I love to read lists of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) on topics that interest me, so I thought that I would periodically post some freelance translation FAQs. The questions are based on my experience and opinions and those of translators I’ve worked with and taught. Feel free to add your own thoughts in the Comments section.
Q: Do I need a Bachelor’s degree to be a translator?
A: Yes. No. Maybe. Parade Magazine incurred the wrath of many freelance translators when it rated translation as the #2 hot job “no college degree required.” While there are definitely jobs for translators that don’t absolutely require a college degree (for example, some U.S. government agencies base their hiring primarily on their own testing programs), it’s quite rare to meet a successful freelance translator who doesn’t have at least a Bachelor’s (I personally don’t know any), and quite frequently a Master’s or higher.
Q: Do I need a graduate degree to be a translator?
A: It’s not an absolute requirement, but it definitely helps. For example, a graduate degree helps you meet the eligibility requirements for the American Translators Association certification exam.
Q: How much can I earn as a freelance translator?
A: Of course, everyone’s mileage varies, it depends on your skills, clients, motivation and many other factors. In general, the average self-employed full-time freelance translator in the U.S. earns in the mid-50,000s. My personal opinion, based on my business and those of other translators I work with, is that a translator with excellent language skills and assertive marketing techniques should be able to earn $60-70,000 and still maintain a good quality of life. Six figures is not out of the question if you are willing to work very long hours or if you work in a high-demand language pair or specialization.
Q: How long does it take to get established as a freelance translator?
A: Here again, it really depends on your situation. I’ve met people who had a full-time business up and running in a few months, and people who have been at it for years and don’t seem to have the ball rolling yet. Generally, I would allow six months to a year to get a full-time business up to speed. I started part-time, contacted 400+ (not a typo) potential clients during my first year in business and it took 18 months until I was replacing my income from my previous full-time job.
Q: Do I have to be certified to work as a freelance translator?
A: In the U.S., translator certification is managed by the American Translators Association and translator certification is not a requirement for setting up your own business. In my experience, being ATA-certified helps give you legitimacy as a translator; I would call it a “plus” but not a “must.” In addition, ATA certification is not offered in every language combination, and is not offered at all in language combinations that don’t involve English. Becoming ATA-certified involves meeting eligibility requirements, passing the written test, doing continuing education and maintaining your ATA membership. Not to be negative, but to be realistic, it’s worth mentioning that the pass rate is very low; I think that the overall pass rate on the ATA exam is about 20%. I think that certification is well worth it and that being ATA-certified helps me stand out in a popular language combination, others would disagree and say it’s expensive and not necessary, it’s really a personal decision.