Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Questions and answers: how to start out

I received these questions from a colleague who is just starting out in our profession, and with her permission, I’m sharing them here together with my answers (after removing a few identifying details), in the hope they may be of interest for other translators:

I am a Spanish to English translator, just starting out in this field, but I’ve heard that we Spanish to English translators are a dime a dozen. I have received conflicting suggestions about the best way to go about getting into this field:

  1. Subscribe to TranslatorsCafé and forget about sending your resumes to agencies.
  2. Send your résumé to any and every agency. 
  3. Writing a blog that I could use to market myself. I guess if I could do it in two languages that would be even better, but I don't have any ideas. 

And several other different suggestions.  Any advice would be appreciated.

While it is true that there are many Spanish to English translators, good translators are not all that frequent, so if you are a good translator, you’ll eventually break through.

My idea about the advice you have received:

  1. Subscribe to Translator Café (but don’t forget ProZ or other portals). I think you should, but wait to test the waters before paying for the membership. There are many translators that get much work from such translation portals, but the work offered on such sites is normally poorly paid. So, do subscribe to such sites (and perhaps, even pay for a membership), but do not rely on them as your only source of work.
  2. Send your résumé to translation companies. I advise against a scattershot approach in this: much better to take the time necessary to research your prospects, see in which way they prefer to be approached (résumé sent to a particular person or persons, or to a specific address, or filling up a form online). Résumés sent to “Dear Sir or Madam” are normally deleted sight unseen.
  3. Using a blog as a marketing tool. Good idea, but you should think carefully how to achieve your aim: who is your public? To attract customers, your blog should be aimed at direct customers or to translation companies (difficult to do both at the same time). If you do not plan carefully your blog, you might end with a blog that maybe is widely read (if you make it interesting), but by the wrong public (I, for instance, didn’t plan when I started writing About Translation. It  has now attracted a large enough public for such a niche endeavor, but the wrong public if my aim had been to attract more customers: most of my readers are other translators).

Some further ideas you didn’t mention.

  • Contact local translation companies in person, and see if they are interested in your services – you are likely going to find the rates in Mexico, where you live, very low, but you might expand from there to agencies elsewhere once you have gained some experience with them; also, if you return to your hometown in the USA to visit friends or family, take the time to go an introduce yourself to translation companies there (try to set up an appointment in advance: don’t just drop in on them).
  • There are some good resources on the web to help beginning translators – I believe the “beginning translators” posts here in About Translation are one, but better ones are, for example, Corinne McKay’s blog (Thoughts on Translation) and book (How To Succeed as a Freelance Translator – the second edition has just been published), and Judy and Dagmar Jenner’s really useful book The Entrepreneurial Linguist. You can also find much useful advice (amid a sea of useless blather) in the translation fora of such sites as ProZ and TranslatorsCafé  and on social networks such as LinkedIn.
  • Join the ATA and also your local translators association in Mexico, and/or in your hometown in the USA.
  • Try to get ATA certified. This is usually difficult in your language pair, but useful if you manage it.
  • Enroll in a university-level course in translation. There are several excellent ones – including the Denver University’s University College program where I teach.
  • Finally, if you decide to start your own blog. Check out the “Blogging 101” presentation here – you might find it useful.


  1. Great post, Riccardo! I often get this type of question from beginning translators too, and I'll refer them to this post. I agree with everything you said: also, I always tell beginners to get involved in their local associations. During my first year in business, about half of my work came from cold contacts (and visiting local agencies in person was the most fruitful tactic there) and about half came from referrals from other, more experience translators. Some of those people sub-contracted work to me and some referred overflow clients to me, so I think that other translators can be an important source of work. Awesome information!

  2. Indeed a Great post, I am agree with all of your points and just would like to add that "DON'T FORGET TO MAKE USE OF ALL SOCIAL MEDIA NETWORK SITES" this will surely help.

  3. Wow, great post, and some useful comments too.

    What I cannot stress enough is that there is an awful lot of Spanish to English translators, but only a few very good ones. Even less specialized good ones. What I am trying to say is that one has to decide on specializing in eg. legal translations. And then has to gain sufficient experience to be able to compete with the market. If you then make use of all the medial aids that already have been mentioned here, victory is yours!

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  5. Great post to help those thinking of becoming a translator. I agree with Shadab: the power of social networking is always underestimated in this profession and it should not be overlooked. But at the start, the main focus should be to try and get your foot in the door and get some good experience/qualifications under your belt so you can market yourself well later.

  6. I agree with Abbas. Networking is crucial, especially if you're a translator and interpreter. For beginners very important should be getting good professional references first, before sending any resumes.

  7. These are some really good observations. Sometimes, though, you can go all-out attack and get good results. In the beginning I send my resumé to all translation agencies I could find, by countries. I targeted the Eastern European countries because I knew they would get a lot of work. Then I went for German agencies because they pay well. So think about who to contact, and there should be a reason for chosing a particular agency, or in my case, country. I must say I got more than enough clients that way. At least in the beginning, it's a start.

  8. To start doing anything is always difficult and challenging! So everytime before doing it we all feel scared and insecure in our first steps! I wish you god luck with this!


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