So you want to be a freelance translator: Part 1 – Preparation

Excellent choice! It’s a good life and a noble calling – but ridden with pitfalls. Preparation is everything. In this two-part article I will describe  how I got to where I am today, step by step. Of course, there is not just one path, so make sure you read as much advice as you can find.

Now, first things first.

Are you really sure about this?

Being a translator is great, becoming a translator is tough. Are you ready for some harsh truths? I prepared for years and years before I got my first paid job. I did a BA in modern languages, an MA in translation, and have worked for free both on passion projects and on a voluntary basis. Occasionally people envy my lack of timetable and ability to travel at a moment’s notice and suddenly decide that they want to be a translator too (because they picked up a bit of Spanish when they travelled around South America and now they have an internet connection but no job). It doesn’t work that way. There is no quick fix and the likelihood of making money on the side with a cheeky translation or two is slim to say the least. All in or fold.

Another factor – and I’m sorry to have to say this – is your language combination(s). If you only have English and French/Spanish/Italian/German/Portuguese then you are entering a very crowded market where people are willing to work for a pittance to get their foot in the door. I translate from four languages but Swedish has been far and away the most lucrative, and Russian the second. Had I been trying to make a living just from French and Spanish into English, I would still be pulling pints in the evenings to make ends meet. It’s not impossible, but it is highly competitive. Honestly you would probably be better off learning some wildly obscure language from scratch than depending on one mainstream European language to carry you through, unless you have a very specific and sought-after area of expertise.

Naturally you need to have a solid knowledge of your source language but it doesn’t need to be perfect. Dictionaries do exist. It is more important that you have an excellent command of written English (assuming that is your target language) and can adapt your writing style. This is why translation is almost always done into your mother tongue. You also need to have an interest in and awareness of the culture and current events of both the country of your source language and your target language. But that goes without saying, right?

Do your homework!

The fact that you are reading this at all means you are already doing well. Nobody said this would be easy, but there is a generous supply of resources on the internet to help you every step of the way. Seeing as translators spend most of their time alone staring at a computer, there are also a large number of online professional forums discussing more or less anything you want to know. There are also several very good books on the subject. Once you’ve read everything you possibly can, and have decided that the translator’s life is the life for you, try to find a friend of a friend who works in translation (there’s always one) and ask them a few specific, well-chosen questions. They are likely to be very happy to help. Just don’t ask them anything that can be answered by a quick Google search. It’s lazy and disrespectful.

Get experience

Ah, the eternal chicken and egg conundrum of jobs and experience! Don’t worry about getting paid work just yet; what you need is experience itself. Create a portfolio of translation samples with a variety of texts. It is unlikely that this will impress an employer but it is important for you to try your hand at a few things and assess your strengths. Ideally you could find somebody knowledgeable to give you feedback. It is also a good idea to contact international charitable and non-governmental organisations and offer your services free of charge. It can be hard work but you’ll be helping struggling charities, and they are often happy to provide a positive reference (which you will definitely need when applying for work).

How practical is theory?

Do you need formal translation training? Ask 10 translators and you’ll get 10 different answers. The short answer is no, you don’t need a translation degree in the same way as a physician needs a medical degree. However, most employers do like to see some sort of qualification. If a university degree is out of the question, the IoL DipTrans exams are an excellent way of showcasing your abilities.

I believe that it is important to study translation theory, especially if you want to work with more varied and creative texts. More than anything else, theory gives you the confidence to use your judgement and take risks when faced with important decisions. My MA at UCL was incredibly valuable to me in more ways than I can describe. Sometimes I still hear my tutors’ advice in the back of my mind when tackling a tricksy translation. There is no better way to hone your craft than to discuss your translation decisions with a room full of classmates and get feedback from an expert.

If you do want to do an MA in translation take time to investigate the different ones out there because they are very varied indeed. Some are very practical, some are purely academic, and others are a combination. Make sure you find the right course for you.

On the other hand, if you have an area of expertise which will allow you to specialise in a certain industry (computer technology, law, medicine, construction etc.), it is a different ballgame altogether and translation theory is not as important.

CAT tools are your friend

CAT (computer-assisted translation) tools are computer programmes which, frankly, are a pain in the arse to learn to use, especially if you are not a particularly tech-savvy person. But once you’ve mastered the basics, you will wonder how you ever did without them. Most translation agencies require a CAT tool and many specify the market leader SDL Trados. My personal favourite is MemoQ but there are tons to choose from. There are several free options you can practise with before forking out on a full version.

There are how-to guides for every tiny detail available on the internet, but if you’re anything like me you’ll need to be shown by a real life human, so think about investing in a workshop or short course. If you’re looking at doing an MA, check to see whether CAT tool training is part of the course, and if not, campaign to get them to organise a one-off workshop. Whatever you need to do to grasp this technology, do it.

Don’t even think about applying for work with translation agencies if you are not confident in your CAT competence! You will be severely limited.

Perfect your CV

Obviously. Peruse translation websites and look at as many CVs as possible. What do they mention and what do you like about them? Be sure to include all of your fields of expertise, and be honest! It is very tempting to claim to be an expert in everything from agriculture to zoology but in reality you could lose clients and ruin your reputation if you deliver a poor translation, which you will if you have no idea about the subject matter. It is also tempting to leave out your love of clog dancing and stamp-collecting, but who knows when they might become useful. Try to strike the right balance between versatile and unique. And I cannot stress enough the importance of proofreading your CV (and all correspondence with potential employers). Once I mistyped my own website address whilst claiming to be ‘expert at creating flawless English texts’. Not a good look.

If your CV is thin on actual translation experience, bolster it with any other experience related with language and communication such as proofreading, copy-writing, language teaching etc. The same goes for professional references.

Have everything to hand

I believe it is best to hit the ground running, prepared for everything. Before launching myself on the translation jobs market, I was armed with my own website, a CV, employer references, two CAT tools, a personalised logo, an invoice template, and several email templates to copy and paste, including slightly different “I’m so great” spiels tailored towards different types of jobs. That way I appeared professional right from the start and was able to apply to dozens of jobs a day with little fuss.

Do quit your day job

You will not make a living to begin with. You will need savings or an alternative source of income for at least the first six months, and maybe significantly longer. Do not lose faith. This is normal. However, if you are serious about making translation your profession, it is best to jump in head first. Why? Because at the beginning your success relies on your availability. If a job is posted on a forum, you want to be the first to respond. I actually lost the first translation job I ever got because I lost internet connectivity. In the time it took me to get back online after applying for the job, it had been awarded to me and revoked from me because I hadn’t confirmed suitably promptly. The ideal situation would be to have other paid freelance work which allows you to be online and available during working hours.

Congratulations, your preparation is complete! See Part 2 to learn about how to enter the translation jobs market, guns blazing.


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