Freelance AdviceFreelance, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated

Don't Just Sit There, Start Your Job as a Freelance Translator


Among professions, translation is a complex and often underrated line of work. Finding success in the field can be pretty tough due to significant competition, especially if you're a freelancer trying to find your ground. There are no shortcuts to success, but this article will list a few pointers that may inch you closer to that goal (in no particular order):

Practice your languages

An obvious but noteworthy aspect of translation is to be well versed in the language(s) you work with. A common issue when attempting to learn a second language is a hesitance to apply it to daily life. It's critical to overcome this limitation and practice both speaking and writing until you're confident enough to seamlessly transition between languages.

One helpful step is to go beyond your studies. School lessons can only take you so far; take it a step further and include the new language in your casual and social activities. For example, if you enjoy watching TV and/or videos, reading books or listening to songs, search for similar content in the target language. If you know someone you can practice with, seize the opportunity. The Internet, in particular, is a treasure trove for virtually any type of content, and social media makes it easier than ever to engage other people on any subject and in any language. While there should always be some discretion when interacting with strangers online, it remains an option that absolutely should be taken advantage of.

Keep in mind you won't master a language overnight. Depending on the language, you may need years to be minimally fluent in it. Don't be intimidated if you struggle to understand a word or phrase, and don't be discouraged if you stutter and choke on your words. You'll get better. Even if you already have experience, you can always learn something new and your command of your language(s) will show in your work.

Understand localization

This topic was briefly touched upon in a previous article about website localization, and it's an integral part of translation work. The definition of localization, according to is: To make local; fix in, or assign or restrict to, a particular place, locality, etc.

In practice, localizing a translation means taking liberties to fit your content into the target language's cultural landscape. One common instance of this is with measurements (converting from imperial to metric and vice-versa, depending on the target language and country). However, it can be also required for other linguistic quirks such as proverbs, expressions, slangs, rhymes, memes, etc. In such cases, context is often lost in translation, calling for adaptations to preserve figurative interpretations. Let's look for example at this popular English phrase: Out of sight, out of mind.

A Portuguese (BR) translation could substitute O que os olhos não veem, o coração não sente" (what the eyes don't see, the heart won't feel).

The English and Portuguese versions are very close, but the latter uses the word for "heart" (coração) instead of the word for "mind" (mente). However, both phrases still convey the same basic meaning (what isn't near you won't affect you).

But that's an easy one. Let's try this again with something more complex: The early bird catches the worm.

This English proverb doesn't seem to have a direct Portuguese counterpart, so a "proper" translation may not convey the subtext to Portuguese readers. In this case, one possible replacement could be: Deus ajuda quem cedo madruga (God helps those who wake up early).

In this case, the wording may be completely different, but both phrases teach a similar lesson (you'll be at an advantage if you're the first to do something). And since the Portuguese version is more ingrained in Brazilian culture, making this change is a valid choice. Sometimes the meaning is more important than the words themselves.

That said, there may be situations in which such adaptations aren't possible. This is more likely to occur with proper names, quotations and particularly technical documents. If you find yourself in such a situation (and you likely will), one option is to simply add a footnote (marked as a Translator Note, or TN) explaining the original context.

In the end, localization isn't an exact science. Due to the nature of cultural influences and human interpretation, there isn't a straight answer on how and when to take these liberties. Therefore, it's very important to be culturally aware. Ask yourself questions such as: "Who am I translating this for?" and "Can a local understand my translation?" (also contact your client to clear up any doubts). It's up to each translator to decide the best course of action on a case-by-case basis, but always keep the main goal in mind: to get the intended message across.

Build your career

Here is the tough part of freelancing. Don't expect immediate success; it takes time and dedication to earn credibility and develop a consumer base. Chances are you'll find yourself taking a second job to make ends meet as you work your way toward becoming a successful translator.

Perhaps the best option for beginners is to join translation agencies and other freelancer websites. The topic was previously mentioned in this article about finding a good translator, but it's worth repeating since these sites provide structure and quality control mechanisms for clients and freelancers, making them highly recommended as a means of gaining experience. Keep in mind though that these sites often have terms of service imposing conditions such as exclusivity causes and/or taking a cut of your income. Make sure to understand those conditions to avoid penalties that would limit your use of a freelancer website.

Also, promote yourself. It may seem annoying when others do it, but it happens for a reason. Create a website, announce your services on social media, and hand over business cards. The key is to put your name out there, so don't be shy; be shameless. The more people you make aware of your services, the more likely you'll get work.

Finally, be patient and persevere. A successful career may take years to build. But if you keep at it long enough, you'll get there before you know it.

Use resources

Always do research as needed, and don't be afraid of using every tool at your disposal to improve your work. This includes online and physical dictionaries, search engines (a Google search takes literally one second), and even CAT (Computer Assisted Translation) tools if the option is available to you. For examples of resources you can use, please refer to this article about five useful translation tools.

However, in the case of machine translations, it can't be stressed enough that you shouldn't let them become a crutch; those are only helpful on a basic level, and are generally meant for casual users with no time and/or budget to afford a human professional. Machines are incapable of understanding context (at least, at the time of writing), so the results are rarely precise. It's fine to use them as a quick reference, but never take the results at face value without verifying them.

Another source of help can be found in dedicated translation communities. ProZ may be the largest one out there, with message boards for translators to request assistance as well as articles, guides and even job listings.

Discipline yourself

As appealing as freelancing may seem for the ability to choose your work conditions, being your own boss still means being your own boss. Treat your home as your office; determine your schedule, make it known to family and friends and stick to it. Leave no room for distractions that may hurt your productivity.

Also, put value in your work. Take measures to avoid non-paying customers, such as requesting payment (or at least a fraction) upfront. Don't charge low fees if the effort is not worth it, but don't compromise quality either; good work will reflect better on you than rush jobs. Always meet your deadlines and never commit to projects beyond your ability (in case of unforeseen circumstances, contact your client immediately). Check your work before delivering it and if possible, let someone else take a look at it (you'd be surprised by what can be spotted by another set of eyes). Your clients will take you seriously if you take yourself seriously.

But don't think of self-respect as an excuse to bite the hand that feeds you; always treat your clients cordially, respond to their messages as soon as possible and answer any questions to the best of your ability. Be humble toward criticism, rectify any mistakes when possible and learn from them. You'll be better for it.

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