Sunday, 20 March 2016

Your Great Advantage: Flexibility

They say your greatest strength can also be your weakness. This is certainly the case with structure in translation agencies and corporate clients.

As a freelancer you don't have the benefit of structure, or only have it to a very limited extent, but therein also lies your strength which most agencies and most of your business clients don't have.

This isn't even necessarily come down to some sort of competitive comparison between 'you' and 'them' — why would you compete with your own client anyway? Rather, it equips you with the ability to offer something new, something different, something they aren't normally able to do.

Situationally, this allows you to fill their gaps, ones they can't fill on their own — and this give them more flexibility — and also to become a leader and agent of change, in spire of being so small.

Here are some of your unique advantages connected to flexibility and lack of structure:

  • Direct access for your clients and partners to the top (and only) decisionmaker.
  • No pipelines of any kind.
  • Full clarity and no diffusion.
  • No dissents or stale mates within management.
  • Less waiting time for anything at all.
  • More ability to negotiate than when two rigid giants meet.
  • Much more efficient information flow (shorter, more direct, quicker, more expert).
  • Typically next to zero need to comply with your procedures and bylaws, so there's all the less bureaucracy to deal with.
  • You aren't normal workforce, so labour legislation doesn't normally apply to you.

So get the most out of them, rather than pretending you're something you aren't.

On the other hand:

  • As the complete owner of your side of the bargain, you can make decisions a manager or representative would be fired for. You aren't going to fire yourself, are you?

Woah. What does that even mean? Well, for starters, you're allowed to think outside the box — if you allow yourself that. The thing is, it's up to you and no one else.


  • You don't need to make every potential client an actual client.
  • Not every inquiry has to lead to a successful 'sale'.
  • Not every trip to the negotiation table has to lead to some form of understanding and compromise.
  • You won't be fired for not taking on a client you'd rather not have.
  • There's no higher manager to fire you for not meeting sales quotas and for wasting opportunities that didn't excite you much to begin with.
  • Hence you can experiment more, as long as you're ready to live with the outcome.

You will need to live with the economic outcome for your business, but no one's going to intervene and punish you as a person, break your career, make you leave in disgrace, or even take away your quarterly bonus or chance of getting promoted. Nothing.

… The whole office drama of covering one's gluteus maximus is simply not there, so it's all the easier to just do your job.

Whether you cut costs or generate them, accept risks or avoid them — it's your decision and made to your standard, not someone else's, as you see fit. You want to just give something a chance for the benefit of experience and insight? You can. You want to take a more conservative course and stay within your comfort zone? You can. You can also employ a bunch of other criteria that corporate policies typically wouldn't even allow you to consider. So take advantage of it.

Saturday, 19 March 2016

Value Building vs Value Sharing

There is a tip I want to share with all translators and interpreters. Most will refuse to even think about it. The last time I tried to talk to mature, intelligent linguists about the matter, it ended in me storming out of the room after being shouted down and flailed hands at. (In defense of the integrity of the sacrosant all-holy client budget that Must Not Be Questioned.)

This is something people not only refuse to understand, they refuse to even think about it, even when you specifically ask them to and explain how it would be beneficial to them if they did, how you're actually trying to help them. There are various negotiation strategies out there, various classifications you can make. One of such classifications is:
value building vs value sharing
Or, rather, this is the way it was taught to me at law school, while 'value creation' and 'value claiming' is a concept you're much more likely to find online.

The point is, you can keep trying to divide the pie in a way that's either fair to everybody or specifically advantageous to you, the way most people do, or you can think outside the box and try to generate more pie. 

And this is something translators and agencies don't get. Instead, they keep playing the same old zero-sum game.

For example, translation agencies' budgets and pricing schemes are not a given. It's not something that's set in stone and Must Not Be Questioned. No, they are not holy or sacrosanct or in any other way immune to being discussed or brought into discussion. Rather than squabbling over who gets how much pie, can go for a win-win situation and suggest getting money from outside the existing project budget or source of financing. 

… This is even more viable with a direct client, who is usually not operating within the limits of a fee paid by a client. There is someone there who has the authority to adjust a project budget, they just don't normally want to. Doesn't mean they actually can't.

AverageTrans charges its clients 15 cents per word. But for the text ClientCorp needs translated AverageTrans needs Josh Freelance, who normally charges 12 cents per word. You can't normally have a 12-3 division with an agency, as it won't even cover overhead, so the agency would have to be taking a loss on the project, which is normally avoided unless the PM is allowed to consider the long-term perspective and make independent decisions. Consequently, as translator, you can only very rarely successfully negotiate something like that with an agency.
However, there is a solution: The end client can pay more. I am not saying this is easy to achieve, but it definitely is doable. What it takes is for AverageTrans to tell ClientCorp that a specialized or more difficult text or a rarer language or more qualified translator costs more than the usual rate. Which agencies are often loathe to do, but it doesn't mean they can't or never will. It does mean most will think you have zero touch with reality and no knowledge of management/economy/real life for even suggesting it.
This was just an example. There are more situations in which money can be found and put on the table if you think outside the box, rather than getting your brain stuck in pie-cutting mode. I challenge you to think about some, even if you aren't sure they're going to work. Just like a PM can never be sure you'll accept a lower rate but asks anyway because what's there to lose? At worst you just won't accept.  

Bonus tip:  

Even if they won't charge the client more, impose a situational surcharge or do anything else to get more money from the client, then simply bringing the issue up will make them realize that it was their own decision, not the law of the land, nor a law of physics, nothing they couldn't do but only something they wouldn't.

Hence they should now have a clearer sense of ownership of the decision and the consequences generated by it. You will look more credible asking them why exactly you should be the one financing their policies. Hence you may be able to win a larger slice of the pie then otherwise, supposed you still want a piece.

The good news for you is also that since this is such an unthinkable idea to some translators, integrating it into your strategy will give you a unique advantage. Eventually you may become a trusted and valued partner for teaching people to think outside the box and bake more pie as opposed to remaining stuck in their initial notions.

Remember that the most successful companies in the world are those which participate in the shaping of the market along with client expectations and mentalities as opposed to only passively adapting and believing that the client is right even when the client isn't actually so sure of that!

What You Can Do as No Longer a Newbie

Other than my own experience, I have no qualifications to give proper career advice. Actually, I'm looking at this rather through the perspective of character development in a roleplaying game — where you advance in your particular class, sometimes take an advanced class or 'prestige class', depending on the particulars of the system you're using, you pick up additional feats or talents or whatever they are called.

So, imagine you've taken a couple of levels as Translator. Let's say you're a level 3, level 5 or level 7 translator now, no longer a freshly created level 1 character. You're at the stage where back in the middle ages it would be high time to get you knighted (back when it wasn't an accolade for grey-haired professors, businessmen and singers but a right of passage for warriors from 'good' families) or inducted as full member of some sort of guild. Modern translators' associations are still much like guilds, with full membership or associate membership or special membership: senior, expert and so on.

In a roleplaying game, the requirements for each such accolade tend to be easily visible as a tooltip when you hover the mouse cursor over something that's greyed out for now, but you generally have a sense of direction — you know what you can plan for.

Similarly, prerequisites for all sorts of university programmes, certifications, association memberships, official accreditations and so on are usually public knowledge, available to everybody in full detail. This means that here too you can certainly plan for them in advance, long before you actually meet the requirements, but obviously you'll need to do some checking and some planning beforehand.

In some situations in a game you also end up with a bunch of saved-up 'points' that you didn't really know how to spend immediately when you earned them, so rather than spending them randomly you decided to keep playing and worry about this character stuff later. Let's pretend this is more or less the situation you're at now, or perhaps you're just stealing a furtive glance at whatever options are going to become available to you when you've done a little more progress. Or just looking around tentatively before you commit.

A single level-up is, of course, rarely a huge life-changing event for a game character, but characters that have some direction in their development tend to be more efficient. For a single level chances are the difference doesn't matter much, but if you take several of the right feats, skills or talents (or whatever they are called) from the right 'chain', then you can do more damage with your weapon faster or cast better spells faster, more powerfully, compared to the results you get when you just wing it as you go.

So, once you've hit level 5 or 7 or 9, you're not yet an epic paladin or Gandalf-level wizard, but it's high time you thought about landing some of those neat advanced options that have opened up in the meantime, as opposed to simply watching your weapon or spell damage grow steadily by something like 0.5-2 points a level.

For starters, you may want to stop being a generic '(dear) linguist' and instead commit to an advanced 'character class' such as specialist translator or conference interpreter. Or project manager or language consultant, if that's where your path leads or what your skillset makes you better-suited for.

This is really similar to how 'champion' has a better ring to it than 'fighter' and 'archmage' just plain sounds better than 'mage'. Some of those are a simple matter of choosing various available paths of progress, others are more situational and reflect whatever you've been doing so far, sometimes by random chance. For example you can't really be a master archer if you've only ever stabbed people with swords. You can't be a 'Keeper of the Grove' if you've never been near a grove. Simple, isn't it?

So, here are a couple of things you can do (and choices you have to make):

  • Commit to a narrower specialization (e.g. pharma interpreting, legal proofreading) for good or just gain some advanced qualifications to open new paths, to enable you to do some things you couldn't do before. This is more like branching off into something different but complementary.
  • Upgrade your B.A. to M.A. or M.A. to advanced master's or Ph.D. for something more akin to vertical, hierarchical progress, Or add one more bachelor's but this time in your translation subject, not translation itself, to become dually qualified. Or a degree in translation or languages if you came from a different field and want to establish your credentials as a proper linguist as well. In any case, making progress with degrees and other such scalable formal qualifications will solidify your knowledge and also give you more gravitas.
  • Get licensed to practice in your subject field, as a variation on the two points above. You won't really be practicing, but it will put you more on level with practitioners. Doing so will open some doors, give you access to some resources and equipment, and more sway in certain circles where you'd like to be listened to.
  • Translation-related certifications are similar to the two or three above.
  • However, you can also opt for writer-specific rather than translator-specific qualifications. This is especially important in fields and applications that don't call for literal translation, such as marketing marketing, or fields where translation needs to be very faithful and at the same time aesthetically appealing, persuasive, such as law, where most translation needs to be precise and appealing, meaning the skill bar for literal translation is set higher.
  • Add an element of strategy or management to make your translation potentially more goal-conscious and more efficient at communication, more adaptable to the needs of the task at hand. This might actually come in handy on the subject side, too, if you're a business translator. Isn't everybody, at least to the extent business is done in whatever field one translates in?
  • Similarly, qualifying as a copywriter would primarily improve your marketing translation but also all sorts of business translation, then anything really that needs to be at least somewhat convincing or appealing, and finally your own self-made copy. You might be able to pick pure copywriting jobs on the side and benefit from your translation experience while doing them, if that's what you want, but you'd better be able to make an informed decision about your focus, as pursuing two paths at the same time always comes at a price.
  • Adapt to your unique setting. You won't get the year or two — or however much time it takes — of your life back, they may be lost if you fall out with the existing top clients you're doing this for, but within that narrow niche the rewards will be high. For example an 'elf friend' is good with the elves but pretty useless when the elves depart, unless he requalifies as storyteller or sets out on an epic search himself. ;) You'll become the natural go-to guy for trouble, or else the everyday handler of their relevant business, whichever floats your boat and theirs. It's kinda one boat now, which is essentially the whole point.
  • Just keep adding more languages or fields. But you'll need to decide between dabbling in all types of melee weapons or schools of magic known to man and becoming good at two or three of them or really, really good at just one. More versatility is not always found in being a jack of all trades and master of none, because sometimes advanced abilities within your own core skillset eventually fill the gaps better. For example it might be cool to have access to a fighter's choice of weapons and armour for your rogue, but the delay in developing your core skills is going to haunt you; you will be perhaps not four or five steps behind but just that one step which sometimes matters, such as that one chest of epic loot you fail to open just barely, or the one final trap that kills you. As mage, you're mostly better off shooting 'fire arrows' from your mage staff expertly than shooting real arrows from a real bow clumsily. As fighter, you may be tempted to gain some of the skills of a rogue with traps and locks, but time taken off your combat training will make you at least a marginally less effective tank or damage dealer where such margins matter. You really need an element of linear progress, not just odds and ends you pick up here or there..
  • Learn more tools, buy more CAT and other editing software to expand your reach in so far as it depends on meeting such requirements. Doing so gives you breadth; you can now accept more quests. In some situations it can also help you become more self-sufficient, which gives you depth and independence. See above, though. And remember that spending your money on equipment prevents you from being able to spend it on training, so choose wisely.
  • Join associations. They are like guilds. A guild typically has more resources and more pull than a single fighter or mage. That's the point of being in a guild. A guild sometimes hands out quests and rewards you for longevity. Don't count on a dividend, but seniority has its perks. You can also learn management, socialize, give back to the community, chill with your pals, trade loot and stories, and do a couple of other things. And occasionally free beer. What's not to like?

Remember you can't do it all in a single lifetime, and if you try to catch too many birds chances are all will slip. You'll need to make choices — and it helps to know what you're doing. But above all you need a sense of progress and at least a vague idea of what you want to do with your life as you level up.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Can Printed Letters Get You More Clients?

The immediate inspiration came from the title of an e-mail from Jon Jantsch's Duct Tape Marketing: Can Handwritten Letters Get You More Clients, referring to a post by Nick Gibson at Six Revisions.

However, a few days ago I'd read a couple of articles about typography for lawyers. There is even a website titled just that, by Matthew Butterick, a font designer turned lawyer, I kid thee not.

Between those two, a realization struck me immediately (well, almost; I was a bit low on caffeine, which I'm remedying right now):

Ekhm, ignore handwriting for now, through I'm positively sure — and without needing to see any tangible proof to boot — that it would get you more clients or 'better' ones.

Rather, before we even look that far, there are still printed letters.

See, on your website and in PDF brochures you're limited by whatever fonts the reader has, not you.

Depending on who you work for, that may be less of a problem — I've once seen a web designer use Caslon of all things, because his readers could mostly be presumed to already have it on their systems anyway (it's an Adobe font that comes with Photoshop). Similarly, most institutional clients probably have MS Office, so most of them would see them if you defined them in the CSS sheet, perhaps with Georgia, Palatino or even Times as a fallback from among the sixteen or so mostly stable set of (relatively) 'web-safe fonts'. (For server-side hosting, embedding fonts in PDFs and other forms of what effectively is font distrubution you'd need a suitable licence from the copyright owner.)

But, on paper, your options are not limited in that way. You have more control. Paper is paper, it doesn't matter what type of hardware or software platform the reader runs. What's best, once printed, it always stays the way it is, for everyone.

Naturally, the visual impression is not the same for everyone, but that's something for you to figure out. The point is, you can do a lot in terms of advanced typography on paper these days, even with the same old MS Office (well, not too old, say: 2013) that everybody else has and to some extent possibly even in Open/Libre Office.

Tracking, leading, kerning, ligatures, widows and orphans and off-black shades, different fonts for headers than for the main body of the document, you name it, it's there. You can also hand-pick just the right paper and envelope and not skimp on the ink or toner since you're probably going to be printing just one or two pages.

You can make it look very, very good, without at the same time making it look over the top — although striking the right balance may, naturally, require some practice and will always be at least a little on the subjective side, just like font pairing (google it).

Of course, use a fountain pen for signatures and any handwritten additions (depending on your demographic, it may be more courteous to write greetings and salutations in hand, and the courtesy might not be lost on the recipient).

Naturally, this is even more important for anyone who does certified translation or anything else that requires hard copy.

What else? Years ago e-mail was exceptional because it was hi-tech. These days, however, paper mail is already exceptional — and thus both special and upscale — in many corporate environments. It's something to put your hands on, to touch, to tear your eyes off of the monitor screen and read like in old times.

Some clients may find it superfluous or pretentious, or both, but others will perceive it as a welcome sign of reliability, seriousness, permanence, stable foundation, a sign that you aren't going to disappear overnight like an e-scammer. Sort of like what still having landline came to mean, at least before the fake kind became popular.

Not a Reverse Auction: Follow-Up

Remember my very last post: The Market Is Not a Reverse Auction?

Whether you do or not, please allow me to give you a short recap:

Whatever one can say about the translation market in general, your part of it does not have to be the sum total of a bajillion outright auctions for the lowest bidder or recruitments based on 'best rates'.

You don't have to attune yourself to the market and passively obey the general trend, let alone go out of your way to adapt and fit in.

To adapt and fight is an option too.

Being active, making proposals, persuading, insisting, suggesting trade-offs, even declining unprofitable offers — is not something only clients and agencies can do.

You have as good a right to try and change the rules of the game as they do.

If You're Overworked, Up Your Rates! (to Up Your Game)

One of the complaints we sometimes hear — and sometimes envy — on freelancers' social media is too much work and having to decline. Th...