Thursday, November 21, 2013

Common cover message errors

Every week I receive a number of messages from freelance translators, offering their services.

Most of those who send these messages usually fail to distinguish themselves, and fail to make any positive impression.

Take this message I just received:
I am [Name redacted] from Italy. I am an Italian native experienced translator and proofreader. I translate from English to Italian and via versa[2]. I have worked for several translation agencies, translating various fields[3], it would be a real pleasure for me working with you as freelance translator, so I am sending this cover letter and the enclosed resume to introduce myself and my skills and experiences[4] to you. 
My rates are flexible and negotiable[5] depend[6] on the subject of the text and the urgency of the task. I look forward to working with you in the near future.
Now: what's wrong with this?
  1. Generic salutation. It tells me this is part of a mass e-mail campaign (i.e., spam) and that is not addressed to me or to my company. A message with such a salutation most likely goes straight to the spam folder: If the writer cannot be bothered to address it to a specific person or at least to a specific company, why should the recipient be interested in reading it?
  2. English to Italian and vice versa. The writer says she is an Italian native, and claims to be able to translate not only from English into Italian, but also from Italian into English. Translating into a language you are not a native speaker of is usually the mark of the amateur. There are exceptions (such as people who are really native speakers of two languages, and even a few non-native speaker who do have the exceptional ability to translate into their second language at a level indistinguishable from a native speaker), but these are very few and far between.
  3. Various fields. The purpose of the cover letter is to entice me into opening the résumé. I might do so if the message indicates a specific field I'm interested in. "Various fields" tells me absolutely nothing.
  4. Skills and experiences. Again, a missed opportunity for distinguishing herself from all other wannabe translators. Which skills experiences? The message doesn't say, so once again I have no reason to open the résumé.
  5. Flexible and negotiable rates. This translator writes "flexible and negotiable". I read "I'm a doormat, please step on me". There is probably no better way to indicate that one is not a real professional than saying from the beginning that your rates are negotiable. This translator is in effect negotiating against herself. (Hint: translation companies are usually more than ready to ask new translators to lower their rates. Don't help them do so by indicating from the beginning you are an easy mark!)
  6. Grammar errors. The writer claims to be able to translate into English, but then cannot even write correct English in her cover message. This not only undermines her credibility as an Italian into English translator: it also casts a shadow on her English into Italian skills. 
Remember: the main purpose of your message is to entice your prospect to open the attached resume, or to ask for more information. To do that you should distinguish yourself from other translators. Make your message stand out from the rest: indicate some specific skill or experience, address you message to a specific person, write in a way that clearly show you know your business.


  1. Great post. As an agency PM, this is basically a version of the checklist I go through when I receive these e-mails. Often I don't get that far, since there is sometimes a glaringly incorrect subject line or lack thereof. I've also learned to recognize the form letters that seem to repeat.

    Ideally I'd have an easy-to-read message (I'm a bullet list person, but that's just me) with all the necessary information, including language pair(s), specialization(s), education/experience/certification(s), software or file formatting ability/preferences and anything else I need to know when working with them. I'm okay with having to ask for a rate range with minimum/rush/special charges and actually never mind if I'm only addressed by my agency name since PMs do change. Full contact info is key, so I can determine time zone and follow up. As a former translator, I err on the side of the benefit of the doubt, but my time is so limited...

  2. I completely agree with the post but there is something I need to say. Since I completed my Master's Degree in Translatin and Interpreting, I have sent many cover letters and CVs to several Translation agencies, paying all the possible attention to the sencences and the message I wrote, but the reply was always the same: "sorry but you have not enough experience, so we chose another Professional for this vacancy". Actually, for what I could experience in some circumstances, unfortunately not always "experience" matches with quality", so I feel quite upset to be cut off the opportunity to start my career as a Translator just because nobody wants to give me a CHANCE to test my skills and someone that has collected enough experience (bad/good in doing the job) can just have it because of that. So, I really appreciate the advices for the cover letter, but I also would like to ask for an advice about how to make a good impression and get the chance for a job in a Translation agency also for new Professionals that have not a lot of experience... Thank you. Simona

    1. Hi Simona,

      The lack of experience has always been a conundrum: most agencies don't want to risk giving work to new translators without experience - and the new translators won't gain experience if they don't get work.

      I would tackle this three ways:

      1) Earn experience by doing volunteer work (e.g., for Translators Without Borders, by aiding local community services, or in some other way). Work done for such charities may not earn money but does count towards experience in general (and is a good thing to do in any case);

      2) Keep on sending your résumé and cover letter to as many prospect as you can, and don't get discourage because nobody answers: the ratio is usually takes several hundred unanswered submissions for each that gets an answer. And bulk submissions (such as the one I mention in the post) don't count, because they remain unread:

      3) When someone answers (even just to tell you that you don't have enough experience), try to keep the conversation going: not immediately, perhaps, but send them a follow up message whenever something changes in your experience (or in other things you do professionally). Something as simple as "I wrote you some months ago and you were kind enough to answer me, though you noted I didn't have enough experience to work for you. In the meantime, I have completed several pro-bono projects for ...".

  3. I do believe this kind of applications doesn't come from real translators. It is very likely that it is a case of scam and identity theft.

    1. Unfortunately, it usually does come from real translators, or at least from people who honestly think they are real translators.


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