How to Become a Freelance Translator: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  • Time to read: 7 min.

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If you want to become a freelance translator, you need to know the truth. You need to know that it is not all rainbows and unicorns.

It’s not easy, but it can be worth it, as long as you put in the effort and know what to expect.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

There are two kinds of people in the world, my friend. Those who have a rope around their neck and those who have the job of doing the cutting. – Tuco

The Good

When you become a freelance translator, you have freedom. In fact, you have much more freedom than you ever would in a job working for someone else.

What kind of freedoms?

Freedom to Work/Not Work

You can decide when you work. If you want to work today, you work; if you don’t want to, you don’t. Nobody will tell you one way or another what your schedule should be. You’re the only one that gets to decide that.

Maybe you’re a morning person and love getting work done first thing, at 4:00 AM. Maybe you love sleeping in and would rather stay up late until 3:00 AM getting your work done.

Whatever it is, you decide.

Freedom to Work on What You Want

At a regular job, your boss, or most likely your boss’s boss, tells you what you’re supposed to work on.

Even if you think it’s stupid, or you hate it, or you’re morally opposed to it, you are still expected to work on it.

When you become a freelance translator, you can choose what you want to work on. You can choose where you want to spend your energy in terms of what to work on.

If a topic or translation doesn’t interest you, you don’t have to do it. You can say no to the client.

If a client asks you to translate marketing materials for a casino, and you’re opposed to gambling, you can choose to turn down the client.

Again, you decide where to spend your energy.

Freedom to Make However Much Money You Want

Many freelancers don’t see this as a freedom.

In fact, most see it as a constraint, as they are not promised a set salary when they freelance.

But if you get a set salary, you are not in charge of, nor do you have responsibility over deciding whether you should make more or less.

Sure, maybe you negotiated your initial salary, or successfully argued for a raise.

However, that is not the same freedom as deciding that you want to earn thousands more. It’s not the same freedom as deciding that you make enough money and that you now want to cut back on your work and the amount you earn so that you can spend your time on other pursuits and interests.

Negotiating for these is much harder in a salaried position.

Freedom of Location

One of the biggest perks of becoming a freelance translator is that you can decide where you want to work and live.

A lot of translators don’t make huge sums of money. But that’s OK with them because they can afford to still live a good lifestyle by choosing to live in a more affordable location.

For some people, that might be Thailand, Vietnam, or parts of South America. For others, that might mean moving away from the coasts in the United States.

Either way, these are options that you have as a freelance translator that others tied to specific jobs don’t have.

The Bad

While freedom is the main draw for those attracted to the idea of becoming a freelance translator, that same freedom can destroy a freelancer.

Freelancing is not for the weak. More importantly, it’s not for those that are undisciplined.

When you become a freelance translator, you need to be more than motivated; you have to be willing to act on that motivation, and, even more so, act when you have no motivation.

You don’t get any points for your intentions.

You don’t get paid for being motivated to put in the work.

You get paid for action.

Clients pay you for solving their problems.

If you’re not disciplined, you won’t make it as a freelance translator.

At the same time, if you’re not immune to criticism, naysayers, or those who would bring you down, you won’t make it as a freelance translator.

Freedom is what drives people to become freelance translators. But that same freedom will drive most freelancers back to the work force.

The Ugly

The truth about freelance translation is that there are a lot of translators out there that don’t make much money.

Heck, there are a good amount of translators who don’t make any money.

Don’t believe anyone who says that becoming a successful freelance translator is an easy way to make your millions.


You’re still trading your time for money

In order to get truly rich, you need to make money without trading all your time away. That’s why so many translators operate their own mini translation agencies as soon as they get somewhat established.

Think about it this way.

If you are a sole translator, you will get paid for the work that you do.

So if you do a 10,000-word Spanish > English job at $0.10 a word, you’ll get paid $1,000. Now let’s say that that job took you 5 hours. That means you got paid $200 an hour for that job.

However, you’re not working 24 hours a day. Likely you’re not working on translations 8 hours a day. And you’re not getting paid for that time that you’re not working.

Now, what if a potential came to you and he needed a 10,000-word technical manual translated from Japanese to English. You don’t do Japanese translations. However, you know a colleague that does and translates technical documents from Japanese to English at $0.15 a word.

Well, you tell the client that you will charge $0.18 a word for the translation and then you subcontract it out to your Japanese-speaking colleague.

The client pays you $1,800 for the finished translation, you pay your colleague $1,500, you get to keep the extra $300.

All for not doing very much and while working on your own translation work.

That’s one way to move away from the idea of trading your time for money on a one-for-one basis.

And that’s one way to earn more money.

Translation’s Inconvenient Truth

A lot of people compare freelance writers to freelance translators. More so than comparisons to any other freelance endeavor.

I guess it’s because both groups work with words.

If that were the case, though, would-be freelance translators would have plenty to worry about.

Because the inconvenient truth is that most writers don’t make any money.

If translation was so much like writing, there wouldn’t be any money in translation. However, there is money in translation.

While there are similarities between freelance writing and freelance translating, the truth is that translators have a much better shot at making money than writers do.

The reason is the sheer numbers of writers versus translators. There are way more writers than translators.

Here are some rough numbers from Upwork, a popular freelancing website.

According to the site, there were roughly 727,766 writers.

The number of translators (across all languages on the site) is much smaller at 154,963.

Sure, there is less demand for translators than there are for writers, but that’s what makes a successful career in translation much more likely than a successful writing career. The ability to provide services to a smaller niche of clients in a specific language combination and specialization means that you’re not competing with the general population like many writers do.

Final Thoughts

You’re most likely not going to make millions of dollars when you become a freelance translator. It’s not even an easy way to a six-figure salary.

However, the good is that it can be done. With the right effort, the right focus, and a little bit of luck, you can make a full-time living as a freelance translator.

The bad is that the freedom that comes with being a freelance translator will destroy many people’s careers before they even start. You must be motivated and willing to work. Motivation without action will not help you.

And the ugly. You earn money as a freelance translator by trading your time. And you only have so much time during the day. To make more, you need to figure out a way to make money through translation without you translating all the time. That’s the idea behind translation agencies.

FAQ – Become a Freelance Translator

How much money can I make as a freelance translator?

This really depends on a number of factors like language pair, specialization, and clientele. Generally speaking, most freelance translators make between $30,000 to $60,000 per year. However, there are always exceptions with some earning well above or below this range.

Is it hard to get started as a freelance translator?

The answer is both yes and no. It can be difficult to become a freelance translator because there is a lot of competition out there. However, if you focus on a specific language pair and/or specialization, it can be much easier to break into the industry.

What qualifications do I need to become a freelance translator?

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to this question as different clients will have different requirements. However, most clients will at least expect you to have a degree in translation or a related field and/or relevant experience. Additionally, many clients also require that you pass a language proficiency test.

What are some of the challenges to become a freelance translator?

Some of the challenges include maintaining a consistent workflow, dealing with difficult clients, and managing your finances. Additionally, because you are working from home, it can be easy to get distracted and/or feel isolated.