28 April 2013

Priorities to save the day when things get tough

I had been worrying about making everything sound too easy, because it obviously is not. Being a freelance translator is hard work, and it takes a reliance on a long list of factors, many of which are beyond one's control. So it can be quite nerve-wracking at times.

Let my past 10 days serve as a case in point! Yes, it has been one of those weeks: all Murphy's Law, all about how things that are usually good can turn bad, all at the same time.

I am usually a driven, highly motivated and generally quite successful woman who juggles two full-time jobs, a happy family life around a toddler and an eight-year-old and recently also a popular blog. This week, however, I have been a struggling wimp who felt ill and had a zillion things to do no matter what. It was daunting!

Yes, being a freelancer has that sometimes. And by Sunday night I can say I did very well in the circumstances, which is I guess what one should aspire to when things get rough!

I had a flu that kept me in bed with a temperature for two days, I had an 18-month-old with a middle ear infection who made sleep a brief luxury for four nights, I had a meeting with a chamber of commerce to present my services to potential clients, I had a major translation to do for a direct client that I absolutely wanted to impress, I had little jobs to top that off, I had lots of work in my capacity as a journalist, I had the most painful throat infection I can remember.

Being a freelancer can be tough: you don't really get to call in sick, or if you do it is all your loss. However, you do get ill sometimes, just like anyone else, and you have to deal with your share of everyday problems as well as you can.

It has been a long week. At times, I felt like curling up in bed. But of course I didn't. Well, I did while I had a temperature, and I did when I desperately felt I needed some sleep. I postponed the meeting at the chamber of commerce and did not bid on some jobs I would normally have taken. I did most of my regular journalistic work. I went to the doctor's and wound up on antibiotics. I wrote one blog post when I should have written two, and I did not even translate it into Spanish as I normally would have.

However, I certainly delivered what I think is a spotless translation to my direct client - I was so glad to have told him I needed more than double the time I actually did need!

When things go wrong and when your energy is running low, you absolutely need to set yourself priorities. Some things can wait while some cannot, some can get by with less input than you would usually devote to them, and some take all the energy that you can possibly muster.

As a freelancer, it is essential that you learn to set these priorities right, because that can save the day when you get stuck. The crucial thing in such circumstances is to take care of the personal issues that are troubling you, hopefully without losing any translation clients in the process. Other things can probably wait, and you can play catch-up when you are actually fit to do it.

Now the rough patch appears to be over: I am healthy again and so is my daughter, so hopefully I can go back to business as usual, take care of my blog in English and Spanish, meet with the chamber of commerce and bid normally on jobs in the coming days. And hopefully the one translation job that I tried to do as if it had been a regular week will lead to more such jobs in the future.

23 April 2013

Rates and productivity

I promise I will stop talking about freelance translation in business terms some time soon... but I really feel compelled to write about just one more thing: productivity.

Productivity is of course crucial for any business, but it is somewhat obscure and underrated in an activity where pricing takes the form of cents per word. Particularly as I started out, I took these things at face value: a job that paid me 10 cents per word was better than one that paid 5 cents per word, say. Now I know better.

Well, obviously a job that pays 10 cents per word is better than one that pays 5 cents per word ALL OTHER THINGS BEING EQUAL. But real life hardly ever works like that. In fact, other things are usually very far from equal, and it is precisely those different details that tell you exactly which is the better job.

We all have to quote our rates in dollars or euros per word, since that is how the system works. However, in order to determine our particular rates or decide whether a particular job is well paid or not we need to do a lot of thinking of our own, with the specific job in mind.

How many words of that text can we translate per hour? How demanding, tiring or otherwise the particular translation will be? How long a break will we need by the end of it??? And, of course, what is the going rate for that project? These are just some of the questions we need to ask ourselves.

With a very easy text in my top language pairs I can translate about 1,000 words per hour. At 0.05 dollars per word that is 50 dollars per hour. In my weaker language pairs and with more difficult material I will not translate much more than 500 words per hour, so I will need 0.10 dollars per word to make 50 dollars per hour. I'll need a long break at the end, and if anything goes even mildly wrong I may have to burn some midnight oil.

When you make pricing decisions, be it by setting your own rate or accepting that imposed by potential clients, you need to take this whole process into account. It is not about how much you are charging your client but about how much you are earning yourself, and that is all about your own productivity for the job in question.

I have one client that I highly value. I would actually go as far as to say say they are one of my best clients, even though they only pay 0.05 dollars per word for regular assignments. Now that rate is obviously not one reason why I value them as a client, and in fact most of my other clients pay me at least double that. However, this particular client guarantees around 70,000 words per year of translation work, which is at least 3,500 dollars (they occasionally pay higher rates for more difficult texts).

With this client, I don't have to worry about tight deadlines, late nights or anything like that: they have mostly small projects to take or leave on the spur of the moment which do not compete at all with anything else I may have to do. Assignments are usually incredibly easy, and therefore quick. My productivity with them is extremely high. And I wouldn't dream of bidding on a project I don't feel like doing. To my mind, this particular client is basically paying me 3,500 dollars per year for effortless translation. So yes, I like them.

I have also done plenty of jobs for much higher rates that I have had to slog over. There is no question in my opinion as to which is the better job. I usually take both kinds, since they are not in direct competition with each other and since, well, more money is generally better than less. But this situation is a good case in point.

Productivity also provides a crucial way to increase your earnings as a freelance translator. You should certainly increase your nominal rates as far as you possibly can: you are providing a service and your clients should expect to pay what it is worth.

However, you should also aim to increase your productivity, to increase that crucial output per hour and with it your real rate for any nominal rate. You can do that among other things by finetuning your portfolio and specializing in the language pairs and the fields of expertise that your are really best at. You can do other types of work too, but since the client just wants to get back a good translation and does not really care how long it took you to do it, you will need to bear the cost of that.

19 April 2013

The importance of investment

I put a lot of emphasis on the need to understand freelance translation as a small business. You can be a fantastic translator, but it will be impossible for you to earn a living as a freelancer with those skills alone. Indeed, there are probably lots of companies out there ready to hire you as an in-house tranlator, but if you are going to go freelance you really need to learn to think of yourself in business terms.

As is the case with most small businesses, the importance of investment for the success of a budding translator's career can hardly be overstated.

You are finally your own boss, but you are also just a tiny speck in a massive global market. Growth is essential in such a scenario, and you need to bring about that growth one step at a time, slowly but surely, to differentiate yourself from others as much and as fast as possible en route to building your own client base.

I started out as someone who could translate well, but nobody knew me, and, perhaps more importantly, I didn't know anyone who might possibly ever need my services. When I set out to become a professional freelance translator, I had just done some overtime translation work for the news agency I work for, so I decided to re-invest at least part of that money in building up my new career.

The first thing I came across was ProZ membership. I could bid for jobs for 1 dollar a go, at best 12 hours after members bid... or I could subscribe for one year for 133 dollars and stand a real chance of finding a job there.

I was not sure it was worth the money at the time, because my online research delivered conflicting stories. But I worked out that bidding on jobs as a non-member was as good as nothing and thought I might as well take a chance: I had to start somewhere and I did not have that much to lose. I had paid off that initial membership fee in work assignments within 10 days. Literally. And I can say my returns on that investment have been very generous.

I quickly saw that I could further increase my chances if I purchased Trados, so I did that - not immediately, but a month later. Again, it paid off fast enough, even though counting the webinar I needed to do to be able to use it the programme set me back more than 800 dollars.

I found plenty of things to do with my money. I was lucky enough that my sister is a fantastic brand designer and gave me an amazing pro look for free! Business cards and a website were also crucial in my marketing efforts, although I needed to pay for those. Further, I expanded my technical resources with a Microsoft Office  licence and a hard drive to back up my files, and I paid for membership of several organizations including the ATA in the hope that they would provide good chances for networking.

As I already mentioned in my post on CAT tools, there is a limit to how much you should invest, at least at any one point in time. You will get great returns on buying one CAT tool, but I think the margin on buying more than one would be considerably smaller. The same goes for translation portals: I remained a non-paying member of Translators Cafe, for example, because I find fewer jobs there that interest me, and they let me at least bid on those for free once they are open to non-members.

There are other programmes that I have felt tempted to purchase in recent months, notably the full version of Adobe's Acrobat, and I have seen countless enticing webinars and courses out there that I would love to take. However, I try to stay sensible: any investment I make at this stage needs to have the highest possible ROI, and it also needs to be convertible to cash as fast as possible.

What you actually need to invest on will naturally depend on where you stand, on where you need to brace your position to secure translation projects that will hopefully bring long-term clients. Some can probably save by building their own website, say, while for others ProZ may be useless and they will find their niche elsewhere. The point is not to stay still, even if it takes some money.

I have very often wondered what would have happened to me as a freelance translator if I had not invested those 133 dollars on ProZ membership. My answer is... probably nothing. I would most likely be one of those people who complain in online forums about how they don't seem to manage to find a single client even though they are great translators, with relevant university degrees and the like.

I was lucky to have a job that could finance the start of my career as a freelance translator. More generally, however, we are all lucky in that our chosen profession is hardly capital-intensive. We do not have to rent expensive premises in comercial areas or hire waiters who we know will have little to do in the months before business picks up. Translation is more likely to require long nights instead, and they are at least cheaper.

However, some form of investment is crucial to jumpstart a freelance translator's career as it would be for any other start-up business. You can invest a little at a time, you can think of it in terms of re-investing a portion of your earnings, but not putting in the little money necessary to grow your business is likely to cost you that essential take-off.

18 April 2013

Thank you!

This will be no regular post: I just want to say thank you! It turns out that this blog is having more than 200 visitors per day, and I am hugely flattered by your response within little more than a week of me actually making it public.

Anyone who writes anything holds the hope that people will read it. I am obviously no exception. It fills me with joy to see the number of readers go up by the day, and climb so incredibly fast far beyond anything I could possibly have imagined.

I have put a lot of effort into working out the intricacies of becoming a freelance translator for myself. I am also going out of my way to try to make my explanations straightforward, comprehensive and generally helpful to those following my footsteps along the same path. If the statistics are anything to go by, you appreciate that.

As those of your who have read my first posts or googled me will know, I am a journalist as well as a translator. So I find writing fun, and while I wouldn't dare say myself that I am good at it, I am certainly experienced.

The Word Assets blog started as a sort of experiment, something that could hopefully both improve my online presence as a translator and fill a gap I had encountered along the way. The Internet grants access to a lot of information, but attempting to find there the answers to the questions you actually have can be difficult, overwhelming and frustrating, so I thought I could make a contribution by helping direct other people's research.

The figures say I am doing well as I try to accomplish that mission, at least to the extent that many people are reading about my experience.

Personally, I am really enjoying this. Bringing together my passions for writing and languages with my constant search for ways to improve my translation business, and actually finding that people like what I write, is about as good as it can get.

For the process to be complete, however, it would be great if you as the readers could share with us more of your own experiences and doubts regarding freelance translation as a career. Please add your own thoughts! Your contributions could act as a multiplier to turn my educated thoughts on the subject of translation into a collective learning process that we could all benefit from.

I look forward to hearing more from you!

14 April 2013

The nature of freelance translation

When I first set out to become a freelance translator, I knew I was good at languages AND I was good at translation. I was already one step ahead from many wannabes, who think knowing enough of a foreign language to order pizza and a beer in some touristy place abroad will take you where you want to go as a translator.

Translation takes really knowing a foreign language and your own or any other target language, really knowing a foreign culture and your own, and above all really knowing the mechanics and the dynamics of translation in itself - actually caring about the puzzle of how to turn words in one language into words in a different language that convey the same message and sound as if they had been written like that originally.

Experience shows that languages are certainly a prerequisite to becoming a translator, but the all-important thing, what really separates the men from the boys in this trade, is being aware of that puzzle, and being passionate about it. You know you are a born translator when, whatever the text at hand, you actually care how it could be said in another language!

What I didn't know, or at least had really thought of, when I first decided to become a freelance translator was that there is a major third leg to this particular stool, which refers to business. And, just for the record, please don't get carried away when I say business. I am sure someone would! Business in this case has little to do with Microsoft or Richard Branson. You would do better to think about the corner store down the street and the tiny stall where you occasionally buy a sandwich.

Had I thought about the corner store and the sandwich stall in advance, I would have expected the kind of hard work that initially surprised me. I had always been someone else's employee. I knew self-employed people were supposed to work very hard, but I did not naturally apply that logic to being a translator. I somehow assumed that the hard work came with manual labour, with replenishing store shelves and standing all day making sandwiches while people wait in line.

As an aspiring freelance translator, a professional with a Masters degree, I expected hard work to mean, well, lots of translation. And it does not quite work like that.

As a freelance translator, particularly at the start, you will spend a massive amount of your time looking for clients, which amounts to bidding on jobs you will mostly not get. You will need to think about alien things like marketing (just don't lose sight of the corner store though, you are not about to enlist Cristiano Ronaldo to sell your products!) and how far you want to or can take your investment when potential clients request things you are not selling, which in this case may take the form of documents in CAT and other programmes you do not own. And if you ever forget to send out an invoice you will simply not get paid on time, no one else will remember for you!

The good news for me was that when I did discover the third leg to the stool - which happened the second I actually became a freelance translator - I quickly took to it.

The relatively bad news was that I knew languages and was a great translator, a born translator in fact, but I knew nothing about running a business. So suddenly I had a massive amount of work cut out for me: some of it was actually translation, but most of it was not. I needed to become a businesswoman of sorts, from scratch and on the go, when all I originally wanted was to be a freelance translator.

11 April 2013

Informal credentials

So... you would like to become a certified translator, but that moment is years, or at best many months, away. Is that an excuse to sit there twiddling your thumbs or, to use more diplomatic language, just waiting? Absolutely not.

As I wrote in my last post, the value of certification lies above all in showing that you are different, more qualified and at least in that respect better for the job, relative to the next person in line. And even if you cannot immediately achieve formal certification there are lots of things you can do to show that you are in fact a more professional translator than many.

ProZ, as a standard gate of entry into the world of freelance translation, offers a few such elements at no cost beyond your annual membership fee, including Kudoz points, WWA entries and the Certified PRO network. I managed to make all these work to my advantage, and my advice is that you look into them too.

You can earn Kudoz points by helping out fellow translators with their language problems. These points will almost certainly mean nothing to a direct client, who may not even have heard of ProZ, but they show translation agencies that you know your stuff. In my experience, moreover, they appear quite high up in Google searches, so they go a long way towards quickly identifying you as a translator who is active in his or her professional community.

Also on ProZ, you can get satisfied agency clients to give you WWA points. These simple statements of the client's willingness to work with you again help establish you as a reliable professional. I found I had to ask clients for their entries, but having a few makes me look better.

After a while, you should seek to join the Certified PRO network, to take you a step further amid the tough competition on ProZ. Again, this is most helpful with agencies rather with direct clients, but I found it led to higher rates and more job offers overall, and it costs nothing beyond standard ProZ membership and the effort to fill in the application including a brief translation.

To further establish your credentials as a translator, even if you are not certified, you should look into the local translators' association. It is simply good to be in their directory in case anyone looks for a translator there. It is also an asset to be able to say you are a member: you are not just another inexperienced part-time wannabe but a member of the local professional association. And if a potential direct client wants to check your credentials they may actually look there.

In Argentina, for example, the translators association gets picky if you do not actually have a degree in translation, but you can still prove your aptitude through references and examples of your previous work.

Beyond that, there is the American Translators Association. Membership of the ATA requires only that you pay an annual fee, and in return you get a place in their directory and use of their logo on your website or CV. They also grant access to plenty of professional literature, forums, webinars and an annual conference that I will probably never attend since I live outside the United States, but just being able to say I am a member (which is NOT the same as being ATA-certified) stands me in good stead in my dealings with potential clients.

In a nutshell, you know you are both a diligent translator and a reliable professional, and anything that helps you bring the point home is great to bring on board. If  you are serious about your budding career, you will do well to go for any credentials you can lay your hands on. Certification is the best option, but it certainly is not the only one, and seeking lesser badges to pin on your chest is at least a good stepping stone.

8 April 2013

Formal certification

The issue of certification sparks debate among translators. In an unregulated profession, you can work without it, but my impression is that anyone seriously thinking about being a translator should strive for some relevant formal title.

I have a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford and a Master's degree in Journalism from Madrid's Universidad Complutense. I also have a very thorough knowledge of several languages, as well as comprehensive contact with the cultures of countries where those languages are spoken. Can I work as a translator? Yes, of course. I have been doing just that - quite well, I think - for years. 

Why then would I need certification? To show to people who do not know me and need not care about my background that I am a serious professional. 

Some people refer to the example of doctors and lawyers to point out that one can only really become a professional translator with a title in the field. I disagree with that. To me, a translator is a lot more like a musician or indeed a journalist. A piece may be well played without a conservatory education, and a story may be well written without a formal degree in journalism.

I don't think anyone could be in a position to practice medicine or law just through talent or practice, but I do think that a translator can learn the trade just with a natural ability, great dedication and general exposure to languages and fields of expertise, and get to be as good as he or she can hope to be.

And yet, if I had to hire a translator myself and I did not personally know a specialist in the particular pair and field of expertise, I would only consider a certified translator. Why should I settle for less? All other things being equal, I would obviously opt for the person who looked best on paper, even in the knowledge that this is no guarantee and that I may be missing a great professional... like me!

I assume that any potential client would do the same, which is why I am seeking certification myself.

The next issue is how to go about that, because it is not always easy even if you are well prepared. 

I live in Argentina, and certification in Argentina can only be attained through a five-year university course. To me, that makes little sense. I lived in Britain for seven years, and I am a journalist who has written plenty in both Spanish and English: it is unfair to treat me like an 18-year-old who has never even set foot in an English-speaking country and has never written anything in any language beyond a school essay.

In Spain, where I am from, there are two ways to attain certification. One way is the same as in Argentina, and the other is a Foreign Ministry examination. That once sounded like the way to go, but months later I still have no idea of when the exam might actually be held next. Mmm...

Then there is ATA certification. It is expensive and becomes ridiculously so when you take into account the fact that I would need to pay for flights, hotel stays and so on. They boast a pass rate of less than 20 per cent, which I find puzzling at best and suspicious at worst, and only consider certification valid for as long as you are a paying member of the ATA.

So life once again brings me back to Britain! I hope to sit the DipTrans exam in January, not in Buenos Aires but not too far either, since I can do it in Montevideo.

I really believe a professional should strive for formal certification in translation. However, the system has to incorporate ways to allow those who think they deserve certification to prove that they actually do, without a four- or five-year university course that starts at the level of secondary school English, and secondary school life experience, for that matter. 

6 April 2013

Tools of a translator's trade, part two

This just came in from the great Mad Patent Translator: http://patenttranslator.wordpress.com/2013/04/06/machine-translation-is-just-another-tool-in-a-translators-arsenal-of-modern-tools/
It is perfect to complement what my last post said and to bring home the point that the tools of the trade are, well, just tools for a professional to handle with care and dedication.

4 April 2013

Tools of a translator's trade

The first thing you will find you need to become a real translator is a computer...  but not just any will do the trick. You will need a reasonably good computer with a decent Internet connection - on both counts, not necessarily fast but definitely stable.

You will also need a copy of Microsoft Office. The real thing. This sounds quite straightforward, but I only learnt it the hard way myself. I had been using Open Office for everything for many years without a problem, and I thought I could continue that way as a translator.

For a while it even looked like I could indeed, since I could open documents just fine, work on them and deliver them to my client agencies. But then the odd thing would go wrong and I would need to put in lots of unexpected time to deal with annoying formatting issues. On a couple of occasions clients even sent the file back because what left my computer looking exactly like the original looked different when they opened it. I eventually realized that there were some incompatibilities, and Microsoft Office fixed them for me.

Less obscurely, you will soon come across the potential need for CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools. One of the main problems with that abstract need is that there are a zillion CAT programmes - which one should you choose? Many are expensive and complicated to use, and one may assume that a good translator can do the job the old-fashioned way in any case. In fact, many veteran translators do not use these programmes at all, but owning one of them is essential if you are starting out in the business right now.

Here is a good recent thread on CAT tools, http://www.linkedin.com/groups/How-useful-are-CAT-tools-138763.S.223599409?qid=3b18e974-a3df-4d00-befd-d63dcc018f4b&trk=group_most_popular-0-b-ttl&goback=%2Egmp_138763. This touches on just about any doubts or questions you may have on the issue.

For what it is worth, here are my own two cents.

I chose to buy a CAT tool because I realized that I would otherwise be missing out on many potential jobs - around 20 per cent of those published on ProZ, according to my own rough estimate. Many agencies will require you to use a CAT tool, and most will even tell you which one they want you to use.

Since that was my primary motivation, I opted for the particular programme that appeared to be most demanded by outsourcers, which was SDL Trados.

So... I bought Trados Studio, took a webinar on how to use it and tested it on a couple of documents that did not require the programme. When I got going, the CAT tool did indeed allow me to bid for more jobs, which was good.

But it also brought me a few advantages I had not really taken into consideration in advance. I no longer had to bother much with formatting, which was fantastic news. The documents are comfortably set side by side for me to translate, my translations become more consistent, and I work a lot faster, particularly on technical texts.

Perhaps the most important thing for an aspiring translator, however, is that CAT programmes make you look professional: you say you are a translator, and owning the tools of the trade lends weight to that claim.

I chose Trados Studio for the reasons I mentioned earlier, but I get the impression that those who work in agencies and therefore get to choose what CAT tool they use tend to prefer Wordfast or MemoQ. I did not really feel that I was in a position to opt for those when I was starting out, but when I have more money and more direct clients I will probably give them a try.

The down side to using these programmes is that agencies usually want discounts on exact and partial word matches, so using a CAT tool is in fact most profitable when you are dealing with a client who did not ask for it in the first place.