First published in March 2007
I’ve spoken before about how important it is to specialise if you really want to make your living as a freelance translator. But I want to do more than just make a living, I also want longevity in my career, so I’ve also tried to heed Chris Durban’s advice when she said “Shifting your focus to a sector that is bound to discover Internet outsourcing any day now is a short-term, short-sighted fix”. Very good point – I don’t want to be one of those translators who is always looking over their shoulder, afraid of being replaced by a machine or another professional working in a country where the cost of living is lower than the UK (that would be most countries, then).
You’ll notice I place a lot of store in Chris’s advice – I think she should be compulsory reading for all newbies. I first heard her speak, again in my formative years, about how to set yourself up as a freelance translator and she really impressed me. She was probably the only translator that I heard say during that time that there was no shortage of translation work, but you had to position yourself for it. She has repeatedly advocated pitching yourself at the higher end of the market.
This approach has definitely paid off for me. Not only have I also discovered to my delight that there is no shortage of work around, I’ve also been well rewarded for the work that I’ve done and have continued to learn and develop (because as you know, for a translator, the learning never stops). But I’m surprised at how many translators don’t seem to appreciate that they don’t do themselves any favours by taking on poorly paid work… I’d get more upset about it only it leaves so much more work for me 🙂
So I’ve learnt that specialising doesn’t only refer to the sector you chose to work in, but also the kind of clients you decide to work with. It’s pretty standard advice to turn down work if it’s not in your area of expertise, but just because you can do a job does not automatically mean you should take it on. Here are a couple of hard-learnt lessons I’ve faced so far:
1. Don’t say yes to everything that comes your way. It may well seem counter-intuitive (especially when you’re starting up and desperate for work) but if the price is not right or you feel the work is bringing you into an area you don’t want to be in, then sometimes the best thing you can do is to turn it down. What happens if you accept the job, then the job of your dreams comes in tomorrow? Will you be able to give it the attention it deserves? Sometimes, no work really is better than crappy work.
2. Don’t worry about over-pricing your services. Clients won’t think less of you if you lower your rates, but it’s much, much harder to increase your rates after you realise they’re too low, especially when you’re only starting out. Premium rates will attract premium buyers (that the standard of your work is also premium goes without saying, of course). Peanuts, on the other hand, will only attract monkeys 🙂
3. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that after a few low paid jobs your client will suddenly see the light and start offering you better paid ones. In fact, the opposite usually occurs – your clients will see you either as someone naïve who doesn’t know the value of their work, or quite simply cheap. Not the personal brand any of us really want, now is it?
4. Work for free rather than for cheap. If you really are struggling to find work and your quiet days are starting to echo unbareably, don’t give in to the lowly paid translation jobs. Take on some pro bono work instead. Even if it means taking a part-time job in another field to tide you over financially, it will pay dividends professionally and help further build your profile in the industry.
Not only is the work very satisfying, I’ve found geniune pro bono clients are often more flexible with their deadlines so I can really take the time to hone my translation skills (and by genuine I mean not-for-profit organisations, not just unscrupulous agencies or cheap-scate companies looking for a free translation). These kind of work providers can also be generous to a fault in offering feedback and you can usually swing a name check on their website or in the document you’ve done for them too. Try here for an organisation I’ve worked with before and can highly recommend. If you’re interested in specialising in localisation, you could always check out SourceForge.net, an open-source software development which hosts more than 100,000 programs, many of which need localising (this work is free rather than pro bono, of course). Either way, you’ll gain a lot more than if you’d taken on work from some shark offering below-industry rates.
I think it helped that I’d had a very well paid corporate job before I decided to go freelance as a translator. Even though this job was not in translation, I saw just how much companies were prepared to pay for excellent service. It forced me to put a price on my time as I didn’t see the point in chucking in a well paid job to go work for peanuts, regardless of how much more satisfying it might be. So I decided early on that this was the approach that I was going to take. I knew that it would be hard, and that it would take balls of steel, but I was determined not to take on jobs that would have me earning below a certain hourly rate. So put a price on your time, and stick to it – it will pay off.