On Direct Clients and Overcoming Geographical Disadvantages

Marty and map

Last month, I published a post on earning six-figures as a translator and accidentally sparked several somewhat heated yet fascinating debates on several business aspects of translation. One of the lingering questions in some of the places where my post was discussed was whether or not geography is a handicap when going after direct clients.

We are always told that one of the secrets to making direct clients is going where they are, and the reasoning behind that is pretty sound. Though not specific to translation, some of the best arguments in favor of location as a competitive strategy can be found in Michal E. Porter’s paper in Harvard Business Review’s HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Strategy (including featured article “What Is Strategy?” by Michael E. Porter) and expanded in Competitive Strategy: Techniques for Analyzing Industries and Competitors.

When applied to translation, “going where your clients are” is sometimes interpreted as meaning “relocate to your source country,” another sound piece of advice that is very hard to refute (when based on serious research). But, let’s be totally honest, relocating to your source country is not a realistic option for everyone. This is so for various reasons, including Visas or family/personal commitments. This may be hard to believe, but Visas are not so easy to come by these days. And consulates don’t always deem “moving to your source country to up your game as a freelancer translator” as a genuine reason for granting legal entry to foreigners. The bastards! In addition, some people are unwilling or unable to move their entire families overseas to have a better shot at reaching direct clients. Should they give up? Of course not! So what to do when you’re “stuck” in your target country?

One thing translators do is rely on intermediaries who actually have that geographical advantage. While many are quick to demonize such intermediaries, I personally have no problem with agencies. My problem is with bottom feeders; and believing that all agencies are bottom feeders is just as naïve as believing that bidding wars are in the best interest of translators. In the same vein, not all translators have an entrepreneurial side. Some translators prefer to focus only on translating and let other people worry about all the marketing, client searching, and project management. Again, I don’t see a problem with that, either. We’re all wired differently, we have different talents, interests, and priorities. So if you’re a translator who enjoys working for intermediaries and you’re happy and making a good and honest living, who am I to judge?

For the time being, I’m still combining both agencies and direct clients. I like working with agencies that fit two simple (totally subjective) criteria: i. the people behind the company are likable, and ii. they pay fair rates. However, I also like working for direct clients. I have an outgoing personality with an entrepreneurial spirit. So, I genuinely enjoy the business side of things and love the thrill of the hunt. I enjoy negotiating and closing successful deals with new or returning clients. It’s just how I am. It’s not better or worse than translators who enjoy working solely for agencies, just different.

However, entrepreneurial though I am, I’m also a realist. I’m well aware of the competitive disadvantage of living so far away from my clients and, as if that wasn’t enough, living in the developing part of the world where we often deal with things like this: “I contacted someone in Latin America because you guys are supposed to be cheaper,” true story, someone actually said this to me once! Or, my favorite, “If I wanted to pay American prices, I’d hire an American.” That one was pretty funny, considering the target readership was Argentina. So, yes, we have it rough sometimes and we can’t (or simply don’t want to) relocate, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed.

In some market niches, prospects come to where you are. In my post about how I built my client base without using translation portals, I mentioned some of the ways in which my university contacts have resulted in well paid work. For those who don’t know, I’m also a part-time university Professor of Law. The numerous academic activities held by different universities in Buenos Aires involve receiving visitors and delegations from all over the world almost constantly throughout the academic year. Many of these activities are even free and have resulted in a simple and easy way for me to meet foreign clients directly, without leaving Buenos Aires.

So, regardless of whether you cater to high profile lawyers and scholars or to IT gurus, it is possible that your city hosts international events that are roaming with interesting prospects. If you can’t leave the country to go them, maybe you can find out if they are coming to you. Needless to say, this will not make up for a total lack of geographical proximity, but combined with other strategies, at least it’s a start. There’s more than one way to skin a cat (poor cat!), and this one sometimes gets overlooked.

Breaking into Translation: Three Tiny Tips for Newbies (and Maybe Even Some Not-So-Newbies)

Breaking into the TR business

Breaking into translation is not easy. I know, I’ve been there. We all have. Personally, I fell into translation by accident in my early twenties. But accidental or not, following the white rabbit was the best decision I ever made. As it turned out, I have a knack for it and love language and writing. Somehow, I found a way to make a comfortable living from translation. In fact, I was even able to pay my law school tuition with my translation earnings; and now that I am a lawyer-linguist, I make nearly three times what I used to make before law school. So breaking into translation is possible and so is making a decent living from translation. If you’re a newbie and you’re reading this: don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. People who have to keep their day jobs have simply failed to take translation seriously enough to make it their full-time profession. And if Darwinism has taught us anything, it’s that natural selection has a way of weeding out the weaker links.

So you know you want to be a translator. You have excellent comprehension of your source language(s); you’re an exceptional writer in your target language (which should always be your mother tongue, by the way); hopefully you have a strong background in something else (prior profession or valuable experience in a different field); maybe you even have a degree in translation. Now what? Now you’re stuck in that vicious circle where you need experience to get clients, but clients don’t trust you because you have no experience.

The way I see it, you have two choices. You can take the blue pill and live the illusion of professional translation, applying for bottom feeding agencies who will be happy to hire you for peanuts and forever feed the Matrix with low-end pseudo translation. Or you can take the red pill and find your way to Wonderland, where professional translation is valued and that is reflected in your fees and quality of life. Like Morpheus, I cannot tell you which pill to take, but if you chose the red pill, here are some creative ways to break into translation:

1) Focus on getting referrals

Trust is an important part of the business world despite what Hollywood will have you believe. We are prone to hiring professionals that have been recommended to us by people we trust; and your best clients will come through referrals. Therefore, you need to build a network of people who trust you and your (proven) ability to translate; i.e. people who will recommend you when asked. Building a network takes time and your network should consist of both other translators as well as non-translators. For more on building networks, see my post on how I built my direct client base.

2) Build a portfolio

The fact that you don’t have many clients does not mean you can’t show off your translation skills. When you’re an experienced translator, your portfolio may consist of a list of cool stuff you’ve translated, but in the meantime, grab things, translate them, and put them on your portfolio. If you want to avoid copyright issues, make sure the stuff you grab for translation is in the public domain or that you did not take more than what can be construed as fair use. Then you’ll have something to show people that proves you can do the job. Consider using free online portfolio sites like Crevado, Portfoliobox, or Carbonmade to show off your work.

3) Find a mentor

If you’re an ATA member, look into ATA’s mentoring program. If not, find a translator who has already achieved the things you want to achieve, approach them, and ask them if they are willing to mentor you. If you find a good mentor, that person will not only teach you about translation, they will also teach you about making a career out of it. On the importance of finding a good mentor, among other things, check out this post on LinkedIn by Louis D. Lo Praeste.


Of course, these three tips are not a magical solution to your problem if you’re trying to break into the translation industry. But they’re a good place to start. The rest is up to you, your creativity, and your ability to think outside the box and leave your comfort zone.

On High-End Translation Clients and Brazilian Titan Beetles


On a long hot California summer, my childhood friend Alvin and I set out to record all the living bugs in the world. Ambitious, I know. We grabbed the illustrated animal encyclopedia my mom had bought me for my birthday, our notebooks, pencils, and magnifying glasses, and spent day after day turning over every leaf and rock on our street in search of the objects of our scientific endeavor. We were careful not to hurt any of the little crawlers as we counted their legs, antlers, antennas, and wings while recording everything we saw with the level of diligence that can only be achieved by children on a very important mission.

By the end of the summer, we were confident we had recorded every bug on the street. But despite all our efforts and hard work, our reference encyclopedia contained pictures of bugs that were nowhere to be seen in our area. We searched and searched, but still there were missing specimens. We spent many nights on our walkie-talkies trying to unravel the mystery of where all these missing bugs had gone. Perhaps Mr. Green had killed them all with his bug spray or the mean Cohen kid from down the street had squished them in a psychotic bug-hating frenzy. We postulated every possible hypothesis with impeccable logic, but it would take months, and some growing up, before we could see the obvious explanation right before our eyes: what was true of our one little street was not true of the world as a whole. As Alvin elegantly put it, “just because they get to play with titan beetles in Brazil, doesn’t mean we get to play with titan beetles in California.”

When Alvin finally came to that ingenious realization our lives changed forever. Before that, we were two geeky kids with magnifying glasses. After that, we were two geeky kids with magnifying glasses, awareness, and perspective. Our goal of recording every bug on the planet now meant actually getting out there and seeing the world! We had discovered that sometimes to find what you are looking for all you have to do is zoom out and broaden your search area; and that was one of the most valuable lessons Alvin and I ever learned together on our summer adventures.

I am once again reading comment after comment from frustrated newbies who can’t seem to find these high-end clients some of us seniors keep insisting on. They are out there. Mr. Green did not spray them with his bug spray and the Cohen kid did not squish them to death. In fact, they are all over the place, but if you limit your search area to the narrow confines of translation portals and bidding wars, you will not find them. You’re not going to find Brazilian titan beetles if all you’re doing is turning over leaves on the same tired little street of California. So if you’re one of those frustrated newbies, my advice to you is not to give up. Your titan beetles are out there. You just need to figure out where to look. On that subject, here’s a post I wrote a while back on how I found mine.

Why Translators Should Avoid Labels


Some people like to label themselves as glass half empty types, others as glass half full. I always thought that was a silly question. The glass is obviously 100% full: half liquid, half air. I was recently reading something online about “creative people” and the author said “creative people” are glass 100% full types and I thought, “bummer, they just had to go stick a label on my logic!”

I’ve always felt somewhat uncomfortable with labels. When we stick labels on something, we seem to be assuming that it won’t change… EVER! The object being labeled will always be perceived as what the label says it is. So sticking a label on a jar of strawberry sauce makes sense if you don’t plan on ever changing the contents of the jar; but sticking a label on a person is just counterintuitive. Human beings are constantly changing and evolving, even when we can’t perceive our own changes.

It seems to me most of us interact with others in a lot of different settings. I interact as a professor, as a translator, as a lawyer, as a runner, as a person you can stick a bunch of different labels on, but all these things are circumstantial. I’m all of these things and none at the same time. And the ones that are applicable to me today may not be so five years down the line. None of these labels define the inner me nor determine what I can and cannot do or accomplish.

In a paper in the June, 2014 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, David Yeager, Rebecca Johnson, Brian Spitzer, Kali Trzesniewski, Joseph Powers, and Carol Dweck analyzed simple correlations between beliefs and stress in high-school students over the course of a school year and found that the more participants believed that personality can change, the less affected they were by being excluded during certain activities involved in the experiment. In addition, the more students believed that others are capable of change, the lower their stress, the better their health, and the higher their grades at the end of the year.

Granted, translators are not high school students; but a lot of them are pretty fond of labels, and those that are might want to ask themselves if all this labeling is really doing them any good. While the study I described above focuses on teenagers and academic performance, these findings are consistent with a growing body of evidence amassed by Carol Dweck and her team which seem to demonstrate that the belief that people can change has many benefits when dealing with difficulties, stress, and even social isolation -something translators are all too familiar with. So the next time you stick a label on yourself or accept a label someone else stuck on you, ask yourself if labeling really pays off. And if you don’t like the label, remember, you can always change it or toss it out altogether.

How I Built My Direct Client Base (without Using Translation Portals)

Looking for clients

Many years ago (as some of you might recall), there was a huge debate as to whether certain translation portals were directly decreasing translation rates through their bidding systems. Many of us raised serious objections to changes to their job boards and a lot of longstanding and well-respected members fled some of these sites –one site in particular took the most heat. But in that debate, I also remember many translators claiming that without such portals, we would not be able to find clients or get work. Of course, most of these claims came from newbies who could not account for how anyone made a living as a translator before the internet age. But even among those of us who had been around for a few years at that point, there were those who still depended on these sites for work. I was one of them.

The impulsiveness of my twenties made me immediately take sides on the debate and, of course, I sided with the notion that these portals would ultimately result in a rates crisis. So, I put my money where my mouth was and stopped using them for client hunting, thus forcing myself to get creative about finding translation work.

Since then, I have significantly increased my fees and now have a lovely portfolio of direct clients and highly specialized boutique agencies that are an absolute pleasure to work with. My direct clients include everything from international organizations like the United Nations, to governments, transnational NGOs, law book publishers, prestigious universities, and well established legal scholars. The way I see it, leaving my comfort zone (i.e. abandoning the translation portal bidding wars) was precisely what I needed to kick-start my career.

Just last week, on LinkedIn, someone again raised the question of how to find clients without using such portals. What follows is how I found mine. Needless to say, this post is not meant to be taken literally as a step-by-step guide to making direct clients. This is just my personal experience and the decision to share it was perhaps inspired by Corinne Mckay’s upcoming webinar on how to break into the direct client market. So, here goes: my secret is knowing where to look.

1. Educational Communities

About halfway into my career as a translator (when I was still heavily portal-dependent), I went to Law School. Juggling full-time freelance translation work and earning my Law degree was not easy. I was sleep deprived and it took quite a toll on my health (nothing a healthier diet and running couldn’t fix though!). But I survived, graduating in the top 10%, and with a teaching offer and doctoral scholarship. So I can’t complain. Law School was worth the effort and turned out to be the smartest decision I ever made. It led directly to some of my best and longest-standing clients, basically by word of mouth. Educational communities are usually very tight and supportive of their members. Whenever someone asks me to recommend a good lawyer in a particular field, the first people I think about are those who excelled in my educational community. Similarly, whenever they are asked about a good legal translator or lawyer-linguist, they recommend me. It’s only natural. I know they won’t let me down and they know I won’t let them down.

In addition, I participated in several extracurricular activities where I also met many of my direct clients. My university has its own publishing house and a joint translation program with Yale University. I was quickly recruited for this program by one of my professors and that led to great jobs for renowned academics from many different parts of the world.

Of course, I’m not saying that all translators (or legal translators) should go to graduate school. All I’m saying is that being part of an educational community (even through lighter activities, like short courses, workshops, clubs, etc.) can go a long way.

2. Conferences, Events and Trade Shows (theirs not ours!)

Most translators stick to translation conferences and translation-related events only, and though networking among your peers/competitors/potential agency owners is fine, direct clients mingle elsewhere. In Law, they mingle at conferences and seminars. I still make sure to attend those and socialize, without forcing the subject of what I do or shoving my card down the other person’s throat. Networking at such events takes a little diplomacy and a lot of people skills. Being as I am the extraverted type, to me it’s a very fun way to expand my clientele.

3. Journals and Magazines

For many years I took the money I would have spent on paid subscriptions to translation portals and instead used it to place ads in legal magazines and legal sites that targeted my prospective clients. They were very humble, but effective.

4. Online Forums and Communities

I can’t tell you how many great clients I’ve made by simply participating in online discussions and communities. What many people don’t realize is that in such discussions, you are often talking to potential clients. Sometimes, you say the right thing or have just the right attitude and it makes people want to work with you. That’s why in prior posts I’ve insisted on being very careful about what you say online and how you treat other people. Your public online persona is sometimes the first thing potential clients see. Of course, you want to keep it real, but you also want to exercise good judgment and professionalism at all times.

5. Bar Associations (or Chambers of Commerce)

Getting hired by the International Bar Association for their latest book resulted in a lot of exposure, ultimately leading to very interesting work. In other areas of specialization, many translators accomplish the same results through their Chambers of Commerce.

6. Sporting Events

I run, and believe it or not, running has led to casual conversations that have also resulted in translation work. Of course I’m not saying all translators should become runners. What I am saying is that even your favorite hobby can potentially help expand your client base.

7. Knocking on People’s Doors

By “people” I mean clients and by “knocking on their doors” I mean keeping my eyes peeled for openings and opportunities. I used to regularly look through the sites of international organizations and submit my resume whenever their searches seemed to match my profile. The same goes for transnational NGOs. Though most NGOs found me through my university contacts, in a few cases I simply sent in my CV when they posted searches on their sites.

Making direct clients is not easy, but it’s not rocket science either. You just need to develop a system that works for you and then commit to it. There was a point in my life where I got up at 5 a.m. every day just to get one hour of client hunting done before rushing to class. Waking up at 5:00 a.m. wasn’t the hardest part, what I struggled with the most back then was not getting discouraged! But eventually all that hard work paid off. Now, the issue is no longer how to make clients, but how to keep them happy while staying sane… but that’s a topic for another post.

What Translators and Interpreters Can Lean from Pirates

Pirate Marty

We kicked off the New Year with a few resolutions; one of which was “taking control of how others perceive you.” I had promised to take you to the movies again this year and show you how to capture high-paying or “premium” clients and to explain how that relates to your portrayed image.

In Pirates of Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs is portrayed by Noah Wyle as being somewhat of a nut: but a very smart and business savvy one. If you pay attention to how “movie Steve” evolves, there is one observation that immediately stands out: His image changes throughout the film, but not to adjust to Apple’s growth and development as one might think. Instead, he changes his image to fit in with Apple’s investors.

Steve goes from hippie to yuppie not as his company grows, but to ensure its growth. So, he shaves off his beard and cuts his hair when attempting to get loans from banks. His explanation? “Banks don’t like beards.” He purchases his first suit when presenting his first computer at a convention. Yet, he wears jeans and shorts and walks around Apple bare foot when outside the public eye and refuses to hire a potentially valuable employee based solely on the fact that he looks like someone who would fit in at IBM.

Toward the end of the film, Steve finally appears as the Steve Jobs everyone knows today: The guy in the turtle neck and jeans–a choice that is neither random nor arbitrary, and which became a significant part of Apple’s image, as well as Steve’s. So, what can we learn from this? A lot, actually…

When we looked at translation business stats last year, we learned that well over 80% of the growing 34 billion dollars that had gone into translation in 2013 had been poured into small and medium sized agencies (or intermediaries). According to industry specific reports, there were over 25,000 intermediaries between end clients and freelancers. Approximately 70% of these intermediaries had 5 or fewer employers. Most of them were located in Europe and the US, and almost all of them outsourced to developing countries.

This means that the big business in Europe and the US is to capture end clients, then outsource to the developing world. As a result, the big business in developing countries is to take advantage of their devalued currencies and work for intermediaries in the US and Europe. Thus, if you’re in the developed world, your encounters with clients are far more likely to be in person than they are if you’re in the developing world.

These facts are important when trying to take control of how you are perceived by others in order to capture higher paying market segments. Professional consultants and trainers have long claimed that other people make up their minds about you within the first two minutes of meeting you for the first time. Thus, they put a lot of emphasis on teaching you how to prepare for first impressions. However, because first impressions are not always made in person for translators and interpreters, then a key component to our first impression is our online persona or online identity.

In 2013, the New York Times published an interesting article titled “You Are What You Tweet.” What this article showed is that what you present online is perceived by others as significantly representative of who you are. Think about that for a second. Think about how you’ve been using your social media, how you interact with others in online forums, what you blog about, what pictures you share, and even what you “like” online. All that is visible to others, including potential clients and colleagues, and what’re more, when there are no face-to-face first impressions, when clients and colleagues are left with no choice but to “Google you” to get a sense of who you are, the first impression they will get from you is that of your internet persona.

So, if you’re a translator or interpreter looking to capture high-end clients, remember Steve and how he adapted to potential investors and to his industry. Think about the clients you want to capture and how you are currently portraying yourself to them. Do you see any room for improvement? I know I do! And I plan to do some experimenting and post my results soon.

3 New Year’s Resolutions for Success-Driven Translators in 2015

marty hny 2015

It’s around that time when the coming of a new year forces us to recap on the past and plan for the future. Massive delusion of control? Probably. But, if the death of Socrates over 2400 years ago taught us anything at all, it’s that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” So, let’s all examine what we did this year as language professionals and participate in the happy delusion that next year will be better. And, what’s more, let’s prepare accordingly and plan for success!

RECAP: In my Matrix series, I used available numbers and market research to show that translation is not only a 34 billion dollar a year business, but it has been (and continues to be) growing steadily each year. I explained how supply and demand affect rates (here and here) and then showed that earning a higher income as a language professional involves shifting out of the “translation as a commodity” market and into the realm of the “specialty service” market (or what other translation bloggers refer to as the “premium market”). The question of “how” from a mathematical point of view was tackled here.

NEW CHALLENGES: The soon-to-be old year was obviously one of numbers and calculations for shifting into higher paying segments. But now that we know the numbers add up, a new question arises: Where are these higher-paying or “premium” clients? How do you market your services to them? And once you’ve secured these clients, how do you tailor your services to their specific needs?

RESOLUTIONS: My New Year’s resolution is to take you to the movies again and show you how to capture a market niche. But succeeding in this enterprise requires a series of commitments. Thus, here are three resolutions I propose for success-driven language professionals in 2015.

1) Acquire ongoing training and education: High paying market segments are challenging and hard to capture. One of the reasons for this is knowledge and training. Specialty segments require translators who not only know language, but also have a profound understanding of the subject at hand. Thus, catering to these clients requires not only being able to prove you are multilingual, but also an expert in their area or field.

2) Acquire strong business skills: Things have changed since good old St. Jerome translated the Bible. Today’s translation market –even the premium or specialty market– requires certain business skills, such as, effective communication, negotiation, marketing, and basic math and analytical skills. Translation as an art is a beautiful concept we’d be wise to keep alive; but if we want to make an actual living, we’ll need to accompany that notion with a skill set designed to help us not just survive, but strive in the current market.

3) Promote a positive professional image: How you are perceived by others is a very important part of your professional success. In today’s world, where such a large part of our communication happens online and behind a computer screen, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that what we publish on our blogs, in forums, or even on social media all contribute to how others see us; and those “others” include colleagues and potential clients. An immediate resolution for anyone looking to cater to the specialty service market is to take control of how others perceive them, and that involves not only minding how you act and behave online, but also establishing yourself as an expert in your area of specialization.

So, to all my readers, let’s kick-off the New Year more knowledgeable, with a strong set of business skills, a smile and a positive attitude! See you in 2015!