What's a freelance translator?
A common and widespread assumption among those who are not familiar with this job is that being a freelancer implies more freedom of movement than working as an employee. In practice, you can work "when" and "if" you decide to.
First of all, many people still do not have a clear picture of what a freelance translator is and does; when asked about my job, I simply say "I am a translator", and most of the askers reply: “What? And what does a translator do? And how can you work from home, alone, with no employer? And so on. It is often discouraging to hear questions like that, as I have to sing the same old song every time.
Why time is vital to a freelance translator?
How difficult it is to start as a freelance translator depends either from your experience and the existence/non-existence of help and support from outside you may trust in. But this is another story. Let's assume you have already got your business started and focus on TIME, which leads us to another crucial word: ORGANISATION.
Unless you pay the required attention to that magical word, I can tell you from my own experience that being a freelancer will turn you into a captive! Working as a freelancer does not mean, nor it should, that you should have no time-tables or any schedules to follow. On the contrary, the more your freedom from any traditional employment, the better you have to plan your workday and personal life. Otherwise, the first risk you run is to be so completely absorbed by your job as to say goodbye to the rest of your life.
It is very common—and often justified—for a freelance translator at the beginning of his/her career to think that the most important thing is "working, working and still working". Right, we have chosen this kind of job because "passion drives us" most of us do not work well with fixed time-tables, depending on other people to do our job, going to the office every morning and so on. BUT you have to set limits even to that freedom, so you should start considering some kind of opening/closing hours for your home office. I know it is difficult to shut down your PC at 6.00 p.m. if you have a job you are about to complete (only 2 pages!), but you should follow the rule.
When and how many times should you check your incoming e-mails?
Checking your e-mails frequently is important, as your work largely depends on them. If you have an ADSL connection, you usually have no problem checking your messages frequently, as it is often not necessary to establish a new connection every time—and it is cheaper. Another good idea would be to set an acoustic mail notifier that informs you of each incoming e-mail with no need to visually check the mail icon on the traybar on the bottom of your desktop.
Of course, as the clients/translation agencies a freelance works with may be located in different parts of the world, you should consider the problem of time zones: a good solution is to set an auto-responder to your e-mail program stating you are temporarily unavailable and will reply ASAP. That way, if a client sends a message when you are in bed at 1.00 a.m., he/she will get a reply, even though not a human one!
Another rule you should follow is: please, DO NOT WORK ON WEEKENDS: easier said than done! Well, if sometimes you are obliged to work on Sunday because you have to complete a very urgent job, then you should try not to work at least on Monday morning, in order to rest a while and restore your profit-and-loss time balance.
In practice, you should establish a sort of "time budget" and divide your professional time into, for instance, self-training (learning new software programs, attending courses, language seminars, etc.), dedicating some time to professional forums1 and (most crucial) to marketing. The rest of your time should be dedicated to private and social life and, hopefully, to holidays.
In other words, you should organise your time as any other business, in which there are periods of hard work, during which you will be unable to dedicate yourself to marketing, for example, but, on the other hand, there will also be periods of fewer incoming jobs. These are not to be considered as a waste of time or a negative thing: rather, you should take advantage of them to do what you cannot deal with when "working" – i.e., public relations, marketing, compiling glossaries, check your databases of agencies, etc.
An important side of planning consists in setting your future goals: to pass a specific exam for XX Language Association, to acquire new customers, to improve your website—if you have one – or to decide it is time to get your own website, etc.
The administrative side of your job
An important issue when working as a freelancer is to organise the administrative side of your work – i.e., invoicing, tracking jobs, etc. If well organised, it will be a good investment. Therefore, you should establish an operative protocol which defines every deadline, expiration dates, etc. As part of this time-saving operation, you should also prepare and update on a non-stop basis a FAQs list, containing all the issues/fixes you incurred with. That will prevent you and/or other people from wasting time while trying to fix problems which have already been solved in the past.
As a general rule, you should establish that invoicing is to be done at the end of each month, so as to group several small and/or large jobs together. But, of course, this dream does not always come true, as rules may vary according to each client and their requirements: one may ask for the invoice on completion of EACH JOB, another at the end of the month, a third one on 15th and 30th day of each month (Yes, I swear, it happened to me!). And finally, client X wants to be invoiced once reached XXX amount, and so on. And what to say of those big translation agencies with multiple project managers, each requiring his/her invoice JUST for the job of their competence? It means that if, say, in July, as you have done three different jobs for three different PMs, you will have to issue three different invoices! OK, still so sure you want to be a freelancer? If so, let's move on.
Of course, the best thing is to set a model of standard invoice, or more than one, e.g. one for international clients and one for domestic ones, containing the data of each client—name, address, project manager's name, etc. So, you will not need to prepare a new invoice each time; on the contrary you will just change the job details.
As invoicing is important, you should try to simplify the process in order not to leave out any jobs. To do that, it is useful to keep all the monthly POs together, divided per client, so you can track all the jobs done and add them to the relevant invoice. Not every client sends an official PO, so you should supply them with a model to fill in and return to you. A PO is crucial not only for tracking purposes, but, most importantly, the evidence of the job the client is ordering. So, please bear in mind that you should always ask for a PO!
Sometimes dealing with invoices, POs, databases, etc. may be boring, sure, that's not quite creative, and yet necessary. To be professional, you should invest first of all in your time: every "boring" task you may carry out now is likely to improve your skills, so do not lose heart and keep up your good job!