Tom, the timing will never be ideal. Sometimes in life you have to jump off the cliff and build your wings on the way down. No intention of teaching you to suck eggs and all that, but the following may be worth considering. Some of the points may strike you as platitudes, but sometimes the obvious needs to be repeated.
1) Differentiation is crucial
I would echo for the sake of reinforcement what others have said on this thread: get a specialisation. You need to be able to differentiate yourself in some way, or at least be able to give the appearance of the same. If you have nothing distinctive to sell, then you will be forced to compete on cost, or speed of delivery, and that's not a place that most people are likely to find comfortable. This is true of all markets, not just translation.
So in that sense I disagree with Richard, but I also think he is right to say that if you are a quick study you can tackle most things. It's generally better to avoid throwing yourself in at the deep end; apply your common sense.
2) Don't worry too much about macro trends
There is a lot of cant about issues like CAT and machine translation, but I feel that other aspects of the bigger picture, such as the growing volume of JP-EN translation, and demographics, tend to be overlooked. With regard to the latter, the bulge of non-Japanese people who engaged with Japan in the 1970s and early 1980s (following the surge of global interest in the "Japanese miracle" of the 1960s) is retiring or, er, shuffling off this mortal coil.
A whole generation of translators and experts is gradually being removed from the equation, even as demand for translation grows. There's opportunities here, if you're better than a machine translation, and if you can find an area of value. It is my perception that interest in Japan cooled rapidly in the 1990s, and after 2000 the attention was mostly on China, so it seems to me that there is, or there is likely to be, a shortage of younger people engaged in Japan at a professional level.
3) Engage with the technology aggressively
I am based in the UK and I started out (full time) in 2015. I have been reasonably successful in winning work and my business has grown steadily. I think that is partly because I had a strong pre-existing specialisation
, partly because I went about it in a professional manner (see below), and partly because I went after the technology aggressively.
I use CAT tools for every project. I do not see CAT tools as a scam or means of extracting money from the freelancer, but as a means for the industry as a whole to become more efficient, drive down costs and thus drive the growth of the market. (Obviously, there are many translators who disagree with me on this.)
Quite early on I invested in a CAT tool (in my case, Trados) and learned how to use it. Agency clients have explicitly told me that my willingness to take on CAT-tool based projects makes it easy for them to assign me orders. And when new CAT tools come along, put your hand up, and get stuck in.
I've seen Memsource take significant market share from Trados in the finance space over the past two or three years. I made it clear to clients that didn't have a problem with learning how to use this new tool, and have won a steady stream of orders as a result. In any case, the larger direct clients (see Memsource above) are starting to deploy CAT these days, so it's not just agencies.
In short, be a person that clients find easy to work with, rather than being perceived as a Luddite who moans about the tooling.
Even if not required by clients, you may find - as I do - that some aspects of CAT usage are very useful. I couldn't work without segmentation or concordance functions these days. Maybe try get your feet wet with something cheap but competent like CafeTran Espresso.
Oh, and the same goes for other tools such as OCR software, search utilities and so on. Work at making yourself more efficient. If you regularly find yourself spending time on a specific admin task, ask yourself whether you can make that task more efficient, or eliminate it entirely.
4) Be utterly professional
You want to give the overall impression of being slightly stiff and formal (again, this depends to some extent on the industry), and totally reliable. This is an image you must build bit by bit, across various aspects of your work, and work to maintain.
Get high-quality meishi made up by your local printer and make sure they are appropriate for the sector on which you focus. A meishi for somebody specialising in manga or games may need to be different to that of a financial specialist, obvs. You may not need your meishi often, but when you need them, there is no substitute. Always carry one or two with you, especially if you live in Japan.
Have a professional portrait taken for your CV and possibly your website, showing you looking neatly dressed, and preferably in a suit and tie for Japanese clients, although you should bear in mind the "manga" issue above. For heaven's sake, be clean-shaven! If you have a beard, make sure it's well-trimmed. You don't have to look beautiful, just not eccentric, dirty, sloppy, or sketchy. You think that's superficial? Sorry, your client's hindbrain doesn't care. People do make judgements on appearances, they typically make them below the level of conscious thought, and the process is over in seconds.
Register your own domain (e.g. gibbtranslations.com
or for a more general feel, gibbassociates.com?
), and sign up with an email provider, as Richard says, so that you can use that domain in your email. All part and parcel of the "I'm a professional translator" thing. I second Richard's recommendation of Fastmail, which is reliable, versatile and inexpensive.
5) Be a respectful and responsive communicator
This is really part of the previous point, but it deserves its own section. Respond to contact from clients in minutes, not hours. If you're away from your desk, say so immediately and promise to get back to them at a specific time. Explicitly thank clients for every inquiry and every order. I have boilerplate phrases set up for my clients, such as "Thank you for contacting me about this project". My clients probably know it's boilerplate, but semi-ritualistic expressions of appreciation never hurt.
Personally, I would resist the temptation to get familiar with clients. I avoid attempts at humour, except of the very mildest kind. I do make occasional comments on "safe" subjects such as the weather or the seasons.
Never be angry, sarcastic, cutting, or curt, and don't rant at clients either. No client wants to read a bitter tirade from a freelancer about the iniquities of the translation industry. It never helps and will almost certainly harm. Anything that causes a client to raise an eyebrow or pull back from you will hurt your business.
Remember that your clients too are in a job of work, and have good days and bad days. We're all fighting a hard battle.
6) Be helpful and transparent
Go out of your way to be helpful, at least for proven clients. It helps if you can create a sense of wanting their projects to succeed, and wanting to contribute to that success. I don't find it difficult to generate this, maybe because I spent so long listening to Japanese companies discussing their approach to customers, and concepts like 供給責任.
Conversely, if you can't do something, be firm but polite, and tell them why. If you can do something, but not in the time they want you to do it, tell them what you consider a realistic deadline. Make an effort to provide them with options.
I always show the rationale for my workings. "This project is 11,000 characters, and I can translate around 3,000 characters a day. Given that I have one other project under way at the moment, that implies at least four working days, so I could have this for you by 09:00 JST on Friday 24 September, in Microsoft Word format. The cost would be 11,000 characters x ¥X per character, for a total of ¥X,XXX. Just to let you know, I am expecting a major project of 33,000 characters on Monday of next week, so if the order for this project were to be delayed, that might cause problems."
I also take this step-by-step approach when creating a quote for a promising client, by the way. This is how we count volume (if it's a non-Japanese client), this is how long it would take me, these are the incidental considerations, such as file format or OCR, this is the cost, this is when I expect to be paid.
Transparency and helpfulness is something that most people appreciate, and even if you don't get that order, you may get the next one.
7) Don't work with rubbish clients
Some clients, particularly those from certain countries, just will not be able to pay you properly, and may have very different expectations of what is acceptable in terms of hours worked and payment dates. Don't waste your time on these clients. You can't turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. Discuss rates in advance, before doing tests and so on, and if there is no prospect of a decent rate, thank them for their time, explain that your business models are incompatible, and end the conversation.
Even for promising clients, do your due diligence. Look clients up on paymentpractices.net
or the Blue Board on Proz.com. Be wary without sliding into paranoia. Trust your instincts.
8) Find other work if necessary
Yes, I know you're quitting teaching English, but be pragmatic and don't turn up your nose at side gigs. When I was a student, I was poor, and it sucked. If you can immediately make enough to support yourself in translation, fine. If not, take another job while you build up your translation business. Stack shelves. Teach English (again). Deliver takeaways. Do what you have to do to avoid starving like an artist in his garret.
A similar concept applies to sectors within translation. Perhaps you want to make a name for yourself as a translator of Japanese literature. Fine, but the competition is severe and rates are notoriously low, so find something to keep body and soul together in the meantime. You can't eat glowing reviews of translated books. Focus on (say) medical translation as the part that supports the other areas.
Sound overwhelming? Don't let it be.
Break it down into a series of tasks.
Approach the list methodically and tick things off.
Remember that people succeed every day.
There's no reason you can't be one of them.