Getting Started as a Freelance Translator
Copyright 2006 by Corinne McKay, email@example.com. This
article may be freely reproduced or redistributed for non-commercial
use with attribution to the author.
If you enjoy this article, you might also be interested in my new book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator.
I became a translator via a series of happy accidents. After taking
French in school since seventh grade, I studied abroad at the University of
Grenoble, France, for my junior year of college. There, a professor recommended
me for a part-time job as a trainee translator at the University's graduate
school of business. This ended up involving work on an international marketing
textbook that was subsequently published by Prentice-Hall. Back in the U.S., I
taught high school French for 8 years, did a few translations on the side when
people asked me, and earned an M.A. in French from Boston College. After
relocating to Colorado and having a child, I wanted to find a career that would
allow me to use French and work from home, so I decided to try to make a go as
a professional translator. Several years later, I'm certified by the American
Translators Association and happily employed by a growing list of regular
clients. I hope that these tips will be helpful to aspiring translators! Please
note that the examples provided here reflect my personal experience; everyone's
mileage will vary depending on your language pairs, professional background,
geographic location, etc.
The good news, the bad news
If you have excellent skills in at least two languages, there is a lot to recommend launching your own freelance translation business. According to the most recent American Translators Association compensation survey, the average self-employed freelance translator working full time in the U.S. earns more than $50,000 a year, and with most translation work done over the web, it's an attractive business for people who want a portable career, or live in places (like my hometown of Boulder, Colorado) where there are few well-paying jobs for translators. The translation industry is also, by most measures, booming. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a better-than-average employment picture for translators and interpreters until at least 2014, and many qualified translators are busier than they've ever been. However (you knew that was coming!), many people with excellent language skills fail at self-employment, not because they can't do the work, but because they make basic and avoidable business mistakes, or underestimate the role of business management in their overall work plan. This phenomenon was part of what inspired me to write my book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. In addition, it takes a lot of financial and mental preparation to launch any type of business, and freelance translation is no exception. For most people, I advise counting on at least a one year startup phase, during which you will need either another job, savings or a loan to pay some of your living expenses while your work volume increases.
How it went for me, and some numbers
In 2002, I had been teaching high school French for 8 years. After having a baby and moving to Colorado, I decided to look for a work from home job where I could use French. I knew very little about the translation industry at that time, and had no contacts at all in the industry. Looking back on it, I think that my first career move was to open the Denver Yellow Pages to the "Translators and Interpreters" section and start calling all the agencies that were listed. A few of them agreed to give me an informational interview, and they became my first clients. To be fair, the fact that I had an M.A. in French and had done a translation internship at a business school may have opened some doors; but, compared to an experienced translator, I was starting from ground zero. During that first year in business, I contacted over 400 potential clients, including corporate members of the American Translators Association, local businesses that had a connection with a French-speaking country, the Colorado court systems, and legal aid agencies. I also became active in the Colorado Translators Association and started editing their newsletter in order to get to know translators in the area. Out of those 400 contacts, I landed three or four regular clients, and I earned $9,000 total. Honestly, at the end of the year, I as on the verge of giving up. The $9,000 I had earned seemed like a pitifully small amount for all the work that I had done, and I thought about looking for a full time job. Fortunately, I was determined not to waste the year of effort, and decided to give it another year. I kept marketing and networking, and business grew. My second year, I made $18,000, and the year after that, $36,000 (I think I see a pattern here!), while working about 20 hours a week from home. At that point, I was convinced that I would stick with freelancing, since my previous highest annual income was $33,000 teaching high school French. While my income hasn't kept doubling every year, this year I think that I will meet the ATA average of over $50,000, while working about 30 hours a week and taking at least 4 weeks of vacation, which is a situation that would be impossible with a full time job in my area.
Some tips for beginning freelance translators
Following is a list of suggestions for beginning freelance translators. If you'd like a more comprehensive look at launching your own translation business, feel free to take a look at my book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator.
- Be realistic. When
you're looking for a full-time job, all you need is one offer. To work
full-time or close to it as a translator, you need a sizeable list of regular
clients. Unless you have very marketable skills in an in-demand language pair,
it may take a year or more until you are working full time. In my case, I
contacted about 400 translation agencies (not a typo) over the course of my
first year in business, and it was about 18 months until I was earning an
amount equivalent to my previous full time job.
- Never quit marketing. Once you have steady work, it's tempting to think
that agencies will keep contacting you, freeing you from the hassle of
contacting new prospective clients and touching base with previous contacts.
However, this is a bad assumption. Work flows go up and down, agencies go out
of business, the project manager who loves you quits and is replaced by someone
who brings in his/her own person, etc. Plus, you never know when an "out of
nowhere" project offer will be perfect for you, and/or allow you to raise your
rates. Even though I usually have about as much work as I can handle, I still
send my resume to 3-5 new agencies per week just to keep the ball rolling.
Recently, one of these agencies (in Europe) contacted me with a multi-thousand
dollar project because I was the only U.S.-based French to English translator
in their database, and a client wanted a project translated into U.S.
- Don't ignore the local market, especially if you present yourself better in
person than on paper. My first clients, who I still work for today, were local
agencies who I contacted and offered to meet with to show them a portfolio of
my work. Check the yellow pages or Internet under "translators and
interpreters." Even if the agencies say that they don't hire beginners or don't
have work in your language pair, go visit them anyway and find out what they
do. You'll understand more about what your potential clients want, and they'll
know you for when your skills are more in line with their needs.
- Join some associations. The American
Translators Association and its local chapters (a list is available on the
ATA website, or Google "translators your state," replacing "your state" with
your actual state) are a great way to establish your seriousness as a
translator, and to meet other translators.
- Ask for advice. While it's somewhat risky to contact a translator in your
own language pair for risk of sounding like you're trying to swoop in on
his/her clients, most translators enjoy their work and like to talk about their
jobs and how they got started. A freelancers group I'm in (for women only) has
a tradition called "Take a successful woman to lunch," where an aspiring
translator/writer/web designer/artist, etc. offers to buy lunch for a more
experienced person in exchange for a conversation about the profession.
- Orient your resume toward translation. Especially for people who are native
speakers of a language other than English and have specialized professional
skills, this is key. Highlight specific skills right away, such as
"Spanish-bilingual software specialist," "Native speaker of Arabic with
mechanical engineering background," etc. rather than expecting the agency or
client to see that you have these capabilities.
- Offer services that more experienced translators probably don't. The
translation industry is booming, and many experienced translators with a full
house of regular clients don't have a financial need to work nights, weekends,
rush jobs, etc. Make it clear to prospective clients that you can fill in in a
pinch, and be willing to actually do this!
- Get certified. Certification by the American Translators Association isn't a must, but
can lead to a big increase in business as the credential becomes more
recognized. In my case this happened when, shortly after I passed the
certification exam in French to English, an agency I work with was requested by
a major client to use only certified translators on certain projects.
- Be realistic about your earning potential. While translation is definitely
well-paying as compared with other careers that allow you to work from home in
your pajamas on projects that are often very interesting, remember that 25-40%
of your income as a freelancer will go to things that your employer normally
pays for when you have a full time job. Most people count in the biggies-
taxes, health insurance, retirement plan contributions and
vacation/personal/sick time, but over the years other expenses like
dictionaries, office equipment, continuing education and professional travel
add up too. Over the course of the 8 years I worked full time, my employer paid
for tens of thousands of dollars of "extra" stuff like this, including half the
tuition for my M.A. degree, a laptop computer and two trips to France. These
days, I spend about a thousand dollars a year just to attend the annual
conference of the American Translators Association, plus various other
workshops. Remember also that the time it takes to do non-translation
activities like marketing, networking, accounting, collections, billing,
updating computer systems, even cleaning your office, is "off the clock." For
all of these reasons, even if you work 40 hours a week, it may be more
realistic to plan on billing no more than 25 hours a week.
- Find the economic advantages to freelancing. As a corollary to the tip
above, freelancing is far from all bad news when it comes to earnings. You may
be able to take significant tax deductions for business related expenses,
unlike when you have a salaried job (talk to a tax professional about this).
Furthermore, if you work from home you won't be paying commuting expenses,
lunch out, work clothes, etc. Depending on your particular situation, there may
be even bigger hidden benefits. In my case, I have a small child; if I worked
30 hours a week at an employer's office, I would need at least 35 hours of
child care to cover work and commute time, and the preschool my daughter
attends charges $9 an hour. As a freelancer, I'm able to work about 30 hours a
week with 15 hours of child care by making up the rest of the time at night or
when my child is with my husband or a friend. Even if I needed to pay for more
child care, working from home opens up the option of using a less expensive
option, for example a teenager who can play outside with my child while I work
inside. This savings alone, plus the additional time to spend with the family,
makes freelancing a very attractive option if you have small kids.
- Keep in touch. As you apply to agencies, keep a file of the person you
talked to or e-mailed with, and what his or her response was to your inquiry.
As you get more experience, periodically contact these people again to let them
know a) you're still there and b) you have some new projects to tell them
- Show an interest in the profession. Once you explore the tip of the
translation iceberg, you'll be amazed at the number of translation-related
websites, magazines and newsletters out there. Contributing to them allows you
to both educate yourself and present yourself as someone who's really
passionate about the industry, not just someone who likes to work in your
- Never (never) take on work you can't handle. Especially in a small
community of translators and translation consumers, the surest way to sabotage
your emerging freelance business is to take on something that's too technical,
too long, or too complex. Clients will appreciate your honesty and use you for
projects that you can handle. Sometimes this involves protecting clients from
hiring you for work that *they* think that you can do, such as translating into
your second (third, etc) language. Politely explain that this work is best
handled by a native speaker of that language and offer a referral.
- Keep your clients happy. While this could be an article in itself (when I
have time!) it's worthy of mention. Finish every project on time and on budget,
and NEVER miss a deadline without notifying a client as soon as you realize
that despite your good planning, the project won't be done on time. Return all
phone calls and e-mails as soon as you can, always within one business day.
When you're not available, help solve the client's problem by referring them to
a colleague. In all of your dealings with your clients, remain professional.
When you encounter a problem, it hurts to have your skills or qualifications
questioned, but remember that the client is already in high-anxiety mode if
they're not happy with your work, and you need to remain calm rather than
making the client more upset. Probably one of the best pieces of advice I've
ever been given is "don't hold onto your clients by charging less, hold onto
your clients by charging more and proving that you're worth it." Of course
there are some agencies and direct clients who only care about getting the work
done for one cent per word cheaper than the last translator they used, but most
clients care just as much about quality as they do about price. Keeping a good
relationship with the client and doing outstanding work proves to them that
often, you get the level of service you pay for.
If you enjoyed this article, read about the online course
Getting Started as a Freelance Translator
These tips reflect my experience as a translator and my own opinions, not those
of my clients. Feel free to use them in your own work, and let me know if they are helpful!