My top 5 tips for kickstarting your career as a freelance translator
Andrew Bell is a medical and pharmaceutical translator working from Spanish, Portuguese and Catalan to English, trading under the name Bell Johnson Translations. You can connect with him by using the following links:
When I celebrated my one-year workiversary back in September, I knew I wanted to share what I’d learnt on my journey to where I am today. I was in the very fortunate position of having just completed an MA in Applied Translation Studies, and I had been able to absorb countless pieces of information and advice throughout my course to help kickstart my career. But no matter how much reading you do, there is nothing that can quite prepare you for taking that ultimate plunge into freelance life.
So here are my top 5 tips for kickstarting your career as a freelance translator:
1. Create an online presence
In this day and age, having an online presence is essential for any business, and at the end of the day, that is what you are: a business. A lot of established translators comment on how they receive a lot of work from word of mouth, but when you’re starting out, that is a bit of a long shot. Therefore, in order to put your clients’ minds at ease, it’s important to have an online presence so that they can vet you. In particular, I would recommend using the following:
Having a website shows potential clients that you are a serious translator. Someone who is just translating on the side is not going to invest their time and money into creating a website. A website also provides you with the perfect forum to shamelessly market yourself and your services; after all, what else are you going to put on a website about yourself? It can also make the buying process much easier for the client as you may be able to answer a lot of their initial questions through your website before they even get in touch with you.
For some people, social media is the devil, but for new freelance translators it can be one of the most useful tools for establishing your online presence. LinkedIn is a must for freelancers, as it is the go-to professional networking platform for most industries. Having a presence on LinkedIn adds credibility to your business, and it provides a simple way for your clients to interact with and contact you, and vice versa.
Social media can be one of the most useful tools for establishing your online presence.
Twitter is another platform that I think is indispensable for freelance translators. It appears to me that while all formal interaction takes place on LinkedIn, Twitter is the forum for informal interaction. By tweeting about things other than your business (within reason of course), it shows off your personality and demonstrates that you are not just a translation machine. Whilst this may not seem overly important, especially if you’re trying to portray a corporate image, you should consider that people like to interact with people. Therefore, a client is much more likely to approach you if they see you as a person rather than a walking dictionary. On a side note, I’ve also found twitter very useful for networking with colleagues, which is something that is very rewarding in itself.
2. Personalised email address
Similarly to having a website, having a personalised email address adds further credibility to your business. Anyone can make a gmail or outlook account, but only those who are really committed to their business will invest in a personalised email address. I’ve read that many people who outsource work, whether that be other freelance translators or LSPs, will quite often ignore emails from translators who don’t have a personalised email address as a way of shortlisting potential suppliers.
3. Professional organisations
Being a member of professional organisations again adds credibility to your business, and over time once you meet their requirements, they will allow you to offer certified translations as one of your services. However, perhaps more importantly, professional organisations will provide you with a lot of support when it comes to starting out. As I am UK based, I joined the ITI and CIOL when I was at university, and their webinars aimed at newbies were invaluable. They discussed everything you ever needed to know about starting out, including the importance of specialisms, how to gain experience and how to market yourself to LSPs.
In addition to the main membership, the ITI and CIOL also have various regional, language specific and specialist area sub-networks. Membership to some of these networks is contingent on being a member of the ITI or CIOL, but some sub-networks offer membership to non-members. Whilst I would certainly recommend joining the main organisation, if money is tight, it’s worth checking whether you can join one of the sub-networks, especially as membership fees for the sub-networks are much lower than for the main organisations.
To give you an idea of the sub-networks out there, these are the ones I have joined with the ITI:
Language: Spanish Network, and Portuguese Network
Specialist area: Medical and Pharmaceutical Network
Regional: North-West Translators’ Network (NWTN) and Yorkshire Translators and Interpreters (YTI)
All of these groups have in their own way offered me support, whether from providing me with business advice, helping with terminology queries or simply providing a social forum where I can relax and get to know my colleagues.
4. Volunteer work
How do you gain experience? Volunteer work!
The proverbial chicken and the egg question: how do you get experience if no one is willing to work with you to give you the experience because you don’t already have experience? The answer is volunteer work. The upside of doing this is that you can try out your translation skills without risking your professional reputation. When I was starting out, I was very unsure if my Portuguese was good enough to be one of my working languages (classic imposter syndrome), but after receiving some great feedback on some volunteer translations, I knew that this doubt was just in my head. Now, Portuguese translation is one of my highest earning services.
Where to find volunteer work
Translators without Boarders (TWB)
TED Talks (subtitling)
In a lot of the webinars that I attended about starting out, almost everyone recommended working with TWB, UN Volunteers and TED Talks. Unfortunately, what I soon discovered was that work on these platforms was few and far between (at least for my language pairs ES/PT/CA>EN). So, I took a different approach and contacted private individuals who I thought may want my translation services. During my MA, I had to translate two texts of around 5,000 words for my final project, so I had collected a huge list of possible medical research articles that would be suitable. I picked two for the project, and then I contacted the corresponding authors of the other articles to ask them if they wanted my translation services free of charge. Needless to say, they all jumped at the opportunity. Some may say I missed a beat here and that I should have charged these people, but my goal was to gain experience, and I doubt that the authors would have been as receptive to the idea if I’d have sent them a quote for £500. In the end, this experience proved invaluable as one of my first paying clients works almost exclusively with medical research articles, so they were more than willing to add me to their list of suppliers.
5. Manage expectations
This is perhaps the most important piece of advice I could give to any aspiring freelance translator. Whilst we all come into the profession with the hope and dream of conquering the world and earning a six-figure salary, this is not going to happen on day one. When you first start out, it may take you a while to build up to working full-time. I spent the first 3 months of my career gaining experience and working on the administration side of my business, then in month 4 I started marketing myself to LSPs and I was able to start working full-time about 3 months later (so a total of 6 months overall).
If you decide to go down the same route as me and market yourself to LSPs, you should also be prepared to not get a response every time. This isn’t necessarily because the LSPs are ignoring you, but because they receive so many emails each day from freelancers that it is impossible for them to read and reply to every email. A colleague mentioned this statistic to me which I think is very useful for managing your expectations: if you send out 100 CVs to LSPs, expect to get a reply from about 10 of them, of those 10 maybe 5 will send you work, and maybe 1 will become a regular client. But all hope is not lost, because once you find that one regular client, you can start to make a decent amount of money each month.
Once you build up to working full-time, you will inevitably one day experience the peaks and troughs of freelance life, and this is completely normal. Just because you haven’t received work for a week doesn’t mean that you have done anything wrong. Instead, you should use this time to your advantage and work on your business, for example, updating your website, writing blog posts (like I am now), undertaking CPD activities etc.
There are of course many other tips for kickstarting your freelance career, but in the interest of readability, I wanted to limit myself to only 5 today. Of course, you also have to think about CPD, being a specialist or a generalist and researching your rates, amongst many other things. If you are an aspiring freelance translator, please feel free to get in touch if you would like to discuss starting out in more detail, I’m always happy to help my colleagues out.