The Translator’s Second Curve


Business commentator and social philosopher Charles Handy based the idea for his latest book – The Second Curve: Thoughts on Reinventing Society – on the sigmoid curve that describes the normal lifecycle of products, markets and organisations. He developed the Second Curve metaphor to help individuals and organisations manage their transitions more smoothly and more effectively in a world where technological change is occurring at an ever-increasing rate, as is the case in the translation industry.

The lifecycle of every product, service, organisation or market can be divided into 4 phases over time. The first phase, called the Inception Phase, often starts with a dip which corresponds to an initial period of learning and investment. In the case of an individual starting a translation business, this initial dip can include a period of training and experimenting, as well as the purchase of office equipment, software applications and professional memberships. During this phase, a freelance translator is likely to spend more money than they earn.

All going well, the Inception Phase is then followed by a period of Growth during which the product, service or organisation improves, becomes more and more efficient and strengthens its reputation. Our freelance translator feels energised and confident as more and more work comes in.

The sigmoid curve then reaches a third phase called the Maturity Phase. At that stage, individuals and organisations often feel comfortable and remain unaware of the fact that stagnation is setting in as their product/service reaches a plateau. In the case of our freelance translator, this could mean working full-time, with no capacity left for new clients, hence no growth.

The curve finally enters a phase of Decline, which can be caused by a number of factors, including obsolescence, the introduction of new products or services by competitors, a shift in the needs of the market and new technologies. Our freelance translator could for instance be superseded by a competitor who charges less, is more up-to-date with the latest terminology or uses technology that is better suited to the clients’ needs.

According to Charles Handy, there’s no need to worry about the Decline Phase in the sigmoid curve, as there can always be a second curve, ie a chance to start a new growth cycle with a new product or service or new business practices. The key, however, is to start this new cycle before the first curve peaks, when there are enough resources available to cover the initial dip in the new curve. Taking risks and initiating a change is much more difficult in a state of decline, when time, money, energy and confidence levels are falling.

The Translator's Second Curve

In the case of our freelance translator, a second curve could mean subcontracting to other freelancers before reaching full capacity, when there’s still time available for networking and getting to know potential partners. Here are a few more examples of possible second curves for translators (not all of them will apply to you):

  • Starting your freelance business while you’re still working for an employer
  • Looking for direct, premium clients while agency work is going strong
  • Launching a new service (cultural consultancy, copywriting, etc.) while your reputation as a translator is still growing
  • Investing in continuing professional development (CPD) to learn about new technologies while your current work practices are still viable
  • Switching to machine translation post-editing to make the most of the growing globalisation and localisation market before your clients demand it

The most successful businesses are the ones that follow the concept of the Second Curve and keep reinventing themselves – Apple is a very good example. But the problem with this concept lies in the difficulty of knowing when the first curve is about to peak, as people don’t tend to think about change in times of growth. “First curve success can blind one to the possibilities of a new technology or a new market, allowing others to seize the initiative” (Charles Handy, The Second Curve).

The secret of continued growth and success is to monitor where you are on the sigmoid curve and to identify the ideal point of transformation. This is all the more critical in today’s fast-evolving global markets. As Charles Handy puts it in The Age of Paradox: “The world is changing. It is one of the paradoxes of success that the things and the ways which got you where you are, are seldom those that keep you there”.

When in the past did you start a new curve? When did you miss a turn? Where on the sigmoid curve are you currently standing and what will your next curve be?


How coaching can help:

The aim of coaching is to increase people’s awareness and help them take positive steps towards a successful future. A coach will act as a sounding board and allow you to explore new ideas before putting them into practice. They will remain impartial and non-judgemental while you discuss the reality, as well as the consequences, of taking certain actions. The decision whether or not to start a new curve will always remain yours.


You may also like:

What Does The Future Hold For Translators?

The Translator’s Business Priorities Wheel

The Translator’s Stretch Zone

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