The fifty ways

Those who know me well will confirm that I have little patience for blogs entitled, for example, “Seven marketing tips for a successful translation business”, or “Five things to remember before you wake up”, and so on.  I will stop there, because any more examples might have me descending to a level of crudity rarely seen on this blog.

The blog title is taken from the lyrics of that classic song by Paul Simon, “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover“.  The song title itself is misleading, because the song does not actually suggest fifty ways, but mentions just enough ways to get your imagination going so that you, too, can find a way to “get yourself free”. Right there, you can tell I am going to talk about pricing in translation, can’t you?

Well, if you did not join the dots, perhaps I should merely say that what follows is the substance of a comment I made within a translation forum on Facebook.  The thread concerned a blog which in my view—and those of many others—unsuccessfully tried to pass off a really bad idea as good advice.

The sheer head-desk feeling – you know, the kind you have when you feel as if you’ve been hit by a hammer, prompted me to lay down a few basic reasons to “say no”.

In a scenario more in common with film noir than translation business as she is done, it was proposed that giving more than a 50% discount on one’s normal rate on a job involving transcription and then translating it into one’s L2 was a winning solution in a bid to “hook” a potential client who had contacted one in the first place with a “Can you do this?” query. It was further proposed that pursuing such a course of action was somehow a way of being “positive” and “proactive”.

Somewhere in the distance, I heard the Earth rumbling: it was the hearts of millions of fairies turning to stone and thudding on the ground like persistent, regular blows from a hammer. They were dying in their successive droves as daylight reached one time zone after another around the Planet and fellow translators cast their eyes on the jumbled ideas and words contained in the ill-fated blog. Oh, my jolly hat!

So that is the context for you.

My response, more or less, was this:

By engaging in the wacky practices outlined above, you demonstrate to the client that you really don’t mind working for less than the minimum hourly wage in a less-developed country, even though the client is, actually, a successful player in the global economy.  In other words, you have given away all the advantages which should accrue to you in this transaction to the client. Now, just what part of that is smart, proactive or positive?

A job like this does not make it to my to do list, based on the “one of three strikes and you’re out” principle; in this case:

— Not my skillset!

If you receive a request to do something, and you have, at best, limited experience in doing that thing, say no. You need aptitude and experience to do a professional job. If a job falls outside those parameters, it is not for you. Fooling yourself otherwise will spell disaster. It is as simple as that.

— Not my language direction!

There are exceptional circumstances, granted, but unless you are that one-in-a-million, natural-born genius, do not translate into any language other than your mother tongue. Seriously. For real. My own experience when I get a Portuguese native to revise things I produce from scratch in Portuguese – e.g. a letter to the local council, or a quotation for a large project (I live in the country of one of my “second” languages) is that such revisions always turn up far more errors than I anticipate. Always. Even on “easy stuff” that I know well. Betcha the same applies to you.

— Not my price range!

Why sell yourself short? Really. Always do that simple calculation, before even responding to the “new client”, of comparing the job to what you would have to do for existing clients to get the same amount of money. If you know that no sane person would work for a rate that low, don’t you go and do it!

By doing work under such conditions you are undercutting translators on the bottom rung of the ladder – the bottom-feeders, in other words. Is that what you did your degree for? Does this conform to your ethics? Do you think the bottom-feeders will thank you for contributing to the downward spiral in prices they—and you—complain of? How long will it be before instead of accepting peanut crumbs for work you are not qualified to do that you will start doing the same thing for work that you do consider yourself qualified to do? I ask, because I daresay that there are a lot of natives in your L2 taking on work into your L1 at rates lower than the ones you habitually charge.

So, all three basic criteria—the job must be within my skillset, my language direction (and language pair, obviously), and be within my price range—must be fulfilled before I take on a job. And so they should be, I think, for everyone in our profession.

There are other criteria to consider: time available, ethics (huge topic, but basically: Can I live with doing work for a client based on my perception of the client’s ethics?), and, of course, subject knowledge/specialization.

If you ignore the “one of three strikes and you’re out” principle and take on such work anyway, I seriously fear that whatever you produce for what you are paid will not be up to scratch, despite the adrenalin rush you get from “taking on a challenge”, despite what the client might say by way of feedback, and despite what you think in defiance of downstream opposition to your nutty notion.

Yeah, yeah. It is a free market.  You are entitled to charge as little as you like to “beat the competition”. Or you can up your game, be the professional you say you are, and charge accordingly. Do whatever it takes “to get yourself free”.





©2018 Allison Wright

9 thoughts on “The fifty ways

Add yours

  1. I missed this saga, thankfully – but yeah, transcription and translation bundled into a single job is something that *everyone* should just refuse, every time, unless it’s paid as two separate processes. And even then it’ll probably make your brain explode.

    I made this particular mistake a couple of times myself, right at the start of my translation career, because I actually enjoy transcription, as I discovered in a previous life as a secretarial temp. Turns out I really hate it when it’s from French or Swedish, and I’m really really really slow at producing English from audio in another language.

    Now when I get that question I always say “I can do it, but only if it’s transcribed first”. Unless it’s English transcription, in which case yippee! I do still enjoy that!


    1. I am really glad I *am* a (freelance) translator!
      Life is good if you are professional, negotiate well by engaging the client and talking about the work (instead of simply “taking orders” against your better judgement) and make judicious decisions about what work is suitable for you and what work is not.

      Re: the typo, Eleanor, unless it is a quibble over skillset, betcha or specialization, then I cannot find it! Message me, if you can remember!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I guess you are an excellent negotiator whereas I’m useless and that’s probably why such a profession (especially freelance) scares me silly.

        I’ll message you shortly – it may be my interpretation of your words and not a typo. xxx


        1. It was indeed a typo – thank you!

          I do not consider myself particularly skillful as a negotiator; it is a skill I have had to learn, and consciously work on. Quite honestly, I would rather simply “buy the world a Coke”, but this Planet is not configured that way. 😉

          Liked by 1 person

Say something here!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Website Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: