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Reprinted with gracious permission from the Patent Translator, Steve Vitek

In my last silly post, I described how based on my own case and the experience of almost three decades, a translator can go about finding direct customers for a small translation business and over time become independent, or at least mostly independent, of translation agencies. This was just one example of how something like that can be done – there must be many other methods that can be used for the same purpose.

I would also like to stress that I see no reason to stop working for translation agencies when a translator works for direct clients, provided that it is a translation agency with a human face that is run by people who understand translation and appreciate translators. Unfortunately, the modern, corporate type of translation agency is based on the ruthless, ultra-crapitalistic concept of profit über alles, i.e. maximum profit at all costs, mostly at the expense of the people who do the actual work, but ultimately also at the expense of its own customers who are expected to simply get used to a much lower standard of quality of the product being provided with all of those wonderful “language technology tools”. This corporate, crapitalist model is deeply hostile and clearly detrimental to our own interests as independent translators.

The term “language technology tools” would make George Orwell proud. It includes many new glorious inventions of the modern “translation industry”, such as machine translations that are post-edited by humans. This is no science fiction anymore as “the translation industry” has already reached the stage when machines are assisted by humans instead of the other way round. Instead of translators it employs invisible, underpaid or simply unpaid crowd workers and thinks nothing of the evisceration of the beauty and the soul of translation, which is no longer be present in texts that have been processed by algorithms that may easily run amok when computer-assisted tools dictate to humans what is and what is not correct translation.

I think that it makes a lot of sense to ignore the version of reality that the “translation industry” is pushing as a legitimate model of what translation should look like and instead to try to create a different model, a model that would be more fair both to the translators and to their clients.

An alternative model is based on working only with the traditional model of translation agency and, as much as possible, with direct clients.

In this post I will try to briefly describe how a transition from clients, who are mostly just ignorant brokers who know next to nothing about translation, to clients who are the actual customers for your translations, is likely to change the character of your small translation business – because that was what happened in my particular case.

Finding direct clients is no easy task, but it is only the first step. Once you find them, you will also have to figure out how to keep them.

The problem with direct customers is that many of them have the nasty habit of insisting on taking a poor translator out of his or her comfort zone. You can always turn down a job from a translation agency, for example if you don’t know the subject well enough, or even you are feeling lazy. The chances are that the agency will come back to you next time anyway because agencies are used to working with different translators on different projects.

But if a direct client asks you to translate something that you can’t do yourself, can you tell them sorry, I don’t do that? Sure, you can, but will they come back to you next time again when they have a job for you that is more along the lines of what you prefer? Would you continue using the services of a plumber who can fix your leaking sink, but not your leaking bathroom? Probably not if you could find a plumber who can fix both of these eminently important fixtures in everybody’s house that tend to develop a leaking problem every now and then.

I don’t think that translators should try to be all things to all people, which is exactly what most translation agencies try to do. The fact that most translation agencies specialize in “all languages and all subjects” is one reason why they often do such a horrible job. Their motto might as well be: “If we don’t specialize in it, it does not exist”.

But even when a business is specializing in something, in every field there are many sub-specializations. Although initially I started out as a patent translator specializing only in Japanese patents, after about 5 years I started translating myself also German patents, and later I added also French, Russian, Czech, Slovak, and Polish patents, although it was and still is much more work for me than if I simply concentrated only on Japanese.

It took me a while before I was able to “grow” the same connections between the idle neurons in my brain for the same terms also between German and English, and then also for terms in French and other languages that I have been studying for many years. I am still faster when I translate Japanese patents, at least compared to patents in any other language, although German is now a close second.

But what should I do if I translate only one or a couple of languages and the clients start sending me work in other languages as well, you might say?

Well, my suggestion would be to allow the customer to take you even farther out of your comfort zone by learning how to shamelessly exploit other translators who can do the work that you can’t do by yourself – if that is what your client needs. In other words, I am suggesting that if you want to keep your customers, you may have to become a part-time translation agency, or a broker, in addition to being a full-time translator.

Although some translators consider all translation agencies to be inherently evil, becoming a broker does not necessarily mean joining the ranks of the highly exploitative agencies because one can also try to be an honest broker. There clearly is a reason why different kinds of brokers and agencies exist: translation agencies, employment agencies, and real estate brokerages provide services that mere individuals may not be able to provide, unless and until they too become brokers.

Things are a little bit different and more than just a little bit scary when you actually are in the broker’s shoes, but not really that different. Once you establish which translators can do a given job really well, all you have to do then is pay them what they ask for on time. If you do that, they will try very hard to fit in your translation next time even if they happen to be very busy.

Although I sometime ignore requests from potential customers if they look flaky (I don’t even bother to quote a price for instance if an individual who only seems to have a Gmail address wants me to give a price quote for a project that would cost a lot of money), I almost never say no to an existing customer.

And then there are also ways to turn down a project that takes you completely out of your comfort zone without in fact saying no to a customer. If you ask for a rate that is on the upper end of what might be an acceptable price range for something that you really don’t want to do, a prospective customer will most of the time go somewhere else.

If he does not go somewhere else, just do it. You will make good money and maybe you will learn something useful that you can then add as a new skill to your arsenal of skills.

There are all kinds of tricks that a translator needs to learn when the tables are turned and the translator is now the agency. But I believe that all of that will only make you a better translator, especially when you realize the enormous amount of work that a good agency has to do, and the considerably risk that is often unavoidable.

Have you ever watched a movie and found the performance of one actor or actress in it so moving and amazing that every time when you surf the channels on your TV and see the name or the face of this actor or actress that you fell in love with, perhaps many years ago, you find it impossible to continue surfing?

Most of us have had this kind of experience. And not just with movie stars. If a carpenter builds a bookcase for me exactly according to my specifications and it looks just the way I imagined it, he is also a star in my mind when it comes to carpentry skills, and I will almost certainly ask him to build another bookcase next time, or maybe a pergola or a new staircase. But if you work only for translation agencies, you can never be a star translator for your clients, even if in fact you are quite a star in your own right based on how well you translate. When you only work for an agency, your clients will never even learn who you are.

As far as translation agencies are concerned, to many of them, translators are the opposite of a movie star or a star carpenter. To them we are only interchangeable, unimportant pieces in an intricate and complicated machinery designed to maximize their profit. How could they possibly see us as creators of anything of real value when in the new “translation industry”, it will be apparently our job to simply “assist machines” by proofreading whatever it is that a machine throws at us to just get rid of the most blatant kinks and mistakes?

They say this is “a new skill” that we need to learn. I say it is a slow and painful way to die.

I hope that translators will not fall for this new hoax the way they fell for the hoax of computer-assisted tools, which were sold to us as a way to increase our income, and then instead used to further reduce translators’ remuneration by forcing translators to accept reduced payment for “fuzzy matches” and no payment for “full matches”, which is nothing but a greedy and extremely dishonest scam.

I believe that the new skill that translators need to learn instead is the ability to find direct clients, perhaps in addition to translation agencies with a human face, but definitely so as to become independent of those who no longer appear to be quite human.

It will be a better world, both for translators and for their clients, if more and more translators start working directly for the people who in fact use their services. You are a better translator if you know exactly what it is that your client wants from you, and if you want to know what it is, you simply have to be able to communicate directly with your clients, who need to know who you are.

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