Transitioning from Student to Freelance Translator

Reblogged from the SDL Trados blog, incl. the image, with permission from the author

In November this year at ATA’s 57th Annual Conference in San Francisco, Meghan McCallum and Sarah Puchner, both French to English translators, co-presented a session on “Transitioning from Student to Translator: Strategies for Success.” After the conference we reached out to Meghan to discuss this topic with her.

A student has just finished their translation degree. What is the first piece of advice you would give them?

I would tell them it’s never too early to start preparing for their freelance career! Even if you’re not planning on freelancing right away, there are many things you can work on in the meantime to prepare. For example, you can build a professional online presence through Twitter and LinkedIn, create a personal website, and attend educational and networking events such as webinars and conferences. You can also use this time to research potential clients and learn what kinds of requirements they have for freelancers in terms of software, education, experience, testing, etc.

What are the main challenges for a student transitioning into freelance translation?

A hot topic that Sarah and I addressed in our session was the vicious circle of “no work without experience and no experience without work.” I think a lot of new freelancers are concerned with experience requirements; if every agency you want to work with is requesting two years of prior experience, how are you supposed to get those years under your belt?

While there is no single “right answer” to this question, Sarah and I provided a few ideas to help these freelancers get over the hurdle. First, there are some agencies that do not require a certain number of years of experience. Interested translators are vetted based on their work on the agency’s translation tests, regardless of how many years they have under their belt. This is a great way for a new but good translator to get their foot in the door.

Another route is to consider the translator’s experience with translation tasks in graduate school, internships, and volunteer work. Even if these weren’t full-time freelancing gigs, many potential agency clients will consider this work as valid towards the experience requirement.

Should a student looking to become a freelancer join associations such as ATA and purchase Proz.com membership?

I highly recommend joining the ATA and attending the ATA conference as a student—there’s a great discounted rate to encourage students to attend. Of course, hopefully you’ll renew your membership even after you’re no longer a student, too! The ATA conference is a valuable educational and networking opportunity, and it’s a lot of fun as well. Since the majority of our work is online, the ATA conference is also a rare occasion to meet colleagues (and potential clients!) in person.

As for a ProZ.com membership, I certainly recommend starting with a free account and setting up an online profile for potential clients to find you. From there, you can explore the features and decide if a paid membership would be right for you. In any case, I highly recommend taking advantage of any online profile you can have out there—the easier it is for potential clients to find you online, the better!

How important is creating your own website and the role of social media for a freelance newbie?

Again, I strongly believe that freelancers should take advantage of any free online platforms they can. In our ATA session, Sarah and I focused on Twitter in particular. Twitter is an easy way to have “water cooler” talk with colleagues, keep up with the latest industry news, and practice writing skills. After all, narrowing your messages down to 140 characters is a sort of writing exercise. Our bottom line was to keep tweets professional (use a separate account for personal use, if you like); keep in mind that potential clients and colleagues can see everything you put out there!

As for a website, some new freelancers might find the task a bit daunting, and in that case I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily required right away. I do think it is something you should have on your radar for the long term, though. It’s another great way for colleagues and potential clients to find you, and it really solidifies your professional online presence.

Before getting started on a website, decide whether or not you’re comfortable building it yourself. I built my own website during nights and weekends when I was still working at an agency, and when I launched my freelance business it was actually really exciting to have the website ready to go right away.

Networking is more important than ever for a translator. What advice would you give to a student who might find it daunting?

If you’re feeling particularly shy about putting yourself out there, I recommend starting small; see if there are any local translator meetup groups or events in your area. The ATA also has many local chapters covering various regions of the US, and these chapters host networking events and conferences as well. This is a great way to meet colleagues without feeling overwhelmed by a huge number of attendees or multi-day travel.

Of course, I can’t stress online networking enough! Meeting colleagues at a conference is actually a lot easier if you’ve had some online contact ahead of time. This is where Twitter can come in handy yet again. Sarah and I encourage following translators with the same language pair and/or similar fields of expertise. When you run into each other at the conference, you’ll be able to easily transition from an online conversation to a face-to-face one.

In your opinion, how important is it for a student moving into freelance translation to learn about computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools?

It really pays to put in the time to learn all necessary technology, from social media to e-mail to CAT tools. These days more and more students are learning and practicing CAT tools in translation programs, which I think is great. Technology should be included in all translation programs; it’s a great way to give the students a feel of what skills they need to succeed beyond translation and writing.

CAT tools aren’t cheap, but they are necessary. Before buying, translators should test out various tools to compare them. Most tools offer free trial periods or demo versions that allow translators to try before they buy. And translators can ask their potential agency clients which tools they use; most agencies do have a preferred tool and require their translators to work with it.