Is There a Future in Freelance Translation? Let’s Talk About It!

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

While the demand for translation services is at a record high, many freelancers say their inflation-adjusted earnings seem to be declining. Why is this and can anything be done to reverse what some have labelled an irreversible trend?

Over the past few years globalization has brought unprecedented growth to the language services industry. Many have heard and answered the call. Census data shows that the number of translators and interpreters in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2008 and 2015, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment outlook for translators and interpreters is projected to grow by 29% through 2024.1 In an interview with CNBC last year, ATA Past President David Rumsey stated: “As the economy becomes more globalized and businesses realize the need for translation and interpreting to market their products and services, opportunities for people with advanced language skills will continue to grow sharply.”2 Judging by the size of the industry—estimated at $33.5 billion back in 2012, and expected to reach $37 billion this year3—it seems the demand for translation will only continue to increase.

Many long-time freelance translators, however, don’t seem to be benefitting from this growth, particularly those who don’t work with a lot of direct clients. Many report they’ve had to lower their rates and work more hours to maintain their inflation-adjusted earnings. Also, the same question seems to be popping up in articles, blogs, and online forums. Namely, if the demand for translation is increasing, along with opportunities for people with advanced language skills, why are many professional freelance translators having difficulty finding work that compensates translation for what it is—a time-intensive, complex process that requires advanced, unique, and hard-acquired skills?

Before attempting to discuss this issue, a quick disclaimer is necessary: for legal reasons, antitrust law prohibits members of associations from discussing specific rates.4 Therefore, the following will not mention translation rates per se. Instead, it will focus on why many experienced translators, in a booming translation market inundated by newcomers, are forced to switch gears or careers, and what can be done to reverse what some have labelled an irreversible trend.

The (Unquantifiable) Issue

I’ll be honest. Being an in-house translator with a steady salary subject to regular increases, I have no first-hand experience with the crisis many freelance translators are currently facing. But I have many friends and colleagues who do. We all do. Friends who tell us that they’ve lost long-standing clients because they couldn’t lower their rates enough to accommodate the clients’ new demands. Friends who have been translating for ages who are now wondering whether there’s a future in freelance translation.

Unfortunately, unlike the growth of the translation industry, the number of freelance translators concerned about the loss of their inflation-adjusted earnings and the future of the profession is impossible to quantify. But that doesn’t mean the problem is any less real. At least not judging by the increasing number of social media posts discussing the issue, where comments such as the ones below abound.5

  • “Expenses go up, but rates have remained stagnant or decreased. It doesn’t take a genius to see that translation is slowly becoming a sideline industry rather than a full-time profession.”
  • “Some business economists claim that translation is a growth industry. The problem is that the growth is in volume, not rates.”
  • “Our industry has been growing, but average wages are going down. This means that cheap service is growing faster than quality.”

Back in 2010, Common Sense Advisory, a market research company specializing in translation and globalization, started discussing technology- and globalization-induced rate stagnation and analyzing potential causes.6 Now, almost 10 years later, let’s take another look at what created the crisis many freelance translators are facing today.

A Long List of Interconnected Factors

The causes leading to technology- and globalization-induced rate stagnation are so interconnected that it’s difficult to think of each one separately. Nevertheless, each deserves a spot on the following list.

Globalization, internet technology, and the growth of demand for translation services naturally resulted in a rise of the “supply.” In other words, an increasing number of people started offering their services as translators. Today, like all professionals affected by global competition, most freelance translators in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Western Europe find themselves competing against a virtually infinite pool of translators who live in countries where the cost of living is much cheaper and are able to offer much lower rates. Whether those translators are genuine professional translators or opportunists selling machine translation to unsuspecting clients is almost immaterial. As the law of supply and demand dictates, when supply exceeds demand, prices generally fall.

2. The Sheer Number of Language Services Providers and the Business/Competition Model: The increase in global demand has also lead to an increase in the number of language services providers (LSPs) entering the market. Today, there are seemingly thousands of translation agencies in a market dominated by top players.7 Forced to keep prices down and invest in advertising and sales to maintain their competitiveness, many agencies give themselves limited options to keep profits up—the most obvious being to cut direct costs (i.e., lower rates paid to translators). Whether those agencies make a substantial profit each year (or know anything about translation itself) is beside the point. There are many LSPs out there that follow a business model that is simply not designed to serve the interests of freelance translators. Interestingly enough, competing against each other on the basis of price alone doesn’t seem to be serving their interests either, as it forces many LSPs into a self-defeating, downward spiral of dropping prices. As Luigi Muzii, an author, translator, terminologist, teacher, and entrepreneur who has been working in the industry for over 30 years, puts it:

“The industry as a whole behaves as if the market were extremely limited. It’s as if survival depended on open warfare […] by outright price competition. Constantly pushing the price down is clearly not a sustainable strategy in the long-term interests of the professional translation community.”8

3. The Unregulated State of the Profession: In many countries, including the U.S., translation is a widely unregulated profession with low barriers to entry. There is also not a standardized career path stipulating the minimum level of training, experience, or credentials required. Despite the existence of ISO standards and certifications from professional associations around the globe, as long as the profession (and membership to many professional associations) remains open to anyone and everyone, competition will remain exaggeratedly and unnaturally high, keeping prices low or, worse, driving them down.

4. Technology and Technological “Improvements”: From the internet to computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools to machine translation, technology may not be directly related to technology- and globalization-induced rate stagnation, but there’s no denying it’s connected. The internet is what makes global communication and competition possible. CAT tools have improved efficiency so much in some areas that most clients have learned to expect three-tier pricing in all areas. Machine translation is what’s allowing amateurs to pass as professionals and driving the post-editing-of-machine-translation business that more and more LSPs rely on today. Whether machine translation produces quality translations, whether the post-editing of machine translation is time efficient, and whether “fuzzy matches” require less work than new content are all irrelevant questions, at least as things stand today. As long as technologies that improve (or claim to improve) efficiency exist, end clients will keep expecting prices to reflect those “improvements.”

5. Unaware, Unsuspecting, and Unconcerned Clients: Those of you who’ve read my article about “uneducated” clients9 may think that I’m obsessed with the subject, but to me it seems that most of the aforementioned factors have one common denominator: clients who are either unaware that all translations (and translators) are not created equal, or are simply unconcerned about the quality of the service they receive. These clients will not be willing to pay a premium price for a service they don’t consider to be premium.

One look at major translation bloopers and their financial consequences for companies such as HSBC, KFC, Ford, Pampers, Coca Cola, and many more is enough to postulate that many clients know little about translation (or the languages they’re having their texts translated into).10 They may be unaware that results (in terms of quality) are commensurate to a translator’s skills, experience, and expertise, the technique/technology used for translating, and the time spent on a project. And who’s to blame them? Anyone with two eyes is capable of looking at a bad paint job and seeing it for what it is, but it requires a trained eye to spot a poor translation and knowledge of the translation process itself (and language in general) to value translation for what it is.

Then there’s the (thankfully marginal) number of clients who simply don’t care about the quality of the service they receive, or whether the translation makes sense or not. This has the unfortunate effect of devaluing our work and the profession in the eyes of the general public. Regrettably, when something is perceived as being of little value, it doesn’t tend to fetch premium prices. As ATA Treasurer John Milan writes:

“When consumers perceive value, they [clients] are more willing to pay for it, which raises a series of questions for our market. Do buyers of language services understand the services being offered? What value do they put on them? […] All these variables will have an impact on final market rates.”11

6. The Economy/The Economical State of Mind: Whether clients need or want to save money on language services, there’s no denying that everyone always seems to be looking for a bargain these days. Those of us who have outsourced translation on behalf of clients know that, more often than not, what drives a client’s decision to choose a service provider over another is price, especially when many LSPs make the same claims about their qualifications, quality assurance processes, and industry expertise.

7. Other Factors: From online platforms and auction sites that encourage price-based bidding and undifferentiated global competition, to LSPs making the post-editing of machine translation the cornerstone of their business, to professional translators willing to drop their rates to extreme lows, there are many other factors that may be responsible for the state of things. However, they’re more byproducts of the situation than factors themselves.

A Very Real Concern

Rising global competition and rate stagnation are hardly a unique situation. Today, freelance web designers, search engine optimization specialists, graphic designers, and many other professionals in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and Western Europe must compete against counterparts in India, China, and other parts of the world where the cost of living is much cheaper—with the difference that product/service quality isn’t necessarily sacrificed in the process. And that may be the major distinction between what’s happening in our industry and others: the risk posed to translation itself, both as an art form and as a product/service.

While some talk about the “uberization” or “uberification”12 of the translation industry or blame technology (namely, machine translation) for declining rates, others point a finger at a business model (i.e., the business/competition model) that marginalizes the best translators and creates a system where “bad translators are driving out the good ones.” The outcome seems to be the same no matter which theory we examine: the number of qualified translators (and the quality of translations) is in danger of going down over time. As Luigi Muzii explains:

“The unprecedented growth in demand for translation in tandem with the effect of Gresham’s Law [i.e., bad translators driving out the good ones] will lead inexorably to a chronic shortfall of qualified language specialists. The gap between the lower and the higher ends of the translation labor market is widening and the process will inevitably continue.”13

Between 2006 and 2012, Common Sense Advisory conducted a regular business confidence survey among LSPs. During those years, there seemed to be an increase in the number of LSPs that reported having difficulty finding enough qualified language specialists to meet their needs.14 Since the number of translators varies depending on the language pair, the shortage may not yet be apparent in all segments of the industry, but the trend is obviously noticeable enough that an increasing number of professionals (translators, LSPs, business analysts, etc.) are worrying about it. And all are wondering the same thing: can anything be done to reverse it?

Are There Any “Solutions?”

In terms of solutions, two types have been discussed in recent years: micro solutions (i.e., individual measures that may help individual translators maintain their rates or get more work), and macro solutions (i.e., large-scale measures that may help the entire profession on a long-term basis).

On the micro-solution side, we generally find:

  • Differentiation (skills, expertise, productivity, degree, etc.)
  • Specialization (language, subject area, market, translation sub-fields such a transcreation)
  • Diversification (number of languages or services offered, etc.)
  • Presentation (marketing efforts, business practices, etc.)
  • Client education

Generally speaking, micro solutions tend to benefit only the person implementing them, although it can be argued that anything that can be done to improve one’s image as a professional and educate clients might also benefit the profession as a whole, albeit to a lesser degree.

On the macro-solution side, we find things that individual translators have somewhat limited power over. But professional associations (and even governments) may be able to help!

Large-Scale Client Education: Large-scale client education is possibly the cornerstone of change; the one thing that may change consumer perception and revalue the profession in the eyes of the general public. As ATA Treasurer John Milan puts it:

“Together, we can educate the public and ensure that our consumers value us more like diamonds and less like water”15

Most professional associations around the globe already publish client education material, such as Translation, Getting it Right— A Guide to Buying Translation.16 Other initiatives designed to raise awareness about translation, such as ATA’s School Outreach Program, are also helpful because they educate the next generation of clients. But some argue that client education could be more “aggressive.” In other words, professional associations should not wait for inquiring clients to look for information, but take the information to everyone, carrying out highly visible public outreach campaigns (e.g., advertising, articles, and columns in the general media). ATA’s Public Relations Committee has been very active in this area, including publishing articles written by its Writers Group in over 85 trade and business publications.

Some have also mentioned that having professional associations take a clear position on issues such as machine translation and the post-editing of machine translation would also go a long way in changing consumer perception. In this regard, many salute ATA’s first Advocacy Day last October in Washington, DC, when 50 translators and interpreters approached the U.S. Congress on issues affecting our industry, including machine translation and the “lowest-price-technically-available” model often used by the government to contract language services.17 However, the success of large-scale client education may be hindered by one fundamental element, at least in the United States.

Language Education: I’m a firm believer that there are some things that one must have some personal experience with to value. For example, a small business owner might think that tax preparation is easy (and undervalue the service provided by his CPA) until he tries to prepare his business taxes himself and realizes how difficult and time consuming it is—not to mention the level of expertise required!

Similarly, monolingual people may be told or “understand” that translation is a complex process that requires a particular set of skills, or that being bilingual doesn’t make you a translator any more than having two hands makes you a concert pianist. But unless they have studied another language (or, in the case of bilingual people, have formally studied their second language or have tried their hand at translation), they’re not likely to truly comprehend the amount of work and expertise required to translate, or value translation for what it really is.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the vast majority of Americans (close to 80%) remain monolingual, and only 10% of the U.S. population speak another language well.18 In their 2017 report on the state of language education in the U.S., the Commission on Language Learning concluded that the U.S. lags behind most nations when it comes to language education and knowledge, and recommended a national strategy to improve access to language learning and “value language education as a persistent national need.”19

Until language education improves and most potential clients have studied a second language, one might contend that the vast majority of Americans are likely to keep undervaluing translation services and that large-scale client education may not yield the hoped-for results. This leaves us with one option when it comes to addressing the technology- and globalization-induced rate stagnation conundrum.

Industry-Wide Regulations: In most countries, physicians are expected to have a medical degree, undergo certification, and get licensed to practice medicine. The same applies to dentists, nurses, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, and many other professions. In those fields, mandatory education, training, and/or licensing/certification establish core standards and set an expected proficiency level that clients have learned to expect and trust—a proficiency level that all clients value.

Whether we’re talking of regulating access to the profession itself or controlling access to professional associations or online bidding platforms, there’s no question that implementing industry-wide regulations would go a long way in limiting wild, undifferentiated competition and assuring clients that they are receiving the best possible service. While some may think that regulations are not a practical option, it may be helpful to remember that physicians didn’t always have to undergo training, certification, and licensing to practice medicine in the U.S. Today, however, around 85% of physicians in the U.S. are certified by an accredited medical board,20 and it’s safe to say that all American physicians have a medical degree and are licensed to practice medicine. And the general public wouldn’t want it any other way! Is it so implausible to expect that the same people who would let no one except a qualified surgeon operate on them would want no one except a qualified professional translate the maintenance manual of their nation’s nuclear reactors?

So, What Does the Future Hold for Freelance Translators?

Generally speaking, most experts agree that the demand for translation services will keep growing, that technology will keep becoming more and more prevalent, and that the translation industry will become even more fragmented. According to Luigi Muzii:

In the immediate future, I see the translation industry remaining highly fragmented with an even larger concentration of the volume of business in the hands of a bunch of multi-language vendors who hire translators from the lower layer of the resource market to keep competing on price. This side of the industry will soon count for more than a half of the pie. The other side will be made up of tiny local boutique firms and tech-savvy translator pools making use of cutting-edge collaborative tools. […] The prevailing model will be “freeconomics,” where basic services are offered for free while advanced or special features are charged at a premium. The future is in disintermediation and collaboration. […] The winners will be those translators who can leverage their specialist linguistic skills by increasing their productivity with advances in technology.21

The future of freelance translation, however, may be a bit more uncertain. Indeed, many argue that even with acute specialization, first-rate translation skills, and marketing abilities to match, many freelance translators’ chances at succeeding financially in the long term may be limited by the lack of industry regulations and the general public’s lack of language education/knowledge (i.e., the two factors that feed wild, undifferentiated competition). But that’s not to say there’s no hope.

At least that’s what learning about the history of vanilla production taught me. Growing and curing vanilla beans is a time-intensive, labor-intensive, intricate process. It’s a process that meant that for over 150 years vanilla was considered a premium product, and vanilla growers made a decent living. When vanillin (i.e., synthetic vanilla flavoring) became widely available in the 1950s, however, most food manufacturers switched to the less expensive alternative. After only a few decades, many vanilla growers were out of business and the ones who endured barely made a living, forced to lower prices or resort to production shortcuts (which reduced quality) to sell faster. During that period, the only people making a profit were the vanilla brokers. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, nutrition education and consumer demand for all-natural foods started turning things around, and by 2015 vanillin had fallen from grace and natural vanilla was in high demand again. By then, however, there were few vanilla growers left and climate change was affecting production and reducing supply significantly. Today, vanilla beans fetch 30–50 times the price they did during the vanillin era.22

For those who may have missed the analogy: professional (freelance) translators are to the translation industry what the vanilla growers are to the food industry. Those who endure the current technology- and globalization-induced rate stagnation may eventually (if the forces at play can be harnessed) witness a resurgence. In the meantime, the best we can do is to keep doing what we do (provide quality service, educate our clients, fight for better language education in the U.S., and support our professional associations’ initiatives to improve things), and talk constructively about the issue instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist, that it won’t affect us, or that nothing can be done about it. If you’re reading this article, things have already started to change!

NOTES
  1. “U.S. Language Industry Booms, Doubles Headcount within Seven Years,” Slator (May 24, 2017), http://bit.ly/language-industry-booms.
  2. Rogers, Kate. “Where the Jobs Are: Demand for Translators and Interpreters Skyrocket,” CNBC (July 7, 2017), http://bit.ly/translation-demand.
  3. Kelly, Nataly, and Donald DePalma. “The Top 100 Language Service Providers” (Common Sense Advisory), http://bit.ly/Top-100-LSP.
  4. ATA Antitrust Compliance Policy, http://bit.ly/ATA-Antitrust.
  5. “Is There a Way to Prevent the Decline of Translation Rates?” (Proz.com Forum: Money Matters), http://bit.ly/ProZ-forum.
  6. DePalma, Donald. “Translation Prices: Up, Down or Unchanged” (Common Sense Advisory), http://bit.ly/CSA-translation-prices.
  7. “Top 2016 Language Service Providers” (Common Sense Advisory), http://bit.ly/CSA-top-LSPs.
  8. Muzii, Luigi. “Nice or Nasty? Which Translators Finish First?” http://bit.ly/nice-or-nasty.
  9. Maginot, Christelle. “Educating the Uneducated Client,” The ATA Chronicle (July 2015), http://bit.ly/undereducated-client.
  10. Brooks, Chad. “Lost in Translation: 8 International Marketing Fails,” Business News Daily, http://bit.ly/marketing-fails.
  11. Milan, John. “Why Can’t I Raise My Rates? An Introduction to the Economics of Language Services,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2018), http://bit.ly/Milan-rates.
  12. Vitek, Steve. “Uberification of the Translation Industry Is Quickly Moving Forward,” http://bit.ly/Vitek-Uberification.
  13. Muzii, Luigi. “Are Bad Translators Driving Out the Good?” http://bit.ly/Muzii-bad-translators.
  14. DePalma, Donald. “Translation Demand-Supply Mismatch” (Common Sense Advisory), http://bit.ly/CSA-mismatch.
  15. Milan, John. “Why Can’t I Raise My Rates? An Introduction to the Economics of Language Services,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2018), http://bit.ly/Milan-rates.
  16. Translation, Getting it Right— A Guide to Buying Translation, http://bit.ly/Getting_it_right.
  17. “Stepping Out On Capitol Hill: ATA’s First Advocacy Day in Washington DC,” The ATA Chronicle (January/February 2018), http://bit.ly/ATA-advocacy.
  18. “Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over for United States: 2009–2013” (American Community Survey, U.S. Census Bureau, October 2015), http://bit.ly/census-home-languages.
  19. “America’s Languages” (Commission on Language Learning, 2017), http://bit.ly/Americas-Languages.
  20. Paris, Brittany. “Are All Doctors Board Certified?” (Angie’s List), http://bit.ly/doctors-certified.
  21. Muzii, Luigi. “Are Bad Translators Driving Out the Good?” http://bit.ly/Muzii-bad-translators.
  22. Bomgardner, Melody. “The Problem with Vanilla,” Chemical & Engineering News (September 12, 2016), http://bit.ly/CEN-vanilla.

Author bio

Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.maginot@yahoo.com.

Setting a Fair Price: It’s All about You

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

We are freelancers. We don’t need to maximize profits for invisible stockholders, who tend to only care about their dividends or capital gains and not a whit about language or what we do. For us, the definition of being rich is not to want for anything. We don’t define our wealth in terms of having more toys than the next person. Therein lies the secret to what I call breakeven pricing: making enough money for ourselves and not worrying about whether anyone else is making more or less.

A simple definition underlies what this article is about: the breakeven point is that price above which we are making a profit and below which we are losing money. In other words, the cost of delivering the product or service equals the money taken in for delivering it.

To price any product or service, one simply has to charge more than the breakeven point. How much more is completely irrelevant. This is because if we have calculated the breakeven point correctly, we don’t want any more; the profit is only a safety margin (accountants call it the “gross operating margin”).

In absolute terms, every transaction (whether a translation, an interpreting assignment, or even a piece of pottery at a craft fair) has its own unique breakeven point because the costs of each transaction differ over time, along with the countless variables that go into it. We could go nuts trying to calculate that. Fortunately, we don’t have to. Here are some simple steps to help you calculate your breakeven point.

Step 1: Add Up Everything You Want or Need—Everything

Do this for one year. Include what life is costing you now, but also everything you want for the future. Do this for yourself and your family. Involve your partner and family, and especially anyone who is or may soon be contributing to the family budget. After you make your personal budget list, it’s time to make one for your business. You really should develop a business plan so you know where you want to take your business, but that is the subject for another day. For this first time, just imagine what your business needs to run the way it should, especially if you know you need some items that you don’t have now. (See Figure 1 below for a sample itemized budget.)

Now, add it all up. This is not the time to worry about whether you can afford it or earn enough. This step is for dreams. After all, a plan is just a dream with a due date. You have to start with the dream.

Step 2: Figure Out How Much Time You Have to Make the Money in Step 1

Generally, there are about 2,000 working hours in a year. That assumes an eight-hour workday and a two-week vacation. Human resources experts use 2,000 to figure hourly wages in their heads. For example, $25/hour equals $50,000/year; the minimum wage is only $7.25/hour, which equals $14,500/year.

The problem is that you cannot work 2,000 hours in a year. There are holidays, and you get sick sometimes. As freelancers, we can take time off for more important things than our jobs, but we have to subtract those hours. As an example, a public sector job in Virginia would give you 11 holidays (88 hours) and 80-120 hours of sick leave. That would take 10% (200 hours) off your 2,000 hours right there.

Also, you cannot work on billable, paying jobs all of the time. You have to run your business: get the mail, deposit checks, attend conferences, meet with clients, travel, etc. It’s valid work time, but you cannot assign it to any one client, so it becomes a business expense that is not reimbursed. We call this overhead (or indirect costs). You make each client pay their fair share by taking those hours out of the equation so that your rate goes up enough to cover the overhead. If you’re doing one hour of indirect activity for every two hours of direct work (most businesses are not that efficient), you have an overhead of 33%. If you take a third off the 2,000 hours, or about 667 hours, you’re now down to about 1,133 available hours.

Step 3: Divide Step 1 by Step 2

This will give you the breakeven point, which is the amount of money you need to charge each hour. If Step 1 was $50,000, and the time available was 1,133 hours, you would need to charge at least $45/hour for your time. That is your breakeven point, which becomes your secret number. This means that you will always charge something above that number or walk away from the job.

Step 4: Set a Fair Price

This is where reality sets in. Now that you know how much you need to be making, you can do some serious planning to achieve it—or relax because you’re already charging enough (it happens).

The first thing to do is to get over the shock if you discover that your breakeven point is a bigger number than expected. Some of your dreams may be unrealistic, but you now have the power to look at them and to decide whether to put them in a plan for later or admit that you don’t really need/want them. After all, you don’t have those things now, so it’s not like giving up something.

Similarly, maybe you have more time to make money than you allowed in the first draft of your plan. You could plan to work on Saturdays (like the owner of a retail store) and add 400 hours to your calculation. This is the point where you start to make those adjustments.

Avoid the temptation to cut your holidays or eliminate sick days; leave them in the calculation. If you don’t get sick, or you find yourself alone on a holiday with a job to do, the extra time you put in will be banking cash that you will need someday.

Be conservative and prudent. Remember, these are estimates, not hard figures. When doing your calculations, round up to the next higher dollar, even if it’s only one cent over an even number (e.g., for $44.01/hour, think $45/hour).

There are many other considerations that you can bring into the mix now. For example, if you’re charging well below your breakeven point, you need a strategy for boosting your rate back into a profitable range. You can learn strategies for raising your rates by joining ATA’s Business Practices Yahoo group and going through the old message threads. Once you have your breakeven point, I think that some of the books and articles you read will make more sense. Any “business” advice you receive that causes you to charge less than your breakeven point is nonsense.

In the range that most language mediators work, it would be reasonable to charge about $5 above your breakeven point. So, for example, if my breakeven point were close to what I’m charging now, I might charge $5-10 over the breakeven and then come back in six months to review how well my initial data looks.

Step 5: Setting a Piece Rate

Most professionals charge by the hour, but translators, potters, bootblacks, painters, fruit pickers, and many others must charge by the item. This is known as a “piece rate.” For translators in the U.S., the piece rate is customarily cents per word; elsewhere, it might be per line, per character, or per page. Converting the hourly price that you have set is a matter of knowing how fast you can work. That requires keeping track of your time as you work. Once you know your average speed, your piece rate becomes your hourly rate divided by the number of words (lines, characters, pages, etc.) that you translate on average. For example, if your hourly rate is $50/hour, and you translate on average 500 words per hour, then you should be charging at least 10¢/word.

You can do this exercise using your breakeven point (your secret number) to obtain the per-word rate below which you should be turning down the job. For example, if your breakeven point is $40 per hour and you translate 500 words per hour, your breakeven piece rate is 8¢/word.

Final Step: Have Fun

There are many reasons you might want to take a job below your price range—maybe even below your breakeven point. When you work below your breakeven point, however, know it for what it is: a pro bono, in-kind contribution to a charity or a church, a personal favor, a hobby, or an avocation. You’re not in business under these circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that what you do has no value. Armed with the breakeven point, you can make sound economic decisions for business or personal reasons. In either case, I hope that you always enjoy what you do.

Author bio

Jonathan T. Hine Jr, Scriptor Services LLC

JT Hine translated his first book, a medical text, in 1962 and worked as a translator and escort interpreter through high school and a naval career. A graduate of the US Naval Academy (BS), the University of Oklahoma (MPA) and the University of Virginia (PhD), he is ATA-certified (I-E) and belongs to the National Capital Area Translators Association. He was the founding Secretary-Treasurer of the American Translation and Interpreting Studies Association.

When not writing his own books, he translates book-length fiction and non-fiction from Italian. More at https://jthine.com. Contact him at: jt@jthine.com

The Translator as an Editor

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

When it comes to reviewing copy, translators are often at what I like to refer to as “the very end of the line.” By the time copy is deemed ready for translation, it has usually been reviewed and edited by a plethora of people, including a professional team of editors and proofreaders. Yet, despite that overabundance of meticulous scrutiny, we translators often find that “final” texts still need editing prior to (and often post) translation.

While some may be tempted to think that the need for editing at this stage of the process highlights other reviewers’ shortcomings, this is seldom the case. More often than not, editors and proofreaders are bright, thorough, and highly proficient professionals. The issue is not so much how errors could have been made or missed, but why it is that “weak spots” in the copy typically surface at the very end of the line, that is, during the translation process. The answer lies not only in a translator’s language skills but in the very nature of translation.

Words Versus Ideas

While translators are skilled linguists with a thorough academic and practical knowledge of both their source and target languages (indeed, many are experts in their subject matter areas), this does not account entirely for them being more likely to identify unobvious copy flaws than many other reviewers.

It has been said many times before, but can never be overstated: translation is not only about words, it is mostly about ideas. In order to interpret the idea/concept/message behind a phrase and convey it in another language, translators must deconstruct and then reconstruct that phrase completely. It is during that “stripping” process that unobvious copy flaws often surface. While the translator does not necessarily need to be familiar with the subject matter of the source copy, in order to provide an accurate translation, he or she must understand the sense of each phrase and how it relates to the text as a whole.

If the copy is in any way ambiguous, a good translator will likely query it. There are many reasons for this. First, because a professional and ethical translator will not translate copy about which he or she is uncertain. Second, because at some point, someone might call the translation into question for not matching the source copy, regardless of the latter’s accuracy. And third, because a translator might actually feel some degree of accountability for the quality (or lack thereof) of the clients’ material.

Translators Are Writers, Too

Besides their ability to deconstruct copy, translators are writers in their own right. Regardless of whether or not a translator specializes in literary translation, writing (i.e., thinking through, drafting, revising, editing) is an essential part of the translation process.

The concept of the translator as a writer is foreign to many clients, but translators literally rewrite their client’s copy from scratch (think entire contracts, websites, instruction manuals, product brochures, articles, books, etc.), from beginning to end. This is why it should not come as a surprise that translators are more likely to point out inconsistencies than most people reading through page after page of copy, even with a critical eye.

If the copy contains discrepancies (e.g., conflicting information within the same piece, or across several pieces of printed material), the translator is more likely than most to notice it and point it out. In addition, translators often have to research the subject matter during a translation. If during that research they come across something that conflicts deeply with the information presented in the source copy, they might also question it.

An Inquisitive Translator Is Good News

Every professional’s brain is trained to look at copy differently. A marketing specialist may review copy to make sure that it contains specific selling points, flows nicely, and is catchy. A legal specialist may check to make sure a document does not open the door to legal challenges. An engineer’s review may focus on providing technical feedback. A proofreader will typically identify spelling, grammar and punctuation errors, and major issues with sentence construction. But few people read copy more carefully than a translator. Typically, it is not until the translator actually starts translating that inconsistencies, technical inaccuracies, and unobvious flaws related to the structure of a given phrase or its meaning surface.

Regardless of the source of uncertainty— a translator’s misinterpretation, ambiguity in the source copy, or an obvious misprint—a good translator will likely ask questions during the translation process. Not always, of course, but often enough that a client may have cause for concern if a translator never does. Although most professional translators are able to look past “weak spots” and return better/clearer copy than the original, never asking questions would suggest that the copy is always clearly and flawlessly written. It would also suggest that the translator always comprehends the text fully, including the client’s technicalities, plays on words, artistic/writing licenses, and other subtleties. The chance of that is rather slim, especially in creative environments.

In fact, most translators will agree that asking questions is often part of the job. As Translation: Getting it Right, ATA’s free client education guide, puts it:

An inquisitive translator is good news:

No one reads your texts more carefully than your translator. Along the way, he or she is likely to identify fuzzy bits—sections where clarification is needed. This is good news for you, since it will allow you to improve your original.

Good translators strip down your sentences entirely before creating new ones in the target language. And they ask questions along the way.1 But not every client may feel that way.

Asset or Nuisance?

Some clients value their translator’s input so much that they will actually wait until their copy comes back from translation before releasing it or going to print. For these clients, a translator’s meticulousness tracking of the subject matter is an asset, and they have learned the value of building extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for both translation and post-translation editing. But clients who are relatively new to translation or to the international scene may have a difficult time appreciating the fact that an inquisitive translator is a good one (not a nuisance), or that copy can never be reviewed by too many eyes.

In some cases, a translator’s attention to detail may even be met with animosity, resentment, or distrust. A writer may take umbrage at his or her copy being queried. An editor may feel that his or her professional skills are being challenged. A manager may be upset that a production date is not met because of “translation delays.” In extreme cases, a client may choose to ignore a translator’s queries and use preliminary translations, or, worse, opt to work with translators/agencies that never ask questions or point out “fuzzy bits” in the source copy.

To Edit or Not to Edit?

When it comes to ambiguous (or untranslatable) source copy, a translator is confronted with more than the not-so-simple choice between editing and not editing. To begin with, the extent to which a translator should (with the client’s approval) edit source copy is an issue that is somewhat controversial. While most will agree that obvious misprints can safely be corrected and overlooked for translation, many will contend that more intricate changes, such as correcting technical terminology or rewording entire phrases to improve readability or sense, may not necessarily be up to the translator.

When we come across those (fortunately rare) cases where the source copy simply must be rewritten, we may have no choice but to request revised copy from our client. We may even have to take it upon ourselves to “redeem the untranslatable” by rewriting the source copy, rerouting it for approval, and retranslating it. (Whether we should is a matter of personal opinion.) In other (more common) cases, the source copy requires edits that, however small, may bear heavily on both the translation and the quality of the source copy.

In both cases, we should be fully prepared to justify our requests for edits, but at the same time be professional and tactful when presenting such requests to our clients. While some clients will welcome our feedback, others may not be open to editing the source copy. When a client is unwilling to edit the source copy, we may very well find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, having to choose between producing accurate target copy that may not match the source copy, or producing target copy that matches the source copy but may not be accurate.

What We Can Do

While it is not essentially our place to critique our clients’ copy or always our role to correct it, it is within our reach to educate the people with whom we work regarding what we do, what we may find along the way, and how that can benefit them.

At times, it may even fall to us to remind our clients tactfully that editing copy during and post-translation is about one thing only: improving the original and working together toward a greater, better end. Ultimately, if packaging or a website features obvious misprints, if assembly instructions are confusing, if a contract leaves too much room for interpretation, if a product is pulled off the market because of misleading claims, or if someone hurts themselves because of copy written (or translated) incorrectly, those mistakes will reflect badly upon the client.

So, let’s continue being inquisitive, but just as important, let’s strive to step out of our traditional role and keep reminding and proving to the world around us that every contribution matters and that we (writers, editors, proofreaders, translators) are not competing against each other, but complete each other. And if, down the road, it leads to some of our clients learning to build extra time into their production/printing schedule to allow for translation and post-translation editing, the better for us—and them.

Notes

  1. Durban, Chris. Translation: Getting it Right, 18, www.atanet.org/docs/Getting_it _right.pdf.

Author bio

Christelle Maginot has over 25 years of experience as a professional translator. For the past 18 years, she has been working as an in-house translator for a major consumer goods corporation, where she handles and supervises the translation of corporate, technical, sales, and marketing material into multiple languages. She has a master’s degree in International Business/Marketing and English, French, and Spanish translation from the University of Aix-en-Provence, France. Contact: Christelle.maginot@yahoo.com.

Four Myths about ATA’s Certification Exam

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

ATA’s certification exam was instituted in 1973. Its purpose is “to elevate professional standards, enhance individual performance, and identify translators who demonstrate professional level translation skills.”1 Every year, a large number of professional translators and aspiring translators take the exam in one of the 27 language combinations currently available.

Considering that ATA certification is one of the industry’s most respected and recognized credentials, there are many benefits for those who hold it.

Client Recognition: ATA certification is a voluntary credential; as such, it reflects an individual’s strong commitment to the profession and its ethical practice—a distinction that can open doors to new business and higher compensation. While ATA certification does not guarantee you work, it does help.

CT Designation: An ATA-certified translator may use the letters “CT” as a designation of certification status. It is, in a sense, a “seal of approval” from your colleagues that says you are competent to do the job.2

Directory Listing: Users of ATA’s Directory of Translators and Interpreters can limit their search results to those members who are ATA-certified—a definite edge in standing out from the competition.

Voting Rights: ATA voting rights are conferred automatically on translators who pass the certification exam. Voting members have the opportunity to participate in the election of Board members.

To earn ATA certification, a translator must pass a challenging three-hour exam. The exam assesses the language skills of a professional translator: comprehension of the source-language text, translation techniques, and writing in the target language. Precisely because of the high standards of the exam, there is also a low percentage of people who pass (under 20% overall). Understandably, many people who fail feel disappointed and wonder why, especially if they have many years of experience. Here are four myths that have developed regarding the difficulty level of ATA’s exam.

  1. ATA’s exam is graded on a whim.

Translation, by its very nature, is somewhat subjective (there is more than one way of expressing something correctly). ATA has worked long and hard to make the grading process as objective as possible. ATA has developed two tools that are applied to all exams for a neutral, consistent assessment of errors. One is the Flowchart for Error Point Decisions, which helps graders answer the question of whether there is a “mechanical” error or a “transfer” error.3 A mechanical error is one that affects the way the target language is written, and can be identified without viewing the source text. A transfer error affects the meaning and it is found by comparing the target to the source.

Once the grader determines the type of error, she or he then needs to consult the Framework for Standardized Error Marking.4 This tool defines the error categories and points the grader in the right direction. Once the grader finds the category, she or he goes back to the flowchart to determine how many points to allocate to the error.

All graders in each language combination must follow these two tools closely. As an additional safeguard against subjective evaluation, there are always two graders for each exam. If for some reason the initial two graders cannot agree on a grade, the exam is sent to a third grader for final determination.

  1. Grading is artificially skewed to keep the number of certified professionals low.

This practice would be dishonest. Graders work very closely in pairs in order to determine an accurate assessment. Many people are surprised when they receive a “Fail” grade and cannot understand why, especially if they have been working as translators for many years. But there are people in the field who have not received formal translation training, and perhaps this is the first time they have been evaluated by a professional translator.

Translation is an activity that people from other educational backgrounds can start at any time without necessarily going to school for that purpose. For example, you cannot decide suddenly that, starting tomorrow, you will be a lawyer. Being a lawyer requires years of formal training. But many people who speak two or more languages believe, often mistakenly, that this alone qualifies them to be professional translators, so they apply for ATA certification. Many of them fail and are disappointed. Being a good professional translator also requires years of training, practice, and experience. This is what ATA’s certification exam measures. In other words, you take the exam to prove what your years of experience have taught you, not to get a piece of paper to start your career.

  1. The practice tests intentionally do not reflect the difficulty of the real exam.

That simply is not true. All practice tests are real exams that were used in previous years. For security purposes, the exams are changed every calendar year. So, as graders retire exams, they begin using old exams as practice tests. Also, the same methodology and tools mentioned above are used to grade practice tests. The people who grade practice tests are the same graders of the real exam.

  1. Exam passages have hidden tricks. The passages selected go through rigorous scrutiny by graders, not to insert tricks, but to identify proper and realistic challenges that translators face in real life. They are selected by graders and approved by the Passage Selection Task Force. Part of the process of measuring someone’s ability to translate is to find out if the translator can transfer words and expressions in the context of the topic accurately. For example, the so-called “false friends” or Anglicisms in a language other than English are usually a good way to identify a good (or a bad) translator. The seasoned professional will not write the first word that comes to mind in the target language because it resembles the source, but will think in his or her target language in order to find the right equivalent.

There are challenges in the exam, not tricks, and that is why it is highly recommended that people take the practice test first. The practice test is a lot cheaper, will be graded by the same graders, and will be returned to the examinee corrected so that he or she can determine readiness for the real thing.5

There is nothing easy about the certification exam, but the sense of accomplishment earned is something you will value throughout your career. At present, certification is offered in the following language combinations:

  • Into English from: Arabic, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish.
  • From English into: Chinese, Croatian, Dutch, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian. You can find much more information about the certification exam from ATA’s website: http://www.atanet.org/ certification.

Notes

  1. ATA Certification Overview
  2. ATA-Certified Translator Seal
  3. Flowchart for Error Point Decisions
  4. Framework for Standardized Error Marking
  5. Practice Test Information

Author bio

Mercedes De la Rosa-Sherman is an ATA-certified English>Spanish translator and a member of ATA’s Certification Committee. Contact: delarosasherman@gmail.com.

Small Talk Tips for Translators

This post originally appeared on The ATA Chronicle and it is republished with permission.

The old industry adage might be spot on: most interpreters are fairly extroverted, while most translators tend to be introverts. That’s an oversimplification and I know that there are always many exceptions, but during my years in the industry, I’ve noticed that translators struggle more with one important thing than interpreters do: small talk.

Do you hate small talk? If yes, read on. I know small talk can be painful, but you can make it easier on yourself by keeping a few things in mind.

Keep it short.

At networking events, no one wants to hear long, complicated stories. Be succinct and interesting, but resist the urge to tell your life story.

Work on your conversation starters.

The easiest way is to introduce yourself and say something simple along the lines of “I’m new to this event” or something similar. Experienced networkers will get the hint and will introduce you to others. Another good way to start a conversation is to ask questions: about the organization, about that particular event, and about the person to whom you’re speaking.

Learn to listen.

The best relationship builders are people who truly listen and who are not obsessing over what they can sell, but rather how they can help the other person. It’s a powerful thing to think long-term and big picture rather than short-term and project-based.

Don’t monopolize people.

Once you get comfortable talking to one person and your nerves settle down a bit, you might want to hang on to that person for dear life because it’s scary to start over with another person. However, remember that everyone is there to mix and mingle and that you are not the only person to whom they want to speak.

Brush up on current events (including sports).

Even if you don’t like baseball, you’d better have something to say if you’re at an event during the World Series. And while local politics might not be all that interesting (mostly), it would still be good to know that a big new company is investing $100 million in your state. You don’t have to know everything, but the bottom line is to be informed so you can participate in conversations.

Avoid certain topics.

It’s usually best to steer clear of politics, religion, and highly personal matters. Sure, there’s always an election around the corner, and it’s perfectly fine to have an opinion, but I prefer to talk about more neutral matters with people I don’t know or barely know.

Get the introductions out of the way.

It can be awkward when another person walks up when you’re already engaged in conversation and you don’t know the names of either the first or the second person. In my experience, it’s usually best to be honest and say “I’m sorry, we just met, would you mind telling me your name again so I can introduce you to ….” It’s horrifying to stand next to people all evening without knowing their names, so it’s good to get the introductions out of the way early. And it’s fine to admit you don’t remember the person’s name. Just ask again. Get a business card and try to remember one particular thing about the person to help you remember (e.g., her purse, his shirt, her cute earrings, his Boston accent).

Small talk is similar to translation in one way: it’s art, not science. And just like translation, it usually gets easier the more you do it. Happy small talking!

Author bio

Judy Jenner is a court-certified Spanish interpreter and a Spanish and German translator in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she runs Twin Translations with her twin sister. She is a past president of the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She hosts the translation blog, Translation Times (www.translationtimes.blogspot.com). You can also find her at http://www.entrepreneuriallinguist.com. Contact: judy.jenner@twintranslations.com or judy.jenner@entrepreneuriallinguist.com.