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A student in my online course asks: How do I decide if a translation specialization is viable?

Hmm, interesting question, and one that nearly all freelancers have to grapple with at some point. Short answer: nearly any specialization is viable, depending on your marketing zeal and income needs. Longer answer follows.

When you’re looking at potential specializations, here are a few factors to consider (and readers, please add your thoughts in the Comments):

    1. What’s your knowledge of/interest in this specialization? That’s undoubtedly the most important factor, and one that outweighs most other factors if you’re looking at a technical subject area.
    2. What’s the demand? Some specializations (like legal translation) are so content-heavy that having enough work isn’t much of a concern. Others (restaurant menus) may have a lot of demand in terms of the *number* of clients, but not in terms of the size of each individual project.
    3. Who are the clients? This is one that a lot of translators overlook. Some specializations (software, pharmaceuticals) are almost exclusively the domain of agencies, because most of the end client companies are so huge that they tend not to use individual freelancers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there an infinite number of niche specializations that are almost exclusively the domain of direct clients. I’ve met translators who specialize in horses, cross-country skiing, stamps, cookbooks, and so on. If you’re outside the scope of the big business areas like legal, financial, medical, pharmaceutical, IT, patents, etc., you need to consider whether you are OK with working only or primarily with direct clients.
    4. How much are you willing to market? Again, this is a big one. Law firms and legal translation companies are easy to find, and there are lots of them out there. Cookbook publishers that need a Russian translator? They’re out there too, but you’ll have to work harder to find them.
    5. What’s the income potential? Of course, there’s a huge variation within every specialization. But in general, you can’t translate poetry if you need to make money from it, and you wouldn’t translate financial documents just for personal enjoyment.
    6. How much do you care about doing work that is meaningful to you? Again, mileage varies widely. But many clients in, say, legal or IT translation are only translating because they have to, not because they really want to. But one of the things I particularly enjoy about international development translation is that the documents affect real people’s lives, and are commissioned by clients that really, really care about the quality of the translation.

Readers, your thoughts?

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It’s been interesting to read people’s reactions to my post about translator rants, and I always love a good and lively discussion. Here’s a followup: it seems to me that many translators look at “successful freelancers,” (with varying definitions of that), and think, “It’s easy to sit around and tell other, less successful freelancers what they’re doing wrong, without saying what you, the successful freelancer are doing right in order to be so successful.” So, since I’m into contentious topics lately, let’s have a go at this one: is freelance success mostly a matter of luck, connections, and external factors, or is it mostly a matter of working like a fiend until you make it?

Short answer: it’s a combination.

Longer answer: I like illustrative examples, so let me give you one. My husband and I are really frugal. As I wrote about in 2009 and again in 2013, our frugal lifestyle has netted some significant advantages, namely that are completely debt-free including our mortgage, despite the fact that a) we’ve only ever had “regular” jobs;¬† b) we’ve lived in places (Boston, Boulder) with fairly high housing costs and c) we have a kid. When people ask us how we did this, we tell them: we bought a fixer-upper house and renovated it ourselves; the house didn’t have a shower for 3 months and we showered with the hose after the neighbors went to bed; we’ve never bought a brand new car; we use bicycles for the majority of our in-town transportation; we’ve never bought a brand new piece of furniture; we cook the vast majority of our meals from scratch; when we’re going to make a major purchase, we first comb Craigslist and eBay to see if we can get it used, and so on. At times when we’ve been really broke, we’ve gone ever further into blackbelt frugality territory: my husband cut my hair for a couple of years; when our daughter was little, I regularly worked for 3-4 hours every night, even on weekends, so we used very little childcare; most of our vacations involved camping. You get the picture.

Here’s the thing. By the time we get halfway through the “how we did it” spiel, most people decide that this is not something they’re willing to do in order to live a financially secure, debt-free life. Fair enough: but they asked how we did it, and we told them.

You can tell that I’m about to draw a parallel to freelancing. Sure, most successful freelancers, myself included, have some advantages that some other people don’t have. Some worked their connections in industries in which they had experience; some live in places where their language combination is in unusually high demand; I guess that the fact that my parents paid for my undergraduate degree and my employer paid for my graduate degree could fall into that category too. But, it’s also rare that I meet a freelancer who claims to be struggling and is doing everything possible to change the situation.

Illustrative example: here’s a snapshot from my first day as a freelancer. Sitting in my kitchen with my newborn daughter, I theorized that if I wanted to work from home and use my academic and professional background in French, translation might be a good bet. So, literally, I opened up the yellow pages (!) and started cold-calling agencies and asking for work, or what I would have to do to get work from them. Later that year I joined the Colorado Translators Association, then ATA, and when my ATA member directory came in the mail, I started at “A” and sent my resume and cover letter to every single agency in the directory, until I started getting some work. My first year as a freelancer, I made US $9,000 (total), and I was thrilled with that. I set a goal to double my income every year for the next four years, and I met that goal.

Over time, I did make a lot of connections, but looking back on it, I made a lot of my own luck as well. I volunteered as the Colorado Translators Association newsletter editor, which allowed me to meet pretty much everyone in the association. After I attended my first ATA conference, I e-mailed every single presenter whose session I attended and made a contact with them. Every single time a colleague referred me for a job, I sent them a handwritten thank you note. Every single time a potential client responded to my inquiry, even with “We’ll keep your materials on file,” I sent them a handwritten thank you note and then followed up in another month or so. I served in various volunteer roles within ATA; I started this blog; I started helping newbies as soon as I had half a clue more than they did.

Luck? Hard work? Right place at the right time? Probably some combination of all of those factors, but here’s the takeaway: if you’re smart, and you work hard, and you’re good at this job, you can be one of the successful people too (really).

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The next session of my online course for beginning translators, Getting Started as a Freelance Translator, starts on September 24, and there are currently three spots left. This is a four-week course for translators in any language combination; we focus on four targeted assignments (your resume and cover letter, marketing plan, rates and billable hours sheet and online presence), and every week we also do a one-hour question and answer conference call. Every student receives copies of my books How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and Thoughts on Translation.

A recent participant in the course commented, “Neither in my undergraduate classes in education nor in some of the more practical classes I took as part of my MA in English (including the course connected to my assistantship as a writing consultant) did I ever experience one course that delivered as much precise and helpful information as this course.” If you’d like to join us, registration is US $325, with a $50 discount for ATA members. Visit my website for a full description or to register! And if you’re a more experienced translator looking for a nudge toward your business goals, registration is also open (same page) for the next session of Beyond the Basics of Freelancing, beginning November 12.

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The next sessions of my online courses start on August 20 (Beyond the Basics of Freelancing) and September 24 (Getting Started as a Freelance Translator). Getting Started is for students who want to launch and run a successful freelance business, and Beyond the Basics is for students who have established freelance businesses. Each class is four weeks long and consists of four lessons on which you get individual feedback from me, plus a weekly question-and-answer conference call for the whole class. Additionally, students in Beyond the Basics get a one-hour individual consultation with me.

Getting Started focuses on the basics of getting your freelance business up and running: writing a translation-targeted resumé and cover letter, creating a marketing plan and rates sheet and establishing an online presence (LinkedIn profile, translators association directory profile, website, etc.). Beyond the Basics focuses on marketing your services to high-quality translation agencies and direct clients, creating a professional profile document and identifying ways to meet direct clients on their turf.

Registration for either class is US $325, and after these sessions I’ll be raising the price to US $350, so now is a good time to register if you’ve been thinking about it. All sessions of both courses have filled up before the deadline for the past year, so hop on over to my website and read the full descriptions if you’re thinking of joining one of these sessions! ATA members receive a $50 discount on registration for either course.

Here’s a comment from a participant in the most recent session of Beyond the Basics: “This course really helped me define a path for moving my business forward, as well as giving me some helpful tools for getting there. I received valuable input and tips not only from Corinne, but also from the other students, and it was great to be part of a little virtual community.”

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Here’s a common question from beginning freelance translators, and from people contemplating freelancing: how long does it take to start a viable freelance business? The usual disclaimers apply. Is your non-English language Spanish or Japanese? Do you have just a language background, or a PhD in nuclear physics and a language background? Do you live in Tokyo or Montana? And what do you mean by “start”? But here’s a stab at an answer. To me, there are two milestones in starting a freelance business: 1) the point when you know you’re going to make it as a freelancer (meaning that you no longer stress out every single day about whether to plow ahead or just give up and get a regular job) and 2) the point when you basically always have enough work (meaning that you can focus on doing what you enjoy and are good at, rather than whatever pays the bills).

My own answers: 18 months, and three years. After about 18 months of freelancing, I knew I was going to make it as a freelancer. Halfway through year two, I had already earned more than I did in all of year one. One-time clients were becoming regular clients; a “big project” was $1,000, not $200. By the end of year three, I no longer stressed out about where the next project was coming from, because I had enough work almost all the time. I started to ease out some low-paying clients and ease in some better ones. I started to think about what kinds of translation I really enjoyed and was good at, and I looked for direct clients in those areas.

Mostly, I think that the answer to the “how long does it take?” question is, “Probably longer than you think.” Not to be sarcastic or cynical, but when beginning translators ask me this question, I often advise that if you want a booming business within a few months, offer a service that a lot of people need, and that lends itself to direct advertising. Clean houses, walk dogs, do tutoring. Don’t start a freelance translation business if you have to have a full-time income within a couple of months, unless you do a language or specialization that is both very high-paying and very in-demand.

Another question: what percentage of freelancers make it through the startup phase, and with what degree of success? I’ve been teaching my getting started course for beginning freelancers for about eight years, and I’d say, unscientifically, that the graduates I’ve followed up with are about evenly split into three categories. About a third of them launched successful freelance businesses and are doing great; about a third are translating in some capacity, but combine it with another job, and about a third either decided the whole freelance thing was too much work, or were never able to find the kinds of clients they needed to work with in order to make a full-time living.

Readers, your thoughts on the length of the startup phase?

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This morning I had lots of fun interviewing translation industry veteran Steve Lank (Monterey graduate, former ASTM translation QA standard subcommittee chair, longtime senior-level manager in agencies in the US, Ireland and Spain). Steve is currently Vice President for Translation Services at Cesco Linguistic Services, working from the Washington, DC office.

I put Steve in the hot seat and asked him:

  • Chicken/egg: how can beginning translators find their first clients?
  • What’s up with downward price negotiations? Why do agencies apply them, and how can translators best handle them?
  • What are the top dos and don’ts of translator resumes? What errors pop up again and again? How can a translator stand out among the many unsolicited applications that an agency receives?
  • How about following up on agency applications? How often should freelancers follow up, and using what method?
  • How does a translator turn a first-time client into a regular client, and become one of an agency’s preferred providers?
  • How about the increasing emphasis on specialization in our industry? Is the “learn by doing” mindset OK, or do translators need more formal training in their specializations?

To listen to the episode, cruise on over to the Speaking of Translation website.

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The translation business book genre has really exploded in recent years, fortunately for those of us in the trenches who need to know about these things. Newest on the scene is a little gold nugget of a book, 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know, written by a group of highly experienced translators known as WordLink. With members like Chris Durban, Ros Schwartz, Nick Rosenthal (many of whom have been translating since before I graduated from high school!), these are people you need to listen to.

101 Things has everything you need and nothing you don’t: each “thing” is about a hundred words, and the topics range from how to translate an idiom to how to turn lousy writing into a great translation, to how to create an ergonomic setup in your office. Each tip is accompanied by an illustration, making this book the perfect thing to grab when you need a little bit of wisdom to adjust your mindset or move your business forward. No bombastic pronouncements about what you must do if you want to claw your way to the top of this industry: expect wise, witty, well-grounded advice from translators who have walked the path that you’re walking.

Plus, it’s cute! Check it out, and then hop on over to Lulu and grab a copy for yourself (available on Amazon, etc. in 6-8 weeks).
101things

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