This is not a news blog or an advice blog or any sort of company blog. It's more of an opinion blog.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

Freelance Outsourcing: Make it (Semi-)Official or Don't Do It

Sometimes it's easier to take on more work and to start outsourcing the excessive workload than it is to raise one's own rates.

However, in the interest of the entire profession translators who are more in demand should raise their rates and allow their colleagues to raise theirs.

Freelancing is a form of business in which it is easy to forget about progress. There is no natural path of advancement, and there can be very little in the way of career progression unless the steps up are triggered — actively claimed and proclaimed — by the translator. 

Just like of the employees of a stagnant company, if you don't ask for a raise or promotion, you won't get it.

Namely, as a freelance translator, you're always 'Translator' forever, getting paid the same rates unless you raise them.

This can make you think that starting an agency to leverage the work of others is the only way to improve your fate. It's not.

Alternatively, you may just simply find yourself swarmed, permanently or periodically (which is more common) with work you can't or don't want to refuse. And that means you need help, you need another pair of hands. Right? Wrong!

Or rather that's surely a way, but there is also another way.

You can just simply raise your rates! Your colleagues will still end up handling the work you can't do because you only have two hands and the day has only 24 hours, but they will be doing it in their own name, dealing directly with the client and possibly getting paid higher rates.

And whichever clients initially balk at your now-higher rates may soon come over once they see how much they 'save' by working with someone cheaper. Or training a new person. Is this blackmail? No! Your value increases in proportion to your skill and how you know the client's company. You deserve a raise for that.

If you think your client won't understand, you're perhaps judging the client too harshly, too early. Give the client a chance.

Besides, handing stagnant clients down to a translator who is perhaps now just as skilled as you were when you started working for the client who won't pay you more after, say, five years, is gentler than just simply terminating them. As a wake up call you can still leave that client your updated rate sheet or offer to do proofreading, editing or revising for a reasonable fee — with a loyalty discount if you want to grant one to your old client.

If you actually like outsourcing and managing and organising — and have gained an understanding of business (notably your clients' business) in the course of your translation work — how about starting an agency? You can still translate or act as a proofreader, editor, reviser, co-ordinator or some other QA person to make sure your clients get the quality they're used to.

Outsourcing without being an agency is a bit more complicated.

Hybrids, as Patent Translator dubs them, do just that — on condition that they openly act as outsourcers, i.e. communicate it to the client in clear terms that the job will be outsourced.

It's not my business if the client agrees and especially if the outsourcing translator does the QA, but ghost translating shouldn't be considered as a serious option. It can even bite back, notably when a nameless translator manages to botch the work which went out in your name.

But the great masters had apprentices, didn't they?

You could cite the example of the painters and sculptors of old, but everybody knew that they had a workshop, pretty much because it was a crowded place full of kings' and lords' envoys and everybody want to put a son there.

And the work cost more if the master added more than just a finishing touch.

At least in theory, and in the beginning, masters were masters and didn't hire other masters, they oversaw a small herd of apprentices and pupils. Translators can do that too, it's called mentoring.

Later, of course, masters started to inherit their positions and talented outsiders started being barred. Or forced to do work the powerful master could sign and sell as his own. Let's not have that in translation.

Besides, if you want to be a master — which is not a bad idea, actually — claim a master's fees. Raise your profile so that your students possibly get more reputation from your name than the clients'. And so that you don't have to manage a barnful of apprentices free of charge. Ugh!

Is it Josh or is it Kate?

Since a freelance translator's clients don't communicate with each other, they don't know how much work leaves that translator's mailbox. They don't know if it's 5000 words a day (plausible) or 10,000 (possible) or 20,000 (extremely unlikely) or some obscene number.

Consequently, they may think they work with Josh personally at all times where in reality they're working with John, Kate or Sally, depending at each time on which of them really gets to do it.

It's true that John, Kate and Sally are happy because they have work, and perhaps even the referrals they get from Josh are more valuable than referrals from unknown clients. So I'm not saying this is unfair on these grounds. But the system isn't really optimal.

For starts, either Josh does QA free of charge, or accepts risks to his reputation, or he pays them less than he gets from the client, in order to make some markup for the trouble of managing the whole operation.

How about the client paying Josh for that instead, and paying John, Kate and Sally a full rate? And giving everybody a normal referral, including a special one for the supervisor?

This is especially true in agency-translator relationships where there's a ceiling on the rates and all sorts of translators with varying qualifications may be paid in the same bracket.

This means John, Kate and Sally may well swap places with Josh at other times! In which case the first one to land the job will get some markup and the rest a reduced rate, or the first one to claim the job will end up doing QA free of charge.

This is clearly not optimal unless we're talking about a mentoring relationship.

So start a team or agency, or outsource officially, or just simply raise your rates.

If you just simply raise your rates, you as the more wanted translator (or simply the first translator on the job) will earn more, the less wanted translator will also get to earn more (as opposed to taking a cut to make room for the colleague's markup), and the client will have a choice.

If you don't want to raise your rates, that's fine, too, but again, do it officially, openly, or just facilitate contacts.

If you feel that raising your rates would be greedy, consider raising them just so that your less established or less wanted colleagues also can. Go up to allow someone else to go up, instead of keeping the place and keeping the rates low.

Alternatively, just like a rookie, you can raise rates for commercial clients and do pro bono work for charities. We'll explore this angle in more detail in a second.

Just basically don't make your superior work available at cheap rates so that normal work holds no value.

More experienced translators need to make more so that less experienced translators can make something.

Back to the beginning

This is similar to my suggestion that newbie translators who need experience shouldn't flood the market with cheap human translation but:

  1. charge more from normal commercial clients (including translation companies and agencies)
    and, at the same time:
  2. gain your much-needed experience working for charities and NGOs free of charge. 

For example, if you translate 30,000 words per month at €0.06 per word, you will end up making €1800 and translating 30,000 words per month.

Alternatively, you can charge €0.03 per word, translate 60,000 words and make €1800.

It seems you have to choose between rates and experience. But it only seems so!

Because 30,000 words at €0.06 per word for €1800 monthly + 30,000 words at €0 per word for €0 = 60,000 words and 1800 euros a month.

This means you still end up doing 60,000 words and taking home 1800 euros a month, but you still get to keep the higher rate for business clients in place. There is thus no bottom feeding.

And your work gains a higher profile because you do higher-priced commercial work — since you don't depend on (only) commercial work for experience — and get the benefit of working with NGOs, engaging in pro bono causes, making connections from which paid work sometimes results. And perhaps your business clients feel like they're supporting your significant pro bono operation when they pay you good rates.

Plus, with NGOs it should be far easier to specialize and certainly easier to gain exposure and build your name. An agency has no need to slap a non-competition clause on you or gag you into silence about that work you did for it, especially if that's not about any real secrets but only about denying you the benefit of the client's name and logo in your portfolio.

I'm not trying to corrupt you here and take the charity spirit away from your charitable work while giving you a cynical outlook. But the numbers do add up here, and the charities still get to benefit from your work without needing to part with money or anything else.

Just perhaps be honest with yourself and realize the difference between purely charitable work and the kind of charitable work which is written into a for-profit business model. And in the latter the NGO's names and logos in your portfolio can play a significant role.

Still feel bad? So just tell your clients like it is, right on your own page, that you've chosen to gain your experience from NGOs instead of lowering your rates for normal, commercial clients, and that this is benefitting you financially when you get business from the valuable NGO referrals. At which point I can't really see what would be dishonest or unfair or even dirty here.

By the way, if you put heaps of €0 pro bono work on your website, you may actually attract high-paying clients with that or convince existing clients or prospects to pay more. With heaps of €0.03 work you can't! Rather, they'll want discounts.

Okay, so what's the point of this here? The point is that pretty much the same principle applies to experienced translators. Donate your time to charities directly instead of donating it to commercial clients indirectly through low rates. (Which is what happens when you outsource unofficially within your own standard rates unless you find some sort of sweet spot such as when you pay a student a good rate and the difference between his rate and your rate, which you keep, will make a comfortable payment for any post-editing you do. And the client still gets your quality instead of student quality, of course.)

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