Becoming a Freelance Translator Abroad: One Professional’s Story

My journey towards becoming a freelance translator may be atypical. But then again, maybe it’s not so different after all…

I didn’t set out to be a translator. As an undergrad majoring in English, I saw further studies as both necessary and appealing as I considered possible careers in law, film, journalism, or academia. Then, during my junior year abroad, I met someone who changed the course of my life forever.

Gilles was a Frenchman, and we quickly became inseparable. By winter break, we were dating, and by the end of the year, saying adieu seemed impossible. He followed me home for my senior year, and as soon as I graduated, I moved with him to France.

I was enchanted with the idea of living abroad for a few years. (I was also blissfully ignorant of how limited my professional or academic prospects would be.) With my rudimentary French, jobs matching my ambitions were well out of reach. And due to France’s high unemployment rate at the time, so were the sorts of restaurant and retail jobs I had worked since high school.

I took classes at the local university but didn’t feel at ease with the different academic approach. As a result, I couldn’t find a program that made sense for me. I eked out a living teaching English for a while, but as my French improved and my love of teaching did not, I began to think about a career as a translator.

Working as a freelance translator sounded ideal: I had always loved words and writing. I imagined musing over turns of phrase for a living, being my own boss, and having the freedom to work from anywhere.

becoming a freelance translator in a French village

Quaint French villages are responsible for luring countless Americans to live (and sometimes stay) abroad.

Almost every weekend, Gilles and I escaped the city. We fell in love with the French countryside and the festive, simple, hearty way of life we encountered there.

On one such weekend, we met an English couple with two rosy-cheeked children—one of a number of young families fixing up stone farmhouses near a tiny but surprisingly vibrant village.

When the conversation turned to their work as freelance translators, my ears perked up. “How do you become a translator?” I asked.

Their answer was not especially encouraging. “We don’t know! In our case it just fell into our laps. You could try doing free tests for agencies. This process is generally very black and white: in a few lines, they either like what they see or they don’t. If you’re lucky, becoming a freelance translator happens gradually as you build a clientele.”

Becoming a Freelance Translator

I began contacting agencies and submitting quotes for jobs online. I also scoured the wanted ads and applied to anything related to translation, all to no avail.

After six months, even my offer to take free tests was not getting any bites. By that time, Gilles and I had married and our first child was on the way. I gave myself until my daughter’s first birthday to make it in translating. When she was six months old, I landed my first paid translation job: a paper by a professor of Japanese at the university.

Then several more months went by. I was ready to give up when I got a call for a job interview at a translation agency.

The Myth of France’s 35-Hour Work Week

The interviewer quickly saw that I had no formal experience, but I got the job. We found daycare for our daughter, and I began the lifestyle the French call metro, boulot, dodo: commute, work, sleep, then get up and do it all over again.

In spite of France’s so-called 35-hour work week, everyone at my office worked long hours without counting overtime. My employer expected our team to meet quotas of 3,000 words a day in translation and 10,000 words a day in proofreading. My manager did not demand this of me immediately but expected me to quickly build up to this level of output.

becoming a freelance translator is not easy

“I’m not at all stressed, and I have so much energy!” said this woman, who clearly has never worked as a freelance translator.

I was not then and still am not a fast translator. In the four years I spent with this agency, I almost never managed to translate 3,000 words in an eight-hour shift. I often worked ten-hour days, taking just a few minutes for lunch, my shoulders permanently tense from the pressure of deadlines.

When I finally made it back home to my family in the evening, I was completely spent. But I did learn the trade, not only translation itself, but workflow methodology, terminology and project management, computer-aided translation, customer relations, and quality control.

I hoped I was laying the groundwork for a freelance career, and I felt lucky to have a job at all. My French colleagues all had degrees in translation. My employer considered me for the job only because of my rarity as a native English speaker—this, despite the fact that I was a complete novice.

The Best-Laid Plans…

Gilles and I had planned to spend a few years in France before ultimately settling in the United States. I wanted to be closer to my family, and he was a nomad at heart, so the choice was clear.

Then, a twist of fate changed everything. After a year of mysterious health problems, Gilles was diagnosed with an incurable kidney disease. He would require lifelong treatment, including daily medication and eventually a kidney transplant.

He was not yet 30, and this was devastating news on many levels, not least because it was precisely the type of serious health condition that makes one ineligible for immigration to the U.S. We knew that even if Gilles somehow obtained a green card, healthcare would be a constant struggle in the U.S. In addition, it would be incredibly costly. But in France, everything was covered without question.

We digested all of this with the arrival of our second daughter. The U.S. was not in the cards for us. We needed a new plan, and knowing that his relatively good health would not last forever gave us a new sense of urgency. If we wanted to experience country living, the time was now.

I did not know if my becoming a freelance translator would work out, but we bought a stone cottage at the edge of a forest and I made the leap into the freelancing world.

A Day in the Life of a Freelance Translator

From Chaos…

Since becoming a freelance translator ten years ago, I’ve established a good mix of agencies and direct clients. In fact, the agency I started out with is still my most regular client. My direct clients include university researchers, a museum, a concert hall, a tech company, a tea company, and an art gallery, to name a few.

However, those first few years were a blur of child-rearing, home renovations, and managing a business in rustic conditions. It was a challenge to find three solid hours to work, and I sometimes translated through the night.

On the plus side, I could organize my schedule around my daughters. Having that flexibility was invaluable to me, especially when they were small.

…to Order

My girls are now busy teens with lives of their own. I have so few interruptions at work now that I have to remind myself to take breaks. I keep more traditional hours now but still relish the flexibility to put my family’s needs first.

For the first few years, I accepted almost every job offered to me, always half-expecting each work order to be the last. Much of what I translated was alimentaire (work you do purely to pay the bills), such as user manuals, contracts, and technical instructions.

But as time went on and demand proved steady, I began to relax and enjoy the luxury of being choosier about the projects I work on. About once a year, though, there is a period of up to ten days when I’m available to work but don’t have any projects on the docket.

The first few times it happened, I was a hand-wringing mess, staring uselessly at bills piling up and a silent inbox. I eventually learned to make better use of this time. It lets me tend to the aspects of running a business that are easy to neglect when focusing on deadlines.

Challenges and Coping Strategies

becoming a freelance translator: easier with a dog?

Lonely? Not getting out enough? Working as a freelance translator? Then get a dog.

One thing that no one tells you about when you ask about becoming a freelance translator is the solitude of the job. And I struggle with this sometimes.

Working for a per-word or per-page rate sometimes leaves me with a sense of being on a treadmill.

In addition, it can be challenging to separate work life and private life when you work from home.

None of these difficulties is insurmountable, of course. It takes discipline, but simple things can make all the difference. The following work for me:

  • work from a café
  • set work dates with a fellow freelancer
  • meet a friend for lunch
  • take short walks throughout the day (a dog can truly be a translator’s best friend)
  • close shop at a certain time each day
  • volunteer or join group activities for weekly “people time”
  • practice good productivity habits (no social media during working hours, setting targets and sticking to them, making a list of tomorrow’s priorities at the end of each day, and so on)

The Benefits of Working as a Freelance Translator

For me, becoming a freelance translator has been an excellent fit with motherhood. It has allowed me to be present and hands-on with my children in a way that I have treasured. (This presence isn’t always possible for everyone, though. I have the deepest respect for all parents, whatever work-family balance they choose or manage to make the best of.)

It also gave us the freedom to experience a different lifestyle and I am forever grateful for that as well. It has been a window into many different fields. I get to continually improve my French, hone my writing skills, and develop my business sense.

With all that I have learned as a translator, I feel I have other career options as well, if and when I am ready to make that leap.

As a translator, Maggie breaks down traditional language barriers. But there’s a new type of language barrier in the digital age: the lack of online content in thousands of languages.

If you’re interested in becoming a freelance translator, then read our interviews with Mariam, Anna, and Federica.