Fifty Ways: One More View

One ongoing topic on translator’s forums is a comparison of translation agencies and direct clients. Due to the nature of these forums, this is often conflated with the question of how to win clients – agencies, direct end-clients, both or either kind.

A recent “sales story” about one less-than-ideal way to hook a new customer stirred up a bit of discussion. Allison Wright, one of the most thoughtful critics, summarized its main ideas and expanded her initial comment into a blog post.

It is titled “Fifty ways”, but it is, basically, about three criteria that must be met when a translator decides to take on a job. In the course of the discussion, Allison nudged me gently about my look at the issue and that prompted me to write this post.

“Fifty ways” is a fitting title, because it makes sense to differentiate. When you decide about a new translation job, there is something that I feel shouldn’t be left behind. How much time/effort do you need for your first job for a new client (discounting the effort and the non-billable time to land the job)? How much time/effort do you need for a comparable job, once a future-proof, long-term working relationship has been established?

The answer is obvious: the longer you have been working for one client, in one specific domain, the less effort and time each subsequent job for that client will cost you. There is a certain coherence to your work that benefits your growth (call it capacity building, if you will) – you acquire a unique set of skills, knowledge and experience, and your resources are efficiently used. However, these precious, laboriously acquired assets tend to become rusty, if not applied frequently, and fade away. This is the case with one-off projects.

A translator becomes a specialist through working for specific clients, in specific domains. Specialization is key, but traditional specializations – like technology, finance, marketing or law – are way too general for today’s world. Companies – your clients – strive for differentiation. This also applies to communication and linguistic context. One company’s terminology may be taboo for a competitor. No universal, industry-wide vocabularies (or all-purpose guidelines) make much sense any longer, the value lies in the client-specific, customized use.

Working closely, long-term with regular corporate clients, you get to know their business inside and out. Also, you learn to look at things from the entrepreneur’s side. That translates to the quality of your work, too: you deliver a better service when you have the inside view of the purpose which your translations contribute to.

Needless to say, all this applies, almost exclusively, to direct clients.

With most agencies, the time/effort isn't worth the outcome. You will rack your brains to figure out a cryptic acronym while translating a sophisticated, jargon-filled corporate presentation – only to find out, after several emails to your agency (and a couple of days after the delivery deadline), that the acronym stands for the first and last name of one of the presenters. Had you contacted the end client directly, you would have saved yourself hours of "research" (and delivered a far better translation).

After working with various translators, I found that those who are used to working predominantly with agencies are less likely to feel responsible for their work. They regard their translation as a semi-finished, intermediate product to be checked, corrected and completed – by someone else ("and for the price they're paying me, what else they should expect?!"). This attitude doesn't resonate well with direct clients.

For a typical "agency translator", it's hard to see the wood for the trees: while direct clients expect deliverables which serve a particular purpose, they are served a more-or-less verbatim rendition of their "source text" – that comes out when you hastily translate everything the client "said", sentence-by-sentence, instead of working out what the client had "meant".

Then again, specialization… With agencies, even those that you may happen to work for on a regular basis, there is more jumping around – from one subject, one end client etc. to another. Learning curves are frequent and steep, but they take you nowhere. Typically, you gain shallow, fragmentary experience at the cost of more effort/time and less productivity, see above.

Let alone prices…

Pricing is another topic that ranks high on on translators’ forums. I believe that a close, lasting business relationship with dedicated corporate clients may change your view of pricing, because it changes your view of competition.

If your business relationship is based on a long-term contract or a general agreement, you no longer have to provide quotes for each project or bid for a certain job. Many projects and jobs would hardly find any takers anyway – without your inside knowledge, your special experience and skills, a random competitor would fail to deliver on their bid.

However, competition is still there: if you get inside the head of your client, you may start to compare the cost of your service to the cost of a potential staffer who would be needed, as an alternative, to take on your job.

At the first glance, the cost comparison doesn’t work in your favor. Your service is far more expensive. Extrapolate your hour rates to a month’s salary – and the result will appear three or four times “too high”. There is no chance you can end up with such an unrealistically high position in your client’s hierarchy, if you apply for a salaried job. But there is nothing wrong with your numbers – they reflect your cost on a per piece basis.

(On a side note, if you never heard about the 3x rule, there has been another recent blog post that is worth reading – especially if you don’t feel comfortable about your “too high” prices. Or “too low” prices – the post may make you reconsider your attitude toward agencies, too, if you think they are synonymous with “greedy exploitation”, but I sidetrack.)

In terms of unit cost, you seem to cost your client a lot of money. However, the reference number for your client – I am still referring to long-term, regular clients that ensure a steady flow of work – isn’t your unit price. Their reference number would include the hypothetical staffer’s annual salary plus social security contributions and the like plus the potential dismissal cost. With this in mind, if looking at the total cost, you as a contractor are saving your client money as compared to you as an employee.

While it is unlikely that you'll find a salaried employment commensurate with your per-job prices or your hour rates, you still can set yourself ambitious financial goals. In terms of working hours, the total amount of work done on a contractual basis for one client doesn’t relate to that of this client's FTE employee – typically, you put in a lot less work. In other words, you still have enough time/resources to put to sustainable, profitable work – and I definitely prefer a dozen of so of regular and committed clients to hundreds of random, one-off jobs.

Sometimes less is more. It is the quality ingredients that are a deal-breaker. This applies both to the quality of your service and the quality of your clients. If this two-way mix is right, you don’t have to chase new clients all the time. Given a sustainable stream of work, a dozen or so may be ideal.

If you look for new jobs, I believe you should try to choose them carefully. It is not that whatever you have around the house, it is going to make you a great meal. Accepting a new job is just much about the job as it is about the client. It makes sense to be selective about this.

To choose direct clients over agencies is only half the battle. Whether fifty or a hundred ways, I think it is essential to differentiate between two approaches – short-term and long-term. To say it's like day trading vs. investment is something of a metaphor. But perhaps that is also something freelance translators could learn from.

The images were taken in Hout Bay, South Africa.

  1. Chris Durban’s avatar

    Thanks for highlighting the negative aspects of churn, Valerij.
    I was thinking this morning about how some unhappy translators' blogs and social media comments seem to indicate that they deal with a steady flow of new clients. OK, I get it for, say, sworn translators (how often do you need to get your birth certificate or driver's license translated?)
    But for other full-time professional translators, little or no repeat business surely says something about the quality of work delivered — or possibly wobbly service. It easy to "explain" a new client's subsequent disappearance with a knee-jerk "well, they probably found somebody cheaper elsewhere". But I would challenge that.


  2. Dave Jemielity’s avatar

    Hi Valerij,

    Wonderful post! With your permission, I'd like to assign it as reading for my grad students at U. of Geneva FTI. Would you mind? And if not, do you happen to have a .pdf or Word version of the post? If so you can shoot it to my private email, which you should have now. 


    PS It was Chris who tipped me off to the post. Thanks, Chris!  


    1. ValerijTomarenko’s avatar

      Thank you very much for your kind words, Dave!


    2. übersetzer’s avatar

      Really interesting post, truthful and amazing, good reading and exciting images, thanks. 


    3. Oleg Gordeev’s avatar

      Great article, Valerij! Well noticed: "Learning curves [with agencies] are frequent and steep, but they take you nowhere". That's true.



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