How to Become a Freelance Translator – Part 2: Volunteering, Business Plans, and more

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Headshots, volunteering, mentoring, templates, and business plans

This is the second part of a long post with practical tips on how to become a freelance translator based on my experience in the UK. In the first post I discussed the more bureaucratic steps; namely, qualifications, professional associations, and the red tape involved in the process. On this occasion, I’ll deal with topics like volunteering as well as creating templates and logs. Once again, please comment below to add new tips or share your experience.

A model for a day

If you are camera-shy like me, I’m sorry to break the news, but you need a professional headshot, or at least a picture that looks professional. Find a studio (in London, the average price is about £100 for the basic option) or ask that friend of yours who’s good at taking pictures, but definitely do it. Use this new professional image of yourself on your website, social networks, email account, WhatsApp (if your clients can find you there), etc. Consistency is king! People will recognise you across media once they’ve seen you a few times.


This is one of the best ways to gain experience, with the added bonus that you’re helping others. However, it’s not always so easy. NGOs like Translators without Borders (TWB) require previous experience and/or certificates, so make sure you check each organisation’s requirements before applying. Think of subjects you’re interested in and pitch in your volunteer services to the corresponding associations; maybe you’d like to help an animal rescue NGO, a vegan movement, or get involved with refugees in your city.

Beautiful tree with colourful hands as branches

Also, TED Talks are a great, fun way to practice subtitling and transcription. I signed up as a volunteer over a year ago and the videos I’ve worked on have mostly been related to my fields of interest. I have found that things don’t always run as smoothly as I’d like to, and sometimes it takes ages to have your work approved, but I have the feeling that patience and frustration are two things freelancers need to get used to anyway, so there you go!

Whichever way you choose to volunteer, it’ll boost your CV, give you some experience, and even help you discover a new specialisation you didn’t know you liked. This is what happened to me volunteering for TWB. As a way to ‘pay you back’, you can ask the organisation to write a recommendation letter, a testimonial for your website, or to endorse you on LinkedIn.

A watering can watering a plant to help it grow, like a mentor would doFind a mentor

Not every newbie has a mentor, but if you feel you could benefit from talking to someone with more experience who can give you a helping hand in the early stages, it might turn out to be worth it. I found someone at an event whom I thought could help me, especially with marketing issues. We met on Skype just a couple of times, but she shed some light on a few dark areas. She suggested some improvements to my CV, recommended fabulous tools, and instilled some very-much-needed confidence when I wasn’t sure what I was doing.

There are translators who take it a step further and have their mentors check their translations hoping for some advice. All in all, collaborating with colleagues is incredibly enriching and one can learn a lot!

Log everything

I can’t emphasise this enough: keep record of whom you contact, when, how, why, and their responses – if they do respond. Likewise, jot down every job you do: client, number of words, rates, how they found you, and if they’ve paid you or not.  This is an example of what a job log might look like.

Needless to say, you must also record your business expenses and income in as much detail as possible, even making notes of what type of receipt you have as proof (PDF, paper, email). Yes, it’s unlikely, but in the event of an audit you’ll have everything under control, plus this system is extremely useful for filing your taxes. Ideally, expenses and income should be recorded together using a template; let the software do the maths!

Personally, I love Google Drive because it’s stored in the cloud, I can access it from my phone when I’m on the move, and I can share it easily with others. I have created a plethora of docs and spreadsheets in the last few months. One of these docs contains every idea that has sprung to mind during the process: prospects, new tools, USPs (Unique Selling Points), etc. It can work as a to-do list if you cross out things as you accomplish or dismiss them.

Love your templates

One of the best favours you can do yourself before work starts to come in is to create templates that save you tons of time in the future. Design invoices (this is the info you need to include) and estimates (MS Excel or Google Spreadsheets have templates you can adapt), your own Terms & Conditions (some professional associations have examples available for members that can be tailored to your needs), documents explaining to your clients the process you follow to deal with specific assignments, eg a transcreation job. Even if you’ll then have to customise these docs for each case, having a template will save you time. Time you don’t invoice in most cases.

You can even create templates for emails you’ll have to send more than once: ‘I’m sorry I am busy at the moment, but if you could extend the deadline just __ days, I could have it ready by then.’ This also applies to automatic responses, for example out of the office messages. Write the response and leave a blank for the dates so you can adapt it quickly each time you need it.

SWOT analysis, SMART goals and business plan

For me, these were the scariest part. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats, and it aims at looking closely at your situation to help you figure out your USPs (unique selling points) – which I’ll discuss in a future post on marketing – and which areas need improved.

The SMART goals help you answer the question ‘what do I want to achieve?’ You have to think hard and come up with objectives which are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound.

A tree with words coming out of its branches: plan, business, etc.

As for the business plan, it is a much longer, complex document aimed at analysing your business idea in depth. It requires financial planning, marketing strategies, and so on. There is no shortage of templates online, as well as instructions on how to draw one. I think the templates on this website, recommended by the British government, are quite complete.

You can find great ideas about how to develop these documents from experienced translators: podcasts, books, webinars… Below is a list of the books I’ve read.

And that’s it. In the next part of ‘How to Become a Freelance Translator’ I’ll discuss specialisms and CPD (Continuing Professional Development), among other things. So, what type of pro bono work have you done, if any? Do you keep other templates worth sharing? Comment below!

*Useful reads to help you set up as a freelancer

  • Jenner, Judy A., & Jenner, Dagmar V., The Entrepreneurial Linguist: the Business-School Approach to Freelance Translation. EL Press, 2010.

  • Mckay, Corinne. How to Succeed as a Freelance Translator. Two Rat Press, 2015.

  • Smith, Gary. Confessions of a Freelance Translator: Secrets to Success. Publisher Not Identified, 2016.

  • Whitty, Tess. The Marketing Cookbook for Translators: Foolproof Recipes for a Thriving Freelance Career. Tess Whitty, 2014.

*Useful course/event

  • SUFT (Setting Up as a Freelance Translator): This online course is organised by the ITI. I haven’t done it myself, but I’ve heard some good feedback from colleagues who have.

  • SWATI is a great event to get started; I attended in 2017 and I strongly recommend it. And it’s free!

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2 thoughts on “How to Become a Freelance Translator – Part 2: Volunteering, Business Plans, and more

  1. Love this advice (and secretly smug that I’ve ticked most of the boxes!). It’s so helpful to have a strategy and templates in place so that when you start to get busy you can hit the ground running.

    On point 6, readers might be interested to hear that TWB recently relaxed their recruitment criteria and now accept translators without qualification and several years’ experience – as long as you can pass their translation test. I was accepted in December, before I got my Diploma in Translation. Ecpd ran a free webinar on this which is worth checking out:

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