Last Updated: Jan 20, 2015
If you are fluent in a foreign language, you can earn a living as a translator. Although some translation services are now handled by technology, human translators are still needed for good quality, accurate translation. Find out how to start a translation business here.
Remember the pre-Internet days when business happened at a local or regional level? Small business owners were rarely doing business outside of their home state let alone country but today, the majority of business owners know that surviving in the highly competitive economy means extending their reach to other countries and continents.
Furthermore, the diversity of languages spoken within the United States, alone, is increasing the need for translation services by businesses. In 1980, the Hispanic population in the United States stood at 14.6 million. In 2014, according to US Census figures, the number reached 54 million—a 270% gain in 34 years.
Estimates from Statista put the revenue generated in 2014 by the translation industry at $37 billion. That revenue is expected to grow to $47 billion by 2018. Among the major users of translation services are businesses who need to communicate with their customers as well as with their own employees. To do that, untold numbers of franchise and company documents as well as consumer marketing materials, advertising and instructional manuals have to be translated.
Native speakers familiar with the diversity of the language depending on where it is spoken are in high demand. For example, Spanish isn’t spoken by Mexicans the same as it is by Cubans or Venezuelans.
Freelance or Agency?
Thanks to the Internet, the freelance population is exploding in size and that’s certainly true in the translating industry. There are plenty of websites where freelancers can advertise their service for willing buyers and like most freelance industries, prices have gone down due to competition. If you’re looking for a side business that allows you to earn some extra money doing something you love, freelancing will allow you to do that. There’s no absence of work but you may not command the rates you deserve—at least not at the beginning.
But this reality has created a new opportunity. The quality of the translated material is key. No business wants the embarrassment of translated materials that have errors or even worse, contain mistakes that could be culturally offensive. Businesses know that communications with their customers have to be right. They’re not willing to take the chance on a bad product and they’re willing to pay more for that assurance.
Freelancers will find it harder to land larger clients because of this, but agencies will thrive. As an agency, you will have as part of your staff, well-tested translators with a record of quality, on-time work. Your testing of these translators is vigorous with few making the cut. It will take time, probably some frustration, and you will pay some sub-par translators for work that you will never sell.
But that’s ok. Businesses will gladly pay to use your road-tested staff instead of going through that process on their own. You, as an agency owner, are more valuable to bigger clients as the person screening the work and finding the outstanding people—something they don’t have time or don’t want to spend the money to do.
If you want a side business, be a freelancer. If you want a business capable of growing into something substantial, start an agency.
Technology Is Getting a Foot In the Door
Even as an agency, you aren’t likely to become huge unless you think differently. Free platforms like Google Translator don’t measure up in enterprise level translating but higher priced, proprietary industry software is quickly becoming more sophisticated.
Today’s newest and fastest growing translation companies function more as technology startups than agency models. Companies like TransPerfect offer traditional translation services but its Onelink technology allows companies to localize their websites more efficiently. Delivering a website in the right language to the right audience is a huge and expensive task but Onelink makes it possible in 30 days.
This is just one example of translation companies becoming technology startups. There will always be a need for human translators but having an increasingly larger army of human translators will, at some point, become less cost effective.
Your Best Customers
As freelancer, expect many of your customers to be from the legal and medical fields. Others might include government agencies especially if you live in areas like Florida, Arizona, and Texas that have high Hispanic populations. Others might include book publishers and small businesses that have a lot of overseas exposure—export companies, for example.
If you later choose to get into the technology side, your clientele becomes larger companies with the budgets to afford high-dollar IT platforms and have the staff to support such endeavors.
Foremost on your mind might be, “How much do I need to start the business?” Translating, unlike a restaurant or other location based business is highly scalable. Want to do some freelance work? Startup costs will be next to nothing.
As an agency, you’ll need office space, a small staff that will scale with you, computer workstations, licenses and insurance, and other traditional costs that come with having a business in a physical location. Industry estimates come in at $10,000 but that number will vary widely depending on the make up of the business.
Translation companies that delve into the technology space will have much larger costs—much like a technology startup but realistically, you probably won’t consider this option until further into the growth cycle of your translation company.
If you know at least one other language, translating is a scalable business that allows you to work on the side or build a much larger, full time model capable of generating a lot of income. The future of the industry is largely dependent on technology as computer driven translators become more sophisticated. However, the market will likely have a need for human translator for many decades to come.
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