Eight Common Mistakes to Avoid as a New Freelance Translator

There’s no need to worry about making mistakes too much as a beginner. Mistakes help us learn and grow. Also, no matter how much advice is given, your best teacher is your own experience and you really learn something valuable when you make a mistake. But things become problematic if you make a lot of mistakes in a short period of time or you make the same mistake over and over again for a long period of time. Then you’ll break your wings even before you learn how to fly. Here, I’ll list some common mistakes that new translators make.



Deciding to become a freelance translator without knowing what it actually is



This is the biggest mistake. We all know what it means to ‘find a job’, but many people don’t know what it means to become a freelancer. If you don’t know what you do, you definitely will not know how to do it or which direction to go in. You may be able to get a few clients by chance or with someone’s help, but you won’t know how to deal with them or how to plan and grow your business. After a while, you’ll feel that there is ‘no chance of success’ in this line of work and give up. (Some people even confuse freelancers with temporary workers, which is a big issue as of late in South Korea.) There’s so much that can be said on this topic and I’ve already written an e-book about it and cover this topic in my mini courses available through my newsletter, so I won’t dwell on it further here.



Setting your rates too low



Some new translators set their rates too low, thinking, ‘No one will give me work if I set high rates because I’m a beginner,’ or ‘This is a part time job for me, so I won’t be able to make that much anyways,’ or ‘There are so many people who know foreign languages… I won’t get a chance if I set high rates.’ You may be a beginner, but you’ll have just as much trouble if you set your rates too low. A life of luxury may be unattainable, but you need to earn enough income to at least live a dignified life. You’ll also need startup money to invest in your business so that it can grow and develop in the long term. Only then will you go beyond translating as a beginner and make a career out of translating in the long term. These things would not be possible if your rates are too low.


There’s also another thing that newcomers don’t understand: contrary to what you may think, agencies will not readily welcome you if you set your rates too low. Well, they may if they are agencies in the low end market that do not care about quality. (If you provide your services here, you won’t be able to make a proper living. It’s also difficult to get out of this market once you’re in.) But regular agencies that operate in the regular market will not choose to work with translators who offer such low rates. They will think that you are 1) terrible at translating and lack confidence, or 2) don’t have any business skills and are ignorant about the translation market. Either way, agencies will have a difficult time working with such translators and will avoid them. I advise you to visit different forums and conduct a basic investigation. Read How Much Do Translators Make? and Translation Rates: How to Set Them Initially, When and How to Raise Them Later. Then decide how to set your rates based on your current situation.



Specializing in everything



A translator in his 30s listed on his CV the following areas of specialization: medical, legal, contracts, IT, real estate transactions, military sector, patents, cooking, horticulture, FOREX, gaming, fashion, chemistry, and nuclear engineering. It’s not difficult to see that this translator is quite new to the industry. Would you want to work with him? If you were a client, would you seriously consider forming a business partnership with this person? To specialize in any one of the fields listed, he needs a degree in that field, have work experience in that field, or have several years’ experience translating documents in that field. Perhaps he listed all these fields because he aspires to specializing in them some day. But this is not wise either. It’s not possible for anyone to specialize in all those fields. It’s best to choose a field after considering your interests and market demands. Furthermore, it’s best to avoid projects in fields that you aren’t confident with. A translator’s greatest asset is his or her reputation and feedback. Will you risk ruining your reputation over one project? Let’s say a translator has built a good relationship with a specific client who’s been sending IT projects for a long time. One day, the client asks the translator if he can translate a complicated contract in a short period of time and offers a generous rush fee. What should he do? He must decline, of course! He mustn’t risk ruining a good relationship built over time over one project.


[bctt tweet=”A translator’s greatest asset is his or her reputation and feedback.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



Accepting work without knowing who the client is



Because a new translator won’t have a lot of work, he or she will always be hungry for more projects. He or she may accept projects right away without making sure he or she knows who the client is. If you take on work this way, you may face tremendous loss equaling double or triple the amount of money you may have earned. I’m not only talking about frauds. There are good clients in the industry, but there are also low end markets. The agency may not be in these low end markets, but they may conduct business in a very lowbrow manner. To work as a freelance translator in the long term, you must by all means conduct business with good clients. Clients don’t have to be frauds to be considered bad clients. The following clients are considered bad clients as well:


  • Clients who give work to translators without actually understanding the project themselves.
  • Clients who don’t pay until they are constantly reminded and pressed to.
  • Clients who urge translators to always work under rush conditions without knowing the industry standard.
  • Clients who may be in the industry but do not consider translators as partners but as costs of operation. These companies or individuals simply don’t respect translators.
  • Clients who don’t know how to deal with issues and simply rely on the translator to solve every single issue arising from the project.


All these are bad clients who upset the translator, make his or her life difficult, and take up a lot of the translator’s time. The work you see immediately in front of you is not what’s important. What’s more significant is who you conduct business with. When you accept projects, don’t only look at the project conditions. Check first who the client (individual or company) is before you decide to work with them.



Not using the Blue Board or not knowing how to use the Blue Board



It’s been a while since I’ve introduced the Blue Board, but I still think many readers don’t understand the importance of it. There are many ways to research potential clients, but checking the Blue Board is the most important method and you should use it first. If you skip this short and simple step before you accept work, you may lose a lot of time and money later. I also think there are many people who do check the Blue Board but don’t know how to read it or use it properly. On this I wrote this post: Be an Informed Translator: Reviewing Translation Agencies Through the Blue Board.



Relying too much on only a few clients



Let’s say you managed to gain a client who continuously provides you with a significant amount of work and pays well. If you accept all projects from this client and primarily work with this client rather than trying to work with other clients who can be a headache sometimes, wouldn’t your life become simpler and more effective? Yes, that’s a possibility. It’s hard to get such a client in the first place, so it’s understandable that you’d want to expand business with them to maximum. But remember: clients come and go. What will you do if that client suddenly disappears? Or if a new PM at that agency is really difficult to work with? If you rely on that client for most of your income, you won’t be able to do much in these situations. You’ll basically have to take whatever comes your way. To a translator, clients are important, but relationships with them must be horizontal. There’s also the possibility that the client goes bankrupt. A freelance translator’s business can be somewhat hectic with its short-term ups and downs. In the long run, however, it’s a relatively stable business without the threat of dismissal or recession. That’s because a freelancer can maintain multiple clients and continue to make new clients if they wish. But if you structure your business so that most of your income is coming from a single client, you won’t reap the benefits of being a freelance translator. Most people say it’s good to prevent one client from supplying you with more than 50% of your income. For me, I try to keep it at 30%. Sometimes, as an exception, I go over 30%, but all in all, I try to maintain this principle. I hope you’ll develop your own standard of managing clients and not rely too much on a very small number of clients.


[bctt tweet=”To a translator, clients are important, but relationships with them must be horizontal.” username=”HappyKoreas”]



Not knowing the importance of marketing



I don’t think that marketing is always important throughout a translator’s career. Freelancer translators cannot infinitely expand their production like companies producing nuts and bolts. A freelance translator’s production capacity is limited by time, so there has to be a limit on how many clients they can maintain. Also, once you’ve reached a certain track, you’ll start to gain work automatically. You will need to upgrade your clients, but you won’t need to aggressively market.


However, this is not the case for new freelance translators. The most difficult task for beginning freelancers is securing clients. Like any other business, a translation business cannot exist without clients. But beginning translators will not have enough work regardless of their skills. Therefore, a translator should prioritize marketing in the beginning, just like any other business. Unless you have the luxury of sitting back and waiting a few years, you must market your services. To read about the marketing mistakes I’ve made and how I managed to gradually secure clients in the long term, click Translation Marketing for Freelance Translators: Its Unique Difficulties and a Surprising Solution.


When I started translating, I had another job that provided a significant amount of income, which is why the slow and gradual method worked for me. Those in different circumstances may need to actively market themselves. You must help clients find you. Uploading your profile on to the main companies in the market is the first step (look here as well). You can also let your previous colleagues or friends know about your new business to secure direct clients, too, although there are some drawbacks with working with direct clients (read: How to Manage Some Difficulties That Arise When Working with Direct Clients.) After securing a good amount of work through these methods, you must maintain these relationships and build your reputation with high quality translations. In sum, a freelance translator does not always need to market, but in the beginning, active marketing is required to secure some initial clients.



Not knowing how to reject projects



I’ve mentioned this previously when I discussed specializations, but don’t accept whatever project that comes your way just because you don’t have work. It’s a good idea not to accept work in the following circumstances:


  • When you’re even a bit concerned that the client might be a fraud
  • When the client declines to send a PO
  • When the client promises continuous work at low rates
  • When you can’t understand the project as a whole (when the project outline, characteristics, and scope aren’t clear)
  • When the project will be completed by several different translators and then put together
  • When you can’t find any other information on the client besides their phone number and simple website they’ve provided
  • When the client has a low Blue Board score or even if they do have a high score, the evaluations are all recent
  • When you need to concentrate on a big project you’re already working on
  • When the client delays payment, no matter how small the delay is
  • When you need to take a rest because you’ve worked a lot recently
  • When someone or something else that’s more important than work requires your attention


It’s easy to accept work, but it’s not easy to decline work. But if you want to be successful in your business in the long run, you must know how to say, ‘No.’ Those who don’t know how to say no are not really running their business independently. Clients may like these translators at first, but the translator will lose bargaining power and find it difficult to increase their rates. Furthermore, A Translator’s Career Is One Long Marathon. If you don’t know how to say no, you won’t be able to enjoy a freelancer’s lifestyle, distinguish between what’s important and what’s not, maintain concentration, or put aside much-needed time for rest and self-development. Perhaps this is why they have the saying, “You can incur a great loss by coveting a small gain.” It’s a little embarrassing to admit, but I also didn’t know how to reject projects in the beginning. But the more I said no, the easier it became. Once you try rejecting work, you feel the subtle but continuing satisfaction of knowing that you are running your business on your own terms based on your judgment.


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