Being one of those staid, square people who likes to keep their membership of online platforms to a sensible number, I was surprised to find myself joining Reddit recently. My primary motivation in doing so was to join in discussions about SEO as part of establishing and growing my new business.
But I also decided to use the opportunity to join a community for translators wishing to share their experiences with others in the industry. See if I could share some of the insights I’ve gained in my time as a freelance legal translator.
Many of the posts in the group were from young language graduates thinking of becoming freelance translators and requesting advice from those already out in the trenches – err, sorry – market.
I won’t lie: reading through a few of these newbie “what should I do?” posts, a part of me wanted to write “something else”.
But that is far too harsh. Even though I am currently in the process of diversifying away from translation, I have never regretted my decision to become a freelance legal translator back in 2015. It was a culmination of my years of legal education in England, Germany and Austria and the years I then spent working in the Austrian legal sector. Not just that: it was a much better fit for my personality and natural strengths – and I knew there was a market gap for well-done, quality German to English legal translations.
It is enormously satisfying to be a proud nerd in your niche, to have very definite opinions about how things should and shouldn’t be done – and to be genuinely driven to provide the best results every time.
It is precisely this depth of experience – and the fact that I am now pivoting away from the branch somewhat – which makes me feel like ponying up some unvarnished honesty when it comes to the challenges of being a freelance translator in 2023. And the young, fresh-faced whippersnappers of Reddit were first in the line for a dollop of it.
Here’s what I told them.
1. Working for translation agencies is all about weighing up the benefits and the costs
Getting on the books of a translation agency or two is a great way to get the money flowing when you’re setting up your business. You don’t have to worry about customer acquisition, the work is quite varied – and it just comes to you.
The price of this simplicity is that you get paid a whole lot less than with direct customers. The agency obviously takes their cut, there might be a proofreader who needs paying out of the price too…and all on a hyper-competitive marketplace being totally upended by AI. Oh yes, and you have next to no bargaining power over price or conditions – it’s basically take it or leave it.
Agencies can also seriously mess you around. Translators are ten-a-penny and if you aren’t doing their bidding 100% then the next one is waiting right behind you, ready to take your place. Don’t think for a minute that you are special or that anyone really cares about you. You are mostly just a name on an electronic project management dashboard.
Here are some of the things I’ve experienced with agencies in the last 8 years:
- Several have disappeared entirely without warning or explanation, after a seemingly good cooperation over several years;
- I have been asked to keep my time blocked for a certain assignment and not to take anything else on – making me reject other work. The offending agency then returned to say quite casually that they went with another translator in the end, leaving me several hundreds of euros out of pocket;
- One agency showed me their appreciation for 6 years’ hard work, late nights and sacrificed weekends by asking if I’d mind being paid less (I did);
- Some only gave me the tiniest of timeframes to accept a job. After I missed a job because I went to the bathroom for 5 minutes, I started carrying my phone around everywhere with me, just in case. Until I realised that that was madness und completely undignified – a complete perversion of the freedom I became self-employed to enjoy.
As I said, I have been fully committed to self-employment and my role as a legal translator. And therefore, I was prepared to deal with stuff like this to a certain extent. But not any more – as far as agencies are concerned, I’ve taken a big step back. I only take on jobs which are adequately paid and I certainly don’t carry my phone around with me like some kind of digital ball and chain, ready to pounce on a job at any moment.
To all newbie translators, I say this: working with agencies has its upsides. And there are good ones staffed with very nice people who do their level best for you. But don’t get dependent, don’t let them rule your life…and always be prepared to take a step back. For no other reason than to save your own sanity.
2. It is not necessarily true that you need a translation degree to do your job properly
One of the agencies I worked with a few years ago began to put pressure on me to do a master’s in translation studies. It wouldn’t increase the amount they paid me or the volume of work I could expect – and they wouldn’t be paying for any part of it.
I am basically open to the idea of further education: but there has to be a clear advantage to doing it. Degrees cost a shedload of money and, at the end of the day, it’s like any other investment: you only do it if there is likely to be an attractive return.
Why on earth would I fork out thousands – tens of thousands – of euros to do a course of education which is unlikely to increase my earning prospects? The decision against it was a no-brainer, but I spent quite a while feeling guilty about rebuffing the proposal.
In retrospect, I shouldn’t have wasted a second feeling bad. There are many paths to becoming a good translator which don’t involve a translation degree. In my case, a multilingual, cross-cultural legal education and over a decade of practical experience in the legal sector qualified me to work as a legal translator just as well as any additional academic baubles or letters after my name. I’ve got a degree in “Been There, Done That” – and that’s just fine.
3. Gird your loins and grow a spine
It is difficult when you are young and inexperienced but learn how to say “no” – even when you could so easily say “yes”. And yet it is necessary.
Over the last 8 years, prices for translations (including highly specialised legal texts) have just gone one way: down. And fast. Fierce competition, AI…there are several reasons for this development, but it is how it is and these macro-trends can’t be stopped or slowed down. You just have to adapt and go with the flow.
Now, unless you live somewhere where the living costs are extremely low or you have a rich spouse to support you and are doing translation as a kind of genteel hobby to pass the time – you are going to have to define a bottom line when it comes to price and conditions. And stick to it. By allowing yourself to get ground down ever lower on pricing, you screw yourself over – and everyone else on the market.
It is in everyone’s interests for you to grow a spine. Doing so is rather strenuous and scary at times – but the happy by-product of the process is that you acquire an outsize pair of (lady)balls. Which come in handy in plenty of other situations in life. So step to it.
4. Diversify. Immediately.
As I have already said repeatedly, the market for language services is brutal, over-populated, über-competitive…and sometimes not much fun to be in.
All of that amounts to some considerable business risk for the average translator. The sensible response to this uncertainty is to spread that risk by diversifying. That could mean expanding the range of language services you offer; or diversifying into whole other areas. By doing so, you limit your exposure to the risk of the market; if things really go south in one business area, then your other income streams will help to mitigate the impact.
Failing to do this soon enough is the single biggest mistake I made in my time as a freelance legal translator – and in the end, it landed me in hot water. As it had to.
I hope that any young people just starting out on their freelance journey who are reading this article or my Reddit posts take this to heart and avoid making the same mistakes I did.