When No One Calls — Making It through the Dry Spells

A few months back I was faced with a bit of a moral dilemma.

You may recognize the scenario: I had been asked by an agency with which I have a long-standing relationship to evaluate the work of a potential new translator. The translation was excellent and earned a high score on the evaluation sheet; simple enough. But when I emailed the project manager with the results I found myself hesitating, as it occurred to me that having another talented translator around might mean less work for me. Did I really want to add fuel to the fire by adding a personal note of praise for this potential interloper?

While the wisdom of involving competitors in the hiring process might be debatable, it’s touching that translation agencies have so much faith in our integrity.The funny thing is that this system actually works. I have found that the occasional backbiting aside, the translation profession as a whole has a pretty unique culture of collaboration and mutual respect.
Because it’s easy to be gracious and generous when you’re doing well, but as it happens this request came during a period earlier this year when all work seemed to have dried up.

This had never happened to me before. I’d been a freelancer for about seven years, and during that time my business had grown steadily along a nice, upward curve. Sure, I had heard from colleagues that lean times are inevitable, but I thought my chances of being the exception to the rule were looking pretty good.

And then the lovely agency whose praises I sang in A Tale of Two Agencies stopped sending me work right after accepting my rate increase so graciously. Coincidence? Hard to tell; their response had been so positive after all … I did know I wasn’t going to call back with a lame offer to cancel the increase, but that bone to my self-respect wasn’t going to help my bottom line.

Then another high-paying agency sent a mass e-mail to all its translators asking us, due to the economy/market pressure/client demands/competitive edge blah blah blah to lower our rates. This was getting worrisome, but after a moment of wavering I decided not to lower my rates and just wait and see what happened. What happened was … nothing, as new projects failed to appear from that point on.

Within a matter of weeks the work from all my other clients dried up as well. The feedback on my finished translations up to then had been unfailingly positive, so I didn’t think I had landed on any blacklists, but it was odd nonetheless. Still, as I had learned from others who had been around the block a couple of times, the worst thing to do was sit around feeling sorry for yourself.

Time for some productive action.

  • I applied to a truckload of agencies in an effort to expand my client base.
    Number of responses: 1, informing me I didn’t fit their profile. I am embarrassed to admit that rather than take this in stride, I fired back an email which pretty much came down to a slightly more professional version of “But whyyyyyyyyy?”. Needless to say this didn’t merit a further response.
  • I spent time finishing that overdue blog post, writing an article, and researching ways to do some PR for the profession. Factor in procrastination, time spent checking my inbox every 3 minutes for job offers and working on my social media presence (for business-growth purposes only, naturally), and you can see how this would take me several weeks.
  • At that point I thought “screw it, I need the money” and accepted a couple of jobs from the lowball agency I had vowed never to work for again. I know; don’t bother pointing it out. I’m part of the problem. I’ve already done twenty Hail Mary’s and one hundred push-ups.

And then, gloriously, miraculously, just when well-meaning friends were starting to gently suggest that maybe this freelance thing was only a temporary phase and it was time to move on, the jobs started coming in again. The agency that agreed to my increased rate started sending me projects again, and the agency that asked for lower rates resumed our working relationship at my regular, unchanged rate. New clients (not the ones I approached) have contacted me with requests for collaboration, and my other regulars have come back around as well.

If I learned anything, it’s that I really do love translating. There is nothing I enjoy more as a way to make a living and the good times are worth slogging through the slow times.

As for my email about the test results, I told the project manager my colleague was top notch.
Because I’m a translator, and that’s how we roll.

12 thoughts on “When No One Calls — Making It through the Dry Spells

  1. Great post, Marie. I think it’s an occupational hazard for any self-employed professional – and even after 25 years as a freelancer, it’s still just as hard to deal with! I try and enjoy the break (in the knowledge that it usually will only be short-lived and you’ll regret not going out for lunch/going up to town/chilling in the garden when it all kicks off again. Otherwise, when I look back, my quiet times have coincided with when I’ve finally had the time to do other long overdue jobs such as investing in new software, joining a professional association, or sorting out terminology, so definitely not time wasted. None of which makes it any easier at the time, of course….

    • Hi Claire, that’s funny, one of my friends told me the exact same thing: to take this opportunity to enjoy life because the break would soon be over. I was too worried to really put her advice into practice, but I think it will be easier next time. Still hoping there won’t be a next time, of course 😉

  2. Thanks for the post, Marie! Dry spells are part of the game or like Claire called them – an occupational hazard. There is nothing you can do about it. And it doesn’t matter how good you are. It will happen even to the best of us. I’m going through a bit of a dry spell myself right now. It’s been almost a month. I guess the only smart thing you can do is to have a financial cushion for the times like these and a plan to keep yourself busy.

  3. Yeah, that’s what struck me too: this period wasn’t brought about or resolved by anything I did. It’s like bad weather passing through. So I agree, a contingency plan is the best you can do to get through it.

    • Thanks Morgane! Yes, it’s nice to hear about successes because it motivates us to keep trying, but sometimes it’s good to know you’re not the only one struggling with difficulties. I’m glad others can relate 🙂

  4. I think that feast or famine describes the nature of the beast better than the term dry spell. Dry spell sounds like something temporary and kind of unusual, but it is in fact a natural part of the cycle. It’s kind of like the real estate business, either houses are selling like hotcakes, or nobody wants to buy a house when economy is not exactly booming.

    Lowering your prices is the worst possible solution because the dry spells, or famines, will attack equally ferociously even those who started working for lower rates after a scary famine period.

    What makes more sense is to sell expensive houses instead of cheap condos if you are in real estate sales, and charge prices that make it possible for you to survive the next round of famine when there is no work if you are a translator.

  5. Hmm, I don’t think of a dry spell as something unusual, necessarily, just as something temporary.
    You’re right that lowering prices is a bad solution; it’s good to be reminded because most of us receive those requests at some point.
    And yes, expensive houses are the way to go, but I think it’s a little more complicated than that because we have to actually build the “house”, not just sell it. An experienced Japanese-English translator of patents, to use a random example, will be able to demand a higher price for his services than a newbie English-Spanish colleague without a specialty. But perhaps your point is that everyone can and should work on getting qualified and gaining experience in some profitable niche, in which case I definitely agree.

  6. Thanks Marie – translation could be a lonely business if it weren’t for the “unique culture of collaboration and mutual respect” you mention here. It’s far from true in all professions – this really is a quality to be more loudly celebrated!

    • Hi Amanda, I hadn’t thought about it in the context of the relative isolation of our work, interesting point! It’s probably easier to appreciate your colleagues when you don’t have to listen to them slurp their coffee every day at the office 🙂

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