How to survive as a freelance translator

Big stupid monkey ape orango with idiot girl

© The Shortlisted – 2019

If you’re about to start freelancing in the translation industry, you’ll want to get the right mindset in order to avoid the most common mistakes that most freelance translators (including me) are prone to make all the time, especially at the beginning of their career.

As for me, I can perfectly remember feeling like: I have no previous experience… nobody is going to hire me 🙁 , so I ended up working for the lowest possible rates.

But I can guarantee that this is definitely not going to work, and if you lower your rates to compensate for your lack of experience, you’ll get stuck in a tunnel without end: always remember that top translators work for top clients.

Another thing to consider is that if your client needs a translator, this is because they probably won’t know much about translation, so don’t expect them to dictate your value.

Prefer quality over quantity, make a clear decision about how much you want to charge for your freelance work and finally start looking for better jobs.

My 10 tips to survive as a freelance translator

1: Translation agencies or direct clients?

First, decide whether you want to work for translation agencies or direct clients – but just don’t start with both of them at the same time as they require different approaches. Translation agencies are mainly looking for financial, legal, medical and IT translators, so they might be worth a try if you wish to specialise in such fields.

2: Specialise in… whatever

Try to sell the most competitive language pairs and specialisations you have to offer, but don’t feel discouraged if you have just one language pair and no specialisation whatsoever; remember that specialising in a narrow niche might mean less competition to get translation assignments.

3: CAT or no CAT?

Some clients may claim discount rates for matches and repetitions that actually don’t save you any time; so, before investing in Computer-Assisted Translation (CAT) tools, make sure that they will increase your productivity for sure. In any case, before purchasing any CAT tool, always try the free trial version first.

4: The 5 elements

Every translation assignment involves at least 5 specific elements in order to determine the rate of pay:

  • Pricing method (hourly rate or a per-word rate?)
  • Deadline
  • Language Pair – supply & demand
  • Field of specialisation
  • File format

Warning: If the client suggests a per-word rate (which is fairly common), remember that you can either get paid per source word or per target word, which might make a substantial difference depending on your language pair. For example, English to Italian translations often comes with a 15% – 20% increase in length.

5: Have you said deadline?

Only you can decide a reasonable deadline for yourself, so don’t hesitate to tell your client that rough-and-ready translations won’t guarantee them any real benefit if not coupled with a series of necessary and time-consuming implementations such as keywords research, external proofreading, local market research, etc.

6: Argue!

If everyone accepts your rates without hesitation, maybe you are going too cheap. Recalculate.

7: Raise your rate

Raise your rates: when you are busy, for rush projects, for weekend work and for any optional services you offer, but avoid raising your rates out of the blue with your existing and repeat customers.

8: Get your rates of pay right

When researching your competitors on the Internet to determine what you should charge for your translation work, take stats with a grain of salt: they’re never 100% accurate and will rarely include the best professionals on the market – who, at the end of the day, are the ones you will want to learn from.

9: Bear this in mind

When you apply for freelance translation work, don’t just list your skills and certifications; the client will barely know what you are talking about. Instead, highlight the benefits they would obtain by picking your services. You are not just translating content, you are actually solving complex communication and transcreation problems.

10: About going solo

Remember to refresh your accounting skills: by going self-employed you’ll be responsible for paying your own taxes and contributions. Excel can do the hardest part for you. Watching a free tutorial on YouTube on how to use Excel will make your freelancing life easier.

11 Responses

    • Avatar

      No worries Marlene.

      Do you actually agree with all the 10 tips? I am receiving some interesting feedbacks, especially on CAT tools and accounting. What is your take on that?

  1. Avatar

    Deciding the rate could be confusing, whether by source word or target word. Do you have suggestion on deciding the rate for 2 languages from very different backgrounds, like English – Chinese?

    • Avatar

      Hi Teddy,

      Once you have your per-word base rate (for English) and a per-character rate (for Chinese), the choice between using the target or source word/character count won’t be an issue, because you will apply accordingly to what you and your client agree to. If you are making the first move, tell him straight if you are charging by target word or by source word and see what he thinks of that. It is just about being clear about that since the very beginning.

      Besides, your question makes me think that your confusion also comes from a a lack of details in the first place. If you want to calculate a unit price for a one-time project, you need to consider the following factors:

      1. Language pair: Traditional or simplified Chinese?

      2. Technical terminology

      3. Repetitions (in case you use a CAT)

      4. File format? Some formats must be maintained and this may require some technical knowledge, which deserves an additional payment.

      5. Volume. I aways advise against charging per unit in case of bulk projects, but if you still want go for it, then you should think about offering a discount for it (you are basically considering it as a longer-term project).

      6. Turnaround. You must know how long it takes you to deliver a project before accepting it and you may consider the possibility of a discount in case the client agrees on accepting a longer deadline.

      Long story short, you definitely need a base per-unit rate, but this will have to be customised overtime to each project.

      However, I still believe that this kind of pricing world best for one-time projects; otherwise, think about offering per-day or per-project deals.

      I hope this was helpful.

      Have a good day and all the best!

  2. Avatar
    Raymond Azarcon

    Very nice article. I have been in the translation business for quite a time now and I find your tips very useful! Thanks, man.

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