Lesson 31: Should all translators become entrepreneurs?

Lesson 31: Should all translators become entrepreneurs?

I met one of my translation friends for a coffee, and she quite openly admitted she was struggling due to recession. “Agencies keep lowering their rates and it’s either accept it or go somewhere else. And whenever I send my CV to a new one, they start at half my rate.” Well, why don’t you try with direct clients, or why don’t you diversify, I asked. “Diversify? I’m no economist to know such terms. And how do you want me to get direct clients?” You could, for example, have a leaflet designed and send it to local multicultural companies. Or go to a couple of business events. “Business events? Do I look like one of those daredevil entrepreneurs?” Should all translators become entrepreneurs?

Translation and business still too often go together only in terms of specialist fields. There is only a handful of successful entrepreneurial translators (a number of them setting up agencies as soon as they can), but I believe that it’s not due to the fact that it is difficult to succeed. I am deeply convinced that too few of us even try.

There’s been a survey conducted in the USA asking people: what is the easiest way to become a millionaire? Some 40% believed the easiest way is to win a lottery, some considered robbing a bank. Only about 4% answered that the easiest way to have a million dollars is to set up own business. Surprisingly, another research showed that the number of millionaires in States oscillates around… 4%. Something tells me that if we counted the number of the most successful translators, we would get a similar proportion.

Since there seems to be a direct relation between entrepreneurship and earning millions (or at least a decent salary to start with), why so many of us, translators, just don’t go that way? Why so many of us see ourselves separate from “daredevil entrepreneurs”?

The world changes, my dear friend. We can no longer afford to be these geeky and detached linguists convinced that our intelligence and subtle knowledge will prove to be enough. We are used to be one step behind, or in a booth, or never mentioned on a cover. But the world doesn’t hire shy but studious secretaries anymore. Clients don’t want coy but diligent proofreaders. Agencies don’t contact proud and always-too-busy to respond translators. Recession means that everyone becomes competitive, everyone needs to have business cards, everyone needs to dare to be entrepreneurial. Is it really everyone?

There’s much talking about entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship at the moment. Who is an entrepreneur and can every translator be one? There are some qualities we have in common by definition, such as:
– Search for new ideas and innovation
– Accepting constructive criticism and rejection
– Self-discipline
– Strong work ethic
– Good organisation

But that doesn’t make an entrepreneur. There are some “dangerous” areas, skills we would have to work on, such as:
– People skills
– Selling skills
– Leadership qualities
– Strong belief in ourselves
– Competitiveness

Recession sweeps the middle, in any profession, as pointed by Jan Snauwaert in one of his comments to my recent post :

I recently had a little discussion on ProZ on the topic if “this is a recession”, meaning that many of us, translators and interpreters, are experiencing a serious dip in the demand from clients or potential clients. One answer, that I take seriously, was the following: “In fact, there are some businesses doing very nicely, and many are still turning over vast profits, but that there is dramatic change afoot is undeniable and I don’t think any of us know where this is heading. My view, for what it’s worth, is that our industry invariably reflects society and the commercial world at large: those at the top will do well, those at the bottom working at very low rates, will also survive (just). In my view, it’s the middle that will be flushed out and there are a lot of us in the middle”.

If that’s the only strategy that can keep you afloat in the translation business, would you become one of these daredevil entrepreneurs? Or are you going to stick to your usual translator-self? Where do you stand: no place for traditional translators, or entrepreneurship is good for daredevils?

In that spirit, I’ve just recently been admitted as a member of the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs. I’m still working on my profile!


  1. Jana , on Apr 10, 2012 at 19:39 Reply

    Wow, wonderfully written! So true … but a hard road to take if all we’ve ever learned is working with words, less with clients, businesses, markets, etc. Though, I agree, being a “daredevil” entrepreneur is a must.
    Thank you for sharing your ideas and congratulations for the institute membership, you deserve it! 🙂

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 10, 2012 at 19:44 Reply

      Thank you, Jana! I know, it’s just so much against all we’ve been taught… As an interpreter, all you have to do is but to shine and manage the events. As a translator, you’re always behind somebody else’s words. Is it possible at all to separate our professional requirements from the business ones?

  2. Kristina , on Apr 10, 2012 at 22:09 Reply

    Yes, very true, I totally agree. Although it does take quite some adaptation, being an entrepreneur and think like one is the way to go! For the sake of one’s own business, but also for the sake of the profession! Thanks for being a great example, Marta! 🙂

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 11, 2012 at 22:16 Reply

      Thanks for expressing your views, Kristina. Apparently, a number of people within our profession still think that you’re either a reputed translator, or a dodgy entrepreneur. Come on, even lawyers change their ever-present image of distance and cold intelligence! Why don’t we just do something nice to rock the profession? 🙂

  3. Dolly , on Apr 10, 2012 at 22:38 Reply

    Wonderfully put, Marta, I really enjoyed reading this since this tackles a lot of the thinking I’ve been doing as of lately.

    Everyday that goes by I’m more convinced that one of the main subjects we should have had at College (I studied Translation and Interpreting) should have been marketing/branding/enterpreneurship or whatever you want to call it that deals with selling your skills. Translation theory and practice, linguistics, technical jargons and the likes go without saying being them all so obvious in such a Degree that I take them for granted 😉

    Now, 14 years after I graduated and working as a freelance translator since then, I just can’t comprehend why didn’t we study any marketing techniques in the first place, when most of us working as translators would end up working freelance as well. Marketing knowledge is capital to us, we are businesses and those are tools we need to know as well.

    Kind of sad that I didn’t come around all the enterpreneurship topic till recently. It just seems so obvious to me that it’s just part of our business. All that knowledge can really come in handy and, heck, when I discovered this field, I even found out that it is amazing and so interesting! 🙂

    Diversify, renovate, etc. I know: easier said than done, but we got to keep in there. And never stop learning 🙂

    Ok, I wrote lots already, so I’ll get my coat 🙂 Just a quick note to say that I really enjoy reading your blog entries and your FB page. Been following you for a while, because I really like your standpoint towards translation, but never joined in any discussions before 🙂 You rock, Martha! 🙂
    And congrats as well for your admittance in the Institute of Enterprise and Enterpreneurs 🙂

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 11, 2012 at 22:14 Reply

      Dear Dolly,

      Thank you very much for your kind words, and such an interesting comment! I’ve been thinking about the whole business and entrepreneurship issues a lot as well. And I do agree that it should be taught at universities. At least some basics!

      There’s one thing I want to do, and I hope I’ll be brave enough to contact the right people: I want to start entrepreneurial workshops for translation and interpreting students at one of universities around. Do you think it’s a good idea?

      • Dolly , on Apr 13, 2012 at 10:34 Reply

        Yeah sure, go ahead!! 😀 There’s never enough of that! 🙂
        It’s a great opportunity for students as well because they can listen to first-hand experiences from somebody who works for real in the business and can tell them what’s the real McCoy like.

        IMHO Spanish Universities really seem to be disencouraging students A LOT and kind of insert in them the idea they won’t be able to find any work at all and stuff. What’s the point in that? 🙁

        I belong to a pretty active Translators’ Association based in Catalonia and on and off there are members who give talks among College students in their last year before graduating. I think it’s a great opportunity for students to get this information from an experienced freelance translator as opposed to their teachers (with all due respect!) 🙂
        And yeah, students can find all this information on the net as well but nothing beats having a real person, flesh and bones, talking right in front of you.

        I think this could be a very enriching and fulfilling new experience for you, Martha 🙂

        P.S.: I can relate to your episode with your translator friend. Curious to know your reaction too when meeting someone like that? I find it a bit disencouraging (and I’m struggling myself too atm, so no excuses to keep whining all the time!). Curiously enough I never met so may successful and professional translators as in the last few months and I just love it. Coming across so many of them and their positive vibes defo makes up for that handful of surly ones 😉

  4. Jan Snauwaert , on Apr 11, 2012 at 07:38 Reply

    Very well written, very good stuff to have a good, deep thought about! One typo though, at the beginning of paragraph 4. I am flattered you inserted such a large quote of an earlier comment by me! You are right: the “new”, successful translator and interpreter has to reinvent himself (herself) and has to be also an entrepeneur. Qute a challenge indeed. Congrats that you became a member of the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs! You are a truly dynamic person and you are truly successful. Keep us posted!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 11, 2012 at 22:10 Reply

      Thanks for being alert, Jan! Typo spotted and corrected. I think that we have to be constantly reinventing our professional selves, we can’t just become a translator and stop there. I’m trying to find different services I could offer, different takes on what I’m doing already. I’ve enrolled on a course in cross-cultural management. I may want to offer consultancy services at some point in the future. Why not? Who said that a translator can only be a translator?

  5. Alison Hughes , on Apr 11, 2012 at 08:19 Reply

    Very interesting post Marta. I don’t have a formal translation qualification so when I set up freelance 15 years ago (after a spell as an in-house translator) I did it through our local Business Gateway and attended marketing and financial planning workshops. This post has come as a timely reminder that, apart from CPD events, I’ve let all my other networking slip as my translation volume has increased. I’m very busy now but who knows what the future holds so time to put on my “business hat” again. I have noticed that translators entering the business do seem to be much more “clued up” about business skills these days so I wonder if they do include them in the courses now.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 11, 2012 at 22:08 Reply

      Thanks for your interesting comment, Alison. I think that the world has changed, and we’re now all more pro-entrepreneurial, in all professions and domains. Especially here, in the UK, we’re all encouraged to become self-employed and start our own businesses. Perhaps that’s what happens in translation as well.

      I love hats, and “business hat” sounds even more tempting!

  6. Tomasz , on Apr 11, 2012 at 11:08 Reply

    Difficult to be all in one; agencies are more entrepreneurs, translators are more experts. They win clients, we keep them 🙂

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Apr 11, 2012 at 22:06 Reply

      I wish it was true in all cases… I quite enjoy doing the entrepreneurial bit, but I know some of my colleagues would pity me for that. But there’s something about this dilemma: an intellectual translator, or a noisy entrepreneur? Do you think that’s the case?

      • Tomasz , on Apr 12, 2012 at 07:50 Reply

        To me the value proposition of agencies is to sell translation services to all kinds of clients in multiple language pairs – difficult for a single translator to match this. Nevertheless, business skills are a valuable (vital?) asset.

  7. Tamara Mirianashvili , on Apr 17, 2012 at 16:11 Reply

    Not every translator can be an entrepreneur, as you mentioned above, we may have skills in common, but there are other skills and duties as well, which are not well adapted by many translators.
    I have my own translators’ agency since 2004, during this period there were many issues that were difficult to manage and not everyone could handle with it, really.

    And of course, it is really very hard to be a translator and entrepreneur at the same time 🙁

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jan 4, 2015 at 15:08 Reply

      I strongly believe that if you have a set goal you can teach yourself needed skills, hence I do what I do. Glad to see you thrive 🙂

  8. Brin , on Apr 26, 2012 at 18:51 Reply

    Really enjoyed this one. Great post. Thks!

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