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by José Henrique Lamensdorf , 3rd November, 2004
Freelance translator José Henrique Lamensdorf reports on market research which he conducted on-line while seeking ways of promoting his own translation services
This article sums up my experiment in attempting to promote my freelance translation services over the web. I hope it will be useful for translators in a similar situation, as well as translation agencies who are permanently seeking freelancers worldwide. It was written right after the campaign itself, before any concrete objectives were attained, so I’m not claiming any effectiveness. The intention is to provide both freelance translators and translation agencies with a few ideas to tinker with.
Most translators specialize in one thing or another, while all of them do general stuff, either permanently or on a now-and-then basis. My speciality is the localization of training programs or parts thereof, originally written in English, for Brazil. Of course, on a now-and-then basis I get sworn, technical and other translation jobs. Anyway I have my own bilingual web site, which I finally managed to get up and running, and it focuses mainly on my specialty.
Unless I provided the URL of my website, nobody would ever find it, so registering it in search engines was a must. I found many that offered free registration, which I used, however with little hope, as I had never heard about these. The well-known ones required either a once-for-all fee or periodic payments. I soon realized that for the kind of work I was offering, the cost/benefit ratio of such payments might be very thin.
Gone are the days when a multinational corporation bought a training program and had its local HRD managers hire translators to localize them in their respective countries. In this globalized era, one of the requirements in purchasing a training program is a list of languages in which the developer offers to deliver it. And such work is most likely done by translation agencies. A training program developer is not likely to worry about how the Serbian version compares to the French one.
Since it would be quite unlikely for translation agencies to find my web site, I decided to go after theirs. And this unveiled a world about as diverse as the one populated by translators.
2. The search
I set out to find translation agencies (more precisely “organizations seeking translators involved with the Portuguese language”) on AltaVista. Don’t ask me why not Google, Yahoo, Jeeves, or any other. Let’s assume I drew a card. And my search criterion was very simple: [translation jobs Portuguese]. Though I didn’t tally how many I found, I can say there were plenty.
AltaVista said up front that it had found approximately 230,000 links matching my search criteria. All right, I didn’t “do” them all at once, but every time I stopped, it was on a new page, and I bookmarked it for my next restart. Nevertheless, to my absolute amazement, an AltaVista search ends after the first 1,000 hits! When you get to page 100 (10 links per page), clicking on “Next” will just refresh the same page.
So I decided to have a second run, this time using Proz. I went to their Directory–Agencies, and chose “from English to Portuguese” and “Business/Financial”, where I found 520 entries. Upon opening each one’s record, at the end of the left-hand column there is often a link “Also see: XYZ website”. And this is where I clicked every time there actually was something to click..
In the process, I had to keep some kind of visual memory of the places where I had already been, to avoid duplicating my entries. As each site I visited had some striking peculiarity (more about this later), it was relatively easy. But the really surprising fact, after I had been through the whole process, is that no more than half a dozen agencies were found in both the ProZ directory and the AltaVista search. Food for thought, but this might reflect different marketing strategies having been adopted by apparently similar agencies.
3. The findings
Yes, I found lots of translation agencies everywhere, in all sizes, shapes, and colours. There isn’t much use in discussing these variations here, as each operation reflects the ideals of its entrepreneur(s).
However one dichotomy is fairly obvious: Should an agency a) boast of its self-sufficiency in being able to find a suitable translator for any language pair with no more than one click of a mouse; or should it b) display a wide open welcome to new freelancing professionals? Anywhere between one extreme and the other, there will be several examples.
Of course, there are agencies that are the result of a bunch of translators having joined forces, and they don’t want any additions, thank you very much! These agencies usually cater to a very specific market (e.g. financial reports, database management software), and cover a well circumscribed set of language pairs. They are relatively few, and there is no use in trying to pry their doors open.
Several agencies–most of those I found at ProZ–were just individual translators who possibly clicked on the wrong place when submitting their entries. No use in working on these, and many of them don’t even have a web site.
I would say that most of the translation agencies’ web sites have a plainly visible tab in their menus labelled JOBS, CAREERS, or OPPORTUNITIES. In many of them it is sub-divided between in-house (full-time, permanent) and freelancing positions. Others are more discreet, and these labels are in the sub-menus branching from ABOUT US, OUR COMPANY, or CONTACT US. And finally, the most covert ones put such links in the text, usually at the end of the pages linked to these labels.
From those sites which in one way or another welcome new freelance translators, there are two basic types, plus a hybrid of these two. One is the “online application form”, and the other is “e-mail your CV to…”. The hybrid type is one that, at the end of the online form, asks the applicant to upload his/her CV. We’ll deal with one type at a time.
However, before entering into that, let’s examine a bit the “tools” I gradually developed to cope with their requirements. As nobody (with the possible exception of my bank manager) was pressing me for a deadline, I could stop the process at any time to develop or improve these tools.
4. The “tools”
The first basic need to face eventual requests is to have a CV or a Résumé. Are they the same thing? Absolutely not. My last full-time job before becoming a freelance translator and consultant (or consultant and translator, depending on the side you look from) was as Human Resources Manager of a large multinational company, so I can tell the difference.
A Résumé is a one- or two-pager, which gives the prospective employer just general information at a glance. In recruitment and selection, it serves to answer one preliminary question: should I ask for additional information, or should I discard this person before wasting both his/her time and mine?
A Curriculum Vitæ (yeah, it’s Ctrl+Alt+Z, and the correct spelling shows your computer-savviness) is a report of variable detail about what you have done so far in life. The length is your choice. You may delve into titbits of everything that ever visited your hard disk, or cluster such things into homogenous groups.
So, in order to comply with different requirements, I covered both extremes: a one-page Résumé, and an obnoxiously detailed 15-page CV. Agency web sites requirements for such information varies..
Some computer-virus-aware agencies are quite harsh in saying that absolutely no e-mail attachments will be accepted, that any messages containing them will be promptly deleted before opening. They ask for the CV to be pasted onto the message body instead.
Other agencies do request the CV or Résumé to be attached to a message, or uploaded together with the online form. Most of these request a *.doc or * rtf file, and some set a limit to the number of pages.
I made up my mind to do something different, more customer-oriented. Regardless of connection speed, sometimes an overweight e-mail can mess up the receiver’s priorities. So I made both documents with my usual PageMaker, and neatly distilled them into *.pdf files. File sizes came up to 36 Kb (Résumé) and 190 Kb (CV). If anyone doesn’t have at least the Adobe Acrobat Reader, they are not in the translation business. I uploaded them to my web site, unlinked to anything else, so that the URLs are really needed to download them.
Then I wrote a short standard message in *.doc format, inviting to: a) visit my web site; b) download my Résumé (informing size and format) and/or c) download my CV (ditto). The message ended with: “I hope this is faster and helps in keeping your mailbox (c)lean.” to show some goodwill.
Whenever I was asked to copy & paste the CV in a field of the online application form, I copied it there. When they expected me to upload a *.doc file, I sent this file instead. However I did bother to convert all the URLs into links, so that a click by the user on them inside MS Word would make the browser go there automatically, without any fuss.
5. The e-mail your CV type
This is the simpler one. Some translation agencies’ sites simply state that they welcome CVs and provide the e-mail address these should be sent to.
But sometimes the request acquires some mild complexity. A few ask for a cover letter, quite justifiably, as they want to know what the freelancer can or is willing to do, on top of what he/she has already done. I let my web site speak for itself.
And it’s rare, but sometimes such a simple thing can get really awkward. There is a whole web page containing a detailed list of instructions on what is specifically expected from the applicant, in terms of information. This encompasses things as rates in a specified currency for a specific text measurement unit (word, 55-chars line, 1000 words, 100 words, you name it), planned absences in the next so many weeks (as if they had a pile of immediate jobs for that candidate), bank details for payment (as if they were about to pay an unknown freelancer in advance), and so on. And this step-by-step approach sometimes goes further with intricate and detailed explanations, to the extent of specifying exactly what the filename for the CV should be. In such cases, to gild the lily, there is often a warning about the scantiest non-compliance to any of these rules being cause for immediate and automatic deletion of the whole application.
6. The online application form type
In these, one can find the wi(l)dest variety of questions anyone could ever ask from a translator. Some agencies stick to the basics, such as the necessary identification and contact info, language pair(s), and fields of specialization. Others ask for more than one would normally put into a CV.
Anyway, it’s worth discussing the unusual requirements found here and there, both for freelance applicants to get ready for them, and for some agencies to reconsider their choices.
a) Contact information–Some of these sites require 24/7 means of contact, i.e. day, night, fax weekend and cell phone numbers. It should be borne in mind that this is just an application form, neither party has yet considered mutual suitability. Just imagine a translator on a Saturday night visiting friends and getting a call on the cell phone from somewhere thousands of miles away: “You must drop everything right now and dash home. We have faxed you a 217 word translation, which we need to be done immediately!” No matter how farfetched this sounds, this is the idea such a thing conveys.
b) Availability–One site provides an on-screen calendar for the translator to mark his/her day-by-day availability during–at least–the next month. Others pose rather specific questions about it. Unless I am mistaken, the essence of freelance work is to juggle long-term and short-term jobs in such a way as to stay busy most of the time. Hence, though a freelancer’s unavailability is often scheduled, his/her availability will depend mostly on the jobs at hand.
c) Language pairs–I happen to work with a peculiar language–Portuguese. While it will take minor proofreading to “convert” a translation done by a Londoner to US English, a translation done by a Lisboner might demand considerable work to become acceptable in Brazil. Nevertheless, too many agencies seem oblivious to this fact, no matter how cautious they are with other details that will only come up much, much later.
d) Fields of specialization–Some agencies are sensible enough to ask the prospective freelancer about his/her field of expertise. Others are wise enough to clearly define the boundaries of their services, where they supposedly excel; they don’t expect to change their stated mission on a whim. But some provide an endless list of specialties to choose from, often classified by areas through a hazy criterion that often leaves out some important fields for translation.
e) Software used–Most agencies that ask about software are quite sensible in this regard. They usually have checkboxes for the software packages most commonly used by translators, as well as space for including the ‘oddball’ ones. They also ask about PC/Mac platforms for each, when available.
f) Hardware used–Most of these sites ask for a description of the system hardware. Very few use checkboxes pointing to relevant items (scanner, printers). I happen to know translators who cannot go beyond ‘Pentium’ to describe their working apparatus.
g) CAT tools–Some agencies inquire about the CAT tools available, and this might be an important issue for project management. Others are firm in stating that a specific software package is required for any translator wishing to work with them, which is a reasonable idea. I can only hope that those of the first category are using this as a survey for the most popular ones–instead of a filtering criterion–to have plenty of translators using specific CAT tools in the language pairs/specialties their clients request most often.
h) Recent jobs–A few sites ask for a description, a few others request uploaded samples of the three last jobs the applicant did. It is good to judge a professional’s skill through samples; however, if the translator has found time to apply for new jobs, maybe he/she is not exactly riding the high waves at the moment. The last three jobs might have been some poorly written leaflets where the translator attempted to salvage some product’s image in a new market.
i) Tests–Some agencies have standard tests for download/translation/upload, and I have to reckon that all these were taken seriously. I did receive honest feedback on all those I sent.
j) References–This is really a very delicate matter. Some agencies won’t let an applicant upload an online form unless three (never fewer, never more than 3) references are given, with name, company, telephone and/or e-mail address. Can you imagine your best clients (of course, you wouldn’t quote your worst ones as references) getting swarmed with requests for references about your services?
k) Rates–Last but not least at all, rates! I have skipped several miscellaneous requests about credentials, certifications, education, etc., to leave more room for the way some agencies deal with rates. Applicants are expected to put the minimum rates they would accept to work for an agency, no matter what. And I wouldn’t expect such companies to pay one iota of a cent above this minimum. More than just a few warn that any rates above their expectations will mean disqualification. A couple of them advise not to waste time applying with rates above US$ 0.03 per word. The general impression is that the whole thing is about rates, all the rest being merely a decoy, or window dressing just in case a prospect decides to go deeper into their site to check how they select translators. If we consider simple things as gasoline, where the price per gallon or litre varies according to the octane rating, it seems justifiable that each word in a report on a new brain surgery technique should be more expensive to translate than in the user instructions for an alarm clock.
Everyone who has read this far is probably wondering what I’ve learned from the experience. Although it’s too early to talk about actual results, I’ve had several insights. I’d rather put them as a few things the reader should consider, and not advice on what one should or should not do.
If you don’t have a web site, make one, even if it relies on free hosting. At least there you will be able to put the information on the services you actually want to sell, without the constraints imposed by someone else’s specific questions. On the other hand, if you already have your web site, unless you have invested in getting it found, don’t expect people to swarm to it just because it is on the web: you may remain unknown until judgment day.
One piece of advice for your web site, though, unless you are offering your skills as a site developer: Don’t show off your (or someone else’s) animation skills with fancy stuff that takes ages to load and may irritate someone looking for straightforward information. Your prospective client may be having a hectic day, may not have enough patience, or may have an overloaded network. You’ll never know…
Make a thorough–mental or written, as you wish–assessment of your skills, software, and hardware. This will save you valuable time when answering questions about them. Get both your Résumé (1-2 pages) and your CV (as long as you want) neat, complete, and ready for shipping (uploading) in a suitable format. Their ?downloadability?, as I did it, is optional.
For translation agencies recruiting freelancers through their web site:
In most cases, you need freelance translators just about as much as they need you. If they are really good, they might not have so much time to spare with your online form. On the other hand, if what they do fails to match your needs, you will be wasting time in analyzing the response to overly detailed questionnaires.
So, why not divide the recruiting process into stages?
The first stage should be enough to get the information you actually need for deciding whether a freelancer meets the basic requirements to be useful to you, e.g. language pair(s), certified/sworn or not (if relevant), fields of specialization, CAT tools/software used (only if it’s a project management issue in your organization), etc. The goal here is to have multiple options. If your agency is known to work only with a limited set of language pairs and/or a certain field of human knowledge, you can screen and file some applicants as “just in case” resources.
The second stage, if the freelancing candidate was deemed “useful,” could involve testing. If such things are part of your company’s system, this might be the right time to ask for samples and/or references. Instead of asking for a general all-inclusive per word/line/whatever rate, you could have a “standard job” (or several different ones to choose from) for a translator to download and give you an estimate. This would provide you with an actual reference for that vendor’s fees, which you could compare with other available sources. You could also request estimates for additional services, like DTP, voice-overs, etc. After all, if your final client is willing to pay more for a real expert in the subject to do the job, why not offer them what they want?
The third phase would be when you actually have a job that such a person can do. Then, and not before, it’s time to check on availability. If the translator is experiencing a quiet period, you might get better rates and faster service. And neither party will have wasted time asking for and receiving information beyond what was really necessary.
These three stages are just one of many possible strategies. The driving idea is the question “Do we need such information/evidence at this stage?” Although I did not mention it before, what is the use of requiring a prospective vendor to open an account in a certain payment processing service if he/she might never be hired to use it?
This interaction between prospective freelancers and agencies is a basic need for business development. However it is quite difficult to automate. On the one hand, there are lists of translation agencies on the Web and elsewhere, but if every freelancer sent his/her CV to all the addresses on a list, there wouldn’t be enough manpower on the receiving end to screen and sort them. It must be borne in mind that agencies make no money from having a large freelancers’ database, but from actually using it. On the other hand, it is somewhat useless for agencies to have prospective freelancers answer the most complete questionnaire possible if they might never need the services most of them offer. Some intermediate solution has to be found.