Maybe you’ve always had a love for languages. Maybe even as a kid, you knew you wanted to study linguistics, maybe you even knew you wanted to become a translator and went to get your degree right after highschool. Maybe you only discovered your passion for languages when you were already working as a baker, a lawyer, or a salesperson.
No matter when your ambition to become a translator emerged or what your background is, you can become a professional translator. These 7 steps help you on your way. These steps are aimed at aspiring translators who don’t have a degree in translating. Of course, when you do, there’s still plenty of helpful hints in here, but you may want to skip some steps.
1. Pick your language pair
When you start out as a translator, it’s tempting to try and do as much as possible. In addition to your native language, you speak Spanish, a bit of Chinese, and you may be interested in even more languages. It’s tempting to advertise all your language skills. In general, that’s counter-productive. Focusing on multiple languages means that you’ll learn less about more languages. It will cost more time to get the knowledge that you need.
As a rule of thumb, you translate to your mother tongue. Clients expect you to be fluent in the language that you translate from. For most people, that’s only one or two languages. If you advertise more than two languages, you’ll most likely be taken less seriously by potential clients. Even if you are fluent in multiple languages, start with one language. Once your business is up and running, you can add more.
Your mother tongue plus the language that you translate from, is your language pair. If your mother tongue has several varieties or dialects, be sure to specify which one is your mother tongue. For example Chinese, English, Dutch and Spanish are languages that have multiple varieties. Make it clear in your resume and your online profiles whether you speak Portuguese from Portugal or Portuguese from Brazil for example.
2. Pick your expertise
Once you’ve decided on your language pair, the next step is to pick your expertise. That sees to two aspects: the subject-matter of your translations, and the type of translation work that you do.
The first one, which topics you have sufficient knowledge of to translate with confidence, would be topics that you have worked with or that you are interested in.
A lot of translation assignments are on general topics and don’t require a specific expertise. In general, there is a lot of competition for those general assignments, and rates are usually lower than for assignments that involve specialized topics. You’ll be able to get more assignments and you can set a higher rate if you advertise your specialty. Same as with choosing your language pair, it’s important to choose a limited selection. Two or three specialties works great.
Ideally you pick expertises that you already have. That can be based on your previous or current work experience, but it can also be a hobby. Don’t disregard an expertise too fast because you think it’s not professional enough. Translators are needed for all topics. For example, a specialty that’s currently in high demand is gaming.
Second, you choose which type of translation work you would like to do. Text translations, subtitles, interpretation, website translation, games translation; they all involve a different level of creativity, a different level of localization and different skills. For example, when you’re translating (texts for) websites you’ll need to know about SEO, and if you love to elaborate, subtitling would probably not be the best choice for you.
3. Choose courses to boost your knowledge
Your mastery of your mother tongue, your knowledge of the language you translate from, and the expertise(s) that you pick form the basis for your translation skills. Next you’ll want to further develop those skills. Learning goes in threes: coursework, coaching and doing. The 70:20:10 learning model states that we learn most effectively if our learning consists of 10% coursework and training, 20% being coached on the job, and 70% practicing and doing.
Online you can find various courses that you can take and that will teach you the basics of translating or that help you develop your translation skills. For example, edX, an online course provider created by Harvard and MIT, offers various free courses on linguistics, localization, or search engine optimization. Other providers of free online courses on relevant topics include Coursera and Translation Commons. Also, various freelancer platforms (where you can find assignments) offer free e-learnings.
Even when you have a degree in translating, some of these courses can be very helpful to you, especially if you want to expand your knowledge of a field you’re not very experienced in.
4. Know where to find resources and support
As a freelance translator, you can get coaching from experienced professionals, even for free. For example, if you’re learning how to be a subtitler, you can join volunteer projects like TED and Amplifying Voices and receive feedback and coaching from experienced reviewers.
Also, various online communities are available where you can find answers to all your translation questions. The most well-known communities are ProZ and TranslatorsCafé. Here you can sign up for free, participate in discussions, find terminology resources and ask questions to other translators.
For a lot of languages, there’s language-specific resources. For example a local language institute with an online database, or an official word list. Find out which institute or resource is considered an authority for the language that you’re translating to, see if they have an online information database and bookmark it for future reference.
5. Volunteer Experience
For your 70% learning by doing, there are various options. This 70% includes passive activities like reading and watching TV, in the language you intend to translate from. The more practice you get in that language, the better you’ll be able to understand nuances, slang, cultural details and other aspects of localization.
A great way to learn by doing is to participate in volunteer programmes. These are great practice opportunities, and will help you develop your skills and your translation speed.
Translation speed is key. Of course, the quality of your work needs to be good as well. However, if you want to make a living out of translating, it helps a lot if you can deliver the right quality in less time. Let’s say you focus on translating business documents, and you have an assignment that pays $0.05 per word. If you translate 200 words per hour, you make $10 per hour. If you translate 400 words per hour, you make $20 per hour. Also, the more experience you have, the better quality you deliver, and the higher rate per word you can ask. Use volunteer work to build up that speed and quality.
Volunteer programmes tend to cover a single field of translating. For text translations there is Translators Without Borders, for e-learnings and (online) courses there is Coursera, and for subtitling, Amplifying Voices and TED are a great start.
6. Set your rates
Before you start taking paid assignments, you may want to figure out what rates are acceptable to you. As a translator, for most fields you would not use an hourly rate. Instead, you set a rate per word (for text translations) or a rate per minute (for subtitling). For subtitling, minute refers to the duration of the video; not the time it costs you to work on the subtitles. Once you have gained sufficient experience, you may add rates for proofreading or reviewing. These would be the primary rates that you use. In addition, clients may offer separate rates for post-editing machine translations (MTPE), where you work on a text that has been translated by using software.
To calculate what rates work for you, you need to know what your translation speed is. Let’s say that you translate 250 words per hour, and that you want to make $15 per hour. You then divide $15 by 250, which gives you a rate of $0.06 per word. Most likely you’ll have to pay taxes on your income as a translator, so take that into account when you set your rates. Also understand that being a freelancer means that you’ll spend time on your business that you can’t charge to a client (e.g. drawing up invoices), and you may want to adjust your rates to compensate for that.
It may be tempting to set a low rate in order to be eligible for more assignments. Keep in mind though that a lower rate means you’ll have to work more hours. Make sure that you keep enough time for any other obligations and for yourself. It’s important to keep a healthy work-life balance.
7. Find paid assignments
Lastly, what the above is all about: how to find paid assignments.
The easiest way to find paid assignments is to subscribe to platforms for freelancers. That can be platforms that are dedicated to translators like ProZ or TranslatorsCafé, but also general freelancer platforms like Upwork, Fiverr or freelancer.com. On these platforms you can find one-off assignments. Be aware that some platforms may charge fees, for bidding on an assignment, when getting paid by your client or when transferring your money out of the platform to your bank account or virtual payment service like PayPal. Some clients may ask you for a resume, so make sure you have a recent version available that highlights your (volunteer) work as a translator.
Platforms are a good start when you’re still building experience and you can’t set your ideal rates yet. As the speed and quality of your work grows, you can apply at translation agencies. Most agencies require you to pass a translation test. Make sure you take the test when you really have the time to focus on the test, without distractions. Those tests aren’t easy, and in general there’s no retakes.
As a freelancer, you will most likely work for multiple agencies, as the available assignments at agencies vary per week and per day. Who knows, one day you may even work for Bureau Works.