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


8521831661_599947ba51_zThe 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.


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.

Related articles:

  • How to apply what you’ve learned at a translation conference?
  • How to apply business knowledge to your actual translation business?
  • Managing non-translation projects for business development

By Marta Stelmaszak 

Translator and interpreter specialising in law, IT, marketing and business. Graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science and member of the Management Committee of the Interpreting Division at the Chartered Institute of Linguists and of the International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters.