With a background in landscape planning and several years’ freelance experience as a copywriter, editor and desktop publisher, in 2001 Betti Moser decided to qualify as a German translator so she could work from home more often. Currently based in London, Betti talks to us about about setting up a freelance practice, finding clients and marketing yourself as a freelancer.
Sarah Dillon: Can you tell us a little about your background and how you got into translation?
Betti Moser: I originally studied landscape planning in Berlin (my home city), then moved to England and ended up working for a practice of architects and urban designers who specialised in organising and running ‘Community Planning Weekends’, a methodology for involving the public in the planning process. This was the mid-90s, with a recession in the UK and a boom in Germany – especially in planning and urban regeneration. So, naturally, they were looking to apply their participative planning method in Germany, which was where I came in.
I worked for them for five years all in all (two of those in full employment, the rest on a freelance basis), taking part in countless planning weekends throughout the UK and in Germany, and I soon became the person responsible for coordinating, editing, desktop-publishing and to some extent also writing the reports that were produced after these events.
For the events in Germany, these were often in two languages, so I ended up translating design statements from English into German and workshop reports from German into English, or writing English summaries of German texts. That was how I first discovered that I enjoyed translation and seemed to have a knack for it. I also generally acted as the link between the German and English team members (the way these events work is that they bring together a large interdisciplinary team – about 20–30 people). This was particularly interesting, as it made me aware of many of the subtle cultural differences that aren’t immediately obvious under normal circumstances.
Eventually I stopped doing planning weekends, as I no longer enjoyed the gruelling hours and being away from home all the time. I continued freelancing, mainly doing desktop publishing (in QuarkXPress) and general office support. Often this also involved drafting, copy-editing and proofreading texts. And this, in turn, led to clients asking me to produce or improve their marketing copy for leaflets, brochures and websites.
Much of this still meant working in my clients’ offices though, and in early 2001 I decided that I really wanted to be able to work from home more (the ultimate objective being that I wanted to move away from London… It still hasn’t happened, but will soon!). I therefore sat down and reviewed the skills I had and things I’d enjoyed in the past, to figure out what would enable me to do so. And that’s when translation came up again as a choice of profession. I found out about the ITI and the IOL DipTrans, signed up for the exam, enrolled on a distance learning course, and two years later I was a fully qualified translator – all I needed was to find some clients… which is another story altogether, of course. I suppose it didn’t help that at this point I had so much other work through my existing clients that I never quite got round to marketing myself as a translator. Things only really took off properly once I had taken part in the PSG [the ITI’s Professional Support Group] in 2005.
SD: What’s a typical day like for you? (insofar as any freelancer has a ‘typical’ day!)
BM: I don’t really have a typical day at all. But I try to follow some routine to make up for the haphazardness of life as a freelancer. I usually try to get up at 6.30am and do some yoga first thing in the morning (and, no, I don’t always succeed with the 6.30am start! But I do usually manage to squeeze in some early-morning yoga). By about 8.30am or 9am at the latest I tend to be at my desk. First I check my emails and deal with anything that needs dealing with, then I refer to my to-do list for the day and do whatever is on there – this may be marketing or other business development activities, committee commitments, other, non-translation work, websites to update or whatever. Or, if I have a translation to work on, I’d obviously just be getting on with that.
In the afternoon I try to go for a walk if possible, though I don’t always manage that. Still, I aim to go at least twice a week. We have a common nearby, which is quite wild, with open grassland, gorse and hawthorn, a small woodland and a pond. It’s my sanctuary and I need those walks – they’re what I call “soul maintenance”.
I usually finish work at about 6 or 7pm, when I catch up with any domestic chores and make dinner. If necessary, I use the time between 9 and 11pm to do some more work. At other times I just flop in front of the telly, sit and chat with my husband, or try to get on top of my ever-growing reading pile.
SD: Could you tell us how you approach finding new clients?
BM: Last year, I finally launched my website www.apriltext.co.uk. This was meant to be the prerequisite for some proactive marketing. However, by the time the site went live I was so completely snowed under with work that the marketing campaign never really got off the ground. I’m now due to review and update my marketing plan, so I need to sit down and do some thinking about whom I need to target with this.
In the meantime, I’m doing a lot of networking – not so much via the internet, but mostly face to face. I have learned that meeting people directly seems to work best for me, so I’m currently trying to figure out ways to do as much as possible of that, but without spending all my time and money on it! (I have a tendency to get a bit carried away when it comes to attending conferences, training courses, talks, seminars etc. – being a member of three professional institutions doesn’t help either. There are also literally hundreds of business networking organisations out there, but a lot of them charge membership fees and you have to make a commitment of attending at least one event per month to get your money’s worth. So I need to set a budget and prioritise.)
In the past, I’ve been concentrating my networking efforts mainly on the translation industry itself – and I have got some great contacts, gained clients and even made new friends that way. However, it occurred to me earlier last year that, if I want to meet potential clients, I needed to look outside the industry. It’s obvious, really, but you have to think of it first…! And it’s a lot easier to network within the safety of your own profession – it’s much scarier to got out there and market yourself to the rest of the world.
But, generally, my approach is to just cast the net wide and to network with people I enjoy networking with – there’s no point doing it if it isn’t fun! And then it’s just a matter of seeing what unexpected things might arise from it. It seems to work quite well, most of the time. Though at times you have to keep your faith that something good is just round the corner. In my experience it quite often is!
SD: Any tips on dealing with clients generally, either direct or agency?
BM: I have a very friendly working relationship with all my clients. It is important to me that communication is open, straightforward and informal. I feel uncomfortable with people who are very formal.
Fortunately, I work mostly with people in publishing and advertising, so the informal tone almost comes with the territory. And the translation companies I work with are carefully selected for being pleasant to work with. I am very choosy about my clients!!
SD: What’s the best piece of advice about setting up as a translator that anyone has ever given you – or that you wish someone had given you?!
BM: All the advice and tips I got from participating in three years of ITI Peer Support Groups (first as a mentee, and then for two years as an ex-mentee) was absolutely invaluable. I never stop singing the praises of the ITI-PSG! In fact, most of my early translation clients came directly or indirectly through PSG contacts. One of them still is among my all-time favourite clients.
But if I had to pick one piece of advice alone, I think the advice I would give to people is to hone their target language writing skills and to find a field to specialise in. In the long run, you cannot compete on price (i.e. quantity) as a translator. Not unless you want to run yourself into the ground – or live on the breadline for the rest of your life.
The only way to sell yourself confidently is if you compete on quality and subject competence. To buck the “peanuts-for-monkeys” trend, the industry urgently needs confident translators who charge proper rates and deliver high quality translations.
Thank you for sharing your experiences with us Betti. And it’s always great to hear from a fellow PSG alum!