How to Become a Successful Freelance Translator Online [2021]

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This guest post was written by Sophie van der Meulen, an experienced freelance translator who travels the world as a digital nomad.

If you speak multiple languages, are a good writer, and want to be your own boss, becoming a freelance translator might be right up your alley. 

As a freelance translator, you have a lot of freedom. You choose who you work for and what you work on. 

It’s also a relatively accessible career—even as a beginner. 

In this guide, I’m going to show you exactly how to become a freelance translator online.

I worked for two years as a freelance translator online, and I love the freedom the job provides. 

It has allowed me to work remotely, set my own schedule, and live as a digital nomad. I traveled solo around the world with my laptop, working from beach bars in Thailand, cafés in Italy, and while road tripping in the US. 

There are downsides, of course, but learning how to become a digital nomad and getting the chance to travel the world while working online has been a dream come true. 

If this is something you dream of as well, here’s how to become a successful freelance translator, step-by-step.

What does an online translator do?

As an online translator, your core job is translating content (duh!). That means taking a text in one language and rewriting it into another language. 

The text can be anything, from product descriptions to scientific articles—the choice is yours. 

This is different from interpreting, which is a live translation of spoken words.

With online translation, you can be doing something new every day. One day you might be translating a web page for a client, another you’re working on a book. 

The specific type of text and topics you translate all depends on your niche. 

Most translators specialize in something specific based on their interests and expertise.

There’s a lot of demand for translating legal, medical, and technical texts. But you can also do general translations that don’t require a lot of background knowledge.

I was a general translator specializing in travel content. 

This means I mainly translated travel and tourism-related blogs, guides, websites, and social media content (talk about the ultimate travel job!).

That said, it wasn’t all travel. I also had clients in other lifestyle and culture fields. 

I also developed skills in localization and SEO translating, optimizing the text for search engines, and adapting to local culture and idiom.

As with any freelance job, there are many tasks aside from the actual translation work. 

This includes administration, pitching to clients, time management, self-promotion, etc. 

Since you are your own boss, you basically run a one-person company. That’s why some freelance translators choose to sign with agencies, who send you assignments. 

I signed with a few agencies but also worked with a few clients independently.

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What does a day in the life of a freelance translator look like?

breakfast and working from a café in Ljubljana
Breakfast and working from a café in Ljubljana

A typical workday starts by checking my messages and e-mails. 

From there, I take inventory of upcoming deadlines and my workload to plan out my tasks for the day. 

I always have a long-term overview, a task list per week, and a task list per day. 

Organization is key when you’re juggling different clients and projects. 

Most single translations have a turnaround of 5-7 days, although sometimes urgent jobs would come in with a 24- or 48-hour turnaround. 

This requires the flexibility to move things around and change your plan for the day on short notice. 

I also had bigger projects that took anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to complete.

When I had my day planned out, I would start on my tasks. Generally speaking, I would translate 800-1000 words per hour, depending on the text’s difficulty. 

Another daily task was looking for new jobs and pitching to clients. As a freelancer, you won’t have a steady stream of work if you don’t proactively set up future projects. So intermittently, I would browse freelance platforms and apply for projects.

Finally, there was always some admin to do. Whether it was sending invoices, planning out my week, or updating my online portfolios.

Because I worked while traveling, free time was a big priority. 

Most weeks, I worked around 20 hours, leaving plenty of time to go out and explore and have fun. 

I tried to plan work around day trips, nights out, and other activities. 

It wasn’t always easy to keep balance, and I occasionally struggled to meet deadlines. One of my favorite digital nomad productivity hacks is to always get ahead on work by utilizing “lost hours” on planes, trains, and buses (when most people just sleep).

How to become a freelance translator online

I knew I wanted a job that allowed me to work remotely and travel full-time, so becoming a freelance translator online felt like a natural progression in my career. 

I had worked in digital marketing—producing and translating content—so I knew I had the necessary skills. My language skills were up to par as a Dutch native with C2 proficiency in English and German.

Although I had a master’s degree in Linguistics, I didn’t study translating specifically, so I didn’t have any certifications or academic qualifications per se. 

That said, my degree did look good on my resume and offered legitimacy to my experience as a translator. (It certainly isn’t required though).

I created a website for my freelance business, including my CV and an online portfolio with links to anything I had translated and written, such as my travel blog. 

I then joined several online platforms for freelancers and reached out to my network for initial jobs (more on that shortly).

My biggest recommendation for anyone starting as a freelance translator is to get relevant experience and build a portfolio. 

Specializing in a specific topic and developing SEO skills gives you a much stronger position when pitching to potential clients. 

Less common language combinations also mean less competition from other translators.

Lastly, I’m from the Netherlands, and to become a freelancer here, I had to establish my own company and declare quarterly taxes. 

The requirements differ per country, so be sure to look into the rules and regulations beforehand.

Can I become a translator without a degree?

taking pictures of murals in Montréal in Canada
Wandering around Montréal, Canada between freelance work – looking for photo ops

It is certainly possible to become a freelance translator without a degree. 

While some specialities require a relevant academic background and certifications (legal/medical/technical translations), general translation does not. 

Ultimately, as a translator, your work speaks for yourself. 

Experience and connections will lead to new and better-paying jobs. Building up a portfolio and references takes time, and while having a relevant degree makes this easier, it’s by no means a strict requirement.

Being proficient in the languages you work in, sharpening your writing skills, and proactively hunting down clients are much more important to becoming a successful freelance translator online.

Online translation certification programs 

There are online translation certification programs for those who want to give their work some more legitimacy or work in a field that requires certification. 

Certified translators can charge more than non-certified translators, so if this is something you’re interested in doing long-term, it may be worth it. 

Many universities offer these kinds of programs and only require a high school diploma.

I never got any certifications because I had enough work and didn’t need it for the type of content I wanted to translate.

How to find freelance translation work

There are two main ways to get work as a freelance translator: active and passive. 

Passive means people approach you. Active means that you approach potential clients. 

Everyone usually starts by having to look for work actively. But once you have an impressive portfolio and a good reputation, you might get approached by potential clients. 

This also requires a good website and online presence. As mentioned before, you can also sign on with a translation agency that will send you work.

Two agencies I used were Brightlines Translation Services and Starska Translations. These are both small European agencies.

A quick Google search for “top translation companies in [country]” should give you a good starting point for agencies to reach out to.

When you start as a freelance translator, I also recommend signing up for as many online platforms as you can—there are a lot of them out there! 

These platforms connect freelancers with potential clients. 

Fiverr and Upwork and the two most popular platforms, but there are many others. I’ve also found translating gigs on TranslatorCafe and Freelancer.com.

These platforms usually charge a commission, but they also take care of many of the administration tasks for you.

Make a daily habit of scanning through the job listings and applying to those you find interesting and are qualified for. 

The key to being successful on these platforms is building an attractive profile with a portfolio and good references. If you do well, clients will start approaching you with offers, saving you time searching and pitching for jobs. 

Cultivating long term relationships with clients is a great way to get recurring work, so always do your best to deliver quality work.

No matter where you find your gigs, pitching is the most important skill to develop. 

A good pitch is what lands you the job over other translators. It’s a lot like a regular interview, where you sell the client on why you are the right person to do the translation. 

I recommend writing a few pitching templates and customizing those to the listing you’re applying for. They should be short and sweet, include essential facts about you, but most importantly, focus on how you can help them.

Also, make sure to add a personal touch to every pitch. If you send the same mass pitch to everyone, odds are it will get deleted.

Lastly, always include a link to your online portfolio or samples of previous work, a time estimate, and price. 

How much do online translators make?

watching the sunset in the Sahara desert in Morocco
Watching the sunset in the Sahara desert in Morocco

What you make as an online translator is totally up to you. Keep in mind that freelance income is not stable! 

Some months I made 600 Euros, others only 200. It all depended on how much work I took on and how much work was available. (Remember, I spent most of my time traveling and was just freelancing on the side).

As a beginner freelance translator, you rarely have the luxury of turning down work since you don’t know what the next month will bring.

When I first started, my rate was quite low—around 2 to 3 cents per word. Since I didn’t have a portfolio or references yet, I felt I needed to accept low-paying jobs to build those. 

I eventually raised my rate to 5 cents per word.

Online translators usually charge per word rather than per hour.

To calculate your price per word, choose your target hourly rate, then divide that by how many words you think you can translate per hour. 

So, for instance, if you can translate 1000 words in an hour and want to earn $30 per hour, you should charge $0.03 per word. 

You can, of course, adjust this depending on the difficulty of the text. 

It’s also common practice to offer bulk discounts for big projects and settle on a rounded price per text.

With a rate per word, what you end up making depends on how fast you work, how much you take on, and your expenses. 

Remember, you will have to pay taxes over your income and maybe a commission to the platform or agency. You also work unpaid hours on admin, pitching, etc. So calculate this into your rate.

Being a freelance translator online doesn’t come with perks like vacation days, pension, and insurance. You are your own boss, so you have to pay for all of that yourself. 

However, what you do get is a digital nomad job that gives you complete freedom to structure your life as you want it.

…and you can’t really put a price on that!

What’s your favorite part of being a freelance translator?

The freedom to do what I want when I want is my favorite part of being a freelance translator. 

I’ve traveled the world full time for two years! 

Chilling with travel buddies on the bamboo train in Battambang, Cambodia

I only work when I want to and structure my days however I like.

Weekends are a foreign concept to me because I can take a day off whenever I want.

I don’t report to anyone or have to justify my work schedule or choices to anyone.

What do you wish you would’ve known when you first started?

The lack of structure can also be a challenge! 

Working freelance takes a lot of self-discipline and time management skills. I severely underestimated how hard it would be to juggle all those different deadlines and clients. 

You have to be organized and structured in your work. You’ll be juggling various tasks and deadlines, so set up a time management system that works for you from the start. 

It may seem manageable at first, but you don’t want to miss deadlines or forget to send invoices once work picks up.

You definitely can’t go into freelance work thinking it’s going to be easy. 

You are responsible for every aspect of your business, not just the fun parts. 

You have to learn about taxes and insurance and which banks are best for digital nomads—stuff you don’t really think about when you decide to become a freelance translator online.

Plus, getting started without a portfolio, experience, or degree will involve some low-paying jobs.

It’s not as glamorous as sipping cocktails on the beach all day. And if you want to sustain your lifestyle, you have to do actual work. 

It can be hard to find motivation when everyone around you is going out, but you have a deadline to meet. Living as a digital nomad isn’t the same as being on vacation

You get to travel while you work, but you have to work while you travel.

My #1 tip for how to be a successful freelance translator

If you want to learn how to be a successful freelance translator, the answer is simple:

Deliver quality work. 

As a freelance translator, your work speaks for you. You have to meet deadlines, anticipate your clients’ needs, and deliver every single time. 

Even one bad review can impact how much work you get in the next few months.

Communicating with your clients is key to doing this. 

You have to ask them exactly what their expectations and wishes are so you can meet those. 

Building a personal relationship with your clients guarantees long-lasting collaborations and steady work, which provides more financial security.

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