Couples Counseling: Reimagining the Freelancer–Company Relationship, Part I

By Steve Lank


[couple in a bench]I am not sure that I am technically qualified to offer relationship advice to freelancers and language companies. However, throughout my career I have had the opportunity to participate in and/or observe hundreds if not thousands of these relationships and develop a very strong opinion on the topic, if not an expertise, so I’ll just run with that.

For me, this is a topic of supreme importance to our industry and one we should not take for granted. While I understand that processes and technology are important, the freelancer–company relationship is at the core of everything we do, so it really deserves our focused attention. Like all human relationships, it requires understanding, communication and cooperation, yet there is an inherent tension in this relationship that I don’t quite understand. I find it very frustrating that as an industry we cannot seem to get this key relationship right.

There seems to be an assumption that we should all be able to work together and that working with one freelancer or company should be the same as working with any other freelancer or company. So, when we have an experience that proves that assumption to be false, rather than looking at that as the exception, we treat it as the rule—looking at all potential relationships through this filter, expecting the worst and feeling justified when we are proven right and feeling like we dodged a bullet when we have a positive experience.

So, why shouldn’t we approach our business relationships in the same way? If we did, I think we would find that, as in love, there is someone for everyone.

Well, I think it is pretty clear that if we as a species approached our personal relationships in this way there wouldn’t be many of us around! We are pretty picky (and rightly so) when it comes to choosing our friends and partners. We seek out people with whom we have chemistry, who share our values, are like-minded, enjoy the same things we do, share our view of the world and who, hopefully, help make us better people. Since not everyone else on the planet shares all of this with each of us or we with them, not all relationships necessarily work out and we don’t all have 7.5 billion friends! So, why shouldn’t we approach our business relationships in the same way?  If we did, I think we would find that, as in love, there is someone for everyone.

At ATA 57, my colleague Robert Sette and I presented on this topic to a satisfyingly full room, so I think some of the concepts bear repeating here. Here are some ideas (in no particular order):

Know Thyself

To have success in any relationship, you first need to know yourself, what you need and what you can offer. So, before approaching a business prospect, make sure you give that serious thought and come up with a list of Must-Haves, Nice-To-Haves, Can-Live-With outs and Deal-Breakers (we all have them). Most importantly, know your value and be able to articulate it. Then stick to your guns. Be honest with yourself—if you can’t bear a certain behavior, don’t try to convince yourself you will be able to put up with it; likewise, if there is a need you cannot honestly meet without a major overhaul of your processes, work style or personality, don’t pretend you can.  You cannot change the other party, and they won’t change for you. You can only control yourself. Sometimes chemistry isn’t right and that’s ok. And it is not about making the other party wrong or justifying yourself. It is about finding the right fit and understanding what kind of relationship will or will not work for you.

Communication is King

Just like in personal relationships, good communication is paramount. Ironically, one of the biggest problems in the freelancer–company relationship is communication. I say ironic because our jobs are to facilitate communication across languages, yet we do not seem to be able to communicate effectively amongst ourselves. Part of this may be because we do so much of our work remotely and don’t always have the chance to speak face-to-face, or speak at all for that matter, because of time-zone issues. Maybe it is because we are all in the same industry; we make assumptions when communicating with each other that we would not otherwise make when communicating with people outside the industry. It could also be because, due to the nature of what we do, we are not always communicating in our native language and things can get lost (again, ironic). Or it might be a combination of all three or something else altogether. But this only means that we must strive that much harder to communicate clearly and make sure that we are understood and that we understand.

We also need to be sure to identify our counterpart’s preferred method, style and frequency of communication, as it may be different than our own and we will have to adapt. Acknowledging and honoring your counterpart’s communication preferences, whether they match yours or not, will help to ensure communication success.

Check Your Baggage at the Door

Don’t bring old baggage into a new relationship. Just because you had a bad experience in a previous relationship does not mean you will have a bad experience in the new one, unless you hamper it with tired assumptions and stereotypes. Make this your mantra: All companies are not users and exploiters/All freelancers are not prima donnas!  


 Check in soon for part two, where Steve dives into the intricacies of the freelancer-agency courtship.

Update (May 23, 2017): Read Part 2 here.



[Steve Lank]Steve Lank is VP of Translation Services for Cesco Linguistic Services, working from Washington, DC.  He has worked in the industry since 1987, having started out as a freelance translator and project manager, and subsequently holding senior management positions with companies in the US, Ireland and Spain. From 1998 to 2011 he chaired the ASTM International subcommittee responsible for the ASTM F2575 Standard Guide for Quality Assurance in Translation and currently serves as the Technical Contact for the update.  Steve is a lecturer in the graduate interpreting and translation program at the University of Maryland and earned his MA in Spanish Translation and Interpretation from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.


Image by Olessya via pixabay.com

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