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November 11, 2010 / ICL

Inter-professional Dialogue: Doug Lawrence, negotiation/sales expert

A lot of freelancers out there probably started like me, who went from the in-house translation world, being a paid employee, to the freelance world, because at some point you had enough freelance work to make the move.

This may mean that, unless you had a business background, because of your studies or your own working experience, you had to learn on your own various business skills that are obviously required to survive as a freelancer.

Negotiation and sales/selling is probably one of the hardest skills to acquire as a freelancer, because translation is not a tangible commodity/product, it’s a service.

So this time I got in contact with selling/negotiation expert Doug Lawrence. You can get information about himself and his company/trainings at

We talked about many things, not only negotiation/sales skills, so our chat turned out rather long, but I honestly think it is worth a full read, because Doug made some really interesting reflections about many current trends/issues in the translation industry.

[The text in grey/italics is mine and Doug’s answers are in blue.]

1) Your courses are basically about negotiation techniques specifically for the translation market, given your own background in this market. Would you say that all your courses are equally applicable to all segments of the translation market?

Yes, [in the sense that] I deliver training for freelance translators or translation companies, whether those are MLVs [Multi-Language Vendors] or suppliers to MLVs (such as regional single-language vendors).

2) In your experience, having attended some of the latest translation market-related conferences, like the ELIA (European Language Industry Association) conference in Dublin, which means you may have had access to current “insider” views about the translation industry, is the highly publicized world economic crisis particularly affecting the translation market?

Yes, I believe it is. Some of the companies that compete hardest are still finding work. Some of the companies that struggle to compete are surviving. I think some companies have decided that it’s not worth the fight, and there are a number of companies that have disappeared.

I still don’t think we’re out of it yet.

3) Do you think this is striking particularly hard the smaller LSPs (Language Service Providers)? For example, translation agencies with less than, say, 25-50 employees?

I guess, in a sense, the smaller they are, the more they can cut their costs, but, equally, usually I find that smaller companies have fewer clients or least fewer clients delivering a certain amount of revenue.

I’ve met clients of mine [translation companies] who have got one or two large customers and, if they lose one, it’s horrendous for their business.

4) Getting back to your participation in the recent ELIA Conference in Dublin, some of us were able to more or less follow some of the presentations thanks to Twitter and tweets from other attendees/presenters. One of those tweets (by @renatobeninatto) quoted you as saying that “we [the translation market] are 25% cheaper than 10 years ago”. Could you explain this statement?

We are [at least in the UK. We got] figures based on official government sources of the United Kingdom, where they interviewed a number of translation companies, and each year they get pricing information from these companies. What we found, from the year 2000 to 2008, is that translation companies’ prices went up by 3.1%, but inflation in the meantime, in the UK, had gone up by about 28%. In other words, we were 25% cheaper.

I also checked these figures with the Directorate-General for Translation of the European Union. I spoke with the person responsible for the European Union’s Outsourcing Department [for translations] and, although he doesn’t have exact figures, he would agree that is probably [also] the case in Europe.

So we have not put our prices up to keep up with inflation.

Anecdotically [not based in figures], everyone I speak with in all of the conferences I have attended lately, not only the ELIA one, agree with this.

5) As a freelancer, I don’t know how to interpret your above statement.

I mean, we are faced right now with a lot of changes in this industry, like, as you just mentioned, not having had an increase in prices in general in the translation market in the last 10 years, but also technology evolution (the increasingly faster development of translation tools, like translation memories or Machine Translation), or the fierce competition in some language pairs (English-Spanish), due to the high number of translators available in various countries throughout the world.

How can a freelancer, who has worked as a “solo” professional for so long, be able to get decent rates with all this in the background?

Before I answer this, I’ll ask you a question. Do you feel you have been able to raise your prices in the last 5 or 10 years?

No, in my particular case, no, but at least I have kept a steady rate, not lowered it.

And I am guessing that you have been able to translate more in the last years?

Yes and no. From the translation memory point-of-view, obviously I have, but likewise this also means that I have been increasingly assigned less “new” words (not fuzzy matches), which means less income in some cases. I don’t use Machine Translation in general yet, mainly because it is not as relevant in what I translate mostly lately (marketing/advertising).

I think the vast majority of freelance translators [reach] a “maturity path”, which might be:

a) They build bigger translation memories.

b) They refuse lower-rate work and move towards higher-rate work.

c) They start going direct.

Therefore, the rate might not change, but their ability to make profit increases.

So how do we react as an industry?

[Referring to freelancers in particular,] there are some common elements [about which] freelancers have to make a decision. For example, whether they’re specialists or generalists.

If you’re a generalist, you will probably charge lower rates, but there will be more work available. You might find [in this case] that, although you are doing more volume, you are earning the same sort of money as if you specialized.

If you specialize, you ought to be able to charge a higher rate, but you will find that work is more difficult to find, but there will be less competition for it, so, therefore, you can charge higher rates.

Having said that, you might be turning away lower rate work and, therefore, you might not be as busy.

The other option is to adopt technology in a very aggressive manner.

For example, voice input, maybe Machine Translation or assisting Machine Translation, though I don’t know many freelance translators who are doing that, but I do know a number who are using voice input, which is only appropriate for certain language pairs, anyway.

I know some translators who can do 1000 words an hour, and that’s because they do technical texts that they know very well and so they use voice input.

But a CAT is a CAT, it’s not feline, it’s not Siamese, :-) and so they go through this kind of work very quickly.

But equally I know some translators who have said to me that’s their idea of purgatory, just being a word machine.

You’ve hit a very important issue here.

As an older translator who has witnessed the evolution of translation technology, I think in some cases we are facing an almost generational dilemma here, and it looks like the choice is clearly “adapt or perish”.

6) What real margin of negotiation does a freelancer have when facing “translation supermarkets” (by this I am referring to big multinationals) who have acquired a good slice (or many slices) of the market “pie”, especially in language pairs where competition is particularly tough.

I mean, I can learn all your sales/negotiation techniques, but when it comes to these companies, they indirectly (arrogantly?) say “we have this, so you can take it or else we have a queue of other translators who can do this job”.


One of the first things I say to freelance translators, with whom are you negotiating? Is it a local translation company? Is it a huge multilingual vendor? Is it a direct client? Is it maybe, potentially, another translation professional? (because often experienced freelancers have a network of other freelancers who will find work or recommend them).

If you are in the market for the “cheap and cheerful”, the big volumes from the multilingual vendors, they probably have very little leeway to negotiate. However, it should be remembered that some of those Project Managers that are giving you work, are giving a bonus based on the amount of profit they make on the job.

So, when a freelancer feels that you cannot negotiate, even if you negotiate 1% or 2%, or a small amount, it’s worth it, because it comes to them. Most freelancers feel it’s difficult to negotiate, so I always say first know who you are negotiating with, how scarce your resource is, how much their need is compared to yours.

Any little negotiation is better than none.

7) Now a sort of “existential” question. o_O

Do you have any recommendations about how to find a balance when you wish to remain a freelancer (that is, a “solo professional”), as opposed to an “entrepreneur” or a company owner?

What I mean is when you do not wish to go beyond the work you yourself can handle. Just like you mentioned that some LSPs have only so many clients, a solo professional may want to have only the amount of work you yourself can do.

Also, as you previously mentioned about developing a network of colleagues or other professionals you work with, I have done the latter, but this can be a two-way street, meaning, you then have to put up with project management tasks that are not always fully covered in the fees you charge, plus some dishonest “colleagues” might be tempted to get in direct contact with the clients for which you contacted them in the first place and then you lose a client. Or people may just not respond the way a given project requires. Sub-contracting work can be quite risky business.

Without wishing to appear too “grandiose”, I think the first thing [I would say to a freelancer in this case] is to ask them to take a step back and say, do I really enjoy doing this? Do I enjoy being a freelance translator? Do I enjoy the work itself? Do I enjoy that autonomy? Do I enjoy choosing my hours? Do I enjoy being in the mind of others and translating that into my own language?

If you start off from that point-of-view, saying I enjoy what I do, then it’s a case of how much do I want to earn to continue enjoying that. That will of often depend on what your taxed income is, which is derived from what your revenue is.

So I think that if you are very ambitious and you want to earn a lot of money, you will work longer hours, but then maybe you’ll lose the spark of what it is to be a translator.

I think it’s a very good and interesting .

I often ask, at the end of a conference [with freelance translators, interpreters and translation companies], how many people love what they do? (…directly asking the audience) How many hands do you think are raised?

No idea. :-(

The vast majority of people love what they do.

Then I ask them, do they want to leave the industry?

Most people don’t, they want to stay in the industry, so they enjoy what they do.

Then I ask them another question, which is, would they recommend it to their children?

And how many answers do you think I get?

That is a catchy one! :-)

How many do you think? Out of about 100?

Maybe 50?

Try 3!

Wow! Good one!

I started asking that at the end of all my presentations because we’re all shocked.

Yes, but doesn’t that contradict what they answer to your previous questions?

It doesn’t [really], because they love it. They’re not in it for money.

Yes, but if you like it so much, wouldn’t you like your children to do something you’re so passionate about?

Yes, that’s what I thought.

Most of them say I want my children to understand languages, but let them go and be a business person or a banker or something like that, and use their languages as an additional skill and earn more money using their language skills.

I think part of this reaction may be due to the fact that not really knowing how to do business is obviously a handicap when it comes to freelancing, so it’s no wonder a parent may not wish this for her/his child. Many translators who become freelance translators don’t get the necessary business training when attending mere translation school.

Yes, I have worked with a number of universities, three of them, to try and make students ready for that.

What students often tell me is, Doug, your ideas are great, but I’ve got this dissertation to be ready by October, so I’ll worry about business after I finish.

It sounds like a mistake.

Oh, but they’re students. Although you may think it’s a mistake, they have their horizon. It’s only when they leave university when they think, oh, dear, how do I get a job?, how do I become a freelancer?, how do I work with direct clients?

Still, I’ve been working in the translation market for more than 15 years (20, counting the time I only worked sporadically on this), and back when I started I think the market was a lot more “available”, so to speak.

Now you really have to be good not only in translation, you also have to be good in business, marketing, etc., if you want to be a freelance translator.

So, to me it’s a bit surprising that business training has not become part of the mandatory requirements for translation programs at university, so maybe education should adapt to the current times.

It should and it’s only the people I am working with that are trying to achieve that, but it’s not easy. I’d be quite happy to try and support universities with a series of notes and presentations they could use in their courses.

What worries me about students who are joining the market now, [many] don’t know where to go, how to market themselves (as you said), they’ll probably be asked to charge less than an experienced translator, which is fair.

But, [as we already commented], the experienced translator is charging 25% less than 8-10 years ago, so we have a problem in that these new [translation] students, they’ve got to buy the computer, they’ve got to buy the software, and the other translators they might be competing against, more experienced, are charging maybe slightly higher rates, but they have huge translation memories sometimes, which makes them more efficient, and of course they know their subjects, so they’re quicker. [The experienced translators] do not have to worry about marketing themselves, because they may have enough customers, so they have more time to work.

So I think it is now an incredibly competitive [environment] for the new degree-educated or straight from university freelance translator.

[…] Mostly the industry wants universities to prepare students with translation memory tools and those sorts of things, rather than business, because who would benefit from students being more business prepared? Probably just the students, I guess.

Excellent observation.

Furthermore, following/reading social media, such as Twitter, that helps you keep updated about the translation industry, or other similar industries, I get more and more the impression that nowadays we are facing times when there are usually more freelancing offers and less in-house offers, so I still wonder why business training is not already part of university translation programs.


8) My final question is kind of a “teasing” question, since you are in the world of professional coaching (negotiation/sales coaching). Not particularly aimed at you, but rather a general reflection.

Do you think we live in a time when we are getting too many “gurus” of everything?

I mean, in the Internet you can find a guru for practically anything you want, from marketing to spiritual development. There are now all kinds of media (including blogs!) that allow you to preach or to give advice about everything.

Do you find this phenomenon positive or is it just a way of generating business for some people?

[Actually,] I agree with you.

Sometimes there is a cult of personality, we look for somebody to help us.

However, they asked once [a similar question] to a guru and he said, what’s the option, that people don’t do it?

So I think part of the challenge is, or what I am concerned about, it only takes someone to stand in front of a room to make a claim, to put it out there, so that people in some way think it’s real.

That concerns me. I’ve heard people tell me this and that is going to happen. So I ask them, how do you know that? And they say, oh, I saw it at a conference, people (like me!) said it. ;-)

I think people like me or whoever speaks at conferences should be challenged. Where did they get those figures? Are they meaningful?

Whenever we hear [a phrase like] “in five years time”, we should [challenge] this individual and say, what’s going to happen in the other years, one, two, three, four… How is that going to happen?

So yes, there should be more self-reliance, yes, there is a publishing frenzy, yes, people have to search for the Internet, and what’s great about the Internet is that, if you don’t like somebody’s opinion, I guarantee you that, if you go into Google, you can find someone else who disagrees.

So, who knows what’s right? ;-)


Leave a Comment
  1. Kevin Lossner / Nov 12 2010 23:30

    Doug, I think you are being a bit unfair to imply that the universities emphasize tools training over business skills because it might serve the interests of students rather than their future exploiters. I think a more accurate statement might be that professors can’t teach what they don’t know. Academics are mostly clueless idiots on business matters, though few of them realize this or are willing to admit it.

    As for parents not wanting their kids to follow them into a career of translation, there are plenty of good reasons beside money. When my daughter thought of doing so, I was appalled at the thought of a good mind being wasted on translation before it had a chance to learn subjects in enough depth to translate them well. I had hoped that a few decades of math research, engineering work, legal practice, social work or some other activity would provide real depth that might distinguish her from a “linguist” with a dictionary and a prayer. Translation is a great career, but I think the best results are achieved in many cases if that career is not entered too early.

    Thank you for pointing out the importance of understanding the difference in possibilities for negotiating depending on the nature of the other party. Finding the right partners with whom to negotiate is really half the battle at least. Why waste your time on money-losing losers like Lionbridge, for example? You’ll have better luck juicing a rock. There are plenty of good companies – direct clients and well-run LSPs – who understand the value of good work and are willing to pay for it if asked in an appropriate way.

  2. ICL / Nov 13 2010 13:02

    Guten Tag, Herr Kevin,

    Always the diplomat, LOL!

    Anyway, one comment only.

    I know that specialization is one of your translation sacred cows, but I would like to emphasize about this that for a specialist to be a good translator obviously this person has to be a good linguist, too. I don’t mean that they must have studied linguistics as a specialization, but that they should know the written language at a specialist level. Please do not overlook that part.

    I have seen “technical” documentation horribly written in its original form (specially in the IT area), which just shows that a scientist/technical specialist may not have a clue about language, no matter how brilliant this person may be about her/his specialization, and it takes a linguist (or at least someone who has a language specialist-level talent/knowledge) to turn a description or an explanation into an understandable text.

    On the other hand, in some cases (I am speaking here merely based on my own experience, no statistical figures or any scientific data), you don’t need a specialization degree to understand the basics of some specialization texts.

    Of course, the really complex stuff may require the support of a specialist to review the translation, but that should not be too complicated to achieve. It all depends on the resources available to do the translation AND the quality of the project mnagement (that is, to assign the right resources for the review part, in order to achieve a correct translation).

    Regarding translation schools, I know of at least 3 translation schools in Spain (Granada, Barcelona and Madrid) that include a semester, a year or more to learn the basics (or more) of some of these specializations, WITH specific specialists, not “clueless academic idiots”, so it is not like translation school students are necessarily getting a lousy preparation in this respect.

    I do agree that it takes a versatile translator to handle any kind of text, whether it is technical, literary or journalistic, because you need a naturally acute analytical mind in order to understand the nuances of any subject matter.

    Anyway, like I said, we all have our sacred cows. ;-)




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