Working as a translator

How To Get Started As A Freelance Translator

If you love learning about other cultures and have a talent for acquiring languages, then you’ve probably thought more than once about whether a career as a translator is for you.

The work is most definitely rewarding – you get to spend your days helping people understand each other while opening up exciting opportunities for yourself in fields like literature, international relations, politics, business, and technology.

Regardless of the path you choose, you’ll be bridging communication gaps and enriching people’s lives, making this a fulfilling career path.

Though this certainly makes the industry sound promising, it takes more than being bi-lingual to find success as a freelance translator. In fact, even polyglots may not qualify due to the level of fluency required for this line of work.

It’s not enough to be able to hold a coherent conversation in your target language. To be an effective (and well-paid) translator, you need to be able to understand all the nuances and quirks of a language – those unique shades of culture-specific meaning that affect the way you should interpret something.

The same Spanish phrase may need to be interpreted differently if the speaker is from Mexico rather than Spain – understanding these contextual subtleties is an essential skill for translation and transcreation work (the latter term referring to the practice of making it appear as though translated content was created organically in the target language).

With this in mind, let’s take a look at what it takes to build a successful career as a translator.

Which languages are most in-demand?

Though Mandarin Chinese is still the most-spoken language in the world, there are a number of other factors that contribute to the demand for translators in a given language.

For economic, political factors, and diplomatic reasons, translators fluent in Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, and German are in high demand.

Even if your second language isn’t one of the most commonly sought-after, you will probably still find plenty of opportunities as it’s becoming increasingly important for companies to have a global presence.

Regardless of the language (or languages) you wish to specialize in, you will get nowhere as a translator if you don’t have proof of your abilities.

How do you prove your skills as a translator?

Whether you acquired your second language through formal education or being raised in a multi-lingual family, you will need to have some form of official certification to back up your capabilities.

In terms of proving your language skills, you can take a language proficiency test in your local area to prove you have the level of fluency needed for the work.

For the translation work itself, you will need to undergo some formal education. You have a number of options here, including:

  • Obtaining a degree or certificate from a reputable tertiary institution;
  • Enrolling with the American Translator’s Association for a certification program (if you’re outside the US, search for “Translator’s Association” + “Your Country”).
  • Undertaking specialized training in fields such as medical or legal interpretation and translation.
  • Applying for any accreditation programs in your local area (this usually entitles you to list your details in their directory, thus improving your chances of finding work).

How can you build your experience as a translator?

Even before you’ve finished developing your language and translation skills, you should be on the lookout for opportunities to build some professional experience.

This could come in the form of:

  • taking on an internship for credit;
  • helping departments at your school with translation work;
  • volunteering with non-profits and community organizations;
  • finding entry-level translation or interpretation work with a local business or online.

This experience will help you hone and develop your skills in a real-world setting while adding valuable substance to your resume and work samples to your portfolio.

Here are some excellent sources for finding entry-level freelance translation jobs online:

To give you an idea of what kind of hourly rate is reasonable, PayScale offers the following assessment (in US dollars) for translators and interpreters:

How should translators go about networking and marketing?

While the options above are fantastic for newbie translators and interpreters who have recently graduated or are still working on their education, if you want to push the upper limits of the pay scale, you’ll need to learn how to network and market yourself effectively.

Start by researching businesses that may need translation or interpretation services for your target language (or languages). You can approach local companies or multi-nationals, honing in on the industries that suit your skills and interest you the most.

In addition to hunting for potential clients, it’s also worth exploring LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and Google in search of freelancers who work in complementary fields. Strike up a conversation with them and let them know you’d love to join their network so you can help each other in the future.

With both networking and pitching your services to new clients, it’s essential that you focus on what you can offer, not what you’d like to receive. Of course, you will need to be clear about the rates you charge. However, it’s best to avoid making yourself and your needs the main focus. Instead, build a picture of how you will be able to contribute to their success.

To get you started, here are some of the main industries that require the services of translators and interpreters:

  • Travel and tourism
  • Legal services and law enforcement
  • Manufacturing
  • Doctors and healthcare providers
  • Most sectors of the finance industry
  • eCommerce
  • Most sectors of the entertainment and gaming industries
  • Scientific and market research

Translators must commit to a life of endless learning

No matter how long you’ve been in the translation game, and no matter how much money you’re making, it’s never advisable to hit a plateau in terms of learning.

Technology and translation trends are advancing at such a rapid rate that if you don’t keep up, your skills are at risk of becoming obsolete. So, to prove yourself worthy of the most interesting (and well-paying) translation roles, you’ll need to continue your education, both on the job and in your own time.

Many translators choose to add a master’s degree to their repertoire, which is a great way to either advance in your career or make a lateral move into a new specialization that’s piqued your interest.

In addition to a lifelong commitment to translation-specific education, it’s worth your while to be on the lookout for complementary skills you can develop. This could mean studying politics, diplomacy, business, or even coding (so you can work on developing the latest translation software).

Becoming a freelance translator: final thoughts

Of all the freelancing opportunities the Hope For Finance team has delved into, translation is one of the most demanding. It requires extensive formal education, fluency in at least one other language, and a commitment to lifelong learning.

These benchmarks prove to be too high for most people. However, this is good news for those who make it through. There is a high demand for qualified and talented translators and interpreters, and with the industry growing substantially each year, the prospects are good for those capable of making the cut.

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