Freelance Translation Starter Kit: A Guide to Setting Up Shop – Part. I

So you think you might have the personality traits of a freelance translator and you’re interested in starting up a translation business,  but what would you need to set up shop?

At the very least, you’d need to be fluent in two languages, have excellent writing skills, and feel you might actually be good at it. But what kind of training or experience would you need?

Training vs. Experience

There are many different paths leading to the translation industry. Some translators take specific courses, whilst others get into translation more organically and by means of professional experience. At this stage the industry isn’t highly regulated, so there’s a relatively low barrier to entry. This is the good news and bad news unfortunately; you’ll need to work very hard to distinguish yourself, because in theory anyone can set up shop.

If you’d like to get formal training, there are many excellent degree programmes and a short online search should be able to pull up any programmes in your area. Contact your local or national translation organisations for more information and feedback on the courses you might be interested in, or at least be able to point you in the right direction. For example, in America you could contact the ATA  and if you’re South African, you should contact SATI.

That said, there are many excellent translators that haven’t had any formal translation training, just as there are many trained translators that do not have the makings of professional translators, and vice versa.  You need to decide what the best route would be for you in terms of your current circumstances and professional journey to date.

Having a degree would certainly help you find your first job, build up your portfolio and network, and allow you to gain knowledge about the industry. On the other hand, translators who have pre-existing professional experience are often able to specialise quite quickly. For example, corporates working in a specific, niche industry in a foreign country (using their foreign tongue) often become de facto translators, and have a great head start when the decide to make a career change.

Finding a mentor is also particularly valuable, whether you’ve trained or entered the industry by experience. Many professionals are happy to share their knowledge, since business has always been about professional relationships, and the wheel spins a full circle.

Then research and read as much as possible, and ensure that you’re absolutely ready before you start selling your services. There can be a lot at stake for your clients, as well as yourself. I’ll be following up on this in Part II tomorrow.


Freelance Translation: Do You Have What It Takes?

A friend of mine is thinking about making a career change and she recently asked for some tips. The 2012 Blogathon is the perfect opportunity for writing up a few pointers.

In the beginning, like with most things in life, you’ll probably be feeling your way around in the dark. You might also learn some very hard lessons. I know I did.

The best advice would be to read as much as possible and remember that Google is your friend.  There’s the old question of “How do you eat an elephant?” and the answer, of course, is “one bite at a time“. This is fitting for any new endeavour. It’s also the African take on things – and why I love this continent.

As for me, I fell into translation, and was lucky enough to have a mentor, as well as a ‘built in’ specialistion, since I studied law in France. I’d highly recommend finding a mentor, if you’re able to.

There’s no magic formula, but over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting articles for new (and established) freelance translators.

What does it take to become a Freelance Translator? 

First of all, you need to decide on your language pair. Your target language is usually your mother tongue – the language you were raised in, whilst your source language is your second (or third) language. Translators only translate from their source language into their target language ( unless you had a bilingiual upbringing, and are comfortable either way). You need to be fluent in at least two languages, and by fluency I mean that you’re able to fully understand, read and write a second language. And I don’t mean merely getting by – you need to understand your second language on a professional level.

Secondly, you need to have above average writing skills in your target language. After all, translators are writers, and you need to have an excellent grasp (and feel) for your target language. Many translators are in fact closet writers (even though translation is incredibly stimulating all by itself).

Over and above the nitty-griity, and the technical details, what are the essential qualities of a freelance translator? Answering the following questions might give you a better idea:

– Do you love languages and new cultures? Are you fluent in another language (so much so that you’d feel comfortable speaking to the president of a foreign country in this language?)

– Do you enjoy language-related challenges and are you a stickler for detail?

– In fact, are you at times a bit pedantic when it comes to grammar and spelling?

– Are you an eternal student (ie. are you thrilled to learn about new ideas and study new subjects)? Do you enjoy learning new things? Do you love researching?

– Are you an entrepreneur? Are you comfortable wearing many hats? Are you okay with doing admin and marketing and actual translations? In fact, do you crave variety in your work and environment?

– Are you brave enough to stand up for yourself, even when your business is still growing?

– Are you okay with spending time alone? Do you enjoy working independently? Are you inspired by a quiet work environment and would you be content with filling this time with research? Do you enjoy cracking ‘codes’ or figuring out puzzles?

If so, you might be the perfect translator. Over the next few days and weeks, I’ll be posting on the technical aspects of becoming a translator. Let me know if you have any questions or thoughts, and thanks for stopping by.

Blogathon 2012

May is the month for Blogathon 2012, and this year I’ll be participating. The Blogathon has been running for a number of years and is the brainchild of Michelle Rafter from WordCount.

The idea is to blog every single day for 31 days, and every year bloggers from all over the world sign up. Here at Muse Translation News I’ll be talking about the business of translating, freelancing, writing (because translators are, of course, writers) and learning languages, as well as posting a few other language – and life – related posts.

You’ve still got a few hours to sign up if you’d like to breathe new life into your blog, or just feel up for a new challenge. You can register on the WordCount Blogathon page.

I’m looking forward to following along and discovering new talents, so let me know if you’re taking part and I’ll be sure to stop by. In the meantime, I’m off to sharpen (a stack) of pencils!

The Key to Learning French

Learning French (or any other foreign language for that matter) can be a daunting task, although it doesn’t necessarily have to be. You’ve got a much better chance of success if you understand the basic principles of second language acquisition. These three factors will help you on your journey of learning French.

The Journey of Learning a Foreign Language

Total immersion, coupled with commitment and motivation, is undoubtedly one of the fastest ways to learn any new language. There’s nothing that concentrates the mind quite as fast as needing to communicate basic needs, especially when you’re in a hurry.

But you don’t have to ship off to France just yet.

Whilst I was lucky enough to spend over half a decade living there, I also studied Spanish (without ever living in a Spanish-speaking country), am currently learning Swahili, and also teach French classes and hold workshops.

Past experience has taught me that the best approach to learning any new language is a multi-pronged one and Second Language Acquisition (SLA) researchers seem to agree.

Although there are many differing opinions, experts point to three basic principles: input, output and interaction.


Over and above taking classes or using self-study methods, you need to see your brain as a sponge and take in as much information as you can from different sources.

Plug in by reading as much French as possible. Read what interests you, in print or online. You can also listen to French music and rent movies. Keep stimulating your mind and you’ll soon see a vast improvement in your grammar, vocabulary and writing, even if you’re a beginner and it all seems like Greek to you.


This is where you need to take a more active approach. You need to write and speak as much as you can, even if you’ve got nobody to talk to. Do exercises, write sentences and practice your pronunciation. Get CDs or listen to online clips that leave time for you to repeat whatever was said. This will loosen you up for when it comes to the real deal.


This is where you put into practice everything you’re busy learning and it’s a vital part of the process. SLA experts seem to feel that ‘feedback’ helps speed up your learning. When there’s a communication break-down, you also have to think quickly and find solutions, and this pushes you to further develop your skills. Even if you don’t live in a Francophone country, you can still interact by finding someone online and communicate via email, or take part in forums or sign up for various French language and culture groups in your area.

These are just some ideas you can use to follow the three principles of input, output and interaction.

I’ll follow up soon with more links and ideas to help you on your path to (almost) French fluency. Get in touch if you have any questions, ideas or tips and tricks that helped you to learn a foreign language.

The Top Ten Reasons To Become A Freelance Translator

In medieval Europe, a freelance was a mercenary soldier or adventurer. Today, life as a translator bears a thrilling resemblance to both of these things. If you’re just starting out or are thinking about a career in freelance translating, here, in no particular order, are my personal top ten reasons to keep doing what I love.

Freelance Translating: Life as an Adventurer


1. Location Independence

Even though I’m based in South Africa, I’m able to do business with clients from all over the world. This means I’m not restricted to the pool of locally available jobs and can scout further afield to find new contracts.

I can also work from home in my office, outside on the porch overlooking the river or sit at a beachside café. All you really need is a laptop and a reliable connection. As long as you’re consistently providing an excellent service, there’s no prescribed place to do your work. This thrills me to no end and if you’re anything like me, I’m pretty sure it’ll thrill you, too.

2. Working with Words and Language

Loving words and language is a prerequisite in this industry. Or at least, if you’d like to make a success of it, because that’s what we get to do – all day, every day. Whether it’s the continued learning of your source language, or making sure it’s rendering in the target language turns out just so, working as a translator is extremely satisfying.

As an aside, I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that many translators are also writers at heart and translating allows us to fulfil this need of twirling the pen.

3. Research, research, research

Translating includes a lot of research and if you enjoy it, this might be a good career choice for you. Whether it’s looking up precise terminology or learning exactly how something works, there’s plenty of time spent reading up online and in books.

4. The Art of Translating

Translating can be quite creative and it’s an art. It’s not about ‘making things up’ when you come across a sticky problem, though. You need to be extremely precise – a lot can be at stake. Nevertheless, there are many instances when an exact translation is impossible. Finding the most faithful solution that stays true to the original tone and intention of the message can fulfil the need for creativity in one’s professional life. 

5. The Money, Honey

There are no two ways about it: freelance translating can be extremely lucrative. In fact, earning six-figures  (in dollars for those of us with the not-so-hard currency) is not merely pie in the sky. As with most freelance careers, however, it’s up to you and how much you’re willing to further yourself, find financially rewarding jobs and put in the hours. Corinne McKay wrote a great follow-up to her original ‘six-figure’ article. You’ll find plenty of information on how much you can expect to earn, as well as a rather lively discussion in the comments.

6. No Obligatory Watercooler

Many translators are quite a private bunch who like to get on with their work in relative peace and quiet. I happen to be one of them. Not having to mingle is a real bonus for me, unless of course it’s for a specific event or job. That said, in my daily life, I can choose to be as chatty as I like, because there are many virtual watercoolers where it’s fun to come up for a breath of fresh air when things are  getting a bit lonely at Translator HQ.

Artwork on the Camino di Santiago

7. No Jacket Required

Yes, you really can work in your pj’s if that’s what you fancy. I choose not to, because I’m lucky enough to have my own separate home office and generally like to get up at a reasonable hour, have a shower and get dressed into something that feels professional. No jacket, of course. But this is something I learnt early on. It helps me to distinguish between work time and ‘normal life’ time. But not having to span the gamut  of full hair and make-up saves a lot of time and is a definite plus.

8. It’s a Good Choice For Night Owls and Early Birds

Keeping your own hours is another big advantage. I’m a big believer in working according to one’s natural rhythms and cycles to boost productivity and, quite frankly, help us keep sane. Time differences in other countries may sometimes mean that you need to change your availability, but  this can often be worked out by finding a mutually convenient time.

9. Stationery ‘n Things…

This is my wildcard reason, which may only apply to me. It’s the stationery: the-pens-and-pencils-and-highlighters- and-dictionaries-and-notepads-and-files-and-folders ‘n things. They all give me a rather cheap thrill. I’ve always been a bit ‘bookish’ and these things just make me happy. Go figure. My guess is, I’m not the only one, so if you also have this quirk, please feel free to pipe up.

10. The Stimulation of Running your own Business

As a freelancer, you’re an entrepreneur. You’re entirely responsible for making sure your business succeeds. Besides the actual translating, there’s marketing and admin and all the other corollary aspects to running a business. It’s the crossroads where the mercenary soldier and adventurer meet. It’s a thrill, because no two days are the same, but you also need to know how to stick up for yourself and look after your professional and financial wellbeing.

So these are my Top Ten and I’m sure many other translators do what they do because of these very same reasons. Let me know what else you enjoy in the comments or via email, maybe we should try to get to a Top Twenty?

On Why (Good) Translators Are Important

Someone gave me a handy little diary recently. I was particularly pleased because I’m not always that quick on the draw and in South Africa, diaries are sold out by the 15th of January. This usually means that I have to ‘maak a plan‘* and find a suitable alternative, or depend on kind-hearted friends to pass on freebie corporate diaries to ensure my year unfolds in a neat and orderly fashion.

So when the aforementioned diary arrived out of the blue and had a useful set of extras, I was quite thrilled: maps, country dialling codes, weight and measurement conversions and all the other standard ‘diary’ fare.

Things were looking up.

Until I tried to fill in my contact details in the event of the dreaded misfortune of actually losing said diary:

On Why (Good) Translators Are Important

Suddenly, all the added extras weren’t looking so attractive. So I checked out the size chart, the conversions, the dialling codes and all the other value-added bonuses.

And I no longer felt confident.

Nor was I that thrilled anymore. I’d lost faith in the accuracy of not only the content of the diary, but also in the brand of the company that provided the diary.

And this is why (good) translators are important. Because we offer a certain dependability, and this is passed on to not only our clients, but also to their brands.

That, and also because we all need a good diary.

For other (hilariously funny) marketing mistranslations if you’re not yet entirely convinced, take a look at this article.

*Maak ‘n plan means ‘make a plan’ in Afrikaans for those who couldn’t decipher its cryptic trickery

The Benefits of Going Direct – For Clients and Freelancers

BooksThe translation industry seems to be getting quite a bit of publicity. First there was “The Great Invisible Industry” article on Fox business that I spoke about in my last post. Then Huffington Post’s Nina Sankovitch offered her mea culpa for not having previously acknowledged the work of translators in making it possible for her to enjoy the books of authors from around the world. This was then picked up by Nataly Kelly in yet another Huffington Post article.

The common underlying theme is that translators are a hard-working bunch that toil away thanklessly in the darkness, never quite getting their day in the sun.

Unless, of course, if they go direct.

The majority of my clients are direct and this has been a conscious business decision on my part. It allows me to build personal (and lasting) client relationships and satisfies my need to actively operate as an entrepreneur. As with all ventures, this comes with risks, but that also means that the returns are more attractive. It goes without saying that this approach results in improved earnings, as well as happier clients who benefit from a better rate than if they had to pay the middleman.

What I found especially interesting in Nataly Kelly’s piece, in which she neatly outlines the ‘buying’ process, was that clients themselves are becoming aware of the benefits of having a direct link with translators, and that without it, there’s a noticeable impact on translation quality. I know that this particularly applies to on-going projects when it comes to things like ensuring cohesiveness, because agencies may have several different translators working consecutively (or even simultaneously) on a project.

In a direct situation, this doesn’t happen. My clients know that they have a single point of contact, which means I’m acutely aware of their specific needs and requirements. It also ensures accuracy and consistent terminology over the long-haul.

And then there’s also the fact that there’s a certain extra added commitment from freelancers, precisely because we’re  often one man shows. The success of our businesses is directly related to our professional and financial well-being, so we often give new meaning to the phrase “jumping through hoops”. As in, how high?

That said, I’d be interested to hear your preferences via email or in the comments. So over to you.