The Portable Polyglot

Work's a beach Photo: Anna Berkut

Written by  November 12, 2014

Work as a freelance translator might just be the perfect portable career.

It's Thursday, 9 a.m., and I'm windsurfing across the bay, with the Brazilian city of Vitória as my backdrop. Last year, I spent my mornings in Curitiba doing a course in ancient Greek. And the year before? I was probably sitting in a cafe in Lisbon, Portugal, eating one of their yummy cream pastries, typing away at my laptop.

What about work, you say? Well, in my opinion, I have the best job in the world—working as a freelance translator. I set my own schedule; I can work at home, on a bus or in a café; and I can even move to a different country without batting an eyelid.

Although Google Translate is getting good, it still isn't good enough. Most clients value the input of a human translator and the translation industry is a long way from dying out. According to the US Department of Labor, employment of translators and interpreters is projected to increase 42 per cent between 2010 and 2020—much faster than the average for all jobs.

When my feet start itching and I feel like a change of scenery, I simply pack up my laptop and take my job with me wherever I go.

Some languages are more in demand than others, but you don't need to learn Mandarin to get your foot in the door. If you work with a very common language pair (for example, translating English into Spanish) you might have a lot of competition, but on the other hand there will also be many jobs to go round. In contrast, while there are certainly far fewer jobs translating Turkish into Swahili, when you do get one you will be able to charge a premium price. As long as you have a thorough understanding of at least two languages, and can write well in your mother tongue, you can get started.

Getting certified

Although a translation qualification can be helpful, it's not necessary—clients often care much more about hiring a reliable, knowledgeable and professional translator than about a diploma or certificate.

Translators come from a wide range of backgrounds. A few train at university, but many (like me) come to it later in life. Clients are very interested in translators who have in-depth knowledge of a specific subject area, and your years working as a financial adviser or even making cocktails may be invaluable. (Think of how many badly translated restaurant menus you've seen on your travels.)

However, if you are interested in becoming certified, get in touch with a translation organization like the Canadian Translators, Terminologists and Interpreters Council, the American Translators Association or the UK Chartered Institute of Linguists. Each organization offers a different type of qualification and the exams are open to translators of all nationalities.

Getting experience

Getting your first job can be difficult, as few clients will want to hire a translator with no experience. A great way around this is to do volunteer translations; you gain experience while helping a non-profit organization of your choice.

There are several websites that connect volunteer translators with non-profits and translation projects. Organizations like The Rosetta Foundation and Translators Without Borders connect translators with non-profit organizations. You can also find projects via the UN Online Volunteering Service.

Getting work

When I started translating, I didn't know it would turn into a career. I was completing a Master's degree in Germany and applied for a translation project posted on the university job board. I loved the flexibility compared to other student jobs, plus the cash wasn't too bad. So, I set up a profile on a professional translation site to try and get more work. My list of clients began to grow. Five years down the line, translation work has become my main source of income.

Websites like ProZ.com and TranslatorsCafe.com connect translators with professional clients. Set up a profile to start applying for your first translation project. These sites are also full of advice on everything related to freelance translating and other language jobs.

Getting paid

Freelance translating also has its downsides. Without a guaranteed salary at the end of the month, you really need to stay on top of your finances and plan for "dry months" with few projects. (The most boring part of my job is the admin: tracking the payment for projects I've completed, sending reminders to clients and, of course, doing my taxes.) You also need to maintain your working languages by reading widely, speaking to other native speakers and going back to the countries your languages is spoken in.

But then again, who needs an excuse to travel? I can't see myself ever going back to a regular, nine-to-five job. On a day-to-day basis the work is fascinating: the subjects I translate range from hospital records to cosmetics advertisements, or web pages on Chinese archery.

I also love the lifestyle. When everyone is at work, the supermarket aisles are empty. When the weather turns hot and muggy, I can pop down to the beach in the afternoon for a quick dip. And, when my feet start itching and I feel like a change of scenery, I simply pack up my laptop and take my job with me wherever I go.

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Published in Work Abroad
Julie Gassmann

Julie is a writer and translator based in Vila Velha, Brazil. An accidental specialist in nomadic living, a laptop and free WiFi are her most trusted travel companions. Follow her @JulieGDutra.

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