Monday, 12 December 2016

Should You Deliver Early?

This wouldn't be a blog post if the answer was a straightforward yes or no, right? ;)

Still, while this is going to be a long post, the initial answer is going to be a clear no, for which I will give you ample reasons in a minute.

On the other hand, the initial answer is just the starting point for working out the final answer that's going to be completely different.

So here we go. Suppose, like my friend, that you've just put in extra hours and finished, late tonight, something that's due tomorrow evening. The negatives of sending it right away are plenty and usually overwhelming.

But before we discuss those I want you to realize one very important underlying fact:

Your clients have limited information — and don't really know what to make of whatever information they actually have. Don't expect their opinions to be accurate. Accurate or not, don't expect them to be favourable or beneficial to you — they look from the perspective of their own businesses and interests, not yours.

The extent to which they care also may be quite limited, and in any case, just like the extent of their knowledge or 'sophistication', it varies from client to client. You don't always immediately know what 'type' of client you're dealing with, and sometimes you don't even know your old clients inside out. So don't presume.

The most obvious complication is that a semi-savvy client may think you rushed it.

By semi-savvy (or somewhat of a sophisticated buyer) I mean savvy enough to have the basic idea of how freelance translation works but not enough to know the ins and outs of it. That can be someone who knows that the length of the originally directly affects the length of the translation process but is not intimately familiar with the whole freelance lifestyle thing that makes our non-schedules crazy.

Remember that not all clients — or even agencies — approach you with the thought of buying n hundred or thousand words as a product. The product of your work is not necessarily all think think about. They're also paying you for the work itself. Hence, to them, it looks like you're working for them.

A less commodity- and more relationship-driven scenario — one in which you practice as a translator, as opposed to selling weighted words by the thousand, which is probably better for you unless relationships really really aren't your thing — is not as simple as putting commodity goods in the cart and proceeding to checkout with limited to nonexistent interaction with a human being.

And obviously you certainly don't want to skip any of your usual editing and revising or even additional rounds if you have the time. After all, the quality determines your reputation to a greater extent than the speed.

Next, clients learn. And what do they learn from this? 

The message you're potentially sending by turning projects in early is that:
  • the deadline could have been shorter to begin with — and next time it might well be (future deadlines could shorten to match your historical delivery patterns, at no benefit to you)
  • no point paying you rush fees for rush deadlines if you do all your work ASAP at standard rates anyway
  • nights, weekends and long hours are either fair game or at least apparently not off-limits — expect some pressure on that front
  • your tempo is apparently faster than average — so why not nibble at your per-word rates, since you'll come out even?
This doesn't mean you should absolutely never deliver early (other than that a little ahead of time is always better than just on time), but you need to make some adjustments first!

It's better to underpromise and overdeliver than vice versa. But underpromise is key here. You have to underpromise first. And even before, you need to enable yourself to underpromise. Here's how:

  1. Take your current non-rush deadline.
  2. If it forces you to rush things or is already hit-or-miss, revise.
  3. Now add a generous margin for any contingencies and emergencies you can think about.
  4. Then add a little extra to give you breathing space and insure you against whatever contingencies you couldn't think about.
  5. And then add a little extra to enable you to underpromise.
The goal is not to make you race against yourself but to create a setting in which your quoted deadlines comfortably and consistently allow you to finish ahead of the agreed time.

Bonus tip: As long as you are the party proposing the deadline, call it something like ETA or 'expected delivery' rather than literally 'deadline'. The goal of this adaptation is to give you a little bit more respectability as someone who gives estimates rather than works to deadlines, and to avoid some of the pressure from the ubiquitous sweatshop mentality by not setting your clients in that sort of mood in the first place. This will prevent them from feeling wronged, offended or entitled simply because of a missed timing.

But in real life clients dictate the deadlines! Or do they?

Let's get this some structure. They certainly propose deadlines a lot of the time. How far their first proposal is from the final agreement, however, is largely in the individual translator's head. A lot of people simply feel bound by their client's first idea, like it's a military order that you can't argue — in fact, in real military you should at least try to politely dissuade your commander from potentially harmful orders. We aren't talking dog training here, and yet that's how some translators behave, unfortunately. Resist that. You can do better.

But, of course, there are the realities of life that limit how far you can go, and you still have to eat.

You will still need to do some expectation management

You need to, because none of the points from the bullet list go away. They aren't directly negated by following the steps from the numbered list, as they don't directly affect how your clients think.

First off, expect clients to try to 'optimize' official deadlines in the light of having seen you consistently deliver early. You need to hold the line and preferably think ahead and script your conversations. (Just don't be too obvious about it — you don't want them to feel like they're talking to a bot. It's almost always easier (and faster!) to deliver a planned response than to come up with a good one on the stop.) Offer them one of the following things or both, depending on the situation:

  • alternative quotation for expedited service (be prepared to justify the price difference) — who knows, they might even accept it, so make sure it's viable in case they do
  • a brief sermon about the importance of structure and proper planning — which makes you look professional, disciplined and organized and would make them look the opposite for disagreeing

Be all smiles when politely deflecting their last half-hearted attempts. It's a bit easier for them to relent if you're polite and perhaps a little apologetic about it, allow them to save face and avoid the appearance of outright capitulation. You may have to make the judgment call whether it's ultimately better to give them a small victory to save face or to get your point fully across the first time and for good. Personally, I find the latter approach more efficient, though I don't always have the stomach to consistently implement it in practice. People generally do let go after they meet with determined resistance, where there is nothing to make the challenge a personal one.


Don't deliver early unless:

  • your deadlines are cut for early deliveries
  • you are prepared to resist the pressure to shorten your official deadlines to match your de facto delivery times
  • if you charge extra for expedited service, overtime etc. — your early deliveries don't make the extra charge easier to avoid than you want it to be.
Otherwise you probably want to pad your deadlines a bit precisely so you can deliver early.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

(Not So) Quick No-Nonsense QA/QC for Legal Translation

This will be one of the apparently very few posts here that do not involve the 'politics' of the translation 'industry'.

So, this is to give you some pointers as to what and how to check for, hence a sort of QA/QC checklist, for legal translation:

  • Unless you have perfect memory and consistency, write down a glossary, either a general one or a specific one for every larger project, to make sure that you translate the same term or significant, meaningful expression (not necessarily legal, by the way) consistently throughout the text. This includes especially making sure that, as far as it makes sense, you use no more than one equivalent of the same term and translate no more than one term with the same equivalent. The goal is not to impoverish your translation repertoire or slavishly stick to word-for-word translation but to simply avoid the kind of unnecessary inconsistency that results from randomness. And randomness typically results from short memory.
  • Go through numbers, addresses, dates, prices, etc., at least but not necessarily only once, to make sure that they follow the correct format and always indeed the same format. There may be an exception where the original uses different date formats in different places, for example because of varying the register or quoting from some other document, in which case you should not be overzealous, as the 'industry' wrongly tries to teach you, to standardize.
  • Make sure you got them all right, numbers and formats e.g. no confusion between decimal separators and thousands, no zeroes (or other numbers) added or missing, that you've got the right currency or unit of measurement etc.
  • Make sure numbers written out verbally in your translation agree with the verbal numbers in the original, not with the digits you've only just typed. Note that this means the words in the translation have to agree with the original, not that the words have to agree with the numbers in the translation if they did not in the original. Use CTRL+F for this purpose and check them all one by one. Iconsistencies between the digits and words are not for you to fix, no matter what the 'industry' would have you believe in its embarrassing lickspittle desire to employ translators as (ever underappreciated) ghost editors and janitors for original writers.
  • Apply similar steps to the names of parties to the contract or dispute or whatever else you're translating, such as Buyer and Seller but especially something like Lessor and Lessee (use Tenant and Landlord if possible; afterwards you can Find & Replace All by CTRL+H), interviewer or interviewee etc. Just to be sure, CTRL+F all occurrences one by one, going by the original or by the source or both, using some sort of formula that makes sure you always get them right.
  • It's probably worth checking specifically for any missed negations. 'Not' is about the easiest word there is for a tired translator to miss. You can trust me, it happens to the best of us and more often than you'd think. I translate and revise this stuff all the time.
  • Speaking of which, things need much more checking and much more scrupulous attention if you are (or were) tired, sick, hurried, distracted or thrown off your usual balance in any other way.
  • Actually read everything, every sentence, every word, out loud if you can. Make sure the syntax is correct and clear. Sometimes being clear is more important than being correct, let alone aesthetically pleasing. Many graduates these days, including BA/MA grads and professional writers, struggle with syntax and grammar, largely because of how the education system fails to teach such old-fashioned and unnecessary subjects correctly or at all. You don't have to be perfect, but you do in fact need to do better than most. But the main problem is not correctness per se, as in compliance with the rules, but the way in which non-standard communication impedes or outright prevents understanding.
  • Avoid producing gibberish, sometimes known as 'translatorese', especially if the original is both correct and clear. Check with the client if necessary. Your client won't bite, or at least shouldn't. An agency that shuns questions from translators and won't forward them to the client to avoid having to ask for some attention is not acting professionally. Professionals don't act like scared puppies. Acting like a scared puppy can have serious ramifications because being intimidated by your client is no defence against accusations of malpractice.
  • Pay especial attention to subjunctives, conjunctives, conditionals, future-in-the-past sort of structures, formulaic expressions, customary archaisms and anything else you don't use in everyday speech, especially if you never even read that kind of language. If in doubt, stick to familiar structures, however less elegant. Simplicity is always more elegant than trying to use sophisticated language and failing miserably.
  • If you can do so without altering the meaning, keep it simple, keep it real and even (gasp!) cut the crap. Don't sacrifice content for form, but do think whether you really need all those words. Leave anything in that you think could have some meaning (presume you can never be certain), don't spend too much of your time sanitizing an overly verbose original, but resist the urge to translate mere meaningless ornaments word for word, and avoid real pleonasms and tautologies (if in doubt, leave them in).
  • Don't, however, fall into the trap of thinking — or being made to think — that an extremely challenging original, complex and convoluted, requiring a lot of education, both general and field-specific, somehow has to result in a translation that is easily understood by a child. That's not your job but the lawyers'. Non-legal editors in LSPs who argue with you on this point are wrong. And in fact delusional. They could in fact pose somewhat of a threat to the project due to their lack of the kind of specific intellectual rigour that is needed in legal translation and precludes going full-on social justice warrior on the original.
  • Try to get familiar with modern drafting in the target language, but don't go on a crusade and translate legalese into an honest working man's language.
  • Identify any spots where you are about to markedly depart from the last vestiges of formal equivalence (viz. your choice of grammar, syntax and vocabulary is completely different from the original while hoping to preserve the actual sense). Make sure you aren't suffering from a disastrous bout of boredom that prevents you from listening to your self-preservation instinct.
  • Speaking of which: do listen to your self-preservation instinct. It exists for a reason. At least hear what it has to say, and make an intelligent decision.
  • If you're catching yourself being afraid of intelligent literal translation and going to great lengths to avoid literal translation even where it does in fact supply the best of all equivalents possible, then you should probably avoid legal translation and switch over to literature or marketing. Legal translation is not uncreative, but sacrificing too much fidelity out of a sort of primordial fear of being wrongly accused of overly literal translation malpractice, plain and simple.

Hope this helps. If it makes you think of legal translation as something only a special sort of nerd would enjoy, you're spot on. Consider that most translators — and I'd say most legal translators — aren't in fact cut out for legal translation. You'd better just like the job, and if not, then avoid it. There are days or even weeks I have to do something else to avoid going insane.

Disclaimer: This is not intended to be legal or professional advice, and in any case it does not establish any lawyer-client or consultancy type of relationship.

Thursday, 29 September 2016

We Have to Swim Against the Tide

Many translators charge abysmally low rates — the kind that today's market refers to as 'best' — because they sense the tendency in the market (it's hard not to) and feel compelled to give a response or think there's no other way that to react to the trend.

The thing is, the translator's reaction — just like anyone else's — reaction doesn't have to be affirmative.

Where the rates are right now is a result of agencies, and to some extent clients, not affirming but trying to change the shape of the market they encountered a decade or two (or three) ago.

More precisely, it is  the delayed end result of many years of going against the tide by reducing translators' rates at every step. In the short run it may have been a cent or two here or there, but the accumulated result is in hundreds of percents.

My goal is not necessarily to persuade you to become a lone gunner for change; rather it is to show you that there are other ways than going overboard and meeting and exceeding concessions that haven't even been asked.

There is no such imperative, no such requirement, no nothing.

You are no less perceptive if you identify a tendency but refrain from jumping on the bandwagon. And one doesn't become a savvy businessperson by just simply giving one's profits away.

The market is not some emperor you have to prostrate yourself before and fall on your sword for. It could be compared to a force of nature. And if a force of nature, such as flood, threatens to destroy your house, you don't start smashing your own windows and tearing down your own walls and shoot yourself in the head when you're done because that's what is 'expected'. Instead, you build a dam to contain that force or relocate to avoid it.

It's the same with the market.

Confrontation, however, requires some stamina. Not even because of the fighting that's to come but because of all the work informing and persuading people is going to take. You've already seen where laziness and inaction has taken us.

Be different, you're allowed to. Don't be like a soldier who surrenders because that's what the enemy said you have to do. What kind of soldier would do that anyway?

One of things you need to have the gall to do is allow clients to learn some things the hard way. You know the adage: 'If you think it's expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.' By all means give them a fair warning; your professional ethics require that you do that. But don't save them by actually halving your fees to meet their arbitrary price point that has every chance of being part of an abstract, general desire to pay less and keep more in the bank, wherever and whenever possible.

Save your breath, don't waste work time talking too much to people who choose to be in denial or fake ignorance. But realize that on every road to take there is always a first step. The best way to make sure nothing changes is to sit back and do nothing. Sometimes most of what a journey takes is a good start — so just put a minimum of effort in it and see where that takes you. Don't give up before you even try.

I want you to realize that, while your potential to make a difference is limited, realistically speaking, a lot of it is in your head. And that is something that mostly isn't outside your own control. You can't just press a brain switch to turn yourself into next William the Conqueror if that's not your nature, but you can certainly not actively help hostile market forces control your life by simply giving them what they want and more.

I hesitated to bring up this particular comparison, but it's a bit like dating. If a stranger asks you to do something you don't want to do, do you do that and more (let alone without even being asked but simply because you anticipate the wish), or do you rather say: 'Sorry, you need to back off.'? It's the same in business.

… Even though some of the forces active in the market certainly would like you to adopt a profound slave mentality to which any notion of defiance, resistance or just simply doing things in a different way is completely unthinkable. Here's what: You don't have to do that. It's in your head whether you yield to the pressure or not.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Work & Life Balance Has Everything To Do With Your Rates

Your rates are a key factor, or even the key factor in your work-and-life balance. If a freelancer or solo practitioner complains about work-and-life balance, big chances are it's because that freelancer's rates are too low — or at least lower than they could be.

You could say: 'Oh, but life isn't all about money.' Sure, it's not. But I want you to see three very important things:

  1. If you're asking about work-and-life balance, it probably means you don't have enough life because work takes too much time. Ironclad fact: If you didn't have enough work, you'd be asking how to get more work, not how to get more balance.
  2. Work time results from workload. You can't not see how the amount of time you spend at work is the direct result of how much work you get or take.
  3. How much work you can get or have to take depends on a combination of factors, where your rates are a prominent one.
The point is: Rates go up, work goes down; you don't have to analyse ebbs and flows to know this.

By contrast, having too much work often results from charging less than you could on the basis of your qualifications, skill, experience and other factors that make your services more valued and more in demand. In other words, chances are you're underselling.

Think of your rates as a slider with which you can manage the size of your workload by adjusting demand.

You should consider having separate sliders for overtime ('rush fees') and anything else you would prefer not to be doing all the time, just some of the time, and be adequately compensated for the added inconvenience.

In other words, use your rates as incentives and disincentives until you find the right balance.

Longer version:

From basic maths at school you certainly remember that 40 * 60 produces the exact same outcome as 60 * 40. For example, whether your garden is 60 ft long and 40 wide or 40 long and 60 wide, you still have 240 square feet.

Similarly, whether you work 40 hours at $60/h or 60 hours at $40/h, your pay is the same old $2400. It will also stay at $2400 if you start putting in 80 hour weeks after agreeing to a reduced $30/h rate to even get enough orders to fill that ambitious calendar with client work. But, it will also stay at $2400 if you take a modest 30 hours of work from your best-paying clients who are ready to pay $80/h.

In fact, should you for some reason completely lose control of your mental faculties and decide to work 120 out of all 168 hours in a calendar week at the cost of having to accept $20/h 'because you get so much work from us', then you'd still be making the same old $2400!

The difference lies in how much time you save — and I chose the example so that your pay always stays on the same level to show you this isn't about making more money, it's about meeting your income targets while limiting the destructive effect they may have on your non-client professional time, your family time and your personal time.

If you think you're too smart for that, analyse your past habits. You could be surprised.

Smart people still do silly things, such as cutting their rates to fill their calendars and make the same money as they did before, only working more hours. There are smart people who, right now, after reading all this, actually disagree and still think they're going to somehow make more money by doubling their work time and halving their rates.

So much time… or is it?

Now, if the perspective of 20 hours of client work a week makes you think: 'What am I going to do with all that time?,' then you might actually have a balance problem that goes beyond being overworked and underpaid in consequence of simply charging too little.

See, not only do your children, other family members and friends have a perfectly valid claim on your time, there are also a lot of professional activities that don't directly involve client work — from paperwork and marketing to continued professional development — and you need to handle them all, on your time. Not client time.

In other words, you spend more time working (as a translator, lawyer, designer, dentist, accountant or whatever else you are) than you spend working directly for your clients.

Apart from the importance of CPD and professional networking to your career, you should also consider motivation and health impact. It makes you more productive and helps you miss fewer days and avoid all sorts of incidents. Strokes, seizures and symptoms of caffeine overdose (if that's all you're taking) don't wait for deadlines. For the record, simple cramps caused by fretting over deadlines don't either.

Attitude adjustment:

No client will pay you so you can do CPD or go on a holiday. And why should one? Even if you work exclusively for big corporations, a client is not an employer or boss and has no such responsibility for you.

But a lot of clients will pay you higher rates because you've done CPD (because it makes you and your services more attractive). And a lot will pay rates that are a certain amount per hour (or word, page etc.) higher because you've decided your child needs a pony or you need a boat or your networking or pro bono activities are worth one full day a week. For the record some of these things are actually quite marketable — this means that they could be skillfully reflected on your website and in your other materials and help make you look more competent, more dedicated, more responsible or in some other way more attractive, helping you justify your fees.

Recap: your client is not your employer or career manager or anything of that sort. As a freelancer, solo practitioner, owner or co-owner, that's your role to play simply because it's part of being self-employed.

Apart from having to calculate it, this also means you need to actually ask the rate you want.

When you go to the doctor or call the plumber, you don't want to be responsible for figuring out what's fair pay. You want them to give you a quote and be done with it. It's the same when they need your services, whatever those are.

Don't go overboard — the way up doesn't always lead up

Optimizing your rates usually means increasing them. But this isn't always the case.

If you rates require a lot of talking or writing to clients who eventually decide against hiring you, then (apart from some room for improvement in your strategy) you are probably losing compared to a smoother scenario with lower rates but less hassle.

This is because not only does 40 hours at 60 per produce the same way as 60 hours at 40 per, your pay also stays the same whether you put 40 hours in actual work and 20 in getting that work or 20 in the work and 40 in getting it.

Suppose you go from (A) 60 hours a week at 40 per to (B) 40 hours at 60 per, but the transition isn't going smoothly.

Hence, out of every 20 hours saved (the pay stays at $2400) you need to give back 1, 2 or 4 because client acquisition takes more work. No big deal and pretty much a given with any price increase. You're still better off.

However, at only 1, 2 or 4 hours actually saved and the rest consumed by selling, chances are you'd better off gaining experience in your normal work, not sales.

But by chances I obviously don't mean certainty. Here are some caveats:
  • Sometimes clients haggle more because your rates are too low, not too high. This happens if your fees are low enough to position you in a highly saturated, highly competitive, bargain-obsessed segment of the market and invite time wasters who ignore anything that isn't discounted at least 33% below a realistic rate before they even start haggling.
  • The added hours in marketing and sales could be just an initial, up-front investment in perfecting your copy and adapting your approach, or a temporary setback such as delayed response.
  • There is more to experience than just the number of years — more challenging, more prestigious jobs that help put or keep your career on the right track can justify working less and selling more.
This all is why you need to monitor the changes. First get a hang of where you are right now. Take notes, analyse a little. Repeat the steps after the change. Give it some time. Compare the results. Adjust or go back as necessary. Don't give up too easily but don't hold on to ideas that don't work either.

Enjoy your new-found work-and-life balance achieved by giving yourself a raise.

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Don't Have Company Culture/Mission/Processes/Whatever? Generate It.

A while ago Marta wrote a post on her Business School blog asking readers' opinion on whether looking at your translation practice through a process perspective, as a solo practitioner, was a little over the top or still within the bonds.

The lazy conformist in me is inclined to say yes. However, intellectually, I know the answer is more along the lines of: 'why the heck not if that works for you?'

See, in matters that are not somehow moral in nature, it all comes down to whether something works for you or not. That's the pragmatic criterion and only one that really counts in such cases.

On the other hand, being pragmatic doesn't have to mean being a passive, defeatist, complaining lazy person.

Would you call Alexander the Great a dreamer? He had a dream, but… — You get my point.

I've also recently had a nice conversation with the young owner of a small construction company, whom I was mentoring a bit on some business and legal matters (he obviously knew how to do and manage his own work). We realized that being a freelancer was not that much different from running a small company.

With a bit of simplification, on some level it only came down to not having a couple of people to delegate some specific tasks to and then manage and supervise them and register them with the authorities for tax and insurance purposes.

… But picking up calls and dealing with stuff and soldiering on from one month to the next and hopefully landing nicer deals sometime as you grow was pretty much the same on a very basic level.

After eight paragraphs already this finally gets us to the main point: nobody says you can't have your own processes, even if you, yourself are the only person executing them, or your company culture or mission. Even if there is no company — for example because freelancers don't need to be sole-props in your country — there is a still a practice, like a doctor's or lawyer' practice, which is predicated on you being someone with some professional activity if not exactly a business. And that's practically the same for practical purposes.

So nobody says you can't write down a vision — and if someone does actually say that, you don't need to listen. Just go ahead and write it. Consider putting it on your own website. And, for the record, such ideas actually sell more easily than simple products or services. Products and services may be more practical, but it actually is easier to get people hooked on ideas or relate ideas than products or services. Watch this presentation from Marta — which is what made me start thinking about all these things several years ago — to see why.

The Benefits of Giving Your Clients Multiple Options

The way of many translation agencies and corporate clients is to send you a completely defined project — including deadline and even fee — which you're supposed to either accept or reject but not really negotiate.

Younger or newer translators working with agencies may consequently feel that their place is to simply accept and execute such define projects or decline it, end of story. Fortunately, life is not as simple as that.

Working with business clients and still quite a lot of traditionally minded translation companies is different. They ask how long it's going to take and how much it's going to cost, and it's up to you to answer.

And guess what. You don't need to consult your crystal ball for the only one right answer, nor do you get only one chance. You can give them a variable quote and have all your bases covered.

The sum total of alternatives is a better answer to your client's needs — and your profitability — than a one-size-fits-all quote.

How is this better for the client is quite obvious: You provide the options, the client chooses what's best for the client. The client doesn't end up paying for what the client doesn't need (or not as much of).

On the other, how it is better for you will take a little longer to explain.

A variable quote takes a bit more to write, so there is an upfront investment of time, but it ultimately saves your time, as it reduces the follow-up — inquiries, negotiation etc.

Next, formalized options help focus your clients' attention on making choices and proritizing their needs as opposed to tempting them to haggle with you. If you do make a concession, it will be more tangible than a nebulous small favour.

Finally, you have three horses in the race now, in case your client is also getting quotes from other people (which is quite likely these days):
  • your cost-optimized offer competes against cheap offers
  • your speed-optimized offer competes against fast offers
  • your balanced offer competes against generic and middle-ground offers
This way you can:
  • accommodate outliers (special cases and needs)
  • but still have a balanced offer on the table
  • and still score brownie points for having what your client needs, even if it's one of 3 or 4 options for the client to pick from as opposed to a smart, lucky guess on your part (and the difference between your client and your toxic ex is that your client doesn't really care, as long as the need is met).
You can still be outcompeted by someone else, naturally, but not because you simply gave up without even trying, i.e. didn't have a contender in whatever category of race was important to your client.

All this is requires is not being a lazy person, or one that compulsively tries to be both fastest and cheapest (and still the best quality), so you have no excuse.

And let me tell you something: Clients like options. They don't necessarily pick the cheapest one, either, and if they do, then they are less likely to dispute the deadline. You will never know if you don't try.

Beware Hot Potatoes

This is something I want to share with translators and PMs who work with a larger player, as well as anyone who works with a certain kind of clients and a certain kind of client orders. 'Certain kind' obviously stands for problems and complications.

Most often, the problems and complications will be connected with:

  • the condition and shape in which the original arrives for translation — technical condition of the computer file, issues with formatting, legibility, errors etc., which we could roughly summarize as problems with the source
  • non-standard or otherwise cumbersome requirements, especially of doubtful rationality, which we could roughly summarize as problems with the requirements
  • any combination of the two plus deadline or budget constraints

For context, notice now such complicated, problematic jobs have a tendency to arrive at the last minute and desperately need your attention — notably because nobody else wanted them (hint?), for example all your colleagues working in the same field and pair were 'too busy'. Often, those jobs also tend to involve someone else who was originally supposed to do the job but didn't. They also tend to involve other people not doing or not having done their job one way or the other. You know it when you see it.

Unlike the usual unprofitable job that you consider and reject after examining the specs at a leisurely pace, perhaps sitting back and sipping your tea slowly, the situation is much more dynamic when someone wants drop a hot potato in your lap; there is more pressure for you to accept, preferably as soon as possible, often without giving you too much information — precisely because if you had that information chances are you wouldn't accept the job.

Remember what you are told is only the tip of the iceberg. If they don't want to be bound by even that, then you are about to have a problem.

In other words, you run a serious risk of an extreme case of adverse selection. The situation is similar to insurance clients looking not so much for insurance cover for the future as for insurance bailout for the present. This is why insurance clients are required to disclose a whole lot of things before the policy is issued for them, and lying voids the policy.

You too need a client's lie or gross over- or understatement to void the agreement, at least regarding the fee and deadline. While getting compensated is one thing, you first of all need to avoid being set up for scapegoating when someone wants to outsource not the job itself but the responsibility for the failure.

My advice is to (0) outright skip the most risky jobs at all, and for those that (barely) fit within your comfort zone, not stop at just writing the most important terms and conditions down as usual. Instead, make sure you also (1) include all of the things the client said to talk you into accepting the job — as conditions of the job.

Next, (2) make all those things an explicit condition of the fee and the deadline. To be extra sure that you are protected — but also to be extra fair to your client, which is an important ethical consideration for any professional — (3) specify what what is likely, or especially what is certain, to happen if those things are not actually true, and (4) get the client to confirm, expressly and specifically.

Example (editing/revising assignment):

You are asked to check and edit 5000 words for the day after tomorrow for a specific fixed fee. They say you will receive the translation by tomorrow noon and the translation is going to be very good, just needing an extra pair of eyes and a little of your special touch here or there.
Step one: You make the delivery by tomorrow noon and the reasonably good quality an express promise by them and part of your agreement with them. For extra safety, you may want to stipulate that it has to be a complete translation without leaving parts of it for you to do from scratch, and that it will be too late for changes to the original.
Step two: You stipulate that the punctual delivery of the translation to you by noon tomorrow and the overall good quality, completeness and finality of their translation are explicit conditions of your fee and deadline.
Step three: You inform the client that sending the translation late will (or may) affect the schedule. A less than good quality or less than complete and final status of the translation will (or may) affect the schedule and also your fee (potentially up to the full translation fee). Rushing to meet the deadline, if the client chooses that option and you are available, will require such and such rush fee; the rush fee will be higher for any parts you need to retranslate.
Step four: Your client needs to at least tacitly accept all of the above (proceed with the order after being informed of all of it), and preferably state an unambiguous, clear confirmation.

For the record, someone who doesn't fuss about giving you that unambiguous, clear confirmation is very likely to be a responsible businessperson who simply happens to be in a bit of a tight spot. Chances are you don't need to worry too much.

Naturally, you could think of a lot of other examples, including the use of specific CAT tools, file formats and related settings, formatting and visuals and other things.

Obviously, you cannot walk just about every client through a lengthy routine of essentially confirming that the client isn't trying to dupe you. But you can insist on every brief or PO including a description of the circumstances with acknowledgement of any special issues that may (or will) affect the fee and deadline.

Your standard terms and conditions — which you need to display somewhere accessible and identify as binding and non-optional when ordering a translation from you — will take care of typical low and distant risks, but for high-risk clients and any clients who impose their own complicated T&Cs on you, you will need to go through this special routine more often and in more detail.

The goal is not only to improve your legal safety but also (a psychological fator) to drive it home that making all sorts of promises and assurances to get you to accept and then backing out of them but expecting you to live up to your side of the contract — which basically means bait and switch — is not an option. Just like in medicine, the best therapy is prevention.

Chances are you will lose some jobs this way, but it's up to you to decide if you really miss the risk.

Also, you need to be extra careful with those clients whose terms and conditions get out of their way to outlaw any sort of flexibility, adjustment or change and shift risks on you. Whether or not they can, the fact that they try should tell you something.

Last but not least, you don't owe it to any existing or potential client to become part of their toxic situation, including especially any toxic requirements or toxic originals or toxic translations.

You may be heartless if you don't help them at all, but you aren't a heartless person for not taking over their risks and liability — especially risks and liability of their own making — and this here not-so-subtle distinction is a key difference. Help means labour, organization or some other kind of specific assistance. It does not mean putting your head on the block for them so they can emerge unscathed.

Remember that desperate people, in desperate situations, will fight tooth and nail to claw their way out, and they will use all sorts of underhanded negotiation tactics, some of them quite dramatic and quite unfair. You will simply need to resist them. Be compassionate, but rely on conscience and principle for moral judgments, don't allow people to take advantage of your good heart and ethical manner to manipulate you into toxic deals.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

The Month's Proceeds Is Not Your Salary

Because of how translation is not a material product with a clearly visible cost structure and cannot be compared to other services easily, compensation of salaried employees is a natural point of reference.

Such comparisons are not necessarily correct, however. In fact, I would say in most cases they probably are not. They are more likely to be apples and oranges.

Here's why:

For starters, there is more to the total cost of maintaining a salaried position in a company than just the salary paid to the employee who fills that position. In other words, any function in an organization is more expensive than just the incumbent's salary.

Here are some examples of what the employer has to pay to keep a salaried position:

  • 'naked' salary
  • additional benefits and incentives, if any
  • taxes and insurance
  • paid holiday leave
  • overtime pay (extra pay but often also extra rates)
  • training, CPD etc.(usually at least a little, sometimes quite a lot)
  • physical workplace — room, furniture, computer hardware and software, other specific expenses required for the job
  • some tiny corresponding part of the organization's total costs and expenses — rent and bills, utilities, facilities, support staff, external services and everything else that's relevant

The applicability and size of these costs will vary from one situation to the next, but the point is that:

  • any job or function in an organization costs at least a little more than the holder's salary
  • freelancers pay anywhere from some to all of those costs out of their own pocket
  • even if the 'employer' still has to pay some of those, the freelancer also does, unlike an employee, who does not
  • freelancers only get unpaid leave — to take a month off and still have the same per annum, they would need to increase the invoices by 9% (to account for 11 rather than 12 months of actually working)

… Hence, comparing the totals on freelancers' invoices to 'naked' salaries of salaried employees for the same duration of a task is comparing apples to oranges, unless the freelancer is on an exclusive full-time (or non-exclusive significant part-time) contract with similar benefits to an employee.

You can't even subtract 'company expenses' from a year's worth of invoices and call it annual salary, let alone arriving at a monthly salary by dividing that by 12. This is because of the 'company' part, which — apart from actual costs and expenses — also include reserves and contingencies beyond what a salaried employee needs in private life.

More importantly, one can't — and that's the dumbest of all mistakes — just take a freelancer's invoice for a full day of work and multiply it by 365 and think that's how much the freelancer actually makes per annum! Nobody works 365 days! (And few people work 30-day months or 7-day weeks.)

See, a year has 52 weeks, which is 104 days off of the 365, then a variable number of public holidays and annual minimum paid leave that varies by country, from 0 in the USA to 38 in Austria and 52 in Iran, where a bit shy of 30 could be said to be the approximate intuitive average.

So it should be even more evident that one can't just say: 'An in-house counterpart makes 36.500 widgets a year, so we're going to pay you 300 widgets for three days of work,' and think that's sound logic, because it's not. 1/365 is a spending limit, not an earning target; even the greenest of all accountants or HR people should know the difference.

… And especially not when those days are longer than 8 hours each and an employee would be paid overtime in the same situation. For example, under Polish labour law 8 hours +4 hours overtime would add up to 15.5 standard hourly rates. Obviously, the very concept of recognizing overtime requires that 12 hours must be paid at least 12 hourly rates, not 8. This is normally absent from the per-project kind of contracts that freelancers usually work with.
To be on a level with salaried employees, a freelancer would have to work a maximum of 220–230 days a year and still make the same annual salary as salaried counterparts, increased by the kind of taxes and insurance contributions that self-employed people pay for themselves rather than having them paid by the employer, plus the value of whatever extra benefits salaried employees are getting that the freelancer is not, including overtime pay, and finally a sizeable extra to finance the 'freelancer' part, i.e. the fixed assets and overheads and other costs of the tiny 'home office' — computer, software, phone, increased utility bills, increased fuel consumption, occasional legal advice or litigation, the accountant's fees, marketing etc. — and some reserves and contingencies (such as replacing or repairing any broken equipment and being unable to work and earn money in the meantime).

Otherwise one simply needs to compare freelancers to solo traders and small-business owners. The  costs may be less than those of a solo firm or clinic, but the cost structure is still that of a solo practice and not that of a salaried employee.

Even if the freelancer in question functions more like a temporary worker, then there are still at least some costs associated with being self-employed that do not apply to salaried employees — and some benefits such workers don't receive while regular employees do, which means their respective wages are not directly comparable.

For starters, the idea of being a freelancer is not to work for the same money minus benefits, without paid leave and paying for your own equipment, unlike what some hopeful business geniuses seem to think.

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.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

The Market Is Not a Reverse Auction

You've probably heard a lot — including from me — about how prices are falling, status is falling, respect is declining, all of which is true, and allow which keeps intensifying as we speak.

But this isn't the whole truth. Things don't have to be this way.

You may've heard from so called business experts and frontline fighters about how this is what the clients want and how we must provide. Suck it up and deliver. Like the tough guys we are. Or they are. Bullshit. Stupid, ridiculous bullshit.

They make it sound like being a tough guy is about putting up a brave face as you cough up protection money for a guy who certainly is bigger than you but not nearly big enough, or relevant enough, to shove you around at will. How tough indeed!

No matter how distorted and unbalanced, there is still symmetry in the market. You don't have to do whatever you sense — or, more likely, are told by pundits and sometimes even your own client — 'the market' wants. Meaning what the buyers want.

… This is because 'the market' ≠ the buyers. The market is also the sellers. It's a two-way street.

There is no 'new reality of the market' that buyers supposedly now want more goods or better goods for the same or lower price, which they supposedly didn't already want before. Any guy who says that certainly is so no prize-winning material. There is nothing remotely inventine or innovative about that kind of statement. Buyers have always wanted to buy more for less and sellers have always wanted to sell less for more. Everybody has always wanted to make a good bargain. Nothing new there.

Now, even supposing that you're going to deliver that good bargain as opposed to sticking to your guns and negotiating harder, even that still doesn't mean you need to start selling more for less. Because you don't.

On the contrary: You can explain how what you already are selling, at the price you already are charging, is a great bargain and always has been. (Just perhaps there was no pressing need to go into the details of it until now.)

As a translator you are opening doors that would otherwise be closed and building bridges where people would otherwise need boats, or at least building and navigating those boats for them so they don't have to swim. Those doors and bridges and boats lead to potentially unlimited opportunities, which, while probably finite, are still worth times and times more than the price of your translation calculated as the number of words times the per-word rate.

It's only that as times get worse and competition gets tougher and scarier there may be more storytelling for you to do before the story falls in together and sells. But, unless you're translating contracts and marketing blurbs written anew at each time for every $100-$1000 transaction, you should still have more than enough wiggle room to carve out a decent fee, if you're willing to put some work in it.

And before you put in the work you must realize and accept that the work can be done and will make a difference. At least try.


Consider that a lot of the information you have comes from (i) battle-scared warriors who want to appear tough as they make the brave decision to give the opponent what he wants without putting up a fight and still hope to get the hero treatment; and (ii) people who have a vested interest in making you think that you already are buried neck-deep in reverse auctions, sucked in and unable to go anywhere else. Which you aren't. Not remotely. Not even if your situation actually is somewhat bad in objective terms. It just isn't as bad as that.

Consider how many times they have:

  • asked if you are available
  • stressed that it's important it's you who take up that project
  • tried to evoke your sympathy
  • … or threatened you
  • or resorted to flattery
  • or even made small concessions such as waiting their turn or paying a slightly higher rate

Boy! (Of either sex.) All of that means you do have some pull.

It's just that the opposing side of the negotiation table may want to prevent you from actually using that pull, for example by making you believe you don't have it or shouldn't use it because it would somehow be unethical. (Or, most frequently, because their procedures, same for every contractor, don't leave room for it.)

See, contrary to what they would like you to believe, the market doesn't consist of millions of sellers, trying to win the favour of buyers who are free to pick and fuss all they want, pretty much because that's they way of things, which is how it should be and the only way it could be. Nope, it isn't.

All of those buyers also need to contend with the scarcity of the goods or services they want to buy, or even of the sellers who sell those, as well as the higher or lower attractiveness of their, the buyer's, budgets and other terms they are able or willing to offer. There is nothing which prevents sellers from selling to someone who offers a higher price or is willing to wait longer or sweeten the deal in some other way.

The market is more of a free-for-all. Everybody is auctioning. Everybody is competing for the other party's side of the bargain. There are elements of reverse auction and there are  — or at least could be, if translators or any type of sellers were more proactive — elements of normal, straight auction as well, where the highest bidder among the buyers and not the lowest bidder among the sellers wins. There are no formalized bids or rules to cover the entire market as a whole, and you need to play it by ear and by trial and error and by guessing a lot. But the essential mechanics are there.


Try to break out of the psychological compulsion to please the client (or else!), at least for the sake of a little exercise we're going to have.

Suppose there is a job you don't to do or in any case can afford to 'lose', i.e. simply not get, which is not the end of the world. You won't actually 'lose' it if you don't get it and it was never years. You will simply not have got that one particular job, and that's it. For the record, you don't need to get everything single job you see, nor could you humanly process them all anyway. What you need to get is enough jobs to make a comfortable living at the rates you charge.

So, take that problem job and try to up the rate or move the deadline. Be fair, don't shortchange them, just don't be as acommodating as before. Mind your need for sleep and free time, or give yourself an 8-hour day, 40-hour week, occasional holidays, you get the point. Or, if they're a new client and you know they have the money, then don't charge them the same rate you've been charging everybody for years on years now for the same work — raise it in due proportion to your increasing experience. And inflation. And everything else.

In other words, stop giving so much **** about 'being competitive'. Allow yourself to be less competitive. In the meaning they attach to it anyway.

(Remember that, in the real world, you're competitive or not depending on whether you win the competition. Not depending on whether someone says you are.)

There is a good chance you will get those higher rates and longer deadlines, if you actually try. You should try, if only to know more or less where you stand. And remember that you can always grant a discount on the invoice or deliver early or even agree to grant them a one-off discount if you become convinced that their reasons are sound, that their cause is a legitimate one.

Most people who will turn tail and pass up on you are going to be those on the lookout for a cheaper provider, not really the few people who have a real need but too much pride to ask for a discount (hint: if their statements are public record and they've been awarding juicy bonuses to their management, they are not in dire need), so don't worry too much about that. You can still make it clear (somewhere, somehow), that discretionary reductions and otherwise unique terms are available on a case-by-case basis to clients who can show a legitimate need without being able to pay the normal fee. That will keep the needy in and the bargain seekers out.


What else can you do?

Yeah, it's not all wrestling about the fees. Supply and demand can be influenced — or brought out — in subtler ways that don't involve violence.

I say 'brought out' because the advantages of what you already provide — the good features and the useful benefits of it — are often hidden and underappreciated, and it's up to you to change that state of things as opposed to simply heaping even more at an even lower price.

Thus you may need to do more work to make sure that clients realize just how much they're getting from you — or how much more they're getting from you than from someone else.

Many of them will still try to get it cheaper, that's sort of how human nature is, at least for some humans. The trick is to not cave in the moment they say that (to try costs them nothing, so in a certain sense they would be stupid if they didn't), but instead reiterate the value that you provide and the fact that your prices are already quite reasonable and (if true) that many other clients are perfectly willing to pay them (which means they see the value).

A client who already sees he's getting a good bargain but would like to turn it into an even better one doesn't have too many strong arguments to show for it, and chances are that if things were to resort to open violence you would come out on the top. Especially if he already is getting better terms from you than anyone else is giving. There is an old Latin saying: quod gratis asseritur, gratis negatur. If someone asserts something without proof, you don't need proof to negate it. You just negate it.

Remember that in such situations the burden is on them to convince you. You discharge your own burden by simply quoting a fee that falls within the market standard or as much higher than it as your qualifications are or the difficulty of the job is. Anything more favourable to the client is for the client to justify, and you have no obligation to give him an A for effort.


To prove your qualifications, data in on objective, legible and concise format are always good. Just pile up the degrees and accreditations and certificates and years of experience and testimonials from happy clients (both the content and the sheer number matters). That is something your client cannot claim to disbelieve or challenge without a good foundation.

Also include samples so that you can refer your prospects to them instead of translating something new for them free of charge for their proofreader's reviewing pleasure.

Speaking of which, obviously, just about any random QA'er from a translation agency or business company is not going to test you more reliably than your professors at university and your state examiners and exam boards at professional associations already have done, unless the test is more difficult and the reviewer is more qualified than your previous examiners were, which is simply not very likely.

It's only that some of your prospects may prefer to have the privelege of acting unreasonably and disbelieving anything which they haven't personally put their hands on — and very literally so because they won't even accept credible documents from respectable institutions in lieu of a first-hand check. Guess what? You don't really have to put up with that sort of treatment. (Unless you actually have to.)

It's kinda like maths. You don't need to prove that 5000 words times 0.12 a word makes 600 to pay. That's just the kind of thing you just don't have to prove in the face of feigned or even actual disbelief.

But you will still need to use your own good sense to find out where the limits are because making conclusions about your skill level on the basis of your papers is a bit less forward than simple arithmetics. It just isn't some kind of murky waters of non-knowledge and uncertainty that somehow means you should be charging peanuts because your actual qualifications are intangible. And even if they were.


Finally, you don't need to talk business. At least not only it and not all the time. I suggest you do read a bunch of course materials about the basics of economy, management and marketing just to know the setting you work in (and if you do business translation, you need that knowledge anyway), but instead of focusing solely on the business terms that are native to your clients, you also use terms that are native to your art.

After all, they need a translator, so it makes no point pretending they don't need one but only have a business problem to solve. Which is not true.

So you don't want to only use some business references that they're going to downplay and counter easily simply because they're more fluent in the lingo and carry more authority in the area than you do. You need to establish yourself as an expert in what you do, which is what they need.

And no bullshit like you still need to prove you're needed. If you weren't needed, they wouldn't be there asking. Or that you need to prove your monetary value. If they didn't sense the value… yes, correct, they wouldn't be there asking (which is even fine to tell them, at least without using the 'BS' word, usually).

So if they know it and you know that they know it and they know that you know they know it, and so on and so forth, then it makes no sense to act like you don't know (and you don't know etc.) and grant them a victory in their own silly game. No unfair downplaying of the importance of your art, and no gratuitous refusals to recognize your qualifications should be your rule no. 1 for them. And yes, you can set rules. To some extent at least. (Precisely to the extent you can get away with, which is up to you to find out.) This remains true even if it's you contacting them rather than the other way round. You're still talking business and fees and not charity and donations.


I suggest you also use the talents that you already have to deliver a convincing value proposal that does a good job of showing — and claiming the credit for — the value and meaning (and cost-to-provide and scarcity and difficulty to find) of the services you provide.

Thus, if you are one of those people who came to translation from a different profession, one which is somehow involved in most of the stuff you translate, you could simply use that to establish a connection and to establish your relevance. And show yourself as a competent fellow (of either sex) who understands the stuff.

On the other hand, if you have more of a language background, you should use that. After all, you are an expert on language. So rise and shine. And if your bacgkround is more on the literary side, especially if you know how to write or edit a story, then certainly use that to your advantage. It's actually becoming quite hip in the business world these days.

And, once again, if they gratuitously negate or downplay your importance or relevance, call them on it. Don't be aggressive or rude, but force them to back out of it, if only by asking questions — for example: why they think that, why do they think they know better than a recognized authority — or repeating the obvious — for example just how authoritative the institution is which granted your credentials or was satisfied with your work as your client.

Again, you don't need to act like every shit argument is good currency, because it's not. But you need to build some confidence. I've already suggested expanding your knowledge and re-evaluating your status as an expert in your field with a useful role to play for experts in other fields, but there are also other ways, such as developing your soft skills, including the art of negotiating and saying no without breaking up the negotiation. Everything in due time, not too much at once, but I suggest you take a look at those. I did as an adolescent (a bit overeager to please and a bit shy to stand up, a bit inept at defending my right to stand up and reasons for it etc.), and it did me some good. It prepared me for some things later on.

The no. 1 realization to make is that there is bullshit in this world and that that bullshit isn't binding on you, you can call people on it and refuse to accept it (as a reason for them to get a discount or otherwise).

And the no. 2 thing to do (more like even no. 1, in fact) is to use your knowledge to demonstrate… your knowledge. And to show in all sorts of ways (not always by talking directly about it) that your services are valuable and that you're a competent provider, and (if you need to) that your fees are reasonable and offer a lot of value.

If you have lawyer clients (small firm or solo), or doctors, or architects, it could be a good idea to ask them for some tips, as they've probably already had to deal with the same problems. There should also be more literature available from lawyers' perspective than translators', nearly all of which is going to be applicable to translators without much adaptation left to do, given how similar the professions and the problems are.

With time, as your means allow it, you will want to use a real marketer and a real ad man to make your message heard, to give it more reach and make it more resounding. The goal is to make your perspective matter too and not only the perspective of people who want your services to be cheap and underappreciated (also because it makes them cheaper).


Additional reading:

major auction types at Wiki

I believe the market is closer to Walrasian auction than a reverse auction, but the point is not to analyse the theoretical model of that (which I haven't even done myself), the point is to realize that it all goes two ways.


As a (wo)man of letters, you simply have an advantage there, and you should use it. Good marketing kinda always comes down to a good story, especially when it comes to creating a brand.

Walrasian auction and Walras's law

… If you're more mathematically inclined, this may do better than a narrative explanation.

As well as a bunch of how-to books, starting from 'for dummies' and moving up. It's only reasonable to know the setting you're forced to operate in and the setting that's native to your prospective clients. It will help you get better fees and otherwise better terms from them, but it will also help you better serve their own needs, which is a win-win situation. (Just like being a good legal translator helps you identify and refuse to sign, or renegotiate, an abusive clause in a contract.)

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