Translorial 31-1 coverThe financial meltdown and ever-increasing unemployment rates do not bode well for the coming year but there are always options, even in hard times. BY QUYEN NGO

The holidays are finally behind us and hopefully the souring economy did not produce too many scrooges. Many of us are probably wondering if 2009 will usher in a brighter economic horizon. Typically, freelance interpreters/translators have been fortunate to work in a field relatively immune to transient economic cycles. But this is no ordinary financial conundrum. Uncertainty looms while the million-dollar question appears to be: “How much more downturn is there?” Navigating the current recession, in a profession that isn’t known for producing steady fixed incomes, can be tricky. Have you been receiving less work? Have you noticed that agencies are taking longer to pay? Have you been getting the proverbial run around: “We didn’t receive your invoice”, or “We’re waiting for payment from the client.” Are you being offered lower rates for work? Have you contemplated reducing your rates so you can get work?

Some inconvenient truths

Maybe you’ve been seeing more and more along the lines of these job postings adding further insult to injury: “We have a limited budget but are hoping that the volume will entice!”; “We have a translation project but don’t want to pay U.S. prices (translation: “we want to pay third world prices”); “We are expecting to choose the best translator at the lowest price possible.” While some will argue that rates have steadily been dropping for awhile, we can anticipate that the recent economic deterioration will not ameliorate matters any. Let’s examine some of the factors perpetuating the lower rate trend.

Supply and demand: Too many translators/interpreters and not enough jobs. True. Every bilingual person thinks they can translate. Also, too many agencies paying cheap rates because there are many poor translators willing to accept them.

Globalization: True. Many qualified translators are priced out of the market due to price pressures from translators working from developing countries.

Quality has a price. True. A new job always goes to the lowest bidder no matter the experience or qualifications of the translator. One agency specializing in marketing for various well-known clients divulged to me that their main priority was the appearance of the finished product and not the integrity of the translation. Hence, lower standards equate to lower rates. Nevertheless, I know there are still some agencies that endorse quality standards.

CAT tools/ TMs: True. Many agencies are pushing rates down further by utilizing pre-translated and fuzzy matching translations. In the old days, companies would provide translators with the software and materials needed for a project. Many translators have exacerbated the problem by purchasing these expensive software programs on their own, hoping to generate more work. The downside is that companies often lower rates for the use of CAT tools.

Technology: True. The advent of the Internet, CAT tools, and electronic/online dictionaries has greatly increased the number of virtual translators as well as translation productivity. Advances in technology will always bring down prices. Notice how prices have come down since the first generations of plasma TVs and Blue Ray DVD players have come on the scene?

Job bidding: Simply put, professionals do not bid. In what other field do professionals (doctors, engineers, electricians, mechanics, and technicians) bid for jobs? Job bidding is only convincing when everyone bids from a level playing field.

What are your options?

Now, that we’ve identified some of the price-reducing factors, let’s discuss the options. If you’re tempted to reduce your rates or accept work for less, think carefully before you do. Consider the long term impact. A client gets used to your rates and good luck raising them after that! If you’re getting less work from the down-turn and have more free time on your hands, consider the following:

Go back to school. Enroll in a translator or interpreter certificate program. Certificate programs provide proof of concentrated study while helping you stay current with new developments in your field.

Invest in learning new computer skills or update current ones (graphics, illustration, video, audio, etc).

Research the current in-demand fields for translation or interpreting, and then specialize in one. Create a niche. Just because you’ve done a dozen or so translations in a particular field does not make you an expert. Specialization doesn’t happen overnight, but takes years of dedicated study.

Once you’ve become an expert in a specific field, aim for companies or agencies that can utilize your strengths in these fields. Remember that professionals know their limits and do not take on jobs outside of their area of expertise.

Combine resources, partner with colleagues on volume projects.

Supplement your income with part-time jobs. Hold training workshops for various CAT tools. This enables you to help others in the profession while recouping some of the money and time spent purchasing and learning to use the software.

Network. Revamp your resumé and keep in mind the quality over quantity adage.

Volunteer your services with a charity or non-profit organization. You can practice your linguistic skills while providing a benefit at the same time. QN