Working in Japan: Getting Started as a Freelance Translator on oDesk

Thanks for sticking with me through this Working in Japan series!  I was wrote it as I was going through the job hunting process myself, during which I received a few hiring offers.  One of those was a great paying, part-time teaching position that I ended up going with so I’ll have time to pursue more translation work and help build my freelance translation portfolio from April onwards.

One of the ways I’ve been getting into freelance work is with the freelancer website, oDesk.  If you’re interested in translation or freelancing in other fields, I definitely recommend giving it a click.  The site itself is pretty thorough with its explanation on how to use and make money with it, but I’ll be addressing a few things that apply to freelance translation or my personal experience with the site.


So far I’ve been doing pretty well on oDesk.  Their resume and profile builder was quick and easy to use, and I was able to start applying to jobs in no time.  In fact, I’ve already started/completed a few hourly or fixed rate contracts, and in a couple of weeks earned a nice bit of money.  I did have a few issues, however.

One of the first ones that came up was setting up my payment information.  oDesk is based in the U.S., so all U.S. citizens are required to file a W-9 form with their address of residence.  The problem was that since my account and profile information was set with my Japanese information, based on my address, the website would only give me the option of entering in the W-8BEN required for all non-U.S. residents.  This was a pretty easy fix.  I filed a customer service ticket and they changed my account temporarily to allow me to register my W-9 information.

The second hurdle I came across was setting up payment withdrawals, because my bank account name and oDesk account/profile names don’t match.  I legally changed my maiden name to my husband’s last name everywhere except on my U.S. bank account.  I share this account with my mother and it’s easier if we both have the same last name on it.  This was a little more time-consuming to fix, as it required filing another customer service ticket and sending in both U.S./Japanese bank statements and other legal documents to their identity verification center.

Other than these two things, set-up was straightforward and a breeze.  The oDesk staff was quick and responsive to remedy the issues I had, and I could still apply for, accept, and do work while I was getting everything sorted out.  Other benefits include the free skill evaluation tests available on the site, which are a simple and convenient way to help build your profile up while you’re still trying to get jobs for work experience/feedback on the site.

Although the oDesk manual says not to low-ball your hourly or fixed contract rate to build up experience on the site, I think it’s almost impossible to demand a great hourly rate unless you already have a lot of professional experience or a well put together portfolio for the freelance area you’re going into.  Since much of my experience will be coming directly from using oDesk itself, I had to lower my rate accordingly just to be competitive enough to win jobs over other, more experienced or qualified candidates to build experience.  That said, it helps that the yen is weak and the dollar strong at the moment, so all and all my pay rate hasn’t bad for entry-level type work.  So yes, don’t low-ball yourself too much, but expect to ask much less than what you eventually hope to be making after you’ve gained more experience.  You can easily change your hourly rate later for future contracts after you’ve beefed up your experience.

But with that in mind, oDesk also isn’t the type of platform that will springboard your entire career.  I recommend having at least some professional experience, however little, in the field you wish you freelance for before trying to use oDesk.  For me this experience comes from the break-out translation gig I was offered last year.  Since it’s consistent, published freelance work, it was something to easily build off of with oDesk.   And from my current company that I’lll soon be quitting, I also have experience using business Japanese with clients and with legal/web site translation.

Also worth mentioning is that before I could really get into using oDesk, I had to spend some time researching and learning about the various different fields of translation in order to make sure I wouldn’t be applying for jobs that would prove to be too steep of a learning curve.  I went in with the notion that translation falls into two groups:  interpretation and written translation.  Not to say that this isn’t usually the case, but there many different subgroups or crossover groups between the two like localization, subtitling, or translating with focus on a certain industry like legal or medical translation.  So you might find you need to study up or do additional research just to apply for them.  That means it might be awhile before you’ll be anywhere near making steady bank with oDesk.  I know I’ll definitely be studying to take the JLPT N1 test and learning how to use software like TRADOS so that I can add that to my resume!

I know there’s not much written about the path to becoming a professional translator, especially in Japan, so I’ll try to keep documenting the journey as I go.  🙂  Wish me luck!

– J

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