Guest post: How I Turned My Language Skills Into a Business and Career

Note: I was contacted by someone from the translation agency Tomedes Ltd to see if I'd be interested in posting an article of theirs. We went back and forth for several months, and I was either too busy or not interested in what they had to offer (I wasn't being snobby, but it seemed like some articles weren't a good fit). But when they sent me this article by their CEO and founder, Ofer Tirosh, "How I Turned My Language Skills Into a Business and Career," I figured it would probably be interesting for language fans and translators. I haven't posted something by a guest in several years...hope you enjoy it!

I see a lot of people online learning about how to do translation or discussing ways to improve their translation skills. 17 years ago, I wanted to improve my freelance translation skills in order to take my career to the next level. Since then, I’ve gone from working as a freelance translator to running a translation agency that serves clients around the globe. I’m hoping that my story – of how I turned my language skills into a business – will inspire others to do the same. 

Moving from Freelance Translation to Running a Business

Nearly two decades ago, I found myself with no way to make a living. Remembering this seems especially poignant right now, given the vast economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

My personal situation meant that I needed to find a way to make money. I’ve always loved languages, so they were my focus in terms of building a career. 

I realized quickly that freelance translation was the career for me. That meant I was faced with a choice – to be the best freelancer that I could be or take my language skills and values and try and turn them into a business. I opted for the latter. 

It’s funny to look back now, having since published the ultimate guide to freelance translation in order to help others on their journey, and remember how much I still had to learn when I first established Tomedes as a translation agency. Even now, I’m still learning.

My focus was on three areas: outstanding translation, customer care, and embracing tech. With these in mind, I began to build my translation business. 

How to Build a Translation Business 

To build a translation business, you need clients and you need translators. Simple, right? Well, not quite…  

How many translators are there in the world? According to the Translators Association of China, there are around 640,000. Around one in four of them works as a freelance translator. As such, there’s plenty of freelance translation expertise available to those looking to establish a business. 

The problem is that you have to make sure that you find the right network of freelance translators – not just translators who work with the languages your clients need, but those with relevant subject matter knowledge as well. 

I put a LOT of time and effort into building up that initial network of translators. Not only did I need to find suitably experienced linguists, I also needed them to share my belief in delivering outstanding customer care. My initial induction process was basic, to say the least, but it did lay out the principles of service delivery that Tomedes’ clients could expect, which we still remain true to. 

Finding Translation Clients

Of course, building a network of translators was only half the work. I also had to find clients. 

My marketing efforts were intensive. I reached out to potential clients in every way imaginable. It was hard work, it was time-consuming, and it completely paid off. I managed to bring in enough work to show my new network of freelance translation professionals that I was serious. 

Naturally, there was some scrambling to ensure I had the right expertise in the right dialect back in those early days. Thankfully, the advent of social media worked in my favor. Just as I was discovering how important it was to maintain connections around the world when you move from being a freelance translator to running a translation company, technology was making it easier than ever to connect over the internet. 

I embraced the evolving tech. I still do, to this day. I don’t believe that technology can replace the skill and nuance that human translators deliver, but it can certainly help them translate more efficiently. 

Running a Translation Company Isn’t Just About Translation

Over the years, I learned just how much admin is involved in running a business. All those tasks that you don’t receive direct payment for – recruiting translators, marketing, finances…the list goes on and on. It’s a reality of running a successful enterprise. 

That meant I had to put structures in place to deliver the company management while still keeping translation costs reasonable. I took a remote-first approach, meaning that staff could work from home, keeping office costs to a minimum. It allowed me to run a slick, lean organization. 

Technology helped here too. From the increasing use of email to faster broadband, I used everything available to help grow my business. I was an early Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) adopter, meaning that I could connect with clients and translators far more easily. I read recently that VoIP business lines in the US shot up from 6.2 million in 2010 to 41.6 million in 2018. Embracing this kind of technology definitely helped me grow my business faster and more smoothly. 

My advice for anyone considering going from freelance translator to business leader: embrace technology, but also focus on customer care no matter how big your empire grows. Plenty of people provide freelance translation. In my opinion, it’s those who really empathize with their clients’ needs and go out of their way to meet those needs who will be most likely to turn their passion for language into a successful business. 

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