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.

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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

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. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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, Proz.com. 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. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Agencies

The freelancer-large agency relationship is often an ambivalent one. On the one hand, the industry behemoths can provide a steady flow of work, which is a good thing if you have bills to pay. On the other hand, larger also means more layers of organization, so the people you talk to don’t have the authority to make decisions, and the people who do tend to be well-protected behind the organizational line of scrimmage. Plus some of them don’t pay a lot. When I first started translating I didn’t realize this was an issue, because I was happy to have work at all and I jumped on every job offer, no questions asked (which, in hindsight, I don’t recommend). Continue reading

Know What You’re Worth (and Work It)

confidenceIf you want to make more money you only have to do three things: deliver the goods, charge accordingly, and convince your clients that it’s a good investment.

It may seem like the first two should go without saying, but it’s amazing how many aspiring translators never get to step two. I almost got stuck at step one myself. I stumbled into the profession years ago when I discovered this intriguing site called Proz.com. I know now that the rates most agencies pay there are a tad on the stingy side, shall we say, but I am still thankful because this platform taught me a lot and enabled me to gain the experience I needed to build what is now a thriving business. (Note to agencies on Proz.com who offer subpar rates: if you’re lucky you’ll get a fledgling top translator at the start of his/her career or an experienced translator with poor business skills, but more often than not you’ll get what you pay for.)

But at some point you have to do more than just deliver the goods, or your clients will be happy to keep you working weekends at ridiculous rates. So here  is a simply two-step plan to get higher rates: Continue reading