How to transition from an in-house position to freelancing?

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A fellow translator has recently asked me a similar question. He is an experienced translator, but has always worked for the same company/few companies and now wants to break on his own.

First, a disclaimer – I have never done that. I have never held an in-house position. It took me a day working in-house for a translation agency to decide that it was not for me. However, I have transitioned from a full-time job as a medical researcher into freelancing and I believe I may have some useful advice for my fellow translator.
The following tips assume that the reader is already a translator. I am not going into details of qualifications you should/could get, experience, etc. I am assuming you are ready to go, as this is a vast topic that would require several other posts!

This list is by no means exhaustive, but includes some of the steps that I believe to be key to breaking into the translation industry. I will elaborate on some of these topics in future posts, but this may give you a general overview of what you need to do.

1. Prepare an appealing CV, and then create several versions of it. Preparing your CV may be the most important thing that you will do when setting up as a freelancer. It will require you to think about what your skills are, what your target and potential clients could be and ultimately how you are going to approach them. If you choose to approach translation agencies, they will always require a CV. A CV for translation agencies is quite standard in format, except that you do not need to provide your home address in your first contact, as if you were applying for a job. It is worth having at least two versions of this CV. One version you will send to generalist agencies – i.e. agencies that provide translations in any topic. The other CV should target niche agencies, i.e. agencies that specialize in your specialist areas, e.g. medical, legal, marketing, etc.

Then you should have a CV for your direct clients. Make sure you prepare a version of this CV for each type of client that you are going to target, e.g. medical device manufacturers, market research agencies, etc. This CV does not need to be in your standard CV format; it is a marketing tool and if you are going to send it to hundreds of potential clients, you don’t want your personal details spread all over the internet. Furthermore, few potential direct clients will care about where you went to school, etc. unless this is relevant to your specialism. Hence, although you will call it a CV, it should be more like a brochure, highlighting your relevant skills for a particular market.

2. Sing-up to translator job-boards. There are many websites (I mean hundreds) where people can find and hire freelancers, as well as websites specifically for translators. Some of these websites include Freelancer.com, People per hour (for freelancers in general), and ProZ and Translator’s cafe (for translators). Sign-up for as many as you can, create profiles in all of them (make sure you are consistent). You do not need to pay for membership in all of them (not even most!); the idea is to have your profile there. The better ranked these websites are in search engines the more they will help boosting your profile; this is easier than boosting your own website ranking (and you may not have one of those yet!).

Make sure you sign-up for their job notifications.

3. Bid for as many projects as you can. Some of these websites let you bid on projects free, while others require membership. Bid for all projects that suit your skills and are free initially. Over time, based on the notifications you receive, you will figure out which paid websites seem to have the most jobs that you would be interested in bidding for, and then you may pay for membership in those particular websites. Even if you do not get many bids accepted initially, or at all, use this as a tool to learn as much as you can about what skills you have, pricing, wording in your bids, etc. that are getting attention. Test different approaches, wordings to your bids, pricing, etc.

4. Figure out your price. Call agencies and ask for quotes, join translator forums that discuss this, read blogs for translators (there is a lot of good advice out there) and find out what other translators are charging. This is key, because you want to have a competitive price, but also set up a benchmark. You do not want to start by breaking into a slice of the market where you do not want to be, e.g. very low paying agencies.

5. Activate your network. Tell everybody you know about what you are doing now, and then remind them gently. Some of my first and best jobs came from friends’ and former colleagues’ recommendations. Initial marketing efforts like mailing and bidding do not necessarily convert into jobs immediately. You need to persevere with those, because they will eventually work. However, the quickest way to get a translation job is through recommendations.
Do not make the mistake of only letting the people who you think might have some connections with your industry know. Let everybody know! Send out an e-mail, call your closest friends, discuss what you are doing with your family, etc. We never know what people are talking about and who they are meeting; I have had some really good leads come from people who knew in passing what I did, but happened to be asked for a translator and could only think of me. In addition, social media is a good way of reminding people, because if you are posting often, your acquaintances often see your face there, and even if they do not engage with you all the time, they are reminded that you exist and work with translations. That is all it takes when an opportunity arises!

6. Create your image. This is worth spending time on. First, you need to define what channels you will use, how you want to be perceived and how much you can/are willing to invest now, in a year, in five years, etc. When I first started, I was quite bold and quit my job before I actually had enough translation demand. This meant that I had little money to invest and had to be very careful. Hence, I could not afford a professionally designed website, so I signed-up for a web host that had one of those website builders and built my own website. Admittedly, it was not my best website and now I have a much more professional image, but it was coherent with my profiles and had the information that I needed people to know.

I worked very hard on the free tools that I had, such as my LinkedIn profile and my ProZ profile, which I would sometimes use as my “websites”. It does not matter how many channels you choose or can afford to use. Of course having a website, your own domain name, a professional signature and e-mail, a logo, etc. all contribute to conveying your professional image. However, ultimately it will be your coherence and the quality and timeliness of your work that will determine your success. No amount of marketing will make you a good translator, so put more of your effort into that. Do be careful though, make well thought through decisions about how you want to portray yourself, because it will be easy to “upgrade” your image as you progress, but not so easy to change it.

7. Find your target companies online and approach them. I have written a couple of posts on some marketing strategies for translations, including mailing and other tools. You may learn more about them in my posts and through several other bloggers, but I do recommend you refrain from doing this until you have created your image, profile, and decided on your pricing, because you may not have a second chance to make a good impression with a potentially really good client.

These are only 7 tips. As I said at the beginning of this post, there are many other things that you can do, such as joining professional bodies, etc. I will write more on this topic, but if you start working on these now, I am sure they will keep you busy! What else can beginner translators do?

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