Building financial security is important for everyone. But for freelance translators, the security that comes with generating a steady income can, at times, feel very elusive.
It's more than easy to get caught up in the project-to-project, paycheck-to-paycheck way of doing business. After all, if we don't work, we don't make money, right?
This is something I've been thinking about for quite some time. Why is it that freelancers in other fields sometimes set their businesses up differently? Granted, a freelancer in any field can easily get caught up in the same project-by-project income cycle. But there are certain fields that seem to lend better to long-term contracts than others.
Or so it seems.
How can translators (and interpreters) build better financial security around their freelance businesses?
Enter, the retainer agreement. A retainer is an agreement between the contracting party and the contracted party, which usually entails a long-term flow of projects. Retainers can last anywhere from three months to a year, usually, and many times, they are renewed if both parties agree.
I asked a question on Twitter a few months ago to see if there were any freelance translators I knew who worked with clients on a retainer agreement. And here's what I heard: crickets. No one responded. Sure, maybe those who do have retainer agreements just didn't see my post. But I'd bet that the crickets were more likely the result of very few (if any) freelance translators I know who have retainer agreements with their clients.
To be fair, of course, not every client and the projects they offer lend themselves to creating a retainer agreement. But for many of us, it makes sense to seek clients who would be open to this possibility. It would certainly offer more long-term financial security!
So, I started to explore this idea a bit more. I talked to copywriters and graphic designers I know who have retainer agreements with several clients (in addition to still accepting one-off or now-and-then projects). Many copywriters have monthly retainers set up with the clients they write regular copy for. Graphic designers who create regularly for their clients have a similar setup.
So, why can't we do the same for translation and interpreting clients?
How to set up retainer agreements with translation agency clients
While this may have been more serendipity than my own business strategy, I had a steady translation agency client approach me several years ago to ask me to set up a retainer with them. The agreement was that I would translate $2,000- to $4,000-worth of words per month for them. This meant that I knew every month that I would earn at least $2,000 and possibly up to $4,000 (or more, if they had more projects that fit my language pairs and specialization) and that I needed to set aside time each month for their projects to meet my end of the agreement.
This also meant that I wasn't starting every month from zero. Not only did this help me to plan the work I received from other clients better, but it meant that I had financial security in the sense that I knew how I was going to pay the bills as well. This agreement lasted for a year. What's important to note here is that we arranged the terms of the agreement with the expected length of time it would last up front. I knew that at the end of the year the agreement could be renewed if I was happy with it and if they still had a steady stream of work in my languages, or it might not renew if it was not in either of our best interests to continue it.
Retainer agreements with translation clients can work. And they can be very beneficial for the translator and the client.
But don't take my word for it. I recently talked to Antoinette Karuna, a French and German to English translator, about the idea of setting up retainer agreements with clients. And I learned that she, too, has a retainer agreement with a client and is very happy with the setup. In fact, she is looking to attract more clients with the same "partner" mentality as she has.
How to set up retainer agreements with direct translation clients
I asked Antoinette some questions, and here's what she shared with me.
What kind of retainer clients do you currently have?
I work with one client with whom I signed a yearly contract at the end of 2018 for services to be provided over the course of 2019. I hope to renew this contract at the end of 2019.
I’m “working off” the contract by translating and editing texts as needed, and I keep track of the amount that I’ve “worked off” in a Google Doc to which my client has access. I have a per-word rate for translation and an hourly rate for editing. The work comes in waves—some months are busy, others are quiet.
What percentage of your client base are retainer clients?
The contract from this client represented around 10% of my total income in 2018.
What percentage of your client base would you like to have as retainer clients?
My goal is to have retainers/yearly contracts from a minimum of three clients, totaling about 50% of my annual income.
How did you find these clients, or did they approach you?
The client is a film school—a friend who works for them put me in touch with their communications department. The school hired me because they wanted to partner with a translator who had substantial experience working in the film industry, which I have!
What kind of agreement do you have with these clients?
I signed a yearly contract at the end of 2018 for translation and editing services to be provided over the course of 2019.
What positive aspects do you see from having clients with whom you can partner like this?
There are so many positive aspects!
Firstly, it’s much easier to deliver excellent work to a client when there’s ongoing, in-depth communication. We discuss terminology and style guide choices, as well as using a writing style that best serves the reader. When the source text is poorly written, I can communicate this to them and they’re open to my rewriting suggestions. It’s truly the best possible “environment” in which a translator or editor can work, as questions are appreciated and answered. For me, working without directly communicating with the end client is frustrating at times as I can feel that I’m translating in a bit of a vacuum—without having a comprehensive understanding of the organization’s services, communication style, or of their end reader. In the case of a retainer or contract client, a relationship is built, and both the translator/editor and client are invested in that relationship. With my film school client, I work hard to find solutions to their translation and English-language challenges and to position myself as a trusted member of their team. I’ve invested time and energy in understanding their mandate and programs, researching accurate terminology, developing an in-house style guide, etc. This is a very satisfying way in which to work—knowing that I can deliver great work to a client who really appreciates my services. Furthermore, this extra work—conducting research, creating a style guide and terminology list—is billed at my hourly rate.
Secondly, a retainer or contract provides a measure of financial stability. When I received my yearly contract at the end of 2018, it facilitated my financial planning for 2019.
Thirdly, because the client has already paid for my services, they don’t have to decide if they can afford to outsource a translation or have a document edited. It’s a no-brainer, they just send it to me—it’s already paid for! This takes away tedious and time-consuming outsourcing decisions and makes the client’s life easier.
Fourthly, it’s a way to minimize the time spent on marketing. Marketing to direct clients is pretty time consuming, so I’m actively working to find more retainer or contract clients to minimize my outbound marketing activities.
Are there any negatives to having retainer clients? If so, what are they and do the positives outweigh the negatives?
I’m new to this model, and, so far, I have only experienced positive aspects. But I do think that it’s important to vet the client before committing to a retainer or contract to see if you are a good fit.
How do you go about pitching a long-term/retainer-style setup to clients?
I’d worked with the film school in early 2018, translating and editing some of their web copy. In mid-2018, they wanted to issue a translation contract as they were revamping their website and needed the site translated. They chose me for this contract because the communications officer liked my work and, as I previously mentioned, it was important for them to work with a translator with substantial experience in filmmaking. I negotiated the contract with the school and they accepted my rates, but the idea of a contract came from them. I suggested adding editing to my services, as I noticed that some of their texts were written in English and needed editing.
How do you "renew" a retainer with a client from one year to the next?
I’m still “working off” my annual contract and I hope to renew it at the end of 2019 for the duration of 2020. The renewal of my contract will depend on their translation and editing needs for 2020. However, my priority is to renew my contract, even if the amount is much less than my current contract. Having a contract positions me as a team member—their trusted English-language partner—and ensures that they won’t try and save money by a) not having documents translated or edited, or b) outsourcing the work to a less expensive option (for example, an intern). I want to be this client’s go-to English-language partner and build a long-term relationship with them, and a contract is key in achieving this.
My strategy for the renewal of my contract is to deliver consistently excellent work and customer service. Providing great customer service means that my client and I touch base and speak on the phone every few months to discuss what’s next. I’ve also taken a proactive approach to finding solutions for their translation management systems, as well as in developing a style guide and terminology list, elements that were not previously considered part of a translator’s services. In this way, my value is more than just a language service provider—I work hard to position myself as an essential part of their communications team.
Thanks, Antoinette, for sharing your setup with us and for allowing us to have a peek into your partnership with this client!
As Antoinette mentioned, she is seen by her client as a trusted partner—something I think all of us would hope for from our clients. This is a key detail to consider when it comes to building a portfolio of high-quality clients. I had the same experience with my client who approached me with a retainer agreement.
There is no reason why Antoinette, or I, or anyone who reads this blog cannot approach a client who provides steady work with the idea of setting up a retainer agreement. Such agreements can truly build better financial security, and they definitely leave both you and the client with a sense of having a trusted business partnership.
As a final thought to leave you with here, remember that not all retainers are a good idea. Make sure that you enter into an agreement only if it is beneficial for both you and your client. Do make sure you understand the terms of the agreement before you sign a contract, but also be very excited that a client thinks of you as a trusted partner!
For similar ideas from fellow translators, you might also like to read Freelance Translator Life: Putting the Freedom Back into Freelance.
Do you have a long-term or retainer agreement with any of your translation clients? If so, please share in the comments so others can learn more from you! How do you make it work and what positives/negatives do you see from these types of agreements?