So you want to be a freelance translator…

Being a translator can be very rewarding—as long as you know what you're getting into and plan ahead. Before you take the leap, you need to ask yourself some basic questions (not necessarily in this order):
  • How well do I really know my source (foreign) and target (native) languages? Am I deeply familiar with the grammar, culture, customs, idioms, etc. related to my language pairs? Have I spent a fair amount of time (at least a year is recommended) immersed in the source language country (or countries)? How can I improve my language skills?
  • Do I enjoy reading, writing, languages and translating?
  • Do I like focusing on details and doing research (crucial for translation)?
  • Do I need or want to get a degree or certification in translation?
  • What type of knowledge, skills or professional experience do I have from fields other than languages? Can I apply these to my translation work?
  • Am I comfortable working at home alone as a freelancer, or would I feel better working around people within a company?
  • Am I comfortable with the idea of not receiving a reliable monthly income/paycheck? Am I comfortable waiting up to 60 days for payment on some jobs?
  • Am I good at managing my time? Am I good at separating my work time from my personal time?
  • Am I comfortable with the idea of working in multiple currencies, handling business accounting, dealing with collections, calculating taxes, using new computer software/technology, troubleshooting technical problems (software/hardware/networking), marketing my services? Will I need childcare assistance? Can I afford to hire outside services for some of these tasks if I can't do them myself?
  • What kind of personal sacrifices am I willing to make so that I can be a successful freelancer? Am I willing to give up some evenings, weekends and holidays to get my business going? Am I willing to live on an income that might be lower than what I could earn working as an employee of a company?
  • Do I have a support network and/or resources for questions related to the business, languages, etc.? Do I have connections in the field who can help me?
  • Can I make a living as a freelancer where I live? Would I need to supplement my income? Can I make enough to cover my retirement/health insurance?
  • Do I want to establish an LLC or work as a sole proprietor? If working as a sole proprietor, am I comfortable not having the option of unemployment benefits if my business fails? Am I comfortable assuming risk? Is there a small business center in my area that can help me develop a business plan and guide me on my business options?
  • Do I need to register my business locally and/or with my state?

Successful Freelancing

In addition to providing the best customer service possible, I believe the following are key to becoming a successful freelance translator:
  • If you have the skills required, offer a range of services—not just translation. Examples of additional services include desktop publishing, transcreation, localization, terminology management/database development, proofreading and editing.
  • Don't rely on just one or two large clients to keep you going. I work with several agencies and some direct clients and find that if one source of work slows, another picks up, so there's always plenty of work.
  • Never stop marketing yourself—even if you think you have more than enough work. A day might come when you will need new customers.
  • Touch base with former or potential customers regularly so they are always aware of your existence.
  • If you can't take on a job, offer to refer a trusted colleague, or to outsource the work if it is a direct customer and the customer is comfortable with this option.
  • Don't limit yourself to a single currency (such as the euro vs. the US dollar). You never know what might happen to currency values in the current global economy. Some currencies also experience more fluctuation in value than others.
  • Make sure you have a bank account in the country of your source and target languages so that you can accommodate your customers and get more work.
  • Upgrade your hardware/software as necessary. If you know a particular customer is going to be giving you steady work for some time, it might be worth investing in the professional version of the software. If you see the potential to increase your client base by adding a new software, do it. If your computer is slowing you down, it's time to upgrade. If you don't invest in your business, business will eventually dry up.
  • ALWAYS send in your work on time. Respect that deadline. If you suspect you will need more time, notify the customer immediately—preferably at least a day or two in advance. Add an extra day or so of padding up front when you prepare your quote if you are concerned about the deadline. If you think you won't be able to keep the deadline, be honest and DON'T TAKE THE JOB.
  • Focus on providing the best quality and accuracy in the time provided for the job.
  • Maintain your health. Exercise. Take up a hobby or attend classes. A healthy mind and body will actually make a difference in how you work (for tips on posture, take a look at this: The Geek's Ultimate Guide To Improving Bad Posture).
  • Be humble, modest, courteous and respectful. Don't act like you're the greatest gift to the profession. This might bring you down. Treat your customers and colleagues like you would want to be treated. What goes around comes around.

These strategies have helped me over the years, but are by no means the answer for everyone. Keep in mind that everyone has their own needs, unique clientele and ideas on what works for them.