Is Being a Freelance Translator Worth it?

If you can speak more than one language fluently, you might consider becoming a freelance translator and setting up your own translation business operating from home. There’s no doubt that translation skills are always in demand, but is being a freelance translator worth it, or should you stick with paid employment instead?

Being a freelance translator is worth it as long as you go about it the right way, which you can say about setting up any business from your home. Translation skills are in great demand, but you need to have a clear idea of what type of translation work your skills are suitable for as there are many different routes you could go down, and some will be more profitable than others.

Identify your strengths

Being able to speak more than one language fluently is the very minimum you will need to be able to make a living working as a translator. Many people may be able to converse effectively with another person in another language, but are you confident about your natural strengths, and are you aware of any shortcomings in your skillset?

Carefully consider what you are capable of and what you are not capable of, and then you can accurately assess your earning potential

For example, many more people can speak another language than those who can read and write accurately in that same language. If you’ve studied another language formally, you will be able to read and write in that language. That opens up a whole world of translation jobs, including many that you’ll be able to do exclusively from home.

Translator or interpreter?

Are you are translator, an interpreter, or both? The difference between interpretation and translation tends to be that interpretation is spoken language in real-time, while translation is concerned with written content. Translation usually happens over an extended period where the translator will have extensive access to external reference resources, while interpretation occurs in person or online in a live scenario.

In my experience, some people who have studied a language in a formal educational setting may not be anywhere near as good at speaking that language as someone else who has lived among people who speak that language natively. If you are a native English speaker with no formal language qualifications but you’ve lived in a country where Spanish is the native language, you could be a much better interpreter than someone who did most of their learning in the classroom.

If you can read, write, and speak another language almost as fluently as a native speaker, the sky is the limit for getting good-paying work.

If your strength is speaking the language, but your reading and writing skills in that language are not as strong as they could be, there’s still a lot of work you can get, but you will be more limited. Also, if your main strength is speaking the language, the work available could lean more heavily towards working away from home.

Those who can read and write in a second language can find a tremendous amount of translation work online on sites like Upwork, Fiverr, and elsewhere. This type of work can range from low-level work translating simple documents and articles to high-level work translating technical or scientific writings.

If you are working primarily as a translator, you’ll probably take a piece of writing in one language that will need translating into another language, and you’ll have a set amount of time to deliver the completed translation.

That type of work is perfect for working from home, but there are still plenty of opportunities for home working even if you are only confident in speaking a second language.

Is it hard to become a freelance translator?

No freelance career is easy, and translation is no exception, but it’s a rewarding way of working for many with plenty of potential benefits. You’ll undoubtedly encounter obstacles and struggles, but it’s crucial to maintain a positive attitude and keep pushing forward. It may well be a learning process initially, but eventually, you’ll find yourself with a full-time career doing something you love with freedom and flexibility you’ll never get working for someone else’s business.

Like all freelance gigs, some jobs will pay better than others, and you’ll probably have to take some relatively low-paid work initially to build up a reputation and client base. As your experience grows, you’ll eventually be able to get better-paid jobs, and you’ll have more choices of which jobs to take and which ones to leave to someone else.

I’m not going to try and tell you that as soon as you set yourself up as a freelance translator, the work will come flooding in for you. It really doesn’t work like that in the freelance environment unless you are incredibly fortunate.

When you first get up and running as a freelance translator, you’ll spend more time looking for work and negotiating with potential clients than doing translation. That’s just the way of the world as a freelancer at the start.

How much does a freelance translator make?

According to Indeed.com, the average base salary for a translator is $30.11 per hour. When Indeed compiles data like that, it comes from 27 salaries that have been submitted anonymously to the site by freelance translator employees and users and collected from past and present job posts on the Indeed job website over the last 36 months.

Although I’m not a translator, my experience as a freelance writer over the last decade tells me that is a very realistic estimate. You may have to settle for quite a bit less to start with, but I’m sure you can earn more than that once you establish yourself.

Earning potential is where a significant difference appears between a translator and an interpreter. A translator will be working in a live environment most of the time, almost always working for an hourly rate. If you’re extremely good at what you do and a client is impressed enough, you can edge up the hourly rate over time.

However, if you are a translator working from home, you can work on a per-word or a per-job basis. Working that way allows you to work to your own schedule, and the faster you work, the higher your effective hourly rate will be.

An hourly rate of $30.11 is pretty good, but I know that you would probably be able to double that if you work fast enough and work on a per-job basis rather than on an hourly basis.

If you pitch a price of $30 for a job translating a 500-word document from one language to another, I don’t think that’s unreasonable, and I suspect prospective clients would agree. If you are quick enough, you could probably manage two of those in an hour, which works out as an effective hourly rate of $60 per hour.

Try asking for a $60 hourly rate for translation work, and I suspect you will struggle to land a job at that rate, especially as a beginner. However, ask for $30 per 500-word document, and I’m sure you’ll do okay. Even if it takes you an hour and a half to translate two documents, you’re still getting an effective hourly rate of $40.

People can be strange when it comes to paying for services. Most people would probably be fine paying $30 for a professional service like translating a 500-word document, but the same people would probably run a mile if you ask to work on an hourly basis and tell them your rate is $60 per hour.

My top tip for any freelancer in any niche is to always insist on working on a per-job, per-word, per-yard, or similar basis appropriate to that type of work. The better, quicker, and more productive you become, the higher your effective hourly rate gets without having to have that awkward discussion of asking for a raise.

Will translation jobs disappear?

You might think that as technology like Google Translate continues to improve, it won’t be long until translators are no longer needed. Fortunately, it’s not something you’ll have to worry about for a very long time.

Language is highly complex, and language is constantly changing and developing. While tools like Google Translate help provide a quick idea of what’s written in another language, none of these tools are anywhere close to being a viable replacement for a human translator.

Even someone who doesn’t know the language at all can see that a Google Translate translation isn’t accurate enough to use in a professional setting. The grammar and punctuation are often incorrect, and it’s also common for some words to be completely wrong.

I’ve used a computerized translator in a job when I needed to understand a short question I was asked about an item we had for sale by an overseas buyer. The translator did a good enough job for me to get the gist of what was being asked, but it was blindingly obvious that the translation couldn’t have been used in a professional setting as it only half made sense.

Computer translations are acceptable for that sort of thing, but it’s hard to imagine a time when things like scientific documents can be translated in that way to a level of accuracy that won’t result in potential catastrophes.

Can you be a translator without a degree?

While most salaried translator positions will probably require a degree or other formal qualifications, no qualifications are needed to work as a freelance translator. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), most entry-level salaried translator jobs look for at least a bachelor’s degree, but all you need as a freelancer is to be able to do the job.

Having some formal qualifications may help you early on when bidding for translation gigs online, but your track record and reviews from clients will be what matters most when you establish yourself as a freelancer.   

How do you get work as a freelance translator?

Translation services are more in demand in today’s global community than ever. Jobs can be as small and simple as writing a personal greeting for someone in another language on a card for a birth, marriage, wedding, or another significant life event. A translation job can also be as big and complex as translating a scientific journal or study from one language to another in intricate detail and total accuracy.

Between those two extremes, there are countless other translation tasks you can earn money completing. Like any other freelance niche, you’ll probably find an area that particularly suits you and your skills, and you’ll eventually end up specializing in that area.

Here are seven tips to help you find freelance translator jobs:

  1. Tell the world – Let anyone and everyone you know and come across that you are a translator. Be confident and act as though you’ve been doing it for years to promote an air of confidence.
  2. Local businesses – Although some private individuals will need translation services from time to time, most of your clients will be businesses. Most businesses will need translation services from time to time, but most won’t have enough need for a translator to hire one on staff. Someone like you, offering ad hoc translation services when and where the business needs them, could be a god-send for them. It’s always easier to approach local businesses, to begin with, so what are you waiting for?
  3. Volunteer – I’m not entirely on board with anyone working for nothing, but sometimes you have to give to receive when you’re just starting. If you’re not having any luck yet getting paid work, offer your services as a volunteer where you can so you can start to attain a track record. 
  4. Get a website – It’s hard to think of any business that doesn’t need a website, even if it’s just a single-page website that works as an online advert, and your translation business is no exception. You can say far more about yourself and the service you offer with a website than you’ll ever be able to do in an email or during a conversation with a potential client. The best way to go is to build your own website, but if you think that’s not for you there are plenty of people on Fiverr who will be happy to do it for you for a very reasonable amount of money.
  5. Promotional materials – Some people think the days of business cards and flyers are dead and gone, but that’s not the case. There are many places you can leave or post a flyer, and promotional materials are something potential clients will hang on to even if they don’t need your services right away. It’s always good to have a few business cards with you wherever you go because you never know when you’ll meet someone who might be a potential client in the future.
  6. Asked for referrals – Don’t ever be afraid to ask for a referral from a satisfied client. It doesn’t matter what type of business you are in; word-of-mouth can be a rich source of new work. If someone needs translation services and a friend, colleague, or business associate tells them about you and says they were impressed with your services, you can’t buy that kind of advertising.
  7. Keep going – It’s easy to throw the towel in and go and do something else if what you’re doing doesn’t appear to be working. The truth is, the overwhelming majority of the most successful people in the world have had multiple failures before making a success of what they are doing. Why should you be any different? The most important thing you can do is keep going and keep trying, even if it feels like you are getting nowhere at times. If you are good at what you do and believe in yourself enough to try and become a freelance translator in the first place, what’s changed? Have you become bad at translating because you haven’t got enough clients? Of course you haven’t. If you need to get better at anything, you probably need to improve at promoting yourself.

Where do you find clients who need translation services?

There are several places you can go to look for freelance translation gigs, and some are better than others. The most straightforward and most accessible place to look for work is inevitably online. There are many specialist platforms where translators and clients are brought together, but the competition is intense, inevitably driving down prices. That’s great for the people looking for translators, but it’s not good for you or your bank balance.

Translation websites you might want to check out include:

  • ProZ – Online community and workplace for language professionals
  • TranslatorsCafe – A directory of translators, interpreters, and translation agencies
  • TranslationDirectory – Portal for language professionals and their clients
  • The Open Mic – Where translators share their stories and where clients find professional translators.

There’s no doubt that these websites will give you access to people looking for translation services, but you will also be competing with thousands of other translators like you. You should definitely register on these sites because it can’t hurt your chances of finding work, but these are not the best places to find work, and they’re not the best places to find work that pays well.

While the above sites directly put translators and clients together, they’re effective agencies. These sites are like traditional agencies you register with that will have you on their books and call on you when they have work for you. The client is theirs, so you work for and get paid by the site.

I started working for agencies like these when I started as a freelance writer. They can deliver a regular source of income in the short term, but they’re not a source of work you should rely upon indefinitely.

If you want to try some out, here are a few of the best you should investigate:

You can also look to more general online marketplaces to find work. These sites bring freelancers and clients together, but they’re for many different freelance services and not just translation. There will be far fewer translation jobs on these sites, but there may also be less competition from other translators than you’d be up against on dedicated translation websites.

The leading online freelance marketplaces are:

But if you want to find work that pays better and clients you could end up working with regularly for years to come, you’re going to find them by the more direct route of approaching them.

If you put your services right in front of someone before they go out to look for a translator or just as they are starting the search for one, you’ll definitely be in the box seat.

There’s an almost endless list of people, businesses, and organizations that might need translation services from time to time. Start looking in your local area, especially if many people in your area speak the language or languages you specialize in as a translator.

If you are in that type of area, think about all the government agencies, non-profits, businesses, and other associations that need people who can translate. When I go to see the doctor in my town, the check-in system is available in three different languages; English, Polish, and Lithuanian!

If the doctor has to have the check-in system in three languages, what notes, letters, leaflets, and other documents need translating in a place like that?

Even if there’s no particular prevalence of another language in your area, what about local businesses who trade with others outside your area or internationally? Go and do some research, find suitable businesses, give them a call or go to see them, and offer your services.

Is being a freelance translator worth it?

If you’ve gone to the time and trouble to learn another language or even several languages, it makes sense to make a living out of your knowledge, skill, and talent. You could go on Indeed or other recruitment websites and apply for full or part-time positions as a translator, but you’ll have a more rewarding career if you work for yourself as a freelance translator instead.

Working for yourself isn’t for everyone, and plenty of people prefer the “security” of being a paid employee. The trouble with that is that jobs are nowhere near as secure as they once were, so would you be any more secure in paid employment than working for yourself?

And anyway, would you have bothered coming to this site or reading this article if the idea of working for yourself as a freelance translator didn’t already appeal to you?

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