Lucy Brooks has been translating professionally from German, French and Spanish into UK English for 23 years. Following careers in tourism, local government, personal computing training, and industrial PR, she used her experience to concentrate on technical and commercial translation. She was one of the first to attain Chartered Linguist status in 2008 and is now a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Linguists. She is also an associate member of the ITI. In 2010 she founded eCPD Webinars, providing quality CPD webinars to fellow translators and Interpreters. However she continues her translation business with a number of direct and agency clients.
How did you get started in freelance translation?
When I left college, having studied German and French to degree level, I hot-footed it to Spain where I lived for over seven years. During my time in Spain I was employed to deal with my employer’s French, English and German-speaking clients, so I was making use of my studied languages, while getting my Spanish up to a high standard. In fact Spanish is still the language in which I converse most readily, rather than the other two. On my return to the UK in the 1970s I started a word processing and computing business, and offered a small amount of translation as a sideline. Later, I worked for a busy Parish Council as its Chief Officer, and also in an industrial PR firm, where I learned much about the electronics and mechanical engineering industries.
By 1990 I felt ready to set up as a freelance translator. While continuing to work for the Parish Council part-time I set about finding my first clients. I sought out the Yellow Pages for Dusseldorf and Munich and wrote (by letter) to a dozen agencies, intending to write to a dozen more in a couple of weeks. I never wrote the second batch because four of the agencies I wrote to started sending me work by fax, which I returned by FTP (uploading to a server). I didn’t use email to receive and send work for quite a few more years.
What have you done to increase your rates over time?
It’s very hard to increase rates with existing agency customers. They will always counter your efforts with tales of economic woe, while quoting their standard rates. So quite simply, I ditch the low and slow payers. But it took a while to have the bottle to do this. I waited until I had enough clients not to miss one of the low payers and simply told them I was no longer available. In the early days I don’t recall doing very much marketing, people seemed to find me, either through Yellow Pages or on-line (although on-line searching was still fairly unusual then). As a new customer came along I quoted a slightly higher price. I had to keep fairly tight control over what I quoted to whom. But to be honest, I never charged particularly low prices. I think I started out at around £60/1000 in 1990. I pitched that by asking a couple of people I knew from the IoL.
With direct clients I tend to quote on a job by job basis. I apply a higher rate each year but they don’t really know what it is. I just tell them what I will charge to do the job in hand. They accept it.
Could you elaborate on how you price a job?
My direct client sends me some files for me to look at. For their own accounting and budgeting purposes they need to know what it is going to cost them, but they aren't really interested in how I arrive at a figure.
My method is as follows:
I analyse the files in the CAT tool and work out how much new translation it involves.I also look at the 100% matches, fuzzies and repetitions. I can then work out how long it will take me to do the job - roughly.
Sometimes the client sends me a PDF which requires conversion. I extract the text to do a word count and analysis and then work out how long it will take me to make a tidy editable file. If there are lots of tables, this is quite a while.
I apply my rate to the analysis, ignoring fuzzies - these are more trouble than they are worth and I charge as if they were new translation.
I charge much less for the 100% matches - around 25% of the normal rate, and call this "processing existing translations " (or something similar). Since they are my own translations they do not need checking in theory, but I always read them anyway and sometimes make minor changes. Direct clients do not understand about fuzzies, matches and CAT tools anyway.
So I have two figures at the end of all this. One is measured in hours and the other in money using the price/1000 method.
I equate the two in my head and quote the client. I keep a record of my calculations in case they query it, but they never do.
What has been the single most effective sales strategy you've used?
This has to have been the dozen snail-mail letters I wrote in 1990. I also believe that my husband had a lot to do with how my business developed. He was (still is) a technical journalist and editor. I’d met him while working in the PR firm. He had a lot of contacts and my first direct client was obtained through him.
He had a tip about a takeover by a Surrey company of an Austrian firm through a press release and I phoned the company. They asked to see me and on a very snowy day in 1990 I drove over to see them. I came away with a dozen huge manuals to translate and then got stuck on the M25 in the snow. I delivered the work back on floppy discs, involving another trip to the offices to return the manuals but fortunately the snow had gone by then.
So it was a mixture of my own efforts and the people I know. Nowadays of course, you wouldn’t write letters like I did. But maybe it’s not such a bad idea even now. You need somehow to stand out from the crowd.
Maybe it was my experience that my early customers liked, or the fact that I was a German-English translator living in the UK rather than Germany.
Do you have a favourite type of client?
Without doubt my favourite clients are my two main direct clients. One is a small manufacturer of fasteners and formed components in Germany, and the other a major car manufacturer in Munich. Because I’ve worked with both for more than 10 years I know their products and systems very well, and have developed glossaries and termbases for them both. Their texts are challenging, ranging as they do from datasheets to glossy brochures, from IT help screens, to company newsletters.
But I have two favourite agencies too, both in Germany. They retain me for certain clients, so again I get the continuity of context.
What was your most successful project ever, and why?
I think this has to be the company newsletter for the fastenings manufacturer, because I really felt like part of the team. I work with the editor and the typesetter on issues such as the name of the magazine in English, the content, the final page layouts etc. I am able to point out anomalies in the text and they are grateful for the extra pair of eyes on their publications. And I get to sign the newsletter (English version translated by Lucy Brooks). But I’ve done thousands of very satisfying projects, as well as a few that I didn’t enjoy.
Do you ever negotiate on rates?
I don’t think I charge as much as some of my colleagues. I’m still fearful of pitching too high. But I’m happy with what I charge. I look at it like this: I want to earn so much an hour, it takes me so long to do 1000 words. From that I work out my per word rate. Sometimes a text takes longer and sometimes less, because as we all know some are more difficult than others. But it evens out and I earn a reasonable hourly rate.
These days I never offer reductions for repetitions. However if I am revising a training manual that I translated the year before, for example, with a low percentage of new material, I will of course quote my client a much lower fee than as if I was to do it all again. But I don’t give details.
What would you ideally invest in next in order to grow your business?
I intend to keep up with the latest version of my CAT tool. I already have everything else I need.
Which tools have most impacted your profitability?
CAT tools are supposed to make you work faster. In my case they probably don’t but they make my work better in that I never miss anything and I can be consistent and use the termbase and QA features efficiently. I never get complaints. Before CAT tools came along, my main error was to miss out paragraphs.
Do you have any advice for others looking to raise their rates?
Lose the low payers and look for higher paying clients - boutique and specialist agencies, and seek out direct clients.