Couples Counseling: Reimagining the Freelancer–Company Relationship

(The following originally appeared as a two-part post in May 2017 on the Interpreters Division blog, www.ata-divisions.org/ID/blog.)

I’m not sure that I’m technically qualified to offer relationship advice to freelancers and language companies. However, throughout my career I’ve had the opportunity to participate in and/or observe hundreds if not thousands of these relationships and develop a very strong opinion on the topic, if not expertise, so I’ll just run with that.

For me, this is a topic of supreme importance to our industry and one we should not take for granted. While I understand that processes and technology are important, the freelancer-company relationship is at the core of everything we do, so it really deserves our focused attention. Like all human relationships, it requires understanding, communication, and cooperation, yet there is an inherent tension in this relationship that I don’t quite understand. I find it very frustrating that as an industry we can’t seem to get this key relationship right.

There seems to be an assumption that we should all be able to work together and that working with one freelancer or company should be the same as working with any other freelancer or company. So, when we have an experience that proves that assumption false, rather than looking at that as the exception, we treat it as the rule—looking at all potential relationships through this filter, expecting the worst, and feeling justified when we’re proven right and feeling like we dodged a bullet when we have a positive experience.

Well, I think it’s pretty clear that if we as a species approached our personal relationships this way there wouldn’t be many of us around! We’re pretty picky (and rightly so) when it comes to choosing our friends and partners. We seek out people with whom we have chemistry, who share our values, are like-minded, enjoy the same things, share our view of the world, and who, hopefully, help make us better people. Since not everyone on the planet shares all of this with each of us, or we with them, not all relationships necessarily work out, which explains why we don’t all have 7.5 billion friends! So, why shouldn’t we approach our business relationships in the same way? If we did, I think we would find that, as in love, there is someone for everyone.

At ATA’s 57th Annual Conference, my colleague Robert Sette and I presented on this topic and had such positive feedback that we did a follow-up at ATA58. That said, I think some of the concepts bear repeating here, so here are some ideas (in no particular order).

Know thyself. To have success in any relationship, you first need to know yourself, what you need, and what you can offer. So, before approaching a potential business partner, make sure you give that serious thought and come up with a list of must-haves, nice-to-haves, can-live-withouts, and deal-breakers (we all have them). Most importantly, know your value and be able to articulate it. Then stick to your guns. Be honest with yourself. If you can’t bear a certain behavior, don’t try to convince yourself you’ll be able to put up with it. Likewise, if there is a need you can’t honestly meet without a major overhaul of your processes, work style, or personality, don’t pretend you can. You can’t change the other party and they won’t change for you. You can only control yourself. Sometimes the chemistry isn’t right and that’s okay. It’s not about proving the other party wrong or justifying yourself. It’s about finding the right fit and understanding what kind of relationship will or will not work for you.

Communication is king. Just like in personal relationships, good communication is paramount. Ironically, one of the biggest problems in the freelancer-company relationship is communication. I say ironic because our jobs are to facilitate communication across languages, yet we don’t seem to be able to communicate effectively amongst ourselves. Part of this may be because many of us do so much of our work remotely and don’t always have the chance to speak face-to-face, or speak at all for that matter, because of time zone issues. Maybe it’s because we’re all in the same industry and make assumptions when communicating with each other that we wouldn’t otherwise make when communicating with people outside the industry. It could also be because, due to the nature of what we do, we aren’t always communicating in our native language and things can get lost in translation (again, ironic). Or it might be a combination of all three or something else altogether. But this only means that we must strive that much harder to communicate clearly and make sure that we’re understood and that
we understand.

We also need to be sure to identify our counterpart’s preferred method, style, and frequency of communication, as it may be different from our own and we’ll have to adapt. Acknowledging and honoring your counterpart’s communication preferences, whether they match yours or not, will help to ensure communication success.

Check your baggage at the door. Don’t bring old baggage into a new relationship. Just because you had a bad experience in a previous relationship doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad experience in the new one, unless you hamper it with tired assumptions and stereotypes. Make this your mantra: all companies are not users and exploiters, and all freelancers are not prima donnas!

Assume the best. When seeking new relationships, being open and assuming good intentions will serve you much better than being distrustful and assuming the worst (see above). Besides, with that attitude, why would you be out looking in the first place? While there are unprofessional companies and individuals out there, the vast majority aren’t looking to take advantage or exploit. They are focused on doing the same thing as you: ensuring that their clients get the quality product they both need and deserve. We can better serve this purpose by truly cooperating rather than bickering. Plus (and this is surely my California days coming out in me), I truly believe that you attract the energy you put out in the world. So, work on your positivity.

Listen more and talk less. We’ve all heard the equivalent of the parental admonition, “You have two ears and one mouth, so use them in that proportion.” Well, that applies as much to business as it does to personal relationships. For the relationship to work, everyone needs to do his or her part, but it will help you infinitely to really try to learn and understand your counterpart’s needs, likes/dislikes, pet peeves, preferred communication style and method, among other things. And if you discover some common interests, that never hurts.

Acknowledge your counterpart’s contribution to the relationship. For a relationship to thrive, each party needs to acknowledge that their counterpart contributes something valuable to the relationship. While separately they may have strong identities and unique qualities, together they create something that neither can offer on his or her own, thus bringing out the best in each other. Without this acknowledgement and balance, there is
no relationship.

Don’t look for love in all the wrong places. If you don’t like country music, don’t go to a honky-tonk. Likewise, if you need someone to translate a complex financial document, don’t look at sites catering to literary translators, as you’ll just be frustrated. There are now seemingly endless online platforms to connect language services providers and buyers (not unlike online dating sites), and it can be tempting to advertise everywhere to make sure you don’t miss anything. But this can backfire, as you may end up attracting attention you don’t want. Be intentional and discerning about those you approach and how you do it to give yourself the best chance of success.

Be prepared to compromise. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones: you can’t always get what you want, but if you work at it you can often get what you need. And what we think we want isn’t always what we actually need, anyway. Just as in the best personal relationships, each party here often has to give up a little something to help the relationship succeed and thrive, allowing both parties to be happy and function at their best. This is not to say you should cave on your principles—far from it. It just means you must be willing to acknowledge that the needs of your counterpart are just as important as your own and that you’ll need to look for middle ground when the two conflict. It will not always be possible (not all relationships will succeed), but you must be open to it. Success here is a win-win as long as there is balance.

Talk to each other, not just your cohort. Talking to your girlfriends or the guys (or, god forbid, posting online) about your significant other is more about venting than problem solving, and the same is true on the business side. Venting to your cohort is a search for validation and justification, not resolution. The only way to solve a relationship problem is to discuss it with the person who is in the relationship with you. It won’t always work, but if both parties go in with the same intention there is a better chance than if you air your dirty laundry in public.

Treat each other with respect and work to earn trust. Mutual trust and respect are not givens; they must be earned. Still, we must go into our relationships with this as a goal and conduct ourselves in a way that is worthy of trust and respect. Professionalism attracts professionalism, respect attracts respect, and trust attracts trust. Our relationships reflect who we are, and how we treat each other helps define us and our professional identity. We owe it to ourselves and the profession to present a united front.

Don’t get too comfortable and fall back on old habits. Pay attention to the relationship. If you’re coasting, you’re probably actually backsliding. Go back to the top and start again. Repeat.

Working Toward a True Partnership

So, have I gotten inside your head? Are you already thinking of things you can do to make sure your current relationships are healthy and on track and how you might change your approach to potential new partners? I hope so. My fondest wish for the industry is to see companies and freelancers working together in true partnership, recognizing and honoring the value of what the other brings to the table, while serving the needs of their common clients. This doesn’t seem like too lofty a goal to me, but we really have to want it.

It’s naïve (and not even necessarily desirable) to think that all companies and freelancers will be able to work with each other successfully, but there are matches out there for all of us. We just have to work to find them. We’re all responsible for our own professional happiness and success. This is too big a part of our lives to leave to chance, so don’t settle for the status quo. Don’t let your career just happen to you—take control!


Steve Lank is the vice president of Translation Services for Cesco Linguistic Services. He has worked in the industry since 1987, having started as a translator and project manager and subsequently holding senior management positions with companies in the U.S., Ireland, and Spain. From 1998 to 2011, he chaired the ASTM International subcommittee responsible for the ASTM F2575 Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation, and currently serves as the technical contact for the update. He teaches in the Graduate Studies in Interpreting and Translation program at the University of Maryland. He has an MA in Spanish translation and interpreting from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. Contact: SLank@cescols.com.

“Business Practices” will alternate in this space with “The Entrepreneurial Linguist.” This column is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other business advice. Each individual or company should make its own independent business decisions and consult its own legal, financial, or other advisors as appropriate. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of ATA or its Board of Directors.

1 Responses to "Couples Counseling: Reimagining the Freelancer–Company Relationship"

  1. Helen Eby says:

    I would love to hear what freelancers who have worked with you have to say about this article, and whether the relationship has been awesome.

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