Is Freelance Translation for You?

Another question I get quite often, in addition to advice on learning Japanese, is how to kick off a career as a freelance translator, especially in my language pair, which is from Japanese (the source language) to English (the target language). First, though, I think you need to ask yourself: “Is freelance translation right for me?”

In my case, I would say it’s the best job I can think of. Actually, no, the best one I can think of is my dream job of being a heavy metal lead guitarist, but that’s not very realistic. I guess that’s why they call it a dream job.

Caption: Me before my heavy metal dreams⁠—and my hair⁠—were cut down to size by the cruel realities of how the world actually works

Anyway, I happen to like or be proficient at all of the below, which is what you’ll be dealing with on a regular basis as a freelance translator:

If you are the kind of person who prefers frequent social interaction with colleagues, collaborating in a team and getting out of the home (or co-working space), then freelance translation may not be for you.

However, should you decide that this is the career you’d like to pursue, and you are eager to enjoy the greater freedom that working for yourself brings, then you need to be aware that with great freedom comes great responsibility. I’m sure Spider-Man can relate in some way.

Me in My Office.JPG
Caption: The right setup can help mitigate the solitude of working from home by bringing you comfort and greater productivity. If you don’t have your own room at home, a co-working space might be a good option.

To fulfill that responsibility, the two most critical things you need are not necessarily reading comprehension skills in your source language and writing skills in your target language (although these are of course important), but rather the following:

Managing your schedule is of paramount importance because the thing that your customers want the most is not beautifully written translations. In fact, here is their order of priorities:

  1. Meet your deadlines
  2. Promptly respond to communications
  3. Produce good translations

Yes, they would in fact like some nicely written translations, but if you’re working on a time-sensitive document, such as a PowerPoint presentation that has to be ready for a meeting at 8:00 a.m. on Monday morning, and you deliver at noon that day, then no matter how amazing your work is, it is completely useless.

Missing a deadline is the FASTEST way to lose a customer. Hence the importance of good schedule management. Calendar apps are awesome, but before you start cramming assignments into it with a rainbow of bars sporting assorted colors, you need to make sure you know how fast you can work.

How many characters or words can you translate per hour? Of course it varies with the type of document involved, but you should have an idea of your average. (Mine is about 1,000 Japanese characters per hour.)

Also, make sure you leave some extra time in between your assignments. You need to be ready to cope with the unexpected. Maybe the assignment is tougher than you’d initially thought, the customer wants you to add an additional page to the original order but keep the same deadline, you got a rush order with a premium rate you really want to accept, or perhaps your kid got sick and you have to visit the doctor—and you can expect to get sick soon, too. As they say, shit happens, so make sure to ensure some leeway just in case.

The number-two priority translation customers have is a prompt response when they contact you about a project. That means you need a fast and reliable email service provider. I happen to use Fastmail, which, as the name implies, is pretty fast. It’s also very reliable, so I consider it more than worth the annual subscription fee. However, I’m not trying to sell Fastmail to you. There are plenty of other options out there. Find the one that works for you. Just make sure it’s fast and reliable.

Now, while I say you should respond in a timely manner to customer inquiries, I by no means encourage you to constantly monitor your inbox. What you ought to do is establish your working hours and stick to them. Don’t respond to messages from coordinators outside those times, because then they’ll expect you to always be available and you’ll lose all hope of achieving decent work-life balance. Of course, during your working hours, you should definitely make it a point to respond to customer emails reasonably fast. Even if you’re turning down an assignment because you’re too busy, the coordinator will appreciate the quick confirmation so they can move on and ask the next person on their list.

Oh, and yeah, as the third priority states, you should write good translations. That’s a topic that could fill a whole book, so we’re not gonna cover it here. Sorry.

That pretty much sums up what freelance translation work involves. What do you think? Does this sound like the kind of challenging yet rewarding work you would like to take on? If so, then you may be ready to go find some customers, a topic I’ll be discussing in my next post (which you can access here). Don’t miss it!

Caption: The dream is dead, but at least freelance translation provides enough money and free time to keep it on life support as a hobby.

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