Decisions make a difference
January is always a time of new beginnings. Four years ago, I plunged into developing my website, of which this blog forms part. Just in case you haven’t had a look at the site itself, you can see it here. A year ago, I was putting together a new landing page for the site to promote the side of my business related to wine translations. All in all, building these sites has cost me time and money, which, until very recently, I was prepared to account for as an investment in my image. Having a website might not have been bringing me a great deal of work, but it gave me somewhere to refer potential clients. It also provided a platform for me to say exactly what I wanted to about myself, my business and, via this blog, anything at all. That was perhaps not a conventional return on the investment but it was one I was satisfied with.
Then, a week or so ago, it began to seem as if the website might bring in a tangible return after al. A potential client who had found me via the website phoned with an offer of onging work which, if everything goes well, could end up recouping me everything I’ve ever spent on my online presence in quite a short time. It provides evidence that if you project the right image you really can attract the right clients. And it also shows that you don’t need many successes to repay even what seems like a sizable investment at the time.
As translators, we’re tempted to be minimalist about the investments we make. After all, we don’t actually need anything much to start a business. Anyone who has a background providing them with the basic skills they need and who already owns a computer can get started with no outlay at all. It is a situation that must be the envy of others whose chosen businesses require heavy investment in premises, equipment or staff, forcing them to take on bank loans or to borrow from family and friends. But I believe it also makes us lazy and a little reluctant to put money into our futures. The fact is, though, that investment does bring rewards. Technology can make our work quicker and easier; marketing not only helps us find clients, it helps us find the right clients; and CPD shows us better ways to do our job. Nor should we consider the money we spend at face value, considering that, in most countries, investment in our own businesses is tax deductible. My accountant is certainly always nagging me to find more things to spend my money on to reduce my tax bill.
The trick is, though, to find the right investment at the right time. An example: a couple of weeks ago I was seriously considering going to a well-known translation conference. However, when I looked at the programme I saw that it offered me little or nothing new. If I had been at an earlier stage of my career, it might still have been useful, but as things are there seems to be no point in spending the money required to go, and I feel I would be better off spending the money developing one of my specialist areas.
As I mentioned at the beginning, though, less tangible and even intangible factors should not be forgotten when looking at investment decisions. That’s partly because they are important in themselves, and partly because even intangibles can turn out to be more tangible than we might think. For example, other people might look at the translation conference I’ve just been talking about rejecting and say it would still be worth going for the social contact with colleagues. Who am I to say they’re wrong? And it’s also true that such social contact might eventually lead to work opportunities.
Looked at it from the other side, there can be utterly personal but no less important reasons for not making investments. Someone might decide not to incur a great deal of professional expense one year, for example, because they know their personal expenses are going to be high: a long-awaited big holiday, a child’s wedding for example. Then there are things I would choose not to do simply because their timing would conflict with my personal schedule. I’m not going to go on a course the day of my wife’s birthday or my wedding anniversary. The word freelance may be unfashionable in translator circles, these days, but the “free” part still has a meaning for me. My work is important to me but so is my personal and family life, and I’m not ashamed of that.
In the end, we all have to make our own decisions, weighing up the various factors involved. As we have seen, investments can be justified on many levels, not just on immediate tangible return. Anyone who thinks for a minute about their path in translation (or any other self-employed career for that matter) will see that it hasn’t been a straight line, and that sometimes what seem like minor investments can bring big rewards. I once spent just 20 dollars on pdf conversion software, for example, but it was a good investment, helping me with all sorts of jobs. Other times big investments help, but the rewards come in unexpected or intangible ways. Preparing for and passing the DipTrans cost me a considerable sum of money, and I can’t say that it’s directly brought me much work, but, as someone who previously did not have a translation qualification, it boosted my confidence and improved my profile to a huge extent. Sometimes, though, investment is simply a question of money well spent. At the end of 2016, I paid 800 euros for a new chair for work, which has been well worthwhile in terms of my health, considering the hours I spend sitting in it and working.
The important thing is not so much what we decide to invest in, or not to, it is that we think carefully about how we can invest; that we consider our options and make decisions on hardware, software, marketing, training or whatever it may be. Now, I could no longer drift along from one year to the next as I admit I spent a long time doing in the past, and I sometimes see others doing now. If the quality we provide is the way to survive in this business, where “ordinary” translations are increasingly going to be done by machines, failing to consider all possible investments is no longer an option.
I couldn’t agree more on the website issue. Although the ROI may not be immediate, it speaks volumes about your professionalism and how seriously you take your own business. As someone who is regularly in search of qualified translators (I work inhouse, but sometimes have to outsource jobs in language pairs not covered or where there is no inhouse capacity), a website gives me something to go on. I can see whether working languages/specialization and even background are a good fit.
But even for clients who have nothing to do with the translation industry (and maybe see it as means to an end), it creates a professional image. I don’t know how many times I’ve come across translators who list gmail addresses for correspondence with clients or don’t bother putting together a decent website. For me that’s an absolute no-go. Bluntly speaking: If it’s not worth putting the effort into promoting your skills etc. (I think) then it might not be worth putting the effort into the actual translation. Possibly unfair to think that way, but ultimately its all about first impressions. They really matter more than some people think.
And keep your tools of the trade up-to-date is a definite no brainer (be it IT infrastructure, honing your language, subject-matter or writing skills).
All the best,
Thanks for your comment, Colin. It’s interesting to read the views of someone who actually has to look for translators.
I quite agree, Simon (trying again with my comment as my first one disappeared!). Investment in CPD can be well worthwhile. I’ve just booked for Translate Better, a high-profile writing and translation workshop for experienced DE<>EN translators in Berlin later this year. It is intended to be along the lines of the French Translate in… series, which I attended in Cambridge 18 months ago and which was well worth the considerable outlay, especially for the hothouse environment and the chance to brainstorm with like-minded colleagues. I admit that I thought long and hard before booking as they are expensive – deliberately so to ensure that they reach the right calibre of translators – but it was very worthwhile and I hope the German one will prove to be the same. I’ve tweeted about the German event and have had a number of comments dismissing it because of the "steep" price, but I can’t help thinking they’re missing the point… Horses for courses, of course, but I think you’re right that many translators are unwilling to invest in themselves, be it CPD, websites, or equipment – such a shame, when it’s very often money extremely well spent.
Thanks for your comment, Claire. The price of some of these events is another issue, but I’m inclined to agree with you, that the idea of some of them is to attract translators of a certain calibre. They’re not for everyone, but I don’t think they can be dismissed. I’d like to go to a Translate in… one day.