Linguist in the Spotlight — Natalie Pavey
There is much to be learned from our colleagues, but it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with the “pros.” For that reason, we at Savvy have done the work for you in our Linguist in the Spotlight interview series, where we pick the brains of experienced translators and interpreters and bring their stories right to your screen. We hope their stories and sound advice will inspire and encourage you as you forge your career in the translation and interpretation (T&I) industry.
In this interview, Natalie Pavey takes a deep dive into how she chose her areas of specialization and how she turned subcontracting into a profitable part of her business. To hear more from Natalie, listen to her podcast episode on scaling your freelance business.
Q: How did you choose your areas of specialization? Have they changed over time? What advice do you have for newcomers trying to find one or several specializations?
A: After graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in French and Anthropology in 2005, I wanted to pursue opportunities that would allow me to apply my knowledge of the French language. This included volunteering as an English teacher with the US Peace Corps for two years in francophone West Africa and working as a park ranger-interpreter in Katmai National Park in Alaska, which receives a large number of international visitors who require assistance in foreign languages. My experiences in those two places fueled my interest in the fields of sustainable development and the environment, respectively, and when I moved to Quebec City with my husband in 2010, I discovered freelance translation, an occupation that would allow me to use my language skills in fields that interested me.
As time went on and I gained experience working on various projects, I realized that I enjoyed translating marketing content given my knowledge of diverse English- and French-speaking audiences. Marketing now makes up more than 50% of my work, but it is often for purpose-driven clients such as environmentally conscious businesses and non-profits that I genuinely enjoy working with.
My advice to new translators is to get out of your comfort zone and to dabble in different fields when the opportunity arises. While you should not get in over your head, you can often rely on forums such as translators’ groups on Facebook, where even experienced translators will ask for clarification on certain expressions and terms. If you join language-specific groups, an added benefit is that you will often get clarification from source-language speakers as well as suggested translations from target-language speakers. If you continue working for those clients, over time you will get to know them extremely well and translating their content will come naturally to you.
To land those projects, it is extremely important to mention any experience that is even remotely related to the project at hand as a jumping-off point. No two clients are alike, so even if a client falls under your field of specialization, it is unlikely that you will have the exact experience necessary for the job. We are continuously learning as translators to get the job done, which is what makes our work fun!
Q: What do you like most and least about your work?
A: Having a flexible schedule is definitely the biggest benefit of working for yourself. I was initially drawn to freelance translation because I had just completed a master’s degree that was 100% online, and I had become very comfortable making my own schedule every day. I did consider a few in-house positions when I was living in Quebec City, but in the end, I stopped pursuing those opportunities because I knew that my husband and I would eventually leave for his job, and I wanted to build up a client base that I could take with me. Being able to work only on projects that interest me, set my own prices, take breaks at any time of the day, exercise, cook, and run errands when I have the time allows me to maintain an excellent work-life balance.
The biggest drawback to working for yourself, however, is the lack of co-workers. There is a stereotype that translators are anti-social introverts, but most translators are actually very friendly. How else do you become fluent in another language except by talking with people who are different from you? I think the stereotype is based in the fact that we work alone. I struggle with the fact that I don’t have co-workers to bounce ideas off of or simply chat with while I’m having a quick coffee break. To counter the isolation, I work from a coworking space and cafes on a regular basis, in addition to getting involved in various business groups and associations.
Q: T&I professionals are often self-employed, and self-employment can come with a steep learning curve. Were there any hard lessons you had to learn as you built your business and service offerings?
A: Getting your pricing right is perhaps the biggest challenge when you are starting out. I was shocked when I went to my first translation conference six months after starting out as a freelancer and realized that I could be making up to five times more per word! It was the first time I had ever heard another translator talk about rates, and it was eye-opening, to say the least. The lesson: talk to other translators about what they charge and how they price their work! Attending conference sessions on how to price your work is also invaluable.
It also takes a few years to build up the confidence in your skills to justify charging higher rates. You will kick yourself more than once for saying you can complete a project in two days, when in reality, you could have used five to produce higher quality work. That being said, you cannot charge higher rates until you can demonstrate that you bring added value. Having the confidence to charge higher rates and produce quality work comes from the ability to properly estimate how much time you will need, as well as the rate that will prompt you to do your best work.
Q: What specific advice and resources can you recommend to newcomers to the T&I field?
A: In my experience, attending as many translation conferences as I could afford when I was first starting out was the biggest contributor to getting full-time work. You will definitely feel like an imposter in the beginning when you are barely getting enough work to even call yourself a part-time translator, but it is key to building a network of colleagues who will either recommend you or send work your way, in addition to gaining the knowledge you need to do good work. In my first three years as a freelancer, I attended one to two conferences per year, and I now try to attend at least one major conference each year. As the saying goes, “If you’re not networking, you’re not working.” There is also always something new to learn!
Even if you have a degree in translation under your belt, the only way to get the practical knowledge you need on how to run a translation business will come from pursuing professional development.
Q: Do you work with other T&I colleagues? If so, in what way?
A: For the first seven years, I was a one-woman show, often working nights and weekends. When I had my first child, however, my priorities changed, and I began subcontracting so I could take four months off as parental leave. Since I remained the contact person during that time and forwarded projects along to my colleagues, I gained experience managing projects and learned that I enjoyed it. I now subcontract regularly to other translators when I am overloaded and have even started subcontracting projects in the other direction, since I saw an opportunity to grow my business through subcontracting when I settled in New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province. Many translators pass up work when they are too busy, but I highly recommend subcontracting projects to not only keep your clients coming back, but also to increase your revenues.
Q: Could you elaborate as to how you still make money when subcontracting?
A: Good question! I asked myself that same question when I was starting to subcontract more and more and realized how time-consuming it is to provide quotes to clients, assign projects, field questions from translators and relay them to clients (then send the responses back to the translator), issue invoices to clients and then check invoices from subcontractors to make sure I was being billed correctly. Not to mention that keeping track of all the deadlines is challenging unless you have a good system in place (e.g., recording the project details [client, file/project name, word/hour count, rate], who the subcontractor is, what they are billing you, when you are supposed to receive the translation back from the translator, and when you need to get the final document to the client).
I began tracking my profit margins in an Excel sheet where I recorded the details of each project I subcontracted, how much I billed the client, and how much I paid the subcontractor, to see how profitable it actually was to subcontract. In the summer of 2021, I began wondering if it was all worth it because I still thought it was more profitable to actually do the translation work. Sometimes when you subcontract a project, you only make $20 for your time, so it just seemed like it didn’t pay much compared to the equivalent amount of time you spend translating.
At that point, I applied for a grant from the New Brunswick government through their post-secondary education fund to work with a business coach for three months. He took me on because he has a similar business model where he subcontracts to other coaches, who work under the umbrella of his business name, so he was able to provide a lot of guidance on how he has set up his business.
Within the first few minutes of our first meeting, he made me realize that there is a limit to how much you can make doing the actual work (translation), because there is a ceiling as to how much you can charge for a translation (some translators say there is no limit, but I don’t agree. You can’t charge $1,000 per word on a project, for example, unless it’s a slogan but that’s an exception).
However, when you subcontract, there is no limit as to how much you can grow your revenues. Basically, you’re forming a larger company when you start subcontracting. I don’t plan to ever have an employee, but I have worked with a virtual project manager on a couple of occasions, and I see that as a possible way to continue growing when I have no more capacity to manage things myself.
My coach recommended the book The E-Myth: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It, by Michael Gerber, and it convinced me that I should continue subcontracting, because it shows how you reach a point where you can’t manage any more growth. Furthermore, I was starting to realize that I liked the business development aspect of running a business, and by subcontracting, I have more time to work on marketing and pursue new clients.
I could go on about this, but suffice it to say that, since my realization about subcontracting, I have improved my project management processes to be as efficient as possible (the software Projetex is amazing for managing translation projects), in addition to working with an accountant who showed me how I can easily track my profits and ensure that I am being billed properly by subcontractors. It saves me a huge amount of time and is definitely worth the expense, since I am able to spend more time on other profitable tasks.
Lastly, my regular subcontractors now communicate directly with my clients when they have a question about a document, which ensures that they get the specific answers they need in a timely fashion, since I’m not relaying questions and answers back and forth (and it saves me time as well). All of this to say that, when you are efficient, you can make a decent margin on subcontracting to make it all worthwhile.
Q: Do you proofread/edit your subcontractors’ work?
A: I do not systematically proofread subcontractors’ work, even though I am trying to incorporate revision by a second translator into my process. However, I do check the translations I receive for my long-standing clients because I know their style, tone, and terminology, and I provide feedback to the translators to familiarize them with the client. To that end, I also try to work with the same translator for each client to ensure the greatest amount of consistency as possible.
I also work primarily with certified translators (80% of my regular colleagues are certified). My opinion is that certified translators are skilled enough that they do not need to have their work revised on a regular basis (even though I know that revision always, always improves a translation). The only exception to this is creative content, such as marketing materials or slogans, or perhaps legal documents with many moving parts (such as very specific terminology or repetitive sentences with a small amount of variations that need to be checked). In those cases, I often include revision in my quotes and try my best to get the client’s buy-in. It is one of my current challenges!
This interview was prepped and conducted by Emily Moorlach of The Savvy Newcomer team
Natalie Pavey is a certified French-to-English translator (OTTIAQ, CTINB) who holds a bachelor’s degree in French from the University of Pittsburgh and a master’s degree in French Language and Culture from King’s College London. She translates for direct clients located around the world in the fields of business communication, marketing, the environment, and sustainable development. Since beginning as a freelancer in 2011, she has worked with more than 300 clients and, since 2021, has been collaborating with other freelancers to provide English-to-French translation services.