Taking More Money for Your Translations

(Adopted with minor changes from comments I made in a panel discussion at the IJET-9 Conference, held in Yokohama way back in 1998. Nothing much has changed to invalidate these comments.)

I would like to present a few ideas on how you can take more money for your translation, focusing on the act of taking. My comments are basically directed at non-Japanese translators trying to make more money translating in Japan, but they should have value to translators in other situations as well.

The suggestions given below for making more money include some generalities. Naturally, there are exceptions that can be pointed out. Remember, however, that what we call wisdom is often just a collection of generalities.

First, take control. Taking control of the translator-client relationship might seem a bit too aggressive a stance, especially in Japan. Remember, however, that in Japan (as elsewhere, but perhaps more here) as a service provider you are coming from behind. By taking control of the relationship, you can raise yourself to the position of an equal. I will say more about control in a moment.

Take no for an answer. When you have presented your story and your rates, and have been refused, sometimes you need to accept no for an answer and just walk away. Additional sales efforts are often a waste of time–spelled a loss of money–and it won’t be the prospective client who is wasting your time; it will be you. In some cases, especially when a translator who usually works for direct clients is approached by an agency, the translator makes the most money (that is, loses the least money) by being honest with the agency and simply telling them that they probably couldn’t afford the price.

Take nothing for granted. For a number of years I had two manufacturer clients which consistently gave me a total of more than 2 million yen monthly. Then 1990 happened, and these companies started bleeding red ink so badly that they virtually lost their translation budgets. Lots of people thought this kind of thing could never happen. Hit with a drastically reduced work inflow, I started putting more effort into increasing the proportion of patent translation I was doing. Patent translation, at least the kind I started doing, turned out to be largely immune to recession. I also went out and found some other manufacturer clients. The lesson to be learned is that flexibility and client diversity are important in riding out the storm.

One of the above two clients, before they went heavily into the red, was paying me so much for translations per month that someone there got the idea to try to hire me as an in-house translator. They never imagined that the offer they made me, a salary amounting to about 70% of my previous billings, when bonuses and fringe benefits were included was not nearly going to cover the lost income from other clients, probably because they fell into the common trap of thinking that they were the only client I had. They too were taking something for granted. The fact that they offered much less money, however, points to another rule for taking more money.

Take the work home. Most freelance translators already know that they can make more money as a freelance translator than as an in-house translator. The pain threshold for in-house translator salary is generally around the department manager level, above which the emotional stress placed on the employer and the accompanying animosity that occurs can be unbearable. Salaries of a special employees such as in-house translators (especially if they are foreigners) inevitably become known to the “regular” employees, and hearing that a translator is getting, for example, 900,000 yen per month (a highly unlikely amount, but easily earned as a freelancer) would destroy the harmony in even the most peaceful companies.

In situations in which an employee is seen to be working at a desk or otherwise in the presence of other salaried employees, there is an effective “market salary limit,” above which earnings probably cannot be pushed.

This limit also operates to put a ceiling on the amount of money that can be charged for interpreting, and for doing such tasks as on-site discovery document examination and translation, all situations in which the service provider must work in the presence of the client. It isn’t difficult for an experienced industrial translator to earn more per hour as a freelancer than a client could bear to see the translator earn while sitting at the next desk. When you take work home–i.e., work as an outside translator–you make it a lot easier for clients to deceive themselves into thinking you are not really earning that high an income per unit of time.

Take prisoners. Clients who think they can drop you might drop you. Those who realize they need you–and I mean you, not some other translator and not me–are more likely to give you more of the stuff that you pay your rent with. Your mission then is to find clients to whom your work is not only valuable, but essential.

Take your spoken Japanese ability seriously. The seldom-broached topic of spoken Japanese ability is sometimes a sensitive one. My experience tells me that, other factors being equal, a non-Japanese translator who cannot operate effectively in spoken Japanese in dealing with clients is at a serious disadvantage in negotiating for high rates and maintaining the necessary control over the client-provider relationship. Some translators might have success in selling their services to Japanese with considerably less than acceptable spoken Japanese. Imagine, if you will, however, the level of success that could be expected of a Japanese translator in the US trying to sell his or her services to a client using very poor English, or even so poor that it would encourage a Japanese-capable client to speak Japanese with the translator. There are clients here in Japan who will flip a conversation with a translator from Japanese to English out of desperation and discomfort. Having allowed that to occur, it becomes considerably more difficult to gain control and take high rates.

Take stock of what your translations are worth to your clients. It matters little what you think your translations are worth. Your rates will be largely governed by their value to your clients. One way to get more money, therefore, is to seek out clients to whom your work is more valuable. This should point translators toward writer-driven translation as opposed to reader-driven translation.

Take a good look at your client list, with a view to replacing low-paying clients with higher-paying clients. When I am asked by a colleague how to get a client to pay more money, my answer is often “you can’t.” It is very difficult to raise your rates significantly with your existing clients. You generally need to find new, higher-paying clients. This inevitably means leaving your older, lower-paying clients behind. The willingness to take that step is important in achieving a significant increase in income.

So where do you get these new higher-paying clients?

Take to the streets. It’s simple. Get out and sell. Because I have covered ways of selling in a number of articles in various fora and will revisit that topic sometime shortly here, I won’t go into details at this point. Suffice it to say that a translator with a high desire for more money might think about selling to direct clients. For me, this means stalking the streets and participating in events attended by prospective clients. Old Japan hands might tell you that they get their work through introductions and connections, and that applies to me as well. Connections, however, are not conferred on translators at birth, nor are they issued to foreigners as they pass through immigration when they arrive in Japan. Connections are made. Once made, connections can be worked, but it is certainly possible for a translator with no connections or introductions to make connections and find clients. Not everything the old Japan hands say is necessarily true. And on your way home from selling, you might think about:

Taking a taxi. Even if you are not getting all the money you want for translation yet, many taxi rides will save a translator more money, in terms of time not taken away from translating, than the cost of the taxi. This might sound like a trivial point, but it is just one example of spending money wisely as opposed to accepting inherited wisdom regarding frugality.

There is more that can be said above some of the above points, and that will be coming in future articles.

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