12 qualities that agencies look for in a freelance translator

Translation and localization are considered to be amongst the most competitive fields for freelancers. The proliferation of the internet and its easy access has given birth to a new breed of freelancers and agencies that make life difficult for the experienced and qualified freelance translator. We now have to compete with a horde of unskilled, inexperienced part-timers or full-timers who offer ridiculously low rates for translation. Unskilled and inexperienced, their quality of work leaves a lot to be desired and yet they manage to successfully encroach upon the grounds of professional freelance translators aided by the greed of an increasing number of bottom-feeding agencies.  The good news is that there are agencies that have not given in to the sweat shop model for translation and still offer decent rates for quality work. To market yourself to these discerning agencies, you need to keep the following things in mind at all times:

  1. You should be a native translator

Only a native translator would be aware of the detailed cultural nuances that play a very important part in translation. Differences in dialect, slangs, cultural differences that affect a translation can only be handled properly by someone whose mother tongue is the target language. To ensure that a translation is natural and accurate and does not sound “translated”, any good agency would look for a native translator.

  1. Command over the source language

It is important that the translator is fluent in the language he translates from. If he does not possess near-native skills in the source language he runs the risk of missing out some of the important nuances in the source text. Therefore, the ability to understand the source language plays a very important role in the process of translation. All good agencies would look for freelance translators with a high level of comprehension of the source language.

  1. Experience and its nature

The freelance translator’s experience in number of years, the fields in which his experiences are, as well as the nature of his experience in those fields are important to any good agency. A good agency will also take into account his other experiences as well besides translation. For example, they would give preference to a legal translator who has a few years of experience as a law clerk, over someone who has no such related experience.

  1. Specialization areas

A translator who specializes in a particular field or fields closely related, is more likely to find work with agencies than the ones who work on a number of unrelated areas. In fact, quite often jobs call for specialized knowledge in a certain field which cannot be handled by a general translator.

  1. Availability

A freelance translator who makes himself available most of the times to an agency is more often to be contacted for jobs. While accepting the fact that a translator may be tied up with work when he is contacted for a new job, it is never a good idea to reply with a short one-liner stating his unavailability. I for one prefer to get back as soon as possible letting the agency know when my present work will finish and I will be able to take up their job. I also ask if they would be able to extend the deadline to enable me to take up their work. I found that more often than not the agency is able to accommodate. This is very important because you always run the risk that getting told “No” once too often might make the agency go looking for someone else being under the impression that you are not really interested.

  1. Flexibility

An agency always prefers to work with a freelancer who is flexible in terms of payment rates and terms and work schedules. It is important that the freelancer realizes that different jobs may come with different rates and terms and he needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the same. This is not to say that he should cut his rates down to starvation standards, but he should be willing to offer the agency any discounts that are possible for him when requested. I have found that more often than not, agreeing to do this makes the agency remember you when the next job in your language pair comes along.

I personally, also offer my clients flexibility in terms of work timings as well. For agencies in different parts of the world, I prefer to work during their time zone. This offers me the advantage of receiving clarifications that I may need sooner than I would, had I preferred to work as per my time zone. The same applies to the agencies as well; any urgent time-critical communication is made possible without hours of delay. Agreed that it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, considering the toll this might take on your health, however, this proved to me of invaluable help during the initials months of my freelancing career.

  1. Certifications and qualifications

Having the right qualifications are extremely important for freelance translators. A good agency would definitely look at your qualifications before taking you on. Qualifications can be related to the target language or the area of specialization. There are certain kinds of jobs that call for certifications in certain fields of translation. A freelance translator should, therefore, try to get himself/herself certified by a recognized body or organization in his country. This certification is usually in his area of specialization. Depending on the demands of a particular job, the agency might give preference to freelancers that are certified over the ones who are experienced. Indeed, quite frequently, freelancers with the right qualifications are passed over in favor of those that are certified.

  1. Rates, payment modes and terms

As in all businesses, the rate at which a service is rendered often ends up being the deciding factor whether a freelance translator is employed for a certain job or he is passed over. Too high rates will surely put you out of business. Like you, agencies are also out to earn, all things remaining equal, if they can find a cheaper option, they would surely go for it. However, if you offer your services dirt cheap, it is quite likely that agencies that offer quality services would stay away from you. In real life, cheap equates to low quality. So, the trick is to know the going rates for your language combination and the area of specialization and quote accordingly. If you would like to more about how to decide what rates to charge, you might want to read this fantastic post by Corinne McKay.

Moreover, you need to be open to different payment modes. Different agencies have different modes of paying you. While one would pay you through PayPal, another might prefer Skrill and yet another might prefer bank transfers. You will find more agencies to work with if you have multiple options to accept payment.

Also, payment terms are an important area the freelancer should not overlook. Sticking to your guns about your payment terms will result in losing valuable clients. While you might find a payment term of net 15 preferable, you will frequently find agencies that work on the basis of net 30, net 45, net 60. I have come across agencies that prefer to work on the basis of net 90. While you are free to decide what options you are comfortable working with, more flexible you stay, more clients you will find. As for me, I prefer to work with net 30 and net 45, and in case of a few clients, who offer high volumes, even net 60. However, I do not consider it worthwhile to go beyond that.

  1. Customer service skills and negotiation skills

Your communications skills play a very important role in your career as a freelance translator. It is imperative that at every stage of your relationship with your client you stay polite and professional. It is easy to understand that everyone likes to deal with people who are pleasant to deal with. Any agency would like to deal with freelance translators who are responsive and professional in their dealings. This comes in handy especially at the time of negotiating a contract where you may have to contradict and put across your logic explaining why you would want something changed. Even in cases where things do not work out to mutual satisfaction, it is important to stay polite. It keeps open the chances of work some time down the line.

  1. Skills with CAT

Most agencies use one or more CAT tools for their work. A freelance translator, therefore, needs to be skilled in the popular CAT tools that are available in the market. I have trained myself to use SDL Trados, MemoQ and Wordfast, these are among the most preferred tools of the trade of agencies around the world. While it is perfectly possible to do a great job using word processors alone, knowledge of CAT tools let you integrate yourself seamlessly into the workflow of you agency client. It also increases your productivity and ensures the consistency of you translations thereby improving the quality of your work. An agency would, therefore, prefer to take on freelance translators who are skilled users of CAT tools.

  1. Consistently good quality

Needless to say, clients look for great quality in translation. A freelancer, who is willing to do extensive research and use his CAT tool appropriately to create and use glossaries and translation memories, will produce quality output and would definitely be shown appreciation by getting more work from agencies.

  1. Consistently meet deadlines

A freelance translator who consistently meets his deadlines is a reliable person. In the translation industry, reliable and responsible freelancers are much sought after. Meeting deadlines often make the difference between successful and scratched projects. Therefore, meeting your deadlines consistently is an essential quality that agencies look for.

Any freelancers who have these qualities, or can develop them over time, are bound to find success working for agencies sooner or later. It will take you some time to develop these qualities no doubt, for example, getting certified or adding more qualifications to your kitty will not happen in a day. But if you have the patience and stick to it, it will pay you back handsomely in the years to come.