Eric S. Bullington is an ATA-certified (FR>EN) medical translator. Over the past decade, he has translated almost every imaginable kind of document that passes through medical offices, pharmaceutical companies, and international health organizations. A skilled programmer, Eric has worked on a range of innovative software projects for translators.
How did you get started in freelance translation?
I started freelance translating full-time in 2005, when my wife and I moved back to South Carolina to be near family. I love South Carolina, but there are not many jobs in these parts requiring someone who speaks multiple languages and has a background in international health. I had worked as an interpreter back in 2000, and was already picking up freelance jobs once or twice a month, so it wasn't a hard transition. However, it did take some time to build up an income to match my expectations. My first year's net income was not much over 10,000, but I then increased by net income by 50% or more the first 5 years of my full-time freelance work, and by a decent percentage the following years. And so I've ended up in a pretty good spot. But for most translators, a thriving business is not built in a week, or even a month.
What have you done to increase your rates over time?
The most effective thing I've done to raise my rates over time is to find better clients. Negotiating higher rates with existing clients may work in certain "hot" industries like mobile app development, but most translation buyers have a very specific rate they want to pay, and will not exceed that rate. It's part of the "commoditization" problem we are seeing in our industry. However, that problem has a very easy solution. Drop the translation buyers who want to pay for a commodity! ProZ played a very nice role in helping me get started in the industry, but I quickly worked to find a better quality of clients than those that frequent ProZ and similar communities. By my second year as a full-time translator, I had dropped all but one of my clients from ProZ and my rate had nearly doubled. If you are conscientious about culling "commodity" clients on a regular basis, you will find it easy to raise your rates.
What has been the single most effective sales strategy you've used?
The best sales strategy I've come across so far is to socialize with other translators and show them that you're competent and pleasant to work with, particularly at translation conferences. My most lucrative clients have been referred to me by people I've met at ATA conferences. I've missed the last few ATA annual conferences because of deaths and illnesses in my family, and my business has definitely flattened off because of this.
Do you have a favourite 'type' of client?
Yes, my favourite type of client to work with is directly with the author of the document I'm translating (inevitably an MD or PhD "subject-matter expert"). It gives me the opportunity to clarify any ambiguous phrases or novel terminology, and to be appreciated as someone who understands the field. Even better if the document author I'm working with is also bilingual in the language pair I'm translating (it happens!). Unfortunately, this is a relatively uncommon occurrence, since usually I work through some intermediary, even if it's within the same organization as the original author.
If you're lucky enough to work directly with a document's author, just be sure it's OK to ask for clarifications, and don't ask too many questions, since it's not your client's job to translate the document! But as a general rule, the closer you can get to the original author, the better you will be paid and the more enjoyable your job will be. If the person you are working for deals directly with the document's author, you are probably doing OK.
What was your most successful project ever, and why?
My most successful project was a large-scale job, with a total of over 50,000 words to be translated in a relatively short amount of time. I worked directly with the document's author, who was not only bilingual in the language pair I was working in, but was also a recognized subject-matter expert. At the end of the job, the client told me that he couldn't have done a better job himself with the translation or technical vocabulary.
Do you ever negotiate on rates?
I routinely negotiate on deadlines with regular clients, since they often want me specifically to do a job and so are willing to wait X number of days or weeks until I am available.
I've frequently raised rates, and when clients have protested, I've tried to negotiate. But clients who are unwilling to pay for very modest pay hike after a year of excellent work are usually not clients I'm interested in continuing to work with.
I have negotiated on repetitions with exactly one very high-volume client over my entire career, and I now regret doing so. I'm the one who purchased the expensive CAT tools, I'm the one who trained myself to use them, and I'm the one who built my TM and TBD. So I'm the one who will reap the benefits of this technology. When I meet a client who is willing to reimburse me for the costs of my CAT tools and the time I've spent learning them and building up my language assets, I'll entertain a "TM discount". Until then, it's out of the question.
What would you ideally invest in next in order to grow your business?
I would invest in the time to market. I would write careful blog posts, targeted toward my ideal client and attend conferences frequented by such clients. Unfortunately, I really love translating and programming, not marketing, so this need often goes unmet.
Which tools have most impacted your profitability?
I'm also a programmer, which has allowed me to develop a highly-refined process for bootstraping a TM and terminology database for new large-scale translation projects. Unfortunately, a complete answer here would reveal some of my trade secrets, both as a freelance translator and as someone who consults with translation buyers on how to optimize their workflow. But I will mention one tool I use a lot when building custom terminology databases: AntConc. It's free and doesn't even require a knowledge of programming to operate.
Do you have any advice for others looking to raise their rates?
2. Look for better clients
3. Market yourself well.