This is a guest post by Ofer Tirosh.

As technology and transportation make the world a smaller place, and as more companies and organizations globalize their marketing and technical communications, the need for high quality translators grows ever greater. But if you already are a translator, or aspire to be one, you already know that it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there. The competition is ever-greater, and ever-fiercer, so you need to improve your game. We’ll look at some of the ways you can do that, as you work, and make money from the learning and skill-refining process.

Twelve years ago, I founded a translation company, and it has grown steadily over the years. From the beginning, our bread-and-butter has been translation. The success of my business depends on choosing and retaining translators who are at the top of their game. I’ll share what I’ve learned, in hopes that my experience will assist you in launching a productive and lucrative career. My remarks are geared at beginners, instilling best practices for starting a translation business and enhancing their professional translation skills. But veteran translators may pick up some tips and tricks too.

5 Reasons to Choose a Career in Translation

Before getting into the nuts and bolts of the translation business, let’s address a more basic question: why would someone want to be a translator, anyway?  I have made translation service a focus of my life and career. My business depends on working with the best translators in the world in more than a hundred languages. Still, if you’ll pardon my bias, I can offer five quick reasons why it’s a great profession to enter:

  1. The Freedom. You can do most kinds of translation anywhere. So if you love to travel, you can be a location-independent entrepreneur and wander the world, moving freely with the seasons. And if you’re a homebody, you can stay in and choose your hours.
  2. The Money. Professional Translators can work their way up to a decent income. How much do translators make? It depends on experience, location, rate, domain expertise, of course, but good translators can make from $20 to $80 per hour. Unusual language pairs may command more than, say, English to Spanish translation due to supply and demand issues, but bear in mind that you decide how much you work, from an hour a day to ten or more, so the income can add up. Most jobs are metered by words in the original document, so time is money, and experienced translators can turn over jobs faster than newbies.
  3. Specialization. You can focus on what you’re good at and what you enjoy. Carve out a niche for yourself. You can be a general online translator, a website translator, a technical translator. You can provide proofreading services for your mother-tongue language.  If you have paralegal skills, you have an advantage in lucrative legal translation. If you’re a nurse with good bilingual or multilingual skills, consider medical translation as a specialty. There are technical translator jobs and in-person interpreter jobs. Simultaneous translation, if you have a knack for it, can be lucrative and challenging.
  4. Diverse Content. If you’re a curious person, and you love language, then translation provides continuous stimulation.
  5. Cultural Diversity. Translators are, as a rule, international people, citizens of the world. You cross borders and you bridge cultures. That knowledge you have of diverse cultures has value, and a smart translator can broaden to encompass the skill required for localization gigs, in which consultants are paid well to communicate and advise about cultural preferences and cultural no-nos. You are in a position to excel in these subjects.

4 Skills You Need to Be a Successful Translator

There are good skills to have to be a translator, and there are must-haves. Sure, it’s nice to have a post-grad degree in linguistics or a specific language. It helps to have linguistic accreditations and certificates. These can give you a leg up in job competition for external jobs directly with clients, in getting your profile noticed online, and in associating with professional service agencies, but that’s not a necessity. Let’s focus on the list of skills and qualities you simply must have, as I see them.

  1. A Love of Language: You gotta love words, be curious about etymology, enjoy wordplay and double meanings. If you’re going to translation hour after hour, you had better like what you do, or you’ll burn out quickly.
  2. An Internal Autocorrect: Are you a person who can instantly spot mistakes in spelling or grammar? Some people are wired that way, some learn it through constant practice, and others pick it up from automated linguistic tools that show what’s wrong and advise how to improve a sentence.  The best translators become autocorrectors through a combination of all three. And if you are one, you’ll know that autocorrector is not a word. (At least till now. And what preceded this was just a sentence fragment. Not the Queen’s English, but you will pardon me before lopping off my head, I hope.)
  3. An Openness to Correction: This brings me to the subject of humility, and readiness to access constructive criticism, even when it isn’t expressed constructively. If you’re a professional translator, you will make mistakes, and others will let you know it when you do. Don’t fight criticism and correction. Accept it, learn from it and move on.
  4. Honesty and Transparency. Translation involves trust, and be sure not to abuse it. If you’re working by the hour, don’t pad your time or multitask while you’re on the clock. If you’re over your head on a job, tell someone and get help. Don’t muddle through. If you’re being paid by the word in the target document, don’t pad the language to get a few more sense. Always strive to be clear and elegant in your word choices.

3 Tools You Need to Be a Successful Translator

There was a day when a professional translator needed a large bookshelf or even a small library for the books and dictionaries needed to do their work. No more. Save the trees: you just need a smartphone, a tablet, a laptop or a desktop computer. Obviously, a PC or Mac is conducive to faster work and easier on your eyes, especially if you have a nice big flatscreen. But the truth is that what matters more is the software you use. There are few categories of “software as a service” applications and websites that you really need to have or to know. Let’s consider these.

  1. Use Microsoft Office and Google Docs: When discussing document processing, I say MS Office rather than Word, because you will need or want to use other Office Apps like Excel or Powerpoint either as sources or targets of a translation or proofreading gig, or to keep tracking of your work for your clients.  Each of these MS Office applications has its counterpart as a Google Doc. Many clients these days prefer the latter because it lets them see you progress, to work collaborative, and post or respond to comments. You need to learn and know these applications in and out, because you’ll be spending hours with them daily, and often the client or your agency managers will get or view your documents directly. If you make silly mistakes, you will be found out. That is unpleasant but you can avoid embarrassment by learning the apps upfront. Specifically: learn “suggesting” versus editing modes in Google Docs and working with revision marks and compare documents in MS Word.  Learn the meaning of the various colored lines and marks that these applications use to warn you of possible mistakes and use their correction suggestions.
  2. Use Grammarly, Whitesmoke, HemingwayApp or other grammar and style improvers: There’s an interesting class of applications which are superb at finding grammatical, spelling, punctuation and style mistakes in your documents. The examples I’ve cited above are in English, though there are other languages supported by these apps and comparable apps in other languages. Before you begin a translation job, run the original document through one of these language checking apps and see what’s wrong with it and what can be improved. This will save you time and effort in your translation, and the resulting quality will be higher for taking this step.
  3. Use Machine Translation, but Judiciously: Applications like Google Translate or Microsoft Translator may one day take your job, but for now they can be either your best friend or your downfall. First a warning: never ever use one of these translation apps unchanged and then hand it in as your own. Doing so can ruin your relationship with an agency or a client. They will rightfully say: why do I need you if I can use Google or Microsoft myself? Instead, consider using these tools in the earliest of a job to open your mind about what the machine thinks the original document means. But keep in mind that you (usually) know better. 

The app is your servant, not your master. If the machine translation is good, make sure to change the words enough so that it doesn’t look like you’re copying, just being inspired. Also feel free to use them if you get stumped by a specific word or phrase: often the application will list alternative translations, often in order of popularity. Nothing wrong with that, and you as a professional human translator are likely to have a more nuanced sense of the best word among alternatives for a given context.

Should You Join a Translation Agency?

Most professional language services, including my own, are constantly on the lookout for high quality translator in various languages and with specific domain expertise like medicine, legal, technology and more. There is constant churn in our industry, so it’s in the agency’s strong interest to – forgive the playful redundancy – to have a stable stable of translators. We want to find the best linguists out there, categorize their skills, track their performance, and keep the cream of the crop, turning to them again and again, often, it must be admitted, on short notice.

Finding a translation agency for which to work is the same as most things these days: Google it. There are a handful of top-tier international agencies but there are thousands of niche translation providers. Prepare a professional resume, assemble a portfolio of your translation work, do your homework, then reach out to the HR departments of the agency, being sure to follow their job application guidelines to the latter. It is wise to send out a handful at a time, not dozens, so you can manage the job search process and don’t get overwhelmed.

Some agencies find a handful of “go to” translator in specific language pairs or for translating in a specific industry. Once we find someone who delivers high quality, consistently, and on time, we do our best not to lose them, because we want to be able to turn to them again and again. It’s important – going back to the must-have skills we discussed above, that you are transparent and candid with your agency about your availability and any conflicts of interest. We don’t always expect a translator to work only for us, unless we can guarantee a certain amount of work. However, we don’t like surprises and we do demand dependability.

What About Freelance Networks?

Translators can benefit from being part of networks like Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr to get occasional work and to meet new clients. Some of these have become quite selective, so consider yourself lucky, or skilled, to be accepted. Create a profile, upload a portfolio, set your rates, and identify your availability. At first, set your rates moderately – not too low, because then you look unprofessional, but not so high as to price yourself out of jobs. As you get reviews and positive ratings, you can increase your rates. Usually, translators work on a per-original-document-word, so a lower hourly rate can get you in the door to negotiate a fixed-fee or per-word rate.  Make sure to answer any invitation within 24 hours if you can, even if you reject a specific invitation. Be careful about saying anything that will make the network think that you are going around it: that can get you bounced out quickly.

The Bottom Line Before You Begin Translating for a Living

If you know and love your mother tongue, and you have enough time to learn what you don’t know, then translation can be a brilliant, rewarding and liberating profession. You probably won’t become fabulously wealth as a translator, but you will never go hungry. You will also find fulfillment in crossing many borders – physical, cultural, and linguistic – and you will rarely if ever be bored or at a loss for work. Good luck!

Ofer Tirosh is CEO of Tomedes, a translation company which has since 2007 served 50,000 businesses, translating in more than 1000 language pairs, relying on thousands of superb in-house and freelance translators.