Advice to a translation student

Last week, I did an interview with a French student doing a translation degree. She asked me what advice I would give her. I told her that she should ignore all those who’ll tell her that she’s unlikely to succeed and that she should chose another career. Translation is a fantastic job, which is worth taking a few risks.
Thinking back, I realise that this is the advice I would have liked to give myself when I was a student and that it perhaps wasn’t that useful to her. What would you have told her?

By | 2008-12-08T10:29:16+00:00 December 8th, 2008|Freelance Translation|17 Comments

About the Author:

I am Céline Graciet, a freelance English to French translator. Since 2003 I’ve been writing on all sorts of areas linked to translation and the life of a translator.


  1. Percy Balemans December 8, 2008 at 10:45 am

    In addition to the advice you gave her ;-), I would advise her to be professional about her job and not accept low rates. I’ve noticed that many translators who are just starting out are afraid to charge decent rates for fear of not getting any clients and they subsequently find it hard to raise their rates.

  2. Maia Figueroa December 8, 2008 at 11:37 am

    That’s good advice. Unfortunately in Spain, the way things work, if you decide to go self-employed you need to have a nice cushion (i.e. lots of savings) for the first few months of activity in order to make up for slow payments and low rates that, in my experience, are not negotiable. You either take them or loose the job. It’s not a matter of professionalism, but of survival.

  3. Marc Glinert December 8, 2008 at 11:37 am

    Really enjoy reading your blog Celine.
    You gave the best possible advice there. In all walks of life you need a positive and ‘can do’ outlook.
    For a taste of how the freelance world operates, it may be an idea for her to read through the forums at which is a popular point of exchange for translators.
    Regards, Marc

  4. Fabio December 8, 2008 at 11:52 am

    I would tell her to make sure she engages in some sort of networking within the translation industry: internet forums, discussion groups, conferences etc. In a lonely profession like ours it’s important to stay connected, otherwise you lose your sense of reality or your chance to update and evolve in many respects (rates, qualification, client relations, translation techniques, tools etc.)

  5. Matthew Bennett December 8, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    Assuming that she wants to work for herself, I agree with Percy about rates. Additionally:
    – learn to type as fast as she can. Then get quicker;
    – Trados is worth the investment;
    – invest in as fast a computer as she can find, then upgrade to a faster one when she earns enough money;
    – find and use reliable online dictionaries, they’re much quicker;
    – hmmm, first four points are all about translating as fast as she can;
    – to not be afraid of keeping a list of dubious words as she’s translating and discuss them with the client before she hands over the final draft.
    – discuss dubious translations with the client once at the end, not every time she finds a word she’s unsure of;
    – defend her words, if she knows she’s right;
    – learn to do the difficult stuff like contracts and medical reports that people are willing to pay for and that might actually mess up someone’s business deal or treatment plan if she gets it wrong. Some translators don’t like that kind of responsibility;
    – save and save and save the money she earns so that she doesn’t have to get too angry/annoyed with her clients when they don’t pay on time;
    I think I could go on but that would hijack your post! I might write about this too.

  6. juliacgs December 8, 2008 at 12:41 pm

    There are lots of things one could say to someone who is beggining (you have already said some of the most important ones), but, related to your own answer Céline, I would say to her that she does not need to be scared of the “low periods”: there will be times when she will have a huge amount of work (perhaps she will have to reject jobs) and others when she will have the feeling that nobody remembers her… But, in my experience, that’s not unusual: she’ll be able to get used to these ups and downs… And she’ll end up learning to manage them!

  7. Judy Jenner December 9, 2008 at 6:04 am

    I would, in addition to all the great points above, recommend the following. My background is in business, so these are quite entrepreneur-focused.
    * Get someone to design you a great website. Barter if you have to. If you don’t have the skills to do one yourself, it will show. We have a techie in the family; that helps.
    * Get some professional pictures taken for your website, for your marketing materials, etc. If you can’t afford it, again, barter. Find a photographer friend who’s willing to help in exchange for a service that you could do (perhaps he/she needs translation?)
    * Get yourself an e-mail address that’s not Gmail or Yahoo, which will come with your website domain name. It really does give you more credibility.
    * Find yourself a good accountant and decide if you should (in the U.S.) incorporate or not.
    * Be fastidious about your records. Keep exact track of your expenses. Create an income statement (simple; find free templates online).
    * If you can’t increase your revenue, decrease your spending. Pick a basic cell phone plan. Shop for the cheapest online phone service, but keep a basic office phone line. Find free and open software for translators.
    * Get a separate checking account that is used exclusively for your business. Also get a credit card and start building your credit history (U.S.)
    * Go meet with your local chapter (U.S.) of the SBA (Small Business Association); they have great advice.
    * Join a professional translator organization and network with your peers. There’s enough translation work out there for all of us, and having a strong network of fellow professionals is essential in our business.
    * Volunteer your services to local non-profits that might not have the funds to pay but can help you build your clientele.
    * Update your LinkedIn profile and add a professional picture.
    * Start a translation blog and keep it mostly professional.
    * Find direct clients. We work with 99.99% direct clients, and they are more work to find, but totally worth it voluntarily.
    * Don’t turn your service into a commodity by competing on price. I agree; sometimes it’s a matter of survival, but once your price is low, it’s very difficult to get higher rates. We have very consistently demanded high rates from the very beginning. It hasn’t always been easy, but financially, it’s been worth it.
    * Be confident in your price, and don’t feel the need to justify it. Attorneys don’t feel compelled to explain their rates; neither should translation professionals.
    * Get out of your home office and network. Go to the local chamber of commerce. Tell people about what you do.
    * Keep your languages current, as you can’t live in all your source/target language countries. Read foreign media.
    * Get up from your desk once in a while and go get some fresh air or work out.
    * Trust your instincts and learn how to say no: Not all projects are good and not all deadlines are realistic (in fact, many are not). Don’t be afraid to say the magic word. “No, I am afraid I will not not able to take on this project because of previous commitments” is a perfectly acceptable answer.
    * Be happy that you are a linguist who can shape her own career/destiny — the sky is the limit!

  8. céline December 9, 2008 at 8:55 am

    Thanks for the great advice everyone. A few twitterers also said my advice was ok, I’m surprised to see others were in the same situation as me.
    Just a few points that I thought were really important:
    * Learn to touch-type
    I would have never thought of it, but it makes complete sense from a productivity point of view.
    * Trados
    Definitely, definitely acquire a translation tool, but I think Wordfast works better and is cheaper than Trados. I haven’t explored any other programs but I would advise a new translator to research them and shop around.
    * Get a great website and a blog
    Yes, yes, yes! I’m currently spending a reasonable chunk of money to update this one, and I know it’s a worthwhile investment. Currently, I owe 75% of my income to this site.
    * Don’t be scared of quiet periods
    In fact, welcome them and use them to work on your marketing, to spruce up your website, to network, to read up on your subjects.
    * Network
    I’m not great at it, but my new year resolution will be to go to a translators’ conference. Use every online platform available – I’ll post those I’m aware of on my Delicious page, which I’ll link to on the “new” site. When I started off, I learnt an awful lot on the proz forums.
    * Rates
    Decide what your rate will be and stick to it. Lowering your rate will earn you zero respect and you’ll resent your client and the work you’ll be doing. Plus of course, you might struggle to pay your bills.
    Matthew, be sure to let us know if you do write on this topic.
    Thanks again everyone!

  9. MT December 18, 2008 at 5:24 am

    Great post. I would add:
    – Buy lots of dictionaries whenever you can afford it.
    – Learn to used the many advanced features in Microsoft Word with ease (especially things like tables).
    – Be mindful that you leave traces of yourself online everywhere; you don’t want a potential client finding college photos of you online at an outrageous party or something. Similarly, when interacting on online forums (e.g., you should use a professional photo, professional screen name, and be mindful that anything you post for posterity will reflect on you to a potential client.
    – While consulting with other freelance translators is enormously helpful, don’t underestimate what things you will have in common with other sole proprietors and freelancers in other fields (photographers, cafe owners, etc.). You can learn a *lot* from talking to people in other fields in terms of running your own business and being self-employed, etc.
    – Translate only into your native language; it is often borderline unethical to translate into a language that is not your native language (even though many people do it, it’s a bad idea) unless you have truly native equivalence in the second language (or grew up bilingually).
    – Try to learn another language that is closely related to your translation language, if possible. For instance, if you speak French already, then Spanish or Italian or Portuguese will be quick to pick up to a translational level, particularly if you are still in school; being able to translate more than one language can be very helpful business-wise.
    – Get a mentor (another older translator who has at least 15-20 years under his or her belt). Run things by that person regularly, particularly when you first start out. Give your mentor lots of thanks for taking the time, too.
    – I can’t underscore enough how important setting your rates high enough is (as other posters have said). If you don’t set your rates appropriately, you will not be able to support yourself as a translator.

  10. Erika December 19, 2008 at 11:26 pm

    I am looking for a mentor. I am Canadian student, my focus is economics and my second language is Spanish. Any interested people, contact info, anything helps . . . .

  11. Gian Carlo March 27, 2009 at 1:41 am

    Hello! Can You please suggest some open source software for translators? Is there some good site with links or information about this matter? I simply can’t afford the “deluxe” tools… Is there any compatibility with the reference CAT tools?
    Ant information or tip will be HIGHLY appreciated!
    Thank You so much for Your blog! It really makes a tremendous difference… but I think You know this.

  12. céline March 27, 2009 at 12:29 pm

    Thanks for the compliments Gian Carlo, much appreciated. OmegaT ( is the only one I’m aware of, I’ve heard good things about it.

  13. Morgan March 27, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    Gian Carlo, if you’re a real Open Source fan, there’s also ”Anaphraseus” which slots into the Open Office suite like Wordfast slots into M$ Word. It’s apparently – I haven’t really investigated so I can’t back this up – compatible with Wordfast. I have no idea how it compares with OmegaT either but it might be worthwhile having a look anyway.

  14. Morgan March 27, 2009 at 9:26 pm

    Gian Carlo, if you’re a real Open Source fan, there’s also ”Anaphraseus” which slots into the Open Office suite like Wordfast slots into M$ Word. It’s apparently – I haven’t really investigated so I can’t back this up – compatible with Wordfast. I have no idea how it compares with OmegaT either but it might be worthwhile having a look anyway.

  15. Gian Carlo March 28, 2009 at 3:32 am

    Thank You!!! I’ll check all your suggestions. I’ll get back here with my impressions!

  16. Cassie March 30, 2009 at 3:55 am

    I’m also a translation student focusing on Spanish and Chinese. Does anyone recommend working for a company over working independently? Or the other way around?

  17. Katerina November 25, 2009 at 1:15 am

    Hello, I just found your blog, and found it absolutely fascinating! I have a love for languages and was thinking getting into translation! I am a bilingual of two languages, and a fluent speaker of another 2, but I was wondering (I know you’re in the U.K, and I am from USa) but still, do you think one needs to get an advanced degree in translation, or could I just get in the work environment straight after my BA? (I have a ba in foreign language studies)

Comments are closed.