How To Become a Freelance Translator and Earn Money On The Road

Freelance translation

Update: If you’re really serious about wanting to be a freelance translator then I highly recommend a book like The Translator Training Textbook by Adriana Tassini.


G’day all!

As many of you know, when I travel and live in a foreign country to learn the local language I usually support myself by teaching English.

I don’t do this because I consider ESL teaching to be a great career choice (on the contrary!) but rather because it provides me with a consistent source of income while I’m away. It also gets me in a social environment every day where I can meet native speakers and most jobs tend to offer accommodation, airfares and medical insurance which makes life a lot easier!

However, I also have a few online projects that keep me afloat at times when I’m not teaching – one of which is translation work (Arabic to English).

I’ve been fortunate enough to get quite a bit of translation work lately while I’m waiting for my visa to come through for my next big move (it’s been a frustrating wait dealing with annoying red tape since it’s one of the hardest countries in the world to visit but hopefully I won’t have to wait much longer!).

Since I get questions about translation work from time to time I thought it would be a good idea to respond to some of it here. :)


At what point did I decide I wanted to do translation work?

I was in a coffee shop years ago and I started chatting with a translator who ran her own business in French translation (I think she’d set up her “office” in the corner of the cafe).

At that stage I was already conversationally fluent in Egyptian Arabic and people were always saying to me, “Why don’t you use your Arabic skills to earn some money?” but I had never considered freelance translation as an option because I didn’t fully understand what the job involved.

Just having a friendly chat with this girl opened my eyes to the fact that translators work from a language that they’re not native in (in my case Arabic) into their mother tongue and not vice-versa. I was attracted to her lifestyle more than anything and the fact that she could set her own prices and her own schedule, as well being able to take her work anywhere she wanted.

The point about only translating into your native language is a crucial one – no matter how fluent you are in another language you’ll always make errors if you try translating into it.

While it definitely requires that you have a very advanced level in the language to really capture the nuance of what’s being said in a text, the real skill of a translator is not just in how well they know a language.

Translators are excellent writers first and foremost!

There were of course some extra difficulties for me as a speaker of a colloquial Arabic dialect that’s almost never written as I had to invest a bit more time into studying Modern Standard Arabic which in many ways is like a completely separate language.

As a side note, for anyone considering Arabic translation I can’t recommend enough the book Thinking Arabic Translation – A Course in Translation Method: Arabic to English (James Dickins).


You should only translate content that you have some expertise in

If you don’t have some kind of background (either academic or work experience) in the stuff you’re being asked to translate then it’s a good idea to leave it alone.


Take a look at this legal paragraph for a second and you’ll see (I just plucked it randomly off the internet):

The Issuer and the Company hereby ratify, approve and authorize the use by the Underwriter, prior to and after the date hereof, in connection with the offer and sale of the Series 2005A Bonds, of the Official Statement. The Underwriter agrees that it will not confirm the sale of any Series 2005A Bonds unless the settlement of such sale is accompanied by or preceded by the delivery of a copy of the final Official Statement.

Boring as hell, right? :)

Now ask yourself – if a translation agency sent this to me in another language could I produce something like this?

It’d be bloody difficult trust me (speaking from experience)!

But a translator who has qualifications or some kind of background in Law could quite easily write something like this because it’s their area of expertise and they’ve seen it many times before.

Likewise, would you feel comfortable translating a medical or legal document that could be damaging to somebody if not done properly?

I hope not! :)

If you’re thinking about getting into translation, think about one or several areas of expertise that you have (something that you’re trained or experienced in) and aim for translation work in that specific area!

Think outside the box too. I did a marketing translation recently for a coffee company and I confidently took the job because I used to work for a coffee company years ago in the UK. I’m very knowledgeable about coffee product marketing so I knew exactly how to word it.

Take anything you know really well and specialize in it.


If I’m conversationally fluent in a foreign language how do I get started?

The only way you get better at something is to do it often.

Remember that translators are excellent writers first and foremost. Just because you’ve got killer foreign language skills or are extremely fluent in a language doesn’t mean you’re any good at translating.

You could have near-native fluency and still be a pathetic translator believe me!

But let’s suppose you’re not :)

My advice is to keep expanding your vocabulary in subject matter that you want to work with (it helps to use tools like Memrise and Anki for this), read up on some translation theory/methods with books like this and this (familiarize yourself with important issues related to creativity and flexibility in translation, ethics and so on), and most importantly translate everything you can get your hands on for practise.

Read often! Great writers are great readers!

The issue of creativity in translation is a huge one because there will always be times where you can’t just literally translate everything word for word. You often need to strike the balance between being literal and keeping true to the mood of the original text. Sometimes this means you have to use a completely different word, expression or sentence to carry the same effect intended by the original author.

One thing I often do is go to news portals where there are usually tabs at the top of the website for different interests (Technology, Health, Business, Politics, etc.) and just find interesting articles to translate on various subject matter.

Begin building your own glossary of terms.

There are so many names of organizations, abbreviations and so on that you’ll come up against repeatedly and possibly won’t recognize at first. Compile your own list and it’ll be a handy reference for when you need it.

Translation accreditors like NAATI in Australia and ATA in the USA sell practise tests that you can order online too which I also highly recommend (you’ll need this certification in some countries for many jobs but it’s expensive and does expire after a while). Since every country is different you’ll have to do some research to find out what the rules are where you are but this isn’t always necessary for overseas work).

There are also associations that you can join (e.g. AUSIT and ITI) which are great for helping you network with the right people in the industry, attend workshops to increase your skills and find work.

Contact translation agencies online and they’ll often send you a test translation before deciding to work with you.

You should also check out Proz and Translators Cafe which are forums dedicated to translation (not entirely free to use!) but bear in mind that depending on your language set there’s usually a lot of competition for jobs posted there.

Once you do a couple of good translations for an agency you’ll start to build up trust and they’ll send you jobs more often (like any kind of agency work really).

You eventually should get hold of some CAT (computer-assisted translation) software like SDL Trados which is pretty much essential for many jobs. An excellent CAT tool to get started with is OmegaT which is completely free (I still often use this as it runs well on Linux). The benefits of using CAT tools is that as you translate, the software stores what you’ve translated in its memory so that when you come across the same or a similar sentence in future (either in the same document or another one), it saves you having to translate it all over again.

It can cut your work in half especially if you’re working on a document that’s really repetitive!

The most important reason to use CAT tools however is that they make sure you stay consistent in what you’re writing.


Does translation pay well?

It certainly can but in my case not really! :)

I tend to take jobs in drips and drabs but I’m not active at all in trying to market myself to big clients (I have other projects taking up my time). If I did market myself I’m sure it’d be a lot more lucrative for me since Arabic is not quite as competitive as languages like French and Spanish are.

So how it works is I get emails from agencies from time to time who say something along the lines of, ‘Here’s such and such a job. Are you interested?’ and usually they’ll set an offer based on the word count or a flat rate if it’s small. Then it’s just a matter of accepting the job, completing the translation and emailing it back to them before the deadline.

A few days later I get paid electronically.

No phone calls. No face to face contact whatsoever.

This is great if you want to move around a lot and deal with clients/agencies via email at your own convenience but just remember that you’ll be spending a lot of hours indoors staring at a computer screen. :)

Since I love outdoor adventure and social interaction this gets stressful for me at times!

The money I get from what I do could easily allow me to live comfortably in the kind of countries I like to live in where living costs are extremely low (e.g. Egypt or Georgia) but if I wanted to set myself up in Australia or Ireland with the high living costs of those places I’d need to market myself a lot more actively to be able to live off translation alone.

I should note too that I am registered as a business for tax purposes in my country which is a legal necessity (in fact I’m registered to pay tax on everything that I get through my various streams of online revenue).

Also, if you’ve got a rare language set then you might find fewer opportunities but they will most likely pay more when you do find them.

Ultimately I love what I do (even though I am really hoping to find the right girl, get married and buy a house in the next couple of years with an in-house or government translation job ideally).

I’m not a rich guy but I have no debt and everything of value that I own along with everything I need to sustain myself abroad fits in my backpack which is very liberating indeed! :)


Are you a translator? Share your thoughts below!


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

The Real Reason You Forgot The Language You Studied In School

Do we forget languages?

Do we gradually forget languages?

What happened to the foreign languages we learned in school? Are they lost and can we pick them up again quickly if they are?

Now that my year in Korea is over, I’ve been spending some time over the last few weeks getting in some practise with other languages before heading off to start another challenge (I’ll announce my plans later this week on Facebook when I hear back about the visa as it’s one of the hardest countries in the world to visit ;)).

I deliberately blocked out everything for the last year so that I could avoid distractions and keep focused on my goal to become fluent in Korean and even though it would have been possible to learn Korean and improve other languages at the same time, doing that would have been a recipe for burn-out and my Korean would have suffered for it.

I had enormous success with Korean because of this but over the last few weeks I’ve noticed how rusty I’ve become in some languages after months of inactivity.


Skills get rusty and dusty but they’re always there

Like a lot of people I used to worry that if I didn’t use it I’d lose it but I’m now convinced that if you learn a language well to begin with, it’s always going to be there.

A short while ago I went back to French after not having studied or used it for over 6 years and I thought that I was definitely going to be back at square one for sure.

I took two lessons with a practice partner I found on italki and when I took the first lesson I quickly found that I still had the same comprehension level that I did 6 years ago (even though my speaking skills were rusty as hell).

Despite my speaking being really out of practise due to years of total neglect, my listening comprehension had not really changed at all.

By the time I had my second lesson in French, I was already getting back to where I was 6 years ago. The same thing happened with my Irish when I was spending time with the Irish community in Melbourne a few weeks ago.

Similarly, I had a chat with a girl in Algeria recently using Verbling after taking a long break from Arabic and although I had to stop myself thinking in Korean, it was all still there.

None of it’s ever really forgotten.

I’ve found that this is true for other skills as well (I used to play the violin and bass guitar, and I’ve found that after years of not playing it comes straight back as soon as I pick up the instruments).


But why can’t I remember the language I studied in school?

Most of us took a foreign language in school and yet a common complaint is that few of us can remember it.

I studied Mandarin Chinese for about 5 years in school but I can’t speak it as an adult.

Here’s why:

Some of you might disagree with me when I say this but if you can’t remember any of the language that you studied in school then it’s likely that you never learned it well in the first place.

I want you to consider this for a moment:

“At three hours a week by nine months of a school year, students enrolled in a foreign language in school may experience as little as 540 hours of actual instruction and L2 exposure over five years.”

That means that in five years the average school student gets only about 540 hours (equivalent of only about 2 months at 8 hours a day) of exposure to the foreign language they’re learning.

When you factor in all the other distractions we have as kids it’s probably significantly lower than this.

“By contrast, in the same chronological time window, learners in L2 environments may accrue about 7,000 hours of L2 exposure (if we calculate a conservative four hours a day).”

These are people who are actually living in the country and exposed to the language for about 4 hours a day (time when you’re out interacting with people).

Although the author says it’s only a conservative estimate, I’d say it’s more than what a lot of people get when they travel because of the common tendency a lot of us have to be unsocial or stay in an expat bubble.

“A sobering comparison is that children learning their L1 may receive of the order of 14,000 hours of exposure, also based on a conservative estimate of eight hours a day!”

That’s a lot of hours of exposure to a new language and there’s certainly a big difference between 14,000 hours and 540!

In my own situation with Korean I could safely say that if I had of decided to stay in Korea for five years then I’d be averaging about 10,000 hours of exposure based on what I’ve been doing.

As you can see, when you put it in to perspective and really think about it, the foreign language exposure we get in school is totally insufficient on its own – regardless of whether or not you think children have an advantage over adults.

We can’t expect ourselves to remember something that we never really learned well to start with!

If you’re a parent putting your kids in foreign language classes then it’s something I’d encourage you to consider.

Expose them to the language as much as possible outside of school hours by actively immersing them in the target language community.

Learn it with them and foster a bilingual atmosphere at home.


It doesn’t take a lot of effort to keep a language fresh in your mind

So as adults how we do avoid getting rusty?

It’s simple.

Regular usage.

Studying takes a lot of time and effort but maintenance doesn’t. Setting aside time each week just to have a chat in a foreign language is all you need to keep it fresh.


This was written by .

Did you find this interesting, useful or encouraging? A quick share on Facebook or Twitter will make my day! Thanks. :)

Comments: If you’ve got something you’d like to add to this or some constructive criticism you can do that at the bottom of this page. Just please be respectful. Any abusive or nonsensical comments will be deleted.

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