3rd CTS Professionalisation Talk 2018-19

On 26 October 2018, Carmen Swanwick-Roa gave a talk to students at the University of Leeds on starting out as a freelance translator.

Carmen graduated from the MA Applied Translation Studies (MAATS) course at the University of Leeds in 2013. She went on to complete an internship for the UN Office in Geneva and has been working as a full-time freelance translator since 2015.

Carmen focussed her talk on what she considers to be the most important aspects of starting out as a freelancer.

She began by explaining the benefits of specialising in a particular field. In addition to helping translators with common language combinations stand out from the crowd, specialised translators can command higher rates, have a higher work output, produce more accurate work, and attract better-paying agencies. These help to increase income and improve a translator’s reputation. Having a specialisation also improves a translator’s longevity – as automated translation improves, specialisation gives translators the edge over machines, making it harder to be replaced.

Carmen went on to explain that, when choosing a specialisation, translators should consider a field they find interesting, something you wouldn’t mind researching every day and are good at translating. Some of the most common fields with a high demand are medicine, law, and finance. Carmen suggested more creative fields like tourism or literary translation for those that may not have an interest in technical fields like medicine. To narrow down potential specialisation areas, she also recommended considering any previous experience you may have, what your source language countries are known for, or any potential red lines you may have.

Carmen then gave some tips for budding translators on how to gain expertise in their chosen field. For example, CTS students can complete an extended translation project. This gives them the opportunity to experience the research process, gain knowledge, and receive feedback on their translation. Other ways to gain expertise are by completing translations pro bono, participating in webinars or massive open online courses (MOOCS), or finding a mentor.

Carmen went on to discuss business admin. She firstly stressed the importance of a good folder structure as well as keeping records of your work. Carmen then explained that freelancers must register as a sole trader with HMRC and recommended keeping records of your earnings and business expenses for tax purposes. Although taxes can be confusing for new freelancers, HMRC provide ample resources on their website, hold frequent webinars, and are always available by phone.

In terms of setting rates, translators need to consider how much they wish to earn to live comfortably as well as how many hours they are prepared to work. You should ensure that non-working days and non-billable hours are taken into account, and set aside money for tax. It’s also important to consider the current market rates for your language combination and not undervalue your work. Setting appropriate initial rates is important because raising rates with existing clients can prove difficult.

Carmen then explained the benefits of joining professional organisations for linguists. Organisations’ online directories provide a platform for potential clients to search for linguists, and language service providers (LSPs) and corporate members are listed on their websites. Organisations also publicise Continuing Professional Development (CPD) opportunities and social and networking events, as well as offering model terms and conditions and legal advice for translators. Referencing membership in email signatures and on business cards is a great way to show potential clients that you are serious about your profession. Carmen referenced following organisations:

Carmen emphasised that many professional organisations offer discounted student membership rates. Freelancers may also wish to look for the relevant organisations in countries where their working languages are spoken.

Carmen then went on to talk about how to market yourself as a freelance translator. She highlighted the importance of having an up-to-date CV, which is focussed on your translation and language skills and relevant experience in your specialisation(s). Carmen also pointed out the importance of looking at standards and expectations for CVs in the countries you are targeting (e.g. whether to include a photo, address, date of birth, etc.) Additionally, Carmen described how business cards allow a freelance translator to market themselves at networking events and professional meetups.

After talking about the basics of marketing yourself as a translator, Carmen underlined the importance of having a professional online presence. Having a website and a dedicated email address are free and easy ways to market yourself, present a professional image, and provide an easy place for clients to find you. Carmen also spoke about social media presence. She advised that freelancers create professional accounts to maintain a professional image. Finally, she mentioned the possibility of having a logo, branding, and trade names, as well as writing a blog to improve search engine optimisation.   

Carmen then proceeded by talking about networking strategies. She gave helpful tips for connecting to other professional translators both online and in-person. For example, freelance translators can find each other on Twitter (where language industry professionals use the hashtags #xl8, #t9n, and #1nt), LinkedIn, and Facebook groups such as Things Translators Never Say, Standing Up and Watercooler. The Leeds CTS Students and Alumni Group is also available for those who study, or have studied, at Leeds. One useful in-person strategy for building a professional network is to attend CPD events, either aimed specifically at translators or at professionals in the industries in which you specialise.

Moving on to client acquisition, Carmen recommended that recent graduates begin by sourcing agency work. Not only is this a way for new translators to receive feedback, it provides a buffer as their translations will often undergo revision before being delivered to the client. Carmen also pointed out ways to find potential agencies to work for and research their reputation, including groups like the Association of Translation Companies and ITI Corporate members.

Finally, Carmen provided attendees with money-saving tips and outlined a ‘Graduate Freelancer Toolkit’ which detailed the essentials for starting a career as a freelance translator, from software and hardware to more abstract concepts like determination, perseverance and confidence.


Report written by Lauren Hughes, Sophia Georgiou, Luke James, Yunxuan Li, and Katherine Nolde.