This is a question that most translators probably never ask themselves. There are so many other things that we have to worry about every day; really, who has the time?
But if we don’t even try to understand what is happening in the marketplace where our work is bought and sold, we can only blame ourselves if we are barely able to stay in the same place, and maybe not a very good one, in the food chain of translation business, year after year.
More than two decades ago, I had a friend who was mostly translating Japanese documents dealing with nuclear reactor technology. For many years he had all the work he could handle and then some at excellent rates. The end customer was GE. I remember that he told me more than once: “I don’t have to worry about work because GE is not going to go out of business any time soon.” True, big corporations don’t go out of business very often, but they have managers who sometime make the wrong decision. One such GE manager decided after many years of collecting data from Japanese nuclear reactors that the best way to save money was to stop the translations. And the steady and reliable flow of translation business disappeared overnight. Incidentally, one would not know about it from the mainstream media, but the nuclear reactors at Fukushima were designed by GE.
But how can we predict the future development of anything when the only constant in our work and in our life is change?
Although we cannot predict future, we can try to set long-term goals for our business. About 20 years ago I determined that the best way to increase my income as a freelance translator without working myself to death was to concentrate on finding direct customers for my translations instead of selling them through brokers also known as translation agencies. 20 years ago, almost 100% of my income came from agencies. Agencies now account for about 15 to 20% of my income.
In addition to being able to predict sudden, rapid and unpredictable changes in the marketplace for translation, translators must also be able to keep pace with sudden shifts in the technology that is used to deliver and advertise their product – by which I mean mostly Internet and social media. Five years ago, social media was something that our children were using while texting their friends with silly message like LOL and R U 4 real? Today, I personally consider information that I find on my favorite blogs more important and usually much more grounded in reality than what is printed in my newspaper. Twitter and Facebook are at least as important as blogs. I will probably never learn how to text, but I have to figure out how to use these things better (in less than 5 years), even if it means that I’ll have to beg my kids to explain it to me.
Where do I see the right place for my translation business 5 years from now? If I am still alive, healthy and doing the same work, my goal for 5 years from now is still pretty much the same as what I set out to do 20 years ago: working less but for more money. Unlike employees, freelance translators have much more control over what kind of work they do and who they work for.
Although translation agencies pay less, quite a bit less, than direct customers, some still pay decent rates and some pay very quickly. Which is why I will try to fit in work for agencies with a human face as much as I can. And I will not be signing demeaning contracts in which I promise to pay an underemployed lawyer’s fees if for some reason an agency decides in its wisdom to sue me, or in which I declare that the knowledge that resides in my head is in fact “intellectual property” that is owned by an agency that asked me, a freelance contractor, to translate a patent for another client who bought this translation from said agency. A similar contract clause will be as before a deal breaker for me as a matter of principle.
I will try to expand moderately the part of my business where I am the agency and other translators work for me, but only in areas that I know something about, namely translation of patents. I will not send to other translators demeaning contracts, in fact I will not send them any contracts at all. And I will try to pay translators who work for me as quickly as possible.
Since customer attrition is inevitable in any business, I will try to lose first clients that I don’t like, which mostly means big corporations. I don’t like to work for big law firms and corporations because they always take so long to pay. And the lawyers who work for them often leave – as soon as I get used to somebody, he is gone and replaced by a new person. It makes much more sense to work for small and medium size patent law firms. That will continue to be my preferred kind of customer.
It is not easy to find a new customer, but it is really not very difficult to lose an existing customer. All you have to do is raise your rates and they will usually go away. And if they still keep sending you more work even though your rates are higher, this is a clear sign that it is time to start raising your rates to other people too because you are probably charging less than other translators.
I have not been really able to raise my rates in the last 5 years or so because the economy was and still is in such a bad shape.
But if I am still working for the same rates 5 years from now, what good am I?