“Some translators live in a world full of problems. It can sometimes seem as if things are very grim indeed, and it’s tempting to sit idle, whinge and complain.” Such is certainly not the case for freelance translators Nicole Y. Adams and Andrew Morris. In preparation for their upcoming e-book, The Bright Side of Freelance Translation, the two have been gathering feedback from fellow freelancers on the positive aspects of working in the industry. In today’s post, I had a chance to speak with Nicole and Andrew about The Bright Side of Freelance Translation, the motivation behind the project, and, based on the responses they’ve received so far, if they envision a bright future for the translation industry.
MK: First things first: How did you two get started in the translation industry?
AM: I started out as a language teacher then a teacher trainer, spending 20 years in education, but as I moved up the ladder and found myself one day at a desk-job at the Ministry of Education in Bangladesh, I realised I had strayed too far from the things that make me tick. A change in life situation also meant it was time to reassess. Some bright spark suggested translation, so I applied to do an excellent online distance course while still in Bangladesh (focusing on the art of translation itself rather than the business side) and found I was hooked. The day I arrived in France in May 2009, I had lots of enthusiasm but no clients, no leads and a CV that was totally empty.
NYA: I originally studied law, but realised fairly early on that I wasn’t meant to be a lawyer. I went on to study linguistics, politics and history, and worked in corporate roles for a number of years. Then in 2003 I stumbled across an ad by a translation agency looking for a document to be translated, which I was promptly tasked with after contacting them. At that point, I had no idea that there was such a thing as a ‘translation industry’ and that you could make a living from translation. But once I had completed that first translation (and the cheque, much to my delight, had promptly arrived in the post), I was hooked immediately and started to do a lot of research – and I mean a lot!
I built my business part-time for a couple of years and took the plunge to full-time once my part-time earnings were higher than my income in my full-time job at the time. After a couple of years in the business, I flew to Germany to take the state exam as an external candidate in order to become a certified translator, because I thought it was important to back up my practical experience with a recognised qualification. Today, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else but translating.
MK: What prompted the creation of The Bright Side of Freelance Translation, and how did you two decide to collaborate on this project together?
NYA: Last year I published Diversification in the Language Industry, which features almost 50 translators from all over the world. When I read their contributions, it struck me how successful and content they were with being translators, and how different their (and my own) experience was from the many horror stories and complaints I was reading in translator fora and mailing lists every day. It seemed that the negative experiences, which no doubt exist, were given so much more attention and air time than the positive aspects of our profession that the new generation of translators was at risk of getting the wrong impression altogether. I felt strongly that more focus needs to be given to translators’ positive experiences and success stories to demonstrate that translation is and will remain a very viable career, and that it is up to us to make that happen.
When Andrew burst onto the scene at the end of last year, it was clear immediately that were on the same wavelength and that he shared this positive outlook and can-do attitude. We decided that something needs to be done to give a voice back to those content and successful translators who do not identify with all the woes we hear about every day – and the idea for The Bright Side of Freelance Translation was born.
AM: For this we need to fast forward 5 years to 2014. I think it was a natural coming together of like minds. We both noticed each other in the virtual world. I’d bought Nicole’s book (see above) and had already begun to experiment with diversification, particularly in the area of what might broadly be called training, exploring the idea of webinars and making frequent posts on the Watercooler forum on Facebook. Nicole picked up on what I was posting and felt we were on the same page. We then got in touch initially just to express that shared attitude. Over the weeks it began to develop into a need to balance out what seemed to us to be a dominant focus (in certain quarters, if not in the heads of most translators) on problems and complaints.
MK: What kind of response have you received so far from the translation community about this project?
NYA & AM: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Many translators have made very encouraging comments on various fora on Facebook, Linkedin (including the ProZ.com group) and Twitter. There seems to be a shared sense out there that our hunch was right, there is a need for an alternative voice and many translators have felt, so they say, underrepresented in the vital virtual fora because of the predominance of prophets of doom.
On the other hand, there have been criticisms too, and we welcome those, as they help us to reposition and clarify what we are doing.
One such criticism has been to compare our project to some kind of ‘Disney’ approach, ignoring very real problems and painting everything in bright and infantile colours. While useful, such comments display a fundamental misunderstanding of what the project is about. At no point does it attempt to say there are no problems. What it does is to focus on solutions and the empowerment of individual translators to position themselves as agents rather than victims in their own lives and start to make changes in their attitudes and their working practices.
MK: What do you two hope to accomplish through the Bright Side project?
AM: The initial aim has already been achieved. To give a voice to a more balanced approach to our job which celebrates the freedoms, the privilege of being to work with a tool we love (language) and on fascinating texts. Momentum has been generated and I think a certain balance has been restored even at this early stage, in the collective mindset. Even commentators who have previously thrived on pointing out the downsides of translation are now forced to position themselves in counter-distinction to something, rather than simply ruling the roost. They may still criticise the project of course, but they cannot ignore it.
The forthcoming e-book will further crystallise the project and represent a collective project which focuses attention on what can be done. It’s the result of a considerable investment of time by all the contributors and of both time and money by Nicole and me. But it’s free of charge of course, as we felt it was important to avoid any accusation of making money out of this. The ultimate reward is the groundswell of support and the profile the project has achieved already.
NYA: It is important to reverse the current trend towards negativity and doom and gloom. We want to showcase the success of many of our colleagues and share their positive approach to the profession. We certainly don’t want to sweep problems under the carpet, but simply complaining without taking any action to resolve the matter is pointless. We’d like to focus on solutions to challenges freelance translators may be faced with at one point or another in their career, and foster a stronger community spirit. I feel strongly that it is important to support one another, share information and most of all maintain a positive, professional vibe in our industry. I would like clients to look at translator fora and be impressed by the professional discussions, positive outlook and mutual support among translators, rather than witness in-fighting and endless complaints about themselves (the clients), because this is potentially damaging to the businesses of freelance translators anywhere.
MK: Some might say that rates and other working conditions of freelance translators today are not under their control. Do you think that is true?
AM: No I don’t. My own experience in 5 years, having started out with an empty CV, has shown me that ultimately, everything is under your control. It is certainly true that there are agencies out there which are unscrupulous, cheap and bad payers. And that there are bulk market industry players which impose low rates. But the beauty of freelance life is that you are free to choose whether or not to work with such players. I can’t speak for translators in China or Egypt, where conditions may well be different, but the vast majority of translators we interact with are in Western or Westernised countries, and they have choices to make. It may take time: you cannot set up on Day 1 declaring you will only work with premium clients. Or rather you can, but you need a healthy bank balance as you establish yourself. But as you learn the ropes, and assuming (and this is crucial) that you are good at what you do, everything from your clients, your rates, your specialisms and your working practices are up to you. The problem, it seems to me, is that for reasons which go way beyond the translation world, a number of translators are unable or unwilling to realise that. Facing up to the choices you have to make entails facing challenges, taking responsibility for your own actions and realising you are in control, which isn’t always comfortable, as there’s no-one left to blame once you head down that road.
NYA: Absolutely not, unless you choose to work for fly-by-night ‘agencies’ (or rather ‘translation brokers’) at the bottom end of the market who are focused on nothing but price. For anyone else, that is professional translators, rates and working conditions are entirely up to them. As freelance translators, we are professionals who set our own rates, and clients are free to take them or leave them. The biggest problem lies within our own ranks. It is not the big, bad agencies who drive prices down, but our colleagues who are willing to accept low rates or even offer them on their own accord.
Just recently, a colleague here in Australia quoted a very reasonable $40 for a certified certificate translation, and the client declined, proudly stating that another translator had quoted only $15! So who is to blame here, the client or the other translator? That’s why ‘colleague education’ is so important, and I feel The Bright Side is a step in the right direction, as it shows new or doubting freelance translators that it is possible to charge decent rates and work in favourable conditions. Sometimes it just takes the courage to go for it – and reading about others’ success stories might just give them the nudge they need.
MK: Do you see a bright future in translation for freelancers? If so, what indications do you see of this?
AM: I see a bright future for freelancers who realise the power they have in their hands and work hard on their skills, knowledge and attitudes. Translators who take risks and are prepared to face up to challenges, even despite occasional setbacks, will always survive and even thrive, as those are life skills which transcend any particular industry. We need to be aware of changes, to move with the times, but above all we need to focus on the freedoms, the ability to make decisions, the autonomy that we enjoy. To be freelance is a great gift. It’s a maverick position and it’s a power to be respected, not thrown away.
NYA: I am convinced the future will be very bright for those colleagues who position themselves appropriately in the market and establish strong reputations as specialist translators in a certain niche. Generalists will fall prey to the increased level of automation, the crowdsourcing and the decreasing focus on quality at the low end of the market that we have started to see. But specialised translators who present themselves strongly and forge long-term relationships with companies and boutique agencies will become very sought after and enjoy thriving businesses. Translation buyers will appreciate the high-end service at the top end of the market and be willing to pay for it. As Andrew said, it is up to us as individual translators to rise to the challenges along the way and recognise that success lies in our own hands.
MK: What advice would you give to someone considering a career in translation?
AM: I’d say for the first year or two, take on a variety of projects. Try out different clients and agencies and see what fits. And use the plethora of advice available on the fora to find out about going rates, practices and taboos. And then, when you begin to find your feet, start to shape your job so that it begins to reflect your own unique and individual situation, needs, skills passions and inspirations, working towards the point where your job is a close reflection of you, and where you enjoy what you do on a daily basis.
NYA: I’d recommend gaining in-house experience first; preferably not as a translator, but as a translation project manager to learn all the tools and tricks of the trade, or in your (future) area of specialisation (e.g. as a marketing assistant if you plan to specialise in marketing translations). It’s also essential to do your research and read as much as you can about running a translation business. Today there is no excuse, as there are so many fora, courses and mentoring schemes for freelance translators all over the world. I’d also start networking, and join a professional association and attend its events. Then of course it’s a couple of years of very hard work to establish yourself and build a solid client base. In my experience, the key is to gather testimonials from happy clients as soon as you can. After that, look after your existing clients and try to form long-term relationships. This will allow you to reject any offers that are not in your area of expertise, that don’t match your rate expectations, that come from clients you don’t gel with, or that you simply don’t feel like doing. The result will be a thriving business that you love, with very happy clients.
Learn more about The Bright Side of Freelance Translation by visiting http://www.brightxl8.com/
You can also contribute to the project by sharing examples of your own positive experiences as a freelance language professional here: http://www.brightxl8.com/#!contact/c11m6