A reader who saw that post then asked me to expand a bit on what is required in order to generate income performing a certified translation service, and therefore I took the time to compile what is most essential so that the interested parties know where to start. It really is possible to travel the world while working as a freelance translator.
It is usually stated that to be a good translator you must have a degree, then a masters and finally a postgraduate degree. The truth is that there are many people with all these titles and, however, are not ready to start working in certified translation. On the other hand, there are many people who have no degrees, and who are working successfully as certified translators.
I'm definitely not saying that having those qualifications is a waste of time, but it is all about having the right information at the time of starting out, which very often you will not get from university-level studies.
Each piece of information you will read in this post is based on my experience of a few years ago, just after starting to work as a certified translator, so in order to get the most out of it please just ask if you have any questions.
The reality of being a freelance certified translator
There is something that is mentioned very rarely to the newbies in the translation industry, and it is that getting to the point where you have clients sending you jobs every day is not something that happens overnight. Far from it. As a job you do independently, working alone and for yourself, it is not easy as one might imagine, but not impossible if you have the willingness to learn the details. The job of a certified translator is as much about promoting yourself in order to get work as it is actually carrying out the translations.
The insecurity of not knowing if you are going to make enough money in a particular month is constant, but unlike the regular freelancer who has to deal with the monthly expenses of a home (rent, electricity, water, car, etc.), when you travel you only face the costs of your day-to-day backpacking, which are generally much less if you compare them to those that I have just named. This is especially true if you chose to travel in a country where prices are low, such as many in Asia or Latin America.
Regarding the issue of savings, try your hardest to keep your account with enough money so that you have a financial cushion in the first months, which is when you will be in search of your initial clients.
On the other hand, do not forget that just as you will see periods of economic prosperity, there will be times when you will make little money, and that is where the savings will keep you afloat until the clients appear again.
Things you should know before you start
The first thing is to be clear that professional translation is not the simple act of converting a text from one language to another, a task that anyone with a basic understanding of the source language (the language of the document you want to translate) and the target language (the language to which the original text is translated) can carry out.
It is important that you understand the source and target language very well, because in the end it all comes down to transmitting the message without altering its meaning, even when the words change. If you are going to gain the credentials to be a certified translator, this is even more vital, as you are going to add a guarantee of accuracy to you translations, for you, in the end, will be responsible.
If there is an error that you should never commit, it is believing that the clients will come to you. It is not enough to create a luxury profile on web portals for translators and expect them to contact you out of the blue.
You have to take the time to advertise on classified pages, online forums, directories, distribution lists of translators’ associations and, finally, by word of mouth. The task of promoting yourself is constant and only the most persistent will see good results in their favour.
Another point that you should not overlook is that, if you do not want to create greater difficulties for yourself as a translator, only translate INTO your native language.
This I affirm based on the fact that an individual, even if she knows a foreign language very well, will lack that natural way of expressing herself that native speakers have when she translates a text her translates a text into a foreign language. If you were born and grew up speaking Spanish, for example, it is obvious that you will have a much greater handling of the language, both orally and in writing.
The price you are going to charge for your translation work is a very important factor, since it shows how competitive you are in the market. Most translators prefer to bill by word, while others choose to do it per page. Personally, I find it is better to charge per word, since that way you are paid for exactly the work you have done. No more, no less. The price you charge per word is of vital importance. You need to make enough to get by, and you should also be paid fairly for the work you do, but at the same time you don’t want to price yourself out of the market. When starting out think about advertising at a lower rate, this will allow you to attract customers at the beginning. You can gradually increase you rates with time as you find yourself more secure in your job with a larger number of regular clients. If these clients are happy with your work, they should be willing to pay a fair price for it. Once you achieve the credentials to carry out certified translations, you should be able to charge a bit more for this valuable service. To produce official translations that customers can use for formal procedures such as passport applications, you should be able to charge an added extra.
The number of words or the level of translation are not the only variables with which you must base your price. You must also take into account the type of document: whether it is a novel, a computer manual, a text about marketing, a biology book or whatever. Each field has its own level of difficulty, so do not be surprised if you feel you need to charge more for content about nuclear safety than for documents related to tourism. It is harder so it will take you more time per word. Your price needs to reflect this.
Also, the language combination in which you translate is crucial, because you will have high probabilities of charging more for a language that has greater demand (Spanish to Chinese, for example), than for one where competition abounds (English to Spanish). If you’re lucky enough to be a native speaker of Japanese or one of the Nordic languages, you should be able to command a good price. Especially if you are also able to produce certified translations.
When taking a translation job, accept those documents that are exclusively focused on your field of specialisation. For example, if you handle technical knowledge in areas related to computer science, it is evident that you will translate documents as a born computer scientist would, who knows and understands the jargon and idioms of that field.
You may find lots of opportunities to translate documents from areas you're not familiar with (which means more work and more money), but you're almost certainly going to get stressed out of working with content whose context you do not understand in your language - you'll understand less in a foreign language! However, this doesn’t mean you should reject work that is challenging, just that you should be cautious about being overly-confident. It could lead to a below par translation. Your reputation as a translator could be on the line. Additionally, you should never produce a certified translation of something you don’t completely understand. If you certify a translation as accurate, you should be certain that you have carried out an excellent job.
If you are starting out in the world of translation, the ideal scenario would be to charge the minimum going rate (many professionals agree on a price of £0.05 per word) and to pass your work on to a proofreader (a person in charge of reviewing and correcting text) to help you with your first jobs, so you are able to check that you have translated them properly. One you have the credentials to produce a certified translation, you should be able to increase that rate quite significantly.
To help you get a better idea of prices you should charge, Proz.com has a rate section that you can use as a guide. This section does not necessarily reflect real prices, but it ca help you to have an idea of how much should be charged, more or less.
To finish, you are not a translator just because you speak another language, even if you know it quite well and have been speaking for years. Like everything in life, you will have to be patient and learn every step that takes you to a desired level of experience to become an exceptional translator, or even a certified translator.
Where to look for work online
This is good question that deserves to be answered. Something that most translators do as a first step is to register on websites dedicated to uniting freelancers with potential clients. As a suggestion, the more you register on these portals, the more likely you are to be seen.
It is worth mentioning that certain websites are used specifically by clients or agencies that are looking for translators, so each profile created becomes an opportunity that could ultimately benefit you.
I would recommend getting some demonstrable experience in translation by volunteering for a charity or NGO, these often work internationally and need translations doing. Once you have that experience to show on your CV, I would send it out to as many translation agencies as possible. The companies receive many CVs every day, so make yours stand out, and don't sabotage your own efforts with bad spelling, grammar and formatting. Really, I shouldn't need to mention this, since if you're serious about working as a translator you should already have an eye for detail and be good with words and care about presentation. Having worked on the admin of our own translation group, I've seen many many terribly presented CVs in our inbox, which I have proceeded to delete without a further look.
Websites such as Proz and TranslatorsCafe are another great bet for getting a job (and also to be seen). Both are communities with thousands and thousands of freelancers, and with many translation companies registered in these online sites. Proz has a free version (like Translators Café) and a premium version, the latter option being the most viable if you are serious about becoming a translator. As a premium user, you make a semi-annual or annual payment, and you will benefit from all the resources that are not available in the free accounts.
Apart from the pages already mentioned, there are others such as Xing, Upwork, Guru or Freelancer, which although they are more focused on the freelancer market in general, continue to attract translators and employers from all over the world.
The tools to use
On first impression, one would think that it would be enough to use Word to write the text that you are replacing from one language to another. While there are translators who do not have problems working like this, I must confess that in the long run it is inefficient and slow, for me at least. Fortunately, there are the popular CAT (Computer Aided Translation) tools, which help you translate more effectively, improving your productivity. These applications create a file known as translation memory (TM), which is like a database that saves parts of texts already translated. In short, these memories make the translation process faster and less stressful. The most used free CAT software platform is OmegaT, while Wordfast and Trados are more complete, although their cost is quite high.
Finally, keep your lines of communication (whatsapp, email, skype) as accessible as possible. When an agency or client wants to contact you, the last thing you want is to answer late, so you should try to be as available as possible.
I took the time to write this post with the purpose of giving a little information and advice to those who seek answers in this competitive world of translation, and especially those who would like to work while backpacking around the world. The path to being a good translator is full of obstacles, and I am not exaggerating if I say that it is not for everyone. However, if you start out and find the path attractive, it is an indication that translation is right for you. Once you are established, it’s a great life, with the possibility of having absolute freedom and travelling the world while making money along the way. I wholeheartedly recommend becoming a freelance translator, and even more so getting into offering certified translation services.
If you found this post useful, share it with your friends who may be interested in the topic of making money travelling and working as a freelance certified translator. Thanks for reading! Osvaldo.