This is a tough industry to break into and it is not for everyone. With the right skills, work ethic and strategies, it can be an exciting, fulfilling and lucrative career. There are several things that you should keep in mind if you want to be a successful translator or interpreter.
Pay Your Dues
You need to spend LOTS of time reading, writing, speaking and listening in your languages. It is easier to do this abroad but not absolutely necessary. While your native language probably needs less work, don’t neglect it. People who are raised bilingually often have a false sense of confidence. I have never met a perfectly bilingual person. No matter who you are one of your languages will be significantly stronger than the other. Interpreters should focus on having easily understood accents and translators should focus on their reading and writing skills in both languages.
Translating and interpreting are skills so you will need to practice a lot before you get fast. University degrees are nice but are insufficient and not always necessary. Spending some time doing work for free or for a very cheap price is one way to get this practice. However you get it, you need to get it before you can expect to become good and start supporting yourself/family on being a full time translator/interpreter.
You are probably better than you think. Push your limits! How else can you know where they are? You may surprise yourself on your first job. You may feel horrible about it. As you push yourself you will see how you need to improve. This is a simultaneously painful, exhilarating and necessary part of becoming a good language professional.
Being fast and accurate is not enough. There is very little need for translating novels and interpreting for movie stars. Those jobs are nice but they are scarcer than jobs for pharmaceutical companies, cell phone companies, oil companies, etc. Specialized knowledge will set you apart from the incompetent and the amateurs. It will give you more regular and better paying work. It also may be totally necessary if you have a language pair that is common or not needed much.
Websites like Proz and Translators’ Café are a good place to start. You may also want to contact businesses directly and try to undercut the agencies. Whatever you do, you are going to need to do it a lot. You are generally going to need a lot of clients to keep yourself a float. Remember, turning away work is a better problem than not having enough.
Treat Your Clients’ Trust as Sacred
Few people are as trusted as interpreters and translators. Whatever the job is do it as well as you can. If you don’t know what is going on or you need time to look up a term, ask a question to clarify or look up the word. While you may look less competent than you would like it is better than making things up when you don’t really understand. This trust extends itself to your relationship with translation agencies. If you have been hired to represent an agency do not give the client your business card and tell them to call you directly next time. Cheating your clients will earn you more money in the short run but will kill your career in the long run. Nothing will hurt your career as badly as a former client saying to a present one, Who do you have translating your Thai? I’d stay away from her. I’ve worked with her and she can’t be trusted. Conversely, no advertising is as effective as a present client saying something like this to a potential client, You need a Portuguese interpreter? Oh, I have someone great who takes care of that for me. Let me get you his contact information.