Going freelance sounds exciting, liberating. I mean, how could it not? It has the word “free” built right in it! But before you drop everything, quit your job and change your status on Facebook to “self-employed”, you should consider the following questions.
Before going freelance
1. What does it mean to be a freelancer?
Yes, freelancing sounds like fun and it actually is. But it’s not all fairy dust and unicorns. It involves heaps of work, it can be quite stressful and incredibly frustrating, you need a lot (and I mean A LOT) of patience and you definitely need the flexibility to kick your own ass to work each and every day (yoga helps to achieve that specific range of motion).
Honestly, I don’t think it’s for everyone. If you feel the need for security, a well-structured life and someone to motivate you from time to time, you might just be better off looking for an in-house position (and probably end up happier). If you think you got what it takes, TranslatMedia has created an ultimate step-by-step guide on how to become a freelance translator.
2. What do I want to do and do I have the qualifications for it?
This question is not as stupid as it may sound. Just because you trained as a translator, doesn’t mean you have to limit yourself to translation. The great thing about freelancing is that, in theory, you can pick and choose what you would like to do. But simply because you could, doesn’t mean you should. Remember that everything you do reflects on you and your reputation as a freelancer. If you’re not 100% confident you’ll be doing an excellent job, don’t do it!
Some jobs that you’ll most likely be qualified for as a translator are content writing, proofreading and editing. Content writing is a huge business. Most companies do not create their own online content but rather hire freelancer to write everything from landing pages to product descriptions. So if you’re creative and you like to write texts from scratch, this might be an option for you. If your grammar is impeccable and you have a good sense for text improvements, editing and proofreading might be right up your street. Both activities are an essential part of every translation agency but there are also countless companies that specialize in the editing and proofreading of university papers, thesis and other documents.
3. Do I have the financial means?
Of course you want to make money with freelancing not lose it. Before you can earn anything, however, it will take at least a couple of months. The first few weeks, you’ll do countless hours of work without any pay at all (updating your CV, researching and applying to agencies, maybe some voluntary work to get experience). After maybe one or two months (it took me about 6 weeks) you’ll start earning some money. Before you’ve built yourself a reputation, though, assignments might only come in sporadically. As a rule of thumb, you need to be able to support yourself for about 6 months before freelancing can pay your bills.
If you’re the impulsive type and you want to jump right into the deep end, make sure you’ve got your armbands properly inflated and securely locked in place. In other words, whether it’s your own savings, a loan or someone supporting you (friend, husband, wife, parents), you need a financial airbag. Calculate what you need each month, add some leeway for unexpected events and multiply by about six. If that number doesn’t make you faint, then go ahead and take the plunge.
If you’re anything like me, you prefer the gentle slope, dipping in your toes first and taking one step at a time while slowly adapting to the cold water. Having a part-time job that covered at least my basic needs gave me the peace of mind I needed to face all the other challenges. I also didn’t want to spend all my heard-earned savings on simply surviving but rather splurge it on my next adventures. You might have to think twice before spending and watch your money for a while, but it will all be worth it in the end. So, if you already have a job, don’t quit it just yet, but rather try to scale it down to a part-time position. If you’re currently unemployed, find a job that will pay your bills without taking up too much of your time.
Once you’ve decided to go freelance
4. What are the legal requirements?
One of the biggest mistakes you could make when going freelance is to not take it seriously enough. Becoming a freelancer basically means starting your own business. And just like with every other business, there are certain rules you need to follow and legal requirements you need to meet. Do you have to register as a business? Are you required to pay VAT? How about taxes?
Bureaucracy is complicated and legal requirements vary greatly from one country to the next, so there is no ‘one size fits all’-solution. No one wants to start out on an illegal foot, so make sure you collect all the information you need. Uncle Google might be able to provide you with a general overview but try to stick to official websites that know what they’re talking about. Usually, there are also plenty of organisation, which, for a certain fee, help start-ups with all the legal paper work (always check their credibility, though!). Even better, contact the authorities directly and ask them for advice. Call them, make an appointment, write an email. It is their job to help you and they will do a damn good job at it. Think about it, they want you to succeed, so they can earn more taxes (a rare win-win situation).
5. Do I have all the insurance I need?
The same goes for insurances. They’re complicated, most of them are unnecessary, but some of them are absolutely essential.
Does your employer usually pay for your health insurance? Who pays your salary when you’re sick or otherwise unable to work? What happens when you make a mistake? Can you be held responsible or even be sued? Is all your work equipment properly insured? If clients visit you directly, who pays if they trip over your stapler you left on the floor and break their arm?
If you try to answer all of these questions yourself, you’ll most likely forget something. Make an appointment at your insurance company of choice, find an insurance consultant you trust and that won’t rip you off and start your career knowing that all your safety nets are in place. Consultations are usually free and even if they end up costing you something, the prize you pay is nothing compared to what could hit you without proper guidance.
6. What about retirement and pension plans?
I know, we’re all still young and retirement is not even part of our vocabulary yet. But now is the time to start thinking about it (cramming money into your mattress when you’re 60 might not be the best retirement plan). Just as with everything else, going freelance means being responsible for everything yourself.
I know, I’m repeating myself, but go and talk to a professional. Stick to your area of expertise and let the retirement experts help you out. It’s so much more fun to be reckless and enjoy your youth when you know that there will be some money left to wander the globe when you’re old and grey (because you’re never too old to travel!).
While building your freelance business
7.What are my selling points?
Yes, competition is fierce! Freelancing in general and translation in particular is a delicious cake and everyone wants to have a piece. Working from home, at your own time, on your own terms seems to be all the rage right now and, whether qualified or not, everyone is going freelance.
In order to stand out from the crowd, you need to figure out what your USP (unique selling point) is and no, quality, reliability and professionalism do not count (those should be your standards, not your selling points). Are you fluent in Tagalog or Klingon? Are you an absolute pro at crochet? Do you know the difference between braising and glazing, between boiling and broiling? Anything and everything can be your speciality. The sooner you find your niche, the quicker you’ll be successful.
8.How much do I need/want to charge?
This is a difficult question that has been discussed since the dawn of time. As translators seem to avoid sharing their quotes like the plague, it usually boils down to “charge what you think you’re worth”. Complicated calculations involving how much you want to earn, how much you are willing to work, how fast you are etc. are also presented as an option to find out how much you need to charge.
Some translator associations like the ATA or the BDÜ are not allowed to give advice on rates because of prize fixing issues. The ITI, on the other hand, provides a detailed account of (more or less) current translation rates for the UK market. ProZ offers a list of average translation rates as reported by their community for virtually every language combination. Translation agencies are another source for translation rates. Find out what they charge their clients, deduct a reasonable cut for the agency (they still have to pay project managers, proofreaders etc.) and there you have it. For rates you can charge direct clients, check out the websites of other freelance translators that work in your language pairs.
Because every agency you apply to is going to ask you for your rates and it’s extremely time-consuming to research it over and over again, I’d recommend you create a spread sheet and make a big long list of all your rates.
- Calculate your rates in $,£ and €
- Charge per 1000 words (UK), per word (mostly EU) or per standard line (mainly German-speaking countries).
- Charge per hour for transcreation, proofreading and editing.
- Specify whether the rates are calculated according to the source or the target text.
- Set a minimum charge for very short tasks (they still involve a considerable amount of administrative work).
9. Where can I find work?
Unless your blessed with a lot of Vitamin C, getting direct clients might be out of your reach as a newbie. Your main source of work will be translation agencies. The list of agencies is endless and your best bet is to apply to as many as possible. I’d also recommend you make another spread sheet (I thoroughly enjoy being organized).
- What’s the name of the agency?
- How can you contact them?
- When did you apply?
- Did you receive an answer?
- What rates did you agree on?
- Did you actually receive any jobs?
- Are they reliable and pay promptly?
As you can tell from the last point on the list, there are a lot of black sheep that disguise themselves as professional agencies. They might either give you a job to ridiculously low rates (that’s simple, DON’T DO IT!), they might offer you a job and not pay you for it (that one’s trickier as all you can do is bombard them with complaints and never ever work for them again) or they might actually steal your CV (yes, there are people out there that steal other people’s CVs!). To avoid those scammer research the agency before applying. ProZ has a list of reputable agencies on their blueboard, while other websites give translators the opportunity to disclose their negative experiences with agencies.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about going freelance or do you think I’ve missed something important?
Share it in the comments.