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 (www.tomarenko.de) 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.