Posted by: patenttranslator | July 1, 2013

The biggest mistake that freelance translators make

Guest post by Valerij Tomarenko in Germany.

Valerij Tomarenko studied literature, translation and music composition in Russia.

He has been working as a freelance translator (German to Russian and English to Russian) in Hamburg, Germany, since 1993.

You will find more information on his website ( and his blog “Anmerkungen des Übersetzers” (“Translator’s Notes”).

There is no shortage of advice for translation buyers. On one end, there is Chris Durban’s inspiring “Translation: Getting it Right”, a “guide to buying translation” from ATA. On the other, you will find a lot of helpful information from all kinds of translation agencies and freelance translators even if their primary purpose is to help potential buyers find these very agencies or translators and forget the rest. Even I contributed to the plethora of tips for customers when Kevin Lossner asked me to give  some advice on “how to achieve best results when working with translators” (“Clients get the translators they deserve”).

 As a seasoned outsourcer (or a “hybrid translator” in the terminology of the Patent Translator here), I think I know what to look for when sourcing for or working together with other translators. It is not that I don’t need good advice, but I start to have doubts whether it can be of any use to a serious translation buyer after all.

Quite often, when I seem to have identified a fitting candidate for this or that particular translation job (through directories of professional associations, translators’ forums, colleagues’ recommendations or even ProZ), the translator’s response to my request would be quite simple: “Unfortunately, I am busy with a project to be completed by… Afterwards, I would be happy to help.”

This is true not only about new translators who I am contacting for the first time. Many very good colleagues who I have been working with for years also appear to be busy always with other urgent assignments. They are really sorry, but they have to decline.

I am not sure whether to call this response “too simple” or “unambiguously negative”. It doesn’t really matter since “no”, “non, “nein” or “nyet” sound both simple and negative, in every language. I usually just thank all the translators who replied and don’t have much to explain: we all know that I probably wouldn’t be able to get back with the same job “afterwards”, since it also has a similar expiration date. Some day, I would have another job and perhaps be more lucky.

At that moment, however, I have to look for someone else. I don’t have statistics, but I have the impression that I hear “no”, “non”, “nein” or “nyet” rather often.

My general impression is that freelance translators are terribly busy. Well, I am terribly busy myself. I can’t really remember the last time when I was working on only one project and not juggling several projects at the same time. It is possible to work simultaneously on several projects, although you have to outsource.

But apparently, most translators work differently. They don’t have time and they don’t outsource. Or they don’t know or cannot recommend somebody to share the job with. If I were a “normal” translation buyer, after three or four “no’s” I would instead outsource the whole thing to a translation agency. As I am a translator myself, I am writing this post instead.

Apart from many other things, I think this specific ability to say “no” along with their Buddhist concentration on the present moment is what makes freelancers so different from agencies. The latter also live in the present, but, from the viewpoint of a translation buyer, they have an essential, future-oriented advantage: they manage to take on any job and Get It Done.

I am well aware that an agency may first agree to take on a job and only then start looking for someone to actually perform the translation. In fact, I believe that finding a translator for a particular translation job is still the core competence of an agency, regardless of their marketing propaganda and shop talk about efficient working processes, innovative technology and all.

The core competence of the best language professional who I identified for my job would be: specialist knowledge and excellent writing skills. For me as a translation buyer, that is what I lose if I have to look somewhere else (and eventually find a second-rate alternative to get the job done).

It also means a loss of business for this particular language professional. Since this is not an isolated case, rather a typical situation for many translation buyers and many freelance translators, in the long run it means loss of business for practically all very good and very busy translators. For both sides, it means losing business to translation agencies and compromising on quality for simply getting things done.

The good advice for translation buyers is wasted. So instead, should I give just some advice to freelance translators? Should I proclaim the principle that all is fish that ends up in our net?

Before we continue, let us agree on terms and definitions. Under “freelance translators” I mean serious, committed, high-end translators who are not only talented language professionals and specialists in their respective subject areas, but – hopefully at least a bit – entrepreneurs. Under “translation buyers” I mean direct premium clients (the ideal target group for authors of advice on buying translation) or boutique language services companies who look for premium quality translation and dedicated service.

If these conditions are met, I do think that the biggest mistake of freelance translators is to reject new job offers due to their current assignments. However, if you are a freelance translator and the situation applies to you, you are probably eager to cry out against this.

To anticipate your thoughts, let me state in advance, that I am perfectly fine with rejecting job offers that are not compatible with our rates or rather values, with our professional attitude and understanding. I find it satisfying to fire clients who are a drag on our productivity and professional growth.

However, if you think that freelancing is about freedom, including freedom to say “no”, please consider that most good freelance translators are not free. They are busy. They might be too busy for their own good. At the moment, they are working on their current assignments, so the loss of freedom to take on another, possibly interesting and rewarding project, seems to be temporary, but in the long run, they risk to lose a lot more of their freedom (and also way more projects) to those who get things done. In other words, to generic, “we take it all” translation agencies.

Certainly, nothing is impossible for those who don’t have to do the work themselves. But I would like instead to put a positive spin on these familiar words.

The obvious solution is collaboration. If you are a serious, committed, professional translator, you have probably networked with other colleagues through associations, conferences, forums or user groups. If you don’t tap into this potential, you are losing your chances for really interesting, large, complex or multilingual projects. And you will lose much more of your future business to translation agencies. That is why, if the above situation applies to you, before answering “no”, “non, “nein” or “nyet”, maybe you could use a few minutes to check your contact list.

If you think that sharing a job with your colleague means helping your competitor, I think you are wrong. If my description of a “freelance translator” is applicable both for you and your colleague, I don’t think it is advisable to compete against each other. I think your real competitor is someone else, namely a generic translation agency. If neither you nor your colleague can accommodate the job to be done and help your potential client, your client’s next stop will be a translation agency rather than another, good and busy, solitary language professional.

It is a pity that all that good advice is wasted and a bad thing for the market for quality translations on the whole. As long as freelance translators don’t collaborate and don’t tap into the already available networking potential (although the idea of collaboration is in the air, e.g. Stridonium), the market will be driven by a severe competition among agencies. Since most of them are jacks of all trades who specialized in all languages, they can only primarily compete on prices.

Their commoditized, price-driven market is not the market for premium translations. But if the best language professionals don’t have enough resources to land higher quality translation jobs, they risk to expose their own market to erosion and eventually lose it to erosive market forces.

That is why I think that the biggest mistake of freelance translators is their failure to collaborate. For all the good tips for translation buyers to be valid in future, freelance translators need to bear this in mind.

Starting with the subject of advice, I re-read my post on Kevin Lossner’s blog. I thought it would be a good idea to end this one in a similar way. I think that the key word here would not be “the biggest mistake”, but “collaboration”. I am not sure if the word “collaboration” is in the Bible.

But, as the rabbi said, the rest is commentary.


  1. This is good advice — especially since even freelancers, after all, need a vacation once in a while. When leaving the country for a few weeks, I always try to recommend an freelance translator who is more expensive than I am. 😉


  2. Either you have stolen my solution to this problem, or I have stolen yours.


  3. […] Guest post by Valerij Tomarenko in Germany. Valerij Tomarenko studied literature, translation and music composition in Russia. He has been working as a freelance translator (German to Russian and E…  […]


  4. Thanks for the insightful advice :), I have been reading your posts since quiet sometime now. Thanks a million and keep it up pls.


  5. That’s a terribly long article which really just wants to say “collaborate”. Edit?


  6. On the morning of day 2, it’s got 27 tweets already.

    Had I written it myself, I would consider it a pretty good result, especially considering that the post was written by somebody who, from what I have seen, can write very eloquently in 3 languages.

    I don’t know too many people who would be able to do that.


  7. […] Guest post by Valerij Tomarenko in Germany. Valerij Tomarenko studied literature, translation and music composition in Russia. He has been working as a freelance translator (German to Russian and E…  […]


  8. Great post by Valerij! I totally agree on every word he says. Collaboration will benefit the whole community of translators in the long run. It’s an excellent way to differentiate ourselves from translation agencies and, of course, to offer better services to our clients.


  9. I set deadlines for non-rush rates assuming I will be working half-time on an individual client’s job, at least for the first week or so of a project, so I can fit in other work (both recurring projects and new ones). If I can’t meet the proposed deadline but would like to work with that client, I don’t just say “no” – I tell them when I could complete the job, in case they can get an extension. If I can take it on a rush basis as an overload, I tell them what the rush fee would be. But in recent years, such negotiations have been very difficult because people are always in such a hurry. They want their 2000 words in less than 24 hours (even less than 8 hours) with no rush charges because somebody told them translators average 2000 words per day… Really. It is insane. So I often lose jobs because they can’t wait a single day longer. The idea that a translator might already be working a full schedule and may need a few days just to start their job is completely foreign to them. In earlier years, people expected to have to wait a decent amount of time, but now that they can send the file in a minute- they think it should be sent back equally fast. They also forget that if we translate for eight hours per day, we are already working overtime because there are other tasks to be done for the business. And proofreading should be separated from drafting/researching by at least a sleep period. Plus problems can arise in technical work that need more research and thinking time to resolve. Basically, their math is way off.

    By collaboration, you really are suggesting we all become outsourcers (i.e., primordial agencies). Finding collaborators and negotiating with them and juggling a shared project takes even more time than negotiating with the client, that’s why agencies and outsourcers charge more. Not all of us are suited to that (hence the proliferation of translation agencies, primordial and otherwise). I also have found that even if I am not the collaborator-finder but just the collaborator, such collaboration can be more time-consuming than time-saving when the translators are not equally matched, as has usually been the case for me. I am highly specialized and often am paired or teamed with those who are not- I am often the only techie on the team, which is why they want me. But that means I spend a disproportionate amount of time advising and correcting the technical language of others. Unless I am being paid by the hour for such consultation, this means I make less per hour than usual. (There is a reason I don’t offer editing services. In my areas, full technical editing can take longer than a full translation.)

    People in other areas (I work in chemistry, physics, and biotech) may not have the same problem with collaboration because it may be easier to find well-matched partners. But lack of an address book full of potential collaborators is not really the reason we have to say “no” so often. It is the unrealistic deadline expectations, and that is relatively new (maybe even just mainly in the past ten years or so).


  10. There is a difference between saying no to an agency and saying no to a direct client.

    I basically only work on a regular basis for 2 agencies, and I almost never say no to them. The reason is simple: both of these agencies pay me within a few days because they appreciate what I am trying to do for them. Incidentally, I generally do the same to translators who work for me, except when I am broke, which happens a couple of times a year. But even then I pay within 30 days.

    To other agencies I say no frequently. Unless they give me plenty of time and pay a good rate, unfortunately, I am not available. If they ask for a rush job right off the bat without even mentioning a higher rate, I don’t even bother to answer.

    I have two rates for direct clients – rush and non-rush, and rush includes a 40% surcharge. This means that most jobs from direct clients are received as non-rush by default as they only specify rush when the job really is a rush job and they are (or their client is) willing to pay more for the translation.

    This is a simple system that has been working for me reasonably well for about 20 years.

    I believe that, mutatis mutandis, every translator can design a similar system that will be compatible with his or her particular situation.


  11. Thank you for your comment, Cathy!

    “By collaboration, you really are suggesting we all become outsourcers (i.e., primordial agencies)”. Yes, it is exactly what I suggest.

    “Not all of us are suited to that…”. Yes, and that is why I laid down my definitions and, if the criteria like “serious, committed, high-end” certainly apply to you or the type of a translator you describe, there remains for me only to emphasize the word “entrepreneur” once again (remember George W.: “The problem with the French is they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”).

    The situation that you describe IS the market. I’m afraid it is like it is. You cannot change the market. You only can try to change yourself. Or at least try to adapt or change you reaction/attitude to this market. As a freelance translator; you are already effectively an entrepreneur. You are not French :), n’est pas? Perhaps it helps to realize that you have to update your set of skills, if the market compels you to do so.

    That is bad for some primordial translation agencies, if they are your clients, but better for yourself and better for direct clients. (As a client, I hate to hear “no”, when I know that I can offer much better rates, terms and projects, but the freelance translator who I contacted is not free to accept them, he/she is busy.)

    I think we just have to team up. If you take the European standard 15308 at face value, you actually cannot operate on your own, since you need somebody else, a second professional, to review your translation.

    I am sorry for the situation that you describe, but it would be even more a pity if some primordial agencies (that proliferate, like you say), not you, would take advantage and profit from this situation.

    I really think there is no alternative. Either you call the shots or – it is like it is (or probably even gets worse, if we don’t act).

    So cheer up. I am quite an optimist in this respect (it is a pessimist who says it cannot get worse, I am positive it can :))


    • You are an outsourcer/team builder (really a project manager) because you enjoy that task and do it well, so it makes great sense for you to add that to your translation services. I am a scientist who can translate scientific materials. I don’t enjoy outsourcing or the care and feeding of direct clients and doubt that I do it very well compared with others. It makes no sense for me to add that service. I don’t offer to cook a meal for clients either…:)

      The point is that the added tasks you do take time and skill. They are worth extra money. That’s why people like me are happy to work for agents and agencies. My translation work is very labor-intensive and I would have to do a lot less of it in order to add the services you suggest, and I would have to charge more, adding project management fees. But that would not be “free money” – I would be working for it, just not enjoying it much. It makes more sense for me to use my real skills as “just a scientific translator” than to try to do a job that you and others do better and more happily. We don’t all have to be you! It’s very nice that you are you, but I don’t want to be you. You may not realize that you are doing so many very different tasks besides translation proper because you enjoy your work. So I can see how you can enthusiastically feel all translators should (or even must) do the same. But it’s okay for people to play different roles in the translation process.

      I’ve seen similar debates over the years. “Translators must offer DTP! The market demands it!” Well, no, they don’t. I routinely tell clients that I only do simple formatting (a lot of my work comes as hardcopy), that there will be a setup fee for anything more complicated (by the hour) and if they truly need such formatting- it makes more sense for them to have a real DTP specialist set up the source in-house or outsourced rather than pay me translator rates for DTP work that the specialist will do faster and better. Same for deciphering handwriting- better to hire a native speaker to quickly do a decent transcript rather than paying me by the hour to try to decipher it. Some translators really are DTP specialists and handwriting specialists and can offer that as an added skill and enjoy the work. More power to them. Likewise with the CAT debates. The work I am best suited for simply does not benefit from CAT the same way some other work does. I use a simple CAT tool for my own internal purposes, but I would have to charge more if afflicted by a project TM (they are riddled with errors in my fields and it takes time to fix them). That doesn’t mean CAT tools are useless. They just aren’t equally useful for everybody. Translators who own and use multiple CAT tools are dealing with a very different part of the market and are offering something that I can’t. But I also offer decades of experience as a real live chemist and physicist (Ph.D. In a joint program) and translator to my clients, and that’s something most translators can’t offer. Translation is simply not just one market.


  12. “Translation is simply not just one market.”

    Exactly. And every translator is different as we all have different strengths and weaknesses.

    But if you do a lot of patents and articles from technical and medical journals, which I think is the case, you would not have to deal with the headaches and pressures described in your previous e-mail if you worked mostly directly for patent law firms because unlike agencies, patent lawyers understand that rush costs quite a bit more, and they are usually willing to give you plenty of time when it is not really a rush job to get a better price, or pay significantly more when the translation really is urgent.

    And you don’t really have to do a lot of client hand holding, offer DTP and complicated formatting either, and no CATs are required. I don’t use CATs myself and I have never been asked about them by a law firm. In fact, I think that they would kind of frown on such a mechanistic approach to translation.

    I do think that it really is worth the extra effort to go after direct clients, which means mostly figuring out how to market your services to direct clients instead of to agencies. It does take a lot of time and effort, at least initially, but it is basically the same thing as marketing to agencies.

    I also understand that somebody who has been translating for as long as you would be reluctant to make this extra effort.

    We are all different people, and that’s how it should be. There is no one cookie cutter model for every translator.


    • Actually, people like me are better off just being in a lot of databases… I actually have done a lot of work for lawyers through the intermediary of tiny “agencies” which were actually one or two translators/interpreters who worked directly for the lawyers and managed translation projects for them, being able to go on site to see what they needed, do some of the translation themselves, and edit translations. That seems ideal to me. I am just their pet techie, sometimes just consulting on parts of correspondence as well as doing translations. I actually did try direct marketing long ago, which is why I know that’s not the way I want to go. I much prefer a buffer between me and the end client anyway. It’s fine to point out that project management can be added to your offerings (that’s really what we’re talking about), but it is also okay for a translator to be just a team member rather than a team builder.

      I do think the deadline pressure in general is severe today, and I see that with lawyers as well. Maybe it hasn’t reached your clients yet. This is a problem in other computerized work areas, and my feeling is that stress-related illnesses are or will be on the rise as a result. Definitely my work is far more stressful today than when computers first started replacing our typewriters. I’ve kept track of time since I began, and definitely the computer (while it has helped in some aspects) has added to our workload rather than reducing it. My actual daily translation output hasn’t seriously changed, but the number of real nonbillable hours I have to work has increased. Our fees have gone up because the cost of working increased, as well as the cost of working. Our society hasn’t really adjusted yet to this technological shift. The problem with downward pressure on fees is another issue, but that is tied to general economy problems especially in my areas.


  13. You wouldn’t believe in how many NSA databases people like us are, Cathy.

    I really wouldn’t mind being in fewer databases … the ones where they store information about people like me without our knowledge, against our will, and in the most flagrant violation of what used to be called the US Constitution and what now has been reduced to a mostly useless piece of paper.

    (Sorry, I could not help making this comment).


  14. Oh, I believe it. I worked part-time on peace issues for ten years. (Lots of money in war, no money in peace.) I’m sure I’m in lots of government files, they don’t appreciate public opposition to their endless wars. (My theory is that the US government is going for the record set by the 100 Year War. We’ve been at war continuously since at least 1941.) Even had my phone tapped, which genuinely shocked my Congressional Rep’s aide (“But, but, but, you’re not doing anything illegal!” Silly boy.) They were using old equipment that made tell-tale noises, so when we heard them, we would offer to put them on our mailing list and phone tree for a small fee. Witness for Peace would stop periodically during conference calls to pray for the spies on the line. Our spies at meetings were pretty obvious. A friend engaged in legal protest during the Vietnam War said they always knew who the government people were because the plants were always trying to get the group to do something violent. In coalitions against wars, the loud ones racing in front of the cameras and hitting people etc. are pretty likely to be on the government payroll. In one regional demonstration, our own peacekeepers turned such a guy over to police, and he was walking around freely at the police station chatting with his police colleagues while the arrested nonviolent protesters were cuffed so tight with plastic handcuffs that one suffered nerve damage. The media of course reported “violence breaks out…” and identified the police plant as one of the protesters.


  15. But still, those were the good times when they were spying only on people who wanted peace.

    People like that are obviously very dangerous, so no wonder that the government had to spy on them.

    But now they spy on everybody, regardless of in which country you live … TO KEEP US SAFE FROM THE BAD, BAD TERRORISTS!!!

    And then they store everything in their databases so that they could use it later.

    Cardinal de Richelieu would have loved modern technology with databases and technology for endless storage. Unfortunately for him, he was born about 400 years too early.

    Remember, he is supposedly the one who said “Qu’on me donne six lignes écrites de la main du plus honnête homme, j’y trouverai de quoi le faire pendre.”

    (If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him.)


  16. “When leaving the country for a few weeks, I always try to recommend a freelance translator who is more expensive than I am.”

    This could be a good solution for some translators. For some other even smarter ones, it would be to recommend some more translators who have more scary rates and, however, perform less, so that when the smarter ones come back from their vocations can resume their jobs with certainty.

    Joke aside, I would be more interested to know exactly why translators fail in matter of collaboration. Would it be the topic for another blog post at yours, Steve?


  17. Welcome back, Wenjer.

    I missed your irreverent comments. You must have been vacationing on the Moon or somewhere where there was no access to Internet.

    Sure, that would be a good topic, but Valerij already beat me to it. People are very interested in it given how many reads and tweets it had so far. Yesterday, this blog was read 744 times and over 400 people who came here read Valerij post and 49 of them tweeted about it so far. But I may not be the right person to write about collaboration. I am very individualistic and I don’t like to depend on other people if it is something that I can do myself.

    More that 20 years ago when I lived in San Francisco I tried to put together a cooperative of translators. We (about 4 people) worked on it for about 2 years but it did not work because in the end everybody was going in different directions.

    At this point I actually detest the term “team member”.

    I am not on anybody’s team, or I am a team of one, if you will.


  18. Oh, Steve, I wasn’t on a long vacation, 14 days with 4 days on flights in total and everywhere you could find a connection to Internet. The only problem for me was how to respond to everything that interested me.

    Collaboration does not have to be in teams. In fact, I have been collaborating with more than a dozen of agencies. They are mostly no cattle-calling agencies. They know what their translators are good at and ask me only for what I can handle.

    Translators are usually lone wolves. But for efficient hunting, we need a herd. The problem is: who is going to lead and how? Maybe that’s why it is for so many translators easier to cyber-streetwalk than to find a right herd or to find a good way to stay an efficient sole wolf.


    • But in my experience, collaborating with agencies is a one way street.

      You give, they take. Once they find somebody cheaper, it’s sayonara, sucker!

      If you found agencies that are an exception to this rule, good for you, man, but it does not change the general rule.

      I would be interested in finding out more about collaboration among translators. As you can also see from the amazing number of tweets after a day and half, Valerij’s post generated a lot of interests. Yesterday it was read 424 times, and today more than 100 times.

      If there is a translator out there reading this who would like to write another guest post for this blog about collaboration, I will seriously consider such a post.

      I myself am not a suitable person to write on this subject as I am a typical lone wolf kind of translator who does not put much faith into collaboration among fellow translators.

      But I know that I could be wrong and I am always willing to learn new things.


    • Wenjer, those Russian wolves, and lone-wolf translators reminded me of the song “Idyot ochota na volkov” from the seventies by Vysockij.


  19. Wenjer, I am really impressed! The Lonely Wolf and all.
    You know I nearly met this guy Rozenbaum in Kamtchatka many years ago, as the theater I then worked for arrived in Petropavlovsk for a series of guest performances on the next day after Rozenbaum finished his concert tour.
    I spent two weeks there.
    How come you know him?


  20. I enjoyed this post, Valerij (and not just because you say something nice about me at the start).
    Not to oversimplify, but may I suggest that translators who are “too busy for their own good” are underpricing their services, sometimes dramatically so? (Assuming here that we are talking about the category you define: people who write well and have a genuine specialization.)
    The same applies to translators focusing zen-like on the present: step back, ponder and raise your prices — especially if you are in demand and have something to sell. Just do it, one client at a time. That will earn you the breathing space you need to think about occasional teamwork, which is a definite plus for quality of life.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Thank you Steve! I already told you’re a genius with your YouTube videos. “The Wolf Hunt” is a great song.

    May I throw in another video. This is for Chris Durban, another song by Vysockij, this time in French:

    Thank you very much, Chris! Needless to say that I wholeheartedly agree.


  22. “But in my experience, collaborating with agencies is a one way street.”

    Well, Steve, my experience tells me something else. I was myself a sales agent and I know well of our functions in free economy.

    The reason why I chose Alla Pugacheva’s singing of Rosenbaum’s Как-нибудь где-нибудь с кем-нибудь at Rosenbaum’s anniversary was to show the effect of collaboration. Why the audience was inspired to clap hands accompanying the singing and the music? It is not only a song composed by Rosenbaum, it is not just another song sung by Pugacheva, it is a song of people, for people and by people. In short, people work together. The composer, the singer, the orchestra (as well as everything behind it) and the audience.

    In our translation business, it shouldn’t be otherwise. The existence of agencies has several reasons, else we would not function at times as agencies or project coordinators, assuming that we, people who work on translation projects, are genuine specialists. The result of translations for our clients would be of about the same effect like what Alla and Aleksandr achieved.

    Translators, who know that agencies who cattle-call at translation workplaces/portals, are not the right ones to collaborate with, would not work with such agencies and, instead, look for the right ones among their translation colleagues of the same or different language pairs. They would achieve much better effect in their translation careers.

    “The same applies to translators focusing zen-like on the present: step back, ponder and raise your prices — especially if you are in demand and have something to sell. Just do it, one client at a time. That will earn you the breathing space you need to think about occasional teamwork, which is a definite plus for quality of life.”

    I was focusing zen-like on the present. But I got out of my zen-like state to enhance my collaboration with other translation colleagues that has brought me essentially higher quality of life since I quitted looking for opportunities at cyberstreetwalking websites.

    Special thanks to Chris Durban. Her The Prosperous Translator inspires me. I read it again and again and identify more of my own experience in it. “Just do it, one client at a time.” This is the right strategy. I would encourage every translator to do the same once she/he realizes that she/he has something to sell.

    When you have something to sell, you choose your clients. You don’t stay there and hope to be chosen. You find your efficient herd. You hunt, instead of being hunted.


  23. Valerij, I started listening to Russian folk songs since my youth. When I came to Germany for study, I started collecting popular songs. Every Russian lover knows Alla Pugacheva. I am no exception. From Alla to Rosenbaum is not far away. However, my Russian is not at all fluent. As Steve always says, both of us fake quite a few languages, because we know how to do the necessary research.

    Alexander Rosenbaum is not to be overlooked since the 80’s. A “Spätzünder” as a singer he was. He could have enjoy the fame earlier, but he could not gave up his medical career in the 70‘s. This guy is interesting because of his Jewish background and the city where he was born and grew up. In his earlier songs, you recognise influences from Wladimir Wyssozki and Bulat Okudschawa. The latter partnered with Isaak Iossifowitsch Schwarz the best film music I’ve ever heard. I guess every Russian lover must know all these names.

    Different fates lead to different tastes and styles. Mine has lead me more to that of Anatoly Mogilevsky’s:

    However, Rosenbaum’s “Sole Wolf” is perfectly in line with my temperament. “Одиноким волком я бегал и одиноким волком умру.”

    Mitarbeiten, schön und gut. Im Grunde genommen, sind wir Einzelwölfe, die nur bei Gelegenheit in der Jagd dabei sind. Warum verlangen wir Treue von Agenturen, während wir auch nur an unsere eigenen Vorteile abzielen? Die meisten Wölfe laufen bei der Jagd nur so mit, damit sie nicht verhungern. Wir, die richtigen Bösen, sind anders. Wir greifen erst zu, wenn der Angriff entscheidend ist, damit wir auch den richtigen Wölfenanteil bekommen. Sonst verzichten wir lieber auf das Mitlaufen.

    As said, I am much more interested to know exactly why translators fail in collaboration. Insights in this can provide explanations for the reasons why translators usually die as poor sole wolves while the “despicable” agencies get their lion share.


  24. Thanks Wenjer, I am still impressed.
    I am also curious as regards your question.

    You know, some 17 or 18 years ago, as I started working for a management advisory and training center in Germany, there were a dozen or so Russian translators and interpreters who, like me, all worked on a regular basis for this center. On one weekend, the center director gathered us all together (many had to travel from various places, but all expenses were covered by the center I think). After the introduction round, he spoke about the goals and plans of the center and also told us that the annual budget for everything in connection with translation and interpreting amounts to a certain sum. “You translators, he told us, are always such “Eigenbrötler” (mavericks or loners). In any other line of work someone would have probably organized a team of sorts, so it would be more convenient for us to deal with one or two persons and not distribute jobs ourselves. I don’t know if it would work out like this in your case though. I hoped this get-together would help.”
    Well, it didn’t work, there were no meetings and no teams.
    I also wonder what makes translators so special, why they fail to collaborate?

    However, I also had a very negative experience, whether with translators or not, I don’t know. I don’t know either whether it has something to do with collaboration or the lack of it, but it just occurred to me in this context. Actually, two quite nasty cases.

    I was doing a translation job for Olympus, a brochure about a new cutting-edge digital microscopy camera. I did a lot of research and went I don’t know how many extra miles to make the translation, well, perfect. In terms of the subject matter, terminology, everything. The documentation manager at Olympus sent it to someone in Russia who declared the translation full of errors and flaws. I was rather shocked, but only asked the documentation manager to please give me a couple of examples. There were none. Later, the editor told me that there were some discrepancies between the English and German versions so the Russian translator or editor or whoever at Olympus subsidiary in Moscow didn’t have the right source text to compare the translation with and so on and so forth. All B*S*. I was so shocked I sent my translation to two colleagues in Germany and one in Russia ans asked them to tell me what they think of it. They told me why, it’s perfect from the point of view of language and it was obviously done by a Russian engineer who works in the field of digital microscopy, what’s wrong, it doesn’t look like translation at all, is it your task now to translate into German? After I told them they just answered, well, nothing special about this, they all had similar experience with their “translators” or “editors” who all tried to destroy a competitor in a similarly brutal and unscrupulous manner.

    The second case is pretty much the same, only in this case it was a real specialist who I outsourced the job to (the subject was medical), and he provided his handful of illustrative arguments about his fellow “colleagues”. I hate to generalize, but you got the idea?

    Liked by 1 person

  25. […] from German to Russian and from English to Russian who lives in Hamburg, Germany, said in his guest post on my blog that in his opinion, the biggest mistake translators make is that they simply concentrate on the job […]


  26. In response to Steve’s post – not to the discussion – I must say it’s one of the few I partially disagree with. My husband and I make decent living (knocking on wood) these past several decades translating in a relatively small language (Czech) and living in the U.S. We are both total introvert bookworms. Registered at ATA, small website, I recently joined LinkedIn, which is fun, actually – this is probably as far as it goes. People send us jobs because they know we put incredible effort into every assignment, research, proofreading, formatting, everything. Never missed a deadline, except during a hurricane.
    What I really, really, want to stress is that we DO NOT get jobs based on a low rate. I resent that notion. Actually, our rate is pretty high by today’s standards. We get work because we work hard. Surely, we probably could do better if we start attending conferences, making personal contacts, cold calling law firms, or whatever other promotional efforts there are. At what cost? I am a person whose hands are shaking for 15 minutes after every phone call 🙂 I didn’t leave corporate world to do something I hate with all my heart.

    And, I would like to add, Steve is successful not because of his blog or his website, although all this helps, but above all, because he is doing a unique work and he is really, really good in what he does. As I can attest to, because I had a pleasure to recommend him to a client or two.

    Which brings me back to the second point of Steve’s post – yes, it is good to know a few good translators and recommend them when I can’t take a job. I have contact information for several of them and it always works well. So cooperation – yes. But all that stress on “marketing” we see lately all over the Internet, from Proz to LinkedIn – it’s all nice but the emphasis should be on quality of our work, building a reputation, expanding our knowledge, working hard, having high ethical standards. I don’t seem to be hearing too much about that, unfortunately. It is important that people know how to find you and know about your services but unless you deliver, the self-promotion is nothing but empty promises. Sorry about this vehement response. I just really hate the idea that we bookworms get work because of low rates! Or maybe I just don’t care too much for categorizing.


    • Hi Anna:

      I am happy that your method works for you and your husband, even though you are total introverts and bookworms. I also translate Czech, but I receive almost no jobs from this language. I basically only translate Japanese, German and French patents, once in a long while something from Russian. I must be doing something wrong.

      Maybe you can share your secret with us here?

      Let me finish my response by saying:”More power to people like you?”


  27. Sorry, my response belongs to the Three types of translators post!


  28. […] a guest post on my blog four months ago, Valerij Tomarenko said that the biggest mistakes that freelance translators make is when they simply say no to a potential new translation project because they are busy at the […]


  29. Very good article, if I only knew colleagues who would not deliver substandard translations every time in such cases.


  30. @Antonio Tomas

    And whose fault is it that you don’t know any?

    Or do you really think that they don’t exist?


  31. Hi “Patenttranslator” (sorry, I dont know ur name) and thank you for your comment. Last weekend I was hoping to go to beach but it rained so I did not go, was it your fault? Lol
    Now seriously. I will try for a minute to see it from your personal point of view of faults and merits and so forth.
    I think that if I had more time, I would rather do paid work, that is: translate, rather than look for different colleagues and evaluate the way they do their work when they know I am outsourcing it to them, and then checking, and correcting their work and and and . . and getting very little reward, if any, for all this work and time, plus possibly loosing my client because of things like delays and so forth . .
    Now I will get back to work because I do not want to turn my PC off again after 10 PM tonight . . . Have nice day


  32. @ Antonio Tomas

    About 4 years ago a customer who was normally sending me only patents for translation from Japanese and German to English asked me to translate some patent claims from English to German and French.

    My first impulse was to say politely no because that is not something that I can do myself.

    But then I thought it over and spent some time looking for people who I thought would do a good job.

    Four years later, this customer is still sending me the same work into German and into French, which I have been translating through the same translators, and then carefully proofreading, for the last 4 years.

    I several requests like this from the same customer every month, and managing and proofreading these translations pays about 3 times as much as when I translate myself.

    But of course, these translations are for a direct customers, it would not work if my customer were an agency.

    But last time I checked, there was no law saying that translators must work only for agencies


  33. […] for several decades, are not very good at business planning, would be putting it mildly. In fact, we are quite ignorant when it comes to the business world surrounding us, although it is the same world for which we are working long hours, day after day, year after […]


  34. […] himself. I believe that many translators define their job too narrowly, as was argued for example in this guest post on my blog last year. I have been on occasion guilty of having blinders on too. When I started my translation business, […]


  35. […] that I cannot translate myself, instead of saying “No, I don’t do that” to them, which I think would be criminally stupid, I started looking high and low to find qualified and experienced translators for these projects. […]


  36. […] A professional does not say “no, I don’t do that” to a client who has a translatio… If a client has the money to pay for the service, a professional translator will figure out how to get it done through another translator if need be, so that both of these professionals make enough money. Otherwise, the client will have no choice but to take his or her chances with “the translation industry”. […]


  37. […] from German to Russian and from English to Russian who lives in Hamburg, Germany, said in his guest post on my blog that in his opinion, the biggest mistake translators make is that they simply concentrate on the job […]


  38. Necro, Steve, so please feel free to ask this comment if you prefer. You can blame Valerij for linking here in his last post. 😉

    Anyway, I’m one of those translators who never outsource. Without doubt, it could be a useful skill, but it’s a skill that I prefer to omit to hone in the long run for reasons of time and attention span; in other words, I’ve set different priorities for myself. Entrepreneurially, no doubt. My focus is on personal performance — the native strength and class strength of all freelancers, which I’ve decided to take to the extreme. In this light, it makes sense to concentrate resources there. On the other hand, putting exactly zero time in the development of outsourcing skills, infrastructure, experience etc. saves resources for me. This is similar to how I rule out additional CAT tools or jobs that involve significant non-translation components. In one word, it’s a type of specialization.

    On the other hand, I make sure I can usually accommodate new clients, I always have. I’ve always used rates for demand regulation — rates that are high enough not only give you a nice ROI on your time, they can also leave room for high-yield opportunities as they come. And that is either high-yield opportunities in the short run, which means one-off assignments with high rates (e.g. rush fees), it also means new repeat clients paying more or agreeing to better terms than the existing mix. This is also necessary due to attrition in the existing mix, which is better made up for on an ongoing basis, when it’s manageable, than interventionally, when the situation becomes so dire you can be forced to make concessions. In short, I leave openings in my schedule.

    Except for short periods when I’m literally working round the clock, but then I tell prospects sorry, I’m literally working round the clock here, didn’t sleep at all last night, not sure about this one. This is better than just telling them ‘no’ or ‘I can’t’, and it also lets them know you’re busy for real — which means there’s demand for your services, which means you’re probably quite good at what you do.

    But I don’t tell them flat no. I always try to make a viable, interesting, thought-out and inviting counteroffer that shows them they are valued and regarded individually. I always make sure to invite them to come back in the future — without an explicit call to action of this kind they could even not come up with the idea, much of the time.

    So yeah, I agree with you translators lose a lot of opportunities — and consequently gimp their livelihoods — by either declining for a subpar reason or having their calendars chock full of work at existing rates, those also being non-rush rates. From what I’ve already just written, it should be clear why and how I think doing so undercuts their progress or even prevents it altogether.

    Worse still, if they don’t stay alert for and receptive to new opportunities, they will attrite what they already have, and at that point they may be forced to reduce their then-current rates to fill the gap, throwing them back a year or two in terms of financial progress. Not good. Besides, it’s silly how people can waste opportunity when it practically throws itself at them.

    Incidentally, I believe one of the biggest mistakes agencies is make is how they are not open to working with anyone but a) budget translators or b) translators with average rates, while somehow hoping to work with specialists. Still, they fail to secure budgets for what they want, often because they persistently fail to even think about it, like a handicap that exists somewhere in the brain. This is probably the other side of the coin.

    Over to ya, Steve.


  39. I believe that in your case, it makes perfect sense to do what you are doing.

    Because you are relatively narrowly specialized, legal translation in the English-Polish pair and vice versa, you probably don’t get many requests for example for patents or for other language combination.

    But because my field of specialization is relatively wider – technical and patent translation, from a number of languages, mostly into English, but occasionally also into other languages, I would be losing clients if I refused to accept translation projects that I cannot do myself, but that I can put together, organize, and proofread quite competently, I believe.

    Every translator is a different island, so to speak.


  40. Yeah, I totally agree every translator is different, but there’s a bit more to it, if you have the patience/attention span (for me, this is one of ‘those days’)…

    I think you’re looking at the problem from a practitioner more than freelancer perspective, as you don’t seem to be taking the purely business/entrepreneurial thing overfar. This is similar to doctors and lawyers, whose work ethics as practitioners sometimes require them to procure the services of a colleague rather than contenting themselves with giving the client or patient a referral to someone else.

    I don’t disagree with the above view, especially as I tend to insist on putting us translators on a level with doctors and lawyers myself, and I’ve been referring to us as practitioners occasionally, notably as practitioners in opposition to normal entrepreneurs.

    However, apart from my system reflecting my personal choice that seems reasonable in my situation (thanks for the favourable assessment), I also believe in the existence of some sort of a legitimate right for every translator to forego the provision of logistics, management and consultancy services.

    Naturally, there are going to be consequences, including negative consequences, which is only natural in any sort of trade-off. Having a right to do or not do something doesn’t necessarily imply a right to be shielded from the consequences of exercising that right, especially business consequences. This is probably the essential taste of freedom, especially business freedom and freedom of contract.

    The consequences could be dire, there’s no saying they couldn’t, but I actually believe the consequences of translators not providing logistics, management or consultancy services are not going to be nearly as drastic as it universally tends to be believed.

    This is predicated on the idea that certain negative reactions by clients are not automatic but avoidable through proper communication and consistent branding. This, in turn, is predicated on the idea that we can be active participants in the dialogue with clients, not just recipients and executors of whatever clients do or say, especially not whatever *first* ideas come to their minds before they receive and process our feedback, which we have every right and qualification to give.

    Hence, we don’t need to fear overmuch the consequences of defining the scope of our available services narrowly. There’s always going to be smoke where there’s fire, naturally, so it’s going to be a nasty environment for anyone who is gun shy, but it’s not going to be *that* bad. Fighters always die in battles, but rarely to the last man.

    On a different note — for the sake of exhausting the subject — there are situations in which I too would consider outsourcing. I guess there are no absolutes here.

    If I operated from a physical office as something similar to a solo law firm, and without relying on a VAT exemption that’s unavailable to lawyers and consultants but is available to translators, I would probably end up engaging in project management more and hiring associates rather than flying totally solo, I’m pretty sure of that.

    Things being as they are, I have previously considered involving a medical translator in projects relating to malpractice or some other medical litigation. Had I done so, it would have put me in the position of a translation provider rather than translation maker, but only to a minimal, occasional extent, without turning me into an omnibus shop or agent.

    On the other hand, yes, if you do something as narrow as patents and patents only (or almost only), then it makes sense to cover multiple languages. But I would say this means it makes sense to become a hybrid as opposed to remaining purely a translator; i.e. choosing a different model as opposed to redefining what a translator is (though the boundaries are not absolute or objective or easily to trace).

    Anyway, I firmly believe translators gimp themselves by wasting opportunities that are practically banging on their doors. Unthoughtful declining is one of the ways, and not leaving themselves some organizational leeway (e.g. time reserves) is another.


    • “and without relying on a VAT exemption that’s unavailable to lawyers and consultants but is available to translators”

      I did not know about this. Does it work in all EU countries? And is this exception available also to LSPs (Lame Service Providers), as opposed to translators?


      • I’m not sure about other countries, but Polish VAT Act wholly excludes from the EU-standard small-entrepreneur VAT exemption those taxpayers who provide any sort of legal or consulting services. This means, for example, that translators who provide opinions on stuff have to pay VAT on their translation work too. Agencies that offer language advice of some sort also have to pay VAT on all of their translation work. This is part of the reason I don’t do any sort of review — review falls under advice.


  41. Hi Lukasz,

    Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments.

    To begin with, I am also curious about the VAT exemption that you mentioned. Simply put, I didn’t understand what you meant. In Germany, a VAT exemption isn’t available except for those whose taxable income doesn’t exceed a certain threshold (12,000 Euro, but I may be wrong). But whether you liable to pay VAT or not, I don’t see what consequences it may have for our business. Please explain.

    As for the choice between “procuring the services of a colleague or… giving the client a referral to someone else”, I don’t think it is a matter of “work ethics”. These are two different services or value propositions if you may. Imagine building a house and dealing with a General Contractor or receiving a number of referrals to deal with each specialized contractor separately.


    • Valerij, under Polish tax law not all taxpayers below the threshold (nowadays the threshold is a whole lot of cash, at least in PL) are eligible. Some services are singled out so that not only do you absolutely have to pay VAT on them no matter what, you can’t even use the normally available VAT exemption with your *other* services as long as you provide any services from the excluded list. The list includes blanket consulting/advisory services and legal services.

      Re: your general-contractor reference, that’s basically what I said: two different business models. Translators have a right not to become one-man translation agencies. It will be up to them to defend their model in the court of public opinion, but I want to defend from what I perceive as unwarranted negative assessment of unbundled translation (translation sans project management, added services etc.).


      • “Translators have a right not to become one-man translation agencies. It will be up to them to defend their model in the court of public opinion …”

        I don’t get this. Why would translators have to defend “in the court of public opinion” the right not to say NO to a client, and thus keep the client instead of sending him to TransPerfect or LionBridge, especially since both the translator managing the project and the translating translator will make their usual fee and the translation will likely be of much better quality and possibly also less expensive?

        This sounds really weird to me Lukasz, even given that we are talking about “translation business”.

        (Unless the real name of the court of public opinion is envy, of course).


      • Steve, I believe I’ve already answered that, but I can rephrase: translators don’t need to be micro-agencies. It isn’t fair to condemn them for not wanting to be project managers or outsourcers. The fact that the client is offering money for something doesn’t mean they automatically have an obligation (professional, moral or otherwise) to accept that offer and carry out the proposed contract. Just like any doctor has a right to not go out and assemble a team of other doctors (1 or more other doctors) simply because a patient has proposed something to that effect.

        Even from a purely business point of view, a model in which you choose to not provide services exceeding the scope you want to provide is not indefensible.


  42. We don’t need to do anything, but we CAN do that much better than “the translation industry” if we choose to do so, because we actually understand the languages and issues, and they don’t. They mostly just understand how to buy low and sell high. Plus if we don’t do that, we lose money every time, and in some cases the client as well.

    But I am still scratching my head over the term of “court of public opinion”.

    That kind of made me chuckle.


  43. […] I am hardly the only one who thinks that it makes perfect sense for a translator to “outsource… Of course, this can be done only with translations from direct clients. For one thing, it would be dishonest to pretend to a translation agency that you are translating something that will be translated by someone else. Perhaps even more importantly, there would not be enough profit margin for you in such an arrangement if you were working for an intermediary, i.e. a translation agency. But when you are the intermediary, or agency, if you will, who usually works for a direct client for X cents per word, you can ask for 2 x X cents per word for projects in language directions that you cannot translate yourself … and you can generally get away with it and split the remuneration with the translator. […]


  44. I’ve read a lot of information here which I agree with, but some statements are almost right. Collaborations between translator and agency/website or whatever is usually not really useful for translator. It won’t really make you a successful translator. But I’d say that as one of methods of getting experience this decision could be a nice but only in combination with other practices. There’s really no need in only spending all your time strictly translating orders to become a good or well-paid translator.

    Another thing is if you are a beginner and don’t know where to start. That’s the situation then online workplaces like may be useful for you to get a basical understanding of what your are engaging to. But again, you shouldn’t stay there for a long time, and move on.


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