Tuesday, 2 April 2013

9 Alternative sources of income for linguists

Throughout my career as a writer and a translator, I have tried my hand at different types of writing jobs, all of which have proved to be interesting and alternative sources of income. Next, I will be talking about the various freelance projects linguists can do (apart from translation and proof-reading), most of which I have tried myself and can comment upon  personally. I will not be talking about DTP, dubbing, teaching or organizing online workshops as these require different sets of skills and have nothing to do with writing per se. Nor will I be talking about writing or journalism here, which is another kettle of fish altogether.

1.) Subtitling / Transcription :  I chose to start with the most obvious of jobs as chances are that 8 out of 10 translators will have tried at least one of the two or both at some point in their career. Subtitling and transcription are two different things of course. What I have found out from my personal experience is that subtitling can be a badly paid  job or a well paid job depending on the type of videos you translate. And it can also be done in many different ways. Some companies will provide you with their bespoke software, some others will ask that you own your own captioning software (WinCaps or Swift are very often used), some other companies will ask you to perform subtitling on a time-coded Word document. I am not going to go into the specifics of the job but there are a lot of reasons why a subtitling job can turn out to be a pain in the backside, so my advice is to negotiate an as good a per minute fee as possible. Very few companies pay per line but I have always charged  per minute. What I have also found out is that "glamorous" subtitling jobs , films, TV programmes, etc. never pay that well, but agencies subtitling commercial and company videos can pay as much as 6 and 7 times better!  However, the bottom line is that subtitling never pays as well as regular text translation.

When it comes to transcription it's always a good idea to listen to the quality of the audio first before you set your fee. Again, you can be asked to transcribe a text into your mother-tongue or transcribe it and translate it into another language, but at least you do not have to follow the strict rules of subtitling here. A bad quality audio is the worst thing that could happen to you. I once did a transcription job from French into Greek for a conference. I got informed that it was for a huge Maritime conference and so I accepted the job knowing there would be no quality issues. You can imagine how disheartened I was when I realised that the person speaking was a native French speaker from Senegal! 

2.) Brand naming :  Take a look around you. We are surrounded by products and name brands. We may take that for granted, but lots of thought has been put into selecting a suitable name for these products. And that's where linguists come in.  Advertising companies enlist the services of brand naming agencies and  brand naming agencies work with experienced linguists from around the world, to make sure that no product with a funny or unsuitable name sees the light of day. Why are linguists necessary anyway? They are necessary to avoid tragic mistakes like introducing Ford Pinto into the Brazilian market (where Pinto is slang for a man of little manhood) or Mitsubishi Pajero into Spanish speaking markets (swear word!!!)  By the same token, Estee Lauder who sold a hairspray called Country Mist, had to withdraw its product from the German market and rename it Country Moist, as mist means manure in German and is not very appealing for your hair! (Examples are courtesy of Andrew McCrum from Appella Brand Naming)   

3.) Telephone interpreting :  Ok, I said at the beginning of my post that these jobs would be all about writing. Telephone interpreting is not and I must admit it's not for everyone either. If, like me, you prefer to be left alone with your text and dictionaries, translating, editing, researching, etc. a phone call may be seen as intrusion of privacy. But these  "money-making phone calls" can now be received at no cost for you if you have Skype and while you are sitting at your desk anyway with your Skype on, why not accept that phone call?  It can be a nice break from writing! You will be connected to an operator who, should you choose to accept the call, will connect you to the two interested parties who wish to communicate and understand each other. But these phone calls never come unexpected. You will have been informed several days in advance of the project at hand and even be furnished with details about the client and the required terminology. Phone calls are also charged by the minute.

4.) Research:  I already started doing this type of job when I was still a beginner freelancer. There are several types of research. One of the most requested types of research is market research. The ones I have done are a combination of market research and SEO.  A foreign client wishes to introduce his/her product to your market. You, as a linguist (and that's where your language and knowledge of your local market comes in handy) compile information about the client's rival companies in your country, the keywords typed by your fellow people in your country's most famous search engines and the results each keyword gets. There are several free SEO software that can help you do this job and of course Google is a huge help as well. These jobs usually come in the form of a questionnaire and are charged by the hour. Linguists that have a legal background can get into legal research as well, since knowledge of the language, the local market and the locals laws are requested for these type of projects, which usually pay A LOT. These type of services are usually requested by research companies as well as by a few translation agencies.  

5.) SEO : While I have never worked as an SEO writer per se,  I have provided similar services as a translator, where I had to suggest my own Greek keywords for a website I was translating, for example. From research, I have found out that you can usually get these type of jobs from digital marketing agencies but they tend to be monolingual jobs, so if  for example you were looking for a French SEO job, you would have to contact a digital marketing agency in France. It's easy to get trained but as with everything, the more practice you get, the better.  I would be interested to hear from linguists working as SEO writers, as I have been warned it can be a lot of work and not a very good investment of time. 

6.) Building glossaries: I have to admit I wasn't very sure whether to include this here but over the years I have seen many ads requesting such services.  Glossaries have many uses especially for CAT Tool users.  Sometimes an agency may contact you and ask you to compile a glossary.  If you don't already have a friendly relationship with that company, I would suggest you charge for this type of work (per term or per batch), because your glossary may very well end up with another translator who will work on a translation using the terms you've worked so hard to create.

7.) Compiling texts for language tests:  Have you ever sat for a language test and wondered how the texts for that test were compiled? One could give a lot of answers but I can also tell you this. There are companies which do that for a living. They employ linguists, who live in the country where the language is spoken, to outsource the right texts for these type of tests. It is not as easy as it sounds, because the texts have to follow certain Ministry of Education guidelines, applicable in the country where the company is based,  and demonstrate a certain level of difficulty by targeting different age groups, but  these agencies are often more than happy to train you on the needs of their project.

8) Transcreation : When it comes to translation, I am a firm believer of the fact that just because you speak two languages very well, it doesn't necessarily mean you can be a translator. I like to think the same holds for transcreation. Just because you are a professional translator, it doesn't necessarily mean you can transcreate. In fact transcreation is a lot more than translation. It requires some creative writing skills and a great familiarisation with advertising text. But it can be so rewarding, especially if you like creative projects, and it usually pays somewhat better than regular texts. There are several transcreation agencies around the world which require such services.

9) Writing questions for quizzes : Yes, I have done that job as well, believe it or not. And you never know where your questions may end up; at pub or company quiz nights, as trivia questions for mobile apps or game consoles, etc. You are usually paid per question but you have to provide a multiple choice of answers as well, so good research is required and that can be a time consuming business, some times. Many of these companies sell multilingual quizzes as well, so if you are a non-English speaker, this type of job can be right up your alley. QuizQuizQuiz is an example of such company.

Like I always say, Google is your friend, and s/he who seeks finds, so I would be very interested to hear from linguists who have done other types of writing jobs. What else have you done?  Why not share your experience here?

Photo credit: www.moneysigns.net 

Natali Lekka is an EN & FR into EL freelance translator and the owner of Worlds of Words. She tweets @worlds_of_words


  1. Hello Natali,
    Nice post. I like when the author accents on some specific view and shows the things (s)he found to readers.

    What could I add to your points? Hmm.. I'm not sure that it is exactly meets your criteria, but sometimes I do specific translation, called 'localization'. I'm sure you know what is it. And even more specific things like 'localization of software for hardware devices'. I mean translating of those extra-shortened pseudo-messages, which you can see, say, at your mobile phone. It is very specific job, as you have to push the whole phrase into 6-8-12 symbols line... Oh...

    Another thing that I do is so called 'voice quality verification'. Imagine, that some Client starts their ad-company for new series of... never mind of what - cars, fashion, apartments, equipment etc.
    They hired a dozen of speakers to make a voice for ad-video.
    Your task is to listen to several voices on your native language and (no-no, not to choose the best!) and just precisely mark EVERY mistake they did.
    So you have to be native speaker. You have to be linguist to recognize all the mistakes and you have to know how to explain what's wrong in each case to the Client.

    BTW, G+ ad is also good idea. :-)

  2. Hello Leon,

    Thank you for your comment. Voice sample evaluation? That sounds like a very interesting alternative source of income and I have to admit that I didn't know such "job" existed. But I have a question. Aren't these voice samples made by native speakers in the first place?

  3. Yes, sure, the speakers were high quality educated native speakers.
    I was surprised that they yet can make mistakes. But they do.
    Though I would not say, that it is really good income... Rather that's the way to bring something unusual in your everyday writing translation job.