When the Shoe is on the Other Foot – 21 Days as an Undesirable Client

Reputation is everything in freelancing — and that goes for clients as well. In don’t know how it works in other industries, but the translation world is not that big and word gets around. This is especially true for agencies: there are various online groups, sites and forums for rating agencies and naming & shaming bad players. I’m not aware of any equivalent lists for translators, but I know that many agencies have internal rating systems for the people they work with and I’m sure project managers talk.

Still, lists and recommendations only cover a fraction of everyone out there, so most of us have kissed a few frogs in our search for Prince Charming Client who pays well and on time. After many years and thousands of email interactions with potential and actual clients, like many of you I have developed the gift of “instassessment”: the ability to see at a glance whether an offer is worth my time. It’s a sliding scale, and the classification is as follows:

Just No
Anything that does not address me by name, offers stupid low rates, or uses emoji’s in the subject line

If I Must
Pays well but the agency’s translation flow or online system is so burdensome and time-consuming it’s only worth the hassle if nothing better has presented itself. For a while.

If I Can
Well-paid but unenjoyable projects for good clients. Implementing track changes, “small” jobs that consist of multiple individual files, etc.

Yes Absolutely
Pays well, good communication, interesting projects. I have a few clients that fit this bill, and I will do whatever it takes to accommodate them.

Every morning I go through my inbox pretty quickly, ignoring, rejecting or accepting offers without too much deliberation since I know what I’m looking for and what I can handle on any given day.

And then one day the shoe was on the other foot. Because of some recent changes we no longer have health insurance through my husband’s job, and here in the US that means we are required to purchase our own insurance or face penalties at tax time. However, like many government programs, universal coverage is great idea in principle and a logistical nightmare in practice. As we found out in short order, Covered California, our state version of the federal program, is so difficult to navigate that you need professional help to do it, except the profit-to-hassle ratio for insurance agents is so unattractive that no one wants to touch it.

oliver twistSo instead of the smiles and friendly service we were used to with our old insurance, all of a sudden I got a lot of “just no’s”. For three weeks I talked to one agent after another who seemed happy to have my business until I dropped the CC-bomb, at which point they all of a sudden they remembered they were “not taking any new clients”. Or, if I had left a message on their machine, they did not return my call at all.

I did have a few “if I can” responses: these were agents I had worked with before and who were willing to help in principle, but when they realized they were in over their heads they either stopped returning my calls or told me good luck but try someone else.

I was getting close to desperate when on day 21, literally hours before the deadline, a miracle happened and I found an agent who told me she could help. Shann met with me right away, powered through the application and got us on a plan that was a third of the cheapest quote I got (for the same plan) when I submitted the form myself. To say I was impressed would be putting it mildly. This business woman has created a niche specialty by working just a little harder than everyone else to figure out a daunting system, and now she’s cleaning up with all those clients no one else can help.

It was a sobering experience to go from “preferred customer” to “undesirable”, just like that. I also realized that it was not the “just no” responses that really bothered me; at least the message was clear and it was nothing personal. I had no particular expectations from any of them anyway; that’s why I sent out so many requests.

It was harder to swallow when an agent I had always had a good relationship with promised me he would be able to help me for sure, but then he disappeared for two weeks before finally sending me a link to some online plans I could have googled myself in 10 seconds. The tone of his email had also changed from super helpful to curt and impersonal. Did he just feel bad he couldn’t deliver? I have no idea. But it felt worse than all the straightforward rejections from everyone else.

Generally, the more you are invested in a relationship, whether business or personal, the stronger the sense (and expectation) of obligation. That’s why I don’t feel bad for ignoring emails from agencies that that keep contacting me with jobs at subpar rates after we have had the “we’re not a good match” conversation. Or the requests for collaboration addressed to “dear linguist”. No relationship, no obligation.

But that’s why this stressful experience also highlights the power of “yes absolutely”. This agent did the hard work to specialize and carve out a niche, and now there are not too many people who can do what she does. I was thrilled when I found her and I have been recommending her to anyone who will listen ever since. That’s how I want my clients to feel about me.  But it takes work. A lot of people have the capability. Not everyone is willing to go that extra mile.

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Anything Can Happen … But We’ll Probably Be Alright

Everything will be alrightI don’t really buy magazines, except for the “Best and Worst” issues; I’m a sucker for those. Most Awkward Moments of 2017? Worst Dressed at the Oscars? I want to know. And come on now, I know I’m not the only one. Chronicle editors, publish a “Best-Dressed at the ATA Conference” issue and see what happens to your numbers. Same for those tantalizing click-bait posts with catchy lists: 5 Worst Translation Blogs; 10 Guaranteed Ways to Find Direct Clients; 3 Mistakes That Will Torpedo Your Business — they’re the fun-size candy bars of the article world.

What makes these lists so enjoyable? Part of it is simply that they’re harmless fun disguised (very thinly) as informative pieces. They also wrap up the news, or the year, or our culture, in a tidy, manageable package. And that is appealing, because most of the world is not tidy or manageable or fun, for that matter, as we are constantly reminded by the never-ending, 24/7 global news cycle we’re exposed to. And our own lives, although hopefully manageable, are usually not tidy for very long.

Because life is change, and change is hard, and you don’t always see it coming. Or worse, it turns everything upside down forever. Last week, one of my son’s classmates from high school died from an OxyContin overdose. I didn’t know this boy personally, but it hit me hard, partly no doubt because he is the same age as my son and tragedies like this speak to every parent’s worst fear. It’s the sudden, horrific finality of it, and the knowledge that for this mom and dad, life will never, ever be alright again.

I know that this tragedy is not about me, but it still colors my perspective at the start of a new year. What helps me is to remember that most of the changes we will face this year will likely not be tragic but merely challenging, and that “things usually turn out alright and will probably turn out alright again.” This doesn’t sound very philosophical or profound, but I read it somewhere and it stuck with me, and it’s gotten me through some late-night vigils when my college-age sons were out late.

Regardless of New Year’s resolutions or 5-year plans, we don’t always get to pick our changes and we don’t always see them coming. But we can choose how we respond, and this is true in business as in life.

I’ve been inspired by some of you in this regard. In a recent post of his  Patenttranslator’s Blog Steve Vitek wrote about his response when Japanese patent translations started to dry up. Instead of giving up or passively accepting a drop in income, he changed course and found a different niche. In another post he described escaping from communist Czechoslovakia in the early 1980s and making his way to America, and I’m sure the resilience this required has served him well in his career.

The profession as a whole is going through some sea-changes as well, but it’s hard to tell if we’re up or down sometimes: depending on the headline, translators are thriving — no wait, we’re dying — no wait we’re fine. According to a report published by the University of California San Diego Extension Center for Research, Interpretation/Translation was the number one emerging career in terms of job growth in 2017. At the same time, there are many who are happy to explain that the era of human translation is drawing to an end and that our only hope is to “repurpose” ourselves as post-editors of machine translation. (I’m getting “Lord of the Rings” chills just writing that). Judging from the low median hourly earnings of $21.90 reported by UCSD, it could very well be that part of this reported growth is, in fact, in the post-editing/bulk market sector. So now what?

The thing about lists and statistics is that they offer only bite-sized bits of a bigger, more complex picture. For example, I’m a medical translator. The pharmaceutical industry is not likely to stop developing new drugs anytime soon, nor are they likely to risk killing people and lose billions of dollars’ worth of investments by cutting corners with machine translation of handwritten doctors’ scribbles. So these macrotrends are worth keeping an eye on, but not necessarily worth losing sleep over.

The actual changes that affect our careers are much more mundane and specific. For example, an agency I started working for many years ago sent out a mass e-mail asking us translators to lower our rates in light of the economic blah blah blah. I refused to do so, and I have noticed that most of their job offers since then have been for editing. Their strategy is obvious: have the translation done by a cheaper translator and then fix it up in the editing phase. Unfortunately, a) I don’t like editing, and b) the hourly rate paid by most agencies is about $50 at the most, which is much less than I make translating (paid per word, so they have no idea what hourly rate that converts to). So I reject these editing jobs, partly because I don’t like getting played, and partly because I usually have enough translation offers lined up to fill up my schedule.

Except … when I don’t. That’s when my faith in the overall stability of my life and my business is tested. As a matter of fact, I’m in the middle of one of those odd radio-silence weeks right now, when my inbox remains inexplicably empty. This has happened a few times over the years, so I’m learning. The first time I panicked, the second time I cleaned the garage while panicking, and this time I made myself a nice hot cup of coffee and started writing this post, knowing that this, too, shall pass.

I will face challenges and changes this year. And so will you.
But I think we’ll be okay.

When Confidence Gets Ahead of Skill

Presumption

There are countless ways to mess up your business, but here is one sure-fire method: just base your decisions on presumptions and disaster is sure to follow. There are various degrees of presumption, of course, and to be honest I’ve been guilty of a few.

An example of the mildest form of presumption is the mistakes you make when you’re learning a new language and confidence skips merrily ahead of skill.

When I had been living in the US for about a year, I was introduced by my friend Peter to someone he had told me about a few times. Continue reading

Translation: the Business of Belonging

belongingOne of the more awkward moments in my life was dealt to me inadvertently by a close friend many years ago. We had dropped in to admire some handcrafted jewelry in a shop here in California, and she discovered that the owner/artist was Dutch like me. So she called me over excitedly to “speak Dutch” with him, and then left us to it while she stood there, beaming expectantly. The thing is, it was pretty obvious that we both felt put on the spot but we didn’t want to be churlish either, so we performed a forced little conversation about how long have you lived here, where in Holland are you from, do you like it here, can we gracefully wrap this up now.

Why was this so awkward? Continue reading

SDL Trados Support Part II — In which I Reap the Whirlwind

technically correctIn my last post, I expressed my frustration with SDL Trados over unresolved problems with my new Studio software. The cathartic but perhaps somewhat unwise title of my post (see below) immediately unleashed the whirlwind in the form of SDL technician Paul Filkin, who valiantly defended SDL’s honor in the comments to my post, on Twitter, and on the SDL forum. If we ever need another Winston Churchill to fight the enemy on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields and the streets, I nominate Paul.

We had a lively discussion in the comments, Continue reading

SDL Trados Why is Your Customer Support So Bad?

Dear SDL Trados,

bad-customer-serviceYou have created a wonderful product. It makes my life easier, ensures consistency, and increases my translation speed. Sure, there are agencies who try to turn its awesome powers against us translators by using it to lower prices, but that is not your fault and I’m perfectly capable of handling my own rates.

You have also made a lot of money off of this wonderful product; according to the preliminary statement published on your website, revenue for 2016 was 264.7 million, up 10% from 2015. That’s a lot of software. And at its current price of $825 a pop, that comes out to a lot of new users in 2016 alone. Continue reading

Badsplaining,the Translator’s Curse

Writer James Fell recently shared a Reddit challenge on his Facebook page to Badly Explain Your Profession. The responses are inventive and hilarious, but they made me think about how we translators explain what we do. Hang around any translation forum or group long enough, and sooner or later the conversation will turn to complaints about the misconceptions people have about our profession, like the notion that any high school kid who’s taken a year of French can be a translator.

But really, whose fault is that? Continue reading

Missteps and missed opportunities

pebbleRunning your own business feels like a steady jog uphill. There is no finish line (unless you retire or sell out I guess), only a view of the next mountain when you’ve reached the top. It’s been an enjoyable run so far, and I love what I do. This is the time of year when it’s traditional to count your blessings (for Thanksgiving, if you live in the US) and think about goals for the coming year. First, though, I need to sit down and shake some of the rocks and twigs out of my shoes that slowed me down and caused a few missteps this year. Continue reading

“Treasured Guests” and Other Trials

I love Disneyland. It’s hopelessly uncool, I know, but the irony-free “Happiest Place on Earth” is a refreshing change from the cynicism required for survival in the rest of the world.

So it was a bit of a “what?” moment when a friend told me that Disney employees have a special code for referring to difficult or unpleasant visitors. So FIY, the next time you send back your burger at the Galactic Grill for the second time and ask to have a sandwich from the Blue Bayou sent over instead, do not be flattered when the waiter calls in a special request for a “treasured guest”; you’re being marked as a certified jerk. Continue reading

You Get What You Pay For — a Myth?

pennypincherPrincipled decisions usually have no immediate pay-off except knowing that you did the right thing, but sometimes life gives you a sweet little taste of poetic justice.

About six months ago one of my best agencies asked all its translators to lower their rates to help them keep up their profits (paraphrase mine). I passed on this opportunity to take one for the team, worked a little harder to cover the shortfall with new clients, and chalked it up to sad experience.

Fast-forward to last week, when I got another mass-email from this agency: Continue reading