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.