Starting out as a freelance translator How I made it through year 1




Greater than 7 minutes, my friend!

This post is dedicated to all those who are starting out as freelance translators/interpreters or looking for inspiration.
Actually, I’m a newbie myself. I started freelancing full-time about one year ago. Still, I already met so many inspiring people and gathered so many ideas during this time, that it would be a pity not to share them with you.
I’m really grateful to Dmitry, the initiator of this project, whose passion and enthusiasm I profoundly admire, for giving us all the opportunity to share our thoughts in this uncomplicated way.

I don’t really believe in one-size-fits-all solutions, so I won’t tell you what you definitely should do or do not. I just want to share a few ideas that worked out for me so far and a few lessons I’ve learned throughout this first year.

 

1) Freelancing: How FREE are you really?

Let’s start with some good news: FREE-lancing is great! As a FREE-lancer You’re FREE to…
– work in your pajamas
– get up anytime from your desk to make some coffee or practice your favourite yoga position
– work from your bed or sofa
– refuse jobs or clients if you feel uncomfortable with them
– decide when, where and how to work

On the other hand, this means you have to be self-disciplined and well-organized, if you want to get some work done.
Find out what your most productive hours are. For me it turned out to be 6.30 to 9.30 a.m., before I start getting any phone calls, e-mails or social media notifications. Many of you might prefer to work late at night. Try to schedule tasks that require more concentration (translation, creative writing etc.) in your most productive hours.

On availability:
Even though you are FREE to leave your office anytime you should make sure that phone calls and e-mails from clients reach you. At least, if you want to get paid jobs and be perceived as a professional.

One day, just a few weeks after I started freelancing and moved to Aachen, I got out to register at the local Town Hall, which took longer than expected. Unfortunately, I forgot my phone at home. When I came back 2 hours later and checked my e-mails I found an enquiry for a well-paid big translation project in my field of specialization. I called the contact person, just to find out that the job had been outsourced to another freelancer 1 hour before. I felt stupid for missing the first job enquiry that I had received in weeks.
2) Developing your USP

The first time I read about Unique Selling Points I was quite confused. How am I supposed to be different from my competitors? I offer translations into Italian, specialize in Legal and Marketing like hundreds, thousands of other professionals. And I’m less experienced than most of them. Why should buyers want to chose me?
I have to guiltily admit that after a year I’m still not able to express my USP(s) in a few compelling sentences (working on it).
But asking colleagues and clients for feedbacks about me and my services helped me gain a better idea of what makes me unique and a preferred supplier to some of them. Just to name a few:

– I always try to schedule translation projects so that I can deliver half a day before deadline. Not all competitors do. Outsourcers just love it.
– I am friendly and open in communication with others; if I have a question I don’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask POLITELY
– I offer Search Engine Optimized translations
– I’m one of the few translators in my region who offers the combination English > Italian.

I’m sure you can come up with at least as many USP(s) for yourself.

 

3) The importance of charging fair prices right from the start

Of course you should calculate your desired income before you set your rates. At the end of the day you should earn enough to cover all your business and your living costs and put some money aside to make a living out of it. That’s what we learn at price calculation webinars and that’s completely right.

But hey, I’m ok living in a 30 square meter flat. And travel mainly by bike. I eat meat just once a month. I have a very low cost standard of living. Can I now please lower my rates, so that I can get enough jobs to make ends meet? What the hell, I’ve just started out! I promise, I will increase my rates as soon as I get more jobs…

That’s what I thought at the beginning.

Fortunately I found out soon enough that you’d better charge fair, market oriented prices right from the start, no matter how high your costs of living are. I can think at least of 2 reasons:

1) It’s quite hard to increase your rates afterwards
2) Working for peanuts will earn you a bad reputation among established colleagues as you “damage the market”.

So, go ahead with your calculation, but don’t forget to check market prices for translations in your language pair(s), field(s) of specialization and country.

Ok, but where can I find information about market prices?
1) Look for information on collected and made available by professional associations (I think you should join at least one, but that’s just my personal opinion).
2) Ask.

Ask who? You need to ask someone you trust. Translators platforms and forums are a great thing, but… (once again, my personally opinion) I’ve always preferred to ask someone I know personally, who knows who I am and what my goals are. Someone who’s sincerely determined to help me succeed and not afraid competition. Do you feel the same?
Then you need to find a good Mentor. Some professional association offer mentoring programs matching, mentors with mentees that specialize in the same language pair(s) and live in the same area. I promise I will write more about my mentor in one of my next posts.
4) Looking for jobs and clients
Now that you’ve set your rates, you can start translating/interpreting. Just one thing missing: Clients. People willing to buy your services.

When I started out, I thought the world of translation buyers was divided between two major categories: high paying but demanding direct clients and low paying, unreliable translation agencies.

So I followed a bunch of CPDs about marketing your service to end-clients and I’m still trying to put into practice all the ideas I gathered. But guess what? I found out it’s pretty hard to market your services to direct clients. If they don’t have experience working with PROFESSIONAL translators they might find your rates ridiculously high and in the beginning you might not feel confident enough to carry out a negotiation successfully.
Of course I was able to get some good end-client assignments in this first years, but I got a lot of disappointment too.

So what shall we do, to make my end meets, while we gather the skills required to deal with our dream end clients? Are low paying translation, unreliable translation agencies the only option? Well the truth is…
1) Not all agencies are low-paying and unreliable. There are fine ones, especially the small owner-managed agencies, which not necessarily compete on price. You might find a bunch of them on the ProZ Blue Boards
2) There are some fantastic creatures out there called OUTSOURCING COLLEAGUES: They pay better than agencies and might send you jobs on a regular basis, if one of their biggest clients decides they want to have all their copy translated into your target language from now on.

But where can I meet colleagues who believe in me and are happy to work with me?
I might tell you about translators platforms like ProZ.com, social media groups and forums.
But since I definitely prefer offline, face-to-face communication I’d rather encourage you to join translators gatherings, CPD, translators conferences (believe me, you’ll have the time of your life at these events!), local translator meetings or become active in one or more professional associations.

And… how am I supposed to pay for this? Translation conferences are expensive…
Well it’s really up to you, but I’m afraid all solopreneurs need to make some investments at the beginning of their career.. I personally prefer to save money in my personal life, whereas I’m not that tight-fisted when it comes to my professional development.

I buy my clothes second hand or in sale
I go out for dinner ehm… like once every 4-6 weeks? (But when I do it’s something special and I really enjoy it); luckily, I love to cook too 😉
I DO live in a 30 square meter flat

But hey, no one touches my CPDs, Powwows and translators conferences!

Let me share one last word of wisdom with you:

 

5) Give before you take

This is a mindset and an attitude you should take right from the start, if you want to be successful. Just a few ideas of what you can do:
– share useful information with your client and/or colleagues on your blog and/or social media profiles
– become active in a local business network or in a professional association
– recommend colleagues for translation/interpreting jobs you cannot accept
– give a speech at a translator conference (how scary! I’m a … beginner, what should I talk about? Well.. Maybe the project of your last internship or the topic of your Master Thesis, your favourite social media platform, your field of specialization.. be creative!)

Then publish a post here on The Open Mic. Tell a story about YOURSELF and share what you’ve learnt so far. That’s how we want to grow stronger together and #ShapeUpTheFuture of our profession.

Caterina Saccani - Saccani Translations

About Caterina Saccani - Saccani Translations

Italian freelance Conference Interpreter & Translator, living and working in Belgium and Germany. Languages: Italian, German, English, Dutch

19 thoughts on “Starting out as a freelance translator How I made it through year 1

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your experience, Caterina! I think a lot of people can learn from that.

    “Of course I was able to get some good end-client assignments in this first years, but I got a lot of disappointment too.” – I think that’s the problem many freelancers have. We always feel sorry or disappointed when we can’t win a client or fail at negotiating. I think it’s a wrong mindset.

    That’s why whenever I lose a sale I pick myself up and keep pursuing my dreams. There’s simply no room for disappointment when you’re an entrepreneur. I call every lost sale a lesson. And instead of being bummed out by the fact that I just lost a potential sale worth of 5000 CAD (happened to me few weeks ago) I move on to new clients and new opportunities.

    Once you realize that sales is a loosing game everything becomes much more easier and less painful.

    Congrats on publishing this amazing post, Caterina, I’m going to feature it on all social media accounts tomorrow morning!

    Keep em coming! 🙂

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  2. Caterina, thank’s for sharing your experience about the first year of freelancing. I agree with Dmitry – freelancers should never give up! I also had a situation when I lost a 4000 USD project a couple of moths ago because I was away from PC for half an hour… I pulled my hair out first… but thanks to support of my wise wife I changed my attitude to such failures and now I thinkg positively: I will get twice as bigger and more interesting project instead.

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  3. Thanks a lot for your comments Dmitry, Olga and Simon!
    I very much agree with you. A year ago I would also “pull my hair out” every time I lost a sale because I failed at negotiating, feared responsibility or was just away from my pc.
    Back then I would think I had just missed the opportunity of my life and that I wouldn’t get any other projects like that for ages.
    Now I’m working hard to improve my negotiation skills and try to reply e-mails as soon as possible. When, despite all my efforts, I lose a job to a competitor I don’t give up hope, since I know that new jobs and opportunities are waiting for me.

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  4. Thank you for the useful tips. As for me I am currently doing a BA Hons Degree in English but I like translation whether from English to French or French to English since my high school days which are very far now. Soon I want to work as a Freelance translator from home and hopefully will be able to put into practice your tips. Do you advise me to finish my third year first before starting the Freelance job? thank you for your advice

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    1. Hi Sangeeta,

      I’m glad you liked my tips!
      Regarding your question: I would say it depends on how time consuming your university course is. I remember that I started arranging a few things for my freelance career when I was still doing my Masters’ Degree in conference interpreting: I created a professional website, ordered business cards, joined professional associations, registered for VAT and started attending networking events and CPDs, just to name a few.
      However, my academic schedule was so busy that I had very little time left to concentrate on my career, do proper marketing, look for clients etc., which I started doing after I got my degree. On the other hand I was glad I hadn’t had to do all at once.
      I would advise you start doing just what you can fit in your spare time from university and leave the rest for later. No need to hurry 😉
      Let me know if you have any other question!

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    2. Caterina has some pretty solid advice for you, Sangeeta. I’d recommend using you free time to do a proper market research and determine what fields you would like to work in when you graduate. Translation market is huge that’s why it’s important to understand your niche from day one.

      Once you do that: prepare your business and marketing plan for your first year and stick with it. It’s all about being determined and focused on your goals. And of course, feel free to pop in here and ask questions. We’ll be happy to help.

      That’s the best thing about being in the translation community: we’re genuinely interested in helping one another. The more successful entrepreneurs we can raise the better this industry will become.

      Feel free to register on The Open Mic as well. There’s lot’s of fun things to do here. You can talk with your colleagues, share ideas and even write a personal blog!

      I would definitely read a blog from a newcomer to this industry because you might have a different perspective and it would be very exciting to learn more about your journey in this amazing profession. 🙂

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  5. Hi Caterina, here is Silvia. You may remember me as I think we both gained our BA in Forlì, at Scuola Interpreti 🙂 I’m also starting out as a freelance translator, and I’ve actually been trying to market myself for only half a year now, so I’m still at the very (?) beginning.
    I have a question regarding the approach to direct clients. Have you got any suggestion about that? Again, there’s no one-fits-all solution, I suppose, and yet I would be glad if you could share your experience with it. Any tips? 🙂 Thank you very much, and great post!

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    1. Hi Silvia,

      of course I remember you! Hope you’re fine. As to your questions, I have to admit that approaching direct clients at the beginning is challenging and you might need some planning and strategy. Most direct client assignments I got up to now came through
      – word of mouth: recommendation of other colleagues or contacts (most of them)
      – networking
      – a platform for translators / interpreters in my area
      – professional associations
      – contacts made at trade shows
      – social media
      Whereas my direct mailing efforts have not been really successful up to now (trying to figure out why).

      In the near future I will try out some other measures, including:
      – attending events organized by the local Chamber of Commerce
      – attending workshops, conferences and other events organized by my target clients in the area
      – approach target clients on social media (mainly XING and LinkedIN)

      I’ll keep you posted on this
      I’m awful at cold calling, so I guess I’ll leave it for the moment, but some colleagues are very successful at it.
      And remember: potential clients could be everywhere. Also in your social environment. So don’t forget to always carry some business cards with you, wherever you go.
      Let me know if you have any other questions!

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      1. Indeed I always do! And I absolutely agree with you on the importance of word of mouth and networking. You never know whom you may meet and talk to. And even if it is by chance, you may build a professional relationship from there.
        As regards direct emails, well I must confess your words reassure me. In the sense that it is a technique that has to be refined. And we’re not all good at the same task.
        For now, I guess I’ll try to attend more events as you suggested and would really like to become member of an association.

        Please, do keep me (us) posted, as I’m sure it is a topic in which most of us is interested. And thank you very much for your super clear and detailed answer!

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  6. Hi Caterina!

    Thank you for writing this excellent post.

    I am also a newbie – I have been freelancing for about a year or so – and I can really identify with the points you make! I wrote about my first year here: link to sarahnurgat.co.uk

    I have also found that waking up earlier makes me more productive, which is easier said than done in winter! I also realised that investing in CPD is essential when you’re first starting out, for both learning and networking. Like you, I am very happy to invest in high quality CPD and I believe it will pay off.

    Have you had any luck with your USP? This is also something I’m struggling with.

    I look forward to reading more of your posts.

    Sarah

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    1. Hi Sarah,
      thanks a lot for your comment and for sharing your experience too!
      As to the USP.. good question! I haven’t really been able to measure to which extent clients chose me because of my USP, especially as far as the personal qualities are concerned.
      But in some cases I did have the feeling that the buyer chose my services more because of the person behind the company/product and my personal qualities.
      I promise I will pay closer attention to this aspect in the future, then we can exchange ideas and experiences about it 🙂

      I’m also looking forward to reading more of your posts!
      Have a great day

      Caterina

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  7. Thank you for this article, you made some really good points that showed how much work and thought you have already put in your new career. Unfortunately, not every freelancer is that way – some treat their first year as freelance translators as a sabbatical!
    Have you already approached or considered approaching translation students to share your wisdom? I know I would have enjoyed meeting newbie-but-still-more-experienced-than-I-was translators during my studies. Your advice on taking advantage of one’s free time to prepare for one’s future career by doing research, building a website, etc. would be worth sharing.

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    1. Thanks a lot for your comment Gwendoline!
      You’re definitely right about some fellow freelancers not taking their first year very seriously enough. Which is a pity, because there’s a lot you can do right from the start, when you still don’t have much experience.

      Thanks also for your suggestion that I should share my experience with students! Of course this would be a huge step out of my comfort zone, but it’s definitely worth some consideration.
      Anyway I’m giving a webinar on my first year as a freelancer on link to academia-webinars.de at the end of March. The webinar will be only in German, but if the feedback is good we might consider offering it in English and other languages as well.
      I would love to share my experiences with newbies that are even less experienced than I am 🙂

      Have a great day
      Caterina

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