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Should we diversify our business/careers?
Thread poster: Preston Decker

Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:00
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
May 25, 2016

Both my wife and I are freelance translators. She translates from English to Chinese and I translate from Chinese to English. It's a good arrangement, as we have free access to proofreading/consulting when needed, and our business continues to grow nicely.

A couple of months ago I spoke to a Russian to English translator whose business has taken a big hit since the deterioration of Russia ties with the English speaking world a few years ago, to the point that he's thinking of looking for employment in other fields. Sino-US relations seem to be at the proverbial breaking point (although, on the positive side of things, they've been at that breaking point for the last 45 years), and so I'm wondering what people here think about us having both of our eggs in the same EN/CN basket?

We're at a bit of a decision point in terms of our business, as we're both young enough that at least one of us could pursue another career, or we could look to develop a secondary business together in a less China-dependent field. If we were in another language pair I wouldn't be as worried about this, but with Trump and Clinton ascendant in the US, and the political climate as it is now in China, it really doesn't take much of an imagination to foresee potential problems in the near future that could severely impact business, and thus translation volume, between China and the West.

I'm quite torn, as it's also quite possible that China-based business will continue as usual, so I'm just curious what everyone here thinks about our situation? (or for Sinophiles, your thoughts on whether or not the status quo is likely to be maintained between the West and China for the next 5-10 years).

[Edited at 2016-05-25 10:24 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-05-25 10:25 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-05-25 10:28 GMT]


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Angela Rimmer  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:00
Member (2014)
German to English
+ ...
Why so US-centric? May 25, 2016

There are other English-speaking countries which have relationships with China that are less fraught with tension. The UK just entered a new trade agreement with China and Canada is pretty much everybody's friend. I know Canada has a big East Asian community and so perhaps you would have more competition in that market, but still, I imagine there's probably plenty of work to go around. Australia MUST have lots of work, too.

Diversifying is a good thing anyway. But are you sure your worries are that well founded? That's an honest question -- I am not leaning towards one answer or another, just asking for your opinion.

[Edited at 2016-05-25 10:35 GMT]


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:00
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Sanctions May 25, 2016

The problem for anyone based in Russia or interacting with it is the sanctions, which must surely make life difficult.

I see no prospect of the West putting any sanctions on China unless it invades and occupies Taiwan or somewhere (which is unlikely). I don't think you need to worry.


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Lingua 5B  Identity Verified
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Local time: 09:00
English to Croatian
+ ...
Just a few points. May 25, 2016

I am not familiar with this language pair or market, however, sometimes China-based translation agencies contact me offering work in my language pair. Of course, aside from very low rates that I can never accept, when I ask for source text samples, there is a regular pattern of the source "English" content from these agencies. First off, majority of projects they offer is in Electronics field (China based manufacturing). Now comes an interesting part: the electronics manuals are written in Chinglish, or whatever you may wanna call it, but free style English forms are all over the place. So I was just wondering, once an eletronics product is manufactured in a factory in China, who is the technical writer doing their manual, ie. is the first copy written in Chinese or in English? And who is the person they hire for the English copy? This in a way related to the queries raised in the opening post, so perhaps the OP could know more about this, I am just curious?

In my specific language pair it looks like this, coming from Chinese agencies: I am offered a very low rate to translate a badly written manual (in source language that resembles English a little), and the PM is usually rude and communicates in very poor English.

One thing is sure, Electronics industry seems big in China.


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Thomas T. Frost  Identity Verified
Member (2014)
French to Danish
+ ...
Very different situations May 25, 2016

If you look at the two trade profiles Russia-West and China-West, you'll see they are completely different. China is a mass producer of goods we import, whereas Russia is more dependent on oil. Russia has scaled Western imports down. Airbus is now building planes in China. As I see it, trade ties are much stronger with China, and not because of politics. It's not something that could be cut back drastically overnight. Both sides would suffer immensely.

Trump is a businessman. Although he may try to rebalance things between the US and China if elected, he'd also know that pragmatic solutions of compromise are what make business work. I don't believe the many alarmist views. The press makes a living out of publishing alarmist articles, so he's good for the press. American politics is extremely polarised these years, each side trying to make the other candidate look like Lucifer himself. We need to cut through all that fluff when making business decisions.

If Clinton is elected, I expect things to remain more or less as they are, except that her e-mail practices would most likely be adapted a bit.

I'd be worried if I worked with Russian but not Chinese.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:00
Member (2008)
Italian to English
China May 25, 2016

A much more likely scenario is that the Chinese economy, which has already run into serious problems, will crash, followed by turmoil. Many experts are predicting this. To me it seems inevitable. Neither Trump, nor Clinton, nor anyone else other than the Chinese themselves, will have any control over it.

[Edited at 2016-05-25 13:09 GMT]


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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 16:00
Chinese to English
Bullish, as always May 25, 2016

You know I'm always going to take the positive line on this. My feeling is that you and Linda are probably offering services in the top 1% in terms of quality. So even if the worst comes to the worst - and any one of those doom scenarios is possible - you're still pretty insulated.

Diversification can be good. I'm trying to push my translation work in a specific direction so that I can learn about an adjacent field as I translate (law, in my case). But I'd always be worried about Jack-of-all-trades syndrome. By the time I'm 50, I want the option of a slightly boring, reliable 9-5, where I've been at the office for a long time and they can't really do without me. And I feel like that can't happen if I'm "diverse", i.e. with two ventures ongoing at the same time. I guess that's what you mean when you say now might be the time to do it.


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:00
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks to all May 25, 2016

Thanks to all for your thoughts. It's certainly good (and interesting) to hear that so many of you have a positive outlook on China-West relations, and regardless of what we decide, I greatly appreciate your responses.

A couple of replies, and my own thoughts:
Lingua 5B--The China translation market is really all over the place. As you pointed out, many China-based agencies are lacking professionally and in terms of quality. However, there are also a few really good agencies out there; in fact, one China-based agency remains one of my favorite agencies to work with. End clients likewise span the gamut in their attitudes towards translation, but there do seem to be an increasing number of businesses in China willing to spend for good translations, often at rates that rival those of their Western counterparts.

Angela--Even if only US business was affected, we'd be in trouble--I can see us surviving without US and China business, but I'd find it hard to imagine us thriving without business from either country.

I think your broader question about whether my concern is reasonable enough to affect business decisions is a good one, and is something I'll think about more. I tend to be a bit of a worrier when it comes to these sorts of things, and this is certainly one reason I asked for, and appreciate, all of the input.

As for my own thoughts, while I don't put much stock in Gordan Chang-style pronouncements of gloom and doom concerning China, the rhetoric on both sides regarding the islands issue seems to me to have been taken up a notch since last year, and that's the issue that really concerns me. As Tomas points out, the economic interdependence of the West and China will hopefully serve as a brake on anything really serious, but I do wonder about how long China will allow itself to be needled (see Obama's visit to Vietnam), and also about whether China will be able to continue to resist the 'new toy' temptation with its military--it's spent an enormous amount of money on a military that has not been put into serious use for a long time.

I'm more bullish about the economy--there will be a coming correction, but I don't foresee an economic disaster.

[Edited at 2016-05-25 16:06 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-05-25 16:06 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-05-25 16:08 GMT]


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Tomás Cano Binder, BA, CT  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 09:00
Member (2005)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Widen your potential footprint May 25, 2016

I do not translate in your language pairs or know too much about China, but the fact is that China (and Chinese entrepreneurs) have a lot of money and they increasingly need to invest it abroad. Relationships between China and the Western world are bound to continue, and if Chinese interests in the US get in any way curtailed, they can easily move their interests to Australia, Britain, South Africa, or wherever they wish, really.

I would not be too worried about exploiting a niche market that could eventually shrink in the long run, since you have ample skills to easily enter other English-speaking markets and, so to say, follow Chinese investors wherever they may go.

If you feel that you could do with a wider footprint in order to secure a healthy volume of work until retirement, you might want to shoot at other specialty fields, like Environment (including waste management, debris management, renewable energy sources, biomass...), an area in which China will have to make huge investments in the future, and with technology mostly developed and produced in the Western world.

Also, investing some time in researching and getting to know the legal systems of other English-speaking countries might be a wise move, in preparation for an eventual need to operate in those markets.

Just two ideas!


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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
Teach May 25, 2016

I am not an expert on the region nor do I know the market in your language pair. However, I do not think things will change significantly in our lifetime.

Perhaps teaching English to Chinese could be another source of supplementary income. Nowadays, you can do it online. Just an idea.


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:00
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
TOPIC STARTER
Good idea May 26, 2016

Tomás Cano Binder, CT wrote:

I do not translate in your language pairs or know too much about China, but the fact is that China (and Chinese entrepreneurs) have a lot of money and they increasingly need to invest it abroad. Relationships between China and the Western world are bound to continue, and if Chinese interests in the US get in any way curtailed, they can easily move their interests to Australia, Britain, South Africa, or wherever they wish, really.

I would not be too worried about exploiting a niche market that could eventually shrink in the long run, since you have ample skills to easily enter other English-speaking markets and, so to say, follow Chinese investors wherever they may go.

If you feel that you could do with a wider footprint in order to secure a healthy volume of work until retirement, you might want to shoot at other specialty fields, like Environment (including waste management, debris management, renewable energy sources, biomass...), an area in which China will have to make huge investments in the future, and with technology mostly developed and produced in the Western world.

Also, investing some time in researching and getting to know the legal systems of other English-speaking countries might be a wise move, in preparation for an eventual need to operate in those markets.

Just two ideas!

And working more in a field like environmental studies/renewable energies could be a way to actually (finally) put my second undergrad major of Biology to partial use.

Agree with the idea of a bigger footprint, with the obvious catch being that I'd still be heavily invested in China in all of these scenarios. In fact, nearly all of my business ideas (some in translation, some not) involve China, which is not a bad thing as long as all of you are proven right in your optimism.:-)


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Jo Macdonald  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 09:00
Member (2005)
Italian to English
+ ...
2nd job May 26, 2016

Hi Preston,
Even if you don't need it, having a second job you can do if translation work falls off is a good idea.

A few years ago when there was less work over here in Europe I started teaching kitesurfing and surfing again, and as translation is such a flexible job I was able to do and enjoy both.

Now the translation business has picked up again I'm back translating because it gives me more time to other things like climb mountains.

So if you've got something you're passionate about and good at, it should be pretty easy to get qualified as a guide/instructor so you you can start working in that field too if you want.


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Preston Decker  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 03:00
Member (2013)
Chinese to English
TOPIC STARTER
RE May 27, 2016

Joe: A good idea, although I have a feeling that any other business venture I might want to start on my own would be China-centric, and so still rather vulnerable to major diplomatic disruptions.

But I do agree with you that there is value in having more than one venture going, as long as you don't stretch yourself too thin, and that's certainly something I'll be looking to do in the coming years if I remain self-employed/in business (which is still the plan).


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Dan Lucas  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 08:00
Member (2014)
Japanese to English
Slow fade May 27, 2016

Preston Decker wrote:
Agree with the idea of a bigger footprint, with the obvious catch being that I'd still be heavily invested in China in all of these scenarios. In fact, nearly all of my business ideas (some in translation, some not) involve China, which is not a bad thing as long as all of you are proven right in your optimism.:-)

I think China is in for a long period of economic stagnation, at least in comparison to what came before. The parallels with Japan's boom at the end of the 1980s, subsequent bust and lingering financial problems caused by problem loans are obvious, whatever the claims for exceptionalism made by old China hands.

Having said that, you can make money in a declining market and you can forge a career in an economy that's going nowhere. I did in Japan in the 1990s and 2000s and you can no doubt do it in China. So I wouldn't worry too much. The opportunity cost of developing expertise in another non-related area would probably be so high that it would offset any gains you could hope to make.

Dan


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Łukasz Gos-Furmankiewicz  Identity Verified
Poland
Local time: 09:00
English to Polish
+ ...
Complex issue / depends May 27, 2016

[quote]Preston Decker wrote:

A couple of months ago I spoke to a Russian to English translator whose business has taken a big hit since the deterioration of Russia ties with the English speaking world a few years ago, to the point that he's thinking of looking for employment in other fields. Sino-US relations seem to be at the proverbial breaking point (although, on the positive side of things, they've been at that breaking point for the last 45 years), and so I'm wondering what people here think about us having both of our eggs in the same EN/CN basket?


Like the boy-scout motto says, be prepared. But the biggest truth out there is we know jack, the only thing that's sure in life is death and taxes. If things do go south, you'll have ample time to react then, as long as you stay alert and add two to two.

We're at a bit of a decision point in terms of our business, as we're both young enough that at least one of us could pursue another career, or we could look to develop a secondary business together in a less China-dependent field. If we were in another language pair I wouldn't be as worried about this, but with Trump and Clinton ascendant in the US, and the political climate as it is now in China, it really doesn't take much of an imagination to foresee potential problems in the near future that could severely impact business, and thus translation volume, between China and the West.


Sounds like too much hassle compared to devoting the same energy and time to improving your existing business.

You will probably need to read more about the economic situation and any recent developments in China than you normally would, but that's something you can use to your advantage in advertising business translation.

My impression is that you aren't properly milking the heck out of your existing favourable situation with full-time access to consultation and proofreading/revision and stuff like that, nor have you come up with a way of moving upmarket and firmly establishing and confidently projecting a premium status because of it, which is something you really, really need to do.

So, rather than thinking about ways out, you need to refocus your thinking on ways in, but this time with the impact you deserve. And let's be clear on this one: you deserve a lot of it. The road to success leads through more visibility and higher-profile marketing with a more compelling value proposal for more conversions.

[Edited at 2016-05-27 19:20 GMT]

[Edited at 2016-05-28 10:34 GMT]


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