Posted by: patenttranslator | January 14, 2011

The Three Ways to Make Money as a Translator

There are at least three ways to make money as a translator:

1. You can work for translation agencies

2. You can work directly, without a broker, and

3. You can be an agency.

Each of these three arrangements has its advantages and disadvantages. I believe that most translators mostly work for translation agencies. There is a very low threshold to entry into this type of business relationship, at least in United States, as there are no special requirements for the profession of a translator in this country, unlike in some other countries. Basically, you just have to say that you can translate and some translation agency is likely to believe you and give you a try at some point if your rate is low enough. That is how most people get started and that is also how I got started some 24 years ago in a small apartment near Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I mailed out dozens of résumés to agencies and a couple of weeks later a Japanese patent for translation mysteriously appeared in my mail. This was quite a few years before Internet and e-mail.

Incidentally, the same type of structure exists not only for the translation business but for many other businesses as well. I have a friend who is a freelance sign painter in San Francisco. He creates signs and awnings for restaurants, shops and other businesses in the Bay Area. Sometime he works for a lower rate for advertising agencies, sometime he works directly for restaurant and shop owners and other business owners, and sometime he finds other people to do most of the work that needs to be done and mostly just takes his cut. Most of the time he works for direct clients, although he likes working for agencies too, but only the good ones, he says. I feel exactly the same way about my work arrangements.

I would not want to have his job. For one thing, he gets too many tickets for illegally parking his truck in downtown. But his job also comes with perks that translators don’t have. He gets paid when the job is done, often in cash, and meets a lot of interesting people in his line of work. He can regale you for hours with stories about Chinese restaurant owners and the multinational mafia that rules the little shops in downtown San Francisco. He also has a simple remedy when a client “does not have the money” to pay for work that has been done. He just says:”OK, if you don’t pay, I will come in three days and paint the sign over completely with black color.” He never really had to do that as far as I know. All he has to do is say the magic words and the business owners always somehow find the money. Unfortunately, this is something that translators cannot do. Also, we get paid by checks or bank transfers, usually in 30 days, but sometime it takes quite a bit longer. And sometime we get stiffed, and you can’t paint the translation black when you don’t get paid. However, writing about a deadbeat on your blog or website, or describing your experience with a deadbeat on one of the many payment practices lists available on the Internet now would probably qualify as putting a huge, permanent black mark on a business awning, would it not? Is this not an implicit threat that just about any profession can use now in the age of Internet?

It is much easier to find your own direct clients in the age of Internet than when I was starting out in 1987. The Yellow Pages in San Francisco had large and small advertisements of translation providers back then as I write for instance in this post, which was how many clients found them. But things have changed. Since most clients are more likely to look for a translation service on the Internet than in Yellow Pages these days, the main thing that a translator who wants to work independently of translation agencies needs is a well designed website, which is not all that expensive.

Oh, I almost forgot, you do have to figure out what your “niche” is first if you want to go after direct clients. I decided that I would specialize in Japanese patents because … I like them. I am not really sure why, other than the fact that I like the structured language and fixed arrangement of the descriptions used in patents. Other than the natural order and structure that I find in patents, there does not seem to be that much structure that makes sense to me in this crazy world.

Initially, I think I chose patents because I thought that I would probably be able to charge higher rates for this type of translation. But I tried all kinds of translations and I really prefer patents and articles from technical journals. I mostly work these days for patent law firms, patent departments of various companies, law librarians, inventors and investors in patents. But I still work for some translation agencies, mostly very small ones. In my opinion, the best translation agencies to work for are very small operations. You get to know them, they get to know you, and if the chemistry works for both parties, it can be a marriage made in heaven. The larger the agency, the more predatory it usually is, just like large corporations these days. Sometime an agency starts as a small outfit that is run by decent and intelligent people, but as they grow big, they become just as mean and greedy as most large translation agencies. When a small translation agency is sold to a larger corporate owner, it usually becomes a former client of mine because the new owners are so different from the previous ones that I no longer want to work for them.

If you decide to go after direct clients, you basically will have to become an agency, at least to some extent, because the one word that your clients don’t want to hear from you is the word “no”, as in “no, I will not do that for you”. That is why I started translating German and French patents in addition to Japanese ones many years ago. After Japanese, German is very much in demand when it comes to patent translation, and some months I translate more German than Japanese patents, while French is a distant third. Sometime I work in the full agency mode and ruthlessly exploit other people, for instance when a client sends me a patent in Chinese, Korean, Italian or another European language that I don’t know.

But I really prefer to do as much work as possible by myself because like many small business owners, I am basically a control freak. When you let other people do the work for you, you lose control over the end product. What if they are late? What if you pick somebody who can’t really do the job? You will be the one left holding the bag. If you work as an agency, you will start appreciating the good ones, those that you do want to continue working with a little bit more because you will see that being a broker is not exactly a bed of roses, even when somebody else does most of the work for you.

As a Chinese proverb says, there is  more than just one way to skin a dog (I’m just kidding here, there is only the English one about the cat, I think), and there are at least three ways to make money as a translator. Which one you choose, or whether you decide to combine all of them, will depend on your personality, your skills, and your preferences.

In any case, good luck to you.


  1. Hi! Just wanted to say how much I love reading your blog. It’s really full of great insights. I do think that if translators really want to make a decent living with translation, they have to combine these aspects and learn how to go after direct clients. Unfortunately, I don’t think translators have really realized that…



  2. Thank you very much for your comment.

    “Unfortunately, I don’t think translators have really realized that…”

    If you mean lazy translators have not realized it yet, I would agree.

    They prefer to work for half of what they could get from the actual users of their translations.

    But quite a few translators do work directly, and I think that this percentage will probably grow to some extent.


  3. How would one go about getting new, direct clients? How would one go after them? Any insights and ideas would be greatly appreciated.


  4. @zoe

    The answer is: it depends on many factors, such as your strengths, weaknesses, your language combinations, the fields of specialization and where you are located among other factors.

    What worked for me may not work for you at all and there is no single recipe that every translator can use, instead, you have to use your own brain.

    You can also search for posts relating to this subject in the search bar on my post.


    • Thank you. I most certainly will. Why is translation is not what is used to be, i.e., rates are dropping and are not what they were. I am not sure you have felt this or not, and it is great if you haven’t, but some of us have and we are in medicine and legal, respectively, in the US.


      • It is one of the topics I am now considering for a new post thanks to your input.

        Liked by 1 person

      • That would be great! I am glad I served as an inspiration. Many are interested in this particular topic and the forces that affect it!


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