Like any profession, becoming a translator takes practice, experience and proper training—and if you were to ask ten translators how they got into the profession, you’ll hear ten different stories. There’s no one way to do it, but here are steps to take you in the right direction:
1. Write an Error-Free Translation CV
Since you already know that your resume should be error free, we won’t bore you with saying that your resume should be error free. What we will say is that translators need a resume for translators; you really shouldn’t use the same CV you used to get hired at all of your other jobs.
If you are looking for a step-by-step guide to putting together a translation CV, Corinne McKay’s book How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator can walk you through the entire process. Here’s a little secret though: Almost as helpful, not to mention entirely free, is Translators Café: Here you browse hundreds of resumes posted by active freelance translators. See how an experienced translator has done it first and model yours after the pros.
2. Focus On Marketing Your Services:
- Search the Yellow Pages on and offline to find translation agencies to send your resume to. For a comprehensive, A-Z list of translation companies, you might refer to the appendix of Morry Sofer’s book, The Translator’s Handbook or visit Language Automation.
- Register with the free online databases at translator associations (ATA) as well as online job-search sites such as Linkedin.
- Register with consulates, embassies and chambers of commerce.
- Advertise in expatriate associations’ publications.
- Use headhunters or placement services to find positions in translation agencies.
3. Be Likeable
Despite the fact that translation is often pigeonholed as a solitary profession—which it very often is—successful translators are able not only to negotiate several languages, but cross social and cultural borders with dexterity. Translators like language, but they also like people and know how to collaborate, take direction and please clients and employers.
4. Do not accept work that is beyond your expertise
If your specialization is not medical terminology or legalese, know your scope and breadth; don’t oversell your skills. Turning down work does not automatically disqualify you for other projects. It simply demonstrates that you know your field and limits, and understand that taking on a too-difficult task slows everyone down, and reflects badly on everyone involved as well. Knowing your limitations helps people trust you.
5. Keep Your Ear to the Grindstone
Once you make contact (and are taken in) by an agency, it is wise to continue reaching out to other translation agencies. Author Morry Sofer explains that the problem with working with one agency is that “there may not be a steady flow of work coming out of any given agency in any given language, in subjects you are equipped to handle.” If you have cultivated a relationship with two or three agencies, you’ll have a more even work flow.
The downside of working with more than one agency is, of course, that you may be bombarded with work from all three agencies at once. You may be tempted to accept all of it, but taking on more than you can handle will potentially destroy your relationships. Be sure that you establish an understanding with your agencies.
Ryan O’Rourke (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an adjunct professor, writing tutor, blogger, guitar strummer and dog lover. He graduated from Madonna University in 2005 where he received his B.A. in English and Philosophy. After living and teaching abroad in Taiwan, he returned to Detroit in 2006 to complete his M.A. in English from Marygrove College. Currently, he teaches Academic Writing and American Literature; he also blogs for the online Modern Language Translation program at Marygrove College, a Liberal Arts institution in northwest Detroit, Michigan. You can check out and subscribe to his blog here.