Is the career path for beginning freelancers changing?

Some days, I feel like all anyone wants to talk about is “our changing profession/industry.” Some days I agree that it’s changing a lot, and sometimes I feel like “Yes! Things change…cope or try to stop the earth from turning.” But here’s something I’ve been thinking about lately: as the translation/interpreting professions change, is the career path that most people follow going to change as well?

What about that career path?

I feel like our profession has always had its oddities in terms of getting started and progressing through the ranks. By “oddities,” I mean factors such as:

  • A severe lack of university programs in translation and interpreting (in the US at least).
  • The fact that clients (like translation agencies) that have enough work for full-time translators and interpreters still tend to use freelancers.
  • The resulting lack of in-house translation and interpreting jobs, compounded by even fewer entry-level T&I jobs. At least in the US, the few in-house jobs that exist are often restricted to people who have extensive experience, or who graduated from a T&I Master’s program, or who can pass something like the UN language competitive exams, which few beginners can.
  • The lack of a universally-accepted translation credential (like the CPA credential for accountants), resulting in a “no barrier to entry” work environment. And honestly, I don’t see this changing, because it would be nearly impossible to certify translators in every language combination on the planet.

But still…

I also feel like there has been a bit of a standard career path in our profession, in that people either:

  • Attended a T&I Master’s program and then entered the working world, or
  • Bootstrapped it as primarily self-taught freelancers, who in most cases started out working with agencies, then either stuck with that but moved up in the agency ranks, or transitioned into the direct client market, doing similar work to what they did for agencies.

In a profession (ours!) where few things are standardized, I feel like this is the closest thing we’ve had to a traditional career path: start out working with agencies, then work for better agencies or work with direct clients. That’s how I started out, and how most freelancers I work with started out as well.

And how about now?

Things in our profession, as in the world in general, are changing. Personally, I don’t think they’re changing for the worse (here’s a whole post about that), but they’re certainly changing. My one-sentence summary of the situation would be, “It’s getting harder to make a living at the low end, and there’s more competition at the high end,” and the changes that I see include:

  • Agencies that are open to entry-level translators (those that base their hiring primarily or exclusively on one’s results on their tests, rather than on one’s credentials or experience) often pay very, very low rates; much lower than they did when I started freelancing 17 years ago. In some cases and for some language pairs (i.e. English into Russian), these rates are so low that they literally cannot go much lower unless translators are asked to pay the agency in order to work.
  • More discerning agencies have a wider choice of translators (because fewer experienced translators want to work for lower-end agencies), and are also under price pressure from their own end clients. They’re looking for higher quality and faster turnaround at lower rates and–I tend to believe–they’re getting it. As an example, I recently received an inquiry from a reputable agency, seeking only ATA-certified translators willing to translate 12,000 words between noon on Friday and noon on Monday, and the request was rescinded just a few minutes later, because they had all the people they needed.
  • More translators are aware of and interested in the direct client market. When I started freelancing in 2002, nearly all the translators I knew worked exclusively with agencies. There were vague rumblings about, “You could work directly with businesses, but it can be hard to find them and they don’t know anything about translation.” Even fewer translators did things like attending client-side events. Now, those things (working with direct clients in general and attending non-translation events) are pretty common: attend an event like AMWA or ACES and I’m sure you won’t be the only translator there.
  • Advice that one might give to an experienced translator–market to direct clients, target your most lucrative specializations, diversify your range of services, attend in-person client-side events–is less applicable to beginners, because they often don’t know enough about the profession to do those things.

And how about the future?

Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? Here’s the dilemma, and I’m asking this because I honestly don’t know the answer.

If you were a beginning translator starting out in the profession right now, and you couldn’t reach your target income on entry-level agency rates, what would you do?

  • Work at entry-level agency rates anyway, just for the experience?
  • Work every angle to try to get work from higher-end agency clients? Attend conferences, meet with them in person, try to get referrals, etc?
  • Cast your net into the direct client market, even without a ton of experience?
  • Pursue a T&I Master’s to make yourself more eligible for in-house jobs or higher-end freelance work?

I find myself recommending a combination of these approaches to the students who take my classes, and many of them are extremely successful at it. Some work the entry-level agency market for a year or two, alongside another job or while setting very modest income goals, then they move on to higher-paying clients. Some do paid mentoring with experienced translators so that they feel more prepared to work with direct clients. Some pursue graduate programs to increase their skills and confidence in preparation for entering the market.

Mostly I’m wondering about the agency-to-direct client career path, now that entry-level agency rates are getting lower and lower. Readers, any thoughts on this? If you’re an experienced translator, how would you start now if you had to? If you’re a beginner, what strategies are you using and how are they working?

13 Responses to “Is the career path for beginning freelancers changing?”
  1. jennifercase8 December 6, 2019
    • Corinne McKay December 9, 2019
  2. C. Matoussowsky (@matou_sky) December 10, 2019
    • Corinne McKay December 10, 2019
  3. Kethrin Johnson December 10, 2019
    • Corinne McKay December 10, 2019
    • Kevin Lossner (@GermanENTrans) December 19, 2019
  4. Robin Bonthrone December 12, 2019
    • Corinne McKay December 12, 2019
  5. christinedurban December 15, 2019
    • christinedurban March 6, 2020
      • Corinne McKay March 6, 2020
  6. Koev Translations December 30, 2019

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