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Featured Article from The ATA Chronicle (June 2009)

E-mail Marketing for Translators

By Jill R. Sommer

I have been a freelance German-English translator since earning my MA in translation from Kent State University in 1995. I moved to Germany and worked as a freelance terminologist and translator for a translation agency and later on my own. It was fairly easy for me to find clients in Germany because I was a rare commodity (a native English speaker). Even after the agency was sold and my colleagues scattered to work for other agencies, I received jobs as a result of their recommendations. During my time in Germany, I relied primarily on word of mouth for assignments, but I soon found out that this marketing technique had its limits.

They Will Not Come Looking for You
When I moved back to the U.S., I managed to keep working for some of my existing German clients, but the saying “out of sight, out of mind” certainly rings true. I ended up working part-time at Borders Books to pay the rent, while lamenting the fact that I had no translation work. As some of my colleagues so aptly pointed out, it is difficult for translation agencies and direct clients to send work if they are unaware that you are out there. As a result, I started an e-mail marketing campaign.

Alphabet Marketing
As a first step, I gathered the names of my colleagues’ reliable/favorite translation agencies and sent my résumé to them with the body of the e-mail acting as my cover letter. I also used ATA’s printed MembershipDirectory and, starting with the A’s, looked for any corporate members specializing in German and applied to them. The next step was to go to each company’s website to see if I fit their qualifications (language pair, field of specialization, etc.). I highlighted the names of promising agencies as I went and kept notes in the margins. Most importantly, I did not apply to every corporate member listed. That would have been a waste of my time and theirs.

The subject line of my e-mail was “German-English translator looking for new clients” or “German-English translator looking for freelance work.” Then, in the body of the email, I started off with “Is your company currently looking for a German-English translator?” Next, I highlighted my accomplishments and experience in one or two paragraphs, including my degrees and the six years I had lived and worked abroad as a translator. I mentioned my fields of specialization and stated that “My rates are flexible and vary according to the turnaround time and amount of specialization involved.” I closed the e-mail by citing my website (where I have my terms and conditions listed in more detail) and encouraged the contact to check it out. I kept the e-mail brief and to the point.

I tried to send five targeted e-mails a day. I addressed my e-mail to the agency’s contact person, either the one listed in ATA’s directory or specified on the agency’s website. I continued my alphabetical search of company listings in ATA’s directory, but stopped at “Columbia” because I simply became too busy. (One tip that I have given to a lot of beginning translators over the years is that it might be helpful to start your search in the middle or at the end of the directory listings and work backward.) Of course, searching the directory was just one technique I used to reach out to prospective clients.

Check Out Payment Practices Lists
Another source for finding prospective translation agencies is to subscribe to one or more payment practice lists (Payment Practices, ProZ Blueboard, TCR, Yahoo! groups) and to apply to the well-paying agencies that sound like a good fit. Naturally, you should avoid agencies that do not have a good reputation. This is a good idea even if you are not conducting a marketing campaign. Why work for a client if you are not going to be paid in the end?

Get Involved with National and Local Groups
In addition to my e-mail marketing campaign, I got involved with my local chapter and at the national level with ATA. I have become a frequent contributor to various translation newsgroups and listservs, including ATA’s German Language Division listserv. My participation on these forums has lead to many recommendations from colleagues who have read my responses and passed on my contact information to clients. I also present at ATA’s Annual Conference every year and regularly write articles for The ATA Chronicle.

Network: You Never Know Who Will Come to Dinner
In 2004, after passing the Federal Bureau of Investigation language exam and background check and obtaining my security clearance, I decided to attend a smaller ATA regional seminar on working for the federal government, held in Washington, DC. Marian S. Greenfield, ATA’s president at the time, called to ask if I would write an article on the seminar for The ATA Chronicle, and I jumped at the chance. Because I was writing an article, Marian invited me to attend the speakers’ dinner, where I met my soon-to-be favorite client. His agency was expanding and happened to be looking for German translators, so I gave him my card. His agency now makes up 45% of my annual income: all because I sat across from him at a dinner at a regional seminar and had an enjoyable conversation.

I also want to point out that I met another good client at that seminar who specifically attended to look for someone with my qualifications (a German-English translator with a security clearance). I had not sent this company my résumé during my marketing campaign because I assumed from looking at its name (which referenced literary translations) that I was not a good fit. It turns out that this client had a big government contract and did not even do literary translation.

Use a Two-tiered Approach
You should always use a two-tiered marketing approach. Send résumés via e-mail to potential clients and follow up. (One good method for doing this is described in an article by John Shaklee that appeared in the May 2005 issue of Nota Bene, the newsletter of the Northeast Ohio Translators Association.1) Aside from this, do not discount the power of a face-to-face meeting. Attend translation conferences and talk to people, and carry business cards with you wherever you go. I have met new clients at a Murder Mystery dinner theater and at a wine tasting. You never know when you will meet your future best client.

E-Mail Marketing Primer
Now that you have a better idea of where to look for clients, how do you increase the odds of them reading what you send? Here are a few specifics on how to conduct a more professional e-mail marketing campaign. They are inspired by a post I read this morning concerning tips for applying for a job from Craigslist.2 As the author says, it does not take much to distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack. This is also true for the translation field. There are certain dos and don’ts when applying as a freelance translator with a translation agency. Take them to heart to ensure your e-mail does not end up in the Trash folder.

1. Do not have any spelling errors or typos in your e-mail. Seriously, just don’t! You are applying for a job as a translator, which requires excellent grammar and spelling. Make sure your e-mail is flawless. Read the e-mail through several times before sending it to make sure you catch every spelling error or typo. You might want to try starting at the bottom and working your way up word by word so as not to miss anything.

2. Indicate your language pair in the subject line or the first sentence. The person reading your e-mail should not have to dig through the letter to find out what language(s) you translate.

3. Use the body of the e-mail as your cover letter. Do not attach a cover letter and a résumé. No one is going to take the time to look at two files. One, maybe, but certainly not two.

4. Try to write a unique but catchy cover letter. Let your personality shine through. In this day and age, no one wants to read a stuffy letter that has obviously been sent to 300 other agencies or could have been written by 300 other translators.

5. Focus on what makes you special and what makes you stand out. What makes you the best choice compared to the other prospective translators sending their résumés to an agency? Do you have an MA in translation, a law degree, or are you a Diplom-Übersetzer? Do you have experience working as a medical doctor or researcher? Have you lived in the target country for several years? Did you grow up in a bilingual household, and are you equally comfortable in both languages? Whatever it is that makes you unique, be sure to mention it in first few lines of your cover letter.

6. Make sure the agency works in your language pair. If the agency specializes exclusively in Japanese and English translations, do not send an e-mail unless the website says the agency is looking to branch out to include other languages.

7. Check the agency’s website before applying and follow any directions given there to the letter. If the agency says it only accepts submissions through the website, do not bother sending a separate e-mail. It will only be deleted, since this shows you cannot follow directions.

8. Tailor your e-mail to the agency. Show the agency you did some research and looked at its website to find out if your fields of specialization are a proper fit. Try to find a contact person on the website in order to avoid sending an e-mail starting with “To whom it may concern.”

9. Make sure the person you are sending the e-mail to is in fact from a translation agency and not another freelance translator. I cannot tell you how many times I have received unwanted résumés from prospective translators. All you have to do is look at my website to see that I am a one-woman show. That said, if you have a website that talks about “we” instead of “I,” you are making yourself a target for unwanted résumés.

10. Localize your résumé for your target audience. If you are applying to a German agency, it helps to send a résumé written in German that conforms with other German résumés. Also, make sure your résumé is proofread by a native speaker.

11. Think carefully about how you write your name. Choose one name and spelling and stick with it. This will generate name recognition. For example, I use the name “Jill R. Sommer” on my résumé, on my business cards, on my website, in ATA’s directory, for presentations at conferences, and anywhere else I have a presence (the exception to this being my blog). Also, be sure to clarify your gender if your name is somewhat exotic for your target audience. For example, sign the e-mail as (Ms.) Jill R. Sommer or (Mr.) Chiang Kai-shek. That takes the pressure off the person who might want to respond, but does not know how to address you.

12. Use a professional e-mail ad dress. It simply makes a good impression. Having your own domain name gives the impression that you have invested in your profession. Free e-mail services like do not make a good impression. The only exception to this is Gmail, because it is a more serious provider and has outstanding online file storage capacity. There is some debate on the professionalism of addresses. Some of those who profess to be against accounts believe that since AOL started off as an entertainment site it is not as serious as other e-mail providers. Just a little food for thought: e-mail with your own domain name ensures no one has any prejudices when they see your e-mail address. It should also go without saying that e-mail addresses like “” or “” simply do not convey the professionalism you need to show.

13. Consider naming your résumé document file “Last name first name_ résumé.” If your résumé is called “résumé,” it is simply going to be amended to résumé1.doc, résumé2.doc, and so forth by the agency’s e-mail program. Make sure the agency knows what the file is at a glance and can allocate it to your application.

14. Include a “Summary of Qualifications” instead of an “Objective.” You do not need an objective on résumés to translation agencies. It should be apparent from your e-mail cover letter that your objective is to start working with them.

15. Keep your résumé brief. Try to keep it to one to two pages. I send a brief résumé and refer potential clients to my website, where my résumé is more extensive. For instance, my website résumé includes a list of all the dictionaries and reference material I own to show I have invested heavily in my profession. If the agency is interested in working with me, the information is available on the site. You should not force a prospective client to wade through such material.

It’s All About Persistence and Presentation
So those are my top pointers for a more effective marketing campaign and résumé presentation. If anyone has any other deal-breaking tips, feel free to share them on my blog,  Insights from agency owners or project managers are especially welcome.

1. John Shaklee. “1/3/10/30/90.” Nota Bene (Northeast Ohio Translators Association, May 2005), 7.

2. Tips for Applying for a Job from Craigslist.

Check Out these Sites
Naked Translation

Musings of an Overworked Translator

Payment Practices List

ProZ Blueboard

Translation Client Review List

Jill R. Sommer is a full-time freelance German→English translator and an adjunct faculty member of Kent State University’s Institute for Applied Linguistics. She is a former contract linguist for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She received her MA in German translation from Kent State University in 1995. She then moved to Germany, where she worked as a freelance translator and Internet researcher for six years. She moved back to the U.S. in 2001 and started marketing herself all over again to the U.S. market. Contact: