Attracting and Retaining Top Linguists

I have been working in translation for over 30 years, having worn many hats and seen the business evolve not only in terms of technology and methods, but also in terms of company / translator relationships.

I have viewed these relationships from many angles, as an in-house bank translator, Manager of Translation at a major Wall Street bank, part-time freelance translator, President of the American Translators Association, which represents both multi-language vendors (MLV’s) and freelancers (and all other stakeholders in the translation and interpreting industry) and for the past twelve years as a full-time freelance translator and industry consultant. This experience has given me a good feel for what puts clients at the top of freelancers’ “priority clients" lists.

Some of the features highly prized by freelancers actually add value to companies’ bottom line, while others represent a cost and must be considered in light of cost/benefit. How much do you value attracting and retaining top linguists and how much are you willing to increase your costs to do so?

Rates would seem like the most obvious key to soaring to the top of linguists’ favorite clients list. However, paying more than everyone else will not necessarily get you there if you fail big time in other areas important to the best freelancers. You are likely to rank higher if you pay relatively well, but not top rates, but you stand out in the other areas I will discuss in this article.

The biggest key to keeping linguists happy is to remember that time is money… their time as well as yours. Some of the keys to attracting and retaining linguists will save you both time, others might involve thinking about how time- and cost-saving measures at your company affect your freelancers and whether they cost your freelancers an inordinate amount of time.

First and foremost among ways to make freelancers love working for your company is to hire excellent project managers, which of course also saves the company money in the long run and also makes your clients happy. Dealing with organized, responsive, informed project managers saves freelancers huge amounts of time. Encourage project managers to get all pertinent information into the initial e-mail to a freelancer, including the purpose of the translation, the precise language variant and who to contact with questions. Get as much information into the subject line and all relevant information in the body of the e-mail rather than an attachment, which takes time to open and is not always convenient to open on a smartphone (freelancers often escape their desks as soon as they have a free moment and thus are frequently responding to e-mail on smartphones). At minimum, please get the language pair (including direction), subject matter, wordcount, deadline and any special instructions in the body of the e-mail. Whether doing business by e-mail or over the phone, your project managers should strive to get all relevant information conveyed in one shot, not a series of e-mails or phone calls, which can be disruptive.

Polite, pleasant project managers who say please and thank you (I am always amazed that this can’t be taken for granted) and those with a sense of humor are a real bonus. I have a few clients who have jumped to the top of my priority list even though they don’t pay quite as much of some other clients but they and/or their project managers are just such a pleasure to work with and I don’t waste a lot of time trying to sort out their disorganization.

Please, please, please limit mass e-mails to freelancers unless you have massive amounts of work and it is likely that if they respond promptly they will get a piece of the project. It takes time to read and respond to (or delete) mass e-mails and they can quickly clog inboxes. Plus it really moves you down a freelancer’s list if you continually send out mass e-mails but do not come through with work even when the freelancer responds quickly. In other words, please don’t continually cry wolf. Also, please take the time to filter mass requests for language and specialization. If a company starts sending me requests for Russian to English medical texts (I translate Spanish, Portuguese and French to U.S. English financial/legal texts), I am likely to start sending those requests to SPAM. One would think that with companies’ sophisticated vendor databases this wouldn’t happen, but unfortunately it does happen regularly. Require project managers to send out prompt responses to all translators who have expressed interest in a project as to whether or not they will be needed.

Another aspect of “crying wolf" is booking translators for projects which are only potential. If you are surveying availability, please indicate that a project is “potential" or, perhaps, “likely" but not confirmed. Also please be as accurate as possible when providing wordcounts upon booking projects. A freelancer might agree to take on 5,000 words due in 4 days, allowing them to stay on schedule with other work and requiring them to turn away other work. If that 5,000 words turns into 10,000 words, either your deadline or someone else’s (or the freelancer’s other plans or sleep) are going to go by the wayside and the translation quality is likely to suffer. If that project turns out to be only 1,000 words, the freelancer may have turned away work counting on the income from your project; this is likely to damage your credibility if it happens regularly.

Company workflows and portals can either save or cost freelancers a lot of time and frustration. Is your portal interface intuitive or burdensome? Do you save money by shifting a lot of project management tasks to your vendors? If you do, you might need to raise the rates you pay them to keep them happy, as they will be spending more time than warranted on your projects.

Hire competent editors who know the subject matter and source language well and have a light hand, correcting only what is wrong, not transforming the translation to suit their personal style. Good editors also do not make work for translators by asking silly questions and non-native editors (perhaps subject-matter experts) should not try to correct target language “errors." Heavy-handed editing and editors who introduce errors into translations cost translators a lot of time and can cause frustration.

Treat freelancers with respect, as competent professionals. Assume translators know how to do their job. Spellcheck, good grammar, completeness, proofreading and adhering to deadlines are essential parts of a linguist’s job and don’t require a reminder. Let freelancers know you are hiring them because you value quality and are willing to pay for it, and to wait for quality if necessary. Accept no for an answer – pushing a linguist to say yes to the impossible or to a stretch project or deadline they are not comfortable with is likely to result in frustration for you as well as them.

Freelancers really appreciate a thank you for providing service exceeding expectations (doesn’t everyone?) or early delivery of a project. They also appreciate constructive feedback, which benefits both the linguist and the client.

You will move up several notches on linguists’ client lists if you encourage teamwork – collaboration among the project manager and all linguists working on a project. Communication among translators and editors makes for a much better translation and happier linguists. As does having linguists consult one another on terminology and build glossaries.

Be fair. If you expect a CAT discount, provide properly prepared files. Don’t expect a discount for files that are not CAT-ready and don’t expect to pay zero for 100% matches… they always require review and therefore require some compensation, especially one-word segment 100% matches, which are basically meaningless. If you are providing a converted file, fix the formatting before sending it to the translator or CAT will make a mess of it. Remove text boxes that CAT can’t handle and reorder segments or remove hard returns so that they will translate properly. This is particularly an issue for table headings.

Top linguists tend to be very loyal to their favorite clients and this ideally is a two-way street. They are willing to go the extra mile to get your job done properly and turn away other work to accommodate you; they should therefore be on the top of your vendor list, even if they charge a little more than your “average" linguists. And they will really appreciate it if you let them know that if they happen to hit a slow patch they should let you know and you will do your best to find them something to keep them busy until things pick up again.

Of course, freelancers appreciate prompt payment. But payment issues go beyond this. If a problem arises, they need to know who to contact if, say, the check gets lost in the mail. An organized, accessible, responsive accounts payable department can go a long way to making freelancers happy.

As I mentioned, some of the above will directly benefit your bottom line and other suggestions represent a cost and therefore will require a cost-benefit analysis. In the end, though, if your company focus is quality translations, the above should help you hire and build loyalty among top tier freelancers, which in the end should also be a boon to your bottom line.