The quick and easy beginner’s guide to starting out as a translator

Part 1 – Why do this to myself

Let’s say you’re thinking about setting out on a career as a translator. Or maybe you’re considering taking on a bit of translation work as a sideline. If you’re not, you’re reading the wrong blog post, so you have my permission to stop reading about now.

So, you think you wanna be a translator? Good for you! Read on for my basic guide on how to start out in the business!

But wait! Do I really want to be a translator?

Good question, and I suggest you address it before we go any further. Translation is an interesting, challenging and rewarding career, but it’s also frustrating, difficult and can be rather anti-social at times. Contrary to what some careers advisers at school might have told you, studying languages doesn’t mean that you have to choose between translating and teaching – there are a whole world of possible jobs out there for you.

So, why translate?

In my opinion there are a whole host of reasons to be a translator. I’ll try to cover a few of the main ones:

1. It’s fun! Well – it’s fun in a rather dorky, book-geeky way. If you’re kind of a masochist. But no, really. If you’re interested in languages, words, books, reading, writing, researching different topics or different cultures, then it’s pretty interesting actually.

2. It’s super flexible. This is a really important reason for me. If you want to travel, organise your own work schedule, fit work around a family or other commitments, work part-time, work your own crazy hours or dip in and out of work, then freelance translation is perfect for you. Ok, you’ve got to make sure you’re earning enough to survive, but so long as you do that, the rest is up to you.

3. It’s a good way to use your language skills. If you speak 2 or more languages, translating is a big option of how to make some money out of them or use them in your day to day work.

4. It can take you all around the world. I’m not talking about interpreting here, as I’m a translator not an interpreter, but even the humble art of translation can open up doors to working abroad and travelling here and there. From a temporary or permanent position at one of the European Institutions to working for a small agency in the country where your language is spoken, to travelling for temporary assignments, to simply living wherever you choose because you’re that flexible!

5. You earn ok money. I’m not going to say great money cos I’d be lying. But you can earn easily enough to make ends meet as a translator, and especially doing it in your spare time as I do gives you a nice extra bit of cash.

6. You never stop learning. No one ever stops learning their own language (or at least, they shouldn’t stop) and that’s the same for your other languages. As a translator you’ll be looking up words, researching terms, discussing terminology with other translators and researching new subjects almost ever day. You should always keep on top of your subject area by reading journals, websites, newspapers and other material, attending courses and most of all practicing and improving your language skills every day.

Ok, sounds interesting, but what about the downsides?

Well, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some downsides (another post on this to come…), although I think they’re mostly worthwhile. But a few of them here:

1. You don’t earn that much. I earn 5p per word for an average translation. This isn’t a great rate, due to my language combination, the fact I’m still starting out-ish, and that it’s a trade off for other benefits I get from the clients I work for. An average translator with average experience generally earns about 6p per word for European languages. You can earn more if your language combination is rare (although there may not be as much work going…) – maybe around 10p per word being a good rate for languages such as Arabic, or if your specialisation is very rare or technical. It’s possible to earn up to around 20p a word for extremely specialised translations, or with a very unusual language combination, but this isn’t the case for most translators.

2. It’s hard work. Especially to start with. I’m often tearing my hair out over a bizarrely-worded German sentence that I can’t figure out, or spending hours rummaging in a dictionary for the name of a specialised piece of machinery I’ve never heard of. Depending on the subject matter and how expert you are in that topic, you can spend massive amounts of time researching, and be faced with tricky texts that are very stressful to complete to deadline.

3. Deadlines. Deadlines tend to be crazy, with agencies and clients often expecting 48 hour turnaround on texts, or even worse in some cases. Sometimes they may give you more generous time limits, but watch out for work that takes ten times longer than expected. Oh, and miss a deadline and you probably won’t get work from that client again.

4. No set hours – This only applies to freelancers (sorry if this post is a bit freelance-specific), but without set hours you can end up starting work at 6am, or finishing at 4am, or working at weekends, nights, bank holidays, on holiday…

5. You can end up a crazy cat lady (or man) with no friends. This threat gets echoed every so often by some of my non-translator friends. If you’re full-time freelance, no one is making you get out of your bed or pyjamas. Nothing is stopping you eating macaroni cheese from a can, surrounding yourself with cats and leaving your house once a month to buy supplies of chocolate. There is a strong trend for translators to have cats, so I’m not sure how to refute this one! You need to be able to organise yourself and force yourself out to socialise and exercise now and then.


If you’ve read all that and still think you might be interested, then watch this space for tomorrow’s post – part two of my quick and easy guide, that’ll tell you how to get started.

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