Who are freelance translators, and why are they so important in the translation world?
Freelance translators are virtually unknown to the general public and yet such an irreplaceable component of the translation world. Our use of the term here refers to full-time professional freelance translators, although there are some excellent part-time translators as well. We are experiened freelance translators in Italian and Japanese.
First of all, what is a freelance translator?
Full-time freelance translators are a category of independent linguists whose primary or sole source of income is translation. Typically they work for translation companies as contractors on a job-by-job basis, but they can also elect to work for direct clients (and some do so exclusively) and as with all such professionals, the level of their success is based wholly on their individual skill-sets (which must include organizational and marketing skills), the soundness of their workflows, and their ability to manage clients.
Generally, freelance translators only translate into their respective native languages. While it's true that bilingual individuals exist, such perfect multilingualism is an exceedingly rare commodity, particularly in the case of exotic language pairs like Japanese and Italian or Japanese and English.
We are a pair of freelance translators working in tandem (one into Italian and one into Japanese) which allows us to offer the best possible translation quality by filling in any gaps in understanding, essentially providing 100% native translations in both language pairs, that is, Italian→Japanese and Japanese→Italian translations.
What’s the difference between a freelance translator and a translation company?
Freelance translators are the main protagonists in the translation chain. Translation companies that do not employ their own in-house translators—which is almost always the case for the Japanese language—operate by reselling the translations of freelance translators.
On the other hand, translation companies handle multilingual projects better than freelance translators, offer added-value services such as DTP, editing or proofreading (although freelance translators can also offer these services), and naturally promote themselves more actively in the marketplace than freelance translators, who typically do not like spending too much time searching for direct clients.
Although translation companies are seen as a freelance translator's best friend, it can also be said that in most cases they simply cannot exist without those translators, who can leverage their organizational and entrepreneurial skills (if any) and offer their services directly to end clients for a mutual economic advantage.
When is choosing a freelance translator over a translation company more advantageous for the end client?
If translation into only a single language is required, there is no reason not to assign the job directly to a freelance translator. The truth is that even if you decide to go with the most prestigious of translation companies, there is no guarantee that the top freelance translators will be used for your translation. Indeed, given the fierce competition that continues to drive down translation rates (by the way, please see our rates in the Japanese and Italian general translation page), translation companies have a tendency to employ cheaper translators—even for tricky language pairs like Italian and Japanese.
A good freelance translator offers several advantages to the client, including better communication, a direct line of support, and lower prices.
But if a multilingual translation is needed (as is often the case with technical manuals), translation companies are the way to go because they usually offer a package deal which includes managing multiple freelance translators who work in the required language pairs. This doesn’t come without a price though; translation companies often charge double or more what a freelance translator would charge in the same situation.
How should professional freelance translators calculate translation rates?
Professional freelance translators must know how to set their own rates in accordance with how much their time is really worth rather than deferring to whatever rate might be proposed by a particular translation company.
In order to achieve their desired earnings, translators must determine their average daily output while factoring in at least one day of rest per week, one or two annual holidays of reasonable length, potential periods of illness, retirement provisions, and possibly even a retirement bonus as well, which is a benefit usually included in the contracts of in-house translators. Freelance translators are also required to purchase any necessary hardware and software on their own (these are our hardware and software tools), and this is not a trivial expense. Computers and peripherals have a typical operating life of three years under constant use; software must also be kept up to date, including all of the tools that translation companies might require their translators to work with.
Freelance translators who don't know how to correctly set their rates are bound to run into trouble sooner or later. Increasing translation rates afterwards always involves a certain risk if the product being sold does not meet the quality expectations of the market. And since translation work is very exhausting, such translators will be forced to reduce their workloads and earn less money, leading them to search for part-time jobs or even switch careers in extreme cases.
Conventionally, translation rates are calculated based on the number of words (or characters for languages like Japanese) in the source text.
However, freelance translators should always aim to receive fair remuneration for the time they actually spend translating, and this is something that varies depending on the subject matter. Translation is not a commodity, and the mere tallying of words or characters isn’t going to suffice in many cases—there are additional factors which should be considered when determining the rate for a given job. For example, 200 words of very specialized or otherwise time-consuming text may require far more effort than 1,000 words of generic text.
A translator is to be like his author; it is not his business to excel him
Writer, poet, essayist and moralist
How can one become a professional translator?
There are four requirements to establishing oneself as a professional translator in the market over the medium or long term:
- Excellent knowledge of the source language ((Italian, Japanese, and English in our case)
- Mastery of the target language (Japanese and Italian in our case)
- Natural disposition for the profession (not everyone has or feels that they have enough talent for translation work, although they might be capable of producing excellent translations)
- Professional approach (including organizational and marketing skills)
Translation experience is also very important, but is something that can only be acquired over time.
Supplemental to these requirements is specialized knowledge in fields that require particular qualifications. Finally—and this is not limited to translation—translators should also love their occupation, otherwise how could they spend many hours each day in front of a computer screen with little to no social interaction?
Besides, if it is true that proficiency in translation stems partially from a certain disposition for languages (and in particular for written languages), then it is not something which can generally be learned at schools. This is true for all fields that require natural ability and creativity.
In the reality (but this is only our personal opinion):
- There are good professional freelance translators, both with and without degrees.
- There are mediocre professional freelance translators, both with and without degrees.
- There are individuals who although not being professional translators, would translate better than professional translators if they only had the desire to do so.
How to choose a freelance translator?
This is perhaps the most critical question for translation companies and especially direct clients who lack foreign languages skills, in particular those who are not versed in the peculiarities of Japanese.
It goes without saying that the generalist freelance translator should know both the source and target language very well, while technical translators might be chosen based primarily on their detailed knowledge of a specific field of expertise. There are precious few freelance translators working in the Italian-Japanese language pair who are heavily specialized in specific technical or scientific domains and have the technical backgrounds necessary to tackle translations covering such topics.
Selection criteria vary wildly. Some clients only trust translators with degrees in translation or foreign languages (even when those translators are beginners), while other clients place more importance on the actual level of competence a given translator has acquired over many years in the business. Another parameter is the translator's career development—in other words, how many years he or she has been working in the translation industry. This factor, which offers a useful indication of the translator's ability to achieve a stable revenue stream from translation, can also be interpreted as a sign of trust from the market.
None of these selection criteria are infallible, though. For instance, relying solely upon a translator's academic profile may lead to a very poor outcome. All in all, the process of selecting the right freelance translator can be an imperfect one and is often subject to initial uncertainties, carrying with it the same risks involved with choosing any other type of professional.
How to make a freelance translator's job easier:
- Above all, ensure that the source text was written by a native speaker (English, Japanese, or Italian in our case), or is at least fundamentally correct from the viewpoint of its particular content. A text written by a non-native speaker often jeopardizes the translator's effort at its core, as the original message may have been interpreted incorrectly.
- Always provide any available reference material that is relevant to the translation job, including background information, drawings, pictures, specialized terminology, or other documentation, particularly if the text is technical in nature. Even a simple business or private letter might require background information in order for its message to be better focused, more relevant, and appropriately expressed. What is obvious to you might not be immediately knowable to the translator, who may feel compelled to request clarifications.
- Set aside sufficient time for the translation to be completed. Translation is a creative process rather than a mechanical one, and as such it is affected by fluctuations in concentration and emotional state. Translation work therefore requires an adequate amount of time, including a final period for fresh-minded editing.