Many beginning translators are (understandably!) very concerned about how long it will take them to establish a viable business. For obvious reasons, including differences in the demand for certain language combinations, variations in different people’s business and people skills, etc., it’s hard to give hard and fast figures on how long it takes to get started as a freelance translator; I would be interested to hear about other people’s experiences, and I’ll offer some of my own here.
My initial startup phase, during which I set up a basic website, wrote my translation-targeted resumé, had business cards printed up, joined ATA and the local translators’ association and started to make some contacts in the area took about a month. This part was fairly easy because it was fun; writing copy for a website is actually a lot of fun compared to sending out 400 cold e-mails, so this phase was pretty painless.
I then started going through the ATA directory to look for potential clients; in those days every member received a paper copy of the directory every year. You can still get a paper copy now, but you have to purchase it from ATA’s website. I went through the ATA directory and one by one went to each agency’s website to see if they were taking resumés from translators in my language combination. If they were, I sent them my materials, and if anyone responded to me in a positive way (even if it was just the “we’ll keep your resumé on file” e-mail), I sent them a handwritten note with some business cards. I also asked about five local agencies for informational interviews. I set a goal of applying to ten agencies per day; I’m not sure if I actually met that target, but the whole cold e-mailing process took about three months and I contacted over 400 potential clients.
After about six months, I started to feel like a legitimate translator. Work was still very sporadic, but I had a few actual clients that were sending me small but steady projects like birth certificates, school transcripts, etc. I also began the application process to become an FBI contract linguist, a job opportunity that materialized about two years later. Personally, I think that the phase that went from months six to 18 of my freelance career was the hardest. I had some work but not many big projects, and a dry spell could involve the better part of a month with no paying work. In the back of my mind, I wondered whether this freelance thing was really going to work out or whether I should just look for a full-time job. Feast or famine was really the name of the game during that period; no work for two weeks, followed by a 6,000 word project that had to be done over a weekend.
After year one was over, I had made $9,000 freelancing. For the amount that I had worked, this wasn’t a bad amount of money but I clearly needed to earn more if I was going to have a viable business. I relaunched my marketing efforts and expanded them to publishing companies, agencies in France and Belgium, and other potential clients I hadn’t considered. I also sent marketing postcards to a lot of agencies I had contacted in my initial marketing efforts. After eighteen months of freelancing, things looked a lot better. I was earning as much as I had at my previous full-time job (granted, this was teaching high school French, so we’re not talking six figures!) and I was starting to get some larger projects. In addition, I passed the exams and security clearance to become an FBI contract linguist and I started working 10-15 hours a week at the Denver FBI office, a level that I kept up for about the next two years. At that point, probably around the end of my second year of freelancing, I stopped worrying about whether I should get a full-time job, and decided that freelancing was going to work out. During that year I saved $100 a month toward attending my first ATA conference (and back to the topic of freelance frugality, I stayed in a hostel and brought some of my own food!) where I met several new and big clients.
The final major breakthrough in my freelance career came during year three, when I realized that my business had become like a regular job where I could, to a large extent, set my schedule and rates. At that point I started being able to concentrate on the appeal of the work I took on rather than just the volume; I was able to ease out a couple of low-paying clients and replace them with higher-paying ones, which is a technique I still use in year seven of freelancing!