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Lessons from the tech world that I apply to my freelance translation business

During the eight years I spent working in the digital technology sector – before returning to my passion for translation – I learned a thing or two about business and innovation, and some really nerdy stuff about online marketing and web development.

The mindset

One word that stands out for me from my first few years at Google, is ‘scrappy’. This wasn’t a reference to Scooby-Doo, or to anything being shabby or poor quality, it meant ‘thrifty’. Everything we did had to be ‘scrappy’: travel, offsites, processes.

It also has another layer of meaning, which is something like ‘lightweight’: find the path of least resistance to your end goal, and pursue it. Who needs expensive cookery lessons for your team-building activity when someone one your team happens to be a trained pastry chef? Despite being already huge by that point, we still had to think like a start-up.

Part of being a start-up is embracing failure. If you have an idea you think might work, try it. If it doesn’t work out, learn from the experience and move on. There are myriad ways to set up a freelance translation business, depending on your language combination and areas of expertise, as well as your personality and situation in life. No one thing is going to work for everyone. As they say at Google: ‘launch and iterate’, and eventually you will find the right product/market fit.

The lingo

Working for a large, multi-national company such as Google is like living in a foreign country. You can’t help but pick up certain phrases that everyone uses and that help bring everyone together as part of a harmonious culture. I found myself ‘reaching out’ to people left, right and centre, ‘taking a step back’ on many occasions, and ‘synching up’ with people on the ‘value prop’ on a constant basis.

Aside from the general business lingo, there was the obvious subject matter immersion that comes with the territory. I had to quickly get up to speed with the terminology of ‘the internet’ and, more specifically, online advertising tools and strategies. Knowing my SEO from my PPC, my CPM from my CPC and my XML from my SQL, all served me well while speaking to clients and colleagues alike.

Later on, when I joined a digital agency, I managed web development projects and made it my mission to immerse myself in the world of PHP, React and relational databases. I even attended a conference for Magento developers, all to improve my understanding of what our team was producing, and what additional value we could offer to our clients.

Now, as I translate texts on these subjects, the words roll off the tongue and I can produce high quality work as a result. Translated texts should sound natural, like they were originally written in that language, and having a deep understanding of the source text really helps to achieve this.

The tools

One thing I learned about tools while I was at Google, was that there’s isn’t much you can’t do in a spreadsheet. Whereas, in the digital agency world, I learned that there’s a tool for pretty much everything.

Part of the ‘scrappy’ mentality meant that we were forced to find a lightweight and cost-effective solution to getting a product to market. With limited budgets, it’s better to spend the money on hiring a brilliant mind with infinite potential, rather than spending money on subscription fees for sales pipeline management tools and fancy contract management packages that could all be managed in a spreadsheet.

By contrast, in the ‘red ocean’ of the digital agency world, it’s normal to leverage technology to increase productivity and produce better quality results than your competitors. Using industry-standard tools such as Jira and Bitbucket, becomes a mark of excellence, and shows that you are a leader in the digital space.

As a translator, I’m determined to make informed choices about which tools I commit to using, and only use them if they will provide significant quality improvements for my clients, as well as efficiency gains for myself. And as a business owner with limited funds, I will continue to assess whether a given tool is the right investment at the right time.


These were just my top three lessons, but there are many more, which I hope to share with you in future posts. I hope you found them useful!

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