A freelance translator is someone who translates independently. This job has many benefits but also drawbacks. Let’s take a look at the life and work of a freelance translator.
This article has been updated in August 2021.
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What is Freelance Work?
A freelancer, also called a freelance worker, is someone who is self-employed, most likely working for several clients at once and certainly not committed to a particular company long-term. A freelancer will either be represented by an agency of some sort, or will be affiliated to a professional association or website, or, what is most likely, will acquire clients and work independently.
Freelancers are to be found in many industries. Acting, writing, music, web design, graphic design and illustration are particularly well supplied with freelancers. According to the 2012 Freelance Industry Report, translating represents around 8% of the total of freelancers in North America. Freelancing in the United States is big business; estimates pointed out recently that around 35% of the workforce is self-employed (that is around 55 million), earning about $1 trillion from freelance work per year.
What is a Freelance Translator?
A freelance translator, as stated earlier, is someone who translates (often interpreting as well) and basically works with language independently.
Translation concerns itself with text and interpretation is all about the spoken word. Many freelance translators will do both things, though there are some who prefer to focus on only one. There are various styles of interpretation:
- Simultaneous Interpretation: It deals with interpreting language in real-time, using audio equipment to render an interpretation immediately.
- Consecutive Interpretation: It interprets at breaks in the original speech. Usually, the interpreter will stand or sit next to the speaker.
- Whispering: This interpretation is usually used for one or two people. The interpreter quite literally whispers the interpretation to them as the speaker goes on.
Translation concerns itself with text. A freelance translator will translate all sorts of texts and documents. Sometimes, these texts will be of a general nature but often they will be more specialized. A translator must be prepared for both.
Training and Education
There are several ways in which an aspiring freelance translator may get training or education.
Some translators take a college or university education, majoring in languages or even in translating and interpretation as such, though this is not necessarily the only path towards a freelance translator career. The crux of the matter is simply having exceptional language ability.
Consequently, what is important is acquiring such a level of fluency in whatever way is possible or most suitable to the aspiring translator. It is, in essence, more a matter of acquiring a set of skills than having a specific educational or job background.
There is no single certification that a translator may take in the United States. There are several certifications and possibilities. A translator would be wise to choose the certification depending on the field of work that is most appealing to them: legal or medical, for instance.
The American Translators Association offers certification in 27 languages. The U.S Department of State has a three-test combo for aspiring interpreters (in consecutive interpreting, simultaneous interpreting, and conference-level interpreting). They also offer tests for aspiring translators. The Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters offers two certifications: Associate Healthcare Interpreter and Certified Healthcare Interpreter. The National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters offers certification as well. These are a few of the possible certifications in the U.S.
Several countries offer one single government-regulated exam, issuing one single license for translating and interpreting at the national level and in all industries and areas. An aspiring freelance translator should learn about the different regulations and certifications in the country or countries where they expect to be doing business in.
Skills of a Freelance Translator
There is a level of flexibility on the background of a translator, as stated above. There are, however, a number of skills which a freelance translator must learn to succeed. Amongst them are the following:
- Time Management: The first skill for a freelance translator is to be able to effectively manage their time and schedule. Working from home, for instance, may at first glance offer nothing but benefits. There are challenges here too though: mixing work and home environments can hinder efficiency without the proper work habits.
- Online Marketing: Learning to use the Internet and social media in particular is essential for a freelance translator. Indeed, there is a plethora of work to be found online in places such as Facebook, Twitter or other related outlets. Acquiring clients will be the mainstay of a successful freelance translation business.
- Language Improvement: Freelance translators must be constantly strengthening their languages. This means acquiring ever more proficiency in them and also increasing knowledge in the culture and people who use that language. A good freelance translator is not only bilingual but bicultural as well.
- Technology: Learning to use CAT tools is very useful. CAT stands for Computer Assisted Translation. What CAT tools do is basically facilitate the work of a translator by compiling a glossary, a translation memory and dividing the translation into segments, amongst other things. Although CAT tools don’t translate as such, they do help a translator’s work.
Benefits of Working as a Freelance Translator
- Freelancers may manage their own schedules and time.
- Freelancing also allows deciding which projects or assignments to take on, thus permitting a measure of freedom.
- Working remotely is a benefit too. This is particularly useful for people who travel or for those who live in isolated communities and small towns.
- A freelancer may be able to combine their flexible workday with further study or even a second job for more income.
Drawbacks of Working as a Freelance Translator
- Freelancing, unfortunately, has a certain measure of uncertainty and may even be precarious. The greatest challenge is keeping a steady workflow and a solid base of clients.
- Difficult employers are always a hassle. Companies that don’t pay on time may wreak havoc on a translator’s budgeting. Employers who demand a lot of work for little pay are typical and keen negotiating is a must for a freelancer.
- A freelance translator must plan for things like pension, sick leave, paid holidays, bonuses or health care. In the United States, in particular, the health care costs for a freelancer may be considerable.
- Freelancers generally earn less than their formally employed peers.
Languages in Demand
Although all languages are important and a savvy translator may very well build a career with most, there are some languages or combinations which are more in demand than others, particularly in countries like the United States.
Arabic: There are several varieties and dialects of Arabic, though Modern Standard Arabic will usually be taught in most academic settings. There are regional dialects that are particularly popular such as Egyptian Arabic (due to the popularity of Egyptian films and television) or Levantine Arabic. Moreover, Arabic is a language with great geopolitical significance today and the lingua franca of much of the world’s oil production. It is spoken by over 422 million people and it is an official language in 25 countries.
Chinese: Chinese, particularly Mandarin, is a language in very high demand. It is spoken by over 1.2 billion people. Mandarin is useful in business and trade and a profitable language for a freelance translator.
Japanese: Spoken by over 128 million people, Japanese is a language of great importance in the world stage. Today it is a lucrative language for a freelance translator in the West, due to the large Japanese economy.
Others: There are other languages that are fast becoming important in the translation world. Amongst them are Hindi, Bengali, Turkish, Urdu.
A Day in the Life of a Freelance Translator
A day in the life of a freelance translator varies enormously. The freelance nature of the work sees to this constant variation and change. There are a number of tasks and routines which most freelance translators carry out daily. Let’s take a look at a day’s blueprint, to get an idea of what a translator’s routine can look like.
A translator’s morning may begin by preparing the daily tasks to be carried out throughout the day. Scheduling is essential for a freelance translator.
A big chunk of morning activities may very well be marketing tasks. Some freelance translators may want to carry these tasks out every day or allocate a whole day or a couple days per week to do them. As stated earlier, marketing is a big part of success as a freelance translator. Thus a translator will have to check the state of social media, content marketing, and paid ads. Mornings are suitable for blogging as well, and getting stronger SEO for a freelancing webpage.
There comes a time when a freelance translator must, obviously, get down to business and translate! It is key that a translator devotes the time needed to produce translations of quality. Indeed, the best calling card for a freelance translator will inevitably be the quality, precision and trustworthiness of their translations.
On occasions, a busy translator will have to delegate work to another translator. This is a tricky situation; the key will be to find absolutely trustworthy and capable people, or the brand will naturally suffer.
Urgent work will sometime demand more time and long hours. If the day went well, however, then it is time to wrap up and strategize for the next day. Answering emails, following up on leads, communicating with peers, amongst other activities are important.
Freelance translators are often interpreters too, so it is not unusual to have some afternoons or evenings where there is some sort of conference or event demanding interpretation.
Another important facet of translating is the need for constant improvement. There are multiple ways to keep on improving, such as watching instructional YouTube videos, or reading blogs and books.
Finally, it is important to try to have proper rest at night and in the weekends. Freelance translating can often be overwhelming, since it combines the craft and job of translating with the very difficult demands of entrepreneurship. A freelance translator must remember that health comes first. Spending time with family and friends is essential.
Independent freelance translator
A freelance translator is someone who translates independently. Often, a translator will also interpret. The job of a freelance translator has many benefits but also drawbacks.
There are certain lucrative languages for a translator, though a savvy translator can build a career in most languages.
Language ability and mastery are key. A translator may get certified and trained. Also, several skills, particularly online marketing and the use of technology are necessary to acquire a steady flow of clients and work.
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