May 29, 2010

The Scribe Who Came in from the Cold

The freelance life has its ups and downs. For me the upside by far predominates, but the administrative downside can be rather wicked, particularly in an arrangement where I have more than my own personal administration to deal with. I like to create products, write, negotiate and find innovative ways to solve problems, but the mundane tasks involved in dealing with local authorities (even trying to get them on the phone when they aren't on vacation) can inspire great feats of cursing. And when writing invoices at 4 am after a long, long day becomes routine, one's health and a lot more suffer, and it's time to consider alternatives, even exit strategies.

My myriad business partners are, for the most part, well aware of what I do well and what I don't or cannot in a situation of administrative duress. As part of my long effort to find solutions, on the recommendation of colleague Ralf Lemster I tested's Online Translation Manager (OTM) for the first several months of this year. Ralf managed to switch his entire business to use the system within two days I think. With three dogs to walk and a large house full of sandy dog tracks to vacuum, I progressed more slowly, but my impression of the solution and its potential to make my life easier was quite positive on the whole. A key factor here for me was the secure online access to my data, projects and project correspondence from anywhere and the ability to offer my clients secure, encrypted deliveries via HTTPS.

I like AIT's Translation Office 3000 and use it routinely for billing, but it falls completely flat if you are trying to use it in a team situation. The agency version of the software, Projetex, never got off the ground for testing with me, because the database update scripts required to make it work were screwed up somehow, and while I still had the time to deal with it, I never really understood the suggestions from tech support on how to sort things out.

So when a trusted acquaintance at a local agency which uses OTM proposed a novel solution to my administrative challenges as well as a unique cooperation, I was intrigued but disinclined to go for it. I am so thoroughly allergic to German employment laws and practices after sucking up smoke in the workplace in Mülheim an der Ruhr in the first years after my arrival in the Fatherland that I've flatly turned down every offer of an in-house position from partners whom I trust completely and for whom I have the greatest admiration both personally and for their business practices. So the idea of turning over my client billing to a "competitor" is daft on the face of it.

Or maybe not. Individual translators and SME LSPs face many challenges in today's translation markets, the diversity and scope of which are so great that it is often difficult to have a coherent discussion on matters. In Zurich after The Great Pig Hunt, I had the pleasure of spending some hours dining, drinking coffee and gossiping with the proprietors of a local agency (not a client, just friends), who complained about how it was becoming more difficult to get their standard rates from end customers. These rates are, on the whole, about 30 to 40% less than most Swiss agencies (which often charge well in excess of CHF 3.00 per line of 55 keystrokes), but more than twice what I know many German agencies charge. With about 400 agencies in Switzerland (their estimate), it's also hard to stand out in the market when your administrative work is handled in Excel and on the backs of envelopes. Different agencies in different countries face different challenges, even for services in the same language pairs.

My language pair, on the whole, is an easy one with which to make a living (that's part of my problem - the demand for good German to English translation is so high it's often hard to get translation work and administration done); the challenges faced by those in other pairs are often far more complex and usually more difficult.

But I do believe that certain common principles apply to all our situations, and one of these – which applies to any business – is the need for flexibility and openness to creative solutions to improve the quality of life and work. And that is indeed what my new back office partner offered. For my clientele, all that will really change is the e-mail address for inquiries and a series of multiple confirmation mails for various project steps, different bank details for payment and more secure delivery options. If anyone is freaked out by seeing an actual quotation attached as a PDF document to a mail message, I can turn all that off and just let them know when the job is done. I can e-mail it, give them a download link or provide a secure area where all projects are safely archived for access at any time. And the invoices will go out on time. If I were inclined to outsource (which I generally am not), the interface of the online tools supports that beautifully, and there is also a network of registered, fully evaluated translators to draw upon.

Those are probably among the reasons why Ralf swears by this system. For me the reasons are simpler: more sleep, more time for quality work and more time for my dog and the rest of my life.


  1. I'm not sure I understand this. You are no longer a freelancer but employed at a company?

    For my clientele, all that will really change is the e-mail address for inquiries and a series of multiple confirmation mails for various project steps, different bank details for payment and more secure delivery options.

    This seems like an oversimplification. Who/what is now the legal contract partner for the translations you offer? If it's no longer your GbR, that seems like a pretty significant change. Not trying to be an ass, I'm just not sure I get it.

  2. @Michele: You? An ass? Hardly. I saw one of those in court in Zurich last Thursday, and you look quite different.

    You're right that in some ways this is a huge change. Legally and administratively it's about on the magnitude of that earthquake in Chile not long ago and will require some important contracts to be rewritten soon. But in many ways things remain the same (or improve with little change). I control the data and choose my activities as before. But I won't be writing invoices at 4 am or trying to get the dog to stop pestering various official persons on routine but time-consuming audits. It's an experiment which either party can call off at any time, and it's limited in term. I was presented with an interesting idea and a vision I agree with and thought I'd give it a shot. And it gets me access to an online project management system I have already tested and like.

  3. Oh, flattery will get you everywhere you know. I thought it was just me but it seems we are on the same wavelength and I think I understand this now. Thanks for the feedback. But the dogs are clearly a hopeless case ;)

  4. @Michele: I don't know if the dogs are a hopeless case, but their owners certainly are ;-)

    I almost followed your recommendation to see Bettmeralp on the trip last week, but time was running short and I didn't want to leave Ajax stranded alone any longer. But if I have to go down for another pig shoot in court or pass through CH for another reason I'll definitely go there for an afternoon or maybe a few days.


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