Qualities of a freelance translator

12 qualities that agencies look for in a freelance translator

Translation and localization are considered to be amongst the most competitive fields for freelancers. The proliferation of the internet and its easy access has given birth to a new breed of freelancers and agencies that make life difficult for the experienced and qualified freelance translator. We now have to compete with a horde of unskilled, inexperienced part-timers or full-timers who offer ridiculously low rates for translation. Unskilled and inexperienced, their quality of work leaves a lot to be desired and yet they manage to successfully encroach upon the grounds of professional freelance translators aided by the greed of an increasing number of bottom-feeding agencies.  The good news is that there are agencies that have not given in to the sweat shop model for translation and still offer decent rates for quality work. To market yourself to these discerning agencies, you need to keep the following things in mind at all times:

  1. You should be a native translator

Only a native translator would be aware of the detailed cultural nuances that play a very important part in translation. Differences in dialect, slangs, cultural differences that affect a translation can only be handled properly by someone whose mother tongue is the target language. To ensure that a translation is natural and accurate and does not sound “translated”, any good agency would look for a native translator.

  1. Command over the source language

It is important that the translator is fluent in the language he translates from. If he does not possess near-native skills in the source language he runs the risk of missing out some of the important nuances in the source text. Therefore, the ability to understand the source language plays a very important role in the process of translation. All good agencies would look for freelance translators with a high level of comprehension of the source language.

  1. Experience and its nature

The freelance translator’s experience in number of years, the fields in which his experiences are, as well as the nature of his experience in those fields are important to any good agency. A good agency will also take into account his other experiences as well besides translation. For example, they would give preference to a legal translator who has a few years of experience as a law clerk, over someone who has no such related experience.

  1. Specialization areas

A translator who specializes in a particular field or fields closely related, is more likely to find work with agencies than the ones who work on a number of unrelated areas. In fact, quite often jobs call for specialized knowledge in a certain field which cannot be handled by a general translator.

  1. Availability

A freelance translator who makes himself available most of the times to an agency is more often to be contacted for jobs. While accepting the fact that a translator may be tied up with work when he is contacted for a new job, it is never a good idea to reply with a short one-liner stating his unavailability. I for one prefer to get back as soon as possible letting the agency know when my present work will finish and I will be able to take up their job. I also ask if they would be able to extend the deadline to enable me to take up their work. I found that more often than not the agency is able to accommodate. This is very important because you always run the risk that getting told “No” once too often might make the agency go looking for someone else being under the impression that you are not really interested.

  1. Flexibility

An agency always prefers to work with a freelancer who is flexible in terms of payment rates and terms and work schedules. It is important that the freelancer realizes that different jobs may come with different rates and terms and he needs to be flexible enough to accommodate the same. This is not to say that he should cut his rates down to starvation standards, but he should be willing to offer the agency any discounts that are possible for him when requested. I have found that more often than not, agreeing to do this makes the agency remember you when the next job in your language pair comes along.

I personally, also offer my clients flexibility in terms of work timings as well. For agencies in different parts of the world, I prefer to work during their time zone. This offers me the advantage of receiving clarifications that I may need sooner than I would, had I preferred to work as per my time zone. The same applies to the agencies as well; any urgent time-critical communication is made possible without hours of delay. Agreed that it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, considering the toll this might take on your health, however, this proved to me of invaluable help during the initials months of my freelancing career.

  1. Certifications and qualifications

Having the right qualifications are extremely important for freelance translators. A good agency would definitely look at your qualifications before taking you on. Qualifications can be related to the target language or the area of specialization. There are certain kinds of jobs that call for certifications in certain fields of translation. A freelance translator should, therefore, try to get himself/herself certified by a recognized body or organization in his country. This certification is usually in his area of specialization. Depending on the demands of a particular job, the agency might give preference to freelancers that are certified over the ones who are experienced. Indeed, quite frequently, freelancers with the right qualifications are passed over in favor of those that are certified.

  1. Rates, payment modes and terms

As in all businesses, the rate at which a service is rendered often ends up being the deciding factor whether a freelance translator is employed for a certain job or he is passed over. Too high rates will surely put you out of business. Like you, agencies are also out to earn, all things remaining equal, if they can find a cheaper option, they would surely go for it. However, if you offer your services dirt cheap, it is quite likely that agencies that offer quality services would stay away from you. In real life, cheap equates to low quality. So, the trick is to know the going rates for your language combination and the area of specialization and quote accordingly. If you would like to more about how to decide what rates to charge, you might want to read this fantastic post by Corinne McKay.

Moreover, you need to be open to different payment modes. Different agencies have different modes of paying you. While one would pay you through PayPal, another might prefer Skrill and yet another might prefer bank transfers. You will find more agencies to work with if you have multiple options to accept payment.

Also, payment terms are an important area the freelancer should not overlook. Sticking to your guns about your payment terms will result in losing valuable clients. While you might find a payment term of net 15 preferable, you will frequently find agencies that work on the basis of net 30, net 45, net 60. I have come across agencies that prefer to work on the basis of net 90. While you are free to decide what options you are comfortable working with, more flexible you stay, more clients you will find. As for me, I prefer to work with net 30 and net 45, and in case of a few clients, who offer high volumes, even net 60. However, I do not consider it worthwhile to go beyond that.

  1. Customer service skills and negotiation skills

Your communications skills play a very important role in your career as a freelance translator. It is imperative that at every stage of your relationship with your client you stay polite and professional. It is easy to understand that everyone likes to deal with people who are pleasant to deal with. Any agency would like to deal with freelance translators who are responsive and professional in their dealings. This comes in handy especially at the time of negotiating a contract where you may have to contradict and put across your logic explaining why you would want something changed. Even in cases where things do not work out to mutual satisfaction, it is important to stay polite. It keeps open the chances of work some time down the line.

  1. Skills with CAT

Most agencies use one or more CAT tools for their work. A freelance translator, therefore, needs to be skilled in the popular CAT tools that are available in the market. I have trained myself to use SDL Trados, MemoQ and Wordfast, these are among the most preferred tools of the trade of agencies around the world. While it is perfectly possible to do a great job using word processors alone, knowledge of CAT tools let you integrate yourself seamlessly into the workflow of you agency client. It also increases your productivity and ensures the consistency of you translations thereby improving the quality of your work. An agency would, therefore, prefer to take on freelance translators who are skilled users of CAT tools.

  1. Consistently good quality

Needless to say, clients look for great quality in translation. A freelancer, who is willing to do extensive research and use his CAT tool appropriately to create and use glossaries and translation memories, will produce quality output and would definitely be shown appreciation by getting more work from agencies.

  1. Consistently meet deadlines

A freelance translator who consistently meets his deadlines is a reliable person. In the translation industry, reliable and responsible freelancers are much sought after. Meeting deadlines often make the difference between successful and scratched projects. Therefore, meeting your deadlines consistently is an essential quality that agencies look for.

Any freelancers who have these qualities, or can develop them over time, are bound to find success working for agencies sooner or later. It will take you some time to develop these qualities no doubt, for example, getting certified or adding more qualifications to your kitty will not happen in a day. But if you have the patience and stick to it, it will pay you back handsomely in the years to come.

Posted in Agencies.

I am a native Bengali translator with over 13 years of experience translating from English to Bengali and Hindi, specializing in medical, manuals, immigration, marketing and Android apps translations.


  1. Very well said Sudip, as is any field staying on top of new technologies, education improvement, but most important is treating your clients with integrity, in a respectful way. All of these , like you stated will go a long way in our profession

    • Thank you for your comment, Diego. I agree with you completely.
      Translation as a business calls a continuous effort at honing one’s skills and staying abreast of changing market trends/demands, along with business and people skills if we intend to stay in business.

  2. #We, translator and communication experts, also have a number of requirements – of qualities we wish to see in any Agency that needs us: 1. Honesty 2. Respect 3. Fair pay – for fair work 4. Competence and goodwill in evaluating our work … First of all – we want that Cheshire -Cat grin wipe out of their face – especially when they need us most…

    • Yes, absolutely, Prislopeanu.
      Unfortunately, with the alarming increase in the number of untrained and therefore unskilled people in the profession aided by the hunt for low rates by most agencies have pushed serious professionals on the back foot where they are hard pressed to find decent agencies to work with. I am currently collecting material to write something on what professional translators expect from agencies. Hope to have it ready soon. 🙂

  3. Thank you Sudip for the important information you shared with the community (translator’s community). I found the information very useful and acurate. I am a native Portuguese, and I translate from english into Portuguese PT>EN. I am a Mozambican

    • I am glad you liked it, Antonio. We spent long hours translating and marketing our services and somewhere along the way we tend to lose focus on the basics. So, I thought I would write a post on the qualities we need to hone to stay competitive. Though most agencies these days seem inclined to work with the cheapest, yet any translator who keeps his focus on these basics can stay gainfully engaged and with time (and a lot of patience and perseverance) find those dwindling and discerning ones who truly value quality and pay well.

  4. I am a professional translator in the English-Kannada and Kannada-English language pair since more than 11 years. I broadly concur with the expectations of the agencies about translators. Increasingly I observe that the ‘reviewers’ used by the companies are becoming very subjective, presumptive and ignorant about the use of language. Bereft of flexible and mature understanding of the translation they find pleasure in their ‘authority’ and that creates operational bottlenecks. The hardest part is even when done by an experienced translators they tend to have a ‘looking down’ judgmental approach about translators whereas in reality the translator himself/herself will be functioning as reviewer with other companies and are familiar with the dynamics and nuances of translation. Just mentioning it for the notice of translation agencies.

    • Thank you for your comment Subramanya.
      I couldn’t agree with you more. I have been on the receiving end of this “reviewer rage” more often than I care to remember. I think this is true particularly for Indian languages. (But then, I don’t know any other languages except the three I work with). This probably stems from three things, a lack of formal training in translation studies and from a belief that their job is to “ink”. More the ink, better the job they have done, or so some agencies would have them believe. I have faced situations where after a review work, I have had calls from my agency asking me if I have indeed applied myself diligently since they find so few identified errors. Also, perhaps the spread of the ‘earn from home’ epidemic is another reason. We now compete with homemakers and retired gents gunning for a quick buck online and matters are made worse when they find takers amongst the bottom feeding agencies that seem to be increasing day by day.

  5. Thank you so much for this article. Really blessed my day. I am a native English to Hausa translator and I particularly find the point on consistently good quality more interesting; one of the things that has kept me going in the translation field.

  6. Hi Sudip,

    Here you mention experience being a big part of what agencies are looking for. I am about to graduate from a Masters in Translation Studies and I’m just beginning my job search and I’m finding that agencies are asking for 1-3 years or a certain number of words professional translation. How would you recommend newcomers to the industry gain this experience? Obviously the first instinct is to undercut more experienced translators in price but we know that whilst this might get us a few jobs in the short term it is detrimental in the long term since eventually it will drive down the market price for translations. I have seen job adverts for Trainee Translators that require at least 1 year of professional experience.

    • Thank you for reading my post, Ciara.
      How to gain experience when you are just starting off – a question that plagues all beginners still on the starters block. While this can be the subject for a detailed blog post, I will tell you about how I went about it when I started off, that would not require much preparation. The steps I followed:
      1. Volunteer your services to well known non-profit organizations who are always on the lookout for translators willing to take up pro bono work. Use Google to find them.
      2. Browse the internet for websites who would offer you to translate their content and in return acknowledge your help by displaying your name and a couple of lines about you and perhaps a link to your website. Again, use Google to find them.
      3. When you have a few of these under your belt, prepare your resume with these mentioned as your experience. Do not forget to mention that these were voluntary services offered for no compensation.
      4. Start your translation agency research for the ones who have a good track record for paying on time. You are sure to find a few if you look hard enough. At this time, be prepared to work for peanuts. Log the company’s details along with their contact information and the name of the contact person(s) in an Excel sheet.
      5. Start sending emails to these companies addressing them to the key people who work there. (Never start with a Dear Sir/Dear Ma’am).
      6. Keep up the hard work till you start getting responses (they will most likely offer you ridiculous rates).
      7. Keep working for them till you have built up a resume where you have a reasonable number of projects to showcase.
      8. Build a website for yourself. (You can do it yourself, its not difficult)
      8. Continue with your company research and email marketing (using an email address that bears your own domain), but now be more discerning about the pay being offered. Fill up your Excel sheet with details of companies that can pay the rate which is right for you, or comes close.
      9. Slowly weed out the bottom feeders you started with till you reach the stage where you are working only with agencies that offer you reasonable rates.

      Sounds easy? Not at all, quite the opposite I assure you. How long will take? A year perhaps, if you really apply yourself to the task. Maybe more, depending on how competitive your language pairs are.

  7. Dear Sudip,
    I am a ProZ.com Certified PRO (professional) translator and scientific editor/ reviewer of translations into Russian and Ukrainian.
    For 25 years, I worked as a translator and scientific editor of technical, scientific and other texts from English into Russian at the state journal “Изобретения стран мира” (“Inventions of all countries of the world”) in Moscow (Russia).
    I agree with your post completely, especially with the points where you affirm that the overwhelming majority of freelance translators, who translate for the low rates (e/g. for USD 0.02 – 0.04 per s.w.) are, as a rule, unskilled translators who make translations of a very bad quality.
    I hope, I have a right to affirm this because I have edited hundreds translations of Russian translators.
    Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of Russian, China, India, etc. translation companies prefer collaborate with those translators who make translations for the low rates (e/g. for USD 0.02 – 0.04 per s.w.).

    Best regards

  8. You do not address the fact that many of the “glossaries” compiled from CAT tools are wildly inaccurate and irrelevant. Also, there is the problem of clients whose knowledge of the language is poor but who nevertheless set themselves up as judges and ruthlessly “correct” the translator’s work and refuse to pay for the job. Agencies always take the side of the client in these cases. I have learned the hard way not to argue about this, but to take the agency’s massive reduction in payment and simply boycott them. They will find out soon enough that their client is the problem, and he/she will continue to order work from the agency which will not be paid for. They will also learn, when this happens again and again with different translators, that it is the client who is at fault, not the translator and they will have lost the services of good translators.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *