Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.
In the late eighties and early nineties I had a friend who at that time had been translating technical Japanese to English for more than 20 years, first in Tokyo and then in San Francisco. He inspired me to eventually become freelance translator just like him because when I met him, I was still working as a poorly paid employee for various Japanese companies and the like as I lacked the courage to start my own business.
He was working mostly for one translation agency, a one-man agency that kept him busy working mostly for just one client. This was a very good agency, back in the days when there still were quite a few of them around, run by a man who was also a translator and who himself was fluent in several languages.
This single client that kept my friend busy working as much as he wanted and then some at very decent rates was General Electric. My friend, who called himself Slava (this was not his real name but he preferred it), did not have a resume or a business card. “I don’t need it”, he used say, “GE is not gonna go out of business”. I thought that his contempt for self-marketing was the coolest marketing strategy, something that can be achieved only by the best among translators. I never told Slava, which as I said was not his real name, only his preferred name, that some translators who used to come to meetings of translators in his house referred to him as 天皇陛下 (Tenno Heika), which literally means in Japanese “His Majesty the heavenly sovereign”, the proper term to be used by Japanese subjects when speaking about their Emperor. He would have still preferred Slava, I am sure.
Slava was for many years translating mostly procedural manuals and protocols and patents about nuclear engineering. The materials that he was translating did not seem very difficult. Some reports were handwritten, but the handwriting was mostly very neat.
Incidentally, some of the reports were from nuclear reactors in Fukushima because although the US media does not dare to talk about it, partly because a nice chunk of it is owned by GE, the reactors that exploded in Fukushima after the tsunami there three years ago were built by GE.
GE did not go out of business, but in 1991 some genius at the company decided that it was time to save money and that the best way to save it would be to cut translation costs. Were all those detailed reports from Fukushima really needed? This particular manager did not think so.
So after many years of very steady work at very good rates, Slava, the translator extraordinaire who at that point also happened to be one of the best experts on Japanese nuclear reactors in the United States, was suddenly and completely unexpectedly facing a major famine, with no other clients, and not even a resume or a business card. The business did come eventually back, but it took quite a while.
Managers in companies big and small, but especially in large corporations, often try to save money by eliminating “largely invisible and very expensive” things like translation, mostly because they don’t understand that what is or is not being translated is information, and information is the most expensive commodity on this planet, more expensive than gold and diamonds, if you know how to use it.
These days instead of completely discontinuing a long-term translation project, shortsighted managers will be more likely to try to cut corners by using machine translation instead of paying a decent rate to the best translator they know, or by sending the translation work to a third world country where the translation cost will be a fraction of what it would be in the United States or in Europe.
Which is one reason why I think that translators should have a marketing plan and a marketing strategy, even if they are really busy all the time, or most of the time, as I wrote in this post, and also in this one.
The worst thing a freelancer can do is to rely on one big client. To work only for one client is a freelancer’s version of a kiss of death.
Because if you work only for one client, or only for a few very important clients, it could be only a matter of time before the punch in the face that Mike Tyson so aptly identified will knock you out like an overconfident boxer who should have been paying better attention.