From full-time IT developer to freelance translator

Originally from Bremen, Kay-Viktor is one of Gengo’s full-time English to German freelance translators. In this guest blog post, he talks about making a career shift from IT to translation. Be inspired by his journey towards a more flexible and location-independent career.

At 54, I decided to change careers after working in software development for nearly 30 years. In 2017, I quit my day job as an IT developer and became a full-time freelance translator. What started as a side job turned out to be a new career path that I would earn a living from and enjoy doing. I also learned that it’s never too late to learn new skills and be the master of my own time.

Making the leap to translation

I started my career in a small consulting firm, working as a kind of jack-of-all-trades first then getting into software development. I developed a software solution for optometrists. It turned out that I was a good programmer but a lousy salesman, so I quit the consulting firm and joined a software startup. For more than 20 years, I worked in a team that developed software for the public sector in Germany. Back then, I was quite sure I would do this for the rest of my working life.

Deciding to become a translator was a process of trial and error. I always needed English at work because most technical documents were in English. I started writing articles in German and English, became involved in international projects and teams, and eventually started translating on the side. I found translating very enjoyable and realized that I also was quite good at it. So my “side job” grew and grew, up to the point where I worked long nights and weekends. I had to reduce my hours in the office, taking one day off per week, to catch up on my translation jobs. But there came a point when I had to decide. I was making more money as a translator than with my regular job. So last year, at the age of 54, I took the leap and I quit my full-time job. The firm told me they’d take me back anytime, and ironically, this made it even easier for me to quit. If I should fail as a translator, I can still return to programming.

On August 1, 2017, I was a 100% full-time freelancer. I switched off my alarm clock. I’m now the master of my own time, even though I’m also working more than ever before, especially when there is a steady flow of jobs.

My wife and I live in an old farmhouse near Bremen in Northern Germany with our cat, Lucy.

The joys and challenges of being a freelance translator

The different ways translation agencies work are quite interesting. While most agencies approach translators with jobs via email and give enough time to accept or decline jobs, with Gengo, translators have to decide within seconds, hence, I grab what I can get. There was a time when I got a huge job with nearly 20,000 words. It was a manual for a CAD software system. I thought I couldn’t do it, but I soon discovered that I’m actually good at translating technical content.

Apart from that, I really enjoy the mix and diversity of fields. With Gengo, I can easily accept projects from all spheres of life. I never know what will happen whenever my RSS popup appears and a new Gengo job materializes. It could be localization content for an app developer, a CV of an aspiring business person, an invitation to an esoteric workshop, a travel itinerary, a blog post, you name it. That’s not only exciting and fun, it also pushes you to learn something new every day. For example, I found that it is very enjoyable to translate tourism content, a field I would never have thought about including in my portfolio.

On the other hand, the sheer workload can be overwhelming at times. When I continuously receive more work than I can handle, it’s difficult to say no at first. When I started out, I took nearly everything I could get, without considering the rates or fields of expertise.

Having a proper vacation can also be a challenge because as long as you have an internet connection, some clients expect you to be on call 24/7. Taking a couple of weeks off requires a lot of preparation, and sometimes I still receive messages via mail, mobile or Skype to do something terribly urgent. It’s also not easy to switch off work in your head even when you’re on a holiday.

An amazing day with my wife on the beautiful Caribbean island of Saint Lucia

Word of advice to new and aspiring freelancers

First of all, I think that having a “passion for language” is only a very small part of what’s needed to be successful as a freelance translator. The main linguistic skill needed is writing in a perfect, error-free and ready-for-print way in your target language, on the first try. It’s also ideal to have a thorough understanding of the source language.

Secondly, remember that the economic part of freelancing is a numbers game. Consider this: If you can translate 2,000 words a day, get only amateur rates, and have difficulty getting enough projects for the day, freelancing will be an economic struggle for you. On the other hand, if you can translate 4,000 words a day at professional rates, and get enough jobs to fill your calendar, you can live comfortably with your income. These three parameters decide your success: your capacity, your rates, and your workload. Do the math. The good thing is that you can start part-time and see if this works.

Lastly, it pays to have years of work experience. I believe that I would not have become a good translator if I had started in my 20s. Now, I can draw on decades of professional experience in business and IT. There are probably many keys to success, but from my perspective, having a strong field of expertise is the most important. There are many translators out there, so you need something to set you apart.

Do you have interesting stories to share and would like to be a guest blogger? Leave a comment below and we’ll get in touch!


Kay-Viktor Stegemann

The author

Kay-Viktor Stegemann

Kay-Viktor is a 55-year-old computer professional who decided to change careers after working in software development for nearly 30 years. In 2017, he quit his day job and became a full-time freelance translator. He lives with his wife and a cat in an old farmhouse near Bremen in Northern Germany. While most of his work consists of business translations, he has also translated some novels featured on his website:

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