How to Become a Freelance Translator

If you speak a second language and want to monetize this skill, you may want to know how to become a freelance translator.

Today I’ve included an interview of a veteran translator, Aisyah Shaharudin, who started out as a translator and now runs a successful freelance translation agency, Am-interpretiv.

She will share how she got started, all the ins and outs of freelance translating, and how to become a freelance translator.


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Tell us a bit about yourself and your journey on becoming a freelance translator:

I’m Aisyah, a translator/interpreter turned business owner from KL,Malaysia. I’ve been in the translation business for about 18 years, 10 years freelancing, and 8 years as a translation agency owner.

I was that bookish child who read Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (a Malaysian literary piece on mythical kings and legends) at the age of 10.

My mom was a teacher and she used the school library as a nanny service ? I grew up reading voraciously, that’s where my love for languages originated from.


What Type Of Work Do You Do?

I personally do Malay translation and interpretation, but for the past 5 years, because I run my own agency, I’ve had to switch gears and focus more on the operations side of the business, like talent acquisition, administrative staff, etc.

I occasionally do the odd translation or special projects, if they need experienced tailored expertise.

There are also a few regular clients whose work I like to personally handle, so I do that too. A few times a month I’ll do interpreting because I love it, and it’s good to practice.

Any Parts You Enjoy/Don’t Enjoy?

I personally prefer interpreting compared to translation. With interpreting, once the event is done, you don’t have to think about it anymore.

Translation is more tedious; I have a 2-weeks free revision guarantee so clients can come back with the piece that I have translated and request for minor changes.

These are usually word choices, styles, etc.

So, I can’t say I’m done when the translation is delivered. Having said that, I love seeing my work on display. I take pride in my meticulousness and linguistic abilities and seeing my work on TV (movie subtitles or TV ads) and on print really makes it worthwhile.

Note* When you are starting on your journey on how to become a freelance translator, you may not know the difference between the two.

The difference between interpreting and translation is translators convey the meaning from one language to another in writing, while interpreters convey the meaning orally.

What is Freelance Translating?

Freelance translating is when a translator works for him/herself, picking up projects from various clients (translation agencies or direct clients) and handles it from start to finish.

When I say start to finish, I mean from approaching the client, sending out resumes, negotiating the rates, signing agreements for protection, doing the actual translation, billing and invoicing, the whole thing.

You are basically a business entity, albeit a one-man show. Sometimes people misunderstand/don’t think about these aspects of freelance translation, but if you’re a new translator or thinking of going freelance, it’s good to keep these things in mind.

 Why Did You Get Into Freelance Translating?

Freedom. I knew early on in life that I don’t want to work for other people, and I made sure I never had to. I had a couple of teaching jobs right after university, each one lasting 6 months.

Although I loved it (teaching 19-year-olds when you are only 23 is amazing, primarily because they automatically love you!).

I would never go back.

With freelance translating, I set my own hours, work with clients that I want to work with. I can grow as big as I want or stay small just to pay the bills, I find that kind of freedom exhilarating.

I can work from anywhere. Sometimes I would go to Bali for 2 weeks, just because I can. I’d work for 4 hours, call it a day and go sightseeing.


How To Become A Freelance Translator: How Did You Get Started?

I started when I was in university because I needed the money. The kids in the Humanities school always needed help with their assignments, I started with translating articles – deep stuff, like Stoicism, existential theories, etc – and a small business started.

Some friends and I, we made fliers, set up a per-page rate, and got to work. I literally worked for pennies, but it gave me the training I needed; an introduction to the hustle, honing my translation skills and the art of debt collecting ?

Can You Describe A Typical Day?

I work when I work, and a typical day does not exist. I don’t start at 9 am and clock out at 6 pm. The main reason is that I have clients in the US and Europe, so to catch them (time difference) I have to work at night sometimes.

I used to complain to my friends, how I envy their 9-5 routine but have since embraced the rhythm of my life.

I do have a time block system though.

I spend 2 hours in the morning and 2 hours in the afternoon dedicated to working. Usually, I’d sit from 10 am to noon, and again 2.30 pm to 4.30 pm. The rest of the day is free.

How to become a freelance translator: Types of client that pay for freelance translators:

Translation agencies are the best place to start. It works like this: A company has something to be translated, their first stop would be a translation agency. The agency then will find the right translator for the job, so this is where you, as a freelance translator, come in.

If you are new, I recommend approaching international translation agencies to offer your services. Don’t worry if they don’t have any work to offer for your language pair yet, your first step should be to get into their database.

The work may come (or not), but if you repeat this with 100 agencies, you have increased your chances of getting a project. And why international agencies?

Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that local translation agencies already have regular translators in the payroll and since competition is stiff locally, you may as well take your business overseas, and get paid in USD.

The second type of client would be direct with clients/companies. These are harder to come by because companies usually want to work with another company and don’t want to deal with freelancers. You definitely can try approaching them, and when you do, please double or triple your rate.

Here is a list of international translation agencies.

How to become a freelance translator: What and how to charge?

The translation rate is usually calculated per source word. I’m a bit wary of suggesting how much to charge since it really depends on your quality, experience, and business savviness, but I can advise that the going market rate is USD 0.05 ( RM 0.20 per word).

This rate is a freelancer’s rate if you happen to get a direct client, do charge higher because you don’t have to go through an agency.

How can someone get experience?

If you want to know how to become a freelance translator, you can start by doing free volunteer translation for TedTalks. I also know that Viu (like Netflix) gets their subtitles by crowdsourcing, so definitely check them out too.

Coursera (an online course company) also has a global translator community you can join and get experience in.

Also, Translators without Borders (TWB) is a non-profit organization that offers translation support for humanitarian and development agencies, and other non-profit organizations, and you can volunteer with them and get experience too.

How to become a freelance translator: Where to find translator jobs

There are a few dedicated portals for translation work, like Proz, Translatorscafe. There are other websites too, I’m afraid I haven’t tried them so I’m not really sure, but do check out Upwork and the likes.

I’d also advise you to self-advertise. Let people know that you’re offering translation services for so and so language pair. When I was starting out, I had no marketing strategy whatsoever and relied 100% on word of mouth.

The more people were aware of what I was doing, the more they were able to personally engage or recommend my services to other people who need it.

Note from Aisha.

I had a quick google and it appears that Proz and Translatorcafe definitely offer translation work but it may be difficult to compete with experienced translators on there.

An alternative if you are a beginner it to look for shorter, lower competition projects on People Per Hour,Upwork and Fiverr. Just input ‘translation’ in the job search and LOADS come up.

Another recommendation if you want to know how to become a freelance translator and get jobs is to look for multilingual online magazines and websites and email their public affairs contacts on the site to see if they needed freelance translators. Someone is being paid to do the translation work for them… it might as well be you!

How did you set up a translation agency?

It started because I had too much volume to handle myself. I hired one staff, the business kept growing and I kept hiring. My first agency relied on volume (second tier outsourcing) and we handled work passed to us from other translation agencies.

I now have another translation agency, AM Interpretiv, our business model is targeted towards MNCs, government agencies, and private companies. With the first agency, I did everything myself and it was hard work.

I have wizened-up and now have a business partner for AM Interpretiv, she handles the sales and marketing side of things while I focus on operations.

How to become a freelance translator: What can one earn roughly?

What you can earn depends on how much you are willing to work, of course taking into account that you are just one person ? Theoretically, one translator can ideally translate between 1500 – 2500 words per day.

With 22 working days, that’s a theoretical RM 6,600 (USD1,525) to RM11,000 (USD2,500) in your pocket per month. But there are so many variables here.

You have to take into account your rates, how many days in a month you actually have work to translate, how many dry days in a month, etc. The keyword in freelance translator is FREELANCE, nothing is fixed but anything is possible.

It is important to bear this in mind when you want to know how to become a freelance translator.

What are popular languages pairs?

Korean – English, Japanese – English, Vietnamese – English.

However, I strongly suggest that you focus on your native language. An agency would almost always hire native speakers.

Any courses which helped / any certifications which may help?

This career doesn’t really require any formal certification, but it helps to a certain extend. I have BA Translation and Interpretation from Uni. Sains Malaysia, so that’s one way to go.

If you are based in Malaysia, you could also take an intensive translation course with the Malaysian Institute of Translation and Books (ITBM) or with the Malaysian Translators Association (PPM). As far as I know, these are the only 2 non-academic bodies giving out “proper” translation certifications.

Also, once you are already actively working in the industry, do register as a member of the PPM. You will be given a membership number and later on, you can use that number on your own rubber stamp, for certified translation purposes (usually birth certificates for visa application, etc).

Also, here are some really good courses to get you started for under $15.

Note from Aisha:

It appears that certifications are country-specific, so whichever country you are based in, you can google translation certification there.

For example, Australia has AUSIT, the UK has ITI and the USA has the ATA

How to become a freelance translator: How to market yourself?

  1. Self-advertisement – tell people what you’re doing. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody who needs translation.
  2. Approach translation agencies and direct clients – The old-fashioned way by cold emailing.
  3. LinkedIn is also good, but it takes time

Note from Aisha:

  • Create a FREE advert on Canva, and then paste it on your FB, LinkedIn, Instagram, and any social network you have.
  • It’s quite cheap to create a FB advert and it can reach 3000 to 4000 people, I’ve tried it and it works.
  • Include keywords such as ‘ translator’ in your LinkedIn profile and description to get found by potential clients

How to become a freelance translator: Tips for success

  1. Respect deadlines
  1. Keep flexible hours, especially for the US and Europe based clients
  1. Say yes first, and figure it out later. So, you’ve never done transcreation or copywriting, why not say yes and learn on the job?
  1. Stretch every half hour, and position your screen parallel to your eyes. This job is bad for your back haha…

Things to watch out for or be wary of?

When you are beginning your journey of how to become a freelance translator there are a few things to be mindful of.

First, you have to watch out for scammers. I’ve been lucky, in 18 years I’ve only been scammed twice, once by a local company and another by a dodgy, but a big company with offices all over the world.

Always, always Google the agency/company offering you work before you sign any NDA or agree to translate for them. If you just type the companyname+scam, usually the information would be readily available. Save yourself the headache by doing a bit of research beforehand.

Secondly, I try to avoid low ballers. Some companies offer rates so low it’s ridiculous. At one point in my freelance career, I decided to not entertain any work requests from agencies from certain parts of the world, mainly because the work they offer is second-tier outsourcing (somebody else got the job and outsource to them) and the rates are 1/5 of the market rate.

I understand that lower rate work is still work but I also care about the effect on the market. If more of us freelance translators accept payments that are lower than the market rate, it will eventually lower the market rate for all of us.

Thirdly, listen to your guts. If a client is difficult at the beginning, they will stay difficult throughout. What do I mean by this?

For example, if a client keeps on asking you to lower your prices, there is a high possibility that they will be late paymasters or they will find faults with your work and want a further discount. Trust your instincts, if it doesn’t feel good, it probably isn’t!

Anything else you want to share or include?

Freelance translation is a beautiful thing. If you have good language skills, can work with minimal supervision, are willing to learn to improve your skills, want freedom, this is for you.

Please don’t get discouraged if nothing happens in the first month or even the second. It gets better with time, you get better with time.

Well there you have it. A huge thanks to Aisyah for sharing here knowledge and wisdom.

So, from what I understand, here is the process of how to become a freelance translator:

  1. Get some experience by volunteering or accepting lower-paid work
  2. Apply for small translation jobs on Upwork, Fiverr, People per Hour
  3. Apply to some international translation agencies
  4. Get a translation certification in your own country
  5. Apply for bigger jobs on TranslatorCafe or Proz
  6. Start marketing yourself on FB, IG, and LinkedIn to get private clients

Some exciting and useful news is, Aisyah is offering personalized coaching to help you get started as a freelance translator. She OWNS a translation agency … so if you put your thinking caps on, she is a really good contact/ mentor to have if you are looking for translation jobs….

Her coaching sessions get you started on how to become a freelance translator, even if you have no experience.

If you are interested, her email is : [email protected]

Now, if you don’t have the budget for personalized coaching, here are some really good courses to get you started for under $15.

There you have it, how to become a freelance translator. Make use of your existing language skills and monetize them!

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