Buzz or cruise control: it isn't just about rates

Most often, discussions about translators’ business models center around the type of clients – direct or agency – and inevitably about rates.

When translators gripe about lousy or falling per word rates, the first advice others give is look for direct clients. That is not the right reason to prefer them and there is no guarantee net income is higher as a result.

Please note that I am referring to professional rates: if a zero follows the comma or period (depending on your country), it is not a professional rate. Also, I am addressing that part of the translation markets (sic) centered on translation as adaptive copywriting (or transcreation, as it is sometimes called), my bailiwick.

A couple of my colleagues posit there should be no difference in the rates charged to direct or agency clients as long as the expertise and service provided are the same. To an extent, I agree with them: why should there be a difference based on who writes your check? But the service is rarely the same: for example, at minima, professional translators pay a proofreader to do a final check before returning work to direct clients while agencies take on that task (do they always?).

Focusing on unit rates for translating instead of the hourly income earned with all aspects of running a business included can distort reality. I’ve not found any statistics on this: based on my experience, I estimate the net income earned by an experienced translator working for agency clients is similar to that earned by a translator working only for direct clients. If anyone has statistics, let me know.

Why, then, would one prefer working for direct clients rather than agencies, given the time it takes to find them, land them, keep them and secure a credible marketing backlog?

It depends on how one is wired up. In companies, some staff prefer to carry out and some prefer to spearhead. The same is true with translators: some draw satisfaction from the security of cruise control — work comes in, you translate it, you send it back, sometimes you receive feedback, you invoice and get paid (ok, I’m simplifying slightly). Even those who prefer that matrix will complain sometimes about “the black hole”: the frustration of not knowing what the end-client thought of their translation or where it ended up.

Others need the buzz that comes from seeking opportunities that allow moving beyond *production* (for lack of a better word) to partner as consultants in a client’s project.

I, for one, need that buzz. It does not happen overnight. It takes time make your way through concentric circles. A first collaboration places you at the outskirts, where last phase production largely disconnected from an existing project takes place.

With time, smart client management, mutual trust and recognition of your added value, opportunities arise that bring you further inside those concentric circles where upstream decisions and programming occur.

It’s not just about rates. It is a personal choice between relative stability and predictability and being motivated by the risk inherent to a client expecting you to stick your neck out and the adrenaline rush that comes with it. Perhaps it boils down to what makes one’s entrepreneurial fiber tick.

For example, I’ve just spent several months working almost exclusively on one project. The instant availability it often required so far precluded my taking on other significant projects simultaneously. My net hourly income, all told, would probably have been better had I been on cruise control working with agencies.

The opportunity to integrate La Maison de La vache qui rit’s outstanding project team I had been hearing about for over a year set off my “buzz meter”. Indeed, my role exceeds being its dedicated translator to include intercultural communications and pedagogical consulting (institutional, tourism, children), adapting and copywriting all English language materials in and about the Maison (print, web, video, multimedia), editing French language materials for intercultural relevance and consistency, and so on.

The buzz comes from working on a “feel good” project (how can you not smile or recall childhood memories with The Laughing Cow staring at you every morning?), teaming with talented and convivial people, knowing your expertise made a real difference, having that added value recognized by your client, and seeing the result of the team’s work.

Sometimes, my checkbook advocates cruise control. It does not realize that, for me, absence of periodic adrenaline rushes would liposuction creative energy. Knock wood, another nifty project that has been in gestation since last December should be gelling soon.

Buzz takes time…

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At dimanche, 24 mai, 2009, Blogger mamouyal said…

With many years of medical translation behind, and hopefully still before me, I have worked in both modes and definitely prefer direct contact with my clients, with the occasional agency project for balance.

Some people like the security of knowing that working with agencies will provide regular volumes of translation without having to devote time to developing a client base. That relationship is however generally based on how low a rate the translator will accept; with the translator being reduced to one of the many factors entering into a profit margin equation. Recently many translators based in France have seen work provided by agencies in the UK and US dwindle because of unfavorable exchange rates. It is somewhat degrading to be offered work based on an agency-imposed rate-per-word basis.

Apart from the low rates and lack of feedback on end-client satisfaction, something else I don’t like about working for agencies is the impression that I’m giving over management of my time, not making my own decisions anymore. Partly false of course because if a direct client needs an article translated urgently, the deadline has to be met, so I’m going to give up my weekend anyway – but then, that’s my decision. It is far more gratifying to be a team member than just an anonymous supplier of words to an often anonymous client.

Yes it does require a lot of effort, courage, time, and often gumption, for someone not trained in marketing techniques to reach out to potential clients and convince them that making professional translators part of their team will be beneficial to their activity. In return, the satisfaction is immense when, in my case, an article is accepted for publication.

Marilyn Amouyal, medical translator

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