Getting Started in Translation
16 January 2004
Thank you for your interest in translation. I hope that this article will help you decide whether or not to pursue translation as a profession.
What translation is
Let’s start with one important distinction: translators work with written texts; interpreters work with speech. Translation and interpretation are separate professions, each with its own challenges and requirements. Some people practice both; others find that they can do one well but not the other. This document discusses translation only.
Translators work from a source language (the language of the original document) into a target language (the language of the finished translation). Many translators have more than one source language, but most have only one target language, for reasons that we will discuss. The target language is usually the native language or the language in which the translator was educated.
On the surface, translation seems to be primarily about languages. Fundamentally, however, translation is a specialized form of writing. Merely knowing two languages does not make one a translator; uncommonly good writing skills are also necessary. The final product of translation is a text that should be every bit as good as the original document. Only a good writer can produce text of the quality required for professional translation.
Far from being a clerical activity on a par with typing or filing, translation is a difficult art. It is writing with many constraints. The ideas and even the style are those of someone else. Linguistic and cultural issues may become significant obstacles. Faithfulness to the original is demanded, but so is comprehensibility in the finished product, and these requirements often conflict with each other. These challenges call for special skills—skills that extend well beyond a command of two languages.
Should you translate?
You may not yet be able to answer this question. But let’s consider some relevant factors:
1) Do you like translation? Do you like writing and working with languages? Do you like working on your own? (Translation is often a solitary profession.) Do you cope well with challenges and work requiring attention to detail? How do you hold up under the pressure of a tight deadline?
2) Are you good at it? You won’t know until you try, but ask yourself whether you have the basic skills. How is your writing in your target language? Have you been told that you write well? Can you write expressively? How are your spelling and grammar? Are you observant and analytical? Do you have a broad general education? Are you sensitive to subtleties and cultural differences? How well do you read your source language? Be honest with yourself.
3) Can you make a living at it? Some language pairs have more potential than others. How is the market for your language pairs? Are jobs available? If not, can you find enough freelance work? (Most translators are self-employed, and few beginners would be offered full-time jobs anyway.) What do you need in the way of experience, training, and certification in order to work as a translator? How much time might it take to reach your goal?
4) Do you need more preparation? The fact that you are reading this article suggests that you probably need to accumulate some experience. What else might you need? Do you need to improve your writing skills? your business skills? Do you need to acquire resources? Are you financially prepared to enter the business? Do you need the answers to any other questions?
Your language pairs
As stated above, most translators have only one target language, usually their native language but sometimes the language in which they completed school. A few people who were raised bilingually can speak and write two languages with the competence of an educated native. Native trilinguals are very rare indeed.
The ability to acquire native competence in a language seems to wane in childhood and vanish by a fairly early age, roughly the onset of puberty (some say age twelve; others, age ten or eight). The reasons, which are numerous, are beyond the scope of this article. What is important to note is that a non-native speaker’s command of a language will ordinarily be more or less imperfect. However well she may speak, a non-native will unwittingly make errors of a sort that a native would not make. Similarly, a non-native will usually lack the experience in written style that a native acquired through many hours of reading and writing, in school or elsewhere. Her writing may be good, even excellent, but it will seldom seem as natural and correct as that of an educated native speaker. The constraints imposed by translation compound the non-native’s problems.
Students of second languages often overestimate their abilities. Flattering remarks from native speakers may lead them to suppose that they write with perfect grammar, usage, and style. A sober assessment will almost always turn up some minor flaws and perhaps some major ones.
In addition, not everyone who grew up bilingually can translate into both languages. Many native bilinguals speak both languages with native fluency but write only one well—or neither. Relatively few native bilinguals are equally at home in their two languages, especially in writing.
For all of these reasons, professional translators tend to translate only into their native languages. Quality will suffer if they translate into a non-native language, even one that they know rather well. People lack the detachment and the expertise to assess their own skills in a non-native language. They should not conclude from good marks in language courses, long years of residence in other countries, or flattering but probably exaggerated comments from natives that they are prepared to translate into that language. Translating into the native language only is a good policy.
You may be tempted to translate into a second language because there is more money to be made in that direction. Consider the point of Paula MacLeod, an experienced translator who is active in her professional organization: if you wouldn’t perform surgery or fly airplanes without the requisite skills just because those professions are lucrative, why would you translate into a language that you do not fully master? In the short term, you may get some work that way. In the long term, however, you may bring disgrace upon yourself and upon the entire profession. Knowledgeable clients, including many agencies, will look with a jaundiced eye upon your claim to translate in both directions if it is not bolstered with strong evidence of native bilingualism, so it may backfire even in the short term.
As a beginner, you may wish to start with a single language pair—your best one—and perhaps add others as you gain experience.
Can you make money in your language pair? Find out. Time was when local demand was important. In the age of prevalent Internet access, however, you may get business from the other side of the world, and your local clients may likewise hire remote translators. Remember to take supply into account as well as demand. Spanish–English is in far greater demand than Armenian–English, but the difference in the supply of good translators for those pairs is probably at least as great. Breaking into Spanish–English may be difficult: the many established translators get most of the business. Conversely, a new Armenian–English translator may be offered assignments right away simply because no one else is available; but those assignments may be few and far between.
Your writing skills
Now that you have identified your target language, you should take a good look at your writing skills in that language. They should be genuinely good, not just better than average. Inferior writers make inferior translators.
On a basic level, you should have a solid command of spelling, grammar, punctuation, and usage. This means more than running the spelling checker in your word processor. If you are weak in any of these areas, you should know your own weakness and be able to make up for it with appropriate reference to dictionaries and other materials.
On a more advanced level, you should command a broad range of styles—broad enough to enable you to represent faithfully any text that you undertake to translate. You should be able to write coherent texts that flow well page after page. You should know the accepted forms and conventions for the types of documents with which you intend to work.
If you feel that your writing skills may need some work, consider taking some courses. Ask for frank criticism of your writing from someone who can judge it well. Develop good writing skills before starting out as a translator. Don’t try to fob the public off with mediocre quality. Most clients will demand good work for their money.
Perhaps you are crazy about orchids, Orff, or origami and cannot wait to supply speakers of your target language with a wealth of translated literature on the subject closest to your heart. Great! I wish you every success.
Unfortunately, there is almost no work to be had in any of these fields. Translation is expensive and requires a significant justification, usually financial (the prospect of making lots of money) but sometimes administrative (a governmental requirement). Your project may remain a labor of love.
Similarly, translating books is a field with poor prospects, especially for those whose target language is English. Relatively few books are translated. Rates tend to be very low and are often tied to royalties. Few translators make a living from books alone.
What, then, gets translated? Documentation (such as instruction manuals) for products, corporate reports, materials needed in lawsuits, documents from governmental entities (including supernational ones such as the European Union and the United Nations), a small amount of scientific literature, personal records needed for such purposes as immigration and admission to universities. Dull, perhaps, but that’s how it is. Architects design mostly very ordinary buildings, and translators translate mostly very ordinary texts.
Most documents are technical, and clients often seek translators with background in the appropriate field. You may wish to cultivate at least one specialty. If you have done significant work or study in a specialized field, you may already have a good foundation. If not, reading as much literature as you can and perhaps taking a course or two could help you to develop the required background. Useful specialties for translation include engineering, finance, law, medicine, and the sciences.
Translators need considerable resources. These days a good computer with access to the Internet is essential. In the hands of a clever translator, the Internet can be a useful way to track down technical terms, names, and general information.
Dictionaries are also important. Equip yourself with good ones, the best that you can get. (I don’t part readily with my money, but I won’t hesitate to plunk down for a good dictionary.) Get unilingual and bilingual ones. Get specialized ones as you need them. It must be noted that no good bilingual or even unilingual dictionaries exist for certain languages, including some fairly major ones.
Other good reference works to have around are style guides, thesauri, reference grammars, gazetteers, almanacs, and a good encyclopædia. Quality varies greatly, so shop around or get recommendations before spending any money. Do not neglect useful books on accounting, law, medicine, and other areas in which you may do work. If possible, get these in your target language so that you can find the technical terms that you will need.
Familiarize yourself with the library facilities to which you may have access, including those at universities, which may offer an annual subscription for a relatively modest fee. Professionals, too, are often generous with their time and may be willing to answer questions in their specialties if you take the effort to do some research before consulting them.
Consider also your financial resources. You may need two or three years or more to establish a clientele that will keep you busy with regular work. If you don’t have the wherewithal to sustain yourself in the first few months, perhaps you should take a part-time or full-time job until your business gets off the ground. Do not expect to be given work at first just because you are able to do it. Translation is not a road to instant riches. Becoming established as a translator takes effort and patience.
When you feel that you are ready, try your hand at translation. Find text of the sort that you would translate: a difficult scientific treatise or an annual report, not a magazine article. Assess your translation, and find someone else to assess it if you can. Make notes of difficulties and uncertainties.
If you are studying by yourself, look for documents for which a translation exists. You can often download these free of charge from the Web sites of governments or corporations. Resist the temptation to peek at the published translation until you have finished your own. Then compare them carefully. Is yours better or worse? Were there interesting differences? What would you do differently? Take careful notes of your observations and reflect from time to time on what you have learned.
Early in your career, and even later on, you will run across difficult passages that you may not understand or that you cannot render into the target language. As a translator, you are responsible for the whole text. You cannot just pick the low-hanging fruit and gloss over or omit all the tricky bits. This means that translator’s notes that put the translator’s responsibility onto the reader’s shoulders, such as “[This could mean A, B, or C]”, are a no-no. If, while learning to translate, you come across problems that you cannot resolve, make a note of them and discuss them with more experienced people. The difficult problems are the ones from which you will learn the most, so do not neglect them. Consider setting the text aside and finding something easier, then coming back to the difficult text when you have better skills. If, however, you regularly find that you cannot read the original or that you don’t know how to translate it, you may need to improve your language skills or do more preparation of another sort.
Consider finding a mentor. Some experienced professionals may take you under their wing and offer valuable advice that will help you to improve your skills. They may help you for no charge or request a small fee, typically less than they earn as translators. Hiring a mentor may be well worth while. It can be a cheap form of private instruction.
Some universities offer programs in translation that may culminate in certificates or degrees. If this route interests you, find out what is available in your language pair. At a minimum, a course on professional ethics for translators is recommended. This may take the form of a seminar offered by a professional organization or perhaps by a court or other institution that certifies its own translators.
Requirements for certification vary from country to country. In most places, anyone can legally work as a translator. Some countries do, however, require certification for translators working in certain areas, such as government work; and some clients may hire certified translators only. Certification may thus be a practical necessity in those countries. You can get more information from the professional organization for translators in your country or from translators or translation agencies.
Volunteering your services can be a good way to gain experience. Offer free translation to charities that you can support. Those that serve immigrants or other speakers of your source or target language may appreciate the offer.
Finally, keep in mind that any translation that you do does count as experience and can be cited as such to potential clients. Maintain a few samples of your work, as clients may ask to see some. (Do not divulge confidential material.)
Now is the time to go back over the questions in the section “Should you translate?” and decide whether translation is a good choice for you and whether you are prepared to proceed. Whatever you decide, I wish you the best.
The next steps
Other articles will appear on the business side of translation. But here are a few basic tips.
Avoid unnecessary expenditures at first. A classic mistake in business is to start out by spending money. Reserves that are sorely needed are spent right up front, and the business soon finds itself out of money when little or no work comes in. Yes, you do need a computer, an Internet connection, and a few reference books. But such things as office furniture, embossed stationery, and a second telephone line, to say nothing of rented office space and secretarial help, can and should wait until they can be justified—a time that may well never come.
If you find yourself running low on money, consider finding a job in some other field while you build up your business. You probably won’t have much work for the first year or more. Try not to feel discouraged; it’s simply the reality of breaking into a new profession, especially as a self-employed person rather than an employee.
Determine your schedule of rates. Will you bill by source words or target words—or perhaps by line or by some other standard? What is the convention in your language pair and in your country? When should you charge by the hour? What are the going rates? Answers to all of these questions can be found with a bit of research on the Internet. You should find the answers on your own. Translators who post “What on earth should I charge?” on major Web sites come across as lazy people with no professional experience at all—hardly an inviting profile in the eye of a potential client.
As a beginner, you cannot demand the rates of experienced professionals, but nor should you be taken in by the absurdly low offers of one cent per word and the like that proliferate on certain Web sites. Know what your work is worth and charge accordingly. Multiplying your unit price (per word or line) by your average hourly production will give you your average earnings per hour.
Find out about registering your business, a legal requirement in some jurisdictions. In addition, find out about your liability for taxes. Usually nothing will be withheld at source from payments for freelance work, so you must plan to pay income taxes yourself. You may also have to charge a sales tax or value-added tax to clients in your country and certain others—and render it in turn to the government. Penalties for non-compliance can be substantial, so do find out about your obligations. On the plus side, you will probably be able to deduct business expenses. Time spent on these issues up front will pay for itself.
How to get your first assignment? Start by preparing a résumé that highlights your experience in translation and related areas. Submit it, along with a few samples of your work, to translation agencies that offer your language pair. Get publicity by registering with some of the major Web sites for translators, such as www.translatorscafe.com. Create a Web site for your business and publicize it.
Your first assignments may be from agencies, but eventually you may wish to seek direct clients. An advertising campaign in your region may pay off, if you get good value for money spent. Start with business cards, which are cheap and useful.
Solicit suggestions from more experienced translators. Here a mentor can be invaluable in offering leads and perhaps even recommendations. Meet some other translators. Those in your language pairs may subcontract some of their overflow to you; those who translate in the opposite direction (B to A when you do A to B) may refer you when they get inquiries. You will, of course, return the favor whenever you can.
A professional appearance will help. Be prepared for such questions as “What are your rates?” and “How many words can you translate per day?”. Hemming and hawing will mark you as a novice. Answering forthrightly, as if you routinely received such questions, will leave a favorable impression. Likewise, your voice on the telephone should not compete with screaming children and a vacuum cleaner, the greeting on your answering machine should be dignified (no cutesy jokes or music, please), and your correspondence should be clean and free of spelling errors.
Good manners will serve you well your whole life long, but they are particularly important in business. I have heard many shocking stories of rudeness, irresponsibility, dishonesty, slovenliness, and outright disrespect on the part of translators. Naturally, every one of these stories came from a dissatisfied client who planned to take his business elsewhere. Practicing good manners on and off the job will improve your professional demeanor and preserve your reputation. Advice can be found in the many good books on etiquette.
Know your limitations. Don’t attempt a water-walking act. Claiming to specialize in everything or offering to translate to and from half a dozen languages will fool no one. Don’t be afraid to turn down projects that are too difficult for you. Refer them to more qualified colleagues if you can.
Above all, never—but never!—miss a deadline. A good way to lose a client and tarnish your reputation is to fail to meet a commitment. I have never missed a deadline for a translation project in my life, and I don’t intend to start now. Most of the time I submit my work early. Clients know that I can be trusted to uphold my promise to deliver excellent work on time. If you find that you have bitten off more than you can chew, you have the responsibility to solve the problem. Discuss the situation with your client as soon as possible. Perhaps you can get an extension or submit the work in stages, or perhaps you can subcontract part of the work (with the client’s approval). Learn from your mistake and avoid it in the future.
These suggestions are intended as basic advice. More ideas on specific aspects of working as a translator will be published in other articles.