You’ve decided to take the plunge and set up shop for yourself. You’ve bought yourself a computer with all conceivable virtual connections, you’ve converted a lost corner or a nice little spare room into a quiet workspace, and there you are, sitting behind the keyboard, facing the screen, ready to start typing. The one thing that’s missing is the one thing you cannot buy – a client.
If you really have to start from scratch, finding clients to work for can be very difficult indeed. And even if you did manage to contact individuals or companies and draw their attention to your one-person freelance business, why should they want to do business with you if they have so many more options to choose from, with so much more credibility and reputation?
In fact, the task of attracting customers can be so daunting that it’s probably best to leave it to somebody else. What you should do is contact a reputable translation agency, and let them find the customers for you.
However, a warning is in order. All-round translation agencies are normally not too keen on open applications, for various reasons. First, they are swamped by them. Second, you’re probably offering a language combination that does not exactly qualify your application as a unique proposition. And third, if you do offer something off the beaten track, say Finnish-Maltese or Dutch-Urdu, chances are that their order portfolio in your special niche is not quite filled to the brim.
Even so, if you have some academic or commercial professional translation experience and if you don’t prize yourself out of the market – either by asking higher rates than the agency can afford, or lower rates than what it takes to sound professional – you may actually receive a response stating that they have decided to store your service offer in their freelance files with the promise of contacting you should a suitable occasion present itself. And there is a good chance that, eventually, they will.
That’s because at a well-run and dynamic translation agency, such suitable occasions are never far off. Agencies very regularly find themselves short of translation capacity and they may not remember your name, but they will see it again sooner or later when an urgent order forces them to delve into their files of potential freelancers. Usually, once you’ve done the first translation job for an agency, more will follow (provided of course that they were happy with the quality of your work). From then on, they will be able to find you. In fact, if your freelance modalities combine into an attractive proposition for the translation agency – in terms of rate, quality, speed and flexibility – they may actually discover that you are an altogether better option that some of the people they’re already working with and who’ve begun taking things for granted. The ins and outs of cooperating with translation agencies in your capacity as a freelancer is beyond the scope of this particular publication, but it is the subject of a different article by the same author. Suffice it here to state that of all potential clients, translation agencies are probably the easiest to locate and to contact.
As the term suggests, all-round translation agencies are very general in their scope. They have clients in a variety of industries, which means you will be doing translations in a vast range of fields. However, even if your contacts with translation agencies have helped you develop into a true all-round translator, there will be disciplines where you will feel more at home than in others. The next step in expanding your client base would be to focus on large businesses within your favourite sectors and find out if they have an internal translation department. Many international enterprises do. If you contact those in-company translation services you may well find them quite interested in expanding their freelance database, especially at times when they’re short on staff themselves. By now you will have gained sufficient professional experience to advertise yourself as someone who, if not an expert, is certainly knowledgeable about their specific field – which is important as translators without specialised experience normally don’t stand a chance in such a trade-specific environment. The benefit of gradually shifting your focus towards in-company translation departments is that this will enable you to further specialise yourself so that you no longer have to reinvent the wheel every time you start work on a new translation job.
Having said that, reliable all-round agencies also tend to differentiate between freelancers in terms of their strengths and preferences – in fact that is the only reason they can afford to be all-round and maintain a decent level of quality. The point is that by working for translation agencies – commercial or in-company – you will have the opportunity to gain experience and specialise in your preferred disciplines.
Of course this is only one of a myriad of strategic routes you might take in your attempt to find and attract clients for your freelance business. The exact nature of your effort will obviously depend on the size of your business and your ambitions. I nevertheless believe that the route along translation agencies is one that probably offers even relatively inexperienced professional translators the best chances of attracting first-time and follow-up orders.