The Biggest Obstacles to Becoming a Freelance Translator



The title of this section is a little negative, but I kept it because it hints at the point I want to make. What do you think? What are the biggest obstacles to becoming a freelance translator? Foreign language skills? Native language skills? Experience and knowledge? Personal connections?


These are all important and difficult to obtain in the short term. However, in my opinion, money is the greatest obstacle. A competent and talented person may suddenly declare, “I’m going to become a translator today!” But he or she will have a very difficult time settling into a career in translation. That’s because no matter how skilled this future translator is, no one will recognize them in the current market. The market will be indifferent, despite their efforts to promote their skills and appeal to different clients. From the client’s perspective, evaluating a rookie translator’s skills (translation skills, time management skills, etc.) is an annoying, costly, time-consuming task. Rather than working with the unevaluated rookie (no one wants to be called a rookie, but the market will consider a newcomer as such no matter how talented he or she may be), the client will want to work with a translator they already know, even though they may not like everything about the regular translator. So don’t expect a big response even if you resolutely declare, “I’m going to become a translator today!” People will be disinterested and indifferent. You won’t hear anything in reply.


You’ll probably send out a bunch of emails and phone calls and bid for ten different clients in the first month. When everyone is still apathetic and you get no responses from anywhere, you’ll start to panic. ‘Have I made the right decision? Do I not have all the necessary skills? Do I need a graduate degree to get noticed?’ You’ll start to think all sorts of silly things. Of course, these questions may be valid for some people, but the point is that you will think these things even if you already have the aptitude and ability to become a translator.


It’s important to have realistic expectations when you first start out as a translator. No one will expect to earn the same amount they did when they worked at a full-time job, but people may think, ‘Won’t I start getting steady work if I look hard enough and bid consistently for a few months?’ In response to this, I’d like to share two stories. One is from my experience, and one is from an interview article I read recently.


When I started out as a translator, I was certain I enjoyed translating and was sure that it was something that I could do. However, I did not think that translating could become a career. There was not much information available about a career in translation at the time. I basically had to grope my way through the dark when I started, but I increased my number of clients little by little through consistent bidding. I don’t remember exactly, but I think my goal at the time was to secure one client per month. After 10 months, I began to think for the first time that translating may become a full-time job. I had other jobs back then, so I always considered translating as a side job and did not expect much income from it. During those first 10 months, I received a small amount of income from translating, but I regarded each job and payment as a big deal. Even after the initial 10 months, I started to work less at my other jobs, but translating was still side work. I only took translation on as a full-time job much later. My health, along with other factors, pushed me to make that decision. But when I did make the switch, it wasn’t too difficult because I was already making a significant amount of income from translating. When I hear other freelancers’ stories, however, I feel that my transition into translation work came about quite easily, though I was unaware of it. When people ask if it would be okay if they quit their regular job and start translating right away, I hesitate to answer. That’s not how I started my translation career, so I cannot say for sure how that might play out. Also, starting from the bottom and building your way up to achieving recognition (reputation, accumulation of feedback) from the market takes a long time. People with families to consider may be putting themselves in a difficult situation.
[bctt tweet=”Starting from the bottom and building your way up to recognition (reputation, feedback accumulation) from the market takes a long time.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


That was my story. I’ll now introduce an article about translation I read recently. It was written in 2011, so it’s a bit outdated, and what it says about Canada is totally off the mark. I also don’t agree with the author’s overall opinion, but I thought the interview with the Spanish language translator was honest and refreshing, and that it might be helpful. (The original article is in Korean, but if you want to read the entire article, click here.)


[Start of quotation]


“Not everyone can translate”

[Interview #2] Professional Spanish translator, Jaehoon Jeon

Jaehoon Jeon, age 45, has been a professional translator since 2005. It wasn’t easy for him initially, either. Jeon lived in Argentina for 27 years while running a preparatory school. He returned to South Korea in 2002. At first he did interpretation and translation work together. He sent out more than 50 resumes to translation companies in the beginning.


“It took me two years to receive steady work. That’s a relatively short period of time compared to other translators. There weren’t that many Spanish translators at the time.”


He currently works with about 20 translation agencies.


Jeon says that his path to becoming a translator was difficult.


“When people ask me how they can become a translator, I ask them, ‘Do you have enough money saved so you don’t have to work for at least a year?’”


Jeon stated that one needs to be recognized in the industry in order to receive consistent work and secure a stable income. Before this happens, you could have no work for a month or two at a time. “That’s why so many people quit after 1 year. It takes about 2 to 3 years to become a professional translator, but it’s difficult to persevere for that long.” 


[bctt tweet=”It takes about 2 to 3 years to become a professional translator, but it’s difficult to persevere for that long.” username=”HappyKoreas”]


Jeon is most concerned about ‘rates’. Because there are so many translators trying to get their foot in the door and competition between agencies is fierce, rates keep going down.


“There are agencies who rely on ‘auction translation’ where they provide work to the translator who proposes the lowest rate. These agencies regard translation work only as money. Some people provide free translation to friends or acquaintances, but I don’t think they should do so. Translation is a translator’s intellectual property.”


According to Jeon, the quality of translation changes depending on the translator. Translations exist in all fields and the same word can have different meanings depending on the field. That’s why building a variety of experiences will help one produce a better translation. A sense of responsibility in the translator that leads him or her to meticulously check the translation will affect the quality of work as well.


“Accuracy is very important when translating a document. I spend more time looking up words in the dictionary than actually translating. I read over the sentences over and over again to make sure the expression is correct and make sure there are no typos. Only then can you produce a good translation.”


Perseverance and self-management are crucial for a translator. At one point, Jeon wanted to give up translation and become a chauffeur.


“People think it’s easy to work from home, but I envy company employees. Because I don’t have designated working hours, I work ‘from the moment I open my eyes until I close them to sleep at night.’ That’s why it’s so important to manage your time well.”


Jeon stated that not completing the project or pushing back the delivery date might prevent translators from receiving more work. Furthermore, a translator needs to have a professional mindset if he or she wants to obtain a higher status.


“They say we translate using our bottoms, not our brains, because it’s work that requires us to sit and concentrate for a long period of time. You also need to keep your words, all the time. A translator’s evaluation is created by the translator themselves.”


[End of quotation]


The interview sums everything up nicely. I would highlight the facts that most people do not last a year as a freelance translator, and that it takes 2 to 3 years to settle down as a translator. Of course, the time may vary depending on what experience the translator has, what market he or she decides to enter, and how. What amount of income is satisfactory differs from person to person as well. However, what Jeon has stated in his interview is something we must remember.


Someone who’s decided to build a career in translation will want to make a living by only doing translating work from the start, but they must remember that it takes a long time, a painfully long time, to settle into the market. Thus, your long-term goal may be a career in translation, but in the short term, it may be a good idea to do other things to supplement your income. The best scenario would be if you have money saved or do something alongside translation work. It’s also advantageous to create a profile and upload it into the marketplace as soon as possible so you’ll spend less time waiting for work in the beginning.


브라이언은 의료분야에서 한영번역을 하는 번역가입니다. 캐나다 온타리오의 작은 시골 마을에서 아내와 둘이 삽니다. 여행과 독서와 음악과 커피를 좋아합니다.

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