We recently gave a webinar that was meant to help translators start their freelancing careers and overcome the challenges they might face along the way. Some of the questions asked during the webinar made me want to write a separate article to make the answers accessible to those who prefer reading.


To be clear, this is not exactly a summary of the answers given during the webinar. These are mingled with my own follow-up thoughts. If you have time, I suggest that you view the webinar replay on YouTube (there is a clickable index of topics so you don't have to spend the whole hour watching), as it was much more detailed than that. So, to the questions:

1. What are some approaches to finding clients?

We will have a separate webinar on this (stay tuned!), but in general there are three:

  1. Agencies. This requires sending CVs to lots of agencies — think hundreds a week. The conversion rate (to those who actually hire you) will be around 1–2%.
  2. Direct clients. This takes a more personal approach, studying the prospects' websites and use cases, visiting trade shows, etc.
  3. Networking. By leveraging the network of your friends, ex-colleagues, acquaintances, etc., you can find leads to prospects. You can also reach out to more experienced translators for mentoring and/or subcontracting (see also 4).

2. Do you have to specialize?

In the long run, the answer is always yes, you do have to specialize. In the beginning, however, it might take some time before you understand what your specialization is. But the answer depends on who you are talking to. With agencies, it won't hurt telling that you are well-versed in several language pairs or fields. But it always makes sense to stress what you are historically good at. Say, if you come from petrochemical engineering, it definitely makes sense to highlight this. With direct clients, you don't have to mention every facet of your talent — in most cases (see also 5), they won't care. What you need to focus on is what they need. As already said, it takes studying their profile, their website, and so on.

3. Do I need a website to approach clients?

Websites are important — but not the most important thing for your budding freelancing career. It is much more useful to send info about yourself to as many prospects as possible. You don't want a polished website that no one visits because you did not have time for direct marketing. So you can start with filling out a profile on ProZ — or Smartcat, for that matter — and mentioning it in your introduction. This will let your prospects know what an advanced and tech-savvy translator you are :-)

4. What social media should you use?

We have a separate webinar on this, but in general I would say (which is naturally a biased opinion):

  • Twitter is like a college canteen — people come and pass, but you can engage in fun (if short) conversations.
  • Facebook's power is in groups. Engaging in meaningful talks in the many translation-oriented groups (such as this, this, or that) can get you noticed by more experienced peers. They can later remember you when they have an order to share in your pair or specialization.
  • LinkedIn is so professional you have to put on a tie every time you log in. There are a lot of prospective clients (and information about them) in there, but it does not mean they are easy to reach. If anything, avoid spamming every new contact with the same "I am an awesome translator" pitch (see also 5).

5. How do you approach clients and not sound too sales-y?

Speak of them, their pains and their challenges. Don't waste whole paragraphs writing (minutes speaking) about yourself. Find their website, mark out what could be improved translation-wise, analyze if they will benefit from having it in another language (they usually will). Include one useful advice already in your first email, so they can see the value right away. A very useful thing (thanks, Sheila) is to speak their language (terms, jargon, buzzwords). This is a sort of "friend-or-foe" detector. For instance, do you think you would prefer (other factors being equal) a web designer who uses the hashtag "#xl8" in her pitch to one who doesn't? I would.

6. How do you approach the right person?

If you don't have contacts in the prospect's organization, focus on smaller companies. First of all, they act faster, with the decision maker being usually just a couple of steps from you. Secondly, they are more likely to already work with freelancers. But most importantly, they are much more agile and ambitious, competing with bigger fish themselves. They know the "value of value", if you wish, and are unlikely to economize on things that provide such value (and translation does — though it's up to you to convince them). Pitching to bigger companies can be done if you know someone from that company (trade shows are good for finding such contacts) — this will make it easier to find out who the right person is.

7. How do you find motivation during the first months?

If you face difficulties and failures in the beginning, remember that:

  • This is a transient phase, which will turn to a more beneficial one once you learn the ropes,
  • If your business plan fails — breathe and learn from your mistakes,
  • If you get negative response — get detailed feedback and study it meticulously to be better the next time.

Finally, remember that there is always a community that can help you with advice and comfort (at least!). Social networks and forums (like ours, for instance) are not only good for finding clients. They are also a great way to feel that you're not alone.

8. What do you do if an agency doesn't contact you even though you have passed their tests?

Agencies have lots of freelancers in their databases. For them it's beneficial to have as many as possible vendors on their list so that they never run out of workforce (because not all of them know about Smartcat yet;-). The key here is to stay within their sight. Keep sending them Christmas postcards, tell them about your new exploits (such as becoming a certified — maybe Smartcat Certified — translator), mastering new specializations or pairs, and so on. The same, of course, relates to direct clients. If you don't remind people about yourself, chances are high they will forget you.

9. How do you handle short notices and urgent projects?

First of all, don't take it personally. Urgent projects happen not because someone wants to ruin your evening or weekend. It's just that translation projects often involve a lot of "middle men" (once again, not everyone knows about Smartcat:). There could have been several agencies and employees involved in the chain before you, all adding a time delay and ultimately leading to the short notice sent to you. Secondly, charge an 50–100% extra for urgent projects. Definitions of an urgent project vary, but you can start with calling any project with a deadline in less than 24 hours or a per-day volume of more than 1,500 words urgent. And yes, charge an extra for urgent projects even if you are just starting out. You are a beginner not a slave.

10. How do you set the right rate?

This is a big question that we will likely dedicate a separate webinar to. But in general, you have to balance between what the market can accept and what you can afford (an acceptable hourly rate). Understanding "top-down" (market) requirements takes some time, but you can always contact your more experienced colleagues in the same pairs and specializations for clues. Going "bottom up" (understanding your "fair rate") is easier, and takes just some simple arithmetic calculations. You can read more about this in this article of mine.

Do you have any other questions? Make sure to ask them on our forum — I'll gladly write answer them (or maybe set a whole webinar to cover that topic)!