I used to have a friend who was translating technical Japanese to English. This was in mid eighties in San Francisco. He basically worked for only one customer – General Electric – through one tiny agency. They kept him very busy for many years translating procedural and maintenance manuals and records from nuclear reactors … in Fukushima, of course. This is something that I never saw never mentioned by the conveniently forgetful media in this country, but the aging nuclear reactors that were damaged by the tsunami on March 11, 2011, were built by GE.
He used to tell me: “I don’t have to worry about running out of work. GE is not gonna go out of business.” He did not even have a business card or a résumé. He was kind of proud about it, and I was kind of admiring him for it. “That is so cool”, I used to think to myself, in the hope that one day I too might become a small giant in my line of work who does not even need a business card, let alone a résumé.
GE did not go out of business, but somebody in the management decided to save money during a minor economic downturn in the early nineties and as everybody knows, the easiest thing to save money in just about every business is to save money on translation. Of course you may not have the information that you may need to have, but people usually realize it only after a tsunami hits them, and it may take years or decades before something like that happens. My friend started having all of a sudden too much free time on his hands around 1992.
Over the years I have learned that it is best not to get too attached to one’s customers, even the really good ones. They only send you work because they momentarily need somebody like you, and you only work for them because you need to have customers in order to pay bills. It makes sense to be nice to them, but you don’t have to love them. You are not married to them.
Customers come and send you tons of work and big fat checks for years and years. And then one day, after years of steady business, they leave for reasons that we as freelancers cannot influence, even if we could figure them out, which we usually cannot. It may be a management decision, usually of a mid-manager who does not really know what he is doing, oblivious to the writing on the wall that spells in big letters that the way things are going, his job will be eliminated one day soon too.
The only constant is change. That is just how things are in the freelance business, and probably in any business.
One constant that we can hold on to is the knowledge that as long as we can learn to cope with changes that life and fate are throwing under our feet to slow us or take us down when we are finally beginning to pick up speed, whatever doesn’t kill us will hopefully make us a little bit stronger.
I still work for one or two customers who used to send me work ten or fifteen years ago. But many of them don’t even exist anymore. Large and small law firms go out of business quite frequently.
And I still talk once in a while to one translation agency owner who started sending me work 25 years translation work. And although he is semi-retired now, he still sends me some work from time to time.
It was Thomas Jefferson who said:”The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”.
And the tree of freelance enterprise must be refreshed from time to time with lots of business from brand new clients when old clients who have been with us forever defect to greener pastures where labor is cheaper.
As long as we know how to find new clients, we will let the new clients benefit from what we have learned over the years by working for our former clients who don’t need us anymore for whatever reason.
All good things must come to an end so that new things, equally good and maybe even better, could start.