I am a Translator
I started Japanese-to-English technical document translation when I graduated from the University of Massachusetts in 1996. The pattern was that I would translate for a year or two, land a “permanent” or “full time” job, stay there for a year or two, then go back to “freelance translation” for one reason or another.
That was the case when I left a full time bilingual QA consultant position at a major pharmaceutical firm in May of 2010. From that time, it took about six months of ‘beating the bushes’ to find enough translation work to keep me busy full time. So, it has been about a year an a half since I have been back in the translation game, and it is a time for reflection.
The current plan is to remain a translation consultant until I am able to retire (financially), if and when that ever happens.
What I have Learned
More so than my previous translation experience spanning 14 years, this time around I have learned some lessons. There are very good companies to work for, there are very bad companies to work for, and translators offer quality are rarer that you would expect.
As a translator, you will know a good translation agency by how they treat you, which includes how they pay you. Good companies provide background information such as lexicons that they have compiled from past projects. Good companies provide plenty of time to complete the translation. Good companies do in-house quality checks before handing the translation over to the client. You would think this point would be obvious, but not all agencies do. Good companies pay by bank transfer, or at the very least by checque.
Bad companies provide no background information. Bad companies provide very little time to do the work. Bad companies do not do in-house checks of translation quality, and the time for checking has been subtracted from the timeline before the translation is handed over to the client. Bad companies pay by PayPal. I am sorry if that offends, you, but it is my experience nonetheless.
With the internet and the internationalization of the translation industry (gee, that sounds a bit ironic), there has been an explosion of translators and translation agencies — even for Japanese — but there has not been an explosion of quality. As someone with experience in international business might expect, in fact it seems that the very opposite is the case.
What I have Done
For the past year and a half I have attempted to run a competitive business. Competitiveness is mostly a matter of price. When I started as a translator in the mid ’90s, I was an American working for American firms, and most of the other translators were Americans as well. When I decided to leave translation around 2003/2004, it was for two reasons: increasing competition from India and other offshore locations, and the necessity to purchase Trados to remain competitive.
When I returned to translation this time, I bit the bullet as far as both of these factors were concerned: I purchased Trados at the lowest possible price point (their pricing model has evolved over the years), and I submitted my resume and bids to companies located in India. I also submitted my resume and bids to companies located in China, but I never passed mustard in their eyes. This year I have worked for two translation agencies in India, two in Singapore, and one in Japan.
Reentering the translation business, my goal in bidding as low as possible was to fill as much of my waking hours with work as possible. “The goal is to be working all of the time.” Conversely, I have tried to do the very best that I could with regard to the quality of my work. I would even rather risk being late, and get the translation right, then have the client tell me that I got the translation wrong; or even worse, say nothing to me at all, ever again.
What I will Do
So thinking about the coming year or so, I think the most important thing is to (1) increase the relative size of the “good” companies among the population of companies that I work for, while (2) maintaining — nay, improving — the quality of the product that I deliver. I believe that this is achievable because of the following fact: with one exception, I have work for any translation agencies that I have applied to since December of last year. All but one of the companies that I have worked for has contacted me based on my ProZ.com profile. The other companies that I have applied to had not provided actual work, so enough of that. One the one hand, I intend to keep my customers happy, and on the other hand I intend to only work for the customers that make me happy to work for them — the good companies.
The Office Issue
An associate and friend has approached me about ‘renting an office in town’ to do my translation work in, rather than working from my home as I do now. Thinking about this, I am hesitate to commit to the additional expense. However, more importantly, the utility of a dedicated office space is directly proportional to the quality of the clients that I work for. When I do a lot of work for companies that give me a sufficient time to do it, I can work for 8 or 10 hours a day five or six days a week, and things should go well. But when I do only the occasional assignment for companies that need the work returned in short order, I end up working 20-24 hours per day, and it does not make sense to me to spend all of these hours away from my family. So for the foreseeable future, I feel more comfortable working from home.
Until We Meet Again
Translation work allows my family in I to live in rural Ireland. I spend all of my days with my family, and I do work that I feel ultimately contributes to the well-being of the world. It is not clear what the far future holds, but I am fairly certain that I can continue to work as a Japanese-to-English technical documents translator, support my family, and work gainfully toward the goal of financial retirement. So until we meet again, please let me know what you think.