Knowing you're ready
Thread poster: Katie Roskams

Katie Roskams
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:02
Dutch to English
+ ...
Sep 21, 2014

I'm going to ask a question to which I suspect there's no easy answer, but here goes: how do you know you're ready to become a freelancer?

I've been working for a translation agency for 3 years - one spent as a PM, then the last two as a translator. Going freelance has always been something I've wanted to do, for all sorts of reasons, and I saw taking an in-house job as a good way of knowing for sure whether it's something I enjoy doing, and something I'm capable of. I'm fairly convinced about the former point, but less so about the latter. Although I know what I'm good at (marketing/more stylistic texts) and what I'm not so good at (anything at all technical), my translations tend to be all but rewritten at the checking stage by the more experienced translators. However, this kind of 'over-checking' (making large amounts of preferential changes) is fairly common where I work, it's not just confined to the work I myself do.

For the last year or so, I've been trying to concentrate on ironing out what I'd call 'preventable' errors in my translations - typos, double spaces, etc. I've made an improvement there, but where I'm not making much headway is in my background knowledge of various specialised topics that I end up translating. The agency gets a range of texts in, from legal to technical with a fair amount of medical, and I've translated texts in all these subject areas, but the thing is, we get such a range to translate that experience alone won't help me much, because it could be six months before I translate two similar texts. Training isn't really happening at the moment, and on top of that, I'm doing less and less translation - sometimes only 1000 words each week - and more and more proofreading (upwards of 20,000 words daily at the moment) - which I can learn from to a degree, it's just that it's more of a passive activity than translation.

These and other factors have been making me think more and more about making the leap to going freelance soon, but it's a scarily big leap, and I don't know if I'm ready, or even how to tell if I'm ready. I think the large amount of changes to my work is knocking my confidence quite a bit, and it's not something that has changed during my time at the agency - nor is it a thing I really see changing in the future.

So what prompted you to make the move, if indeed you started out your career as an in-house translator? Do you regret the timing of it, and if so, do you wish you'd left earlier or later than you did? Did you consider yourself specialised in a particular field before you went freelance, or did that come later?


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Anton Konashenok  Identity Verified
Czech Republic
Local time: 11:02
English to Russian
+ ...
It's not a leap but rather a slow walk Sep 21, 2014

Why worry about the big leap if you don't have to take it? Start your freelance work without quitting your present job, just be careful about a possible conflict of interest. Once you have accumulated enough clients of your own and your freelance income gets steady enough, you can quit or, if you are still unsure of long-term stability, go part-time.

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Phil Hand  Identity Verified
China
Local time: 18:02
Chinese to English
Imagine you have no back-up Sep 22, 2014

As a freelancer, you will at some point have some direct clients. In non-ideal circumstances, they will have no proofreaders. So they will expect you to deliver publication-quality translations. Do you feel ready to do that?

One other thing you should consider is the change in style of work. You'll be working from home, and the collegiality of your in-house job will be lost. It can be quite lonely!

Having said that, if you are ready, then go for it. As a freelancer you'll have more control over the texts you deal with, and there is no shortage of work in the areas that you are confident with.


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MurielG
France
Local time: 11:02
English to French
yes, you can! Sep 22, 2014

Hi!

I've never been an in-house translator, but I think that if you're not ready with a 3-year experience, you'll never be. It's normal you're afraid to make mistakes, but you don't need to worry that much: everyone makes some mistakes at some point. I'm not really specialized as well, but it's just a little more difficult at the beginning, and then you learn on the job. Furthermore, you can be helped by other translators when you just don't know; as we can see on ProZ, freelance translators stand together.
Good luck!


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 10:02
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
Are you ready to run a business? Sep 22, 2014

Currycomb72 wrote:
I think the large amount of changes to my work is knocking my confidence quite a bit, and it's not something that has changed during my time at the agency - nor is it a thing I really see changing in the future.

That does indeed sound very demoralising, but how many of those changes they're making really make a tangible difference to the quality of the translation? The important question is what do your bosses say about the quality of your work? You've been there three years so they've had long enough to get fed up with poor quality if that's what you're producing. Even if employment laws make it difficult to fire you you'll have had all sorts of verbal warnings and complaints. If they seem satisfied with both your translating and proofreading skills then I think you should probably feel satisfied, too. And ready to make the break if you want. One major advantage would be that you could forget all those technical translations that aren't your forte and just do what you do best.

BUT, I don't think you're addressing perhaps the main differences between the in-house and the freelance translator. As a freelancer, you'll be running your own business, responsible for the whole thing from finding the clients to taking them to court in the unlikely event that they don't pay, and you'll be responsible for book-keeping, taxes, risk management, marketing... I'm sure you know that but most people underestimate its importance. Even in the UK, where being self-employed is a simple process, there are skills required that you may well not have. So I'd advise you to investigate training: the CCI might well be able to help. While you've got the job bringing in a healthy salary you can start concentrating on getting all your marketing and admin materials sorted. You'll need some or all of the following, at least:
- CV (or whatever else you decide to call it) suitable for a freelancer, NOT a job-seeker's one;
- trading name;
- logo;
- business cards;
- website;
- memberships (associations, portals such as this, professional networking sites);
- profiles at the above;
- an invoice template;
- some idea of texts for quotes and cold calling (though each one needs to be personalised);
- some way of keeping records of jobs, payments and clients (Excel/Word/Access?);
- your own copies of CAT tools and all those other IT things we need

When you've got that lot sorted, and you know what rates you want to charge, then you can start approaching potential clients. While you're still employed you'll have to check your contract carefully to see what you can and can't do. It may say no freelancing at all. Or it may just say that you mustn't collaborate with anyone you've had any contact with through the agency. You may be able to arrange to work part-time for a while; your employer may even give you work! But no favours, OK? Your former boss will just be another client you can say "No" to if you need to. You need to completely change your mindset from taking orders to being your own boss.

Are you ready for that?


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Rachel Waddington  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:02
Member (2014)
Dutch to English
+ ...
ITI SUFT course Sep 22, 2014

If you have one year's experience as a project manager and two as a translator and proofreader I think you will have gained a lot of useful skills that will stand you in good stead as a freelancer (and look good on your freelancer CV).

I think you have already received some good advice, but I would just like to add that you might like to look at the ITI's Setting Up as a Freelance Translator (SUFT) course for translators taking their first steps in the freelance world. Details are here: http://www.iti.org.uk/professional-development-events/iti-online-courses/176-suft/577-setting-up-as-a-freelance-translator. I haven't done the course myself, but I have spoken to people who have and they speak very highly of it.


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Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 11:02
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Not much to add really, except that when you take the leap, you are more in control Sep 22, 2014

I started in-house, and if I had not done so would never have managed to start translating at all.

DON'T let your self confidence be sapped by the wrong things - concentrate on what you are good at, improve where you can, and just accept the rest for the time being.
(If that sounds a bit like the Alcoholics Anonymous Prayer, it is an excellent approach to most complex problems!)

I was dismissed, along with a lot of other colleagues, when the agency I worked for hit financial difficulties and had to downsize.
Don't get yourself fired too early. Several of my colleagues worked part-time for the agency, teaching or interpreting the rest of the time, but not doing freelance translation in competition with their employer. That would have been grounds for dismissal.

Before you take the leap it may be safer to attend powwows and for instance ITI activities, to build up a network that in principle benefits your work as an employee too. I find colleagues I have met at powwows are good at referring clients to me. They occasionally outsource work I am happy with and they are not - when they work in different language pairs, or they think I know more about than they do about the subject area, or when they simply do not have time. Later you can return the favour when you get the chance.

When I started freelancing, I took some extra training in medical translation, as that interested me, and I cut down on the jobs I was less confident about. On the course I met several good contacts who later sent me work - including the professor who taught it! Concentrating your efforts will boost your confidence as you feel familiar with particular areas.

Think through the practical issues, as Sheila and others have suggested.
You sound as if you are ready to go, but can you afford it?
What will you live on when you no longer have a salary coming in at the end of the month, and what will you do if - in the worst scenario - you don't succeed and run out of savings? Having some landmarks in place is important. You need to know how far you can afford to take the drop in income, and how you will change track if you have to, before it is too late. Avoiding problems is always better than solving them, then you can try freelancing again later.

I hope you never need to put contingency plans into practice --- Best of luck!


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Richard Foulkes  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:02
German to English
+ ...
No-one is ever completely ready for anything... Sep 22, 2014

If you want to do it, go for it. Others have covered the potential pitfalls and you're obviously aware of your challenges / weaknesses from your in-house experience. You can specialise as you go via the work you take on as well as reading, CPD events, online courses, further education...

Phil's point about the isolation is worth considering. You do have to be pretty self-reliant but you don't have to work from home like you did back in the day of dial-up internet! I've worked out of serviced offices and co-working spaces the past few years and the benefits of getting out of the house and mingling far outweigh the cost.


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Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:02
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Brutal Sep 22, 2014

Currycomb72 wrote:

I'm going to ask a question to which I suspect there's no easy answer, but here goes: how do you know you're ready to become a freelancer?



You know you're ready to become a freelancer when you have a spreadsheet that sets out all of your monthly outgoings against what you think you'll be able to earn as a translator, and the two columns match up!

This of course implies that you already are a master of your trade, already have a reliable portfolio of clients, are all set up with the office space, computer equipment and so on that you'll need, and that you have accounting systems in place that will enable you to run your business on a professional basis.

That's when you're ready to become a freelancer.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 10:02
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
No new freelancer has a client base Sep 22, 2014

Tom in London wrote:
This of course implies that you already are a master of your trade, already have a reliable portfolio of clients, are all set up with the office space, computer equipment and so on that you'll need, and that you have accounting systems in place that will enable you to run your business on a professional basis.

Nobody can have a reliable portfolio of clients until they've been a freelancer for several months (if they're really lucky), or more often until after a couple of years. But I agree you have to know the basic techniques of translating, as well as knowing 2+ languages and being highly motivated. For the rest of it you can manage with very little to begin with: a desk in a corner of the lounge or other room, a fairly recent but general use laptop/desktop and a couple of Excel spreadsheets or an exercise book will get you off the ground. You just need to be prepared to plough back a percentage of your early income into gradually building up the business.


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Katie Roskams
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:02
Dutch to English
+ ...
TOPIC STARTER
Thank you! Sep 22, 2014

Thank you for all the helpful replies so far! From what I can gather - and it's hard to summarise here given the large amount of very useful information, for which I'm grateful - it's as much about the practical side of things as it is about the ability (although that's important too).

In terms of freelancing while I'm employed by the agency - it's not an option, unfortunately. It's explicitly banned by my contract. I can do translations as long as I'm not paid for them, and I've done a few volunteer translations that have been published online, but of course, only for charitable causes (I'm not going to start telling clients 'Hi, why not get me to work for you, but for free?', obviously). It's something I'd like to do more of, especially as I find it genuinely rewarding, but it's a case of summoning the willpower to do another couple of hours of translation after a full day at work - it's not always easy, although also not impossible.

In terms of support and back-up - I'd say I have savings for about 4 months if we imagine I'm living my current lifestyle, which I could stretch to 6 months if I was more careful with my spending. I know a lot of freelancers socially, and they've offered to help me find work, refer me to clients, etc., and I think that would be a great source of support. If it did all go wrong/I ran out of money, I could go back to my parents and live with them. It'd be a last resort (nothing against my parents, of course, I'm very fond of them, it's just that it's not really ideal for anyone!), but I have discussed this possibility with them in the past and they agreed that they'd help me if it came to it.

Re. self-confidence and complaints - I'm maybe a wee bit cynical, but I sometimes get the impression that some agencies are less keen to give good feedback to their translators precisely because it might give them that 'boost' they need to go freelance. I've had complaints from clients before, but I wouldn't say it's more than the average (and having worked with clients as a PM, I know that a complaint isn't always a justified complain!), and they've tended to be where I was in over my head, translating highly technical texts that I just didn't understand and didn't have the time to research properly. Obviously, I didn't feel great about that, but then again, I knew I was in over my head, and if I'd have had the free choice, I probably wouldn't have taken the texts in question on in the first place. If I was a freelancer, as some of you mentioned, I could concentrate more on what I am good at.

One thing I do need to work on much more, I think, is the 'business' side of things, specifically keeping your own accounts, being responsible for your own taxes, etc. I've looked into taking finance courses part-time, but haven't really found a suitable course yet, although I'll keep searching. It might just be that I need to research it more and that a course wouldn't be necessary.

Anyway, thanks again for all the nice replies!


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Arianne Farah  Identity Verified
Canada
Local time: 05:02
Member (2008)
English to French
I guess it's too late to amend the contract... Sep 23, 2014

"In terms of freelancing while I'm employed by the agency - it's not an option, unfortunately. It's explicitly banned by my contract. "

I can understand your contract saying you can't take freelance work from your employer's end clients, but no freelance work whatsoever! Technically that would mean you couldn't mow the grass for 20$, but I digress.

A work around could be to start a company and slowly start building your translation business. Don't pay yourself, work for free, and let the earned money accumulate in your company's commercial account, then once you take the plunge and go full time freelance, you'll have a good cushion - I'd recommend around 6-months' income at least.

Personally, my jump from in-house translator to freelancer was when I realized I earned 4-5x more per hour freelancing than working in-house, so as long as I could get 8-10 hours of paid work per week I'd break even. In practice that's a couple of direct clients with a weekly newsletter or a small/medium agency that sends you a day's worth of work a week, it's not that hard to get - after that of course the goal is to keep growing until you reach the quality of life you want (some people prefer to make more money, some people prefer to have more leisure time : by going freelance you lose things like paid vacations and sick days, but you gain much more control over your schedule + no commute which at 1 hour round trip a day is equal to 32 work days!!).


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Richard Foulkes  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 10:02
German to English
+ ...
Not rocket science! Sep 24, 2014

Currycomb72 wrote:
One thing I do need to work on much more, I think, is the 'business' side of things, specifically keeping your own accounts, being responsible for your own taxes, etc. I've looked into taking finance courses part-time, but haven't really found a suitable course yet, although I'll keep searching. It might just be that I need to research it more and that a course wouldn't be necessary.


I wouldn't let that hold you back! Don't let other people or phoney courses scare you off by making out that things are more complicated than they are.

The 'business' side of translation is: find clients, they send you work, you translate it and send it back.

The 'accounting' side is: you send clients your invoice, they pay it (ideally!), you keep a list/spreadsheet of what you've billed and your allowable expenses then fill in a tax return at the end of the year.

Have a look at a tax return and ask yourself whether you need to go on a course to fill it in. They come with instructions - an infant could fill one in and, if they still do it, HMRC offer you a one-day course on this stuff when you register as self-employed. You'll probably need an accountant if you decided to go down the limited company route but as a sole trader it's very straightforward.


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Max Deryagin  Identity Verified
Russian Federation
Local time: 15:02
Member (2013)
English to Russian
To add to what's already been said Sep 24, 2014

If there is one most important thing I've learnt throughout the years of working as a freelancer, it is this: if you want to become successful in freelance translation, you need to specialize. The market abounds with jacks of all trades, and specializing is one way to stand out from your competition.

What you want to do is pick one area you are most comfortable with and enjoy working in, and stick with it. Outside of going to extremes, the more narrow your area of specialization is, the better.

Here's an example:

If you specialize in medical translation, you will face fierce competition, as there are quite many translators working in this category. For that reason, specializing in translating medical equipment documentation would be a better idea. Further still, specializing in translating manuals for CT scanners can quickly make you a go-to specialist for clients who need exactly that.

[Edited at 2014-09-24 10:41 GMT]


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