Types of documents independent translators tend to work on
As a freelance translator you will receive the “crumbs off the table”. You will get calls not only from businesses but also from private individuals. Big companies which have regular dealings with foreign subsidiaries, suppliers or customers will employ in-house staff as that’s the more cost effective solution. However, multilingual translation jobs, say the translation and localisation of a website into more than one or two foreign languages, tend to be given to agencies as clients don’t want to deal with a multitude of individual translators.
Google Translate for a document’s gist
Private individuals now often rely on free online translation services to get a gist of their foreign language documents. Great Aunt Sophie’s English language letter to a German relative, for example, is most likely to be trusted to Google Translate.
Human translators for certified translations
Private clients will however employ a qualified (human) translator when they need precision, e.g. for certified document translation or other legal documents (e.g. house purchase in France or Spain, German employment contract). Local registry offices often require certified translations when couples decide to get married abroad or if one of the partners is a foreign national. In that case birth certificates, certificates of no impediment or divorce certificates may need to be translated and the translation certified.
Other documents that clients frequently entrust to freelance translators are employment records and school leavers’ certificates. There are two important client groups most likely to seek this type of translation. On the one hand, there are people who have worked or were educated in other European countries like Germany or Austria but now seek work in the UK. On the other hand, there are individuals who temporarily worked in the UK and now want to apply for jobs further afield (Germany, France, Italy, Austria etc).
However, small to medium size companies (SMEs) which have the occasional or one-off foreign language requirement represent the largest client base for freelance translation jobs. Jobs may include translating user manual for some foreign equipment, legal documents (mostly business contracts) or marketing materials (anything from a two-sided A-5 product brochure to a full-size website). But translators also deal with correspondence with clients or foreign government departments, tender documents, product specifications etc.
While the type of document freelance translators most frequently translate tend to be similar, the subject matters vary greatly. One day it is an aeroplane seat manufacturer who contacts a translator for a quote, the next it’s a point-of-sale product display manufacturer; a request from a fruit exporter can be followed by that of an importer of lubricants for the automobile industry; a bouncy castle manufacturer wants his website translated, a company that leases workers to work on Austrian building sites has fallen short of some local regulation… The list of different documents needing translation is virtually endless.
Variety, blessing and challenge
So, on the one hand this is a blessing, as the freelance translator rarely gets bored with a subject matter. On the other hand it is a great challenge and the cause of much time-consuming vocabulary research. Having to know and use lots of different sets of vocabulary is a challenge. While, with the aid of the internet, it is usually not an insurmountable obstacle, it can be a very time consuming one, especially if the vocabulary is obscure (as with the aeroplane seat manufacturer’s).
The danger is that you’ll agree to take on a translation job and then find that the vocabulary used is more specialised than appeared at first sight. If you don’t know anyone who works in this particular subject matter, you are stuck. There is nothing for it but going back to the client and telling him about your specific problems. Give him the choice of either helping you with finding translations (e.g. German competitors or previously translated documents) or suggest he find a more suitably qualified translator. Read more on client communication here.
If you find the above information off-putting, perhaps freelance translation isn’t for you. It is for individuals with strong characters who like their own company, who work well on their own initiative, who are willing and able to develop the required skills, be they business management skills or IT skills. Visit our pages on the right personal qualities for the job to find out whether you are better suited for a career as an employed or self-employed translator.
If you would like more information on any of the issues discussed in this career guide, please contact me. I will be pleased to help.