Blog post dated Aug 19, 2019

Success as a Freelance Translator

Interview with Sarah Elipot

Apart from their actual translation activity, freelance translators need to take care of various issues in order to get successfully positioned on the market. This includes ongoing training, costing, and customer acquisition. All of this can be a great challenge, especially at the beginning of the career.

To gain insight into the work of a freelance translator and to get answers to questions that arise while setting up the business, we interviewed Sarah Elipot. She has been a freelance translator for four years. Previously, she had worked as a project manager for a renowned language service provider for two years.

An Article by

Flurina Schwendimann
Freelance Translator

This article will give you some ideas for a successful career in the translation industry.

Many Roads Lead to Rome

What is so special about a translator's profession is the wide range of options and ways to achieve success. For example, many translators do not hold any degree in translation. Since the job title is not protected, many career shifters have entered the industry. Moreover, there are various types of translators. Some work exclusively with direct customers, others are happy to cooperate with language service providers, and still others work with both.

To specialize in a particular subject area, translators are usually encouraged to get further education. Furthermore, the access to a wide network and regular customer acquisition measures are helpful to expand the customer base. To do so, it might be beneficial to join a professional association such as the German BDÜ (Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators) or the ATA (American Translators Association). For example, the ATA gives newcomers the opportunity to participate in a mentoring program. The program assists fresh entrepreneurs by assigning them a mentor. The mentor coaches the mentee for a year, providing assistance when questions and challenges arise.

In view of the options, it is impossible to determine the "perfect" way for newcomers. Therefore, this article merely demonstrates subjectively one of the many possible paths. As Sarah Elipot aptly says: "The market is very large and multi-faceted. This is just what I have experienced, other translators may have had entirely different experiences."

How do you do it?

We know that many translators find their success in other ways. Do you only work with direct customers or do you regularly attend professional training courses? Send us your success story by e-mail to marketing@across.net

University Studies and Subject Areas

Sarah, you have worked as a freelance translator for four years. Do you already have a clearly demarcated field of specialization?

90 percent of the texts I translate are of a technical nature, e.g. manuals. I'd love to specialize in travel andrestaurant guides, but it's not that easy. You at least need to have your own blog in these subject areas in order to get positioned in the market. A specific degree program (e.g. in translation) provides virtually no preparation for subject areas such as art or culture. The same applies to literary translation; most publishers look for translators who hold a degree in literature and who concentrate on a specific genre.

You just mentioned degree programs in translation. When you studied at university in France, were you able to acquire skills that are beneficial for the work as a translator?

Well, not during my university studies. We merely received a theoretical overview of the various CAT tools. Though we had discussions about how project management works and how terminology should be created, all of this was merely done at an academic level. We spent about half of the program time translating, but we usually translated prose, not technical texts. In retrospect, it actually didn't make a lot of sense, as prose is rather unsuitable for processing with CAT tools.

So how did you acquire the needed skills?

During my studies, I did a compulsory internship with a language service provider, where I learned a lot. For example, I learned how a translation management system works, how to handle customer questions, and how to do research for translations. In time, I taught myself how to calculate prices.

One problem new translators are often confronted with is that they do not have any clearly defined fields of specialization. How is it possible to get successfully established on the market nevertheless?

In the course of your studies, you get to know various subject areas and are required to do an internship. You quickly notice which subject areas are more appealing to you. Thereafter, you can delve deeper into the respective subject areas. Some language service providers also offer coaching programs for newcomers. I gained a lot from the "detour" via my project management job. I now have a better overview of customer expectations, and I've acquired negotiation skills. Getting started as a freelancer, the most important aspect is to have enough time to find new jobs and customers. Initially, I mainly worked for three language service providers. Subsequently, I found some more customers via crossMarket.

Further Training and Marketing

Meanwhile, there are many free online resources for translators and associations such as the BDÜ or the ATA, which offer seminars and specialized books for those who are in the course of setting up their business. Have you found such resources to be beneficial?

For a long time, I wasn't even aware of the BDÜ. I never felt the need to approach an association, as I had already established a private network at university and in my previous jobs.

Do you not consider the training and networks offered by the BDÜ to be beneficial for the further development of translators?

Of course they are very beneficial. However, I usually interact with my own network, and at present, I don't see any need for further training.

Self-marketing is another important keyword for translators. You do not have any website of your own, but use crossMarket und LinkedIn profiles. Are such platforms a viable substitute for marketing your services online?

Currently, I'm happy to have an adequate number of good customers, so I don't actively engage in any marketing activities. I'd like to stick to them and use my additional time for them. Most of the time I get requests from language service providers for long-term cooperation or vice versa. When I find an interesting language service provider on the crossMarket job board, I introduce myself, but I don't actively search for translation jobs. When I have free capacity, I let my current clients know.

When I find an interesting language service provider on the crossMarket job board, I introduce myself.

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When we briefly touched on your fields of specialization, you mentioned that you mainly translate technical texts. Have you receive any additional training in this area?

No, I haven't. The language service provider in Berlin where I did my internship was specialized in technology. I now work for language services providers with a highly technical focus. So I gradually acquired the needed skills by myself. For example, I now know how a hydraulic circuit works. (laughs)

Extra Tip

Freelance translators should own at least these two books:

Pricing and Language Service Providers

Pricing is an issue that many newcomers are concerned about. At the beginning of their career, many translators accept rates they could not survive on in the long run. How was it in your case?

In the beginning, you tend to accept everything you're offered. So obviously you'll get some very low rates. It's not something you would learn at university, as the lecturers have often never worked in the industry or at least haven't done so for a long time, so they don't have up-to-date information on the rates. But over time, you learn how much you can charge for your services.

Once you get caught in the vortex of the low-price segment, it can be difficult to get out again. Is it possible to re-negotiate the rates with a customer whom you have been working with for a number of years?

I gave it a shot, but in the particular case, the agency was unable to pay higher rates. So unfortunately, I had to stop working with this agency. I regretted having to stop cooperating with them, as I really liked the project manager and they had high quality standards, but the rates were just too low. It often makes more sense to spend the time searching for new customers with better payment terms.

Over time, you learn how much you can charge for your services.

Extra Tip

The ATA regularly conducts surveys on fees, providing translators and interpreters with an idea of what can be considered reasonable in the price jungle. The Compensation Services Survey is especially useful for those who are new to the business and are eager to negotiate mutually acceptable rates from the outset.

Unfortunately, some language service providers seem to have a bad reputation. How do you make sure that a language service provider that you would like to work for is trustworthy and respectable?

Fortunately, I haven't had any bad experiences in this regard so far. I always research potential agencies online. Though it doesn't happen too often, I sometimes find negative reports about one or the other agency and blacklist it. For this, a large network is quite useful. Warnings against such agencies might also come from peers who work with the same language combination.

New Technologies for Translators

New technologies cannot be stopped, and the translation industry is no exception in this regard. For example, there are tools like Dragon NaturallySpeaking, which allows you to dictate your texts instead of typing them. Do you use such productivity-boosting tools?

I know Dragon, but I've not used it so far. My former colleagues at the translation agency I used to work for use it for patent translations, which the tool is very useful for. What a funny scene, all those people sitting in the office and talking to their computers! (laughs)

It takes some time to get used to, but actually it is quite helpful. The tool can also be used in combination with common CAT tools.

Actually, I've already considered using it, given the productivity boost that it enables. In some cases, I'd be able to translate faster orally.

One more question regarding the subject of "new technologies". How do you handle machine translation, and how does it affect your work?

I've noticed an increase in post-editing jobs, but to date, there is a lack of good billing models. Accordingly, the increase hasn't affected my rates so far. The use of machine translation may be indicated for some jobs, but post-editing is more tiring than "normal" translations, as more factors need to be taken into consideration. The output rarely matches what you would have written. I can't post-edit for more than two hours in a row without getting a headache. I don't think that it's a matter of getting used to it. After working for some time, it just gets too much for your brain.

Insurances and Colleagues

One of the major challenges entrepreneurs are faced with is the plethora of insurances that must or can be taken out, from pension insurance to professional liability insurance to legal expenses insurance. At what point in their career should translators start looking at this issue?

As I didn't have any stable income when I got started as a freelancer, I was only able to take out pension insurance a few months ago. I don't need professional liability insurance, as I only work for agencies that take over the liability. This type of insurance is more important for translators who work with direct customers.

One last question of a more general nature: Working from your home office, you can easily lose touch with your peers. How do you handle this difficulty?

I communicate with many colleagues via Facebook and Skype. This helps me to keep up to date. I've also returned to university to study, where I meet many people. The profession as such can be quite lonely if you're the type of person that needs a lot of human interaction and do not work in an agency or coworking space. Outside large cities like Berlin, coworking spaces are rare and are often very expensive.

About Sarah Elipot

Sarah Elipot studied German and English language and literature in Strasbourg, France. Subsequently, she got the European Master's in Translation from Lorraine University. After two years as a project manager for a Berlin-based language service provider, she has worked as a freelance translator for the language combinations German and English → French for almost four years. Her fields of specialization are engineering, medical technology, and marketing.

Sarah Elipot crossMarket profile