Advice to an aspiring professional translator

June 30, 2011 by admin

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A sombre health warning has to be given first. The following advice is completely unsolicited, biased, quite possibly uncalled-for, and comes from a grumpy, balding, middle-aged and somewhat hungover principal owner of a UK translation company. If taken seriously, it might therefore eliminate any trace of illusion and, possibly, enthusiasm in our young aspiring translator, who may just this year have embarked on a four-year university course in, say, French and Spanish language and literature.

So, to start us off on the right foot: who suggested you should study French and Spanish in the first place?

Didn’t somebody tell you that there is a regular glut of French and Spanish translators out there? Yes, I understand that you learned French since the age of 7, and that Spanish appeals to you because of all those holidays on the Costa del Sol, but this is a business, which – like any other business – is ruled by supply and demand.

Did you ever give German any thought? Yes, nobody likes declensions or words that are longer than most self-respecting sentences in English, and that Spanish language assistant at school was definitely cuter, but that’s partly why the supply of German linguists is low and appears to be getting lower. The number of students taking German GCSE and A-levels is in steep and accelerating decline, and so is the number of university graduates. The German export industry, on the other hand, is booming, and therefore so is demand.

Other exciting possibilities (if you consider finding a job exciting) include Chinese (there is a serious shortage of native English translators from Chinese), or any number of more exotic minor languages (Burmese anyone?).

Go and get a proper job first!

More exactly, what I mean is: specialise! One possibility is of course to take specialist courses at university, say in legal translation or medical translation, but really, there is no replacement for practice. In the extreme case, the translation of a retired lawyer, used to decades of drafting contracts, will – given the right language skills of course – almost always be vastly superior to that of a recent graduate in legal translation, however keen and gifted.

Of course, you don’t have to wait until retirement, but properly learning a profession for a few years will prove an invaluable asset and will allow you to charge considerably higher rates later. Probably not what you want to hear right now, raring to go as you are, but remember that I warned you at the start!

At the very least, and as an imperfect replacement, go and work in a translation agency for a couple of years. This will at least acquaint you with the right etiquette, demeanour and service level required to satisfy major corporate translation clients, and will stand you in very good stead when you set up for yourself.

Don’t believe all the hype about translation technology!

Translation memory tools make for nice Christmas gifts. Sometimes they have real uses, too, in the right context, and they can then save you a bit of time.

In terms of the upside, that is about it, though. Don’t believe your university teacher, who is excited that her discipline is changing, but is blinded by the dominant player’s marketing blurb and dazzled by the technology that is provided to her for free. She also has no idea about the actual translation market place.

The truth is that after our translation agency has served more than 5000 clients, we have been specifically asked to use a certain memory tool exactly 4 times. Yes, freelance translators get asked to use them more often by agencies, but in those cases, they are used as a bargaining weapon against you.

See, I didn’t warn you for nothing…

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