Work Smarter, Not Harder

I remember when I got my very first freelancing job. I was sitting on the bed in my tiny apartment in Luxembourg, where I had been living for a few months while an intern at the Italian Translation Unit of the European Parliament. It was late afternoon, and all of a sudden I heard my email notification go off. I was so excited after reading that message! A friend working in the opposite language combination had recommended me to a company who needed an English>Italian translation. And just like that I had my first client and could call myself a working translator!

When the internship ended, I started actively looking for more clients so I could launch my freelance career. I didn’t know much about the business side of the profession, so I worked on my résumé and sent marketing emails to potential clients. I began receiving a few translation projects a week.

At the beginning I felt compelled to accept any job that landed in my inbox, even if it didn’t pay well or I didn’t enjoy the topic. I did this for what seemed to be legitimate reasons: “What if this is the last work-related email I get?” “What if my clients find other translators?” “What if my clients no longer have a need for translation?”

When I got married and moved to the U.S., most of my work routine stayed the same. Another thing that remained unchanged were my fears and doubts, despite the fact that I had a few regular clients by that point. Yes, being a translator was a real job and I was able to make a living, but those “what if…” questions were still at the back of my mind.

Fast-forward a few years. I had been a freelancer for a while, knew what I was doing, and had gained a lot more confidence. I knew the next job would come, I had good clients, and enjoyed everything about freelancing. But then life happened! My husband and I had our first baby and I had to learn how to find a new work/life balance. I started working part-time and, to my surprise, my income seemed to stay the same. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that I had just learned to work smarter and be more productive with the time I had available.

Whether you have small children, elderly parents, a second job, or other commitments that prevent you from working full-time, or perhaps want to increase your income working the same hours, the following tips will help you maximize your profits. (Please note that I mainly work with translation agencies, so some of these tips might not apply if you only work with direct clients.)

Bus Prac

Figure 1: Make sure to track your jobs.

General Productivity Tips

Work when you’re most productive. Some people are morning people, some night owls. If you don’t know when you’re most productive, put yourself to the test. Translate 1,000 words of similar difficulty at different times of the day and see what happens. I’m usually most productive and focused during the day, so I rarely work after dinner.

Check and adjust your work environment. Before having kids, I was more productive at home. I went to my desk and started typing. The few times I tried to work at a coffee shop, I realized it wasn’t for me. I kept taking breaks to look around, hummed the song playing in the background, got distracted by people’s conversation, or went and got a brownie, etc. Today, with two little kids running around at home, it’s better for me to be away from my home office. Some people enjoy working in perfect silence (noise cancelling headphones, anyone?) while others prefer music, background noise, or rain simulators (e.g., those available from, It’s important to pause and think about how to make your environment work to your advantage.

Limit interruptions. Especially if you work from home, you need to train family and friends and set boundaries. In the same way, you need to train yourself: stay away from social media and other distractions and focus on work. For example, you can block time-wasting websites on your computer using a browser extension (I use StayFocused on Chrome), write down tasks for later, and mute your phone and email. A great time management strategy is the Pomodoro Technique, a time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s that uses a timer to break down work into intervals, traditionally 25 minutes in length, separated by short breaks.1 So, just set a timer to work for 25 minutes and take a short break for five minutes.

Industry-Specific Productivity Tips

Track your jobs effectively. Do you have a clear idea of what you make more money doing? Is it translating a medical article for Client A, or editing an information technology manual for Client B? To find out, examine your projects over the past year. Hopefully, you’ve tracked your projects accurately. If you haven’t, it’s really important for you to start doing so with the next job you get and with every single one after that.

Here’s how I do it. Every time I receive a job, I list it on a spreadsheet. I specify the service (e.g., translation, editing, or interpreting), the topic (e.g., human resources, contract, or privacy policy), the client, and other useful information, such as the purchase order number, deadline, word count, and rate. Then I divide the total amount charged for one specific job by the number of hours worked. By doing so I can assess which clients, services, and topics are more profitable for me. (See Figure 1 on page 26 for an example. Please note the numbers on the chart are made up.)

With this information clearly stated in writing, when two jobs land in my inbox and I can’t take both, I know immediately which one is going to be more profitable and can make an informed choice.

Only work in the areas where you’re strongest. With limited availability, it’s smart to focus only on the jobs that pertain to your area(s) of expertise and leave other areas that you could work on but you’re not as good at to someone else. It will probably be more profitable for you to wait for that one good job that you can do quickly rather than use your time learning a new specialization, researching terminology, and making sure your end product is top quality. For instance, I know that I can translate a 6,000–7,000 word clinical trial agreement in less than two days. Since it’s my specialization, I know I can produce great work at a fast pace. If I know I don’t have many hours in my working week, I’ll select the projects based on my expertise.

Apply an urgent/rush rate. Just like you pay for faster shipping for online purchases, you can apply a higher rate for urgent or rush jobs. You shouldn’t feel like you’re taking advantage of your client. On the contrary, you’re providing a fast service they desperately need. And if it’s not that urgent after all and the clients aren’t willing to pay your rush rate, perhaps they can push the deadline to accommodate your schedule. Either way, it’s worth trying to find a good solution that fits both parties.

Apply a minimum rate. If you’ve never thought about applying a minimum rate for smaller jobs, this is the time to do it. It’s usually standard practice in our business, and for a good reason. No matter how small the job, it often takes longer than you think. Let’s say the client would like you to translate/proofread 50 words for a project someone else had already worked on. By the time you exchange a few emails, read all the instructions, do minimal research, ensure the terminology is consistent, send files back, and answer any follow-up questions, applying a minimum rate will be well worth it.

Prioritize time spent on emails. For years I made it a business practice to answer every email in my inbox. I tried my best to be responsive and found great joy when my clients exclaimed, “Wow, that was fast!” With time and experience, I started to prioritize which emails I answered first, which ones could wait, and which ones didn’t need a reply. The first email category to be dropped in my priority was mass emails. Give your time and energy to responding first to emails from existing clients. This will go a long way in terms of establishing solid business relationships. Don’t fall for the email rabbit-hole!

Use the time zone and summer or holiday seasons to your advantage. If you can, be available when your colleagues are offline. Being an Italian native in the U.S., I often receive small to medium job requests in the afternoon (evening in Italy) for the following day. My time zone gives me an advantage over my colleagues based in Italy who have already signed off for the day. Similarly, you can be available during the summer months or major holidays, or even on the weekends, when you know most of your colleagues will be unavailable.

Never stop marketing and networking. When you have less time for paying work, it’s tempting to neglect administration work or marketing activities. You should resist this temptation! It’s essential to always set time aside for contacting potential clients, keeping up with market trends, and attending relevant events.

Develop good relationships with trusted colleagues. We all go on break at some point, whether it’s for vacation, sick days, a family emergency, or other reasons. A smart way to ensure the continuity of your business is to temporarily refer your clients to someone else. This is specifically true for direct clients who often have no idea where to find another translator, but it’s also true for translation agencies. If you’ve worked with a particular project manager for months or years and suddenly become unavailable, they might appreciate the referral instead of having to choose from a pool of unknown translators in their database.

Initially, implementing these tips will seem like a lot of work. However, it will lead to creating new habits that will make you more productive. With greater productivity and efficiency you’ll have a better chance of either increasing your earnings or working less hours and keeping your income steady.

  1. Cirillo, Francesco. The Pomodoro Technique (Currency Books, 2018),

Silvia D’Amico is a freelance translator working mainly from English into Italian. After training at the Italian Translation Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg, she spent a few years working on projects for the European Union. In recent years, she has specialized in clinical trials and the translation of corporate materials. She currently serves as secretary of the Northeast Ohio Translators Association (an ATA chapter). Contact:

“Business Practices” will alternate in this space with “The Entrepreneurial Linguist.” This column is not intended to constitute legal, financial, or other business advice. Each individual or company should make its own independent business decisions and consult its own legal, financial, or other advisors as appropriate. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of ATA or its Board of Directors.

The ATA Chronicle © 2022 All rights reserved.