Greetings, readers! This week’s newsletter is for those on the more beginner end of the spectrum; those who are looking for their very first freelance clients. That’s where I was in late 2002; I had:
- A Master’s degree in French Literature
- A baby
- A desire to do a job where I could use French and work part-time from home
That was about it! I had taken a translation class during my study abroad year in France, and loved it, and I had done a small amount of translation as part of my French literature M.A., but I otherwise had not much translation experience, and no contacts in the translation profession or the language industry. Yet, I had a feeling that translation and interpreting were the route I should go.
I talk to a lot of freelancers who are in this position: people who say, I know I can do this job, or even I feel like I’m meant to do this job, but where do I start? Lots of people face a chicken/egg situation: Clients don’t want to hire them without experience, but how do they get experience if they have no experience? Here are a few strategies that I would suggest.
- First, make sure that you can actually do the job. Take the practice test for the ATA exam (this is what I did), or pay a professional translator to evaluate your work, or take a college-level translation course where you get individual feedback from someone in your language pair. Even if you consider yourself “bilingual” (a term used more by the general public than by translators and interpreters, in my experience), don’t just dive in. Get an evaluation of your skills first, unless you already have a translation or interpreting degree.
Then, you need some clients! Your next decision point is:
- Do you have the skills and experience to work with direct clients, straight off the bat?
- Or are you looking mostly at agencies?
This is a tough call; honestly, tougher than when I started in 2002. Why? Because, back then, even really big agencies that based their hiring mostly on their own tests (and thus were good targets for people without much experience) paid around 10 cents a word for French to English. You’re not going to get rich translating for 10 cents per word, especially when you’re a slow beginner, but it’s also not minimum wage. I’d estimate that I was making around $40 an hour on these types of projects when I first started out.
These days, I don’t know that anyone (maybe Japanese translators; maybe?) makes double-digit cents per word working for mega-agencies. My sense is that since the early 2000s, rates have dropped by about half; and if I were a beginning translator making the equivalent of $20 an hour, and paying self-employment tax on that (so more like $17 an hour in a salaried job, which is less than what my college student daughter makes at her current summer job), I’d think really hard about my goals. Not saying, don’t do it. I have former students who started with mega-agencies and don’t regret it. But I think you want to have a “get in, and get out” strategy: don’t get stuck translating 4,000 words a day for 6 cents a word for the rest of your life, or you’ll burn out, hate the job, or both.
Specific strategies I would recommend:
- Remember that any kind of cold marketing (to agencies or direct clients) is a numbers game. Cold marketing works, but you have to do a lot of it in order to see results, and most freelancers’ real problem is that they don’t do enough of any kind of marketing to see results. I applied to more than 400 agencies during my first year as a freelancer, and it still took around a year and a half until I had full-time work. If you’re cold marketing to direct clients, don’t expect major results until you contact at least 100 people.
- Don’t ignore the local market. When I started out, I asked every agency in my local area for an informational interview, “to learn a little more about them and how I might fit in.” I think that I contacted about seven agencies, of which four agreed to the informational interview, of which all four told me that they “didn’t have much work into English,” or “didn’t work with translators with less than five years’ experience,” of which all four eventually sent me work, when they got a new client, one of their regular translators was busy/sick/too expensive, or something else. I found that those informational interviews (which you could now do over Zoom) were really effective.
- Make peace with boring, repetitive marketing. Applying to agencies is just a matter of cranking out the applications and following up two to four times after you apply. “Just checking that you received my application; do you need anything else from me?” Connecting with their employees on LinkedIn. Sending them a handwritten note. “Just checking back in; looking forward to the possibility of hopefully working together!” Wash, rinse, repeat. It’s not creative or intellectually demanding, you just have to do it. Same with direct client marketing: make an e-mail or LinkedIn connection template, personalize it with the person’s name (see the link above to last week’s newsletter for examples), and crank it out.
- Consider a micro-specialization if you want to work with direct clients. In general, I feel kind of scared for beginning translators who dive right into the direct client market. Not because they might not be good translators, but because they don’t really understand how translation projects work and what can go wrong. However, I think one exception to this would be people who target a micro-specialization where they work only with one kind of client: Japanese patent law firms, or German content marketing agencies, or Mexican luxury resorts. This seems more doable to me, because you’re translating similar types of documents and you have the chance to quickly learn how these clients’ projects work.
- Consider pursuing certification as soon as you can. Opinions on this will vary. I made a lot of mistakes during my first year as a freelancer, but I did a couple of things right, and one of them was taking and passing the ATA exam in my first six months as a freelancer. This wasn’t a magic bullet (if only!), but it allowed me to approach higher-quality agencies with a pitch like, “I’ve only been freelancing for a year but I have my ATA-certification,” and it opened the door to translating official documents for individuals, a specialization I still work in today. I just think that passing a certification exam shows that you have a clue about what you’re doing, and you’re willing to invest some time and money in establishing yourself as a serious professional, both of which are impressive to clients.
- If you’re an interpreter, get some credentials or a Master’s degree. In my experience, having a Master’s in translation is a plus, but rarely a must. I’ve honestly never heard of a client who says, “We only work with translators who have a Master’s in translation.” On the interpreting side, it’s a lot different. Court certification opens the door not only to court interpreting, but to (much more lucrative) work for law firms. I have a couple of interpreting agency clients whose main filter is whether you have a Master’s in conference interpreting. In my experience, it’s worth it as an interpreter.
Most of all, I would say this: I’ve started from zero as a freelancer, twice. I mentioned my translation origin story above, and when I got my conference interpreting Master’s degree in July 2021, my only interpreting client was the Colorado state court system, and my only conference interpreting experience was the events that we were required to interpret for as volunteers in my program at Glendon. My first year as a freelancer, I made $9,000. This year, I’m on track for mid-six figures. Honestly, if I can do this, you can do this.
For those of you on the beginner end of the spectrum, I hope that these tips are helpful! Don’t forget that if you’d like to aim for a six-figure income, or improve your editing and proofreading skills, our September master classes are open for registration.
Corinne McKay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Training for Translators, and has been a full-time freelancer since 2002. She holds a Master of Conference Interpreting from Glendon College, is an ATA-certified French to English translator, and is Colorado court-certified for French interpreting. If you enjoy her posts, consider joining the Training for Translators mailing list!