This advice is often given to aspiring writers, and without doubt it also applies to aspiring freelance translators - the two professions share many common factors. For example, in order to get your career as a freelancer underway, you may have to approach countless agencies or prospective clients and suffer innumerable knock-backs. The first stumbling block is often that Catch-22 situation, of "no one will employ me because I haven't any experience, but I can't get any experience because no one will employ me."
Of course, it's easy to understand why translation companies - or indeed private clients - tend to shy away from inexperienced translators fresh from university. It's one thing for a university lecturer to peruse your German to English translation and find a few genuine mistakes which he simply underlines with his red pen: but it's quite another matter if a client finds mistakes in your translation - mistakes which could jeopardise an important deal or make his company a laughing stock in the eyes of potential customers.
Just think for a minute how easy it is to make errors when writing in your native tongue without the constraint of a source language text, and then imagine the potential pitfalls when you have to make sure not only that it says exactly what the source text does (correct in every stylistic nuance and technical twist), but also that it reads as if it had been written in the target language in the first place.
So it's wise not to launch yourself straight into business as a translator without first finding your feet in the industry. Try to find a junior post initially, where you'll have a senior editor from whom you can learn the ropes. You may think (and it's a natural assumption) that a degree in translation qualifies you to call yourself a "translator". In actual fact it's just the first rung on a long ladder to professional competence.
So how can you get your foot on that crucial first rung? Well, one of the best ways for any new translator to learn his or her trade is to find a position as a junior in-house translator. The downside is that such positions are thin on the ground and the salary may not be very high, given that your lack of experience means your work will need to be checked.
Having your work monitored and constructively criticised by a more senior translator with years of experience will help you to develop your technique, sharpen your skills and learn about the industry from the inside-out. It might also help save you from many a red face in those first few months!
Another way of acquiring translation experience to enhance your CV in those daunting early days is by doing translations on a voluntary basis - perhaps for an international charity or church organisation. Obviously working for free is not going to keep the wolf from the door, so it is best to start carrying out these sorts of assignments in your own spare time, while continuing with whatever sort of full-time work you can find. You could also identify websites belonging to international organisations where the English language version is distinctly dodgy and write to offer either to re-translate it or to edit their content for a mutually agreed fee.
Even when you've got a fair amount of experience behind you, that last leap of faith to becoming a "full-time freelancer" is not one to take without caution (especially since the feast-or-famine nature of freelance work renders the term "full-time freelancer" something of an oxymoron). The best solution is possibly to reduce your other work commitments little by little (i.e. working part-time or half-time) so that you can dip your toe into the freelance market, test the water and see what sort of demand there is for your skills. You could also offer your services as a proofreader either of translations or of texts written in your mother tongue. This gives you another string to your bow, and has the added advantage of letting you see how other translators/writers solve problems of style or terminology. In this way, you'll accumulate valuable knowledge to be stored away for your own future use!
Another way to enter the translation profession, or at least to assess whether it might be for you, is to find employment as a project manager at a reputable translation company. This job will give you an opportunity to familiarise yourself with translation, translators and the industry as a whole and you might be offered the occasional chance to translate shorter (and, if you're considered good, longer!) texts when tight deadlines mean that the usual translators are not available. Experience like this is invaluable in furthering your chosen career in languages, be it as a translator or an administrator with a language-oriented role.
So will you make it as a freelancer? It's impossible to say for sure! However, if you're fortunate enough to combine all the translation skills we've looked at above with a dogged determination to succeed, there's every chance that your persistence will eventually pay off.