Dilemmas of an Upwardly Mobile Translator

The future is where we need to look if we want to find reasons to continue to be upwardly mobile as translators.

Freelance translation is full of decisions. Shall I take this job? Shall I reject that one? How much should I charge? Should I raise my rates? And all decisions have consequences. If you ask for too much, the client might go elsewhere, but if you ask for too little, you might get offered something better. And if you take this, you haven’t got time to take that.

My decisions of the past year all seemed to come home to roost in the two weeks after I came back from my summer holiday. First, I seemed to lose a good client. It wasn’t a badly paying agency I had been wanting to get rid of for ages, it was a direct client with interesting translations that I had been working with for years. From my point of view, the only problem was that my relationship with the client dated from a time when I hadn’t charge direct clients enough. Since I realized this, I had been steadily increasing my rate with them, and it was now approaching what I would charge a new client, although they were still getting me a little cheap. Unfortunately, they didn’t see things the same way.

Surprised that the client hadn’t sent me their regular monthly translation, I asked them why. And they finally admitted it: “We’ve found someone cheaper for the regular stuff. It’s not you, though. We really like your work.” As if that made things any better. All I could do was remind them that I would still be there when they needed quality translations and wonder where I would fill the gap in my monthly schedule.

That same day, I had some more bad news. Another translator for whom I had done a big translation job earlier in the year told me he wasn’t going to be able to pay me and was filing for bankruptcy. I still don’t yet know how much I’ll eventually receive, but I stand to lose a four-figure sum. To make matters worse, the job had been split with a colleague, who is also liable to lose a large sum of money. Even though the red flags are really only apparent in hindsight, I cursed myself for not being more careful. But at the time I took the job I probably wouldn’t have listened to inner voices warning me of the possible risks—there wasn’t any other work around at the time.

Nor was there anything else around when I took another job I should have turned down in the summer. Working directly in an online platform is always a recipe for disaster, and I know it full well. In this case, doing so made it impossible to check my translation properly for mistakes, and, sure enough, it contained some. The end client was unhappy, although fortunately the colleague who had sent me the work was more understanding. She at least realized what I had been up against. This time I did get paid, but it can’t have done my reputation any good, and it certainly didn’t help my blood pressure.

Achieving the Right Effect

The link between these three stories is the effect of raising rates. There’s no doubt that if you’re too busy for a long period, then it’s time to raise your rates. There’s also no doubt that, as a tool, increasing rates can be a fairly blunt instrument.

I quite rightly raised mine for all agency clients and one or two other clients at the beginning of last year. It had the desired effect: demand dropped, mostly on the agency side, and I was no longer continually turning work away. But what I hadn’t done was to find enough new clients to fill the gap left by the agencies who were dropping me. So, there were times last year when I had no work at all. This is something I’m not used to after having been almost constantly fully booked for a couple of years. And when work got slack, I took jobs I shouldn’t have touched, like the ones I’ve mentioned.

It’s at times like these that I need to be reminded that positive things can happen. Fortunately, one or two of those also came along in the same post-holiday fortnight. First, I had an inquiry from a potential new client in one of my specialty fields: wine. As I usually do, I asked how the client found me, to which he replied, “I just googled.” That is fantastic news, because so many of us with websites sometimes wonder if the investment is worthwhile. There’s a temptation to think websites are mere vanity projects designed to project our egos onto the internet, but with little practical use. But here is real evidence that if someone keys in something like “English translators specializing in wine in Spanish,” they will find me. However much work arrives or doesn’t arrive from this particular potential client, the fact that he could find me in that way gives me hope.

Charging for Quality

Then there is the question of quality. I want to provide quality because, beyond the satisfaction it gives me, I have no doubt that providing quality is what can help human translators stand out from machines. Obviously, though, quality comes at a price. The minimum I need to provide top quality is to be paid enough to employ someone to reviewer my translations, because, for me, having my translations reviewed is the only way of providing a really polished document. The problem is, especially in a country like Spain where quality isn’t really part of the culture, many clients are simply not willing to pay that kind of price, and some will just run away if you ask for it.

So, when I had an inquiry from a direct client who came to me via a colleague for a website translation, I quoted two prices: the “premium” price, with revision, and the “standard” price, without. It’s a tactic I’ve sometimes used before that’s designed to stop clients who would balk at the higher price from simply going elsewhere if their budget doesn’t stretch that far. I always say that I recommend the premium option and explain why. Often, though, clients ignore my advice and choose the cheaper one.

But this time, my prospective client made a different choice. “I prefer the highest quality option,” he said. “This job isn’t urgent.” It was almost like finding that unicorns exist. Because, in darker moments, I wonder how many clients actually care about quality at all and whether it wouldn’t be possible to make a living churning out low-quality translations as quickly as possible at low prices. In fact, it probably would—for now. But the problem for translators trying this tactic is that machines can already do more or less the same thing, and they’ll soon be able to do it better. So, coming across a client so clearly in the market for quality and ready to pay for it was another reason to be optimistic.

Charging for the Long-Term

Then, another new direct client appeared in my inbox. He had a short translation that needed doing. The only thing was, he needed it that same day. My dilemma was to quote him a price. This time, double pricing was not an option. Apart from anything else, there wasn’t going to be time for anyone else to revise my work, so I needed to quote a single figure. But how much? I took a few minutes to think because there were various considerations. This looked like a client who could pay a reasonable rate and one I would like to keep for future work. But that also meant I needed to make sure I didn’t undercharge with the first job. Doing the job the same day wasn’t going to be a problem, but at the same time I wanted to ensure the client appreciated my effort. Normally the translation would cost a minimum fee, which represents thirty minutes of work for me. But what if I took a bit longer than that and charged for an hour?

That left the issue of the urgency of the job. To be honest, by charging for an hour, I was already being well rewarded. But I wanted the client, who, to be honest, didn’t seem all that well organized, to realize that they wouldn’t just be able to snap their fingers and expect me to jump every time. So, I decided to inform them that normally I charge extra for rush translations, but at the same time would do them a favor by waiving the charge because it was our first job together. That way, I earned a very satisfying rate for the job and the client enjoyed a discount. It really was a win for both sides, and, I hope, the start of a good future relationship.

Looking Forward, Not Back

As I’ve already suggested, the future is where we need to look if we want to find reasons to continue to be upwardly mobile as translators. It’s not an easy process. There are misjudgments, setbacks, and temporary reverses. But as soon as we let these situations lead us into negative, short-term thinking—as soon as we fail to find ways of learning from them and moving forward—we’re on the road to nowhere.


Simon Berrill is a translator with 17 years of experience. He works from Spanish, Catalan, and French into English for agencies, universities, and private customers, largely in Spain but also in the U.K., France, Germany, Belgium, Italy, and other countries. His specialties include journalism, history, tourism, business, sports, food and wine, and art and music. He worked as a journalist in England for many years. He is a member of the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters of Catalonia, and the Mediterranean Editors and Translators association. You can find his blog at www.sjbtranslations.com/blog. Contact: simonberrill@sjbtranslations.com.

2 Responses to "Dilemmas of an Upwardly Mobile Translator"

  1. Elsebeth Olsson says:

    So refreshing and encouraging to hear that other professional translators have the same considerations (and ups and downs) that I have had the last couple of years – and still loving the profession.

  2. Oleg Gordeev says:

    “There’s a temptation to think websites are mere vanity projects designed to project our egos onto the internet, but with little practical use.” Exactly what I think from time to time!

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