Live in paradise - work as a freelance translator

Everything you need to know to get one of the best jobs for expats


Realistically assess your qualifications
While you don't need to have native fluency to work as a translator, you should be able to read the source language well enough that you're not constantly having to look up the meaning of words. People often confuse translating with interpreting, but these are two quite different professions. Since translation only deals with the written word, and you're almost always asked to translate into your mother tongue, it's not a requirement to speak the language fluently. In fact, the most important skill you can have to get one of the best jobs for expats is the ability to write effectively in your native tongue. Language proficiency is however not the only requirement. Most Language Service Providers (LSP) will not consider you unless you possess at least the equivalent of a Bachelor's degree. If you also can point to work or educational experience in specific areas, such as legal, medical, business, or manufacturing, it help pave the way for you to get your foot in the door (after you're accepted as a vendor, they'll gladly send everything but the kitchen sink your way without any regard to qualifications).
Take a close look at your CV, put yourself in an agency's shoes, and ask yourself what your main selling points are from their perspective.
Getting started
No matter how impressive your language skills and background are, be prepared to whore yourself out in order to launch your new career. Until you build a reputation with agencies, the only thing you'll be able to compete on is price (and the competition can be fierce). Luckily, many freelance translators are happy-go-lucky types who aren't always good about meeting deadlines or delivering quality work. If you can ensure those two things, you'll soon gain a rapport with project managers and get your share of the best jobs for expats.
When you're ready to take on your first project, there are several websites you can turn to. One of the best is the ProZ website, where agencies list ad hoc jobs on an ongoing basis (See the ProZ Jobs Board. While you can apply for these with a free account, if you want to see translators' detailed reviews of the agency, you'll need to purchase an annual membership. In my opinion, however, this is unnecessary as negative reviews are allegedly selectively screened out. A much better source of information is Payment Practices, which doesn't kowtow to pressure from the agencies. For just $20 a year, you'll have access to unbiased reviews on thousands of translation agencies. This not only gives you an idea of how the agencies are to work with but can also help you to steer clear of the deadbeats with a reputation for not paying their freelancers. You can also find work on freelance websites such as Fiverr, Upwork, and However, the competition on these sites is fierce and the fees can be as high as 20%. If you go this route, make sure to read their terms and conditions carefully as several of them automatically take the side of the contractor in the event of a dispute (e.g. if the agency says that it's unhappy with your work for any reason, they get out of paying you for it). Others, like Upwork, charge liquidated damages of up to $10,000 per contractual breach - a draconian amount in relation to the value of most projects!
While these links are helpful to get your career up and running and you can immediately start making some income, you'll need to jump through a few more hoops if you want to the agencies to send you work on a regular basis.
Marketing yourself to the agencies
Once you've completed a dozen or so projects, you're ready for the next step on your journey - marketing yourself to the translation agencies. Before you do this, however, you should prepare a project list that describes each job that you've completed. This should include the word count and a general description of the work while not disclosing confidential information that might subject you to litigation. You'll also want to revise your CV so that it highlights the qualifications that are relevant for translation and proofreading. Once this is done, you're ready to set off on your fishing expedition!
As there are over 36,000 translation agencies in the US alone, you'll need to be selective in which ones you target. The ProZ Blueboard is a great place to start your search. Without the benefit of experience, you'll need to charge extremely low rates to get your foot in the door. While most of the higher-paying American and European agencies prefer to work with experienced translators, there are companies in developing economies like China and India that focus on providing cut-rate translation services. These are more willing to work with inexperienced translators like yourself if the price is right. Since agencies are generally loathe to agree to rate increases as you gain more experience, the best strategy is to target these cut-rate providers until you build up your resume. There will be plenty of time later to get on board with the higher-paying agencies!
As you carry out your search, pay attention to the number of reviews each agency has as this is generally in line with their size, and don't waste your time with the small fry. Once you've identified a potential candidate, check their reputation on Payment Practices, and if they pass the smell test, go visit their website. Quite a few agencies nowadays have an online application where you can easily apply for work as a freelancer. If they don't, you'll need to contact them individually by e-mail. Since you'll probably find that you need to send out hundreds of these in order to get a sufficient response, it's a good idea to create a template for your cover letter and personalize it for each agency. Attach your CV and project list, repeat about a gazillion times, and you're done!
The onboarding process
If an agency's interested, they'll usually ask you to take an unpaid test translation. If you have more than one language pair, it's not uncommon for them to require you to complete a test in each of these. The tests are generally around 250 words or less and generic in nature (if they ask you to translate a much larger document or require you to complete a test for each language pair and each field or specialty, run, don't walk away!). If you pass the test, most but not all agencies will then require you to sign one or more legal agreements (This can vary. A few will immediately start sending you work without any agreement in place while the majority are likely to require you to sign one or more forms.) You'll want to look these over carefully and pay attention to whether there are any penalties or liquidated damages for breach of contract as this voids most Errors & Omissions (E&O) policies. If you can afford to, it's also advisable to have a lawyer review the agreement before you sign it. However, as you may end up working with several dozen agencies, this is easier said than done!
How much should I charge?
At some point in the process, the agency will inevitably either ask you what your rates are or tell you what they pay. As you can expect them to try and bargain you down no matter what you quote, it pays to start off a few cents per word higher. You'll want to do a little research to determine what the "going rate" is for your language pair. These can differ considerably between language pairs depending on the supply and demand (i.e., how many people speak the language and how much demand there is for it) and the cost of living in the countries (e.g. if you translate from Tagalog to English, you can expect a higher rate than if you translate from English to Tagalog since the cost of living is much higher in English-speaking countries than it is in the Philippines). While translation is normally paid per source word (with discounts for matches), proofreading is typically paid by the hour. As a general rule, if you're translating into English and you're just starting out, to be competitive, you'll probably want to quote anywhere from $0.02-$0.04 per source word, depending on the language pair and from $15-25 per hour for proofreading.
Where can I get E&O insurance?
There are a number of reputable insurance companies in the US that offer Errors & Omissions insurance (commonly known as "professional liability insurance"). As these policies, however, only protect you in the event of a lawsuit filed in the US or Canada, any work you carry out for a foreign agency is not covered (and you'll find that you can't buy coverage in Europe unless you've established legal residence in the EU).
The following companies offer E&O policies:
Making your way up the food chain
If you want to enjoy success and swim with the big fish, you'll get a jump on the competition if you just do the following three things right:
  1. Be punctual and reliable.
  2. Be quality-oriented.
  3. Check your e-mail every 15 minutes.
It's as simple as that. Believe it or not, there are many freelance translators who don't take the work seriously and deliver late or not at all. If you do this, you risk not only not getting paid, but also your ongoing relationship with the agency. Once you demonstrate that you can be counted on to deliver your work on time, they'll trust you with more projects and larger assignments. Quality is important too as a sloppy translation is likely to draw complaints from the proofreader and/or the end client. Most project managers prefer to work with quality-minded translators who don't cut corners when running spell and QA checks and proofreading their work. Last but not least, while some agencies award projects to translators they prefer to work with, a growing number have switched to mass e-mails in order to cut costs. Since the early bird gets the worm, these offers never last long.
If you keep these three things in mind, you'll quickly gain the experience you need to take the next step in your career. Once you've fleshed out your project list with around 50 or so jobs, you're ready to contact those higher-paying agencies in the US and Europe and bump up your rates. Congratulations, you've now found a way to work remotely while living in paradise!

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