This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Be a Writer Worth Paying for!

Rose Newell, with whom we chatted about zombie contracts in January, has it spot on when she says:

'Translators are interchangeable.' But good writers aren’t.

One of our core problems as translators is a lack of ability or opportunity (or drive, or skill) to differentiate (which is crucial to leaving auctions behind). The global village not only makes it easier to communicate, it also makes it painfully obvious there are millions of people to communicate with.

In the world of glorified translation memories, termbases, style guides and quality assurance dominated by tag verification, a: 'belief that translators are “interchangeable”, provided they have “a good TM and glossary”,' is easy to form, if not guaranteed.

Not that the claim is altogether false — there are many practising translators without strong writing skills, or don't use them. You don't need to be one of them. And if you aren't, then you don't need to wear the livery.

Time for a war story. Imagine you're a wounded legal nestling looking for a ledge to perch on and nurse the bleeding wings. You need to finance an unpaying but hopeful scholarly career at the same as a grassroots mass litigation campaign, which you also need to manage. Normal solo practice is out of the question, as are 100-hour weeks, and BigLaw's turtling up and shutting off anyway because it's 2009 and the peak of the crisis. It's time to do something drastic.

That's where I was five years back. The subjects of my first one or two translations were surely legal, but it didn't take long before clients started coming with a brochure about beauty products for women, a milk ad, underground and underwater photographic equipment directory, memories from a tour around the world, a website about lifestyle services, and all sorts of things. At some point I ended up translating high-grade anniversary prose for a sports car manufacturer, but by that time there were many other things I had done, including materials to sell computer games. I didn't have a shred of a formal qualification in marketing or copywriting. Heck, I don't even now.

Bragging much? Nope. Encouraging? Yes. And hopefully getting some audience for Rose.

The bottom line is: writing skills matter.

They allow to write your own legend. They allow you to be a protagonist and not an NPC. Unfold the storyline!

Back to Rose, though. Don't miss her Writers worth paying for scheduled for 2 May at Budapest if you can help it. If you're there in person, tell her I said hi (actually, please do — but don't tell her I said she actually gets better rates for her translations than many copywriters can hope for). Otherwise you'll have to keeping hoping with me that they'll share a recording.

Also take a look at Ed Gandia's podcast about a similar subject for… writers, actually. It will prepare you for what Rose is going to be talking about, as will Marta's leads.

If you have an inquisitive mind looking for an excuse, pay a Tweet for Alastaire Allday's free Think Like a Copywriter, which has seen classroom use.

A couple of days ago, I joked that translators already are copywriters — the similarities are striking if you get into it. The inspiration came from and post at Alastaire's blog, where he quipped the opposite — that copywriters were translators. Now, if a copywriter says that, why don't you capitalise on it? As a translator you have an edge! Now make it keen.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Don't Flatten the Quality Scale

Lawyers already are there. How can you measure the quality with which a law suit was won?

They have two things to show: results, and client service.

You could always grade a lawyer's writing prowess, rhetorical skill, you could put him on some scale of intelligence, adroitness, courage, book smarts and streets smart. Everybody does, to some extent, but put people want results and many also want service (or experience). The other things either project something in connection with these two expectations or just help establish an emotional connection.

Then there's the economy of scale and the economy of scope for where those two matter, such as with huge corporate clients who need all sorts of things done into all sorts of languages and don't care to just recruit the inhouse translation department they need. And security, which, again, is a specific projection of the expectation of results, although sometimes it's also a gluteal protection device. As in, you can't be liable if you hired the best and even the best could not deliver. Culpa in eligendo won't work. Plus, huge firms — just like huge agencies — have the deep pockets in case they need to be sued.

But quality of the actual, core work... uhhh. Subject change attempt detected!

And the same is menacing our own translation sector, especially the so called bulk segment of it, as some of our colleagues graciously refer to large volumes, short deadlines and low prices.

Isn't there QA, you may ask. Sure there is. But, honestly, ask yourself, and I really mean it, is the quality of your work really about keeping the tags in place in a CAT tool, remembering to convert the numbers and such like? To some extent, yes. But that's more like tidiness. Sort of like sweeping and vacuuming in an art gallery. Perhaps terminological consistency refers to something substantive, though. But who said and at which point, in the first place, that QA is or should be about applying some sort of debatable quality measure to the evaluation of youor work as opposed to just making sure there are no embarrassing trivial slips in the material the client gets? Anybody get the difference between quality assurance and quality control?

People may also say quality can't be measured in a fully objective way. The follow-up is: So why bother trying. We'll discuss the consequences in a minute.

Some other people may say that with a professional quality is a given. This may sound attractive to you at first, but if it does, then you need to exhale, inhale, whatever, count to 10 and think again. Let me give you a pointer:

As someone who actually knows something about translation, would you say that quality is a 0/1 thing or is there a scale, let's say from passable, through decent and good, then excellent, to near-perfect (perfect doesn't exist)? Obviously there is a scale! But when quality — rather than a certain minimum level of quality — is taken for granted, then it becomes a yes or no matter, a 0 or 1. And that can take two shapes depending on where the threshold is set:
  • Adequate or not. No hope of premium for being good. No point becoming better. No perspectives of advancement, other than acquiring more years of experience and eventually bigger names for clients.
  • Perfect or not. If this flatters you, think again. The bar's there not because your work is held in such high esteem, it's because your client thinks he deserves nothing short of absolute perfection, or absolute satisfaction. Or something less absolute, but you get the idea.
Either way, if you allow the quality scale to become flattened, the quality of your work will not be respected. And you won't be paid for it because it's immeasurable. Besides, why pay more for even a verifiably superb job if only adequate was expected? All the more, why pay good rates for a job that's lacking perfection if you were allowed to dictate perfection as the only acceptable standard?

And if you say that properly understood quality is immeasurable — meaning the quality of rendition between languages and the capacity so to render highly skilled writing — then apart from the question of why the client should need to pay for something that can't be measured (along with an illusion of thus not properly receiving it), we'll be left with QA as the only semblance of a quality standard available. The rest will simply be the quality client service. And turnover, and quantitative experience.

QA as quality means checklists, with tag consistency and number formats being the sole measure of quality of our work. Expect being asked to address inquiries or even complaints alleging all sorts of 'inconsistencies' such as selecting a context-appropriate word or form. For example, when you translate one-word headers from English or French into a language that has noun cases. And obviously these, i.e. one-word English segments, are discounted or excluded from your scope of work and untouchable as CM's or 100% matches. Can words describe how this degrades our profession?

With client service as the measure of quality, chance is emphasis would fall on responsiveness and flexibility. In a saturated, competitive market responsiveness just might entail picking up calls at 2 a.m. on a Sunday and flexibility actually agreeing to take that work. You probably already know a thing or two about Friday evenings and Saturdays. Alternatively, 'responsiveness' could mean preserving or reconstructing the source formatting pixel-for-pixel because that's what the client 'needs', and flexibility doing the footwork personally, to heck with your advanced degrees, published works and what else!, or, for that matter, the fact the client — or agency — could and should use a secretary or intern for that kind of work. Except that the freelance translator just might be the cheaper or less qualified resource. (Somebody who isn't paying for your time, can't be guaranteed to respect it, anyway.)

Without a quality scale, our work will be judged, and our rates driven, by client service, QA checklists, turnover, sheer quantity of experience, and verified avoidance of actionable slips. And that means a low-key job, basically data entry.

A progressive scale of translation quality is necessary for our profession to be respected.

Also, if you are a highly qualified translator, especially one who can verifiably deliver higher-than-average quality, you should move up rather than keeping the less experienced or plain average colleague down. Entry level is not your place after 10, 20, let alone 30 years in the workforce (or business, if you prefer).

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Why Translators Are Copywriters

Because copywriters translate.
From sellers' to buyers' language.

Because all source is copy.
From which money comes.

Because clients want sales.
From literature too.


Because clients want pretty.
And faithful won't do.

Because clients want prettier.
So equal will neither.


Because boxes have size.
So you need to fit.

Because layout is king.
And content should be.


Because clients want few words.
As they cost per.

Because price is emperor.
As naked as it gets.

Because you sell.
To clients, PM's, and proofreaders.

And decause being a copywriter sells.
So you claim you're also.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

FIGES and Webring

Webring, a somewhat forgotten word today, of mostly historical significance, generally associated with the past tense. It used to mean a 'circle' of websites connected by a shared subject or some other loose affiliation. According to Wikipedia, they were popular in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly among amateur websites. The circular structure means there are only peers, not much hierarchy or authority.

FIGES means:
  • French
  • Italian
  • German
  • English
  • Spanish
These are the languages globally active or globally marketing clients may be interested in, or just business who trade abroad. Depending on your circumstances, or those of your clients, Portuguese, Arabic or Chinese could be on the list of languages relevant to your clients, all of which — just like FIGES — exist in multiple variants. Also perhaps Russian, Hebrew, Polish, some major Indian or African languages. And everything local which pops up.

Apart from languages and directions (clients don't necessarily understand that not everyone is bidirectional) there must also be specialist areas you don't touch at all or when the text is too difficult.

While clients may understand that you can't be expected to know all languages, directionality may be more of a problem and specific disciplines even more, unless perhaps you advertise ('position') yourself as a legal or medical translator.

It's not even that your client would necessarily be disappointed with you if you didn't provide for a specific subset of that client's translation needs — stop thinking about yourself as a tiny agency! — or want to punish you for being too narrow, but if the client heads to an agency you risk losing all or some of the business.

The risk is there not only because of price competition from the bulk market but simply the comparative ease of ordering all languages and fields in one place versus the hassle of remembering about you with your specific individual languages and fields. To you, your freelance business is one of the central things in your life. To your client, not really. (It works both ways.)

You want to protect yourself from that eventuality, but you didn't become a freelance translator to manage projects or recruit for your clients. You would have started an agency for that. Even a partnership or joint venture of translators, and I've heard of two or three, would come very close, perhaps too close for your liking.

Still, if you have a physical office, and perhaps even if you don't, it would make sense to have a case handy with business cards from your colleagues. You could then give some pointers to a prospective client without officially and legally assuming responsibility for the relationship. While you aren't an agency, there could be added value in becoming a contact point and facilitator. It would make you harder to live without.

I mentioned webrings in the beginning because they're a cool thing that's no longer done, while they could serve a useful purpose for freelancers, similarly to a blog roll on a blog. Their circular structure, like a round table, is compatible with the freelance approach, and discreet, without restricting you too much. Thus, I think they're worth reinventing.

Plus, your colleagues will probably get more traffic from links on your website than they could from your word of mouth alone. And, if the information is provided right on your website, chances are your clients won't call or write to ask, which will help you focus on the work you do for them instead of being interrupted to talk about language or discipline you don't do.

Alternatively, depending on your specific circumstances, you could include lawyers, copywriters, designers, some brand of consultants, industry-relevant tradesmen, even doctors if you are locally based.

In addition, if you have already successfully co-operated with another freelancer, it may be a good idea to include that colleague in a case study on your website or in your portfolio. You can also invite people to write guest posts for your newsletter or blog and do the same for them.

A colleague who gets a new client because of you will likely feel the need to return the favour, and referrals are still the best source of work.

Benefits of Working with Agencies

Imagine you're on your own. This will be easier to accomplish if you have a large share of direct clients. What rates do you charge them, per average?

Now subtract your marketing and advertising budget from those rates.

Subtract the hard costs it took you to get (to) those clients. And the soft costs. Everything. Not only for the marketing that worked: Include the marketing that did not work, which means you didn't see a penny for your efforts.

Include lost profits: How much would you approximately have made if you had simply accepted agency jobs instead of trying to pull off a PR coup with direct clients?

Suppose you didn't exactly turn down agency jobs to free up time to write copy, stalk conferences, spam social media and play rockstar. Still, what if you had simply harvested another batch of agency contacts for the familiar routine of hi, see CV (enclosed), my rates are so and so, got a test? Or, in fact, replied as you best could to the inquiries already in your mailbox?

Now client service. What time and money do you need to invest in a satisfied direct client as opposed to a satisifed PM or agency in general?

Many direct clients are less hassle than bureaucratic agencies, true, and going to great lengths for your own client may feel less a chore, but look through the fog of emotions and see the time and money invested in the client relationship as figures.

Don't forget lunches and blawgin' and all the other stuff you do to engage them. You possibly engage PM's too, but how much compared to direct clients? Or the events where you go not for CPD but only for the hope of client acquisition.

Do you provide any added services within your standard rates for direct clients? Any freebies? Any 'added value' which takes time or money to produce (as opposed to something passive like a qualification)? Great, include them too. Perhaps you haven't looked at them in this light yet? Don't forget proofing and editing yourself 10x when you're the last person who sees the text before the client.

Now include the risks averted by QA interventions: how many times have they prevented a serious crisis or at least an unpleasant consequence such as losing a client, having your translation rejected, incurring a penalty, taking a reputation hit? How many times has a PM pulled you out of trouble, for example by negotiating a raise, extension, reimbursement or pardon, or got you some input from inhouse translators, called in a favour at a university or otherwise helped you big time with a terminological query?

So the question is: How much do you really profit from n cents from a direct client as opposed to n cents from an agency?

We could end right here, but I'd also like you to consider the fact that a serious, established agency has the infrastructure to provide all the added value and complementary services which make it easier to sell your translations — at all or at higher rates.

An agency has more synergies, scope and scale to make it possible to provide them at a reasonable cost. For example think about inhouse salaries versus normal B2B fees. There is also quite a chance that the agency's marketing is more efficient than yours, possibly because it isn't managed by a part-time non-marketer who has no other choice.

Naturally, these things get tricky as you become more and more established. However, it's still possible that optimised agency-specific marketing could bring you better results if you put in the same time, effort and money as you would in landing a direct client. Don't get stuck in thinking you shouldn't have to. Think what could happen if you actually did!

Possible mistakes and biases include:

  • Forgetting that agency rates are really net values. They are net of client marketing and client service and everything else an agency does which otherwise you would need to do.
  • Thinking that the everything else an agency does should come free. Seriously? If it did, we'd be out of business, totally beaten on added value.
  • Forgetting that all the things you do for your clients — or to win them — eat into your income even when they don't cut into your revenue. This means not seeing that there exists an effective rate which you pay yourself out of the rate you collect from a direct client. This is similar to a company owner's salary.
  • Thinking John Translator would be working for the same clients as Old Agency, Inc. Or making them equally happy. Not impossible, but I'm not holding my breath.
  • Not considering what could happen if you gave agencies the same investment you give direct clients.

Possible cures include:

  • Honest self-to-self maths on the cost of and return on your direct-client business.
  • Honest head-to-head with a PM about what it takes to win and keep clients.
  • Thinking how much you may be losing in not capitalising on existing opportunities to position yourself the right way with the right agencies, using your existing knowledge of this sector, just like you would with a direct-client sector. Again, try putting in the same effort as you would for a direct client — which may be easier if you think about agencies, figuratively, as just a type of clients on part with everybody else (which they aren't, but the simplification can be useful).

Possible tasks include:

  • Write a brochure, website or some other copy targeted for agencies, which your direct clients don't necessarily need to see (you can use a different domain). Don't be afraid to use space, it belongs to you. Show that you understand them. Don't thousands of other translators also understand them? Sure, but they rarely put it to use the same way as you're about to. When was the last time you saw an explicitly for-agencies translator?

    Make the copy about them, not about you. Again, this is just the same approach as with a direct client. Discuss the benefits you bring in rather than outlining your features (although a feature cheat sheet can still be useful because agencies may know how to translate them). Use the same advanced techniques as you would with valuable prospective direct clients, including innovative Blue Ocean strategies and Why-based writing.

    If you have the budget, tag a copywriter and a graphical designer along, especially if you would do the same for your direct-client materials. Either way, research agencies and PM's even deeper, but meanwhile gather what you already know, down to case studies. Read your testimonials again for inspiration, recall war stories. Also use your understanding of direct clients to your advantage, including your understanding of the methods of finding, winning and keeping them! And the fact that you actually understand and care.

    Part of the background here is that, as you may have noticed, agencies try to pay significantly less than their bottom line — just like translators try to charge more than their bottom line. This means that agencies have a contingency budget they don't wand to spend unless it's a special circumstance. Therefore convince them this is that special circumstance, and better still if you can position this spending as not even a justified cost but a valuable investment.

    Intially, they can be a bit lethargic, stagnant, suffering from inaertia and burnout. No wonder, their market can be pretty awful. Give them the light for their spark and try to make them at least suspect that using your translations they could possibly do better than they are doing now. Perhaps you're just the translator they need to liven up their business. And they can probably bring in more business than you can, even in their battered state.

    If you deliver it well, a smart person in the agency can connect the dots and single you out for image-sensitive materials, and those pay better (this is easier to achieve with a small agency which has a smaller translator base). This can help position you as a marketing-conscious translator. If it reads well and is impeccable, you can unwittingly position yourself as an editor or reviewer. For ethical reasons, though, don't lead them on — you should be able to able to produce translations of the same quality as the copy which won you the job. Don't bait and switch.

    If the agency sees you as an enabler, you will be able to get away with more. You can get better rates and better contracts and better jobs. If you can get agencies to think outside the box, they will start from your price and add their markup on top of it instead of trying to fit you into their existing competitive pricing scheme. Be the driver of change, and guess who'll be their favourite translator.

If you aren't convinced, fair enough, but you can still just look at it as an investment in passive advertising. This means you can make a one-off expense and continue to profit for months thereafter.

The short way would be to send your CV and a clear vision of goals to a copywriter and graphic designer, along with the relevant information about translator-agency relationships and agency business which they may not have.

The longer way:

Optimise your CV if you haven't yet — Marta Stelmaszak can tell you how. Her 33-page free e-book already contains a couple of my precious tips I wanted to share, so I won't be repeating myself here. You can probably run the final result through Marta for a reasonable consulting fee. Send that CV to the copywriter along with background information and clearly set goals, i.e. the type of positioning you want, the rate range you want to achieve as well as your other goals, for example securing certain terms which make your work more comfortable.

Important: Choose a copywriter who is familiar with the Blue Ocean approach (discuss this before!) and will help you carve a one-of-a-kind niche instead of the usual game of numbers and cutthroat competition. Competitive writing will still have its uses if you can nail down a clear-as-day advantage which is easily expressed in numbers, graphs or other such data. But you can still use it to create a new niche rather than fighting for one that already exists.

This may sound like a long process now, but after you spend the time and money (you can spend less time if you are willing to spend more money), the copy will continue to work for you. If it brings you a large contract, raises your rates by 10-20%, enables you to specialise more, get nicer jobs or better terms, it will be well worth it — with very limited involvement on your part.

Note that you will still need to live up to your promises and the vision you will have created in that copy. Copy doesn't pick up calls, or translate for that matter.

I suppose it is possible, ironically, to make yourself a blue-ocean niche by pulling agencies out of the red waters they're in. And have a good laugh when you see it happen.


Please note that a blue-ocean niche with agencies — or basically a functional relationship — would obviously require more than just higher rates. The entire domination mindset would need to go, along with the commodity-based approach and bureaucracy. For starters:

  • No construction-contractor-style contracts.
  • No agency name replacing your name on book covers and credit pages.
  • No total cessions of moral rights (with a specific mention of waiving your right not to be subjected to derogatory treatment).
  • No gagging clauses explicitly stating you shall not make negative comments about the agency (a nice way to make a high BlueBoard average, isn't it?).
  • No making your pay effectively an ex gratia payment in the sole discretion of the agency or its client.
  • No extensive hold-harmless clauses effectively making you the agency's insurance provider.
  • No money-making penalty schemes, obviously.
  • No long tracts of U.S. legislation you guarantee compliance with (at your own cost, including attorney fees, which are 10-20 times your own hourly rate).
  • No domination and total subjection language. In fact, polite language.

Positioning yourself better means you can avoid much of the above, though perhaps not all. Frankly, it would help if agencies took a reality check and reassess their relationship with their 'vendors' or 'suppliers'.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Competing against Agencies as a Freelance Translator

Competing against agencies resembles winning hearts and minds in asymmetric warfare in a low-intensity conflict.

As Wikipedia explains, although having much more ancient roots, winning hearts and minds is a politico-military term probably coined by a senior British civil servant dealing with unrest and insurgency in the soon-to-be-post-colonial Malayan theatre, where it was crucial to dissuade the local inhabitants from associating and indetifying themselves with Chinese communist guerrillas. Asymmetric warfare takes place where the various strengths of the combatants are not equal, and a low-intensity conflict is a hostile scenario with less than full-scale operations.

I remember the one of the Tom Clancy Op-Center novels of which the title I cannot recall right now and in which an American spec-ops colonel ended up explaining for the benefit of his lovestruck and dating-challenged son the core principle of tackling a stronger opponent: Get the civilians (i.e. in that case the girl) on your side. You do so by offering them something the stronger opponent does not have.

If we look at what translation agencies can offer to the clients — and where they are stronger than we are — it looks more or less as follows:

  • Multiple languages and disciplines
  • Large volumes
  • Fast turnover
  • Huge manpool
  • Long experience
  • Often: Low prices
  • Sometimes there's also tech talk
  • Additional services

The strength of their proposition is obvious: They can process huge documents fast, having many translators to choose from and being able to set multiple linguists on the same project, the likes of which their company has in some cases been managing for years, ofter for top names in the relevant business (which are often mentioned on the agency's website to boost its credibility). And the price is often cheap, although exceptions apply.

In reality — and knowing the reality is one of our strengths as insiders, which clients as civilians frequently don't have — the very ways in which the strength of agency proposition is achieved is also its weakness and possible downfall.

Asymmetric confrontation requires the weaker party to identify just such weaknesses — for example the vulnerability of a hi-tech opponent once electricity or fuel stops coming — so here we are:

  • Aside from MT, the capacity to process a lot of material in a short time-frame requires the use of multiple different translators on the same project, a breakneck deadline, or both.
  • The supposedly huge manpool (network of linguists or whatever it's called) simply means a crowd of freelancers registered in the agency's database. If the agency's name is Wowtrans, it's hard even to justify referring to all of those people as Wowtrans translators (if they do one or two small jobs a year).
  • The company has experience in managing or overseeing those projects, but only translators and other linguists have experience in actually translating.
  • Agencies can't multiply the money they are paid — low client prices necessarily mean low pay for translators.
  • Tech talk is not always substantive.
  • Additional services or added services still cost them money to provide and must fit in the bill.
  • Multiple languages are more or less a safe asset, but they take time to arrange, and there is still the issue of standardisation

Let's delve more deeply into it, highlighting weaknesses:

  • Breakneck deadlines affect quality, of which the client may not always have been told, especially where the fast turnover is a selling proposition. Similarly, not knowing how long it takes to translate, the client may not be aware that the text is translated by a number of different people and then glued back together by an editor or not even that. This is risky. Please think about the hold harmless and indeminity clauses agencies are increasingly forcing us to sign these days! Ever wonder why?
  • Any sort of access to 2000 people across the globe is illusory. The number represents people who work to and from all languages and fields added together. How many Czech to Dutch technical or medical translators exist, let alone specialise in the field? How many are currently available? How many will agree to work within a tighter budget? 
  • The 2000 linguists looks good on a website but the charm would probably fade if the public realised that those are names of potential external collaborators registered in a database, some of whom rarely even receive mail.
  • Plus, where there are really so many people to choose from, the choice becomes tricky and may turn into a liability more than an asset.
  • Unless inhouse translators and project managers actively get involved in the translation process, experience in managing rather than actually translating projects means the company has primarily the logistical know-how, not much in the way of actual translating experience. A more educated public appreciating the difference would probably be less fascinated with .
  • Low pay makes it difficult to find good translators and motivate them. Less qualified and less dedicated work may result.
  • The low pay is compounded by the lack of proper budgeting for rush fees. Proper rush fees would make those low prices or high markups impossible.
  • Many translators are well equipped and trained in the tech regard. Many of the services can be outsourced by a freelance translator or even procured by the client with minimal hassle from a more dedicated provider than a translator or translation agency.
  • Managing multiple languages requires a lot of standardisation, and uniform quality may be difficult to ensure. Freelancers also have contacts, and they have the ability to team up.

This leads us to a couple of interesting general observations:

  • In the competition between agencies and freelancers, the angencies' strengths correspond to weak spots where a credible freelancer is at an advantage.
  • Many of the agencies' advantages over freelancers depend directly on freelancers to make them possible.
  • Many are illusory or at least fragile.
  • Many may look impressive on the website or in a brochure but not actually be needed by the specific client who may still end up paying high enough rates to provide the necessary ROI on them.

Now, the benefits which we can offer concentrate on direct contact, stability, certainty, efficiency:

  • Everything is discussed between the same translator who does the work and the client who needs it. Both, but especially the translator, can make all the necessary decisions almost on the spot, in addition to communicating more efficiently. There is less risk of some information being misunderstood or lost when being passed up or down the chain.
  • More personal touch which improved communication makes possible. Now we can actually ask questions easily and get answers. We probably know what to ask better than most non-translators do.
  • Our having fewer clients (how many can a freelancer accommodate?) also means more focused approached and more personal relationships for our clients to experience.
  • Specialisations and credentials have more meaning when the client has the certainty of working with the specific translator who has them, always.
  • There is more motivation and dedication due to the more direct and personal relationship and the higher pay.
  • Our deadlines are more reliable since they are easier for us to assess.
  • No admin delay means there's more time for actual translation work within the deadline. This also means any detrimental effect on quality is proportionally limited.
  • Despite our improved pay, the client's bill is still not as large as in those agencies which charge 40 cents a word and pay the translator 7. And things we'd do for 40!

Furthermore, one of our greatest advantages is that our uniqueness is easier to communicate than an agency's, and more credible — pretty much for the same reason that specialisations and credentials have more meaning and communication works better. For a brief how-to (what's two hours each if you have sleepness nights ahead?), see Marta Stelmaszak's presentation on making the connection with (ideal) clients and Valeria Aliperta's one on translation branding from Traduemprende in May 2013. While it has to be about clients, there is still enough room for you! And if you create or order a website and start producing brochures and nice portfolios to convey your message, there can be quite a lot of that room.

A freelancer's position is also favourable in only needing enough workload to sustain what is effectively a nice salary for one person. One freelancer's workload is a mere drop in the sea that would sustain a whole translation agency. This is another reason why the guerrilla metaphor is appropriate. Yet another is that we — as individuals, though, not as a class — might actually not be worth competing, in the grander scheme of things. Eventually, a successful freelancer can carve a niche for himself where there is no competition from agencies, especially if no project management is required and whatever the freelancer provides is hard for an agency to sustain over an extended period of time.

Where hearts and minds cannot be won, our relatively lean cost structure can still enable freelancers to generate a price-to-quality ratio which will be difficult for agencies to meet or exceed without a good inhouse translator onboard or inexpensive high-quality freelancer that's always available. And that means an economic reason to stick with reliable freelance translators.

Finally, I'm having a nudging feeling that we could have more work at better rates if we wrote more on our websites and in our brochures about those differences which level the field for us or skew it in our favour if we play them right.

Edit (2 May 2014): If this article was useful, for a complementary point of view you can read my next article, about the benefits of working with agencies and the idea of giving the same effort as other clients in your marketing.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Turning Failures into Opportunities

Because we all fail. The best of us do. Okay, some probably don't, but I bet they're extremely rare.

It's probably a cliché that failures can be turned into opportunities, but one thing which I remember from my past as a gamer (I never managed to enter the really competitive ranks) is that in order to become good you need to realise that you're bad. You just can't progress thinking you're good and you deserve to win. Being more skilled than your opponent doesn't always prevent losing anyway, even the majority of your one-on-ones.

Anyway, I'm rambling, so let me move on to two concrete examples. I failed at two things do.

Number one:

Failure: I didn't very clearly communicate my lack of availability to one of my core agencies. I sort of presumed they'd just give it to someone else. They did, but only after trying to get in touch with me when I wasn't there, trying to recuperate after a sleepless night. Bad style on my part!
Consequence: I ended up working on it anyway, as the translator who eventually got it delivered a bad job, which I ended up correcting. Correcting it was more like translating from scratch because there was no time to waste analysing. I did almost exactly the same amount of work, probably did it slightly worse on account of the rush, got paid less than a half, the agency probably spent more money, and the client got the text later than if I'd been the first and last translator. Ugh! What a loss-loss for everybody (I doubt the first translator's going to see 100% of the pay.)
Opportunity for me: Learn to be less hesitant about jobs that I might end up working on anyway. If not accepting them (and decide faster!), at least communicate ASAP. Bonus: Learn to identify strategic stuff better. Plus, it was nice to feel appreciated, and I practiced doing some things I normally don't do, since there was no time to be excessively faithful to the original (shifted adjectives between sentences, replaced standard English with Polish idioms etc.).
Opportunity for the agency: Yes, a window opportunity for the agency does exist in this kind of situation. Say there was a problem, a bad job causing delay, which is bound to happen from time to time with such short turnarounds, and a more experienced translator (or one with better writing skills or whatever) was provided at no additional charge to fix the article. According to some market researchers, a client whose problem with the service was solved expertly and efficiently will show more trust in the future than even a client who's never experienced any downsides yet. Plus, once again learn that they have a good translator on the roster who can do some nice things.

Number two (and simpler):

Failure: I wasn't even awake when somewhat foreseeable client inquiry came in the morning.
Consequence: It took me 10 hours to answer what the total fee would be for a nice, straightforward job from a direct client. And a client from the Middle East, and I like those guys a lot because they're so polite, unlike many westerners these days. There's a chance that, by now, the prospective client has accepted a quote from someone else.
Opportunity: (Re-)learn to check mail before going off the radar for a couple of hours, and make time for it. Bonus: Get into a firm habit of really fast responding. Clients will be happier, and there'll be more efficiency, as in more prospective clients turned into actual clients.

So it's only really a failure if you don't learn. It may take a couple more failures for the lesson to sink really hard (fewer if you're more disciplined), but it will help if you take your failure as a lesson. Sometimes lessons with a book and teacher can even cost you more and be less efficient than the lessons you learn from life. So just cut your losses by sitting down for a while and thinking what you could have done better, but don't feel too bad about it. Learning is a bright side.

Monday, 14 April 2014

Answering Lowballers

If you've noticed a tendency for translation rates to decline in the recent years — and it's hard not to notice given as it is pretty much a fact — then I want you to consider one thing: it must have started somehow, somewhere.

Before we move on, just to be clear, our services includes both freelance translators and agencies, who are warmly welcomed to this post. This is not about translators vs agencies, it's about us who want to earn decent rates for everybody involved vs lowballers who bring rates down.

Okay, so how did it start? Well, have you ever been to an oriental bazaar? Have you ever heard the bids and quotes that fly back and forth there, with their huge disconnect from the final price or the cost or fair value of the item bargained for?

It just takes the gall — or ignorance — to blurt out a silly proposal, and then it might work just like that. Especially on an ignorant tourist. On the other hand, those tourists sometimes get really great prices from sellers who approve of their mettle. It's a kind of sport, you know.

I once bought two silver bracelets I didn't want to buy for ITL 5,000 both. The seller had started from 10,000 apiece. The funny thing is that I wasn't pretending: I genuinely didn't want them, so I suppose I came out really convincing. I have no idea whatever they were worth in reality (not that I really care), I don't think I made the bargain of my lifetime in that street, and I don't think many people really paid 10,000 for a bracelet of that kind.

… However, someone, anyone, probably must have at some point accepted the price without arguing or wanting to go away. And quoting it probably cost nothing, so it was well worth trying. It cost almost nothing, bar a certain minimum risk, since most prospective customers could still be followed and accosted again and lured back into a special deal, making the purchase in the end. At worst there'd be some yelling and no deal, some wasted time.

Whether you're buying low or selling high, the cost of uttering an outrageous offer is likely to be next to none for the person offering it, as long as the other party to the negotiation table (e.g. you) won't irretrievably walk out and never want to come back, which does happen sometimes when the low or high price totally destroys the credibility of the person who made the gambit. Obviously, whoever makes it had better do so with a straight face, unless it's meant as a playful insult and a warm-up before real negotiation starts. It's their poker face which makes some of those people scary, although playing stupid is also effective (what? they just don't understand! what do you mean market standard?).

If the line's delivered well, the person on the receiving end of it may begin to doubt himself or his previous assessment of the value of the goods or services, question his own knowledge and his calculations, lose spirit, be thrown off his guard, disconcerted, thus vulnerable. Even that latter kind of damage softens him up for later, at least if he can't shake off the shock. A weakened person may lack the stamina to offer a vigorous defence while not having the luxury of being able to quit.

Another application of gall-based lowballing — one that I suspect just might be taking place in some sectors of the translation 'industry' — may well consist in consciously trying to set the new normal, such as to drive supplier prices into the ground.

For example a rogue agency somewhere could make some translators believe that $0.01 per word is the standard rate by just simply offering or demanding it again and again. Someone would cave in, then another and another, the domino effect and groupthink would do the rest. Perhaps one day those who still held out would find themselves a besieged fortress, a last vestige of what no longer exists. (Just to be sure, clients who pay decent rates still exist, they are just difficult to find and connect with.)

Alternatively, it may be a desperate attempt by one desperate trader to find another to complete a desperate deal. Or perhaps a sociopathic kind of cold calculation calmly assessing and addressing the risks. I'm not even sure I want to know.

There are many possible responses to the lowballing act. You could throw your hands up in the air and scream robbery. You could kick the galling lowballer out, or burst out yourself, depending on whose turf you were. Or call him some ugly names and tell him some other nasty things, whether you leave the table or not. In some cultures, or rather in some circles, that would pretty much be the standard order of business. However, in a typical Western perception what a lowballer is doing is not the standard order of business but you will still appear to lose the negotiation game if you lose your cool.

Even calling the lowballer on his alleged bluff is probably not worth it in the greater scheme of things. He could pretend to be hurt on a personal level and just leave, extricating himself from that difficult situation. It could also tangle you up in vain discussion and waste your energy.

Rather, defeat the lowballer with his own weapon. Simply reaffirm your fees.

Calmly, coolly. Without being defensive. Don't grace the lowball with a serious substantive response. Actually, even hauling the $0.01 offer to a point where translators began to address it seriously and gave it their consideration would be a minor victory for lowballing. It helps if you know what you're charging for and why you deserve it.

Don't grace the lowballer's excursions with a targeted response when they become more personal, either, unless you're sure you can deliver a solid diplomatic punch which will take the lowballer's breath away but without conveniently pushing him out of the ring. And before you land a punch, you'd better know you aren't going to hit a misguided noncombatant.

Instead, just simply restate your fees, using a couple of different words each time to avoid the impression of using a broken record tactic. You can't simply repeat the same slogan over and over, so rephrase. Rely on some easily available authority but don't overdo it. Have the gall to pull the authority from my policy (our policy) or my fee schedule/structure/system or even budget. No serious discussion on the merits of any outrageous proposals, preferably no complaining about the impropriety of the other party's conduct.

I'm sorry, but it is not in our policy to grant significant signing-up discounts to new clients. No, sir, our policy does not provide for exceptions to this rule. [He calls you inflexible, and you reply.] That is unfortunate. Please do not hesitate to come back when you have a larger budget/change your mind. [At this point begin to rise from your chair.]

Hint: Recall the lines you've heard from your own current, past and could-have-been clients when you proposed higher rates. Those are going to have sounded similar to what you need to say now.

Do challenge the lowballer, however, when he openly makes some easily disprovable false assertion or cites some that doesn't exist or doesn't really support the claim. Don't assign blame, speak out accusations or attempt punishment. Just state the facts as they are and abstain from commenting. The ball will be in his court and uncomfortably so. You can even leave him some uncomfortable silence to deal with. But don't become overconfident or he might still find a dent in your armour — finding himself in a corner like that may call for a desperate move of some sort.

One example of simply citing facts can occur when someone says your rates are oh-so-high, the market standard is much less and so on, whereas you know for a fact that you're charging precisely at the market average and have surveys to back it up with (e.g. the ATA Compensation Survey). However, if your negotiation partner hails from a less affluent region or is a fresh escapee from the bottom segment of your own market, he may simply still be in an initial phase of denial, so don't be too hard on him if you're beginning to see understanding in his eyes or genuine shock.

You will earn some points in the negotiation by shooting down an obvious straw, and also earn credibility by displaying your good orientation in the standards of your own business sector, including your competitors' pricing. In doing so you may be able to convince a genuinely ignorant party, who did not consciously intend to lowball you.

Yes, you can definitely find a good translator within that fee range, but the chance is very slim. It happens, but it's slim. The chance of ending up with someone underqualified is much higher. It can take a lot of time looking, and a lot of initial disappointments. [Yes, you've just acknowledged that it's possible to find equally skilled translators at a lower rate, just very improbable and risky. And you've tactfully conveyed the message that those guys' pricing is low, rather than yours being high, without accusing them of undercharging.]

You can and probably should replace underqualified with something more specific and appropriate in the context of the job you're talking about, e.g. inexperienced where experience is crucial, non-native if you need native translators, without the necessary [something], such something being dedication, or writing skills, or understanding of business, whatever applies in your particular case and is not dishonest to say.

If your negotiation partner pauses for a while and begins to looks perplexed at this point, chances are you've been dealing with a misinformed person who had possibly previously trusted his original source of information, which may have been a close person or a trusted employee or business partner… or even a well informed person whom your interlocutor had simply misheard or misunderstood.

Your negotiation partner may also have — until now — doubted any price-related information coming from you as from an obviously not disinterested source, which is understandable, and at which point you may want to become gentler, more reassuring, substantiate your information with objective sources unconnected with you, reiterate your value proposal, i.e. tell your prospect what you're giving him and why it is good stuff, what he can do with it, what risks are avoided etc. Perhaps cite any ethical commitments obliging you to provide fair and accurate information, represent your services accurately and so on.

If he walks out on you…

On the other hand, if your lowballing negotiation partner decides to leave the table, with or without further comment, in disbelief or otherwise, don't try to hold him back. Merely express regret and reassure him that he's welcome back if he so chooses. In fact, it may be a ruse — don't presume it is (presume nothing), just be aware that it may be a last-ditch effort to get you to back down, whether by fear or pity.

He may still come back to you after double-checking his previous sources, validating your data or probing for credible information elsewhere. At which point you may have a new client. Other strong reactions may result from facing a difficult reality check. You probably wouldn't feel great in that person's current position, yourself, either. It generally tends to be embarrassing and may be a source of great distress when you hear your costs are about to double (or worse).

Also, be wary of the tempo-setting effects of the steps your negotiation partner takes from his low offer upwards in the direction of your original quote. The distance between your original quote and your prospect's counteroffer will tend to be indicative of how far your prospect is prepared to go. So may the steps — large or small — by which your prospect gets closer to your original quote, e.g. whether they are 10% or 20% of your offer or theirs.

Example: If I quote an Indian agency €0.10 per word and they respond with a €0.035, they're rather obviously not going to accept €0.09 in the end unless I'm a real wizard of negotiation and have a good day. Since the divide is so huge, I basically say my goodbyes (note to self: I should have thanked them for thier time! I'll try next time.). Naturally, since I'm really quitting, the ball is totally in their court. If it even still is there. So they propose €0.045. That's 28% up from their last offer, which is actually a lot in that light, but neither the added €0.01 nor the resulting €0.045 appear significant next to my original quote. The €0.01 step makes it rather clear that perhaps or two more such steps would be possible after playing it right, but no more.

What's important here? Basically, the negotiation partner sets the tempo at which the two of you will now walk — if you allow it work. Don't allow your brain to accept the conclusion without challenging it, i.e. be conditioned to believe that €0.01 is the size of the steps you'll be making (and there are only so many steps you can realistically expect the other party to go). Be alert especially if it's not an agency from a developing or third-world country but someone more affluent from Europe or the States, whose real payment potential may be expected to be larger.

In this latter context it is important to note that low counteroffers and small incremental steps may in some cases result from a less affluent prospect simply communicating to you what sort of price would be closer to his comfort zone. With some empathy, we can even realise that such a proposal might even be somewhat high in the light of the going prices in the prospect's market or the prospect's level of affluence. The gradual concessions made by your prospect may actually be costly to make. And that's not the same as a powerful western corporation attempting to remodel the market to its benefit by forcing suppliers to accept paltry rates.

The result, however, is still that you can't really expect to be paid within your comfort zone. If only, perhaps, due to the different costs of living between your own place of living and your prospective client's.

Still, unless you want to  the amount you want — and you need to realise that nothing forces you to conclude the sale! The world won't end if the deal falls through.

Here's one more oriental reference to illustrate the point: The weakness of oriental sellers lies in their compulsion to make a sale. They just can't not make a sale, bar some tricky exceptions such as when you are deemed not worth trading with or sized up as too obviously penniless. You don't need to fall into that trap when you — as a translator or agency — offer translation to interested parties. Resist the compulsion to make a sale. You won't be a wimp if you don't make a sale on that day, I promise you. Quite the opposite, in fact. The hardest victories are those won over yourself.

Also remember that the toughest negotiating buyer is one that doesn't actually want to buy. Don't waste time trying to convince people who don't really need translation or don't need the quality or security you offer. Rather talk to people who have need of your services and can appreciate them. In fact, even if you were to end up working for a couple of cents a word, it would still be better to work for a favourably predisposed small company who appreciated the value than for a powerful, impassive and insensitive client who grudgingly paid your best rate. In which case can you expect a raise if the company becomes more successful over time or especially in connection with the value introduced by your expert translation?

Don't allow your ego to be used against you. In any case, it shouldn't feel bad if someone with a bad (unrealistically cheap) business model can't afford your services! If he could but won't, then why should you feel diminished in any way for actually resisting his attempt at drawing you into one of his shenanigans? Come on, that's a victory for you!

Unless it's a genuinely misinformed person, in which case you win by educating, or a poor person whom you want to help, in which case you win by doing pro bono work but realising what your work is worth.

I'm not mentioning a thrifty person here because the way I see things a thrifty person would scrutinise the value and clip your profit but not cut your initial price in half. That goes beyond thrift (as long as the bid is a serious attempt and not a ritual you can find in some cultures).

Now let me bring up another oriental example: If they see they can't sell you a sword, they'll at least try to sell you a dagger. If you won't buy (can't afford) a robe, then how about at least a scarf? If the prospect's budget is capped, you can try offering a service that's easier to provide within the prospect's budget. In translation, this means fewer pages, no unnecessary for-publication editing, a longer deadline, no added services or freebies, more work for the client to do in preparing files for translation, more restricted availability of any rewrites or satisfaction edits, more things done your way rather than the client's way… just don't expect it to work!

It can work if you can get the lowballing prospect to a point where the balance of the updated bargain (less work to do for less money) is acceptably above your bottomline. But otherwise the point is more to resist lowballing in a professional fashion and send — and reinforce — the message that the same value cannot suddenly be obtained for, say, one fifth of the current fair standard.

 No freebies. None of the custom stuff the prospect wants, especially if it isn't really translation-related. Or suggest a less senior or otherwise cheaper translator (but one that's viable).

And don't despair of the market too easily. Misinformed people and hardball players are found everywhere. Just recall all the times you've been stuck doing a low-paying job (or your trust translators were all stuck in an unprofitable project) and you were unable to accept a job that paid better. How about a vacation? Or, if you're being offered something along the lines of a dozen bucks an hour, chances are your loved ones would give more to see you.

(And if you really feel like working, do something pro bono. If translator, let your favourite PM know you're available.)

Recap: Keep calm (calm is almost a synonym of professional). Be confident. Keep your head on your shoulders. If they surprise you once, don't be surprised again. Don't presume things must be the way they said or close, you're still allowed to make proposals that are very different. Don't burn your bridges. Don't be defensive about your rates if they're fair. Learn from people on the other side of the table (including the kind of we can't responses which you may have heard after asking some of your clients for a raise or proposing a fee above their comfort level).

Friday, 11 April 2014

Billing Systems

The subject of rates and billing units keeps popping up every now and again. Tonight, after seeing some posts about it on Corinne McKay's blog, I ended up leaving a looong comment and decided, hey, why not post it here! So without further ado, here's the most important thought I wish to share in connection with billing systems:

Be pragmatic!
It often doesn't cost you to be flexible while it may help your client a lot. Besides, being reasonable is good for business. Doing business with reasonable people is much more pleasant than doing business with people who are not reasonable. For example people who are so set in their ways that they are unnecessarily rigid.
And always try to walk a mile in the client's shoes! 
Billing systems are only tools, so use them like the tools they are, don't become inordinately attached to them, and certainly don't allow them to rule you and hold you hostage and hold you down and hold you back and uhh... They are really not worth discouraging your current or prospective clients. If making a client happy is as easy as changing your current billing system, then you really should count yourself lucky[1]. (For the record, allowing a client to choose the billing system is not the same as allowing the client to choose what to pay you. Which actually works for lawyers, though not really for translators, not that I'm not tempted to try.)

Current standards

There are two core types of billing units used in the translation 'industry':

  • text volume: word, line or segment (~50-55 characters), standard page (e.g. 1125, 1500, 1800 characters, with or without spaces), publisher's sheet (40,000 characters) — i.e. how much text is there;
  • time: hour, day, month etc. — i.e. how much time it takes you.

CAT tools will typically mean per-word billing. Per-line rates are popular in Germany and standard pages in Central Europe or in traditional circles. Publisher's sheets probably don't see much use outside literary translation; even book translation is often priced in smaller units. Editing, proofreading, reviewing and revising is sometimes billed hourly, but those hours are not necessarily clock hours. For example, sometimes an 'hour' is just a set number of standard pages. Per-day rates are probably limited to interpreting or the kind of translation tasks which require physical presence at the client's. Per-month rate is basically salary or subscription.

What billing units are based on

Apart from supply-demand mechanics driving how much you can actually charge, rates can be based on either of the two things:

  • some sort of value, e.g. client value, fair market value, value of the transaction in which the translation will be used
  • production cost + profit, where your primary cost is your own labour and you don't care about the client's profit or loss in the transaction — the price is based on how much time and perhaps other resources it takes to produce the translation
The difference generally comes down to focusing either on the client's side or the translator's side of things. Or, sometimes, the end result of production versus the investment of resources in it (time, money etc.).

Volume-based units

Pros. Interestingly, our text units seem to combine some of the best features of both worlds, in a sort of compromise:

  • The volume of the text provides objective measure of how much the client receives. Note that what the client receives is not the same as what the client can make of what the client receives. It also reflects, vaguely, the amount of work you have put in for your client. Work calls for pay.
  • It also makes sure you're somewhat safe to be compensated for your production, although the exact return on your time will be variable, and you may occasionally take losses.
  • However, unlike in time-based billings, the client is not put in a position of having to pay for your time regardless of how little value may have been produced during that time. As long as you charge per-source and not per-target, your client has no reason to challenge the volume.

  • Clients may be uncertain of the size of the text and how much it will cost.
  • … Especially if your pricing is based on target volume rather than source volume. (This is something you can change easily! Per-source is better for you as well.)
  • Sheer volume of text does not necessarily correspond to transaction value.
  • Production-based units may commoditise your work, especially if they are small and cheap.
  • You take risks if you can't adjust your per-word or per-page rates to reflect the difficulty of the text.
  • (Edited in later:) Per-volume pricing encourages fast-paced work and discourages careful checking.

Now it's necessary to say that the cons result not from anything wrong with your business, nor even necessarily from any inherent flaws of per-word or per-page billing. Rather, the problem is often with the clients' perception. For example:

  • It's not your fault when a client writes more text than the matter is worth.
  • Urgency — with a corresponding rush fee — may not be your client's fault, but it certainly isn't yours.
  • Nor it is your fault when translation is more expensive than writing was (including when an inhouse writer was used, costing less than buying a service on the market).
  • Large texts used in small matters are often templates. The value of a template lies in its potential for reuse in multiple matters and transactions. It's not your fault when a client does not or even cannot reuse the template.
  • The above is similar to translating a large body of legislation or even a book for someone who will only need to read it once.
  • If the transaction value is $15,000,000 will your client pay you a modest transaction-value-based commission fee, say 1% at $150,000 — for 10,000 words, i.e. $15 per word?

I'm not saying it's not a problem that translation just sometimes doesn't pay. I'm saying translators are not to blame. For the record, the solution is to explain things, explain value, not just cut your rates.

Remember at least to consider per-source pricing rather than per-word. Your client gets a definite response, gets its faster, you appear more reasonable and accommodating, you get your own certainty too, and in two ways: 1) you know exactly how much you will make, 2) there will likely be no challenges to a pre-approved volume and rate. Basically, you have pretty much a flat fee with all its benefits.

(Edit:) The drive to work fast rather than slowly and diligently is a problem when you charge per-word or per-page and especially the rate is not too high. There seems to be no reward for slowing down, especially as clients can't really appreciate quality — because they aren't normally equipped to see the difference — and especially as positive feedback is relatively rare from direct clients and very rare from agencies. Slow work is ungrateful work. Per-hour billing encourages the opposite. However, it may be impossible to set one's per-hour rate as high as what can be made in one hour in some per-word or per-page setups.

Time-based rates


  • Lawyers, accountants and consultants charge per hour. The rate is somewhat prestigious.
  • A number of service professions use per-hour billing to charge for labour. While rare in some lines of business, the system is known to everybody.
  • On the other hand, it is disconnected from production (unless you're producing billable hours to sell) and more personal.
  • Can't argue against the idea that spending time deserves compensation. Traditional ethics favours rewarding people for work done rather than e.g. manipulating capital for gain or playing with supply and demand equations.
  • Per-time rates encourage diligent work and careful checking.


  • Clients don't know how much the job will take.
  • You often don't know either.
  • Individual jobs are actually often unpredictable — if you cap the hours, you can take losses if the job proves more complicated than it seemed before. You won't make up for that on jobs which prove simpler than expected because then you will be charging for however much time you really took.
  • Hourly rates can be challenged on the ground that something supposedly took more time than it should have. Or, in some cases, that the higher-charging professional was overqualified for the task.
  • Not all hours of work are billable.
  • People may compare hourly rates out of context, leading to hasty conclusions and misconceptions about the relative seniority of two professionals.
  • Hourly rates are already disliked for rewarding slow workers.
  • They are also disliked by people who work with lawyers for supposedly being disconnected from value (I believe law clients get that one wrong).

To mitigate the first three cons, you can keep statistics, learn to do better estimates, assess risks, inspect jobs carefully before confirming them, keep some safety valves in your contracts so that perhaps you can be paid more but you'll need to contact the client beforehand and explain why the job is going to take more time than normal. In any case, some safety devices will probably be necessary in your contracts.

Regarding time challenges, you'll need to record your time somehow and to describe what you do in some detail, especially when it isn't just translating. For example, a laconic terminology research next to a large figure might not to. As for when your rate gets challenged as opposed to the time record, it may be reasonable to point out that while your rates are higher, you complete tasks faster than less experienced people with lower rates. If not, there is a chance you just simply do more (which the client had better be aware of).

As for tasks which you don't need to be doing personally and for which you are overqualified, it would be a good idea to make appropriate arrangements with the client beforehand. Use the client's own support staff. Hire yours. Purchase goods or services on the market and reinvoice them to your client or include them in the bill. In any case, get the client to approve the solution, so that it can't be challenged later to get you to clip your billing.

Finally, there are some tasks you can't really bill the client for, for all sorts of reasons. Their value need to be reflected in your hourly rates or signing-up fees. You're better off having a slightly higher hourly rate than billing your client for invoicing formalities, for example, while you just can't bill your client for analysing whether the job is worth taking... Still, it may be a reasonable idea to explain somewhat what things are not billable to avoid the impression that they would be billed.

Flat fees


  • Easy to handle
  • Difficult to challenge
  • No paltry units

  • May be difficult to justify
  • Differences between jobs may be tricky for clients to identify

Frozen flat fees are good in how they give the client the budgeting certainty but remove the ability to engage in an endless discussion of the propriety of your billing. They also help you avoid losing prestige by dabbling in small units.

To deal with the cons, you may want to explain where those flat fees come from, such as volume, deadline, and any individual difficulties or complications connected with the particular job. It won't be easy for clients to spot differences between variously priced jobs which appear similar to them, especially in size, so some explanation will probably be in order. What factors influence the price, how much do they matter, did they pop up in this particular job, and so on. Especially anything which can make a drastic difference, e.g. rush fees or repetition discounts.

Sample estimates

Regardless how you do your billing, it may be a good idea to gather a solid number of examples — for example in a brochure or even somewhere on your website — to give your clients something to put their hands on. It will serve to make the system less unfamiliar and unfriendly to them. Try to explain that it's reasonable.

So, for example, a 500-word simple marketing leaflet will cost X. A large distribution/procurement contract at 10,000 words will cost Y over a week and Z overnight. Then an article of 5000 words for publication would cost this, a just-read-it-once working translation of incoming mail would cost that. And so on and so forth. Choose representative and educational examples.

If you develop those samples into proper case studies, you can explain what was particularly good for the client in the billing system and rates chosen. Also, you can integrate affordability and savings into your broader case studies, e.g. those little stories — similar to expanded testimonials — which lawyers use (and translators should also begin to use) to communicate to their prospective clients how they have been able to help their current and past clients. Doing things cost-effectively certainly counts.

Know where your rates come from

You should have an idea of where your rates come from: It is the usual range for someone with comparable qualifications. Or: This is a premium rate, and it includes X / reflects Y. Thus, if your rates are high (and not only a per-hour rate), it can make sense to explain why your work is worth more (otherwise your prospective clients may not even know that it is).

On the other hand, if your rates are somewhat on the low side, it may be a good idea to explain what enables you to charge so low. I am not driven by profit so much. Or: At this stage in my career I aim to acquire experience at a fast rate. Or: Lowering my rates by 10% was cheaper than my advertising budget. Or: My overhead is less. Or: I use low-cost and high-yield technologies or tools.

As for surcharges, they typically correspond to a more difficult or onerous task or longer hours at work, or work at night, or some other complication to your or benefit to your client. If they result from a supply-demand ratio, that will be more difficult to explain.

Grace under pressure

Don't lose your calm when a client disputes your quotation, especially if the client disputes the method of calculating your fees it may turn out it's the billing system which is the problem and not the final amount to pay. There's no harm in proposing an alternative billing system. In any case, communicate calmly and courteously that the rate reflects your education and experience. Refer to any business standards and average figures that your rates are consistent with, especially when you charge less than what is considered average or fair for that type of work and your qualifications.

Explain how long and hard you will need to work, all the things you do which are not just typing. Go beyond sheer production and mention the things you take responsibility for, the opportunities you create or help tap into, the dangers involved in cutting corners and skipping some of the things which you do for your client. Perhaps crack a joke near the end to unload the tension. Don't take it personally and don't make it personal. Don't give the client a reason or even excuse to walk away. And don't show the client that you'll back down easily, don't make it look as though you'd tried to rip the client off when you first quoted.

See the difference between clients who can't pay and clients who won't pay (this often includes our policies and our budgets, which are still ours, i.e. theirs), clients whose budget is just a little shy of your quotation from clients who undercut you to optimise their own profits (savings, markup etc.), from clients who just simply haggle, period. (If your rate is already affordable, you can tell them you've already optimised your rates for your clients and point out this saves time for both you and them.)

And, once again, make sure your clients don't mistake their vague impressions of the value of your work, or any existing budgets disconnected from how much goods or services wanted actually cost, for fairness of your rates. Those are two different things.

Finally, I recall reading on a legal blog somewhere about a firm who said something to the effect of: we are proud of our rates (...). I've said something similar once, too. Some other time, I heard about a translator who recommended a competent but less experienced colleague who charged more within the range the client was prepared to pay. That enabled the client to get the work done and probably put it in some of the best hands possible within the available budget while helping a junior colleague fill the calendar. Class act! ('LOL, I'm so good I charge 2x what you pay,' would not have been class act.) Some really classy people also express regret that the client is unable to meet their rates and invite the client back when there's a larger budget. Try if you haven't yet! In a certain sense, that's similar to the class act of some agencies who won't take on an unexperienced translator but still invite the rookie to come back in a couple of years. No need to burn bridges and waste potential relationships.

[1] Yes, luck doesn't exist.

Auctions V: Avoiding Reverse Auctions

This is the final instalment in our series. Thank you for sticking me through all this. I hope it's been worth it. Last time we discussed some ways or making the best out of the worst if you really need to participate in reverse auctions, notably in formal or sort-of-formal procurements, at least for the time being. Now I would like to take a look at what can be done to escape the reverse-auction misery. My translator friends claim I'm better at analysing the negatives than coming up with positives, but let's surprise them. Just please be prepared that there is no quick fix, no move of a wand kind of thing. It will take a lot of hard work, both mental effort and footwork, possibly some talent and some random factors commonly referred to as luck (luck doesn't exist).

Let's start simple. There's a short entry at Investopedia which will tell us exactly what we need to do:

It is important to note that reverse auction does not work for every good or service. Goods and services that can be provided by only a few sellers cannot be acquired by reverse auction. In other words, reverse auction works only when there are many sellers who offer similar goods and services.

Now, I wish to take issue with one thing: as long as there are still a few sellers (i.e. more than one), even rare goods can still be acquired by reverse auction as long as the buyer acts agressively and the sellers allow it to work. In other words, if the sellers — say, of some rare good or service that only 5 people in the world can provide and thousands need — allow a single buyer to round them all up in the buyer's conference room or online procurement system, that buyer can still have a reverse auction. And reap the benefits.

No matter than in the outside world there may be even thousands of eager buyers whereas the world's entire supply is completely represented in that small room. The buyer wins by just making things happen. The industrious buyer defies the laws of economy by redefining reality, by announcing new conditions to the buyers and their lack of defiance, or by taking a gamble and throwing bait and actually succeeding. And it costs the buyer nothing to try! There will not even be shame if the attempt doesn't work out.

On the other hand, a seller does not really need to be one-of-a-kind in order to get a stream of offers coming (just who would still be in business if that were true?). Just like industrious, proactive buyers certainly aren't one-of-a-kind in what they can offer. In fact, most of what they can offer are numbers, i.e. the price they can pay (per-unit or total). In translation, obviously jobs aren't actually unique, either. The demand is huge. It's just that a lot of companies who have those jobs to hand out are determined to sell them dearly.

So, in order to escape reverse auctions your offer must be unique. But definitely not absolutely one-of-a-kind. You can afford to be less unique when your potential buyers (i.e. potential clients) are not artificially unique — for example by just acting as if they were unique and you letting them, or by actually being unique in your pool of potential clients (because you don't get much exposure and your reach is limited).

Your potential clients shouldn't be more unique than they ought to be. Treating them individually and offering them personal or personalised service — and especially giving their texts all the individual attention they deserve — is not the same as caving in to unreasonable demands or accepting unreasonable demands and agreeing to be put in a position in which you can actually afford not to be put. And it's not just about money. For example, if they are rude (which is a noticeable trend in our 'industry'), you can always take a pay cut and work for someone who can't pay as much but is at least polite. Just because they ask, suggest, propose or 'require' doesn't mean you automatically need to do it. As long as you've made no promises yet.

However, obviously, the more choices you are, the more selective you can afford to be. And, the number of choices you have will depend on how many potential clients actually know about your existence and the services you offer. We'll return to this in a moment.

There is also a progressive scale. This is not a game of absolutes. Becoming a little more unique will net you a little better offers, being somewhat unique will get you somewhat better offers, and — obviously — being totally unique will get you totally better offers. So it's not all or nothing, the return grows with effort. Thus, small steps will also pay, although without making a dramatic difference in a short time-frame.

Here are some areas in which you can become more unique (i.e. differentiate yourself):

  • substantive personal qualifications (degrees, certificates, experience etc.), which put your translations on a higher level than the buyer can normally hope to find
  • soft skills and your other personal assets, which affects how good a fit you are
  • types and definitions of the services you offer, and the way you perform them, including any added services, convenient (or not) service plans and such like
  • client service (e.g. fast response, courtesy, personal approach, pampering, subservience), which is either about connecting with your clients or pleasing them
  • just being where nobody else is (for example an industry conference or business chamber)
  • missions, ideas, stories a.k.a. the why

The ways of becoming unique typically involve research and writing, whether on your own or with professional assistance.

There are basically two things you can do here:

  • adjust your business model (decide how you do things)
  • design, manage and publicise your brand (manage your image)

In a simplistic illustration, your work is the substance, your business model is the form, and your branding is the packaging. Let's take chocolate as an example. It's chocolate all right, as in the substance — some cocoa powder, milk, whatever they put in the mix, perhaps some nuts and raisins or some other stuffing to make it nicer and more attractive (and in many cases also unique). It needs to be sold in bars of various shapes or as pralines or sweets (candies) of some kind. Finally, you need to wap it in some nice paper or foil or put it in a pretty box.

If you don't, it will be difficult to sell even if it's really good chocolate. Achieving good prices would be even more difficult. Chances are the excellent chocolate would still end up being sold in bulk, i.e. stock quantities, perhaps for cooking, instead of e.g. serving as a unique gift to make a child happy on its birthday.

So, you need substance or there's going to be nothing to sell (only advertising agencies can sell ads). You need the form, too, or you won't be able to get the substance to be where you want it to be (as opposed to all over the place). And you need the packaging if you aren't selling it bulk, in stock quantities. And bulk sale or stock sale is not just about the volume, it's a type of sale rather.

Moreover, if you sell the chocolate in a transparent wrap — which is not actually a bad idea — then the chocolate itself takes over the role of the wrap and provides the visual attraction. And transparent wrap is still wrap anyway. The chocolate surface does not touch the shelf surface, or the chocolate would catch germs and the shelf would get stains and germs.

In short, you need to get some presence (exposure). You need to offer value to be paid, but you need exposure to even have a chance.

Develop and flesh out your offer. Identify your strengths, use them, communicate them. Do it in the right language — at least language which your client will understand but normally the language the client actually speaks in the client's own business should be better. Identify your weaknesses and either fix them or work around them and rely on your strengths instead. Identify opportunities and try to chase them, see if it works. In many cases it doesn't hurt much if it doesn't (gotta get over the fear of disappointment and rejection).

Just be there. Say something about yourself. Something which is relevant and something which is also understood. Better still (with time, perhaps), something which will translate into what your client gets from you, rather than what you need to sell. Perhaps it might be worth spelling out what the client gets from you as opposed to some other people, machine translation, or unprofessional inhouse effort — just don't concentrate too much on aggressive comparisons and negatives, as that will put you right back in the reverse-auction model.

You can probably even write a dedicated and explicit Why me page, nailing and detailing your unique propositions but remember you're writing it to get out of the reverse aution world, not to hop right back in. For example, some time earlier in this post I mentioned subservience, which is not rare in the translation world. Don't do it, it will only reinforce the buyer control and entitlement. At this point you're actually unique if you don't. Those who do profess their total subservience to the client possibly don't even benefit from it any more because of how commonplace that style has become. You need to be indispensable and very significant to your client, not expendable and insignificant. (As much as calling yourself the business partner of a Fortune 500 company would be a bit over the top.)

Think about what makes you unique. Low prices don't, not even lower than everybody else's — for now. Meeting project deadlines doesn't really. Using CAT tools (cutting edge technology, yeah, right) doesn't either. Handling secretarial work or running office and administrative errands for your client certainly does not — it's more like the wrong kind of added value, whereby translators become personal office assistants, a task for which they are overqualified. Plus, don't overemphasise added value or your core value will be overlooked and disregarded. You need first of all to make a strong case for the core value you provide to your client. Added value is added value, not mandatory or essential or indispensable or core value. Mention the added stuff anyway because it would a bit silly not to benefit from all the advantages of your offer, but don't do that in ways which undermine your professional status.

Still, as it's more about the client than it is about you (unfortunately), you'll need to show the client that you understand the client's needs, and that you care. There's a marketing saying that before you sell the solution you need to sell the problem. There's a grain of truth in that, but it might be better to talk about opportunities than about problems. Or perhaps both problems and opportunities.

This may end up requiring you to do more selling than you fell comfortable with, but it really is not the same as the client-centred or even client-centric mumbo jumbo which makes translation clients feel like the own agencies and translators body and soul, which then rubs off on rogue agencies which go over to the dark side. Remember: You own me, and I am your slave. I live to do your bidding and be your whipping boy, and I'm enthusiastic about it is not unique. It is commonplace. It's all over the place, in fact. You're actually unique if you don't think and communicate that way, although it may seem harder to compete (except your goal is not to outcompete everybody else but to make competition irrelevant).

First step is just doing it. Or even actually wanting to do it.

This first step is probably really the most difficult one to make. It is always difficult to just start doing things, unless perhaps you are the sort of go-getter born to just be doing things. Such people, however, are a minority, and most of us are not Alexanders or Caesars or even the general we saw on the TV. Fact: most soldiers are not commanders ;).

If you want to make the first step toward adjusting your business model and developing a more efficient way of handling your online image — and the beginning always comes down to just wanting to do something — then perhaps see these two presentations first. They are free to watch, and take about 2 hours each:

(Both @ Traduemprende, 24 May 2013.)

Books were written to facilitate freelance stats and introduce translators to some useful basics of business and marketing knowledge. They may contain a lot of basic stuff that any practising freelance translator already knows, so look at the list of contents first, but they generally come with useful tips:

Especially if you're new to freelance translation, take a day off and read. Perhaps read more than one book and compare those parts where different authors offer different points of view, to see why they the way they do and get a clearer perspective for yourself.

All of the people I mentioned above have blogs where they share useful insights, such as Corinne McKay's blog from which the material for Thoughts on Translation came, Marta Stelmaszak's numbered lessons or even a couple of useful tips periodically published on Latitudes.'s own blog keeps a list of other translation blogs, about twenty in all. A lot of them deal with business and marketing matters rather than chit chat and translation riddles or forecasts about the future of translation.

It should be worth looking at industry-specific business and marketing blogs relating to your clients' industries, or the field-specific marketing of other professions, especially those which are similar to our own. For example legal marketing has become a strong discipline by now, largely because of the tough competition in the world of legal services but also stringent rules on advertising, which are intended to keep it ethical and keep their status high. In short, they are another profession for the services of which demand is practically endless but few people actually want to pay the sort of prices which really make the professionals happy. Which is just like the current situation in our own 'industry' with its raging price compression.

Thus, for example you can look at the Lawyerist's marketing tab, Tom Kane's Legal Marketing Blog to name just two that come to my mind easily. However, as I said before, it's a good idea to look at business and marketing blogs relating to the subject-matter you translate, be it health care, finance, engineering, design, whatever it is in your specific case.

If you'd feel more comfortable having some expert assistance instead of researching and doing things totally on your own, then Marta Stelmaszak @ WantWords teaches Business School for Translators, and Nicole Y. Adams @ NYA Communications offers Translator Consulting Packages. Other popular authors and bloggers also may be available for consultation. Websites for Translators can take care of your website, logo and business card. Just to name a few of the more popular ones.


Be unique. To be unique, you need to be. So have a presence and exposure, preferably somewhere where competition is more limited. Try to make competition irrelevant rather than outcompeting the other guys (or it'll end up in an auction). Treat your clients uniquely and appreciate the ways in which they and especially their needs are unique, but don't allow them to act like they're more unique than they are and dictate terms to you monopolist-style if you have other potential clients to choose from. Try to avoid competing in ways which make you just like the other people, rather attempt to find or create niches. Think about getting professional business and marketing assistance — you've seen what happens when our clients translate on their own.

Good luck! (And yeah, luck doesn't exist.)