Transitioning-from-Student

Transitioning from Student to Translator

How can you transition from classroom to career successfully? Establishing an online presence, setting your rates, and finding the right clients are crucial factors in getting started.

So you’ve graduated. Congratulations! Investing time and money in a recognized qualification was a great decision. But what next? How do you put your education to work and start earning money in exchange for your skills?

To give yourself the best chance of success, we’ve put together some tips to help you navigate the vicious circle of not being able to get work without experience and not being able to get experience if you can’t get work. Read on for our recommendations on how to get started.

Presenting Yourself as a Professional

There are a number of ways to show potential clients that you’re a professional even before you’ve landed your first
paid job.

Create a polished, up-to-date résumé and a profile on professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn and ProZ. The key here is to highlight the positive, such as your diploma, any special achievements while you were a student (especially if they involve writing skills), time spent abroad in your source language culture, and memberships in professional associations (ATA and your local chapter at the bare minimum). Taking on a leadership role within these associations and documenting that in your profile will help you stand out as a committed professional.

Create an e-mail signature that serves as a mini business card each time you communicate. Make sure you include your language pair and the services you offer (e.g., “French to English translator and proofreader”).

Be responsive and reliable. Show potential clients that you’ll be easy to work with. Make sure your e-mails are professional and polite. If an agency asks you to complete a test, or once you’ve secured an initial paid job, don’t miss the deadline! This is your chance to make a great first impression.

Create an online presence. Think of this as virtual networking. It’s all about getting your name out there, not just among potential clients, but among the translation community as well.

Consider using Twitter to raise your profile. It’s a great way to connect with other translators and interpreters—like an online equivalent of stepping out to the water cooler to chat with coworkers! Following other translators, professional organizations like ATA,1 and reputable agencies will also help you keep up with industry trends. A word of warning: it’s not easy to compose a clear message in 140 characters or less, so make sure your tweets are a good reflection of your skills as a professional writer.

Finally, the ATA e-mail discussion lists are a great way to make yourself known as you continue to learn about all aspects of the translation/interpreting professions from your peers. These discussion lists—known as listservs—are open to all ATA members and you can sign up for as many as you like.2 Before you jump into the conversation or ask a question, read through recent posts to get a feel for the tone and content of the discussions and the listserv etiquette. You should also read the rules and guidelines before posting.

In addition to the translators/interpreters who actively post on listserv discussions, there are many passive readers—so you can be sure your contribution is getting a wide audience. Your writing should be flawless. Established translators sometimes use the listservs as a way to find potential collaborators who catch their eye with a well-thought-out post. You won’t always agree with every contributor, but try to avoid coming across as confrontational while you’re establishing your reputation among the group. Again, you want to give the impression of being easy to work with because you never know who’s reading your posts.

Setting the Right Rates

Figuring out what to charge is a daunting task for newbies. A common mistake is to charge below market rates to compensate for lack of experience. Think twice before offering super-low rates. For example, when Meghan worked as a project manager, she viewed low rates as a red flag and would steer clear of cheap translators.

When you start out, you’ll likely take longer to complete a translation than someone with more experience. If you charge a low per-word rate, you’re taking a double hit—your hourly income will be “low per-word rate x low number of words per hour.” That’s not a good way to start paying off your student loans! Plus, when your income is low you’ll be tempted to take on more work to compensate, and the quality of your work will suffer.

Do your research to determine what the average market rates are for your language pair. The most recent ATA Translation and Interpreting Services Survey3 and the ProZ average reported rates chart4 can help you do this. Other resources include ATA’s Translator Earning Calculator5 and U.S. CalPro.6

Calculate backwards from your desired salary to determine your ideal per-word rate. Simply put, this involves deciding what your target annual salary is (remember to take taxes, overhead, paid vacation, sick days, and so on into account), determining how many words you translate in an hour, and then using your intended per-word rate to calculate how many hours/days/weeks you would have to work to make that target salary. If your yearly work time for that rate is reasonable, and if the rate you used is in line with the market rates you’ve found through your research, you’re on the right track.7

The bottom line: know your self-worth as a qualified professional.

Getting Your Foot in the Door with Agencies

A great place to find work when you’re getting started is through translation agencies. Working with an agency can help you maintain a steady stream of work and focus on specific subject areas in which you would like to specialize. When you work with an agency, you’re able to dedicate most of your time to translating, since the agency handles many other aspects, such as marketing, sales, project management, desktop publishing, etc.

The question is how do you find agencies? A good place to start is to attend conferences and other networking events (e.g., through ATA or your local chapter). These events will often have exhibitor tables where you can meet agency representatives. Since so much of our work is done online, these events are a rare opportunity to have a face-to-face meeting with colleagues and potential clients! Bring business cards to networking events and conferences, and make sure they include a link to your website and/or professional online profile(s).

You can also find agencies through online research—ATA’s Directory of Language Companies is a good place to start.8 Many agencies have a careers section on their websites where you can look at translator/interpreter requirements and submit your information. This method is often more successful than sending a cold e-mail to a general contact address listed on the company’s website. Don’t even think about mass-BCCing your résumé to numerous recipients. Not only is this an unprofessional way to introduce yourself, but you’re also unlikely to receive many responses. If your only contact option is through e-mail, make sure you address it to a specific person, preferably someone who is listed as a vendor manager.

Finally, sometimes word of mouth is the best marketing. Keep in touch with instructors and fellow students from your translation program. Your first jobs may come through them. In fact, Sarah landed an in-house position with an agency after learning about an opening from a former instructor. You can also ask other translators about their favorite agency clients. They may be able to provide an introduction to vendor managers.

Uh Oh, They’re Asking About My Experience!

New translators may be concerned about agencies’ experience requirements. Many agencies do have policies on the number of years translators should have under their belt before applying. How do you get your foot in the door as a newbie? Look for agencies that have more lenient experience policies—they’re out there, we promise. These agencies use other requirements to vet translators/interpreters, such as education, training, and performance on a test (more about tests later). You may also find that some agencies are flexible in how they define experience. While some specifically require full-time experience, others may be willing to consider your time as a volunteer, intern, etc.9

Proceed with Caution

A word of warning. While you’re busy contacting agencies for work, it may come as a welcome surprise when an agency reaches out to you to inquire about your services. While there are many great agencies out there, unfortunately, sometimes e-mail scams make their way around the translation/interpreting community as well.

In general, it’s best to be cautious about opening an e-mail not addressed to you directly, not mentioning a specific language pair, or providing very vague details of a project and no source document. If you’re unsure about a potential agency client, you can ask others (maybe one of the new contacts you’ve made while working on your online presence as mentioned above). You can also consult websites such as the ProZ Blue Board,10 Payment Practices,11 and the Translator Scammers Directory.12

Your Chance to Shine

Before starting to work with an agency, you may be asked to take a short translation test. Generally, a test is a 250- to 300-word text in your source language and area of expertise (or in a general subject area). You’ll be asked to translate it according to certain guidelines (you may be given a style guide and a glossary). The agency will share your results with you and keep them on file for future reference. This is your opportunity to make a stellar first impression with a potential client, so be sure to do your best work and send it back by the agreed deadline!

Once the Work Starts Coming In…

It can be very exciting once jobs start pouring in and you transition from marketing yourself to translating full-time. We recommend a few general habits to ensure that your business runs smoothly.

Build your resources toolbox. This can include online and paper dictionaries, online forums and listservs, style guides, and glossaries. You may also be provided with client- or project-specific resources, including translation memories. Make sure you’re comfortable with each resource and put them to use as you work on projects.

Ask for help when you need it. Sometimes your source texts may not be crystal clear. Be sure to highlight anything you’re unsure about and discuss it with your client as soon as possible to ensure an accurate translation. Many clients prefer a standard document (in Excel, for example) to track questions, which is a great way to keep your questions and their corresponding answers organized.

Stay open to feedback. Learn from each job you work on and encourage feedback from clients. This will demonstrate your desire to improve. Your ability to learn from constructive criticism will highlight your professionalism as well.

Keep Up the Hard Work

The approaches mentioned here should help you build successful relationships with your clients as you grow your freelance business. Just remember, you can always be on the lookout for new clients—and you never know when you’ll need to hand out a business card! Before you know it, you’ll be well on your way to changing your status from “recent graduate” to “savvy entrepreneur.”

Notes
  1. Follow the ATA on Twitter at @atanet.
  2. We recommend joining ATA’s Business Practices listserv: http://bit.ly/ATA-business_practices. You should also check out the listservs for ATA’s divisions: www.atanet.org/divisions/about_divisions.php.
  3. ATA Translation and Interpreting Services Survey: http://bit.ly/ATA-Survey. The survey is only available to members. The relevant information starts on page 8.
  4. ProZ Rate Chart, http://bit.ly/proz-employers-rates.
  5. ATA Translator Earnings Calculator, http://bit.ly/ATA-earnings_calculator.
  6. ATA American Translators Association: U.S. CalPro, http://bit.ly/ATA-CalPro_us. (You can also download a free ATA webinar by Andrew Steel, “The Business of Translation with U.S. CalPro: Analyzing Costs, Working Hours, Income, Productivity, and Rates,” http://bit.ly/ATA-webinar-business.)
  7. For a more thorough explanation of calculating your rates, check out Corinne McKay’s book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator (Two Rat Press and Corinne McKay, 3rd edition, 2016), www.thoughtsontranslation.com/book.
  8. ATA Directory of Language Companies, http://bit.ly/ATA-directory-companies.
  9. We have both worked as volunteer translators for Kiva.org and found it to be a rewarding experience.
  10. ProZ Blue Board, www.proz.com/blueboard.
  11. Payment Practices, www.paymentpractices.net.
  12. Translator Scammers Directory, www.translator-scammers.com/translator-scammers-directory.htm.

Sarah Puchner is a French>English translator with Anglocom. Prior to that she worked as an in-house translator for an agency with offices in France, Canada, and the U.S., as an in-house quality reviewer for a language services provider, and as a freelance translator. She has a degree in French and Hispanic studies from the University of Salford, U.K., and a graduate certificate in French>English translation from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She was the recipient the 2010 ATA Student Translation Award. Contact: puch@tds.net.

Meghan McCallum is a French>English freelance translator specializing in corporate communications, human resources, marketing, and financial documents. She has an MA in language, literature, and translation (concentration in French>English translation) from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. Before going freelance (www.fr-en.com), she worked in-house for several years at a global language services provider, serving as a project manager and quality manager. She is the coordinator of ATA’s School Outreach Program and vice president of the Midwest Association of Translators and Interpreters (an ATA chapter). Contact: meghanraymccallum@gmail.com.

3 Responses to "Transitioning from Student to Translator"

  1. Galina R says:

    Excellent tips!

    1. Victoria B says:

      A great article with useful advice and a very helpful list of resources in the footnotes. Thank you, Sarah and Meghan!

  2. Claudia P says:

    From the article: “It can be very exciting once jobs start pouring in…”

    This is hardly typical for the vast majority of translators entering the market these days. It is deceptive to write as if it were and harmful to those considering a translation career. Most students are finishing their studies deeply in debt and little prospect of paying it off in a timely fashion through the few number of jobs they manage to get.

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