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How to launch a successful career as a translator

Written by on November 29, 2022

If you speak a second language fluently, it could be time to start making money from your language skills. With that in mind, here is everything you need to know to launch a successful new career as a professional translator.

Why work as a translator?

There are many reasons to choose a career as a translator. Translators have been home-based since long before the pandemic forced everyone out of the office. They have the freedom to work from wherever they wish, meaning they can travel, live in different countries and explore the world as they wish.

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Translators who work freelance also have the freedom to choose their own hours. This is ideal for anyone who wants to fit their work around caring responsibilities, personal projects, volunteering, or other commitments.

Love of languages is another reason to work as a translator. If you enjoy working with the written word and keeping your language skills alive, then you can get plenty of job satisfaction from a career in translation. Not every job inspires you to leap out of bed on a Monday morning and open the laptop, so finding work that you enjoy and look forward to doing can be a special experience. 

Working as a translator also provides you with a degree of flexibility over your income when you work freelance. If you want to earn more money, you can take on additional work and spend more hours translating. On the other hand, if you want to take time off – for holidays or any other reason – that’s up to you. Of course, if you want the benefits that come with being employed (holiday pay, sick pay, pension contributions, and so on), then you can seek out work as a translator full-time for a company.

Adding specialist skills to your offering can also provide you with the ability to up your pay. Translators who can work on medical or legal texts (for example) or who work with complex software, can often command higher rates per word thanks to their expertise.

A final great reason to work as a translator is that it is a career that requires no investment, provided you already have the language skills to do it. This means you can start straight away with minimal risk. You just need a decent laptop and a stable internet connection and away you go. 

What do translators do?

Working as a translator involves much more than just translating documents from one language to another. Let’s say you provide English to Italian translation to your clients. You will work on a range of documents for official and professional use, certainly, but that’s just the start.

In addition to written documents, your Italian translation work could cover audio and video files, including the provision of subtitles. As an Italian translator, you could also be asked to work on a huge variety of documents, some of which may involve tasks such as desktop publishing. You could also end up project managing translation teams if you take on large enough projects.

Another task that may be sought from those providing translation from Italian to English (or vice versa) is a post-editing machine translation. This involves working with copy that has been machine translated, to enhance its quality. As machine translation is free and almost instantaneous, many businesses seek to take advantage of it. Then they use a professional translator to tidy up the resulting copy. During translation work, a deep understanding of English tenses is necessary. Working with different English tenses accurately helps to maintain the context and meaning of the original document.

Proofreading and editing work may also end up in your lap when you translate for a living – not just editing machine translations but all manner of other translated documents.

How much do translators earn?

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for interpreters and translators was $23.61 per hour in 2021, with a median annual salary of $49,110. The job outlook for the decade to 2031 is extremely positive, with a projected growth rate of 20% (compared to an average growth rate of 5% across all occupations).

As noted above, there is significant potential to grow your earnings when you work as a translator. From specialist areas of work to take on project management roles, there are various ways to boost your income and take control of your career path.

Essential translator skills

To work as a translator, you’ll obviously need excellent language skills. Sticking with our above example, if you’re going to translate Italian, you’ll need to be able to do so well enough to deliver everything from professional documents to certified translations of certificates. A Bachelor’s degree in is usually the minimum entry-level qualification in terms of your chosen language.

Translators who are self-employed will also need to grow their freelancing skills. From time management to credit control to marketing their services, freelancers are responsible for every element of their working lives. Being organised and efficient when it comes to handling clients can make a big difference to your career.

You will need networking skills too, for a successful translation career. Checking out the social media feeds of translation influencers such as Henry Líu shows the value of attending in-person translation events – as well as having thousands of connections online.

Strong people skills will help you to build up your own client networks. They will also help you when working with individual clients to work out what the best translation options to meet their needs are. What is the best translator for Italian? Clients will need answers to this kind of query. If you can clearly and supportively talk them through their options, explaining the merits of human versus machine translation, you’ll be well positioned for your career to flourish.

How to establish a career as a translator

If you’re ready to launch your exciting new translation career, it’s time to sort out the practical details.

How to set your translation rates

Getting your translation rates right is essential. Price them too high and your competitors will win all the jobs. Price them too low and you won’t be able to afford your rent.

You need to do some realistic sums here. How much do you need to earn to achieve the lifestyle you want? Remember that you’ll also need to earn enough to pay your taxes, social security payments, and so on.

Once you have that figure worked out, look at what different translation agencies are offering and compare the rates of translators on freelancing platforms such as Upwork. That should give you an idea of what you can earn once you’re established.

Where to find your first clients

If you’ve got no experience, Upwork is a good place to start your fledgling translation career. You will likely have to complete your first couple of jobs at a low rate, but as soon as you’ve got a couple of pieces of five-star feedback, you can match your competitor’s rates and confidently seek more clients.

Many translation agencies are also happy to give new translators a chance to prove themselves, so it’s well worth approaching a few different services and seeing what they pay and how amendable they are to taking on newbies.

Marketing your services

In addition to working through agencies and on freelancing platforms, you could also market your services directly to clients. Reaching out through LinkedIn or email directly to companies tends to involve a lot of hearing the word ‘no’ (if you get a reply at all), but stick with it and at some point, you’re likely to connect with a client at just the right time.

Personal recommendations are always a great way to get a foot in the door, so be sure that all of your existing professional contacts know about your translation service and are happy to recommend you should the opportunity rise.

Depending on your approach, you could also create a website to showcase your skills and experience. While you’re unlikely to rank on search engines, given the number of translation agencies out there, a well-made brochure site can be a great resource for referring new contacts, to impress them with your experience and the breadth of your translation service offering.

How to grow your business

Once you’ve got a solid client base, it’s time to think about growth. You can grow your business by taking on more clients, upselling different services to your existing clients, and by raising your rates. The right approach will depend on where you’ve picked up your existing clients, how happy they are with your work, how many future projects they might have, and a wide range of other factors, so use your discretion here.

On the subject of how happy your clients are with your work, remember that providing superb customer service is always a good way to build a solid business foundation. The more responsive you are to emails, helpful with queries, proactive about addressing issues and so on, the more likely you will be to maintain the kind of client relationships that underpin future growth.

Adding specialist areas of work is another proven strategy for growing your business. You could train as a multilingual editor, offer video translation as well as document translation, expand to provide post-editing machine translation, or any other task that will broaden what you can offer to clients.

Is translation a good career?

Translation can be a hugely satisfying career that you can fit around your personal circumstances. It can also pay well and enable you to work with the language you love on a daily basis. Why not give it a try and find out for yourself?


Louise Taylor is a writer with qualifications in four languages and a particular interest in translation and travel.

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