How to build a winning translation portfolio - Translators Family
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How to build a winning translation portfolio

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A guide for freelance translators

So you’ve decided to become a freelance translator. You’ve set up a great-looking website, signed up as a member on ProZ and Translators Café, and started looking for work. But despite your excellent qualifications, shining CV and proactive approach, clients just aren’t biting. Sound familiar? If so, perhaps you need to look into developing a killer translation portfolio to set yourself apart from the rest of the pack. In this article we look at all the whys and wherefores of building a brilliant portfolio and offer some handy tips for newcomers and old hands alike to win new clients and maximise their income. Sound good? Then read on!

In the huge talent pool of the internet, there’s plenty of competition for even the smallest job, and if you can’t show yourself in the best possible light clients will pass you over and find someone else. This is where a top quality portfolio comes in, allowing busy potential employers to see at a glance if you’ve got the skills they’re looking for. It’s no good offering free sample translations alone. If they’ve already spotted that your competitor Fantastic Fred has a couple of shining marketing translations in his online portfolio they won’t even bother getting in contact with you, and you will have lost a client without even knowing they exist.

So if you don’t want Fantastic Fred steal your business, and don’t want to give clients an excuse to ignore you, it’s pretty clear you’re going to need to up your game. But where to begin? For a start, a portfolio is a marketing document, and needs to be targeted at a particular audience, just like any other marketing document. Keep selections short and sweet, with no more than a few hundred words for each sample so that you don’t bore your clients to death. Obviously anything you choose to include should be well laid out and proofread multiple times to guarantee not a single error remains. Be sure to stick to professional fonts and design – no Comic Sans, neon colours or ‘amusing’ clip art thanks! Even for translators in more creative fields it’s much better to let your personality shine through in the texts themselves than in gimmicky presentation. And finally, check any links regularly – nothing looks less professional than dead URLs.

Cobbling together a selection of randomly chosen texts won’t impress anyone, so be selective and think about what your criteria should be for inclusion. If you specialise in a particular field (which you should!), your texts will necessarily reflect this specialism. You might also think to include particularly challenging or technical texts, those conducted for prestige clients (provided said clients are ok with you using their texts) or those that you’re particularly proud of for some other reason. Perhaps you did a really good job of localising something for a new target market, or created a key piece of documentation used throughout a large company.  As with all marketing, the trick is to work out what your clients are looking for and then give it to them. So if you constantly get asked to translate terms and conditions, you’d be foolish not to include a sample of your most accurate T&Cs document in your portfolio.

Perhaps you have more than one specialism, or more than one source language – if so it’s perfectly acceptable to have a number of different portfolios, each targeted at a particular group of clients. One could represent your remarkable Russian into English marketing and web translations, another could focus on your exemplary English copywriting, and a third could show off your prodigious proofreading skills. It goes without saying that you should always include the source and target texts side by side, otherwise readers will have no idea if you’ve done a good job or not. Simply using two columns is usually enough for this, but some translators take it a step further and add annotations explaining particular translation choices. Provided the text isn’t too cluttered up with explanatory notes, these annotations can be a great way of providing insight into your working process and show off strengths such as excellent grammatical knowledge, awesome research skills or a knack for localising challenging concepts.

What other information should you include with each sample text? Each piece should begin with your name, business name, slogan and contact details as standard, ideally in letterhead format with a memorable logo to brand your work. Many of the more engaging portfolios take it to the next level with a short introduction to the text, stating the subject matter, document and customer type, whether there was a particular brief, or even why you’ve chosen this text to represent your abilities.  If you’re building your portfolio on your own website, this can also help you present your portfolio in a user friendly way. Rather than copy-pasting thousands of words of samples into a web page, be smart and create a menu page with links to each sample and a snappy description of what clients can expect to find. This lets visitors to your site choose the most relevant samples for their interests, and also allows you to organise your samples according to topic or type.

There are just a few more technical considerations to keep in mind. New translators might not have any sample translations from real jobs, but that’s ok – everyone has to start somewhere. It’s perfectly fine to start by translating specifically for your portfolio, but be sure you’re not infringing copyright with the source texts you select. The best way to do this is to find those in the public domain, or published under creative commons. With a bit of googling there are plenty of free texts available. You could also consider getting some real experience by volunteering for Translators Without Borders or other charity organisations, or offering your skills to clients for free on the understanding you’ll use the texts in your portfolio. Target small local businesses or non-profits, or highly specialised companies in your field of interest to make it easy on yourself. You might find that some of these companies love what you do so much that they then become real clients, which is how many freelancers get started.

More experienced translators will hopefully have a wealth of material to choose from, but you’ll need to be careful that you don’t breach any confidentiality agreements. It’s probably best to ask permission from clients before using their texts in your portfolio, even if you didn’t sign an NDA. If they’re not comfortable with you using their material, ask if you could anonymise the source text, changing any identifying details. Most clients only object to you using their most sensitive information in portfolios, but will be quite happy for you to use more generic marketing texts, for example. And if you’re really struggling to show off your technical skills, why not use an existing job as a starting point for creating your own “source text” to translate? Provided it’s not recognisable as the original, even to people involved in the company, you should be safe doing this. You can always run it past them first, just to be on the safe side. Many companies are happy with the free publicity though, so don’t assume your requests will fall on deaf ears.

It’s clear that a glowing portfolio will add credibility to your marketing claims. Clients will be able to see at a glance that you really are skilled at IT specifications or academic journals or web landing pages, or whatever else you specialise in. Among the ever-shifting landscape of the internet, this evidence will be invaluable in building you a solid reputation and letting clients know you are a name they can trust. But don’t expect your portfolio to do all your work for you, as its just one piece of the puzzle. Be proactive in chasing new clients and expect to complete test translations, ask for testimonials from satisfied customers, establish an active presence on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, complete your profiles on professional sites like LinkedIn or Google+, or keep an up-to-date blog. Building a great reputation cannot be done overnight, and despite the many global opportunities the web has to offer the entrepreneurial freelancer, nothing beats word of mouth in getting new clients. Nonetheless, time taken in building a brilliant portfolio will pay you back many times over, and with these tips on hand you’re well on your way!

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