In the past month I’ve been contacted by several translators who are at what I think of as the “make or break” phase of freelancing. They have a fair amount of work and their clients seem pleased with their translations, but they are not yet at the level of income and work volume where they would like to be for the long term.
In this situation, I think it’s important to look at a few factors in order to break through to financial sustainability, and the point in your freelance career where you are spending your time working rather than looking for work. For example:
- Have you allowed sufficient time to reach your goals? I would say that the average translator’s startup phase could last six months to a year, but that it’s not unusual for many people to require two to three years to reach “cruising speed,” where the freelance business becomes like a full-time job where you control the hours. Expecting this to happen after three or four months is, in my opinion, very optimistic.
- Have you met the requirements of every project you have done? If you meet (or better yet, beat) your deadlines and deliver quality work that has been carefully researched and proofread, your clients will use you again. If you are lax about deadlines, don’t allow time to ask terminology questions and proofread your work, it’s time to tighten up your quality assurance system.
- Are you targeting clients who have ongoing work? Sometimes, a client is very happy with your work but simply does not have a need for your language/specialization/etc. more than a few times a year. In this case, ask the client for a testimonial and use it to market your services to other clients.
- Are you asking your clients for feedback? It’s important to remember that a) some clients are not eager to give you constructive/negative feedback and that’s their prerogative and b) a translation project manager’s job does not necessarily include evaluating translators. That being said, it’s worth asking your clients what you could do to better meet their needs, if they have any feedback on your services. etc. At the very least, this lets the client know that you are eager to improve and to work with them again.
- Are you charging too much or too little? The rest of this blog’s lifetime could be spent talking about rates, but in general, you want to avoid pricing yourself substantially above or below the market rates for your language pair. Charge too little and you’ll mark yourself as either an amateur or someone who is not confident about your skills; charge too much and your clients will look elsewhere.
- Are you targeting clients who fit your niche? In general, large agencies seem to prefer translators who work in a variety of specializations, charge moderate rates and can turn around large volumes of text in a short amount of time. In exchange, a large agency might be able to keep a translator busy close to full time. Smaller, boutique-style agencies often prefer specialized translators who, often in exchange for higher pay, are very meticulous about their work and don’t mind answering questions about their terminology choices, target language phraseology, etc. Just make sure that you are targeting clients who fit your own work style.
- Have you considered taking on a supplemental job? You’ve come this far; rather than abandoning your freelance business (assuming you enjoy it!), consider working at a bookstore or library, teaching language courses, doing tutoring, applying as an FBI contract linguist or another similar job that will help you keep your business afloat while you reach profitability.