I’ve noticed a trend, or at least a micro-trend, among the students who take my classes for beginning freelancers: more and more of them are interested in working with direct clients right off the bat. Typically, these are students who know that their language skills are solid; for example they currently work in a job where they use their non-native language all the time, or where translation is one of their job tasks, and they have significant experience in the business world, just not as freelancers. Is this a viable pathway? Is it a smart pathway? Let’s take a closer look.
In my mind, a translator has four core skills: language(s), writing, specialization(s), and business skills. In an ideal world, we’d all have those in equal measure. And certainly, some of those skills are deal-breakers: if your source language reading skills or your target language writing skills are terrible, you’re simply not going to make it as a translator. And in countries/regions where, when you say “I’m a translator,” it’s assumed that you have a degree in translation, that may be a deal-breaker (for better or worse, not the case in the US, where translation programs seem to be dwindling rather than expanding).
I’d also theorize that there are some market factors underlying this trend. The hardest market niche to break into is the middle; the edges of the market are easier. And in our industry (my take here…feel free to disagree), the edges are huge agencies, which base their hiring primarily or even exclusively on their own tests, and direct clients, who will trust that you can do what you say you can do. In the middle, you’re mostly looking at small to medium agencies, which often, and understandably, have barriers to entry such as three to five years’ experience, ATA certification or a Master’s in translation, and thus are not a great option for people with solid skills but not much experience. A typical student in this situation will tell me something like The higher-quality agencies won’t take me because I don’t have enough experience, and I’m not interested in working for the Wal-Marts of translation or they don’t need my specialization, so I’m thinking of just going straight to direct clients.
My honest answer to the direct-to-direct client question is “I’m not sure…I see pluses and minuses.” On the plus side:
- For translators who work in specializations that many agencies don’t handle (sports marketing, art history, nanotechnology), it may be the only way to pursue that specialization.
- For translators who work in language pairs with a lot of downward price pressure (English-Spanish, English-Russian, etc.), direct clients offer a way around the reverse auction scene that prevails on online job boards.
- I think that many direct clients are less concerned with formal qualifications than with what you can do for them: if you can solve their problem, you’re in.
But then again:
- To do this, you have to be really, really sure that your language skills are good enough. The direct client market is not the place to be working on your language skills.
- You have to get some objective assessment of your translation skills: if you’ve never done a translation that anyone else has reviewed, don’t start pursuing direct clients just yet.
- You don’t know what you don’t know, and that can lead to a lot of problems. Example: I recently translated a marketing brochure for one of my direct clients. When they sent me the pre-press PDF, it included a bunch of errors (text pasted incorrectly, etc.), and a tagline that didn’t make sense. But I never would have seen this, had I not told them to send me the pre-press PDF; things can go wrong when you don’t even know what to ask.
Wise readers, over to you: thoughts?