Translators have a variety of reasons for choosing certain types of clients: some prefer agencies for their steady workflow and layer of “insulation” between the translator and the end client, some prefer direct clients for their higher rates and higher degree of autonomy, and still other translators mix up their workflow or work with clients who don’t fit exactly into either one of these categories.
In talking to beginning and experienced translators alike, I’ve noticed that many translators are very intimidated by the idea of working with direct clients. While I think that there are valid reasons to continue working with agencies, I also think that adding some direct client work to your freelance pie is a great way to increase your income and your job satisfaction. If you’re interested in dipping at least one toe in the direct client pool, here are a few tips.
- Start small and don’t fail out of overambition. In my admittedly unscientific research, I think that many translators aim too high when they enter the direct client market. Don’t think Fortune 500, think of other one-person businesses or businesses with very small projects. As you succeed at these projects, trade up!
- Start with projects you can translate in your sleep. If you have a targeted specialization, you know what I’m talking about (for me, it’s real estate leases and articles of incorporation). Eventually, you can aim for direct client work that demands creativity and thoughtful turns of phrase. At the outset, look for clients who will have the types of documents you’ve translated hundreds of times. This will raise your confidence level and increase the odds that the clients will be thrilled with your work.
- Look locally. Especially with direct clients, it’s great to have a contact or introduction. If this isn’t an option, I think that a friendly “I’m a translator in the area and I’d like to offer you my freelance services…” is a good substitute. In addition, I think that despite the globalization of the professional services market, many small businesses still feel more comfortable working with someone local.
- Track your clients’ preferences. In my experience, direct clients don’t often have style guides and sometimes haven’t really thought about style at all. Do yourself and your clients a big favor by creating a style preferences file for each client. Whenever the client sends you a comment, i.e. “We always refer to our CEO as Chief Executive Officer,” “We use European format for dates even when they’re in English,” etc., record it in the client’s style file.
- Don’t undersell yourself. One of the obvious draws of working with direct clients is money. My average direct client pays almost double what my average agency client pays, and my direct clients are usually very low-maintenance; it’s a great situation. When you send a quote to a direct client, remember that if the client is a good fit for you, you’re offering them more personal service than they would get from an agency, one point of contact instead of many layers between the client and the translator (if the client can even communicate directly with an agency’s translator) and more consistency than they’re likely to get from an agency. For this, you need to charge real money or you will appear unprofessional.
- Ask for feedback on every translation. “Let me know if you have any specific questions or comments or if there is anything I can do to better meet your needs…” is one of my standard lines. You could even create a simple online survey that your clients could fill out anonymously. Also, you should ask every satisfied client whether you can use their name in your marketing materials and whether they would be willing to provide a testimonial about your work for them.