Why it is also about you and me
I have a bonus post for you this month by my colleague Veronica Sardon, a translator from Spain bilingual in Spanish and English, living in Argentina, and specialising in international development and social sciences. As well as Spanish-English and English-Spanish, she also works from French into both those languages. I don’t run many guest posts, but I think what Veronica has to say is important. This is her story.
Three years ago, I was a career changer who was starting out as a freelance translator. I was working in what some people call the “bulk market”: I had begun to get jobs through agencies and the odd acquaintance, worked mostly from English into Spanish, and I was routinely paid around five cents a word.
I had come across blog posts by Chris Durban, Kevin Hendzel and others describing their work in specialist markets that paid ten times what I was earning. My initial reaction, however, was that theirs was a parallel universe with nothing to do with the world I live in.
It made sense to me that there might be a “premium” translation market for seasoned professionals with outstanding skills and very specific specialisations in lucrative fields. But they generally translated into English and lived in first-world cities full of other premium products and experiences – people whose business (and business contacts) often pre-dated not just Google Translate and ProZ.com but even translation agencies as we know them today.
None of this applied to me. I live in Argentina, where there was no chance of meeting any high-paying prospects at the supermarket or my daughters’ school events. I wasn’t a financial translator or a lawyer-linguist or an experienced biochemist. The areas I specialise in (international development and the social sciences) are not on anybody’s premium translation market list.
I could have dismissed the premium market as a lie, since it didn’t apply to me or to anyone I knew personally, to say nothing of all the accounts I had also read, which said that translation was declining inexorably, that real translators would be extinct before I reached the retirement age and that the steep fall in rates could only continue because Google Translate is free.
And yet I did have a few points in my favour. I had an international background that meant I was bilingual. I had lots of experience as a journalist, so my writing skills were solid. I had no money issues because I still had a day job. I have always worked hard. I wanted to make a success of my new career, so I read all the books, got certified, joined associations. I did my best to tick all the boxes, and fortunately the conviction that I was good and could get better with time and effort kept me looking up rather than down.
Then, out of the blue, something happened that gave me a whole new perspective. I received an email from an organisation (not a translation agency) that had found my details on ProZ.com. They needed someone to translate a politics text from English into Spanish. I must have been on page 8 on ProZ for that field, but they had really done their homework: my background made me the perfect fit, at least on paper. It was a fantastic potential collaboration with an amazing client, and I really wanted it. So I gave them my “best decent rate,” the one I got from my top agencies: ten cents per word. They wrote back saying they paid all their translators fourteen cents!
This made me feel incredibly stupid, but it revealed a long series of new truths about a market I thought I knew. First, someone who used ProZ.com was prepared to pay fourteen cents for good English to Spanish translation (just translation: they had in-house revisers). Until then, I didn’t know that was really possible. Second, someone was prepared to pay more than I asked for! These guys were apparently not out to get me. Third, the content wasn’t even nuclear physics or a high-profile legal dispute. All they really wanted was good, professional work in a field I knew well. Fourth, once I started working on their material and got more familiar with them, I found I could often make as much as 100 dollars per hour, and deadlines were comfortable and often even negotiable. It really was a whole new world.
From that point on, I decided I couldn’t ignore talk of the premium market, but nor could I take it at face value. Instead, I chose to adapt it to my own situation. Sure, some people were doing much better than me, but that simply meant I had plenty of room for improvement. Improvement in terms of my rates, my clients, the texts I focused on and the quality of my translations. I stopped seeing it as us and them, the premium market versus the bulk market. These were not discrete realms, but rather a continuum. I was clearly at the low end but could work to climb higher, and I had no idea how high that might mean.
Knowing about that potential for growth meant I never felt preyed on by bottom-feeders or threatened by Google Translate. In fact, I stopped even thinking about them. In more concrete terms, it also meant I started charging ten cents a word rather than five – far lower than the rates the premium translators talked of, but still a 100% improvement.
The experience with this client who found me through ProZ discredited several other things that aspiring translators like me were often told were facts. First, free test translations were supposed to be exploitation. Yes, I had to translate about 400 words for free, but they turned out to be part of my first project, so I eventually got paid for them. Second, certification was supposed to be worthless. I can’t be sure, but this client’s profile makes me think I wouldn’t have got that job if I hadn’t passed the DipTrans a couple of months earlier. Third, ProZ was supposed to be all rubbish. Instead, I have since earned six figures from this client’s projects alone, in just three years and with very good working conditions. My experience has shown me that ProZ is not always trash, that some free tests are worth taking and that certification may help you attract some of the right clients.
From then on, what the proponents of premium markets were saying made a lot more sense. They were mostly in a different league to me, but my experience with a single client showed me that premium translation practices were not just for other people in other parts of the world. Since then, I have largely turned away from agencies, because their rates and deadlines are rarely up to these standards. I ask new direct clients to at least match an hourly equivalent of that long-term client’s rate (although I occasionally work for less with clients I think are good for me for other reasons).
In my own experience, it is a lot easier to go from 14 cents to 30 cents than it is to go from 10 to 14. I really thought anything above 10 cents a word to translate English into Spanish was outright impossible. Seeing it wasn’t simply changed the game for me.
I get why young translators in overcrowded markets who need to pay their bills and think the first world is light years away might feel angered by talk of the premium market. I can see why they might think that the people who keep going on about it are at best bragging about their own exceptionalism and at worst just making the whole thing up.
The thing is, I was just a bulk-market translator, and then suddenly I wasn’t anymore. Just like that, simply because one client came up who disproved most of the things I was taking as truths of the industry. I was not a savvier person and I certainly wasn’t a better translator, but suddenly I was no longer in the same place professionally.
It is always tricky to put forward personal experience, because it can easily be dismissed as anecdotal. However, I think that beginning translators, in particular, need to know that things like this can and do happen, because believing that they happen is almost as important as being well-prepared when they do. You need to be good and want to get better, but if you do not realise there is a world beyond low rates and unappreciative clients – some variant of what you have seen described as the premium market – you may walk right past it, certain that it just doesn’t exist.
I still think it will take me decades to get to where Kevin Hendzel and Chris Durban are, if indeed I ever do. And I also have the impression that my ideal client is not the same as theirs. However, I have found time and again that things can get better rather than worse, and that there are enough people out there who value what I have to offer to keep me as busy as I want to be for now. While that is probably not true for all freelance translators, I know of plenty of other examples.
I’m not a social media star or face familiar from many conferences. Before reading this, you had probably never heard my name. I live in Buenos Aires. I translate social science materials from English into Spanish. I have been a freelance translator for less than five years. But in that time, I have redefined “premium” in a way that works for me. Are you still sure that you can’t?