Lessons Learned As A Freelance Translator And Advice For Newcomers

This article was originally published by Jonathan Downie, a conference interpreter, public speaking coach, preacher and researcher. As a freelance translator myself, a lot of his experience rings true and I would like to share his advice. Use his words of wisdom for the success of your own career!

According to my records, this time five years ago, I was about to start a job for a client I would work with for four years. I was also embroiled in payment discussions with another client and, knowing my work patterns back then, I was probably doing my best to get more quotes out to potential clients in the hope that one of them, just one, would get back to me and give me work.

Since then, I have learned a lot. I have learned about marketing and scheduling. I have learned about reputation and quality. Mostly, I have learned a lot about myself as a freelancer. Here are a few highlights:

• In marketing, quality beats quantity
Five years ago, I dedicated large swathes of my time to quoting on projects posted on job boards and very little of my time to actually contacting agencies directly. My reasoning went like this: I had little translation experience and a poor CV; why would any agency want to touch me unless they had to?

Needless to say, that was poor reasoning. Yes, I had little paid experience but I had some volunteer work under my belt. Yep, I was an unknown but savvy marketing and using social media would have helped a lot. I had research and writing skills that could have cut in half the time it took to get a decent amount of good clients, as I was to find out later.

Compare that to now, when I am back on the marketing trail on a large scale again. This time, I know fine well that you are better contacting a smaller number of targeted clients and following them up than email bombing hundreds. You are also better building a reputation for giving something back than always going out there asking for work.

People like to work with people they already know. In marketing, especially for translation and interpreting, you need to be someone they know.

• Never get comfortable
In early 2009, I got a new client, a good client. The work was nice and the pay was decent. All was going well until one day I made a big mistake. Rather than do every job with my full effort and concentration, I got cocky. Looking back now, I realise that I was thinking about being clever in my translation rather than thinking about what the client actually wanted. Worse, when they came back with criticisms, I reacted defensively.

Of course, I lost that client and all potential income. No one wants to work with a translator who not only makes mistakes but gets defensive when they are clearly in the wrong.

My problem was that I had gotten comfortable. For that job, I stopped having the usual mini-bout of anxiety when I hit the “send” button. It would cost me dearly.

Needless to say, I learned my lesson. Never again would I try to be too clever. Never again would I fail to put the needs of the client first in my work. From then on, I took that little pang of anxiety as a good sign and I learned to always keep getting better.

Comfort for a freelancer is not a good sign. Continual desire to improve is!

• Gaining clients never ends
It’s self-explanatory really but again, it’s something I forgot. One month, I was so full of work that all I did was translate. It sounds great but it really wasn’t. You see, the time you spend on marketing and CPD is an investment in your financial future. Sure, making those calls or attending that event or writing that article might not make you money now but it will do in the future.

I have learned that, even in my busiest month, when deadlines loom and workloads pile up, I still need to fine a little time to send another email or make another call. Remember, even if you have a full client book now, things may not always be that way. Go on, go get some more.

• Help others
Lastly, I learned a lesson that was a bit surprising. Business logic tells you that the most effective way of marketing is to go out and present yourself to others. Human relations tell you that might not be the case. No one loves a salesman.

What people do love is the person who is there to help, who makes them think, who makes life easier for them. Some of my most interesting translation clients have come because I went out of my way to get involved in a discussion or share a tip or retweet an article.

I was recently following up a CV I sent to an agency who receive more than 500 CVs a week. When I called, the PM said “Jonathan Downie? I know you. You are on social media. Of course we want to work with you. Let me put your CV to the top of the pile.” If I hadn’t been around, I would have just been another email in the inbox. By being out there, talking and helping, I got put to the top.