Starting as a German to English translator
Thread poster: James Wright

James Wright
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:44
German to English
Apr 26, 2011


I am trying to start a career as a freelance translator from German to English. I guess it's best to write a little about me first so you know my background and then I'll post some questions.

About Me
I am 28 years old and a native English speaker from the UK. I graduated from university with a BA German and then followed this with a MA in Translation Studies. Since I left university, I have been working in the field of logistics - generally freight forwarding. I have recently moved to Berlin where I hope I can make a career change from logistics into translation on a full-time basis. I have no experience of paid translation work. Here are my questions:

1) What is the best way to get those first (seemingly elusive) jobs?
I've read through the forums and noticed that a lot of people have volunteered to do translation work for NGO's etc. Is this a wise move in order to start building a portfolio? Should you state how much time (or number of words) you're willing to take on? Does anyone know any organisations who require volunteers for German to English translation?

2) What to charge?
What should you charge for standard translations and more specialised translations (in Euro)?

3) Approaching companies
I have been considering approaching companies in Berlin, to see if they require translation of their websites into English. What is the best way to do this? Find a website, translate a sample, draw up a quote and send it directly to them with an introduction of who I am?

If anyone could help me on the above points, I would really appreciate it.


Gillian Searl  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:44
Member (2004)
German to English
11 years ago... Apr 26, 2011

...that was me. I had no experience, no qualifications and no idea how to get going. I started with Alex Eames' ebook -

It had a different name back then - how to earn £50,000 as a freelance translator - and I thought that amount would be quite good! In his own rather unusual style, Alex explains how to go about getting freelance work from translation agencies. Follow his instructions and you might not earn GBP 50k in your first year but you might just build up a successful freelance business over a few years. Of course has lots of good advice too.

You could skip the agencies and go straight for direct clients - I didn't go that route so can't give you any advice. If I was looking for direct clients I'd start in the industry I was most familiar with - have you found any dodgy websites from forwarders? Why not contact them first?
Hope that helps.


Paul Skidmore  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:44
German to English
Use your contacts in logistics Apr 26, 2011

Hi James,

I agree with Gillian. I would use all the contacts I have in the freight forwarding / logistics sector (this assumes you are familiar with the German terminology in this area - you don't make it explicit whether you are working in Berlin in logistics).

If you did a BA in German you probably spent a year in Germany. Are there any contacts from that period who might need translation services?

As for what to charge, you will find that the German translators federation (BDÜ) publishes the results of annual survey of prices actually charged in the previous 12 months and this is broken down by language pair and type of client. In my experience, the results of this survey - at least for German > English - are quite realistic.

With an MA in translation you may find that you qualify for membership in the BDÜ. If you do, consider joining as then you can join their database which I have found to be a useful (additional) source of work.




James Wright
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:44
German to English
Current contacts Apr 26, 2011

Thank you both for the tips.

I actually came to Berlin for a new job in logistics, but it didn't work out for me and I've now been unemployed as of a week yesterday. Whilst I'm looking for more permanent work (hopefully an in-house translation position), I have started to put a lot of effort into starting freelance translation.

I don't really have any contacts in the logistics sector, which I believe will require German to English translation. As part of my BA German, I did spend 9 months in Hamburg as a teaching assistant, but again I unfortunately don't have contacts from this time which would be useful for translation work.

Have you approached NGO's for work in the past on a volunteer basis to start building a portfolio? Also, what would you suggest regarding my third question about approaching companies in Berlin for translations?


Gillian Searl  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 22:44
Member (2004)
German to English
Save yourself the stress of approaching companies direct then Apr 26, 2011

and apply to translation agencies instead. Buy and read the ebook, write your cv, find agencies via the Blue Board (make sure they have 5+ entries and score an average of 4+) and start applying. If you don't start applying to agencies you will never get a freelance business off the ground - and it's a pretty thankless task at the start because you wonder if you will ever get a job. One agency I applied to contacted me 5 years later!!

You are already ahead of where I started - at least you have a qualification which I didn't back then - but you may need a part-time job to supplement your income for a while. Later you will need to get acquainted with CAT tools, invoicing processes and a whole bunch of other stuff. You need to be an excellent translator, proof-reader, software expert, IT manager, finance manager, marketing manager, negotiator etc. etc. etc. If all that sounds like hard work - it is! Of course you can always stick with employment if you feel that suits you best. As for me I can't think of anything that would persuade me back to being employed.

Why volunteer when you can start earning money? You need more/better business/negotiation skills to sell yourself to direct customers than to translation agencies and from what you wrote I'm not sure you have those yet. That's why I am recommending translation agencies.

Go to a few powwows and/or conferences where you can talk to other freelancers, find out how the industry works and go for it.


Emal Ghamsharick  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:44
English to German
+ ...
Just Do It! Apr 27, 2011

I started without any kind of accreditation or experience to make some money while I was studying, also in Berlin by the way, and it worked out pretty well. Being unemployed now is actually a blessing for you; I didn't start making serious bank until I had nothing to do for a month and started fiddling around.

First of all, go to a "Finanzamt" and register a "Gewerbe", it costs maybe €20 and you get the license immediately. Make sure you register as a "Kleinunternehmer", so you don't have to pay VAT. If you're still a UK resident, maybe you can register there, the tax is probably cheaper.

With your degree, you should be able to find agency work easily. It might be a dark secret of the trade, but good AND qualified German to English translators are not as abundant as one would think.

Google for "Übersetzung Berlin" and you should find plenty of companies. Also use the extensive ProZ directory. Write up a decent CV and offer to do a sample translation, then just mail it to every e-mail address you can find.

Agencies will usually want you to use a CAT tool, usually Trados and often the 2007 version, which is tantamount to paying €1000 to work with a typewriter. Still, get it somehow and learn to use it. If you're lucky, an agency might even take a few hours to train you.

If you want a program for yourself that actually works, I recommend Across ( It's free for freelancers if you register and the new Trados version is basically just a way overpriced Across rip-off.

If you don't want to go straight to the agencies, try Ebay classifieds, Craigslist, etc. I used to get about a call a day on average when I placed my ad there to get started. Make sure to write that you're not "beglaubigt", otherwise you'll have people calling you up to translate 50-word Bengali marriage certificates, which you're not allowed to translate anyways.

The pro of classifieds is that you often get to meet your clients and sometimes build strong relationships that can last years. Plus, the jobs you get are often refreshingly random. On the downside, you're just the next-best alternative to Google Translate.

By the way, don't worry about payment. I've written hundreds of invoices and every single one has been honored, save for 1 scammer from Singapore, but I could've figured that out right away.

If you're not too comfortable around people, try one of the various online human translation services (, and plenty more). Some of them actually pay pretty decent, and if they don't, it'll teach you to work faster, which you need to do anyways to make a living.

One "mistake" I've made in the beginning was underpricing my services. Don't do it if it can be avoided. Ask around 30% to 50% more than the minimum you're willing to take. Don't be scared to lose a few potential customers as you experiment. Otherwise you will face the situation of having to raise your prices once you get established, which is always harder to justify than asking for a decent price right away. Just don't be pretentious.

You don't have to work for free, you'll see soon enough. Good luck!


Annette Merbach  Identity Verified
Local time: 23:44
+ ...
Tax issues Apr 27, 2011

Emal Ghamsharick wrote:

First of all, go to a "Finanzamt" and register a "Gewerbe", it costs maybe €20 and you get the license immediately. Make sure you register as a "Kleinunternehmer", so you don't have to pay VAT.

As a translator, you do not need to register a "Gewerbe" but "selbstständige Tätigkeit". It's less paperwork and basically just a registration to let them know you're in the business now. And, in case you don't have one, they will provide you with a tax ID which you will need for invoicing (and for paying taxesicon_wink.gif.

Good luck!


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