Apr 302010

tranfree issue 69 – 30 April 2010

Understanding the FREE in Freelance

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tranfree 69

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We had a longer than expected Easter break in Poland. Due to the Icelandic volcano ash plume in European airspace we had an extra week away. We considered driving back, but there wasn’t much point when the ferries would have been so busy with all the other people who “have to be back at work on Monday”. We didn’t fancy driving all that way in our Polish Daewoo Lanos either. It’s a good local runabout, but not so comfortable for really long journeys like that.

We didn’t have to be back at work on Monday. We had our computers with us and could work where we were if needed. So we awarded Tomek an extra week off school and elected to sit and wait in the comfort of our Polish house. This is an interesting application of the kind of freedom I will be talking about in this tranfree edition’s main article. Other people in more “normal” jobs might been forced to make superhuman efforts to get back home quicker.

(If anyone’s interested in butterflies, check out the photos in my photography blog for some recent shots).

I hope you enjoy and benefit from tranfree


Alex Eames
tranfree editor, Author –

How to Earn $80,000+ per Year as a Freelance Translator
Selling Your Professional Services on the Web



Understanding the FREE in Freelance

There seems to be a certain amount of confusion out there about what the term freelance actually means.

Misinterpretation of freelance translator

So let’s find out where the word came from. Looking up freelance on http://www.etymonline.com/ gives…

also free lance, free-lance, “medieval mercenary warrior,” 1820, from free + lance; apparently a coinage of Sir Walter Scott’s. Figurative sense is from 1864; specifically of journalism by 1882. Related: Freelancer. The verb is first attested 1903.

So basically you are a warrior who will work for whoever pays the best. If you substitute warrior for translator, does that measure up to your reality? Are you a translator who will work for whoever pays the best? Hmmm.


Wrong Attitude

A lot of people have a very wrong attitude towards what it means to be a freelancer. They don’t seem to be living the part, although they probably harbour, somewhere at the back of their imaginations, the dream of somehow being FREE. But they don’t actually live it out. They feel enslaved to accept the rates and onerous terms, that anyone wielding a job tries to slap upon them.

Now it may be partly to do with fear, or inability to negotiate, but I think it’s also partly to do with not quite having grasped what the FREE in freelance actually means. Think for a moment. What are the benefits of being freelance? You are FREE to accept or reject any project which is offered to you. You are FREE to set your own rates (the client is FREE to accept or reject them). You are FREE to work (or not) for anyone you choose. You are also FREE to persuade clients to accept your higher rates and that you are worth what you are asking for.


Your Self-Worth Really Matters

But you won’t be able to do that unless you truly believe it yourself. In sales and marketing, a lot of importance is attached to your self-worth. It’s talked about a lot in marketing courses. It’s something very personal and it fluctuates during your life, according to your levels of confidence and your (often most recent) experiences. That’s a bit like a free market. Free to rise and fall according to changing times, circumstances and situations.

One online portal has a facility letting translators apply to agencies by email. The subject line of those emails is automatically set to “application for a freelance position”. This could well be a linguistic error, but it also shows a lack of understanding of what freelance is. Freelance is a position in the marketplace, not a position in an organisation. If you look at recruitment ads in newspapers or online, they’ll often say “position of marketing director” or “position of salesperson”. When you’re a freelancer, you don’t have a position in someone else’s company. You are not in their company. You are… What are you?

You’re FREE. Remember the FREE in freelance! You are not ensnared or imprisoned or closely tied to an employer. So you don’t have a position in the organisation. You are an outsider.

You’re a freelancer, a FREE agent. You are FREE. That means you are FREE to accept or reject any terms, any payment levels, any projects – and let’s go further. You are also FREE to reject any crap from clients. If you decide “I’m not taking that” you can say “bye bye. I’m not working for you any more. Get lost!” I’ve done it before. And believe me, people aren’t used to it.


Real-World Example

We once did a project for a fairly large multi-national company, in the financial sector, working on press releases. It was over the weekend. It was a major announcement about the merger of two large financial companies. (I won’t give any more details in case you start trying to guess who it was). We had the chief executive of the Polish branch on the phone telling us how he wanted this translation done. To a small extent he was being helpful. But he was also being condescending, rude, arrogant and upsetting us. So in the end, one time he phoned and said “I’d like to speak to your wife please” and I said “well she doesn’t want to speak to you because you’re being rude and we don’t have to accept work on these terms. So if you want to be like that, you’re probably better off doing it yourself.” It was quite empowering to be able to say that because – let me tell you – chief execs of large multi-nationals (even the lowly national branch CEOs) are not used to being talked to like that. And it’s very good for them. 😉

I did let him speak to my wife briefly after that. He was much more polite and friendly. When we’d finished the piece we were working on we decided not to take any more work on that project. He either did the rest of it himself or found somebody else he could bark at.

What I said to my friends when I discussed it with them was “well he’s chief executive of one company, I’m chief executive of two companies.” There you go. You’ve got to think of yourself as the CEO of YOUR company, and NOT as a low-life sub-contractor. This puts you on a level with the top people in large organisations. In fact, many of them will envy your freelance status because you get to work from home. They don’t get to see their kids from the time they get up – early in the morning to beat the rush hour traffic – to the time they come back late at night, if at all (perhaps they’ll have to jet off overseas to a meeting)? They may not see their children for several days at a time, whereas YOU get to watch your kids grow up. YES. Many of them are envious of YOU. Don’t you forget it. It’s empowering.


Employment VS Freelance

What’s the difference between employment and freelancing? Well the difference is huge actually. Your client won’t pay you any benefits and won’t deduct any of your taxes. They won’t pay any of your insurance or pension contributions. They won’t give you any perks. You tell them how much you want them to pay. If it’s too much, They’ll negotiate or walk away.

A freelancer is a FREE agent – a separate business. You are your own person, an independent unit. That’s what the FREE in freelance really means.

  • You set your own rates
  • You accept/reject projects you want/don’t want
  • You negotiate terms
  • You are FREE to succeed or fail on your own merits
But do you know what? Not everybody can handle the responsibilities that go with freedom.

“Freedom is a battle that must be fought and won each day” (Sartre).

It’s the ultimate performance-related pay, but not everybody can cope with it alone. Not everybody is cut out to be a business person. But don’t worry, help is at hand.


View From The Other Side

When we were operating as an agency, we used to ask translators what they wanted to be paid. If it was too high, we wouldn’t work with them. If it was a level that we could still make a decent profit on – by which I mean selling the translation for twice what I bought it for – then we went with them. We gave them what they asked for. And they were happy to take that money. Nobody was abused, nobody felt bad about it. It was profitable for both sides and that’s how ANY business transaction should be. If both sides don’t win – and don’t profit from a transaction – that means one side is getting a raw deal, which is not sustainable and doesn’t work in the long term.

Let’s remember some of the other elements of being FREE – some of the best sides of being FREE.

I’m FREE to go and do my supermarket shopping or go to the gym in the middle of the day, any day of the week if I want to. And that means I can choose the best time to go, when it’s not busy.

  • I’m FREE to organise my time and use it wisely – if I wish.
  • I’m also FREE to waste it. Isn’t that great?
  • I’m FREE to practise my hobbies whenever I want and not have to feel bad about it.
  • I’m FREE to do unusual things that other people can’t do. FREE to spend many weeks per year in another country in our second home.
  • I’m FREE to organise my life the way I want it to be.

So are YOU, but you may not have quite captured the “dream” yet. It isn’t just a dream though. It can be a reality. And for many people – many successful freelance translators – it IS their reality. It can be yours too. But it does require work, effort, sometimes a little bit of luck. But ALWAYS a lot of skill and a lot of hard application over a sustained period of time. And that’s where many people fall by the wayside. Some FREE lance warriors get defeated and captured in battle. But don’t let that drag YOU down. You can do it.


Alex Eames is the founder of translatortips.com,
editor of tranfree and author of the eBooks…

How to Earn $80,000+ Per Year as a Freelance Translator

Selling Your Professional Services on the Web

ISSN 1470-3866


***End of issue 69***

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Mar 302010

tranfree issue 68 – 31 March 2010 Resurrection Edition

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Listen to tranfree 68

You can also download tranfree 68 as a PDF.


Well hello again. It’s been a long time. I’ve called this the resurrection edition for two reasons.

Firstly, it’s been a while since tranfree was published regularly and now it’s time to end the silence and start publishing articles to help translators with their businesses again.

Secondly, it’s Easter time, so it seems an appropriate title.

The Famine’s Over

I have been quiet for a while for many reasons, some of which I may go into in my personal blog at some point. But the main reasons I stopped publishing tranfree was that I ran out of inspiration to write new material and I was unwilling to publish junk just for the sake of keeping the business going.

But the good news is that the “seven years of famine” is over and I have a fresh, more mature perspective.

I will probably be looking for a new list host as my current one doesn’t seem to let me publish in HTML very easily, which I now want to do. Plain text emails look very retro now. So please bear with me until I get that sorted out. I may well send short summaries or partial articles with links to the full text so you can see them properly formatted.

Enjoy and benefit from tranfree


Alex Eames
tranfree editor, Author –

How to Earn $80,000+ per Year as a Freelance Translator
Selling Your Professional Services on the Web



How To Kill Your Translation Business.

There are a lot of ways to kill your translation business, but here are 18 of the best.

1) Charging low rates.

Charging low rates is a very quick way to kill your business right at the outset. You will end up trying to get too much work, tiring yourself out, working too hard for too little reward. You need to get it into your head that the only way to survive on low rates is to live in a poor country. If you don’t live in a poor country, you need to charge realistic rates.

2) Bidding low rates to get work on portals.

Why would you do that? Portals and bidding are OK right at the start of your career to build up some experience – if you need that. But why would you spend years chasing the dregs? Some people do. Oh well. They haven’t heard. Or if they have, they weren’t listening.

3) Going for the high-volume low rates model.

The only way to earn a lot if you charge low rates is to do an enormous volume of work. I don’t know about you, but I suspect the quality would suffer and you would get exhausted. It certainly doesn’t sound like the intelligent person’s choice does it?

4) Delivering poor quality product.

Obviously if your work is not fit for its intended purpose, when your clients find out, they will cross you off the list of suppliers. Getting good clients is hard, so try to deliver good quality that will meet their needs and keep them coming back to you for more.

5) Being rude to customers.

This is just plain stupid, but all too common. Give them a positive customer experience and they’ll be back. Only be rude if you are saying goodbye permanently. Even then, better not to because you never know who they will tell.

6) Delivering work after the deadline.

Just don’t do it, EVER! Unless there is an emergency, or a really credible reason. Missed deadlines can cause clients major hassles, lost business and all sorts of other problems.

7) Slagging off customers on public Internet forums.

Why would you do that? It doesn’t take much of a brain to realise that anything you type on a public forum could come back to bite you in the bum at some point in the future, does it? Assume your customer WILL find out what you said. Don’t expect to hear from them again.

8) Not having a proper credit control policy.

One of our clients, TTC Creative, went bust in 2008. We lost about £300. It’s a shame, but not a major hit. One translator on the published creditors list was owed £12,000 (~$19,000) OUCH. I would cry – literally. But how on earth was it allowed to happen? Would you extend £12,000 in credit to any client? Set a level you are happy with for each client and do not over extend it. Once the credit limit is hit, do not accept additional work from them until you have been paid for the previous work.

9) Not examining the work before accepting it.

You’re busy. A project manager (PM) on the phone wants you to take a job, and you just want to get on. You haven’t looked at it and you just say “yes” to get rid of them. OOOPS. You just accepted a real pig of a job. It will take you ten times longer than usual because it’s got some horrible terminology in it. It’s badly written and you’ll wish you’d never accepted it – and for a discounted rate too. Oh dear – we have got a lot to learn haven’t we?

10) Borrowing money to fund expansion.

This is the best way to go bankrupt. Borrow money, take on staff, fail to grow, bye bye business. Yes it can be done, but very few people have the business acumen to make it work. Don’t expand until you can afford to do it with real money that you have already earned.

11) Excessive Internet/Forum Usage.

Spending all day moaning about low rates instead of actively looking for new direct clients? Bleating about the latest 0.0000000000001 cent per word offer (even though it was posted by one of your “friends” to wind you up)? Try to limit your forum usage to specified periods of the day or you may find you waste the whole day chatting and getting wound up by other people with no work.

12) Accepting a large project from a new client without checking them out.

Unless you can negotiate staged payments, this is a sure-fire way to commit commercial suicide. Always check out new clients to make sure they are not known scammers. There’s enough info sharing sites out there, so there’s no excuse not to do it.

13) Not answering the phone, emails or other correspondence.

I read something on a forum the other day about not answering the phone while you’re working. Well, from the client’s point of view, if you don’t answer the phone, I will ring the next person on the list. Surely it’s not rocket-science? OK, if you’re busy working, you might not be able to take that job right now anyway, but how do you know? Can you afford to take that chance? No. If it’s a timewaster, just hang up. It could be an excellent opportunity though.

14) Poor security, breaching confidentiality.

Don’t ever post identifiable portions of a job on the internet without permission. Don’t submit your translation memory (TM) containing such jobs to a public web site (otherwise the SOAR project could become a SORE project). I’m not saying don’t submit (that’s your choice) just be VERY careful about what you submit.

15) Trying to steal your agency’s clients.

Don’t be naive enough to think you will get away with it. This is stealing. It’s unethical and you WILL most likely be caught. You will then get a bad name (don’t for a moment think that agencies don’t talk to each other about translators).

16) Working into a language in which you don’t have native level ability.

Just because you can understand a language and translate out of it, doesn’t mean you can write at an acceptably good level in it. I can always tell when English is written by a foreigner because the articles are horribly abused or simply not used at all. (The definite article THE, and the indefinite article A). If I tried to write sentences in Polish or French, the readers would be laughing their socks off before reaching the third line of text. Don’t do that to your clients. They might not be able to get the work checked until they get laughed out of a meeting.

17) Sub-contracting large jobs by splitting, without checking and unifying the quality of each submission.

Two sins in one. Firstly, splitting up a job is to be avoided if at all possible. If not possible, the whole lot needs to be Quality Assurance checked (QA) by one translator to make it consistent. Oh, and you did ask the client’s permission to sub-contract didn’t you? I thought not.

18) Taking the wrong advice.

There seems to be a large number of translators out there on the Internet, who think that the way to go is to continually keep dropping rates and chase the work all the way down to the bottom. This only works if you are in a low wage economy. If you live in a country where you can make a good wage and earn a decent living for 10% of what I need, there is never going to be a way that I can compete with you on price.

To all of you out there, who are worried about these people – STOP! There is nothing you can do about it, so spend your time on something more worthwhile. You will never get rich by chasing after the bottom end of the market. It’s simply not the way in the service sector.

Bidding for jobs might be a good way to get some experience when you are first starting. But it is not the right way to go if you want to build a successful, satisfying, high-earning business as a freelance translator.

It seems almost too obvious to state, but the secret to high earnings is high rates. There. I’ve said it now! There will always be people out there who are willing to pay decent prices to get decent service. How cheap is the translation which costs your company millions of dollars in lost business?

You need to educate clients. It takes time. It might not be easy. But it is certainly worth it. How is it possible that a company will spend thousands or millions creating their corporate communications and then let some fairly low-grade secretary “who knows a bit of the language” translate a very important document for them. It’s ignorance – pure and simple.

Educate those clients, win them, keep them. Build your own future. There is more than enough work out there for those who can do this. Are you one of them?

Alex Eames is the founder of translatortips.com,
editor of tranfree and author of the eBooks…

How to Earn $80,000+ Per Year as a Freelance Translator
Selling Your Professional Services on the Web

ISSN 1470-3866


***End of issue 68***

Mar 132010

Several social network sites for translators have sprung up recently. Clearly they meet a perceived need that the classical forum sites don’t. For busy professionals it can be difficult to meet all one’s social needs in person. These sorts of sites can be very useful and fun to snatch a little human(ish) contact in spare moments.

The main problem is that, for busy professionals it can be both good and bad. Good because it gives “human” contact, bad because it provides another reason to stay at the computer instead of getting up and moving about, giving our eyes a rest. It’s all too easy to get hooked in.

A new site http://www.langmates.com/ by the guys behind AIT software was launched on 3rd March 2010. By 12th March they had 1000 members.

It’s very similar to Facebook in look and feel and functionality. I think it’s a brilliant idea and wish them every success.

Another one I took an instant like to, and was made instantly very welcome at is Andrew Bell’s http://watercoolernetwork.com/, which is a network for established freelance translators only. Membership is not a “free for all” and all members need to be approved. It started a few months ago and there are now 827 members.

Even more selective is stridonium which applies three selection filters before you can be a member. You have to…

  1. be a member of a professional translators association or have a minimum of three years translation experience
  2. be nominated by two existing members
  3. pay an annual subscription of €50 plus VAT

This is going to be a fairly exclusive private club, and that’s obviously the intention. I am not a member so can’t evaluate it. But here is what they say on the site…

The aim of Stridonium is to provide a platform for professional translators to interact in a collegial spirit of give and take. As the site was not set up for commercial purposes, there is no formal area on the site for outsourcing work and no attempts are made to sell products or services to members. Furthermore, as befits a community of adult professionals, regulations are kept to a bare minimum.

If you are a professional translator and are interested in joining the Stridonium community, please see the conditions for membership.

So that’s three for now, but there’s probably more I don’t yet know about.

Mar 102010

Listen to: How Do You Interpret This?

I have just received a very interesting offer from a German interpreting company. It came through the post and addressed to my translation agency, in a brown A4 envelope, with a fairly thick, bulky brochure attached.

On first quick scanning of the letter, it looked quite impressive and the letter did its job. I picked up the brochure – quite a thick presentation and thick paper – good quality printing all about conference interpreting.

The brochure was nicely presented, good use of photographs – plenty of “white space” – nice brochure. I flicked through the first half, which was in German. I thought to myself “hey this is very good – I’ll just flick forwards through to the next part where they’ll have the English version”. So I flicked through the rest of the document, all looking very nice, but the whole thing was in German.

I don’t get it. The letter was English, sent to an English address. They clearly knew it was to an English firm, but the brochure is in German. I know that it says translations in the company name, but that doesn’t actually mean that I’m going to pay somebody to read your marketing literature. I don’t speak German, some agency owners will, but most won’t.

So I decided to go back and have another look at the letter. Now before I rip into the letter, let me say again, the letter did its job. It got me to open the brochure and have a look. That is what the letter is for. But on closer inspection, the letter is seriously wanting as well.

It starts with the foreigners classic, “Ladies and Gentlemen”. That is not how to start a letter – that is how to begin a speech. Well, this is written by a conference interpreting firm, so we can only assume that their skill set lies in the spoken realm. Yes, sadly on close inspection, the letter is very foreign sounding “this is not an image brochure”. Can anyone tell me what an image brochure is? Sorry but I’ve never heard of one. I bet if you are a German-English translator you will know the German word this was translated from – I don’t.

Next we have “This is an updated, highly informative handout about conference interpreting.” Well I think I can figure out what what they’re trying to say, but it’s very stilted.

They even go on to talk about having interpreted for Barak Obama and Tony Blair. Clearly these people are top-flight interpreters.

I could go on. In fact, I’d quite like to go on. But I won’t. Why won’t I? Simply because I’m not trying to embarrass or belittle people. I am simply trying to make the point that when you spend time and money marketing yourself, you would be very wise to ensure that you have good quality marketing materials to do it with.

It would probably have been mortifying for them to admit this, but what they actually needed was a translator. Not only that, but it needed to be someone with native English.

Perhaps it was a mistake? Perhaps all the other agencies in the UK that they sent their materials to received a copy of the brochure in English? Why do I doubt that?

I don’t know. Let’s call it a gut-feel thing. How undignified would it be for somebody who has interpreted for president Obama to have to pay a translator – a mere translator – to prepare marketing materials for them. Dignified or not, it was clearly necessary in this case.

This is a very clear example of a top flight professional thinking that a translation can be done satisfactorily by a non native. Even worse, it’s a language professional. Tut, tut – should know better! This is somewhat disheartening for the profession. How can we expect captains of industry, businessmen, governments, and others to respect, value and take our profession seriously, if our fellow language professionals don’t? I guess they thought they could do it OK? But isn’t that something we hear nearly every day when we’re asked to proofread and correct poorly written documents that were translated by the “secretary who knows a bit of English”.

Okay. I don’t mind a letter from a foreigner who sounds a bit like a foreigner. That is to be expected. That is forgivable. But what I find unforgivable, in terms of marketing errors, is the sending of a 24 page brochure in German trying to solicit work from a UK firm. The only reason I didn’t throw it in the bin immediately was because I thought it would make an interesting article on how not to market yourself.

Alex Eames
helping translators do better business