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A Freelancer’s Guide to Getting Started in Translation

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A Freelancer’s Guide to Getting Started in Translation

How can freelancers improve their chances of getting translation gigs? How to make money online while working from home or traveling around the world? What is a localization and can you make money from it? What are the going rates?  Should you bill by the word or by the hour? What are the risks and pitfalls of translation work?

Conditions have never been better for people with linguistic and technical skills to make serious money from translation and localization. Who needs professional translation services? Most companies by now recognize the importance and business value of going beyond their linguistic comfort zone and adding support for additional languages to their websites, social media, technical documentation, and marketing campaigns. 

The cost of translating and localizing content is less than that of creating original content. So skilled translators find themselves in demand, and a lucrative translation career is a realistic option for freelancers. But first, let’s get our terms straight.

Defining terminologies

Everyone knows what a translator is and what translation services are. But the other terms may be less familiar. Let’s discuss and differentiate localization, internationalization, and globalization.

The translation is essentially a subset of localization. When you adapt content from one locale to another, you need to make all kinds of changes. Translator jobs are linguistic, either changing languages (translation) or perhaps just a language variant like the distinctions between British English, Australian, or American variety.  But other differences include the way numbers and dates are formatted, which measurements and currencies are used and, more subtly, what are the preferences and the no-nos of the local culture.

The process of preparing content for localization is called internationalization: it’s largely a technical process of preparing computer code so that all locally variable items are tagged and coded so that they are ready to be localized in one language after another. Essentially localization depends on preparing a database with every term used in the content as a row and every location as a column. The software knows how to pull from that database and populate each page according to the language selected.

Once a website or other software application has a collection of languages that are switchable with a click, we can say that site or app has been globalized. Globalization is a megatrend that touches virtually every individual or organization seeking to extend beyond their regional and linguistic border. And therein comes the massive need for translators and localization professionals.

How can a freelance translator get steady well-paying work?

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There has always been a need for translators, but till the last decade there were not online marketplaces to make the process so streamlined. Freelance marketplaces like the Freelancer website match freelance translators with companies that need translations.

Professional language translation services are in high demand on these sites. There’s also a good supply of translators in every language under the sun, and they need to compete for business. Freelance translators compete in the usual way. They create an attractive profile, achieve high ratings, and earn positive reviews. And they set competitive rates (much more on that below).

But what might not be immediately apparent is that within the freelance marketplace there are translation companies cherry-picking translation rock stars to work for them, essentially subcontracting your services to clients that come to their agencies.

A translation company that wants to support dozens of languages needs to have hundreds if not thousands of translators on call, so the best agencies are constantly looking for the best translators in each language. You might find them in the framework of the Freelancer website or you can find them by Googling them.

You need to be modest in pricing your services here because the translation company needs to mark up your rates. But they provide the time-consuming client management and can feed you a steady supply of work. So think volume and overall income, not just rate-per-word.

Professional Translation Service Rates and Rate-Setting Strategies

Rates, of course, are key issues. Your aim should be to set your rates lower than competitors but high enough so that the jobs are worth doing. The lowest rate doesn’t always win, because clients know – often the hard way — that they get what they pay for. Customers tend to seek out top-rated translation talent, create a shortlist of candidates, and then compare rates of the top contenders.

It’s important to understand that, while freelance marketplaces may let freelancers set hourly rates, that’s rarely the way translation jobs are costed or remunerated. It’s almost always measured as a (usually dollar-denominated) rate per word (in the source document). Those rates vary wildly depending on the location of the translator, the language and subject matter being translated, and the direction of the translation. The cost of French to English translation may be quite different than the cost of an English to French Translation.

Some freelance marketplaces offer premium services to freelancers that let them see the bids of competitors. If you are active in seeking and competing for work, this is a great investment. As a rule of thumb, you’ll want to start low to get work, ratings, and reviews, then gradually increase as you are perceived as a top-rated translator.

Depending on your language, you may start as low as $0.01/word and aim to increase that ten-fold to $0.10 if you can attain and retain a position in the top 5 to 10 % in your specialty. Ultimately, it’s about building long-term trusting relations with good clients.

One thing to learn is to position yourself for a good niche. Don’t be a generalist. Find specific subjects or industries in which you can specialize. It can be a medical, legal translation, online translation, or specific tech niche translations. It can be casinos or sex toys, though the latter may be a bit too narrow… List your specialities in your profile or create a document or page for each specialization.

Working directly with translation services

The main advantage of applying as a translator directly with translation services is that you have a steady flow of work if your CV is good enough. You don’t have to keep browsing through listings and sending out cover letters to apply.

Language services agencies would have different hiring policies for translators based on demand. Some would hire translators on a full-time basis, others on a contractual or per-project basis, while others would pool freelancers. As mentioned before, it’s best to build your portfolio to have a good mix between lighter topics as well as proven work in specific, more technical niches so that you have a competitive edge over other freelancers.

Avoiding Translation ToS Violations, Conflicts of Interest, and Machine Abuse

If you are serious about your career as a freelance translator, you will sooner or later face temptations to cut corners and break rules, either of the freelance platforms you work with or of specific clients. You may be able to get away with some of them, but sooner or later you will get careless and get caught. The costs of getting caught are losing clients and losing access to your source of income. Resist the temptation!

Here are some of the common seductions to break the rules in freelancer jobs:

Don’t cut out the “matchmaker”. If you came in through freelancer services or another freelance marketplace, you are obliged not to “steal” clients away from that platform into a direct relationship. The freelance platform monitors for indications of this and can suspend accounts, ask embarrassing questions, or ban you from the platform altogether. A good rule, to use the American colloquial imperative, is: “dance with the one who brung ya”. If you met a client through a platform, respect that relationship even if the client or the opportunity tempts you to go outside. It’s just not worth it.

Don’t work with direct competitors.  The world of translation is wide, but eventually, you will have opportunities to work with a client who competes against your current client. Politely say no thank you, unless you are prepared to dump your bird in hand for one in the bush. (That’s legit if done forthrightly. The word “free” in freelancer has real meaning.) But don’t double-time with two competitors. It will eventually come out, and it won’t feel good.

Don’t be seduced by machine translation.  You can’t ignore the seduction of doing your work with the help of machines. It’s too easy. Just copy-paste your text into Google Translate and – shazam! – job is done.  There has been a dramatic improvement in machine translation and online translations services do a far better job than they did in the past. But they’re still not at the same level as a good human translator and – you can be sure that your client may do just what you did. But they’re paying you to provide added value over Google. So don’t be lazy. The risks of getting detected for doing so are too high. That said, there’s nothing wrong in seeing how Google or DeepL or Microsoft Translate renders your text. Just use it as a guide and a second opinion, not as a source from which to copy.

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Freelancer, Go Forth and Multiply

“Free” is in freelancer, and you should feel and exploit the freedom to cultivate many sources of income. The translation industry is broad and there are many dimensions and niches for you to choose from. Which industry? Which type of translation? Which type of client? Work through freelance platforms or directly with translation companies?

For your own happiness, you should play to your strengths. Limit yourself to translating into your mother tongue or a language where you enjoy that level of fluency. Stick to subject you know at least something about.

The beauty of your situation is that you have freedom of choice. You can try all of the above and then decide what feels the best, gives you the most job satisfaction, and brings home the most bacon… or broccoli, for the veggies out there.

So what are you waiting for? Go forth into the wide world and translate!

Author: Ofer Tirosh is CEO of Tomedes, which provides translation and localization services. The company supports over a hundred languages and has served more than 55,000 business customers since his founding of the company in 2007.

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