Can You Make Money Translating in 2024?

  • By: C.A.
  • Date: January 20, 2024
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I think the question is best answered by sharing my experience.

I was a translator for a good chunk of my life.

Before a I went to college, I lived in Ecuador for two years.

That’s where I first learned Spanish.

Although that’s not entirely accurate; I grew up in California and during my obligatory Spanish classes in high school, I learned every Mexican slang word in use at the time.

  • Cabron
  • Chinga tu madre
  • Cojones
  • Culo
  • Mierda
  • Pinche

You know, the basics.

But it wasn’t until I moved back to the states after living in Ecuador that I realized how much I liked speaking a foreign language.

The university I attended, BYU, had a great Spanish translation program that was perfect for me.

And that’s when I decide to become a translator.

My First Translation Job

It didn’t take long for me to get my first freelance translation job.

A year or so after enrolling in the translation program, my wife told me about a friend of hers whose parents owned a beef jerky company in the Mountain West.

The parents had hired a bunch of Mexicans to help out at the factor but needed their Standard Operating Procedure’s (SOPs) translated into Spanish so that everybody was on the same page with regards to safety.

Having a toe or finger chopped off in a beef jerky factory might not be the best thing to happen.

Anyways, my wife’s friend knew I was currently studying Spanish translation and asked her if she thought I’d be interested in doing the job for her parents.

Sure. Why not, right?

At the time, I was the only person in my program that was actually getting paid to translate.

And you know what they say about actual experience vs. theoretical learning.

After that, I would do more and more odd jobs for people and through word of mouth found most of the translation jobs I did.

I did freelance work for another 5 to 6 years after that.

And then I stopped.

Why I Stopped Being a Freelance Translator

Looking back, I think it was more of a natural and gradual movement away from the career as opposed to something more abrupt.

But there were three main reasons why that gradual movement away from translation happened.

Too Little Pay

Some translators can make a good amount of money. Spanish-English translators not so much.

Sure there are opportunities for them to make good money but overall, the pay was just too little for the work that I was doing.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for translators and interpreters is slightly above $52,000.

That’s terrible.

Nobody can live on that.

If you speak Chinese or Arabic, you can earn more.

But as a white male Spanish-speaking translator, the ceiling is pretty well capped.

Too Much Racism

Here’s something that nobody will admit.

There is definitely racism against a white translator that translates either from Spanish to English or English to Spanish.

And I faced that racism constantly.

Story time.

During college, while I was working as a freelance translator on the side, I also worked as a paid “volunteer” for Americorps.

I don’t even know if that’s still a thing but at the time, I got a paid job for them where I worked at a local medical clinic that served the Hispanic immigrant community in the surrounding counties.

My main job was to track vaccination rates among the children of these immigrants and make sure the clinic could provide basic vaccinations to them.

I also did outreach and put on education seminars about health-related topics.

As you can imagine, a small part of the job included translating medical materials and flyers from English into Spanish.

Well, at the time, there was a Hispanic girl that worked in the office as well and she was always asked to do the translations.

And a horrible job she did.

I had to fix every single one of them so that they could be understandable.

I recommended more than once that they just send the stuff directly to me so that I could translate it right the first time; the powers that be couldn’t look past my white skin and understand how I could understand translation better than someone “who was Hispanic.”

Facepalm.

And this wasn’t the last time I had to deal with this kind of racism.

It just got too tiresome.

And my wife, who is Latina, got even more tired of it.

It Just Got Boring

The final reason was that it just got boring.

I love to try new things.

I had been a translator for five years and was ready to move on to something else.

There are translators that absolutely love translating.

And I admire them for that.

I really think it’s special when someone really loves something specific and goes really deep on that.

For me, I really love to do lots of different things and it was just time for me to move on to something else.

I had proved to myself that I could earn money as a freelance translator and so I nothing left to accomplish in that industry.

Should You Pursue Translation as a Career?

OK, now that you know my whole story, the question remains.

Should you become a translator?

I think the best way to answer that question is to ask some more questions for you to answer:

Do You Absolutely Love Translation?

This is a different question that if you absolutely love languages.

Being able to speak a language or learn multiple languages is a completely different skill than being a translator.

As a translator, you need to know how to manage two languages equally well. You need to understand things like context, register, and other linguistic phenomena.

I love speaking Spanish and Portuguese.

I love to be out with locals trying to understand new ways of saying things and understanding different types of slang.

But I’m not in love with the actual process of translating like I used to.

So figure out if you just like languages, or you actually like the process of translating.

Do You Have a Speciality?

It used to be that as a translator, you could be a generalist and get along just fine.

That’s not the case anymore.

To really become a successful translator, you need to specialize.

(And when I say “successful,” I’m talking about making actual money for your translations.)

Here are some specialities to consider as a translator:

  • medicine
  • law
  • agriculture
  • business
  • law enforcement

Having a speciality will give you a tremendous advantage over other translators that are generalists.

During that time I was really into freelance translation, my sister-in-law was a medical student in Philly.

She told me that the medical department was in need of a translator to do some medical translations.

She asked if I’d be willing to do them.

I took one look at some of the stuff that they needed translated and realized that I could not do the job.

I didn’t have the speciality or expertise that was needed for that particular job.

But if I had, I could have not only taken that job but also charged a premium for my ability to translate this particular type of medical material.

Are You Interested in Translation Because You’re an Introvert?

I’ve known so many people that have thought about becoming freelance translators because they were introverts.

Their thinking was something like this:

I don’t like to talk to people so if I become a translator, I can just focus on my work and won’t have to interact with anyone.

That’s unfortunately not the way things work in the real world.

As a freelance translator, you’re running a full-on business.

That means you’re responsible for EVERYTHING:

  • marketing
  • accounting
  • social media
  • firing clients
  • finding clients
  • answering lawsuits
  • setting up your business

And the translating part that you’re so excited for?

That will take up less than 50% of your time.

You won’t be doing as much translation as you think you will.

Can You Live the Feast or Famine Lifestyle?

One of the things that would-be freelance translators forget is that as a freelancer, you will go through periods of feast or famine.

During the feast times, you’ll have plenty of work, you’ll be making money, and you’ll think that everything is going great (and is going to continue).

Then, all of a sudden you find yourself without any clients and you’re in the famine stage.

You’re trying to find new clients but nothing is coming your way.

Your reserve funds are running out and you’re forced to rely on savings.

Hopefully you saved up enough during your feast phase or this is going to be you.

Any type of freelancer needs to have a super ability to budget during the highs and lows because if you spend everything you make during the feast phase, you won’t have anything left to fall back on when the famine eventually finds your front door.

What About AI?

One of the biggest issues with any type of language work right now is that AI is getting better and better.

When I was in college studying for my translation degree, AI was something that we really didn’t understand and because of that, we really didn’t pay any attention to it.

It was something out of Star Trek or Star Wars.

Not something that would affect us at all as translators.

Well, here we are 20 years later and AI/ChatGPT has come for all of our jobs.

AI is extremely capable of doing basic translations (another reason you need to specialize if you want to be a translator).

However, not all is lost just yet.

Here’s an example of translation I asked ChatGPT to do for a famous quote from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet:

“But, soft, what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Here’s what it came up with:

Pero, suave, ¿qué luz a través de aquella ventana rompe?
Es el este, y Julieta es el sol.

And here’s a professional Spanish translation you can find from the Argentine Government

Pero, alto. ¿Qué luz alumbra esa ventana?
Es el oriente, y Julieta, el sol.

Slightly different as you can see.

But make no mistake. AI will only get better and will be doing a lot of translation work that was typically done by human translators.

A lot of translators are angry about this and are too afraid to open their eyes to what’s happening.

But sticking your head in the sand isn’t going to make the issue magically disappear.

Your Path To Becoming a Translator

OK, so if you’re still convinced that translation is the career field for you, you’ve got to put together a plan that will set you up for the most success.

Here’s what you need to focus on:

Get Really Good at Your Language Pair

This means that you’ll likely need to spend a considerable amount of time living in a place where your second language is spoken.

You might even want to live there for an extended period of time if you can.

Your language skills are the foundation for your translation career. Don’t neglect them.

Learn Business

While your language ability is going to be the most important part of your career, your business skills are what will turn you into a successful translator (one that makes money).

We all know people who we think are mediocre at best at what they do but they seem to crush it over people who we consider “experts.”

The reason is that they know how to run a business.

If you don’t know how to run a translation business, you could have the best language skills in the world and never make a dime.

Choose a Speciality

Remember that you can’t be a generalist translator anymore.

You need to choose a speciality.

You need to have expertise in a field that is outside of translation.

I’d suggest medicine or law since those two fields will always need translations.

But choose something that is interesting to you.

You don’t want to spend a bunch of time learning about something only to hate it and not want anything to do with it.

Embrace Technology

A lot of translators are afraid of technology.

They think it’s going to overtake their jobs. In some ways, they’re right.

But AI and other types of tech are here to stay. There’s no putting them back into a bottle and going back to “the way things used to be.”

The most successful translators will be those that are willing to embrace technology.

That means that they are willing to figure out how to use technology to make their lives easier and incorporate it into their jobs.

FAQ: Can You Make Money Translating

Can you make good money as a translator?

You can make money translating but I wouldn’t call it “good” money. It can be a great side hustle along with your regular full-time job or other side hustles that you have going on.

Is translating a high-paying job?

No, translation is not a high-paying job. Most translators top out at around $40 per hour. While that can be a significant amount for a lot of people, it’s not very much for all the work you’ll have to do.

How do translators get paid?

Translators usually get paid in one of two ways: either by hour or by project. The type and scope of the translation project will usually determine how you get paid but as a translator, you do have some leeway in choosing how you want to set up your payment.