Launching a Translation Career
Launching a Translation Career
by Maya Mirsky
Is a translator a writer? Oh, definitely so. If we accept translation as the attempt to move the soul of a text into a different body (more difficult than a brain transplant!) we can see how much of a writer a translator really is. No one without the writer's touch will be able to handle this delicate and subtle operation, and the subsequent creation owes its life to the translator as well as the original author.
Translation can be a rewarding career, either as a full-time vocation or as a supplement to your writing jobs. The skills you learn as a translator -- patience, attention to detail, expression, composition -- can help your writing enormously.
Let's look at what it takes to become a translator. First of all, you do have to know another language. But don't be intimidated; you don't have to be a native Spanish speaker or fluent in Albanian to start translating. Like all careers (especially writing!) it takes time to learn both the craft and the business. Let's say you are already comfortable with reading general texts in a language. You now have a few options. You can take a course of some kind, or you can try to gain professional experience. Translation courses are usually post-graduate. Some focus intensively on translating into and out of certain languages. Others emphasize knowing many languages and translating into your native tongue. Most translation courses also give supplementary language classes. There are many approaches, each suitable for a different kind of translating. If you want to be a literary translator, you'll probably specialize in learning the nuances of just one language. If you translate commercial texts, multilingual skills may be important. There are endless variations.
Courses aren't a necessity, however. You can learn through actually doing translations, if you are patient and motivated. Just like any kind of writing, you need to build your resume, and the best way to do this is to start small. If you don't feel comfortable translating into your second language, start with translating into your native tongue, since passive language knowledge is always stronger than active. If you are in an English-speaking country, try to find small non-English publications, such as neighborhood newsletters or chamber of commerce bulletins. Immigrant communities are full of these opportunities. If you live overseas, then local businesses or academic institutions with international connections are a good place to start. Your first assignments may be nerve-wracking. but you'll gain the vital experience you need to grow as a translator.
Types of Jobs
There are as many subdivisions in translation as in any type of writing. Experience in a field can be invaluable for finding jobs; specialization in sewage disposal may not be glamorous, but you'd be surprised how many international corporate clients you can find! Once you've specialized, you can start to charge more.
Literary translation, although challenging and glamorous, is usually not a good place to start your career. Begin with more prosaic subjects; find import-export companies and offer your services. A surprisingly large number of text-memos, business plans and minutes, just to name a few -- are shunted from one language to the next, and the corporate sector pays well.
As a translator you can work freelance, through an agency, or for one client exclusively. Many agencies are not willing to consider translators without qualifications, but this definitely depends on which languages you deal with. Don't be put off by a few rejections. At the beginning of your translating career go for smaller agencies or companies and build a profile. Freelance work demands constant attention, but it can be rewarding for those who like to work at home, or who want to work on particular hard-to-find subjects. Freelancers sometimes have agreements with several agencies to do a certain amount of work per week or month. Working for one client usually means translating in-office. This could be at a newspaper interested in foreign news or a multinational company, and can mean full-time or part-time hours.
Translation jobs can give you wonderful opportunities in writing, or visa versa. Through translating I was given a chance at a series of business-related articles about the country where I live. From writing assignments I have made contacts for further translating. Learn your environment and you can generally make good contacts with a little initiative and goodwill. Another word-based career with ties to both translation and straightforward writing is copy editing. This was my own starting point for my dual paths into writing and translation. Editing translations before you start to translate is an excellent way to learn about the pitfalls and mishaps of language and expression.
What you'll charge depends on where you are. A good way to find out rates in your area is to call agencies and ask about their fees. Also check the Internet for markets. There are various associations and job-finding sites. One place to take a look is Foreign Word (at http://www.foreignword.com), which has links to some of the many associations and agencies as well as a database of translators' CVs.
Before you start even your first translation, make sure you have style guides and dictionaries on hand. For translating into English, The Chicago Manual of Style can be essential for questions of composition. There are excellent dictionaries on CD-ROM, both bilingual and English/English. For the latter I recommend the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. Having your dictionaries on the computer can be a time-saver, although it's not essential.
Translation software is a controversial topic right now. It should be said, however, that no translation software, however sophisticated, does the job for you. It can only be an aid. Good discussions on the skills of translating can be found in The Craft of Translation (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing and Publishing). Another book that is packed with market information and translation tips is The Translator's Handbook, Third Edition, by Morry Sofer. Additional information is available from Douglas Robinson's Becoming a Translator: An Accelerated Course. Some final recommendations for becoming a translator: Be professional. Always, always keep your deadlines. You are sometimes the last step before publication, and being late can cost you your job. Keep records -- making your own glossary can save you time and headaches later on. Some computer-based dictionaries have an "add your own words" option, but at the very least a simple list is invaluable. Check and re-check -- a translation is never perfect, but if the crucial sentence in the text is unclear or even (gasp!) incorrect, you might cause a lot of trouble. Finally, read -- newspapers or books in both (or all) of your languages will help you get a feel for translating. Taking the first step in a new direction is always hard. Starting to translate is difficult, but it can lead you into a rewarding area. It's something you can combine with writing to make a full, well-rounded freelance career. Or you may just love it so much you will dedicate your life to it!
Copyright © 2001 Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky is an editor of travel guides, currently based in Budapest, Hungary. She can be reached at paragraphmark "at" yahoo.com.