Dilemmas of an upwardly mobile translator

Dilemmas of an upwardly mobile translator

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Freelance translation is full of decisions. Shall I take this job? Shall I reject that one? How much should I charge? Should I put up my rates? And all decisions have consequences. If you ask for too much, the client might go elsewhere. But if you ask for too little you might get offered something better. And if you take this, you haven’t got time to take that.

My decisions of the past year all seemed to come home to roost in the two weeks since I’ve been back from holiday. First I seem to have lost a good client. It isn’t a badly paying agency I’ve been wanting to get rid of for ages, it’s a direct client with interesting translations that I’ve been working with for years. The only problem from my point of view was that my relationship with the client dates from a time when I didn’t charge direct clients enough. Since I realised this, I’ve been steadily increase my rate with them and it’s now approaching what I’d ask for from a new client, although they’re still getting me a little cheap.

Unfortunately, they don’t see things like the same way. Surprised that they hadn’t sent me their regular monthly translation, I asked them why. And they finally admitted it: “We’ve found someone cheaper for the regular stuff. It’s not you, though. We really like your work.” As if that made things any better. All I could do was remind them that I’d still be there when they needed quality translations and wonder where I’d fill the gap in my monthly schedule.

The same day, I had some more bad news. Another translator for whom I’d done a big translation job earlier this year told me he wasn’t going to be able to pay me, and that he was filing for bankruptcy. Obviously, I don’t yet know how much I will eventually receive, but I stand to lose a four-figure sum. To make matters worse, the job had been split with a colleague, who is also liable to lose a large sum of money. Even though the red flags are really only apparent in hindsight, I cursed myself for not being more careful. But at the time I took the job I probably wouldn’t have listened to inner voices warning me of the possible risks – there wasn’t any other work around at the time.

Nor was there anything else around when I took another job I should have turned down in the summer. Working directly in an online platform is always a recipe for disaster and I know it full well. In this case it made it impossible to check my translation properly for mistakes and, sure enough, it contained some. The end client was unhappy, although fortunately the colleague who had passed me the work was more understanding. She at least realised what I’d been up against. This time I will get paid, but it can’t have done my reputation any good and it certainly didn’t help my blood pressure.

The link between these three stories is the effect of raising rates. There’s no doubt that, if you’re too busy for a long period then it’s time to put your rates up. There’s also no doubt that, as a tool, increasing rates can be a fairly blunt instrument. I quite rightly raised mine for all agency and one or two other clients at the beginning of this year. It had the desired effect: demand dropped, mostly on the agency side, and I was no longer continually turning work away.

But what I hadn’t done was find enough new clients to fill the gap left by the agencies who were dropping me. That has meant that at times I’ve had no work at all, something I wasn’t used to having been almost constantly fully booked for a couple of years. And when work got slack, I took jobs I shouldn’t have touched, like the ones I have mentioned.

It’s at times like this that I need to be reminded that positive things can happen too. Fortunately, there have been one or two of those in the last fortnight as well. First of all, I had an inquiry from a potential new client in one of my specialist fields: wine. As I usually do, I asked how the client had found me and the client replied “I just googled”. That is fantastic news, because so many of us who have websites sometimes wonder how worthwhile the investment is. There’s a temptation to think they are mere vanity projects designed to project our egos on to the internet, but with little practical use. But here is real evidence that if someone keys in something like “English translators specialising in wine” in Spanish they will find me. However much work or arrives or doesn’t arrive from this particular potential client, the fact that he could find me in that way gives me hope.

Then there is the question of quality. I want to provide quality because, beyond the satisfaction it gives me, I have no doubt that providing quality is what can help human translators stand out from machines. Obviously, though, quality comes at a price, and the minimum I need to provide top quality is to be paid enough to employ a reviewer for my translation. Because as I’ve mentioned many times before here, it’s the only way of providing really polished translations. The problem is, especially in a country like Spain where quality isn’t really part of the culture, many clients are simply not willing to pay that kind of price, and some will just run away if you ask for it.

So when I had an inquiry from a direct client who came to me via a colleague for a website translation I quoted two prices – the “premium” price, with revision, and the “standard” price, without. It’s a tactic I’ve sometimes used before and is designed to stop clients who would baulk at the higher price simply going elsewhere if their budget doesn’t stretch that far. I always say that I recommend the premium option and explain why. Often, though, clients ignore my advice and choose the cheaper one.

But this time, my prospective client made a different choice. “I prefer the highest quality option,” he said. “This job isn’t urgent.” It was almost like finding out that unicorns exist. Because in darker moments I wonder how many clients actually care about quality at all and whether it wouldn’t be possible to make a living churning out low-quality translations as quickly as possible at low prices. In fact, it probably would – for now. But the problem for translators trying this tactic is that machines can already do more or less the same thing, and they’ll soon be able to do it better. So coming across a client so clearly in the market for quality and ready to pay for it is another reason to be optimistic.

Then, another new direct client appeared in my inbox. He had a short translation that needed doing. The only thing was, he needed it that same day. My dilemma was to quote him a price. This time, double pricing was not a option. Apart from anything else, there wasn’t going to be time for anyone else to revise my work. I needed to quote a single figure. But how much?

I took a few minutes to think because there were various considerations. It looked like a client who could pay a reasonable rate and a client I would like to keep for the future. But that also meant I wanted to make sure I didn’t undercharge to start with. Doing the job the same day wasn’t going to be a problem, but at the same time I wanted to ensure the client appreciated my effort. Normally the translation would cost a minimum fee, which represents half an hour’s work for me. But what if I gave it a bit longer than that and charged for an hour?

That left the issue of the urgency of the job. To be honest, by charging for an hour, I was already being well rewarded. But I wanted the client, who, to be honest, didn’t seem all that well organised, to realise that they wouldn’t just be able to snap their fingers and expect me to jump every time. So I decided to inform them that normally I charge extra for rush translations but at the same time do them a favour by waiving the charge because it was our first job together. That way, I earned a very satisfying rate for the job and at the same time the client enjoyed a discount. It really was a win for both sides, and, I hope, the start of a good future relationship.

As I’ve already suggested, the future is where we need to look if we want to find reasons to continue to be upwardly mobile as translators. It’s not an easy process. There are misjudgments, setbacks and temporary reverses. But as soon as we let those lead us into negative, short-term thinking – as soon as we fail to find ways of learning from them and moving forward – we’re on the road to nowhere.


  1. Basak

    What a well-written, thoughtful, informative and sincere article! Lots of food for thought. Thank you so very much.
    I obviously share all of your concerns – I also feel that quality is the least of clients’ priorities, but when I provide sub-quality work (as I do on on-line platforms), I feel denigrated as a translator.
    But I compete against a mass of professionals living in Turkey, paying six times less than I for rent and utilities… So I have to prove that I am worth the much higher rate. I must provide high quality, or else why would anyone work with me?
    As you said, we spend our days thinking out dilemmas, be they ethical or financial or marketing-oriented. Sometimes I am exhausted! And right then I hear a sincere and constructive voice such as yours.
    See you around!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thank you, Basak. What I wanted to get across was that trying to improve and trying to get paid decent rates isn’t easy at all, but it can still be done and it’s not only worthwhile, it’s essential. Because if we’re producing work of no value we can easily be replaced.

  2. Alison Hughes

    I recognise every single one of these dilemmas. Moving upmarket is definitely not easy but it has got a little easier over time for me. That doesn’t mean I make all the right decisions and get every job, it just means I’ve learnt to accept the highs and lows that are part and parcel of every business.

    At least we no longer work in a bubble and have picked up plenty of tips from social media and training courses/conference talks. I’m going to remember your solution for the last dilemma.

    Incidentally. we’ve been trying to get a contractor to lay carpet tiles in our communal hallway and the quoting process has been very much the same: the contractor who quoted too much, the one who was cheaper but inflexible, the ones who refused the job…

    It was actually quite hard being on the other end of the process (which hasn’t been resolved yet).

  3. Linda Gunnarson

    Thank you for writing such an honest post, Simon, I can relate to everything. I raised my rates a while ago too, partly because I was swamped with work. I lost some clients, but not the ones I expected, which was a bit disconcerting and made me realize how unpredictable things are. However, I get the right amount of work now to be able to do my best and enjoy life as well, so I’m quite happy at the moment. What I find the most difficult is to convince direct clients of the need to use a revisor. I get the feeling they think I’m not such a good translator if I need someone to check my work. Or that I’m just trying to squeeze as much as possible from them. I definitely like your approach and will probably start using it too.

  4. Joanna Waller

    Thanks Simon, join my comments to those of my colleagues in ITI. We’re running the SUFT course at the moment, and we could certainly include some of what you’ve said in our modules. Really helpful especially for people only just reaching the tentative stage of being able to pick and choose among customers

  5. Claire Cox

    Very interesting, Simon. I think we’ve all been there. I’m often offered jobs by a couple of different agencies, for whom I have different rates, for the same end client, and whereas I used to get jobs from the agency paying the higher prices a few years ago, that rarely happens nowadays. I wouldn’t bid on the same job for both agencies, of course, as that would be tantamount to bidding against myself, but the end client has clearly made the decision not to pay the higher rates. On the rare occasions I do editing for them I can see the results of this policy, but that is their decision. I started out offering the same rate to both agencies, but the second one always offers me a lower rate (exceptionnellement…), which I only ever accept if I’m quiet and for smallish jobs. It is a dilemma – do I accept because this is work in my specialist field and relatively straightforward for me, or do I say no, in the knowledge that I probably won’t be offered it by the other agency as my price for them is deemed too high? Obviously, my quality is going to be the same regardless. I think all you can do is make it clear that this isn’t your standard rate and you will only accept it on rare occasions. Then onwards and upwards with new clients who do share the same standards, but it can be unnerving if you’re fairly new to the profession. And definitely never worth accepting a large job at a lower rate, as you will inevitably be offered a much more interesting job at a much higher rate the very next day and be unable to do it as you’re busy with the lower-paying one!


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