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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Fluctuating Workloads

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American Translators Association (ATA): Business Smarts-Fluctuating Workloads

Fluctuating Workloads


This month, we will address the question of fluctuating workloads. There is a certain "feast or famine" factor in self-employment and freelancing, but a strategic approach can help define priorities and ultimately yield greater efficiency and satisfaction.

Dear Business Smarts:

I have been an active freelance translator for more than seven years. For the most part, my workload is steady, even though every now and then I hit a "dry patch." Occasionally, I have more to do than I can handle, but I am afraid to turn the work away because I worry that agencies or clients will look for another translator, and then I won't have any work. During those periods, I am overworked, I shout at my kids, and work until I am completely exhausted. I have thought of outsourcing some of the assignments, but don't know how. Your advice would be much appreciated.
— TIRED in Kansas

Dear Tired:

The situation you describe will be familiar to every self-employed translator. It is very difficult to strike a balance between overloading yourself to the point where the quality of your translations begins to suffer, and worrying that the phone will never ring again. Here are a few suggestions.

First of all, outsourcing is unlikely to solve your problem. Remember that your reputation for quality work is your greatest asset: you should never outsource assignments from a translation agency to other translators without the agency's explicit approval. If you are working for private clients, it would be appropriate to let them know when you cannot complete an assignment on your own. It often takes a lot of effort to adapt another translator's choice of style to your own, so in the end you may not save any time after all.

A full work schedule is the best possible advertising for your business, and demonstrates your success. So take a deep breath and say the magic word ("No"). A steady workload over seven years proves that your customers appreciate your work, and that they are willing to send you more in the future even if you're not available right now.

As a long-term time management strategy, resolve to limit yourself to a certain amount of work you can manage every week, and politely decline the rest. This will give you the peace of mind and confidence to produce the quality you are satisfied with.

It may also be time to take a critical look at your clientele. Are there some customers you prefer to work for? Why? Do they pay better, or offer feedback that lets you learn more?

Conversely, are there other clients who are constantly imposing unreasonable deadlines or paying lower rates? Are they really worth neglecting your family for? Don't be afraid to "fire" the customers you don't enjoy working for, and to pick the projects that are enjoyable and comfortable for you. In time you will find that you prefer certain types of texts or subject areas over others, and your work satisfaction will improve as you begin to specialize in a certain direction and turn down work that doesn't meet your criteria.

Finally, try to lose your fear of the "dry patches." Consider them an unexpected short vacation and enjoy them. You could play with your kids, meet a friend for lunch, or do all the work-related chores that get pushed aside when you're too busy translating: update your resume, revise your online directory profile, download that software patch, and catch up with the bookkeeping. Who knows, you may have so much fun that you'll look forward to the next dry patch!


Reprinted from The ATA Chronicle: March 2006, p 39