Everyone has their own reasons for becoming a freelance translator. For some, it’s the freedom to work at home, choose your hours, pick the clients you want to work for. For others, it’s about the pure joy of language work, and the satisfaction of getting a translation just right. For some, it’s the excitement of starting and operating your own business – and those happy few should consider themselves particularly lucky, because for many translators, the details of running a business can feel more like a chore – a distraction from their ‘real work’ producing actual translations.
However we might feel about the business side of things, though, there’s no way to escape from it. So what’s to be done if you’re a trained linguist who feels capable of handling any text thrown at them, but you struggle with the things like sales, marketing and customer-relations work that let you win those jobs in the first place?
The bad news is that there is no silver bullet for this problem – running a business is a complex, multifaceted skill that everyone has to work to improve at over the course of their entire career. The good news, however, is that there are still plenty of easy steps you can take to boost your prospects. One such step is to make yourself stand out from the crowd by identifying and marketing your unique selling points – your USPs.
Just as the name suggests, your unique selling points are the features or combination of features that make your business special. They’re the handful of bullet points that let customers see why your specific business might be desirable to them. The range of potential USPs to choose from is vast, but there are a few perennial favourites among translators that you can probably customise to fit your own business.
First of all, if you haven’t already identified a specialist subject, make a real effort to do so. Consider your past education, employment and life experience: which industries or subjects do you know and understand particularly well? Even if it’s a niche subject, don’t be put off – in fact, a rare specialisation can sometimes be highly sought after. Add it to your CV and mention it when approaching new customers – you never know when it might pique a project manager’s curiosity, or meet a requirement they’ve been trying to fulfil for some time. It might be exactly what you need to win some new work.
Next, think about what other services you can offer besides translation. Proofreading and editing are popular options, of course: they require outstanding linguistic knowledge and attention to detail, both of which a good translator can already offer – which means plenty of translators may already be qualified for this kind of work and not even realise it. Quality control jobs such as these tend to be interesting and challenging tasks in their own right, and they’re also a great way to prove yourself to an agency if they’re on the fence about taking on a new, unproven translator.
Many translators would also make great copywriters and search engine optimisation (SEO) specialists. Variety is the spice of life, so if you’re a good writer – and as a professional translator, you probably should be! – then think about offering these kinds of services to let you pick up more work and broaden your horizons as well. Think also about any non-linguistic services that you might be able to provide. If a project manager knows you have experience with HTML or web design software, for example, it might be the deciding factor in winning a website translation job.
Aside from the specific services you offer, there’s also the simple matter of attitude. Aside from the fact that being a nice person is its own reward, project managers who enjoy working with you may be more inclined to prioritise you for future jobs. It’s all about the little things: responding promptly to emails, being polite and friendly at all times, and taking the initiative to flag issues that others might ignore, like typos in the source text or ambiguous project instructions. Even a simple sign-off on project delivery like “feel free to get in touch if you have any questions!” shows a willingness to cooperate with your customer and help them out.
All of these tips can help you get a competitive edge in the translation industry – but are there also points you should avoid when assembling a list of USPs? Potentially, yes. For one thing, think carefully about your rates and try to avoid undercharging. It’s important to price yourself competitively in the market, but there’s a fine line between aggressive discounting and underselling yourself. Translators’ rates are already under a lot of downward pressure these days, and there’s no need to add to that pressure yourself. Our advice is to charge what you honestly think your work is worth, but be willing to be a little flexible: most agencies are willing to have a frank discussion about rates when they first take you on, and the good ones will usually make a good-faith effort to negotiate a deal that suits both parties.
It’s also important to avoid offering things you can’t deliver. For example, if you list a specialist subject on your CV that you actually know very little about, then deliver a substandard translation as a result, your customer is going to figure it out fairly quickly – and they probably won’t be too keen on giving you any more work any time soon. Think of it this way: your USPs aren’t just a means to get an initial job from a new customer. They’re also supposed to be the reasons why that customer comes to appreciate you, and why you retain that customer for future work.
In general, one good rule of thumb is this: promote the things that add value to your services, and resist the temptation to either overstate your expertise or undervalue the things that you do best. If your project managers can see that you’re honest, reliable and skilful, you’ll be on the path to stable, long- term growth – the holy grail of businesses everywhere.