To be a good translator, as a bare minimum, you need to:
- Master your source (foreign) language(s),
- Be a great writer in your target (native) language,
- Have a translation qualification or exceptional foreign language skills and industry experience,
- Have in-depth knowledge of the culture of your source and target languages,
- Deliver your work on time,
- Have a Quality Assurance process in place,
- Set rates that reflect the quality of the work you produce,
However, to go from being someone who knows how to translate to being a thriving freelance translator, you should also consider the following:
1. Find your niche
As a qualified generalist, you can almost certainly find work with big agencies, but they usually only agree to pay low-to-average rates and have you working under mediocre conditions (quick turn-around times, volume discounts, degressive pricing with CAT tools, etc.). If you really specialise in a subject area (preferably in something you are passionate about), you can target specialised agencies and direct customers, who will recognise you not only as a translator, but as an expert in your field. The more specific the field the better. Remember, as a specialist, you can still take on general translations from your customers, but as a generalist you will not be able to offer the services of a specialised expert and command the corresponding rates. There are various ways to specialise and a whole plethora of specialist areas, which I will cover in another post.
2. Identify your customers
As you specialise, you will already be narrowing down the pool of your best target customers. At this point you really need to do your research to find out who they are (age, gender, location, interests, etc.) so as to make it easier to speak their lingo. This doesn’t just mean speaking their language; it means speaking to them and translating for them in their preferred register and style and using their industry-specific terms. For example, you may not want to communicate with a 50-year-old lecturer at a French university requiring the translation of an academic article in the same way you would with a 23-year-old yoga teacher needing her website localised. When you really take the time to identify your customers and speak to them in the language they use, you are in a better position to market yourself to potential new customers and one step closer to creating a REALationship with existing customers, thus increasing the likelihood of repeat custom, provided, of course, that you do a great job.
3. Mind your business
Regardless of where you are in your freelance career, you need to know the current condition of your business if you want to nurture and develop it, meaning you need to set time aside to track and analyse how you are doing. When you monitor your exact income and expenditure, know how you divide your time and are aware of who your customers are and where you would like to go next with your business, you will be able to set yourself specific goals (financial, performance, customer-related, and so on) and determine how you will be able to achieve these goals via concrete, achievable steps. For example, let’s say you want to add one new direct customer per month to your base. To do so, you need to first do your research to find out who the best potential customers are and spend a certain amount of time every week reaching them via your preferred method (trade conferences, direct marketing, inbound marketing, content creation, etc.). You also need to monitor your progress to make sure you are on track to reaching your goals. To grow your business, you need to be organised, analytical and consistent.
4. Provide great customer service
This is important when working with agencies and vital when working with direct customers. You need to be able to support your customers throughout the whole translation project. This requires great communication skills (politeness and good manners are a must), the ability to stay calm in the event of unforeseen issues and the capability to demonstrate your language-service competency at all times (for example, pointing out when something is not culturally appropriate for target-language readers, reporting source-text errors so that the customer does not publish a source text with mistakes, etc.). You also need to be willing to respond to customer feedback after delivery and make changes or check the text in the final copy to be published to make sure no errors were introduced in the design process. This kind of service is not going to be cost-effective if you are charging a low-end per-word rate, so make sure you incorporate these steps into your rate and communicate that to your customer.
5. Think critically
If there is something that does not make sense to you, don’t just take your best guess. Send the customer your query. Show the research you have done and offer the solutions you have found. From personal experience working in the aerospace industry, sometimes no amount of research brings you to the right term. For example, if an engineer has made up a word for a tool based on its appearance, without asking the engineer in question, you would never find what you were looking for as the tool does not really exist under that name. If, for example, you notice a figure that you are pretty sure is wrong and you know what it should be, point it out. Don’t just change it though – you wouldn’t want to introduce an error. Always check via email, not over the phone. As one colleague used to repeat... “cover your ass”. Contrary to what you might think, asking customers questions does not make you appear incompetent. It shows you are thorough and able to think critically.
6. Know your limits
It is much better to make conservative promises and over-deliver than to make huge promises and under-deliver. Therefore, don’t accept deadlines that are too short, or you will end up delivering work that is not up to your usual quality or delivering late. Also, don’t accept work in a specialist area that you know nothing about. Not only will you end up spending far too much time researching every term you don’t know, you are likely to deliver a translation that does not meet the customer’s expectations. Honesty is the best policy. If you don’t have time, say so. If you don’t feel comfortable with the text, tell the customer and perhaps recommend a peer who is specialised in that area.
7. Have your work peer-reviewed
It is a good idea to have a trusted peer check your work before sending it off to a direct customer (agencies usually have in-house teams checking your work — don’t be afraid to ask for feedback). As well as making extra certain that you have not missed an error in your translation, colleagues might have a nice turn of phrase or added subject expertise to make your translation even better. However, only work with a colleague who is specialised in your area, otherwise you may have to waste time rejecting changes and answering unnecessary queries.
8. Never stop learning
Whether you opt for Continuing Professional Development (CPD) in the form of training in your specialist area or in marketing or business development in general, it really is worth investing some of your time to learning and growing. You may be a top-notch translator with a great business plan, but if you don’t take the time to work on your skills and your business, you may end up staying in your comfort zone, and your comfort zone is often the place where you become complacent. To avoid this, attend conferences, webinars, take online courses, and so on. There is always something to learn and often there are great free online resources and events. For example, I recently attended the online Financial Success Summit for Translators, where I picked up a lot of knowledge that I am sure will help me take my business forward.
Remember, you are not just a freelance translator, you are a business owner, a customer-services department, a marketing department, a credit controller, and the list goes on. To thrive in this industry, you not only have to be able to translate, you have to have a unique selling point, a business mindset and you need to regularly remind yourself that the only way is up.