Translating official documents

Over the years, I’ve observed that many translators are somewhere between lukewarm and downright scornful of translating individual clients’ official documents: birth certificates, educational transcripts, diplomas, drivers’ licenses, you get the picture. I think that a lot of experienced translators view this as “beginner’s work” or not worth their time, so they take it off their range of services. Official documents are not a huge component of my freelance business, but they do total a few thousand dollars of income every year for me and the work is painless and gratifying. Here are a few reasons I think it’s worth including official documents  in your range of services, and a few tips on how to do it successfully.

Translating official documents is appealing because:

  • It’s lucrative. Admittedly, translating birth certificates is not a lot of things: it’s not creative, it doesn’t cry out for stylistic greatness… but it can pay up to a dollar a word and nearly always pays at least 50 cents a word because the standard billing unit is per page. In addition, official documents are a market that agencies really don’t want because the size of the projects does not justify their overhead, so freelancers are most individual clients’ best option.
  • It’s gratifying. People who are applying for green cards, graduate school, marriage licenses etc. are really, really grateful to find someone who is experienced and professional to work on their documents.
  • It’s easy to schedule. When you’re translating a driver’s license, it’s not as if you’re juggling other commitments  in order to fit in 10,000 words. Most official document translations take less than an hour to complete, so they’re easy to schedule.
  • The clients pay in advance, so you have no follow-up or collections hassles. I require all individual clients to pay in advance by PayPal or by check, so that I do not have to deal with any after-the-fact invoicing.
  • And a few tips for setting your official document translations up for success:

  • Set a per-page fee and a notarized certification fee; it makes your life and your clients’ lives easier. Because of the time it takes to format official documents (especially diplomas and any kind of official certificate), I think that the per-page rate is important. In addition, if you get a lot of inquiries from people who want quotes, it can be helpful to put up a web page (here is mine) with your standard rates, turnaround time and procedures.
  • Require advance payment. I cannot stress this enough; you do not want to be chasing after someone for $50, and most official document projects are small enough that your clients should not object to paying in advance. I know that a lot of people complain about PayPal, but I really like it. You receive your money immediately, any difficulties with the actual payment process are between your client and PayPal, and you can use PayPal’s free invoicing tool to set up an invoice template that looks professional and does all of the calculations for you.
  • Use a screenshot or graphics program to enhance your translations. Many official documents include stamps, university logos, seals, etc. If you use a screenshot or image manipulation program, you can copy these over onto your translation for a truly official-looking translation.
  • Find a free or low-cost notary. My bank provides free notary services to anyone who has accounts there, so my fee for the notarized certification simply reflects the time it takes to go obtain the certification.
  • In closing, I also think that there are a lot of opportunities to market your official document translation services. International credentials evaluation services, consulates, language schools, international exchange programs and other similar organizations could probably use your services. Thoughts?

19 Responses to “Translating official documents”
  1. Francesca February 12, 2010
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