Stop me if this sounds familiar:
I really needed work, so I decided to take whatever came through the door. I decided that applying to mega-agencies/advertising on Fiverr/racing to the bottom on translation job boards was the fastest way to get full-time freelance work. But now I’m stuck; I have to translate 10-12 hours a day to earn a decent living at these rates. I can’t ever take a day off. If I get sick, I’m in danger of not being able to pay my rent, and I have no money to spend on better equipment or professional development. Low-rate work feels like a treadmill that I’ll never get off. HELP.
Breaking out of the low-rate market is absolutely possible; I’ve helped lots of students do it, and not one of them has come back and said Boy, I really miss the low-rate market and I’m planning to dive back into it as soon as I find the time to send out some resumes. Also, let’s clarify that higher-paying clients could be direct clients or could be high-quality agencies. When I work for my agency clients, I generally earn the same hourly rate as I do when I work for direct clients (the agencies pay less per word, but the work takes less time since they’re handling the editing and the back-and-forth with the client, and they found the client in the first place). But in order to break out of the low-rate market, you have to change three things:
- Your business skills
- Your translation skills
- Your mindset
Maybe in that order, or maybe not. Let’s break it down. First, you need better business skills. You need to stop looking for work where thousands of other translators are looking for work, because when the client is choosing between you and 752 other translators, the decision quickly boils down to how cheaply and how fast you can do a translation. Unless you translate Icelandic, or you’re a nuclear engineer, put the job boards in the rear-view mirror and never look back. You need a professional-looking website, even if it’s something very basic that you create yourself on WordPress or Squarespace. You are not allowed to use print-at-home business cards, or business cards that say “Get your free business cards at…” on the back. You are not allowed to cross out your old phone number and scribble in the new one (get new cards!). You need to stop using low rates as a selling point (would you trust a cheap CPA? a cheap heart surgeon?). You need to look in places where other translators aren’t looking; instead of scrambling for pennies on job boards, you need to be the only translator attending the annual conference of the International Association of Whatever Your Specialization Is. And you need to stand up and ask a really smart question during the Q&A period of an interesting session. If it’s not in your budget to attend their conference, at least get on their LinkedIn Group. You need to respond to client inquiries immediately, and you need to be easy to work with. You need to stop assuming that clients’ main concern is price, because there are lots of clients who are not only willing, but eager to pay good money to a translator who is highly competent, responsive, pleasant, constructive, and all the other things that you undoubtedly are. You need to proactively hunt down the kind of work you like to do and are good at; send warm e-mails, work LinkedIn, attend conferences, follow your prospective clients on Twitter. When they close a big deal, fire off a short e-mail and congratulate them; get yourself in their game.
Then, you need to improve your translation skills. You need to help clients say what they meant to say, not what they actually wrote. When you read something nonsensical in a client’s document, you need to not shrug and say Hey, they wrote it, I just translate! You need to flag that for the client and suggest alternatives. You also need to take some continuing education courses in your specializations, so that you understand the concepts you’re translating, not just how to translate them. You need to slow down. No one (not you, not me, nobody) can produce dynamic, engaging, flowing translations when they’re consistently translating 4,000 words a day. You can get 4,000 words of meaning across, maybe. But you can’t get 4,000 words of text that make the client say that’s just how we wanted it to sound. You need to be open to constructive criticism of your translations; when an editor finds an error, you need to think my goal here is to get better; and every time a really good translator edits my work, it’s an opportunity to improve.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly, you need to improve your mindset. Step one in breaking out of the low-rate market is believing that your work and your time are worth more, and knowing that there are clients out there waiting for someone like you. And don’t be afraid to think big: instead of asking yourself what you can do to increase your income by 10% this year, ask what it would take to double your income while working a little less than you do now. You need to see yourself as a serious professional; as someone who does what your clients’ other serious professional service providers do…but in more than one language. You need to make a list of clients you’re going to ease out when you find higher-paying work. Take out a Post-It note and write “I am done working for XYZ on December 1” (you’ve got three months…that’s enough to find some better-paying clients if you hustle). The first time you say to a client I’d love to work with you, but unfortunately I’m not able to offer a discount, because I’m busy all the time at my regular rates, you’ll have a whole new image of yourself as a professional. You also need to be honest about your role in the low-rate market: if clients couldn’t find any translators to work for them at bargain-basement rates, they’d be out of luck. So decide that although you may need to hold on to some of those clients for now, so that you can eat while you look for better paying work, you are not taking on any more low-rate clients, because you are going to go find better ones, starting right now.