The countdown's started

If you haven’t  built up a specialisation, it’s time to start  now,  urges Chris  Durban. And yes, that takes work, but this is the way that the market is heading.

A recent blog post described premium markets as ‘hiding in plain sight'. In view of author Kirti Vashee’s usual focus on machine translation (MT) and technology solutions, where bulk markets reign and localisation behemoths call the shots, it was a surprising message for some. But by reviewing non-price factors and hard data, this tech expert has done the entire industry a service.

As luck would have it, I was preparing my own presentation on the subject at about the same time – but for translators rather than tech geeks and private equity teams.

My presentation starts with a punchy little recital of translator complaints that I’ve seen online: unreasonable clients, ever-tighter deadlines, ever-lower prices and cut- throat competition. Let’s be clear: the aim is not to commiserate or howl at the injustice. Nor do I mock translators in bulk segments, some of whom are meeting a clear market need – and many can work very fast, often combining dictation and translation memory software to make good money.

Finding new opportunities

Instead, my recent focus has been on the dangers ahead for translators caught in the broad middle between bulk and premium. These translators of good will but uncertain specialisation, often due to life circumstances and what seemed perfectly reasonable choices at the time, are in peril. They now face severe price pressure from automated solutions, and are being bombarded by exhortations to shift to post-editing machine output, pitched as‘the future of translation’. Many seem discouraged at the prospect. I sympathise.

But by my reckoning, there is at least one other option: do the hard work needed to upgrade your skills, learn to collaborate with others, and prepare to move upmarket. This suggestion is not pie-in-the-sky thinking or speculation. Nor is it look-at-me self-promotion, as some people have hinted, and others have stated outright. It’s based on observation and direct experience of demand in such markets over many years. My observations have been confirmed in lengthy and detailed exchanges with dozens of colleagues around the world – linguists who work in fields ranging from patent litigation and corporate social responsibility to pharmaceutical research, artificial intelligence, feature films, forensic accounting, advanced cybersecurity, crisis communications, defence and finance. They also include speciality areas that you will never have heard of if you don’t actually work in them yourself – which, along with widespread use of non-disclosure agreements, explains the ‘hiding in plain sight’. 

The ‘move upmarket’ strategy has been discussed in translator venues and forums for at least five years. It is truly nothing new, although some translators still struggle to see how their particular work might fit in. (Indeed, their current client base may not.)

Yet the discomfort and fierce pushback it has received in some quarters is disconcerting. 

Perceived value judgements are no doubt part of the touchiness: 'premium' is a loaded word - are you criticising my work, confirming I am not a member, and/or promoting a caste system?


Clinging to the known is understandable, and can seem safer than taking a long hard look in the mirror. Think again

Chris Durban


No problem: switch to the definition ‘markets where clients care passionately about outcomes, are acutely aware of the risk of getting it wrong, and are prepared to come up with the budgets needed to get it right’. Suddenly more segments come into view, although in the markets discussed here, portfolio- backed performance is still part of the picture.

I’m increasingly convinced that this pushback is also due to fear: change is unsettling, even scary, at the best of times, and these days we’re all staring down the barrel of a COVID-19-led recession. Clinging to the known is understandable, and can seem safer than taking a long hard look in the mirror. Think again.

A change is gonna come

For years the translation industry’s public discourse/bandwidth has been monopolised by tech and localisation chatter. The best-known purveyors of industry statistics deal exclusively with middle- and low-end markets, and these are the stats driving virtually all academic research and  client-facing pitches by large vendors. Their marvels-of-technology narrative sells well – and affects us all, since these markets rely on messaging that downplays the role of expert human translators. So if you’ve been passive because the clamouring commoditisers have convinced you that they are the only game in town, you might want to think again.

A shake-out is coming. For translators unwilling or unable to train up, times will get tougher.

Chris Durban

Because a shake-out is coming. For translators unwilling or unable to train up, times will get tougher. Translation is widely viewed by the general public as a cool job that any language fan can take a stab at, wooed by the ‘Work your own hours! Be your own boss!’ siren calls. Which is why we should all be bracing for the imminent influx of desperate newbies made redundant from other industries hard hit by the pandemic – aviation, oil and gas, banking, hospitality, anyone?


Many of these new arrivals will not stay the course in translation, but they are likely to drive mid-market prices down even further for a while. Their distinct advantage is that most of them will have far stronger professional networks in client territory than the average translator.

So sitting tight is no longer an option. If you’re somewhere in the middle, and want to remain an independent professional translator, you’ll have to move upmarket to survive and flourish.

Moving upmarket means upgrading your skills. You’ll also need to study how client industries are structured. Yes, it’s a long-term commitment. And no, there is no guarantee of success. But if the crunch has arrived on your street, or if you’ve just completed your studies and are despairing at the offers you’re getting, is there really any choice? Moving from translation into another language-related career is one option. But if you’ve got the skills it’s nowhere near as attractive as finding your niche upmarket.

Making connections

So how are you going to meet these high-end clients? Not, in all likelihood, at ‘traditional’ translation industry watering holes. And they don’t respond well to the marketing tips used by translators pitching to mid-market and bulk buyers either. 

(Their pricing is different, sometimes very different; while no one throws cash out the window, coming in too low can disqualify a potential supplier.) Most of all, the translationese that many translators have unwittingly slipped into is not acceptable here: demanding buyers can get that cheaply from run-of-the- mill suppliers.

You’ll also need to work with them. Ditch the wilful eccentricity: rants and swagger cut no ice with premium clients. Be accessible, easy to work with, and expert at the job. Leave agency/direct client squabbles at the door. They are, quite simply, not relevant. But regardless of the structure you choose, you’ll need direct access to text owners or users for clarification and fine-tuning. Good agencies are aware of this and build such interaction into their procedures. Oral fluency is a plus, and sometimes make-or-break.

It’s easier to connect if you genuinely like and respect your client, who will ideally be very good at what they do, even if they don’t know much about languages. That’s where you come in. Premium clients set a high bar. They do not suffer silliness, self-importance or hit-and- miss. You will have to work extremely hard. You’ll also work more slowly (250 wph) and price accordingly. You’ll need to get out into your clients’ worlds and heads, not just once but again and again and again. Identifying targets takes a major investment up front, so read, read, read. Making contact works best from the inside, so infiltrate. Successful docking requires persistence, so hang in there. And remember that the higher the risk, the higher the reward.

Premium clients are looking for effective communication. And that is the kind that skilled human translators can deliver.

'There is indeed a premium market, probably quite substantial in size, even though it is hard to discern for those whose primary focus is the bulk localisation market. This market has different professionalism and expertise requirements and has a mostly different business model.' Kirti Vashee

'Yes, the bulk market is bigger. That's why it's called the BULK market. The bulk translators are also there, playing a largely passive game of watching to see what is thrown over the fence to them.' Kevin Hendzel on complaints that high-end markets are 'small'

'At the beginning of my career, I always felt nervous when a client called or when a business lunch loomed. But those phone calls and lunches really are door openers. You get to chat with your client, get to know them better and show compassion.' Lisa Rüth of Ralf Lemster Financial Translations GmbH

This article first appeared in the November-December edition of the ITI Bulletin

About the writer
Chris Durban email

Chris Durban is a freelance translator based in Paris, specialising in finance and business. She translates from French into English for SMEs, corporations, market operators and public authorities in France and other countries, and enjoys it immensely. Chris has written client education materials and advice for translators, and is an instructor on the‘Translate in…’series of workshops for translators looking to raise the bar.

A co-organiser of the SFT’s biennial UETF (summer school for financial translators), she is a long- time member and former president of SFT, a fellow of ITI, and a popular speaker at translator events in Europe and elsewhere.