28 May 2013

Focus, focus, focus: keeping one's eyes on the ball as a freelance translator

I am pretty sure I am doing (at least most of) the right things en route to being a successful freelance translator, and yet some things do not quite feel right at the moment. My conclusion is that, while I am doing lots of things that should help my career in the future, I may not be doing enough to push it along right now: focus is definitely the word of the week!

I've got a website and a blog. I'll be starting the NYU Certificate in Translation next week and sitting the DipTrans exam in January. I have joined the ATA and I am in the process of joining my local translators association (which is actually a lot more complicated). And yet... I am clearly not doing enough in terms of short-term client search, good old-fashioned client canvassing.

It is hard to stay focused on your everyday life as a freelance translator while you also deal with a day job, think about your long-term freelance career and closely follow several LinkedIn groups! In my case, the simpler marketing tasks appear to have fallen through the cracks. I have kept monitoring ProZ.com and bidding on jobs there, but I have not been actively looking for new clients beyond that, either agencies or direct clients. And I should have.

So it is time to go back to basics. I have drawn up a new informal business plan (the old one is more than six months old and has a Stone Age feel to it by now), and I have set myself the goal of writing off to five new agencies per week, just to tell them that I exist. I am starting out with ATA corporate members in Spain and Argentina and hope to take it from there.

More generally, however, I need to consciously devote more effort from now on to just staying focused. There is a good chance that in translation, as in so many other walks of life, things do not just "happen." You need to make them happen, and it is no good putting the cart before the horse: long-term growth is good, but it should not come at the expense of short-term development. Qualifications are great for the future, but I also need to grow my client base now.

Blogs and social networks are fun and they actually teach you a zillion things, but they unfortunately do not increase short-term income. If there was a financial reward for research into translation as an industry, how it works and how I can fit into it, I would be really well off by now. But that is of course not true. What I need to be better off than I currently am is more clients, and the only way to get those is to really focus and to implement a solid marketing strategy.

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.

10 May 2013

Finding out where you stand as a freelance translator

This has been a fantastic week: I may have been a little slow to write, but I have done lots of research and come upon some great stuff I am now ready to share with you!

I have given a lot of thought to where I stand as a freelance translator. I have been doing this for eight months now, and while I hugely surpassed my own expectations from the start, I appear to have stabilized since then.

I did not actually set out to assess my position. It all started quite indirectly. I came across New York University's online M.S. in Translation and thought that might be a good medium-term plan. So I emailed NYU, looked at the brochure and then emailed them again to clarify exactly how much the programme cost. It seemed ridiculously expensive, but I got lost in per course fees and thought I might as well ask for the real figure. And NYU staff told me it cost 57,000 dollars! Yes, no typos: 57,000 dollars!!!

The good thing about such a staggering amount, of course, is that I couldn't even feel tempted! Once I got over the shock, however, I went about finding out two things.

The first thing I wanted to know was how much a decent translator can hope to make per year. I mean, if there are people willing to spend $57,000 on a two-year Masters programme, there must surely be translators (hopefully those who did the NYU masters at the very least!) who are making very serious money from the profession!

My research (actually the ATA's) showed that the average US-based freelance translator makes about $60,000 per year in pre-tax income. A non-US-based frelancer makes around $56,000 per year, the ATA says.

This put the NYU figure into perspective, but it showed I am light years away from that average! So I made the most of a LinkedIn debate to ask ATA colleagues when I, or any other newcomer, might hope to reach that level. I got a reply from no less than ATA director Corinne McKay, so let me quote her here because I found her answer hugely interesting:

"I think that everyone probably has their own metric, but I normally say to expect an intense startup phase of 6-12 months, meaning that you're marketing most of the time without a lot of work necessarily coming in. After that, I think that it takes most people 1 1/2 to 3 years before they're fully established, meaning that they have a good base of regular clients and are earning at least what they would be earning from a 'regular' job."

I am so thankful to Corinne for those numbers! It really helps to know where you stand.

The second thing I wanted to know was whether there were any reasonable alternatives to the NYU Masters programme. By reasonable, of course, I mean cheaper! Or, to put it more elegantly, I mean real value for money.

I set out to look for an online Masters that I could afford and which gave me a good specialization in finance and a title from a reputable university that people would acknowledge anywhere in the world. I asked around and heard about the University of Texas at Brownsville and the Universidad Autonoma de Barcelona, among others, but nothing really suited my needs. These were cheaper, of course (eg. 4,200 euros at the UAB), but they were not what I was looking for.

So I switched to looking for specialized non-degree courses rather than Masters. And, to make a long story short, I wound up back at NYU. It turns out that they have a Certificate in Translation that is much more affordable (6 courses, at $695 each) and that would allow me to focus entirely on financial translation. So it is cheap (anything looks cheap after you read $57,000!), I can do it online at my own pace, it is from NYU and so is recognizable around the world, and it allows me to really focus on what I want to specialize in. Bingo! I am hoping to start within a few weeks.

In line with this, I want to mention the most exciting piece of advice I got this week, courtesy of Marta Stelmaszak. The post is actually a few weeks old but I only read it now. Marta blogged on specialization, and wrote something I found simply brilliant:

"There's something I do for money (legal), something I'm skilled in (business), and something I really enjoy (IT). That's a good starting point, and I have the balance I need."

For me, this was a real eye-opener, a fantastic wake up call to really focus. So I filled in the brackets for myself and thought that, when I grow up, I will translate financial documents for money, business because I'm skilled in it and Social Science because I love that.

I told you I was in a position to pack this post with food for thought for an aspiting translator! Enjoy!

4 May 2013

Mental switch: a translator's sales pitch

When I got started as a freelance translator I was just aiming to find translation jobs - any jobs. My goal was just to get the ball rolling, and that proved to be easier than I had originally anticipated. When that happened, however, I needed to look beyond that: it became hugely important to get translation jobs of the right kind.

In this as in so many other things, freelance translation is like many other professions. Any job will get you some money and pay at least some bills, but only jobs of the right kind allow you to grow both professionally  and, yes, financially. Serving burgers is probably good for a wannabe professional to pay his or her way through school or college, but lacking the will to move beyond that will effectively kill his or her professional aspirations.

In translation, cheap jobs are good to get going, to boost one's self-confidence in an unknown market, to learn key dos and don'ts and to realize that one can, and should, move on. Moving on, however, takes more than just translation skills, and in particular, it takes a lot of marketing. You need to move from the translation work you get to the translation work you seek, and that takes a different mindset as well as different tools.

I knew nothing about marketing when I embarked on this, so I just had to build my own crash course. And it was a real eye-opener, probably of the kind I will use my whole life, whatever I get to do in the future.

The best marketing advice I found on the Internet was simple enough: if you are looking for clients, tell everyone you know about what you are doing! I was amazed!!!

I am fairly self-assured in writing, but I am a perfectionist and I find it hard to talk about a work in progress. My career change was a work in progress, and so I continued to talk of myself as a journalist. That straightforward marketing advice brought home the obvious: I don't need to find any journalism "clients," since my employer pays me every month and I am trying to move out of that career anyway. If I want to find more translation clients, on the other hand, it is definitely a good start to tell people that is what I do for a living.

So I started telling anyone I knew that I am a translator, a full-time translator. That was what I was even if I was also a full-time journalist. It was a key first step for me to realize that my job on the side was actually the focus of most of my motivation, overtime or extra efforts, since I wanted it to grow, and therefore that I should present it as such: as MY JOB.

At the same time, I needed to define myself as a translator. It was then that I set myself the goal of reaching a point, sooner rather than later, at which this really does become my only job. So I developed a vision of myself as a serious, client-oriented multilingual translator who specializes in Business, Finance and the Social Sciences. Those are the areas in which I feel most comfortable, and I also have the qualifications to convince clients about that. The same goes for anything to do with communications, particularly corporate communications: as a journalist, I know my way around that and clients will generally take my word for it.

I stopped thinking that any translation project would do the trick, and I devoted serious thought to the path I should follow to get where I wanted to get as a translator. I thought of seeking certification, I came up with some ideas about where I might find some direct clients in my areas of specialization and I even looked long-term at courses that might brace my credentials in those.

The point of all this is that, once you realize you want to be a serious translator, you need to take another step forward. What exactly would you like to translate? Can you live off the work you get down that path? Where can you look for clients of the right kind? And how can you convince those potential clients you have found that you are the person they need for the job?

It is of course hard to get one's thoughts straight regarding issues like this, and it is even harder to, well, translate those thoughts into real-life options. Building a career takes time and effort, but knowing that much, and having a sense of direction, is critical.

Until that future date in which everything clicks and your email and phone are on fire with the right sort of clients on the other end, however, do keep in mind the best marketing advice I ever got: tell everyone you know (your friends, your neighbours, the parents of your children's friends...) that you are a devoted translator, the best they or their friends can ever hope to work with!