4 December 2014

Enjoy success, celebrate progress as the year draws to a close

It is that time of the year again, and I am inevitably reflecting on how everything went, looking back on my original plans, recalling the milestones of my very own 2014 and devising ways to hopefully build on it from January.

The first thing I thought about was that, as a freelance translator, I have met and even exceeded the income goal I had set myself for the year. It was an ambitious goal, and it looked almost impossible as recently as July, so it is a major achievement.

However, the more I think about it, the more I become convinced that the real story of a fantastic year for me is not success, but progress: the best thing about 2014 is not that I attained my income goal, but rather that I am a lot closer to my long-term objectives as a freelance translator.

Meeting an income target is great for at least three reasons: the achievement itself feels very nice, it means I have an extra cash injection rather than have to worry about making ends meet, and it will allow for investment that is perhaps a bit more ambitious and even expensive in the year to come.

However, what I will be taking away from 2014 is certainly not an income figure. As I came to realise that, I tried to come up with a list of the things that will hopefully stay with me from 1 January.

One would like to think that effort, skills and perseverance always pay off, but, at 38, I am old enough to know that is not always the case. Still, it is no reason not to go for precisely that mix: it may not be infallible, but it remains the safest bet.

This year, I have worked hard, got my DipTrans, took several MOOCs to improve my knowledge of my areas of specialisation, tried to be helpful and pleasant to deal with, and delivered the best translations I could muster. When I got stuck, I looked harder for possible solutions and I tried to listen to anyone with a different approach. When I was doing well, I tried to build on my achievements.

I started the year with resounding failures, and the effort I made to get over those probably set me up for the successes that were to follow. I looked into the ATA Mentoring Programme, and a suggestion from my mentor took me to the ATA conference in Chicago.

I got several new clients, and they are generally a lot better than the clients I had last year. I even had a few lucky, almost unexpected breakthroughs with very good direct clients, but luck was hardly part of the equation as I tried to gain their trust and, hopefully, repeat business.

A couple of direct-client projects where I felt overstretched became my first project management efforts, as I found translators and proofreaders, negotiated other people's rates rather than my own, and tried to build relationships with fellow freelancers for the future. I found project management hard, stressful, and definitely out of my comfort zone. However, those projects were instances of major personal growth and learning as well as huge business development.

I refloated my blog, which had fallen through the cracks when things were not going so well, for lack of anything positive to say. I also made the leap into Twitter, which I had consciously avoided (as too time-sapping) until them. Surprisingly enough, not only did I find that I enjoy Twitter and can keep it in check, at least for now, but also got a nice translation job from a colleague out of it!

The ATA conference was a major expense. Imagine a trip from Buenos Aires to Chicago! I hesitated a lot, but it was honestly worth every penny. I got a great confidence boost, inspiring exchanges with colleagues and sessions and a bunch of business cards that may or may not deliver actual work. There again, however, I did my homework: I travelled to the conference, tried to enjoy my time there, and did the follow-up. I will be back next year, and it was important for me to make sure that my second experience is different, because it builds on earlier discoveries and earlier efforts.

I can also count some achievements at a more personal level. Spending over a month in Brazil, to cover the World Cup as a reporter, brought home the fact that, inside, I am now a translator rather than a journalist. A dream reporting job was suddenly not quite as perfect as it could have been, just because the heart was not completely in it.

Anyone who has read my blog from the start will know of my conflicted relationship with French. I love it, but I eventually dropped it from my translation CV altogether because it did not seem to convince clients and was effectively just noise in my profile. This year, I received one French-English 8,000-word project and could not believe my luck. I took it on, and got the following reply from the project manager: "I want to congratulate you, because it is really a pleasure to read your translation."

In this post, I want to highlight my own realisation that this year's achievements relative to my income goals are tiny compared to those that will lead to more and better work in the years to come: more and better clients, closer relationships with colleagues, a greater understanding of the profession, in terms of both depth and scope, and above all a clearer idea of my own potential role within it.

On 1 January, both my income target and my professional development goals will be different. However, they will incorporate everything I have learned this year, and they will be all the more solid for it.

18 November 2014

Translation as a problem-solving service: a consumer's approach

I am a proud translator, but I do not live in a vacuum: I am also a consumer, and I find that my own experience as such is an essential tool in my dealings with any potential or actual clients.

It is a simple idea. Beyond languages, CAT tools and writing skills, customer service is one thing that can make me stand out from the global translation crowd. I still need to translate well but, all other things being equal, I will be a better translator if I am more customer-oriented.

Being a consumer in other works of life provides me with crucial information about my clients and their needs, and I make a point of keeping in mind that information at all times. What do I need when I need a service? When and how do I want it delivered? Who and why do I appreciate the most for the servicethey provide? Who do I call again, even if they have never actually worked for me?

As a consumer, I have dealt with a zillion unreliable and unfriendly service providers. There is the electrician who says he will show up on Tuesday and does not, and the plumber who says she will turn up at 2 pm and shows up at 3.30 pm, just as I am getting ready to pick up my children from school. There is the Internet company who says the line will be back to normal within two hours, which I can cope with, and again tells me it will take two hours when nothing happens and I call in again to report that things are still not working. And there is the lawyer who does not reply to my e-mails.

We have all been there, probably lots of times. In my case, the unreliability of my own service providers continues to drive me nuts whenever I have to endure it, but I have to admit that it also provides fantastic ongoing training in my effort to become a good translator. It is an always timely reminder of the kind of professional I do not want to be.

When I call a plumber, an electrician or a lawyer, it is because I need to get something fixed or sorted out. I need the job done sooner rather than later, although I can accept that I am probably not the only person in town with a problem that needs to be solved. In most cases, I can wait at least a bit, but I do need to feel that the service provider in question is taking me seriously, that they acknowledge the problem I am facing, that they will try to fix it as soon as possible.

I need them to be pleasant in their dealings with me - not to buy me lunch or sing my favourite song, just to be civil and helpful. I need them to show up when they said they would, to have with them any tools they might foreseeably have to work with, to acnowledge the fact that I know nothing about their trade without making me feel stupid or cheated.

I assume that potential clients who approach me as a translator want the same things, and I make a point of responding as I wish the electrician, the plumber and the lawyer would. Whether they are agencies or direct clients, people who seek out my translation services come up to me with a need, and it is essential that I respond to that need. I may not always be able to meet it, but I can always try, and I can certainly always aim to remain pleasant and point clients in the direction of a solution.

Responding means acknowledging the need, returning e-mails and calls, perhaps explaining why I cannot translate a document on aircraft engines at all or why I cannot translate a 5,000-word report by tomorrow morning, or noting that I am busy until a certain date. I may be able to provide a referral, or say I cannot do the job by Thursday but can do it by lunchtime on Friday.

It is hardly rocket science. All you need to do is to remember your dealings with your last two computer repair people, the annoying one you dropped and the one who saved your life. Presumably you, like me, know who of those you want to be.

At the end of the day, being nice will not make you translate better, but it will ensure that you provide a better service, and it will help you run a better business. As freelance translators, that is surely part of our job, and a major part of our job at that.

Friendliness is simply business savvy, even without considering its positive personal effects on ourselves and those around us. So... be pleasant, be helpful, be thoughtful, for your own sake as well as your clients'!

19 October 2014

Pricing mysteries in translation: Anecdotes on rates and value

When I started out as a freelance translator, I had little idea about how to price my own work. My research eventually gave me an indication of how much some translators in some markets charged per word, but it still left me wondering how much I could quote myself, as a beginner with no clients, little knowledge of the market and no name in the industry. And yet ignorance is only valid as an excuse for a short time, and any freelancer who is serious about their career should do their homework and increase their rates to whatever their work is worth. I did that, or tried to.

I have learned a lot over the past two years, about rates and about a lot of other things. However, I have had a few interesting experiences on pricing in recent months that show the learning process is ongoing. Other people may perhaps benefit from those experiences too, so allow me to share them.

1 - I got an email from a potential client. The job seemed to be perfect for me, and the client appeared to agree: they found me, after all. It was a direct client, but they found me through ProZ.com, so I felt shy about quoting too high. They obviously knew about the bulk market and all that, and it was a nice project after all, so I quoted them my high agency rate rather than give them a direct-client quote. Their reply was plain embarrassing for me: they paid all their freelancers a figure that was about 40 per cent higher than my quote!!! They were nice enough to say it, and to pay me that higher rate too. However, it was not all good: I got to feel like a rookie. Still, I learned a valuable lesson about the value of my own work.

2 - I got an email from a potential client. It was a large corporate client, and someone at the company had referred them to me for my translation services. I knew I would need to do a good job, and I knew I would need to invest in proofreading. Beyond that, however, I realised that I was no longer just a freelance translator and was acting as a translation business instead. I quoted high, far above the rate I would quote any agency. However, that presented no problem: the client accepted my price, and I delivered work to compete with that of any translation agency. There was no reason to get paid less than them!

3 - I do some work for one of those translation marketplace websites. The website has a standard, cheap rate and an "expert" rate, and I like the fact that I can pick and choose jobs. Through them, I had a client I liked, with interesting texts paid at the "expert" rate, and they apparently liked me too: I was their designated translator for those jobs. Then, one day, a few months into this peculiar partnership, I started being offered those jobs at the standard rate. I must have taken one or two until I realised! However, when I realised, I wrote polite messages to both my anonymous client and the translation marketplace website: I did not feel comfortable suddenly doing the same work for almost half the money; I understood that the client would want to see if they could spend less, so I wished them good luck in the search; if they actually found that the end result for almost half the money was not up to standard, I would be more than happy to resume collaboration at the expert rate. Three weeks went by in which I continued to be offered the jobs, and refrained from taking them on. After three weeks, lo and behold, the client had cash to spare! Either that or they had realised that what they got for the standard rate was not actually up to standard at all. Their jobs were back at the "expert" rate, so they got back their expert, preferred translator - me.

I think these experiences show that rates are much less of a given than beginning translators usually realise. It is not true that no one out there is prepared to pay double-digit rates. It is also not true that clients do not notice the difference between poor work and reasonable work, and even between reasonable work and outstanding work. Finding the right clients and standing one's ground is important, but what is really crucial is to become aware of the value of one's own work.

15 October 2014

Freelance translation as a learning process

It has been a long time since I last posted anything here. The year has been a roller coaster, so it has taken me months to be able to think about it conceptually, and therefore to write about it. However, I have come a very long way over the past few months, and since the purpose of this blog from the start was to help anyone treading a similar path after me, it makes sense to revisit the walk.

January and February were disappointing, with little work and little money from translation, and generally with a massive sense of relief that I still had a day job. Those two months had also been rough a year earlier, so by I now assume that they are just a dry patch in my working year. And, come to think of it, that may be quite convenient since those are the school summer holiday months in Argentina. I have to admit, however, that I was not so enthusiastic about the lull back in February.

Two months with little work made me doubt my strategy: I had raised my rates considerably, but I had not managed to find any new clients for a couple of months, which was not great one year into my freelance career, and I was working so little that I actually earned less than over the same period a year earlier.

I was confused and a bit discouraged. Starting out as a freelance translator had almost seemed easy, and then, all of a sudden, it was tough. I wanted to keep moving, but by then I did not really know where I should be going. So I did what one should probably do in such cases, regroup and take one step at a time.

I signed up for the ATA's Mentoring Programme. I needed directions, and the ATA was offering some, so it looked like a good match. The experience has turned out to be fantastic. I got a very nice mentor, and the opportunity to bounce thoughts and experiences off a veteran translator who has seen everything many times more than I have has proved to be invaluable. I can only recommend it, and I promise to devote a full post to the programme once I have completed it, around March.

As planned, I sat my DipTrans exam in English-Spanish in late January. Several months later, I learned that I had managed to pass all three papers in one go. Now, that was obviously what I had been hoping for, but it was more than I expected based on the exam's pass rates. With hindsight, it has been one of the highlights of the year. It was great for my confidence and, while I am not really certain that it has brought in extra work, I honestly suspect it may have.

Having my EN>ES DipTrans prompted two further moves. I signed up to take the exam in the opposite direction (ES>EN) in January 2015, and since I already had some certification in EN>ES I also switched my NYU Certificate in Translation to ES>EN.

During the first few months of the year, a major project kept me busy. However, I almost dismissed it mentally from my freelancing list: it did not come from a 'real client,' but was actually an assignment from my employer. And then it hit me that, surely, all the fuss about networking and word of mouth should apply to past- or parallel-life employers too!

My employer was hiring me to do freelance work. Since I had been working for them for 14 years, it was probably due to the fact that they know I am good. And, from then on, it was just another freelance translation project, one I needed to do, and do well, not just for a certain per-word rate but also for the chance to keep the ball rolling, to make sure people who know me and have worked with me continue to think I am the best translator they can find, and recommend me to their friends!

Beyond all this, the year 2014 gave me the chance to feel like a real, top freelance translator too, but that should be the subject of another post. Let's just keep this one at the start of the roller coaster year, when you are up there on the ride thinking, 'Oh, no! Why did I ever get on this thing?' Suffice it to say for now that I am loving it now and I am determined to hop back on as soon as it is over.