I have now been working as a freelance translator for over 5 months.
Recently I started working with my first direct client and I intend to start marketing to more direct clients from now on.
However, as a newcomer to freelancing (after more than 3 years working as an in-house translator), my first few months have mostly been spent working with agencies.
The advantage to working with agencies is that they find the work for you. This is great for generating an initial regular income. You can then build your translation businesses on this base.
The main disadvantage to working with agencies is that, as for any industry when you are working through an intermediary, the agency will take their cut. This means that your rates for agencies will usually be lower than your rates for direct clients.
I have been very lucky in finding agencies that treat me well and provide me with plenty of work in my specialist areas (aerospace and engineering). I have also been able to gain experience in other fields, because my best agencies revise my work and provide feedback. This provides a safety net for gaining experience in subjects that are slightly outside my specialist area.
Based on my experience working with agencies, here is some advice:
1. Concentrate on building a good relationship with your project managers (PMs). As for anybody, PMs generally enjoy working with people they like. PMs are more likely to want to work with you again if you create a good rapport and prove yourself to be friendly, as well as skilled and reliable.
2. Do not take on too much work. If you have already established a relationship with an agency, turning down work now and again because you are fully booked is not the end of the world. In fact, it shows that you are doing well and have other customers. If you take on too many projects because you are afraid of turning down work, you will just end up missing deadlines, which does not do wonders for your professional credibility.
3. Do not let agencies bully you into lowering your rates. They will try and it is tempting to accept lower rates in the beginning when you just want the work to come in. If you do start out with low rates, it is very difficult to subsequently raise them with agencies. It is hard to determine acceptable rates at the start of your freelance career, as it can be a bit of a taboo subject between translators. However, from experience, if you find yourself inundated with work, you should be asking for a higher rate. I eventually managed to negotiate better rates from my lowest paying agencies, but if you find yourself in this position, your best bet is to keep marketing until you find agencies that pay better, and gradually replace the low payers with high payers.
4. Remember that you are a supplier, not an employee. If agencies start asking you to do extra work for free (glossary building, DTP, etc.), do not be afraid to put your foot down and remind them that time is money for you. If extra work is involved, you should be paid for it. You are not on a salary!
5. If you are contacted by a new agency, check that they are legitimate before accepting any work from them. One way to do this is by checking the Proz blueboard to see if there are any complaints from other translators. There is always an element of risk working as a freelancer, but this way you are less likely to get stung!
Agency work is not for everyone, but it should not be shunned, as it can help set in train your career as a freelancer.