This post originally appeared as a newsletter to my mailing list; I’m reprinting it here while taking some time off from blogging this summer!
Lots of us have heard the advice that “it’s time to move up in the translation market,” in response to changes in our industry brought about by–among other factors–technology and globalization.
“Move up in the market” is great advice, but what does “moving on up” entail? You’re unlikely to double your rates with your current clients, so you need a new strategy. Let’s take a look.
Tip 1: See and believe that it’s possible. This sounds a bit new age-y, but mindset makes a huge difference when you’re trying to up your game. Think of it this way: behaviors, just like illnesses, are contagious. If you’re surrounded exclusively by translators who are struggling to make ends meet, it’s not surprising that you see that as the norm. If you’re surrounded by translators who have a full stable of high-paying clients, and who have a similar level of financial security to people with salaried jobs, you start to see that as the norm too. And there are clients out there who will pay high enough rates for you to earn a six-figure income, but you need to be actively looking for them, not waiting for them to find you.
Tip 2: Attend professional development events for successful translators. In about 2008, I decided that it was my time to “move on up” and start working exclusively with high-end agencies and direct clients. In 2009, Chris Durban and other premium-market translators launched the Translate In… series (that year, we translated in the Catskills), which has continued and expanded, with summer master classes in France and Quebec. That first session was such an eye-opener to me; to see the changes that I needed to make in my translation skills, workflow, and business model in order to move up. Whatever your language pair, you need to start attending those types of events: being a better translator is an often-overlooked element of moving up in the market.
Tip 3: Set a red zone rate and don’t budge. Because we generally price our work in cents per word, discounts can seem inconsequential. It feels petty to argue over a cent, or half a cent. But…those cents add up when you translate hundreds of thousands of words a year. Those cents show clients what you think your work is worth. Those cents make you feel devalued and demoralized before you even start the project. Rather than negotiating on a case-by-case basis, you need a rate below which you never go. I recently heard a colleague say, “I don’t turn on the computer for less than…” That type of policy can help you avoid making those small concessions that add up over time.
Tip 4: Fish in smaller ponds. For lots of translators, aiming higher means targeting huge companies. But the Microsofts and Sanofis and Deutsche Banks of this world aren’t usually the best place to start. It’s difficult to know who to contact. Some–although certainly not all–large companies aren’t willing to work directly with freelancers. You’re often better off targeting smaller companies in your specializations, where you can find the name of the appropriate person to contact, and send them a personalized e-mail, paper letter, or LinkedIn InMail.
Tip 5: Watch for new trends. One key to moving up in the market is to look for hidden gold mines; types of clients who are–perhaps suddenly and urgently–in need of a good translator. As an example, I enjoy translating content marketing materials like blog posts and e-newsletters. I’ve recently started working with two environmental foundations that feel–perhaps correctly–that in order to broaden their base of fans, supporters, and donors, they must be on social media in English. These clients generate a steady flow of work; each project may be small, with a 500-word blog post here and a 750-word e-newsletter there, but I hear from them at least twice a week. I’d call this a micro-trend, but it’s prompted me to consider actively looking for more of these types of clients.
Tip 6: Thicken your skin. Again, another mindset shift, but an important one. It’s hard to up your game if you feel broken and demoralized after every interaction with a client who won’t pay your rates, or every marketing contact that goes un-returned. You simply have to keep plowing forward until you have the base of clients that you want, and you have to adopt the mindset that it’s better to find out up front that a client won’t pay what you want or need to earn.
Bonus tip: be realistic about what you need or want to earn. This is a real struggle for a lot of freelancers. When you add up the amount of money you want in your bank account every month, plus taxes, health insurance, vacation time, professional development, computer hardware and software, retirement account contributions, etc. etc., it’s a big number. But in order to make freelancing sustainable, you need to earn an income where you have a similar level of financial security to someone with a salaried job.
Readers, over to you! Tell us your best tips for moving up in the translation market!