How to survive the freelancer Hunger Games

I’ve been a freelance translator for about three years now since I graduated from my translation masters programme. But only recently (about two months ago) did I take the plunge to become a full-timer. And it’s been quite a baptism of fire. Whereas before I trundled along with the odd translation at weekends and relied on my 9-5 job for a ‘real’ income, now I have to make sure I balance work and other commitments without going crazy, whilst keeping enough work coming in to make ends meet. I started out on my digital nomad freelancer journey full of optimism about my new lifestyle. A couple of weeks later I was complaining on Twitter that competing for freelance work was ‘like the Hunger Games’.


Whereas before I was getting a slow but steady stream of work from one or two agencies that I’d been with long-term, now I was in the position of getting new clients, and fast. Just to be able to survive transitioning into my new life I was going to need to get a lot of new work coming in fairly quickly. So there I was popping off my CV to various agencies, scouring and applying for jobs left right and center like a good little freelancer. Now, far be it for me to say that this strategy isn’t a good one for some people. But for me it wasn’t going so well. Agencies tend to want you to fill in a hundred forms and go through an immense beaurocratc process, not to mention a bunch of formalities such as Trados discounts (their way of cutting your pay because something has been partially translated before), purchase orders, more forms and long (60-90 day) waits for the money you’ve earned. So, I’m going to go out on a massive and dangerous limb here and say, I’m not a fan of (most) agencies. There is the odd exception, but generally I find them to be burocratic and inflexible translation factories that don’t sit well with how I like to work (in a rather disorganised fashion sometimes!) Anyway, I was quickly getting tired of jumping through translation agency hoops, my proz profile was alone and unloved, and I was sending out application after application for jobs where I was competing with probably hundreds of (in many cases unqualified) translators who were offering ridiculously low rates. In fact, some jobs stated clearly that they were looking for the freelancer with the lowest offer, sometimes as low as 2 USD cents per word. Now, aside from what I think about the criminals that offer rates like 0.02USD per word, this also was not working for me.

But then, whilst I was lamenting about the state of the translation market, I got a rather unusual but smart piece of advice from my friend and colleague @Sal_Godfrey: Get away from the Cornucopia and look for water.


Now, I had seen the Hunger Games, but I’d kind of forgotten the details. So, for anyone who isn’t a Hunger Games fan, here’s the translation.

In the Hunger Games, 24 contestants, 2 from each of 12 districts, must compete over 2 weeks in a fight to the death. There can be only one winner. A bit like 24 translators fighting over a translation job, right? The Cornucopia is the starting area, filled with useful supplies and equipment that the contestants can try to grab at the start. But the catch is, if you don’t grab and run fast enough, you’ll be killed. So goes the advice – get away from the Cornucopia and look for water. Meaning, in translation or freelancer terms, get away from the area where hundreds of translators are fighting one another for a job and look for something better.

So, how do you find water? Well, there are many ways to make it as a translator and each person is different. Some might prefer agencies, others choose direct clients. Some apply for jobs each time, others build up a client base. And I can tell you definitively that I prefer the latter in both cases. Whilst it can be very useful to be on the books of a couple of agencies for the sake of regular and reliable work, I 100% prefer to search out my own clients, create an ongoing relationship with them and hopefully they keep coming back for more.

The ways in which I’ve begun to do so are as follows:

1 – Use contacts: I’ve had several great clients passed to me by friends in the business. Stay in touch with other translators via Twitter, social networks, email or networking events. Help them out if you can, and hopefully they’ll help you. Never underestimate the power of building up a network of translator friends and contacts and staying on good terms with them. And make sure to thank anyone who helps you out and return the favour when you can.

2 – Promote yourself: You can do so in many ways – maintaining professional profiles on directories like proz or translator’s cafe, keeping your LinkedIn page up to date, using social networks like Twitter, or keeping your own blog or website. Believe it or not, I get work through this blog now and then, as its a nice way for people to find me and see what I do.

3 – Apply for jobs directly, then keep up a relationship with the client for future work. Once you’ve done one job for a client, if you did so well and were friendly, polite and reliable, they may well come back for more. Cultivate your client base and make sure you’re the kind of freelancer people want to work with again and again. That means delivering good work, on time, and in a polite and friendly manner.

4 – Drop emails to contacts, previous customers or anyone you’d like to work for. Speculative applications to carefully selected potential clients or agencies may get you a foot in the door for work later on. Just don’t be pushy or annoying. Dropping in a quick, polite email with your CV and giving a brief summary of how you might be able to help is more than enough. But don’t be afraid to remind previous customers about your services now and then.

5 – Word of mouth. This can be a really helpful way to expand your client base. Obviously you can’t force it and it can take time. But the same rule applies – do great work for one client, build up a good relationship with them, and maybe they will recommend you to someone else. It’s happened to me several times and I’ve gotten really great quality clients out of it. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback or recommendations sometimes too. You can build up your recommendations on a site like Proz or put customer quotes on your website, for example.

So there are my tips for surviving the xl8 Hunger Games. Does anyone have any to add for newbie translators?

3 thoughts on “How to survive the freelancer Hunger Games

  1. I think that this is brilliantly written, Alex, and 100% true! I prefer a more personal approach, even if it means I get less work. Then again, I can afford that at the moment. I don’t know what it’d be like if I were a full-timer! Maybe I’d fight to the death, too. 😀 Love this post!!


  2. Congrats for the post!!
    I’ve been reading some of you posts for a while now but when I saw the title, I couldn’t resist to read it. I am a Hunger Games fan but I’m also about to finish my degree on Translation and Interpreting in Barcelona and I’m already worried about what to do once I finish and how to find clients. I know I want to do a master’s degree in interpreting, nevertheless I’d like to be a part-time translator in the meantime. Thanks for the post, I’ve found it very useful!


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