Posted by: patenttranslator | January 31, 2013

Seven Tips for Freelance Translators on Surviving in The Crisis Mode

It has been my experience over more than 25 years of soldiering on as a freelance translator that every few years, the translation business slows to crawl and there is nothing you can do about it, pretty much regardless of your language and subject specialization.

The first time I noticed this unfortunate worldwide phenomenon was just after I moved in the fall of 1992 from San Francisco to the town of Petaluma, about 45 minutes north across the Golden Gate Bridge. At first I thought that the phone stopped ringing and the fax machine stopped spitting out pages (this was when the fax still ruled) because I foolishly removed myself from the hub of networking activity in the cool city of love. But that was not the case. Translators in San Francisco told me that they had no work either.

The crisis lasted for about 8 months. At the end, I was behind on my rent, which never happened to me before, and I even had to stop paying my car insurance. I had a wife and 2 small children to take care of and I had to figure out how to do that.

There is about an equal chance that you will be struck by lightning or that you will win millions of dollars in a lottery. And some people are struck by lightning on their way to buy a lottery ticket.

I was not struck by lightning, but an octogenarian who was pulling out his car from a curb where he was parked in front of his favorite Irish bar near Petaluma Boulevard “broadsided” my car one Saturday afternoon. The awful noise generated when his ancient vehicle was scraping my precious Honda Accord sounded just like lightning. The senior citizen had enough sense to promptly flee the scene because he was drunk and I had to call the cops, but I was the one without car insurance. Eventually, his insurance company paid up, but it was a major uphill battle lasting several months.

The crises tend to occur in the translation industry about every 6 years. The last year was slow for me too, although not as bad as in 1992, which prompted me to write this post about it. So what can one do when there is nothing to do? Allow me, gentle reader, to suggest a few helpful tips.

1.         Enjoy Sweet Procrastination

That’s right! Nothing is sweeter than procrastination – well, almost nothing (I’m thinking Chocolate,  Amaretto, or Revenge). Since there is nothing, or almost nothing as sweet as procrastination, I have been enjoying it as much as  possible, and sometime more, ever since I was a wayward teenager. When you have nothing to do, simply don’t do anything except things that are fun. You can read books or watch movies if that is what you like to do and what you can’t do when you are busy. And at some point you will be busy again, right? Surely, without your translations … this world would have to stop turning. So don’t worry, the business will come back roaring again, although it may take a while.

2.         Be Aware of the Relative Insignificance of Your Tribulation

It could be always worse. You could have terminal cancer, or be seriously injured or die in a car accident. Or worse still, your in-laws could announce that they are planning to visit for a few weeks. So quit whining already and enjoy your freedom!

3.         Go on Vacation

How can I go on vacation when there is no money coming in, you might ask. Well, that’s what credit cards are for. We absolutely can’t go on vacation when we are really busy, so it only makes sense that we should do that when things are slow and worry about money later. I put the airfare on plastic, and I always have some money in the bank. So last year I went again to Prague and Southern Bohemia to get the familiar longing for the places where I grew up out of my system.

4.         Don’t Be Scared – Be Prepared!

               I always, make that usually, keep a cash reserve of at least a thousand dollars for emergencies. We have nasty hurricanes here and should Eastern Virginia be the target of a direct landfall of a major hurricane, the best thing to do would be to get the hell out of here before it hits us here. I have not needed to do that so far although I have been living here for over 11 years. This cash reserve is what I take with me on vacation when nobody seems to need me for anything as mentioned in point 3. When things improve, I will start replenishing the cash reserve so that I could use it again in case of an emergency, I mean when I want to go on vacation.

5.           Think of How Much Money You Will Save on Taxes!

When you make no money, you owe no taxes, and that certainly is a big plus. Every time when I have a great year, come April 15 which is the day when taxes must be filed for the previous year, Uncle Sam hits me worse than a lightning strike and it usually takes me several months to pay off what I owe. It is much easier to survive the tax day after a bad year, especially if things pick up after January, which they usually do.

6.           Hold Your Head High – You Are a Freelancer!

Because it would be much worse if you were an employee. If you were an employee who got fired for some reason, usually because your employer finds somebody cheaper than you, you would be receiving unemployment for a while, corresponding to a fraction of your normal income, which would be followed by no income at all. Freelancers don’t depend on an employer. If we lose a customer, that’s too bad, but it is not really such a big deal. There is always other fish in the ocean. I was fired once as employee many moons ago. It was such a huge blow to my fragile ego that almost immediately I determined to try to make it as a freelancer.

And I am still here making a living as a freelancer after a quarter century, aren’t I? All things considered, it is much easier to survive bad economy when you are a freelancer, and self-employment is not nearly as risky as being in a traditional employer-employee relationship these days.

7.           Don’t Forget to Periodically Reevaluate Your Marketing Strategy

If it still takes too long for business to pick up, the lack of work may be a combination of bad economy and bad business management decisions on your part. When is the last time you have done any marketing in a systematic manner?

I asked myself this question after January first this year, and I discovered that it was about five years ago. No matter how long one has been in business, it is probably a good idea to have a marketing plan and a strategy for attracting new business. As things change over time, we need to be able to change as well (Tempora mutantur et nos mutamus in illis). Although I did not really have time to do much about that when I was really busy, if I have the time now, it makes sense to start a marketing campaign now.

I could never bring myself to make cold calls and I am not good at schmoozing with colleagues for intelligence collection purposes, especially given that I have no colleagues within a few hundred miles from where I live. But I did start a new e-mailing campaign this year with a different market segment of direct clients in mind, and I plan to continue doing so on and off until I get really busy again.

Incidentally, I am glad that I started marketing my business again because I received my first job from this marketing campaign yesterday.

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Responses

  1. Funny you should write this today. Just yesterday I got myself two air tickets for a long-postoned visit to some friends and for sightseeing. Admittedly one was to use my expiring FF miles (accumulated thanks to a number of work assignments over previous months), but with things so slow at the moment I was wondering if I was entirely sane to do that. I will definitely follow on your last tip.

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    • That’s what Carl Jung called synchronicity.

      There are really no coincidences, only unexplained causal occurrences.

      Like

  2. As usual, thank you for writing. As a translator from Argentina, I am used to crisis and survival, but your words clearly help to feel not-so-lost at times, and also to see crisis affects people anywhere, even in apparently “more organised” places. (This special blog urged me to write, but I´ve been reading your rants for a long time now- and many times sharing them with my family, to show them I am not so strange… It´s the profession!)

    Like

  3. Thanks – as always, funny and useful.

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  4. Thank you, as always.

    Like

  5. A Thank You from me too… you have inspired me to prepare a plan and some materials in order to look for some new direct clients, seeing as procrastinating and enjoying myself are beginning to pale a bit.

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    • Thank you. I see this as More Evidence of the effects of synchronicity on our lives.

      Like

  6. I totally agree with your marketing idea. I have found that a WRITTEN business plan, that includes marketing plans, is very important for a conscious and effective business.

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  7. Whatever works for you.

    I never tried it myself but it is probably a good idea.

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  8. One can teach English through Skype and survive the lull that way. You can make some $1200-1400 a month doing that.

    Would like to read an article about how much money an average translator should be making, aiming to make and how much we should be charging per word.

    How many hours should we aim to work daily/weekly/monthly- what is the average norm? Please give typical scenarios of a median Joe Translator’s economic life.

    Please provide ‘ranges’ or ball park figures if you can’t think of clear numbers. Please do not write- “it depends”and leave the rest blank.

    This would really help all of us.

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  9. Thank you for your comment.

    “Would like to read an article about how much money an average translator should be making, aiming to make and how much we should be charging per word.”

    This could get me into trouble as the American Translators Association was sued some time ago by the Department of Justice for recommending a minimum rate that translators should be charging, although associations of translators in other countries are free to do precisely that.

    To the extent that is permissible here, I did make some comments on this subject in the following post:

    https://patenttranslator.wordpress.com/2012/11/23/some-thoughts-on-the-relative-importance-of-how-much-translators-make-per-hour/

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  10. […] A few helpful tips  […]

    Like

  11. […] It has been my experience over more than 25 years of soldiering on as a freelance translator that every few years, the translation business slows to crawl and there is nothing you can do about it, pretty much regardless of your …  […]

    Like

  12. […] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrZw8RToN2Y It has been my experience over more than 25 years of soldiering on as a freelance translator that every few years, the translation business slows to crawl…  […]

    Like

  13. […] Be Aware of the Relative Insignificance of Your TribulationIt could be always worse. You could have terminal cancer, or be seriously injured or die in a car accident. Or worse still, your in-laws could announce that they are planning to visit for a few weeks. So quit whining already and enjoy your freedom!  […]

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  14. Just found your blog and I enjoyed reading this article. Business is really slow for me too but in the last few years I have learnt not to panic (waste of energy) and do exactly what you say: employ part of my time doing things I enjoy and I don’t have time for when I am super busy AND marketing. I must confess I do not enjoy advertising, I find it rather boring, but I realise how important it is to do it at least once a year. Incidentally do you have any tips for finding direct clients, as I am not awfully good at networking (I find that spending hours trawling forums/social sites and the like drains my energy). To cheer myself up last week I have booked flights for Easter time to finally go and visit a relative volunteering there with an NGO I have myself helped with translations. And we’ll throw in a couple of safaris as well. 🙂

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  15. “Incidentally do you have any tips for finding direct clients”

    This is a complicated subject which I am trying to address at least partially in some of my posts.

    It depends on who your end clients are. You need to have a good idea who they are and then go after them by having a website that they are likely to find, by sending them e-mails, cold calling them, etc.

    Different people have different methods.

    I used to do mailing campaigns many years ago which is how I picked my first direct clients, but mailing is too expensive now as the postage costs twice as much as what it used to cost in the nineties here in US.

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  16. Your advice is great. From the 4th of Feb. on, I will be on vacation till the end of Jun.

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  17. Planning a vacation and alerting your sometime clients that you’ll be out of town for three weeks is a good marketing tactic. You may never get to take that vacation, because a few clients will discover that they need you exactly on those dates.
    Great post, Steve!

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  18. I think that even in Bible times there were translators mulling over this same conundrum. Not in vain they speak of the 7 “fat” and the 7 “lean” years (or cows, whatever). These past weeks, I was wondering whether I somehow had gone out of the grid and everybody had forgotten about me, and was doing all of these things that we old hands do when we are hit by the lean (read “slow”, or “ultra-slow”) times, to which, if you allow me Steve, I would add one (especially dedicated to lady-translators): “go shopping”. Suddenly I got a call and lo and behold, I got swamped by rush-rush/hush-hush legal work and had to pull a stretch of 3 days almost without sleep (hence I ended up the week feeling zombie-like) and am only today just getting back to my normal thought processes. And while I was doing that, true to Murphy’s law, I had to turn down 2 urgent job requests. So, I now look to settle down for the aftermath and maybe another lull – which I plan to enjoy, as it is summer and we are going through a heat wave. The main thing is, as you rightly say, Steve, not to panic. There is a God up there that is watching after us dedicated translators, after all. (And I already had my vacations, so I cannot do that, more’s the pity…).

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  19. Not only your tips are useful, but first of all, they are soothing – it’s good to know that we’re not the only ones to feel like if “the whole world has forgotten about us.” 🙂 As a beginning translator, I shall concentrate mostly on the last point from your list, that is marketing, which can be quite disheartening, as it takes time and effort to get some solid results.
    Anyway, thanks for this post!

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  20. Thank you. It is helpful to me. Happy to be a freelancer.

    Like

  21. […] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrZw8RToN2Y It has been my experience over more than 25 years of soldiering on as a freelance translator that every few years, the translation business slows to crawl…  […]

    Like

  22. […] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrZw8RToN2Y It has been my experience over more than 25 years of soldiering on as a freelance translator that every few years, the translation business slows to crawl…  […]

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  23. Great post, and this holds true for translation companies as well. We catch up on other office work that gets neglected when we are busy. Cleaning out our harcopy files, taking jobs off the server and onto back up devices, our internal ISO audits, planning, and any other re-org we need.

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  24. Which crisis? 😉

    Lionbridge Announces FY 2012 Results http://www.providencejournal.com/business/press-releases/20130213-lionbridge-announces-fy-2012-results-with-revenue-of-457.1-million-gaap-eps-of-0.19-and-non-gaap-eps-of-0.46.ece

    Like

    • “Using our innovative cloud technology platforms and our global crowd of more than 100,000 professional cloud workers, we provide translation, online marketing, global content management and application testing solutions that ensure global brand consistency”

      “100 thousand professional cloud workers” … doesn’t cloud workers mean free or virtually workers?

      What kind of horse meat are they putting into their frozen dinner translations to “ensure global brand consistency??

      Like

  25. A very “special” crisis…

    Moravia Achieves Record Revenues of US$67.7 Million
    http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/moravia-achieves-record-revenues-of-us677-million-190058651.html

    Like

  26. […] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SrZw8RToN2Y It has been my experience over more than 25 years of soldiering on as a freelance translator that every few years, the translation business slows to crawl…  […]

    Like

  27. […] accent in a second language Is The Lack of Gender Specificity in The English Language a Good Thing? Seven Tips for Freelance Translators on Surviving in The Crisis Mode How to multiply your revenue combining translation and interpreting Endangered languages: can […]

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