During my undergraduate degree in translation, I felt like I was very prepared for a career in translation. I excelled in my language classes and the translation classes prepared me to thoroughly read a translation brief and identify tone, audience, and purpose so that I could carefully craft a beautiful translation. What more is there to know?
Oh, how unprepared was I… While translation programs are great when it comes to language mediation and translation theory, they seem to be lacking in the areas of client acquisition, marketing, payment practices, and starting a freelance business. (This is my personal experience; however, I have heard similar thoughts from other newly graduated translators.)
As a recent graduate and newbie freelance translator, I felt lost when it came to anything outside the realm of language. So, through lots of research in forums, books, blogs, and translators’ websites, I learned the fundamentals of being a professional translator. I am still learning, but here are some of the concepts that I wish I had known before I graduated:
You will not be translating for 40 hours a week
When I imagined working as a freelancer, I thought of myself translating away for eight hours a day. Little did I know that a lot of my time would actually be spent talking with clients, managing invoices, surfing translation job boards, updating/creating my website, and much more. I really only spend about half my time translating.
You will be an entrepreneur
Freelancing sounds amazing; you don’t have a boss and you work the hours you want. In that same regard though, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. Learning to manage my time took a while and motivating myself to get up early to work even if I don’t have a project to do that day is hard.
Success doesn’t happen overnight
Getting established as a freelancer takes time. Sometimes you will work for a client that has a tight deadline and you will stay up late and wake up early to finish the project. Yet other times, you will not have any paid work in the pipeline. I learned that putting myself out there often was absolutely necessary if I wanted to find more agencies to work with. Patience is a trait I have been learning to lean on.
You should file as a business and pay taxes
As an entrepreneur, you will have to organize your own business. Whether you decide to create an LLC, a corporation, or a sole proprietorship, you must establish your business in the state that you do business in. Make sure that you do your research to figure out which business filing is best for you. Being a business owner was something I never even thought about during my studies.
You will also have to do your own taxes for the business and pay yearly, quarterly, etc. This can seem very daunting, so hiring a professional accountant to help might not be such a bad idea.
You have to find your own clients
As I said before, you have to keep putting yourself out there, because otherwise no one will know that you even exist. I cannot count the number of agencies I have contacted asking if they need translators in my language pair and then heard nothing back. Researching prospects takes a lot of time but will be worth it.
This also means that having a website and an online presence is essential so that potential clients can find you. Even just having an updated and professional LinkedIn profile is important.
I didn’t have one class that talked about what we were all wondering about: money. In the translation industry, it is almost taboo to talk about what to charge because of price fixing. Yet this means that when I started out I didn’t know if I should be charging 2 cookies a word or 20 cookies a word, or if I should charge by the hour. How could I calculate that? Through more research and the help of Corinne McKay’s ‘Deciding what to charge’ worksheet I was able to realistically get an idea of what I can charge and still pay rent.
Accepting payments is also something I never thought about. I’d do the project, the client would send the money, and that’s it. Not so simple. Some agencies only send payments through PayPal or TransferWise, but others will pay you through bank wire transfer. Figure out which option works best for you and your clients. Sometimes wire transfers are too expensive, and PayPal doesn’t accept all currencies. In the end, it takes money to make money, so finding a completely free option might be hard or unsafe.
In reality, the argument for why translation programs don’t teach about the business side of translation is that they are teaching you how to translate, not how to run a business, which I understand as well. So, to the translators who are still pursuing a degree in translation: ask your professors questions about the profession while you still have the time. I sat down with one of my advisors and asked a lot of questions at the end of my last semester, which helped immensely. Read through the great resources for translators out there (The Savvy Newcomer!) and start networking with established translators who may be able to guide you in your first year.
About the author
Olivia Albrecht is a French and Spanish to English translator and copywriter specialized in marketing and tourism. She has a B.S. from Kent State University in translation studies and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in digital marketing. She splits her time between living in Canton, Ohio, US and Cali, Colombia. You can find out more about Olivia on her website at www.oneglobetranslation.com or on Twitter at @OneGlobeTR.