As one of the more visible proponents for moving upmarket into the premium translation market sector — a position I’ve argued since 1997, but one that is just now finding traction as we can reach increasingly larger populations of translators with the message — I think it’s crucial to discuss why premium-market translators have volunteered so much of their time, money and effort in recent years to share their experience and expertise with their colleagues on this topic.
The ultimate objective of this outreach, of course, is to point our colleagues to the greater opportunities, higher rates, more challenging work and often exceedingly high levels of client appreciation for what we do – all characteristics of the premium market – for those translators with the skill sets, inclination, dedication, personality and commitment to make such a move.
Market “research” vs. market realities
This is a more difficult challenge than one might imagine because the translation market is immense, opaque, highly fragmented and comprised of radically different dynamics.
Translation market “research,” meanwhile, has not come remotely close to portraying this complexity.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, despite their high price, such heavily-marketed “studies” distort reality by relying on self-reported data from bulk-market companies, missing many of the largest and most lucrative sectors of the market that for various reasons – national security, institutional confidentiality, competitive secrecy, and teaming agreements, to name a few – are compelled to fly under the “self-reporting” radar.
As a result, the enormously complex translation market has been massively distorted by this bulk-market “research” lens to portray nothing but bulk-market providers.
Cost to freelance translators
This distortion is detrimental to the best interests of freelance translators who have little to no visibility into the premium sector that offer premium-market translators — many of whom work for direct clients, bypassing the agencies altogether, a factor by itself that can result in dramatically higher incomes — much greater flexibility in clients, markets and even lifestyle choices.
When you earn much more, you have more options. I think most people would agree that with greater options, opportunities and choices comes greater power.
An additional stumbling block is that even in the bulk market, all visibility into clients, opportunities and rates is controlled by intermediaries — the bulk-market translation companies.
It’s true that such companies do employ very large numbers of translators, and that’s fair enough for translators who make the conscious choice to work in the bulk market. It’s advantageous when two parties can agree on the terms of their commercial relationship.
And for many translators the bulk-market is their market of choice, as it can be mutually beneficial – the “cut” taken by the agency is the price they willingly pay for the freedom to avoid direct engagement with clients, turn down work and take on a larger variety of assignments.
All of this makes perfect sense to those who have willingly chosen the bulk market.
But there is value, I think, in recognizing that despite some areas of mutual interest, these bulk-market behemoths and their smaller brethren have motivations and objectives that often conflict quite dramatically with the objectives of their freelance workforce.
For example, their business model mandates that they perpetually drive down the rates they pay these translators by setting them against each other to compete for the work that’s available from clients who belong to them, not to the translators.
This monopoly on the client relationship – the bulk-market agencies’ ability to control the entire client relationship, from terms, timelines and costs through rates and pricing – places a brutal ceiling on translator rates in a market full of translators perceived to all be equal and interchangeable.
Hence, rates have only one direction to go, and that’s down.
This reality has led to collapsing rates in the bulk market, a level that’s reached 35% in the last 4 years in many of the predominant language pairs.
It’s those specific pricing dynamics that are threatening the viability of the freelance business model today, even for many very experienced translators.
An extreme example of the downward spiral are those corporate announcements of rate cuts imposed across the board by major bulk-market companies that blame “market forces,” and “client pricing pressure,” that are followed months later by press releases citing multi-million-dollar bonuses awarded to the executives of these same companies for their success in “cutting costs.”
In this cynical downward pricing cram, there’s surely value in considering the opportunities awaiting translators in other market sectors where the demand for skilled translation talent and translation rates are both on the rise.
Premium Market Options
Engaging clients directly — selling services directly to customers that pay you for the value you deliver to their operations as opposed to what an intermediary can negotiate you down to based on your competing as one individual in a sea of other translators, and then take a huge cut from all that — is, from an economic viewpoint alone, vastly more profitable, empowering and potentially rewarding.
The same could be said of working for industry-specialized boutique companies – some small, others quite large – whose value structures tend to more closely align with those of their translator workforce. These are the companies that pay you very well, provide team working environments, give feedback, assure prompt payment and offer opportunities for professional training and development.
In most cases, such boutique agencies have narrow specialties usually requiring laser-focused, long-term expertise from their freelancers in narrow sectors of finance, law, health care and select areas of industry and technology.
Talent Recruiting and Placement Companies
An additional option for premium market translators are talent placement and recruiting companies – often called “headhunters” – that recruit top talent, promote their specific skill set and then place them into high-paying, often permanent in-house positions. (Full disclosure: I am myself employed on a language contract with one such company.) This has long been the dominant placement mechanism in the high-priced IT industry and we are now seeing it expand to include premium-market translators.
The Risks of “More Premium Than Thou”
In a previous blog post, “It Was the Best of Times, it Was the Worst of Times: How the Premium Market Offers Translators Prosperity in an Era of Collapsing Bulk-Market Rates” (see “Popular Posts” panel to the right) I take great pains to emphasize that the translation market is a very long continuum consisting of billions of shades of gray. The “premium vs. bulk” dichotomy is a form of shorthand only.
We are all employed at various points on that continuum throughout our careers.
There is no one single differentiating line between the two markets, so to argue where one specific translator falls on the continuum vs. other translators – getting into a “more premium than thou” argument on social media, or worse, to belittle a translator who has been financially successful in the premium market on those same fora – is pointless, counterproductive, potentially dispiriting to colleagues who are working to help each other, and at the end of the day just sets us all up for unnecessary and personally divisive distractions.
Premium market psychology and skills
We’ve also worked hard over the years to emphasize the skills and focus needed to move upmarket. Specialty training and a focus on a narrow specialization is quite important – that means one or two specialties only – but essential to the enterprise is regular collaboration with colleagues and a lifetime commitment to improving your craft through such collaboration.
Revision, feedback and collaboration are all essential.
It turns out that my blog post that lays out this argument in detail happened to win the ProZ Community Choice Award for “Best Online Article” this year, which I thought was an especially kind and thoughtful recognition by my esteemed colleagues, although I think we all know it’s not really “the best online article.” It’s entitled: “Three Lessons: Humility, Collaboration, Perseverance.” (See “Popular Posts” panel to the right).
Be Humble to the Potential of the Text
There’s a reason the first lesson is “humility.” None of us, no matter how skilled, experienced or talented, can possibly know even a fraction of what’s needed every day to master our subjects and elevate our craft on every single text that comes our way.
As one literary translator colleague has stated so eloquently, “Be humble to the potential of the text.”
On the subject of humility, I would also gently suggest that a closely related virtue is generosity.
Perhaps there’s value in considering the very substantial costs that people like Chris Durban, for example, incurs as she flies around the world at her own expense for the sole purpose of informing translators about her own premium markets, thereby turning them all into potential future competitors. I suppose there are some mental somersaults we could engage in that would lead us to conclusions other than the most obvious one, which is that she’s giving back to the profession that has been good to her.
And that’s behavior I think that we can all enthusiastically support.
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