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currency symbols

Working as a translator inevitably involves dealing with other countries, often using different currencies – well, at least if you work in the UK or the US, for example, and your source languages are based in the Eurozone… There is therefore always a risk that the amount you bill will not necessarily always represent the same ‘value’ by the time it reaches your bank account. It’s something you get used to, but it’s at times like this, when the euro is falling steadily against Sterling, that you start to realise just how much of an impact it can have on your earnings.

When I first started working for clients in Europe back in the mid 90’s, the exchange rate was around 1.5 euros to £1; since then we have seen rates approaching parity, just a few years ago, and now it has slipped back down to a rate of around 1.35 euros to £1 this week. If you bill in euros, that can make a significant difference to what you actually receive in your bank account when your invoice is paid. In theory, this is out of our hands – as shown by the recent furore when the Swiss Bank unpegged the Swiss franc from the euro, resulting in considerable, unexpected losses overnight. Many banks and hedge funds lost huge sums as they were caught completely unawares, so there’s no way we, as non-financial experts, can hope to stay ahead of that particular game!

So what can we do to protect our income? The most obvious solution is to raise your rates – but this isn’t always as straightforward as it might seem. If you haven’t raised your rates for a while, it’s certainly worth doing, but I try not to raise all my rates in one fell swoop. I prefer a gradual approach, not targeting all my clients at once, just in case! In difficult financial times, clients may be experiencing the same economic constraints, and there is always the possibility that your rate rise might cause them to look elsewhere – although in reality, I’ve found this rarely happens, and the clients who aren’t prepared to pay reasonable rate increases are often the lowest-paying clients you can really afford to let go anyway. Another temptation to avoid is NOT raising your rates when the exchange rate is in your favour; it’s easy to think that you won’t bother increasing your rates if you’re earning more anyway due to favourable rates, but when it turns the other way, you soon realise the error of your ways.

You can also look at how you are paid: I invoice monthly to most clients and have payments transferred straight to my English bank account. My bank doesn’t charge a fee for incoming euro transfers, so I’m merely at the mercy of the exchange rate on the transfer date. If your bank does charge for converting euros, that’s certainly something you should address straightaway! HSBC and First Direct don’t charge, and I believe there are others who don’t, but many of the big UK banks still charge a fee of around £7 per transaction – which is just wasted money in my book!

What you can’t do anything about is those sneaky transactions where you’re being paid by a client based in a non-euro country (Switzerland in my particular case in point): this client pays in euros and transactions used to go through without charges, but I realised a few months ago that I wasn’t receiving the amount I expected. At first I thought the client must have transferred the wrong amount, but they assured me they had paid what I’d invoiced. My bank confirmed that they hadn’t deducted any charges, but agreed to look into the case for me: it transpired that the Swiss bank had started using an intermediary bank (in Germany) and it was the intermediary bank who were swiping 11 euros per transaction – not recorded anywhere, of course, so what price transparency? My client kindly reimbursed the charge the first time it happened, but thereafter pointed out that it was out of their control too if their bank chose to use a different route for transfers and suggested I only invoice largish sums – which I do by invoicing monthly. No less galling for all that…

You could, of course, opt to hold a bank account overseas, in your source language country / countries, so that you can choose when to transfer funds at a preferential exchange rate. I personally, whenever I’ve enquired, have found that non-resident accounts are subject to monthly fees (anathema for someone used to free banking in the UK!), don’t offer the benefits of debit cards, and often require quite large sums to be left on deposit. As the sole breadwinner for my household, I quite simply can’t afford to leave large chunks of my income stewing in a foreign bank account until the time is right to transfer it – I have bills to pay! But if that’s an option for you, it’s definitely worth considering. I suppose you have to hope that the rate doesn’t keep on falling in that case…

I also try and keep an eye on my work-income balance by keeping client statistics. I do use TO3000 (although I struggle to make it produce the reports I’d like!), but find that Microsoft Money is often as effective at reporting the information I need: namely, where does the bulk of my work come from in terms of translated words and funds received. Inevitably, this shows you the historical picture, but it may act as a warning to shift the balance back to domestic clients in trickier times – or simply to make sure that you maintain a balance (i.e. not putting all your eggs in one basket). Monitoring your ratio of direct to agency clients is also a good idea, if only to show you where more marketing effort is needed.

Another option for dealing with currency problems is to examine your own productivity. It goes without saying that no-one wants to work longer hours for the same gain, but can you perhaps produce more words/income by working the same (or fewer) hours? For me, speech recognition software in the form of Dragon Naturally Speaking has been one of the best ways of increasing my output, although I initially bought it to resolve my painful RSI. I don’t use it for everything – it’s better for straight text in a subject you’re familiar with, rather than pithy PowerPoint files or Excel spreadsheets – but I know that if I’m up against the clock, I can really power through the pages with Dragon.

CAT tools are the other obvious answer, although I know there are still many translators out there who don’t use them (why not?!). You may think your texts aren’t repetitive, but you’d be surprised how many efficiency gains come from having terminology on tap and the benefits of concordance searches to find that not-quite-but-ever-so-similar sentence…. I use Trados Studio 2014 and Wordfast Classic and I couldn’t imagine doing without them now. If you already use CAT tools, make sure you optimise your productivity gains within those tools – Autosuggest in Studio is an awesome feature, bringing up commonly used phrases and words from previous translations and saving typing effort as it does so (less useful if you dictate, of course!). However, you do need to create the Autosuggest dictionaries to reap the benefits, once you’ve created a memory above a certain size (10,000 units in Studio 2014, I believe), so it’s up to you to make sure you do it. I have a client who sends me Autosuggest files from their huge corporate memories and they are an extremely useful resource, as you can imagine.

Finally, I think you have to start being ruthless about what you do and don’t accept. Applying minimum charges and charges for awkward formatting (pdf, in particular) should be second nature. If it takes you longer to do a job, you should be charging for it. The same applies to saying no to fiddly jobs when you’re already under time pressure. It makes much more sense to translate a Word file in straight text, rather than a fiddly document with lots of embedded (and uncountable) flow charts that you might end up having to process manually. I’m not saying you shouldn’t do them at all, but you have to maximise your output – or charge a lot more to make up!

I’m sure I’ve missed other potential ways of handling currency woes, and I’d love to hear your views and ideas. I’m just looking forward to the tide turning (once I’ve had my fill of cheaper European holidays, that is…).

Orange juice in harbour