Entering the Big Game
How I started out only working for direct clients in my target language country, Sweden
I decided to study to be a translator because I wanted the freedom of being self-employed along with the opportunity to do work I am passionate about. I also enjoy helping people from different cultures and backgrounds communicate with each other, so working with languages was a no-brainer for me.
I loved studying at the University of Gothenburg and enjoyed the conversations and discussions we had. However, we never really talked about setting up businesses, and how to market, pitch and sell your services.
As a result, I realized that everything I learned at the university was all well and good theoretically, but I was not at all prepared for the demands that come with being self-employed on the free market. This led me to that the world of academia and the world of business were parallel lines without a point of intersection, and made me wish that we had talked more about what it would be like to run your own business, networking and how to find your area of expertise and niche so you can market your business effectively. But I didn’t let that stop me. I was determined to find my place and find my own clients, and that is just what I eventually did.
Out of sight, out of mind
I decided pretty early on that I wanted to work for direct clients. What I didn’t know was how to find them. Therefore, I put on a jacket, brought a lot of business cards, went to several networking events and then joined a few of those networks. One of the networks I chose was Business Network International (BNI), which has both local and global roots.
The philosophy of BNI is built on the idea of “Givers Gain®”, which means that by giving business to others, you will get business in return. To join a BNI chapter, I paid a membership fee that I thought was rather expensive at the time for my new business. But I believe that you have to be prepared to invest real money if you want to see a real return on investment, and my return came in at tenfold the original investment within 18 months. The members of a BNI chapter increase their business through structured and professional breakfast or lunch meetings. The other dozens of people at those meetings are like your own personal sales force.
BNI has helped me develop long-term, meaningful relationships with other business professionals from several different industries. For example, I gained one of my best direct clients and collaborators through a BNI referral when a copywriter needed help with the translation of an article that was going to be rewritten for a Swedish hunting e-magazine. After that, they asked me to translate highly specific texts about hunting rifles, ammunition, and various scopes. I told them immediately that I do not hunt and I have never practiced target shooting, and therefore my knowledge is limited, but, I offered to give it a go if they agreed to assist me with the terminology using their industry expertise. They did, and I found that I was able to produce excellent results in collaboration with them and quickly get a feel for the industry-specific terms. This marked my entry into the Big Game as well as a truly fruitful partnership with a Swedish copywriter and an advertising agency.
Understanding what clients want
Willy Brandt once said: “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen”, and I think he made a very good point. There is a general opinion in Sweden, and maybe abroad too, that Swedes are very good at English. We are in general contexts, but not so much when it comes to specific contexts such as understanding manuals, instructions or guidelines. If there is a choice of having them in Swedish, most Swedes, even Swedish translators, would probably prefer to read them in Swedish.
Since I work with direct clients, I have the opportunity to engage in direct dialogue and understand what they want, and I turn to my clients when it comes to terminology. They do not expect me to know the name of every bolt, pin, spring or gasket on the hunting rifles because they know they are the experts when it comes to hunting weapons, but they do rely on me to make sure all of the information is transferred from the source text to the target text and that the text is well written and properly adapted for its purpose.
Whenever I am asked to translate advertising or marketing texts, which perhaps is more like transcreation than translation, I often present more than one version. I also ask questions, leave comments and cooperate with a copywriter or a journalist, someone who is used to writing for a target group and adapting the language to the target audience. The result of us working together helps make the end product much better than if I had done it myself without their input and if they had done it themselves without my input. My knowledge and their knowledge combined is what produces superb results.
However, if clients have queries about certain words, sentences, or have questions about the translation, it is always good to be able to give a grammatical, syntactical or cultural explanation, as long as the explanation shows that you know what you are doing. Explanations for your translation choices are often what separate the wheat from the chaff and leave a good impression of you. Professional translators and premium clients know that it takes a skilled translator with a good eye to achieve good results, just like hairdressers, surgeons, or carpenters. In my experience, it is better to show your clients you have the knowledge rather than telling them. This has benefitted my business by leading to more projects and new clients.
No matter how much training you have or how much knowledge you have in a particular field, you need to be able to look at things from your client’s perspective. For my clients, it is perhaps not so much outstanding syntactic solutions that matter to them. It is more important that I can deliver a-translation that is well suited to its purpose, in tune with the client’s objectives, and on time.
Recently a few of my clients told me that the way I run my translation business is innovative and is a fresh approach to the industry. I asked what they meant by that and the answer was simple: They have met me, had lunch with me and they talk to me on the phone. This allows me to understand what they want and need on a completely different level and assures them we are on the same page. For me, there is nothing out of the ordinary about speaking to clients on the phone or in person, but perhaps it is slightly unusual for translators, especially in Sweden, and therefore it seemed new to my clients and they felt that the results were better than other more impersonal translation services they had used in the past.
Header image credit: Picjumbo
Elisabeth Sommar is an English, German and Danish to Swedish translator specialized in technical and marketing texts. Her translations are mainly for hunting e-magazines, advertisements, and manuals for hunting rifles, shotguns and equipment for hunting and clay target shooting. In the past she has held various positions in the furniture production industry. Elisabeth has a master’s degree in translation from the University of Gothenburg and lives in western Sweden. You can connect with her on LinkedIn: se.linkedin.com/in/elisabeth-sommar
Hi Elisabeth. What a great article, thanks for sharing your experience! I’m definitely going to look into joining BNI. Are there any other networking groups you would recommend looking into? Thank you!
Thank you for sharing your experience, Elisabeth! I have just completed my master’s degree in translation and I find stories like yours to be just the motivation I need to keep moving forward in the freelance world. Cheers!
Thanks for this enlightening article, Elisabeth. I like your “show, don’t tell” approach to translating and your style of engaging with clients in person and over the phone. It sounds to me like both you and your clients are lucky to have found one other!
As someone who also completed a master’s degree in translation (at the Universidad de Alcalá de Henares in Madrid, Spain), I have often felt the same regret that my program didn’t offer more guidance on navigating the market. Our studies were also almost exclusively focused on technique and theory, so it’s always helpful to hear advice from those who have had success at the business side of things. They are two very different skills, but one is useless without the other!
I have heard of groups similar to BNI where members offer mutual support, which I think is a fantastic solution. I’m interested in checking them out.
Thanks for sharing a very inspiring piece! I totally agree with what you say about university education having no intersections with the real business life we encounter later on as professionals. I am myself trying to learn to go out and present my services and gain new clients. I would love to have that same relationship you talk about you have with your clients; good knowledge, close contacts and follow-ups. I am following your advice and hope I too soon see positive results. Thanks again.