What Value Can Translators Get By Developing Direct Clients

Why develop your direct clients?

If you've read my previous post Things translators should know before ending your relationship with translation agencies, you might believe that I'm trying to dash your hopes of working with direct clients, or even believe that I might be helping to shore up support for agencies.

This couldn't be further from the truth! I'm an entrepreneur. The reason I like being one is because even though there's risks, all the costs are mine to bear, and there's no stable income either, it brings me a level of freedom and possibility that I would never completely have were I to remain in my previous cubicle job. Take a look: doesn't this situation look similar to being a freelancer (a translator)? 

In fact, being a freelancer IS being an entrepreneur. However, it's just that you probably haven't set up a business, and don't have any employees of your own, but your living situation and your enterprise are the same. If so, then you really should try to look at your work from the perspective of being an entrepreneur.

Personally, I am happy to see translators developing direct clients because even though business with direct clients forces you to bear the costs of non-translation duties, by interacting with direct clients, translators have an opportunity to more deeply understand their clients, and provide them with an added-value service. You could even set up a business partnership with them, and not just a simple "outsourcing - contractor" relationship. 

If you develop such a relationship, your income will rise slowly, but more importantly, your business acumen and creative space will rise as well. I believe this is the most important value of developing your clientele. If you only work with agencies, not only will your income easily hit a ceiling and your professional career encounter difficulties in making a breakthrough, you won't have a lot of room to spread your own wings because you'll have cemented yourself into an immobile position within the industry.

When you become an entrepreneur, all the things you take into consideration will become more circumspect. You will have much more reflection on your own place within the industry, and these thoughts will all help you in moving up your career ladder. As for increasing your income, this is also an important aspect, and as a translator, it's also what we want most of all at the end of our projects. Yet we need to keep in mind that increasing our income is a RESULT, not a CAUSE. What I mean by this is that when you do things right, the income will naturally increase on its own.


Providing service to different clients requires different thinking

So what do I mean by "doing things right?" Well, what I mean by that phrase is that we should always have an attitude and ethos of helping our clients succeed as a way of communicating and interacting with them, and not the typical "I only care about the translation and the other stuff ain't my business" attitude that we sometimes get when working with agencies. When you're communicating with a translation agency, you're only selling a translation; but when you're working with a direct client, you're selling a service -- and an experience.

When you're selling:

A translation, what you care about is accuracy, flow and punctuality of just this one document;

A service, what you care about isn't just the accuracy, flow and punctuality of this one document's final draft, but also the benefits the client will gain from it (for example, an advertisement that brings in a large online traffic) or avoiding a negative effect (e.g., avoiding losses brought about by the use of an incorrect word in a legal contract). 

What you also need to take to heart is matters apart from the translation, including the industry or field the client is a part of, what position they hold in said field or industry, the problems the client wishes to solve, the results they want, as well as how you can provide them with these solutions via your translation service that will bring a boon to their business.

To put it simply, when you are working with a direct client, what you're selling is a service. You're selling them a path to success, and this comes in the end-form of a translated document.

That's right. When you want to succeed in running a direct business, your scope of defense will expand a lot. You absolutely cannot think that translation (transforming a document from one language to another) alone will be enough. But if you get to this point, your place in your client's mind won't just be that of a translator, and you won't be viewed as a mere labor cost that can be written off by replacing you with a machine (which cannot replace you), because the value you provide isn't just translating. You also understand your client and their industry. You understand their hopes and fears.

I'm also acquainted with a translator who has been on the entrepreneur's path for a long time. He knows what his clients care about the most; what pitfalls they want to avoid. He also uses a "help the client succeed" way of thinking to provide translation services, and as a result, his clients are extremely appreciative. 

He'll even actively provide his client with information on the industry's newest developments, easily spending over an hour in summarizing and translating the newest regulations, and then freely providing this to his client as further reading. What do you think his client's reaction was when they got all this extra material? The answer is that the client was extremely surprised! This is what we call service. This is what we call an experience.

I once asked this same translator "Don't you think that doing this is going a little overboard? You've provided your client with a free translation." He responded by saying "It's like when you go to a farmer's market to buy some veggies. It's no different than the lady selling you your veggies giving you an extra onion for free, no? This is the exact type of thing. The vegetable vendor understands this more than I do. It appears as if they're just selling vegetables and fruits, but the reality is that they are selling a service and their care.

The vegetable vendor are not just selling vegetables and fruits, but the reality is that they are selling a service and their care.

He also added, however, that the woman selling her harvest isn't just handing everyone onions willy-nilly. After all, an onion is something they also have to pay for. So by giving out freebies to add on a few more customers to their brand, if it enables the lady to gain a customer who would be willing to pay twice what the market goes for, it helps to throw on an extra onion for free. 

A translator's most precious commodity is time. A client who gives him increased value (monetary or otherwise) should be given the VIP treatment! As for how to pick your clients, or how to find a client willing and able to treat them with courtesy, placing their blood, sweat, tears and time on them, is the next topic we will move to regarding translators curating their clients.



1. When you are working with a direct client, what you're selling is a service. You're selling them a path to success, and this comes in the end-form of a translated document.

2. Direct clients are oftentimes corporate enterprises. The characteristics of this type of client is that they they have professional business projects. This means that if the translator wants their services to earn them a good reputation, then they must choose to do in-depth study of and work in certain niche areas. They cannot be like a translation agency that acts as a generalist, taking cases from every industry, left and right. 

This article was originally written in traditional Chinese by Joanne Chou, Co-founder of Termsoup, and later translated into English by Timothy L. Smith.

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Joanne Chou

Joanne is an English-Chinese translator, a UI/UX designer, and the co-founder of Termsoup.