How to maintain a healthy work/life balance

This post originally appeared on Trados blog and it is republished with permission.

Work plays a significant role in all our lives. We need it to keep the lights on, our stomachs full, money in the pot and a roof over our head.
Whether you work as a freelance translator, as part of an agency, or within an in-house translation team, the working culture within the localization industry has seen a considerable shift in 2020. The amount of time we spend working remotely has increased and the technology on offer to us has continued to grow more sophisticated. As freelance translators have long known, and as many agency and corporate translators have since learned, home working certainly has its benefits; you don’t have to spend large chunks of your day stuck in traffic, sitting in uncomfortable work clothes or choking down the unpleasant way a colleague makes your coffee. And the growing sophistication of the CAT tools we use, whether working from the office or at home, means translating is faster, simpler, and more consistent than ever.And yet… when you work where you simultaneously live, and have the other staples of progressive technology — smartphone, email and social media for example — vying for your attention too, how do you strike a healthy balance between work and life?

Jamie Hartz of Tilde Language Services is an ATA-certified freelance Spanish-to-English translator who provides services to clients in a variety of industries. The juggling act of trying to maintain a healthy balance between the professional and personal facets of life as a translation professional is something Jamie is all too familiar with, so she has kindly shared some of the top tips she uses to combat the common issues that arise when trying to achieve equity between the two.

1. Resist the temptation to be ‘always on’

The value of this tip depends on the individual person, but I know that, particularly at the early stage of my career as a freelancer, I found it very difficult to step away from being available.This is perhaps mainly relevant to freelancers who worry that if they ever aren’t available, then they’re missing out on opportunities. If you miss an email or if you don’t respond within a certain amount of time then you worry that you may disappoint clients, or even lose them. This paranoia isn’t unjustified, because there can be opportunities that present within a very small window of time, but you have to make peace with the fact that there are always going to be opportunities that you miss – most of which you won’t ever know about anyway.

For agency or corporate freelancers it’s different, but there may still be pressures to be ‘on’ after hours or at weekends, and you need to be careful about drawing clear lines if necessary.

So when you step away from your desk, resist the temptation to obsessively check your phone for work emails, and don’t let ‘always on’ notifications become exhausting.

2. Dispel the pervasive guilt

Especially now in 2020, we have translation professionals who would normally work in an office having to adjust to working from home, and those of us who normally work from home offices are having them invaded by people who wouldn’t previously have been there.I know a lot of colleagues who have their children at home and are trying to home-school them and work alongside a spouse or partner who is also having to work from home. While we are fortunate to be able to work from home during this pandemic, having other people around you who are demanding your time and attention can create a sense of guilt.

If you are diligently working on your translation projects, you may feel guilty for not paying attention to your children or spending time with your spouse. Alternatively, you may go off and spend an hour in the middle of the afternoon playing with your children or taking a walk with your spouse and then you feel guilty about not being available for your work.

I think there’s a certain level of guilt which we experience no matter what type of balance we try to strike between work and life — and that isn’t really fair because the guilt is not productive for us. Make sure you set aside allocated time for your family and don’t let guilt paralyze you when it comes to setting those boundaries.

3. Don’t take on more work than you are comfortable with

Everyone has to draw a line if work becomes ‘too much’ (though naturally what constitutes ‘too much’ will differ for different people).For agency and corporate translators, if your volume of work is consistently uncomfortable, you’ll need to have a conversation with your manager. If you are a freelancer, especially a new one getting started, securing a particular client who you know is going to be a good source of work in the future can lead you to take on more work than you would ideally like. Ultimately, though, that line still has to be drawn so that you don’t make a counterproductive decision where you are taking on so much work that it’s negatively impacting other areas of your personal or professional life.

During the pandemic, in particular, I’ve noticed that the busy weeks are busier than ever and the slow weeks are slower than ever so there is that temptation, when something comes along, to feel that I have to take it because I don’t know what will come next week. This is part of what makes the 2020 pandemic so problematic.

The key for me is to ask: can I do a good job of everything I’ve committed to? Whether you’re a freelancer like me or not, always ask yourself this before you agree to new projects.

4. No matter how busy you are, take a break —and eat!

Yes, you may have a lot of work on, but take a break anyway. Taking a short break and stepping away is a good way of getting some perspective on your work. Meal breaks are a good excuse for this, as you should never eat at your desk. Use them to give your eyes and mind a rest so that you can come back to your work refreshed.I can’t count the number of times I’ve worked through lunch and it’s gotten to two o’clock in the afternoon (I normally eat at noon) and I’ve realized that I’m nowhere near as productive as I need to be — and it’s simply because I’m hungry! Don’t overlook basic needs. Remember that something as simple as stepping away to eat can make a huge difference.

5. Set realistic expectations for your day-to-day work

Set up a schedule of what you will be working on, at what times and for how long each day. I use Google Calendar to manage my time because I find it extremely useful to be able to look at my day before it has even started and see what chunks of time I am going to be committing to each of my tasks that I have planned to do that day. It helps me to organize my projects and thoughts and generally alleviates my stress levels because I’ve got everything right in front of me.A calendar can also help you define the boundary between work and personal life, in that you can even color-code personal activities versus work activities and see the balance that you’re creating between the two. One way I’ve managed to combat the temptation to work too much is to schedule commitments to friends and family in my calendar that I know will inhibit me from accepting work that I don’t have time for. You can also look back over previous weeks and see how well you’ve done with setting those expectations, and then potentially set up future weeks in the same way.

One of the most important things to note about setting a schedule is that it has to be adaptable. It has to be flexible to change because things can and do suddenly come up – that’s the nature of the business we work in.

6. Use an out-of-office responder

There are certain times when I need to be completely removed from my email and my computer, but there are also times when I want clients to know that while I may not be tethered to my desk, I am still reachable.
Setting up an out-of-office responder is an effective way of giving myself space. I will normally have it set up to state I am ‘away from my desk’ but that I will get back to them as and when I can.
This is a really simple but effective tool you can use to help set clear lines when it comes to your ability to work without completely cutting people off. Clients will know you are still open to work and can expect a response from you, but that urgent requests will not sit within the realms of your availability.
In a sense, your out-of-office responder can act as a cushion between your work and your personal life – use it wisely to give yourself that extra bit of breathing room.

7. Take part in a stress-reducing activity

Personally, I run as a means of exercise and as a way to relieve stress. You don’t have to run, or even necessarily ‘exercise’ per se, but I think everyone should have some sort of stress-reducing activity that they love.
It could be yoga, it could be knitting, it could be taking a walk with your dog. Anything that gets the endorphins going in your brain will reduce stress and help you focus on your work with a better sense of clarity when you need to.

8. Make technology work for you

There are so many brilliant apps out there that can help you manage your work and recreation time, from the Google Calendar I mentioned earlier to the pomodoro timers people use to help them stay focused on one particular task.I use the Digital Wellbeing app which gives you a daily view of your digital habits. It’s got a really useful ‘bedtime’ setting which turns notifications off during your allocated ‘bedtime’ period. This stops me receiving notifications during this time and, in turn, helps me to stop feeling like I have to check my emails outside of my allotted working time.

A colleague also recently mentioned the Timeular app to me. I haven’t used it personally but as I understand it, you buy an eight-sided ‘tracking die’ which links to your phone and you flip the die onto the correct side that is associated with the task you are currently working on. The die tracks the amount of time you spend doing each task and tells you where each minute of your day is spent. It sounds really interesting!

If working from home is a recent adjustment you have had to make this year, or if you are just looking for some further holistic advice, our ‘how to stay productive and healthy when working from home’ blog contains some more pragmatic tips on how to stay as efficient as possible when having to work remotely.Having a healthy mind is just as important for translators as having a healthy body, and the two are more intrinsically linked than you may think. Take a look at our ‘simple tips to help you keep a positive mindset as a busy translation professional’ blog and harness the power of positive thought to help bolster your translation productivity.

Author bio

Rebecca White is a Digital Marketing Executive for Translation Productivity at RWS with a passion for creative content generation, social media engagement and product analysis.

ATA’s Back to Business Basics—Phone and Email Etiquette for Freelancers

How can you use email and phone communication to make a good impression on your current and potential clients? This is one of the questions addressed at the Phone and Email Etiquette for Freelancers webinar presented on February 15, 2020, by Corinne McKay, a French to English translator and interpreter, seasoned trainer, and past ATA President. This presentation was part of ATA’s Back to Business Basics webinar series, which was launched in September 2020. These webinars focus on a small, practical piece of business advice for translators and interpreters at different stages of their careers. The series quickly became popular: typically, a few hundred people attend each live session. Members can access these webinars free of charge, and non-members can purchase each recording for $25.

Most of this webinar was devoted to managing email communication professionally, effectively, and appropriately. Corinne talked about the importance of having the right domain name—ideally, your own—and avoiding mail providers that make your messages land in your client’s junk folder. She also talked about your email address and signature as key pieces of your personal branding, focusing on what you may want to include in these elements.

Next, the webinar examined some expectations around email content and response time in the US and Europe. Corinne looked at what an appropriate greeting looks like in these two regions and pointed out that US emails tend to be on the shorter side. In addition, a quicker reply is expected in the US than in Europe. Finally, Corinne shared some tips for managing your inbox, which included scheduling your outgoing messages to avoid sending them outside business hours, using email templates, and setting up an automatic response for your absences.

The final part of the webinar looked at phone etiquette. Corinne recommended having a basic, professional voicemail message and only answering the phone if you can have a professional, noise-free conversation. She pointed out that unless you work in cultures that favor phone conversations, having a dedicated phone line for your business may not be worth the expense anymore.

This overview of communication etiquette will certainly help beginners get a sense of North American and European conventions. However, even seasoned professionals could use these tips to streamline and improve their client communication skills.

Check out the recording of this webinar and share it with colleagues who may be interested!

Author bio

Maria Guzenko is an ATA-certified English<>Russian translator and a certified medical interpreter (CMI-Russian). She holds an M.A. in Translation from Kent State University and specializes in healthcare translation. Maria is a co-founder of the SLD certification exam practice group and the host of the SLD podcast, now rebranded as Slovo. More information can be found on her website at https://intorussian.net.

Cold Emailing: What Not To Do

This post originally appeared on Diálogos Online Forum and it is republished with permission.

When novice translators ask me how they should begin establishing a client base, cold emailing to potential clients is rarely one of the strategies that I suggest. As a general rule, unsolicited emails are much less effective than responding to job postings, attending conferences, establishing a solid online presence or simply being available at the right time (i.e., all the time). As a freelancer I have had only very occasional success with cold emailing (indeed, it has been many years now since I last employed the strategy), and as the director of a small translation agency I receive hundreds of unsolicited emails a month from freelancers offering their services, the percentage of which I actually retain for future reference is negligible. Nevertheless, there are occasions when cold emailing may yield results, provided that, as a bare minimum, the following basic guidelines are followed. Most of these points may seem obvious to any freelancer, yet I can assure you, based on the many cold emails I receive, that they are all too often overlooked.

  1. Select your potential clients carefully and personalize your email to them. When sending out CVs to potential clients, many freelancers adopt a bulk emailing approach, equivalent to the “strafing approach” used by bomber pilots at war. The problem with this approach is that while in a war zone the objective is to hit anything that moves, in job-seeking it is not enough merely to hit your target, but to consider the kind of impact you’ll have on that target, and whether it is a target that you actually want to hit. I run a small agency dedicated exclusively to Spanish-English translation in a few specialist fields, a fact that is quite clearly stated on the home page of the Diálogos website; nevertheless, I receive huge volumes of cold emails from translators working into or out of French, Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese and Somali, to name but a few. I also receive many emails that make no reference to my agency at all, and some that even address me anonymously as “Dear ,”. Even if they do reach a potential client with an interest in your services, impersonal emails like these are likely be deleted as soon as the recipient sees the blank space for the addressee’s name at the top. It is essential in your cover message to show some indication that you have actually researched the client you’re soliciting work from, and have recognized that they may have a need that you have the skills base to fill. Otherwise, your email is really just spam, and will be treated accordingly.
  1. State your language pair(s) in the subject of your email. It should perhaps be obvious to most translators that the language pair or pairs you work in is the first piece of information you should provide to clients, yet it is surprising how many freelancers bury this indispensable bit of data down the bottom of their email… or don’t even include it at all! This oversight is especially common among French-English translators in Canada, where you can still find lingering traces of the antiquated chauvinist notion that Canada’s two official languages are the only languages, even in a multicultural context that makes such chauvinism look highly ludicrous. I have also found it quite common among Spanish-English translators based in Latin America, where this language pair tends to dominate the translation sector. It is essential to provide the information on your language pair first (preferably in the subject of your email), because (as should be obvious) all your other qualifications are irrelevant if the client you’re approaching doesn’t work with your languages.
  1. Check your spelling, grammar and phrasing. In any field of employment, cover letters with spelling or grammar errors would probably be used as an excuse to disqualify a job candidate; but for linguists, where your language proficiency is one of the skills you are marketing, an error or awkward phrasing in your cover email can be fatal. Consider, for example, a freelance translator whose cover email to me included the sentence: “I dominate perfectly both English and Spanish languages.” With his awkward use of language, this translator has managed to make an affirmation about his English language skills and, simultaneously, to contradict that affirmation. In linguistic terms this is quite an impressive feat, but it is not the sort of achievement that you would want to become known for among your potential clients.
  1. Avoid translation industry clichés. Words like “accuracy” and “faithfulness” tend to get thrown around a lot in the translation industry, but in a cover email they don’t convey any real information about you and thus tend to look like filler. The assumption that a professional translator will endeavour to produce an accurate translation that is faithful to the source text should be so obvious that to state it is redundant. On the other hand, blithely employing adjectives like “accurate”, “faithful”, “flawless” or “verbatim” to describe your translation skills may give clients the impression that you haven’t really reflected on the contentious and subjective nature of these terms, which should be a point of reflection for any serious translator. The best approach is thus to avoid making what may sound like hollow or meaningless claims, and let your qualifications and experience speak for themselves.
  1. Be concise. It is important to bear in mind that any unsolicited email you send to a potential client is essentially advertising, and as such you need to apply the rules of effective advertising. One of the most important of these rules is to keep it short, offering the essential information about you and your work in as few words as possible. Given the limited amount of time that clients have on their hands to review their inboxes, any cold email that exceeds two short paragraphs will probably be deleted immediately. Do your best to hone your cover email down as much as possible, focusing on a short set of key points that the potential client really needs to know (language pair, fields of specialization, academic degree, translator’s certification, years of experience, past clients), and expressing those points as succinctly as you can.

Of course, following these guidelines will not guarantee success with cold emailing, which, as I suggested above, can be a less than rewarding client-hunting strategy at the best of times. However, I can guarantee that ignoring these guidelines will ensure a swift journey for your cold emails out of the inboxes of your potential clients and into their junk folders. And if you want to see something come out of your work in preparing your cold emails, that is a journey you will want them to avoid.

Author bio

Martin Boyd is a Spanish-English translator certified by both the Association of Translators and Interpreters of Ontario (Canada) and the American Translators’ Association (United States), and the director of the Toronto-based translation agency Diálogos Intercultural Services (www.dialogos.ca). He has numerous published translations to his credit, including articles for academic journals such as L’Atalante and Mediterranean Journal of Communication, and books such as The Neoliberal Pattern of Domination by José Manuel Sánchez Bermúdez (Brill, 2012) and The Mystery of Queen Nefertiti by C. T. Cassana (Amazon Books, 2017).

Savvy Diversification Series – How I Became a Translation Editor

The Savvy Newcomer team has been taking stock of the past year and finding that one key priority for many freelance translators and interpreters has been diversification. Offering multiple services in different sectors or to different clients can help steady us when storms come. Diversification can help us hedge against hard times.

With this in mind, we’ve invited a series of guest authors to write about the diversified service offerings that have helped their businesses to thrive, in the hopes of inspiring you to branch out into the new service offerings that may be right for you!

I was born and raised in Panama. My exposure to foreign languages began at an early age. From kindergarten through high school, I was taught in English, Spanish, and French. I went to university in the United States and graduated with a degree in Languages and Linguistics. My career as a translator began in Panama and continued overseas in the United States, Canada, and Brazil. I had just started working for an LSP in the United States when an unexpected move overseas threatened to derail my nascent career. It actually turned out to be quite the opposite and I was presented with the opportunity of a lifetime! As it turned out, the LSP I had been working for in the U.S. reached out to offer me a job as Managing Director of its new translation division in São Paulo, Brazil. In hindsight, I have no idea what they were thinking when they hired an ill-prepared 29-year-old to run a startup operation… But somehow my boss in the US thought I was the right person for the job and it all worked out in the end. At the time, I had been contemplating the idea of returning to school but this seemed too good of an opportunity to pass up.

Over the next six years I would work for this LSP in Brazil, Canada, and the United States. I will always be a linguist at heart but working at an LSP taught me the hard lessons of running a translation business. It taught me to be efficient in producing simple as well as very complex multilingual projects. I remain incredibly grateful for this experience and to this day I feel that most translators starting out could benefit from a stint as in-house linguists.

Some life/work lessons I learned along the way that have served me well over the years.

  1. Understand the business, even if it’s difficult.
  2. Be a good communicator with your clients, your team, and your colleagues. You can never have enough patience!
  3. Mistakes happen. Own them, fix them, learn from them, and move on.
  4. Success takes flexibility, creativity, and problem-solving skills.

After six years, my company decided to sell its translation operations. I wanted to return to freelance work but I felt my experience no longer fit the role of a translator. I wanted to remain a linguist but in a different capacity. I wasn’t sure what exactly I would end up doing, so I needed to take stock of what I loved best about my job. I knew that I wanted to stay in the production side of the industry (as opposed to the business side). There were two production aspects that stood out: the quality assurance process we followed and training sales and production personnel. Could I turn these two aspects into a career? It took many years and many ups and downs to develop my niche specialty.

I currently work as a translation editor and a production consultant for small to mid-size LSPs.

Some of the tasks I perform as an editor are:

  1. Review translations to ensure they meet client specifications.
  2. Post edit MT output.
  3. Work with the client’s internal reviewers to make sure that their changes are appropriate.
  4. Website Language Testing (not functionality testing) that involves reviewing the target language screens in a static or live website and then either reporting or correcting errors.

As a consultant, I found my niche in production consulting for small to mid-size companies. I discovered that smaller companies often have difficulty growing because they don’t have production processes in place to handle larger projects without additional personnel. I help them in the following areas:

  1. Training in project management, costing, and editing techniques. I provide training for sales and production staff.
  2. Internal Process Manuals. I write procedure manuals for internal use by production staff.
  3. Preparing complex documents for translation, writing specs, style guides, and glossary mining and creation.

Developing a niche specialty as an editor

If you are thinking of developing a niche specialty in editing, first determine if this is something you truly enjoy and have a knack for. Good editors possess the following skills:

  1. The ability to analyze a text critically and efficiently and separate oneself from stylistic preferences one may have.
  2. Excellent language skills (grammar, style, punctuation, etc.)
  3. Good communication skills in order to work in collaborative environment (as part of a team).
  4. Superior organizational skills and a detail-oriented nature.
  5. Curiosity and eagerness to learn. Become a proficient researcher.

So where would you start?

  1. Research the current “need/market” for editing services among your established and potential clients.
  2. Trade editing services with a colleague to test your abilities. Compare your approaches.
  3. Sometimes it may be good to have a specialty within a specialty. In my case, about 80% of my editing work is in the field of Life Sciences. Research a few sub-specialty fields that might interest you and determine the demand in this particular domain.
  4. Identify your resources in those fields. They can be your colleagues, local, national or international associations. Attend trainings, webinars or courses to learn more about your new specialty and to network.
  5. Develop an editing methodology (step-by step process).
  6. Start by working on small assignments for the clients you already have.
  7. Make sure you understand the specifications and time involved.
  8. Certifications bring prestige and recognition. Get certified in translation, interpretation, project management, etc.
  9. Grow your network. Opportunities can come not only from your clients, but also from colleagues, joining your local ATA Chapter (or translation organization), attending industry conferences in your niche field and using social media.

Having a niche specialty does not guarantee smooth sailing!

Freelancing in a niche specialty has kept me humble at times.  The translation industry is dynamic, fascinating, and volatile. Clients can come and go through no fault of your own. Their needs change, they can be bought by other companies that have alternate language providers or they may decide to outsource cheaper translation providers overseas. These issues are all beyond our control. The onus is on us to be ready to face these challenges by keeping abreast of trends, technology, and anything that might affect our business.

Resources

Society for Editing (ACES)

Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA)

Center for Plain Language

Author bio

A native of Panama, Itzaris Weyman is a graduate of Georgetown University’s School of Languages and Linguistics and an ATA-certified translator from ENG>SPA. She served as Translation Production Director in São Paulo, Brazil and Multilingual Production Manager in Toronto, Canada for Berlitz Translation Services. Her most recent article “Preparing Documents for Translation” was the feature article in the Sept/Oct 2020 edition of the ATA Chronicle and was also reprinted on-line by the Colegio de Traductores de la Provincia de Santa Fe, Argentina.

Ms. Weyman has served as Treasurer on the Board of Directors of FLATA (Florida Chapter of the American Translators Association – now ATIF) and on its Nominating and Bylaws Committees. Contact: itzarisweyman@americaslanguagebridge.com

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.