I have been thinking about this a bit recently, particularly in connection with certain talented individuals I’ve come to know and admire, often with promising language combinations and talents, who seem to end up stagnating and getting overworked at the top end of the bulk market.

To give an example, that could be people working between German and English (either direction) who are charging 12 to 16 cents a word to the better agencies, working their arses off because they are stuck in the mentality that they are ‘rich’ and doing well.

… And, well, they are.

A lot of people in this profession would be over the moon to be earning that sort of money. I get that. That’s also why this post is called “successful” stagnation, as it’s not directed at those who for whatever reasons are struggling to make ends meet. It’s directed at those who are already among the apparent ‘winners’ of our profession when you look how far they’ve already come along the bell curve.

These people ARE doing very well. Skilled and in demand, they’ll be working with the sort of appreciative agencies who will stretch budgets and bend deadlines to ensure these translators can do their work, and yeah, it does feel pretty nice. Cushy, even.

Combine that with good productivity, solidly knocking out 4,000 or more words a day, and you can get to a nice average of €500 or so a day, or €2,500 a week if you can keep it up. Which you probably can if you’re solidly booked … Soon you’re at €10,000 a month, and €120,000 a year, assuming you can keep it up and don’t take any time off.

What’s wrong with successful stagnation?

Yeah, about that time off …

It’s easy to get comfortable when the sun’s shining on your balcony, while the whole world seems to be complaining about the rain. It’s also easy to forget that other things, from negotiating jobs to invoicing, can take time. But you aren’t looking at that: you’re too busy enjoying that sun, never quite secure enough to know if tomorrow will be a bit more overcast. If you’re not careful, you can easily end up working very long days. And nights. But it never feels like it, because you’re happy, and you’re pushing yourself because OMG LOOK AT THAT MONEY.

Working like that … it’s not sustainable. And while it might not look like it, certainly not if your bank balance is anything to go by, you’re (successfully) stagnating. Because really, life as a translator does get (even?) better than working ten-hour days for upper-tier bulk market agency rates. Better as in significantly less stressful, significantly more fulfilling, and significantly more financially rewarding.

Perhaps a reminder is needed, so here it comes.

It’s worth taking the next step, because …

You’ll be less stressed

  • Charging more to direct clients means you can create generous financial buffers, meaning there will always be room in the budget for a review by a second expert translator, giving you peace of mind. (My reviewer is going on holiday for a couple of weeks, and yes, I’m nervous – but it’ll give me a good shove to further explore some other successful collaborations. ? )
  • You’re in charge of negotiations, so you can negotiate better deadlines.
  • You can contact the client to ask questions – and the client will appreciate you asking and assist you.

Your work will give you greater fulfilment

  • You’ll be able to learn more from everyone involved in the project, from the client to the people you collaborate with.
  • You’ll get to hear the praise from happy clients every day, giving you more of an ego boost than you’d ever get working for agencies or in-house.
  • You are in direct control of your future, without middlemen setting limits on what you can and can’t do, and what you can and can’t earn.

You’ll have greater financial freedom

  • This doesn’t have to mean more money. It can also mean more time to spend with loved ones as you earn more in less time, or simply the freedom to turn down work or clients you don’t want.

… But I just got comfy here.

As if Kevin Hendzel’s post about the creative destruction set to engulf the industry or the various other related posts about the apparent bulk industry crisis was not enough, the rise of PEMT and ‘good enough’ machine translation should be giving you the hint that it is time you started moving upmarket, because things are unlikely to stay as cosy as they are right now – even for you.

But the problems go deeper than that. I feel certain people, particularly friends of mine, are hesitant to change what may right now feel like a winning recipe. I recognise it, because that’s where I used to be. I know that there there’s a little voice inside you that’s telling you that you aren’t quite ready to move on up, and you don’t yet feel the pressing need. You feel you will naturally move on up over time. Right.

But how’s that going to happen if you’re working ten-hour days, maybe even weekends and public holidays, for all these agencies? By this point, you know there aren’t going to be that many agencies who’ll consistently pay more than 20 cents a word. Hell, you’ve done well to get the ones paying the rates you’re already getting. Those 12-16 cents may sound like a lot, but how does 60-80 sound?


To move on up, you need to actively CREATE spare capacity. You need to actively REFUSE work so you have time to work on your translation skills, your writing skills, your specialisation, your website, your network, your marketing materials. Then you also have a convenient buffer that you can take a chunk out of when a truly promising piece of work for a new client comes up.

More than that, though, you might even need to go back to university. I did. I wrote about that here (recently updated).

It’s an old post, and I never publicised it at the time, but I realise in retrospect it was probably my most useful – I’ve been told as much. It’s useful because it details something you won’t see many people speaking much about, mostly because the smart souls taking these extreme measures are too busy and introverted to stick their heads above the parapet (and risk getting shot). It talks about SACRIFICE.

Sacrifice and rebirth

When I talk about sacrifice, I’m referring to the complete “reboot” I did on my career: going back to university, creating capacity, filling that capacity with learning and market observation and then, over time, better clients.

… It is so very easy to look at people who made it and assume that if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’ll eventually get there, too, because you’re doing quite well right now, after all.

Sorry, but that’s not how it works. It takes sacrifice. It takes conscious decisions like mine that will send your income plummeting down to the levels of a recent graduate, before you see that same income double multiple years in a row. It takes studying. It takes hard work. But first of all, it takes TURNING DOWN WORK.*

So, dear successfully stagnating friends, consider this a sharp poke in your ribs. You know, that funny bit where it hurts and the pain lingers for a couple of minutes. Start turning down work if you really want to release your full potential. Take that leap of faith. **


* I get that sometimes people have commitments, but even if there’s something preventing you from doing that right now, keep an eye out for ways you can adapt this advice to your circumstances. Make a mental note in red and indelible pen, and when you find yourself truly successfully stagnating, look for a way that you can safely take a couple of steps back in preparation for your next sprint …

** ‘leap of faith’ is a reference to a very popular post I wrote in the League a couple of years after things had started to take off for me. Rather than summarising, it’s best that you read it for yourself. Here’s a screenshot:

Leap of faith post from The League of Extraordinary translators - a post by translator and copywriter Rose Newell