From Project Manager to Freelance Translator

What was your reason behind moving from a Project Manager position to the world of freelance?

AB: I decided to take the plunge in 2013 because freelancing is what I have always wanted to do! During my Masters in translation at Stendhal University in France, our Director advised the younger students, those who weren’t switching careers and who did not come from a different field before choosing to study translation, to spend a few years working for a translation agency or an internal translation department in order to gain experience, work with mentors and editors, and get to know the market before going freelance. That sounded like excellent advice, and I took it! I spent some time working as a Language Project Manager first, which was a dual role that covered language-based responsibilities and project management duties. After that, I worked as a Senior Project Manager, Translator and Editor for a small, all-French translation company. This gave me the maturity, experience and drive that were needed to start freelancing. My agency experience has been invaluable, yet the minute I started freelancing, I never looked back.

What excited you the most about becoming a freelancer?

AB: Before I started: the independence of it, the ability to choose my own clients, to work from anywhere, to grow my business as I see fit and to make my own schedule. Now that I’ve been doing it for two and half years: same as above, with the addition of my wonderful colleagues and peers (at ATA and elsewhere).

Have there been any challenges you have faced which you weren’t expecting?

AB: Not really. I knew there would be challenges (and there have been), but none of them were unexpected. As a Project Manager, I solved dozens of problems. I found hundreds of solutions, fixed oodles of files, and was confronted with more challenges that I could have possibly dreamt of. I even overcame a few of them. You know, the PM’s phone rings when there is a problem. Challenges are part of business as usual.

What is it like having to support yourself as a freelancer? Living expenses and software such as CAT tools don’t come free.

AB: Supporting yourself as a freelance translator is possible if you’re good at what you do. There’s no secret formula however, and when newcomers ask me how long it’s going to take to make money and pay the bills, I always tell them that they need a minimum of six months of net living expenses in the bank (all taxes paid). Make that twelve months in a major city, such as New York or Paris. The first few months will be tough. There will be the thrill of the first check, the low of the week without a single project, and the general uncertainty of not knowing if things are going to work out. Eventually they will though, for those who are able to keep their clients happy and excited about their services.

Now about CAT tools, there are as many reasons to choose a particular CAT tool (or to choose to work without them) as there are translators out there. The challenge is choosing the right one. Most agencies won’t work with a new translator until he or she has purchased the tool that they use. While it is close to impossible to give general advice to someone who has yet to make this decision, a few things come to mind:

  • Which tools do the clients you are targeting use, if they use one at all?
  • Which one are you already vaguely familiar with? Did you study one during your translation studies?
  • How much time are you willing to spend learning?

There are no right or wrong answers. Thankfully most tools come with a trial version!

A note about “CAT-hopping" for the unexperienced buyer: be very, very cautious. “CAT-hopping" is a fun term coined, as far as I know, by Paul Filkin. It refers to the advertised capacity of one particular CAT tool to handle the formats and output files of other CAT tools. It sounds great, in theory. In practice, it is very difficult for freelance translators to anticipate compatibility problems, especially when TM servers, online translation workflows and complex file formats are involved.

On the financial side, the only thing I have to say is this.

What advice would you give to a translator who is thinking about becoming a freelancer?

AB: We are lucky to live in the age of the Internet where advice on marketing, skill-building and professional development is easy to find, free or relatively inexpensive. So read the blogs, ask questions, buy the books, attend the webinars, network with colleagues and get ready for an exciting career.

Those who are coming to the field of translation from a previous career (the attorneys-turned-translators and healthcare-professionals-turned-translators) already know where they are headed. However those who, like me, went straight from a Bachelor’s degree to a Master’s degree or translation program will hear over and over again that they need to find their specialization. This will come easily to some but not to others. I struggled with this for the better part of the first two years of my freelance career.

My advice: don’t despair. If you can’t figure out what you specialization(s) should be, it’s not the end of the world, at least not for the first couple of years, as long as you are actively trying to figure it out. Each person is different, but here is how I tackled it:

  • I started tracking the projects that I enjoyed translating the most. Projects that made me happy got highlighted in blue, purple or green, which are my happy colors.
  • I also started tracking the projects that I didn’t really like working on or that were just not my cup of tea. Those projects were highlighted gray.
  • Over time, I tried to reduce the gray lines in my project-tracking spreadsheet and increase the quantity and frequency of my happy colors.
  • I also spent a lot of time asking other translators what they enjoyed about their specializations. Getting people to talk is a great way to find out what motivates them, and therefore what could motivate me. I also learned about new specializations that I didn’t know existed!

So if you don’t know how to specialize yet, don’t be too hard on yourself. Take some time to figure it out, be curious, and try new things, even if it means working with the seasoned editor in a new field just to make sure your work is fit for delivery. You will wake up one morning knowing what direction you are headed in before you know it.

If you would like to hear more from Angela please visit her website or follow her on Twitter – @AngelaCBenoit.

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