Which Sectors Are Money-Makers for Freelance Translators?

When I first started as a freelance translator, I didn’t know much about the business. Translation school professors are so busy teaching you the craft, they don’t have time to show you how to get contracts and clients! It pains me to see translators flailing around and going nowhere in their goals to build their business. I want to help you get over that and stop struggling so much to land good-paying translation work. Did you know you can boost your translation career simply by choosing the right sectors?

Your first task: Economics 101

To pick sectors that give you the best chances for freelance translation success, you need to look some essential criteria:

  • Does the sector have enough economic activity to support translation?
  • Are the companies in the sector actively going after a bilingual audience?
  • Do they use freelancers and pay them good rates?

These questions are very important because, in the freelance world, not all sectors are created equal. To find this information, you can:

  • Ask other translators who work in the sector how much they make.
  • Research company websites to feel out how many translate into your target language.
  • Research business information on government websites for industry revenue information (hint: the more money in an industry, the more they have to spend on translation).

Any business needs to do this kind of research to validate market demand. As a freelance translator, you are indeed a business! However,  I can give you some solid pointers in the right direction based on my translation knowledge and experience. I’ve indicated not only why these sectors are great to work in but also why they need freelancers to give you a leg up when contacting them. Ready? Let’s do this.

The Big 3: Financial, Legal, Medical

Why they are sure bets: It doesn’t matter what’s happening in the economy, our society always needs financial, legal and medical texts. These sectors almost never have ups and downs. Even if they do, you can easily transfer your skills in these areas to other sectors. In many cases, these sectors are overseen by the government, and many governments have things translated because of policy, and not because of audience size. Why they use freelancers: 

  • Banks and financial institutions often don’t want big translation teams. They have one or two in-house people and then they farm out the rest.
  • Hospitals don’t want the cost of keeping people full-time for one-off needs.
  • Tons of clients need legal translations, but they may only need just the one contract or service agreement.

All three are profession-based sectors that need translators who know expert lingo and jargon.

The Second 3: Science, Technical, IT

Why they are sure bets: Like the Big 3, these sectors always have economic activity, although it can be more up and down than the first category. These sectors require a lot of technical knowledge, terminology research skills, and a dedication to quality assurance. Because of that, clients are willing to pay higher rates for premium translators. They simply can’t afford for their translations not to be done correctly, as their reputations are on the line. Why they use freelancers:

  • These sectors can involve work from research scientists who are looking to publish reports and studies to technical manuals and standards.
  • Companies in these sectors don’t have to have their content translated and only will if there is demand for it.

All three need translators who are whizzes at terminology.

The Last 3: Education, Marketing, Nonprofit 

Why they are sure bets:  These three sectors are important because they all have to produce content to survive.

  • Schools must produce content in the language of their students.
  • Marketing departments have to produce content in the language of the target audience to get people to buy products.
  • Nonprofits who want to raise donations from a specific language group must produce content in that language.

Why they use freelancers: These sectors love having reliable people on call who know their companies and their messages. They like the reliability factor of having one person look after them, as having to deal with a bunch of people or a faceless agency brings on its own headaches. The plus for them: you are an extension of their team, but they don’t have to manage your salary, which is better for their bottom line.

All three need translators who have a sparkly, shiny writing voice.

Sectors that are difficult

It’s not impossible to have great clients in the sectors below, but getting your foot in the door can be a huge uphill climb:

  • Arts and entertainment
  • Recreation
  • Information and culture
  • Accommodation and food services
  • Sports and recreation
  • Wellness and well-being
  • Travel and tourism
  • Retail and wholesale
  • Construction/manufacturing
  • Real estate

Why they are hard for freelancers: In many countries, revenues and wages in these sectors tend to be lower. They are more “nice to have” sectors than “need to have” (even if we all think that the arts are essential!). When the economy gets rough, companies in these sectors put the brakes on their translation output. How to work in these sectors anyway: If you go after these sectors, make sure you have the experience, knowledge and passion to help them. Since they’ll be looking to save money, you’ll have to bring more to the table than just “translation” if you want to get a good rate. You will also have to diversify as much as possible. Try bunching up sectors together — such as arts, travel, recreation and culture — and then go after the really big companies in all of these sectors that have active marketing and education departments or a foundation wing.

The sector that is almost impossible

Although they fall in a range of sectors, “small business” can be put in its own category as these small companies generally don’t have the money for professional freelance translations. They may seem less intimidating, but they can be harder to work with:

  • Since they have to watch every penny, they generally ask for the lowest possible rate
  • They are hyper-concerned about the translation and can micro-manage you
  • They end up being a lot of work for the amount of money they pay you

You don’t have to actively avoid small businesses, but think hard about making them your focus.

Instead, see small businesses as “low-hanging fruit” that you can contact to build your portfolio or experience in a sector.

Specialize but diversify

My goal here is not to dash your hopes and make you put aside your dreams of translating books and working with amazing artists. And you can absolutely make a good living as a translator by throwing all of this advice out the window and becoming the go-to translator in whatever industry you are passionate about. But if you haven’t found that passion yet, these areas give you the best chances for freelance translation success.

Despite the doom and gloom you hear from other translators, busy industries with multilingual audiences always need professional translators.

The more realistic you are about how to make money, the greater chances you’ll make a good living.