When I went freelance in early 2017, I was unsure how to begin. I read a few blogs, but mostly just followed my gut using the networks I had developed as an in-house interpreter. The result was that I have too much work to take everything that comes in. While some of the steps below might be no-brainers, I’d like to share my process with those of you who are thinking of going freelance in the U.S.
Talk to Other Interpreters!
Before you jump head first into a freelance career, you need to make sure there is enough demand to sustain you. Since this is not like translation, which can be done from home, you must make sure that your area can support another interpreter.
Pro Tip: Get to know the other interpreters in your area.
You can start by doing background research using their websites, LinkedIn pages, and other published information. Try to determine the following:
- What areas do they serve?
- What services do they offer?
- What are their specializations?
- What are their rates? (most won’t publicize)
- What information does their public profile lack?
As you are gathering that information, you can start to plan what you want your service platform and online presence to look like. In parallel, you can reach out to the interpreters in your area to meet them in person. This is crucial, particularly if you work in a small community. You will need to be in good standing with your competition so they will work with you in the booth or hand off jobs that they can’t take. You should never approach more senior interpreters with an aggressive or haughty attitude. It is natural that they might feel threatened when a competitor sets up shop in your territory. As the competitor, you want to encourage them that you are here to help, not to steal their clients. With that attitude, try inviting them to get coffee. Introduce yourself and tell them why you are going freelance. Ask them candidly if they think there is enough business for another interpreter. Talk to them about how you two can work together. Offer a sample of your work if need be. If they are not receptive to this offer, that is fine. However, these bridges to the rest of your colleagues are critical when you are starting out as a freelancer. They know the roads you are about to walk. They have made the mistakes you are about to make. They can steer you away from potential pitfalls and bad clients, if you are willing to listen.
Make a Company
In the US, it is very important to establish yourself as an LLC or other entity for tax purposes. This keeps your personal finances and business finances separate. It is best to open a business checking account so that you have one location for business revenue and expenditures.
Pro Tip: Operating a business in the US is tricky. Get an accountant to advise you.
A professional accountant will be able to tell you which expenses are tax-deductible and how to track mileage and expenses. I also recommend using a tax accounting software like QuickBooks to track everything. Lastly, I recommend getting Errors and Omission Insurance. While an interpreter has never successfully been sued for an error made on the job, several lawsuits have been brought and the ramifications are severe even if a formal suit is not filed. Since the US is a litigious society, it makes sense to have the insurance even if you don’t need it.
Now on to the fun stuff!
Making a brand
When you set a company name, logo, etc, you are choosing how you introduce yourself to the world. These will make a first impression before you can say one word to a potential client. One of the common problems with interpreters as freelancers is that they often fail to see themselves as a brand.
Pro Tip: YOU are the product you are marketing.
I am not just a set of language skills for sale. I am a multi-faceted professional. My personality, my training, my experience, my interpersonal skills all work together in the service I provide. It is the whole package that I market. My presence online has to reflect me to the clients I want. From my online profile, potential clients should be able to tell that I am friendly, knowledgeable, and accommodating. However, that is just me. I chose to portray those qualities because I have a niche for liaison interpreting. A colleague who works in the legal field will want to project an entirely different brand. Their website and social medial should say strong, intelligent, and trustworthy. It’s not a matter of putting those qualities into words on a website either. The whole image of your marketing should convey the same image. Compared to my website, my legal colleague’s would have more hard lines and a muted logo. Since I am working in a different market, mine can be more fun while still maintaining professionalism.
Your company name
Speaking of first impressions, choosing a company name is tough. If you are going to build into an agency some day and cover multiple languages and services, it may make sense to choose something that ends with “Language Services.” In my case, I was not intending to go that route. I wanted people to know what languages and what service I was offering without much effort. Each person has different preferences though. One point to consider is, if you ever see yourself expanding with multiple employees, make sure you could print your business name on the top of someone else’s business card.
Logo and Colors
Another thing to consider is color scheme and logo. Try to pick something that is appealing and business professional in both cultures. Don’t make it too cartooney. One good idea is to look at the logos of your potential clients and choose something in a similar design scheme. You can always enlist the help of a graphic designer. For a lower cost alternative, try a website that auto generates logos from a variety of templates. For more on color templates and overall design, check this page out.
If you need some feedback on your logo, try posting on the Marketing for Translators and Interpreters FB group.
Website and SNS
Once you have set up your company name and design scheme, it is time to build a website. Start by creating the content that will actually fill the pages. This takes more time than the website building itself.
Pro Tip: Put yourself in the shoes of your target client.
Here’s the scenario I imagined for this:
John Doe is president of Kobayashi Maru Inc. in Ohio. He has managed the plant for years without incident. He has a good relationship with the Japanese staff, who mostly speak English. Suddenly, he learns that management at their parent company in Japan has changed. The new Chairman of the Board wants to see his facility. They will need to roll out the red carpet for him. The Japanese staff strongly recommend that Joe finds an interpreter so he can participate in meetings. He does a google search for “Japanese interpreter in Ohio” and finds my website. What does he want most to see?
- Who I am
- What experience I have
- What certifications I have
- How much it would cost to hire me
- What steps should he take to enlist my services
I want to make this information as clear as possible on my website. One site that I benchmarked that had all of this information in an easy to understand format was Rie Hamamatsu, a London based conference interpreter. My website, sadly, does not. It is very much a placeholder for better things to come.
Pro Tip: Most potential clients will find you through social media.
After that, you want to establish a social media presence. This means setting up a Facebook page for your business and making sure your LinkedIn page is up to date. In this day and age, potential clients (particularly those who have never hired an interpreter before) are more likely to find you through LinkedIn than most other sources. On the flip side, a Facebook page can help you direct market to those who may need your services. Make sure all of these social media sites hold the same information and the same pictures. These should also be congruous with any professional organization profiles you have, like JAT, JACI, or ATA.
One word about using your picture in social media: When I began marketing, I chose to use a professional headshot along with pictures of me actually interpreting (which I of course got permission to use in advance). I chose to do this because I wanted people to know who was going to show up to their meetings if they hired me. I know some people choose to just market with their logo due to privacy concerns. As someone who has hired a conference interpreter before, I can tell you it helps to be able to see the person you are hiring. However, each person must make their own decision in the end.
- Necessary Forms
Lastly, before you start quoting work, I recommend that you have an invoice form and quote form handy. Try to have some confirmation method when the job is firm; like signing the quote or a basic contract. You should have something that lists your terms such as cancellation charges, per diem and travel costs, and payment methods in whatever your client signs. AIIC provides a sample contract to its members. You can read more about what that entails here. The ATA also has some guidelines here.
- People you worked with when in-house
- Friends who work in Japanese companies
- Former classmates from interpreting school
- Local interpreters or translators you met
- Contacts from Japanese community organizations
They don’t all have to be local. Sometimes people in other states get a request for a recommendation in another part of the country. Don’t forget that translators also get requests to interpret from time to time. That is why it is good to reach very wide with your initial announcement.
Next, contact the type of companies that you want to offer your services to. There are lots of ways to do direct marketing, so I would encourage you to read up on it. For my part, I find a call to the front office and asking to make a meeting with the person who might hire a contract interpreter works very well.
Pro Tip: Look through the recruiting websites for companies who are hiring a Japanese interpreter. Reach out to offer to fill the gap until they find someone.
After that, try networking at local Japanese events in your area. Even though most people who attend a cultural event may be bilingual, that doesn’t mean they don’t know someone who needs an interpreter. The goal is to make your name the first one that comes to mind when someone thinks Japanese interpreter. However, I strongly advise against Meishi-spamming. Don’t go to events and just hand out your card to anyone and everyone who will take it. Try talking to people in earnest. Find out what they do. Let the conversation naturally flow to what you do and why you are networking. Show genuine interest in people and their work and they will remember you.
If you are still hungry for work, try reaching out to those initial interpreting contacts you made. Tell them that you are open to taking jobs they have to pass over. Offer to hand off work to them as well so they know that it is mutual. Next, try emailing conference organizers for international conferences in your area. It may yield nothing but it is getting your name out in the conference arena and showing them you are interested in their particular fields. Some organizers may even give you the name of the agency they use so you can apply with them.
Lastly, don’t forget to touch base with any clients or agencies you have worked with in the past. Try to reach out every 3-6 months to see if they have any new work. If nothing has come up in a year or so, stick to once a year greetings for the holidays. A senior interpreter once told me that the interpreter who is at the front of someone’s mind will be the first person they contact when a need comes up.
A Note for those with No Experience
If you are trying to build a freelance career and you are just out of college or have only a year or two of work experience, I would encourage you to be very cautious. It is not as easy as it is in Japan to find low level (read “general business content”) meetings for new interpreters to cut their teeth on. Less reputable agents are waiting to push you into jobs with poor working conditions (read “8 hours of simul”) or low pay. They will try to get you to work on community interpreting jobs over the phone. These will not lead to real conference work. What’s more, reputations are ruined in the blink of an eye. If you get a name for poor performance due to bad working conditions, you cannot undo that.
I got advice from a senior interpreter that I have stuck to. When you don’t have experience, don’t offer your services cheaper. Not only does it undercut the market, you can never escape those rates. Once you settle a rate with a client, that will most likely be your rate with them forever. If another client comes in offering you more, you cannot cancel on your cheap client just because you want more money. Also, your services are not worth less because you are still getting your feet wet. They are valuable regardless of your experience in a particular field. Just remember this story:
Picasso is sketching in a park. A woman walks by, recognizes him, and begs for a portrait. Somehow, he agrees. A few minutes later, he hands her the sketch. She is elated, excited about how wonderfully it captures the very essence of her character, what a beautiful work it is, and she asks how much she owes him. “5,000 francs, madam,” says Picasso. The woman is incredulous, outraged, and asks how that’s even possible given it only took him 5 minutes. Picasso looks up and, without missing a beat, says: “No, madam, it took me my whole life.”
If you cannot find work but you have some economic stability, I would encourage you to work pro-bono rather than for cheap. You can reach out to your local universities and Japanese related community organizations. Tell them that you want to get practice in interpreting and will do it for free. Offer to work for visiting lecturers, Japanese exchange students, or local sister city programs. These can be listed on your 通訳実績表 (a document which is not asked for much in the US) and you don’t have to reveal that it was pro-bono.
Allyson Larimer is a freelance conference interpreter based in the U.S. She worked for two Honda suppliers for 7 years doing in-house translation and interpretation before branching out on her own in 2017. She is dedicated to promoting training opportunities for translators and interpreters in the Midwestern states of the U.S. She founded and chairs the Midwest Activities Committee for JAT. Allyson holds a BA in International Studies with an East Asian focus and an MA in TESOL. Her Japanese language study began at age 16 when she was dreaming of becoming an animator. While that dream faded, she continued to study the language throughout her post graduate schooling. She did a short home-stay in Okinawa during high school and 2 half-year study abroad trips in college and graduate school (both in Aichi). Despite having a TESOL degree and Japanese proficiency, she did not end up working in Japan. During the economic downturn, she found an opportunity working for a U.S. based Japanese company and has continued down the interpreting path ever since.