Translator's Digest

How I Built My Direct Client Base (without Using Translation Portals)


Many years ago (as some of you might recall), there was a huge debate as to whether certain translation portals were directly decreasing translation rates through their bidding systems. Many of us raised serious objections to changes to their job boards and a lot of longstanding and well-respected members fled some of these sites –one site in particular took the most heat. But in that debate, I also remember many translators claiming that without such portals, we would not be able to find clients or get work. Of course, most of these claims came from newbies who could not account for how anyone made a living as a translator before the internet age. But even among those of us who had been around for a few years at that point, there were those who still depended on these sites for work. I was one of them.

The impulsiveness of my twenties made me immediately take sides on the debate and, of course, I sided with the notion that these portals would ultimately result in a rates crisis. So, I put my money where my mouth was and stopped using them for client hunting, thus forcing myself to get creative about finding translation work.

Since then, I have significantly increased my fees and now have a lovely portfolio of direct clients and highly specialized boutique agencies that are an absolute pleasure to work with. My direct clients include everything from international organizations like the United Nations, to governments, transnational NGOs, law book publishers, prestigious universities, and well established legal scholars. The way I see it, leaving my comfort zone (i.e. abandoning the translation portal bidding wars) was precisely what I needed to kick-start my career.

Just last week, on LinkedIn, someone again raised the question of how to find clients without using such portals. What follows is how I found mine. Needless to say, this post is not meant to be taken literally as a step-by-step guide to making direct clients. This is just my personal experience and the decision to share it was perhaps inspired by Corinne Mckay’s upcoming webinar on how to break into the direct client market. So, here goes: my secret is knowing where to look.

1. Educational Communities

About halfway into my career as a translator (when I was still heavily portal-dependent), I went to Law School. Juggling full-time freelance translation work and earning my Law degree was not easy. I was sleep deprived and it took quite a toll on my health (nothing a healthier diet and running couldn’t fix though!). But I survived, graduating in the top 10%, and with a teaching offer and doctoral scholarship. So I can’t complain. Law School was worth the effort and turned out to be the smartest decision I ever made. It led directly to some of my best and longest-standing clients, basically by word of mouth. Educational communities are usually very tight and supportive of their members. Whenever someone asks me to recommend a good lawyer in a particular field, the first people I think about are those who excelled in my educational community. Similarly, whenever they are asked about a good legal translator or lawyer-linguist, they recommend me. It’s only natural. I know they won’t let me down and they know I won’t let them down.

In addition, I participated in several extracurricular activities where I also met many of my direct clients. My university has its own publishing house and a joint translation program with Yale University. I was quickly recruited for this program by one of my professors and that led to great jobs for renowned academics from many different parts of the world.

Of course, I’m not saying that all translators (or legal translators) should go to graduate school. All I’m saying is that being part of an educational community (even through lighter activities, like short courses, workshops, clubs, etc.) can go a long way.

2. Conferences, Events and Trade Shows (theirs not ours!)

Most translators stick to translation conferences and translation-related events only, and though networking among your peers/competitors/potential agency owners is fine, direct clients mingle elsewhere. In Law, they mingle at conferences and seminars. I still make sure to attend those and socialize, without forcing the subject of what I do or shoving my card down the other person’s throat. Networking at such events takes a little diplomacy and a lot of people skills. Being as I am the extraverted type, to me it’s a very fun way to expand my clientele.

3. Journals and Magazines

For many years I took the money I would have spent on paid subscriptions to translation portals and instead used it to place ads in legal magazines and legal sites that targeted my prospective clients. They were very humble, but effective.

4. Online Forums and Communities

I can’t tell you how many great clients I’ve made by simply participating in online discussions and communities. What many people don’t realize is that in such discussions, you are often talking to potential clients. Sometimes, you say the right thing or have just the right attitude and it makes people want to work with you. That’s why in prior posts I’ve insisted on being very careful about what you say online and how you treat other people. Your public online persona is sometimes the first thing potential clients see. Of course, you want to keep it real, but you also want to exercise good judgment and professionalism at all times.

5. Bar Associations (or Chambers of Commerce)

Getting hired by the International Bar Association for their latest book resulted in a lot of exposure, ultimately leading to very interesting work. In other areas of specialization, many translators accomplish the same results through their Chambers of Commerce.

6. Sporting Events

I run, and believe it or not, running has led to casual conversations that have also resulted in translation work. Of course I’m not saying all translators should become runners. What I am saying is that even your favorite hobby can potentially help expand your client base.

7. Knocking on People’s Doors

By “people” I mean clients and by “knocking on their doors” I mean keeping my eyes peeled for openings and opportunities. I used to regularly look through the sites of international organizations and submit my resume whenever their searches seemed to match my profile. The same goes for transnational NGOs. Though most NGOs found me through my university contacts, in a few cases I simply sent in my CV when they posted searches on their sites.

Making direct clients is not easy, but it’s not rocket science either. You just need to develop a system that works for you and then commit to it. There was a point in my life where I got up at 5 a.m. every day just to get one hour of client hunting done before rushing to class. Waking up at 5:00 a.m. wasn’t the hardest part, what I struggled with the most back then was not getting discouraged! But eventually all that hard work paid off. Now, the issue is no longer how to make clients, but how to keep them happy while staying sane… but that’s a topic for another post.