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

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


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 Donovan Nagel.

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Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Icelandic


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I considered becoming a Russian-to-English translator. As of right now, that plan has been shelved. Maybe I didn't try hard enough, but I had trouble finding decently paid work. A lot of people who aren't in the field (and often don't speak a foreign language) seem to think that translation is easy, which couldn't be further from the truth! Unfortunately, this problem manifests itself in low rates. Plus, there are a lot of Russians who learned English as a second language and offer Russian-to-English translation services too. Again, this is just based on my limited experience. From talking to other translators, I think it varies a lot by language pair. As of right now, I keep up my Russian skills because I love the language, but most of the translation I do is either for practice/personal reasons, or the occasional project I'll do for fun.

Donovan, with your Arabic skills, you could get a really, really nice government job in the US if you were a US citizen. Arabic is a very "in" language right now. Russian used to be, but then the Cold War ended. I guess I was born 10 or 20 years too late. :)

And regarding that random boring passage about the bond issuance – I'm weirdly proud that I understood that. I'm not a lawyer, but I am doing a finance degree and that's some of the stuff we've learned. It can be dreadfully boring at times, which is why I study languages (among other things) in my spare time. :)


Like Donovan said, keep trying! It took me a year to be able to make a living when I started out and that's perfectly normal. It takes time to built a client base, especially if you don't have a lot of experience.
Russian + finance sounds like a very interesting combination to me. Finance is definitely among the best paid fields. My advice would be to stay away from the big translation agencies that only compete on price and to look for the smaller, specialized ones and for direct clients (banks, funds, investment companies) once you have some experience. With Russian, I'd definitely look at the UN, the IMF, the World Bank etc. and maybe apply for an internship there to get a foot in the door.

Donovan Nagel

You're clever! I didn't understand it. :)

I would have thought you'd have plenty of opportunities as a Russian translator. That's a shame. I say keep trying!

Arabic was in huge demand here as well at the height of the Iraq war which is why I almost went into the military as a translator a few years ago. I know that with increasing immigration from the Mid East there are a lot of opportunities for Arabic translators as well.

Maximus Esc


I am a native Arabic speaker, and near native English Speaker. I've lived in the US. for seven years, I received a BS. I have been trying to land a translation job for several years, I am still unsuccessful. I applied to a contract job in Iraq and it is still up in the air. I received a Bachelors in Aviation Technology and Space Commercialization in the USA so I could translate in the technical field? I am open to anything else. Do you have of any agency where I can apply? How do you market yourself? I am currently doing odd jobs such as teaching yoga, working in cafe shops...etc, it would be nice if I can capitalize on the skills that I already have!


Hi Donovan,

I've been a full-time freelance translator, specializing mainly in legal translation, for over 7 years and I found your post very well balanced with some good advice.

People have a lot of misconceptions about what working as a translator entails. It’s not really something you can do in your spare time to earn a few extra bucks while sitting on the beach somewhere, it’s a career that you need to invest time and energy into and a skill that takes time to learn and master.

You’re absolutely right that speaking a foreign language well doesn’t automatically make you a good translator. And yes, you should always translate into your mother tongue only and only in fields you know inside out. Most professional translation work is specialized, legal, financial, medical, etc. and if you want to be successful, you need to specialize too, especially if you work with common languages such as Spanish, French and German. There is a lot of competition, so you need to stand out from the crowd. It takes a lot of time and active marketing to build a client portfolio. If you are just starting out and have no credentials and no experience, clients won’t come knocking on your door, you need to go find them and persuade them that you are capable of delivering top-notch quality.

My advice to anyone that wants to become a translator is to invest in training. You really can only learn to translate by doing. If you’re not sure if translation is the right career for you, start with a short course or attend workshops organized by translator associations. Try to find a seasoned translator with the same language pair that is willing to mentor you or edit your work. Network with other translators, attend conferences, invest in continuing education and specialize. Working for translation agencies is often the easiest option when you start out, but they usually pay a lot less than direct clients (companies and institutions) and there are many bad apples out there, so you should always check an agency’s reputation before accepting to work for them and don’t let yourself be exploited by those that pay peanuts!

I know quite a few freelance translators that spend a lot of time abroad or divide their time between two countries. It’s perfectly possible to move to another country and continue working for the same clients you had before. You do have to make sure however to do so legally, to be properly registered and pay taxes, social security, etc.

I could go on writing pages and pages about this topic, but I think I have hijacked your site enough ;-)

For me, being a freelance translator is my dream job. I get to combine two fields I love, law and languages and I do so on my own terms. Nothing beats being your own boss!

Donovan Nagel

Wow. I should have let you write that post for me! :)

Thanks a lot for chiming in here, Christine.

I'd be interested to hear your story about how you started out and the lessons you've learned along the way. Were you working in Law prior to getting into translation?


I never thought I'd become a legal translator actually and I've never worked as a lawyer nor do I want to. I studied translation because I was crazy about languages but didn't want to become a language teacher ;-) So I studied translation at the University of Geneva (Switzerland). We had several specialization courses to choose from, legal, economic, technical and literary translation and I discovered that I really enjoyed legal translation. Two of my favorite professors had law degrees as well as degrees in translation and I discovered that I could study law by distance learning at the Sorbonne in Paris for only a couple hundred of euros, so I gave it a shot. The initial idea was just to take some courses as continuing education while I started to work as a freelance translator, but I ended up discovering a real passion for law and finished the degree in 2008 (3 years). It was exhausting to work and study at the same time, but definitely worth it. Having both the degree in translation and the law degree has opened a lot of doors for me and allows me to work directly for law firms, notaries and international institutions. I've now decided to go for a master's degree in law as well, as it is a prerequisite to work as a lawyer-linguist for the European Court of Justice.

Lesson learned:
- never stop learning and specializing
- as a freelancer, you are a business, so behave like one and set yourself apart from the many amateurs in this field
- there is not one translation market, there are many very different markets. There are translation agencies trying go get people to work for 0.01 $ per word and companies willing to pay 0.50 $ or more for top quality.
- networking is the best marketing strategy, most of my clients now find me through word-of-mouth

Gabriel medina

Hi what company would you suggest for translation from Spanish to English?


Yes,people don't understand what serious translation entails. Also, pure and simple fiction books translation can be very difficult - because, if you translate a medical or a legal text, generally the words are clear and refer to something specific and you only have to make everything sound clear and professional. But when you get a text with puns, metaphors and the like, then you should have as much talent as the original writer to make it work. And it can very much depend on the language also, some things do make sense and are good in one language, but not in others.


Freelancing is not for everybody, definitely not for me. I like writing and studying and I love translating, but the stress of constant marketing and networking is not for me.
I find self-promotion as depressing as subscribing to a dating website.
I think the internet is responsible for this: as much as I love it, it has created this virtual universe where everybody is supposed to be beautiful, perfect and too great for words :)
I advise everybody who thinks like I do to look for a salaried job, where you can be appreciated for what you do without having to pimp yourself 24/7. Good luck!


Hi good job,
Just translated this for you, You are legally bind to send me the sum of, one hundred U.S Dollar for this work...just kidding!

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.

بموجب هذه الوثيقة المُصدر والشّرِكَةِ ، يُصادقان، يعتمدان، و يُجيزان الأستخدام مِن قِبَلِ الوكيل، مِن قَبل وبعد التاريخ المذكور هنا، وفِيما يتعلق بعرض وبيع مجموعة سند
(أ ٢٠٠٥ )( 2005 A)،
من الكشف الرسمى. الوكيل يوافق أنه لن يُبرم بيع مجموعة سند
(أ ٢٠٠٥ )( 2005A)
إلا إذا كان سداد تلك البيع مقرون بـ أو بتسليم مسبق للنسخة من الكشف الرسمى النهائي.

Tell me what you think of my translation.

I'll write you later what I think of this subject.

"The Underwriter agrees that it will not confirm" I think this should say " He will not...."
not it will not," I know you did not write this!


I really like the practical measures on how to do the translation jobs properly. Since Donovan and Christine shared their views I see my own experience from a perspective.

As a student I worked as a Polish/English interpreter. It had always been stressful. When with clients, I was sometimes out of words and I felt I was doing a bad job. I am sure I was too hard on myself and also it was invaluable experience. Although I was happy with rates, I prefer not to do it for living. I was doing it without any translation training.

My another experience is translating. I was asked to make a translation from English into Polish. I was surprised how much time it took me to do it. It was not a complicated text, but simple issues hinder your efforts. For example, names of institutions that do not have counterparts in either of the countries.

Translation requires a lot of practice, training and perseverance. If someone feels it can be interesting, should hook up with someone who does it. It is great to gain an insight knowledge from a professional. The best is surely to experience the job yourself.

All the best.


I am so glad you posted this! I really want to translate, I've taken a few theory classes and am working on gaining proficiency in Turkish right now, but the idea of being on my own without a steady job terrifies me. To hear it explained in such simple terms really helped me to understand what it is a freelancer does, and maybe that it isn't as scary as I thought!

I have a question for you though. Since your main language is Arabic, perhaps you know a bit about other areas nearby. I really love Turkish and I want it to be the language I translate with, but I can't figure out what kind of specialty would actually be useful with it since it is still a niche language. Do you have any advice? It's not a matter of interest, I fully enjoy technical, business and even law classes. I just am at a total loss when it comes to finding someone who might give me advice on this issue.

Thank you again for writing this!

Farnaz kamyar

Hi. I'm persian and translate from english to persian language. I'm a book translator but it hasnot enough money, i want money, how i can this at my home in Iran?


Hey Donovan!

Great article. Could you tell us a little more about how you get clients?



My language combination
Korean mother tongue born and raised but spend most of my teen years in Canada, Quebec
All of 3 languages are on par with one another except for my English, because i did post and post secondary schooling in English and French, I am more articulate in specific fields such as business and IT. Anyway my goal with translation is i want to be able to find enough work so that i can live off of this work and then do my art work at the same time. Am i too far off from reality.

I am also orally very comfortable but conference interpretation seems a daunting task to me. and besides i am very into asian art so i want this translation thing to be my full time career but rather as like a source of small income.


i would love to start a career as an online translator, i've tried couple websites and i did apply for some offers but i didn't get responds. can you please suggest some real websites that actually pay.

Manuel Alejandro

Hello, I am a 17 year old boy almost 18, i was wondering if someone could help me finding a job as a translator or suggest me where i could find a smiliar one. I live in Colombia, i speak enlgish since 4 years old and have a B2 degree on it and i am a native spanish speaker. Thanks.


Hello, Donovan thanks much for these tips of yours. Really wish to know more about these translation agencies, if you could have tips on how to build a solid portfolio in this domain, and many other tips. Thanks.

Adam Hodgson

Hi Donovan,
You have mentioned NAATI in your post. The advice to get certified in Australia is very good. It can be a difficult process but a lot of the work requires accreditation. Your translation rates will be higher when you are certified.

While you are going through that process, it is worthwhile contacting translation agencies but be prepared to highlight your specialisations, and willingness to prove yourself with translations in your field.


Thanks for this great post, Donovan! It provides a lot of help for new translators. I myself was a freelancer and now lead a small translation team specializing in the language pair of English and Chinese. Although not some sort of high-tech industry, language translation is still a very challenging trade. It takes tremendous training, wide range of knowledge, years of hands-on experience and of course a bit of talent to grow up as a top professional translator. But it's also rewarding in multiple ways - occassionally there could be a couple of days each year when I could being working on my laptop while sitting on a bar stool overlooking a sand beach. Good luck, fellow linguists!

Linda Verdi

I also want to become freelance translator and your blog could help me so much. Thanks for sharing it.


Nice article but there is nothing called " Egyptian Arabic" the most powerful think about Arabic that there is one language that more than +300 million people could speak it if they speak in formal language. Your accent could not be a "language" sir!
but again I would like to tell you that the article is amazing! <3

Zara Tucker

You have done a really great job by sharing this informative stuff about how to become a freelance translator. Loved to read!

Michael Robinson

What you had to say here about becoming a translator is really intriguing and I would love to do something like this one day. My father was military and so we lived in Japan for quite some time. I, fortunately, picked up the language and so becoming a translator to travel around and speak the language that I love sounds like a dream. Just like you mentioned, I will make sure to not claim to speak all of the colloquial terms but I am sure that I will learn them eventually. Thanks again!


Thanks for sharing your experience, you are inspiring :-)

Henok Estifanos

I am from Addis Ababa,Ethiopia.
Amharic is my native language.

My request is I would be glad to work with you if you have English to Amharic translation Jobs.

With best regards

Charlie Bavister

You writing is always fabulous. This is third time I’ve read your blog and I find the information very useful.


Frankly, it's difficult to deny the most yours opinions about translators profession, really good text. I would add my 2 cents about "native-speakers" and technologies. "The point about only translating into your native language is a crucial one" - I'm not sure, in general you're absolutely right, but today we (translators) are just "bricks in the wall" :) Almost always just links in a chain.
So, our translation comes to another linguist (proofreader or whoever, but mostly native-speaker) and at the end the text is checked and corrected anyway. The translator doesn't have to be a native speaker, much more important is that he knows exactly what and how he translates.
The other issue is the progressing technology. The translator plays another part today than yesterday. The translation is done partially by using CAT tools and NMT. The translator have to know versatile software, methods, technologies etc. We learn and talk about it in our IT tutorials for translators ( because the translators world changes every month. From a hunched man with glasses over a typewriter to a profi with rich software know-how, because the translation does mean today working on some "content". It doesn't matter if we like it or not.

Tim Jamieson

Dear Donovan:

Have just read your article and must commend you on your achievements! I especially commend you on emphasizing the following: translating from the target language to your mother tongue, and very importantly, having a very high level of writing skill.
I can well relate to your article: I have been studying Russian since 1984, and in 2005 earned a Master of Arts from the Russian School, Middlebury College, Middlebury, Vermont. The courses all placed great emphasis on written as well as spoken skill. As well, I have been studying Modern Standard Arabic here in Canada under a native speaker, and we focus on all aspects: reading, writing, speaking and oral comprehension. Every week he sends me selected texts from al-Jazeera and other sources and I translate them from Arabic to English. Your point is very well made, and he emphasizes, about not doing literal translations! Effective written communication is of paramount importance.
Again, I commend you in your article, and would be glad to hear from you some time.

Adamu Aliyu Ngulde

My name is Adamu Aliyu Ngulde, from Borno State, Northeastern Nigeria.
My request is I would be glad to work with you if you have English to Hausa translation Jobs.


I love that you say that translators should be, first and foremost, writers - it's something that I've been trying and trying to argue in my current company... You need to have an excellent understanding of text, and be able to write.... It's not just switching words to another language...

I'm at the moment considering starting with freelance translations... I was fortunate to be raised bi-lingual and to have lived in different countries while I was young.... I'm not sure how to start though, but your article gave me some ideas at least! Thank you!


Hello my name is hakim from algeria im 25 years old i can speak 4 languages german english french arabic and im learning spanish now the problem is i feel like im usefull i have no job and i dnt know what to do any advice?

James Norton

Thanks for this amazing and helpful post!Great Information and awareness for translators. I would like to thank you for these usefull tips.

Varun Dhawan

These tips for becoming a freelance translator is very helpful. I believe that if you do certification in translation then it is very helpful and can give you an edge. Thanks for sharing such nice tips on becoming a freelance translator.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein