Six figures as a translator: how to get there?

Earning six figures (meaning over $100,000 US dollars per year) is a significant goal for lots of freelancers. It’s an ambitious but achievable goal for most translators and interpreters who are good at their work, are ambitious, have good business skills, and are willing to work hard. One confusing thing in our industry is that there are lots of paths to six figures; if it were as simple as “raise your rates,” or “work longer hours,” the goal wouldn’t be so daunting. Let’s look at three ways you might hit the six-figure mark in the next year. If you’d like a first-person account of the six-figure journey, read this excellent post by Spanish translator Paula Arturo.

Work for agencies, and work a lot
I’m not saying this is the preferred path, but it’s a path. I know several translators who work exclusively for agencies and make six figures, because they aim for the high end of the agency market and they work a lot. To do this, you have to have a high tolerance for being in the translation trenches; you have to be willing to crank out 3,000+ words a day, every single day, and you can’t take a ton of vacation. But if you prefer working for agencies, your administrative overhead is a lot lower than someone who works with direct clients. You might only issue a few invoices a month, and you might spend little to no time marketing.

The risk here is burnout: just make sure that in your six-figure quest, you’re not sacrificing your enthusiasm for the job, the quality of your work, or your future sustainability. You also want to pay attention to your vulnerability to client vicissitudes. If you’re working for four agencies and earning 25% of your revenue from each one, think about what you’d do if a client lowered their maximum rate for your language pair, or lost the end client that you primarily work for, or stopped sending you work all together.

Work for at least some direct clients
If there’s one major downside to the “work for agencies, and work a lot” model, it’s that your options, if you choose that route, are fairly narrow. Translate, translate, and translate some more, until you reach your target income. By working for higher-paying clients, you open up various options: you can work the same amount and earn more money, or work less and earn the same amount of money, or use the higher-paying clients to “subsidize” lower-paying work that you take on just because you enjoy it.

Realistically, hitting six figures gets a lot easier if you work with at least some direct clients. Make sure to account for the fact that direct client work is often more time-consuming than agency work. You may be doing a lot more than just translating. When I entered the direct client market, I also found that I worked a lot more slowly, because more of my direct clients used my translations for publication or distribution (grant applications, program reports, etc.) rather than for in-house, informational purposes. Remember that direct clients come in many forms; for example I do a lot of work for individual clients, and I really enjoy it. Direct clients don’t have to be Fortune 500 companies, and many freelancers fail in the direct client market by aiming too high, targeting clients that need more (volume, availability, languages) than a freelancer can realistically deliver.

Another caveat here: working with direct clients isn’t an all or nothing proposition. I work with both agencies and direct clients, and I enjoy them for different reasons. But if you want to hit six figures, you’re going to have an easier time if you filter at least some direct clients into your mix.

Have multiple revenue streams
As Walt Kania says, “A few prongs is good. With twelve prongs, you have a manure fork,” and you definitely don’t want that. But multiple revenue streams can be a big boost to your six-figure goals. For example, I work for agencies and direct clients, I earn royalties from my books, and I teach classes and do consulting for other translators. Personally, I enjoy the mix. Sometimes, when one thing is down, another is up. Or when I don’t feel like sending out warm e-mails to prospective direct clients, I do feel like marketing my classes, or the other way around. Some weeks it feels great to dive into a meaty translation project, and other weeks I really enjoy making a new set of videos for one of my classes.

The key here is to find revenue streams that complement each other and don’t make you feel pulled in a million directions. It also helps to have a relatively easy time shifting gears (translate in the morning, edit in the afternoon, teach at night, or whatever your revenue streams are), and you also need to pick the right niches when you look at these multiple streams. Another aspect I enjoy is that I don’t have to worry too much if I want to take on a lower-paying or pro bono project just because I enjoy it; it’s nearly always balanced out by some higher-paying work.

Two things are true about becoming a six-figure translator: it’s doable (if anyone tells you otherwise, seek a second opinion), and it takes a lot of work and some creativity. And you need a motivation; earning more for the sake of earning more isn’t going to carry you through a whole year of hard work. My motivations are that I love to take chunks of time off to travel with my family, and that I hate worrying about money. Together, those things motivate me to keep working at all of my revenue streams so that they add up to what I want to earn.

Readers, over to you: thoughts on breaking the six-figure mark?

29 Responses to “Six figures as a translator: how to get there?”
  1. Clark Gillette September 27, 2016
    • Corinne McKay September 27, 2016
    • Łukasz Gos September 27, 2016
  2. Edith September 27, 2016
    • Corinne McKay September 27, 2016
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  3. Łukasz Gos September 27, 2016
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  4. Chris September 27, 2016
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  5. Allison Wright September 27, 2016
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      • Chris September 28, 2016
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  8. Tom Hoar September 30, 2016
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      • Tom Hoar October 1, 2016
  9. Tom Hoar September 30, 2016
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  11. Steve Rainwater October 1, 2016
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  12. Micheál October 18, 2016
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