10 lessons from my first year as a full-time freelance translator

I've been so busy with work this past month (hence the lack of blog posts) that I missed an important milestone. Three weeks ago marked one year since I made the bold career decision to quit my job and become a full-time freelance translator. Before that, I'd been translating part-time for several years, but just over a year ago I decided it was time to make the switch to full-time.

Taking the plunge was pretty scary and all sorts of questions were running through my mind, "What if it doesn't work?", "How will I survive financially if I don't get any work?". It has been a real learning curve. There have been some great times but many difficult times too.

Here are ten lessons I've learned from my first year as a full-time freelance translator that I wish I'd known a year ago:

  1. You will need at least three months' saving put aside. I cannot stress enough how important it is to prepare yourself financially. Save, save, save. And when you think you've saved enough, save some more. As you work to build up your client base, money will come in very slowly indeed. Trust me. It took a good three months for the trickle of money to turn into a steady(ish!) flow.
  2. There will be days when you will not make a penny. Don't panic. You will learn very quickly that feast and famine is the name of the freelance translator's game. The important thing is to be prepared and use your time wisely. In a quiet period, spend your time tackling activities that don't generate income, such as admin and glossary and TM maintenance.
  3. Set a realistic rate. Don't under or over-value your services. It is important to get a good idea of appropriate rates for the translation market in which you work before you set yours. Once set, it will be very difficult to change. If you set your rate too low, you could end up working all hours of the day for very little money. If you set your rate too high, you risk losing the client to a less expensive option. Think it through carefully and know your value. This is a business, not a hobby.
  4. Don't assume that you will spend all day, every day translating. This is not the reality of freelance translation. You are the translation, IT, marketing, admin and accounts departments all rolled into one. Be prepared to spend time on all these tasks.
  5. Be open to offering different types of services. The more you offer, the easier it will be for you to find clients. Aside from translation, my first year as a freelancer has involved editing, proofreading, quality assurance checking, localisation, glossary creation, alignment, translation memory updates and brand name analysis. Utilise your language skills and maximise your income. The (translation) world is your oyster!
  6. Be prepared to work hard. Anyone who thinks freelance translators get up whenever they like and sit around in their pyjamas all day is sadly mistaken. I get up at the crack of dawn and often work until late evening (weekends included). Self-motivation is key. Be prepared to work long hours and put your all into every project you take on. It will pay off.
  7. Network with fellow freelance translators. Get in touch with people who understand your career. The first year is the hardest, you'll need all the support you can get. Network with other freelance translators and swap stories. It's a great source of mutual encouragement.
  8. Be prepared for your working hours to change at a moment's notice. From last minute client changes to the source file, to a super urgent translation, your working hours can change without warning. You may decide to accept such requests or you may decide to turn them down. Either way, you're in control!
  9. Don't shy away from a challenging project (within reason). Allow yourself plenty of extra time to do thorough research into the subject matter and deal with the inevitable tricky terms that arise. When you complete the project you'll be far more knowledgeable on the subject and you'll be that much better for having done it. Don't be afraid to stretch yourself. Equally...
  10. Don't be afraid to say no. Sometimes you just know the project isn't for you but you're reluctant to turn it down. Who knows when the next one will come along, right? Wrong. There's always another project around the corner. Don't panic. Either offer the client a solution by referring them to someone else (this is where the networking comes in), or just say no.
Thinking back to where I was a year ago and comparing it to where I am now makes me very sure I made the right decision. Here I am, one year on, incredibly busy with work and feeling much happier on a personal level. Being a freelance translator definitely agrees with me and I'd recommend it to anyone who is seriously considering giving it a bash. You will encounter many road blocks along the way, but don't give up!

So, to the veteran freelance translators out there, have I missed anything? What have you learned over the course of your career as a freelance translator? What do you know now that you wish you had known when you started out?


  1. While reading this post, I have been feeling like you just wrote down my own experiences and thoughts! My first freelance anniversary was in June this year and I agree with everything :-)

    I'd like to add another point: Invest in your business! Of course, within reasonable limits. But don't be a scrooge when it comes to what you depend on for a living, i.e. software, marketing materials and ongoing training...

    Keep going and all the best!

  2. That's a great point Tatjana. It's important to invest in all those things. They're vital for helping your business to run smoothly, helping you to work more efficiently and improving your own skills.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and (belated) congratulations on your first freelance anniversary!

  3. I'm actually celebrating my second anniversary as a freelance translator today!

    I'd like to add a few tips of my own:

    1. Take the time to create a strong online profile. Set up a website, join LinkedIn and consider using social media such as Twitter. I've found a few clients this way.

    2. Networking can be great for getting work as well as support, but don't go in there thinking, "I must land a job today." Relax, have fun and get to know people. It will happen in time.

    3. I agree about offering different types of services, but as far as subject matter goes, consider specialising. Use any previous careers, life experience or interests to develop two or three fields where you're particularly knowledgeable. When I started out I was afraid not to present myself as a generalist in case it lost me work, but I soon found potential clients trusted me more if I sent out a clear message of expertise in their subject area.

    4. I've found it's better to quote too high than too low. Often, if a client finds you too expensive they'll try to negotiate, and you can then decide whether to lower your rates a little or whether they're just not a good match for you.

    5. As a freelancer you can set your own hours. Not sitting around in your pyjamas all day is an excellent point (I work in mine ;) ). The opposite is also true, that you don't have to work evenings or weekends if you don't want to. It's important to have some time off and not burn yourself out. The best tip I can give here is know what you need to earn and how many hours you want to work, then set your rates accordingly. You could also consider charging extra for urgent jobs that can't be completed within normal office hours.

    6. The Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK run two really excellent courses for new freelance translators: the Orientation Course and the Professional Support Group. I've done the latter, which teaches new freelancers business skills, and I can't speak highly enough of it.

  4. Thanks for all the great tips Marga. Excellent advice.

    I will definitely look into the ITI courses you mention. It sounds like they could be very helpful.

    Oh, and congratulations on your second anniversary!

  5. Wow!! It doesn't seem it's your "first year" but that you have done all this for decades! :)

    Thanks for the reminders. Three years and sometimes I forget these things.

  6. As you know, I am not a translator, but set up my own textiles business shortly after you. I love reading your blog for tips - I find there is a large cross-over as I work from home, and your business advice is very sound. Excellent advice here, as usual! Well done on your first year :) x

  7. Very useful, thanks a lot. I've just set up on my own a month ago and it's really useful to have some advices like yours. :)