How to Become a Freelance Translator to Work From Home
About the Author
Everymom has been a freelance interpreter and translator for over 20 years. She is a court-certified interpreter in Massachusetts. She has been a member of the ATA, off and on, for over 10 years (most recently since 2011). She currently teaches a Medical Interpreting professional certificate course and is developing a webinar with a view to helping professionals study for the new IATA Medical Interpreting certification exam.
Are you looking to change careers? Are you unemployed and have exhausted your benefits? Are you looking for a telecommuting or freelance experience in order to be home for your school age kids? Freelance translation may just be the answer you’re looking for…but it’s not an easy road. This article gives you advice for how to set up your freelance career as a translator.
Tools of the Translator's Trade
What is a Translator?
First, do you really know what a translator does, what translation is? Translation is the act of rendering written ideas from one language into another. (It is NOT rendering oral speech from one language into another; that is the allied, but separate and very different, field of interpreting/interpretation.) The goal of translation is to make written documents – whether scientific, technical, general (such as birth certificates), business, personal or literary – written in one language comprehensible to readers of another language. However, more than merely “comprehensible,” the best translations read as though they were originally penned in the translated language. While he never wrote down a cohesive theory of translation himself, José Martí, the nineteenth century Cuban poet and writer, was also a translator. He said it best when he observed that “translation should be natural, so that it appears that the book [or any other document] were written in the language to which it has been translated.” A good translator, therefore, is not only an expert linguist (meaning is not merely conveyed through semantics, at the “word” or “sentence” levels), AND a subject matter expert (known as an SME in the language services industry), but ALSO a good writer in his/her native language.
As stated above, a good translator must be an expert linguist. You do not need to be able to speak your languages, but you must be able to read – preferably across all discourse levels, from social to academic – in at least two languages to begin a career in translation. Until recently, you didn’t need a college degree to work as a translator, but if you are just starting out now you will increase your chances of success if you hold a college degree (preferably in the field(s) for which you translate) plus an advanced degree in translation itself. If you bill yourself as a scientific translator and want to translate documents for the pharmaceutical sector, you will be best positioned for this if you hold an undergraduate degree in a field like biology or chemistry (and you will be in even greater demand if you have a medical degree, since many pharmaceutical companies require translation of clinical trials conducted in other countries). Add a graduate certificate, or – better yet – a Masters or Ph.D, in translation from an accredited university (in the U.S., SUNY Binghamton has long had a graduate degree program in translation and is best known for its focus on literary translation; for over 30 years, Monterrey has been known as the center for graduate level translation studies; UMass Boston has offered an English-Spanish translation certificate program for at least 15 years; in recent years, NYU and other universities have launched certificate as well as degree programs), and you are perfectly poised for success in this field.
Build an Online Presence
In today’s world you absolutely MUST establish an on-line presence in order for clients to find you as a freelance translator (or as any other business). Three quick ways to do this as a newbie translator are:
1) Become a member of the American Translators Association (or, if you live outside of the United States, your continental or national professional translator’s association). Being listed in their online Membership Directory, and being able to use their logo on your e-mail signature, website, and correspondence, alone are worth the yearly membership fee.
2) Set up a profile on LinkedIn – and, most importantly, join and participate in translation-specific groups on LinkedIn.
3) Buy your name as a domain and set up your own website and e-mail account. Even if all you have is a one-page website, it shows your professionalism and an investment in yourself. Plus, an e-mail ending in “yourname.com” inspires more client trust than email@example.com.
Networking is Key
As for any job, networking is key, whether you are just starting out as a freelance translator or have been freelancing for a while. Join the American Translators Association (ATA) and attend their conference (held annually in October), if you can. Also make sure to join your local professional translators group (if you live in New Hampshire, for example, you would join the New England Translators Association, or NETA) and attend their local meetings. Make sure you have plenty of professionally printed business cards with your on-line contact information, so that you can hand them out to your new contacts. Most importantly, ask lots of questions and listen to the (sometimes conflicting) advice of seasoned translators. It is through these meetings that you will likely find one or more mentors who will help open the doors to this relatively closed, “inner-circle” run profession.
At Association meetings, you will most likely hear many of your seasoned colleagues, and perhaps even your own mentors, decry agencies as the reason for downward pressure in translation rates. Mostly, this is true. However, as a newbie, agencies can be your best allies. It is by working through agencies that you will begin to build your translation credentials and a body of work. But, you have to be savvy. Translators are notorious for not wanting to share their rates, their sources, their clients, their know-how, with colleagues. You need to decide how much you want to earn, how much you are worth (if you are just starting out, well, quite frankly, even if you are an SME and an expert linguist and a great writer in your native language, your work WILL require rather heavy editing, so you will not be able to charge much at first), and when you have gained enough experience that you can raise your rates. At first, taking what the agencies offer you may just be worth it to build your credentials and experience. (You should expect to be considered a newbie for the first three to five years in the translation field.) Working through agencies will also give you broad exposure to a variety of fields, and, therefore, breadth of styles and terminology. This is truly invaluable experience that you will not get from formal study. It will help you also pick up speed in translation, which, as translators tend to charge per translated word (or per 1000 characters translated), will significantly increase your earnings per project.
Translation, A Much-Needed Growth Field
Translated material is everywhere. Some of it is well done. Some of it - not so much. And behind that material is the translator, you. Translation is not an easy way to earn a living. As a freelancer, you are a business. You will have to do your own marketing and sales, public relations, accounting. Depending on the project, you will work long hours in production, by yourself, usually under very tight deadlines. You will need to defend your work, sometimes. You will find unscrupulous clients or project managers who will try to get free work from you. But, ultimately, if you love languages, love writing, love reading and enjoy the challenge of knowing what something means (including its nuanced, between-the-lines meaning) and trying to render it fully into your native language…you will feel so rewarded by working in translation that you will wonder why you ever did anything else!