‘Everyone thinks they can be a translator’

Continuing our series My German Career, Siegburg-based translator Clare Howes gave The Local the lowdown on making a living from your language skills.

'Everyone thinks they can be a translator'
Photo: Clare Howes is in the middle

With a French upbringing, English parents, and a German degree under her belt, 24-year-old Clare Howes had a good head start in the language department. In 2010 she formalized her skills with a two-year masters in translation studies in Paris, and is now working in a translation agency in Siegburg near the Rhineland city of Cologne.

What exactly does your job involve?

I translate a very wide variety of texts, from legal documents to press releases and marketing material. There’s also an element of project management, because we outsource translations for other languages. Mostly, however, I’m translating. That’s one of the advantages of being an English-speaking translator in Germany – there’s a real demand for your services, so I get to do a lot more actual translating than my German colleagues.

Are you the only non-German in the office, then?

Yes. There are just four of us, including the boss and myself.

A select group. How did you get the position?

I did a three-month placement as part of my masters, and interned in the firm I’m with now. That was in the summer of 2011. I graduated in June 2012 and started working for them in July. The boss actually offered me a job to begin straight away, but I wanted to finish my degree first. It was really nice knowing that I had it all lined up for when I finished, though.

It sounds like you had a fairly smooth ride. Do you think translation is easy to get into in Germany?

In Germany qualified English translators are quite sought after. But you definitely need to do a masters – every English-speaker coming to live in Germany thinks they can become a translator just like that. Lots of people believe they can translate, but firms are always going to pick those with proper qualifications.

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How have you found the work itself?

I’ve enjoyed it. I am getting to do a lot of actual translating. Friends who are independent translators have to spend a lot of time finding clients, which is quite hard when you start off, but for me the clients are all just there. The work itself is often quite fun. Advertising in particular can get your creative side going: you can be imaginative with the translations.

Compared to my peer group working in France, where I graduated, I am also much better paid, which is a definite advantage to working in Germany.

And the atmosphere? Did you find any truth in the stereotype of the rigidly disciplined German office?

Yes and no. I have a very structured day, which is actually the big advantage of my job. I work every day from 9am till 5.30pm, with a half hour break for lunch. After that I am completely free. I am back in Bonn, where I live, by six, and can then enjoy the whole evening. But it’s a small office and things can also be more flexible. If I want to arrive an hour later because I was in Paris for the weekend, for example, it’s not impossible.

Is it noses to the grindstone during the day, or are there also lighter moments?

My boss is quite strict, but I get on very well with two of my other colleagues, who are around my age. This photograph was taken this Christmas. I am the one in the middle. I think it well represents the fun side of our office community, and how integrating Germans can be to foreigners.

Want your German career featured on The Local? Contact us at: [email protected]

Interview conducted by Pippa Wentzel

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7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

Taking the decision to go it alone and freelance in Germany can be a daunting prospect. But, if you do it right, it can be an exciting and liberating path. Here are some of our top tips on how to survive.

7 tips for how to survive as a freelancer in Germany

1. Get a tax advisor

The German tax system is complicated, even for Germans. All the associated paperwork uses the Amtsprache (authority language) which is more like legalese than ‘normal’ German, and mistakes when filling out tax forms can cause you, at best, a massive headache and, at worst, a costly fine. So it’s best that you employ someone who knows what they’re doing to help you out.

That person is called a Steuerberater (tax advisor) in Germany. They will help you register with the tax office, correspond with them and submit your tax declarations.

Be aware that, in Germany, different deadlines apply for tax returns depending on whether you employ an official tax advisor or not. If you are doing the tax return on your own, the deadline for submitting your annual tax return is earlier than if you use a tax advisor’s services. 

READ ALSO: What NOT to do when you’re freelancing in Germany

When looking for a tax advisor, a top tip is to use your network to get recommendations. Ideally, you want someone who will do more than just fill in the forms for you, but who will actually advise you on how best to manage your business finances so that you can make tax savings.

2. Keep your accounting in order

The better you keep your own accounts in order, the easier it will be for your tax advisor to compile your tax declarations and therefore the cheaper their services will be.

As a freelancer, there are a lot of costs you can deduct from your taxes – from train tickets, working materials, to meals out – so it’s best to keep hold of all your receipts and to keep them in good order.

2 euros and 50 cents lie on a receipt in a beer garden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Peter Kneffel

In Germany, you’re obliged to keep hold of receipts for two years, in case of a tax inspection, so it’s a good idea to photocopy the type of machine-printed receipts you get from restaurants so that they stay legible for a long time.

There are also a few things to be aware of when writing your own invoices. Firstly, make sure that you include your tax number. This isn’t the 11-digit Steueridentifikationsnummer that everyone gets when registering in Germany, but the 10-digit Steuernummer you get from the Finanzamt after registering yourself as a freelancer. 

Most companies won’t pay you if you don’t have this on your invoices so make sure you include it.

You should also make sure that you number your invoices properly – ideally in ascending order so that you can easily keep track of them. You are not allowed to issue two invoices with the same number and if you do so and the finance office notices, you could face an inspection of your whole accounting system.

There are numerous great accounting software programmes you can use to help you, such as Lexoffice and Sevdesk and, even if you have to pay for them, the costs will be tax deductible!

3. Find out if you’re eligible for financial support

In Germany, there are several opportunities for freelancers to gain financial support and to cut their outgoings, and its worth finding out if you’re eligible for them.

If you’re claiming unemployment benefits under ALG 1 and are thinking about becoming a freelancer, the employment office offers a special type of financial support to help you to get your freelance business off the ground.

Called the Grundungszuschuss (“foundation grant”) the payment is a six-month grant equalling your monthly entitlement under ALG 1 plus €300 towards your insurance costs can be applied for those in receipt of this unemployment benefit.

READ ALSO: Will freelancers benefit from Germany’s €300 energy allowance?

If you are engaged in some form of artistic profession in Germany – which can include journalism to pottery – you may be entitled to membership to the Kunstlersozialkasse (artists’ social insurance).

Being a member of the KSK means you only have to pay half of your health insurance and pension contributions, and the KSK will pay the rest.

4. Work out how much you think you will earn

As with starting any business, you need to have some idea of your expected earnings from the outset.

If you’re just starting out as a freelancer, or have some freelance gigs on the side of an employment position, then it might be worth considering registering yourself as a Kleinunternehmer (“small business”).

As a Kleinunternehmer, you can currently earn up to €22.000 per year without having to charge VAT and having to submit only yearly tax declarations. 

An income tax declaration form lies on a table. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Hans-Jürgen Wiedl

Be aware that if you are registered as this kind of freelancer, you must include the following sentence in your invoices: ‘Gemäß § 19 UStG wird keine Umsatzsteuer berechnet’ which means ‘In accordance with Paragrah19 of the German VAT law, no VAT has been added to this invoice.’

READ ALSO: Everything you need to know about your German tax return in 2022

If you think you will earn more than €22.000 per year, you will need to pay Umsatzsteuer (VAT) and will have to submit tax declarations in advance and more often. Depending on how much you earn, this could be every month or every quarter. 

5. Get your insurance in order

In Germany, it’s a legal requirement to have health insurance.

If you’ve just made the move from employment to being a freelancer and want to keep the same health insurer, you should get in contact with your health insurance provider straight away to tell them about your change of circumstances. They will ask you to re-register and to tell them your projected freelance earnings for the year, so they can amend your monthly fees.

If you don’t keep your health insurer provider updated, you could continue to be charged the higher rate that you had from your previous salary.

The insurance cards of the health insurance companies DAK, AOK, Barmer and Techniker-Krankenkasse TK lie with euro notes under a stethoscope. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Daniel Karmann

It’s not just health insurance you need to think about as a freelancer. It’s also wise to think about protecting yourself from any sort of claims that could arise as a result of any working mishaps. 

If, for example, you lose your laptop which contains confidential client information, you need to be protected against claims.

That’s why it’s good to have both Betriebshaftversicherung (business liability insurance) and Rechtschutzversicherung (legal protection insurance).

6. Plan your time wisely

All of these bureaucratic obligations take time. So it’s really important that you take account of that when planning your time. For example, planning half a day a week to deal with your invoices, filing, emails to clients, and conversations with authorities can be really beneficial when scheduling your working time. 

7. Grow your network

As a freelancer, networking is absolutely crucial to success. 

Keep an up-to-date profile on websites like LinkedIn and German equivalent XING and keep in contact with anyone you’ve ever worked with, no matter how brief the contact was. 

Having a network is not only about getting more clients, but also about building a support network in your field to exchange advice, tips and generally for your own enrichment. 

Participating in workshops related to your field, going to seminars, and meet-ups, can be great ways of broadening your network.