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The next session of my online course Getting Started as a Freelance Translator starts on April 1, and registrations are starting to roll in. This is a four-week online course for beginning translators (in any language combination) who want to launch and run a successful freelance business. I take a maximum of ten students per session, and everyone gets individualized feedback from me on four assignments: your resumé and cover letter, your marketing plan, your rates and billable hours sheet and your online presence. In addition, we do a one-hour question and answer conference call every week, and you receive free copies of my books How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator and Thoughts on Translation. Registration is $350, or $300 if you’re an ATA member. A recent participant in the course commented:

I learned so much about the translation industry and general business practices and the personal feedback from Corinne was absolutely priceless. I would highly recommend this course and I will take another class from Corinne in the future.

You can read the full course description or register on my website. Hope to see some of you there!

This is more of a food-for-thought post than a helpful hints post, and please feel free to add your thoughts in the comments! In working with the students in my online courses and talking to other translators who have been in the business longer than I have, I’ve developed a theory about the three phases that most freelancers seem to go through:

Phase 1: You’ve been plugging away at your startup phase for some months or years. Work is starting to flow in with some regularity. You still have peaks and valleys, but you are making what might be termed real money, or at least semi-real money. You’re probably still working at another job, dipping into savings, or depending on a spouse’s or partner’s income, but you feel that your freelance business is a going concern: you’re going to make it! For me, this described (approximately) years 1.5 through 3 of my freelance business.

Phase 2: Reality check. Your freelance business is a going concern, but you start to realize that if you want freelancing to be your “forever” job, you need to earn more, and possibly a lot more money than what you’re currently making. If you want a similar level of financial security to someone with a salaried job, you need to be putting money into retirement, earning enough that you can afford to take a reasonable amount of time off, earmarking money for professional development, training and tools such as computer equipment and software. The euphoria that you felt at the end of Phase 1 starts to fade, as you look at the (large) number that you need to hit in order to achieve that level of security. But, hopefully, you forge ahead, maybe adding direct clients to your roster, or assertively marketing to better-paying clients of various flavors. For me, this described (approximately) years 3-6 of my freelance business, in the sense that after year 3, I managed to break out of Phase 1, but I wasn’t fully into Phase 2 for about another 3 years after that. After 12 years of freelancing, I’d say that I’m still firmly in Phase 2 but now contemplating…

Phase 3: After putting in X number of years as a freelancer and earning a healthy income in order to achieve the level of financial security you targeted in Phase 2, you start to be more motivated by doing work that is meaningful, enjoyable, and that perhaps allows more time or flexibility for your non-work interests. I’m not at this phase yet, but I’m observing it in other translators I work with: they’re still very excited by their work, but maybe they translate more books, or maybe they assertively look for work that matters to them, whether it’s lucrative or not, or they do work that fills a need for a cause they support. Although I’m not there yet (and with my child’s college tuition coming in the next decade, won’t be for a while!), I can see this on the horizon: a time when I’ll still love this job, but when I will want to look for work that lets me ride my bike and play my lute (preferably in Italy!) while doing work that I enjoy.

My observation is that a lot of freelancers get a bit stuck between Phase 1 and Phase 2: having sort-of-enough work, earning sort-of-enough money and enjoying the job sort-of-enough. That’s a great place to be when you compare it to your startup phase, but it’s not a great place to hang out for 20 years. Breaking out of that phase is another series of posts, but it might be helpful to identify which phase you’re in!

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A short but important thought about freelancing (and maybe about life in general, but that’s beyond the scope of this blog!): whatever you do in your freelance business, do it intentionally, not because you’re a) being passive or b) letting some external force dictate your decisions and then blaming the external force instead of yourself. A few examples:

-Which of these statements applies to you: I work on whatever comes my way OR I actively seek out work that I enjoy and am good at?

-Have you ever said A client forced me to lower my rates OR A client made me translate something I knew was outside my expertise? If so, you’re adding to the already-problematic situation by putting yourself in the passive seat. Instead, think A client asked me to lower my rates, and I agreed; time to do some marketing so that I’m not in that position again OR I took on a project that I really shouldn’t have, mostly because I really needed the work. I will work on finding more clients in my specializations so that I don’t need to do that again.

I find that this kind of mindset switch really helps; like every freelancer, I get into situations where I wonder if I said yes to something that I shouldn’t have. But I feel much better saying This deadline was really, really tight, but it was for an A-list client who I wanted to help out or I took a financial hit on this project, but I’ve been wanting to translate this book for a long time, so I’m not as focused on the money. The intention is important. Thoughts?

A reader asks: I’d like to apply to more translation agencies, but how do I find good agencies to apply to?

This question applies to a lot of people who want to work with agencies, so let’s talk about it. There are various online databases of translation agencies; for example I launched my freelance business back when ATA still mailed every member a paper membership directory, like a phone book for the translation industry. I opened it to the agencies section, started at A, and applied to a couple of agencies every day. By the time I had gotten to M or so, work started coming in from the As and Bs. It was a spaghetti-against-the-wall system, but it worked. But many translators want to know how to find good agencies to apply to. This is important, and tricky, because you can’t just Google “high-quality translation agencies” or “agencies that will treat me like a professional and value my work.”

If you’d like to pursue a less spaghetti-against-the-wall system, you could use the system I used, but with some improvements. Resources like the ATA directory are great for finding a heap of agencies, but you need to vet them somehow, to determine a) whether they’re hiring new translators, b) whether you fit what the agency is looking for and c) whether the agency is credit-worthy. So, you could:

  1. Use a resource like the ATA directory to find agencies’ names and websites
  2. Never contact the agency directly by using the contact information in the directory (don’t e-mail the person whose e-mail address is there, because it’s often a violation of public directories’ use policies to use them for marketing purposes)
  3. Take a look at the agency’s website: are they hiring freelancers, and do you fit what they might need? If it’s a financial translation agency and you do IT and patents, move on.
  4. If the agency seems like a potentially good fit, then check their creditworthiness. Because when you do a job for an agency without being paid in advance, you are extending credit. My favorite translation agency rating service is Payment Practices (not an affiliate deal, I just love them). A subscription is $19.99 per year, and you can get 25% off and a 7-day free trial through the ATA member-to-member program. Other potential resources are the ProZ Blue Board (some access with the free ProZ membership; full access requires the paying membership or payment with ProZ points), or various industry blacklists (I won’t list those here because I don’t use them and thus can’t vouch for their trustworthiness, but they’re easy to find on Google).
  5. If the agency is hiring, looks like a potentially good fit and is creditworthy, then visit the agency’s website and apply to them. Most agencies now use online forms or even an online vendor management portal, but some still use a dedicated e-mail address where you send your resume.

Or, especially if you want to target agencies in a specific geographic area, you can start with a database like Payment Practices. For example you could search only for agencies in Switzerland, or Boston, or Florida, that are rated 4.0 or higher in both of the categories that Payment Practices rates. Again, do not use the agency’s direct contact information as you find it on Payment Practices; go to the agency’s website and use the application information that’s there.

A few other potential ways to find better-quality agencies to apply to:

  1. Ask translators who work in a different language pair or specialization than you do. Approaching people whose profile is relatively similar to yours is always tricky, because it looks like you might poach their clients. But if you translate German, ask some French translators; if you do legal translation, ask some medical translators (as long as the agencies aren’t medical-only).
  2. Ask translators who work primarily or exclusively for direct clients: what agencies have they heard good things about? If these translators don’t actively apply to agencies any more, or if they charge more than most agencies will pay, they’re not likely to view you as competition.
  3. Look at agencies that exhibit or present at industry conferences. You still want to check them out on a site like Payment Practices, but this is an indication that the agency could be good to work for.

If you’re interested in what happens after you do this marketing campaign and get some bites from good agencies, check out our Speaking of Translation podcast, Insider tips for working with translation agencies.

Readers, any other thoughts on finding quality agencies?

If you’re a French<>English translator, you probably know Tom West, an attorney turned translator (and former ATA President) who owns Intermark Language Services and has spoken at numerous ATA and SFT conferences. Tom launched a new blog in January, and I just hopped over there to read it. Great stuff! Specifically, he is currently running a series of posts called, “The French they never taught you,” with such gems as:

Tom also has some good information for Spanish and German translators. Definitely an informative new addition to the translation blogosphere. Speaking of which, I’m sure that there are lots of other good new translation blogs that I don’t know about; feel free to mention your favorites in the comments.

Here’s a time management strategy that, at first glance, doesn’t seem like a time management strategy. Make sure that you set your translation rates so that you have enough time for non-billable work. If you’re looking for the sound-bite version of this concept, you can stop reading! Otherwise:

This came to me while I was prepping for the work-life balance panel that my friend and colleague Eve Bodeux moderated at last year’s ATA conference in Chicago. I do a lot of work-related things that are not billable: of course marketing, accounting, billing and other administrative work, but I also spend a lot of time on work for the ATA Board, writing this blog, working on books and articles, presenting webinars, participating in professional development training and so on. Other translators ask me about this a lot. “Do you ever actually translate?” “Does your family know what you look like?” “Do you sleep three hours a night?” The answers to those questions are Yes, Yes, and No (I sleep almost as much as our cat does!) so here’s the trick.

I set my translation rates so that I can earn my target income if I am *actually translating* 20 hours a week. I’m a pretty fast translator, so I usually estimate that I can produce 500 finished words per hour including proofreading. I like to be able to take six weeks of vacation per year. So I look at my total output: say 20 hours times 500 words times 46 weeks=460,000 words. Then I take my target income, divide it by 460,000, and that tells me the average rate I need to charge in order to reach my target income. Then, and this is very important, *I do enough marketing that I have enough work at that rate, essentially all the time.* It’s definitely one of those “sounds simple, gets more complex when you try to do it” concepts, but I do think that at least having that calculation in your head is helpful. If you’re working for rates such that you have to translate 40 hours a week to reach your target income, either you’re going to end up working 60 or 70 hours a week and probably burning out, or you’re going to end up letting the non-billable work slide. No marketing, no training, no networking, equals a business that is potentially dying and at the least becoming stagnant. So, don’t do that. Step one: figure out what rate you need to charge in order to have enough time for non-billable work. Step two: market as assertively as you need to in order to fill your inbox with work at that rate.

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