When I got started as a freelance translator I was just aiming to find translation jobs - any jobs. My goal was just to get the ball rolling, and that proved to be easier than I had originally anticipated. When that happened, however, I needed to look beyond that: it became hugely important to get translation jobs of the right kind.
In this as in so many other things, freelance translation is like many other professions. Any job will get you some money and pay at least some bills, but only jobs of the right kind allow you to grow both professionally and, yes, financially. Serving burgers is probably good for a wannabe professional to pay his or her way through school or college, but lacking the will to move beyond that will effectively kill his or her professional aspirations.
In translation, cheap jobs are good to get going, to boost one's self-confidence in an unknown market, to learn key dos and don'ts and to realize that one can, and should, move on. Moving on, however, takes more than just translation skills, and in particular, it takes a lot of marketing. You need to move from the translation work you get to the translation work you seek, and that takes a different mindset as well as different tools.
I knew nothing about marketing when I embarked on this, so I just had to build my own crash course. And it was a real eye-opener, probably of the kind I will use my whole life, whatever I get to do in the future.
The best marketing advice I found on the Internet was simple enough: if you are looking for clients, tell everyone you know about what you are doing! I was amazed!!!
I am fairly self-assured in writing, but I am a perfectionist and I find it hard to talk about a work in progress. My career change was a work in progress, and so I continued to talk of myself as a journalist. That straightforward marketing advice brought home the obvious: I don't need to find any journalism "clients," since my employer pays me every month and I am trying to move out of that career anyway. If I want to find more translation clients, on the other hand, it is definitely a good start to tell people that is what I do for a living.
So I started telling anyone I knew that I am a translator, a full-time translator. That was what I was even if I was also a full-time journalist. It was a key first step for me to realize that my job on the side was actually the focus of most of my motivation, overtime or extra efforts, since I wanted it to grow, and therefore that I should present it as such: as MY JOB.
At the same time, I needed to define myself as a translator. It was then that I set myself the goal of reaching a point, sooner rather than later, at which this really does become my only job. So I developed a vision of myself as a serious, client-oriented multilingual translator who specializes in Business, Finance and the Social Sciences. Those are the areas in which I feel most comfortable, and I also have the qualifications to convince clients about that. The same goes for anything to do with communications, particularly corporate communications: as a journalist, I know my way around that and clients will generally take my word for it.
I stopped thinking that any translation project would do the trick, and I devoted serious thought to the path I should follow to get where I wanted to get as a translator. I thought of seeking certification, I came up with some ideas about where I might find some direct clients in my areas of specialization and I even looked long-term at courses that might brace my credentials in those.
The point of all this is that, once you realize you want to be a serious translator, you need to take another step forward. What exactly would you like to translate? Can you live off the work you get down that path? Where can you look for clients of the right kind? And how can you convince those potential clients you have found that you are the person they need for the job?
It is of course hard to get one's thoughts straight regarding issues like this, and it is even harder to, well, translate those thoughts into real-life options. Building a career takes time and effort, but knowing that much, and having a sense of direction, is critical.
Until that future date in which everything clicks and your email and phone are on fire with the right sort of clients on the other end, however, do keep in mind the best marketing advice I ever got: tell everyone you know (your friends, your neighbours, the parents of your children's friends...) that you are a devoted translator, the best they or their friends can ever hope to work with!