I receive a lot of inquiries from people who would like to become translators, and most of these e-mails have something to do with finding those first few elusive translation clients. If you ask 100 translators how they got started in the business, you’ll probably get at least 50 different answers. Some picked up the phone and started cold-calling, some turned an old business connection into a client, some volunteered, some went back to school, some were just in the right place at the right time. Following are some tips on how to break into the translation industry, depending on your interests and level of experience.
As a freelance translator, your two basic categories of clients are translation agencies, companies that serve as a middleman between an end client and various freelance translators, and direct clients, where you work directly for the translation buyer with no middleman involved. Each of these approaches has its benefits and costs; translation agencies can sometimes provide a steady flow of work to their regular translators and provide value-added services such as marketing, collections, proofreading and project management, but in return for this, the agency takes a portion of the total fee they collect for the translation. Direct clients can offer higher earning potential, but often require the translator to perform tasks such as quoting jobs, editing, proofreading, etc. that are usually handled by agencies.
If you’re starting out by applying to translation agencies, remember to play by their rules in order to maximize your chances of getting work. Most agencies have a translator application form on their websites; the “Contact Us” or “Opportunities” sections of agency websites are good places to look for these. Although it feels impersonal to apply for work this way, resist the urge to distinguish yourself by sending in a paper resume if the agency requests an electronic one; what seems to you like a personal touch will only create more work for your potential client, and may get your application materials tossed without a second look. Along the same lines, most agencies prefer not to be contacted by phone unless you are applying for a specific position that they’ve advertised. If the online application form includes a “Comments” field, this is the place to ask for an in-person meeting or introduce yourself as a new translator in the area.
Whether applying to translation agencies or direct clients, there are a few basic rules to follow. You’re applying for language work, so your application materials should be error-free. Make sure that everything you send out is proofed by yourself and at least one other person. When sending inquiries by e-mail, use a clear subject line, such as “German-English freelance inquiry.” Don’t disguise your intentions or make your message look like a response to an e-mail from the agency. State your language pairs prominently. As amazing as it may sound, many people neglect this simple step. Start your e-mail with a sentence such as “I am a freelance English to Spanish translator and I would like to offer my services to your agency/company, etc.”
Use translation industry directories wisely. Translators associations and translation client rating lists are great places to find the names of agencies to apply to, but make sure not to misuse or abuse these resources. For example, once you find an agency in a translators association directory, never (never!) use the contact information that is listed in the directory. Simply go to that agency’s website and follow the application process listed there.
Looking for work with direct clients has some positive and negative points for a beginning translator. As a newcomer to the profession, it can be helpful to have some of the safety nets that a translation agency offers; for example when you work for an agency, your work is almost always proofread before being sent to the end client, which guards against a true disaster if you make a mistake. However, direct clients, especially those located in areas where there are not many translators to choose from, may be more likely than a translation agency to take a chance on an inexperienced translator. Whereas a translation agency has a wide range of translators to choose from with no geographic restrictions, a direct client who wants to work with someone local has a bigger incentive to work with someone new.
If you’d like to work with direct clients, any large businesses, hospitals, or school systems in your area are worth contacting, even if they don’t have obvious international ties. Probably the best source of direct client contacts is international business organizations such as international chambers of commerce since you can be sure that the member companies use your non-English language in their business operations. Joining one of these organizations is also an excellent way to network with potential clients. Try Googling the chamber of commerce for your language pair, i.e. “German-American Chamber of Commerce,” “Korean-American Chamber of Commerce,” etc.
Think locally. Especially if you present yourself better in person than on paper, start out by asking for in-person meetings with every translation or interpreting agency in your local area. By asking for a meeting to learn more about the agency and talk about how you might fit in, you’ll both benefit from the interaction. Don’t be dissuaded if local agencies “have no work in your language combinations right now.” By asking for an in-person meeting, you’ll position yourself to step in when their needs change.
Blanket the field. One of the biggest mistakes made by beginning translators and interpreters is to assume that they will be working full-time after sending out five or ten inquiries. On the contrary, you should expect no more than a one percent return rate on your cold-contacting efforts. A good start (emphasis: start) if you’d like to be working full-time would be to contact 300-500 potential clients during your first year in business. Your prospective clients may include translation agencies in the U.S., agencies in countries where your other languages are spoken, and companies in your area that could use your services.
Keep in touch Instead of just firing off e-mails or making phone calls and then waiting to hear back from your potential clients, keep a log of the person you talked to or e-mailed and what his or her response was to your inquiry. As you get more experience, periodically contact these people to let them know that you’re still interested and available. Let them know what types of projects you’ve been working on, and let them know that you would be happy to help them out with similar jobs.
Once you’ve landed your first few clients, marketing yourself becomes easier in the sense that you have something to tell new prospective clients about, other than the fact that you’re looking for work. In general, even a successful freelancer must spend at least ten percent of his or her time on marketing; for beginning translators this figure may increase to as much as 50 percent, and for those who have been in the business for many years, the need to market may fall by the wayside. However, many marketing experts caution that “if you’re not marketing, you’re dying.” While this advice may seem extreme, it’s important for even experienced translators to prepare for the loss of a major client or a downturn in the economy by keeping up a steady flow of outbound promotion.