How to begin your career in freelance translation
Do you have it in you? Making a career in freelance translation is not an easy job. When you start off you find that everybody wants to work with someone who has experience. If you have none, how do you begin, leave alone make a career out of translation? When I started off 15 years ago, I thought this was a competitive field to break into. I remember slogging long hours for months on end without any results to speak of. It took me almost a year before I could begin earning a reasonably good living off freelance translation. Nowadays, it is even tougher for newcomers to make a career in freelance translation.
Some prefer to go the direct client way right from the start, some like me, prefer to work with agencies for the better part. Direct clients mean more money, while agencies tend to eat away a major chunk of cash. To know why some translators still make a career in freelance translation working for translation agencies, you can read my post 7 benefits of working with an agency.
Whatever route you prefer, you need to start your career in freelance translation by gathering experience. Of course, since no one is interested in working with a beginner, you can gather none. Right? Well, no, not quite.
Here is how you can gather some experience in translation:
1. Volunteer your services to gain experience:
This calls for considerable investment in time. Doing it consistently can prove to be a challenge because investing long hours into something that does not pay you back is not an attractive prospect. Yet, you need to do this as seriously as you would a paid job. Reason? If you do a job well, you can ask for a testimonial in return. This is what you earn when you volunteer your services. Testimonials are extremely important for translators if he or she is to succeed in a career in freelance translation. It builds confidence in our prospective clients and that can make the difference between a contract earned or missed. So, look upon this initial phase as an investment in your career in freelance translation.
You might consider volunteering for a charity. If you do, you not only earn a testimonial, but also contribute to a good cause at the same time. In fact, you might work for charities and non-profits long enough to acquire the knowledge to qualify non-profits as one of your areas of specializations. Some freelancers make a career in freelance translation out of nonprofits and charities alone. Another great place where you volunteer work gets showcased for the world to see is Wikipedia. The feedback you receive from the experienced editors there can help you sharpen your translation skills further.
Here are a few places where you may be able to find opportunities to volunteer your services:
You can also browse the internet and find many more sites that will let you translate their content. In return, they acknowledge your hard work by displaying your name as the translator and writing a couple of lines about you and in some rare cases, even allow you to put up a link to your website. This can prove invaluable if you wish to further your career in freelance translation.
You may also consider contributing to crowd-sourced translation projects. These are usually unpaid work, but you might land a project which might pay too. But, do not expect to get anything more than peanuts if you do. It is important that you realize that this phase of your career is where you invest. More you invest, and in the right places, better your career will be. Your greatest takeaway from crowd-sourced translations is positive feedbacks from your fellow translators. Even when the feedback is not great, they are still valuable because they come from other translators and these feedbacks will help you to hone your translation skills. So, it is very important to take these feedbacks seriously. If you are keen on finding crowd-sourced translation projects, try Twitter, it is a great resource for finding such projects.
2. Buy a CAT tool and get familiar with it:
Most translation agencies prefer freelancers who are able to work using one or more computer aided translation tool (CAT). It would be great if you can invest in a CAT tool towards the beginning of your career in freelance translation and learn to use it efficiently. They help you to improve the quality of your work, stay consistent and makes you more productive. The most preferred CAT tool is SDL Trados, I would advise you to invest in it. It is an investment which might test your commitment seriously because it costs a pretty packet, but it will prove invaluable and pay you back sooner than you think. I would also advise you to have a look at MemoQ, another CAT tool. This also quite popular and used by many agencies. It has a shorter learning curve and it is friendlier to work with than Trados. Both companies offer you a trial version which you can download from their websites and use to try them out before you buy. I advise you to do that. There are many other similar tools, but you are better off placing your bet on Trados, that way, you will find more agencies willing to take you on.
The most preferred CAT tool is SDL Trados, I would advise you to invest in it. It is an investment which might test your commitment seriously because it costs a pretty packet. But it will prove invaluable and pay you back sooner than you think. I would also advise you to have a look at MemoQ, another CAT tool. This also quite popular and used by many agencies. It has a shorter learning curve and friendlier to work with than Trados. Both companies offer you a trial version which you can download from their websites and try them out before you buy. There are many other similar tools, but you are better off placing your bet on Trados, that way, you will find more agencies willing to take you on. Being an efficient user of one or more of these CAT tools will considerably increase your chances of succeeding in your career in freelance translation.
3. Develop your network to get in touch with other translators and translation companies:
It is important that you attend the local, regional and national level conferences where you meet other translators. At times other translators can be a good source of work. They can refer you to a client when they are too occupied to take up the work themselves.
Moreover, social media can also be a great way to make your presence felt. I use Linkedin and it has proved to be the source for a quite a few jobs for me. You can also put Twitter to good use for this. There are groups on Facebook related to translation, join them. The crux of the matter is unless people know that you exist, they will not give you any work. Networking is a continuous process and you need to devote time to it diligently.
For beginners and the experienced alike, it is important to register themselves on the dedicated portals for translation and prepare their profiles there. More details you can provide in your profile, the better. I have put up my profiles on proz.com and translatorscafe.com and a few other places. I have found these websites to be invaluable when researching agencies and their payment habits, particularly proz.com. The Proz Blueboard has proved helpful many a time. They have also proved their worth when it came to finding new clients and networking with other translators. When it comes to finding solutions to technical issues, the forums on these sites are worth their weight in gold. Therefore, I would advise you to take up paid membership of one or more of these sites.
4. Build yourself a website and get noticed online to further your career in freelance translation:
It is very important to show the world that you are serious about your work. The only way you can do that online is by hosting a website of your own. Once you have a few successfully completed projects under your belt, you should build yourself a website. Here, you can list details about your experience, your qualifications, images of your certifications, your memberships, your publications, samples of your work and your areas of expertise. Your website is your online shop; the visitors to your website are your potential clients. So, more details you can provide here about yourself as a translator the better. A website is also an important tool for networking. You can run a blog and the posts you make can be a way of reaching out to potential clients and other translators. If you become members of a number of translation related groups on Linkedin, your blog posts can be very useful in reaching out to hundreds (if not thousands) of people across the world. A few of them might become your client one day. Your website or blog is also your means of establishing yourself as an authority on issues related to translation. More, informative and helpful you can make your site or blog, more the viewership of your site increases and when you are perceived as an authority, more the chances that people will come to you looking for solutions. This means more business opportunities.
A website or a blog is also an important tool for networking. You can run a blog and the posts you make can be a way of reaching out to potential clients and other translators. If you become members of a number of translation related groups on Linkedin, your blog posts can be very useful in reaching out to hundreds (if not thousands) of people across the world. A few of them might become your client one day.
Your website or blog is also your means of establishing yourself as an authority on issues related to translation. More, informative and helpful you can make your site or blog, more the viewership of your site increases and when you are perceived as an authority, more the chances that people will come to you looking for solutions. This means more business opportunities.
Building and hosting a website costs very little. You can Google around to find more details about hosting charges. The designing of your website, which would be a ‘display only’ site with no frills and fancies, (at least initially) is very simple. You can do it yourself easily and quickly using WordPress. There are hundreds of tutorials around to help you, you just need to google them out. I designed my site completely on my own without an iota of knowledge about how to build one. There are some drag and drop site builders around you can also use, if you would like some help building your site for a little extra charge. Here are a few popular websites that offer this service:
There are others too, just ask Google.
Developing and hosting your own website also gives you another advantage, you can have an email address that is from your own domain. This improves your credibility leaps and bounds to your prospective clients, agencies and direct clients alike. Having an email address from your own domain is a must if you are to succeed in your career in freelance translation. Anyone can have a free domain email like Gmail or Yahoo or Rediffmail, but only someone committed to his trade will have a domain of his own.
While on the subject of websites, it would be a sin if I did not mention a couple of words about search engine optimization (SEO). While it can get quite technical beyond a certain point, nevertheless, it is quite possible for a translator to get himself (or herself) a rudimentary idea of how it works. You will find this an essential skill if you are to market your services online. Even as an absolute newbie to website development, I found it was quite easy to pick up the basics, especially when you have a WordPress site and use the Yoast plugin on your site.
5. Use email to market your services:
While the avenues of networking detailed above are a helpful means of marketing yourself, email marketing works best to acquire clients. Simply put, it means sending out emails to qualified agencies that work in your language pair to offer your services to them. However, to ensure success, you need to run your marketing campaign in the following way:
a. Find translation agencies that work in your language pair. Search the translation portals for names of translation agencies that work in your language pair. I personally found the proz.com Translation Companies link under the Jobs & Directories menu particularly useful. Sometimes one or more of these translation portals might come up with an offer to buy their agencies database. Since I had started off on a shoestring budget, I never got the chance to find out how accurate and effective they are. You can try them out, but please look around in different forums to see what other translators say about them before you buy.
Sometimes one or more of these translation portals might come up with an offer to buy their agencies database. Since I had started off on a shoestring budget, I never got the chance to find out how accurate and effective they are. You can try them out, but please look around in different forums to see what other translators say about them before you buy.
b. Research on the internet to find the payment history of these companies. You will find a number of sites that offer you this information for free or for a small fee. Get into the habit of researching the companies who offer you jobs at these sites if you want your career in freelance translation to take off. The ones I make use of are the Proz Blueboard, Translatorscafe Hall of Fame or Shame, Payment practices, Translation Ethics’ Translation agencies blacklist. They have never let me down and helped me weed out the chaff innumerable times. Besides these, you can also make use of the various groups and proz.com forums to ask around about the experiences of other translators with a particular company. It is very important to know who your client is if you are to succeed as a freelance translator.
There are a lot of scammers around and if you do not do your research well, there are chances that you might land yourself one such con artist. In such a case you will not get paid for your work. Newcomers, because of their lack of experience, are more prone to fall prey to these unscrupulous companies.
Your research should also help you identify the right person to address your email to. Please do not start with a “Dear Sir/Madam”, more often than not, your email will find its way to the garbage can. Start with the company’s website for this information. Sometimes finding these details can be tricky. You might not find the name of the right person on their website or their address. In such cases, search for them on LinkedIn. Search with the name of the company and you are likely to find out the names of the people who work for it. Also, remember to note that some companies prefer that you fill out a form on their website and some would like you to send them an email. Follow these instructions or you are likely to be ignored.
c. Prepare a prospects tracker, preferably in a spreadsheet application like Excel, where you can note down this information. This tracker helps you to remember and record who you sent out your emails to and also to track when it is time resend your email again. Yes, you will need to send your email to a company more than once in 99% of the cases, but more details about that later. The tracker I use looks like this. You can use the same format, or prepare a different one that better suits your needs:
d. Apply to these companies by sending out emails from your own domain or fill out the forms on their website, as the case maybe. Try to avoid free domain emails.
When you prepare your email, remember to address the recipient by his or her name. Mention the most important information in your subject line. For example, it should contain your language pair(s), your rates and the purpose of your email (that you are open for more work). Avoid using sentences like “Freelance translator looking for work”. These subject lines do not tell the recipient much and since they probably receive many emails looking for work every day, it is quite likely that they would either delete it or put it on the backburner for the time being and then forget all about it.
The body of your email should be short and should be formatted in a manner that assists the reader to gather the essential information while eyeballing your mail. For example, you can put your specializations in a separate paragraph from your rates and highlight both.
You can use Microsoft Word’s mail merge function to prepare your emails and send them through Outlook. If you do not know how, read up about it, you will see it is really easy.
Now here is something very important you need to remember. The people you send out your emails to are extremely busy, so there is a chance he or she did not get the chance to view it or decided to go through it later and then just did not find the time to get to it and then forgot about it. Or they might be on vacation, or they might be traveling, or they might be busy doing so many other things except check their mail. So, it is important that you send a follow-up email after a few days, in case they missed the first one. I usually send out my next mail seven days after I send my first one. For good measure, I send another one after ten days of sending my second mail. But no more. If you have not received a response by then, it is quite likely that your hundredth email will also receive no reply.
An important point to note here is that this is what is likely to happen to you 99 times out of 100. You would be ignored. The silence from the other end can be quite demotivating. But the name of the game here is patience and perseverance. If you wish to succeed in your career in freelance translation, you have to stick to it diligently maybe for a first month or two before you get your first response. Then again, it might just be someone polite telling you that he does not require your service. Nevertheless, stick to your guns and sooner or later you are going to make your first kill.
6. Build up a small client base as soon as you can further your career in freelance translation:
In this way get yourself a few clients and start working for them. This work is likely to call for long hours as the pay is very likely to be very poor. But, you need to remember that you are out to get yourself a foothold on a steep slope and this not the end of your journey, there’s a fair bit to go yet.
Working for these agencies you build up your resume to showcase a reasonable number of projects in your areas of specialization. Once you do, remember to update your website with your new projects.
7. Continue your company research and email marketing:
Continue with your agency research and email marketing. But now be more discerning about the pay being offered. Negotiate rates and terms with the ones that can pay the rate which is right for you, or comes close. Working with them should now be the focus of your email campaign.
8. Remove low paying clients:
Slowly weed out the bottom feeders you started out with till you reach the stage where you are working only with agencies that offer you the rates you want.
The biggest challenge for you in making a career in freelance translation will be managing your time. Maintaining a website or blog, participating in forums and groups, posting on different social media platforms, writing blog posts, researching companies, sending out emails to prospective clients are going to take a large chunk of your working hours. Add to that the actual work of translation, and translation related studies to keep yourself abreast of recent changes and trends, and you probably will find that you have embarked upon an almost impossible task. But have patience and stick to it. You will get faster with time and learn to manage your time better. You will also find useful tools that help you improve your productivity as you go along.
This has been a long post and if you have read through till the end, you have two of the most important qualities needed to be a translator – patience and perseverance. Now, you have got to ask yourself the question – “Do I have what it takes to have a career in freelance translation?” If you are determined and what you just read does not scare you, then get going. I wish you success.