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Languages have always been my jam. I studied German in college and even lived there, attending classes and proofreading other students’ work on the side. And I picked up some Spanish when I lived in South America for a whole year.
I adore being able to converse with people in their own language. Even better if I can help them understand something better or help them solve a problem.
And that’s why we’re all here, isn’t it? To help solve other people’s problems. Sure, we also need to earn money to pay our bills. But if you use your skills to solve a problem your clients have and provide value to them, then you will be successful.
It’s a win-win… or should I say ganar-ganar!
So if you’re proficient in another language besides your native language, and you want to up your earning potential and help more people, why not look into adding translation services to your bag of tricks.
Jennifer Thomé, a Work-At-Home School contributor and experienced translator, is here to answer all your questions about how to become a translator and use your language skills to make money from home.
Q: Hi, Jennifer! Tell us a little about yourself and how you got started in translation and “language hustling.”
I grew up in a small village in Germany speaking both English and German. I think I was five before it clicked that I was speaking two languages, and even though I got my BA in German, I never saw myself working as a translator.
While I was in college, something fortunate happened that would change the trajectory of my life. I found out that there was an honor society for language students, and as it turned out the president was really cute and mentioned that I should go to China and check out the former German-occupied area, known for great architecture and great beer. And, as any reasonable 20-year-old does when a total heartthrob makes a comment like that, I applied for a grant to go to China, and believe it or not, I actually got it!
Two weeks later I landed in the Middle Kingdom, and I was completely and utterly lost.
I mimed my way through the first few days, crammed as much as my brain could hold, and had so much fun that I decided to move back there after finishing college.
Since I was completely helpless I made a lot of kind friends, and as my Chinese improved they’d occasionally ask me for help. That’s when I started translating (my first job was the nameplates on a government building), and I fell absolutely in love with it! The combination of technical work and creative flexibility, not to mention the charms of learning an ancient pictorial language, was the perfect combination of fun and challenge.
And that’s how I got started as a translator!
Q: We all do crazy things when we have a crush, but it sounds like it turned out really well for you! What does a translator do?
Well, on a “big picture” level we help build the bridges between people, cultures, and companies that allow international business to exist.
On a more practical level, we take information and we help translate it into another language, and often, cultural context (this is called localization).
For most standard translation projects, a client will send me a file, and I will return either an annotated file (for a PDF with visuals) or another document with a localized translation in it. I usually start by reading it through, marking anything I don’t know, and then translating it. This might require me to do some research on the topic (I may not know all the exact terminology, but it’s so easy to find these days).
When I return projects, I always include a detailed email that explains relevant things, such as: “I noticed this passage was about rice, and not the best cultural equivalent for something we consider a staple, so I used ‘bread’ instead. Let me know if you have any questions.”
Q: That’s so interesting! So sometimes it’s not just about creating a direct translation. What are the other language jobs that are out there?
These are what I call the language hustles, and there are so many! Once you get into the field, you’ll be overwhelmed by how many ways there are to earn money with your second language.
There is transcription (creating a transcript of an audio or video), subtitling, interpretation, social media management, writer, editor, virtual assistant and personal assistant work, and more.
If you’re looking for a bilingual job and have an intermediate skill level, it’s really easy to get started in any of these.
Q: What kind of skills do you need to become a translator?
Other than at least an intermediate level in another language, you’ll need curiosity, resourcefulness, good organization skills, and attention to detail.
I really don’t buy into the idea that you have to be a certified, native-level fluency person to be a translator, especially now that there is so much technology to help us out.
I have translated physics papers that I had no idea what they were talking about. I’ve done social media campaigns despite not being a marketer. I have proofed translations of cookbooks. I’ve translated ancient texts that required me to look up titles that have not been used in 2,500 years. I translated for a colon cancer patient.
None of these things were in my area of expertise, nor was I certified, but if you’re willing to learn and put in the effort and are detail-oriented and a good communicator, people will keep on sending you work.
My basic rule of thumb is to make sure to make every word is accounted for, that every concept is accurate (even if you’ve brought it into the local context), and that you deliver it in a format the other person finds useful and easy to read. If you can do that, you can be a translator.
Q: That’s awesome! I bet a lot of people rule translation out because they’re not 100% fluent. Do you need any special equipment?
To start as a translator, you really only need a computer and access to the internet. For jobs such as voice recording and interpreting, you will need a microphone and maybe a studio setup (if you go pro). And if you’re helping businesses with social media or e-commerce, a camera may come in handy.
Some companies request that you use CAT technology (computer-assisted translation), but truth be told, I have been doing this for close to 20 years and I still haven’t taken the leap. It does make you more productive, especially on big projects, but I learned translation before these were a thing.
One additional cost that may come down the line is certification. There are lots of certification programs for specialties, such as legal or medical translation. If you are interested in pursuing these, it’s worth taking a look at the certificate courses, though I have done a lot of work without ever getting certified.
Q: Who hires translators? Is there a demand for this service?
There is a HUGE demand for this service. It is, after all, a $5.5 billion dollar industry.
Long story short, everything that happens in English also happens in other languages, and if you can find companies who have it happening in multiple languages, you’ve found yourself a customer. Tech startups, medical companies, insurance companies, book publishers, law firms, translation firms… These are just a list of the types of companies I have worked for this year.
I was just speaking to a friend who owns a translation company, and translators are turning her down because they are too busy.
Q: Wow! I love to hear about what booming industries are out there! How much can a translator earn? What about the other services?
There is a really large spread of what translators can earn, and it depends on industry and language. It averages around $25 an hour. For Chinese, I usually charge $0.25 per character, plus 25% for rush fee and/or non-OCR text (like an old PDF where you can’t copy and paste the characters into a translation software).
My minimum rate is $40, and that’s easy jobs for people I like, such as helping friends apply for professional licenses or doing a fun and easy translation.
Best of all, you can earn to learn and grow your earning potential as you go along. A lot of my students are college students who started taking translation jobs in their field, and it gave them a huge edge when they went into the workforce.
For other careers, rates also start around $25 an hour, but interpreters are usually $40–$75 an hour (with extra for in-person meetings), there are voiceover artists who earn six figures, and marketers who are earning $100s a day doing fairly basic work.
The thing to note is that all of these require you to find your own work, so it takes a bit to scale up, but if you deliver good work people will start recommending you and it will become easier and easier to find work. I don’t even look for it anymore at this point. It’s 100% word of mouth.
Q: That’s the level all freelancers aspire to reach — where all your work comes from referrals! As a work-from-home blog, we have to ask: can you do this job from home or is it more of an in-person thing?
Translation and most other language careers can be 100% remote, and more often than not, you won’t even have to make any calls, which I love!
There are also opportunities, like interpretation, where you get paid extra to show up in person. I’ve done this before and was paid an extra $100 just for showing up and working as an in-person interpreter rather than a digital one.
The only other in-person work I have done is working with small businesses to help them build a local brand.
Q: Good to know! How flexible is this type of work? Is it ideal for moms, as a side gig, digital nomads, etc.?
Most language jobs are incredibly flexible, though some companies have a really fast turnaround, and you’ll want to clear that in advance. It’s ideal as a side gig and for new moms because you can set your own schedule and decide how much work you want to take in.
It’s perfect for digital nomads because if you’re working in the country speaking that language you will be inundated with fun opportunities, and you can really get to meet your local neighbors and build a career helping them.
Q: What’s the best way to get started working with languages?
First, you want to ask yourself what kinds of things you enjoy doing and what your language level is. There are so many options in language careers that you’ll definitely be able to find one that matches your skill level and your passion.
Once you have that, you create some materials you can show to your future clients, meaning you can piggyback those early, low-paying jobs and start earning a more significant income right away.
Once you’ve got your samples and know your rates, you start reaching out to potential clients and building up your book of business. A lot of success in translation is determined by your ability to deliver great work and stay in touch with clients.
Jennifer Thomé is a multilingual entrepreneur who has used her language skills as a translator, interpreter, localizer, transcriber, and more before starting her course, TurnkeyTranslator, where she teaches other multilingual people how to monetize their language skills.
As a self-confessed language nerd, I love any language-related hustle.
If you’ve become proficient in any languages through birth, study, or travel, you should definitely consider learning how to become a translator to earn money from home — or anywhere in the world!
Ready to start your career as a translator? Check out Jennifer’s TurnkeyTranslator course here!
It’s also included in Work-At-Home School this year (2020), so check out our free work-at-home masterclass if you want to learn more.
Note from Caitlin: Work-At-Home School contributors may change from year to year, but you are guaranteed to find incredible resources that will help you start and grow your business!