Study shows what makes freelance translators tick

A recent study put the professional freelance translator under the microscope to determine exactly what makes the independent linguist tick.

The study initiated by Alina Cincan, pictured, Managing Director of UK-based Inbox Translation was conducted at the start of 2020 and explored a number of areas, including:

  • routes into the profession
  • specialisations
  • rates
  • working with direct clients and translation companies (looking at both perks and challenges)
  • professional development
  • online presence

While the survey was open to anyone anywhere working as a professional translator, 73% of respondents were from Europe (covering 38 different countries). The survey, which comprised almost 70 questions, received 1,510 responses (either full or partial).

The research is split into five sections, with key takeaways and demographics on the first page of the Freelance translator survey 2020.

Main areas and findings:

Profile of freelance translators

  • 76% of respondents identify as female, which is similar to other industry surveys, like the European language industry survey 2020 and the one from Association des traducteurs littéraires de France (The Association of Literary Translators of France), both of which revealed that almost 80% of their respondents are women.
  • Professional translators are highly educated, with only 7% of them having come to the profession with no formal degree.
  • 77% of the respondents have between 1-4 areas of expertise they specialise in.
  • 56% of the respondents work full-time (i.e. at least 30 hours per week).
  • The main reasons cited by those who work part-time is insufficient availability of translation work.
  • There are some differences between men and women with regard to the reasons they work part-time: having another full-time job as an employee (23% of men vs 14% of women) and choosing to do so in order to balance work with family time (29% of women vs 18% of men).

General profiles of freelance translators who work part-time and of those who work full-time were also compared. The areas where significant differences have been found:

  • Use of CAT tools: 30% of those who work part-time never use CAT tools as opposed to only 12% of those who work full-time. Overall, this figure was 20%.
  • Professional membership: 53% of those who work full-time and 39% of those who work part-time belong to a professional body.
  • Website: 45% (full-timers) and 33% respectively (part-timers) have a website.
  • Professional liability insurance: 28% vs 18% (full-timers / part-timers) have insurance.

Not surprisingly, considering that the target audience of the survey was translators, 99% of the respondents work at home at least some of the time.

Working as a professional translator

Respondents were asked whether they had ever refused or would refuse to take on work in any of a number of specified areas if the content was promoting ideas against their beliefs.

Most of the survey respondents (65%) would refuse to work on is paedophilia/child sexual abuse, half (51%) said they would refuse to take on work on the subjects of human trafficking and terrorism, with pornography and get-rich-quick cited by 41% and 39% respectively.

The freedom (to choose clients, working hours, working space) is the perk that freelance translators appreciate the most about their job. On the other hand, the main challenge they face is low rates of pay, cited by 59% of respondents.

There was a roughly 50/50 split between translators who belong to a professional body and those who don’t. Those who are members of a professional association consider that the main benefit of this is being recognised as a professional; those who are not members cite as top reasons for not joining a professional body: unfavourable cost/benefit ratio, no perceived benefits (29% each), and unfamiliarity with professional associations (26%).

Encouragingly, 90% of freelance professionals dedicate time to continuing professional development, with 19% of them doing more than 60 hours of CPD annually. Comparing these numbers between members and non-members of professional bodies, it turns out that the differences are more marked: while 18% of members do less than 10 hours of CPD annually (including 4% who don’t undertake any CPD), in the case of non-members, the percentages are much higher, with 40% of them investing less than 10 hours annually (and 15% said they do not do any CPD).

Also, more than twice as many members than non-members have their own website (59% vs 23%), and five times more members than non-members hold professional indemnity insurance.

Some interesting data uncovered here: the rates charged by those who are members of a professional body are, on average, 30% higher than the rates charged by those who do not belong to a professional association.

Working with direct clients

Working with translation companies is probably one of the sections of the research that contains food for thought for many players in the translation industry.

79% of respondents count translation companies among their clients, and the main perceived benefit of this relationship, cited by 67% of respondents, is being able to focus on work (i.e. translating) rather than client acquisition.

On the other hand, the main challenge when working with companies is ‘low rates of pay’, which was cited by 62% of respondents. ‘Tight deadlines’ was mentioned by 32% of respondents, which was also cited as a source of stress by those who took part in the 2020 European Language Industry survey carried out by the European Union of Associations of Translation Companies (EUATC) and International Federation of Translators (FIT – Fédération Internationale des Traducteurs).

92% of freelance translators check potential agency clients before taking on work for them, using various methods (Google searches, the agency’s website, ProZ’s Blue Board, asking other translators on social media or in social media groups, checking the Payment Practices website, checking the agency’s professional memberships/accreditations, Glassdoor). These results confirm those in a survey run by Chartered Institute of Linguists in collaboration with the EUATC’s UK member, the Association of Translation Companies (ATC), which revealed that 91% of translators conduct checks on companies, using similar methods.

81% of the respondents stated they work with direct clients. In contrast with translation companies where ‘low rates of pay’ was the main challenge, when working with direct clients the main perceived benefit is the higher rates of pay, very closely followed by the ease of direct communication. Working with direct clients comes with its own challenges, the main one being their lack of understanding about the translation process.

While 7% of the respondents who reported not experiencing any challenges or difficulties when working with translation companies, the percentage is much higher when working with direct clients (23%).

Another notable difference is the fact that fewer translators carry out checks before working with a direct client (81% as opposed to 92% in the case of companies).

Referral/word of mouth seems to be the most common method clients find out about translators’ services (75% of respondents ticked this option). This was followed by LinkedIn, ProZ, professional association members’ directory, social media, and their own website. This is one area where, in retrospect, it would have been better to differentiate between agency clients and direct clients. It would also be interesting to look at this from a language service provider perspective and see how they find their translators.

When it comes to communicating with clients, text-based communication methods are favoured by 95% of respondents (89% cited email). Only 2% prefer communicating by phone.

It was surprising to see that only 40% of respondents have their own website. The main perceived benefit of having one is, according to 75% of those who do, conveying a professional image. Those who do not have a website stated that they already have enough clients and therefore no need for a website (20%) or that clients find them elsewhere (20%).

The survey also asked respondents to give information on the rates they charge.

Some interesting and encouraging data emerged from here: while previous surveys (not only in the translation industry, but also some that looked at freelancers in general) showed that men usually charge more, this research study revealed that women in the translation profession charge slightly more than their male counterparts (12% more).

59% of respondents apply surcharges if they have to meet tight deadlines, and 21% never apply surcharges.

How often are freelance translators asked to lower their fees? 41% of respondents stated that companies often or always ask for a reduction of their rates, compared with only 14% in the case of direct clients.


The topic of rates (alongside unrealistic deadlines) also came first when translators were asked to mention what frustrates them more in terms of client questions.

The survey also touched on current affairs such as COVID-19 and Brexit. However, at the time the survey was open, the pandemic was just starting to spread, so the results are probably not as relevant today, as there are other, more recent surveys that explored the effects it had.

The final section of the report tried to sketch the translator persona – looking at personal details such as whether they have pets, how often they exercise (spoiler alert: translators are more active than the general population), and what language(s) they dream in.

The full report can be found at