12 October 2015

My tool kit to achieve meaningful growth as a freelance translator

I've now been freelancing for three full years, and I feel like I have completed an important cycle. I have finished my training as I planned it initially and have got to the point where I consider myself an established professional. That does not mean things can't continue to get better, of course, and I hope to be able to grow further. However, this looks like a natural place to stop and look back, so that anyone coming after me may get an idea or two of things that might work for them too.

If my experience is anything to go by, there is a list of building blocks that allowed me to rise to where I am today. While not all of them may prove as important for everyone else as they were for me, I am convinced that they are at least worth considering.

The first thing that springs to mind is that planning has been essential. By that, of course, I mean two different things. First, the fact that I sat down to plan a course just a couple of months into my translation career - actually, pretty much as soon as I realised that it was indeed a career I was embarking on - proved crucial to give me focus, drive and a sense that I knew where I was going. Second, being able to cross off things on that plan as I attained my goals and delivered on what I had told myself (and indeed written out) I was going to do has helped me persist and grow far beyond anything I envisaged when I started out.

Income goals are an obvious example, but they are hardly the only one. I have thought hard about types of clients, number of clients, specialisations, qualifications and many other things that have served as milestones along that path.

If planning is essential, so is flexibility, of course. Not everything I planned worked out, and there were lots of things I could not originally plan because I had no idea that they even existed. There is no substitute for curiosity, an open mind and a keen eye and ear for the world around. Learning along the way is what kept the roadmap I drafted months earlier useful as I made my way.

I am not quite the translator I set out to be. In fact, I am pretty sure I am an improved version. I have found work in fields I could not have imagined for rates people said were impossible. In my case, I have even changed language pairs! I stuck to my main language pairs, of course, and my specialisations are not really that far from what I set out to do in the first place. However, seizing opportunities as they come along is of paramount importance in a growth path.

Investment is another item I cannot emphasise enough. I am completely certain that, had I not made the investments I made at the start of this journey, I would not be far from square one, and in fact I would probably have given up just a few months into my effort.

I know of several translators who are not prepared to make one particular 100-dollar investment that has brought me a healthy five-figure return, not because they cannot afford it but because they are afraid that it will not work out.  Of course, not all my investments have had a similar yield. Some have gone wrong, and on others I have just about broken even. The point is that, in my experience at least, a measure of risk is inevitable, healthy and indeed absolutely key to fulfilling one's potential. There are few guarantees and a lot of trial and error, and not being prepared to try new things just because they might not work out makes it almost impossible to achieve any kind of success.

Closely related to investment is training. Not everyone needs the same kind of training, but most people can improve something specific that will make a difference to their careers if they put their mind to it (most likely with a little money).

I set out with a BA, a Master's degree and 13 years' experience in journalism. I didn't have any qualifications in the field of translation, so I sought out those. Over the past two years, I sat the DipTrans twice, in two different language pairs, and passed both on my first attempt. One of my top clients is a major NGO: I had applied to work for them earlier, but they just would not take me without specific qualifications. In some areas of translation, it works like a university degree in most other fields: you could probably do the job without going to college, but you would not get the chance in the first place.

Broadly defined, professional associations have also been very important for me over the past three years. I don't think membership of the ATA or, more recently, the CIOL, have brought me any clients directly. However, keeping an eye on events there, reading listservs and LinkedIn group discussions, looking into the books and the blogs that people talk about and attending the ATA conference have all shaped my perception of translation as a profession. And I am absolutely convinced that the resulting perception is a lot more accurate than the views I started out with.

There are of course alternative perceptions, a world ruled by bottom-feeders where translators should count themselves lucky to get paid a pittance for doing their job. If you do not know any better, it is probably not too difficult to accept that worldview as indisputable. Keeping your eyes open is all it takes to realise that someone somewhere is doing better. It may not be you and you may have no idea of where or how to find that place, but knowing that it exists is a great incentive to start looking for it.

Three years later, I feel that I am well placed to grow as a translator. I have worked hard, and I am on the right track. Now, I need to keep growing my client base and my skill set, because knowing some things is no excuse to stop learning new ones. I have to keep working hard and deliver, day in and day out, the kind of work that my CV indicates I am capable of delivering. However, if I had made different decisions, I might not be much further than I was when I started out, and I am glad to be able to say that I have used my time wisely.