Getting started as a freelance translator
Today I want to talk about a big mistake that I made when I first started out as a freelance translator and what’s worse is that I did it again when I started out as an SEO: Jumping in head first.
In my last post, I talked a bit about how I started my little freelance gig back in 2011. It’s a good read and I try to sell you a website at the end, so I suggest you take a look. This post is a little different in that I want to list some of the things that you’ll need in order to start freelancing full time and why it might be wise to keep your day job until you’re ready to make the change. You could also look at this post as a list of things that I wish I had done when I first got started.
The first thing you need: Money
I can hear a collective “well, duh” from all of you. The simple fact of the matter is that you will typically have bills to pay, hardware/software to purchase (or upgrade), and most of us need food and caffeine in order to function correctly. This is why I would recommend sticking with your day job until you are consistently making at least the same amount of money as you are with your day job AND able to scale that amount to a higher figure should you need or want to do so. Why? Because we can’t see the future. One thing that my wife and I have learned, and have had to relearn many times, is to not get comfortable until the money is in your hands. That means don’t assume that your client is going to pay you on time (or at all, in some cases). Don’t assume that project will come in as expected (or at all). Because as soon as you need things to go a certain way, everything will go wrong. Trust me, I’m 30 now and know these kinds of things.
The problem with those situations, aside from the whole not eating or getting evicted from your house part, is that they cause you to become desperate. Desperation leads to poor decisions and you end up working on projects that you shouldn’t be working on, for clients that you shouldn’t be working with, and at a rate that makes it all not worth the trouble. So, how do we avoid desperation? By having a backup. That backup is usually called a second job or rich family members/spouse… Unless you’re independently wealthy in which case you have nothing to worry about.
I was desperate when I started freelancing – again if you want to read the whole story, check out the other post – and it caused a lot of problems. Mostly $0.03 per word, 10,000 words per day, and 120 days before they cleared my invoice problems… buncha jerks. A friend and colleague of mine recently wrote an interesting article about the All or Nothing approach to starting a business. I’d recommend giving it a read. The main idea here is simply this: it’s better to advance slowly and carefully than it is to rush in. I rushed into freelancing and, while some may consider my business a success, it certainly wasn’t like that at the beginning.
For those trying to transition to game localization from other fields, the same thing applies: don’t give up your legal or medical work to focus 100% on finding video game projects. You can make the transition slowly and not starve to death – which is generally considered a plus.
The second thing you need: Time
In order for a business to be successful, you kind of need to make some money. As translators, we make money by translating. In order to translate, we need clients. To get clients, we have to market ourselves to people that are interested in buying a translation from us. Marketing is based on the relationships that we have with our clients.
It might help if you look at it this way: a customer is someone that buys from you once, while a client is someone that buys from you all the time. I don’t have a relationship with the company that produces my socks, but I have a very long history with my gummy bear provider. I remember being a wee lad in southern California eating my Black Forest gummy bears while my mom did laundry at the local laundry mat. I would play Donkey Kong on the arcade there while munching away on my candy. Not much has changed. Sure, I know that there are other brands of gummy bears out there, even cheaper ones, like Haribo – which certainly aren’t bad – but Black Forest will always be my favorite because of the relationship that I have with them. A relationship that took almost 30 years to build.
This goes back to the money and desperation thing. If you’re just trying to survive, to pay for food and a roof, you won’t have the time or energy to build those relationships with your clients. You’ll make money then and there, but, in the long run, you will lose out on great opportunities.
The way that you use this time is important as well. When working with any kind of client, it helps to ask them what their specific needs are. This does two things: it shows that you care (yay for relationship building!) and it helps you to position yourself as a more valuable asset. I’m a Spanish to English translator and I have an apprentice translator that works in the exact same language pair that I do. She’s really good, but what’s even better is that she knows that I deal with a lot of immigration and legal documents (it can’t all be video games, after all) so she practices those kinds of translations when not working on paid jobs. What does that mean for me? It means that I have someone that’s absolutely perfect for those projects and I can confidently look for more work like that for her. She makes more money, I make more money, and the client gets an outstanding translation every time. Everyone wins! And it’s because she knows what kind of help we need. The same goes for my French and Mandarin translators. Again, those relationships take time.
The third thing you need: Tools
Hey, guess what! This has to do with the last two things! +10 points for relatedness… -20 points for poor vocabulary.
It’s not quite as bad in the translation world, but in SEO, holy bananas!
It seems like there’s a tool for everything. Do you want backlinks? Have a billion tools. Want to track your rankings? How about these 50 options that all do the exact same thing. How about a tool that automatically copies pages on your site with slightly different words on them? Done! Have three.
When it really comes down to it, for translation, you really only need a few things: a connection to the internet, something that can connect to the internet, and something that you can write with. For some, that’s a laptop with Open Office, for others a three monitor beast with the newest overpriced version of SDL Trados on one screen, all their dictionaries on another, and this blog on the third. Or like… stock tracker things and cat videos. Or Netflix.
For my computer, I’m using an older gaming rig because, well, that should be clear by now. I liked Wordfast as a CAT tool, but see the appeal of Trados, especially when dealing with strings of code – I’m still using the 2014 version myself – and I use Trello to keep track of my projects, along with my big whiteboard. Nothing crazy, but it’s easy to get lost among all the CAT tools, online dictionaries, paper dictionaries, and the other stuff that you think you need. This is where money and time come in handy – you can buy the stuff that you actually need and have the time to learn how to use it correctly and determine what helps and what does not.
Passion, or a lack thereof
Sure, you need experience and language skills, but I hope that you have that before getting into the whole make-translation-a-career thing. Otherwise, you’re in for a very bad time and a possible future as a PM (ooooh, shots fired! I’m just kidding, you guys have the worst job out of everyone involved and will get your own post from me apologizing for all the horrible things I’ve put you through over the years). But I want to share one last controversial thing with you all. I think I ran my business better when I hated it.
Honestly, I never really wanted to become a translator. I was studying to be a pilot when I fell into this line of work and I would have dropped it years ago if it hadn’t been for a side project that I’ve been working on. At first, as mentioned before, I was desperate and would do anything for money. I took every job they threw at me and at the lowest rates they could get away with.
But, as I started picking up a steady stream of work from good clients, meaning that I didn’t have to worry about getting thrown out of my house all the time, I became very picky in regards to the jobs I took. You either had to pay me a lot of money or it had to be a project that was going to be really easy or interesting (like the time I worked for Marvel or all the video games I playtested). I found that when I truly didn’t want to work was when I got the best jobs and worked under the best possible circumstances. At first, I thought that it was just me being grouchy and mildly intimidating: see image for reference.
But I’ve been told that isn’t the case…
It was because I didn’t want to spend time doing something that I didn’t like. Sure, over the years I found areas that I truly enjoyed working in, legal texts being one of them, believe it or not. But I think that a clear head when making business decisions, like who you will work with and how much you’ll work for, is incredibly valuable. If you don’t need the money, you have time and experience, and you have all your tools and resources in order – so that you know your limitations – your business will probably be in a much better position. There’s no need to suffer for your art. The internet, movies, and books romanticize the idea of pushing through hard times in order to reach your dream, but it simply doesn’t work like that in reality. I have been working on that side project now for six years and it’s finally reached the point where I can actually sell the service. Imagine if I had decided to go all in on that project from the very beginning. The technology I needed didn’t even exist yet! The translation industry isn’t going anywhere for a while (we hope), so if you’re getting started as a freelance translator, take it slow, do it smart, and focus on building relationships. Your business will fair much better than mine did.