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 »  Articles Overview  »  Business of Translation and Interpreting  »  Getting Established  »  Building a Freelance Translation Office

Building a Freelance Translation Office

By Greg Twiss | Published  03/3/2005 | Getting Established | Recommendation:
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Greg Twiss
գերմաներենից անգլերեն translator
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Building a Freelance Translation Office

The first things you need are ... language skills! This might sound obvious, but it isn't. Translating in today's environment is not just about CAT tools. You may learn many of the techniques of translating very quickly, but if you don't have a feel for language, then maybe you should consider doing something else. You should realise that you are entering a highly competitive market and that this market is by-and-large a buyer's market.

What the Buyer Wants from You
The buyer assumes that you have a knowledge of your respective field, that you can juggle with different file formats and CAT tools, that you can offer competitive prices, and that you can meet deadlines. These are minimum requirements. All are to no avail if your translation is
inaccurate or your language skills are sub-par. Consider this before even thinking of becoming a professional translator.

Act 1: Getting the Tools - The Cheap Alternative
So you are an ace at languages, well-disciplined and want to be a freelance translator. Where do you go from here? Just visiting this website means you have taken a first important step - translating is a service-oriented industry, and the backbone of such industries is information, which is exactly what this site provides. But what about the "tools of the trade"?

Act 1, Scene 1: The "Bare Bones"
Most professional translators need the following:
- A computer
- An Internet connection (optional, but highly recommended)
- A word processor
- A CAT tool

Computer: The cheapest solution here would be a LINUX-based system (for more on this please refer to the excellent article on LINUX in this forum).
Advantage of Linux system: extremely cheap (Linux can run on an old Pentium 3, which you can often scrounge or buy for practically nothing). Cost: Almost nothing.
Disadvantage of Linux system: almost no real connection to CAT tools; severely limits your portfolio of potential customers.
Linux could be a real option for the future, but at the moment I can not recommend it for professional translation.

Realistically you should have a Pentium computer running Windows from 98 SE2 and upwards (some CAT tools have problems with previous versions, especially as many require you to use a USB dongle). This system can still be bought relatively cheaply. Cost at entry-level: about $250

Internet connection: not strictly needed if you have a base of customers in your home town. Most translators don't. Ultimately, to really break through in the market you need an Internet connection. The cheap alternative is call-by-call for a start-up business. Later, the cheaper
alternative may well be a permanent Internet connection (see Act 2). Cost: as low as a cent or so per minute.

Word processor: Word 97 or higher (a used copy of MS Office 97 can be bought very cheaply on E-Bay). Word is really needed because this is the industry standard and well over 50% of all documents to be translated are written in Word or a Word-compatible programme. You
could opt for one of the cheaper office suites offering Word compatibility, but caveat emptor: often such programmes are not fully compatible and customers are VERY sensitive about having their formatting messed with. Having said this, STAR/Sun office does provide a cheap and
reliable alternative. Cost: Linux-based: Nothing (comes with Linux software). Windows-based: As cheap as $25 (E-bay or old-stock).

CAT tools: The CAT industry has made leaps and bounds in the last few years. Previously, translators were tied to one CAT tool, with Trados taking a huge slice of the market. Thanks to TMX - a universal format that allows TMs from one CAT tool to be exported and then imported to another, the market is opening. This provides a feast of choice for the translator. There are several cheap alternatives listed right here at (just click on the Tools button and read-up on what is out there).
Recommendation for cheap system: Fusion looks extremely promising and can be "bought" on a monthly basis. Fusion will also allow the translator new to the business to connect with other translators and to their databases.

Tip: Even when building a cheap system, you can spare at the wrong end. If you want to stay in the business and expand your customer base, then find a tool that supports the TMX standard and that provides all of the following:
- terminology management
- a good TM engine
- an alignment tool
Cost: As little as $25 monthly (Fusion) or about $100 for a full system (Wordfast)

Act 1, Scene 2: Terminology

Contrary to the opinion of many of your customers, a translator is not a bipede encyclopedia! He or she can not be expected to know everything about everything. The average person uses a vocabulary of 5,000 words (and that's going some). The average language has a total wordbase well in excess of several 100,000 words. A good dictionary can be bought cheaply at a flea market. Electronic dictionaries are also available for free, although these are limited (just use your favourite search engine and type in "dictionary" - you will find hundreds).

Specialist dictionaries tend to be expensive, sometimes prohibitively. The solution is to use online dictionaries and translators' forums. This site is a good starting place and where you go from there rather depends on the languages you are translating. There are many excellent
sites for most European languages that offer specialist terminology (if I get the time, I will write a separate FAQ on this). Some other starting points: and
Initial cost: Nothing, but at some stage you will have to invest in electronic dictionaries.

Act 1, Scene 3: Marketing

What you need:
- A good mail programme
- A good database to build up customer contacts
- a good invoicing programme, preferably with word/line/character count

Mailing: The cheap solution here comes bundled with Windows: Outlook or Outlook Express is sufficient for most mailing tasks. I can also highly recommend FletMail, which is available as Freeware and allows you to send batch mails to customers. Flet Mail is flexible, intuitive
and easy to learn. You can send your batch mails and resumes with the look and feel of unique mails targeted to the respective customer.
An excellent free tool. Cost: nothing

Database: There are so many out there that the choice is dazzling. Just visit and you can download many very usable database software solutions as freeware or shareware. A good database should provide you with a direct link to your mailing programme. Cost:
nothing on up!

Invoicing programme: You can use the built-in word/character count in Word and many other word processors. You can write your invoices using a normal word processor (and if you are really energetic, you can also create your own macros to automate most of the tasks). Cost: nothing!

Total cost of cheap marketing solution: Zero. Disadvantages: you have to juggle several programmes; the counting engine may be inferior or not as comprehensive as professional solutions.

Chorus to Act 1: Total cost

The total cost for your bare bones system will be as little as a few hundred dollars and it will contain everything you need to get started.

Once you build up your customer base and the work comes pouring in, then expect to upgrade to the medium-priced solution.

Act II - The Medium-Priced Solution

Act II, Scene 1: Bare Bones

Relatively powerful Pentium computer able to run more demanding CAT programmes (almost all professional CAT tools are quite demanding of computer resources. DO NOT underestimate this). Recommended: Pentium with fast processor (at least 1 GHz), 512 MB memory and 20 GB hard drive minimum. Cost: $450

Flatrate Internet connection, preferably with DSL. Cost: Upwards from $30 per month.

MS Office 97 or higher (preferably as new as possible). Advantages: No compatibility problems, comes with Excel and PowerPoint, both of which are used widely within the industry. Cost: upwards from $100 to around $400.

CAT tool: I don't want to show any strong preferences for one or the other here. Many customers do require Trados, but this is not absolutely indispensible if you use the TMX format. The market leaders are Trados, Transit, Deja Vu and SDLX (excluding the machine-based translation solutions such as IBM T1 and Linguatec, which are not strictly-speaking CAT tools). All are relatively expensive solutions for the freelancer. On the other hand, all of these solutions will ultimately improve and speed-up your work dramatically and will therefore pay for themselves within a short time-span (return-for-money). Cost: from about $700.

Act II, Scene 2: Terminology

Building up your own databases is a good way to "tie the knot" with a customer. Help in doing this is provided by online services and by CD ROMs. Langenscheidt has an extremely good set of electronic dictionaries for most European languages covering technical, medical, legal and other disciplines. Linguatec and other machine-driven translation companies offer proprietary dictionaries as well, but I can only recommend these if you are also using their primary products. Cost: open-ended. A good set of basic reference tools will typically cost several hundred dollars, but they will be worth every penny.

Act II, Scene 3 - Marketing

There are currently several excellent tools available for this. One complete solution is T.O.M. - Translation Office Manager, which I can highly recommend. The engine is based on FileMaker Pro and it really provides a complete solution for the translator - mailing, invoicing,
marketing, project administration, pricing, counting. You name it, T.O.M. has it ( Cost: around $250 for the freelance version and around $600 for the agency version.
Another excellent tool is TranslationOffice 3000 ( The interface is not as snazzy as T.O.M., but the features are extremely powerful and intuitive. It is also quite a bit cheaper than T.O.M. (about $160). The folks at TranslationOffice are also working on a module called A-Databases that will contain details of translation agencies throughout the world. These details can then be integrated into the programme itself for mailing and marketing.

If you just need a reliable tool for counting and invoicing then you should definitely look at PractiCount Invoicing and Marketing. This little tool can count from a wide range of formats and you can then export the invoice directly into Word or other word processors. It costs aroung $69 and I highly recommend it.

Chorus to Act II: Total Cost

Total cost of the medium-priced solution is upwards of $1500 and about $2500 with all extras. This might seem like a lot to fork out at the beginning, but you will then have a professional system that will serve your needs for a long time into the future. The medium-priced system will also be "modular" in that harware and software will all be upgradeable.

End of Play

If you have enjoyed this FAQ, then please write and let me know! You can contact me at [email protected]
Happy translating!

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