How to start a freelance translation business

There are many reasons people (and especially women) go into translations. Perhaps you have a degree in linguistics, language, literature or humanities and this is one of the things you have trained for. Or maybe you’re doing this as a temporary gig, as a second job, or to support yourself until the opportunity you’d actually dreamed of becomes available. Perhaps your spouse’s career has taken him/her overseas and you have just joined them. You find yourself in a different country, a new environment, and are now looking into different possibilities for ongoing professional and personal development. You speak several languages fluently, have kids and need your flexibility at home. Perhaps you have chosen to emigrate and your former education and work experience no longer match the demand of the adoptive job market. Or perhaps this has been your dream profession all along. You relish being your own boss.

Whichever the case, here are a few things you need to know about becoming a translator:

1. Languages mastered. If your native language happens to be an international one (English, Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, etc.) you can consider yourself very lucky. But you will still need to demonstrate proficiency in at least one additional language. For best results, this should either be a rare language which is in high demand (in other words, languages very few people speak, but which are backed up by a strong economy – for instance, Dutch, Norwegian), or a language with strong demographics (lots of people speaking it). Beware, passive knowledge of a language at conversational level is not enough to keep you in business. You need strong grammar, spelling and linguistic skills, and have to be able to master different areas (technical, legal, business, fiction, etc.) and different styles for different target audiences.

2. Well-rounded background. That’s right. You need general knowledge of a wide variety of subjects. You need to read a lot and be able to express yourself in your language(s) of choice in an elevated and well-structured manner in many areas of human endeavor (minimum 3-4). Unless you are the ultimate self-taught person, it is almost impossible to make it without a university degree in today’s highly competitive translation environment. As a matter of fact, your customers will most certainly ask about your degree, which brings us to our next topic:

3. Qualifications and credentials. Translation is a free profession in most parts of the world (as of 2012, when I am writing this). What that means is that the government does not require you to have a certain qualification for practising it. The agencies and customers, however, do expect you to have some sort of professional credentials in the field. A university degree, as I have said before, is almost a must. But it doesn’t have to be in linguistics. Many clients will still insist upon that, but their numbers are dwindling. Nowadays, it is generally considered easier for an economist, doctor, lawyer or engineer to master a foreign language, than for a language specialist to acquire an accurate understanding of legalese, economics, molecular biology or engineering. 🙂 So the real-world hands-on skills you possess from previous jobs do make a difference.

The most important thing is to translate (only) into your native language, or into a language for which you can demonstrate near-native levels of proficiency. Any language-related certificate of proficiency or course of study will help – do not forget to mention it in your resumé. It is also a good idea to get formally certified as a translator. Each country has a specialized body for certifying translators. In some this is done by governmental institutions, in others by special bodies of the National Translators Association. There are some certification programs on the web, where you can take the test online. Get informed. Get educated. Get organized.

4. Other resources. You will obviously need a good computer (preferably a laptop/notebook) with a broadband internet connection and good hardware (lots of memory). You need MS Office and at least one widely-used CAT (Computer Aided Translation) tool, such as Trados, Wordfast, Passolo, Transit, etc. This will cost several hundred euros/dollars, but if business is good, you can make good on that investment within a relatively short period of time. You will also definitely need good dictionaries. Preferably digital, for extra mobility. Find the best linguistic resources on the web for your area(s) of specialization. Later you can also subscribe to forums or magazines in your field, to stay up to date on developments.  There are also some free apps for your mobile phone that include bilingual dictionaries in the main languages.

5. Registering your business. In many countries, this is quite easy. You are basically a one-man show, a free and liberal profession. Get registered with the financial authorities in your country of residence, because you will need a tax ID to be able to issue invoices. Depending on your income level and future plans, you can usually decide whether you want to pay VAT or not (in Europe, freelance translators are exempt, pursuant to Article 15(10) of Directive 77/388/EEC; in Germany, the Kleinunternehmenregelung exempts small businesses up to EUR 50,000/year).

6. Getting the first contracts and marketing your services. The easiest (and cheapest) way to actually start receiving projects and earning some real money is by setting up a free profile on the world’s largest online platforms for translation work: ProZ, TranslatorsCafe, Gotranslators, to name just a few. As you go along, you can upgrade to the paid version, which offers considerable advantages (premium members can quote early on projects, use more resources,etc.) And yes, you will have to follow the “market” closely. Jobs will be advertised and you have to apply. Have several cover letters and versions of your CV ready in the languages you are translating. Don’t be daunted if you send out 10 application daily and it takes you 2-3 months to get your first serious job, especially if you have no portfolio or references to speak of. Make yourself known, register your information in the databases of the largest providers of language services out there, network, compete. It’s fun. Offer to do free translations for charities, do not shy away from translation tests. Take them as seriously as possible, they are crucial: not only do you stay in the race for a certain project or client, but you also get valuable feedback from the reviewer. This way you can find out for free what you’re doing well and where you still need to make improvements. A word of advice: as tempted as you may be to take on any translation job that comes along (and you probably will), the best way to go about this is to specialize. Find your core competencies, and from those, develop your competitive advantages. You will not come across as trustworthy if you mention 10 areas of specialization. 3-4 is more credible. The ones you really know something about. And research the market well for prices. Charging ridiculously low rates in the beginning might sway a couple of customers your way, but it has a negative impact on your image and future work. It simply says: I do not trust my own abilities, and it might make more serious partners doubt you. Do not advertise your prices on your web page right away. Give yourself a chance to grow, learn, and adjust your rates as you add new projects to your portfolio of references.

Well, I hope this helps all of you out there who are considering this profession. Manage yourself as a business and keep in mind: Quality is always the best strategy. You are offering a unique product and you should take pride in your work.


Andreea Sepi, BBA – Entrepreneur, Professional Translator & Interpreter,, +49-163-2627019.

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