Written by Mo Stone
Maybe you studied languages in university, and translation is a logical next step. Maybe you’ve been employed at a translation agency, but would like to be your own boss. Or maybe you’re a writer who’s put your language skills to use, and now you’re wondering if you should make your side hustle your main gig. You’ve got one burning question on your mind: should you go freelance?
We picked the brains of three Tokyo-based freelancers, including Chriss here at Borderless Translations, to gain some insight into the lives of freelance translators, including their advice and tips for those who are just starting out.
Getting Started as a Freelancer
Most freelancers don’t start out with the intention of freelancing, but fall into it naturally. “I don’t even remember what my first translation job was, but as a bilingual writer, people tend to ask ‘so can you also translate,’” says Florentyna Leow. “My first major client hired me primarily to write, but also asked me to translate things because they knew I had the language skills for it.” Others, like Chriss, start out doing temp work for various companies and then grow into freelancing. When Alex Fisher decided to go freelance after doing translation as a side gig, he knew getting the first clients would be the hardest. “I rattled off dozens of resumes into the void. I received just one response. But ultimately, that was enough: that client has gone on to form a cornerstone of my work even today.”
Flexibility and Freedom
When it comes to the positive aspects of freelance life, there’s one huge point that immediately comes to most people’s minds: flexibility. Our freelancers love that they have freedom over their schedules, where they work, and also the kinds of work and projects they accept. As Leow explains, “I’m not working for someone else’s dream, and can decide who to work with and how to do it. . . . I have a pretty wide variety of interests, so freelancing allows curiosity to guide my work.” Other pros include the responsibility and pride you can take over the work you produce, as well as not having to commute on crowded public transit.
The Challenges of Going It Alone
However, being your own boss means having to take the good along with the bad. “I’m accountable to no-one but myself,” says Leow. “ As a freelancer you are basically a one-person company so everything that was once handled by a number of different people is now down to you––I manage my own accounts, but also have to go out and find work, promote myself, [and] take care of all the logistics of existing as a freelancer.” For Chriss, the instability of work, and the subsequent necessity of managing work-life balance, can be challenging. “It’s very stressful to decline an offer, so you often say ‘yes’ to a client even when the schedule is tight and end up with an overwhelming workload.”
Fisher finds other kinds of balance difficult as well. “I think the balance of power between client and freelancer is a perennial challenge,” he explains. “Just how far do you go as a freelancer to keep the client happy? A friend of mine once told me, ‘some money is too expensive’ and I think that’s served me very well.”
Advice From Our Freelancers
The key to succeeding in life as a freelancer is to be organized. The ones that we spoke to love handwritten lists for staying on top of important tasks and deadlines, as well as utilizing software tools such as spreadsheets and calendar and reminder apps. In terms of finding clients, many jobs come to them through translation agencies or job posting sites online (Fisher recommends proz.com). But also, never underestimate the power of word of mouth. As Leow states: “I’m not exactly a salesperson or a massive hustler, and prefer to let my work speak for itself. I have found that being easy to work with on top of producing good work on time tends to encourage clients to recommend you to other people.”
Lastly, what words of wisdom would our freelancers give to others starting out on this path? “Build your skills first, make a few connections if possible, then go freelance. You don’t have to rush into it,” suggests Chriss. Fisher seconds this advice. “I’m a huge advocate of the ‘start out as a side-gig and grow’ approach, rather than jumping in with both feet. Test things out, see what works and find your niche without having to worry about how you’re going to make rent this month,” he suggests.
Finally, Leow recommends that you “keep all your receipts, be gracious and easy to work with, don’t let people exploit you, befriend other freelancers, and pay it forward whenever you can.” Great advice for any industry!