The first question to ask when you plan to pursue a career as a freelance translator is apparently simple, yet crucial. How do I know if I'm ready for this job? Of course, you can work as a translator within an agency and therefore be an employee, in which case the problem does not arise.
Copyright © ProZ.com and the author, 1999-2017. All rights reserved.
However, to get an idea of what it means to be a freelancer one should be able to try it out for at least for some time. Since most people approaching this profession still lack the experience needed to make a realistic decision, you might want to try to answer the following questions:
Do I like to get up every morning at the same time, go out at the same time, go to work to the same place, see the same people and therefore establish routines over years?
Do I like being able to choose whether to work on Saturday and go shopping instead on Monday and organize my own time in my life?
Do I feel safer by working with other people and being an employee? Or do I, in making autonomous decisions, not feel any sense of insecurity?
Am I willing to sacrifice time (especially at the beginning) in promotional activities, marketing, training, etc.?
Does the idea scare me that everything depends on how I am, not only in the translation work itself, but also in my ability to establish direct relationships with customers?
Am I aware that those who work freelance, and take their profession seriously, must be equipped with a remarkable sense of responsibility?
Well, regardless of the answer, it should be kept in mind that if it is true that to be self employed implies a capacity for self-organisation, it is also true that the satisfaction and the fruits of this work will be reaped. In short, the freelance translator does not live in a ' Valley of tears '!
For some, maybe already working in a company or in a translation agency, doubt and uncertainty are possibly even stronger. What is needed to be done to have a reasonable certainty that in leaving work as an employee one will be able to succeed in freelance? Unfortunately, this question can't be answered. It is necessary to assess a number of factors that vary depending on the person, their work situation, family and much more, not least the possibility or not of obtaining career advancement in their workplace maybe reason enough to desist from the intent/aim.
Common sense would suggest to try, for a certain period of time, to work as a freelance translator without abandoning any existing job. However this is not easy. The beginning of freelancing poses undoubted challenges and requires considerable commitment. My view of this perspective is definitely not objective, it’s conditioned by my personal career path. To those who ask me whether it is possible to do two jobs at once, in my present situation as a freelance translator, I would tend to answer ‘no’.
I know some people – only a few, actually - who teach or are engineers and they sometimes translate. However they do so only sporadically, and they do not intend to start a business of freelancing. Therefore, they don't take on all the tasks related to the profession. Which, of course, does not qualify them as full-time translators, those, namely, who devote all day and all of the weeks and months and years of their professional life to translating, studying, updating, learning new software programs, networking with colleagues and all the rest.
It goes without saying that if a person works eight hours a day at an office or elsewhere, they cannot expect to return home in the evening, turn on the PC to tackle a manual of medical equipment with an absolutely crystal clear mind. It is equally obvious that under such conditions we have no physical strength nor perhaps the motivation necessary to perform all the professional activities related to translating (marketing, training, seminars, etc.). That being so, without taking into consideration ones private life, there must be a slice of the day to devote to tasks other than work!
From the above it is clear that, in my opinion, to seriously be a freelance translator it’s necessary to dedicate oneself to the profession with passion, have good organisational skills, decision-making ability, desire to continually improve and have some intuition that allows you to do the right thing at the right time (or at least not to make too many poor decisions). After all, being your own boss is hard and involves non-delegated responsibilities.
Why am I here?
Assuming that you have already passed the stage of doubt, for those who want to be a freelance translator there is the practical problem of what concrete steps and what measures are needed to be put in place to actively fulfil this project. First, it is necessary to assess ones language skills as well as skills in other sectors. You must, of course, know at least one foreign language in depth and have an excellent knowledge of your own mother tongue language. In addition, it is very useful to have done some work experience or attended a specific training course in translation or completed a master’s degree in a related field. Stays and work experience abroad are also welcome of course.
Regarding educational studies, it is not mandatory to have a degree in languages. Some people are bilingual because maybe they lived in an environment where they have learned two or more languages to the same level, studied in two different countries, or have academic training that enables them to translate easily into/from another language. Others have a technical education (engineers, veterinarians etc.) and for example know English, especially the English of their subjects of study, and they are in the best position to deal with specialist technical translations from/into that specific language. This does not mean of course that anyone can be an improvised translator!
Regarding language training, a distinction must be drawn between:
a degree in languages, which offers a good starting point, because during the course of studies there were subjects studied in-depth such as Historical Linguistics, Linguistics and Philology, all very useful in understanding deep linguistic structures. However (and I speak from experience), having a degree in foreign languages does not make you automatically able to translate well. Personally I remember pages and pages of translations undertaken during the years of University, but it was only, and of course naturally, poetic texts and translations of literary works of theatre and a great deal of Shakespeare. Of course it is good practice, but if an aspiring translator hopes to have technical notions on how to deal with the translation of a text, this kind of work alone cannot be considered thorough enough.
On the other hand, a diploma in translation offers both the study of the language and the technical basis to deal with translation, i.e. Translation Studies. However, this is not enough to be able to provide a broader knowledge of Linguistics and Philology which are definitely important. The optimal solution would be to have a degree in foreign languages and then attend a Master’s degree specifically in translation, aiming most appropriately towards ones own inclinations. In so doing, complementing ones own knowledge.
It would also be useful to know Latin and Greek since they provide a wider vision and depth of linguistic landscape. Just think how much Latin there is in judicial language.
In the shaping of the translator, I would add the need for curiosity – yes indeed... I think it is essential for a translator to have a spirit of observation, be curious about everything and absorb knowledge like a sponge! Those who are not translators fail to really grasp how important it is to read the labels of the products at the supermarket! After a few years as a translator you automatically become ‘deformed professionally’, you see errors everywhere and notice the smallest distractions.
Now, in view of ones own language skills, you must do a little bit of practice. How? There are various ways of doing this; like, contacting translation agencies and translators who have already acquired experience and who are willing to do some tutoring. Many of the people who in recent years have turned to me to get some advice, then did a little bit of practice and worked with me on occasions on specific jobs. This has allowed them to pursue the profession independently and some of them are still my co-workers. Many people think, incorrectly, that there is no one among professional translators willing to do tutoring, for a misunderstood sense of 'protectionism' of the profession; it is a fact supported by my experience, as well as much more authoritative subjects, (1) that sharing knowledge can only bring mutual benefits and not undermine some of what they know or can do. Meanwhile collaboration is always a good thing because it allows both sides to learn. Our aim is exactly that, to learn, because work and studies are two sides of the same coin; how can we correctly translate a new machine if we have not documented what it does and how it is built? Does this not maybe mean ‘studying’?
If you start from scratch, I do not recommend beginning by translating directly with customers immediately, for example for a small factory that needs the translation of a manual or a contract, if you do not have the possibility to have the work supervised before it is delivered to the customer. The latter often doesn’t have the possibility, time or the ability to be aware of the accuracy of the work and so you are likely to deliver the work with errors or inaccuracies (not in the favor of the novice translator wishing to develop their career) and this may damage the customer and their image.
However if you have the help of an expert translator, able to inspect the work prior to delivery, take advantage of the opportunity that allows you to deliver a job well done and to learn from your mistakes, thereby making a treasure of the experience.
With regard to the administrative and fiscal aspect of the profession, you should certainly consult an accountant, so as not to risk making mistakes. Tax laws vary from country to country, so although it is useful to review the forum dedicated to translation portals to exchange views with colleagues, it is imperative to use the advice of a professional.
Another question that arises for the aspiring freelance translator is how do I contact translation agencies? And what are the procedures? How do I put an effective curriculum vitae together?
Let’s start from the CV itself, which must be detailed, but not wordy (nobody wants to read pages and pages!).
It must include:
- Personal data
- Languages/the language in order of importance, the working areas (literary or technical and related fields)
- Level of computer literacy and the citation of programs/CAT tool used (with their relative versions)
- Work experience already acquired (omitting those that are irrelevant; the translation agency does not care if a person worked as a babysitter or a barman, unless those activities had been carried out abroad and for a considerable period of time)
- Any references (subject to consent of the disclosure of names and contact details of the references).
Immediately after, it is necessary to obtain a database of translation agencies in your country and abroad (or compile your own surfing the Internet), examine them visiting each web site and delete all those which deal with languages or fields not of relevance. (If I only translate medical texts from English, I certainly won’t contact some Lithuanian agency that deals with commercial and legal texts!) Databases of this type are available for example on Proz.com o Go Translators.
Then, you must prepare an e-mail with a brief presentation. It must be a generic e-mail, but not too impersonal, so as not to give the impression you behave equally to everyone, in other words it is not a mass e-mail. Just customise it each time with the name of the person to whom it is addressed, citing the website of the Agency in question and adapting it to the recipient.
In the context of marketing activities aimed at acquiring new customers, having a website helps to promote ones image and, if properly structured, provides initial ' hooking ' in order to contact the translator. It is not necessary to have a complicated or expensive website, it is sufficient to have a mini-site from which the potential customer can obtain all the essential information on the translator's professional profile.
Among the important information you must insert the translator's training, completed specialised studies and membership to any Professional Associations, e.g. ITI, IOL, ASETRAD. ATA or IAPTI. For sure, they are useful as professional contacts and to keep up to date on the world of translating, on meetings and conferences, as well as on software for translators (I get magazines from IOL and ITI always present interesting reviews on software tested by other translators and not infrequently I have found very useful applications). In addition, many foreign customers who know of the existence of such entities such as ATA and many others in the United States or South America seek their translators on the notice boards. I personally have been contacted by some customers that I have found in lists of IOL or ITI.
A translator who wishes to structure their profession seriously and at the same time ensure all future eventualities should consider taking out cover for professional insurance. Associations such as IOL and ITI offer attractive enough agreements with British insurance companies (my professional insurance provides an annual payment that is by no means exorbitant).
In the field of technical translations, it is very easy to run into errors due to the nature of the texts to be translated. For example manuals for use and maintenance contain a very high percentage of repetitions and recurring phrases (but be careful, they are not exactly identical) that can mislead, especially if you re-read the text when you are tired. Sometimes you just need to exchange a 'clockwise' with an 'anticlockwise' to cause potential disasters. So, as they say, better safe than sorry. In addition, a translator possessing professional insurance also has an advantage of image with their customers.
An essential part of the wealth of knowledge of the professional translator is their Information Technology culture. Obviously, the more knowledge you have the better. However, especially immediately after graduation from University, and without having had the opportunity to try the specific software programs used by translators, it is difficult to have clear ideas.
To get started, you need a good PC or a Mac and an Internet connection, preferably Broadband. As the freelance translator very often works from home, you must be able to connect in real time with customers/potential customers and respond promptly to emails. In this case the saying is never more true that time is money. Often a delayed response is the reason for the loss of a good job opportunity.
Many have heard of Trados Workbench or SDLX (recently the two companies merged). Well, Trados is one of the programs that have become practically 'mandatory' and causes frequent distinction between translators. This program isn’t particularly inexpensive; however the cost pays off with a couple of ‘large’ jobs and represents an investment in the future.
However, Trados has the disadvantage of only being compatible with the Windows operating system and not with Linux or Mac. I started using Trados in 1996 and I bought my first version (Trados 3.0) in 2000. Since then I've only installed updates, which are not very expensive. For years I worked in the Windows environment and then switched to Linux Ubuntu, and I am currently working on a MacPro using three Virtual Machines on which I installed different version of Windows, with excellent performance benefits. But if Trados is incompatible with Linux, Wordfast insn't! Sure enough there are versions of the latter for Linux and Mac. In this way you can achieve a full migration to the Linux OS.
There are various programs that allow you to count the words/phrases/lines/pages of texts to be translated, to complete invoices with customers data already inserted automatically, that convert files from one format to another, to process HTML texts, divide into several parts and then merge huge files again after translation, translation memory management etc. This is the side that I personally find fun - discovering, trying out and learning new programmes!
One of the primary concerns that arise for the aspiring freelance translator is related to the rates to be applied. Well, the rates are those that the market establishes. There are various sites from which to draw this information, but it is often more useful to deal with other colleagues and carry out small surveys that often show the rate differences from one area to another. The rates applied in Italy are relatively low, and also depend on the chosen translation field. The fact that there is no national register of translators does not allow us to have an approved rate, so you should continuously keep yourself up to date. A very useful site for orientation in the area of rates is Simon Turner’s tariffometro.
1) One of the well-known concepts in the Middle East and in Japan is that of reciprocity; companies usually carry out the so-called business gift, thus starting a chain of giving and receiving from others. The basis for this practice is the concept of giving in a selfless way.