In previous articles here and here, I wrote about the testing process required to become a “Standard” level translator working at the online translation site Gengo.com. Fortunately, I was able to pass the translation test I discussed in the second article, and shortly after I started taking on my own translation jobs during my end-year vacation time. In this article I’d like to give a detailed look at what it’s like to be a Gengo translator. I’ll be talking about my own experiences translating from Japanese to English, but most of this should apply to any two language pairs.
One of the first things you’ll notice when you join is you’ll have access to a series of short training lessons, in the form of PDFs, which walk you through the basics of working at Gengo. They cover topics such as how you review your work, make compromises during translation, and basic tool usage. What I loved about these was that they were very skillfully written, using easy-to-understand images and comparisons to real-world activities (like traveling) in order to communicate their material.
When you log in, there is a list of jobs which you can review and accept if you decide to attempt to translate them. The number of jobs available at any one time ranged from six or more to none at all. However, since I did this during a holiday time where many Japanese people are off work, I think the average number of jobs was probably less than usual. The length also varies significantly, from a few words to tens of pages.
The content also varies greatly across jobs and included everything I could imagine (and more): business communication, marketing materials, blog posts, recommendation letters, and even some things of a personal natural. Reviewing and performing these jobs really showed me a slice of Japan I hadn’t seen before, and made me feel this was the perfect thing to continue my Japanese studies.
However, I shouldn’t make it sound like I was doing this just to study Japanese and Japanese culture; this is a real job which effects real people’s lives, and must be taken very seriously. For an awkward, but technically correct translation, the reader can just accept it as an error with the translation process. But an error where the translation looks natural but the meaning of the original text is significantly changed can have disastrous consequences, from everything to someone not getting a job to much worse.
As a rule I didn’t accept any jobs that I didn’t understand fully, although there is a way to decline a job after you have accepted it. Gengo says it is safe to do this once in awhile if circumstances require it, but if you do it frequently you can run into trouble. I think their biggest concern is they don’t want people trying to hog jobs for themselves when there is a possibly they can’t finish them.
Besides the diversity of the jobs, the time limits were also a pretty big surprise to me. To give an example, jobs with a few hundred words can have a time limit of one or two hours, roughly speaking. The thing about this time limit is that it is hard, meaning that if you don’t finish on time the job gets returned to the queue for another customer to pick up. Gengo.com’s documentation says you can ask their support team for an extension, but I have never tried that and not sure how feasible it is.
An hour or two may seem like a long time, but even in a relatively short passage, if the material is hard enough, or contains words that are hard to translate into natural English, the time can go by pretty fast. One of my jobs for a few hundred words took me at least two and a half hours.
You can use email or their RSS feed to get notified when new jobs get in. This is critical because they can get snatched up pretty quick by other translators. At least two or three times I had clicked “accept” on a job, only to discover it had been taken seconds ago. This creates a tricky situation, since you want to review the job properly before you accept, and yet if you take too much time the job may be taken, resulting in your time wasted. Actually, I’ll take that back; if the job contained significantly difficult Japanese, I’d argue just the act of reading it and starting to look up words (before accepting it) is a very valuable experience on its own.
I actually take this to the next level and even start translating part of the job before I’d accepted it. You can choose to accept it once you’ve translated a certain portion, or even when you’ve done the first draft of the entire document. Of course, there is a higher chance it will be taken, but again this is a great learning experience. If you come across a text in the same domain (say, fashion marketing), then you’ll know some of the terms already and may be able to translate it fairly quickly. And if you do accept the job after doing this pre-translation (as I call it), then you have a much lower risk of not meeting the customer’s deadline. If you are new to Gengo, especially if this is your first experience doing professional translation, I highly recommend employing this technique.
I had sort of known this before I applied to Gengo.com, but making a significant amount of money with this website alone is definitely difficult. First, there is the issue about scarcity of jobs–though that may get better once the holiday weekend ends. Also, you need to be cognizant of zones, because if you are sitting there waiting for jobs to come in when most people who speak the target language are asleep, you’ll end up waiting a long time.
For a passage comprised of a few hundred characters, you can get a few dollars, but when I did a calculation against how much time I actually spent on it (including pre-translation), usually it worked to be less than minimum wage (which is around ~$7.00 in the USA now). Having said that, as I gain experience in various domains my speed should go up, and there are also various translator tools which claim to be able to accelerate overall translation time (a popular one seems to be SDL trados). Assuming enough jobs are available, I could see eventually getting $10-$20 dollars an hour if things worked out well.
I really like how Gengo.com’s site is designed; it’s so easy to review, accept, and submit jobs. Their customer support is also excellent. I have asked them four or five questions, and they usually respond in a few hours with a very polite, detailed answer. There are also several levels of feedback to keep things running smoothly, including occasional reviews from pro-level translators of your work and comments from customers (including requests to edit and resubmit your work). It’s important to understand that in many cases the customer may have some understanding of English, so don’t assume they will overlook errors. I’ve seen a job sent back due to someone translating a word wrong (fortunately, this wasn’t mine), and due to having inappropriate tone.
As my vacation is ending soon, the amount of jobs I can complete will be going down drastically, but I hope to still work on evenings or weekends when I have time. While I still have time I also decided to take the “Pro” level test, and just submit my answer today. All I’ll say about it is that it was extremely difficult material, filled with places where I had to debate to go with the more natural translator, or that which is closer to the source material. If I pass this, I’ll have options to more jobs and a higher rate, but even if I fail it won’t change my stance on Gengo.com being a great place to hone your skills and get your feet wet in the translation business.
Just be careful with thinking that freelancing like this allows you to “work on your time”. Due to the time limits and randomness of jobs, it’s hard to say it’s “convenient” unless you can block out a large portion of your time each day. But if you have no job at present and want to focus on only freelance translation, you can definitely leverage Gengo to great effect.