Starting a Career in Translation

I have a question for all you professional translaters out there:

Where do I start?

I’m interested in the experiences of anybody with tranlation experience.

For instance:

How did you find your job?
What Chinese subjects do you consider essential
for a career in translation (i.e.
classical Chinese, business, etc.)?
Is computer knowledge essential to a career in
Can you start a translation career from home?

Any information you deem relevent will be appreciated.

Hope to have a good number of responses.


What you know will determine what you can do. A bit of classical would probably be helpful to almost anything, but more important is whether your familiar with the vocab related to whatever subject your working with, both English and Chinese. I got my job specifically because of my knowledge of content. I did my undergrad work on Chinese Buddhism, so I’m familiar with a fairly arcane lexicon in both languages.

I would say that a computer is not strictly essential. After all translation was going on long before the internet. That said, however, I would never do any translation without a computer. There’s lot’s a useful dictionaries and such online. You can cut and paste from the source file, so you never need to look things up by strokes. Also you can run a Google search on any word, Chinese or English, that you’re not sure about and see pretty quickly how it’s used.

There’s some other threads about this and related topics you might want to check out. Best of luck.

Also read to improve your writing in your native language…many translators are limited not specifically by their knowledge of the source language, but by their limitations in expressing themselves fluently in their own native language (which SHOULD be the only target language they work into…!) And find out where to get examples of any type of document you might be called upon to translate (Internet is essential for this.)

As for the computer issue…I think a computer is a minimum tool to be considered a professional translator these days. Most agencies or clients provide work in electronic format, or if they don’t, they would like the completed translation as (usually) a Word or text file. To really impress your clients, retain their formatting (either using a tool like Trados or just through really learning how to make your word processor jump through hoops.) If you don’t want to stay in the NT$0.05 per word market, the key is differentiating yourself as a person who provides high-quality, fast turnaround work with something extra (like that great formatting or whatever).


Is translation badly paid ?

There are many opportunities out there to be poorly paid for translating things!!

It depends on what [perceived] qualifications you have. If you are perceived to be really good, you can tell the client, “Sorry, my best price is NT$800 per word,” and they will either use you or not – they might get a cheaper person [for work into English, read: a non-native English speaker or somebody doing his very first translation job] and then call you a couple of days to “fix” it.

Usually in translation, you get what THEY pay you for…i.e., agencies that pay very low rates usually treat you like a disposable, which is what you are in their opinion, because no professional would work for those rates (into English), and if you quit, they can get somebody else for the same price, because quality is evidently not an issue. Into-Chinese work is usually done at lower rates than into-English (supply and demand).

If you want to do nothing but translate and make a good living at it, allow a couple of years to build a client base. Start from your guanxi…the people you have connections with. Keeping some kind of part-time job isn’t a bad idea even when you think things are going well – there seem to be a lot of ups and downs in this business if you’re a freelancer. Kind of like economic rhythms or something.

Just my NT$0.66



Getting paid per word, eh? Is that based on the source or target document?

If it’s the target document, we might see a lot of “purple prose” like that of Nancy Lu!

A lot of people charge on target words, which can sometimes open you up to charges of “padding” from clients. I prefer to charge on source words: the client can count the “little square squiggles” themselves if they like, they know the final charge up front, and I know what the job price will be. There is always a lot of contention about what “conversion factor” operates when calculating the final number of English words from the original number of characters when doing Chinese>English, and I like to stay well away from that.