The very first thing I did when I had the idea that translation might be a good fit for me was Google “translation”. Little did I know what a friend Google was to become as I began to work…
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Initially, my major sources of research were industry association websites in a number of countries, and online translators’ portals. I found the ATA website and that of my closest chapter, the NCTA. I scoured those for information and joined both. I was getting a feel for the industry and beginning to understand the workings of translation agencies, the nature of freelance work, and the relationships that form between agencies and their outsourcers. I set my focus on agencies, thinking direct clients would only come much later or through personal contacts. My reading material included “The Translator’s Handbook” by M. Sofer and the newsletters and magazines that came my way after joining organizations. My research was confirming the thought that I had it in me to find a niche in the market and to do this job well.
My timing in joining the NCTA was fortunate as they had an upcoming “Getting Started in T&I” workshop that I attended. It was very clear and well structured, though basic, and confirmed much that I had discovered online. It provided my first discussions with practicing translators, which were very helpful. I would highly recommend a similar workshop to those considering the profession. The workshop also gave me an introduction to interpretation that was good for information, though I had no intention of attempting to become an interpreter - I have small children and was looking for the flexibility of working entirely from home.
ATA’s annual conference was fast approaching but a prior commitment ruled out my attending that first year. I put it in the calendar for the following year, certain that networking would be crucial part of establishing my business, as well as the training it would provide, and hoping that I would have earned enough by then to pay for the associated expenses.
There were obvious first steps: I updated my résumé. It went through much iteration in the first few months as every job I did got added in some way to make the experience section look as impressive as possible, and then many of them came out again as I became able to describe typical jobs and make it entirely focused on my specialties. I also got input from established translators after some months, and used one tip that I hadn’t worked in at all until then - the fact that my spouse's native language is my source language. I was told it would be a selling point with agencies, so contrived a way to add the information. I don’t know for sure that it has benefited me, but it’s a tip that seems worth passing on, for those of you with multilingual families.
I searched the ATA and NCTA websites’ agency databases. I sent many emails. I mean hundreds. Probably 200-300 in one month, and I filled in a lot of website vendor forms. I prefer those, especially when there is a résumé upload at the end, as you know you are in the company’s system. After that initial spurt I made about 15 applications per week for a while, then it tailed off as work began to come in, to about two or three emails or forms per week. I try to keep that up as an ongoing marketing effort, though it is now more targeted.
Another step I took was to sit the ATA’s practice exam for certification. I reckoned if I passed it that would bode well for the future. I passed one text and failed one. However, since at that stage I had never done a professional translation in my life, I thought this was a pretty hopeful sign of promise.
This next suggestion has to be done sparingly as it eats much time: I joined a few translators’ mailing lists. I found them to be an invaluable source of information and advice in the initial stages - apart from anything else, I saw what other translators were saying about their work and the industry - the lack of opportunities for chat in a home business made that very valuable. Once I was busy I left some of those lists, but I remain active on a few, which are still very helpful.
Locally, I filed for a county business license and a fictitious name and went to a state run small business start-up workshop. I did not have to get a state business license initially, as in my state home-based businesses earning under a certain amount do not need one. After about eight months, I reached the income threshold and took that extra step. I chose a business and domain name (my last name is not user friendly, so I wanted to find something people would usually be able to spell. I used my middle name – it seemed as good as anything else and reflects my heritage) and established a home page. Practically, I had a reliable hard and software system set up in a personal space at home, and the only purchase I made was a multifunction machine that included a fax. I use financial software to handle invoicing and my finances. Thus far, I have been paid for all my work. I had to work hard for one payment, and have refused a couple of tests that were apparently unpaid jobs along the way, but the business side of things has not been too hard to handle. Unless I have a once a month or similar agreement with an agency, I send the invoice when I deliver the job – as a rule it works for me, and guarantees no payment delays can be blamed on lack of organization on my part.
Having got set up I had to decide how I would work: which tools to use. After some research into possibilities, I bought Trados, as I had the start-up cash and it seemed the simplest way to get me work quickly with a maximum number of agencies. I went through tutorials and got some basic knowledge. I was reasonably computer literate to start with, which helped of course, and though I still consider myself a beginner I can use it successfully for my needs: TM and glossaries, import and export as required when I have a client who works with Trados, and use of the concordance.
I found the online translator portals: ProZ, translatorscafé, Babelport, Aquarius etc. There are many. I created a basic profile for myself on all that I came across and I update the profile on some of them every so often. Later I paid for upgraded membership on a couple - one of which was very useful for me both in terms of networking and jobs, and one of which, as far as I know, has brought me no work. I recommend sticking to basic free profiles until you see that any given site has a lot of relevant job offers for you.
One strategy I found very helpful was to search freelancers’ databases for what would be ‘my profile’ to see who the competition was and how they were advertising themselves. I used this information to help me write my own profiles and résumé.
The single most important thing I would advise people trying to get a foot in the door is ‘be available when many others are not’. That means weekends, holidays and summertime. My first jobs were around Christmas time and I got them through the website ProZ. I submitted quotes and got a few jobs - not every one I submitted for, by any means, but half a dozen within a month over Christmas and New Year 2005-2006. I was aiming for jobs within my knowledge base, at a reasonable rate, though I did accept a few jobs on general weird and wonderful topics at that stage. I also faced the ‘going the other way’ issue. I was offered work in the wrong direction. I did some pro bono jobs and one test for an agency ‘the wrong way’ but thankfully work I really wanted began to come my way and I have only done paid work into my native language.
My emails to agencies were beginning to pay off. I had been asked to do several test translations which I turned around quickly at that stage since I wasn’t busy. I had also been recommended by a kind fellow translator I had ‘met’ on a mailing list to one agency whose work he didn’t have time for, and I did a test for that too. Those tests paid off and I got my first two regular clients – one of whom required Trados, so the cost of that was quickly paid for. Now I was four months into my efforts and I was being offered work at least monthly, and in volumes I could handle but that were substantial enough to keep me busy - often 5000-10000 words at a time. More importantly, they were in the area I wanted to specialize in.
An interesting ATA seminar came up that wasn’t too far away so I attended that. I thoroughly enjoyed the contacts I made and the training I got, and I sat the certification exam. I felt that having no formal translation training it was important to try and get a respected qualification. I had the same result as the practice test: I failed it, but never mind, I’ll sit it again next year. There was some encouragement in my failure though: I passed the general text but failed the scientific/technical one. I have a science Ph.D. so I’m hopeful I’ll get it right on the day one year soon.
Most of what I have written until now could be said of any new translator in any language pair or field of work, although there are requirements for sitting the ATA exam. Now to my specific situation.
I am British, with a French husband, and French is my source language. I work into English for the UK and USA, having lived in the US since 1999, with several trips back to Europe during that time. I am bilingual and feel tricultural. I had been at home full time for five years with our three small children. Translation income would be of help to the family, but I did not have to earn any target amount to pay the bills, and I didn't have to hold down another job while I was getting started. I did not have the stress of having to find work no matter the rate, for example. My husband and I had agreed that until my business was clearly up and running (which, in our minds, would probably take six months to a year) I would not refuse any reasonable jobs and he would handle juggling family in evenings and weekends for the necessary duration. That support was of course important. He also proof read the first few jobs for me, which was reassuring (though were he to translate he would be going in the same pair in the other direction).
So what made you think you could translate, I hear you asking? Do you have any training? Not a lot. My background is scientific, but I do have university level French studies as well as having worked in France in the pharmaceutical industry for a year. My first degree contained a fair amount of French study but it was mainly French for comprehension and communication - preparing us for an internship or studies in France. There was not much formal translation study. The only translation course I remember taking was in French literature – not really my cup of tea, as an organic chemist - it was part of a Diploma in French I obtained while doing my Ph.D. at Cambridge University in the U.K.
You will have surmised that I have a tailor made specialization: it is chemistry. Prior to having children I worked as a synthetic chemist and manager in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries.
Perhaps it is because of this specialized background that it did not take a year for my business to take off. By February 2006, four months after my very first enquiries into the industry, I was refusing work outside my fields. A few months later, I was refusing work frequently as I simply couldn’t handle the volume. There has been the odd quiet patch since of course, but never for long and I am becoming used to the irregular pattern of work.
My first regular clients tapped into my knowledge base, and a very high percentage of work since has done so. The one steep learning curve I went through was how to handle patent translation. That I have now picked up, mainly by reading patents in English, and it has brought me a major part of my income. I work in a very narrow range of subjects, and I expect to keep it that way.
So; I am busy, gaining experience, and really enjoying business. I have ongoing marketing efforts. How do I target? I search agency databases for those who claim to specialize in my areas. Another example: if a job offer comes in from a translators’ website that captures my attention in some way: perhaps in my fields, or from an interesting looking agency, I respond to the post either by email or on the company website even if I cannot take the job being offered. I often get a response. People trying to fill jobs are reading emails from new freelancers.
I will attend the upcoming ATA conference and hope that that will provide me new contacts then new contracts. I will continue to practice reliable business practices that make my current clients come back - I am careful in volume of work I accept and have never missed a deadline, and I am responsive to communication.
Now I am one year on from deciding that translation was for me. I hope that this story of my experience may be of use to someone starting out. Thank you for taking the time to read it. May we all receive much well written work, from well-organized clients who pay immediately.
Karen Tkaczyk, October 2006