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Why do some freelance translators fail?

15 April 2013 Monday


I’m not a great “tough love” advice-dispenser, but I’m going to give it a try. I work with a lot of beginning translators in my online course (shameless self-promo: the next session starts on April 3 and there are four spots left!). When I follow up with students over the months and years after they finish the course, or when I talk to beginning/aspiring translators in general, some of them have “made it” as freelancers and some of them haven’t. In thinking about advice for translation newcomers and translation students, I’ve unscientifically identified a few pitfalls that can cause serious problems for people who are in the freelance launch phase. I’m sure that readers have great tips and anecdotes too…so feel free to add them!

•    Expecting too much return from too little marketing effort. I get a lot of inquiries from beginning freelancers who are “very discouraged because they’ve applied to over 30 translation companies and received no work.” I know I’ve said this a few (hundred) times before, but here it is again: during my first year as a freelancer, I applied to over 400 translation companies. Then, I sent every single company that responded positively a hand-written note with a business card, thanking them for their response and letting them know that I looked forward to working with them in the future.

•    Expecting the startup phase to be shorter than it is. I think that six months is the bare minimum that anyone can expect–two months to look for work, two months to do the work and two months to get paid. A year is probably more realistic, and I think that most freelancers reach “cruising speed” after about three years.

•    Having weak language skills. As often stated by Chris Durban, author of The Prosperous Translator, it’s hard to develop the linguistic and cultural competence that a translator needs, without spending at least a year in your source language country/ies. And don’t hang out with speakers of your target language the whole time you’re there!

•    Not putting yourself out there. I get it: you’re not good with strangers, you don’t want creepy exes finding your address online, and so forth. But the simple truth of freelancing is that people cannot hire you if they cannot find you. They can’t refer work to you if they don’t know who you are. So whether it’s in person or online, or preferably both, you have to come out of hiding.

•    Getting stuck on the low rate treadmill. This is a tough one. Most beginning translators don’t set out to be underpaid, but working is better than not working, and you have to start somewhere if you want to break in to the industry. Many beginning freelancers tell themselves that in a few months or years, they’ll trade up to better-paying clients. But if you’re translating 10 hours a day just to pay the bills, it’s hard to find that time, so you’re more likely to stick with the low-paying bird in the hand.

•    Remaining in denial about how much work it is to be self-employed. A wise self-employed person once said that being an entrepreneur means working 60 hours a week for yourself so that you don’t have to work 40 hours a week for someone else. I’m a firm believer in avoiding perpetual overtime, but the essence of this statement is true. I recently gave a talk on self-publishing, after which many of the attendees commented that the idea sounded intriguing, but “like a lot of work.” Um…yeah! It is a lot of work, but I’m more interested in putting that work into my own project than into lining a traditional publisher’s pockets. The same is true of being a freelancer. It’s a lot of work! Did we mention that it’s a lot of work? But the ability to make your own decisions and take responsibility for your own future makes it worth it.
Wise readers, over to you! Why do you think some beginning translators don’t make it?

Corinne McKay