Six Survival Techniques for Translators during a Slump


Since freelance translation came into existence, there has been no recurring topic than surviving during a “slump” or a “dry spell” in the life of a freelance translator. Since the beginning of my career, I have been challenged by many people to find a suitable way to escape from this problem, and I have always said that “you have to go through this throughout your career.” I have always read translators having more than 15-20 years of experience going through this too. It doesn’t mean they are any less efficient or effective than others. Neither it means they are poor in business skills or are unable to attract new clients.

Like any other businessman or self-employed professional, a translator also has his “highs” and “lows”. The idea is to change your paradigm. I have always seen this period as an opportunity to make the best use of my time by following some simple techniques:

  1. Keep learning: Having fewer projects means lesser confidence in yourself. As the period extends, you may also feel bored and may resort to idleness like unnecessary TV watching or unwanted sleep or never ending useless phone calls. This is the way most of us deal with the stress of having no work. Instead of doing this, you could learn a new software which could help you later in your business (like software related to DTP which is a value add skill for a translator) or any other skill which could add into your existing repertoire and help in attracting new clients and retaining the old ones. The idea is to always be a student.
  2. Feed the mind: If we want our bodies to remain healthy, we have to eat good food. Similarly, if we want our minds to remain alert, healthy and active, we have to feed it with “good thoughts”. A dry spell could really affect the nutrition of your mind. You may feel “no longer required” in this industry. This is the right time to feed your mind with some inspiring literature like reading biographies or people who have gone from “rags to riches” in their life such as Michael Jordan, Walt Disney, Harrison Ford, etc. Though these people were not in the same profession, but you will observe that they have also faced many hardships to reach to the top.
  3. Revisit your mission statement: At the start of the career, everyone develops a mission statement or goal statement which defines the self-made path of a translator to achieve success. But in the midst of generating leads, landing on potential clients, adhering to client’s deadlines, doing projects continuously for months, one may tend to forget to think long-run and just gobbles up the opportunity right in front. Having some time off projects provides you the opportunity to revisit your mission, your goals and measure up your success so far. Furthermore, it may give you some great ideas to take your career further, to diversify yourself, to challenge yourself, etc.
  4. Spending time with your loved ones: When we are feeling low about ourselves, opening up to someone who loves you, who believes in you not only helps but also makes the bond stronger. I always discuss with my brother during these times because I know he always believes in me, even when I do not. It’s time to have a friend or a family member by your side to help you stay on track.
  5. Diverse your interests/income streams – Although freelancing is quite an enjoyable and lucrative business in itself, but in order to make the most out of your slump period, it is good to develop diverse interests. I personally teach French language at some institutes near my place at a very reasonable price and I blog too. Not only these activities are useful alternatives to mindless activities, these also develop your language skills and give an opportunity to meet new people.
  6. Go on a vacation: May be this slump period is here to remind you that it has been a long time since you have gone for a vacation. Go to a nice place with family and friends and rejuvenate your mind and body.

Some practical tips for Freelance translators

Translation industry in India , as I stated earlier, is in its nascent stage. There is a lot to be learned from our Western counterparts and also from our native senior professionals who have been, for last 30 years, running this industry. In order to learn from our experiences, we have to look back, we have to dig our past working experiences so that the mistakes once (or twice) made are not repeated.

Therefore, every now and then I come up with some easy practical tips which if used effectively, can work wonders:

1. Virtual and Physical presence: In general, advertising industry in India is growing at a rate of 12% every year and is expected to reach 1427 billion INR by 2016. That, in itself, clearly states that carving a niche for your brand has many long term benefits. The same applies to our business too. Making yourself known physically and virtually is very important. It allows potential clients to locate you easily and also helps you to showcase your talent on a global platform. Thankfully, it is not that costly for us freelance translators. A lot of “find a translator” directories are there (Proz, TranslatorsCafe, Traduguide, etc…) where you can get yourself registered for a minimal fee of less than 6000 INR per year (that means only 500 INR per month) and you are set. Now not only you can get in touch with all global clients, but also with many veteran professionals out there for constant tips regarding your career, software, associations, projects etc.

As for physical presence, there are a lot of conferences held by Proz (which mainly happens outside India) which can provide you with global exposure and make you realize that you are an actual, active part of a global economy. ITA (Indian Translators Association) also organizes conferences for its members as well as non-members.

2. Pro-bono translation: Pro-bono means public good. In other words, any professional work undertaken voluntarily without a fee or at a reduced fee. I know that it is somewhat against our motto for progress, but its like the phrase, “a great leap forward always requires two steps back”. Working pro-bono opens up wonderful opportunities, especially for beginners. There are several charitable organizations, NGOs, new start-up companies that requires interns working pro-bono. The experience one gets from working in this format is worth the effort. You get the chance to showcase your language talent for an actual client. It also enriches your whole working experience and is a great tool for contact-building. But working pro-bono does not mean that you extend this courtesy to dubious agencies who are giving you actual paid work to be translated for free.

3. Sharpening the saw – Freelance translation is a business with a feast and famine effect. Therefore, continuously updating you skill-set is not only beneficial but mandatory. Translation industry, like any other, is changing at a quick pace. Thus, we all have to go with the flow in order to remain active and working.

Translators are Superheroes

Isn’t it odd? In the last seven years,  I have heard a lot that we, translators, are invisible. A lot of people do not even know what is translation and what does a translator do? We are also made to believe that it is just a short-time hobby and not a recognized profession. But never once I heard that we are superheroes.

For all those skeptics and for my colleagues who love translation as much as I do, this post will be highly motivating – Translators are Superheroes.


Managing life

I do not like the concept of time management. It is foolish to save precious minutes when we are wasting our life away doing many things we should not do. Time management is like damage control. It only solves  urgent problems which need quick-fix solutions, it does not alter anything in your life and does not even guarantee that you won’t get stuck in the same situation again.

That is why for the past few years I have been using a life management approach which I have found to be very useful and effective – especially for translators like us. As per my perception on the life of a translator is concerned, it is very unpredictable. When a project comes to an end, I do not know from where my next project would come, holidays are never planned; whenever I get time, I take the week-end (and some more days) off and head to a place where I am far away from my laptop, e-mails, etc. My only objective at that time is to just discover the place and enjoy. And when the project comes, my life revolves around it with an objective to complete it successfully.

Sometimes, I feel that our lives are more like those of “fire-fighters”. Whenever the alarm rings, we have to be there, no matter what. It becomes the most “urgent” and “important” thing at that time. Therefore, when this tug-of war between “urgency” and “importance” occurs (and it often occurs), I follow the approach read in a book by Dr. Stephen R Covey, A. Roger and Rebecca R. Merrill.

Every activity we do in our lives falls into one of the following four quadrants:

Q1: Urgent and Important: Important, significant activities which require our urgent and full attention. For e.g.:

  • Rush hour projects
  • Last minute changes in translation, suggested by the client
  • Sudden shift of deadline by the client
  • Urgent client meeting on site

Q2: Important but Not urgent: Important activities which, when carried out effectively, would help us stay out of problems 90% of the time. For e.g.:

  • Further studies for improving our mental abilities and skills
  • Terminology building
  • Lead creation
  • Network building
  • Taking backup of our work
  • Reading (in our Source and Target language)
  • Spending quality time with friends and family
  • Effective blogging

Q3: Urgent but Not Important: Activities which do not foster growth in our life, but still we are inclined to do them out of a sense of urgency. For e.g.:

  • Answering unwanted phone calls
  • Other distractions coming our way like unnecessary e-mails, going to a friends’ house to delivery a CD, etc.

Q4: Not Urgent and Not Important: As the name suggests, not a useful quadrant.

  • Unnecessary TV watching
  • Unproductive relaxation

As a translator, one should always try to strike a balance between Q1 and Q2, for living a quality of life.  I know that Q3 and Q4 cannot be completely avoided, but can be minimized to a great extent in order to achieve our goals.

I know that the above-mentioned matrix is not something I invented, but used and found really useful and life-saving. Although it would not completely prevent you from getting stuck into a new problem, but it would make you armed and ready so that you can tackle it immediately and solve it quickly and ensure that it never comes back to haunt you again.

Journey to a new wor(l)d.

Fifteen years back, in a classroom with 35 students, having no idea whatsoever what my future had in store for me, just waiting for my French teacher, pondering over my books, flipping pages, understanding nothing but smiling at the cartoons and caricatures and color coded pages………the feeling was new, pure and different.

Nothing has changed in the last fifteen years though. I still feel the same whenever my Outlook icon pops up on my computer and wow…………a new project, the same excitement and the same curiosity engulfs me. I think this is the magic of words. The same 26 alphabets (in case of French), just written differently and pronounced vaguely and a new world comes right at your doorstep, waiting to be opened, explored (I am still exploring). The more you know, the more you realize you do not know and thus you want to know. This is why I named this blog as a journey, an exploration and an adventure, without any destination (as of now).

So, hop on… are in for an exhilarating ride.