Lesson 127: What’s behind the scenes of success as a translator?

Lesson 127: What’s behind the scenes of success as a translator?

The topic for the last part of the behind the scenes series has been following me for a while, and I think it’s time to talk about success. The first time I thought about this article, a few months back, it was prompted by a conversation I had with a colleague in a different industry. This colleague, intrigued by my moderately popular YouTube channel and thinking of launching something similar in his line of work, asked me how to get that many views and subscribers in a niche industry (yes, that’s how translation is seen by outsiders).

Well, my response was as follows: First you get really good at what you’re doing, your core business, then you train yourself up in the business side of things, and then you feel the calling to share it with your colleagues, so you think of best ways to share what you know. As you start moving things around, you see there are people around you who want to listen to you, that motivates you, so you work harder. Finally, you get an idea that maybe YouTube videos, not yet very popular in the industry, might be something that could take off. So first you laugh it off (Videos? Me? Seriously?), but then you brace yourself, learn how to do it, get the equipment, get out of your comfort zone, and then KEEP getting out of your comfort zone for a year or two, and there you go.

No, replied my colleague, you didn’t understand my question. I just wanted to know how to get as many views and subscribers as you have.

Cut.

I run the Business School for Translators, among my other activities, and while I’ve been privileged enough to have a group of colleagues around me who may initially ask “How do you become successful as a translator?” or “How do you find direct clients?”, the majority of them would quickly understand that success isn’t built on a checklist of steps that guarantee a specific outcome.

Speaking of checklists, my initial idea for the book was to collect a variety of checklists on business, marketing and sales for translators. Why have I changed this seemingly great concept into 170 pages of theories on business and economics? Precisely for this reason. I grew to realise that if I pretended there’s a list of steps to take to guarantee success as a translator that just needed ticking off, I’d be lying and misleading people.

Yet I received an email from one disappointed reader who commented that translators need practical solutions, not theories.

Or, to give you another example, I’m sure you’ve seen questions asked on various fora along the lines of: “How do I get work from agencies?” or “How do I get started as a translator?”. The majority of responses are sensible pointers towards useful sources, but they don’t usually receive the gratitude they deserve. What’s in fashion is quick solutions and blog posts with lists of ten steps to succeeding in the industry (I know, I wrote one and it was one of the most frequently shared posts on this blog). It all makes it look like success happens overnight if you simply follow a list of steps.

Here’s the truth: success as a freelance translator comes after a few years of the hardest work of your life.

After years of studying, learning and working, I discovered that there are no shortcuts, there are no checklists, and there are no universal keys that open all doors. There are no articles that will genuinely make you successful in ten short steps, there are no logos that will attract a stream of clients to you, and there are certainly no business courses that will turn you into an overnight success.

Of course, the promise of instant success is always more appealing and attracts more attention than the truth. Of course it’s more fun to read an article with five steps to a successful freelance career than, for example, how to use Porter’s five forces for your business. Of course it’s easier to listen to gurus who suggest five quick-solution passive income streams to boost your income than to a patient, more senior colleague who suggests improving your translation skills for the third time.

And what I’ve learned from the most successful colleagues is that they never stop working hard. It’s precisely this attitude that keeps them on top of the game.

If someone ever asks me “How to find direct clients?”, I’ll probably start by saying that first they need to learn how to write well, very well, in their own language, then… Well, see above.

14 Comments

  1. Nigel Wheatley , on Apr 23, 2015 at 16:33 Reply

    I don’t mean this comment as a dig at you Marta, because I have my own views on helping our colleagues and I tend to respect your efforts in this field; but, given what you say in this post, what do you think is the purpose and the value of your book and of the Business School for Translators?

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on May 18, 2015 at 09:29 Reply

      Dear Nigel,

      Thank you for your comment. I think this is exactly the purpose:

      “First you get really good at what you’re doing, your core business, then you train yourself up in the business side of things, and then you feel the calling to share it with your colleagues, so you think of best ways to share what you know. As you start moving things around, you see there are people around you who want to listen to you, that motivates you, so you work harder. Finally, you get an idea that maybe YouTube videos, not yet very popular in the industry, might be something that could take off. So first you laugh it off (Videos? Me? Seriously?), but then you brace yourself, learn how to do it, get the equipment, get out of your comfort zone, and then KEEP getting out of your comfort zone for a year or two, and there you go.”

  2. Suzanne Smart , on Apr 24, 2015 at 06:06 Reply

    Thanks Marta for another interesting and valuable message! Of course, you can’t do the hard work for us but having your advice helps us to gain confidence in what we’re doing. If we know that you share our thinking or suggest going about something in the same way that we are doing, it makes us stronger because we believe that we are doing it the right way and having that conviction helps us to succeed. Also, I agree that stepping out of your comfort zone is key. It’s very easy to get stuck behind a computer screen dreaming of that perfect client who will suddenly drop from nowhere into our inbox – if only!! I’m planning to step out of my comfort zone today but getting in touch with a potential new direct client. 🙂

  3. Jana , on Apr 24, 2015 at 08:03 Reply

    You nailed it! Yet again! 🙂 We live in an era of quick fixes, but success can only be fruit of hard work and jobs well done (continuously!).

  4. Laurence Rapaille , on May 1, 2015 at 20:26 Reply

    What a great post. I have read quite a few things about the business (and I am still going through Tess’ book and yours too), and will do so as much as possible, along with taking some courses and webinars, but tonight, for whatever reason, your post has just motivated me to keep going and going in this business. So thank you!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on May 14, 2015 at 17:51 Reply

      Thank you so much, your comment is very rewarding to read 🙂

  5. Danni Charis , on May 2, 2015 at 07:12 Reply

    It’s always a nice feeling when we read posts like these. This is one of the best post which i have read in recent times.

  6. Roxane K. Dow , on May 4, 2015 at 05:12 Reply

    Marta, thank you so much for this sentence:

    “Here’s the truth: success as a freelance translator comes after a few years of the hardest work of your life.”

    Now that someone has actually come out with the unadorned truth, I feel ready to go ahead and do that hard work. Thank you!!!

  7. amy , on May 8, 2015 at 05:17 Reply

    Nice article! I do agree on the thought there are no shortcuts and there are no universal keys that open all doors.

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