Part-time freelancing...possible?
Thread poster: David Turnbull

David Turnbull
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:34
Italian to English
Aug 19, 2009

Hi everyone,

I'd be really grateful for some opinions on how/whether I should move forward with freelancing. The crux of the matter is whether agencies are likely to be interested in a relatively inexperienced translator who can offer 1000 words a day (3 hours of translation perhaps) or if it's really not even worth my while sending off applications and CVs?

I've put the background below, but the issue is essentially what I have described.

Thanks, Dave

[For the past year I have been working in-house for a translation agency in Rome, which mostly did translations for news agencies but also for a variety of clients in a number of fields (legal, technical, medicine etc.). I was quite successful there and and in the course of the year became the top, or 'go to', translator on most projects. I left the job in acrimonious circumstances and since then have done a little freelancing through contacts in Italy but they were one-off jobs and, unfortunately, there is nothing to suggest that these clients will provide me with a trickle of work.

I came back to England to pursue a Masters degree in History in the hope of eventually launching an academic career. My initial idea was that I would be able to combine my studies with a little freelancing on the side so as (a) to provide me with some cash, and (b) to continue my development in translation in case the lure of academia weakens or I cannot find funding for a PhD, whereupon I would probably try to pursue a career in translation.

However, my (extensive) reading of the forums and own experience confirm that it will take a lot of time and effort to secure those initial agencies/clients and that there would be various reasons why it would be even more difficult in my case: my inability to offer huge volumes of work due to other commitments and, I suppose, my (still) comparative lack of any great experience or specialisation.

My fear is that my applications to agencies, however numerous or tenacious, will be rejected a priori because I cannot guarantee a turnover of more than about 1000 words a day (maybe three hours work for me). Do your experiences suggest that this would be the case and that I am wasting my time sending off on-spec applications to agencies? Would I be better off concentrating on my studies and working a different part-time job, taking translation work if it came up rather more spontaneously?]


Daina Jauntirans  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:34
German to English
+ ...
Academic contacts? Aug 19, 2009

In your case an alternative might be networking with your fellow students, professors, etc. to get translation jobs relating to your university studies (dissertations, articles, university or departmental Web sites), or perhaps translating personal documents and academic transcripts for other students/professors. If you could get a flow going, perhaps by eventually networking with students and professors at other universities as well, it seems like you would still be doing something that would leave you enough time for your studies.

I do think it would be hard to get a solid freelance career going on 3 hrs./day, but you may luck into something by using contacts you had from Italy. Alternatively, if you want to work weekends, you could offer a strictly rush service on those days.

Just a couple of ideas!


Henry Hinds  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 21:34
English to Spanish
+ ...
Danger Aug 19, 2009

There is always the danger of getting more work than you can handle at any given time, whether you are part-time or full-time. That is just something you need to handle by negotiating deadlines, staying up late, working weekends, etc.

But it's a risk you have to take; I say go for it!

I translated part-time for 15 years before I was able to make a full-time career of it, so I speak from experience.


Graeme Waller  Identity Verified
Local time: 06:34
Finnish to English
+ ...
Yes Aug 19, 2009


I think this is how many start out. Just be ready that at times you will have no orders and that at other times you might have more than you can handle and that doing a Ph.D at the same time may become a bit of a juggling acticon_smile.gif.

You must already be a bit of a history expert as you are studying at Ph.D level, and also, at least at a general level, in your secondary subjects (minors). Your "in house" work experience is something you should also emphasise in your applications.

Wishing you the best,


[Edited at 2009-08-19 13:12 GMT]

[Edited at 2009-08-19 13:17 GMT]


Tina Vonhof
Local time: 21:34
Member (2006)
Dutch to English
+ ...
Go for it Aug 19, 2009

You translate from Italian to English. I can see a potential for getting clients among Italian academics who wish to publish in English, either translating or editing. Is that an avenue you could pursue? With the time you have available you wouldn't want a long list of clients, just a few to begin with and then word will spread. Good luck!


Lesley Clarke  Identity Verified
Local time: 22:34
Spanish to English
Go for it Aug 19, 2009

That is how most of us started out.

Do you not have any flexibility in your coursework that would mean, if necessary you could do ten pages one day and study the next?


Local time: 22:34
English to Spanish
Ready for the good times Aug 19, 2009

I think your are missing something very important. You already have one of the most important thing to get a freelance project started: your hidden expertise. As a student I am sure your have beeing working with big volumes of work, in your personal life you have the experience of living in a foreing country so I am sure you have much more to offer of what you think.


Michelle Hertrich  Identity Verified
Local time: 05:34
German to English
+ ...
It is possible Aug 19, 2009

Hi Dave,

I can only let you know what I´ve experienced as a part-time translator over the last few years. In an ideal world, I would take on approximately 4 hours of translation work a day and have the weekends off - so not much more than what you want to do. I mainly worked for agencies when I started out. They were looking for someone who had in-depth knowledge in my field. I was very much aware though that I was competing with full-time translators who had more experience in the translating business, with the result that I often took on deadlines where I had to work through the night or on the weekends. Then there would be nothing for another week or two, followed by another rush job. Just like Grahame said, it can be juggling act.

I´ve now got a list of regular customers (agencies) who are aware that I also work "out of the office" part-time and set their deadlines accordingly. The best customers though are the direct customers (especially the academicsicon_smile.gif) when you are the absolute specialist in their field (history for you, physio for me). They are often prepared to wait a few days longer for their translation because they know they are getting good quality. So I would definately work the academic circles there. The other thing that worked for me was to translate books in my field. Academic publishers will often prefer someone who has practical experience working in their field. You then have your regular pensum of work for a few months and don´t have the ups and downs of having either too much or too little to do.

Everynow and then I still lose potential new customers (always agencies) who send me an email in the morning and expect an answer within 10 minutes as to whether I can take on the translation. I´ve now set up my mobile phone so that I can receive and send emails when I´m out of the office, but it isn´t always possible to rush to my mobile and send back an email immediately. But, hey, you can´t have everything!

Good luck with it all!


David Turnbull
United Kingdom
Local time: 04:34
Italian to English
Thank you! Aug 19, 2009

Thank you all for your extremely kind and helpful responses.

Working the academic circles is definitely a good idea and certainly something I would be interested in, after all.

I am now officially encouraged and will begin tomorrow with renewed enthusiasm. I suppose I had got slightly cold feet confronted by the vast oceans of faceless agencies, email addresses and mail forms!

Thanks again,



KSL Berlin  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:34
Member (2003)
German to English
+ ...
Shouldn't be a problem in many cases Aug 19, 2009

As long as potential clients clearly understand your situation, they can adjust their expectations accordingly and not get too bent out of shape about your limited availability. Years ago I moonlighted a bit while I was forced to work a day job for my visa, and I managed to supplement my main income nicely that way while fighting off boredom. These clients later became the basis of a successful transition to full-time freelancing when my visa status changed.

Edited to add:

If possible, try to establish relations with smaller agencies. These tend to be more flexible and fun to work with.

[Edited at 2009-08-19 17:20 GMT]


Local time: 04:34
Reply Aug 19, 2009

I was in the exact same situation 3 years ago. I left a permanent but rather boring language-related job in order to pursue a PhD in the UK, and I planned to support myself by translating as a freelancer (which I had been doing on an occassional basis for a number of years). True, I had some substantial savings so I knew that I could at least survive for some months should my translation plans fail to materialize.

In August 2006 I sent a round of CVs to hundreds of European agencies and I got a rather good response. Not that I was immediately able to fill in a 40-hour week with translations, but with my "old" agencies and customers and the new ones I managed to get at least 15 hours of work per week during my first year of studies. This of course didn't bring a lot of money but that was what I wanted, since my main focus was my thesis. I sometimes wonder whether this good response was due to the fact that I contacted my new agencies during the summer - some of them gave me work almost immediately, because their regular translators were on vacation, and they kept sending work after the summer ended. So start sending CVs now could be a wise move.

Agencies do not need to know that you can work only 3 hours a day. Once they come up with a project, they'll only ask whether you can handle it within the established deadline. What you do during the rest of the day (studying, working for other customers, working inhouse, watching TV) is none of their business (well of course you can tell them if you want, and it is actually a nice thing to do, but always keep in mind that you are not their employee. That said, I found it useful to think on a "per week" rather than a "per day" basis, and establishing how many hours a week I wanted (or could) dedicate to translation. For example, I could translate for 8 hours on Monday and 8 on Tuesday for a project which was due on Wednesday, and then not take any other assignments for the rest of the week. Of course, in an ideal world I would have preferred to take a job of the same characteristics but with a more generous deadline, allowing me to translate only for 2-3 hours a day, but sometimes it is a matter of adjusting. As a PhD student I could pretty much decide which hours I wanted to study/do research (except for some seminars I attended and some classes I taught), so this provided me with quite a lot of flexibility. It's not as if you're stuck in an office 9-5 and are forced to work in the evenings only.

To be honest I haven't been completely succesful with my plans because about a year ago I started to have a significant, full-time translation volume and this means I have had less hours for my PhD thesis. Not that it matters a lot, because it was almost written up and after some revision I managed to submit it in May, but during this last year I've had less time to attend seminars and conferences, which is an integral part of academic life. But under the current economic situation I was afraid of turning down offers and later regreting it - specially taking into account that it will probably take me some time to get an academic position, so my translation career is something I definitively want to keep for the moment.

I won't say all of this has been easy, but then you'll probably know already that both doing a PhD and being a freelance translator are lonesome activities which require you to be self-driven and well-organized, so I won't bore you with miserable details.

Best of luck,

[Editado a las 2009-08-19 19:02 GMT]

[Editado a las 2009-08-19 19:04 GMT]


Local time: 04:34
Reply (2) Aug 19, 2009

Oh, and trying to obtain translation work in the academic circles is a great idea. I actually got some work from people in my department, not only translating but also providing some "cultural insight" on topics related to Spain, and it was fun. Moreover, as a native of English, you can try to get work proofreading articles written in English by foreign researchers for publication in UK or US journals.


Deborah do Carmo  Identity Verified
Local time: 04:34
Dutch to English
+ ...
As the saying goes ... Aug 20, 2009

Cliché as it may sound, anything is possible if you set your mind to it.

I agree with what most people have said here, but just want to add an important point. Invest in a BlackBerry (or similar device) if you don't already have one. It is vital to respond quickly to emails in this business. I'd advise setting up an email on it solely for work purposes, so you are not distracted by it beeping all the time.

If you respond quickly, even if to decline a project, you are far more likely to get contacted again.

Best of luck with your studies


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