Who is the freelance translator, and why he is the key figure in the professional translation business?

First of all, what is a freelance translator?

Unknown person, such as freelance translators
Who is the 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 work-flows, 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 a Japanese translator and an Italian translator working in tandem, 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 translation.

What's the difference between a freelance translator and a translation company?

Undoubtedly, freelance translators are the main protagonists in the translation chain, even when their translations are sold through translation companies. Translation companies that do not employ their own in-house translators—which is almost always the case for the Japanese language—actually operate by reselling the translations of freelance translators. Therefore, there is no reason why customers should not rely on the freelance translators themselves, unless they need a multilingual service.

In that case it would be more practical to contact a translation agency directly, which is normally equipped to handle multilingual projects better than freelance translators and offers added-value services such as DTP and thitd-party editing or proofreading services (although freelance translators can also offer these services). Besides, agencies 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 on the other hand 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 an independent translator over a translation company more advantageous for the end client?

As said above, if a 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, translation companies have a tendency to employ cheaper translators—even for tricky language pairs like Italian and Japanese. But, fortunately there are also exceptions around.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Writer, poet, essayist and moralist

A translator is to be like his author; it is not his business to excel him

Besides, good freelance translators offer several advantages to the clients, including better communication, a direct line of support, and—again— 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 professional freelance translators calculate translation rates?

Freelance translators have no excuse: they must know how to set their own rates in accordance with how much their time is really worth rather than passively suffering those imposed by clients with the aggravating circumstance of not even trying to negotiate them.

In order to achieve their desired earnings, translators, like any other employee, 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, and this is not a trivial expense for translators—by the way, these are our hardware and software tools); computers and peripherals have a typical operating life of three years under constant use, and software must also be kept up to date, including all of the tools that translation companies might require their translators to work with—and possibly, but this is now becoming a luxury that very few can afford, some sort of severance pay.

Freelance translators who don't know how to correctly set their rates, or worse, are overly and unreasonably cheap without knowing it, 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 even 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 a general topic.

How can one become a professional translator?

There are four requirements to establishing oneself as a professional freelance 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)
  • Willingness and ability to research (translators must sometimes be able to transform themselves into true investigators of information)
  • Professional approach (including organizational and marketing skills)
The freelance translator's motivations
Is this enough to become
freelance translators by profession?

Experience is certainly also very important (this is our Translation experience), but it is built over years and years of constant work.

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 particular flair for the written language, as in all fields that require expressive ability these additional characteristics are not taken for granted, nor can they be acquired at school.

In reality:

  • 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 but even more so for direct clients who are unfamiliar with the translation process, especially when languages with completely different roots and unique peculiarities like Japanese are involved.

It goes without saying that the generalist freelance translator should know both the source and target language very well, while technical or specialized translation requires specialized knowledge of one or more specific fields. Particularly in the technical field it is quite difficult to find Japanese-Italian freelance translators with the required technical background.

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.

In short, the process of selecting freelance translators is imperfect and involves some risk, just as it does when choosing any other type of professional.

How to make a freelance translator's job easier

Truly professional freelance translators should know how to work and which tools to use. However, there is something the client can do to enable them to work in the best possible condition. For example:

  • 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.
The freelance translator on the go
Can it always be said that the freelance translator's work is among the most comfortable?

Often the profession of freelance translators is considered as one of the most comfortable and free ones on the planet: no boss (oh, really? But we do have a boss: it's the market, which is often stricter and more merciless than a boss in the flesh); they can work wherever they want—even on the beach (oh yes, but perhaps only when the translation job is very easy and doesn't require much concentration); they can go on holiday whenever they like (but only if their clients are so satisfied with them that they don't yield to the temptation to replace them neither when the temporary translator is better and cheaper); they don't need to meet clients in person (some clients, fortunately not many, want to meet their translators in person), plus other advantages of relative importance.

Let's say that there is something true in this, more or less as any other self-employed person, but reality can be different for the professional translator who aims at success and recognition in this world with everything this involves.

If the freelance translator job were the really ideal one among the so-called intellectual jobs, it would be one that everyone with the right skills would want. In fact, many people would like nothing more than a job with a fixed salary, no matter how much less comfortable and, above all, less free it is, or, in any case, they can't stand spending entire days within four walls and without anyone or almost anyone to talk to.