Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting as a Freelance Translator in 2020

No matter how thoroughly you try to research the career you plan to go into, it’s probably inevitable that there will be some things you don’t know that you don’t know until you’re experiencing them for yourself. The following are some of those things that I would like to tell my past self before I started doing freelance work as a Japanese to English translator.

There are already a lot of good sources on the fundamentals of becoming a professional translator, so I’ll try not to just reiterate the same things — if you want an overview of how to get into the industry right now, here’s an article with a lot of valuable tips by a fellow Japanese to English translator who started around the same time as me.

If you’re an aspiring translator like I was, or maybe just curious about what being a translator is like, I hope you can learn something you didn’t know already.

Just because an agency accepts you as a freelance translator doesn’t mean you’ll get work from them

I was thrilled when I got my first acceptance email to a translation agency! I had done freelance transcription in the past for some big transcription companies, and they always had so much work available that the problem was not whether I could get work, but which of the hundreds of available assignments I should take. I pictured myself browsing every morning through hundreds of Japanese documents that needed translation and choosing which I would work on that day based on my whims.

Imagine my disappointment when the “available assignments” dashboard was completely empty, and I waited for months before I got even one email informing me that there was something I could claim to work on.

It turns out things aren’t quite the same for translation as they are for transcription, and you will most likely have to apply to hundreds of companies before you start being offered enough work to have to turn any of it down. Some agencies will even accept you and then never contact you again.

Don’t make the mistake I did of getting one acceptance email and then waiting around for work to show up! Keep applying in the meantime, and the work will gradually accumulate.

If you want to go to college to be a translator, don’t just default to majoring in your second language

I knew I wanted to be a Japanese to English translator since I was in high school, and I assumed that the obvious path to a career as a translator would be to major in Japanese and have that as my qualification to show that I knew the language and culture.

It turns out, though, not only are there professional translators with degrees in everything under the sun, a degree in a subject unrelated to language can actually be a huge asset to a translator.

There is a lot of demand for translations in specialized fields such as manufacturing, science, medicine, and law, and not just any bilingual person has the technical knowledge to pull these off. Someone who is bilingual and has specialized education has an advantage on what jobs they can do over someone who is just bilingual.

As for proving that you know your stuff when it comes to your second language proficiency, there are a number of routes other than getting a degree in it. You can take a standardized proficiency test, such as the JLPT for Japanese and the HSK for Chinese. Also, many companies that hire translators use translation tests as part of the hiring process, so if you can do a good job on these, it shows in itself that you have the language skills you need to perform well as a translator.

I don’t necessarily regret my decision to major in Japanese, because I genuinely wasn’t interested in studying any field other than Japanese to English translation; I would have been miserable getting a STEM degree like some of my family members would have preferred. I do think I overestimated the importance of having this particular major, though.

If you’re interested in some other field as well as translation, maybe consider majoring in that and minoring in your second language (or even double majoring). Having specialized education could set you up with a big advantage right out of the gate when you enter translation.

You don’t necessarily need a degree to start out, as long as you have the skills

I think it’s common for aspiring translators to believe that they won’t be able to get any work until they’ve graduated with a degree. However, for freelance work in general, results are king; if you can do good work, many companies won’t really care what your education history is.

I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get anywhere when I started applying to translation agencies while still in college, but I’m glad I tried, because I feel like I’ve gotten my foot solidly in the door to transition into translating full-time when I graduate, especially considering that many companies require at least 2 years of experience.

If you’re not in school and don’t have any degree, you may want to consider getting one at some point, especially if you want to relocate abroad eventually; without a degree, you may hit a wall where higher-level opportunities are blocked off and you run out of room for upward advancement.

But don’t feel like you need a degree before you can start. As long as you have the skills to do solid translation work, it’s best to start accumulating experience early.

Social media is essential for finding job opportunities

I never would have landed my first major translation project if I hadn’t been active on Twitter and following people who work in my language pair and area. I found the opportunity advertised in a tweet, and I would have had no idea it existed otherwise.

Depending on what kind of translation you want to do, Twitter might be the place for you, or LinkedIn might be a better option. Wherever it is, make sure to connect with people who are doing what you want to be doing, because that’s where you’ll hear about the job openings that you won’t necessarily find on a job board or search engine.

Also, if you want to freelance as a translator, make a ProZ account if you haven’t already. I don’t use it to make bids on projects directly on the site, so I don’t know how effective that would be, but the job board is good for discovering translation companies who are hiring for your language pair, and the website also has some useful data regarding how much translators are charging in general and how good certain agencies are to work with.

Pop culture knowledge could help you land media translation opportunities

If you’re a fan of entertainment in your second language, this could actually be an asset to get jobs translating said entertainment!

I’ve been asked about my pop culture knowledge on applications and in interviews, and I think the fact that I was already familiar with things like video games and comics just from my hobbies is a big part of how I was able to be offered the biggest and most exciting projects I’ve had access to so far. I’ve heard similar stories from other translators, with at least one person even having been offered a project because they were already a fan of that specific series and knew its terminology.

It’s similar to having a specialized education and having access to jobs in that field by virtue of that, except I never considered my familiarity with Japanese pop culture to be valuable in that way until I took the leap and tried applying to translate in that field.

I’m still relatively new, of course, and I can’t speak for the experience of other translators. There are definitely more things I have yet to learn; maybe in another year or so, I’ll be able to write a sequel to this article about the things I wish I’d known right now!

But I feel like the process of actually diving into the work I’ve wanted to do for so long has taught me a lot in a short time, and I’m grateful for the more senior translators I’ve been acquainted with who have shared their expertise. I hope that by sharing the things I didn’t know until recently, I can pass a little bit of that down while I continue to grow.

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Kim Louise Davis

Kim Louise Davis

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Kim Louise Davis is a freelance Japanese to English translator and hobbyist musician.