A Look at the Business Side
by Fred Uleman

I have a very simple, yet very important, reminder for you: We very often say we are in the translation business. And we spend great amounts of time honing our translation skills. These skills are important. But just as important is the other half of the “translation business.” It is a business, and we should not lose sight of that side either.
Of course, there are many businesses besides translation. Some such as medicine or public transportation are highly regulated. Others such as the service industry or consulting are not. Some businesses such as accounting and real estate require licensing, while others such as politics and banking do not. There are many kinds of businesses with many different prerequisites. In most countries, translation is not regulated and does not require licensing. Anyone who wants to call himself a translator can. Anyone who thinks she can make a living at it is welcome to enter the fray. It is a very open business with low entry costs.
This is even truer today with the Internet. In the past, translators could at least stake out a geographical advantage by being close to the clients. Even if location was not as important in translation as it is in real estate, it was still important and could still confer important advantages. A translator working in Tokyo, for example, had a better chance of getting work from major Japanese companies than one working in Sapporo. No more. The Internet has largely erased these geographical considerations.
This means that the translator located in Sapporo can vie for work from Tokyo, opening up new possibilities and expanding one's business potential. At the same time, however, a downside to this change is that it also means a translator in Tokyo can get work from Sapporo clients. Just as the Internet broadens your ability to compete, it also leaves you open to more competition from other translators. That's business, and translation is a business.
Given this, how do you sell your services? How do you ensure that your business remains viable? In the past, the very fact you were able to translate set you apart and made you special. Come to think of it, the very fact you were literate in the distant past set you apart and made you special. Now, however, much of the global population is literate and mere literacy does not set you apart. Moreover, much of the educated population in many countries is at least marginally fluent in a foreign language and the fact that we can translate does not confer special social status or economic clout.

Which brings us back to the question: How do you set yourself apart and ensure your translation business is successful? Of course, you can accept the idea that language—and translation ability—is a commodity and compete while treating it as a commodity. There are many commodities in the world, and the fact that you are dealing in a commodity does not mean your business model is flawed. Sand is a commodity. Toilet paper is a commodity. In some respects, personal computers are increasingly commodities.

However, competing with language as a commodity means competing in terms of price. This has always been true, but it is especially true in this era of the Internet where you are competing with commodities not just in your own little town but around the world. And this is especially true when you operate in an unregulated and unlicensed business such as translation—a business that anyone can enter at will. There are academics who translate not for money but for bragging rights to say they have translated this or that; they hope to parlay publications into promotions and possibly raises at their university. There are amateurs who translate. As the streetwalkers on 52nd street used to complain, there are people who give it away. So how are you going to charge for it?

And just as important, how are you going to charge not pocket change but real money for it if it is a commodity, if customers want the lowest price they can get, and if they have the ability to shop around? The only way is to compete on quality—to get out of the commodity trap and establish yourself as a trusted service that people are willing to pay a premium for. Yet to do this, you have to be good. Just as important, you have to be perceived as good. You have to be a brand. You have to have brand equity.

This then brings us to the question of how you create brand equity. Here, points can be gleaned from some of the companies that have brand equity. Who are they? Who comes to mind? For starters, Intel, McDonald's, and Coke. These are all powerful brands. And if you look at them more closely, you will notice that they all specialize. Intel does not sell hamburgers. McDonald's does not sell tennis shoes, and Coke does not sell perfume. They specialize. They do not try to be all things to all people. Instead, they select their customers and try to be perceived as the best in the field. Coach does not try to sell carrying bags to people off the street. Instead, it specializes, both in product line and in customer base. Indeed, such specialization is a fundamental element of any brand strategy.

Even the lifestyle brands—such as Martha Stewart and Virgin—specialize. And when they lose that specialization—when they suffer focus drift—they see their brand equity weaken. Virgin, for example, had a very strong brand with its defiant record label. It was able to carry some of this over to its underdog airline. But its cola has not been successful, and it has found its brand counts for very little in the railroad business. Specialization is the name of the game.

Of course, you might think you are specializing in translation—that the fact that you do not do language education, take-out fast food, desktop publishing, massages, or a lot of other things makes you a specialist. It does—but only to a point. It is only a start. It is like Coke saying that they specialize in beverages. They do, but their specialization is even narrower than that. If you do not believe me, ask yourself why they use different brand names for their teas, coffees, mineral water, and other non-Coke beverages. They use different names for these things because they do not want to dilute Coke's brand.

Of course, you already specialize by calling yourself a translator rather than a general handyman. You already specialize in your choice of languages and direction. But I am arguing that you need to specialize by field. A big company might have a lot of specialists on tap, but you as an individual have to specialize in a few particular fields if you want to establish yourself as a brand. What fields you select does not really matter, so long as you narrow your focus and specialize. This might be medicine, business, art, architecture, the environment, politics, or anything else. The specialty itself does not really matter so long as you have one.

Other professions—other businesses—specialize. Why not us? There are eye doctors, ear doctors, skin doctors, heart doctors, and other doctors. There are doctors who will give you medicine and doctors who will cut you up. Doctors specialize, and when you have a serious problem, you go to a serious doctor—a specialist. Food suppliers specialize. One is a butcher, another a greengrocer, one a fishmonger, and another a baker. So why can't translators specialize? They can.

Faced with this truism, would-be translators sometimes ask what they should specialize in. The answer? Whatever you are interested in. What do you read in your spare time? What are you familiar with? Because that is what you understand. That is the specialty you will do well in. That is what you will not mind working hard on. That is what you should specialize in. If you are a car guy, automotive translation would be a good specialization. If you get a kick out of the biosciences, go ahead and specialize in bioscience translation. If international finance fascinates you, then it would be a good field to specialize in. There may be more money in other fields, but why should you do something you don't like just because it pays a little better? You shouldn't.

Once you make the decision to specialize, follow through. Put it on your business card. Don't just call yourself a translator. Call yourself a medical translator. If you want to focus on medicine and somebody calls with a translation about horseracing, say no. Say, for example, “I'm sorry, but I don't do horseracing. I'm a medical specialist. So I can't do the racing translation, but I hope you'll call me when you have some medical translation that needs to be done.” Reinforce the message. Be willing to say no—because if you do not say no—if you end up accepting the translation about horseracing—you will end up spending a lot of time getting up to speed in that field for just the one translation—and that is time you could be spending doing a medical translation. You will work both faster and better in your specialization, so why waste time doing something else?

Even after the benefits of specialization are explained, some people complain that they can't specialize. “There isn't enough work in my field,” they say. For the most part, I don't believe it. To see why, let us imagine a very simplified market with only four translators in it. Because none of these translators thinks he can specialize, each of them ends up doing 25% of his work in the medical field, 25% in computers, 25% in sociology, and 25% in business. Each of them has a full workload, but it is divided among four different fields and none of them thinks it is possible to specialize. After all, specializing in one of these fields would mean turning down 75% of the work. Now, what would happen if they all specialized and one person did all of the medical translation, another all of the computer work, another all of the sociology, and the fourth all of the business-related translation? Each of them would still have a full workload. Each would take some work from the others and give some work to the others. The market has not gotten any bigger, but they are able to specialize and do just one thing. And the fact that each of them has the learning curve down in his field means he can do a better job faster.

This is a somewhat extreme example, but it is not at all unlikely. This situation would not be possible if each of our hypothetical translators lived in a small town and were isolated, but the Internet has broken down that isolation. Today, we all live in the world and have access to clients worldwide. Does anyone seriously think there is not enough translation work in this or that specialized field worldwide to support a good translator? I don't.

Of course, this assumes you are actually working worldwide and are seeking out clients. This assumes you understand what it means to be a business—that you understand where to look for clients and understand the need to qualify potential clients before you spend a lot of time talking with them. These are business skills, but it might be worth touching upon them very briefly here.

Very basically, you find clients by locating the people who are doing what you are interested in. Read the trade press. Haunt conferences. Identify the people you want to work with and approach them. If you want to do medical translation, read the medical journals and go to medical conferences. Talk with people in the field and tell them what you do—tell them how you can complement their work. If you want to be a medical translator, don't waste your time at the racetrack. Nudists are not a real big market for designer jeans, so Levi's does not waste its time at their gatherings. Focus on the people you want to convert into customers, and then demonstrate your skills—if only by talking knowledgeably in the field (which you can do because you specialize).

In addition to the field-specific sales efforts, you might want to join trade associations and network with other translators. When you turn work down because it is out of your field, refer it to someone who specializes in that field—and be sure to tell the other translator about the referral in the hope she will refer something in your field to you someday. Come to conferences like this and establish a presence. Be visible. Let people know you are available and what you can do.

And when the work in your field starts coming in, do a good job. Don't cut corners. Do a good job. Because that is how you establish your credentials. That is how you get clients to recommend you to other people—and remember that the people they know are likely to be people in the field you want to specialize in. It may take a little extra time to do a good job, but it takes much less effort to hold a client than it does to find a new one. So do a good job, secure in the knowledge that this is how you justify your rates and that a job well done is your best advertisement.

In short, think of yourself as a brand. Respect the work you do and do a good enough job that your work will command the respect of clients and colleagues alike. The only thing you have to set you apart is your brand equity—your reputation. This is your biggest business asset. Don't slight it. Instead, cherish it. Take good care of it. And it will take good care of you and keep your business strong. Translation is a business for most of us, and it is essential we treat it like the serious business it is.