The low-paying translation market: who's to blame and what's the solution?

If you really want to get a translator’s blood pumping, bring up the low-rate translation market: high-volume projects at really low rates on very tight deadlines, often for large/huge agencies. Some translators feel that the low-rate market provides a legitimate entry point into the industry, while others feel that it’s exploitative and unfair. So, let’s dig in here: what’s up with the low-rate market and what’s the solution?

First, this issue is by no means specific to our industry. Browse the web and you’ll find posts on how massage therapists feel about Massage Envy, how tax preparers feel about H&R Block and how freelance writers feel about content mills. These stories have a lot in common with the low-rate translation market: a tough way to make a living, but a foot in the door of a desirable industry.

In my family, we have a tongue-in-cheek motto: “First, assess blame.” So first, let’s assess some blame. Why does the low rate market exist? I don’t have a definitive answer, but I have some theories:

  • Bottom line: because at least some translators are willing to work for those rates. I feel like this isn’t a blame game, it’s just a fact. If no translators would work for what Walmart-style agencies pay, the agencies would have to pay more, end of story.
  • Because it depends on your definition of “low pay.” With the explosion in the demand for translators, there are lots of people entering the profession straight out of school, or straight out of a relatively low-paying job. In my online courses, I’ve worked with beginning translators who’ve never had a job that paid more than $15 an hour, or who are currently working a full-time job that pays 35K per year. So, if that’s your barometer, charging five cents per word and translating 500 words an hour might actually boost your income from where it is now.
  • Because of the chicken and the egg. I’ve had many students in my courses who just need a way to get the 3-5 years’ experience that many higher-quality agencies require. How to get experience when you have limited experience? Often, the path of least resistance is to apply to agencies that base their hiring largely on their own tests rather than on your level of experience. I’m not saying that’s a great solution, just that it’s a potential solution.
  • Because finding better clients takes work. That’s true at every level of the market, whether you’re trying to go from the low-rate agency market to the better-paying agency market, or from agencies to direct clients.
  • Because in some ways, huge agencies make a translator’s life pretty easy. My advice about working with huge agencies used to be summed up in three words: “don’t do it.” Too much stress, too little pay, no personal relationship, and the feeling that you’re just a grudgingly tolerated cog in the machine. But over the years I’ve had numerous students who started out working with huge, low-paying agencies and (wait for it…) loved it. They could pick and choose the work they wanted to take, without fear of losing the agency as a client (because every project offer came as a mass e-mail to a huge group of people). They could tell the agency on Monday morning, “I can take 12,000 words this week” and then set their own schedule to get it done. They did basically no marketing; a few students even told me that they sent out one resume to one large agency and then worked full-time only for them. Again, not to say that there are no downsides, but that type of situation can reduce a freelancer’s administrative overhead nearly to zero, which is appealing to some people.

So, let’s say you’re working in the low-rate market now, and you’d like to get out. What are some potential avenues of escape?

  • Avoid places where zillions of translators congregate. Job boards create price-based competition; that’s just the reality of supply and demand. Going and looking for better clients is the only way out.
  • Be a better translator. It’s not all about marketing, it’s about offering a service that high-paying clients see as being worth their money. So pursue professional development, join professional associations, ask for feedback on every translation, take graduate courses, read like crazy in your specializations, and so on.
  • Avoid financial panic. One problem with low-rate work is that it becomes difficult to get off the treadmill: you have to work such long hours that you have no time to market for better-paying work, so you burn out. To avoid this, find a way of putting some slack in your finances; this could involve cutting your living expenses, forcing yourself to put 10% of every invoice into an “escape fund,” or seeing if a spouse or partner would be willing to contribute extra income to your family finances while you look for better-paying work.
  • Work the local market: this is a technique that many translators don’t use, because it’s time-consuming and requires interacting with strangers! When I first started freelancing, I met in person with every potential client who would let me in the door, even the ones who said, “We don’t have anything for you right now.” Within a year, nearly all of them had sent me some kind of work (and sometimes even a lot of work), probably because I popped into their head when they thought of French to English translators. So, although it’s a big time suck, force yourself to get out of the office and do informational interviews whenever you can.
  • Surround yourself with successful translators. There’s definitely an inspirational rub-off effect when you hang out with people who are where you want to be in a few years. Avoid the self-pitying crowd: complaining isn’t the way to attract better clients. Instead, fill your head with stories of people who work in the market you want to be in.

Readers, any thoughts on this?

32 Responses to “The low-paying translation market: who's to blame and what's the solution?”
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