How to Become a Translator & Work Anywhere in the World
Are you bilingual? Do you have a knack for grammar and writing? If so, it may be time to become a translator!
This job is ideal because just like freelance writing or digital marketing, it’s easy to freelance or work remote with an agency. When you become a translator you can finally achieve location independence and make money while traveling the world, just like Daniel and I have been able to do.
For this article, I interviewed two translators. Justin started in 2017 and gets most of his work through just one agency. The other, Eki, has been working as a translator since 2012 and chose to go the freelancing route. Both shared their experiences with me, along with an in-depth look at their lifestyle, hours, finances, and most importantly: the exact steps they took to become a translator.
Ready to get going? Become a translator and work anywhere in the world with their expert advice!
Average Income: $2,000 to $4,000 a month
Free Housing/Utilities: No
Tax-Free: No, you will need to file taxes appropriately in your home country.
Healthcare: No, you will need to purchase your own.
Vacation Days: No paid vacation days, but both freelance and agency work are flexible and taking unpaid days off is easy.
Certifications needed: As with most freelance work, knowing your stuff is all that matters and being self-taught won’t hold you back. However, you can also get language qualifications or a professional certification from the American Translators Association to help boost your resume.
Although I got a bit into each translators’ average income above, I wanted to dig deeper into their finances.
Justin says when it comes to freelancing your income will vary based on your language pair, whether you work directly with an agency or have to find your own clients, your subject areas (are you specialized in anything, like law or medicine?) and of course, the amount of hours per week you’re willing to work.
Just like my writing clients, Justin and Eki’s clients pay per word rather than per hour. That means making an hourly estimate isn’t easy, but generally translation work lands them between $20 to $50 an hour based on the difficulty of the assignment.
So, how much time goes into earning their salaries?
While numbers vary, Eki said right now he’s making around $2,000 per month with a 20-hour work week. Justin pulls in $4,000 per month, because he works closer to full-time.
Both also said that the workload is very uneven, meaning that they often take in small projects on the weekends, or go from slow periods to super high workloads, and then back again. If you’re looking for a very steady income while you start out in the freelancing world, working as a translator may not be for you.
However, there is one major benefit. No, it’s not healthcare, a 401k, or paid vacation… it’s something even more rare: location independence. For Justin and Eki, this is what encouraged them to become a translator and makes up for the financial uncertainty!
How to Find Work as a Translator
First things first, where is the best place to find translation opportunities? Justin recommends both ProZ and Translators Cafe as the go-to job boards for established translators, even though he ended up getting a job with an agency that he found on LinkedIn instead.
To land your first gig, he says the most important things is “familiarity with other subject areas and the language of those subject areas. A good translator is required not just to convert words from language A to language B, but to write them as if they were written by a specialist in that field.”
One way that agencies differ from freelancing, though, is that they’ll often require potential recruits to pass a test. Luckily, Justin found that “the first agency I signed up with gave me a test of reasonable difficulty and offered a contract with a reasonable rate. Since then, I have applied for jobs with other agencies whose tests were unreasonably difficult or whose evaluators were unreasonably strict for the terrible rates they were offering.”
Eki, who relies on his freelance income rather than an agency, suggests online marketplaces like Upwork as a good jumping off point as well. However, he makes no allusions that starting out is easy, and warns that in the beginning “you really need to prove yourself, and probably work for pennies to even get any job in the first place so that you could start gathering feedback that would make it easier in the future.”
Although he’s chosen the freelance route recently, Eki recommends working through an agency as well because you don’t have to waste time looking for jobs and can work when you want and as much as you want.
The Lifestyle of an Online Translator
Now for my absolute favorite subject… travel! One of the major reasons why people choose to become a translator is so they can work anywhere in the world! Interestingly, at the moment both Justin and Eki are based in Southeast Asia.
Justin explained that he fell in love with Vietnam last year, and loves living there because the cost of living is incredibly low. His rent in Airbnb apartments has averaged to $290/month during his past few months in the country, an amount that he can easily make in just a day and a half of work.
Eki clearly had the same idea and says he enjoys living in Thailand because it allows him to have a stress-free life on his current income (although he is strongly considering heading back to Europe soon). The digital nomad life has allowed both men the freedom to travel extensively after they became translators.
Justin has definitely not let the opportunity go to waste. “I embarked on this SE Asia journey in Jan. 2017, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and got the agency contract a month later. Since then, I’ve visited or stayed in Kuala Lumpur, southern Thailand, Bali, Bangkok, northern and central Vietnam, Siem Reap, and India (Bombay, Pune, Bangalore, Mysore, Hyderabad).”
His favorite travel memory so far was a 12-day cycling tour through Thailand and he strongly recommends the Ha Gong loop in Northern Vietnam to other travelers as well.
Eki also enjoys the international travel that’s been possible since he’s become a translator. “I tend to visit two to three new countries each year, staying for few weeks in each location at a time,” he told me “And I go between Asia and Europe one to two times a year.”
Personal Experience Working as a Translator
Finally, Justin and Eki both finished their interviews with a few comments on their personal experience working as translators.
For Eki, translating started out as a side job that he just sort of fell into because getting the work was easy in 2012. He stayed because he liked the many pros of the job, like location independence, freedom to work as much as you want to increase income, and the decent salary for hours worked (as long as you don’t have expensive taste, he specifies).
However, he does miss the Nordic safety nets that many other Finns enjoy in his home country. Still though, when prompted, Eki confirmed: “Unless machines completely take over, I’ll probably be doing this to my dying day.”
For Justin, his road to translation was similar. Originally he was looking for coding jobs, but fell into translating when we saw the ability to rekindle his use of the Japanese language he studied as a child. I asked if he recommends it to others, which is clearly a bit of a loaded question.
“For introverts who know another language and are genuinely interested in language, it can be a good fit for a while. It also depends on your language and areas of expertise. (The most lucrative fields are legal/patents for Japanese, oil/gas for Russian, etc.) Translation is just as much an art as it is a science, so it is important not to underestimate its challenges.”
To him, one of the biggest pros is the limited need for video conferencing, making it an ideal job for nomads in areas of low internet connectivity. He also feels in-control of his time on a daily basis, which isn’t something most others with a nine-to-five can say. However, one major con that sticks out to him is that “it’s rather hard to make fixed plans or maintain a full schedule of non-work activities, as work can and does come in randomly and require you to suddenly drop everything. To a certain extent, I feel like I’m living sort of “reactively” for now.”
Justin can see himself working and traveling for the next few years, but ultimately becoming a translator was his jumping off point for more and he hopes to use his experience to create mobile and web tools for language learners in the future.
Become a Translator with these Insights from the Experts
One of my major goals here at Slight North is to keep the site honest… always. That means interviews like these, which share both the good and the bad or becoming a translator. The work isn’t steady, hours can vary, and moving up is hard. However, it IS a great way to make money while traveling and stay on the road longer, or even indefinitely.
Are you considering taking the leap to become a translator, or have you worked as one in the past? If so, I would love to hear from you in the comments below!
PS still exploring your options? Visit the Working Abroad Series to learn more ways to make money while you travel and find in-depth guide to teaching online ESL classes, working as an au pair, getting a job as a flight attendant, starting a digital marketing business, landing a full-time position teaching in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, breaking into freelance writing, or even working on a yacht!
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