Most Americans are becoming increasingly pessimistic about the general state of the economy. The dollar keeps losing its value, gas prices are at an all time high and heading higher, unemployment has been stuck near 10% for what seems like an eternity, my neighbor’s house has been on the market with no takers for almost a year. One could go on and on.
But I just calculated that so far this year I made 2.6 times as much as I did during the first four months of the last year. By the end of April it will be probably three times as much. So what is going on?
I think that although freelancers in general and freelance translators in particular are connected to and dependent on the general status of the economy, there are major differences between the way freelancers and employees are dependent on the general status of the economy. For one thing, freelancers can ride out tough times better than employees because although their income may be drastically reduced in a bad year as mine was last year, unlike a fired employee who can barely subsist on unemployment payments which will come to an end after a while, most freelancers are still able to retain a substantial portion of their income even when business is very slow. In my experience, a couple of really good years is sometime followed by a couple of pretty bad years, which is a cycle that will sometime repeat itself. So as long as we are able to survive a couple of pretty bad years, we are still left standing when good times roll in again.
Freelancers are also more closely and more directly connected to the global economy than your average employee. The fact that the dollar lost about sixty percent of its value relative to the Euro in the last 10 years or so is really bad news for us when we go on vacation abroad, and it must be a major reason why the gas prices are so high. But this also means that freelance translators from languages such as German, French, or Japanese who live in United States and who have clients in Europe or in Japan can raise their rates substantially based on the equivalent of their rates in Euros or the yen.
Contrary to popular belief, machine translation did not take business away from translators in my line of work, namely translation of patents, articles from technical and medical journals, legal briefs, etc. On the contrary, the real effect of machine translation in my field is that more documents can now be identified, which will eventually need to be translated by a human when a real translation is needed.
There may be some competition from low cost countries such as India to translators in my subject and language combination (translation of patents from Japanese, German and French to English). But based on the resumés and cover letters of people living in these countries who want to “work” for me, their English is not on the level of a native speaker and their German or Japanese is probably even worse than their English. My guess is that most companies that will try to “outsource” translation to India in the same way that they outsourced a range of services, from customer support to medical diagnostics and lab services and even legal support in some cases, will be quite disappointed. The resulting translations of human translators who don’t really know English that well and don’t really understand Japanese may be better than machine translation, but perhaps not much better.
In bad and good times, whether I have a good year usually depends on how many large projects I am able to get hold of during a given year. Most of the time it is a lawsuit involving patent litigation, or a series of new patent applications from a company abroad that needs to file patents in English in United States. But there are other opportunities for additional translations as well. For example, 2008 was a very good year for me because I worked on translations of test protocols for a new drug to be introduced to the market which continued for about 6 months, in addition to the usual patents that I was receiving from my usual clients. This meant that 2008, which would have been merely a good year for me, turned into a very good year thanks to this additional work. I think it is a fairly safe bet to say that drug companies will keep inventing new drugs (and new diseases matching these new, patented drugs) pretty much regardless of the general overall status of the economy.
There are pockets of opportunities like this that exist for translators almost regardless of the state of the economy. As the economy keep changing, and even though things may be getting mostly worse in a number of areas, freelancers who are able to identify pockets of opportunities that may be hiding just under the surface of what really is a bad economy are in a much better situation than hapless employees who simply have to do what they are told to do by their boss, until they get fired by the same boss “because of bad economy”.
Freelance translators depend on the overall state of the economy just like everybody else. But in some meaningful ways, we may be disconnected from it at times, under certain circumstances, because we are connected to it differently than people who still commute to a workplace to work there for a paycheck from 9 AM to 5 PM.
Everything depends on whether the decisions that we are forced to make day by day as we are running our freelance business, starting from decisions such as determining the field that we want to work in (literary translation, technical translation, financial translation), or the clients that we work for (direct clients versus agencies, and what kind of direct clients or agencies), are ultimately based on our experience and, hopefully, well honed instincts.
And although nobody seems to be talking about it, I happen to think that good instinct in particular is possibly the most important characteristic of a successful freelance translator.