Advice for Beginners

Bill Clinton meeting new people
at a Las Vegas charity event
on October 12. Photo by J.Jenner.
After years of receiving long lists of questions, both personally and through our associations, and after  answering hundreds of e-mails, we've decided to compile typical beginners'  concerns into a few posts about how to enter the profession. Remember that building a business in the languages industry is a lot of work.

We'd like to start the series off with this exercise. If you don't like to do at least five out of the following, you should reconsider running your own business. While in-house positions are rare, they do exist, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with not wanting to be an entrepreneur. 

  • Writing. If you don't enjoy writing, you probably shouldn't be a translator either in-house or freelance. Essentially, you are a writer. Since you will be writing for a living, you better love it.
  • Marketing. If you don't like selling and promoting your services, then running a business is not for you. Sure, you can outsource some of that, but this will all cut into your profit. There are a variety of ways for introverts to market their services, but essentially, as a small business owner, you need to be comfortable with being in a sales position.
  • Self-confidence. If you don't think you are good and that your services are valuable, then no one else will, either. No one wants an insecure linguist. You don't have to know everything, but you need to come across as competent and sure of yourself to customers. If you don't have that skill, work on it: take a public speaking course, an improv class, or head to the library for some reading materials....these skills can be acquired.
  • IT/computer skills. Do you break out in nervous hives when you have to install new software? Are you generally uncomfortable with computer tasks? If you are used to calling the help desk when Outlook crashes and never learned how to map your own drives, it's time to pick up some of these skills before you start your own business. Again, you could outsource some tasks, but in order to make a living, especially in the beginning, you need to be as self-sufficient as possible.
  • Organization. There are different levels of organization, and different things work for different people, but in general, if you spend more than a few minutes looking for what you need, you are not using your time effectively. This applies to both paper and electronic documents. Your time is the only resource you have, so use it smartly. 
  • Basic math and taxation. There's no need to do three-dimensional calculus, but you should have basic math proficiency (yes, even as a liberal arts person). Chances are that you are not familiar with taxation issues, so go to the library, get a book, or meet with the Small Business Administration. If you don't like number-related paperwork, you might need to rethink your strategy.
  • Meeting new people. Growing a business, in essence, comes down to one thing: increasing the amount of people who know about you and your services. There are many ways to do this, but basically, you need to meet more people, either in person or online. Get your 30-second elevator speech ready, dress nicely, be ready to network, and don't be pushy. You don't have to perfect the art of meeting people like Bill Clinton has done (see picture), but if meeting new people makes you nervous, then perhaps you are better off working in-house.
  • Procrastination and determination. You won't have a boss to check on your deadlines. No one will be telling you what to do -- except your clients. Hence, you have to be very disciplined and determined to run a business. If you are not, you will fail. The same is true for procrastination: we have yet to meet a successful entrepreneur who regularly procrastinates. Take an honest look at your personality: perhaps you need to work in a hierarchical structure to get motivated -- and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
This is just a short exercise to get us started. Experienced translators: is there anything you'd like to add to this list? Beginning linguists: we would love to know if this introduction was helpful to you.


Alex Eames on October 20, 2010 at 12:38 AM said...

Good list :)

I think being a "stubborn optimist" helps an awful lot. It's not an absolute requirement, but if you can hold a positive long-term outlook in your mind "It'll be alright", "It'll come good", it's infectious and self-fulfilling.

Being a good communicator by phone and email is an ENORMOUS benefit too. Far too many people dash out an email instead of giving it the time to really think about what they're trying to say and how to say it. (Every communication with a client or potential client is marketing after all.)

When we used to hire translators, we'd always hire the ones who were easiest to deal with. It makes sense too...

It's more profitable to work with someone who will do exactly what they should, when they should, how they should. It means less time wasted messing about - and that's worth paying extra for.

GG on October 20, 2010 at 8:24 AM said...

Hi Judy, I would like to add a few things:
Instead of writing: "If you don't enjoy writing," I would write: "If you don't have excellent writing skills, a deep knowledge of spelling and grammar, please do not even think to start this career" and also "Make sure you have an excellent command of both the source and the target language(s)". Furthermore, "If you are not an avid reader and don't like to read, you should never choose this profession."
These remarks come from the experience of regularly seeing very poorly written translations, from people that do not even know the basics of their own language. With your permission, I would like to repost this very interesting article into the Italian Proz Forum.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 20, 2010 at 9:10 AM said...

Great additions, Alex and Giusi, thanks for sharing!

Yes, absolutely, Giusi, please do share with colleagues in the Proz forum. There is so much to add to this list, and we wanted to keep it short on our end so folks could add to it. And yes, you have to be an outstanding writer to be in this profession -- sometimes we think that does without saying, but based on the poor quality of writing we see, it should probably be spelled out.

@Alex: yes, being an optimist and a solid communicator is essential, too. Excellent additions to this list.

Maria Rosaria Carbone on October 29, 2010 at 5:36 AM said...

I think it's a good article too! You pointed out some things which can seem obvious but are essential for a person who wants to start this career. It can happen that a person is an excellent translator but is not able to run a business. There's nothing wrong in it. The important is to be aware about it!
what else? I would add that you must also be able to cope with stress because sometimes it takes long before getting good results.

Karen Tkaczyk said...

Well done Judy. Nice list.
Just a thought: I think it's worth adding that even technical translators should love writing.
I don't think you had 'pay attention to detail' on the list. If you can't proofread, your clients will never be truly happy with you.
And how about 'be a saver, not a spender'? That makes the feast/famine aspects manageable.

Unknown on November 5, 2010 at 10:08 AM said...

Hi Judy, excellent list!
I'd like to add that you should be ready and willing to constantly learn about all kinds of things, be it translation or business related.

Also, there's a lot of frustated translators out there who like to vent their anger on blogs, forums etc. - Stay away from them and, instead, look for inspiration from positive, experienced translation bloggers and follow up on what's going out there!

Álvaro Degives-Más on November 15, 2010 at 11:02 AM said...

My basic advice is to love and care deeply about language in general.

I'll be direct: if you think syntax is unimportant, rethink entering the profession altogether. I deliberately pick syntax, as other disciplines of linguistics such as morphology, etymology or phonology tend to have an aura of being "interesting" around them.

Love each language you serve with equal dedication, with the passion of a parent dedicated equally to each child. If you believe "good is good enough" and categorically yield to pragmatism over precision, "as long as the meaning gets across" and don't care too much for the nuances, the variations, the richness, the ever surprising ability to capture and breathe life into a specific idea with the right term, you quite probably should look for a different profession as well.

For a language professional, be it a translator or an interpreter, I believe this is a key tenet for long-term success: Respect for language = respect for people = respect for professionalism = self-respect.

Secondly and shortly: be prepared for and look forward to a lifelong learning experience. Be open-minded to lean, and you'll never run out of inspiration.

Rose on December 2, 2010 at 7:24 PM said...

Great list, I would thoroughly agree.

I think the computer skills are almost as important as the language skills - being a fast typist saves valuable time, whilst being good at online research means high quality results. Plus, inevitably, we all have the odd computer failure - and it is important that we can limit downtime. (Geek tip: I use two hard drives, each with primary bootable partitions of a fully installed operating system - so if one fails, the other slides right in - great if there is a deadline, and you want to use your usual computer).

Here is a question though... When does one STOP being a beginner? After 4-5 years, with many repeat agency and private clients, am I still a beginner? Or, because I am holding off doing a translation qualification*, am I still, and will I always be, 'a beginner'?

*(I am choosing to do an MA in an Information Technology field instead, as this is my specialism, the exact course relates closely to machine translation, and it is my other talent - plus I am terrified of doing the translation exams without my computer and internet resources)

Thomas Gruber on January 3, 2011 at 6:17 AM said...

The only way you are going to know what a client will place value in is by asking them and getting them to tell you what they're looking for.

Sounds simple enough, and yet so many businesses don't do it.

Listen to your client and put aside your pre-conceived notions of what a "typical buyer" might be most interested in.

They will tell you what their needs are when you ask them the right questions. This means not only do you need to ask the right questions, but you also need to hear what the customer is telling you and then ask them a follow-up question on what they just told you.

Asking the follow-up question is key, because the vast majority of time, the customer will share with you much better insights when you show interest and involvement in what they're telling you.

Once a person feels the other person is truly listening, it's only natural for the quality of the conversation to become more real and engaging. By asking the follow-up questions, you will learn what the client's expectations are.

You can then finally work to close the sale to the client's expectations. When that happens, it will do more than just close the sale. There is a significant likelihood the sale will be closed at a higher profit, because the client sees more value in what they're buying. And the likelihood the client comes back increases too.

Rebekka on May 17, 2011 at 1:29 AM said...

Thanks for some great advice. I'm a new translator and have just qualified and your blog has inspired be and I have even started my own blog because of this on :)

legal translation services on November 14, 2011 at 3:20 AM said...

I really appreciate your post and you explain each and every point very well.Thanks for sharing this information.And I’ll love to read your next post too.


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