Some thoughts on saturated markets

There are a lot of disparities within the translation and interpreting industry, and one of those is the difference between language pairs/specializations that are fairly rare versus those that are fairly saturated. In this post I’ll both offer and request advice, since I often have students in my online translation course who work in saturated markets (and I’d like some fresh tips to offer them!).

First, let’s look at some numbers from the ATA membership directory, in terms of the number of people who have the following language combinations listed in their profiles:

  • English to Spanish translators: 2,111
  • German to English translators: 800
  • Russian to English translators: 480
  • Japanese to English translators: 394
  • Arabic interpreters: 148
  • Burmese interpreters: 3

Obviously I selected these to prove a point. But even the number of people registered for a fairly large language pair such as German to English pales in comparison with the 2,000+ English to Spanish translators. I’ve recently begun the process of preparing for the French court interpreter exam in Colorado. French isn’t exactly an obscure language, but there are currently no certified French court interpreters in the state. By contrast, the list of certified Spanish interpreters takes up several pages. I would assume that the situation is the same for certain language pairs in other countries (for example English>French translators in Quebec).

Saturated markets have a few issues:

  • Competition among translators and interpreters is often intense and very price-based.
  • Clients, especially large clients, are often able to keep rates on the low end of the spectrum. For example, PRI’s The World recently ran a story on pay cuts to court interpreters in Nevada, and certified Spanish court interpreters here in Colorado make $35 an hour.
  • Freelancers who work in saturated markets are often reluctant to share information with their colleagues; they are afraid to disclose who they work for or how much they charge, for fear of being undercut by someone else who charges less.
  • Freelancers in saturated markets have less incentive to get new credentials or improve their skills, because they don’t feel that they can charge commensurately higher rates.
  • The sheer number of people in the saturated market creates an “anyone can do it” mentality, and the market becomes even more saturated with people whose skill levels are not up to par.

But enough doom and gloom: the real question is, what’s a translator or interpreter in a saturated market to do? Here are a few suggestions, and (please!) feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.

  • First, a pep talk: remember that you do not need enough work to keep all 2,000 English to Spanish translators in the ATA busy. You just need enough work for yourself. I would venture a guess that many established translators earn the bulk of their income from their 3-5 main clients. Do you think there are 3-5 clients out there who will pay real money for your services? Right, I think so too. So let’s figure out how to find them.
  • For translators who are not restricted to working with clients in their home area, the obvious solution is to look for clients in other areas. For example, for English to Spanish translators who live in Latin America, I would definitely recommend looking for clients in the US and/or the UK.
  • In order to do that, make sure to solicit the help of a native English speaker who lives in your target market country. For example if you want to apply to translation clients in the US, your application materials must be in error-free US English.
  • Look for direct clients. I work for and enjoy working for both agencies and direct clients. But I think that many direct clients get attached to translators they like, and are also less price-sensitive than agencies are, so they are a good bet if you work in a saturated market.
  • Get some credentials. For example, of the 2,111 people registered as English to Spanish translators on the ATA website, only 484 are certified for English to Spanish. 484 people is still a lot, but here we’ve already narrowed the pool down to 1/4 of what it was. I think that any credential you can earn: ATA certification, a translation certificate, court interpreter certification (if at the Federal level, even better!), etc. is a big plus.
  • Concentrate on the advantages that you offer: familiarity with the source language culture, ability to do on-site work, ability to provide multiple services (voiceover, transcription, subtitling, etc.) all spring to mind.

And please tell me that you have some more tips too!

19 Responses to “Some thoughts on saturated markets”
  1. Megan Onions May 23, 2012
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