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Extrinsic Qualities of a Professional Translator

By Alessandra Muzzi

In a past article, I wrote about the intrinsic qualities that a professional translator is supposed to possess. Those are the qualities that allow you to do a good job when you set down translating and, for a translator working as an employee in an institution or a corporate environment, those qualities, together with being a good team player, may be all that is needed.

If you work as an independent professional, on the other hand, there are several more skills that come into play in various other moments: when first starting out your business, when dealing with clients, prospects, and colleagues, when managing time and money, when keeping up with advances in the industry.
Here, I will elaborate on the ones that I deem most relevant to building a successful freelance translation career.

Let’s begin from the start: starting out. This is a delicate phase, that I wrote about extensively many years ago, together with a colleague. The article, in Italian, was titled “Tradurre per vivere” (Translating for a living), and is still available here. Though the sites and resources cited are out of date, its main tenets still hold:

  • Get in touch with your peers in the industry. Networking with colleagues may allow you to understand your positioning in the market and may open up unexpected opportunities. (Colleagues are among the best sources of work!)
  • Find clients (agencies or direct clients) that respect you and your work (including in monetary terms). Check potential clients' background info to make sure they are reliable when coming to paying their vendors.
  • Find sources that allow you to assess what rates you can realistically charge, based on your set of skills, on specific market conditions, and on the cost of living in your specific location.
  • Enter your profile in online industry-specific platforms, like ProZ and TranslatorsCafé, and invest some time in understanding how these platforms work and how you can get the most out of them. (Today, I would add that an active professional presence on the main social platforms, like LinkedIn and Facebook, is just as important.)
  • Have your own domain and Web site, and a professional email address from your domain. Keep your Web site content current, and use your professional email address when communicating with clients and prospects.
  • Subscribe to one or more professional associations, that can provide you with opportunities for networking, continuing professional development, and validation of your translation skills.

Sending resumes in a shower-like fashion is not likely to take you far. Make sure your communications are unique and relevant to the targeted prospects. Showcase your abilities by participating in online forums, social platforms, and other meeting places (physical or virtual), writing or speaking on subjects you know well and have spent some time researching, and helping out colleagues with linguistic, technical, or business issues. Answer promptly to job offers relevant to you, after reading the job description carefully, and make sure you can keep deadlines that you undertake to meet.

That much about marketing. That's already much to digest, and if you can do half of the above putting your head and heart into it (rather than doing it all in a hasty and superficial way), you are well equipped on your way to becoming a successful translator.

If you do a good job, assignments will start flowing in. Can you then breathe a sigh of relief and think that all you need to do now is translating? Not so.

You need to build good relationships with your clients. To them, you must be a reliable partner. Your communications must be prompt and professional, and you must deliver on your promises regarding quality and timeliness.

You need to keep honing your skills. Languages evolve, your specialty sectors evolve, and technologies evolve. Today, success is closely tied to the ability of adapting to change and to see change as an opportunity for growth.

You need to keep up doing your marketing. In this world's volatile business environment, clients come and go. You must be ready to replace clients that go (for several reasons), and always aim at acquiring better clients. Depending on your career objectives, better clients may include clients who pay more, who offer a steadier workflow, who give you more opportunities for professional development, and so on.

You need to manage your finances in an efficient and effective way. Many translators do not like dealing with numbers and, in many countries (Italy being one of them), you will need an accountant. Even with an accountant, you must keep track of payments and expenses, pay taxes, and evaluate if your business is financially viable, i.e. if the bottom line, at the end of the year, is positive.

All these collateral activities are bound to take much of your time, so do not assume you will have 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, available for actual translation-related work. That is, unless you are willing to work overtime and on weekends, something many freelance translators actually do. Loving one's profession is a good thing, aiming at success is laudable, but do not forget to find a good work-life balance, if you want your business to be sustainable in the long term – and your life to be enjoyable!

April 1st, 2018