Let's see, the world of translation. Where to start? I guess the first thing you should ask yourself is how strong are your language skills and what translation experience you have. If you feel confident about your translation skills, then by all means proceed. If not, perhaps you would find some language courses helpful to touch up your skills. Language is what our profession is based on, and you will only be as good a translator as your writings skills are.
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From a professional standpoint, in the translation industry you will want to translate into your native language. Because even if you have spoken a language for a long time, you will never grasp it as well as the one you spoke from earliest childhood. Many translators go from multiple secondary languages to their mother tongue, but only rarely should one attempt the other direction.
Even before I left my previous job, I was looking for translation work online. One of the best sites I found is proz.com, a site where professionals can post their information and receive notification from other people who have translation work they need done. I really recommend you take a look at that site and set up a free profile; the more complete you make it, the better chance you will have of being accepted for work. It's like your virtual business card.
Another professional resource that you MUST have is a good resume/CV, geared towards translation and language. Anything that relates to that must be explained; what is not related can be briefly mentioned just in passing. Your CV needs to tell potential employers who look at it for 10-15 seconds that you are a translator that merits their attention, and that is no easy thing to do.
OK, you've done that. Now what? Get notifications about related jobs sent to you from proz.com. When you see a job that interests you, respond and apply at once.
What rate should you offer? It depends on your situation. If you are dying for work, 8 cents per word should get you a fairly good percentage of jobs (6 cents would be a bare minimum imo). Little by little, once you gain people's trust and establish a name for yourself, you can raise your rates. Higher-end translators charge 20-25 cents per word, esp. if there is some type of specialization required.
How do people pay you? If they live in the US, a cheque in the mail is probably easiest. But for those outside the US (and even for those in the US), paying online via PayPal is often the preferred option. So you will need to set up a free account on paypal.com where people can send you money via electronic means. Once you have enough, you can easily transfer it to your bank account (Note: PayPal does not operate in all countries). For some, sending a bank transfer straight to your bank account will be easiest, so you will want to ask your bank for all the information you need to provide someone for these types of transactions. The more payment options you provide a client, the easier it becomes for them to send you work. Payment generally takes 30-60 days to arrive, so at the beginning it takes time to get a stable cash flow.
Remember, as a freelancer you are your own boss, accountant, marketer and worker. That's a lot to handle, but there are plenty of resources to help you as well. For example, proz.com has some solid articles that will provide some great insights into this profession. Then networking with others, having business cards, etc. are key ways of establishing new clients and making inroads.
For your translations, you will also need to arm yourself with the proper tools. Good dictionaries are your best friends; they are well worth the money and will generally pay for themselves in one or two jobs. Online resources are also key: wordreference.com (online dic in 4+ languages) is one of the better ones. You will also find the KudoZ section of Proz.com very helpful, where there is an extensive database of difficult terms translated by professionals the world over. If you don't find the term you are looking for, you can ask experts across the globe for the best translation and you will start getting answers within minutes. Answering KudoZ questions yourself is a great way of getting visibility in the translator community and establishing your reputation as a quality translator (plus it's fun and enriching).
You might wonder if it's worthwhile paying for ProZ.com membership. What I recommend is starting with a free profile and seeing how things go with that. There will come a time when you feel you need more help and services to move ahead, and that will be a good time to buy membership. I bought membership for my first year and a half and can tell you my membership paid for itself in 1-2 days. There are also special membership drives that offer discounted membership, so you might want to consider that also. I experimented paid membership on other translator portals, but none of them were really worth the financial investment.
Freelance translation is a great field of work. It's wonderful because you can grow it little by little alongside whatever you are doing (studies, full-time or part-time job). The work grows at your pace. As you grow you can start leaving your other occupations gradually if that's what you feel like doing, until you have enough translation volume to work on that full-time and leave your previous job or other occupation. How long that takes depends on your skill, your confidence, your marketing abilities.
A note on marketing: you are selling a product, yourself. So first you must make sure you know you have the best product out there, i.e. make sure your translation and writing skills are top-notch. Then make sure everyone else knows that. That means sending loads of e-mails, answering job requests, posting your CV on as many translator websites as you can, calling translation agencies, getting feedback from satisfied clients, etc. I estimate in my first 4 months I spent 50-80% of my work-week in self-marketing, and it paid off, because after that point I had enough work to keep me busy full-time. And 2 months after that, I already needed to find qualified helpers to assist, since I had too much work to handle on my own.
Anyway, these are my thoughts. I hope you find them helpful. But the best way to learn is "in the gerund," by doing it! I hope it works out for you.
Nicholas Ferreira has been translating on and off for the past 15 years. For the past 18 months he has worked as a full-time freelance translator (Spanish, French and Latin into English), and is currently mentoring 3 junior translators.