Posted by: patenttranslator | June 21, 2012

Feast and Famine or Boom and Bust – Which Do You Prefer?

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.



  1. Interesting post, Steve! I like the comparison with the Old Testament description of fat and lean years and with the economy in general. You are right: when people need us, they need us. So yes, I agree that our profession is fairly recession-proof.


  2. From your lips (or typing fingers) to God’s ears.


  3. Translation seems to have been fairly recession-proof for me, at least. In the six years since I began freelancing, I’ve had some ups and downs, but my bottom line has increased steadily year-on-year. I’m pretty much as busy now as I’ve ever been. I ain’t complainin’ 😉


  4. I have been doing this for 25 years.

    Some years are good and some not so good, but I do think translators are less affected by recessions than many other professions.


  5. Hi Steve, the difference between High and Low in the last 12 years for me was about 34%. The worst year was 2008 when the financial crisis with subprime mortgages happened. The best years were 2006 and 2011.

    However, I don’t see any relation between the global economy and my income. I was bullied at a translation workplace, during 2007 and 2008 and that had influenced my working capacity. But I have been recovering my income gradually since I was kicked out of the site. I am doing even a bit better now than I did in 2006 when I was still streetwalking at the translation workplace.

    There are more and more production systems sold from Germany to China and the operating manuals as well as maintenance guides must be translated. I think I am just luck to have had stayed in Germany for 14 years during which I worked with different industries and got to know some people in those industries. No matter how bad the global economy looks like, the Germans have to find a way to survive and that is probably only with their industrial technology and financial skills. They won’t smash the Greeks or the Spaniards. There won’t be anyone in Germany coming to the idea of an expansion of their lebensraum, again. Trading combined with diplomacy is the only solution. So, I am just lucky to be with Germans. Were I with the Americans, I would be still streetwalking somewhere among those translation portals for pennies a word.

    Of course, there are also highs and lows with the Germans, but you know how the Germans are. They like planning ahead, so that the yearly jobs can be fairly evenly distributed among the days. Urgent jobs are scarce. So, feast and famine are unlikely to happen at mine.

    There are days when I have to work intensively 8~10 hours a day, but there are days when I need only to work on several hundred words in 1 or 2 hours. These are good days to enjoy nice blogs of respectable translation colleagues or reading some books that either enhance my horizon or are just relaxing.

    Yes, ours is a profession that is fairly recession-proof, if we don’t come to the idea of buying more (TM or MT based CAT) to start to earn less. Surely, we need to invest to grow our business. But I am of the opinion that we’d better invest in getting to know people better than spending money to get us blackmailed by never ending upgrades of tools or status at some portals.

    A happy translator finds his own way to acquire clients, instead of streetwalking with badges bought at some translation workplaces. Reading your company website and your blog posts, for instance, potential clients know what you are capable of and they come to you eventually when they need your services. This should be the right way for freelance translators. Or do like what Karen Tkaczyk does, in order not to need a blog.


  6. In my case the difference between a good year and a bad one in the last 12 years was also about 30 percent.

    And while good or bad economy may be a factor in the long run, I can have a good year when economy is bad and vice versa.

    In the short run whether I am busy or not so busy depends more on how many long or continuing projects I can get my hands on during a given year.


    • You see, Steve, the most wonderful is that we not only survive without the 30%~34% or even more percentage in bad times, but are also doing well during the bad times.

      The trick is that we don’t do 5-Euro street-walking. We know the value of our services and we choose clients who cherish it. Even in bad times, we don’t suffer much from translator’s dementia. When we recognize the initial symptoms, we find the ways to do away with them. This was how I recovered my income: I went to visit some of my former clients in July, 2008 and January, 2010. I will be on my way to Germany visiting some new clients this August. I listen to their concerns and offer them my solutions.

      You have your own ways as well, some of which you have described in your blog posts. Your ways help me, too. I have learned a lot since I found your blog in 2010.

      You give us a great example of how to be a happy translator. I believe there are many people beside me who would like to say aloud: Thank you very much, Steve!


  7. “This was how I recovered my income: I went to visit some of my former clients in July, 2008 and January, 2010. I will be on my way to Germany visiting some new clients this August. I listen to their concerns and offer them my solutions.”

    This is interesting.

    When I have nothing else to do, I go through my files and then mail cards to patent lawyers in firms that I have not heard from in years.

    The cards sometime come back because people move to other firms or retire.

    So far I have not seen any result from this, but I only started doing it recently.


    • Steve, I mean the former clients during my sales activities, not clients of my translation activities.

      The new ones are the ones recommended by the former clients. They need translation services, but they are unsure of trying agencies.

      I can imagine that the law firms who went to other patent translators would have their reasons and they are usually gone forever. But there are more than enough patent law firms. Trying the new ones would be more sensible. I hope, this works better for you.


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