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Does your translation business work for you?

Over the past weeks, I have been thinking about two statements by colleagues I heard at the recent ITI conference. One stated she worked between 60 and 70 hours a week “as she liked her job”. Another colleague mentioned that she never goes longer than an hour without looking at her work emails and even checks them on her phone when out shopping or socialising so she doesn’t miss out on potential jobs. The implicit assumptions are that a) if you like your job you spend most of your waking hours working and b) you have to be constantly on call, otherwise you run the risk of not getting enough work (or not enough high-quality work).

Well, I disagree. In fact, I disagree completely and wholeheartedly! I’m not saying you can’t work that way if that’s what you enjoy. But it is by no means compulsory to work 70 hours a week to be successful, nor do you need to be at the beck and call of your clients all the time in order to get good work. In fact, I think that if you are working like this, one of the most likely reasons is that you have the wrong clients. You have clients who:

  • Don’t pay you enough, which means you have to work longer hours to make ends meet.
  • Aren’t interested in you as an individual service provider – their main priorities are price and speed of turnaround.

What you need is:

  • Clients who pay you a decent price for your services so that you can decide whether to go on working till midnight because you want to – or have a free evening because that’s what you prefer.
  • Clients who want to work with you, rather than just anyone they think can do the job.

If your clients want to work with you, they are usually willing to work to your schedule as far as possible. They respect that your time is limited and let you know in advance when they would like to send you some of their work. I have clients who often give me several months’ notice for projects they want me to work on and currently have work booked into 2014. If your clients’ priority is working with you, it won’t matter whether you respond to their emails within 15 minutes, an hour, or even 12 hours. You won’t need to check your phone every 10 minutes – unless, of course, you want to!

I feel quite strongly about this as one of the main reasons I left my lecturing job and set up my own business was that I wanted to get away from long work hours that left me exhausted and people who expected me to be constantly accessible. At the beginning of my translation career, I was told I needed to invest in a smartphone so I could respond immediately to offers of work. For the record: In my whole translating career so far, I have not had a single job that I got because I responded quickly (and can only think of one I didn’t get because I didn’t respond immediately). I soon realised that in my target market, this is simply not the way things work: people spend lots of time preparing their texts, and because they are highly invested in their work, they care who translates it and leave sufficient time for it to be done well. And this means that I in turn am able to work in a way that is sustainable for me.

What is sustainable will differ from one translator to the next, but whatever it is, I just want to affirm it is possible to build a translation business that works for you.


Illustration © C.A. Hiley

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