The so called feast and famine syndrome is a business cycle that is well known to most freelance workers, including freelance translators. Freelancers either have too much work, or no work at all. The happy medium is essentially nonexistent because when you are a freelancer, several customers often need you at the same time, or none of them needs you.
Another business cycle that affects just about any business, namely the so called boom and bust cycle, is almost as old as humankind: seven fat and seven lean years are mentioned already for example in Old Testament (… and the lean and ugly cows ate up the first seven fat cows, Gen 41: 25-31).
If what the Bible says still holds true, this would mean that we are now approximately in year 5 of the bust component of this cycle. The boom part of the business cycle, driven by booming real estate prices and frantic spending of gullible consumers who were led to believe that they too were rich now based on ever growing equity in their houses started around the year 2000. But what goes up must come down, including real estate prices, which started coming down very quickly in 2007, so that at this point the houses of many of the formerly nouveaux riches of early two thousands, who were really just faux riches, are now either in foreclosure or “under water”.
But I think that while workers in the translation industry suffer frequently from the feast or famine syndrome, this industry is probably not as vulnerable to the boom and bust cycle because the boom and bust cycles are usually based on speculation, for instance speculation on stock market, or on real estate prices, and there is not really not that much room for speculation in the translation industry.
If you look at your receivables year after year, you may see that during the bust period of the cycle your receivables were decreased by a certain percentage, but your translation business probably did not end up being “busted” even during a time when everybody is complaining that the country (and the world) is going to hell in a handbasket because the economy is so bad.
When people don’t know what a house is really worth during a severe economic crisis, they may stop buying real estate for quite some time, even a number of years. The income of home builders, carpenters and other blue color workers depending on this industry as well real estate agents, etc., may dwindle to a mere trickle compared to the booming years.
But when people need to have something translated, can they wait for a number of months or even years before they finally have to spend the money for a translation, which is what they could do if we were talking about a major purchase such as a new car or a house?
I don’t think so. Not all jobs were created equal, and some jobs are fairly recession-proof, for instance the jobs of garbage collectors or undertakers. The garbage has to be picked up because otherwise it would just keep piling up and stinking up everything, and the dead have to be buried by properly licensed professionals. You can’t just bury them in your backyard, (unless you happen to be a mass murderer, of course).
Although customers may shop around for a cheaper translator during the lean years, when they need to have their personal documents translated for example for immigration, they have to do it. And the same is true about other types of translation, such as translation of patents or financial prospectuses. If you don’t have these things translated, you can’t make money, and what could have been just a lean year may turn into an outright nightmare.
I believe that translation profession is also fairly recession-proof, because when people need us, they need as.
And although being able to choose between having to put up with feast and famine or dealing with the boom and bust cycle may not seem as a very good option, I’ll take feast and famine any time because the feast and famine periods are relatively short as they typically last only a few weeks.
If I make enough money as a translator during the feast period, I can just take it easy during the famine part, read my books and write my subtly subversive blog posts, and I should still have enough money left at the end of the month to pay all my bills even during the bust cycle.
On the other hand, since the bust cycle, which always follows the boom cycle, typically takes seven years, we still have 2 years of meager economic growth left on the boom and bust clock. I would not want to be a car salesman or real estate developer during a bust cycle.
And if you don’t give much credence to what is written in the Bible, given that what you are reading could be just a mistranslation, take a look at what the Federal Reserve Bank currently foresees for the economy. At this point, the Fed expects about 2 years of meager economic growth with unemployment hovering around 8.2 percent in the United States, which fits very nicely the description of seven lean years in Old Testament.