8 Keys to Becoming a Professional Translator

Updated: Aug 21, 2019

Know more than one language? Whether you want to start a side-hustle or build a full-time career as a translator, here's what you need to know.

Being a freelance translator is different today than it was twenty years ago. It’s now easier than ever for translators to find work thanks to crowdsourcing platforms such as Conyac. And, when we encounter difficult content, there is an abundance of free online tools and resources to help us figure out how to best translate it.

The flip side of this is that client expectations have risen. Today, it is simply assumed that translators will turn around work rapidly and use their expertise to choose the optimal wording so that the end product is of the utmost quality. With these factors in mind, let's explore what I have found to be the keys to success in building a sustainable and rewarding career working as a freelance translator.

1. Proficiency

Having formal studies in languages, translation or linguistics can certainly have value if you are formally applying for a job as a translator as an employee at a company. However, if you are going to work as a freelancer, your clients won’t care about where or how you obtained your language proficiency. They will simply want to know if you can be relied upon to do the work quickly and to a high degree of quality.

That said, being bilingual doesn't make you a good translator by default. It takes a lot of skill, passion, and experience to become fully competent in your job.

2. Knowledge

Clients are very unforgiving of poor translation. If all they wanted was a rough translation so that the reader could get a rough gist of the original’s information, then machine translation would suffice. They are coming to you, a human, with the expectation that you have specialized knowledge and will be able to build on that to produce a translation that is not only accurate but feels natural to a native speaker.

If you’re translating specialized content that you are new to, then you’re likely going to need to spend a significant amount of time doing research and study until you can properly understand it. After all, you can’t add value to a translation unless you truly understand what the source material is saying. If all you’re doing is producing a grammatically correct rendition in the target language, then you aren’t behaving as a professional translator.

3. Tools

You are likely familiar with automated translation tools, also known as machine translation (MT) tools, such as Google Translate and the secure alternative for enterprises, T-4OO. In recent years, thanks to advancements in their behind-the-scenes technology, these systems have seen incredible improvements in their capabilities. They are increasingly replacing humans for translating basic and straightforward content such as instruction manuals.

However, there are still many genres of content where human involvement will remain critical for the foreseeable future because these systems cannot understand nuance, expressions, or context. MT is increasingly used for the first pass, and then a human editor is required to check and fine-tune the manuscript for readability. This is especially the case for work that goes beyond direct translation and ventures into localization - ensuring the final product feels natural and appealing to a native speaker of the target language.

4. Resources

Having too many tools can also be overwhelming. Finding the right ones for our needs is the key to success. No one needs thousands of dictionaries when we can have that one or two covering all domains of our work. You have to know where to look for references for your segment. For example, many translators help themselves with the Microsoft Language Portal when they need to translate tech terms into multiple languages.

Reading articles, books and following news from other countries will also help you maintain high standards and adding neologisms to the known vocabulary on a regular basis is inevitable. If you specialize in a particular field, make sure you don’t only learn about language, but also follow the industry development.

5. Courage

It’s easy to fall into the trap of making a direct translation that is grammatically correct but feels awkward to native speakers. You may think that it’s the safest choice, but you’re doing your clients and their readers a disservice. It’s essential to have the courage to reword some expressions in ways that correctly convey the equivalent nuance and emotion.

Problems can usually be avoided through communication with the client. You can insert comments explaining the choices you’ve made and giving the client another option in case they reject your choice of words. Some particularly pedantic clients may want evidence such as examples of similar wording by prestigious authors, well-known brands, or esteemed publications.

6. Empathy

Having empathy for both your client and their readers is vital.

When it comes to readers, context is everything. As a freelance translator, you will encounter content that will be used in a broad variety of situations from email correspondence to blogs, apps and websites, and user documentation. Always be conscious of the reader’s perspective and their expectations.

Issues with clients can be circumvented by being sure of their requirements before you start. Make sure you know the context in which the material will be used. Ask if they have any particular style guides, glossaries, or examples of similar work that you should refer to. If you receive vague instructions, it’s up to you to take the initiative and reach out for clarification.

7. Experience

This task is not as difficult as it may sound. Many companies and organizations hire in-house interpreters, and working for a translation agency is always a good option. If you are still deciding about your career path or specialization, you can always start translating part-time and search for arrangements on translator sites and forums.

Crowdsourcing services are a perfect solution for translators who are looking for a side hustle or establishing themselves as freelancers. There is no better way to practice and brush up your skills as a translator while getting paid at the same time. Work for such translation services doesn’t require much time, and you can respond to requests practically from anywhere at any time. Working at home, in an office or at the beach doesn’t make any difference to your client, as long as you do your job well.

Our company, Xtra, Inc., operates two crowdsourcing platforms, which you may want to check out.

  • Conyac: If you’re starting your journey as a translator, Conyac might be a good fit. The content tends to be more general, and there is a broad variety of tasks. Register here.

  • QuickTranslate: If you’re an experienced translator who understands Japanese and seeking to work on more sophisticated or specialized translation assignments, this might be for you. Register here.

  • With both platforms, we recommend you start off with easier and smaller assignments. Over time, as you build up your track record, you can work your way up.

8. Reputation

Even though working as a freelancer sounds fantastic, know that managing yourself requires much discipline. Organizing yourself and planning the time you will allocate to specific tasks is a virtue. You need to follow a clear schedule and always add some extra time to the planning, just in case you get distracted, or you need to take care of another thing at the same time. Moreover, as a freelancer, you can’t afford to miss any deadlines! Your reputation will be particularly important when clients can’t evaluate the quality of your work due because it’s not in their native language.

Result delivery is the easiest thing to monitor, therefore don’t play with it! If you are not sure whether you can deliver a proper translation within the requested time frame, ask for an extension of the deadline. Always work fast and avoid submitting work last minute. Assure yourself that in case the workload is higher than expected you could still be able to work without feeling pressured or having to submit a low-quality text. Keep in mind that there are many freelancers on the market. However, if you are reliable and trustworthy, you don’t have to worry about your future job offers; they will continue coming on their own.


Over time, your track record of producing quality work will result in a larger amount of better-paid requests. These, in turn, will gradually develop you into an expert.

You can’t become an established translator overnight, but if you work hard, you can gradually build up your skill set, vocabulary, experience, as well as the client base. Accept different projects and try out as many things as possible. Only this way you will recognize your best talent and find methods to improve any disadvantages you might have. Becoming a translator is an ongoing process, and your efforts pay off.

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About This Blog

Xtra.blog is a resource for freelancers including tips and advice on how to earn more, improve your skills, get better gigs, and live a balanced lifestyle.

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