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.