8 Skills you Must Have to Succeed as a Freelance Translator—and How to Get Them

By Tess Whitty
Reblogged from Marketing Tips for Translators blog with permission from the author (including the image)

8 Skills You Must Have to Succeed as a Freelance Translator—And How to Get Them

Having been a freelance translator for over 10 years, I can definitely say it is my dream job. I love what I do. However, when I started researching a career as a freelance translator in 2002, I did not know much about the profession or the business, let alone what was required to be successful. I would highly recommend a career as a freelance translator, but not everyone can become a good freelance translator. So if you are looking to become a freelance translator, or if you are one and want to improve your skills, read on. I assume that you are already bilingual, or nearly bilingual in at least one language pair.

1. Excellent writing skills in your native language

To succeed as a freelance translator, you have to be a very good writer, with excellent grammar and knowledge of different writing styles in your native language. If you are only nearly bilingual, you should only translate into your native language. Your translations will be read by native speakers with a lot of experience in the field in which you translate, so if you can’t write at the level at which your audience reads, you will cause a lot of trouble for both yourself and your clients.

How to improve these skills:

  • If you are not living in a country where your native language is spoken, it is extremely important that you spend a lot of time in such a country as often as you can in order to keep up with the evolution of the language.
  • Purchase and refer to language and style guides, and update these resources regularly.
  • Read newspapers and journals, watch TV and listen to radio in your target language.
  • Take continuing education courses to improve your writing skills and writing style.
  • Collaborate with proofreaders and ask to see the changes they make so you can both learn from each other.

2. Excellent reading and comprehension skills in your source language(s)

To succeed as a freelance translator, you need to be fluent or almost fluent in your source language(s) so you can understand source texts perfectly and truly know what you are translating.

How to improve these skills:

  • Spend time each year in a country where your source language is spoken.
  • Read, listen and watch material in your source language.
  • Take language courses in your source language.
  • Purchase and refer to language and style guides.

3. Cultural knowledge in both your target and source language(s)

A good freelance translator is very familiar with the cultural differences between the country or countries in which the the source language(s) and target language(s) are spoken. We translators also need to function as cultural consultants and let clients know when something does not work or is inappropriate in the target culture. No matter how good a translation is, if there are cultural faux pas, clients’ goals will not be fulfilled.

How to improve these skills:

  • Spend time in both the source and target cultures.
  • Take classes in intercultural communication and study material on the different cultures.

4. The ability to specialize in one or a few subject areas

If you know a lot about a subject, you can provide better translations when working with that subject matter. When serving a company as a freelance translator, for example, you need to know about their product or service and how it works in order to avoid making translation errors. Ideally, you should be able to discuss the subject matter with the people who wrote it as if you were one of them. You can choose an area of expertise from your professional history, if you have one. If not, you may be able to find family members or close friends with expertise in a subject matter that you can learn from. You can also take courses in a subject matter to learn more about it, or ask a colleague with expertise in an area to train you in translating related material. Having a specialization will also make it easier to market yourself to your ideal clients, since you can narrow down your target group and speak directly to them. I know several translators who specialize in very narrow subject areas, such as cosmetics or waste management, and do very well. They can speak directly to a special target group, and their clients view them as valuable experts worth paying good money for.

How to improve these skills:

  • Choose an area of specialization relevant to your academic, professional or other related experience.
  • Consider the time that researching texts in your area of specialization will require, and charge accordingly.
  • Keep up to date on the latest developments and terminology through various media in your source and target language(s).

5. Good computer and keyboarding skills

Most translators these days work with a computer-aided translation tool, or CAT tool, and have to know how computers and different software programs work, be able to learn to use new tools easily, and understand how to do research and market themselves online. To be a good freelance translator, you also have to be proficient at keyboarding in order to be profitable. You need to be able to type fast, with all of your fingers, even if you use a speech-to-text software program, since you will need to edit the texts you produce.

How to improve these skills:

  • Take a course in keyboarding and computer skills.
  • Learn from forums, blogs, YouTube, etc.
  • Hire someone for IT and computer support and learn from them.

6. A knack for customer service (for tasks like contacting clients, talking to them, and collecting payments).

If you can provide good customer service, your clients will appreciate you and come back for more. Marketing skills are also valuable; you cannot be a successful freelance translator without marketing your services.

How to improve these skills:

  • Take classes from local or national translation organizations, and online courses on marketing your services, customer service and other business skills.
  • Practice, practice, practice…

7. Self-motivation, organization and discipline

You need to be motivated to continually market your services, and you need to be organized and disciplined in order to meet deadlines and make money efficiently.

How to improve these skills:

  • Read all you can on organizational skills and time management.
  • Organize your time and workspace.
  • Stick to a routine and explain your work hours to your family and friends.

8. The scholastic ability to earn a degree or certification

This does not necessarily have to be a degree in translation. A university degree and/or a qualification in translation, such as a certification, can be a very important qualifier when looking for translation jobs.

How to improve these skills:

  • Get a degree in translation or your area of specialization.
  • Take courses in translation or your area of specialization; the courses can be online or in person, short or long.

There may be other skills that are useful to have as a freelance translator. Most translators I know, including myself, enjoy learning and strive to constantly learn new things, and those are also good qualities to have as a freelance translator. Are you a constant learner? Please share your thoughts below, especially if you can think of other skills that are important when becoming a freelance translator.

4 thoughts on “8 Skills you Must Have to Succeed as a Freelance Translator—and How to Get Them

  1. Having been a freelance translator for over 28 years, I forgot that all of these skills are needed, although I have to agree with you that all of these skills are needed. However, if I were to rank these skills in order of importance, I think that the most important skill is your skill number 1. That is probably also why you put in the first place. All the other ones can be learned, but many people don’t realize that either you are a good writer, or you are not, and there is not much you can do about it.

  2. Excellent post, Tess! As always! 🙂
    I’d like to add that every freelance translator should have an ability to learn news skills. Being a good translator helps but sometimes it’s not enough. You’ll need to learn a lot about marketing, web design, SEO, graphic design and a lot of other things that are not related to your profession but will be necessary when it come to promoting your image online.
    I never stop learning.
    After all, knowledge is power.

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