Pattern Recognition for a Thriving Translation Business

Humans are strongly predisposed to recognize patterns. Music, math, language, and art all appeal to this part of our brain, but we also use this ability thousands of times a day for more mundane purposes, such as picking out a familiar face in a crowd and or finding a bottle of Heinz ketchup at the grocery store. So strong is this innate tendency, in fact, that we even see patterns where there are none, imposing order and meaning where none exist. This need to impose order is the basis of the Rorschach test, where the subject is invited to interpret random or ambiguous images.

So what does this have to do with translation? I’m glad you asked. Translation and interpretation are all about the recognition and creation of patterns, of course. It’s why many translators also enjoy jigsaw puzzles, crosswords, Sudokus and any other activity that scratches this pattern-finding itch; no surprise there. What many (beginning) translators don’t realize, though, is that we need this pattern-recognition ability not just to produce good translations, but to run a successful business as well. Good business decisions are based on objective patterns. Conversely, businesses that fail to thrive are usually based on decisions informed by imagined patterns.

Fibonacci snailTo illustrate, let’s take a look at one of the coolest mathematical patterns ever: the Fibonacci sequence. This sequence is a series of numbers where each number is equal to the sum of the two preceding numbers: 0 1 1 2 3 5 8 13 21 . . . Now, this would be no more interesting than one of those “what is the next number in this series” questions on IQ tests, where it not for the fact, as Italian mathematician Fibonacci pointed out in 1202, that this pattern is found all over in nature, from sunflowers to galaxies, as you can see in the picture below.

FibonacciPretty amazing, right? Now in the translation business there are certain observable patterns as well. Skill, hard work, education, specialization, marketing, professional attitude and expectations and commensurate rates tend to curve, Fibonacci-like, into a beautiful thriving business. Lack of preparation, timidity, amateurish presentation and low expectations and rates, on the other hand, will prevent the business from taking off.

Given these two predictable sequences, why would anyone choose the second one? Sometimes it’s simply for lack of awareness, although that’s not really an excuse in a world where information is only a click or a conversation away. Other times it’s not so much an information problem as an interpretation problem, of focusing on imagined Rorschach-type patterns rather than objective Fibonacci ones. Of course the reality is that all of us veer from fact-mode into assumption-mode sometimes.

Just the other day I was asked to proofread a translation. It was hard slog, and gradually my frustration with the unbelievably incompetent translator morphed into the conviction that this had to be a product of machine translation. I concluded that the agency who had sent me this unacceptable piece of work was sneakily trying to save money by trying to pass a machine post-editing job off as a regular proofreading, so I fired off an email to the PM, curtly inquiring whether this was a machine translation.

Les Miserables1I was expecting a sheepish admission and I had a righteous follow-up email already composed in my head, complete with stirring mental image of myself waving a banner on the barricades in the new musical Les Traductrices Misérables .

Come to find out, the PM had no idea what I was talking about; their client had sent them this document with no explanation beyond that they wanted it checked, and she was horrified at the suggestion that they would ever use MT. Oh. Okay then, cancel heroic fantasy, never mind. It might still have been an MT translation but the point here is that I was jumping to conclusions about the agency before getting all the facts.

Like I said, I’m sure we all have these momentary lapses, — or at least I’m kind of assuming I’m not the only one; if I am, forget that Les Misérables thing, that wasn’t me. In any case, usually there is no harm done and we move on. It only becomes a problem when Rorschach-type interpretations become a structural part of our decision-making process:

  • I don’t need to charge more for my work because my overhead is low
  • I don’t need to charge more because it’s only a part-time job and I don’t really need the money
  • It’s okay to offer extremely low rates because the cost of living in my country is low
  • I can’t charge more because they’ll just give the job to someone else
  • I already know the language; continued education is a waste of time and money
  • If I specialize I’ll miss out on a lot of jobs and I’ll lose money
  • I’ve been at it for 6 months and it’s still a struggle; obviously it’s impossible to make a living as a translator

RorschachThese statements betray a Rorschach perception of the translation industry as world of passive gloom and doom where the best you can hope for is to gather enough crumbs to cobble together some sort of minimum-wage-level subsistence, despite all evidence pointing to the attainability of professional remuneration and fulfillment:

  • The US Bureau of Statistics predicts that the translation industry will grow by 42% between 2010 and 2020
  • Based on my own experience and what I’ve heard from many colleagues, it takes most translators at least a year to build the beginnings of a client base and probably at least another year before they are busy full-time. Of course it’s still a struggle after 6 months; join the club of all freelancers/entrepreneurs ever. Plan for supplemental income during the start-up phase.
  • The rate of any professional service is not based on overhead, number of work hours or the color of your hair; it’s based on the perceived value of the service you provide. It’s your job to help our clients perceive this value accurately.
  • Education and accreditation are not a “more competent than thou” license, but they do enhance your credibility in the eyes of clients, who often don’t have much else to go on.
  • Marketing: same idea. It’s not the client’s job to ferret out your existence and qualifications. Anything you do to represent yourself in a professional, capable manner helps build trust and brings in clients.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Rorschach or Fibonacci, the choice is ours. Colleagues, can you relate or you have any examples to share? I’d love to hear your perspectives.

The Translator’s Dilemma

prisonersThere is a famous scenario in game theory called The Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this scenario, two suspects are arrested and brought in for questioning in separate rooms. As it stands, the prosecutors don’t have enough evidence to convict the pair on the principal charges, so they really need at least one of the two to confess.

They offer the suspects, who can’t communicate with each other, the following deal: if they both confess they will get each get a 3-year prison term. If A testifies against B, A will go free and B will go to prison for 5 years and vice-versa. If they both stay silent they will be convicted on the lesser charge and serve 2 years each. The dilemma lies in the fact that the best option for the prisoners is to both stay silent, but if the other one doesn’t, staying silent becomes the worst option, and there is no way to know in advance.

table1This scenario attempts to explain why two rational individuals might not cooperate, even if it would be in their best interest to do so. The reasoning of each isolated prisoner is as follows:

1. If my accomplice testifies, I will get 3 years if I testify as well, and 5 years if I don’t
2. If my accomplice stays silent, I will go free if I testify and get 2 years if I don’t

In each scenario it is more advantageous for each suspect to testify, regardless of the other one’s decision.

Now let’s apply this to the translation industry. Most of us work alone, and for the most part we don’t know what rates other translators are charging. We do know that many agencies offer very low rates or pressure translators to lower their existing rates with the promise of potential huge projects and steady work. The following diagram presents an extremely simplified version (assuming a market consisting of only two translators, one agency and ten projects) of the resulting dilemma. I will use a random lower rate of $0.10/word and a higher rate of $0.15/word

table2Without knowing what the other one is charging, each translator’s reasoning is as follows:

1. If B accepts the low rate, A gets nothing if she  rejects the low rate and 5 projects if she accepts
2. If B rejects the low rate, A gets 5 projects at a higher rate if she also rejects the rate and 10 projects at the low rate if she accepts

Within this context, it will seem better to each translator to accept the low rate. After all, even if they both reject the lower rate and make $0.15/word for 5 projects of 3000 words each, they would earn 3000 x 0.15 x 5 = $2,250. The potential earnings from 10 projects at the lower rate, on the other hand, would be 3000 x 0.10 x 10 = $3,000 if only one of them accepts.

Again, this is an extreme oversimplification, but the sad thing is that many translators unwittingly do base their decisions on this model.

Now let’s look at this scenario in a real-life context.

  • The advantage of lower rates is illusory. In our example, taking 10 jobs at the lower rate means working 100% more hours for 30% more pay than taking 5 jobs at the higher rate.
  • The job market is not a zero-sum game. The translation industry is expected to grow by 42% between 2010 and 2020 according to the US Bureau of Statistics, and there is enough work to keep all competent translators busy at decent rates. It’s true that there may be a drop in the number of jobs you are offered when you first raise your rates, but the response here should be to persevere in marketing yourself to a higher bracket based on the value you offer, not to buy into the notion that there are only a limited number of jobs out there and that the only way to get your share of projects is by lowering your price. This is not to say that everyone can or should charge the same rates; your exact rate will depend on whether you have a specialty, what type of clients you have, your actual skills and experience, and your marketing efforts. But there is no reason why the lowest rate should be a disrespect-inducing pittance.
  • We are not isolated. We may work alone, but there are so many platforms for communication out there, like Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, Twitter, blogs, professional associations, seminars and conferences, that there is absolutely no reason to be uninformed about the ongoing discussion about rates in the profession. Just a random grab from many excellent options:
    Standing Out and Watercooler (two groups on Facebook)
    The Business of Translation and Unacceptable Translation Rates (two groups on LinkedIn)
    The website No Peanuts! for Translators
    Also check out my blogroll over there on the right for excellent posts by my colleagues on every imaginable topic of interest to translators. These are just some places to start, but you will discover that there is an active, vibrant translation community out there for mutual support and edification.
  • Unlike the isolated prisoners, we have enough information to conclude that it is in our best interest to reject bottom-feeder rates, regardless of what anyone else does.

This is what our matrix looks like in (a closer approximation of) real life:table3                                    Lest you think I’m preaching from an ivory tower and that I don’t know what it’s like out there, read my previous blog post about my journey from bottom-basement rates to sanity. Yes, it is hard in the beginning and your rates may only grow slowly over time as you gain experience and work on your qualifications; starting any business is tough and requires perseverance. But the lower you set the bar at first, the longer it will take to make a decent living. The only dilemma you really face is whether to act like a prisoner or like the free agent you really are.

All About the Rates

I can’t get rid of this catchy Meghan Trainor earworm, except in my head it goes “It’s all about the rates, ‘bout the rates, no trouble”. This is not true, of course, because where rates are discussed trouble is not far behind, or so we are told, but what the heck. I’ll start.

I started my translation career working for $0.05/word on, where else, I just bumped into the site one day while job hunting, and I was beyond thrilled that here, apparently, was a way back into the profession I had thought I’d had to give up for good when I abandoned my Translation studies at the University of Amsterdam to move to the agricultural Central Valley of California. So when I found Proz and realized that physical location no longer mattered, I set up a profile faster than you can say “bulk-versus-premium market” and happily jumped into the bidding fray.

In my defense, I had no idea what a decent rate would be, since money is a famously taboo subject in translation circles. Proz does publish a list of average rates for different language pairs, but since none of my bids over $0.06/word ever got accepted, I concluded that the $0.12 average listed for Dutch-English on the site was just wishful thinking.

And I can’t tell you how disappointing it was, time after time, to discover an article or blog post promising the skinny on rates, only to be served yet another variety of: decide how much you want/need to make based on your expenses/desired lifestyle, divide that by the number of hours you want to work, and voila, there’s your rate.
First of all, this is not useful advice because the rate clients are willing to pay is based on the market or the perceived value of the service, which has nothing to do with how much I want to earn.
But let’s say for the sake of argument that it does work that way. Okay, I want to make a million dollars a year and work 20 hours a week, so that’s $19,230 a week or $961/hour. Of course this is a completely unrealistic and unfair example. But then what is fair? Is $100,000 a realistic figure for a full-time translator? $50,000? To know that, you either have to base the number on your own experience, which is what you’re trying to get away from, or you have to know how much other translators are charging. But no one’s telling. Back to square one.

To be fair, as desperate as I was to get my hot little hands on some actual numbers, nobody is obliged to tell me anything about their finances. I don’t think you’ll find many lawyers or doctors asking “So hey, what are y’all charging for consultations?” I don’t list my rates, either, although I have told colleagues in person. So yeah, the specifics of our personal finances are none of anyone’s business, but fortunately it’s not that hard to get a general idea if you pay attention. Here are some of my early experiences that gave me a clue:

  • After about a year of slogging away on Proz, I got on board with a large Walmart-type translation company. I was feeling braver after building my resume, so I quoted what I thought of as the princely rate of $0.08 and to my delight they accepted. I worked for them for several years, cutting my teeth on medical translation, discovering I loved it and gaining a huge amount of experience in what would become my specialty. I was pretty pleased with my smokin’ negotiating skills as well, until…
  • I was recruited by another agency specifically for medical translation. Remembering my successful negotiations with agency A and feeling considerably more qualified now, I decided to really push the envelope and ask for… $0.09 a word. What happened next I can only describe as either the grace of God or his mercy on the stupid, because this kind project manager, instead of doing the logical thing and gleefully accepting my rate, told me she was going to pay me what they paid all their translators, i.e. $0.12/word.

ratesSo the legend was true … it was a perfectly attainable rate — you’re just not going to get it on Proz. And not only that, but the first agency’s reputation for low rates, which I had dismissed before, was apparently well-deserved. Around the same time I invested in a one-on-one consultation with well-known colleague Judy Jenner, who confirmed my budding suspicions and shared insights about the translation business that would have taken me another year to figure out on my own. Armed with this knowledge, I started using this new rate as a jumping board, working on my qualifications and continuing to increase my rates accordingly.

To provide some context: many large translation agencies charge their clients around $0.20 – $0.22/word for common language pairs (if you surf around long enough you can find agencies that list their rates, and in one particularly lucky instance I actually found a detailed price list for all the agency’s language pairs), so that gives you an idea of the upper range large agencies are probably willing to pay. Smaller, more specialized agencies pay more.

On the other end of the spectrum, I know colleagues who charge $0.29/word and up, but keep in mind that these are highly experienced, highly specialized translators who mainly work for direct clients; you are not going to find an agency that will pay these rates. In fact, even for direct clients this is high since they could get it cheaper from a mass agency, but they are happy to pay because the guaranteed excellence of the translation is well worth it to them. It’s not easy to reach this level of the market, but the point is, it is possible, and if it is possible it is worth striving for.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between. I’m not yet where I want to be, but I sure am a long way from where I started. In the meantime, I love my work and I’m glad for the challenges still out there; it keeps things interesting, even if not always trouble-free.

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. Continue reading

Blogs – What Are They Good For

Blogging, what is it good for

Image by Mike Licht on Flickr

If your response to this title is “Absolutely nothing, HUH! (say it again y’all),” to the tune of War, What is it Good For, you are probably thinking in terms of how effective blogs are as marketing tools. A common complaint is that blogs do nothing to bring in new clients and are therefore a waste of time.

It’s an interesting debate which surely does not just apply to the translation industry, so out of curiosity I decided to look at a few other professions to see how their practitioners use blogs.

To keep the search manageable I limited myself to 3 fields: web design, legal and medical. I specifically looked at a) what the blogs look like, b) what they blog about, and c) what the purpose of the blog seems to be. The results, while not exactly scientific, were still pretty illuminating. This is what I found:

The web design blogs, not surprisingly, are very well done, favoring visual appeal over in-depth content with lots of “click here to read more” buttons to short practical articles. Most use a magazine format with multiple topics and contributors covering industry news, reviews, new products, tech & marketing advice. The purpose seems to be to share product information and showcase the designer’s style and abilities.

The legal blogs I checked out were conservative in appearance and layout, with some attempts at edginess through names like Legal Insurrection, Above the Law, and Lowering the Bar (I suggest Rebel without a Case for any disbarred bloggers out there). The blogs focus on news, rulings & cases, and some offer advice on marketing, technical issues and job hunting. The purpose seems to be express opinions, keep up with important developments and establish expertise.

Medical blogs also tend to be more conservative and text-heavy than the design blogs. Some are in magazine format with multiple contributors, but there are also a good number that use a simple journal format written by individuals. The content is usually medical news, analysis of complex issues, and reflections on life as a medical professional. The apparent purpose is to connect with colleagues, address complex issues and establish expertise.

So how is that relevant for translators?

Well, consider this: In terms of running a business, translators have a lot more in common with web designers than lawyers or doctors. Most of us are freelancers selling a service which primarily requires software + our minds. Our primary presence is online and we usually communicate with our clients through e-mail or over the phone, rather than in person.

Yet most of the translation blogs I know of, including my own, look a lot more like medical blogs in terms of presentation and analytical/reflective content. Doctors are in a completely different position, though. They don’t get hired on the basis of their online presence, nor do they communicate with their patients online. Their professional life depends on face-to-face interaction in brick-and-mortar facilities, not on internet marketing.

So should we talk less and focus more on products and soundbites in an exciting package? Not so fast. Web design, after all, is a visual service, so the content of a design blog not as crucial as the way it looks.

But translators write, and that is what a translation blog does: it showcases your writing. You may have brilliant insight in the meaning of a source text, but if you can’t express that meaning clearly and eloquently in your target language it doesn’t mean a thing.

And it’s not just about style and grammar; content matters as well, and not in the way you might think. While the prevailing wisdom is that our websites should focus on our clients’ concerns, I don’t think this is true for our blogs. By writing about our own profession we give potential clients a sense of who we are and what we are like; it allows them to see us in action, as it were, in our own professional environment. It is the next best thing to meeting us in person, and this is important because people feel more comfortable doing business with someone they know.

I have had new clients tell me on several occasions that they had read my blog before contacting me. The transparent and sometimes personal nature of a blog can lead to interesting situations, though. One time a new client asked me to call him on the phone so we could hash out some of the contract details, and after chatting for a bit he told me he appreciated me calling him because he had just read my post on “Why I Hate the Phone”. Busted. We had a good laugh, though, and moved on to a discussion of my fee, which he accepted without complaint. Now it just so happens that in that very same post I also explained how I don’t accept low-ball offers; this may not have been the sole reason for the smooth negotiations, but I’m sure it didn’t hurt.

So I look at blogging as an oblique form of client outreach. It’s a low-threshold way for potential clients to scope you out and see if you are someone they would like to do business with. It doesn’t take the place of actively finding new clients, of course, but it can be very effective in nudging a potential client off the fence onto the “let’s do business” side.

The Secret Ingredient of Freelance Success

woman readingTranslation is one of those professions that sound like an easy way to make some extra cash to certain people. They don’t understand what it involves, exactly, but when they find out you’re apparently making a pretty good living at knowing a few languages, you can practically see the thought forming: “Hey, I could do that!”

I’ve had a few people over the years approach me for advice on how to get a translation business going. At first I dove right in with enthusiastic advice about ways to gain experience, build a resume, find clients, etc., but I have found that a lot of times the eager nodding is not turned into action, let alone perseverance, and when I see these people months later they are still wistfully waiting for some magic jump-start.

The late, great Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” said something in an interview in the Paris Review (No. 133, Winter 1994) that applies to any calling that seems exciting in theory:

I don’t get the deluge of manuscripts that I would be getting in Nigeria. But some do manage to find me. This is something I understand, because a budding writer wants to be encouraged. But I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it. Just think of the work you’ve set yourself to do, and do it as well as you can. Once you have really done all you can, then you can show it to people. But I find this is increasingly not the case with the younger people. They do a first draft and want somebody to finish it off for them with good advice.

It’s not a perfect analogy for translators because we would be wise to take advice from experts or more experienced colleagues in terms of the technical and business aspects of our job. But there is a sense in which you build a business simply by doing it, not because someone told you it would be a good career, not because you’re following someone else’s directions, but because this is what you feel in your bones. Advice will help you nail down the details and adjust your course, but no one is going to get up in the morning for you and find the clients, do the work, and overcome the inevitable obstacles. You have to self-start every day.

I got a phone call one time from a beginning interpreter who was really frustrated because he wasn’t making a lot of money yet after a few months, and he was wondering if it was even possible to make a living. I asked him a few questions and found out he lived in a small town in upstate New York, so three obvious solutions presented themselves right there: explore telephone interpretation, move to New York City, or switch to translation. During the conversation it became clear that he wasn’t interested in making any life changes, though; he seemed to feel that since he had this degree the money should naturally follow without too much further effort.

Another lady had heard me talk about my business and came up to me to ask me how she could get started. She was bilingual in English and Spanish, and, like many people, figured that was all she needed to be a translator. So I tried to explain what it takes to be a professional translator and gave her some pointers to get started. Her efforts petered out after a week or two, though, because she didn’t really want to be a translator; she just thought it would be a convenient way to make money.

I’m betting that most of you, colleagues, built your business without anybody prodding you to get out, gain experience, build a resume, build a client base, etc. If you are still in business, it means you kept at it through the lean periods because you love the challenge of the work itself and of building a business and you’d rather do this than something else. You don’t need anybody to tell you that it’s smart to network, to connect, to get advice, to take courses, to keep learning, to market yourself, and to keep growing. You just did it.

I read this biography of Andrew van der Bijl (“Brother Andrew”), who smuggled Bibles to underground churches behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. One time after speaking about his work he was approached by a young man who was all fired up about this exciting adventure and wanted to know how he could start something similar himself. Andrew didn’t have any advice to him other than to just do it, just like he had simply seen a need and got in his old Volkswagen with a pile of books to meet that need. The point, to me, is not that we don’t need to learn from others, because we do, but rather that you don’t need others to get you moving when you are passionate about something, and that it is much easier to coach or advise someone who is already moving than someone who waits for someone else to spell it all out for them before they do anything.

So to my colleagues who are still in business: congratulations on another year of just doing it, of perseverance through the challenges and uncertainty of building a business! I wish each of you continued success and growth as we keep doing what we do in 2015.

Christmas Gifts for Clients: Strategies and Pitfalls

business giftsIt’s almost December, and that means it’s time to start thinking about business Christmas gifts. Gift-giving can get complicated fast. There are thousands of websites and stores that offer gift ideas for businesses, but just because you can give your clients a tub of tootsie rolls with your logo on them, does that mean you should? Here are some thoughts on the why, the who and the what of giving. Continue reading

Why I Hate the Phone (and other thoughts on business communication)

relationsipsThis is the first time I’ve posted a blog in a while, as my social media activities have been on the back burner for the past month. Nothing against y’all, but I’ve had family from the Netherlands staying with me and there is only so much of myself to go around. I did keep tabs on other people’s posts and tweets so I know I have a lot of good stuff to catch up on, but I’ve mostly been confined to lurker status.

During this period of social abstinence a few thoughts occurred to me about my usual forms of interaction.

If you’ve read some of my other posts you know I’m not a fan of the phone call. Continue reading

Take a Number: How your Personality Type Affects your Business – Part 1

eggsContrary to popular opinion, not all translators are introverted bookworms, and if we could ever tear ourselves away from the page we would totally speak up and prove it to you. But seriously though, while some of us certainly fit that description, the profession attracts a wide variety of strange and wonderful people, and this week I thought I’d take a stab at categorizing them for your enlightenment and convenience. Continue reading

How to Lose Customers – A Case Study

Customer serviceI have been in business for a couple of years now, and along the way I’ve built up a pretty sizable collection of mistakes. Nothing fatal obviously, as I’m still here, but I’ve committed my share of cringers. Like cold-connecting with people when the intention was clearly to promote myself, accepting jobs without checking the details first and having to work through the night on some hideous pdf in illegible handwriting, or even something as simple as hitting “send” on an email in a hurry and realizing a nanosecond too late that I used the wrong name. Continue reading