Every translator career is different.
The path that I took to become a freelance translator is different than the one you will likely take.
That can be frustrating for a new translator. Especially if you’re looking for a path to follow so that you can become a professional translator.
While every translator’s path might be different, though, luckily there are some similarities in the paths that most translators take. And knowing what the steps are that most translators take on their way to success can be helpful to you as you attempt to navigate your own path.
Step 1: The Language
First things first. To be a successful translator, you have to have the language skills. And I’m not just talking about the ability to order at Taco Bell in Spanish.
Being a successful translator requires a language ability that is beyond that of someone who is bilingual.
I had a friend once who was bilingual in Spanish and English.
He could communicate fluently in either language and sounded pretty close to a native in both. However, there is no way he could have every been a translator.
The reason was because his knowledge of both languages was limited to what he knew how to say.
He didn’t understand grammar.
He failed to understand that both English and Spanish have specific ways to communicate different ideas.
Finally, he didn’t know anything about register, or communicating for different audiences, or that certain things needed to be said and communicated certain ways.
As a translator, you have to know not only the languages themselves, but the extra meta-linguistic information about the languages that you translate to and from.
The good thing is that if you paid attention in English class in high school or have worked in a professional setting for any time at all, you have likely picked most of those things up over the years. They are not hard to learn and like I said, you probably already understand most of them. It’s just a matter of recognizing them and incorporating them in your translations at the right times.
Now, that being said, being a successful translator really starts with your love of languages. If you enjoy being bilingual, being able to communicate in more than one language, and enjoy bringing knowledge to people that might not otherwise have access to it, you’ve got what it takes to start the journey towards becoming a successful translator.
Step 2: The First Client
The next step for most successful freelance translators is a big one.
In fact, it’s probably the most important step. The biggest one that will determine whether you stay a language lover or move beyond that to use those skills to earn money.
And that step is translating for your first client (and getting paid).
What happens usually is that a person with a certain language skill comes across an opportunity to make money translating something.
Maybe a friend or colleague needs something translated.
Maybe your boss in your current job needs your particular set of language skills to translate an important document, presentation, or email.
And when that happens, you get hit with the realization.
The realization that you can actually make money with your language skills.
That people will pay you specifically to translate from one language to another, and specifically, between the languages that you know.
This second step is really what changes a person’s mindset from one of thinking about language as something nice to have to something that can actually be beneficial and provide a financial reward.
Without this shift, a “language lover” will never become a translator.
Step 3: The Business
You might think that it’s backwards to have a (potential) translator find a first client before even setting up a translation business.
At first glance, most people would agree with you.
Everyone that is except freelance translators that have made a successful career out of translating.
As I mentioned, in order to become a successful translator, you have to have that initial change of mindset from language lover to professional translator. And the best way for that to happen is to come to that realization through having an initial client.
Once that happens, though, then you start to think you can make something out of this translation idea and you start putting together your freelance translation business.
It is during this step that traditional business-building steps take place, such as:
- deciding on a translation business name
- building a translation business website
- outlining your translation quality control cycle
- hiring additional employees
- figuring out your pricing structure (what you’re going to charge)
Here is where your business becomes an actual business.
Not everyone that makes it to step 2 in the Translator Career Lifecycle will make it to step 3. But when you do, you will begin to make important decisions in this step that can have a deciding factor on how successful you will be in the next two steps.
Step 4: The Client Base
One paying client is all it takes to get started on your translator career path to success.
However, one client does not usually make your business. Only having one client will not help you make your translation business as successful as you want it to be.
That’s where Step 4 comes in.
This is where you begin to build your client base and really expand your translation business in order to serve the needs of additional clients.
One client can go away at anytime. If you only have one client to begin with, and that client leaves you, you’re back to Step 2.
If you take this step seriously, which professional translators do, then you won’t have to worry when one of your client no longer needs your services. You will have a cadre of clients built up from you work in this step and won’t have to stress about losing a single client.
There are multiple ways to go about getting new clients.
This isn’t the article to discuss that as I’ve written about some of those methods in other places.
I will say, however, that one of the best ways for a new translator to find clients is by contacting translation agencies who are looking for freelance translators to help them. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of translation agencies across the globe in desperate need of translators with your languages skills and knowledge. The hard part is knowing where to find them and how to contact them.
Lucky for you, I’ve compiled the most comprehensive list of worldwide translation agencies available today. Translator’s Market is the book you need if you want to take this step seriously and advance to the next level of success as a freelance translator.
Step 5: The Expansion
Not every professional translator will want to take this step.
In fact, most successful freelance translators are very content to stop after Step 4.
But if you want to take your freelance translation business to the next level and advance your translator career to the highest level, Step 5 is for you.
This is where you start thinking less of translating per se and start thinking more about how to expand your business to earn more money as a provider of language solutions.
What this means is that you start expanding the types of solutions you provide to your customers.
This might include:
- hiring people with additional language skills to work for you
- looking for people with specialized knowledge
- offering additional language services such as interpreting or language tutoring
- managing multilingual social media accounts for companies
- building localized websites for clients
- writing translation-related books
- creating new translation companies to serve different geographical markets
Implementing any of these ideas moves you from Step 4 into the realms of Step 5.
Again, this step is not for everyone and that’s OK. But if you want to move beyond just translating, there is a place for you.
So there you have it. The 5-Step Translator Career Lifecycle.
Not every translator follows the same path to success, but if you want to become a successful freelance translator (or more) follow these steps and you’ll be well on your way.
Want more tips on becoming a successful freelance translator? Read 40 of them in my book, Translation Rules.