Update to this post: Make sure to read the comments for more excellent tips from experienced translators!
Today is the first day of the winter session of the online course I teach for beginning translators. It’s an occasion that always prompts me to think of the first day I thought of myself as a translator, and what I did correctly and incorrectly during that stressful and exciting first year as a freelancer. I’ve been mulling over some of the best and worst decisions I made when I first started freelancing, and I hope that readers will feel free to add their own tips. Here I’m mainly including advice for people who are in their first year of freelancing, but some of these tips apply to experienced translators as well.
DO keep a record of all of your contacts. During the first year you’ll be doing a lot of marketing; at times during my first year, I was doing about 80% marketing and 20% translation. Trust me; a lot of this effort is wasted if you don’t have a good system for tracking who you’ve contacted, what the response was (if any) and how you followed up if there was a response. This could take the form of a computerized contact management system, a spreadsheet, or even a Rolodex-type file, but make sure you save this information.
DO NOT take on work that you know is wrong for you just because you need work. This is a mistake that I made several times during my beginner days. For example, at one point I let a client convince me to translate into French and then have my work proofed by a native speaker. This resulted in a lower hourly rate for me since I write very slowly in French, and also in a lower-quality end product than what the client would have received from a native French speaker. At the time I remember thinking “…well, if the client thinks it’s OK…” whereas now this is one of my non-negotiables no matter what the client says; I translate into English only.
DO ask prospective clients in your area for an informational interview. To give my beginner self some credit, this is one thing that I think I did well. I e-mailed a variety of prospective clients in the Boulder/Denver area and asked if I could come in to learn some more about their business and how I might, at some point, fit in. I think that this took the pressure off the prospective client because I wasn’t aggressively pumping them for work, and I also correctly theorized that I presented myself better in person than on paper. Of the five or so prospective clients I visited, I ended up getting work from three of them soon after.
DO NOT contact agency owners directly. Of the beginner mistakes I made, this one was probably the worst; I used the local translator’s association directory to find local agencies, then I phoned up the owners. Now I realize that although association directories and client websites are a great resource, wasting someone’s time is a very poor first impression. Always use the general contact information provided on a prospective client’s website, and avoid cold phone calls in nearly every situation.
DO ask for very specific instructions on your first few projects. Unless you’ve misrepresented your experience, most of your clients will realize that you’re a beginner and won’t mind doing a little hand-holding. So ask them: what do they mean by “reproduce the formatting exactly”? Should you do something special with handwritten text? What if something is illegible? What if there are abbreviations that you don’t understand?
DO NOT set your rates suspiciously low. I think that especially in a down economy, many beginning freelancers are tempted to set their rates markedly below the going rate for their languages. I still cringe at some of the rates I accepted when I was first starting out. In one sense, I think that offering attractive terms can help get your business of the ground; in another sense, I think that lowball rates attract bottom-feeding clients who are looking for high-quality work for minimum wage. Personally, I think it’s a better idea to sweeten your offer in other ways; maybe offering night or weekend work without a rush charge, or being available on holidays when other translators aren’t working.
DO set reasonable expectations for the growth and success of your business. Of all the advice I give beginners, I would tag this as the most important. I’ve been contacted many times by beginning translators who say that they’re “so discouraged” because they’ve sent out 25 applications in the last month and they still have no work. In my own case, I contacted over 400 prospective clients during my first year in business and it still took about 18 months until I was replacing the income from my previous full-time job. I think that for most people, it takes at least a year to get your business to the point where you are working more than you are looking for work; once you break through this point, you will hopefully have a freelance business that becomes like a regular job where you have a great deal of control over your schedule and income.
Please feel free to add your own advice to beginners too!