Getting Started as a Freelance Translator

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I became a translator via a series of happy accidents. After taking French in school since seventh grade, I studied abroad at the University of Grenoble, France, for my junior year of college. There, a professor recommended me for a part-time job as a trainee translator at the University’s graduate school of business. This ended up involving work on an international marketing textbook that was subsequently published by Prentice-Hall. Back in the U.S., I taught high school French for 8 years, did a few translations on the side when people asked me, and earned an M.A. in French from Boston College. After relocating to Colorado and having a child, I wanted to find a career that would allow me to use French and work from home, so I decided to try to make a go as a professional translator. Several years later, I’m certified by the American Translators Association and happily employed by a growing list of regular clients. I hope that these tips will be helpful to aspiring translators! Please note that the examples provided here reflect my personal experience; everyone’s mileage will vary depending on your language pairs, professional background, geographic location, etc.

The good news, the bad news

If you have excellent skills in at least two languages, there is a lot to recommend launching your own freelance translation business. According to the most recent American Translators Association compensation survey, the average self-employed freelance translator working full time in the U.S. earns more than $50,000 a year, and with most translation work done over the web, it’s an attractive business for people who want a portable career, or live in places (like my hometown of Boulder, Colorado) where there are few well-paying jobs for translators. The translation industry is also, by most measures, booming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a better-than-average employment picture for translators and interpreters until at least 2014, and many qualified translators are busier than they’ve ever been. However (you knew that was coming!), many people with excellent language skills fail at self-employment, not because they can’t do the work, but because they make basic and avoidable business mistakes, or underestimate the role of business management in their overall work plan. This phenomenon was part of what inspired me to write my book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. In addition, it takes a lot of financial and mental preparation to launch any type of business, and freelance translation is no exception. For most people, I advise counting on at least a one year startup phase, during which you will need either another job, savings or a loan to pay some of your living expenses while your work volume increases.

How it went for me, and some numbers

In 2002, I had been teaching high school French for 8 years. After having a baby and moving to Colorado, I decided to look for a work from home job where I could use French. I knew very little about the translation industry at that time, and had no contacts at all in the industry. Looking back on it, I think that my first career move was to open the Denver Yellow Pages to the “Translators and Interpreters” section and start calling all the agencies that were listed. A few of them agreed to give me an informational interview, and they became my first clients. To be fair, the fact that I had an M.A. in French and had done a translation internship at a business school may have opened some doors; but, compared to an experienced translator, I was starting from ground zero. During that first year in business, I contacted over 400 potential clients, including corporate members of the American Translators Association, local businesses that had a connection with a French-speaking country, the Colorado court systems, and legal aid agencies. I also became active in the Colorado Translators Association and started editing their newsletter in order to get to know translators in the area. Out of those 400 contacts, I landed three or four regular clients, and I earned $9,000 total. Honestly, at the end of the year, I as on the verge of giving up. The $9,000 I had earned seemed like a pitifully small amount for all the work that I had done, and I thought about looking for a full time job. Fortunately, I was determined not to waste the year of effort, and decided to give it another year. I kept marketing and networking, and business grew. My second year, I made $18,000, and the year after that, $36,000 (I think I see a pattern here!), while working about 20 hours a week from home. At that point, I was convinced that I would stick with freelancing, since my previous highest annual income was $33,000 teaching high school French. While my income hasn’t kept doubling every year, this year I think that I will meet the ATA average of over $50,000, while working about 30 hours a week and taking at least 4 weeks of vacation, which is a situation that would be impossible with a full time job in my area.

Some tips for beginning freelance translators

Following is a list of suggestions for beginning freelance translators. If you’d like a more comprehensive look at launching your own translation business, feel free to take a look at my book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator.

  • Be realistic. When you’re looking for a full-time job, all you need is one offer. To work full-time or close to it as a translator, you need a sizeable list of regular clients. Unless you have very marketable skills in an in-demand language pair, it may take a year or more until you are working full time. In my case, I contacted about 400 translation agencies (not a typo) over the course of my first year in business, and it was about 18 months until I was earning an amount equivalent to my previous full time job.
  • Never quit marketing. Once you have steady work, it’s tempting to think that agencies will keep contacting you, freeing you from the hassle of contacting new prospective clients and touching base with previous contacts. However, this is a bad assumption. Work flows go up and down, agencies go out of business, the project manager who loves you quits and is replaced by someone who brings in his/her own person, etc. Plus, you never know when an “out of nowhere” project offer will be perfect for you, and/or allow you to raise your rates. Even though I usually have about as much work as I can handle, I still send my resume to 3-5 new agencies per week just to keep the ball rolling. Recently, one of these agencies (in Europe) contacted me with a multi-thousand dollar project because I was the only U.S.-based French to English translator in their database, and a client wanted a project translated into U.S. English.
  • Don’t ignore the local market, especially if you present yourself better in person than on paper. My first clients, who I still work for today, were local agencies who I contacted and offered to meet with to show them a portfolio of my work. Check the yellow pages or Internet under “translators and interpreters.” Even if the agencies say that they don’t hire beginners or don’t have work in your language pair, go visit them anyway and find out what they do. You’ll understand more about what your potential clients want, and they’ll know you for when your skills are more in line with their needs.
  • Join some associations. The American Translators Association and its local chapters (a list is available on the ATA website, or Google “translators your state,” replacing “your state” with your actual state) are a great way to establish your seriousness as a translator, and to meet other translators.
  • Ask for advice. While it’s somewhat risky to contact a translator in your own language pair for risk of sounding like you’re trying to swoop in on his/her clients, most translators enjoy their work and like to talk about their jobs and how they got started. A freelancers group I’m in (for women only) has a tradition called “Take a successful woman to lunch,” where an aspiring translator/writer/web designer/artist, etc. offers to buy lunch for a more experienced person in exchange for a conversation about the profession.
  • Orient your resume toward translation. Especially for people who are native speakers of a language other than English and have specialized professional skills, this is key. Highlight specific skills right away, such as “Spanish-bilingual software specialist,” “Native speaker of Arabic with mechanical engineering background,” etc. rather than expecting the agency or client to see that you have these capabilities.
  • Offer services that more experienced translators probably don’t. The translation industry is booming, and many experienced translators with a full house of regular clients don’t have a financial need to work nights, weekends, rush jobs, etc. Make it clear to prospective clients that you can fill in in a pinch, and be willing to actually do this!
  • Get certified. Certification by the American Translators Association isn’t a must, but can lead to a big increase in business as the credential becomes more recognized. In my case this happened when, shortly after I passed the certification exam in French to English, an agency I work with was requested by a major client to use only certified translators on certain projects.
  • Be realistic your earning potential. While translation is definitely well-paying as compared with other careers that allow you to work from home in your pajamas on projects that are often very interesting, remember that 25-40% of your income as a freelancer will go to things that your employer normally pays for when you have a full time job. Most people count in the biggies- taxes, health insurance, retirement plan contributions and vacation/personal/sick time, but over the years other expenses like dictionaries, office equipment, continuing education and professional travel add up too. Over the course of the 8 years I worked full time, my employer paid for tens of thousands of dollars of “extra” stuff like this, including half the tuition for my M.A. degree, a laptop computer and two trips to France. These days, I spend about a thousand dollars a year just to attend the annual conference of the American Translators Association, plus various other workshops. Remember also that the time it takes to do non-translation activities like marketing, networking, accounting, collections, billing, updating computer systems, even cleaning your office, is “off the clock.” For all of these reasons, even if you work 40 hours a week, it may be more realistic to plan on billing no more than 25 hours a week.
  • Find the economic advantages to freelancing. As a corollary to the tip above, freelancing is far from all bad news when it comes to earnings. You may be able to take significant tax deductions for business related expenses, unlike when you have a salaried job (talk to a tax professional about this). Furthermore, if you work from home you won’t be paying commuting expenses, lunch out, work clothes, etc. Depending on your particular situation, there may be even bigger hidden benefits. In my case, I have a small child; if I worked 30 hours a week at an employer’s office, I would need at least 35 hours of child care to cover work and commute time, and the preschool my daughter attends charges $9 an hour. As a freelancer, I’m able to work about 30 hours a week with 15 hours of child care by making up the rest of the time at night or when my child is with my husband or a friend. Even if I needed to pay for more child care, working from home opens up the option of using a less expensive option, for example a teenager who can play outside with my child while I work inside. This savings alone, plus the additional time to spend with the family, makes freelancing a very attractive option if you have small kids.
  • Keep in touch. As you apply to agencies, keep a file of the person you talked to or e-mailed with, and what his or her response was to your inquiry. As you get more experience, periodically contact these people again to let them know a) you’re still there and b) you have some new projects to tell them about.
  • Show an interest in the profession. Once you explore the tip of the translation iceberg, you’ll be amazed at the number of translation-related websites, magazines and newsletters out there. Contributing to them allows you to both educate yourself and present yourself as someone who’s really passionate about the industry, not just someone who likes to work in your pajamas!
  • Never (never) take on work you can’t handle. Especially in a small community of translators and translation consumers, the surest way to sabotage your emerging freelance business is to take on something that’s too technical, too long, or too complex. Clients will appreciate your honesty and use you for projects that you can handle. Sometimes this involves protecting clients from hiring you for work that *they* think that you can do, such as translating into your second (third, etc) language. Politely explain that this work is best handled by a native speaker of that language and offer a referral.
  • Keep your clients happy. While this could be an article in itself (when I have time!) it’s worthy of mention. Finish every project on time and on budget, and NEVER miss a deadline without notifying a client as soon as you realize that despite your good planning, the project won’t be done on time. Return all phone calls and e-mails as soon as you can, always within one business day. When you’re not available, help solve the client’s problem by referring them to a colleague. In all of your dealings with your clients, remain professional. When you encounter a problem, it hurts to have your skills or qualifications questioned, but remember that the client is already in high-anxiety mode if they’re not happy with your work, and you need to remain calm rather than making the client more upset. Probably one of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever been given is “don’t hold onto your clients by charging less, hold onto your clients by charging more and proving that you’re worth it.” Of course there are some agencies and direct clients who only care about getting the work done for one cent per word cheaper than the last translator they used, but most clients care just as much about quality as they do about price. Keeping a good relationship with the client and doing outstanding work proves to them that often, you get the level of service you pay for.

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