THESE are the days when birds come back,
A very few, a bird or two,
To take a backward look.
The end of a year and the beginning of a new one is celebrated by most people all over the world for good reason. We should all be grateful at the end of each year that we have not yet been swept off the surface of the earth by a hurricane or tornado, buried in a mud slide, drowned in a flood as water levels are rising everywhere, or killed by a less biblical but equally deadly event, such as a heart attack.
I too am certainly grateful to still be here, that I’m able to enjoy in peace and good health Christmas and the New Year with my family in a country that welcomed me and has been really good to me ever since I came here in 1982, already more than 33 years ago, soon almost 34 years ago.
The end of the year is also a good opportunity to examine what happened in the year that is about to become the last one and to try and gauge what next year may bring.
So what was the year, soon to be the last year, like in my translation business?
My translation business is like a somewhat unstable three-legged stool supported by three legs representing different types of work and functions that I perform throughout the year:
1. My work as a translator when I work for translation agencies,
2. My work as a translator when I work for direct clients, and
3. My work as a highly specialized translation agency owner, project coordinator and proofreader when other translators work for me on projects for my direct clients.
Translation Agencies – The Wobbliest of the Three-Legged Stool That I Sit On
After I started my translation business in 1987, I was working only for translation agencies for about the first three or four years of my pretty long career as an independent translator. Every other translator I knew in San Francisco where I was based for the first five years was doing the same thing. Translation agencies weren’t particularly beloved by translators, but they weren’t hated yet by translators the way they’re hated now back before concepts like nasty, demeaning and dangerous 3,000-words-long “Non-Disclosure Agreements” and “fuzzy and full matches”, or “post-processing of machine translations” and “cloud workers” were invented by the most predatory actors in “the translation industry”.
Back then agencies simply took care of the supply of work for us, we the translators took care of the translating and everybody seemed to do quite well in the end with this arrangement.
Not knowing where the next check would be coming from, (when you have a wife and two small children to support on one income), was like staring into an abyss, an abyss that eventually starts staring back into you as Nietszche put it. But there was generally plenty of work for people who could translate technical Japanese into English, and I was one of those lucky people.
Luckily for me, my reliance on the wobbliest leg of income from translation agencies has been diminishing over the years, from 100% in the beginning, to 40% or 30% about a decade later, to the extent that at this point I only have one steady client that is in fact a translation agency.
But it’s an important client because this single translation agency has been generating about 15% of my income for the last three or four years, and also because it pays me like clockwork twice a month on the first and fifteenth of each month by wire transfer to my bank account, the way traditional employees used to be paid when the “market-based” economy was relying mostly on the traditional employer-employee structure.
Clearly, all translation agencies are not the same.
But although I hope that this leg of the rickety three-legged stool will not be pulled completely out from under me in the next year, I won’t be very surprised if it does happen. As translation agencies have unwittingly created an extremely competitive shark-eat-shark market for themselves in the red ocean and yellow ocean segments of the market, they constantly demand lower and lower rates from translators, which is why I think it would be foolish of me to rely on any of them for a steady supply of well paid work.
Direct Customers – The Second Leg of the Three-Legged Stool That I Sit On Is a Bit More Steady
I see from my records that I probably lost at least one direct customer, a subsidiary of a major corporation that used to pay me very good rates for a long time for my translations of patents that used to be frequently required. I started working for this company about ten years ago, but the last time I worked from them was in December of 2014. I wonder what happened. Perhaps I should ask, but I’m not going to. I still have them on my list of customers to whom I send crass Happy Holidays greetings for Christmas & New Year while shamelessly exploiting the Christmas tradition, but they must have found another source of translations.
As most of my direct customers are patent law firms who usually deal with foreign patents only occasionally, sometimes they have a lot of work for me and sometimes I don’t hear from them for several years. The years in which one or several of my customers are working on a major project with lot of translations are exceptionally good years for me.
But since only two customers sent a whole batch of long patents for translation this year, it was an average year for me at best. The interesting thing is, however, that the first six months of the year were quite slow and then I got very busy and stayed very busy from June until November, while December was sluggish again. The ebb and flow of the patent translation business tends to be unpredictable.
Because clients may come and then they may disappear again, it’s important for me to make sure that new clients will be found to replace the old ones who no longer seem to require my expert translation services.
Although I don’t advertise anywhere anymore, not even on search engines, Google and other search engines find new clients for me every year. So far this year they’ve brought me a total of 12 new clients who have found me through the PRICE QUOTE REQUEST link on my website. These new clients, some of whom will hopefully become repeat clients, were this year located in Virginia, California, Pennsylvania, Florida, South Carolina, New York, Switzerland and Sweden.
While the 12 new clients from 2015 represented about 30% of my income this year, only six clients, representing about 7% of my income last year, found me through my website in this manner in 2014. I’m afraid I have no idea what is happening. As I said, I don’t advertise and I did not lower my rates.
At one point, about 30 – 40%, and one year as much as 50% of my income was generated by new direct clients who found my website thanks to its ranking on Google and other search engines during the 2007 – 2010 period. After that, the new client acquisition rate was fluctuating between 15 – 30%. The lowest rate of new clients created in this manner was last year, while this year the rate was up dramatically again compared to 2014.
I wish I knew why this was happening. It’s possible that I was just unlucky last year and more lucky this year, but it’s also possible that the shark fights in the red ocean segments of the market are at this point making clients weary of the hungriest and meanest sharks and trying to identify more reliable sources of translation services.
I certainly hope that this is the case. It would be a good development for me.
Patent Translation Agency Work Is Another Stable Source of Work for Me Now
The patent translation agency leg of the tripod on which I am sitting when other translators work for me was also quite stable this year, especially compared to the shaky and insecure leg represented by my work for other translation agencies.
About eight years ago, a patent law firm for which I translate patents into English needed me for a continuous translation project, but this time they needed translation from English into other languages. My first impulse was to say no, sorry, I only translate into English.
I almost did say no because that was what I had been doing up until that point. But then I realized that I would probably be much better able than your typically clueless project manager of a typical, generic translation agency, who usually doesn’t even understand the languages that she is handling, to organize this kind of translation project and then to proofread the translations.
And I also realized that if I said no to this client on this project, he might turn to another source also on translation projects that I can do myself. So I said yes and became a project manager, although it meant leaving my comfort zone.
When you work as a translation agency project manager, your most important task is to find a translator who is up to the task. All this idiotic talk about having translations double-checked and triple checked by several translators is just mendacious propaganda aimed at unsophisticated clients who don’t understand how translation works.
The truth is, if you fail at the task of picking the right translator, the result will be a disaster no matter how much proofreading and editing may later be applied.
But if you pick the right person, all you have to do is proofread everything slowly and carefully, look for omissions and inconsistencies, fix typos and numbers, because there are almost always typos in every translation, and check questionable technical terms to make sure that the translator got everything right.
I can usually find answers to my questions when I proofread translations of other people on projects for me after a while online, which means that I can make minor changes in the translation myself without bothering the translators. Major changes are not required. Occasionally, I have to ask the translator a question when I’m not sure about something, but it doesn’t happen very often because I know how to pick them.
I think that it’s likely that this kind of work will be becoming more and more important for my translation business in the years to come. I was initially reluctant to become a project manager instead of always only being the translator because the risk to me is much greater in this case. Even if for example I picked a deadbeat client, or the wrong translator, I would still have to pay what I owe to the translator.
But so far I have been good at picking both clients and translators, and at matching projects with the right kind of translator.
I wish more translators would realize that one way to change the way power is distributed in the relationship between translation agencies and translators is when translators themselves become translation agencies. A highly specialized translation agency, even if it’s just one person, especially if it’s a translator who has a lot of experience in a given field, is more likely to do much better work than an agency that claims to be able to translate all subjects from and into all languages.
I think that mega-agencies in particular are likely to deliver poor results. The most important rule of the corporate translation agency model is maximizing profit as much as possible, which often means that highly experienced translators are excluded from this model because “they charge too much”.
But although profit is obviously very important to me as well, making sure that I have really good translators working for me is even more important, because that is the best way to avoid potential problems.
Three Legs Baaaad, Four Legs Better?
So what is my final conclusion at the end of my backward look at 2015?
I don’t really have one. But since “four legs gooood, two legs baaaad” was how George Orwell put it in “Animal Farm”, maybe I should leave my comfort zone again and try to figure out a fourth leg on which my business could be resting in a more stable and comfortable manner.
Isn’t a chair with four legs likely to be much more stable than a stool with only three legs?
Maybe I should do what so many translators are doing these days, proclaim myself a wise translation guru and start charging impressionable newbies for invaluable advice about “the translation business” dispensed by a clever guru in online seminars?
But I know that this is something that I wouldn’t want to do. As long as I can continue writing my silly blog posts and people continue reading them, I will be happy sitting on my three-legged stool in 2016 and hopefully for quite a few years beyond that, enjoying my adventures in translation land, while being grateful at the end of each year that I haven’t yet been swept off the surface of the earth by a hurricane or tornado, buried in a mud slide, drowned in a flood as water levels are rising everywhere, or killed by a less biblical but equally deadly event, such as a heart attack.