How bilingual speakers can get translating gigs from home

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The COVID pandemic has forced many people to reconsider their jobs and look for home-based alternatives. Even if we are lucky enough to still have employment, the tough times have compelled many to look for new ways to supplement income. If you’re lucky enough to be bilingual, your talents can provide an additional income stream. We’ll consider some of the ways you can get started in providing these language services from home.

Terms of Employment: Translation vs. Interpretation vs. Transcription

Before getting down to the business of finding work, let’s define some important terms. The importance of professional translation services is reflected in the inclusiveness of this category. Those looking for jobs in translation, interpretation, and transcription all fall under this rubric. Translation companies usually offer all of the above services.

But translation, strictly speaking, refers only to documents, adapting texts in one language to another. Which kinds of texts need to be translated? The range is broad: legal documents, government documents, medical documents, operating instructions, technical manuals. Creative works like books, scripts, screenplays, and poetry also need to be translated, though the process of translating this class of texts is sometimes called transcreation.

Interpretation, on the other hand, usually refers to converting spoken words from one language to another. There are two kinds of interpretation. There is simultaneous interpretation, in which the conversion from one language to another occurs at the same time as the source of speech is speaking. There is also sequential interpretation, in which the interpretation is given after the original speaker pauses, usually after each several sentences or, sometimes, after the speech concludes.

Transcription is a bridge between spoken and written speech. Transcribing converts spoken speech to written speech. As such, it can apply to the same language or a different language. In the latter case, translation is incorporated into the transcription process. Transcription is often used in the film and media industries to create subtitles. Subtitling is used to display translated text on a screen.

Which Language Service is Right for You?

If you’re fluently bilingual, comfortable thinking and speaking on your feet, then interpretation may be right for you. An interpreter needs to have sharp concentration, able to keep listening even while converting one language to another. Translators, on the other hand, can do their work in their own time, without being “put on the spot”.  Transcribers need good memories for spoken speech and fast typing.

Certification programs are available for all these skills. Some government and academic jobs, especially, will require them. In other cases, certificates may not be required but they will give you an advantage when competing for a position or project. However, all these skills are performance-based: if you can do the job quickly and efficiently, you can make a good living by translating, interpreting, or subtitling, even from home. Most translation and interpretation work these days, even before coronavirus, is done online.

How Do You Get Started in Translation and Interpretation?

If you think you have what it takes, here’s what you should do to get started. Even if you already have a day job, you can sign up as a freelancer in an online gig marketplace like freelancer.com, Upwork, or Fiverr. It’s free to sign up at these sites, although it’s not guaranteed that you’ll be accepted. Once accepted, you’ll create your profile, including links to your work and professional websites, and set your rates.

How much should you charge for translation or interpretation?  The translation is usually charged according to the number of words in the source document. According to JobMonkey, the average rate in the United States ranges between $0.10 and $0.20. This can increase depending on the urgency of the job and the languages being translated. Rush translations cost between 15-25 cents per word.  In case translators charge by the hour, hourly rates range from $35 to $60.

Interpretation for regular online gigs is measured by the hour, from $15 to $35 in the United States depending on language and experience. U.S. Phone interpreters make, on average, $16/hour according to GlassDoor. Transcription, on the other hand, is usually measured according to the time of the recording being transcribed. Netflix, for example, has a huge demand for transcribers and translators for their streaming movies and shows. You can earn up to $5/recorded minute for translated transcription.

A shady trick to learn what you should charge is to sign up at the freelance marketplace as both a freelancer and a client. Wearing the client hat, you can look for other freelancers and see how they present themselves and what they charge. Then set your own freelance rates and self-presentation to beat out the competition. But it’s frowned upon to hire yourself and rate yourself. And it will cost you, too, as the marketplaces will take a cut, usually 10% to 20% of your income. It might also get you banned for life.

Let Yourself Be Recruited by a Translation Company

A rule of thumb is to set rates competitively low at the start, and then raise them as your experience and ratings grow. Once your name is out there in the “gig economy” and you develop an impressive profile and high rating, you can start increasing your rates. You will also find yourself being approached by professional translation agencies, interpretation service providers, or localization companies. These companies assemble freelance linguists to provide on-demand services for their clients. Your rates working with them will tend to be relatively low because the translation agency will take a cut. However, they do the marketing and client management, so it can give you a steady stream of income and plenty of experience in different fields.

If you do take on translation as a freelancer from home, or work for one or more translation agencies, here’s a final caution: resist the temptation of using machine translators like Google Translate. While the quality of such services has improved in recent years, agencies and clients are wary of freelancers using these tools instead of doing the work on their own. While machine translation can help you check your accuracy and enrich your vocabulary, it’s no substitute for human translation.


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