I was reading The Entrepreneurial Linguist, by Judy and Dagmar Jenner, a couple of days ago. And they mention one step in freelance translation that I had not consciously thought of before: defining the work you do not want to do.
When I started freelancing, I pretty much tried everything that came my way. I worked for peanuts, for agencies where I knew I would not have a long- or even medium-term future, I took jobs that I did not like, jobs where I could not possibly be competitive and jobs where it took me forever to deliver a translation just to the best of my ability, and I generally made a point of never saying no to a potential client.
The good thing about such things, of course, is that it does not take you long to realize where you have gone wrong and redress course. It is all part of the learning curve, and I think I learned a lot relatively fast. However, I like the Jenners' approach: I wish I had done things the other way around and actually sat down to define in advance a few things I did not want to get involved in.
When they are starting out, freelance translators often do not even know the going rate for their business. Even when they find out, they don't have a clue of where to find clients willing to pay them that much, how large or small the market (their market) may be, where they stand in this new world they did not even know existed, and even where their relative strengths and weaknesses may lay. And the natural thing is to try things out, gradually (though hopefully fast) learn what works for you and stick to that as a platform for growth.
However, now that I am a stretch further along that path, I wish I had devoted a couple of hours of my life to establishing what I did not want to do and developing a series of bottom-line policies.
Setting a rate below which one will not work is very hard to do right at the start of your freelance career: you usually do not have all the data necessary to make an informed decision. However, it does not take more than a couple of months, and may take much less, to find out at least a few of the things you need to know. It is important for you to have the courage to act accordingly.
No one is saying that you should not retain some flexibility, but it would be foolish not to make the most of the opportunities that are out there for you if only you look for them. No one will hire you for 15 cents a word if you will work for 3. And it is probably even true that no one worthwhile will hire you at all if the rates you set for yourself are ridiculously low. I still accept relatively low per-word rates occasionally, but only when I am certain that the job will be fast and painless and I can draw a decent hourly rate from it, and when I know the agency in question guarantees a healthy workflow, in terms both of work load and deadlines.
After about two months in the profession, I systematically turned down technical (cars, chemicals, and the like) and medical texts. They simply took me too long to research and left me seriously wondering whether I had actually done a good job rather than just a job. And, above all, I found I had no interest in pursuing them further so I might overcome my limitations and turn them into an area of specialization. It was never going to happen, and such translations and I were both better off without each other.
The Jenners talk about this as "non-specialization," and I find that, while freelance translators talk a lot about specialization, they do not give much attention to the opposite concept. For beginning freelance translators, non-specialization is in fact probably more important: specialization takes a long time, many years, but realizing what areas are out of bounds can probably be established within a few hours and save you many headaches.
By the way... the Jenners' book (for a taste, here is their blog, Translation Times) is explicitly written for people wishing to attract direct clients, which I am hoping to do. However, I would recommend portions of it for freelancers who work with agencies too: it provides some good insights on how to approach the business aspects of translation, particularly the assets that many of us hopefully have but are not consciously aware of.