Someone asked on a translators’ forum today for advice on whether they should make the leap to become a full-time translator.
My advice to him—and to anyone else considering this—was “Don’t. Let the workload dictate how much time you devote to it—not the other way around.”
Work won’t come to you just because you decide one day to hang up your plaque announcing yourself as a translator. It is like any small-business venture: make sure that you have an alternative way of making a living, or you may find yourself twiddling your thumbs, frustrated that the phone isn’t ringing (or email orders arriving), then doing dangerous things such as spending money on useless advertising or marketing and losing money even faster.
Learn from Harrison Ford. After ten years of getting only bit parts in Hollywood films— often uncredited—he became a professional carpenter, which allowed him to support himself and his young family comfortably, while he waited for better roles to come along. Eventually, they did, and when he did well at these, more and better roles came after that…
So keep your day job—or learn another profession that can make you money in the immediate term. Then start with a couple of translation jobs—possibly even for free—and see if the clients are happy, and return, or refer others to you. If they do—excellent. That’s when you start charging (but only at a modest rate at first: too high, and they’ll go to someone more experienced whom they can get at that rate)—and do the best work you can.
One more tip: offer copyediting in your target language, as well as translation. This will allow you to capture clients who feel they can write in the target language, but would like someone to go over it to ensure the material is good enough to submit to a professional publication. (It’s also a cheaper option than translation, of course.) I did this, and today, around half my workload is actually copyediting, rather than translation. It is easier, and no less remunerative, if you price it right (see my formula for doing so, which is also transparent and therefore reassuring to the client).
If you’re good, the clients will start to return repeatedly, and refer others to you. When the workload gets to the point where you need to devote five or more hours a day to it, and it’s disrupting your day job—that’s when you make the switch to full-time. But that by that time, it will no longer be a leap, but only a short hop.