Last Saturday I gave a talk at a Chartered Instituted of Linguists event on getting started in translation. I had one hour to give a rough overview of the skills you need to be successful as a translator, the type of work you might do, a ‘typical’ day, networking, how to approach potential clients, and how to then grow your business. I’ll also be running the presentation as a webinar in February 2010, for anyone who couldn’t make it to London last Saturday.

Attendees of the event who are new to my blog may be interested in reading a little more about how I got into translation, as just one example of how a freelance translator begins their career. Well, if you’re wondering, read on…

For me, translating freelance was something I’d aimed for since starting my MA in Translation and Linguistics at Westminster University over six years ago. Completing the course 9 months later, I realised that freelancing lark would require planning, careful consideration and funds (not to mention paying off various bills and loans). So, quite early on I started looking for in-house translation jobs in London, eventually accepting a job as a full-time in-house translator in the public sector. My plan was to stay in this job for about a year, save up and then launch my freelance translation business.

I remember that I was fairly overly confident about my abilities as a translator at that stage, despite not having much real-world experience of it. Embarrassing to think about it now! A year passed quickly and I realised that I still had a long way to go before I felt ready to go it alone, both in terms of my translation skills and my ability to run a business. I still felt that I was much more suited to freelancing than to cubicle life in a rather uninspiring air-conditioned office, but the value of what I was learning was too great to just ditch it so quickly. I decided to set myself a target of at least 3 years in the job, and then to go for it freelance.

So, apart from translating diligently, squirrelling away my pennies, making my escape plan and daydreaming about a fantasy life as a freelance translator, what else was I doing during those years? Well, because I was serious about becoming freelance, and felt that if I put my mind to it and got support from the right people I could really make a go of it, I spent a lot of my evenings online researching how others were doing it, what sort of hardware/software/ancillary skills I might need for my business etc. Like many translators, I did regular voluntary translations in my spare time in order to hone my translation skills. I joined several ITI groups, and started reading the e-group threads after work. I attended steadily more ITI and CIOL events (networking is a long-term activity so I thought it best to get started on that ASAP), and I started a blog. I had been reading other translation blogs, and realised that I was gaining so much from reading about the experiences of other translators that I wanted to contribute something of my own. This led to more networking and becoming part of a dialogue with other translators in order to share our experiences.

Eventually, I felt the time was right to finally go freelance. If anything, though, I felt even more terrified at the prospect of freelancing at that point than I did when I graduated years before, when I was blissfully ignorant about what it involved! But I was still determined to do it, and resolute that in-house translation was not for me at that point in my life. I needed something to make me take the plunge, but I also needed a security blanket. So, I hatched another plan. I started attending a TESOL course for 3 hours each evening after work to qualify to teach English as a foreign language – a sort of back-up plan just in case freelancing didn’t work out, or if it took a lot longer than expected to get going. I also sat the ITI exam to become a qualified member (MITI).

Happily, I passed both the TESOL course and the ITI exam and no longer had any excuses to put off going freelance. The next thing I needed was the ITI’s Professional Support Group course, as after years in the public sector I was still seriously lacking any business skills. So, one week after leaving my in-house job for good I started the PSG course and was at my new desk in my home office. I got a short-term part-time teaching job in central London to help pay the bills, and also some locum teaching and private tuition in Business English. By October 2008 (6 months after going freelance), I was finding it too difficult to fit all this in with what was by then a full-time translation workload and felt secure enough to stop the teaching altogether.

I think it’s fair to say that each freelance translator will have taken a slightly different route, and the length of time it takes to get to the point where you’re earning a decent full-time income with regular, valued customers will vary considerably (depending on your language combinations, experience, marketing material, and often just sheer good luck). However, hearing how other people did it and how long it took them is one of the best ways of getting a realistic picture of what to aim for. I started my career in-house, and I’m not suggesting that’s what everyone ‘should’ do. However, I do think that however you do it, careful planning is one of the best routes to a successful, sustainable freelance career. Running your own business is very fulfilling but can be scary, and so ultimately, the crucial qualities are determination and the ability to be brave when it’s needed!

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Getting into translation

Last Saturday I gave a talk at a Chartered Instituted of Linguists event on getting started in translation. I had one hour to give a rough overview of the skills you need to be successful as a translator, the type of work you might do, a ‘typical’ day, networking, how to approach potential clients, and how to then grow your business. I’ll also be running the presentation as a webinar in February 2010, for anyone who couldn’t make it to London last Saturday.

Attendees of the event who are new to my blog may be interested in reading a little more about how I got into translation, as just one example of how a freelance translator begins their career. Well, if you’re wondering, read on…

For me, translating freelance was something I’d aimed for since starting my MA in Translation and Linguistics at Westminster University over six years ago. Completing the course 9 months later, I realised that freelancing lark would require planning, careful consideration and funds (not to mention paying off various bills and loans). So, quite early on I started looking for in-house translation jobs in London, eventually accepting a job as a full-time in-house translator in the public sector. My plan was to stay in this job for about a year, save up and then launch my freelance translation business.

I remember that I was fairly overly confident about my abilities as a translator at that stage, despite not having much real-world experience of it. Embarrassing to think about it now! A year passed quickly and I realised that I still had a long way to go before I felt ready to go it alone, both in terms of my translation skills and my ability to run a business. I still felt that I was much more suited to freelancing than to cubicle life in a rather uninspiring air-conditioned office, but the value of what I was learning was too great to just ditch it so quickly. I decided to set myself a target of at least 3 years in the job, and then to go for it freelance.

So, apart from translating diligently, squirrelling away my pennies, making my escape plan and daydreaming about a fantasy life as a freelance translator, what else was I doing during those years? Well, because I was serious about becoming freelance, and felt that if I put my mind to it and got support from the right people I could really make a go of it, I spent a lot of my evenings online researching how others were doing it, what sort of hardware/software/ancillary skills I might need for my business etc. Like many translators, I did regular voluntary translations in my spare time in order to hone my translation skills. I joined several ITI groups, and started reading the e-group threads after work. I attended steadily more ITI and CIOL events (networking is a long-term activity so I thought it best to get started on that ASAP), and I started a blog. I had been reading other translation blogs, and realised that I was gaining so much from reading about the experiences of other translators that I wanted to contribute something of my own. This led to more networking and becoming part of a dialogue with other translators in order to share our experiences.

Eventually, I felt the time was right to finally go freelance. If anything, though, I felt even more terrified at the prospect of freelancing at that point than I did when I graduated years before, when I was blissfully ignorant about what it involved! But I was still determined to do it, and resolute that in-house translation was not for me at that point in my life. I needed something to make me take the plunge, but I also needed a security blanket. So, I hatched another plan. I started attending a TESOL course for 3 hours each evening after work to qualify to teach English as a foreign language – a sort of back-up plan just in case freelancing didn’t work out, or if it took a lot longer than expected to get going. I also sat the ITI exam to become a qualified member (MITI).

Happily, I passed both the TESOL course and the ITI exam and no longer had any excuses to put off going freelance. The next thing I needed was the ITI’s Professional Support Group course, as after years in the public sector I was still seriously lacking any business skills. So, one week after leaving my in-house job for good I started the PSG course and was at my new desk in my home office. I got a short-term part-time teaching job in central London to help pay the bills, and also some locum teaching and private tuition in Business English. By October 2008 (6 months after going freelance), I was finding it too difficult to fit all this in with what was by then a full-time translation workload and felt secure enough to stop the teaching altogether.

I think it’s fair to say that each freelance translator will have taken a slightly different route, and the length of time it takes to get to the point where you’re earning a decent full-time income with regular, valued customers will vary considerably (depending on your language combinations, experience, marketing material, and often just sheer good luck). However, hearing how other people did it and how long it took them is one of the best ways of getting a realistic picture of what to aim for. I started my career in-house, and I’m not suggesting that’s what everyone ‘should’ do. However, I do think that however you do it, careful planning is one of the best routes to a successful, sustainable freelance career. Running your own business is very fulfilling but can be scary, and so ultimately, the crucial qualities are determination and the ability to be brave when it’s needed!

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  1. Nic at CrossLingo

    October 22, 2009

    Hi Philippa, great post.
    This is very interesting for me to read. I am just finishing a postgrad degree on translating and need to think what to do next so this is very interesting. I think that I will follow your path to a degree. I already teach, which is paying for my studies and plan to find an in-house job (in an mlv or a business). I too read and blog about languages already.
    I find this kind of post very useful and am glad that pro translators are willing to help out younger ones coming through. Thanks again.
    Nic at CrossLingo

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