day doesn’t begin unless I’ve had one. That first hour of the day is my favourite thanks to a cup of tea. Favourite mug in hand, I read the news, catch up with Google Reader, and see what’s happening on Twitter. Post-tea, I’m ready to tackle the day’s emails. Same goes before (and probably during) any big translation or revision job, blog post, invoicing session,... As a result, my kettle is my best friend. My long-suffering, extra hard-duty best friend.
So there you have it, my list of underrated yet essential items in the survival kit. Do you have anything (or anyone!) you wouldn't be without as a freelance professional?
Translation agencies seem to cop a lot of flak. When I first started telling independent colleagues that I was planning on going freelance too, several warned against working with agencies. In the Patenttranslators’ Blog
, Steve Vitek lets few opportunities go by to remind readers that he does not work for agencies. Both Steve and other colleagues cite reasons of unreliability, bad pay and bad conditions.
While I don’t doubt that there are less-than-professional agencies out there, or think that Steve & Co’s choice to only work with direct clients is not a valid one, I do find it unfair to dismiss working with all agencies in one fell swoop. The bad agencies, and the amount of time devoted to berating them on twitter and the blogosphere, give the good ones a bad name by association. For once, therefore, I’d like to do the opposite and point out why I like working with good translation agencies. 1. They do all the running for you
When an assignment lands in your inbox, the agency will already have done the marketing, negotiating, communicating, etc. Some minor issues over details or rates do often remain, but in my experience these are very easy to resolve. My only responsibility is simply to get on with the job. 2. They understand what our work involves
While it’s possible to command higher rates when working with direct clients, they usually don’t have much experience in dealing with the LSP industry. There are always exceptions, but I often find myself putting a lot of time and effort into explaining the ins and outs of commissioning a translation, why I need certain information, why a particular deadline is not realistic, etc. I see this sort of communicative work as being part of my job and I do it gladly, but it’s simply something I don’t need to do with agencies.3. They take care of the external proofreading
While I obviously proofread my own work very carefully, it is good practice to get a second pair of eyes to look over your translation too. Any agency worth its salt will sort this out themselves, either in-house or by contracting another freelancer. Another time-saver for me. 4. The good agencies are not that hard to find
Although there are literally thousands of translation agencies operating, word gets around fast if an agency is particularly good or bad. I never agree to work with an agency before I’ve checked their Proz Blueboard entry. If I can’t find them on there, I just ask my colleagues. Hence, it never takes very long to get at least some basic info on what an agency is like to work with and whether they tend to pay on time. There’s really no need to work for the bad ones (unless you like having something to moan about).
So, while there are certainly agencies out there who pay silly rates, demand ultra-fast turnover or try to foist the responsibility of proofreading onto the translator, there are also many good ones. Once you’ve found them, stick with them; I go out of my way to maintain a good working relationship with the agencies I like. I hope that, in return, they like working with me.
Following Judy and Dagmar Jenner's call in the Translation Times
for lovely language blogs in order to enter a raffle for a copy of their book
, I thought I'd get in on the action too. Because I've only been browsing the blogosphere for a few months, the list of blogs I subscribe to isn't very long yet. It looks like quite a few translators are participating in this great exercise though, so I'm looking forward to checking out all the blogs mentioned and adding them to my list!
These are some of the writers that have caught my eye so far.April Textworks
: I love Betti Moser's style and her thoughtful, positive posts. In an industry where many people seem to be quick to complain about everything from agencies to low rates (I couldn't think of a word beginning with 'z'!), Betti's posts are always that little bit different and never fail to make me smile. a culture of language and thought
: I have no idea how Lisa Carter manages to come up with so many consistently good posts. She provides a wealth of creative, interesting and thought-provoking posts, even going so far as to suggest writing exercises. A must-read for any literary translator. Localization Industry 411
: Having once watched Renato Beninatto tell a room full of aghast translators that the invention of CAT tools was the worst thing that ever happened to them, I'm always interested to see what the most opinionated and charismatic man in the industry has to say.
To participate in this great link-love exercise and have a chance of winning Judy and Dagmar's book, don't forget to mention your favourite blogs under the A ♥ for Language Blogs
Just under a year ago, this translator made a momentous decision: to leave the comfort of the corporate coffee machine and go from in-house to independent. It’s something that had always been at the back of my mind but never seemed pressing. The corporate coffee machine offered a security that was strangely addictive. Then, suddenly, an opportunity to go it alone came from someone else; my Other Half decided to move across to the other side of Europe to pursue his own career-related dreams. I followed and have set up shop in a tiny office overlooking the rooftops of Milan. My journey to this new and strange environment has gone something like:1. Get wildly excited
Still safely ensconced within a regular salary and company biscuits, the prospect of going freelance seemed like a big adventure. On days when the biscuits didn't cut the mustard and the office-mates got a bit too irritating, I fantasised about my website-to-be, the networking I was going to do and the fascinating jobs I would get. 2. Panic
Insecurities caught up with me. As I handed over 3 years of hard graft to someone else, I began to worry about not having a regular salary anymore. I also spent many worry-minutes on how I would find clients, how I would even begin to find out about the Italian tax system, whether I would go slowly mad with loneliness, etc.3. Move countries
(in the middle of a bitterly cold, snowy winter)
Enough said and best forgotten. Note: not essential for in going from in-house to freelance.4. Begin at the beginning
Realising that neither Rome nor freelance businesses are built in a day, I spent my first month of independence making sure that I’d never have to say I was unemployed. I dusted off my old TEFL certificate and got a few hours a week of teaching. At least I would see other human beings from time to time and have a little of my own money coming in every month (have a look at this excellent post
by Catherine Jan on why she does part-time teaching too).5. Attempt to crack the Italian tax system
Hmmm.6. Give up on (5)
I found myself an accountant who could speak English and who was willing to at least try to explain the Italian tax system to me. And who deals with the formidable amounts of bureaucratic palaver for me, for which alone she is worth her weight in gold.7. Spend, spend, spend
Following a stint of freelancing from my bedroom with nothing but an old laptop for company a few years ago, I decided that if I was going to change the scenery again, I would do it properly. Even if it meant moving into the broom cupboard, I would have my own think-space, a kick-ass computer and the latest software. After all, you wouldn’t open a new garage armed with just one rusty screwdriver either, would you?8. Panic v.2
Having spent more than I care to recall on the meanest PC I have ever had, I realised that I had better make some money with it. Yet reality hit - nobody who would conceivably buy translations from me knew I existed.
When you work in-house, you are someone: that girl who you send stuff too with far too little notice, who will grumble at you a bit but who will eventually send the thing back to you all translated automagically. For all its annoyances, restrictions and politics, an in-house job gives you an identity. As a newbie freelancer, however, that identity and all its associated knowledge counts for nothing unless you manage to find yourself some clients (being in a foreign country without any friends probably didn’t help my frame of mind much at this stage).9. Reinvent
Having got a grip on myself again, I sat down and did what every new business needs to: I brainstormed and planned my world domination. I asked myself what it was I wanted to do for my clients. I tried to imagine how they would go about finding, selecting and working with the likes of me. I forced myself to think about where I wanted my business to be in 1, 2, 5 and even 10 years. I got excited again. 10. Shout it out loud
I’ve made myself a website, joined twitter, gotten a logo, taken part in discussions on LinkedIn and told acquaintances old and new that I was open for business. And so far, so good...
So here I am, looking out at the Madonnina atop the Duomo of Milan on my right and our kitchen on my left. As scenery goes, it beats the rows of endless desks of my previous incarnation hands-down...
When I tell non-freelancers what I do, I usually get one of two reactions:
“You’re so lucky, you must have so much freedom”
“That sounds hard. I’d never have the discipline to get work done if I were left to my own devices".
The truth lies somewhere in between. Total ‘freedom’ is a romantic myth; we’re actually slaves to our clients and their deadlines, though it is true that if we really want to we can go shopping at 3pm and then burn the midnight oil to get a job done. As for lack of discipline, a job is a job and I doubt that anyone could be so disinterested as to ignore that.
However, discipline is definitely needed when it comes to the longer-term aspects of work, such as bookkeeping, further training, business planning, etc. In this area it is much easier to falter, to realise too late that you’ve made a mess, and then to go slightly loopy with worry/despondency.
As a freelancer you are both CEO and minion, marketing guru and accountant, business analyst and coffee-maker extraordinaire. Yet, as we get absorbed in our work and race to meet deadlines, we tend to forget about all these different roles of ours. This is a shame, because the only person to remind us of these roles is ourselves; we don’t have a manager who will do it for us.
The solution, of course, is to be organised. Figure out what your long-term needs/goals are, and plan your days, weeks and even years around them. To give you some ideas, these are some of the things I do that are crucial to my business but that do not actually involve what I was trained to do directly:Every day
- (Social media) networking - I use Twitter and LinkedIn to see what is going on in my industry as well as that of my clients (NB: for a short amount of time a day!).
- Background reading - I read at least one science-related article to keep up with the latest developments and terminology. I also read blogs by fellow language professionals.
- Back-up my work
Every other week
- Update the books - I have an accountant, but she still needs me to keep track of everything and give her something that makes sense at the end of every quarter. Checking my books every week also ensures I notice any late payments straight away.
- Marketing and relationship management - I spend time finding new clients and keep existing ones updated (e.g. I tell agencies if I am going to be away or working on a particularly long project).
- Terminology management - I make sure I’ve updated any glossaries or translation memories with the week’s work.
- Write a new blog post - This gives me a creative outlet, keeps me in circulation online and forces me to brainstorm about my work/industry regularly.
Twice a year
- Have an “accounts day” - I send my invoices. I also prepare the things that need to be sent to my accountant so I don’t have to do three months’ worth in one go every quarter.
- Make sure my website is up-to-date - Neglected websites are a pet peeve of mine, so I make sure I keep the information on there current or even overhaul sections of it completely.
- Attend a conference or professional association event - A great opportunity to meet colleagues face-to-face, discuss common problems and generally have a good time.
- Hold my own ‘appraisal’ - I look at how the past year has gone and think about what I want to achieve for the next year. I ask any clients/agencies for their feedback. This is also the time that I think about whether I need to learn/update any skills or buy new kit. I find it really focuses and motivates me!
What about other freelancers out there? How do you make sure your business stays healthy, organised and focused?