So you want to be a freelance translator: Part 2 – Getting started

So by now you have:

  • At least one strong language pair
  • A working knowledge of CAT tools
  • A badass CV complete with references
  • Some fallback money
  • A gutsy go-getter attitude

Are you ready for the humiliating process of applying to hundreds more jobs and agencies than will even get back to you? Selling yourself as the best wordsmith since Dr Seuss and yet getting absolutely no validation? Bring it on!

Spread yourself around

Now is not the time to be coy. Even if you find the idea of networking and self-promotion abhorrent, you have no choice.  When it comes to confidence, it is a case of fake it until you make it.

Search every possible translation agency and send them a friendly, to-the-point message including all the relevant information (rate per word, CAT tools, areas of expertise) and a CV. Join a translation portal or two (,, etc.) and apply to everything within your abilities. Jobs are listed every day. They are competitive and often poorly paid but all you need at this point is some real experience on your CV. There are also general freelance websites such as Elance and Upwork. Someone at some point will give you a chance. I must stress that none of these websites are a good way to continue your career, but they are a good way to start it.

At this point it is essential that you are available and online during working hours, respond promptly to emails and job announcements and are ready to take on work at any moment. Your first jobs are likely to be rush jobs.

Write to established translators and offer to help them when they are overloaded with work.  Tell everybody you meet that you are a translator. Shower business cards from a hot air balloon. Approach businesses who never even knew they needed translation and offer your services. If you look and sound reliable, it will all come back to you eventually. And when it starts, it snowballs.

Make sure that you come across as reliable and professional in all your correspondence. Someone could have the best CV in the world but if they respond to an email 3 days later with typos they are not as likely to get the job as someone who responds immediately and impeccably.

You never know what is going to lead to work so act like a fantabulous professional at all times!

Attempt to maintain your dignity

At some point you will be offered a tedious job on a topic you do not understand, to be completed in an impossibly short time frame, probably over the weekend, and the pay will work out to little more than minimum wage. You will probably accept it and be grateful, once or twice, just for the experience (and, quite frankly, the validation). But you cannot and must not make this a habit. It is exploitative, it devalues the entire profession and you deserve better.

These kinds of jobs might make sense if you live in a hut on the beach in India and have very little overheads, but you cannot make a decent living this way, and even if you could, why should you? These sorts of employers don’t expect or merit quality, and you should always strive for quality in your work. Why? Well, apart from the obvious, quality is not as replaceable as mere availability and willingness. If you take yourself seriously (lord knows it is difficult at the beginning) and hold out for better jobs and better pay, then you will produce better work and build a good reputation.

So, instead of taking any scrap of work that is thrown to you like meat to starving dogs, try to figure out what makes you special. What is your angle? Where is your place in the market? You have something to offer that most other people do not have. Find out what it is and tell the world.

We are all forced to work for lower rates than we would like at times, when times are tough or a project is particularly interesting or to help out a friend. But know your worth and know that you have a choice.

Meet other translators

At some point you will need to actually leave your hovel and step, squinting, into the outside. There are translators out there and you need to meet them. I am a Londoner so I have had translation events on my doorstep. You may not be so lucky, but the very least you can do is find an online community. Get to know people and share your experiences.

Even newbies have a lot to teach each other in this game, and symbiotic working relationships are easily formed. For example, on the occasions that I have been too busy to take a job, I’ve recommended people I have met at various translation conferences and meet-ups. This makes the client happy, makes me look good and helps out another emerging translator. They may not return the favour, but who knows, maybe they will. I recently got offered an incredible job on the basis of the recommendation of a fellow Russian student at Manchester University who I hadn’t seen in 6 years!

It is a good idea to join professional bodies such as the Chartered Institute of Linguists, the Institute of Translation and Interpreting, the Translators’ Association, all of which cost money to join but open up professional communities for you to learn from. The Emerging Translators Network is a free forum for young upstarts and can be very useful indeed. Investigate which associations and communities will be most useful for you.

Make the most of your free time

If you have flung yourself headlong into the freelance job market you may find yourself frustrated at the amount of time you have on your hands. But trust me, future you is envious of present you. If you use this time wisely it could reap many benefits in the years to come.

It is a good idea to have your own website and blog. This takes time that you will not necessarily have when you start getting more work. So start writing a collection of blog pieces on slow days, that way you will have a backlog to release on your website periodically.

You can also try to send articles, book reviews and opinion pieces to translation journals and websites. Why not? Do some literary translation for fun and practice. Enter translation competitions. Join forums and debates. Volunteer for international charities who need your awesome multi-lingual skills. Read novels and newspapers in your source language. Expand your vocabulary. You could make a full-time job out of being an unemployed freelancer. And none of this experience is wasted. A successful freelance translator has their fingers in many pies, so get poking.


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