I get a lot of e-mails from people who want to become translators. A typical contact is from someone who is bilingual and either doesn’t enjoy his/her current job or because of necessity (i.e. a spouse whose job is repeatedly transferred) wants to find a profitable work-from-home job. Based on my own experience, the experience of other translators I work with and the students I’ve taught in my online course for beginning translators, here are a few basic tips on how to become a translator and maybe more importantly, how to figure out if you really want to become a translator:
- Realistically assess your language skills and experience. Translators need to have near-native command of their source (“from”) language(s) and excellent writing skills in their target (“into”) language (s). Unless you truly consider yourself a native speaker of two languages, don’t try to translate in both “directions,” stick with translating from your non-native language into your native language.
- Realistically assess your ability to run a home-based business. The translation industry in the U.S. is heavily geared toward independent contractors, and the few in-house positions out there are rarely suitable for beginners. Be honest with yourself about whether, in addition to being a good translator, you can be an effective marketer, customer service rep, accountant, office manager, etc.
- Plan for your startup phase. I’ve met translators who had a full-time freelance business up and running in a few months, but these people mostly had strong contacts in the industry or worked in very in-demand specializations or language pairs. For the rest of us, a startup phase of six months to a year is more realistic. Plan ahead for how you’ll support yourself (financially and mentally!) during this phase of intense marketing.
- Be ready for a marketing marathon. As I tell every student in my online course, I contacted over 400 potential clients during my first year as a freelance translator, and it still took 18 months until I was replacing the income from my previous full-time job. Be ready to pound the electronic pavement until you develop a stable of regular clients.
- Check out the competition. The best and easiest way to find out what other translators in your language pair charge, who their clients are and what specializations they work in is to hit the web. Do a search for translators in your language pair and see what they’re up to (and what you can do better!).
- Enjoy it!. By any measure, the translation industry is booming, and the demand for qualified translators far outstrips the supply in most language combinations. There are various compensation surveys for the translation industry, but personally I feel that with assertive marketing and high-quality service, income of $60,000-$70,000 a year is realistic. Given the job’s flexibility, intellectual stimulation and growth potential, it’s an outstanding field for bilingual people.