Breaking into translation is not easy. I know, I’ve been there. We all have. Personally, I fell into translation by accident in my early twenties. But accidental or not, following the white rabbit was the best decision I ever made. As it turned out, I have a knack for it and love language and writing. Somehow, I found a way to make a comfortable living from translation. In fact, I was even able to pay my law school tuition with my translation earnings; and now that I am a lawyer-linguist, I make nearly three times what I used to make before law school. So breaking into translation is possible and so is making a decent living from translation. If you’re a newbie and you’re reading this: don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. People who have to keep their day jobs have simply failed to take translation seriously enough to make it their full-time profession. And if Darwinism has taught us anything, it’s that natural selection has a way of weeding out the weaker links.
So you know you want to be a translator. You have excellent comprehension of your source language(s); you’re an exceptional writer in your target language (which should always be your mother tongue, by the way); hopefully you have a strong background in something else (prior profession or valuable experience in a different field); maybe you even have a degree in translation. Now what? Now you’re stuck in that vicious circle where you need experience to get clients, but clients don’t trust you because you have no experience.
The way I see it, you have two choices. You can take the blue pill and live the illusion of professional translation, applying for bottom feeding agencies who will be happy to hire you for peanuts and forever feed the Matrix with low-end pseudo translation. Or you can take the red pill and find your way to Wonderland, where professional translation is valued and that is reflected in your fees and quality of life. Like Morpheus, I cannot tell you which pill to take, but if you chose the red pill, here are some creative ways to break into translation:
1) Focus on getting referrals
Trust is an important part of the business world despite what Hollywood will have you believe. We are prone to hiring professionals that have been recommended to us by people we trust; and your best clients will come through referrals. Therefore, you need to build a network of people who trust you and your (proven) ability to translate; i.e. people who will recommend you when asked. Building a network takes time and your network should consist of both other translators as well as non-translators. For more on building networks, see my post on how I built my direct client base.
2) Build a portfolio
The fact that you don’t have many clients does not mean you can’t show off your translation skills. When you’re an experienced translator, your portfolio may consist of a list of cool stuff you’ve translated, but in the meantime, grab things, translate them, and put them on your portfolio. If you want to avoid copyright issues, make sure the stuff you grab for translation is in the public domain or that you did not take more than what can be construed as fair use. Then you’ll have something to show people that proves you can do the job. Consider using free online portfolio sites like Crevado, Portfoliobox, or Carbonmade to show off your work.
3) Find a mentor
If you’re an ATA member, look into ATA’s mentoring program. If not, find a translator who has already achieved the things you want to achieve, approach them, and ask them if they are willing to mentor you. If you find a good mentor, that person will not only teach you about translation, they will also teach you about making a career out of it. On the importance of finding a good mentor, among other things, check out this post on LinkedIn by Louis D. Lo Praeste.
Of course, these three tips are not a magical solution to your problem if you’re trying to break into the translation industry. But they’re a good place to start. The rest is up to you, your creativity, and your ability to think outside the box and leave your comfort zone.