In my last post I talked about coping with the coronavirus lockdown we’ve almost all been living with in one form or another for several weeks. This time, although the confinement seems to be continually extended, I want to look forward. What’s our professional world going to look like when all this is over? How can we face up to the future?
I mentioned last time that I had been quite busy in the first two weeks of lockdown, and I’ve continued to have a good amount of work since. I’m under no illusions, though. I am very fortunate and this state is unlikely to continue. A colleague, Andreea Sepi, who lives in Germany, wrote to me after my last post confirming that I am a lucky exception. “My income has plummeted, since I was also teaching, and that’s all closed now, as lots of older language students are not fond of Skype,” she said. Most of us have seen online references to colleagues applying for the various government assistance programmes that are available in different countries, although often the conditions attached make this money difficult for self-employed people like us to claim.
There is certainly no doubt that the pandemic is going to cause, and is already causing, the biggest recession any of us has ever seen. We just don’t know how many of our clients are going to survive the pandemic, or what kind of a world we will emerge into. Will people still travel and go on holiday? Will we do the same things we always used to or will our priorities change? In terms of translation, it seems clear that some specialist areas will be hit harder than others. Tourism, which happens to be one of mine, is one I believe will suffer badly. Other areas will be less badly affected and specialists in areas like medical translation may continue to do well. There may also be new opportunities which are still difficult to foresee. Without stepping beyond our capabilities, I think I and many others will have to learn to be more omnivorous in the kind of work we accept, and some of us will have to look at developing new specialisations. Lockdown and periods without work are the ideal opportunity to study in order to do this.
I have to say that almost all the work I’ve had over the last six weeks has come from existing clients or through word of mouth and I expect this to continue for the foreseeable future. Marketing to new clients at times like these seems almost insensitive, like some of the paid-for Facebook advertising we’ve seen lately, which, even if it is relevant, can be almost painfully inept. Did the undertakers who placed ads at the height of the outbreak, or the divorce lawyers seeking to take advantage of couples shut up together who’d decided they’d had enough of each other really think those campaigns through, I wonder? Because I would say they were counterproductive. More than ever, I believe, if you do want to carry out some sort of marketing initiative at the moment, it’s essential to put yourself in your clients’ shoes and try to think what effect you’re actually going to have. How is a potential client going to see you if they’re on the verge of bankruptcy and a carefree e-mail lands in their inbox chirping on about the benefits of quality translations? And even if the tone of your message doesn’t put them off, is it going to do any good if they simply have no money to spend? If in doubt, I’d say, don’t do it.
So if marketing is a minefield at the moment, how can you generate the positive feel among your existing clients that will encourage them to recommend you or come back to you again when they can? Well, first of all take good care of them and reinforce your links. Contact them and see how they’re doing, without doing any obvious fishing for work. You could also ask for referrals or testimonials, considering that if they haven’t got much work on they probably have more time to do this sort of thing for you. And if you’re asking for favours you could also offer something in return. If ever there was a time to offer small translations free for valued clients, it is now. There are also plenty of campaigns that have started to run to get various industries and sectors running again after the lockdown. What better way to get your name known as someone who’s truly involved in a particular sector than doing a small, voluntary job for one of these? And if you do pick up a new client, once again, quality and customer care are the watchwords. You probably have more time than usual to spend on each job. Spend it wisely and put extra effort into those translations. And talk to the client to make sure you’re giving them exactly what they need. You will reap the benefits in terms of loyalty in the future.
What kinds of work can we expect to find in lockdown and beyond? Based on the kind of jobs that have been reaching me, and my experience of the last recession, I can say that at the moment, whether you’re working for agencies or direct clients, there are basically three types of job available. The first comes from companies that are still doing reasonably well despite the crisis, for example those working in the medical sector. The second consists of people – often private individuals or university lecturers – who have a little money put by and are taking advantage of being stuck at home for weeks on end to revive projects which may have been shelved for some time, including things like articles and books. These can be an excellent source of work at times like this, although they are not always especially easy to access. One way is via anyone in the academic sphere you already know. Another might be by looking online at the relevant departments of universities and targeting likely members of staff to contact, if you have the appropriate expertise.
The third type of client consists of public authorities and publicly-funded bodies which, at the moment, have money to spend and want to use it to boost the economy. These are particularly worth mentioning because we all know this money is not going to last. If the coming recession follows the pattern of the last, there will come a point where public spending is cut, and universities and public bodies will suddenly cease to be viable clients, so make the most of them while you can. All we can hope is that, by the time the inevitable cuts arrive, companies that have suffered in the lockdown and recession will have begun to bounce back or others will start to emerge. In the last recession, there was a gap of a year or two before this happened, and that period was the most difficult of all the 20 years I’ve been a translator.
Whatever customers we have, the most important thing of all in the future translation world is going to be knowing them and their ability to pay. There will still be clients ready and willing to pay good prices for translations, although there will probably be fewer of them than we are used to finding. The trick will be identifying them and not under-charging them in a world where putting in a big, ambitious quote is not always going to seem like a good idea because other potential clients simply won’t have that kind of money available. Some will ask us to reduce our demands and do the same work for less money. Translators are already asking whether this is acceptable and if it is what we’re going to have to get used to as the world struggles to return to normal. I believe flexibility is going to be the key, especially if we want to stay busy. But flexibility has always got to be for a good reason. If you know a client is struggling and you calculate that the best thing you can do is help out by not insisting on immediate payment of a bill or doing a one-off translation at a special reduced rate, then that may be a reasonable strategy. But where is the sense in agreeing to a pay cut from a giant agency that is only going to pull the same stunt again as soon as they think they can get away with it? That’s the way to end up running faster and faster on a giant hamster wheel.
Overall, though, we may have to accept that there isn’t enough work for all of us. That means some – and I know some translators were finding it difficult to make a living before the virus struck – are going to have to leave the industry and look elsewhere for work. Others are perhaps not going to leave but will have to find part-time work to help support themselves. There is no shame in this. Translation is no worthier occupation than any other, and if you can’t make a living from it looking elsewhere is a natural, normal thing to do. Even in the difficult climate of a recession, translators are well placed to do change course, with plenty of useful skills to offer. Which is not to say it will be easy.
Where I would be wary of translators diversifying is when they start selling smoke and snake oil to colleagues. We’ve seen plenty of truly generous online initiatives by fellow translators during the lockdown but some other initiatives tent they could easily pick up by reading a couple of blog posts for nothing. Nor do I like to see free content being offered simply as a lure to draw people in so that they’ll pay for an entire course. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t happily pay to hear a real expert in something worthwhile. It’s a fine distinction, but I think we should see helping with translator training as putting something back into the industry rather than a way of taking something out, so it wouldn’t be something I would ever want to rely on for income.*
But even diversification is going to be more difficult in the troubled times to come because opportunities in all areas are going to be limited. There are no easy answers. As in any business, the freelancers best placed to survive will be those with low overheads and a financial cushion, while those in debt and without savings will suffer. Because reality for many of us over the months and even years to come may well amount to working less, making do with less and living at a slower pace, however hard we try and however good we are at our jobs.
* Disclosure: I have been paid in the past for giving some talks and workshops, although I have done others free of charge. I am being paid for giving a webinar on 12 May, together with Tim Gutteridge and Victoria Patience, for the ITI Spanish Network. The amounts involved have always been small and equivalent to nowhere near my hourly rate for the work involved.