Charlie Bavington

Professional French to English Translator - Business and I.T.

Bringing a pragmatic eye to meeting your needs

In the beginning…

February 25th, 2013 | Categories: agencies, business

I was recently led to reflect on my first steps in finding clients. In the case in point, I was led by the nose by an apparently notorious WUM/troll, but genuine cases arise often enough for me to wish I already had my own “story”, as it were, written down.

And so now I have.

Our young catalyst was, in essence, wondering how on earth anyone could make $50k translating when $0.05/word was pretty much the high end of what he was seeing on job portals. A complaint one sees often enough. This fellow was compounding the problem by going on generic freelance sites of the elance type, about which it seems all trades complain – I’ve certainly seen tirades against the ultra-low rates offered for copywriters and web designers as well as translators.

FWIW, although a fairly arbitrary figure, it strikes me that $50k (£33k or €38k as I type) is not an unreasonable aspiration for a well-educated professional working full time. Possibly a bit low, even.

I think anyone aware of the rates one is likely to get on elance, etc. knows they are not compatible with $50k/year. I don’t know any full-time translators who use such sites. I would therefore suggest that for anyone targeting earnings of $50k, elance is not the place to be looking for projects.

Proz may or may not be a little better. I have heard that one or decent clients do appear there from time to time. But by virtue of the simple effect of supply and demand (mainly, although other factors come into play too), then ceteris paribus, the earnings on offer are likely to be low-ish. If hypothetically one were to insist on sticking with such a jobs portal-based approach, then I would think proz (& possibly Translators Café, although I know very little about that one) is probably a better place to focus on than the general freelancer sites (elance and suchlike).

Do people earn $50k just from work they get on proz? I would think it is just about feasible. I do see jobs offering over 0.05/wd (not that I look very often) so assuming you were always busy with work from proz and depending on how much over 0.05/word you managed to get, it could theoretically work, I suppose. (5 cents a word means a million words a year to get $50k; Working 360 days a year, you’d need to plough through 2780 words, every day.)

So clearly those of us earning over $50k probably aren’t doing it that way. Like, I assume, many others, I have some agency clients and some direct clients.

Before freelancing, I was an analyst-programmer. This brings me to another aspect of getting started – real life experience. I worked in a mixed Eng-Fr or French-speaking-only IT environment one way or another for 4 years. There is no substitute for hearing your source language used in the
workplace (given a large volume of translation is work-related to some degree). My former employer still gives me direct work. I have other direct clients from personal contacts, and from personal recommendations and referrals. And indeed from employed contacts who change jobs. And from my website. (That’s enough “Ands” – Ed.) My direct clients typically get charged around €0.12 per word (consistent with the mid-range of the 2011 ITI/IoL joint rates survey) and I suspect in some cases I could probably charge more.

I use agency projects to fill in the gaps. I found some of these agencies eight or nine years ago by emailing agencies, individually. When I say “individually” I mean I first scoured through online yellow pages and possibly proz and similar sites, filling in a spreadsheet with those I might potentially want to approach. Interestingly (or not!), given I registered with URSSAF in Feb 2003 (broadly equivalent to registering as self-employed, in France, for the purposes of thise discussion at least) but didn’t send any of these emails until 2004, I must have spent almost a year living exclusively on the earnings from two direct clients – funny how memories of these things fade until we start searching for the facts for some reason).

Anyway, that made a list of 250 agencies I investigated, one by one. Of those, I emailed (in the form of custom emails, including the company name, what fields they said they worked in that I felt able to handle, sometimes to a named person if I found one) 125 agencies, attaching my CV.

I did this in fits and starts over a two-year period. Of those 125 agencies, I have had work from 6 of them (two are still clients, two I have dropped for rates reasons, two are “dormant”). The 125 I didn’t contact usually, on investigation, had criteria I couldn’t meet at the time, e.g. X years’ experience, residency in a target language country, etc. I use agency work to fill in the gaps between direct client work. The agencies I work for typically now pay €0.08-0.09 (again, in the mid-range of the 2011 survey). A tolerable rate, given I tend to cherry-pick the easy stuff to some extent.

That’s how I got started. It is also, I have come to realise this weekend, how I have coasted along for the last few years. It could be time for that to change…

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