A Quick & Dirty Guide to Working in Translation
By 2022, the number of jobs in translation is set to grow by almost a half, making it one of the world’s fastest growing careers. Translation is also one of the highest paying occupations, with good translators often taking home six-figure salaries. On top of that, working in translation offers huge flexibility: while some translators work in offices, the reality is that with a laptop and an internet connection, translators can live and work wherever they like, whether it’s a beach in Southeast Asia or a cabin deep in the woods.
So, how do you get started in this unique occupation? What are the best ways in? What tips and tricks will help you boost your earnings? We dig in deep and answer your questions in this blog post from hyperlingo.
THE SKILLS TO PAY THE BILLS
It goes without saying: translation is a highly skilled career. Translators are usually fluent in at least two languages and sometimes more. Translators generally have a degree, sometimes a Master’s degree, in translation or in the language they translate from (known as their “B language”) and they are almost always native speakers of the language they translate into (their “A language”).
Get a degree
Pursuing a Master’s degree in translation can be an excellent way to build technical, linguistic, and professional skills, while gaining experience. Most courses also include training in translation software packages, terminology and project management, and give you a great opportunity to meet other translators and build your network. (This is a great list of some of the best Translation Master’s programmes).
Travel and live overseas
For the best translators, a degree is just a starting point. Great translators often spend years living in places where their language is spoken and develop deep cultural understanding, which helps them in their work. This all sounds intimidating when you are just starting out, but it needn’t be. The reality is that a language or translation degree will stand you in good stead to get started as a translator. Living abroad for a couple of years puts the cherry on the cake. By the way, studying to become a translator is also one of the best excuses you could have for living abroad and seeing the world. Check out our blog post on living and learning overseas for more info and ideas on this.
Another way translators demonstrate proficiency is through certification. Bodies such as the American Translators’ Association (ATA), Institution of Translation and Interpreting (UK), and other certification bodies, hold regular examinations, providing certifications to those who pass which are recognised across the industry. Certification can be an excellent way to prove you know your stuff and earn higher rates.
Becoming a member of a translation association is usually fairly easy. To join the ATA, for example, costs $190 per year, and allows you to list yourself as a member. As you would expect, getting certified requires more than paying a membership fee, and usually involves an examination. For more information on the ATA’s examination, check out this link.
FIND YOUR FIRST JOB
A few years ago, there were only two ways to find work as a translator: by working in-house or as a freelancer for a company, or by freelancing for translation agencies. In recent years, as the market has diversified, options have expanded hugely – a good thing for translators and customers. Let’s run through a few of your options…
Yes, we are biased, but it is hard to deny that a good option for a new translator is to work through a translation marketplace like hyperlingo, or through a freelancer marketplace like Upwork.
These sites allow you to set your own rates and interact directly with clients. This generally allows you to earn more by cutting out the agency middleman and gives you more control over the type of projects you accept.
Translation agencies handle huge amounts of translation, and can be a good place to start looking for work. Agencies employ Project Managers (PMs) who manage relationships with buyers and translators and who will be your primary point of contact.
Depending on your language pair, agencies can be a good source of regular work and reliable income. One downside of agencies is that they are essentially middlemen and tend to take big commissions, sometimes paying their translators less than half of what they charge their customers.
Most translation agency websites have web pages where you can submit a resume and covering letter, providing details of your skills. This list of the largest translation agencies is a couple of years out of date, but still broadly accurate.
In the past few years, a number of translation agencies like have emerged which are completely web-based. These agencies accept projects through their websites and then allocate jobs automatically to a pool of translators who also register through their websites. These agencies specialise in high-volume, low cost translations, and offer regular work, but tend to pay fairly low rates, sometimes as low as 1 cent per word!
Work directly with buyers
Cutting out the middleman and working directly with buyers is a great way to earn more and work on more interesting projects. The main difficulty is finding and establishing relationships with them. One way is to create a profile on a freelancer marketplace, where clients can find and contact you. Creating your own personal website using a tool like WordPress is also an option, although pages like this can often get lost deep within search results, making it unlikely that potential buyers will see them.
You’ll generally find it easier to get work from direct buyers when they specialise in one or more specific areas. Many of the most successful translators start translation careers after working in a totally different area, but are able to leverage the specialist knowledge they have gained within the world of translation. If you’re new to translation, think about your past work experience, interests, even hobbies, for fields where you might have particular expertise.
HOW MUCH SHOULD I CHARGE?
How much you can charge for your services depends on a number of factors:
The language pair you are working in: translators working in rare language pairs often earn more because of low supply.
The standard of translation you provide: obviously, translators providing higher quality work are generally able to command higher rates.
Your qualifications: qualifications are a good way to judge quality and experience, and better qualified translators generally earn more.
The companies you are working for: different clients and agencies will pay different rates.
Your motivation: many translators contribute a portion of their time to translate for free on behalf of a good cause or organisation they believe in.
Yes, but how much?! Well, the Proz rates board and TranslatorsCafe Rates Guide are good places to start and this post from the Thoughts on Translation blog also gives good guidance. In short, the best approach is probably to shop around and see what others are charging, and then position yourself depending on how you think you measure up.
Bear in mind that some companies have fixed rates for set language pairs, and there may be little room for negotiation. But there are other ways to up your income, coming up in the next section…
Everyone likes earning more, and translators are no exception. Translators at the higher end of the spectrum can earn annual salaries of over $100,000 and some considerably more than this. At the other end of the scale, some translators find themselves working long hours for comparatively low pay. So what can you do to earn more as a translator?
Become an expert
One of the best ways to earn more is to specialise. Very few of the highest paid translators are generalists. Rather, they are specialists in one or more specific areas and, as such, can command higher (sometimes much higher) rates. This is particularly the case for areas like legal translation or medical translation, where precision and accuracy is extremely important.
Work directly with buyers
Working directly with buyers, rather than via agencies, is another great way to earn more. As mentioned in part one of this article series, translation agencies often pay translators far less than they charge clients, making it harder to earn higher rates when working with agencies. When you work directly with buyers, you not only earn more, you also get the opportunity to become more specialised in that industry and build your portfolio of clients through word of mouth. Provided you are providing good quality work, direct buyers can be an excellent source of reliable, long-term income.
Focus on buyers who care about quality translation Buyers who recognise the need for quality are generally more prepared to pay for it. If you are delivering high quality work, these buyers will generally turn into repeat clients and you should take care to nurture the relationship, above all by continuing to turn out high quality translations.
Work smarter, not harder There are many ways to increase your productivity as a translator and get more done in less time and with less effort, which brings us to the next part of this article…
BOOST YOUR PRODUCTIVITY
Gone are the days when the only tools available to translators were very large, unwieldy dictionaries… today, translators have a huge range of tools at their disposal to take some of the legwork out of the translating business.
Computer assisted translation (CAT) tools
CAT tools are software products that can help increase productivity. Some of the best known examples are SDL Trados, WordFast and memoQ, but there are many others on the market. Translation tools offer features such as error checking, document analysis, and file management. One of the most useful aspects of CAT tools is that they allow you to use translation memories. A translation memory, or ‘TM’, is essentially a database of words, terms and sometimes sentences that have been previously translated, which can be used together with a CAT tool. TMs are used to ensure consistency across translations and to help translators to translate unusual or technical terms are translated correctly, and. TMs can be opened within CAT tools, which can then automatically translate the terms stored in the TM within the document.
Check out our blog post, CAT Tools – The Definitive Guide, for an in-depth introduction on this subject.
CAT tools can be fairly expensive, but if you are translating as a career, the investment is likely to pay off in the long run. Many buyers will also require that you use a CAT, making them an important part of the translator’s toolkit.
Online dictionaries have made huge progress in recent years, and there are some really excellent ones available for different language pairs. A good option for a large number of language pairs is Wordreference. Leo for German translation, the Grand Dictionnaire Terminologique for French and Bing’s Chinese dictionary for Chinese are a few of the great online dictionaries out there.
Not a dictionary, but also very useful is the Term Search tool from Proz. This searchable database of specialised terms can come in handy when you’re looking for a technical term.
It may seem obvious, but many translators don’t make nearly as much use of search engines as they should. Search engines like Google are gateways to pretty much everything which has ever been published on the internet. As such, they’re a great place to turn when your dictionary is not producing results. For example, you’re a Chinese translator translating a text about cars, and you can’t find the word 沃尔沃 anywhere in your dictionary. A quick google search for ‘沃尔沃 car’ will tell you that the word you’re looking for is Volvo! With a bit of practice, search engines can be extremely powerful tools for translating obscure or ambiguous terms.
THE BIG PICTURE
In short, translation is a great career, with good long-term prospects, and a lot of excellent benefits: being free to choose when and where you work; having the opportunity to learn and continue to develop specialist skills; getting to travel and learn more about different languages and cultures; and much much more.
So what do you think? Are you an aspiring translator or an experienced veteran? Share your tips and questions in the comments section. But before you do that, sign up to our newsletter to receive in-depth articles to boost your translation career!