If you don’t have a plan, you become a part of somebody else’s plan.
I see on social media and on blogs that many translators are incessantly complaining about “huge profit margins” of translation agencies. And it is true – profit margins of translation agencies who know what they are doing, have been around for a while and have a lot work for translators, are very healthy, probably higher than the profits of agencies in another line of business.
Although I am not sure about that. When I lived in San Francisco, I had a friend, who worked as a graphic artist for a mixture of customers consisting mostly of private businesses with a few advertising agencies, who told me that the profit margin of the marketing agencies was 50%, which would be about the same as in the translation business.
Some translation agencies would like to present translation not as a task that is performed by a translator, but rather as a process in which a translator is only creating a draft translation during the initial stage of the process, which is then improved in many other stages.
Most people with a functioning brain will be able to tell that all of this talk about numerous quality control stages is transparent marketing propaganda. When I work as an agency, I know that once I find a suitable translator, the process is really simple. I proofread the translation and fix a few typos, if any. Oh, yes, and sometime I fiddle with the formatting. That’s it, folks. Why would I want to mess up a perfectly good translation? In spite of my own description of this blog (Diary of a Mad Patent Translators), I am not really crazy.
But in fact, I happen to believe that these healthy profit margins of translation agencies are basically reasonable and well deserved.
Although “an independent translator” who works for a translation agency has to first translate everything and do as good a job as possible, this translator would have not been able to work at all without the work, effort, and money that went into what I would call the infrastructure that made it possible for a particular translation job to eventually end up as an attachment in a translator’s mailbox.
The agency is selling you access to its own infrastructure, and there is no reason why an agency should sell access to its infrastructure, the all-important pipeline supplying work to “freelance translators”, for a less healthy margin. This access is crucial to many translators, although not to all of them, and possibly not even most of them. But if you want to use their infrastructure, you should be ready to pay for it.
After more than 26 years of making my living as a freelance translator, I am barely able to charge a slightly higher rate to translation agencies than the going rate. But as I have my own infrastructure in place, I do not depend on access to somebody else’s infrastructure, as most of my clients are direct clients. So I don’t really need work from agencies, although I will gladly work for them if they pay my rate.
Some translators believe that solution to low rates is organizing by translators in order to pressure translation agencies to pay better rates. It may be a partial solution, but I am not convinced that it will work. It kind of reminds me of the old battle cry “Workers Of All Countries, Unite!” That one did not work so good, did it? But who knows, I could be wrong about it. Different business models can definitely work.
What I think does work is creating your own infrastructure, a base of clients who, because they are not translation agencies, will pay you double of what you can get from people who let you use their infrastructure.
I believe that it is in every translator’s power to do that, although it is likely to take a lot of work for years.
How would one go about creating this infrastructure?
1. Identify Your Best Market Segment
First, identify a market segment that needs the translation service that you are providing, a market segment that is likely to pay good money for good work. It took me about three years to figure out the answer to this question, but by about 1990 I realized that in my case, this market segment are law firms, and patent law firms in particular.
2. Stop Sending Resumes to Translation Agencies!
Secondly, instead of sending your resume to thousand of fly-by-night translation agencies, which is what thousands of other translators and would-be translators all over the world are doing in this very moment, find a way to market your service to this market segment. I started with mass mailings to patent law firms in early nineties.
These mailings were very labor-intensive and quite expensive, but some of these law firms who found me in this manner still send me work more than 20 years later.
A much cheaper and much less labor-intensive method is creating a website targeted at the market segment that is likely to pay good rates. I started working on my own website in the year 2000. The first three years I had no response at all. It takes a while before you figure out what will work for your website because everything depends on your particular strengths and weaknesses, such as your language combinations and other particular skills.
But I did eventually figure out a formula that was and still is working for me in my particular case.
3. Do Whatever Else Is Likely To Work for You
Thirdly, there must be many other ways to create your own base of direct clients, depending on where you live, how you use social media, whether you are able to market yourself directly, for example by attending conferences, or by making the dreaded cold calls, etc.
4. If You Can’t Be Bothered To Look for Your Own Clients, Stop Griping About Excessive Profit Margins of Translation Agencies
Fourthly, if you are not willing to make a major investment of your time, effort, and money into creating your own infrastructure, don’t gripe and moan about the “exorbitantly high margins” that translation agencies are enjoying, while you have to do all the work as the translator.
It is true that you do all the work, and they are making all the money, seemingly for nothing. But they did the important work involved in creating the infrastructure that eventually lured the customers to their agency. They are allowing you to use their infrastructure because they need you for a particular job, and now they are making you a part of their infrastructure, a part that is designed to be easily replaceable.
If you don’t like this arrangement, what is stopping you from creating your own infrastructure?