Realistic chances of being able to live as translator?
Thread poster: savannahgoyette
savannahgoyette
Canada
Local time: 12:23
Jan 20, 2013

Hi everyone,

I've been told that there's enough work to go around in the translation world, but I'm starting to wonder if being successful as a translator, especially as a freelance translator, is realistically only as likely as becoming a successful writer, musician, actor, or broadcaster (or anything in the music/arts industries)--i.e., very few opportunities, highly competitive, requires a lot of luck in addition to skill and training.

(I suppose I should mention that I do not define success as making tons of money, but rather as being able to comfortably live on one's income in a job they hopefully enjoy--ideally with job stability, although I am fully aware that that is not to be fully expected in freelancing.)

For a long time I thought my goal of obtaining steady employment as a French to English translator with the federal Government of Canada was a realistic and attainable goal, but I'm starting to wonder if this is worth striving for. If the chances of achieving this are slim, maybe I'm better off investing my time, money, and energy into a) something that I might not enjoy as much as translation but at least offers a pretty good chance of me finding steady work in the field, or b) something else that is equally competitive and near-impossible to break into but that maybe I'd enjoy more.

What do you think?

[Edited at 2013-01-20 17:28 GMT]


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Fiona Grace Peterson  Identity Verified
Italy
Local time: 18:23
Member
Italian to English
Entirely possible Jan 20, 2013

It IS possible. But you need to be a shrewd businessperson as well as a good translator.
You need to be able to demand higher than average rates, which means specialising.
Be someone people know they can turn to and rely on come away with a solid, polished translation.

It takes a lot of time and determination. But it can be done.


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 17:23
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
One client? Jan 21, 2013

Savannah Goyette wrote:
For a long time I thought my goal of obtaining steady employment as a French to English translator with the federal Government of Canada was a realistic and attainable goal, but I'm starting to wonder if this is worth striving for.

You talk of just one entity providing steady employment. Are you actually looking for work as a freelancer, or as an employee? I have absolutely no idea about salaried translation jobs in Canada (and precious little about freelancing in Canada), but I do know that there's bound to be a great difference between the two.

Do you have the right mindset to be a freelancer? A freelancer cannot, and indeed should not, rely on one client, however big that client is. You should be looking for work everywhere that texts in your lanaguage pair are required. As Fiona has said, you need to specialise, but that specialisation should be in subject area, not client area.

I've just noticed that you're still a student, which probably accounts for the confusion of terms. I know there's a vast amount of translation required in bilingual Canada, but there are also a lot of translators. A client such as the federal government will be able to pick and choose (although if my experience of governments is anything to go by, they will probably pay low rates after a long wait). When you're starting out, you'll need to hunt for clients who are perhaps prepared to take more of a risk. In your areas of specialisation, particularly in entertainment, there will be lots of smaller clients who want a more personal relationship with someone they trust. I don't know what the percentage are, but however much the government pays for, I bet private companies pay for a lot of translations, too.

Freelance translation, particularly at the outset, is all about getting yourself known, assuming you can deliver the goods. Finding 10 different clients who all give you 500 words to translate is vastly more worthwhile than finding one client wanting 5000 words. It may be more hassle and less profitable (all those emails, invoices etc.), but in the long run you'll be building a solid client base, with repeat orders and many more 'word of mouth' referrals. Remember, every client knows n potential clients.

I'm sure you'll find lots of clients out there, but it will take time to become established.

PS I've just noticed that your CV is out of date, so you are probably a working translator by now, although doing a lot of 'resting'. Spend that time on marketing yourself (start with the CV update!) and learning: a translator never finishes learning as you need to know as much as possible about your subject areas in two languages and in two (or more) cultures, as well as how to run a successful business and keeping up with translation technology.


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Tatty  Identity Verified
Local time: 18:23
Spanish to English
+ ...
I'm with you Jan 21, 2013

I'm with you, but this is mainly because translation on a part-time or nearly full-time basis is quite enjoyable. However, a time will come when all you do is translate, and it's tedious. You barely have a social life to speak of. And making it into the land of milk and honey requires hardcore specialisation. But having said this, your love of French and translating it may be blind... Even so, I think that your doubts are well-founded.

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LilianNekipelov  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 12:23
Russian to English
+ ...
Hi, Savannah. Jan 21, 2013

It is realistic, but it might help if you could do interpreting as well, from time to time at least. Interpreting is really a slightly different profession, but it pays well, and it is more reliable. There will always be legal interpreting, or at least for a very long time, because even many people who speak, let's say English or French, quite well in everyday situations, don't understand the legal type of language. As for translating, I am closer to your view on translation -- I think the real success in translation is more similar to the success of a writer or a media person, unless you are willing to take any kind of work, and work 20 hours a day for $05/word. There are tons of work like that. If you are more selective -- it might be harder, at least in the beginning. As for governmental work -- the US government pays really well (probably the best), but they require a lot of skill, references, education and clearance.

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savannahgoyette
Canada
Local time: 12:23
TOPIC STARTER
Hi Sheila Jan 24, 2013

Sheila Wilson wrote:

You talk of just one entity providing steady employment. Are you actually looking for work as a freelancer, or as an employee? I have absolutely no idea about salaried translation jobs in Canada (and precious little about freelancing in Canada), but I do know that there's bound to be a great difference between the two.

Do you have the right mindset to be a freelancer? A freelancer cannot, and indeed should not, rely on one client, however big that client is. You should be looking for work everywhere that texts in your lanaguage pair are required. As Fiona has said, you need to specialise, but that specialisation should be in subject area, not client area.


I am not looking for work now, but I've been thinking about my future in translation. When I talk about the idea of just one entity providing steady employment, I do refer to being a salaried employee. I know that freelancers should definitely not rely on just one client.

So I've been thinking about my future in translation for the past few years, and the idea of being a salaried translator really appeals to the part of me that desires job security. I especially liked the idea of being a salaried translator for the federal Canadian government (my impression is that they have in-house translators but also make use of freelance translation services). However, I realize and accept that in-house jobs are few and far between, and more and more translators are freelance professionals. I hope what I'm saying makes sense!

When you're starting out, you'll need to hunt for clients who are perhaps prepared to take more of a risk. In your areas of specialisation, particularly in entertainment, there will be lots of smaller clients who want a more personal relationship with someone they trust. I don't know what the percentage are, but however much the government pays for, I bet private companies pay for a lot of translations, too.


What kinds of clients are more prepared to take a chance on a newbie? I'm guessing smaller places (family-owned businesses for instance) but I'm just spitballing; I'd love to hear what you think.

I guess part of what scares me about freelance translation is that I'm worried about specializing in the arts and entertainment, which is the only thing I both know anything about and would truly enjoy learning more about. If I had a specialization like law, IT, or medicine, I wouldn't worry so much about finding work. So I'm worried about whether I'd truly be able to make a living this way, or if I'll end up like many freelancers (such as writers and musicians) who may be very good at what they love, but ultimately have to have a day job and only do what they love on the side. Does that make sense?

I'm sure you'll find lots of clients out there, but it will take time to become established.

PS I've just noticed that your CV is out of date, so you are probably a working translator by now, although doing a lot of 'resting'. Spend that time on marketing yourself (start with the CV update!) and learning: a translator never finishes learning as you need to know as much as possible about your subject areas in two languages and in two (or more) cultures, as well as how to run a successful business and keeping up with translation technology.


Thanks for your faith (be it in me or in the market and for the advice. I appreciate it! I just recently graduated and am probably going back for a BA Translation in September. Until then, I honestly don't feel very ready or qualified to be freelancing, so I am indeed doing more "resting" in that regard (but working on putting up a website, etc.).


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Joanna Coryndon  Identity Verified
France
Local time: 18:23
French to English
See all the positive replies I got to roughly the same question! Jan 24, 2013

Hi Savannah

My position is somewhat different to yours (in France, not a student, rather older and coming to translation with a range of non-related experiences behind me!) but my language pair is the same. Last week I put a very similar post to yours on this forum in the Getting Established topic field, see "Translation: a full time job?", first posted on January 16th. I had some wonderfully positive replies on the basis of which I'm determined to make it as a full-time freelance FR to EN translator, even if this takes some time to really get off the ground. If so many people have said it's possible, it really must be! I understand being freelance is not necessarily what you are aiming at, but if it's possible to do it freelance, it must be possible in-house too - the ideal job just might not fall into your lap straightaway. I wish I'd considered this career (and interpreting) when I was a student and just stuck at it and not let doubts and fears put me off (which I did with lots of things..sigh!). If it's what you love doing, you can make it work.

Anyway, have a look at the posts under my topic and, I hope, be as encouraged as me!

Best wishes,
Joanna


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Sheila Wilson  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 17:23
Member (2007)
English
+ ...
"Job security + translation" may be your biggest problem Jan 24, 2013

Savannah Goyette wrote:
When I talk about the idea of just one entity providing steady employment, I do refer to being a salaried employee.

the idea of being a salaried translator really appeals to the part of me that desires job security. I especially liked the idea of being a salaried translator for the federal Canadian government (my impression is that they have in-house translators but also make use of freelance translation services).

Right! Weird idea, IMHO, but I see where you're coming from now. However, I don't think they'd take anyone without lots and lots of experience, as the staff translators are normally the ones who oversee the work of freelancers (plus there will be some doing internship). And that experience would normally come through freelancing.

What kinds of clients are more prepared to take a chance on a newbie? I'm guessing smaller places (family-owned businesses for instance) but I'm just spitballing

I love the American term "spitballing" I would imagine you're right, but the idea is to approach everyone and see who accepts. I'm sure some will.

I guess part of what scares me about freelance translation is that I'm worried about specializing in the arts and entertainment

I'm worried about whether I'd truly be able to make a living this way, or if I'll end up like many freelancers (such as writers and musicians) who may be very good at what they love, but ultimately have to have a day job and only do what they love on the side

If you were going to restrict yourself to literary translation (i.e. books, plays, poems), I'd agree with you. But if you're going to translate all texts connected with the entertainment industry, there's a lot out there and it pays better. A more fitting analogy is a translator as a music teacher rather than a performing musician. I daresay a lot of wannabee writers do translation.


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savannahgoyette
Canada
Local time: 12:23
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks for the insight :) Jan 24, 2013

Sheila Wilson wrote:

Savannah Goyette wrote:
When I talk about the idea of just one entity providing steady employment, I do refer to being a salaried employee.

the idea of being a salaried translator really appeals to the part of me that desires job security. I especially liked the idea of being a salaried translator for the federal Canadian government (my impression is that they have in-house translators but also make use of freelance translation services).

Right! Weird idea, IMHO, but I see where you're coming from now. However, I don't think they'd take anyone without lots and lots of experience, as the staff translators are normally the ones who oversee the work of freelancers (plus there will be some doing internship). And that experience would normally come through freelancing.


Ah, I see. So I would have to start out freelancing in any case.

What kinds of clients are more prepared to take a chance on a newbie? I'm guessing smaller places (family-owned businesses for instance) but I'm just spitballing

I love the American term "spitballing" I would imagine you're right, but the idea is to approach everyone and see who accepts. I'm sure some will.

I guess part of what scares me about freelance translation is that I'm worried about specializing in the arts and entertainment

I'm worried about whether I'd truly be able to make a living this way, or if I'll end up like many freelancers (such as writers and musicians) who may be very good at what they love, but ultimately have to have a day job and only do what they love on the side

If you were going to restrict yourself to literary translation (i.e. books, plays, poems), I'd agree with you. But if you're going to translate all texts connected with the entertainment industry, there's a lot out there and it pays better. A more fitting analogy is a translator as a music teacher rather than a performing musician. I daresay a lot of wannabee writers do translation.


This makes me feel a bit better. Thank you, Sheila! I appreciate it.


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savannahgoyette
Canada
Local time: 12:23
TOPIC STARTER
Thanks, Joanna! Jan 24, 2013

Joanna Coryndon wrote:

Hi Savannah

My position is somewhat different to yours (in France, not a student, rather older and coming to translation with a range of non-related experiences behind me!) but my language pair is the same. Last week I put a very similar post to yours on this forum in the Getting Established topic field, see "Translation: a full time job?", first posted on January 16th. I had some wonderfully positive replies on the basis of which I'm determined to make it as a full-time freelance FR to EN translator, even if this takes some time to really get off the ground. If so many people have said it's possible, it really must be! I understand being freelance is not necessarily what you are aiming at, but if it's possible to do it freelance, it must be possible in-house too - the ideal job just might not fall into your lap straightaway. I wish I'd considered this career (and interpreting) when I was a student and just stuck at it and not let doubts and fears put me off (which I did with lots of things..sigh!). If it's what you love doing, you can make it work.

Anyway, have a look at the posts under my topic and, I hope, be as encouraged as me!

Best wishes,
Joanna


Thanks for pointing me towards your thread, Joanna! Maybe there's hope for me yet in translation.


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