How to Become a Freelance Translator: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

If you want to become a freelance translator, you need to know the truth. You need to know that it is not all rainbows and unicorns.

Rainbows and Unicorns

It’s not easy, but it can be worth it, as long as you put in the effort and know what to expect.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those who have a rope around their neck and those who have the job of doing the cutting. – Tuco

The Good

The Man With No Name

When you become a freelance translator, you have freedom. In fact, you have much more freedom than you ever would in a job working for someone else.

What kind of freedoms?

Freedom to Work/Not Work

You can decide when you work. If you want to work today, you work; if you don’t want to, you don’t. Nobody will tell you one way or another what your schedule should be. You’re the only one that gets to decide that.

Maybe you’re a morning person and love getting work done first thing, at 4:00 AM. Maybe you love sleeping in and would rather stay up late until 3:00 AM getting your work done.

Whatever it is, you decide.

Freedom to Work on What You Want

At a regular job, your boss, or most likely your boss’s boss, tells you what you’re supposed to work on.

Even if you think it’s stupid, or you hate it, or you’re morally opposed to it, you are still expected to work on it.

When you become a freelance translator, you can choose what you want to work on. You can choose where you want to spend your energy in terms of what to work on.

If a topic or translation doesn’t interest you, you don’t have to do it. You can say no to the client.

If a client asks you to translate marketing materials for a casino, and you’re opposed to gambling, you can choose to turn down the client.

Again, you decide where to spend your energy.

Freedom to Make However Much Money You Want

Many freelancers don’t see this as a freedom.

In fact, most see it as a constraint, as they are not promised a set salary when they freelance.

But if you get a set salary, you are not in charge of, nor do you have responsibility over deciding whether you should make more or less.

Sure, maybe you negotiated your initial salary, or successfully argued for a raise.

However, that is not the same freedom as deciding that you want to earn thousands more. It’s not the same freedom as deciding that you make enough money and that you now want to cut back on your work and the amount you earn so that you can spend your time on other pursuits and interests.

Negotiating for these is much harder in a salaried position.

Freedom of Location

One of the biggest perks of becoming a freelance translator is that you can decide where you want to work and live.

A lot of translators don’t make huge sums of money. But that’s OK with them because they can afford to still live a good lifestyle by choosing to live in a more affordable location.

For some people, that might be Thailand, Vietnam, or parts of South America. For others, that might mean moving away from the coasts in the United States.

Either way, these are options that you have as a freelance translator that others tied to specific jobs don’t have.

The Bad

The Bad - Angel Eyes

While freedom is the main draw for those attracted to the idea of becoming a freelance translator, that same freedom can destroy a freelancer.

Freelancing is not for the weak. More importantly, it’s not for those that are undisciplined.

When you become a freelance translator, you need to be more than motivated; you have to be willing to act on that motivation, and, even more so, act when you have no motivation.

You don’t get any points for your intentions.

You don’t get paid for being motivated to put in the work.

You get paid for action.

Clients pay you for solving their problems.

If you’re not disciplined, you won’t make it as a freelance translator.

At the same time, if you’re not immune to criticism, naysayers, or those who would bring you down, you won’t make it as a freelance translator.

Freedom is what drives people to become freelance translators. But that same freedom will drive most freelancers back to the work force.

The Ugly

The Ugly

The truth about freelance translation is that there are a lot of translators out there that don’t make much money.

Heck, there are a good amount of translators who don’t make any money.

Don’t believe anyone who says that becoming a successful freelance translator is an easy way to make your millions.

Why?

You’re still trading your time for money

In order to get truly rich, you need to make money without trading all your time away. That’s why so many translators operate their own mini translation agencies as soon as they get somewhat established.

Think about it this way.

If you are a sole translator, you will get paid for the work that you do.

So if you do a 10,000-word Spanish > English job at $0.10 a word, you’ll get paid $1,000. Now let’s say that that job took you 5 hours. That means you got paid $200 an hour for that job.

However, you’re not working 24 hours a day. Likely you’re not working on translations 8 hours a day. And you’re not getting paid for that time that you’re not working.

Now, what if a potential came to you and he needed a 10,000-word technical manual translated from Japanese t0 English. You don’t do Japanese translations. However, you know a colleague that does and translates technical documents from Japanese to English at $0.15 a word.

Well, you tell the client that you will charge $0.18 a word for the translation and then you subcontract it out to your Japanese-speaking colleague.

The client pays you $1,800 for the finished translation, you pay your colleague $1,500, you get to keep the extra $300.

All for not doing very much and while working on your own translation work.

That’s one way to move away from the idea of trading your time for money on a one-for-one basis.

And that’s one way to earn more money.

Translation’s Inconvenient Truth

A lot of people compare freelance writers to freelance translators. More so than comparisons to any other freelance endeavor.

I guess it’s because both groups work with words.

If that were the case, though, would-be freelance translators would have plenty to worry about.

Because the inconvenient truth is that most writers don’t make any money.

Making money from writing

If translation was so much like writing, there wouldn’t be any money in translation. However, there is money in translation.

While there are similarities between freelance writing and freelance translating, the truth is that translators have a much better shot at making money than writers do.

The reason is the sheer numbers of writers versus translators. There are way more writers than translators.

Here are some rough numbers from Upwork, a popular freelancing website.

According to the site, there were roughly 727,766 writers.

Number of Writers

The number of translators (across all languages on the site) is much smaller at 154,963.

Number of translators

Sure, there is less demand for translators than there are for writers, but that’s what makes a successful career in translation much more likely than a successful writing career. The ability to provide services to a smaller niche of clients in a specific language combination and specialization means that you’re not competing with the general population like many writers do.

Final Thoughts on the
Good, Bad, and Ugly of How to
Become a Freelance Translator

You’re most likely not going to make millions of dollars when you become a freelance translator. It’s not even an easy way to a six-figure salary.

However, the good is that it can be done. With the right effort, the right focus, and a little bit of luck, you can make a full-time living as a freelance translator.

The bad is that the freedom that comes with being a freelance translator will destroy many people’s careers before they even start. You must be motivated and willing to work. Motivation without action will not help you.

And the ugly. You earn money as a freelance translator by trading your time. And you only have so much time during the day. To make more, you need to figure out a way to make money through translation without you translating all the time. That’s the idea behind translation agencies.


P.S. Having your own website is one of the most important things you can do to build credibility as you work to become a freelance translator. And the easiest place to set up a professional site is through Bluehost.com. I use it for my sites and it’s the only website-building platform I recommend to translators.

7 thoughts on “How to Become a Freelance Translator: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”

  1. Pavel

    Thanks for the article, Clint. Very informative, despite being pretty short. Nice work!
    I’m only now starting to walk the path; a little worried that I might be commiting a professional suicide, but I’ve wanted to do it for a long time now. Do you have any articles, or do you know of any good ones on proven strategies of how to get things going? Thanks!

    Pavel

    1. Not sure how you would be committing professional suicide. The beauty of becoming a freelance translator is that it can be done as a side job or side hustle while still maintaining your primary source of income. I would never recommend that anyone quit their job cold turkey to pursue a freelance career. In terms of getting things going, there is one step – Find that first client. Focus on finding that one. After that, it will get easier. But first focus on getting at least one person to pay you for your translation skills.

      1. Pavel

        Thanks, Clint!

  2. Hanna Sles

    Clint, I like the style of your writing! Indeed, freelancing is like to be or not to be. You either have a rope around your neck or cut it. I have been a freelance translator and localization specialist for nearly 15 years and I know what it means to be a freelancer pretty well. To avoid situations with a rope, a freelance translator must develop his or her own strategy. I wrote an article about it. I think it is relevant to this article and helpful enough that I want to bring it up here. So, with your permission, I am linking it https://goo.gl/7zlm2s. Feel free to remove it if it is not appropriate.

    1. Great points, Hanna! I finally made it to your site and read the article (I know, I’m 9 months late lol). Anyway, you wrote a great article and thanks for stopping by!

  3. Fiza Thalhan

    Good article but this is also due to the fact that the author has no idea about full time freelance translator in depth. It is very obvious.

    1. Thanks for being so obvious in your love for this article, Fiza! I’m glad you read it. You should read more of my writing. I have two books you can buy, you know 🙂

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