Thursday, 8 May 2014

Positive Thinking is Overrated

This is something I've been meaning to write about for a long time.

You may've noticed that sometimes groups of translators or even the entire translator public may seem to be divided into two groups: positive thinkers and negative thinkers. The ranters and the bright people.

Except it's not that simple. Positive thinking can do wonders, but you can't make things happen by just wishing them in. And the circumstances in which you act are influenced by your actions but not metaphysically shaped by your will. There are things you can change and things you can't.

There seems to be some cathartic value in taking the blame on one's own shoulders, or on the shoulders of one's own profession while disclaiming it personally (which means the person putting the blame on colleagues claims to be different), but the truth is that translation really is a difficult market in which a lot of irrational things are currently going on.

The fact that prices are decreasing and pressure for discounts and lower rates is increasing despite the growing demand can't be denied. Price compression is a fact, as is buyer control and the prominence of middlemen with cutthroat, red-ocean competition among them, which takes some really serious business skill and effort to leave behind. Because it means successfully building and asserting a unique brand while not being a business or marketing specialist, nor having any serious financing to rely on.

It takes skill and possibly 'luck'. Like I always say here, luck does not exist, but as much as such a thought may feel inviting, neither are everybody's starting chances or opportunities met along the way truly equal. They just simply are not, it's a romantic-capitalist-idealist-whatever notion. Nope.

Fields, pairs, types of texts, translator and client demographic brackets, all of those things impose some difference in the circumstances (beginning from such simple fundamentals as affecting the balance between supply and demand), resulting in a different outcome in each case. Some cases can be categorized and compared better than some others.

Whether you're currently financial or otherwise successful or not as a translator, while it does depend a great lot on your qualifications and the effort you put in, it definitely is not as simple as positive thinking vs negative thinking, despite all the motivational appeal of such a proposition. A wrong proposition lacking sound basis. It's a white lie of sorts. Even though positive thinking does do wonders.

Even where your attitude influences things, it's mostly about your work ethic and your attitude towards others, the relationships you form with your colleagues and current and potential clients. But you can't wish things in, nor will you become a more successful translator by making yourself believe — in defiance of facts — that the 'industry' is in a good shape or translator-friendly.

The fact is that in some markets (in this case the U.S. market) it takes a celebrity translator to get close to what an accountant charges (about $200/hour), forget lawyer or doctor (closer to $300, but much higher hundreds are still normal). By contrast, the average translator bills $30-40 per hour and 60 for a more recognisable name or more pricy specialisation.

Thus, even a somewhat average clinical therapist will bill, say, $180 per hour, while I'll be majorly surprised if the highest-grade freelance medical translator or interpreter that can realistically be found gets to charge more than a third, a half perhaps if more assertive. (Although translating 500 words at $0.18 per in 1 hour does result in $90/hour.)

For the record, there's a good chance that in-house translators bunkered up in law firms command much higher hourly rates than the freelance average, even though still in the paralegal league. Naturally, they don't personally earn as much as the firm bills the client for their services, but as a freelancer you're also the firm that bills you, not just the wage-earning employee. You still have an effective hourly rate, which is less than the rate you bill.

Plus, some weeks ago I had the opportunity to read a discussion of $200/hour translation. Some things which were mentioned there as supposedly required at those rates included basically round-the-clock availability, a 'yes, and?' approach (a pretty silly exaggeration of a concept if you ask me — there's a difference between being an enabler and being a yes person and actively soliciting your client for more demands within the same rate you charge), and business consultancy. And talking to CEOs or at least board members as opposed to normal managers like normal translators do.

Know what I thought? My first thought was: '$200/hour is a lousy rate for someone who's allowed in the boardroom.' A rookie associate in a law firm, with fresh ink on his J.D., charges more, even though he doesn't effectively make near as much.

This is not negative thinking. These are facts. Wishing them away won't work, while a wish to do away with them is, of course, at least still a start.

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