How do I find direct customers? Or failing that, how can I find agencies that pay good rates and on time? What should I do to stop being dependent on pitiful jobs offered at low rates on blind auction sites designed in such a way that hordes of translators must bid against each other until the lowest bid is finally accepted by an invisible customer, often a translation agency located in a third world country serving as an unacknowledged subcontractor of a major agency located in a Western country?
These are questions that many beginning translators are asking their colleagues in discussion groups online, and sometime also on my blog. I’m afraid I don’t really have a good answer to these questions, at least not an answer that would be acceptable to all translators because there are no simple answers to them as we are all very different individuals with very different strengths and weaknesses.
But the realization of an essential fact – called “satori” or “awakening” in Zen Buddhism – could be also a starting point to creating a strategy that should work for many people. What every budding translator, and probably even a few experienced translators, need to ask themselves is this: What are my particular strengths and where are my weaknesses? We should all ask ourselves this question first before deciding on a course of action that would be best in a particular case.
Although I do not have a ready-made answer to all of these questions, I can offer one example of one development of a translator’s career, namely my own, to help to hopefully bring about your own satori moment.
I had to ask myself this question 28 years ago when I was forced, quite unexpectedly, to make a rather sudden career change, very Zen-like, or perhaps not, depending on how we perceive our own reality. I remember that on Saint Patrick’s day in 1987, I was still an employee who could count on a steady paycheck, albeit a modest one. On April 1 Fools’ Day, the joke was on me – I was unemployed, for the first time my life.
It was a huge blow to my considerable ego. Prior to being “let go”, I had about nine jobs in three countries on no less than three continents and in my vanity I was naturally convinced that I was simply indispensable to each and every one of my employers who – in my imagination – had to be crying bitter tears every time when I announced that it was time for me to move on, and several times the moving on involved moving to a different country. But as somebody put it once, the graveyards are full of indispensable people.
I decided that the best way to make sure that this would never happen to me again was to start my own business – without any capital, of course, as I had no money.
My main strength was that I had a lot of experience with analyzing and later interpreting and translating Japanese because I graduated with a major in Japanese studies and in most of a number of jobs I had, I was using Japanese one way or another, sometime along with other languages.
So now I was a translator, because the only requirement to be a translator was and still is, at least in the US of A, that you say that you are one and that you can indeed translate the things that people want to have translated, whatever they are, preferably, but not necessarily, for less than the other guy. The regulations for allowing hairdressers to legally practice their demanding occupation are much more strict here than business regulations for mere translators.
There was a scary period of no work at all for several weeks in the beginning of my transformation from an employee to a freelance warrior. But little by little, work started trickling in. For about the first three years, I was working only for translation agencies, mostly agencies located in San Francisco and the Bay Area because that was where I lived and there was no Internet. Once a week or so I would take hard copies of my translations, printed out with a noisy dot matrix printer, on the No. 38 Geary Street bus to a couple of big office buildings on Market Street. Later I would fax the translations, which was kind of a very high-tech thing to do back then, or send hard copies by Federal Express if the agency gave me the Fedex number. It took a few years before a new concept called e-mail caught on, which meant that for a few blessed years, there was no spam in anybody’s e-mail, whereas now, 95% of our e-mails consists of horrible spam.
In the beginning, mostly quite easy translation work somehow ended up on my desk, such as infantile plots of Japanese computer games, which were very simple to translate three decades ago. I am grateful that the force that governs the universe by timing the sequence of all events according to a secret and unknowable plan, which Karl Jung called synchronicity, somehow makes sure that beginning translators usually get the kind of work that even they can handle.
But soon I realized that it was logical and thus much more likely that job security would be found in difficult work rather than in easy work. And the most difficult work that I was struggling with at the time was translation of Japanese patents. One reason why Japanese patents were so difficult to translate was that they were often only partially legible. Several decades ago, Japan Patent Office accepted faxed copies of patent applications and once such a copy was faxed again, it became basically impossible to guess correctly all of the intricate characters that were not clearly legible. Since it took me much longer to translate a thousand words of a Japanese patent than a thousand words of a Japanese computer game, it dawned on me that there would be a lot of competition in the former, and much less competition in the latter type of translation.
Incidentally, today I am translating a Japanese newspaper article that is almost as poorly legible as some of those patent applications from seventies and eighties. Part of the job description of translators still is and probably always will be: they simply have to be magicians.
So that was how I decided, around 1990, to become a specialist in patents, especially since several Japanese translators living in San Francisco told me that they did not like patents.
Although patent translation may sometime seem to be not as much fun as other types of translating work, at least for some people, this field in fact has a number of advantages. Fortunately, I simply like patents, although I am not quite sure why (there is probably something wrong with me).
Another advantage is that unlike in some other fields, it is not that difficult to figure out who the end clients might be.
Many of the end clients are called patent law firms and back in the early nineties when many of them still had no website, you could find their addresses easily in a yearly publication of the US Patent and Trademark Office called “Attorneys and Agents Registered to Practice Before the US Patent and Trademark Office”. So I bought a copy of this publication for about 35 dollars and started mailing letters to offer my expertise directly to patent law firms instead of just to translation agencies. At first I was mailing my letters only to patent law firms in Northern California, later I expanded my periodic marketing campaigns to all states in United States if I saw that many patent law firms were listed in that state in the PTO publication.
Although it was hard work, I kept mailing my letters whenever there was no other translation work, which is bound to happen several times a year even if you have been in business for a long time, up until about 2005, I think.
And that was how I found my first direct clients, or rather how my first direct clients found me. It was much cheaper to do mass mailing campaigns back then because in 1991, a first class postage stamp used to cost 21 cents, while in 2002 it was already 37 cents. Since it costs 49 cents to mail a letter now, the old way of marketing of your services through mass mailings is much more expensive now. You might have noticed that there is much less junk mail in your snail mail, and much more spam mail in your e-mail now.
But just because it is more expensive now to do direct mailing campaigns does not mean that it cannot be done, it only means that the potential direct clients should be selected more carefully.
At the beginning of the year 2000 I realized that instead of relying only on mailing campaigns, which did bring me many direct clients, I should also have a website. So I researched available dotcom domains, I registered about 8 of them, including JapaneseTranslators.com and PatentTranslators.com, and I found a website developer, a young guy who lived just around the corner, who designed my website.
A good domain name is very important, and while it is much more difficult to find a good domain name for a translation business now than 15 years ago, that does not mean that it cannot be done.
As I said, I stopped doing mailing campaigns about 10 years ago, but I still have postcards that I mail to companies if they ask me for a cost estimate when they find my website. It is usually just a few cards, but I usually do that several times a month.
Although nobody seemed to have noticed my new website for about the first three years, the website started working for me even better than the mailing campaigns after about 2004 and at one point, around 2007 and 2008, about 40% of my income came from brand new customers who found out about my services from my website, mostly patent law firms.
I still get a lot of requests for cost estimates from law firms, inventors, patent investors and other parties who usually find my website by typing relevant key words into Google or another search engine, but I noticed that fewer of them decide to accept my offer of assistance than for instance 10 years ago.
I think that this is due to the fact that there is a lot of new competition from low-cost providers of translation services, including for translation of patents. I also think that a large percentage of this work is done in third world countries in places referred to by translators as “Chindia” (China & India), some of the low-price translations are probably a result of “post-edited” machine translations, some are the result of what some translation agencies call “language technology”, which means basically again “post-edited” machine translations, translations obtained at a very low cost from so called “cloud translators” (anonymous, ephemeral beings, who are possibly but not necessarily human, also referred to as “clown translators” by actual translators), from the compulsory use of Computer-Assisted Tools (CATs) aimed at reducing the reimbursement due to translators, and God only knows what other highly sophisticated “language technology tools” are used by some translation agencies these days.
But fortunately, I do have enough work from my old clients, and once in a while I do get new work from new direct clients who find my website, although there may be cheaper ways to have patents translated for clients who don’t care too much about how experienced and competent the translator may be.
I also still work for a few translation agencies that pay me good rates, in fact very good rates considering how horrible the situation is now in the translation market, after the incredible amount of damage that has been caused by the corporate type of incredibly greedy and ruthless translation agencies in the “translation industry” to what used to be a fairly well paid and mostly enjoyable occupation.
In any case, after almost 30 years, I am near the end of my career as an independent translator and in a few years I plan to sell my business (mostly my domain names and the list of my direct clients), retire or semi-retire and work only occasionally for a couple of decent agencies to earn some extra money.
So this was my story of how this translator eventually started working mostly for direct clients, although I still work for a few translation agencies and plan to continue doing that for many years. The story was not meant as a recipe that can be used by every translator to extricate himself or herself from dependence on low-paying jobs so prevalent now in the so called translation industry.
Each and every one of us has different strengths and different weakness, which means that each and every one of us needs to find methods that will work best for him or her, methods that may be completely different from those that I was using, especially since some of the methods I was using may be obsolete at this point.
But if it does inspires a few people to at least start thinking about how to stop working for the kind of translation agencies that have done so much damage to our profession, the kind that I am railing against in many posts on this blog, and a few more to try to do something to repair this damage, I will have done my job well in this post.