On accepting projects

In the course of my almost two decades in the translation industry, I have had immense fluctuation in the volume and frequency of job offers sent to me by my regular, occasional and one-time clients based all over the world. Yet the likelihood of my readiness to accept a project drew a more or less steady line toward accepting less. This decrease, however, was accompanied by an increase in quality, a virtual disappearance of risk and closer control over the entire translation process.

My attitude toward accepting projects (either as a freelancer initially or a translation company director later on) shifted from accepting virtually everything offered to me to accepting a mere fraction of the number of projects offered to me, without losing revenues.

When I started out as a freelancer in 1997 at the age of 22 during university, I was reckless. My voracity to accept all projects offered to me knew no boundaries. I was primarily a Hungarian into English translator but I went as far as accepting German into English and German into Hungarian projects despite my limited German knowledge. I even did some interpretation in German, and luckily, I got away with it.

After a while, as I became more and more experienced in the language industry, I founded a multilingual translation agency and my focus gradually shifted from performing freelance translation work to project management. Having always been a one-person company employing a number of local and international freelancers, I enjoyed communicating and dealing with people from across the globe, proofreading their into-English translations and discussing challenging linguistic issues with the ones who were theoretically oriented.

Around the year 2002, my company had freelancers representing a total of 256 languages and even more dialects. That must have been the peak of my career in terms of the volume of work accepted, as well as the number of subject matters and languages actively covered. However, things started to take a definite turn toward accepting fewer languages, fewer subject matters and less volume as I gradually realized that I could make the same revenues in a more specialized and, therefore, significantly safer manner as well.

Although the years of global recession (2009-2010, most notably) influenced my business in a dramatic manner, on the whole, it became clear that I could be just as successful providing a smaller number of languages, in a smaller number of fields and subject matters.

In 2002, my company began specializing in Eastern European languages, Icelandic, Ilocano and Tagalog (about 13 languages in total), and the number of freelancers we employed on a regular basis declined significantly, to around 60 people by 2009 and 30 people by 2012. At present, I mainly accept work in the English < > Hungarian and English < > Icelandic language combinations only, and work with a select few native freelancers, mostly in the medical and scientific domains. So let us examine the advantages of accepting work in this highly specialized manner.

Firstly, the chance that bad-quality output will go unnoticed through the quality assurance process is decidedly smaller when you know each individual freelancer. By this point, your freelancers are well established and have proved their abilities on multiple occasions. You have closer control over their work process and over the entire quality assurance process, too. The frequency of the occurrence of substandard-quality deliveries shrinks to almost zero, and there is more time to correct the occasional bad translation should one be delivered.

Another advantage of dealing with fewer freelancers is that the amount of stress you are exposed to is minimized. There is more time available for testing new resources, talking to them on Skype or over the phone, trying them out first on smaller assignments and gradually moving on to immersing them in mainstream work and voluminous projects. For me, peace of mind became more valuable as I survived the vicissitudes brought on by swindlers, scammers and substandard translators over the past two decades. Having an established and trusted group of skilled and reliable freelancers on my team, whom I know well, allows me to sleep in peace at night instead of worrying about the next morning’s deadline. In large part, taking risks is a thing of the past, and I value this much more than being able to boast as I once did of 256 languages and 3,000 freelancers in my database.

A third major advantage of being highly specialized as a translation company is that many clients prefer working with specialists. The drift toward specialization required that I decline job offers — ones I would have said yes to earlier on, but which I would feel uncomfortable accepting today. Our regular and new, prospective clients continue to offer jobs in languages and subject matters that we no longer offer, despite the fact that these are no longer advertised on our corporate websites or in our list of specialties. To this very day, we receive targeted job offers for Hungarian interpretation assignments, yet interpretation was removed from our list of services in 2008. It is certainly painful to decline these opportunities, but I would not be in a position to guarantee our work in the way I would like.

What I would like to point out is that after decreasing the number of services, languages and fields of specialization offered by my company, and declining a large number of job offers, the revenues from my translation business are still about the same as when I intrepidly accepted even the strangest language combinations and the most technical subject matters.

Clients appreciate the fact that we specialize in a small number of languages and subject matters, and most of them are ready to pay higher rates for high-quality services. Also, we receive many more projects in these language combinations than we did when a large number of languages were advertised on our websites.

Thus, as a small company, it is definitely worth placing emphasis on just a couple of languages and a select few subject matters. If you do a great job in those, sooner or later you will be known worldwide for these languages and specializations, and you will be recommended to and contacted by new clients more and more often. It is advisable to be unique and fill a gap. Now that the world is changing ever faster, and new requirements arise by the day, it should not be difficult to find a niche that makes your translation company stand out from the crowd.