17 May 2013

Credibility as a crucial asset for freelance translators

As I become more and more engaged in discussions with fellow translators in forums like LinkedIn, it strikes me how much veterans play down the importance of credibility. It is like so many other things in life: they have it, so they do not value it much. They say things like, "If you're good, you're good" and "You cannot learn to be a translator, you need to have a gift for this profession."

While it is probably true that translating takes some form of a natural talent that one cannot learn, it is at least as true that beginning translators, even if they are fantastic at their job, start out without an asset that is crucial to the exercise of their chosen profession: credibility. And that is definitely something they should work on.

In fact, as an aspiring translator, an aptitude for translation itself is a given. We all assume that you are at least good at the core task of the job, that you know your source and target languages well enough and know the dynamics of both to transfer meaning from one to the other. The problem, of course, is that there are thousands of people for whom we assume the same, and you need to differentiate yourself to show that you are better than the next person. That is the only way you can actually get paid to translate and earn enough doing it to make a reasonable living, and there is clearly nothing innate in that.

It seems to me that there are two ways to acquire professional credibility. The first and most reliable is experience. That is second to none: you work for a client, you do things well, your client is pleased and comes back for more or tells her friends and acquaintances who may need a translator's services. In fact, it can also work out more informally, with a friend who has never worked with you and does not actually know how good you are at translating (that is, after all, a given) triggering the same process in the assumption that, since you are a serious, reliable person with sensible conversation and a common-sense attitude to life, you must also be all those things in your professional capacity.

The second path to acquire credibility is your educational background. Certification works this way, and so does training, which appears to be particularly important as you specialize. It gets harder to make assumptions about a translator when subject matter becomes more specific. And while you may indeed be familiar with a lot of terminology from, say, reading the Financial Times and The Economist since the age of 10, it will most likely be tough to use that to your advantage in convincing a potential client that you are just right for a project on economic policy. This task will be easier if you have a degree or have taken a set of courses in this particular field, of course.

Small details will also contribute to building up your credibility. A website is one of them, but of course not just any website will do. You need to think long and hard about the kind of translator you want to be, and about how your website, and your brand more generally, can contribute to positioning you as such a professional. The same goes for a blog, and for any participation you may have in social networks. Anything you say there will probably be readily available to any potential clients - in fact, that may be a large part of the reason why you write it in the first place - so you need to be sensible and make sure it reflects well on you as a professional.

In a globalized online world, professional credibility is a 24-hour issue and draws on your personal life too. When a potential client googles you, they will see your website, but they may also find your personal Facebook page the photos in which a friend tagged you and so on. You cannot really control everything they have access to, so you should at least really look after the things you can give a direction to. Your professional online presence has to be, well... very professional.

This week I dropped Italian from the source languages I mention in my profiles. One veteran translator suggested that I drop my multilingual professional identity altogether, arguing that, while I may be good at all those things, they could lead people to think that I am spreading myself too thin or that I am in fact not good enough at any of them. I think she is right. The sensible thing to do would probably be to also drop French, for the sake of credibility: it looks like I am not very credible as a French translator, since I don't have any specific qualifications, and according to one observer at least it actually detracts from my overall credibility as a translator. I resist dropping it, because I love French and I am very good at it, but the truth is I find it hard to convince clients that I am as good as I say I am and it may well be that it is probably not doing me any favours.

As a freelance translator, you can acquire credibility over time, of course, perhaps even fairly easily if you do the right things. However, you most certainly were not born with it and you did not learn it in your French, German or English lessons. It will take conscientious work over years and years, on- and offline, and a lot of finetuning. Veteran translators who already have it may not remember how hard it was to attain that status, or perhaps they just went about their business diligently and gained credibility without actually seeking it. For those of us who are starting out, however, the strategy to become a credible professional is worth at least as much thought as the allegedly innate aspects of a translator's profession.


  1. Thank you for this article. I wrote an article supporting what you said from my short experience. http://matranslator.wordpress.com/2013/06/02/translators-and-credibility/

    1. I liked your post! The idea that "the market is saturated with incompetent translators" is one I have devoted some thought to and will probably write a post on myself soon. Translators tend to winge a lot about that, but I prefer to think that there are two different markets out there, and incompetent translators do not really concern me: like you, I'm in this business with the determination to be, one day, as good as the best of them, and the people who do poor work for a pittance do not concern me except as a reminder of what I definitely do not want to do. Thanks for that!

  2. Hi, Great blog. Thank for your information about Freelance translation. Some professional translators working on as freelance translators working in Spanish, French, Italian, Japanese, German, etc. So they have to be updated in time.
    Thanks for this post.