(This post is a slightly updated and shorter version of a piece that I wrote about 13 years ago when my kids were still small for Translorial, newsletter of the Northern California Translators Association. The business techniques that I am recommending here are still perfectly applicable to freelance translation business).
Some people think that run-of-the-mill business gurus can provide them with a great insight on how to and how not to run a business. I will listen with interest to what these various assorted prophets have to say. But I think that I can learn at least as much, if not more, about the Zen of running a translation business from watching my two kids, a second grader and a fourth grader, playing with a cool yo-ho or throwing a neat, bouncy slinky.
There are three basic techniques for playing with a yo-yo. If you have forgotten or never really mastered the ancient art of throwing a cool yo-yo, they make up the title of my article. The trick is to make the yo-yo come back to you in defiance of the force of gravity. You kind of have to make it do something that it does not really want to do, just like you have to make your customers come back to you with their next translation, although they really hate spending good money on something as basic and overpriced as translation. Let’s face it, they all hate spending their money on us, no matter how much or how little we ask for. As far as our customers are concerned, translation should cost no more than … copying a few pages on a copy machine.
WALK THE DOG
The walk-the-dog technique is your basic yo-yo throwing gig. As far as I can tell, you throw the yo-yo slowly and carefully and when it is all the way down a few inches above the ground, you apply your invisible pulling powers so that the yo-yo will obediently slowly make its way back into the waiting palm of your hand, just like a dog that comes back to its master. No sudden, flashy moves, no obvious drama. This is your basic translation job in a field that you have been doing for years, at moderate rates to ensure repeat business. All you have to do is concentrate on the subject, make sure that you don’t skip a line, don’t change a number (watch out for those subscripts!) and don’t use too many Gallicisms, Germanism, Nipponisms, or whatever -ism is applicable to your language. And for best results, always proofread even the simplest job the next morning after a good night’s sleep unless it is a super-rush. If you do it right, the customer will come obediently back to you, which is the main purpose of the exercise, just like a yo-yo comes back right into the waiting hand of a youthful yo-yo master.
ROUND THE WORLD
The round-the-world technique is more demanding and quite a bit more dramatic. The yo-yo seems to start flying, all of a sudden and without warning, pulled by sheer will power and absolute concentration so apparent on the faces of children when they switch from the boring pedestrian-canine routine to enjoy the finer points of this exquisite game. In the game that freelance translators play, the round-the-world technique is usually announced by an unexpected call or e-mail from a customer or an agency, often just before 5 PM or after normal business hours. The person on the other end of the phone line sounds excited and a little bit nervous and perhaps even desperate. They have a sizeable job which must be done in a couple of days, probably because some lawyer was sitting on it for two months, reluctant to waste money on a simple translation which, unlike legal advice, should be really free or no more expensive then making a Xerox copy as far as the lawyer is concerned. How do these translators dare to charge so much for “retyping” something in another language? That sort of thing out to be made illegal! At this point, however, the company will be facing a crisis unless the translation is finished by such and such time. Whenever I receive a call like this from an agency that is calling “round the world”, trying to find an available translator, or an e-mail from a law firm with an urgent request to quote a price and turnaround time, I sit down, take a deep breath and try to concentrate on the job at hand at least as much as my children are concentrated on that little wooden or plastic yo-yo in the palm of their hand.
One should not forget that the first character in a Japanese word which can be translated as crisis (危機, kiki), means danger (危), while the second ki (機) means opportunity. Opportunity usually brings along also a danger, and danger goes hand in hand with opportunity. This is our opportunity to take on a relatively large chunk of a job at a higher rate to finally pay off that credit card bill, tax bill, or finally start saving money for a vacation. You have to be careful not to ask for a rate that is too low or too high. Your will make your customer happy if you do the work at your usual rate, but why should you work overtime without getting paid a little more? Often, you can take on as much work as you like for a few days, but you have to make sure that you don’t bite off more than you can chew. If you do that, your opportunity will turn into a crisis not only for your customer, but also for you. A crisis is an opportunity, but an opportunity that is fraught with danger.
The kids at agencies or paralegals at law firms who are parceling out the translations to translators “round the world” don’t really know what is in the original because they usually don’t speak the language, so don’t take their word for the subject of the job, or the estimated word count, or just about anything. They may be nice kids, but they don’t really know what they’re doing. They just work there. It is a good idea not to accept (except tentatively) any job and any deadline until you see the documents.
The third technique, “sleep”, comes in handy when business slows down and the phone all of a sudden stops ringing. This should be a restful period for translators, who now have some free time after all those impossible deadlines. But the thing is, the bills still keep coming in when there is no work and one look at meager receivables will put quite a damper on what could be a peaceful day in your office. How can you “sleep” if you don’t know where is the money going to come from? You have to make the checks stretch from one week to the next until the end of the month, just like my kids have to make the slinky slink itself from the top of the stairs, from one step to the next until it reaches the bottom of the stairs. Ah, the victorious feeling that I can clearly see radiating from their faces when the slinky makes it all the way down the stairs! Ah, the satisfaction of having another job lined up and another check deposited before the balance in the bank shrinks to zero!
How much sleep I get during the “sleep” period depends on how much money is still coming in from old jobs and how long the hibernation period lasts. If it is just a few days, I can still enjoy myself. I go to bookstores, sit in a café and look at those cute girls who always hang around there, read something, or go for a walk, thinking deep thoughts. But even with the lofty thoughts on my mind, I am always mindful of the fact that somebody has to mind the shop, nine to five, rain or shine, work or no work. After twenty three years in the freelance business, the sleep period usually lasts only a few days before it is replaced by another onslaught of work and deadlines that come rushing in with a vengeance. I try to take it easy if the “sleep” takes only a few days, even when other translators start e-mailing, complaining about lack of work and bills that pile up. I do my best to calm them down because as Bob, my tax accountant, says: “When you don’t make any money, you don’t owe any money to Uncle Sam.” There is a good side to everything.
There is also a fourth yo-yo technique, called “mess-up”, I am told. Mess-up is when you try one technique, but since you do it the wrong way it ends up being a different thing altogether than you meant it to be. As Henry David Thoreau would put it, the problem is that the idea of what you wanted to do did not exist distinctly in your mind before you started doing it. What you have to do when you mess up, of course, is start over and do it right the next time without losing too much sleep over it. We all mess up sometime.
If you mess up, you’ll just have to go to the top of the stairs and throw down your slinky again.