Why Translators are Promoting Premium Markets
November 28, 2014
As one of the more visible proponents for moving upmarket into the premium translation market sector — a position I’ve argued since 1997, but one that is just now finding traction as we can reach increasingly larger populations of translators with the message — I think it’s crucial to discuss why premium-market translators have volunteered so much of their time, money and effort in recent years to share their experience and expertise with their colleagues on this topic.
The ultimate objective of this outreach, of course, is to point our colleagues to the greater opportunities, higher rates, more challenging work and often exceedingly high levels of client appreciation for what we do – all characteristics of the premium market – for those translators with the skill sets, inclination, dedication, personality and commitment to make such a move.
Market “research” vs. market realities
This is a more difficult challenge than one might imagine because the translation market is immense, opaque, highly fragmented and comprised of radically different dynamics.
Translation market “research,” meanwhile, has not come remotely close to portraying this complexity.
As I’ve discussed elsewhere, despite their high price, such heavily-marketed “studies” distort reality by relying on self-reported data from bulk-market companies, missing many of the largest and most lucrative sectors of the market that for various reasons – national security, institutional confidentiality, competitive secrecy, and teaming agreements, to name a few – are compelled to fly under the “self-reporting” radar.
As a result, the enormously complex translation market has been massively distorted by this bulk-market “research” lens to portray nothing but bulk-market providers.
Cost to freelance translators
This distortion is detrimental to the best interests of freelance translators who have little to no visibility into the premium sector that offer premium-market translators — many of whom work for direct clients, bypassing the agencies altogether, a factor by itself that can result in dramatically higher incomes — much greater flexibility in clients, markets and even lifestyle choices.
When you earn much more, you have more options. I think most people would agree that with greater options, opportunities and choices comes greater power.
An additional stumbling block is that even in the bulk market, all visibility into clients, opportunities and rates is controlled by intermediaries — the bulk-market translation companies.
It’s true that such companies do employ very large numbers of translators, and that’s fair enough for translators who make the conscious choice to work in the bulk market. It’s advantageous when two parties can agree on the terms of their commercial relationship.
And for many translators the bulk-market is their market of choice, as it can be mutually beneficial – the “cut” taken by the agency is the price they willingly pay for the freedom to avoid direct engagement with clients, turn down work and take on a larger variety of assignments.
All of this makes perfect sense to those who have willingly chosen the bulk market.
But there is value, I think, in recognizing that despite some areas of mutual interest, these bulk-market behemoths and their smaller brethren have motivations and objectives that often conflict quite dramatically with the objectives of their freelance workforce.
For example, their business model mandates that they perpetually drive down the rates they pay these translators by setting them against each other to compete for the work that’s available from clients who belong to them, not to the translators.
This monopoly on the client relationship – the bulk-market agencies’ ability to control the entire client relationship, from terms, timelines and costs through rates and pricing – places a brutal ceiling on translator rates in a market full of translators perceived to all be equal and interchangeable.
Hence, rates have only one direction to go, and that’s down.
This reality has led to collapsing rates in the bulk market, a level that’s reached 35% in the last 4 years in many of the predominant language pairs.
It’s those specific pricing dynamics that are threatening the viability of the freelance business model today, even for many very experienced translators.
An extreme example of the downward spiral are those corporate announcements of rate cuts imposed across the board by major bulk-market companies that blame “market forces,” and “client pricing pressure,” that are followed months later by press releases citing multi-million-dollar bonuses awarded to the executives of these same companies for their success in “cutting costs.”
In this cynical downward pricing cram, there’s surely value in considering the opportunities awaiting translators in other market sectors where the demand for skilled translation talent and translation rates are both on the rise.
Premium Market Options
Engaging clients directly — selling services directly to customers that pay you for the value you deliver to their operations as opposed to what an intermediary can negotiate you down to based on your competing as one individual in a sea of other translators, and then take a huge cut from all that — is, from an economic viewpoint alone, vastly more profitable, empowering and potentially rewarding.
The same could be said of working for industry-specialized boutique companies – some small, others quite large – whose value structures tend to more closely align with those of their translator workforce. These are the companies that pay you very well, provide team working environments, give feedback, assure prompt payment and offer opportunities for professional training and development.
In most cases, such boutique agencies have narrow specialties usually requiring laser-focused, long-term expertise from their freelancers in narrow sectors of finance, law, health care and select areas of industry and technology.
Talent Recruiting and Placement Companies
An additional option for premium market translators are talent placement and recruiting companies – often called “headhunters” – that recruit top talent, promote their specific skill set and then place them into high-paying, often permanent in-house positions. (Full disclosure: I am myself employed on a language contract with one such company.) This has long been the dominant placement mechanism in the high-priced IT industry and we are now seeing it expand to include premium-market translators.
The Risks of “More Premium Than Thou”
In a previous blog post, “It Was the Best of Times, it Was the Worst of Times: How the Premium Market Offers Translators Prosperity in an Era of Collapsing Bulk-Market Rates” (see “Popular Posts” panel to the right) I take great pains to emphasize that the translation market is a very long continuum consisting of billions of shades of gray. The “premium vs. bulk” dichotomy is a form of shorthand only.
We are all employed at various points on that continuum throughout our careers.
There is no one single differentiating line between the two markets, so to argue where one specific translator falls on the continuum vs. other translators – getting into a “more premium than thou” argument on social media, or worse, to belittle a translator who has been financially successful in the premium market on those same fora – is pointless, counterproductive, potentially dispiriting to colleagues who are working to help each other, and at the end of the day just sets us all up for unnecessary and personally divisive distractions.
Premium market psychology and skills
We’ve also worked hard over the years to emphasize the skills and focus needed to move upmarket. Specialty training and a focus on a narrow specialization is quite important – that means one or two specialties only – but essential to the enterprise is regular collaboration with colleagues and a lifetime commitment to improving your craft through such collaboration.
Revision, feedback and collaboration are all essential.
It turns out that my blog post that lays out this argument in detail happened to win the ProZ Community Choice Award for “Best Online Article” this year, which I thought was an especially kind and thoughtful recognition by my esteemed colleagues, although I think we all know it’s not really “the best online article.” 🙂 It’s entitled: “Three Lessons: Humility, Collaboration, Perseverance.” (See “Popular Posts” panel to the right).
Be Humble to the Potential of the Text
There’s a reason the first lesson is “humility.” None of us, no matter how skilled, experienced or talented, can possibly know even a fraction of what’s needed every day to master our subjects and elevate our craft on every single text that comes our way.
As one literary translator colleague has stated so eloquently, “Be humble to the potential of the text.”
On the subject of humility, I would also gently suggest that a closely related virtue is generosity.
Perhaps there’s value in considering the very substantial costs that people like Chris Durban, for example, incurs as she flies around the world at her own expense for the sole purpose of informing translators about her own premium markets, thereby turning them all into potential future competitors. I suppose there are some mental somersaults we could engage in that would lead us to conclusions other than the most obvious one, which is that she’s giving back to the profession that has been good to her.
And that’s behavior I think that we can all enthusiastically support.
Follow me on Twitter: @Kevin_Hendzel
Always worthwhile reading Kevin, thanks!
Thanks for you comment, Hilton, I appreciate it.
Kevin, you share with Andrew Morris — of Standing Out — a gift for choosing illustrations that are beautiful, meaningful and relevant. They complement your texts very well indeed.
I’ve just added a post to my own blog (http://steve-dyson.blogspot.fr) quoting portions (but not too many…) and signalling my agreement with most of what you say.
Hi Steve — Thanks for noticing the images (and you’re always welcome to quote and borrow any content you like). I’m glad to see Andrew is making a similar effort to use images. I’ve developed a whole new appreciation for the skills of photo editors working for major publications that feature compelling images such as National Geographic in the US. I do believe that powerful images and colors can add emotional resonance to complement what we’re able to achieve with our words.
I was on the verge of commenting on the images and Steve beat me to the punch. They are truly breathtaking, a feast to the spirit, not only to the eyes. Thanks for sharing.
As for the content, great as always. In my neck of the woods, I have settled for working solely with direct clients, and am so happy doing it. It is truly rewarding.
Hi Nelida, thanks for your kind comments on the images. I’m pleased that readers are enjoying them. 🙂
Did you actually purchase the rights to publish these photos? I recognize at least one of them from a National Geographic photo contest. It would be sort of a sad irony to decorate your piece on entering the premium market with a bunch of premium content taken from photographers without permission.
Yes, that would be a sad irony. If it were true.
Which it’s not. 🙂
This is actually a fairly expensive blog to produce. I spend about $2,000 a year just on hosting costs (premium level, so you’ll notice the faster loading times, assuming the pipe is clean to you), paying for the award-winning Athelas font from the TypeTogether foundry, updating and upgrading all the spam filters and tools, and the images as well.
I spent nearly $300 on a single image when I first launched this site — I really wanted that image — because it was only available by purchase. The same is true of many images where the effect is priceless (although the costs are a lot more reasonable).
In general, I try to use images that are stunning for their originality and are produced by amateurs who immediately put them in the public domain.
I am not aware of any Nat Geo pics currently on the site, so if you see one, please let me know.
I generally avoid Nat Geo not because they are difficult — you can get permission to use the images by just writing to them in DC — but because it takes too long to get the permission.
Where I have the greatest challenge is sometimes in tracking the true origin of some images. It’s easy to purchase or buy limited use rights or Web-only rights to photos where the photographer is listed on the image, but it’s less easy to do when the image has no identification, appears in the public domain and Google lists many thousands of uses across the Web with no distinct artist identified.
I’m a pretty big stickler for paying for content when the artist or writer charges for it. Just tracking down pirated versions of this blog — content is stolen off it constantly, usually by translation companies, without attribution — could be a full-time job. 🙂
Quick question: Can you tell me where that magnificent swimming pool is?
Yes, the pool is from the Grace Santorini Hotel in Greece, which features a whole array of stunning outdoor architecture.
Giving back to a profession that’s been good to us… Yes, that’s the motivation shared by a few speakers I know. If our competition is more competent, the image of translators is raised, we benefit (translation becomes less of an amateur, ‘can do it myself’ profession). If our competition is more financially successful, we benefit (it becomes easier to get our own rates accepted, whatever our price point is). Ergo, even helping our competition is in our interests.
One concern that is at least worth registering is envy anong translators. This comes up whenever people talk about premium clients and premium rates. Premium has become a matter of pride, a badge many want to wear, regardless of how they earn their income and what pricing models and levels they are using. Further, there are those that resent anyone who talks about earning higher rates. I once got blocked by one translator when I shared Chris Durban’s book on a Facebook group – this translator objected to the concept of a ‘prosperous’ translator and took comments in support of Chris’s book as a personal insult. 🙁 But we have to keep on trying, despite this. There are enough people listening closely, with their eyes wide open, who are keen to learn, or even already somewhere far along on that path, but keen to hear more encouragement. It is of course a long-term investment, so dialogue with others working in the same way creates a valuable support network. We all benefit from having people to share ideas, research and experience with – even if these people are ostensibly our competition…
With that in mind, I’ll be telling a lot of people in Warsaw how to talk to my main target clients (marketers of various descriptions), and no doubt many will be German-to-English translators of some description. 😉 I hope to see some of your readers there!
Hi Rose, yes, I agree with the problematical issue of envy; hence, the cautions I set out in the “More Premium Than Thou” section when jealousies have historically seemed to spin out of control.
What’s crucial to emphasize in such cases I think is all the heavy lifting that’s required to pull oneself up into this market beyond all the obvious linguistic and subject-matter skills, much of it invisible, counter-intuitive or hard to define in explicit terms. “Soft skills” in marketing such as all the various forms of client engagement, such as maintaining a laser focus on problem-solving and crisis-management through a positive and proactive style while reducing (ideally to zero) even the slightest hint of being difficult to work with.
In fact, as you know, the objective is to be the go-to resource on every aspect of language, culture and the market/customer impact of the texts you translate.
I know many of our colleagues appreciate all the work you put into your own presentations on these topics and the important information you share with them and I’m sure your presentation in Warsaw will be a big hit, as always. 🙂
I’m from Brazil and your article was pretty inspiring. I’m graduated in Translation in English, but didn’t have the opportunity to work directly in this position. My intention is to open my own business as a bulk-market translation agency in my town and I would like to request you some advices on how should I start it considering our current market.
Thank you in advance.