The Secret Ingredient of Freelance Success

woman readingTranslation is one of those professions that sound like an easy way to make some extra cash to certain people. They don’t understand what it involves, exactly, but when they find out you’re apparently making a pretty good living at knowing a few languages, you can practically see the thought forming: “Hey, I could do that!”

I’ve had a few people over the years approach me for advice on how to get a translation business going. At first I dove right in with enthusiastic advice about ways to gain experience, build a resume, find clients, etc., but I have found that a lot of times the eager nodding is not turned into action, let alone perseverance, and when I see these people months later they are still wistfully waiting for some magic jump-start.

The late, great Chinua Achebe, author of “Things Fall Apart” said something in an interview in the Paris Review (No. 133, Winter 1994) that applies to any calling that seems exciting in theory:

I don’t get the deluge of manuscripts that I would be getting in Nigeria. But some do manage to find me. This is something I understand, because a budding writer wants to be encouraged. But I believe myself that a good writer doesn’t really need to be told anything except to keep at it. Just think of the work you’ve set yourself to do, and do it as well as you can. Once you have really done all you can, then you can show it to people. But I find this is increasingly not the case with the younger people. They do a first draft and want somebody to finish it off for them with good advice.

It’s not a perfect analogy for translators because we would be wise to take advice from experts or more experienced colleagues in terms of the technical and business aspects of our job. But there is a sense in which you build a business simply by doing it, not because someone told you it would be a good career, not because you’re following someone else’s directions, but because this is what you feel in your bones. Advice will help you nail down the details and adjust your course, but no one is going to get up in the morning for you and find the clients, do the work, and overcome the inevitable obstacles. You have to self-start every day.

I got a phone call one time from a beginning interpreter who was really frustrated because he wasn’t making a lot of money yet after a few months, and he was wondering if it was even possible to make a living. I asked him a few questions and found out he lived in a small town in upstate New York, so three obvious solutions presented themselves right there: explore telephone interpretation, move to New York City, or switch to translation. During the conversation it became clear that he wasn’t interested in making any life changes, though; he seemed to feel that since he had this degree the money should naturally follow without too much further effort.

Another lady had heard me talk about my business and came up to me to ask me how she could get started. She was bilingual in English and Spanish, and, like many people, figured that was all she needed to be a translator. So I tried to explain what it takes to be a professional translator and gave her some pointers to get started. Her efforts petered out after a week or two, though, because she didn’t really want to be a translator; she just thought it would be a convenient way to make money.

I’m betting that most of you, colleagues, built your business without anybody prodding you to get out, gain experience, build a resume, build a client base, etc. If you are still in business, it means you kept at it through the lean periods because you love the challenge of the work itself and of building a business and you’d rather do this than something else. You don’t need anybody to tell you that it’s smart to network, to connect, to get advice, to take courses, to keep learning, to market yourself, and to keep growing. You just did it.

I read this biography of Andrew van der Bijl (“Brother Andrew”), who smuggled Bibles to underground churches behind the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. One time after speaking about his work he was approached by a young man who was all fired up about this exciting adventure and wanted to know how he could start something similar himself. Andrew didn’t have any advice to him other than to just do it, just like he had simply seen a need and got in his old Volkswagen with a pile of books to meet that need. The point, to me, is not that we don’t need to learn from others, because we do, but rather that you don’t need others to get you moving when you are passionate about something, and that it is much easier to coach or advise someone who is already moving than someone who waits for someone else to spell it all out for them before they do anything.

So to my colleagues who are still in business: congratulations on another year of just doing it, of perseverance through the challenges and uncertainty of building a business! I wish each of you continued success and growth as we keep doing what we do in 2015.

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7 thoughts on “The Secret Ingredient of Freelance Success

  1. Thanks for the encouragement. I’m a ‘starting out’ translator, trying to do what you suggested, building up a client base, getting connected, making mistakes… I’ve also got the local job centre on my back, because they want me to start making money immediately. Meanwhile I’m not sure what to expect, so it is good to know what is realistic…

    I’ll keep slogging away…

    • Hi Andy, first of all respect to you for taking up the challenge of running your own business. It’s hard enough as it is, and can’t imagine having some agency breathing down my neck on top of that… Payment issues seem to be part of the growing pains for many beginning translators. I had many stressful times during my first two years trying to get agencies to pay me on time, or even pay me at all. It would seem fair that lower-paying agencies should at least make up for their low rates by paying on time, but it seems the higher paying agencies are also the most reliable payers, and it takes time for many of us to get on board with those as you gain experience, skills, certifications, etc. Other options are to find an in-house position or take on another part-time job while you build your client base. The first one depends on where you live, of course, and the second one is not easy, either. Try to network by joining translation associations and attend any events you can, for support, information, and possibly even referrals. All I can say is that if this is what you enjoy doing it’s worth the growing pains. Let me know what happens.

      • Thanks for your encouraging words.

        You mentioned certifications as a goal and I can see how important it is to gain recognised certificates. I hold qualifications from American and German colleges,but while I achieved good langiuage grades in both, neither is specific to translation, and I suspect this will be a problem, especially in Germany where the rule is “I have a piece of paper, therefore I am”.

        What sort of options are there? I’ve noticed a number of places offering a certificate in return for cash and a test, but anyone can make a website claiming to be an accrediting body. On the other hand, I need to earn money relatively quickly, because as I mentioned earlier, the local job centre will try to push me into another job if I don’t start earning relatively quickly.

        What organisations exist which offfer a bona fide accreditation that would be recognised?

  2. Nicely written article and I’m in agreement with you. Just like any business, it takes hard work, sleepless nights and perseverance to finally see some results. It has taken me about 4 years to finally get going in the field. I’m doing what I love and I know the money will follow.

    • Thank you Annie, and yes, absolutely. Back in the day as a graduate student I taught English composition to Freshmen, and I vividly remember the dread I would feel waking up on days I had to teach. Compare that with the total feeling of well-being I experience with a fresh cup of coffee and a nice new translation project to start on. Being able to do what you love is one of the great blessings in this life, and if you do it well, with persistence, the money will indeed follow.
      P.s. I love your avatar!

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