Those who are fluent in two or more languages have the opportunity to engage in a unique and fun freelance career: translating. If you are one who is enticed by the freelance lifestyle and love connecting others through language, it's a match made in heaven.
But building your own business— no matter the field— is a significant undertaking. To get an idea of how to become a freelance translator, we spoke to Samantha Siefert. Samantha has found success in her freelance translating career and has offered some of her best tips on how to get started.
Start with the Right Skills
As a translator, accuracy is of utmost importance. It is an absolute must that you are fluent in two or more languages. But equally important is that translators have a good grasp on grammatical concepts, localization, and cultural nuances of the languages they are translating. "Writing is the product a translator produces. Therefore, an advanced mastery of it is crucial for excellence," Siefert says. "Producing quality written text often requires education and training in addition to fluency in two languages."
Many translators pursue bachelor's degrees in their fields. While this isn't always required, some clients will like to see formal education on a translator's resume. "A degree or certification program will indicate competence to new clients, and it will also demonstrate that you take the profession seriously," Siefert explains. There is no standardized professional licensure in the industry, but there are several certifications that you can obtain to demonstrate proficiency. The American Translators Association, for example, has 27 different certification offerings for various language combinations.
When it comes to finding a certification program, Siefert advises, "It would be worthwhile for someone considering a career in translation to do their due diligence when choosing a program." This is because not all training programs are created equal in the absence of standardized licensure. Always do your research to make sure you find a reputable and recognized program.
Translate Into the Right Language
Not only do you want to start with the right knowledge, but you'll also want to make sure that you're approaching the right jobs for your skillset. One rule of thumb is to take jobs where you translate into your native language.
"In the industry, your native language is called your 'A language,' and your learned language is your 'B language,'" Siefert explains. "Translators should always work from their B language into their A language to ensure a truly fluent translation."
Get Experience at an Agency Before Going Solo
Since flubbing a language translation job has the potential to cause severe issues for a client, it's best if you go into your career with a little experience under your belt. If you have never worked in professional translation before, consider working for an agency to get a feel for the industry.
That's what Siefert did to break in. "I started as most translators do, by working for agencies," she says. Translation agencies handle the business aspects of the job such as project management, marketing, and billing but outsource translation duties to independent contractors. "Working with agencies often pays less, but it allows you to concentrate on building your skills at translation without the hassle of business duties," Siefert explains.
Siefert was lucky to work as an administrator at an agency that provided good mentorship. It allowed her to get a good understanding of both sides of the business. She honed her translation skills while also getting a feel for what goes into the financial and management side of the company.
Working at an agency also allowed her to make contacts and connections. "Over time, I made more contacts and was able to branch out on my own and find more direct clients," she recalls. This experience is essential because marketing yourself, especially in the beginning, can be one of the more challenging aspects of freelancing.
Establish a Workflow Early
It would be nice if you could take projects as they come and not have to worry about accounting, finances, or taxes. Unfortunately, dealing with the business side of things is also a part of the job.
Establishing a workflow early in your freelance career will help streamline processes and keep your business in order from day one. "Since being a freelance translator is essentially a one-man show, we need to balance those tasks efficiently so that we can focus on the translation work and meet deadlines," Siefert says. Starting organized and informed will save you time and headaches down the line. "It sounds basic, but this starts with a good system for naming and organizing your files!"
Before that money starts coming in, here are a few business things you should consider:
- Take a look at your finances. Understand that work may be a little slow going at first while you build up your brand. Make sure you have enough saved up to support yourself for a few months.
- Keep things separate. Once you get a handle on your finances, it's time to separate them from your business expenses. We recommend creating a different business account.
- Registering the business. For tax purposes, your business may need to be registered with your local or state government. It's usually an easy process, but it's important.
- Understanding your tax situation. Freelancers don't have taxes withheld from their payments from clients, which means that you'll be responsible for the entire amount of your taxes.
If you're uncertain about any of these tasks, don't hesitate to get in contact with an accountant or tax professional. You may have to spend some money upfront, but it can potentially save you later on.
Learn the Tools of the Trade
To set yourself up for success, make sure you know the tools of the trade. Of course, the primary resource that a freelance translator needs is a working computer. Freelancers can and should take advantage of the many apps and websites designed for all aspects of business ownership from client contact to invoicing to project management.
Some translators also choose to work with computer-assisted translation (CAT) tools. These tools require a bit of onboarding for new users but can greatly improve efficiency for large projects. With the right program, translators can do things like create glossaries for large projects and identify similar passages for translation.
"High-volume translation projects and collaborative projects sometimes benefit from utilizing translation memory software to ensure consistency throughout a project," Siefert notes. With a little savvy, they can be enormously helpful.
Find a Good Mentor
Lastly, Siefert suggests finding a mentor. They can guide you through the beginning stages of your career and putting yourself out there. When you're at a crossroads in your business, mentors can share their experiences and offer advice. If you're wondering where to find a mentor, Siefert recommends looking up your local chapter of the American Translators Association. These local chapters often hold regular events that are great for continuing education and networking.
But mentors aren't the only ones who can guide you. "Networking with other translators can also be beneficial," Siefert says. "There is an element of competition among translators, but there is also quite a bit of camaraderie." Other translators can be a helpful resource when you have business or client questions, and can even send work your way. Sometimes other professionals are contacted for a job that's not within their language pair and can refer the project to you.
"Especially in an industry where you are often working alone on a computer," Siefert concludes, "it's important to surround yourself with real people who will encourage you to grow."
If you start yourself off with the right skills, experience, and tools, you can set yourself up for success in freelance translating. No freelance career is easy, but it's a rewarding path for many. There will undoubtedly be obstacles and struggles, but keep pushing forward. It may be a learning process, but in the end, you'll have a full-time career that you love with freedom and flexibility.