So you want to be a Freelance Translator (or Interpreter): How is the T&I industry laid out?

This post is the first in a series of five posts written in response to questions we at The Savvy Newcomer have received, sometimes from people within the translation world, but also from bilingual friends and family who are interested in translation and interpreting (T&I). Our hope is that this series will serve as a guide for people who are considering a career in T&I and want to know where to begin.


How is the T&I industry laid out?

As a preface, I can think of numerous times since I began working as a translator that friends and family have come to me with questions about my work. Do I actually have a job? Do people pay me to do it? Who do I work for? The questions are not always this blatant, but I can often sense the underlying question of how the translation and interpreting industry really works, and whether it is a viable career for someone who knows a second language. In short, the answer is yes!

The question of how our industry is laid out is usually one that people do not ask straight-out, but it is the first topic I address in my response. It is crucial to have this foundational knowledge before you consider becoming a translator or an interpreter so you can decide if you—your lifestyle, your skills, your background—will make a good fit for the industry, and vice versa.

Translation vs. interpreting

The first distinction to make is the difference between translation and interpreting. Check out the infographic below to get an idea (credit: Translation is written; when you translate, you receive a document in one language and translate it into another language—usually on a computer, but sometimes by hand. Interpreting is spoken; interpreters work in person, by phone, or by video, interpreting words spoken in real time by conveying the same message out loud in a second language so that another person or other people can understand what was said.

Translation and interpreting require very different skills; translators are strong writers with a good grasp of writing conventions in their target language. They need to be able to properly understand the source language to create a suitable translation. Interpreters, on the other hand, should have a strong command of speaking skills in both languages and must be able to produce coherent and accurate renditions of what is being said as it is said.

What is a language pair?

The combination of languages in which a translator or interpreter provides services is called their “language pair.” Translators usually work from one language into another; for example, I work from Spanish into English (Spanish>English), which means that my clients send me documents in Spanish and I deliver translated documents in English. It is a good rule of thumb to remember that translators usually work into their native language. This is because most of us are naturally better writers in our native tongue, so we work from our second language into our first. Interpreters, alternatively, may work with both languages at the same level; for example, if an interpreter is hired to help a doctor communicate with her patient, the interpreter will need to speak both languages so both parties are understood. In this case, we would say that the interpreter’s language pair is Spanish-English, since he is not working into one language or the other. As a side note, some interpreters offer their services at conferences where the speaker or presenter speaks in one language and some or all attendees need to hear the presentation in their own language (this is called conference interpreting). If, for example, a group of marine biologists from Mexico attends a conference in Miami, their interpreter would be working from Spanish>English, and would most likely provide the interpretation simultaneously through a headset while the speaker is speaking.

Who do you work for?

This is one of the questions I hear most often. A high percentage of translators and interpreters are freelancers, which means we work for ourselves! Our clients may be translation agencies or direct clients from other companies that require our services. Most T&I professionals work for clients all across the world, which makes for an interesting workday! Some full-time employment opportunities exist for translators and interpreters, but much of the industry is built on an independent contractor model. There are pros and cons to working for yourself:

Pros Cons
Flexible schedule Unstable income
The more you work, the more you earn Loneliness
Work varies and can be very interesting No employer benefits

What does it take?

To become a skilled and successful translator or interpreter, it is important to be self-motivated! Especially if you are going to become a freelancer, you want to be sure that you have the fortitude to set your own schedule, manage your time, and keep growing your business. It is also essential to have strong language skills in two or more languages. It is important to recognize that being bilingual does not automatically make someone a translator or interpreter! Knowing two languages is crucial, but it is important to have training or experience that teaches you the ins and outs of translating or interpreting: the pitfalls you may encounter, best practices, and the code of ethics by which you must live and work. Bilingual individuals who are not cut out to be translators or interpreters and want to use their bilingual skills in other capacities can find great career opportunities as language teachers, bilingual medical or legal providers, language project managers, and so forth. In fact, bilingual individuals can play a key role in just about any profession imaginable.

We hope this helps to answer some of the initial questions you may have about translation and interpreting! Stay tuned for the next installment: “Starting from Scratch.”

Header image: Pixabay

How do translators showcase their talent to translation agencies?

By Gwenydd Jones
Reblogged from The Translator’s Studio blog with permission from the author (including the image)

shop-windows-in-london2Last week, Letraduct authored a post about one of the problems that your target customer (the translation agency) has, which is lack of time and desire to read lengthy cover letters, CVs and translation portfolios. The advice was clear: be a translator that makes it quick and easy for the project manager to see key data about you and you’re more likely to get a response.

Here are some methods that freelancers have used with Letraduct to showcase their talent and some thoughts (good and bad) on these techniques.

1. One-line cover letter saying “Please see CV attached”.

Brevity is good, but failing to include your language combination in the subject line and key credentials and prices in the cover letter creates work for the project manager. Downloading your CV requires an extra click, and you’ve given them nothing in the cover letter to make them think it’s worth the effort.

2. Lengthy cover letter giving lots of specifics about translation projects and work experience.

If you’re doing the opposite of the person in point 1, then you’re going too far the other way. If you’re quoting for a specific job, then it’s good to mention related experience, but think key facts and consider your reader’s attention span. Lists and bullet points can be helpful in a cover letter because they allow the project manager to scan through quickly. They want to scan.

See our post on writing a cover letter for a translation agency for some helpful hints and templates.

3. 6-page CV.

We won’t read it. Would you? Two pages maximum, with the most important data on page one.

4. CV packed with graphs and tables, showing the translator’s experience in numbers and percentages, with lots of different colours.

There’s a lot to be said for being creative and different, but, when time is of the essence, a CV that doesn’t look like a CV can obstruct the reader on their mission to locate your key data. They may not have the patience to figure it out, we don’t.

5. A second attachment containing a portfolio of samples of previous translations the translator has done.

In theory, a portfolio sounds very professional, but, does it solve a problem for your target customer or does it create one? Remember that it’s very unlikely that the project manager is looking for a translator that matches your profile at the exact time your CV drops into their inbox. They are either going to type your details into a database or file them away somewhere for some future time, when a translator that matches your profile is needed. So, given the lack of time and immediate need, it’s very unlikely that they’ll have sufficient motivation to read random portfolios (and that even if they can speak your languages). Also, you can’t store a portfolio in a database, so it represents extra filing for them. At Letraduct, at least, if we want something like that, we’ll ask for it, and if people send them to us, we don’t tend to look at them. See point 6 for our preferred solution.

6. Links to online profiles.

A link to a strong online profile is useful because it can be checked out quickly, but too many links in an e-mail creates an information overload and the project manager can’t decide where they’re supposed to go, so they give up. It’s a good idea to include important links in your CV, too, in case it gets separated from the cover letter. If you have translation samples that you want to share with the agency, put them online somewhere and include links to them inside the CV. If you’ve done work for someone and your work has been published online, once again, put the link inside the CV. That way, the day the agency becomes interested in you, they’ll have the info at their fingertips (it also makes it easy for them to copy and paste the data onto a spreadsheet, if they want to).

7. Certificates sent as attachments.

When the agency wants or needs them, it’ll ask for them. Some big agencies may require proof of your qualifications as standard; smaller agencies probably see them as a filing problem. Consider getting your credentials verified from your profile.

8. Giving references.

As per point 7, but, don’t underestimate the usefulness of tools like recommendations on LinkedIn and WWA on, which can be there ready and waiting and mentioned quickly in a cover letter or CV. The translation industry is quite a small world, and if you collect enough online recommendations, you may find that the people you’re working for or want to work for know each other and, as we all know, there’s nothing like a recommendation from a friend or colleague.

If you have any doubts about the way you’re presenting yourself, ask us a question in the comments below or on Twitter: @Gwenydd_Jones.

How do I get my first paying gig?

By Giovanna Lestermoney-42955_1280

Let’s start from the premise that you already have some training, you know the language and culture you will be working with, and now what you need is some exposure, some clients. Where do you go from here? The answer is multi-tiered and demands determination.

These are my recommendations to anyone about becoming a freelancer:

1. Identify your limitations – I can carry on a conversation in Spanish, but I do not bill myself as a Spanish interpreter. I do not have the training or the breadth of vocabulary.

2. Identify your passions – As a freelancer, you have the ability to say no to jobs you do not like.  Make sure to seek and be available for those jobs you do like.

3. List any work you may have done in the field, including internships – People view experience differently, and internships can afford you a variety of experiences; one of them might be a match.

4. Gather some letters of recommendation – Do not forget to ask for letters of recommendation or permission to refer prospective clients to your internship supervisor. That is a solid referral and you should use it.

5. Rework your résumé focusing on 1, 2 and 3 above – Your résumé should reflect what your customer is looking for. I have three résumés ready to provide to prospective clients. One focuses on translation, the other on interpreting and a generic one for good measure.

Trying to break into any market is hard. One cannot gain experience without a job and you cannot get a job without experience. But you can break the endless loop.

Exposure or introducing yourself

The first order of business is to get your name out there. An effective way to do so is by joining professional interpreting associations or following their blogs, Facebook and LinkedIn pages, for example. By participating in conversations – whether asking questions or contributing answers – you will get your colleagues to notice you.

Also, monitor the associations your clients belong to. If you are interested in working in the courts, for example, find out when the Bar Association in your city is having a social gathering. Make sure to have plenty of business cards on hand, sign up for the event and be in the mood to meet potential clients.

And have you googled yourself yet? This is the 21st century, and that’s one of the first things your potential clients will do. Your professional online profile is usually your first introduction to a potential client. So, make sure the information they can access online complements what you told them and invites them to give your services a try. It is time to streamline your online persona: review or create your online profile.

Making yourself known

Professional events – networking, conferences, symposiums, seminars – are great opportunities to meet colleagues and future clients. More importantly, your presence at these events tells them you are serious about your career, you are looking to improve your skills and you are dedicated to your profession. These are all positive attributes that will count in your favor next time they need an interpreter.

Now you get the picture. But, are you ready to sell yourself? I have a colleague who is a wallflower in network gatherings. That won’t do. Make sure you have your introduction speech ready. It should be concise, casual sounding, informative but not boring, and end with someone taking your business card.

Hope you are ready to go client hunting. The prospects are good!


About the author: Brazilian-born Giovanna “Gio” Lester has worked in the translation and interpreting fields since 1980. Gio is very active in her profession and in the associations she is affiliated with: ATA, NBCMI, IMIA, NAJIT, IAPTI, and the new ATA Florida Chapter, ATIF, which she co-founded in 2009 and served as its first elected president (2011-2012). As an international conference interpreter, Gio has been the voice of government heads and officials, scientists, researchers, doctors, hairdressers, teachers, engineers, investors and more. She loves to teach and share her experience.

How to Market Yourself at the ATA Conference

By Kevin Hendzel

Reblogged from Word Prisms with permission from the author

I’ve hired thousands of translators and interpreters for over 20 years, many from ATA conferences.   Here’s how to attract attention, stand out from the crowd and win new clients.

You’ve arrived in sunny San Diego to 70-degree, zero-humidity weather and spectacular views from your room of sailboats, cruise ships and bright lights on the bay.   The conference launches tonight with a Welcome Reception that is always packed and energetic.  It’s the first of many opportunities you will have over the next four days to market yourself and your skills to potential new clients.

Think like a translation buyer

A central tenet of successful marketing is to put yourself in your customer’s shoes.   Think like a translation buyer, not a translation provider.  ATA conferences are distinctly different experiences for translation buyers.  They are bombarded and often overwhelmed by the hurricane forces of resumes, business cards and pitches and blasted by a dizzying array of faces, names, languages, events and sessions.   So everything becomes a blur.   When I used to work my company booth in the Exhibits Area, it took about two days before my brain staged a cognitive revolt.  I just wanted to hide under the table, mostly from the resumes.  And I’m a translator. Who likes to read resumes.

So you will want to stand out in this sea of sameness.

Shine like a star

Translators and interpreters are word people, but the world is a visual place.  This is especially true of human decision-making which turns out to be emotion-driven, not logic-driven. That means that you want to make your best impression visually, and persuade verbally, with the objective of imparting confidence, trust and interest in translation buyers.

  • Dress: Clean, crisp and professional.  Your first visual impression is important. People judge your dress emotionally and subconsciously, and are often not even aware of how visual impact affects them.  This is a subtle but powerful factor.
  • Business cards: Original, memorable, flawless and available.  Include your language(s) and direction(s) and multiple ways to reach you (phone, website, Twitter, LinkedIn, FB, etc.)
  • Body language: Much of this is common sense. Smile, don’t scowl; engage, don’t avoid; look at people, not your footwear.
  • Narrative: Gracious, inquisitive and thoughtful are better than the hard sell.  Lead with questions about the other person, finish with their wanting to hear more about you.
  • SubjectsGood translation customers care about the following, and in this order:
    • Expertise
    • Reliability
    • Accessibility
    • Flexibility
    • Value

They care a lot LESS about what translators instinctively and compulsively talk about in sort of an encoded-in-our-DNA way:

    • Education
    • Degrees
    • Countries of residence
    • Training programs
    • Certifications (really)

I recognize that this contradicts a lot of what you’ve been told about how to market yourself as a professional translator or interpreter at ATA conferences.  But it will make perfect sense if you think about what you, as a consumer, value when you are looking for a plumber, dentist, doctor or any other professional service and are spending your own money on them.  That top list is a lot more important and compelling to you as a consumer than the second one is. That’s because the second list is just a description of the provider’s personal history.  The first list is all about the customer.

Focus on your customer’s requirements, not your own life story (leave the highlights of your life story to your resume).  It can make all the difference to a translation buyer who you wish to impress and convince to buy your services.

Five Fails

Translators and interpreters are very good at many things at ATA conferences.  They always get out of the hotel and visit the host city, make fast friends with hotel staff, comb through all the dictionaries, software tools and vendor products, listen politely, share experiences and stories and are uncommonly generous.  The Five Fails listed below are the most common pitfalls encountered at the conference.  You will want to avoid these.

  1. Friends Only.  It never ceases to amaze me how many translators will fly thousands of miles to live for several days in a hotel room in a remote city surrounded by hundreds of potential new colleagues, mentors, advisors and friends only to insist on talking solely and exclusively to…people they already know.   The conference is certainly a great opportunity to meet with old friends and renew acquaintances, but its real value lies in pushing boundaries.  That means moving outside your comfort zone by striking out on your own and talking to new colleagues.
  2. Grousing and Complaining.  It’s a rich and supportive environment to let loose about downward pressures on rates, unreasonable client expectations, crazy deadlines, and a total lack of appreciation among the general public and even clients for what translators and interpreters do.  After all, where else will you find people who understand your professional life quite so well?  We all grumble at times about the vagaries of the profession, of course, but try to resist the temptation of grousing and complaining all the time, especially in the educational sessions or the ATA plenary events.  Negativity tends to breed downward spirals of doom and in its purest form is a stunningly powerful client repellant.
  3. Deadly Speeches.  Making comments or asking questions during sessions should be done in the service of the speaker and the topic.  Avoid the temptation to turn your public comments or questions into revival speeches, angry tirades or public challenges of the speaker’s integrity.  It’s the nature of controversial topics to sometimes incite such reactions, but if you go down this path, be prepared to alienate the audience.  It’s best to seek out a middle ground where civil discussion is possible, even (and especially) if you disagree with the speaker.
  4. Staring at Shoes.  There’s an old translator joke that goes like this: “Introverted translators stare at their shoes.  Extroverted translators stare at everybody else’s shoes.”   It may be true that translators are more introverted than other professionals, but take advantage of the more accommodating environment of your colleagues to speak up and share your experience.
  5. Arrogance Breeds Contempt.  Be careful about throwing your weight around too much.  If you want a lesson in humility – and in how spectacularly talented and accomplished your colleagues actually are – the ATA Conference is great place to learn all about it.

Helen’s adventures in translation – Chapter 1

By Helen Ebylearn-64058

I started translating when I was 15, when I helped my mother with an IATA (International Air Transportation Association) contract. We each did half of it and reviewed each other’s work. That was back in 1976, with paper and pencil, in Argentina. I have continued translating and interpreting at different events, no matter what my official occupation was.

However, it was a side business for a long time. In 2001, I decided that after my children graduated from high school in 2011, I would make the switch from full-time homeschool mom to full-time translator/interpreter.

I made a plan. I would prepare to launch by their graduation. The following are some of the issues I dealt with to make myself marketable.


In the US, having an accepted credential is essential. It could be the ATA Certification exam or a college degree. Because I was raising children and a full degree program was not an option, I chose to go through the New York University certificate program. I thought it had advantages over the ATA exam:

  • I would know what my strengths and weaknesses were and have the opportunity to be mentored through them
  • I would have a clear understanding of the expectations and be able to make a plan to meet them
  • I would learn other issues surrounding translation, not just pass a test

However… it was more expensive. Seven courses at $700 each is $4,900. My husband and I looked at the ATA income survey. We found that the average income for a part-time translator was $15,000 per year. If in the first year I could make three times as much as the course cost, this was a good business deal.

I also got certified for court interpreting in Oregon and for medical interpreting by the National Board.


Dictionaries: As I took NYU courses, the professors always recommended dictionaries for their specialties. I bought them all first, and asked questions later. Over time, I spent a few thousand dollars and filled a bookcase. They have all been tremendously useful and I’m still collecting more. Today I occasionally get emails from colleagues asking me to check my resources for a term.

Software: I took an online course on how to use Wordfast, used Trados, and settled on Fluency as my favorite CAT tool. Knowing some other tools has helped me use them intelligently. Though I have spent money on tools I haven’t needed for any particular client, I considered it an investment in my education. I have invested several thousand dollars in software, and it was all useful.

Computer:  I started with a laptop and now I have a desktop computer with two extra large screens. The laptop was very useful when I was doing translations while I sat at my children’s piano, cello and viola lessons.

Smartphone: I resisted getting a Smartphone until it was unavoidable. When I got tired of not getting work because someone else responded to the project managers before I did, I bought an iPhone. It paid for itself in the first two weeks.


When I lived in Boston, I joined the New England Translators Association (NETA). There I made connections with clients, mentors, and other colleagues. It was a great place to ask my first “dumb questions” in a safe environment. Someone was always ready to give an honest answer to any question I had.

After that I joined ATA listservs (Espalista, and later on, Business Practices). I continued asking “dumb questions”.  It was wonderful to have colleagues reply with understanding and respect, always encouraging me to keep trying.

Now I am helping to launch a professional association in Oregon. I hope to help others launch their translation career through it.


Establishing these foundations took years. I got to know the business slowly, as an active participant with ideas worth testing.  Doing this while homeschooling, teaching Spanish at Gordon College, and dealing with other serious family issues meant I had to adjust my priorities. At that point, my main job was raising my children to be responsible adults. I had a transition plan and was working on it, chipping away at it slowly. I finally launched into full-time work in the fall of 2011, when my youngest started college. It was a 10 year plan, and it has worked well.

Of course there were times when I questioned whether this investment of time and money was ever going to pay off. There were years when I spent more than I made, and years when my total income for was enough to buy my husband a bicycle for his birthday (a nice one…). I knew that one way or another, all this would be worth it in the end. In any event, I was enjoying it!

At this point, I can say that every single thing I did in preparation for launching full-time was worth doing. Taking the classes, buying the dictionaries, buying the equipment, taking those first few jobs, and even having to turn down jobs because of other obligations. It has all been a good investment. Just a few days ago, my husband looked at me and said, “You really enjoy this! I mean the whole thing, every aspect of what you do in translation and interpreting!” He’s right. I do.

Next issue: The marketing side of preparing to launch.