How to start a career as a freelance translator

These are a few tips I would give to every aspiring translator trying to start his/her career in this field. I have been working myself as a EN/GER/FR->CZ translator for over 13 years, mainly translating technical manuals, contracts, localizing software strings etc.

Prerequisities – what skills you will need

Source language

This is the language you will be translating from into your native language. In my case, this is English, German and French.

So, how good do you actually need to be at this source language?

Pretty good, but certainly not perfect. Based on my experience, I would say, the C1 level would suffice. I think you would even get away with a rock-solid B2, but you will probably spend a bit more time consulting your dictionary. When I tested myself last time, some 10 years ago, I ended up just a few points below the C2 mark. So, I have a rock-solid C1… and I am doing fairly well. I certainly do use my dictionaries, but this is mostly to look up very specialized words or synonyms. Yes, I pretty much look at a sentence in English and I can mostly immediately say what the translation into Czech would be. Same with German. In French, I am at B2, I would say…. and yes, it’s not that easy, but I can still manage somehow, although it certainly takes me more time to translate from French into Czech than from English or German.

Curiously enough, you also need to know your source language well in order to identify mistakes in the source text and to somehow deduce what the author is trying to say… especially, when such text is written by a non-native speaker. Some native speakers cann’t even write their own language properly… because, well, they are e.g. engineers, so they know lots of stuff about technology, but they have not necessarily trained their language skills that much.

By the way, being able to identify factual or grammar mistakes in the source can also earn you a few points … when you alert your agency to the mistakes in the source text.

And what it actually means to be at C1? It means that you are pretty much able to fully function in your source language – you can easily read texts in newspapers, books, you understand almost everything what is being said in radio/TV/movies and you can write texts at some reasonable level that would be very well understandable to other native and non-native speakers.

In terms of being on an even higher level, the C2, that officially means to be fully comparable to an educated native speaker. But I have my doubts, having read a question at Quora posed by a C2 German speaker who complained: “I am at the C2 level in German, but I still make mistakes with articles, so native Germans tend to correct me, which upsets me a lot… especially in business meetings.” Hmmm, I think it’s really difficult to achieve the true C2 native-like proficiency… and frankly speaking, from the translator’s perspective, I believe it’s nice to be at such a level, but it’s not really needed.

What you need to be able to do as is to fully understand the written text with all its nuances so that you can render it into your target native language.

Your native language

This is a deal-breaker. You just need to know your own language fairly better than most other speakers of your language. You certainly don’t need to be perfect, but you MUST be able to write without serious grammar mistakes that would otherwise upset your target audience. If you cannot do this, then this career is not for you.

Well, if you really want to be a translator and you know you suck at grammar of your own native language, then I would suggest you focus on this: hire a private teacher, study the grammar rules hard, write a lot, have it corrected by your teacher… and most importantly: read. Read like a fucking lot. Read quality literature, read quality translations. Get the grammar and vocabulary into your blood, as we say in Czech. I read a lot in Czech when I was a teenager… and I read a lot in English, German and French when I was at the university. Hmmm, sometimes I miss those times, you just don’t read those lovely German words like “Klamotten” or “hübsch” in technical manuals 😀

But again, you don’t need to be perfect at this, just good enough is enough. Be better than the average Joe and you will do ok.

Should you only translate into your native language?

When I started in the industry, I used to actually translate in both directions. But I soon discovered that I can simply do more work (and thus money) if I just translate into my native language, i.e. Czech. I even did a few jobs where I translated between 2 non-native languages: English and German. But that was completely crazy, as it actually took me 2 times more time.

My thoughts on translating into non-native language: This is sometimes done, because there simply aren’t that many native Czech-English translators around. And if there are, they usually work for much higher rates than native Czechs…. because, well, the cost of living in U.K., USA, etc., is a bit higher.

Also, this is what I have observed: While there might be some Brits/Americans who understand and speak Czech, and can, of course, write very well in English, the problem is that they actually do not understand Czech that well. Not with all nuances, they might pretty much misinterpret the meaning of more complex sentences. That’s because, well let’s face it, Czech is a pretty small and insignificant language… compared to English, French, or Spanish… so only enthusiasts or bilingual children learn it. There are only few foreigners with any formal education certifying their skills in Czech. (Except for Egypt… every Egyptian working in the tourist industry can speak perfect Czech … there are so many Czech tourists coming there that Egyptians actually do bother to study this language at the university in Cairo in order to get a better life :D)

And in such a case: Do you want to have your text translated by a native Czech who understands the source perfectly, got some C1-C2 certificate in English, and can therefore render the text into English fairly accurately, even when the translation might sometimes sound funny or clumsy to a native Brit/American? …. or do you want to have your text translated into perfect English, but by someone who has Czech as a hobby language and does not necessarily fully understand it?

Education

Yes, you can get a dedicated education as a translator – a degree in translation! In the Czech Republic, this is perceived as very prestigious … among language students. When I checked last time, it was pretty tough to get enrolled into The Institute of Translation Studies at the Charles’ University as a student. And what do the students actually get? When they finish their studies, they are very good at their native language (Czech) and have a very high degree in their selected foreign tongue. They also know lots about grammar and syntax. And I think they also study history and literature of those respective countries where that foreign language is spoken. Also, they get (probably lots of) practical experience with translation and interpreting.

Well, this all sounds pretty amazing… but imagine this: You have a manual for a medical machine, a highly specialized text with lots of specialized terminology. Readers are required to have some medical background to fully and clearly understand the text.

And now, the obvious question is – who would you choose to translate this: a professional translator with a degree in translation…. or a medical engineer / doctor who just happens to speak and read English fairly well?

Yes, this is exactly why there are so many translators without any formal education in translation. Because it’s certainly a nice-to have qualification, but not that necessary.

Specialization

You will often read this on translation forums: Specialization is key!

Hmmm, yes and no.

I started in this industry pretty much without any specialization at all. I didn’t even know what the word “workpiece” stood for, seriously, never had heard the “obrobek” (Czech translation) before. But it’s true that I have always liked technology, read a great many of popular magazines on technology, science and nature. So I was basically able to understand what was being told… and with the help of my dictionary, I was somehow able to deliver translations that weren’t total bullshit. And of course, with more and more translated pages delivered, I got better and better at this.

Anyway, it is by all means better to be specialized at some domain, because you will understand the text better and quicker and you will be able to use the right terminology.

And how you get the specialization? It’s good to have some formal education or work experience in your respective field. Or to have translated thousands of pages in this domain – this will certainly make you very much specialized.

But specialization is not always that important – with modern CAT tools, especially with the terminology and TM lookup feature, you can actually translate texts that do not really fall into your specialization domain – you just need to understand what is being said… the CAT tool terminology feature will offer the right vocabulary for you to use.

Translation tests

I have quite a strong opinion on translation tests – you can read it here: https://bohemicus-software.cz/2021/02/12/why-do-translation-agencies-require-translation-tests-free-of-charge-are-they-stupid-or-what/

To sum it up: As a seasoned translator, I do not mostly provide free-of-charge translation tests – I have had my profile on Proz/TC for over 10 years, so agencies can most kindly look at it and see that I am probably not completely incompetent in this field.

As a beginner translator, you will probably have to do some tests. Just suck it up and deliver them free of charge in order to build up some customer portfolio. Don’t get discouraged if they reject your test – this sometimes happens even to me after 13 years in the industry. It might be that the corrector has had a bad day, they do not like your style… or they might even be afraid for their translators’ position so they try to turn down other translators’ tests!

Just take a look at what they have corrected in your test. If they have objectively corrected some serious mistakes, learn from it – next time, try to pay closer attention to your grammar, look up the terminology more carefully etc.  But if it’s just the style or they have just reordered the words in your sentences, or replaced something by equivalent synonyms… then they cannot be taken seriously and don’t worry about the test – just move on, try it with another agency.

Proz/TC and other portals

It’s a good idea to have your profile on Proz/TC (www.proz.com, www.translatorscafe.com) or on some local translation portal in your country. Start with the free-of-charge option. I have had good experience with Proz/TC – they will throw some job offers your way even if you have the free membership with them.

Sign up to their mailing list – they will send you regular notifications of jobs posted by agencies or (very exceptionally) direct clients. I would suggest you reply to most of these jobs offers, provided they have at least rating 4 on the BlueBoard.

Also, I have had a good experience approaching the agencies directly: I started in my hometown, just went there in person, asked for collaboration. They gave me some tests, I returned them duly completed… and it was a success! They started sending me translation jobs!

Of course, you can save the time and start sending your resumes by email. I did that here in the Czech Republic and it was a successful strategy, I got enough regular jobs to be able to start working as a full-time translator.

Financial remuneration

In the beginning, you will probably not make that much money in this field. There are 2 reasons for this:

1) You don’t have enough experience, so it will take you much time to translate reasonable volumes. I would say you start at some 200-300 words per hour which is really not that much. Well, you won’t become a millionaire on this, but it should make you enough money to survive in relative comfort. At least here in the Czech Republic you would. By getting enough experience and by utilizing special translator’s tools (CAT), you will gradually progress towards 500-700 words per hour. By using my own super-duper tool I developed myself, you can even get at 1000 or even 1500 words or even more …. if your ass is on fire and you are chasing a tough deadline (with easy to translate texts). That’s already very reasonable and you will make a very good income.

2) You will be hunting jobs so it’s very reasonable not to overshoot with a too high rate, because you will be happy to get your hands on whatever jobs you can possibly get.

What you can do is to look at standard rates for your language combination. You can google it or you can check it here: https://search.proz.com/?sp=pfe/rates

But be careful: these rates are a bit overshot, I would say by some 30 percent. As they say on this webpage: „This page lists the average rates reported by ProZ.com’s community of freelance translators and translation companies. So, its’ just what translators SAY they charge… but the real numbers lie somewhere else.

Don’t get too excited with these rates – remember: the rate is not everything! If you get a very-easy-to-translate project, chances are, you will progress very quickly, so even a lower rate will finally give a very good overall remuneration. On the other hand, you get a difficult project, though with a higher rate, and all in all, you will make less money per hour!

Also, believe me, you want to work with someone nice, respectful and professional – they are much better for the long-term work even if they don’t pay that much. Much better than assholes paying 10 percent more, but treating you like shit.

Kudoz Points

Kudoz Points are a way how to move your profile up the directory on the Proz.com portal. Yes, if you are higher, perhaps on the first page, chances are you will get more and better-paid jobs. What are Kudoz points? They are awarded to translators who answer other translators’ questions. It works like this:

1. A translator posts a question, usually a term he/she does not know how to translate

2. Other translators enter their answers

3. The asker picks an answer he/she thinks is the best

4. The translator who posted the picked answer will be awarded some 4 Kudoz points.

Well, I am a lazy Kudoz-person so I was only able to gather some 80 Kudoz points over the years. But my guess is that you probably should get some Kudoz points in order to get a bit higher in the directory list.

But there are some things you should be aware of:

It is very competitive. The other translators simply want the Kudoz points badly, so answers will often be posted within seconds. Also, they will comment/criticize your answers, so be prepared for that. Some of them can be real assholes, trying to impress some virtual customer they think they might get on this portal when they pull off their smart-ass thing. Well, personally, I always untick the “Notify me of peer answers” checkbox, as I am simply not really interested in any smart-asses commenting on my answers. Yes, after 13 years in this industry and a pile of money made on translations, I still feel very insecure when it comes to confrontation with other translators…. or maybe I just have better things to do than worrying about a rando’s opinion.

Professional membership on translation portals

I have very mixed feelings about this. I used to have a membership on a Czech portal (https://www.tlumoceni-preklady.cz/), TranslatorsCafé (https://www.translatorscafe.com/cafe/), ATA (American Translators Association – https://www.atanet.org/) and I still do maintain my membership on Proz.com.

The Czech portal membership was completely useless, didn’t really bring me any customers. I don’t remember getting any long-term customer from TC either. ATA membership is relatively expensive and my 1 year membership just paid for itself when I got this 1 and only job from it. So, I still maintain the Proz.com membership – I get some 2-3 serious customers from this portal every year, which is pretty much enough for me. I do have my stable customer base, which I prune from time to time (I just need to terminate arrogant and annoying agencies every now and then), so 2-3 customers per year do pretty much replace those arrogant agency retards I need to fire.

The Proz.com “Certified Pro” badge

This is a special badge you can get to your profile on Proz.com when you pass their tests. And yes, this badge will put you close to the top of the translation directory list.

But the “test” consists of some text you chose and translate yourself and submit along with the source text. Then, a seasoned translator (read: a translator who has had their profile on Proz.com for a couple of years) will review your translation. I have done such reviews myself a couple of times already. And I have always approved such translations with a “passed with hesitation” remark. I cannot be sure if there are multiple translators reviewing such texts. Anyway, to me, it seems pretty easy to pass such a “test”, so there is an abundance of translators with this badge today… but I am not really sure if this badge actually says anything on a translator’s ability to actually translate texts. In the worst case scenario, such translator can have the text translated by someone else, and deliver it as his/her own translation for this review. Anyway, I would recommend you to get it – it will certainly not hurt you in any way and it can perhaps help you.

CAT Tools

You will probably make friends with CAT tools very soon when you start in the translation industry. What is a CAT tool? It’s actually a simple text editor combined with a database. And what can it do for you? Two main advantages:

1. Your source text and translated target text will appear neatly arranged in two adjacent columns, each column divided into clearly separated segments (sentences) so that you don’t need to look for your source text with your eyes, it’s immediately apparent. This is a very comfortable feature and will speed up your translation process immensely.

2. Once you translate something, it will be saved into a database. So next time an identical or similar sentence comes up in the text, the CAT tool will pull the corresponding translation from the database (called “translation memory”) and offer you to use the already existing translation. This is a real deal-breaker, because this can make you a pile of money when you have some text with lots of repeating strings – translate a string once and then use the translation over and over again without actually translating it again.

Well, it’s not so great today anymore with these CAT tools – translation agencies soon got wind of this technology and started using it for themselves, thereby removing any financial benefit from the translator. You can actually read more on this here: https://bohemicus-software.cz/2021/02/16/why-do-we-translators-actually-hate-cat-tools/

And these are the main CAT tools you will encounter today: SDL Trados (SDL Studio), memoQ, WordFast, Across, Transit NXT, DejaVu. There are many others, but these are the main ones.

CAT Grids

For those who don’t know what a CAT grid is: it’s an analysis and financial calculation of the document to be translated, where all text segments are weighed according to their level of „fuzziness“.

Well, this does not sound very clear, so let me try once again: If you translate a sentence that is NOT yet stored in the translation memory, then this is called a “no match” or “new“, which means that you have to put in all your effort and translate it form scratch.

On the other hand, if a sentence (or as we say: “segment“) is already stored in your translation memory from previous translations, this is called the “100% match“, because such segment will be simply pulled out from the translation memory (i.e. a database) so that you don’t have to translate it at all, meaning you have almost no work with it.

And then we have everything in between, so those are the 1-99% matches, or “fuzzies” as we call them. And you can imagine that a 99% fuzzy will require almost no work, because such segment is almost identical to the one already stored in memory. It can just differ in a comma in the middle of the sentence.

On the other hand, a 75% fuzzy is already pretty much different and chances are that it’s actually quicker to translate it from scratch than to look for and fix any differences from the segment stored in memory.

And all this is also reflected in your financial remuneration: you will get your full price per word for any “no matches” and some 10% or even nothing at all for 100% matches. You will get a dime or two for 99% matches, a bit more for 85% matches and chances are they pay you your full price for 75% or less matches because they require quite a lot of work.

And this brings me back to the CAT grid: It’s a neat table with all those percentual maches arranged in colums …. that get summed up and weighed to get the final price for the translation job.

What do translation agencies expect from you

Translation agencies expect from you that you deliver on time, you react within minutes to their emails, you consistently deliver some reasonable quality (read: your text is well understandable, there are no major mistakes or omitted translations…. but you can have some occasional small mistakes, no worries), you communicate well in case of any problems.

The translation agencies cascade

This is something you should be aware of when negotiating translation rates. Let’s imagine this scenario: A company in the U.S. needs to translate some texts into an East-European language, say Czech for the sake of argument. How do you think they will proceed? Do you think they will go to Proz.com and simply select an English-to-Czech translator? Well… you would be wrong. Proz.com and other translation portals are almost exclusively used by translation agencies and translators themselves, there are almost no direct clients there.

So, what they will do is that they will contact their local U.S. translation agency they have a trusted relationship with. This U.S. agency will then contact their partner somewhere in Western Europe, probably in U.K. or Germany… because they don’t trust the East, everybody lives in trees and caves there, and the Easterners are all basically apes, or barbarians eating raw meat at best, right?

And then this U.K. or German agency will finally contact a Czech/Slovak/Polish/Hungarian agency (because these are all Eastern post-communist countries, so basically they are all the same) who will in turn contact you, the translator. And every such intermediary takes some 50 % in commission … at least. So this is just to give you the picture of how much the end-customer is actually paying for the translation… and how much you are actually getting as a translator who does the actual job. I personally think this is insane, but that’s the current state of affairs, this is how it works.

The pitfalls and benefits of working with direct clients

Of course, the obvious solution to the cascade problem mentioned above would be to contact the end clients directly. This is what I have observed here in the Czech Republic when working with direct clients:

1) They only work directly with translators, because they want to save money. So you can get perhaps some 20-30 % more from direct clients on your rate as compared to the rate with your translation agency, but….

2) They don’t understand, or better: they don’t give a shit, how to work with a translator. So they will typically send you a PDF file, saying: Hey Jan, could you please translate this… and make the final MS Word file look approximately identical to the PDF source?

Luckily enough, there are some really good PDF-Word converters these days (look at the https://smallpdf.com/pdf-to-word, https://pdf2doc.com/, https://www.pdftoword.com/).

But still, if the PDF contains lots of tables or images, you might spend some considerable amount of time formatting the resulting MS Word manually into something usable. And this might take a fair amount of time.

These automatic converters are actually pretty good these days, so it might be reasonable to start working for direct clients. Because you know why? Direct clients mostly don’t know anything about CAT tools. So by converting the PDF into Word and loading this Word-file into a CAT, you might actually make pretty good money on repetitions, 100% matches and fuzzies…. charging them for full price.

You have no idea what I am talking about? Please read the part dedicated to CAT tools and CAT grids.

How to approach a translation agency

If you want to start working as a translator and you are a beginner, then a translation agency is definitely the way to go. This is what I did some 14 years ago:

1) I just went to the local agencies in my home town in person and asked for any collaboration opportunity. There were actually 3 of them, they all gave me some translation tests, which I dully completed… and finally started receiving translation jobs from them. Sadly, I had to terminate collaboration with all of them, as they either acted like total dickheads or behaved very friendly, but unfortunately paid just too low.

2) I started sending my translator’s resumes all over the Czech Republic by email. This was a very successful strategy, I was soon able to get a sufficient amount of work. On the other hand, I cannot really be sure if this will be successful on an international level – I did that once and the result was just a nice fat zero.

And this is why I think this happened: All translators want to work for Western translation agencies, because they obviously pay the best rates. So these agencies are simply flooded by translator’s resumes from all over the world. On the other hand, nobody really knows where the Czech Republic lies, people mostly think it’s part of the Soviet Union, or Russia at best, they even mistake it for Chechnya. So they probably think we are a very poor country and the translation rates would be ridiculously low. Also, we speak Czech here, a language that might sound like a bizzare cacophony to the rest of the world, so nobody really thinks the Czech republic might be a good starting point for their translator’s business. Hence no resumes flooding local agencies. At least that was the case 14 years ago. Also, the translation rates are a bit lower… but not that much actually! To be totally frank, a standard Czech rate is pretty much comparable to a Western shitty agency rate (e.g. The Big Word) or even slightly higher!

This is what I basically sent to our Czech translation agencies:

Dear XX,

I have just graduated from the University of South Bohemia in the German Language and Literature program, I speak very good English (a State Examination Certificate) and I would be very much interested in working as a translator for your agency.

Please find attached my CV.

I am looking forward to your reply.

Kind regards,

Mgr. Jan Kapoun

Yes, this is a very basic approach, but it totally worked! They sent me some translation tests, and then I started my translation career.

To sum it up

If you want to succeed in the translation industry, you should be an (at least slightly) above-average intelligent person with good language skills and broad interests in order to understand a wide spectrum of topics. You should have some specialization domain and you should act seriously towards your business partners. You should also read and speak a lot in you working languages and you should be good at IT to manage your computer and translation software well.

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