German Translator 101

My guide to offering your own professional translation service

German translator

When I started out in my career as a German translator, it was very much a case of “learning by doing”! I could have done with a few good tips and ideas at the time.

Here are some of the questions I had - plus the answers I gained from working as a freelance translator myself.

I hope they’ll help you now. But first, the good news.....

It's a great time to be a German translator!

  • In the UK, at least, far fewer people are learning German. Pupils can drop foreign languages at the age of 14, and while 90% of German youngsters can read and write in a second language, the equivalent in the UK is just 32% (2019: Higher Education Policy Institute report). That makes native English-speakers with German language qualifications increasingly rare – good news if you want to become a German translator.

  • If your German language skills come from another source, e.g. living in a German-speaking country, then you’re slap bang in the middle of your target market. You’ll also thoroughly understand the cultural aspects of German life – an invaluable factor for anyone wanting to translate German to English well.

  • The internet has made business and communication global. Thousands of German companies and organizations market themselves to audiences and customers all over the world in English. They need you to get their message across in a clear and appealing manner.

What do I need to become a German translator?

A passion for language, a very good understanding of German, an ability to write well in English, and a love of precision and detail!

Add to this the ability to motivate yourself, to stick to timetables, to deliver what you promise and when you promise, and - when going through an “empty patch” - to use the time to advertise your services and extend your networks.

Plus a commitment to continually improve your language & business skills.

Great German language skills

Obviously you can only be a translator – German or otherwise – when you have a pretty good grasp of a second, foreign language. If translating from German into English, then I believe that English should be your native language, your mother tongue. (But it's a subject of much debate!)

As a rule, translators translate from their foreign language (the SOURCE language) into their mother tongue (the TARGET language).

Why? Well, if you know anything about English, you'll be aware of just how subtle it can be. For example, by omitting a single pronoun (e.g. “the” in “Do not use in case of fire” - frequently seen in Austrian lifts!), you can entirely change the meaning of a sentence.

And don’t forget about interpreting (dolmetschen) either. Perhaps you are a better speaker than writer and would prefer to provide simultaneous interpretations, rather than translation. Most translation agencies provide both interpreting and translation services, and I am often asked if I will do both.

Qualifications for translators

When I started off translating from German into English I frequently heard “you’re a native English speaker, you can translate this”.

There is, of course, an element of truth in this, but the general understanding that translation is a discipline in itself is, sadly, still limited. The skills involved in translating are hugely underestimated. Nowadays, thank goodness, standards are much higher.

So, if you're serious about translating, investigate some of the German translation courses available worldwide, and consider joining a professional language translation association.

Qualifications and memberships of professional associations give you recognition in the field. You can gain qualifications in German translation by studying full-time, part-time, or even at home.

Specialist knowledge

'Increasing specialization in the workplace is also mirrored by increasing specialization in translation.

Which means that there's a real call for translators with a specialist background in a particular professional field.

If you’re a native English speaker with a background in medicine, law, finance or IT, for example, and are living in, or have a lot of contact with, a German-speaking environment, then you're probably very well placed to launch yourself into a translation career.

Often non-native speakers with excellent specialist knowledge often make very good translators. I've spoken to several of them in my interview series.

Calling all german translators!

Want to be interviewed about your work as a translator and the German translation services you offer. It's a true win-win: visitors love to hear 'from the horse's mouth' about translation as a career – and you promote your services to an online audience. Just get in touch!

The process of translation

Here are some of the key things to consider when providing a professional translation service:

Winning German translation clients

How do I find translation work?

As a translator you fundamentally have 2 choices – either to work as an employee in a translation department, or as a freelance translator.

If you've studied languages and translating at university, and done well, then this is the pathway to plum jobs in translating for international organisations, such as the EU.

However, 80% of translators work as freelancers (2012 CIOL study), so you're most likely going to need a business mindset to succeed as a German translator.

  1. Online translator directories with lists of freelance jobs
  2. Freelance job portals where you can offer your services

If you work as a freelance translator you’ll need to build up a stock of professional relationships, both directly with translation agencies and clients, and indirectly by establishing an online presence.

You’ll also need to learn to advertise yourself and your services – by approaching companies directly, writing your own website, or word of mouth.

I’ve also included a few tips on working with agencies and private clients.

Official recognition as a translator

If you work as a professional German translator, you’ll probably be required to join an official body, such as your local Chamber of Commerce. If you are living in a German-speaking country, you’ll find there is often a love of bureaucracy and compulsory membership of various trade and professional organizations.

The upside is that they often run seminars and workshops which can be a great source of new ideas – and new clients! (Make sure you always have your business cards with you!)

It's also worth being a member of a professional language association.


Most German translators are freelancers, taking on projects from a variety of professional translation services and direct clients.

However, the only way to grow your business as a German translator is to employ other translators to do the actual translation work. This means you effectively become an agency, and spend your time project-managing translations and acquiring clients.

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A nice compromise is to translate yourself as well as passing on some jobs to a network of translators you know are good.

Other way of taking your career in German translation to the next stage include diversification, into other language-related areas.

There's a great book about this just out by Nicole. Y. Adams called Diversification in the Language Industry: Success beyond translation.

Does a career as a German translator add up?

I work as a professional freelance German translator, and I have to say, if you're the entrepreneurial type, the benefits far outweigh any disadvantages I can think of.

  • Work from home - no commuting. The classic opportunity to work in your pjs and choose your own hours, as the last couple of years have shown us.
  • Work as much or as little as you like/need, and supplement your work with other related business activities
  • In a difficult economic climate many jobs are precarious - your income is probably more secure than that of colleagues employed in fixed positions.
  • Companies outsourcing in hard times - a solid network of clients and agencies means you can adapt to changing economic circumstances. 
  • No constrictions to time or place. When you want to spend 6 weeks in the Caribbean, just take your laptop and go....

OK, there are potential minuses too – but the skill lies in turning them into pluses! ;-)!

  • Income levels can fluctuate if you don't diversify your client base or income streams - so use your downtime constructively, such as marketing your services via your website.
  • You need to be available all times, but with a smartphone you can reply to emails quickly so clients soon learn that you always respond.
  • You're often expected / requested to work  “unsociable” hours to get rush jobs completed for clients, but then you do get better rates for those jobs.
  • You may feel pressured to say “yes” to jobs to keep a client, but occasionally saying "no" because you're busy with another clients reminds them how much in demand you are!
  • One bad job and it’s easy to lose a client – you have to consistently provide top quality work. No getting around that one. Although good clients will take a more long term view of your performance.


I hope this quick overview gives you a bit of a feel for life as a German translator.

Click on the text links for more in-depth information on each of the topics above. And be encouraged - it's a great profession!


German Translation Tips & Resources

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Joanna Scudamore-Trezek

I'm a German to English translator living and working in Vienna, Austria. I turn German texts into clear and accessible English, allowing clients to present their stories, ideas and information to a completely new audience. My business and marketing clients rely on me to get their message across clearly and effectively.  How can I help you today?

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