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

The material requirements for getting started as a freelance translator are relatively low, and this is one of the many great reasons for choosing it as a career. Since we provide a service and are not in the business of manufacturing or selling physical ‘things’, we really don’t need much space or capital to get going. But as with most new businesses, you’ll need some help in getting started.

Tools of the Trade

So what exactly do you need? As with most questions, there’s either the long answer, or the short one. The (very) short answer is that all you’d need is a computer and a high-speed, yet steady, internet connection.

That said, although I’m frequently able to work in different environments, especially on longer term projects (yes, it is possible to work on your laptop in a café), the daily reality is actually very different. Tough deadlines are often the norm. You’d therefore need a few things to help you deal with fast turnaround times, assist you with accuracy, ensure you’re contactable and of course, being comfortable is key.

So you will need a reliable computer. Laptops are useful for moving around, although some translators choose to work on two separate screens, so you might consider getting a second monitor. I haven’t found a need for this, but you’ll quickly figure out what suits you best.

A wireless internet connection and hotspot will enable you to work from anywhere in the house (having a separate dongle for travel is great, too). With mine I can sit outside on our front porch on balmy days. It overlooks a river, and we live in a pretty wild place, so it really appeals to the slightly rebellious side of me that is ever-grateful for not working in an office or cubicle. The irony is that much of the work I do is incredibly stimulating, and often from corporate clients, but I’ve managed to find a balance that works for me.

A Room of One’s Own

The porch is only a few paces away from my office, which is fully equipped. I realise that I’m incredibly lucky to have an entire study, and know that many might not currently have space available. I would however suggest that, at the very least, you set up a corner somewhere, with a table and a few shelves. No-one will be the wiser, and it will help you, and anyone you might be living with, to take your business seriously. Knowing that everything is in one place is also a big sanity saver.

Bells and Whistles

So the office (or dedicated corner), needs to have a few extra things. I find my printer invaluable, as well as my scanner. Since I specialise in legal translation, I often need to sign documents, such as non-disclosure agreements, so I can’t live without it. It’s also great being able to print out your final work as hard copy, as this is really the best way to do your final editing, for me anyway.

A fax number is also useful, although I don’t have an actual machine. You can get a free ‘fax to email’ number online. It’s a service that enables clients to send you faxes, which then get sent to your email address as an attachment. If you need to then sign these documents, you can print, scan and send it back via email. Should you ever need to send an actual fax (to a fax number, if your client doesn’t have access to internet for example, you can still use the fax to email service (email to fax in this instance), although there is usually a small fee.

You will also need a phone. I choose to only use a mobile, since one of the perks to the industry is the fact that it’s location independent, and I want clients to be able to reach me even when I’m travelling. Having a phone that allows you to access email, as well as social media sites, is also very handy. If you decide to work with any agencies, you might lose out on an assignment if you step out for a few hours and didn’t manage to pick up their email. Yes, it does sometimes move that fast. Setting up a Skype account is also handy if a client ever wants to have a ‘face-to-face’ meeting.


You would then also need some software, such as the usual MS Office packages, to be able to read and receive any client documents,  as well as things such Adobe Acrobat for PDFs and so forth. You might also like to look at OpenOffice, as a free alternative to office software.  A good anti-virus is also highly recommended. You might also want to look at getting a CAT tool. I use Wordfast and OmegaT, although at heart, I still prefer translating old-school style. That said, CAT tools are undeniably useful, and I’ve found them especially great when it comes to formatting – ie. making sure your client’s document looks exactly the same in the target file as it does in the source document. I’m thinking about getting MemoQ, but will post more about this once I’ve decided.

Reference Material

Translators also need reference material. Even though you will be able to do a lot of online research (for terminology and concepts), good quality dictionaries and glossaries are vital. You will also need a thesaurus, as well as any other industry-specific glossaries, should you decide to specialise. For example, if you do legal translations, you will need a number of legal dictionaries, glossaries and lexicons. Start small, and slowly build up your library as you grow.

Finally, translators also need to be found, and for this you’ll need a website and an email address (or several, if you choose). But more on this in Part III.

Seasoned translators, what have I left out? Are there any tools you simply can’t live without?

[This is Part II of a series. Part I is available here.]

Why Translators Can Survive Tough Economic Times

Kevin Hendzel, spokesperson for the American Translators Association, says the translation industry is growing.

In a recent Fox Business article (“The ‘Great Invisible Industry’ That Speaks Your Language“),  Hendzel said: ” This is the only industry that grew through the recession, because globalization continues to accelerate and demand continues to grow.”

As a freelance French to English translator based in South Africa, I couldn’t agree more. With Francophone Africa being seen as a final frontier by many investors, having an ‘in-demand’ language pair and being well placed from a location point of view has meant not only surviving tough economic times, but has in fact helped to expand my business.

South African Rands

That said, location and language pairs are not the only two important factors and Hendzel mentions this in the article. The key is specialisation. Providing a niche service concentrating on legal translations has allowed my business to grow. I’ve been able to set myself apart and obtain new business contracts, and this is only because I offer a complete set of services to potential investors

That said, there are other important points to consider, especially when competition is tough.  Marketing, of course, is one of them. But that’s a subject for an entirely different post.

However, the following points in the article are worth remembering, because they offer positive reminders of the opportunities available to us as translators:

  • According to the ATA, there are 13.5 million translators and interpreters (I would of course assume this is in America alone) and the industry is growing at 13% per year
  • The federal and local US governments collectively spend almost $2 billion per year on translation services
  • Freelance translators earn between $25 000 and $175 000 annually, with UN translators earning up to $200 000.

What I especially like about the article is where he says, “”It’s one of those great invisible industries, and a great enabler of international commerce.” I quite like officially living out Mr. Adam Smith’s idea of la main invisible.

Welcome to Muse Translation News

French to English TranslationWelcome to Muse Translation News, the professional blog of Muse Translation, a niche French to English translation service specialising in legal translations, business and mining agreements, international development reports and environmental studies.

I’m Marie-Louise and in this space I’ll be talking about life as a freelance translator, the translation industry and about learning foreign languages. If you’re interested, you can find out more in my About page.

This is where I share the thrills and spills of my journey and connect with translators on a similar path.

Please feel free to get in touch, I always like to hear your thoughts and ideas. Watch this space for news and developments.