11 tips for new freelance translators on the hunt for their first assignments

By Nicole Y. Adams
Reblogged from NYA Communications blog with permission from the author (including the image)

A while ago a new colleague on a translators’ forum asked for advice on how to secure those all-important first assignments and set up shop as a freelance translator. I think we’ve all been there when we started out and know how frustrating it can be to look for your very first clients. Here are a few things that were suggested by me and other colleagues at the time:

11 tips for new freelance translators on the hunt for their first assignments–   Obtain testimonials from former clients. If you are on good terms with your clients, they are usually more than willing to provide a reference. If you are completely new to freelancing but have translated something in an in-house role, ask your former colleagues. In my experience, testimonials are the ticket to those first clients. As soon as you’ve completed a couple of translations for a client, ask them for a testimonial and showcase it on your website and/or ProZ.com profile. This is essential and should lead to a snowball effect.

–   As a complete beginner, consider taking out ProZ.com membership (if you haven’t done so already). This has been a great stepping stone into a translation career for many colleagues and is a very worthwhile investment for two reasons:

  • You can optimise your profile so potential clients will find you (please don’t waste any time applying to jobs posted on their Job Board section though, as this is not the market you want to be working in!). ProZ.com profile pages rank very highly in Google search results, so they are a great, low-cost marketing tool. Remember that – for our purposes – ProZ.com membership is primarily about being found and being contacted by premium agency clients.
  • You’ll be able to research the Blue Board and identify specific agencies you’d like to work with and blacklist non-payers or other black sheep. Bear in mind that many agencies listed there are low-cost fly-by-night outfits to be avoided, but in amongst them are some excellent, reputable companies, which you will be able to identify with a bit of research.

–   Identify your target market and know what type of client or agency you would like to work with. This may be according to geographical considerations, i.e. you find out which countries pay the highest rates in your language pairs (Swiss agencies tend to pay higher rates than German agencies, for example), and then systematically identify reliable agencies based ontranslator feedback. Or it can be based on your desired areas of specialisation, so that you only apply to agencies who provide, say, legal translations if that’s your thing. There is no point in applying to a technical translation agency if you don’t do technical translations. It is a good idea to stay away from agencies which ask you to fill in a ton of forms or go through a lengthy anonymous online application process. Focus on smaller companies and establish personal connections with the decision-makers and project managers.

–   Set up a website/profile, and make it as detailed as possible. List any translation projects you’ve done in the past, no matter how insignificant you think they may be. Clients need to be able to find you and then see immediately what you can bring to the table, that is, what you specialise in, what you are experienced in and what references you have. Don’t present yourself as a newcomer, but as a professional translator.

–   Whenever you contact a potential new client, make sure your approach is targeted and personal, and definitely avoid bulk applications. Make your CV and cover letter stand out. If you are applying to agencies, bear in mind that they will likely receive several applications each day, so your message will be deleted in a flash if you don’t stand out from the crowd. It might help to let an experienced colleague look over your CV. Don’t include redundant things like your part-time McDonald’s job from your student days, but make it as translation specific as possible.

–   Identify and communicate your unique selling point (Why should a client choose you over another translator?) and specialise in one or two subject areas in which you have expertise, be it through in-house experience or your studies. While it is perfectly acceptable and often inevitable to take on translation assignments in a number of different areas when you first start out, you need to move from generalist to specialist as soon as possible.

–   Don’t charge too little. Rates that are too low will put off serious clients (including high-end agencies!) as they’ll suspect you’ll return poor quality if you don’t charge enough.

–   If you’re really struggling to build your portfolio or to get testimonials, sign up with a couple of volunteer organisations like Translators without Borders to gain more experience and add to your portfolio. You should also be able to get one or two references from them.

–   Are you a member of a translators’ association? If not, try to join one and attend networking events. You may even want to help out and join a committee. Colleagues often pass on assignments or refer colleagues to their clients when they are too busy or on holiday. They might also offer a free mentoring programme, which you may find helpful.

–   Network, network, network! While most of your agency clients will most likely find you via one of your online profiles, your best direct clients will most certainly come from personal contacts, direct recommendations and referrals. It’s also worth telling your former in-house colleagues and old friends from school or university what you do and what services you provide. You’ll be surprised how many of them now own or work in companies that will need translation services at some stage.

–   Be confident and always come across as a professional! Even if you are new on the scene, sound like you know what you are doing to boost the (potential) client’s confidence in you.

12 thoughts on “11 tips for new freelance translators on the hunt for their first assignments

  1. (oops, so embarrassed at the typos: please publish this one instead of previous. Thx;))
    Great tips! As the blogger behind the website TE Blog I can only confirm the victims of the 350odd agencies blacklisted on my blog have generally made the mistakes of having accepted prices which where too low or not researched the companies thoroughly enough. Also, trusting blindly the blue board on Proz proves to be a fatal mistake… Word of mouth and intensive research are your best bet. Spelling mistakes in a mail should really be a warning too.

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  3. Very insightful and confidence boosting practical tips for freelancers taking the first steps! Thanks a million for sharing your wisdom!!!

  4. Thanks for the great tips guys! It’s a must-read for newbie translators. I made it my Post of the Day in my social networks. I wouldn’t rely on Proz heavily. I’d rather focus on building your own website for your translation business and driving all my traffic there instead of bringing my potential clients to Proz where they can easily choose another translator (from a database of 30+ thousand freelancers). It’s bit counterproductive.

  5. QUOTE
    (please don’t waste any time applying to jobs posted on [ProZ] Job Board section though, as this is not the market you want to be working in!)
    UNQUOTE

    I beg to differ on this one.

    While most of the jobs posted on ProZ are indeed at the low end of the market, last year alone I acquired two direct clients by submitting my quotes in response to job postings that looked promising enough. One of the posters represented an insurance company, while the other was from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). In late March 2014 I signed my first contract with them on an independent contractor basis… By now, I have become an approved vendor on the translator roster accessible to three UN system agencies. Twice a year I translate pre-session documents (approx. 50,000-60,000 words) prior to their Executive Committee meetings held twice a year. Interesting assignments… and well-paid at that.

    Generally, I am very thankful to ProZ and its staff, because it was where I secured my first overseas client back in 2003, and 90% of my existing clients come to me as a result of running a search in the ProZ’s translator directory.

    In sincere appreciation of the many different ways in which ProZ has been changing my professional and personal life between 1999 and now, I decided in 2013 to pay my membership fees (I switched to corporate membership in March 2015) for ten years ahead, up to 2023.

    The translation industry is very diverse, there are different translators and different translation agencies. There are opposite opinions on may controversial issues.

    As you are well aware, many fellow translators would not offer discounts for fuzzy matches and repetitions. Again, my attitude to this is quite different. For instance, with one of the clients, and with the agreed rate for repetitions standing at 20% of my regular rate, I sometimes managed to earn US$150.00-200.00 per hour while translating owner manuals and service manuals that came with notebooks, desktops and servers manufactured by a well-known US-based corporation.

    Honestly, I have always been quite happy with the Trados fuzzy match scheme agreed with that particular client…🙂

    • Vladimir, I’m glad to hear Proz worked so well for you! You are right, the industry is diverse,and there could be different solutions for different people. For example, the Chamber of Commerce has been great for me, and others have not found that it worked for them. So, congratulations! However, I suspect those high hourly rates you quote… are rather rare. You do say “sometimes” and “managed”, so I am thinking that’s not exactly the average rate.

      It’s just a question of trying a bit of everything, and remembering to accept things we feel comfortable with. Thanks for a good observation!

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