“I know I can do this job, but clients don’t want to hire me without experience. So how do I get experience without experience?” This chicken/egg dilemma stymies many beginning freelancers, and it’s admittedly hard to find a way out. High-quality agencies often require at least three years of experience, and they’re the clients that many translators prefer to work for, so they receive lots of applications and can afford to be choosy. However, there *are* lots of other options, most involving excellent language skills, creativity, perseverance, and being able/willing to outlast the competition. Based on my own experience, and on advice that I’ve given to students over the years, here are three potential strategies:
- Work the local market
- Work for big agencies that base their hiring mainly on their own tests and are always looking for new translators
- Develop a micro-niche and market yourself as *the translator* for that niche
With the caveat that all of these have their pluses and minuses, let’s take a closer look at each one.
Working the local market
Even in the online age, many clients are still more likely to take a chance on someone they’ve met in person. When I started freelancing in 2002, I knew I could do this job. I already had a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in French and had done a translation course and a translation internship during my study abroad year in France, plus some small translation jobs for friends. But I had pretty much zero real client experience. When you’re a beginner and you don’t have tons of work, one thing you do have a surplus of is time. So, I contacted every translation agency or other potential client (i.e. the local chapter of the Alliance Française) within an hour’s drive of my house and asked for an informational interview. I pitched it as, “I’m a new translator in the area and I’d love to learn a little more about your business and how I might fit in.”
Be prepared: the majority of your contacts may respond in a noncommittal or lukewarm way. “We’re not looking for additional translators in your language pair right now.” “We don’t have much work into English.” “We only use people with three years’ experience.” No problem; show up anyway if they’ll meet with you. I did this, arriving with business cards, a small gift (perhaps chocolate…now I can’t really remember) and a prop, in the form of a binder that I had loaded with printed copies of the few translations I had already done. I had a list of questions prepared, about the agency’s primary specializations, biggest growth areas, the best way to break in as a newbie, and so on. And, either surprisingly or not surprisingly, I ended up receiving work from nearly every agency I went to meet with. At some point, they landed a large project for French to English and needed to quickly add more translators. Or one of their stalwart French to English people wasn’t available, or raised their rates, or took an in-house job. Or they had a rush project on a Friday afternoon and their other regulars didn’t want it, and I was motivated (and hungry). Whatever the case, I probably visited six potential clients and ended up getting work from five of them.
If you’d like to pursue this route, look for agencies through the ATA corporate members directory, your local association directory, local cultural associations for your languages, etc.
Apply to large agencies
We all know the downsides of this one: large agencies tend to pay lower rates than smaller agencies do, they often require high-volume work with a fast turnaround, and they are often impersonal to work with. But large agencies have a few major pluses if you’re a beginner.
First, many large agencies base their hiring primarily or even exclusively on their own tests. The three years of experience, certification, Master’s in translation-type requirements are less likely to be a factor for big agencies, depending on your languages and specializations. Second, big agencies are always looking for new translators because people tend to work for theses types of agencies for a while and then move on. Third, big agencies are good “filler” clients because you can take work from them when you’re available and decline when you’re not available. A few recent students have told me that some of their large agency clients have even moved to assigning jobs through an online portal that you log in to and browse the available projects (even less personal than the old mass e-mails!). But these factors can make large agencies a good starter client or fill-in client for someone in their first few years of freelancing, or someone who combines freelancing with another job or with going to school.
If you’d like to pursue this route, Common Sense Advisory produces a yearly report on the 100 largest language services providers (their term: I prefer “agency”). The current year’s report is available only to their paying subscribers, but you can access the 2012 report for free.
Cultivate a micro-niche and look for direct clients
The direct-to-direct client route can work. I wrote about it here, and the comments were really interesting. It’s worth noting that one of the most common comments from experienced translators was, “I started that way, and I wouldn’t do it again, but it worked” (kind of how I feel about our fixer-upper house: never again, but it worked!).
But here’s my suggestion: if you’re a beginner, you can increase your chances of success and decrease your learning curve by targeting the direct client market in a micro-niche. Pick a topic you know a lot about, and/or that you love to research. Then, instead of “translator with minimal experience, now serving Fortune 500 clients with an enormous risk of failure,” you’re:
- “Helping German companies craft outstanding press releases in English”
- “Helping ski resorts welcome Latin American tourists with outstanding Spanish web copy”
- “Helping US-based Airbnb hosts appeal to Japanese guests with engaging property descriptions in Japanese”
- “Helping French universities expand their international programs with marketing materials in English”
- “Helping Italian cooking schools attract English-speaking participants with YouTube videos in English”
By targeting a micro-niche, you do a few things. First, you cut down on analysis paralysis because you know who to market to. Rather than wondering where to start with companies that need pharmaceutical translation, you make a list of cooking schools in Italy, or hot spring resorts in Japan, or horse breeders in Kentucky, or whatever your niche is, and you contact them directly. Second, your translations will be better because you’re working in a small niche in which you can become an expert (and don’t forget to work with an editor for direct client work!). Third, it’s easier to market a niche business through techniques that pull clients to you, such as an SEO-optimized website, Google or Facebook ads, attending trade fairs for that industry, and so on. It’s almost impossible for a freelancer to budget for keywords like “German translator,” but niche keywords are a lot more affordable.
I’ve been thinking a lot about micro-niches lately, because one of my own micro-niches is helping French universities market their international programs in English. At the ATA conference, I was interested to see a few presentations on micro-niches (I went to an excellent one on translating for the cruise industry by Jeana Clark and Esma Gregor). Micro-niches can work well for experienced translators too, but I think that they are an especially appealing option for beginners who have some knowledge of, or interest in, a specific subject area.
I used all of these techniques (to a greater or lesser extent) when I launched my freelance business in 2002. But I’m also interested to hear from readers who have tried these techniques, or who have other creative suggestions for getting around the chicken/egg issue.