A couple of beginning freelancers have sent me some questions lately, so I thought it might be helpful to compile them into a blog post for anyone who’s just starting out, especially in the pandemic! This is certainly not comprehensive, but hopefully it’s a start!
–Are translation and interpreting still a viable career path?
Let’s start out with a big and important one: is this career still worth it? My short answer: yes, absolutely, but I also understand why people ask this question. The example I always give is that if my university student daughter wanted to be a translator or interpreter, I would be very supportive of that, and I would have no problem paying for it. At the same time, it’s also true that, compared to when I started freelancing in 2002, it’s harder to make a living on low-end work and there’s a lot more competition for high-end work. Most agencies no longer “train up” promising new translators through coaching and feedback, as many did when I started out. I wrote a blog post earlier this year on whether entry-level translation clients are disappearing. When I started freelancing, there was a pretty standard “career path” where many people started working for large agencies, then moved on to boutique agencies, then to direct clients. These days I see a few issues with that: especially in language combinations like English to Spanish and English to Russian, it’s hard for me to see how US-based translators make a viable living on large agencies’ rates, but many boutique agencies don’t pay much more than large agencies (a major change from when I started out), and it’s hard (but not impossible) to jump directly into the direct client market. I also feel like our profession is a lot more polarized these days: I make around US $100,000 a year, and I know people who work a lot more than I do and make $45,000. But the bottom line is that I still love translation (and now interpreting), and I have no plans to leave.
–How viable is a full-time freelance business? Do most translators and interpreters have side hustles?
As stated above, I think it’s very viable, and it takes a lot more than good language skills. Good language skills are a must, but honestly, the vast majority of freelance translators and interpreters who fail, do so because of their business skills, not their language skills. I don’t think that most translators and interpreters have side hustles, but I do think that a diverse business is a good thing, and I think that the easiest way to make the leap to freelancing is to stick with your current job while freelancing at the same time, until your freelance income could meet your basic expenses if you quit your other job.
–What’s the difference between translation and interpreting in terms of logistics, pay, location, work-life balance?
Another big one, especially because of the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, a key difference was that interpreting was completely location dependent. But remote interpreting went from a small fraction of the market to a huge share of the market, almost overnight. It’s anyone’s guess what happens when the pandemic is over. Clients may be desperate to get back to in-person meetings with in-person interpreters. Or they may decide that remote interpreting is the way to go, because the cost of interpreters’ travel, lodging, and meals often exceeds the cost of the interpreting itself.
I also think that interpreting is a more polarized market than translation, in some ways. I get work offers for everything from community interpreting paying $25 an hour with a one-hour minimum and no travel time or mileage (which I turn down) to depositions for law firms paying $100+ an hour with a four-hour minimum.
Work-life balance is a tough one, because I see both sides, since I do both translation and interpreting. In one sense, interpreting enforces more work-life balance, because it’s harder to overload yourself. Research and preparation take a lot of time, but you can only physically interpret in one place at a time. Whereas with translation, it takes a lot of discipline to say no to an assignment just because you know you should take the weekend off. I know a fair number of translators who regularly work six and seven days a week and rarely if ever take vacation, and I think as an interpreter it’s harder to do that to yourself.
–What about undergraduate degrees, certificate programs, graduate degrees, and translator and interpreting certification?
Partially this is a question of logistics. If you’re going to go to school in the US, the first issue is whether there are programs for what you want to study. The US has a tiny number of undergraduate programs for T&I, and the graduate scene is better but not great; I experienced this when I was searching for conference interpreting Master’s programs. For French, there are only four programs in North America (no kidding), and US private school tuition is really not in my budget, so that narrowed it down pretty quickly.
In terms of whether certificate and graduate programs are worthwhile, my general answer would be yes, usually, but with a few caveats:
-I think they’re usually worth it because realistically, most translators and interpreters in the US are largely self-taught, and many have no formal training at all. Any certificate or graduate program is going to put you ahead in terms of skills.
-But…it really depends on your goals, and on the quality of the program. For example there are many programs in the US that are language-neutral, or where all languages are combined into one class. I’m not sure that I would spend money on that type of program, because what you’re trying to do is improve your translation or interpreting skills through detailed feedback on your actual performance, not general feedback on what makes a good translation or interpretation.
-You also need to think about the return on investment: how long you’re thinking of working in this career, and what income bump you might see from this degree.
-I do think that if getting a degree or certificate helps with your own market confidence, it’s worth it. For example I’ll be the first to admit that one reason I’m doing a conference interpreting Master’s is to prove that I can do it: that I have the language skills, the interpreting skills, the content knowledge, etc. I know that an alternative would have been to just study like crazy on my own, but I really want the formal recognition of the degree as well.
–Is there work for in-house translators and interpreters?
Yes, but in the US it’s pretty limited to jobs requiring English>Spanish, or working for government agencies. Of course there are exceptions; I do know people who do languages like German and Japanese who have full-time jobs in the US, but it’s pretty rare. I believe that something like 70% of the members of the American Translators Association are freelancers, and that sounds about right to me.
One thing I think is important: I would not assume that, even if you get a T&I Master’s from a highly-regarded program, there will be a full-time job waiting for you in the US. Many/most entities that hire staff interpreters and translators do so through a competitive recruitment process where they’re really looking for the best of the best (like the dreaded UN Language Competitive Examinations). I think that pretty much anyone who wants to be a translator or interpreter in the US needs to be willing to be a freelancer. If you’re absolutely not willing to be a freelancer, I think this may not be the career for you.
Another option is to forget about the US, and if you’re financially and logistically able, to go to graduate school for translation in another country/region, and then look for an in-house job there. Especially if you work into English, this can be a very viable option, in places where into-English translators are rarer and more in-demand. Make sure you think it through: graduate school in Paris or Geneva may cost a tiny fraction of what it does in the US, but you have to live there, probably on a student visa that prohibits you from working. And you have to figure out how to stay there once you’re no longer a full-time student. But it’s worth considering.
–How has your work been affected by COVID?
Short answer: my business is fine. My income will be on target or slightly up this year. But I know multiple freelancers whose businesses have completely tanked, to the extent that they’re thinking of leaving the industry. Especially if you’re an interpreter who hates remote interpreting or isn’t successful at finding remote interpreting clients, or if you translate for industries that have been hard-hit by the pandemic, it’s a tough time. I wrote a blog post about this, and Eve Bodeux and I did a Speaking of Translation podcast roundtable with Karen Tkaczyk and Alex Gansmeier about it. I’m fortunate in that I have multiple income streams: translating for agencies, translating for direct clients, interpreting for the courts, and running Training for Translators, and I think that has helped a lot during the pandemic.
–What’s the biggest mistake that beginning freelancers make?
That’s a big one, and I have an old but probably still relevant blog post on it, called why do some freelance translators fail. I’d point to a few things:
-At the risk of overgeneralizing, a lot of people, especially those who went through the US educational system, just don’t have the skills. Case in point: I started taking French in school when I was 12, it was always my best/favorite subject, then I was a French major in college and did study abroad for a year in a program where I lived with a French family and went to school all in French, and there’s no way I would have been a competent translator right out of college. And the US simply doesn’t have much of a translator or interpreting training system the way most European countries do.
-Lack of focus. Another huge one. There was a day when you could make a decent living as a generalist translator, but now — unless you do a very niche language — those days are pretty much gone. You really have to specialize, and in some specializations you’re going to face a lot of competition from people with significant work experience in that sector.
-Many beginning freelancers radically underestimate the time and marketing effort needed to launch a successful freelance business. I did a lot of things wrong as a beginner, but I definitely did one thing right: if I sat down at my desk and had no paying work (often the case during my first year), I marketed. And if that meant marketing 20 hours a week, I did it. I get lots of woeful e-mails from beginning freelancers who say, “I’m so discouraged, having sent out 25 e-mails to prospective clients with no response.” Welllllll…I applied to over 400 agencies during my first year in business, and it still took over a year until I was earning what I considered a full-time living.
-Lots of freelancers are unwilling to adapt. A toxic belief amongst dissatisfied or unsuccessful freelancers (and maybe dissatisfied and unsuccessful people in general?) is that they already know it all. They’ve seen it all, tried it all, done it all, and would love to tell you about it. By contrast, every time I attend the ATA conference, I make a point of either attending a session for beginners, or a session on a topic I already know a lot about, to make the point to myself that there’s always more to learn. At this year’s ATA conference, I attended Sam Mowry’s presentation on official document translations; although I’ve translated around 3,000 pages of official documents, I actually got a bunch of really good ideas. So, keep learning and be willing to adapt!
Readers, over to you! What else do beginners these days need to know?