The life of a freelance translator

The Pros and Cons Of Being A Freelance Translator


Have you always been fascinated by our planet’s vast array of cultures? Are you seeking a career in which you get to enjoy freedom, endless opportunities to learn, and the satisfaction of helping people? Most importantly, are you fluent in at least two languages? If you answered “yes” to all of these questions, then it sounds like you’re perfectly suited to the life of a freelance translator.

There are many pathways within this broad industry, meaning wherever your passion lies – whether it be in travel, literature, politics, international relations,, business, technology, or many other sectors – there are opportunities for you to find rewarding work as a freelance translator.

Whichever niche you end up pursuing, the one constant in this line of work is that you get to enrich people’s lives by bridging language barriers, opening up important lines of communication, and adding a drop of clarity to a world filled with confusion.

Though we’ve painted a rosy picture here, freelance translators face plenty of challenges, especially when they’re just starting out. To give you a clear idea of what you’ll be getting yourself into if you pursue this career path, we’ve created a comprehensive list of all the pros and cons of working as a freelance translator.

If you make it to the end of the list and you’re still excited about this challenging yet rewarding career, then we’ve got a resource designed to walk you through the steps you’ll need to take to get up and running.

What are the benefits of being a freelance translator?

It’s best to start on a positive note, so you can view all the challenges in light of the benefits you’ll be enjoying as a freelance translator. With that said, let’s take a tour through the best aspects of this career path.

1. Who’s the boss? You’re the boss

As a translator, you have a choice between finding traditional employment and setting yourself up as a freelancer. If you’ve chosen the latter path, you’ve likely done so because you crave autonomy.

As the manager of your own freelance translation business, autonomy is precisely what you’ll get. This means you decide how the operation is run, you take the credit for everything that goes well, and you take charge when there are problems to be solved.

If you’re the kind of person who can always see a more efficient way of doing things and finds outdated office procedures endlessly frustrating, then this newfound freedom and control will be the breath of fresh air you didn’t even realize you were craving.

You won’t ever have to run your ideas by the boss, you won’t have to engage in office politics, and you won’t have to be polite to that coworker who always wants to waste your break time with meaningless gossip.

This makes the life of a freelance translator perfect for confident go-getters who have faith in their ability to meet deadlines, solve problems, and work effectively on their own. If you’ve made it through all the qualifications needed to become a translator, then it’s highly likely that you possess these qualities.

2. You get to enjoy ultimate flexibility

When you’re the boss, you get to take charge of your work schedule and ensure it’s as flexible as you want it to be. Though you will have deadlines to deal with (more on this in the challenges section below), you still get a lot of control over how much work you take on and when you do it.

You will usually have enough leeway with deadlines to be able to schedule your work for the time of day you’re most productive. Early birds can get their work done by midday and take the afternoon off, while night owls can sleep in, run errands in the afternoon, and then launch into work when their brains click over to productivity mode in the evenings.

This is also great news for stay-at-home parents who can plan their work days around school, kindergarten, and extra-curricular activities.

Adding to the flexibility is the fact that you’re not pinned to one place. Since all your tools of trade are portable, you can set yourself up wherever you have access to wi-fi. This gives you scope to travel, or even just pop down to your favourite coffee shop whenever the mood strikes.

When the weather gets extreme, you can watch from your window as neighbors scurry off to work, knowing that you get to stay comfortably inside. There’s nothing like indulging in a spot of cheeky schadenfreude (pleasure derived from the misfortune of others) in the morning!

In addition to all these schedule-based freedoms, you’ll also get to steer your work towards the niches that most interest you. In the early stages of your career, you may need to simply take whatever work you can get as you build up your portfolio and reputation. However, over time, you will be able to take more control over the projects you accept, allowing you to focus on the work that truly interests you.

3. Your income and expenses are maliable

It really doesn’t take much of an upfront investment to become a freelance translator (apart from all the educational costs, of course). You won’t have many office expenses to speak of, and everything you do spend money on can be claimed back at tax time (make sure you enlist the services of a reputable accountant to help with this).

You can say goodbye to the costs associated with things like commuting to work, overpriced lunches, corporate wardrobe items, and daycare for the kids.

In addition to this, you can do things income-wise that no traditionally employed translator could do. For example, you could front-load all your work to the first six months of the year and then spend the latter part of the year traveling or working on personal projects (like learning yet another language and fulfilling your dream of becoming a polyglot).

4. You can work internationally from the confort of your own home

Though freelance translation work does, as we mentioned above, open up a world of travel opportunities, it also offers you the unique opportunity to broaden your horizons from the comfort of your own home.

You’re not limited to those clients who share your geographical location. We live in a gloablized society, meaning there are plenty of businesses all over the world who are happy to hire translators, regardless of whether they’re in the same time zone or not.

5. You get to enjoy freedom from bias

As a freelance translator, no-one needs to know what you look like, how you dress, how many tattoos or piercings you have, what race or gender you are, or how old you are. What matters is how well you do your job, meaning it is one of the rare fields in which you can escape even the super subtle subconscious biases people have (while simultaneously beleiving they don’t).

No-one will expect you to retire at a certain age, clients won’t ever know if you get that hand tattoo you’ve been considering, and if you want to dye your hair turquoise, go for it. So long as you’re consistently providing high quality work, and always submitting before your deadlines are up, you get to enjoy a career that’s relatively free from bias.

6. There’s already a high demand for translators (and the industry is growing by the day)

Here’s a stunning figure for you: the global translation industry is expected to hit US$56.18 billion in value by 2021. Indeed, as of 2018, it’s already hovering above US$46.52 billion (source: GALA).

In tandem with overall industry growth, the demand for talented and qualified translators has been surging. As mentioned above, we are living in a globalized society, and as companies expand their reach, new areas are opening up for translators.

Although AI is moving forward in leaps and bounds, we are yet to see any translation software that comes close to the nuanced services offered by humans. In fact, the development of AI translation tools is one of the most fascinating areas you could find work in, particularly if you’re prepared to learn how to code.

At this stage, it seems these tools will never take over from human translators. Rather, they will work harmoniously, taking on the more repetitive tasks, thus allowing humans to focus on the more context and culture-specific aspects – aka, the more interesting stuff!

What are the challenges of being a freelance translator?

With all those brilliant benefits covered, it’s time to dive into the aspects of freelance translation work that may have you grinding your teeth and wondering why you dedicated so much time to getting into the game.

1. Your work flow will probably be inconsistent

Unless you’re supremely fortunate, it’s likely that you’ll have plenty of dry spells in your career as a freelance translator, especially in the early days.

This can be difficult for people to grasp because of the high demand that exists for translators and the amount of work they’ve put in to meet the industry standards. Though you will have certifications to prove your fluency, and a diploma or degree to support your capabilities as a translator, this doesn’t mean you’ve automatically unlocked an endless flow of work.

Once you’ve made a name for yourself and developed strong relationships with clients, you can look forward to more stability. However, when you’re just starting out, and you haven’t yet found your ideal niche, you can find yourself constantly being passed over in favor of more experienced candidates.

On the flipside of this, you will soon come to know the frustrating (yet honestly kind of amusing) truth of freelancing – when you’re not flat broke and out of work, you’re drowning in orders with no time for breaks.

What often happens is that you’re so relieved to finally have work again that you accept every job that comes your way, leaving you working 16-hour days and exhausting yourself.

This famine-feast situation does tend to equalize eventually, though you will always experience fluctuations in your workload as a freelancer. The one consolation we can offer is that over time, you will develop the tools, strategies, and emergency fund needed to sail smoothly through this uncertainty.

2. Deadlines will be the bane of your existence

Though you do have a lot of autonomy as a freelance translator, meeting deadlines is essential if you want to have longevity in the industry. The one thing you can count on people to do is talk, so if you’re consistently missing deadlines, you won’t just lose the clients affected, you’re at risk of developing an industry-wide reputation for being unreliable.

Even when you’re not flooded with assignments, urgency is a central part of translation work. It’s rare that you’ll ever get a project with a comfortably long deadline attached. Add to this the pressure of competing deadlines, and you’ve got a recipe for stress.

You may think “well, I just won’t ever take on too many jobs at a time,” and this is all well and good in theory. However, once you’re a few years into your career and you have long-term trusted clients, it’s not so easy to say no to someone when your professional relationship with them is at stake.

On top of this, many of the best-paying translation jobs only pay so well because of the urgency attached to them. Last-minute language barrier issues can be devastating if not overcome, meaning you will be paid well for helping those clients out (and will get a deep sense of satisfaction to boot), but timeliness and accuracy under pressure will be essential.

3. Your work hours can get ridiculous

Building from the last point, when you’re dealing with urgent last-minute orders from people in pressing situations, it can often mean you don’t have time to stop for meals, fresh air, exercise, or your regular sleep pattern.

Sometimes you’ll have full days of no work and all the time in the world to fritter away, and then other days you’ll feel so overrun that you don’t even have time to brush your teeth.

If you’re someone who needs a reliable, predictable structure in life, this will be particularly challenging for you. Of course, it is possible to choose a niche in which you can create more of a dependable schedule. However, when starting out, most freelance translators take whatever work they can get, and this often leads to some pretty crazy hours.

4. Translation work can get boring for creative types

This does depend a little on the field you get into, but generally speaking, a translator’s work is about detail orientation and precision. There’s usually little to no scope for you to take creative liberties, so if you’re someone who craves artistic expression, you may feel more and more stifled as time wears on.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider whether you can really see yourself spending hours at a time translating safety manuals, medical documents, engineering specs, sales brochures, business contracts, political speeches, and the like.

Add to this the pressure of having to ensure that everything you do is translated with super-fine attention to detail and a high degree of accurately, with context maintained across languages, and you’ve got a challenging role with few creative pay-offs.

Of course, this can be remedied by engaging in fulfilling creative pursuits outside of work; and as mentioned above, you have the freedom to create a part-time, flexible schedule as a freelance translator, allowing you ample time to flex your creative muscles.

Working as a freelance translator: final thoughts

If you’re a talented language-lover who’s keen on a life of freedom, challenges, and endless learning, then freelance translation work will be ideal for you. For this kind of person, the amount of good you do through your work will offer a perfect balance to the difficulties each day presents.

If this sounds like you and all the challenges above haven’t scared you off, check out our guide to getting started as a freelance translator.

Do you have any questions about the benefits and challenges of translation work? Or are you a freelance translator with some additional insights that may be of use to those considering the field? If so, please feel free to leave a comment below. We’d love to hear from you.

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