Getting Started as a Translator:

Gleanings from Honyaku

On February 1, 1996, the following question was posted to the Honyaku mailing list

 from a person in the United States:

(you can adapt and update what needs to

with some common sense;  we think it is still relevant)


Dear Honyakkers,

I am trying to get started as a part-time, freelance translator. I have never translated for money before but I feel confident in my abilities (at least for J>E). I have made several inquiries including letters to translation agencies in my town and trying to register with a couple of companies I’ve found on the World Wide Web. So far no reply. I even spoke to the owner of a translation agency here. When I told him that I had two years of college Japanese and lived inJapanfor a year, he essentially told me “good luck” and hung up. It’s beginning to look like one of those “need a job to get experience, but can’t get a job without experience” Catch-22′s that everyone hates….


In any case, I do have a couple of specific questions. First, do you recommend sending samples of my Japanese writings with my resume? Second, should I go ahead and buy translation tools such as technical dictionaries and name dictionaries before I find work? And third, does anyone know of any translation agency that will give a newcomer a chance to do freelance work?

The following are excerpts from some of the replies.

I realize that you would prefer to work freelance at home. But from my own experience, I recommend that you go to work in somebody’s office somewhere as an in-house translator, preferably where there are more experienced translators who can help you along. Then, after a couple of years you can strike out on your own.

David Farnsworth

I recommend that you go to work in-house for a company as a translator. It doesn’t necessarily need to be in the translation business. I started out working for a Japanese automaker, and cut my teeth by interpreting in 8-hour business meetings in (literally) smoke-filled rooms and other abominable working conditions. The main reason for my recommendation, however, is the financial security it affords. Have you considered that [in theUnited States] you will be paying an extra 8% in social security taxes if you go freelance? I’ve been freelancing for many years and maintain pretty good efficiency and productivity. Still, with taxes and business expenses (mostly books and computer-related items) I estimate I actually get to keep about 50 cents of every dollar I earn translating.

Being a freelancer does not mean coming and going at will, nor accepting work whenever you please. It means waiting days at a stretch for the phone to ring, pulling occasional all-nighters to get things done in time, and sometimes going 7 days straight with only an occasional nod to wife and family, who will become increasingly irate and begin to mutter disparagingly about your sanity. I suggest you work full-time at a language-related job and translate part-time on nights and weekends until you get established well enough to go out on your own.

David Luke