How Retainers Can Create Financial Security in Your Freelance Translation

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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?

We can.

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?

Freelance Translator Life: Putting the Freedom Back into Freelance

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I've had many conversations over the past few months with other freelance translators who have designed their work schedules to accommodate their non-work life. In this post, I'll share how two translators put the freedom back into freelance based on their unique life circumstances.

How many days per week do freelance translators work?

First, I was interested in seeing how many days per week other freelance translators work. I knew that answers would vary, but rather than make any assumptions, I decided to share a poll on Twitter for three days to get some feedback. Here are the results from the 60 people who responded to the poll.

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While I know this is a relatively small sample of freelance translators, it helped me to see that I’m not alone when it comes to working five days a week, and sometimes more when things are busy! This is something I expected, of course. But I was not expecting to learn that a fifth of those who voted work six days a week.

Perhaps this surprises me because I don’t know too many other professionals whose bosses make them work more than five days a week. So, why do freelancers, who are essentially their own bosses? The fact that 10% reported that they work seven days a week was also unexpected. I don’t know about you, but I cannot produce my best work if I’m pounding away at the keyboard every day of the week.

Yes, of course there are going to be weeks when a certain project takes longer to complete. And most certainly, there will be times when life happens and we have to readjust our schedules to take care of family-related matters during the week. We may, at times, have to work later and longer days. But if you’re anything like me, you know that once your mind has reached the threshold of more than six to eight hours on an intense project, the quality of what we produce can start to decline.

So, how do freelance translators schedule their work hours?

I recently chatted with Matt Baird about work-life balance and burnout. It’s probably safe to say, we all struggle with these two issues from time to time, right? I was intrigued by an idea Matt shared with me: a four-day workweek! Matt told me that he tries to take every Friday off from his freelance work.

Matt is a German to English translator and father of two living in Germany. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for this post about how he makes his schedule work to fit his lifestyle and avoid burnout.

Have you been able to take Fridays off from work consistently?

Yes, pretty much. I was very strict about it in the beginning, but have worked on a couple of Fridays more recently. But never for more than a few hours. I knew that going in. You have to be flexible. That’s just the reality of a freelance life, especially when you work primarily with direct clients.

What positives and negatives have you experienced as a result of shifting to a four-day workweek?

Having a day – even just a few hours of one day – each week for me has made a huge difference. I feel much more balanced. I use the time to hop on my road bike, take a longer run, play golf (what a concept!) or get things done around the house and don’t feel like I’m neglecting my family. With two small kids and a wife who also works, it’s sometimes hard to find time to yourself to clear the mind and recharge your batteries. But that time is so important. Having a day off during the week and while the kids are in daycare means I reserve time for me each week – it’s amazing what a positive impact that can have.

It’s also meant more time with my wife, who has Fridays off, too. We’ve biked several times together or used the time to simply get things done that have been on our to-do list for weeks.

Another positive has been more time with my kids. My wife works part-time and normally picks up the kids from daycare in the afternoon. Now I pick them up on Fridays and get them to myself for a couple of hours. It’s special time that I didn’t have before.

One challenging aspect is that accepting work becomes a bit trickier. I’m obviously accepting less work, but I also have to be extra diligent about getting my work done in four days. So I feel more pressure Monday through Thursday, but my reward is freedom on Friday and the weekend with my family.

Wow, it sounds like the positives definitely outweigh any negatives. Do you have any tips for other freelance translators who might want to switch to a four-day workweek? 

I made the switch right after a major project came to an end, which meant my workload was lower than usual. That made the transition easier. I also let all my clients know about my new schedule. I’m fortunate to live in a country (Germany) where free time is not frowned upon and to have great relationships with my clients. Everyone was super supportive and understanding.

I suggest being both transparent and flexible. My clients know that they can still reach me by phone on Fridays if it’s urgent. And my out-of-office response reminds them of this, letting them know that I’ll respond on Monday if it’s not.

I would say just try it. Tell your best clients you’ll be out of the office this coming Friday, then turn on your autoresponder. Then do it again the next week.

Thanks to Matt for sharing how he's putting the freedom back into his own freelance work and life!

Now I want to shift gears a bit and give a slightly different perspective… that of the freelance translator mom.

How do freelance translator moms find time to work?

I had the opportunity to collaborate with Sarah Symons Glegorio recently, and her own situation hit very close to home for me, as I imagine it will for many who read this blog. Sarah is a Spanish and Portuguese to English translator, living in Portland, Oregon. She has a two-year-old daughter, and she shared with me how she fits in work around her time with her family and mom duties. Our daughters are the same age!

What kind of flexibility did you have to incorporate into your schedule once you became a freelance working mom? What does your schedule look like?

Once I became a freelance working mom, I quickly figured out that it’s a struggle to get uninterrupted “computer time.” So I learned to reserve the most focused tasks (i.e., translating, research, billable hours) for when we have childcare. We’re lucky that we have family nearby, so my mom, dad and grandma each take 1 day/week for about 5-6 hours in the afternoon. I just go to their homes and work from a back office or spare room while they play. Then we do 1 day/week of paid daycare so it’s not crazy expensive.

I also try to do admin and emails in the morning before childcare starts in the afternoon. I used to do social media and email drafts on my phone during breastfeeding sessions (and now, during toddler playtime sessions).

How do you fit in your work around toddler duties?

One big thing I changed was my mindset on deadlines. I am a master procrastinator and would push things to the wire, delivering projects within an hour (or even 5 minutes) of being due. Now I try to have things done a day or half day early (depending on the project itself of course) because things come up (childcare flakes, an unexpected trip to urgent care, etc.). Usually there aren’t issues and I end up delivering projects early but it’s saved me on several occasions having that extra cushion of time.

Have you had to let anything go or do you find you can still fit everything in?

I have not been able to keep up with marketing, networking, blogging, volunteering and professional development (basically the non-billable hours) as much as I would like. It’s made me more picky and directed with my efforts in those areas. I’ve had to let a few career opportunities slip by. In the end, the hustle and career opportunities will always be there but your baby won’t be in that phase, or doing that same cute thing, for very long.

How many days/hours a week do you tend to work? And how do you protect your time away from work?

I used to work A LOT. Even when I was pregnant, I was working something like 55 hours a week. Now I work about 35 hours a week but actually making more money. Basically I learned (was forced!) to condense 8 hours of work into 5 and am always looking for workflow efficiencies. I spend MUCH less time on emails, think twice about what projects I’ll accept, and always try to allow for more time than I think is needed for a project.

I usually work Mondays through Fridays, though I like to have 1 day off per week with my daughter when my workload permits. If needed, I’ll do midnight shifts but I really strive to not have to. 

My daughter basically protects my time away from work for me because she gets upset when she sees me sit down at the computer. Plus I promised my family I’d quit working nights and weekends (except for rare occasions), and they have held me accountable! It’s resulted in a much better work-life balance.  

Do you have any tips for other freelance translators/interpreters on this topic that you'd like to share?

Remember self-care! In the early days of being a freelancing mom it’s nearly impossible, but whenever you can and as often as you can, GET ENOUGH REST. Even a 20-minute nap can make you feel human again.

And thanks to Sarah for sharing her own way of juggling the different roles in her life. I love that she shared how she works less now but makes more money. And both she and Matt gave us a lot to think about when it comes to shifting our mindsets to make room for more freedom in our freelance schedules.

How to be a more productive freelance translator and put the freedom back into freelancing

Here are seven tips to help you make the most of your workweek. Whether you want to work four days a week like Matt, or if you prefer to stick to the regular 9-to-5 schedule and take all evenings and weekends off, these tips will help you do more in less time.

  • Leave all errands and personal projects that are not urgent for your day off or for the weekend.

  • Consider using online services to handle some of your weekly tasks, like depositing payments through your bank's mobile app or trying a grocery delivery service.

  • Take Matt’s advice and let clients know about your plans in advance if your work hours will be different from the “norm.” This sets expectations and boundaries. And your clients will be more inclined to offer you work on the days they know you’re in the office.

  • Delegate administrative tasks to a virtual assistant or hire a bookkeeper to handle accounting so you can spend more time on billable projects.

  • Batch related tasks together to complete in specific blocks of time.

  • Take Sarah's ideas about scheduling certain tasks for certain times of the day and adapt your tasks to fit your schedule and work-life circumstances.

  • Be flexible! If you know there will be weeks when you simply have to work longer hours than usual to finish a big project, plan to hit the “reset button” and jump back into your ideal schedule again the following week.

What are your thoughts? How do you put the freedom back into freelancing in ways that others might find useful? Please share your comments and ideas below!