Tuning the machine

Tuning the machine

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In my last post, as well as looking back at 2019, I described the changes I want to make this year in the way I work. This has led me to thinking about freelancing, and about what we can and can’t change in our businesses.

I see freelancing as a series of inputs and outputs. At its simplest, we put in time and we want to take out money, but, of course, it’s all rather more complicated than that. We also invest money, paying for training courses and computer hardware and software, for example, with the idea of being able to take out more money at the end of the day. Most of us also want a little more than just money out of our work, and, to some degree, we’re looking for job satisfaction as well.

Nor can we convert time directly into money. We also need have to have clients giving us work, and the need to find work means that we can’t spend all our work time earning, because we also have to sell ourselves. As well as marketing activities, we might also choose to go on training courses and do other kinds of CPD not only to improve our skills but also to look more attractive to clients.

The reason rates are such a hot topic with translators is that they provide the mechanism to alter the amount of money we can make with our time. They might almost be a magical solution to all our problems except for the associated risk. If we raise them too high, we will lose work until or unless we can find new clients prepared to pay our new rates.

And tied in with this is quality. If we are to attract higher-paying clients, we must produce high-quality work. The feeling of doing our best work also brings satisfaction. But this will also take us more time, and could also cost money if we decide to hire a colleague to edit our work.

By now this is beginning to sound fiendishly complicated, but it’s not. We’re putting in time and investment into the process at one end and getting out money and satisfaction at the other. In the middle, acting like a kind of filter affecting the way the two sides of the equation are connected, are the way we choose to work, our ability and efforts to attract clients, our rates and our self-imposed quality standards, which all affect one another as well as the end result.

Until fairly recently, we’ve had almost complete freedom to alter parts of the model to our own advantage. In fact, that freedom is something that makes freelancing so attractive. Unlike employees (except those with very tolerant bosses) we can decide how much we work, how we spend our time and, to an extent, how much we want to earn. Any limits have been imposed by our other commitments and our needs for money and time.

Now, though, machine translation has arrived on the scene. Before, it would have been perfectly feasible, although not all that satisfying, to decide, for example, that the best strategy was to be busy at low rates, working as quickly as possible and not caring about quality. Some, still advocate this. But in most language combinations, MT has swallowed or is swallowing the market that will tolerate those parameters because it is exactly the way that computers work. So, because we can’t work quicker than computers and we can’t work cheaper than computers, if we are going to survive, human translators have to provide better levels of quality than computers.

One side-effect of this, of course, is that we may well end up more satisfied with our work. But, as we have seen, though, quality comes with its complications. Because of the increased costs involved in time and investment, and the need to attract new clients who not only care about quality but are prepared to put their money into it to pay the higher rates we need to demand, it doesn’t necessarily translate into making more money straightaway.

Where all that leaves me is trying to alter the parts of the model I can affect to my advantage – in effect, tuning the machine. So, my strategy for this year is to stop worrying for the moment about the amount of money coming out at the end of the equation.  Instead, I’m going to concentrate on investing some money, and above all time, in finding more of those elusive quality-seeking clients, with a long-planned website revamp and by seeking them out more actively. Alongside this, I’m also going to look at my translation process to see if there’s any way I can improve quality further without it costing me too much more time and money. There’s plenty more to say about that last point, but I’ll save that for a future post.



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