Are you wondering whether a career in translating or interpreting may be for you? Here are some questions asked by those aspiring to be freelance translators or interpreters:
Is it possible to make a living as a translator or interpreter?
Yes! It is estimated that about one or two million people, worldwide, do so.
What linguistic skills are required to be able to translate or interpret professionally?
To function professionally, a translator needs to understand the "source" language fully, be a good writer in the "target" language, and be able to convey meaning faithfully. (In most cases, clients will require that the translator be native in the target language.) For their part, interpreters need to be good listeners, well-spoken, with a strong command of two languages.
Is linguistic ability enough to make a living as a freelance translator or interpreter?
No. For most paid work, the translator or interpreter will need to have a particular knowledge of the subject matter in question.
How do translators and interpreters develop subject-matter expertise?
Often, a linguist specialized in a given field has worked in the field previously. (There are medical interpreters who formerly were doctors, and legal translators who formerly were attorneys, for example.) Some begin to work in areas they knew previously from hobbies, studies and so on. Most people entering the profession are knowledgeable in some fields -- they tend to target those areas for their initial work, and then expand their range of offerings over time.
Apart from linguistic ability and subject matter expertise, what would I need to "make it" as a freelance translator or interpreter?
Certain business and technical skills are required. Translators have to use certain software tools, deal with formatting issues, etc. And of course, all freelancers need to be able to negotiate rates, generate invoices, remit taxes and so on.
Is some sort of certification required to become a translator or interpreter?
In most countries, no. However, some countries and jurisdictions (or courts, for example) have particular requirements.
Where does demand for paid translation and interpreting tend to come from?
International businesses, courts, medical institutions, scientists, publishers, governments, military services, those applying for immigration/visas, etc.
Do translators and interpreters work for such clients directly?
In some cases. However, in many cases, the "end client" hires a translation or interpreting company, which in turn outsources to freelancers. (Or, in some cases, other translation companies.)
How do translators and interpreters find work?
Through portals like LinkedIn or ProZ.com, through their own websites, by word of mouth, from other freelancers, or by applying directly to end clients and/or language services companies.
I think I'm qualified, but I'd like a chance to get some experience, to gain confidence and build a track record. What opportunities are there for that?
You could try to find volunteer opportunities with non-profit groups such as Translators without Borders or Kiva.org. You might also consider the ProZ.com mentoring program.
What tools do translators use in their work?
Many translators work in what is known as a "computer-assisted translation" (CAT) tool. This sort of software helps a translator to work faster by showing sentences to be translated, one at a time, in a ("source") box, while providing another ("target") box for the translation to be entered. The target box may get pre-populated, if similar sentences have been translated previously, or if machine translation (such as that provided by Google) is being used.
How are translator and interpreters paid?
Translators are usually paid a certain amount per word (or per character, in some languages).
Interpreters tend to be paid based on time. (Time increments may be minute, hour, half day or day..)
What payment methods are used?
When client and linguist live in the same region, the most popular local payment option is usually used. In remote arrangements, Paypal is probably most common. In areas that Paypal does not serve well, there are other services used.
When does payment happen? Before or after the work?
Unfortunately, when it comes to translation and interpreting, payment usually comes after work has been delivered... and there can be a delay of 30 or even 60 days (and in rare cases more!) before payment reaches a freelancer.
There are some freelancers who will ask for a portion of payment up front, and some clients who will pay it.
How can I be sure I will get paid?
Freelance translators and interpreters have to manage this risk. Resources such as the ProZ.com Blue Board -- a database of translation outsourcers with reviews -- and are important. ("Payment Practices" is another, not affiliated with ProZ.com.)