Demystifying Freelance Translation

Romain Vignes on

[Guest Blog Post] Tamara Latham Sprinkle is a Belgium-based Japanese to English translator and editor from the Midwest. She has five years of experience in the translation industry as a proofreader and in-house/freelance translator. She is passionate about language and linguistics focusing on Japanese but dabbling in other languages, and enjoys parsing complex legal and academic language. Read her blog and check out her translation services at

“My name is Tamara and I’m a freelance Japanese translator.” 

These words are often met with confused intrigue from professionals at networking events, and even those with a vague desire to do translation are often confused about what either freelancing or translation entails.

When I say I’m a freelancer what I mean is that I’m a self-employed individual who has multiple independent contracts with language service providers (LSPs), other companies, and individuals. As a Japanese translator, I mostly translate marketing, administrative, and legal documents, though I do some subtitling, transcription, and the occasional interpreting project and sometimes work in other sectors. My workflow can often be unpredictable— assignments often come the day of or with a day’s notice. There are times where I have no projects and there are times that I have to work massive overtime or odd hours. That’s the more complicated picture behind my title ‘freelance Japanese translator’.

Whether freelance or in-house (i.e. employed directly by a company), when you decide to break into translation it’s important to consider specializations. That’s to say, you need to consider your academic and professional background and the genre of text that you enjoy or understand. 

For a concrete example, most in-house Japanese ‘Translator’ jobs in the United States are actually all-in-one interpretation, translation, and administrative positions at manufacturing plants. Earlier in my career I took one of these roles that required me to learn quite technical manufacturing related vocabulary, company jargon, and have a basic understanding of machines in order to comprehend written or verbal communication. If you, like me, are from a social science and humanities background and find an engineer’s written or verbal explanation of why the machine broke down difficult in any language, a technical specialization is probably not for you. Alternatively, if trying out technical interpretation and translating sounds fun, then I’d recommend one of these roles to start your translation career. 

One’s specialization is a combination of experience and passion. I have friends who really enjoy the richness of spoken language – the puns, jokes, dialects etc. and love games and manga who ended up in a career in the localization sector. While working in technical interpreting and translation, my passion faded, and I questioned whether I wanted to continue in this career path, but as a freelance translator I’ve had opportunity to try different genres and fell in love with translation anew. My personal preference is the complex and formal winding prose of legal documentation or the slick, snappy language of marketing, which is why I’ve gravitated towards legal and marketing assignments and have completed professional development courses for these sectors.

One of the best parts of freelancing, part-time or full-time, is that you have the opportunity to dip your toes into lots of different genres and discover your own preferences. 

However, being able to provide a good service is just one part of freelancing. To freelance, you have to operate as if you are a business.

So, what does operating a business entail? 

If you live in the USA, all you need to start freelancing as a sole proprietor is to make an independent contract with a company and do some assignments for them. In the future, you can incorporate your freelance business, which comes with tax and liability benefits as well as enabling you to hire subcontractors. While I have a marketing company name (Latham Sprinkle Translation and Editing), I am currently a sole proprietor. (Although, that may change now I’m in Belgium.) Regardless of incorporation, I think that Michael E. Gerber in his book, “The E-Myth”, has a valuable piece of advice applicable to all freelancers, which is to run a small business you need to wear three hats – you think about business development like a CEO, manage business operations like a manager, and provide the service as the technician would. 

We’ve already discussed a bit about the service, namely translation, so let’s go onto business development. This includes all forms of marketing and sales for your freelance business whether inbound or outbound. 

Inbound marketing means drawing in potential customers by creating a profile on a free translation website like proz or, joining professional associations such as ATA or JAT with member profiles, creating a professional website highlighting your experience, updating your LinkedIn profile, and creating a (free) Google My Business page. Blogs and a business social media presence are also inbound marketing, although in my experience these are better for clout with other translators and to be part of a community rather than to build a client base. 

Meanwhile outbound marketing is actively reaching out to potential clients digitally or in-person. My attempt at networking and explaining my profession is a form of outbound marketing, as would be applying to companies in any sector advertising for freelance or remote translation positions or cold emailing or calling potential clients. In my two years as a full-time freelancer, I have only tried cold emails a few times and each time it leaves me with dread—the reason I’m not a salesperson.

Many of these kinds of activities can be done while working part-time or full-time in another position. It takes a lot leg work to establish yourself so it’s best to keep your day job or have at least enough for yourself to survive on for a year in savings as you get a few contracts with some translation companies or direct clients, get more involved in the translation community, and make a business card with at least a professional profile if not a website. That being said, even once you’re established, it’s important to keep marketing yourself and applying for more companies. For better or worse, as a freelancer, your role as a CEO is never done.

Next, let’s consider what to look out for when you agree to work for a particular company as it relates to management and unequal labor-relations. If you work for an LSP, you will normally have to sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement and a Translator Agreement; whereas if you work with individuals or direct clients who rarely work with translators, you will have to provide a Translator Agreement. These contracts lay out what the individual company expects of you, how to handle documents, its invoicing period (whether it’s net-30, net-45, net-60 or a specific day of the next month), liabilities, and so on. It is essential that you read through these contracts and negotiate a rate before signing anything. 

In American and UK contract law both parties are assumed to have equity under the law, so if something in the contract is off, you can request to change it or strike it out; although, under US law, it’s left to the free market to weed out unfair terms, so the flipside of the ease to freelance is the ease to be exploited as a new translator by companies in the US and abroad. Also, unfortunately, as a new translator it can be difficult to change the terms and conditions as it’s not equal relationship, which is why if a company is unreasonable or offering to pay low rates, it’s best to able to just walk away from that contract. Remember even as a less experienced translator, you deserve better than to be exploited by black-listed companies who prey on your desire to get experience and your inexperience in the seedier aspects of the industry. (On that note, always check Better Business Bureau and do a quick a Google search to see if a company is blacklisted or otherwise untrustworthy due to low payments, non-payments, or late payments.)

Finally, as an independent contractor, never sign a document that has a Non-Compete Clause, keeping you from working with companies from a similar industry. I have heard of a few companies in the localization sector including this clause that was originally intended for management level employees to keep them from sharing company secrets with competitors. As a non-employee who needs multiple clients this is likely legally unenforceable, yet best to avoid. 

Normally rates in translation are priced by the word, or in Japanese to English by the character, although, they can also be hourly. Unfortunately, most translation business workshops will not talk about a specific number, because it’s considered price setting, which is a violation of Anti-Trust Laws. This is fine for established translators but opens up newer ones for exploitation to protect competition. To figure out a fair price, you can look at in-house translation rates which in the US are between $17 to $25 an hour and then divide it by how many words per hour you can translate to make the same amount of money as someone in-house. (I.e. translation rate of 250 words/hour would be between $0.07 to $0.10 per word) Though, as an independent contractor your rate should be higher than an employee’s. 

In addition, your translation capacity depends on the complexity of the text itself (i.e. complex legal or financial texts should pay more than general language like in market research), whether you’re dealing with a PDF file or written text, and your experience translating that genre. For example, if you use a CAT tool and you have a good Term Base and Translation Memory, it might take just an hour to translate over 3,000 words.

Once you have a range of rates from the desirable to acceptable, you’ve signed a contract with one of the reputable companies out there, and you’ve done a translation for them, there’s one final thing to consider: invoicing. If you primarily work with translation companies, most of them have an internal vendor portal for you to issue invoices, although some may require you to fill out paperwork for them. As a manager of a business, it’s important to keep track of all your invoices, the invoice process at each company, and chase down late payments. This can be done with Excel, Microsoft Access, or online invoicing apps (free or for a monthly subscription). Personally, I use the Wave App to create and save profiles for each of my clients, create glossy estimates for new projects or create an invoice for each project. Better invoicing software exists, especially if you pay for it, but it has been useful for seeing my overall income to declare for taxes and to see my income by client.  

To operate as a freelance translation business, you need to keep yourself organized when it comes to invoicing and time-management for projects, be consistent and maintain good relationships with clients who can sometimes introduce you or give you a recommendation for new clients, and be a proficient writer in your own language in a genre of text, as well as have a high level of comprehension of another language. 

It’s certainly juggling lots of responsibilities, but it can allow you to meet the different people who make up the translation community, get you to experience many different sectors of business, and let you be your own boss and work as you see fit. Had I not switched to a full-time freelance translator, I never would have learned about administration or business management as well as about contract law, interpreting, various medical treatments, Japanese economics, labor laws, etc. Despite enjoying being a hermit at home to do most of my work, it’s been fulfilling to go to professional events for lawyers, young professionals, Japanese companies, and professional translators, and to discover new local and international organizations. While it’s important to consider the seedier aspects of the industry and freelancing has made me more vocal about unfair labor practices, it is an extremely rewarding profession and if it’s your passion I highly recommend you to pursue it. 


Top photo by Romain Vignes on Unsplash

Second photo by Tamara Latham Sprinkle on LS Translate

8 thoughts on “Demystifying Freelance Translation”

  1. Emily Lihua Callaghan

    I’ve been thinking very deeply about getting into Freelance/Remote translation for a while and found this article very informational and detailed. While I’m not quite sure about doing Freelance full time, as I am resigning from my current job and searching for a new one I thought I could do so as part time and see what happens.

  2. Ikigai Connections

    Emily-san, thanks so much for commenting! I’m so happy that you found it helpful for your current situation. Making a change in your life can be scary, especially if you don’t know what could happen next, but it’s not impossible – and having such advice can help prepare you 😉 Good luck!

Leave a Comment

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

Scroll to Top