How to become a successful freelance translator
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After completing their translation training
programmes at higher professional education or university
level, many students can’t wait to set up as a freelance
translator. However, gaining a foothold as a freelancer
in a very competitive translation market may turn
out to be a pretty complicated business. Translation
agencies are not usually keen on contracting inexperienced
translators, business clients are difficult to find
without commercial tools, and the tax authorities
won’t just accept anyone as a self-employed person.
So what do you need to do to set up shop as a successful
Most translation agencies are wary of admitting new
freelancers into their networks. After all, it takes
a while before it really becomes clear whether a freelancer
can live up to their expectations: does he/she stick
to agreed deadlines, offer a consistent level of quality,
consult relevant reference resources, deal effectively
with various registers and specialisations (commercial,
technical, medical, financial, IT, etc.)? Many translation
agencies begin with a ‘trial period’ in which they
closely monitor the work submitted by new freelance
translators. To reduce the risk of a fiasco – and
avoid the associated costs – translation agencies
normally only accept applications from freelance translators
who have had at least two or three years’ fulltime
experience in the translation business.
In their attempts to introduce themselves directly
to companies, freelancers usually find it difficult
to gain access to the people that matter and, once
they are there, to secure orders. Companies tend to
prefer outsourcing translation services to partners
that are able to offer comprehensive solutions. They
look for agencies that can fill their translation
needs in a range of different languages, are always
available, can take on specialised texts and have
the procedures in place to ensure that all deadlines
are met. In view of their need for continuity, capacity
and diversity it is hardly surprising that many companies
select an all-round translation agency rather than
individual freelancers. An agency may be more expensive
than a freelancer, but the additional service and
quality guarantees justify the extra investment.
Tips to achieve success as a freelance translator
What steps will you need to take after graduation
to develop into a successful freelance translator?
1. After completing your studies, it’s best not
to present yourself on the market straightaway as
a freelance translator, but first to find employment
at an all-round translation firm and spend a couple
of years there to gain the necessary practical experience.
As a salaried employee your income will be less
compared to what you might potentially earn in a
freelance capacity, but don’t forget that without
experience you’re never going to be successful in
the first place. In many cases, you will be assigned
to a senior translator who revises your translations,
monitors your progress, and makes you aware of your
strengths and weaknesses. This will enable you to
acquire the skills and baggage you need on your
way to becoming a professional translator, and will
give you the opportunity to experiment with various
types of texts and disciplines.
2. If you can’t find a position in paid employment,
try to find a post as an (unpaid) trainee. A translation
agency may not have the capacity or resources to
take on new staff, but it may still be able to offer
you an excellent training post to help you gain
practical experience in a commercial environment.
A traineeship may serve as an effective springboard
for a career in the translation business, perhaps
even within the same agency that offered the traineeship.
3. After having whetted your skills at a translation
agency for a number of years, you may decide that
the time has come for you to find your own clients.
Ideally, you should move on to a part-time contract
so that you have enough time to recruit clients
and work for them, and enough money to live on.
It is important to make clear arrangements with
your boss at this stage, to avoid a conflict of
interests. The best strategy is to send your personal
details and CVs to a selected group of professional
translation firms and translation departments within
companies and governmental institutions, explicitly
referring to your work experience. Don’t forget
to highlight your willingness to do a free test
4. Make sure to register as a self-employed person
with the relevant tax authorities and seek their
advice if necessary.
5. Once you have managed to find enough freelance
work to keep yourself busy for around 20 hours a
week, you might consider terminating your employment
contract and devoting the extra time to attracting
new business. In 20 hours most experienced freelance
translators tend to earn around as much as a full-time
translator in salaried employment.
These are obviously very general guidelines, and
your personal career may evolve along quite different
lines depending on your preferences, skills and personal
conditions. Whatever your circumstances, however,
you will find that experience and a certain amount
of business acumen are the things that matter most
in a successful freelance career.
Fester Leenstra is co-owner of Metamorfose Vertalingen,
a translation agency in Utrecht (The Netherlands).
After having worked for several translation firms
in paid employment, he took the plunge in 2004 and
incorporated his own company.
For further details about Metamorfose
Vertalingen, visit www.metamorfosevertalingen.nl
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