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Back in 2012, I had a degree each in Chinese and Economics and no clue what to do with them. After landing a job as a project marketing manager, I found myself in Guangdong Province, the only place in China that speaks Cantonese instead of the Mandarin that I had just earned a degree in.
Sitting in my office across from the aerosol factory, I would wait for the owner's kids, or anyone else in his busy business network that wanted to brush up on their English, to pop in for impromptu lessons. Outside of work, I would be called in to act as the company's token foreigner at business dinners and expos to help them seem more international.
Frustrated that I had spent years learning my zhas from my jias and shaos from my xiaos to only sit around and be exotic, I would spend my nights searching databases for freelance work. Here are 7 things I wish I would've known back then.
It takes years to get paid what you feel you're worth.
Back in December 2012, I was happy getting paid 2 cents per Chinese character. Today, I'm getting paid 10 times that working solely for translation agencies, and only one client has ever agreed to me raising my rates. There will be tons of other translators, but good clients will pay for good translations.
It takes perseverance to keep demanding a living wage.
5 years on, I'm only now starting to feel comfortable turning down jobs that demand ridiculously low prices. Never let your clients know that you can accept - would die for - any work in freelancing dry spells. Stand by your principles! The work always rebounds.
While being a generalist gets you jobs, specializing gets you long-term clients.
When I first started translating, I'd fire back e-mails to any translation agency that would have me. I'd wear as many hats as I could fit on my head for as many fields as possible - law, finance, medicine, engineering, art showcases... By sticking to what I know, my good clients know that I'm the first person to call for the fields that I specialize in. Do what you're good at.
Deadlines will always be tight.
At first, I thought it was because I had no selling power without any portfolio or any experience. Agencies will send out e-mails to everyone on their freelance lists and whoever takes the job first usually gets it. To make sure they keep their clients happy, they usually ask for the work way ahead of time - that means that your deadlines will always feel rushed. Often, they're due in several hours or the next morning. Learn to know how much you can handle. It's better to turn down a project that's too urgent than to miss the deadline and risk getting docked any pay.
Work will come in at all hours, day and night.
This goes together with tight deadlines. It doesn't matter where you are - as a translator, you'll have work coming in from at least two different countries - if not more. When I was in China, I would get work in the middle of the night from my American clients. Now that I'm in the United States, whenever I wake up in the middle of the night, the first thing I do is check to see if any of my Chinese clients have urgent work they need me to handle. Set your hours and remember to turn your phone on silent before you go to bed.
You will have to work hard to maintain a social life.
This is true for any jobs where you work from home, but especially true when projects have tight deadlines. Because agencies have work at all hours of the day, if they're clients that I care enough about - and if they pay me what I want - I have to be ready to drop everything and get to work. That means that any time I want to hang out with friends or family, I have to either check my e-mails whenever it's not rude to do so or let my important clients know I won't be working on those days. Also, I've never once met a single client in person. Unless you make a point of it, you will spend most of your time alone.
You need to keep learning.
It's easy to get stuck in a groove where the same kinds of jobs keep coming in. After doing them for 5 years, I could translate contracts in my sleep, but I have never made time to practice translating novels or poetry. Also, since all the Chinese I come in contact with is digital, I've completely forgotten how to write in Chinese and have to type up characters first before I can jot them down. You will have to work hard to constantly improve your language skills.
Sure, you get to work from home. Sure, you can take naps whenever you feel like it. Freelance work is great, but it's still just a job - and you should treat it like one. You're going to be your own boss - that means you have to both set your hours and set your pay and also learn to criticize yourself and know where you need to make improvements.
Just because you're a translator now doesn't mean that you can ever stop learning. Looking back on the past 5 years and on that day when I first landed a real big-time client, there are a lot of things that I had to learn the hard way. Still, I would rather be a freelancer at home than have to work the 9-5.