Thursday, December 30, 2010

It's Not How Busy You Are, It's How Much You Make

This seems to be the year of natural mini-disasters in New York City. A heat wave in July, a tornado ripping through Brooklyn in September, and now there's a blizzard that has stopped the city in its tracks. But I've already written enough this year about backups and disaster preparedness (How I Handled the Tornado and Other Service Problems, Backing Up Work, Backup Procedures & Disaster Preparedness), so I won't belabor the point. The advantage of a home office is that besides shoveling the sidewalk in front of my house, I didn't have to venture outside.

In 2010, a number of surveys on how the recession affected businesses were conducted, including some about the recession's impact on the translation industry. Many, if not most, translators who answered these surveys said that they had plenty of work. At the same time, though, translators in forums and discussion lists were talking about agencies and clients asking for price cuts. So while there was work, how well was it paid?

That seems to me to be the real question: not, did we have as much work as before, but did we earn as much as before per hour worked? I, for one, found that I needed to spend more time marketing myself than I had to before, so the same per-word rate had to cover more unpaid work. In addition, some smaller agencies went out of business, or at least stopped dealing with German translations, some agencies requested price cuts, and one (non-U.S.) agency simply stopped paying altogether.

So while I worked more hours in 2010 than I did in 2009, my net earnings were probably lower than they had been in the previous year, certainly if I divide them by the time I spent working. So how did 2010 treat you?

A happy -- and more prosperous -- New Year!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

No Trial Version, No Sale

A few weeks ago I detailed the time I spent following up with contacts I had made at the German tekom conference in November (Follow-Up Is Time-Consuming). In addition, I am also receiving unsolicited e-mails inquiring about my services. Some of these seem promising, so I send out my brochure and try to track these potential clients, as well.

Until now, I've input all that contact information in Outlook with Business Contact Manager and linked all e-mail exchanges with a particular prospect to that prospect's record. Outlook seems to have its limits, though, when dealing with multiple contacts at the same agency and when trying to customize the information recorded for each contact. I use 3 of the 4 user-defined fields to track language of communication (English or German), form of address (there are 2 different ones in German), and whether I've mailed them my brochure (checkbox). Also, there is no way to directly jump from a contact's record to MS Word in order to write a cover letter for the brochure mailing.

So I began to look at customer relationship management software for small businesses. Turns out, while there are a number of such programs, most are either web-based or don't seem to offer more useful functionality than the Outlook I already own. I don't want to entrust my customer data to the web and I don't need inventory management or salesperson assignments. All I really need is a better integration of Outlook and Word and a way to customize Outlook so that the data I need to track is easily accessible at a glance and tracking communications with the client can be automated.

Rooting around my copy of Outlook yielded a feature that allows me to design my own screens. That might let me track the data I need on each contact's main screen. While that doesn't solve the Word integration problem, it seems if I start from Word, I can create a one-record mail merge that will pull name and address from the Outlook record. That does seem the long way around, though.

There is one product I discovered that works within Outlook and might have been useful. It is called Prophet and also exists for various Smartphone platforms. While it appeared to be more sales-oriented than I need, it seemed worth a try. A major drawback, though: there is no free trial edition. I am not about to spend $150 on some software without knowing whether it will, in fact, do what I need it to do. The company does have a 30-day money-back guarantee, but do I really want the potential hassle and time I'd need to spend to actually get my money back?

For the time being, I'll therefore stick with my Outlook and try to customize it to work for my purposes. I'll keep you updated on that project after the New Year.

Happy holidays!

Friday, December 17, 2010

How Long Is Too Long?

After sending out follow-up e-mails, as well as brochures and holiday cards to the vendors I initally contacted at the tekom conference in November, I've now seen some return on that investment in the form of requests for test translations and agency application forms to fill out. After reviewing my translation, these agencies then send agreements for me to sign.

A good portion of these contracts covers fairly standard subject matter and conditions:

  • Keep end client's information confidential
  • Don't contact the end client without approval from the agency
  • Adhere to deadlines
  • Invoice the agency
  • Fix the translation, if the quality is not up to par

None of these conditions are a problem, but the timeframes some agency attach to certain conditions do give me pause.

One agency, for example, wants to prohibit me from ever working with any of their end clients without their approval. I can understand such a prohibition for a year or two after ending work with the agency, but if I could never contact any of the end clients of the agencies with whom I work, I'd spend the rest of my career unable to even attempt to acquire end clients of my own.

Another agency wants me to agree to correct translations up to 2 years after submitting them. I can see an end client needing a month, or even two, to check all translation it receives for a large or complex project, but even my appliances don't have a two-year warranty.

What surprises me most is that apparently few translators object to such terms, otherwise they would likely have been stricken from standard agency contracts by now. Different translators will have different thresholds about what they're willing to sign, but we do need minimum standards below which we won't sign a contract. What's your standard?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Does Cutting Language Classes Foster Narrow Minds?

A recent article in The New York Times described budget-cutting measures at a number of colleges that involved elminiating the teaching of certain languages, including cutting entire majors. Such measures primarily affect European languages, in particular German and French.

While a move away from traditionally euro-centric college curricula is laudable, such a broadening of horizons beyond Europe should be accomplished by extending, not contracting, the number of subjects offered. Given the economic and political power now wielded by some Asian countries, students should certainly be encouraged to study Mandarin or Japanese. But cutting German and French classes is unlikely to push students to become fluent in Mandarin instead. Rather, they will probably switch to another European language, such as Spanish, to fulfill their language requirement.

If that requirement still exists, that is. Part of this latest round of trimming expenses at colleges includes eliminating the need to learn a language altogether. Everyone else speaks English anyway, the argument goes, so why bother teaching American students another language?

Here's why: Language study is more than the acquisition of linguistic competence. It not only includes units about the culture(s) connected to the language in question, but also teaches students that -- and how -- the world can be expressed -- and by extension looked at -- in a different way. Growing up entirely monolingual, without ever delving into another language -- even to the limited extent offered by the American educational system -- only fosters even more of the "the rest of the world better behave our way, or else" mindset already way too prevalent in the U.S.

Ignorance is not bliss -- particularly when it comes to knowing other languages and cultures!

Saturday, December 4, 2010

IT Department, Please!

T'is the season for computer problem, it seems -- at least in my house. First, my cable modem's incoming signal went. Then the networking cable we had run between the 3rd-floor cable modem and the 2nd-floor router went bad. And now my desktop computer won't recognize half its memory. If I worked in a regular office, I'd have called the IT department each time. But, of course, being a freelancer there is no IT department.

So I first rebooted the various components of my home network and tested connections with my netbook before calling the cable company. After half an hour on the phone, the verdict was: no incoming signal. This was a Friday morning and the company offered to send a technician out on Saturday late morning. Meanwhile, I had work to do. So I packed up my netbook and took the subway to a cafe with free WiFi to complete a project that needed to get done that day.When I got home, the cable company apparently had fixed the problem from afar. Between the testing, phone calls and travel time to the cafe I had lost 2 hours or so an IT department would have saved me.

Two days later the internet connection on my desktop stopped working again. After more rebooting and testing connections I determined that the cable connecting my cable modem on the 3rd floor with the router in my office on the 2nd floor had apparently stopped working. Instead of calling the IT department, I moved the wireless router up to the 3rd floor, got on the subway and bought a wireless USB connector for my desktop. Then I had to reconfigure the printer to print through a USB connection to my desktop instead of through the network. Another 3 hours or so spent fixing computers instead of translating.

Then both my husband and son were home and using the wireless network, as well. My wireless connection began to slow to the point where I couldn't keep running the multiple applications and online dictionaries I normally use. Solved that problem by telling my son to get off the internet and my husband to work from his office instead of from home. Not really an IT department job, but they would probably have gotten me rewired by now. Looks like I'll have to do that rewiring myself. I'm just not sure how we'll accomplish that on the third floor, since our ladder is not that long (the cable ran on the outside of the building, underneath the new siding we had put on a couple of years ago).

Booting up my desktop this morning, the computer informed me that the amount of memory in my system had changed. Apparently it is no longer recognizing half my RAM. So I'll have to spend part of the weekend trying to address that problem. I'm hoping opening the computer and re-seating the memory will do the trick, but who knows ...

I love being able to set my own hours, decide which projects to take and not having to commute to work, but sometimes I do long for a "real" office with an IT department.