Marta Stelmaszak (BA(Hons) DPSI NRPSI ACIL) is a Polski - English - Français translator and interpreter with 6 years of experience. She specialises in law, IT, marketing, and business; she is a member of the Management Committee of the Interpreting Division at the Chartered Institute of Linguists and co-head of the UK Chapter of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters. She had also been voted a Top 17 Twitterer (@mstelmaszak) and Top 20 Facebook Fan Page in Language Lovers 2012. Besides, she runs the Business School for Translators and regularly presents and writes on marketing and social media for the languages industry. Finally, she is a qualified business mentor and a member of the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneur, as well as an associate of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.
How did you get started in freelance translation?
I can honestly admit that I was born a freelance translator. I have been doing it for as long as I can remember. It must have started some time in secondary school, when I was captivated by an online role playing game we used to spend hours and hours playing online with my friends. It was set in the Middle Ages and cried out to me with its use of very, very old Polish. But the whole game was in Old English! We started our great translation process, without even realising the great deal of adaptation and idiomatic translation we were doing. When I grew up a bit, I was translating Wikipedia articles into Polish. We were very enthusiastic about the project at that time, as it was an entirely new approach to sharing knowledge. I must have translated some novels as well, just for the pleasure of translating. The only thing that changed is that now I’m actually getting paid for it.
What have you done to increase your rates over time?
I’m trying to be better and better every day. Translation is, whether you want it or not, constant professional development; however, I also follow formal development and get more qualifications. Of course, doing so doesn’t mean that I’m automatically getting paid more per word. But it helps in building my professional self-confidence, the key aspect in being a successful professional.
Now I have enough confidence to raise my rates a bit whenever I reach 90% of my capacity. In other words, if I have enough work to cover 90% of my work time, I don’t hesitate to fire my lowest paying clients.
What has been the most effective sales strategy you've used?
Every single time I’m asked to give my quote, I explain the whole translation and editing process to the client. Very often they don’t realise that translation is so much more than just taking one word and replacing it with another. When clients are aware that the process consists of research, glossary building, terminology checks, translation, revising, reviewing and external proofreading, they are much more likely to accept my quote.
This is how I add value to my services. Clients know what they’re paying for and that the service they’re getting in return is of highest quality. Not everyone is willing to pay for this quality, but why should I care about the rest?
Do you have a favourite 'type' of client?
I’ll be a little bit subversive here. I like those clients who in the end decide to go for a cheaper and faster service. I enjoy the pleasure of letting them explore the world of bad translations, I share their pain when they receive yet another complaint because their translation is so bad, I imagine this sort of confusion that troubles their minds. And then I’m very happy to hear from them again asking me to review, retranslate, or just do “something” to improve their useless text. Remorseful, repentant and understanding client is definitely my favourite type.
What was your most successful project ever, and why?
Setting up as a freelance translator! This project has been on for over 6 years now, and I’m extremely happy with it. It wasn’t affected by the recession at all, I do a lot of business travel, I can decide when and where I work, and the canteen is top-quality! The boss is quite nice, too.
Do you ever negotiate on rates?
I had to give a bit of thought to my rate structure. I started with thinking about the sort of jobs I’d be doing if I weren’t a freelance translator. I had a look at some offers I could apply to and noted down the suggested salaries. I added the fact that I’m running my own business and that I have additional office duties (opportunity costs, in a way), and I ended up with an equivalent of an hourly wage I’d expect to get in in-house employment. This rate is not negotiable.
However, I’m always willing to negotiate the price per word, as long as I’m sure I’ll get my hourly wage in the end. If there are plenty of repetitions that will speed me up, or if a client has his translation memory or termbase and I’ll work faster in the end, why not?
I also negotiate surcharges for certified translation, evening work, weekends, and rush jobs. Overtime, right?
What would you ideally invest in next in order to grow your business?
This is a very important question I ask myself every time when I do my quarterly business planning. I have all the tools I need for now, but I’m always budgeting in a lot for professional development. It’s not always and not only translation-related, for example marketing or business courses. I have one huge investment planned in two years and it’s about professional development again. Having said that, I think that in an industry where skills and know-how matters, it’s never about physical tools or equipment, it’s always about knowledge.
Which tools have most impacted your profitability?
Getting my own website, logo and business cards gave me a boost I needed. I started receiving more requests and enquiries, but I also started believing in myself much more. When I look at my website, or when I flick through my business cards in a holder, I repeat it to myself: You are a business. And if I am a business, I have to earn like one! Believe or not, this change of thinking really had impact on my profits.
Do you have any advice for others looking to raise their rates?
I think it’s essential to realise that even though we’re paid per word (or per line, page, stroke), we’re selling our skills and abilities. That’s why my bottom line is always the hourly wage that I think I should be getting. I know that if I accept a difficult, technical project in PDF, I’ll end up earning less than I should, unless I charge more. If you worked for someone full-time, you wouldn’t accept getting paid less than your contractual rate from time to time, would you?
As you regularly give talks on social media, how do you see it as part of a wider sales strategy?
The translation industry has seen rapid evolution of the tools we use on a daily basis. We started with pen and paper, we then moved to typewriters. We had telephones, faxes, then computers. The Internet helped us, the same as the email and downloading and sending protocols. Communication is essential in our work also for us to be able to sell our services.
In this perspective, social media is a tool equal to a telephone, an email, or a business card. It’s not a magic wand, and having a Twitter account doesn’t mean we’ll be flooded by new clients from Day 01. If you get a new phone, even if it’s the newest iPhone or BlackBerry, you won’t expect clients to start calling you just like that? Or if you order 500 business cards and keep them in your drawer, you’re not very likely to get more business from them, are you?
Social media used for professional marketing can boost our careers. The first step to using it right is to think of your goals and make them as specific as you can. You then need to think about your target audience. We tend to stick with our colleagues, also on social media, but that’s not the best marketing strategy. In the end, you can only sell your services to people who are potentially interested in buying them, while other translators aren’t. The rule is very simple: Find your clients. If you’re a legal translator, follow solicitors on Twitter. If you do medical interpreting, try finding private clinics on Facebook. If you do IT translation, join IT-related groups on LinkedIn. Makes sense, doesn’t it?
Time and effort need some consideration as well. If you can’t commit regular time every week (or better said, every day) to engage with your connections on social media, it’s not likely to bring you enough return to make it worthwhile.
The most important aspect of using social media professionally is making a plan. Without a list of tasks to do on each platform you engage with, you’re at risk of wasting your time away.
I’m always very happy to talk or write about social media in the translation industry. You can download my free publication “Practical Guide to Social Media” from my website.