I put a lot of emphasis on the need to understand freelance translation as a small business. You can be a fantastic translator, but it will be impossible for you to earn a living as a freelancer with those skills alone. Indeed, there are probably lots of companies out there ready to hire you as an in-house tranlator, but if you are going to go freelance you really need to learn to think of yourself in business terms.
As is the case with most small businesses, the importance of investment for the success of a budding translator's career can hardly be overstated.
You are finally your own boss, but you are also just a tiny speck in a massive global market. Growth is essential in such a scenario, and you need to bring about that growth one step at a time, slowly but surely, to differentiate yourself from others as much and as fast as possible en route to building your own client base.
I started out as someone who could translate well, but nobody knew me, and, perhaps more importantly, I didn't know anyone who might possibly ever need my services. When I set out to become a professional freelance translator, I had just done some overtime translation work for the news agency I work for, so I decided to re-invest at least part of that money in building up my new career.
The first thing I came across was ProZ membership. I could bid for jobs for 1 dollar a go, at best 12 hours after members bid... or I could subscribe for one year for 133 dollars and stand a real chance of finding a job there.
I was not sure it was worth the money at the time, because my online research delivered conflicting stories. But I worked out that bidding on jobs as a non-member was as good as nothing and thought I might as well take a chance: I had to start somewhere and I did not have that much to lose. I had paid off that initial membership fee in work assignments within 10 days. Literally. And I can say my returns on that investment have been very generous.
I quickly saw that I could further increase my chances if I purchased Trados, so I did that - not immediately, but a month later. Again, it paid off fast enough, even though counting the webinar I needed to do to be able to use it the programme set me back more than 800 dollars.
I found plenty of things to do with my money. I was lucky enough that my sister is a fantastic brand designer and gave me an amazing pro look for free! Business cards and a website were also crucial in my marketing efforts, although I needed to pay for those. Further, I expanded my technical resources with a Microsoft Office licence and a hard drive to back up my files, and I paid for membership of several organizations including the ATA in the hope that they would provide good chances for networking.
As I already mentioned in my post on CAT tools, there is a limit to how much you should invest, at least at any one point in time. You will get great returns on buying one CAT tool, but I think the margin on buying more than one would be considerably smaller. The same goes for translation portals: I remained a non-paying member of Translators Cafe, for example, because I find fewer jobs there that interest me, and they let me at least bid on those for free once they are open to non-members.
There are other programmes that I have felt tempted to purchase in recent months, notably the full version of Adobe's Acrobat, and I have seen countless enticing webinars and courses out there that I would love to take. However, I try to stay sensible: any investment I make at this stage needs to have the highest possible ROI, and it also needs to be convertible to cash as fast as possible.
What you actually need to invest on will naturally depend on where you stand, on where you need to brace your position to secure translation projects that will hopefully bring long-term clients. Some can probably save by building their own website, say, while for others ProZ may be useless and they will find their niche elsewhere. The point is not to stay still, even if it takes some money.
I have very often wondered what would have happened to me as a freelance translator if I had not invested those 133 dollars on ProZ membership. My answer is... probably nothing. I would most likely be one of those people who complain in online forums about how they don't seem to manage to find a single client even though they are great translators, with relevant university degrees and the like.
I was lucky to have a job that could finance the start of my career as a freelance translator. More generally, however, we are all lucky in that our chosen profession is hardly capital-intensive. We do not have to rent expensive premises in comercial areas or hire waiters who we know will have little to do in the months before business picks up. Translation is more likely to require long nights instead, and they are at least cheaper.
However, some form of investment is crucial to jumpstart a freelance translator's career as it would be for any other start-up business. You can invest a little at a time, you can think of it in terms of re-investing a portion of your earnings, but not putting in the little money necessary to grow your business is likely to cost you that essential take-off.