Freelance Translation: How Does The Skill Stack Up?

Freelance Translation
Written by Dobrica Frankevich

Having a great command of at least two (ideally more) languages can open up many freelance opportunities, especially in the translation area. But is that all you need to become a freelance translator? How do you even know if being a freelance translator is the right profession for you? Keep reading to find the answers to all your questions.

A freelance translator is a person who converts a written text from one language into another. One of these languages is the person’s native language (usually, that’s the target language), and the source language is their second one. Freelance translators are independent contractors that usually work for multiple clients at the same time, translating different forms and types of written content. The goal of freelance translators is to ensure that the translated document conveys the same meaning in the target language as it did in the original one. 

The advantages of working as a freelance translator are countless, from the variety of interesting tasks to choose from, to the independence you can enjoy working from home. If you like what you hear so far, continue reading.

What Does a Freelance Translator Translate?

Generally speaking, when you’re new in the freelance translation area, you’d like to start doing all types of translations initially, and then specialize in what you’re best at. This can be literally any written piece of content:

Technical translation User guides, manuals, instructions, etc.
Medical translation Labels, clinical research, packaging, etc.
Legal translation Contracts, agreements, birth certificates, etc.
Commercial translation Company accounts, memos, correspondence
Software/App/Website translations Website copy, app content, user interface, etc
Literary translation Poems, novels, stories, plays, etc.
Educational translation Study books, school papers, etc.
Financial translation Bank records, account statements, etc.
Scientific translation Theses, study reports, papers, articles, etc.
Multimedia translation Videos, gifs, graphics, animations, etc.

With the above-mentioned categories in mind, I have to say that still, most freelance translators will probably start in a more ‘general’ area of translation such as translating non-academic, non-scientific texts such as website content, eBooks or articles on everyday topics.

And by all means, please do that! Having at least some experience as a general translator will allow you to learn which areas fit you best and interest you the most to start focusing most of your attention there.

It’s an unwritten rule that translators will usually translate from their second language into their first or mother tongue. However, this is not always the case and mainly depends on the confidence or knowledge of the translator to translate vice versa as well.

What Skills Does It Take to Become a Freelance Translator?

You’ll hear divided opinions on this matter, but regardless of that, just know that a diploma is not always a recipe for success!

Even though some clients might need to hire a certified translator (mostly for legal documents or purposes), having a certificate or a diploma does not automatically mean that that’s a quality freelancer. In fact, you’d be surprised how many freelancers without a specific degree in translating are making it big in the freelance world!

With that said, in order to be successful as a freelance translator, you do need to possess the following skills:

  • Excellent command of your native language (usually the target language)
  • Excellent command of your second language (usually the source language)
  • Being a good researcher
  • Knowledge of the cultural differences between both countries
  • Self-organization and time management skills
  • A flair for writing and a rich vocabulary

For example, translating common slang expressions from English into another language might require a little adjustment to properly convey the meaning or the message into the target language.

What’s funny in one language, might be offensive in another.
Another important differentiation to make here is that translation is different than interpretation. Translators are only focused on written texts, while interpreters will translate verbally from one language to another (often in real-time).

How Much Does a Freelance Translator Earn?

The earnings of freelance translators can differ greatly from one another, depending on one or more of the following variables:

The experience of the translator Experts will always charge more than entry-level translators
The niche of the translation Technical translation with industry-specific terms will always cost more than a general translation
The turnaround time (deadline) A translation needed with urgency will always be more costly than a regular deadline
The number of words translated Depending on how long the needed translation is, a translator can charge per hour or per word
The language pair in question Translating Spanish to English will always be cheaper than translating Japanese to English
The additional services needed If a design or manipulation of the file is needed, you can charge for DTP (Desktop Publishing)

With that being said, according to a Glassdoor report updated in April 2020, the average yearly salary for a freelance translator in the US is $61,625 / yr.

And when it comes to hourly rates, ZipRecruiter has stated that as of May 2020, the average hourly rate for freelance translators in the US is $29/hour.

From ZipRecruiter, they inform that they’ve seen hourly rates as low as $7/hour or as high as $75/hour. However, they mostly see rates between $17 and $31 per hour.

Deciding on your rate per hour (or fixed budget) for a freelance project can be tricky, especially if you’re a beginner in the industry. A good way to choose an appropriate rate is to see how much other freelancers charge for similar services, as well as the complexity and the state of the document you’re about to translate.

Even though it’s expected that as a freelancer, you start with less and work your way up, try not to undersell yourself. There’s a fine line between offering competitive rates for your work and underselling your worth. In some cases, offering your work for much cheaper than others can even be considered a ‘red flag’ from the client’s side.

Where Does a Freelance Translator Find a Job?

Translators, in general, have many different opportunities open for them, such as government work, offering certified translations, in-house for a company, public institutions, etc. However, if you’ve decided to make it as a freelance translator specifically, you should know where to start first. 

All in all, as a freelance translator, you can choose if you want to work independently and look for direct clients or apply and become a part of a translation agency. 

Assuming that as a freelancer, your primary goal is to work online, here we’ll focus on online agencies as well as marketplaces where you can find work as an independent contractor.

Today’s translation agencies will pretty much take the form of contemporary websites where they work with clients large-scale and offer work to people like you who want to work as part-time freelancers for them. Such examples of online translation agencies you could join are:

  • Gengo – Professional Translations Services
  • Smartling – Content Localization – good for Tech, Software, and App clients
  • TextMaster – Professional SaaS Translation Services
  • Unbabel – AI-Powered Human Translation
  • OneHourTranslation – Professional Translation Agency

On the other hand, if you want to make it on your own and be completely independent in choosing your work, without getting involved with an agency, then you can try joining to some of these job marketplaces:

  • Upwork – a global freelancing platform – in my opinion, one of the best for people who are serious in making it as freelancers
  • – an online outsourcing platform where freelancers bid on projects with their rates and conditions for completing the project
  • Fiverr – an online marketplace for freelance services which is great for any beginner in this field, since it’s usually about gigs of $5 each, for short-term tasks or in your case, shorter translations
  • ProZ – perhaps one of the most well-known online community and workplace for language professionals
  • Workana – another general freelance platform where you can find many new job openings in the translation area
  • PeoplePerHour – a freelance online platform where you can find all types of digital jobs, including translation
  • SmartCat – a cloud-based translation platform where businesses, freelance translators and translation agencies collaborate

Aside from the above ways of finding a gig as a freelance translator, you should also work on creating a sustainable, long-term online presence for yourself or your brand. Create social media profiles on all networks and start showcasing your portfolio and jobs that you’ve done successfully. 

Don’t forget to always ask for your clients’ feedback at the end of a project so that you can share your success with your followers. 

After a while, once you feel ready and your portfolio is in good shape, start your own website where you can write a blog and position yourself as an authority in the industry. Like this, people will have more trust in you and you’ll gain greater exposure. 

Here’s a great video I found explaining how to start as a freelance translator with zero experience: 

What Tools Do Freelance Translators Use?

When we’re talking about a freelance software or a tool, we usually refer to CAT tools (computer-assisted translation). As such, CAT tools are much different than AI-powered MT tools (machine-translation). 

CAT tools are not meant to translate the text automatically. On the contrary, they are meant to help a human translator choose between several different suitable translations of the source text into the target text. 

Such CAT tools rely on translation memory (or TM) in order to memorize a phrase or word used repeatedly throughout a large text document. This can be of immense help, especially when translating large files. 

Some of the best freelance translation tools you could use are:

Grammar & Spell Checkers Grammarly, LanguageTool, GradeProof, Hemmingway App, After the Deadline
CAT Tools SmartCat, OmegaT, MateCat, SDL Trados, MemoQ, CafeTranEspresso, Wordfast Anywhere
Dictionaries The Free Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary and Thesaurus, etc.
Word Processors Microsoft Word, Google Docs, Open Office
MT Tools DeepL, Google Translate, Microsoft Translate, Yandex, Apertium, etc.

So, How to Become a Kickass Freelance Translator?

For all of you just starting out your careers as freelance translation professionals, here’s what I would recommend:

  1. No, translation is not dead and human translators cannot be completely replaced by AI and Machine Learning
  2. Do keep your price and hourly rates competitive
  3. Don’t rely on MT (machine translation) software too much
  4. Do try to use CAT tools. They can really simplify the translation process, especially in large files with repetitive terms or phrases
  5. Don’t submit a translation without proofreading and spell-checking
  6. No experience or portfolio? Simply translate texts for your friends and family for free, or even translate a random website and now you have your first project in your portfolio!
  7. Make sure that in time, you specialize in a more narrow translation niche
  8. The language you translate to (the target language) should actually be the one that’s native to you or you’re most proficient in
  9. Knowing the cultures – vocabulary alone is not enough to transfer the correct meaning and tone of voice into the target language
  10. Walk a mile in the shoe of the reader – when you read your translation, does it sound natural, would it sound natural to a native?
  11. Read, read, read… in both the source and the target language. Trust me, this will broaden your horizon and enrich your vocabulary and phrases you use
  12. Always ask your clients for feedback, recommendation or testimonial – this is the best way to build your portfolio
  13. Double-check all industry-specific terms to make sure you’re using them right
  14. Ensure that your translation is consistent with regards to spacing, fonts, margins, etc.
  15. Network! Online and offline. It’s always an advantage to get your name out there and mingle with like-minded people

About the author

Dobrica Frankevich

Dobrica is an experienced copywriter with 8+ years of freelance work. She’s specialized in the health and wellness niche, clinical research, as well as in the areas of freelancing, remote working, HR and SaaS. With a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Digital Marketing Specialist certificate, she helps businesses grow with the help of content and social media marketing. To get in touch with Dobrica, visit her Upwork profile below or shoot her an email.