On Being the Underdog and Earning Six-Figures as a Translator

Underdog

I recently finished re-reading Chris Durban’s book, The Prosperous Translator, and found myself questioning a lot of what I do and how I do it. That’s the great thing about good books. No matter how many times you read them, you always learn something new. This time, what appealed to me the most was the part where she questions why translators are afraid to talk about money. Meanwhile, a few nights ago, while checking out some older posts in Corinne McKay’s blog, I came across a post about translators with six-figure incomes, and one of the things Corinne pointed out is that these translators tend to talk about money quite a bit.

All this, while I was still processing some of the comments on a couple of related posts about premium translation markets in Kevin Hendzel’s blog (here and here). The posts themselves are must-reads, but something else that really caught my attention was a comment by someone who believed high incomes are unattainable for those of us who live in the developing world. I live in the developing world and I hear this all the time from my fellow South Americans. We’re too far. We can’t compete. We don’t have access to direct clients. They only look to Latin America when they want low prices… If I had a penny for every time I’ve heard “I can’t because Latin America,” I wouldn’t be here in front of my computer writing this post. I’d be living it up at some fancy beach resort in Bora Bora while sipping South Pacific smoothies through a curly straw and watching the sun set over the ocean as compounded interests turn my millions into billions.

I was raised in one of those homes where you simply do not discuss money, politics, or religion. My mother would rather swallow a battery than talk about money and my father could not stand braggers or show-offs, so he never dropped the M-bomb either, lest he’d commit the most Heideggerian of pragmatic inconsistencies. Talking about money is, to many people, just “too bourgeois” and “beneath the educated mind.” But money is one of the many things that stand between us and some of our dreams. We think about money quite a bit: how to make it, how to spend it, how to save it, and if we’re smart, how to invest it. We need money for basic essentials and even more money if we’re not the kind of people who are content with the basics alone. So at the risk of offending all the classy people out there who believe discussing money is rude, I’m going to talk about money in this post, because whether we like it or not, it’s there and it’s an issue for many people.

I don’t claim to be a particularly business savvy person and my beginnings in translation were quite humble. My rookie years were rocky and clumsy at best (almost embarrassingly so). When it comes to newbie mistakes, I could probably write the book (though for now all I’ve written is “the post”). I don’t have any magical formulas and I am in no position to tell anyone how to achieve financial success. However, I know what it feels like to be the underdog and, more importantly, I know what it feels like to rise above all odds, both personal and professional. I am, after all, a Latin American woman; and my rocky and clumsy beginnings in translation were due, in part, to the fact that I had bought into “I can’t because Latin America” plus some form of “I can’t because women in Latin America have it even tougher.” For those who are not familiar with current wealth distribution trends, living in Latin America basically means my piece of the pie is statistically prone to being significantly smaller than that of my counterparts in the developed world and even more so than that of my male counterparts. The odds, apparently, are stacked against me. But here’s the thing about stats and odds: they are just numbers. What matters in life is how you play the cards you are dealt.

So, last year I hit six figures and my numbers are still growing. And though I’m light years behind some of the really big names in translation, a six-figure income is more than enough for a comfortable lifestyle where I live. In addition, my numbers defeat all the odds that were stacked against me. Which brings me to my second point, not only is it possible to make a very decent living as a translator, but it’s also possible to do so while running your operations from Latin America. In all honesty, I cringe every time I hear fellow Latin Americans give in on the count of alleged geographical disadvantage. That’s just baloney! In the internet age, geography is not a handicap!

Hitting the six figure mark was not easy, but good things usually aren’t. I did it by simply charging each new client slightly more than the last one, while also dropping older clients who were not willing to renegotiate. This was a slow transition and it mainly meant changing the types of agencies I was working for from large brokers to higher-paying specialized boutique agencies, while also focusing all my long-term marketing efforts on direct clients, as my ultimate goal was (and still is) to work for direct clients only at premium fees. Of course, I’m not saying everybody should do what I did. I’m just saying this worked for me.

Because money is such a touchy subject, I am well aware of the positive and negative reactions that are likely to be sparked by this post. I know some people will crucify me for my rocky beginnings and unwillingness to condemn all brokers on the count of the bad ones. Others may think the aim of this post is just to brag about my numbers. But those who know me will hopefully read this the way it was intended: as an honest challenge against anyone who has ever said there is no money in translation, especially for those of us who live in the developing world. I never set out to be a business guru and I believe that each person has to write their own story. But if you’re in the place where I was a decade ago, working your little heart out 24/7 for peanuts, watching life happen outside your window, and wondering if bigger and better things are possible, I have two words for you: They are!

If this non-business savvy, human rights-oriented underdog can do it, so can anyone else who’s willing to put in all the extra effort, dedication, training, education, and hard work. So in the spirit of encouraging other Latin Americans to reach for the sky, here’s some bibliography I’ve found particularly helpful:

1) The Prosperous Translator by Chris Durban

2) Getting Past No: Negotiating in Difficult Situations by William Ury

3) Mastering Services Pricing: Designing pricing that works for you and for your clients
by Kevin Doolen (still reading this, but finding it pretty useful so far and very grateful to Rose Newell for recommending it)

4) Reengineering the Corporation: A Manifesto for Business Revolution (Collins Business Essentials) by Michal Hammer and James Champy

5) The Culture of Collaboration: Maximizing Time, Talent and Tools to Create Value in the Global Economy by Evan Rosen

Special thanks to my friend Ana Gauz (English to Brazilian Portuguese translator extraordinaire) for her help with this post.

A Somewhat Existential Argument against Translating for Peanuts

Ouroboros

Life is full of difficult questions. Where do we come from? Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? Milk or cereal first? Scrambled or sunny side up? Alas, lots of questions, very few answers. In light of all the things we don’t know about life, the one thing we do know for sure should be particularly meaningful: we’re all going to die. We don’t know what (if anything) comes after that. But we know we will transition from whatever being alive really is to whatever being dead really is (or isn’t). One day, we will cease to “be” as we “are” today.

That is a scary thought to many people. To me, it’s the exact opposite of scary. Knowing that I will cease to “be,” that everything I do and deem so fundamentally important right now will fade into memory and eventually become part of the forgotten past of humankind is what keeps me grounded and focused. What today is a big deal will, not so long from now, be reduced to that one time someone somewhere did an incredibly irrelevant and mundane thing no one really remembers anyway. Mortality has a way of putting everything into perspective

“So what does this have to do with translation?,” you wonder. A lot, actually. A fellow translator said something incredible to me the other day. She said, “You work hard so you can afford to have a life, and then when you have money, you don’t have time to live.” This idea of a life reduced to working hard to have money to live and then not being able to live for lack of time immediately conjured up the image of the Ouroboros in my head.

The thought of working to the bone while all the time suffering as life passes by brought back memories of my days as a newbie, when I had no idea how much to charge (or even that I was being exploited). It reminded me of all the sad weekends in front of my computer when life was happening outside my window. But it also reminded me of what inspired me to change that. It was a little quote I read somewhere by “some guy” named Steve Jobs (of whom I knew almost nothing about at the time), but which simply made too much sense to ignore:

I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.

If today were the last day of my life, I would die a pretty happy person. This is partly because I can afford to live and have time to enjoy the fruits of my hard work. I can do that because ever since I learned the valuable lesson of mortality, I realized time is not money, time is life. When we view time as money alone, our cost-benefit analysis can easily lead to accepting low rates as a rational choice (to get by, to pay the bills, to make it to the end of the month, to make a living, etc.). But when we view time in terms of life, then our cost-benefit analysis never results in low rates as a rational choice because the cost is simply too high. Conceived in this way, things look quite differently. “To get by” becomes “to live to the fullest.” “To make it to the end of the month” becomes “to pamper ourselves and treat our loved ones to small pleasures.” “To make a living” becomes “to build a life.” Thus, the rational choice is to work for an amount that, at least, lets us have enough time left over to live… and peanuts simply won’t cut it.

How a Certain Translation Agency’s Marketing Strategy Reeks of BS

NO BS

An agency (which shall have to remain nameless to spare myself the burden of dealing with fellow lawyers) claims, in what is by far one of the dumbest marketing strategies I have ever seen, to have 6 solutions to 3 common problems that clients face when seeking translation services. Their document, which reads like an infomercial nightmare, claims the 3 “problems” are: price (notice, they are conceiving payment for work as a “problem”), time, and inconveniences. Though their failed marketing whatever-the-heck-it-is does not seem to be under copyright, they did include a pseudo disclaimer. So just to be on the safe side, I won’t quote them directly, but I will give you the gist of their quasi logic.

1. Price

Because the agency cannot differentiate a problem from a solution (not sure if their problem is linguistic or analytical, but either way, I would not trust them with any translation work that involves any kind of thinking skills whatsoever), “solution” #1 goes something like this:

Translators are terrible at explaining what the translation process involves. Translation entails a bunch of steps, some of which you may not need (like editing, because if you keep it in company, it doesn’t really have to be accurate).  Thus, the solution consists of asking translators to break down every part of their process and its price. That way, if there is a part you don’t need, you can just get it taken off the price.

Awesome solution! Provided you are a widget factory. I will never support any strategy that drags down price. Translation is a professional intellectual service and should be paid as such. The end. That said, when reading their document, I could not help but wonder how exactly one “breaks down” an intellectual process to a point that makes any real impact on price. And how many parts can you break it into? Suppose the process is already somewhat poor and consists only of three parts: translation, editing, and final proofreading. Are they seriously suggesting just one step to make it cheaper? Are they encouraging translators to deliver first drafts with no revision whatsoever? Have they SEEN first drafts? And what about spell check or other silly nuances? Maybe we can do without those too while we’re at it. Who cares if things are misspelled and illegible if we can bump a whole buck or two off the final price, right? This seems “iffy,” at best.

Ask your translator to drop their price by using machine translation.

I am not anti-machine, but translation technologies should be used in benefit of translators to make our work easier and more efficient and in benefit of clients to ensure faster delivery times (to a reasonable extent) and higher quality (provided such technologies are used wisely); using translation technology as a cheap strategy to artificially equate the product of our intellectual service to a commodity good is ultimately bad business for everyone. If these people had a better understanding of market economics, they would know how detrimental their strategy is when you look at the business of translation as a whole and in the long run. Now, I admit that in their little strategy, it’s not clear what sort of machine translation they are encouraging. So for the sake of not repeating myself over and over again on the potential ethical implications of some (not all) uses of MT, I recommend reading a prior post on the issue. Comments to my post by Shai Navé are extremely insightful and well worth the read. That being said, there’s another little issue in their PDF: in their first “solution” they suggested cutting out what quality-oriented professionals will argue is a key part of the process (yes, I mean editing!); now they’re encouraging MT in what can easily be read as human edited machine pseudo-translation. If that interpretation is correct, then wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage editing in both solutions? Need these people be reminded of the ontological principle of contradiction?

2. Time

Have a project manager communicate with you at all parts of the process to make sure you’re updated regularly and the project is on track.

Ok, this one actually makes sense. I’ve really oversimplified it, but it’s not a bad solution, except for one thing: it only contemplates project managers, as if translators didn’t exist. Regardless of how much not-even-human-edited-machine-translated-bull-poop this agency is planning on delivering to its “customers,” how strategic is it  to cut translators out the translation process in your marketing strategy?

Then they blab on about how client reviews can hold up processes, and proceed to give clients several directions as to what mechanisms they (clients) will need to have in place for quickly reviewing the final document(s).

Again, this one is pretty reasonable. However, my first observation is that the “solution” reads like a set of orders and seems a bit condescending. Then they go on to add that some translation companies fail to alert clients of the need for client review and, immediately after that, they move on to a painfully convoluted description of the review process that would probably scare off any potential client. This brings me to my second observation, I understand that someone in their marketing department probably read some post somewhere that said that differentiating yourself from your competitors is a good marketing strategy, but making things seems excessively complicated is not! Also, negativity has been shown in several studies to be a terrible selling technique. If you want to differentiate yourself, you need to focus on what you do right, not on what other people do wrong, and you need to do it in way that is easy to understand. I’ve been in the business for over a decade, and even I found their description confusing. Imagine how clients would feel with such complicated explanations, provided they did not get bored and stop reading altogether. It is, after all, a very long, wordy, and reader unfriendly document.

3. Too many inconveniences 

Most issues that hold up or affect translation can be predicted and your service provider should be able to see these coming and prepare accordingly.

Perfectly reasonable. However, through advice on multiple file versions and terminology, they again make the whole process read like a hassle. Then they ask clients to hand over terminologies, if applicable, opening a whole Pandora’s box of potential issues that make you wonder how on Earth anyone thought this complicated document could constitute a selling solution at all. In addition, at this point they reveal way too much information about what market segment they cater too in a way that is absolutely inconsistent with what they advertise on their site, proving once again their difficulty in grasping the principle of contradiction.

Lastly they move on to claim that if surprises are found during the client review part, it might be because certain parts of the process failed. They blame it on terminology and try to sell terminology set up (at an additional cost) as something that ultimately saves clients money.

 

So what they are basically telling clients is that if they don’t set up terminology for an additional cost, they (agency) will probably mess up the translation and delivery low quality work. Really smart! Especially considering that only five solutions ago they told clients to ask for a breakdown of each and every step of the process to see where costs could be cut…

My Beef

I tried to be as fair as possible when analyzing this little strategy, but could not help concluding it’s a load of BS. Low price directly leads to low quality in translation, and if you read the agency’s strategy carefully enough, you’ll see that’s exactly what they are accidentally telling their clients. Firstly, they offer a breakdown of the process to see where they can help the client “save money” without explaining that, unlike widget manufacturing, translation is an intellectual service. Secondly, they suggest cutting out fundamental quality-assuring parts of the process (like editing). Thirdly, they admit that many mishaps and mistakes will occur and that the client will have to dedicate a lot of time and resources into fixing them. Lastly, they try to sell “terminology set up” as an independent service to prevent and/or fix all the mistakes and inconsistencies that will arise because they cut out editing, reviewing, and/or quality control in the first place. Now, wouldn’t it be much simpler for clients to just hire a quality-driven professional translator, highly specialized boutique agency, and/or specialized team in the first place? You know, the kind who may cost a little more but will not stick the client with inefficient processes or mess up their translation to begin with… just saying! 

3 Tricks for Dodging Translation Blacklists

greedy business person

Last week, I somehow found myself talking to someone who is thinking of applying to a translation agency that shows up on several local and international blacklists. Much to my dismay, this person’s response to my blacklist warning was a defiant question: “Who doesn’t show up on those?” As though being blacklisted were no big deal and even, to some extent, an inevitable part of the translation business.

But, is that really so? Are all agencies blacklisted or just the bottom feeders and late payers? It seems to me that a lot of businesses actually manage to successfully dodge blacklists. So the question is what their trick is. How do you outsource work, make a profit, and still avoid being publicly accused of greed and wrongdoing in the T&I community? The key is combining three strategies:

1) Paying Fair Rates

When translators discuss unfair rates online, their reasoning is often met with not-so-solid and sometimes biased or insufficiently founded quasi “capitalist” notions of business as usual or laissez-faire. I am a strong supporter of capitalism, but supporting a capitalist, free market economy in no way implies supporting exploitation or unfairness as necessary preconditions for the system to work. The only reason to exploit people is greed. There is nothing in economic theory to support exploitation. So how do you know when you’ve crossed the line? It’s not that hard. Are your translators making a living wage? If so, there may be room for improvement, but at least you’re probably not a greedy crow. If not, then lines are most likely being crossed and you might have some serious restructuring to do.

2) Paying on Time

You know that nasty little trick where you don’t pay your translator until the client pays you? Well, one of the many problems with that is its unlawfulness. Your contract with your translator is independent of your contract with your client. When you sign an agreement with a translator (X price for X words), you are legally binding yourself to meet your end of the deal if the translator meets his or her end as well. End of story. If your client didn’t pay you, that’s too bad. But it is not the translator’s problem! Of course there may be exceptions, but they are rare and not part of our standard practices.

3) Treating People with Respect

This should be a given; but it never ceases to amaze me how many low or late payers end up on blacklists for how they treated translators rather than for how little or late they pay. Even if you’re an extreme utilitarian who does not believe in kantian ethics or any notion of human beings as inherently deserving dignity and respect, you still catch more flies with honey. If you’re not going to treat people with respect simply because they are people, then at least treat them with respect to maximize your own utility. It is ultimately in your best interest to keep your translators happy.

When Science Defeats the Knights of Low-End Translation

defeated knight

Not so long ago, in one of my posts, I criticized the “knights of low-end translation” for defending the indefensible. In context, we were discussing a certain company that allegedly pays $0.01/word for translation. One knight claimed that if you’re located in a geographical area where conversion rates work in your favor, there is no reason not to work for such fees. Some of us pointed out that for a translator with an average output of 2500-3000 words a day, 0.01/word means working for $25-30. When asked where one can live with $25-30/day, one of the knights claimed Portugal. When we consider that Portugal has a gross domestic product per capita of US$21,733.07, the knight’s claim is just silly.

Later that week, someone messaged me saying that there are countries where one can live with as little as $1000 a month and directed me to a post from 2012 where the author claimed you can live well in Nicaragua, Malaysia, Ecuador, Panama, and Mexico with that level of income. Of course the author factored in rent, utilities, maid, groceries, maintenance for one car (though savings or credit were not considered, so I guess you’d have to steal the car, because there’s no way you can purchase it with their “equation”), clothing, entertainment (whatever they mean by that), and healthcare (contemplating four visits to the doctor per year, so as long as you don’t actually get sick, you’re covered!). I’m a hopelessly positive person, but this was too much even for me! It was like reading a diary entry from when I was 10 about what my life was going to be like at 25. Nice try… but someone needs to retake Home Ec and Math 101.

However, in said debate, quality of life was not the only strong argument against cheap translation. When someone sustained that cheap translators are inherently bad translators, that statement really struck a nerve with the knights. They immediately tried to debunk any claims that their price could somehow affect the quality of their work and denied there was any correlation between large workloads, time allotted to translation, and quality. “Who says you can’t do great work even if you’re working a billion hours a week?” cried the knights. Science! That’s who, my shiny knight friends!

Apparently, a peer reviewed study by Stanford University and IZA reveals empirical evidence of what any respectable translator already knows: working too much (perhaps to make ends meet when you work for peanuts) directly (and qualitatively) declines productivity by the hour when your work week exceeds 50 hours. The study is brilliant, but there’s a lot of math and numbers, which the knights seem to really struggle with, so here’s the gist: if your fees are too low then you have to work too much to pay for all those grown up things not accounted for in your magical $1000 a month site, the more hours you put in per week after the human burn-out point, the more your productivity qualitatively and quantitatively declines. So you basically wear yourself out for nothing. If, instead, you work for a decent fee, then you can afford to take time off to rest, unwind, and reload. This means time to read for pleasure, continue your education, have a social life, even exercise! All of which have been found to increase your productivity and make you a better translator.

Even without the science, there are strong common-sense reasons not work for 0.01/word; but while the knights prepare to comment claiming to be the exception to the rule or to know great translators that put in billions of error-free hours, just remember: inductive thinking (i.e. extracting a rule from an individual case) is a logically invalid form of reasoning. There may very well be a couple of outliers, but they will never be statistically significant enough to debunk the science against working for peants. Also (and this is just a thought), wouldn’t all that time spent defending the indefensible be better off spent on strategies for increasing your fees anyway?

Translation Rates: Let’s Do the Actual Math!

Marty accountant ready to publish

My previous 3-post miniseries on rates and the Matrix (here, here, and here) had an amazing response from readers, especially from the awesome and supportive members of IAPTI and No Peanuts who helped the series go viral. So this post begins with a big-fat THANK YOU to my wonderful community of colleagues and friends that are committed to promoting ethical practices and fair rates.

You’ve probably already realized that, in that series, I’m trying to show you two things: 1) translation really doesn’t have to be cheap; and 2) that notion can be supported with actual numbers. Fortunately, shifting segments is easier than most people think and in response to the many e-mails and messages received, here’s the “how” and the math.

1. Market Research: There’s a lot of information available about rates online. Use the power of the internet.

2. Experimentation: I was able to steadily increase my rates on a per-project basis after Law School by way of better marketing and lots of experimentation. The experiment consisted of three parallel strategies. First, charging every new client higher than the last. Second, adjusting my price per inflation (this is important because I live in an emerging economy with elevated inflation rates). Third, as new clients willing to pay my new rates came in, I would drop older clients who were not willing to pay higher rates. This last part allowed me to transition from one market segment to another without starving in the process of finding specialty or “premium market” clients. In addition, better marketing means more end clients (aka, “direct clients”), which also translates into higher fees per project. But that’s a different story.

3. Math: True, lawyers are not great at math. In fact, many of us joke that if we had math skills, we’d have gone to accounting school instead. Be that as it may, figuring out the price you should be charging if you are working on a per-word basis is so simple even a lawyer can get it:

Where,

A = your expenses (i.e. how much you spend per month on an average month)

B = how many words you translate on an average day

C = how many days per month you are willing to work

Then,

D = A ÷ C = how much you need to make per day to cover monthly expenses

And,

D ÷ B = how much you need to charge per word to reach that goal

Voilà! You have found your start-out rate. Try it out on your next new client and start increasing steadily from there. If you’re going to try this strategy, then you might want to keep three things in mind:

1. If nobody’s trying to get you to lower or negotiate your rates, then you’re probably charging too low.

2. At some point you will hit a ceiling beyond which nobody is willing to pay. Your goal is to find the most efficient number closest to that ceiling.

3. The European market and the American market handle different “premium” rates. I recently tried to charge a premium European rate to a US client and failed miserably. However, the experiment helped me find a premium standard for US clients that’s proven very effective as a baseline rate from which to push up.

I hope this post is helpful and look forward to hearing other ideas, formulas and recommendations from readers!

Translation Rates and The Matrix Revolutions

agent smith and neo

In the Matrix Revolutions lots of things happen and many of them make absolutely no sense, especially the ending. However, poor though the last part of the Matrix Trilogy was, Neo defeats the machines and Agent Smith (or Agent “Bottom Feeder” to us translators); and somehow saves Zion. If you’ve been following this Translation and the Matrix Trilogy, then in this post, you are expecting me to tell you how to free yourself from the Matrix; and by now you should have learned at least two things that will help you do that:

1. Just like in the Matrix there is no spoon, in translation there is no rates crisis. Rates are not dropping and the market has been increasing steadily for years. (If you haven’t seen the numbers supporting this, check out part one.)

2. The translation market is highly segmented and relies heavily on intermediaries. The bigger the Language Service Provider (LSP), the more market-specific information they have; thus also, the more leverage when asymmetry of information kicks in (explained here); leaving smaller LSPs, Agencies and Freelancers with the feeling they have no choice but to accept low prices and bad service agreements.

Translators often have a lot of misconceptions about how prices work in a capitalist economy; and in this blog, I have used my nerdy academic training in Law and Economics to explain how prices are actually set by the market (here and here). As I have shown in other posts, translators have little power over price in certain segments, but a lot of power in others.

If you remember the numbers, then you know that out of the US$ 34 billion that go into translation each year, only about US$ 4 billion are absorbed by the top 50 LSPs (that’s where translators have no power). What these numbers are also telling us is that US$ 30 billion are pouring into medium sized LSPs, small-or-medium sized boutique agencies, or directly into freelancers; and those US$ 30 billion are expected to increase by 12.17% next year. That’s where translators have power and can drop low-paying LSPs and bottom feeding agencies if they want to.

So the question is again choice; and the answer consists of choosing clients in the right segments. Those segments are “specialty service segments” or what some other translation bloggers are referring to as “premium markets”. Regardless of what you call it, the logic is simple: there are areas of translation that are prone to paying more because there is a lot of demand and very little supply, i.e. lots of translation work, very few qualified translators. Qualifications are hard to get and require large investments in training. Accessing these segments and escaping the Matrix involves depending less on large LSPs and more on direct clients and highly specialized or “boutique” agencies. To make more money as a translator, you don’t need to fight LSPs for a couple of cents on a given project, you need to change your clientele altogether and grab your piece of the 30 billion not being absorbed by them.

To escape the Matrix, you need to develop a business plan and marketing strategy that is appealing to direct clients and/or key players in the specialty service segments of your area of specialization. This is not easy, but it is feasible, and in future posts I will address different strategies for achieving it.