Advice for Beginning Translators and Interpreters

A few weeks ago, Judy participated in a "Getting Started in Translation and Interpreting Workshop" in Reno, Nevada, which was organized by the non-profit she spearheads, the Nevada Interpreters and Translators Association. She presented this workshop with other industry veterans, including well-known French-to-English chemistry translator Karen Tkaczyk, who made a series of excellent points, which we will include here. This post is intended for beginning or new translators and interpreters, and it's one in a series of posts that should help those looking for information. Click here and here for other posts in this series.  Judy is also teaching Intro to Translation at UC-San Diego Extension (online) again this fall, and even though the class is a lot of work, it's also very rewarding to be doing this labor of love that helps educate the next generation. Many students have limited insight into what it takes to be a  professional translator, and that's where we come in. In her role as the secretary general of UNIVERSITAS Austria Interpreteters' and Translators' Association, Dagy regularly mentors newcomers and dispenses (useful) advice, so we have a thing or two to add to this topic.

While here at Translation Times we are known for our positive spin on things, get ready for some tough love! To succeed as a freelance translator, you must do many things. Here are 10 of them. You may take them with a grain of salt as well, of course!

1) Be an outstanding writer. If you don't love books, writing, and can't tell us the last five books you've read, this might not be the right profession for you. Do people constantly tell you that you are a strong, clear, precise writer? If yes, then you are very much on the right path. If not, then you've got some soul-searching to do. Being bilingual is not enough; but you already knew that. Interpreters need to have good public speaking skills and should also love all things language. Do you?
2) Be a top-notch translator. Be honest with yourself (we know this is difficult). How good are you really? Can you compete with people with high-level translation degrees, narrow specializations, or those who have been doing this for 20 years? Are you truly talented? Unfortunately, it's oftentimes quite difficult to get honest feedback on your work because no one wants to hurt your feelings. Find someone who wants to help you grow. Take a class and review your scores and your professor's comments. Find a qualified colleague and pay him/her to evaluate a translation. Ask him or her if your work is good enough. Take it from there.
3) Like paperwork. If you don't like to do paperwork, this profession is going to make you miserable. You will have to do your accounting, taxes, client management, client acquisition, etc. It's a lot of legwork and a ton of paperwork. You can outsource some of these tasks, but in the beginning, that's not cost-effective. Also, you must be very organized (printed and electronic files). If your client asks you for a file from last March, you better know where it is.
4) Have solid computer skills. You absolutely cannot rely on your roommate, your father-in-law, your brother or your wife to help you solve your computer issues. Clients expect perfectly formatted texts done to their precise instructions. If you happen to have a Mac, it's your job to figure out how to make that work with the client's PC-generated documents. The client doesn't care what you need to do to get this accomplished. You must be self-sufficient, as you probably won't be able to afford IT help. And no, you can't complain to your client that your antivirus software crashed. You are a professional, so do the job.
5) Be tough. This business is not for the faint of heart. If you can't take rejection, then you are in for some unpleasant surprises. As an independent contractor, you are always marketing yourself, and it can be hard to hear that someone doesn't want your services. No one said running your own business is easy. It's not. 
6) Communicate well. Karen Tkaczyk likes to tell the story that she gets a lot of work from agency clients because she's faster at responding to e-mail than most people. She truly is: you send her an e-mail and you will most likely get an immediate response. Clients like that. You don't have to respond right off the bat, but being reachable and responsive is a huge plus. In today's smartphone-dominated world, there's really no reason not to respond to inquiries in a timely fashion. In Europe, client expectations are a bit more relaxed, but in the US, you better be on it. You should be in front of your computer during business hours. 
7) Be reliable.This is a no-brainer, but we've seen it all before. People commit to deadlines and then can't meet them because the dog got sick or their mother-in-law is in the hospital. Some of these reasons are certainly very legitimate, but it doesn't change the fact that you didn't meet the deadline. Most clients, and we include ourselves here, would never, never, never do another project with someone who didn't meet a deadline. You know how many deadlines we've missed since 2002? None. And yes, our computers have crashed. And we've stayed up all night fixing things. And we've driven around town in the middle of the night trying to find  a place to print documents because our printer quit working. 
8) Be open to feedback. Most clients won't tell you if they don't like your work. They simply won't contact you again, but will probably tell all their contacts that they did not think your work was good. In the rare instance that someone does give you feedback, you should treat it as what it is: a beautiful gift and the chance for you to improve. 
9) Be true to your word. Your reputation is the only thing you have. If you say you will do something, do it. It doesn't matter if you commit to hosting a social get-together for your local interpreters and translators association, agree to meet your client for lunch at a specific time, or promise to follow-up to the customer's e-mail the next day. Just do it. If you can't remember things, put a note on your calendar. No excuses. We know some amazing colleagues whom we trust with our lives. We know we will be there when we need them. Those are the folks with whom we collaborate on projects. Not surprisingly, these are also the people who never miss a board meeting, are always on time for lunch, and send you that report for the newsletter that they promised they would.
10) Be able to deal with financial uncertainty. If you think you will make money right after hanging your shingle, you are probably wrong. Save 6-12 months' living expenses before you go out on your own. You might not make a penny the first six months. And you might do really well some months only to have little work the next month. Those are the realities of self-employment. If you don't have the stomach for it, don't run your own business. If you have a second income in your family, that certainly helps. In this business, it's either feast or famine, and every single linguist has gone through it, including us. It's not fun. If the thought of this makes you cringe, then you are better off working in-house. Just like with any profession, there are no guarantees.  Even the best master's degree from the best university or the best of intentions don't guarantee a job or clients (same for every other field: law, real estate, dentistry, etc.).

We think this is a good start, but would love to hear from our friends and colleagues (experienced or not). Did we miss anything essential? What advice would you give to people just starting out? Which are the essential skills that translators need? How about interpreters?


Caroline Lakey on October 18, 2012 at 12:20 AM said...

Great post!
I would add "Be a perfectionist". Almost there is not good enough, you need to be prepared to search until you find the perfect word (if you're a translator!) and make sure that every detail of your work is spot on. Being a perfectionist also gives you that all-important drive to keep learning.

Silvia DAmico on October 18, 2012 at 7:07 AM said...

What a great post!

When I started freelancing all I learned outside the classroom was from your book "The entrepreneurial linguist" and Corinne's book "How to succeed as a freelance translator". They should become text books for all translation students!

Anonymous said...

Very useful post! I would just add: Remember that your fellow translators can be a great source of inspiration for you, so keep an eye on the professionals you value to learn from them and to understand if what they do would suit you too.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 18, 2012 at 9:30 AM said...

@Caroline: Thanks for reading and for commenting. Excellent suggestion! Yes, being a perfectionist is quite important (we do fall into that category, hehe).

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 18, 2012 at 9:31 AM said...

@Silvia: Thanks for your sweet and kind comment. We are delighted to hear that you liked our book. :)Corinne's book is quite the gold standard, isn't it?

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 18, 2012 at 9:32 AM said...

@Chiara (we love your name): We agree 100%! We are constantly inspired by our fantastic colleagues around the world.

Elisa said...

Excellent topic! And certainly some tough points you have raised, but all true. Very helpful for beginners, and a good reminder for everyone else!
I would like to add my own tip: be very well organized, especially in managing your working hours/private life balance.
Being a freelance often means facing people who think you have all the time and freedom in the world to do an amazing range of things, at any time, and assume you're always available for anything. You are not: if you let other people dictate your working schedule, you'll end up stressing out and not reaching goals. Be clear with everyone about your professional priorities.
Also, carefully set up a daily, or weekly, schedule that works for you and stick to it. Being free from fixed office times doesn't mean you are on holiday-mode all the time ;)
Of course we should enjoy the freedom that comes with self-employment! But you really know when to break the rules only when you've learnt to respect them. To make flexibility work, a good amount of self-discipline is very much needed :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 18, 2012 at 3:37 PM said...

@Elisa: Thanks for reading and thanks for your very thoughtful comment. That's excellent advice right there. Flexibility can be both a blessing and a curse, and yes, having self-discipline is very, very important in our field of work.

Roman Mironov on October 20, 2012 at 7:54 AM said...

I'd add “Use Get proficient with at least one CAT tool.” I know you, Judy and Dagmar, don't work for translation
agencies, and this could be the reason you did not include learning a CAT tool on the list. But someone new to the profession might find it makes sense to work with translation agencies at the outset. Of course, their rates are generally lower, but they're also a source of a more steady income as well as solid experience.

Even if you realize you don't like CAT tools down the road, you don't have to use them, right? Just quit using them and forget them. But at least you'll know what they are about and won't feel frustrated when a client asks if you use them or someone talks about them at a conference, etc., and you don't have a clue.

Good luck,

P.S. By the way, I think that typing a captcha each time I'm leaving a comment is a pain. That's the only thing I don't appreciate about your otherwise excellent blog :)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 20, 2012 at 10:12 AM said...

@Roman: Thanks for commenting and for reading. Excellent point about CAT tools. We use them and definitely recommend them! We just tried to limit this list to 10 things (even though we have many more!), and the list goes on and on for sure. We agree: every freelancer needs to learn how to work with CAT tools, preferably with a free tool in the beginning when money is tight. And yes, agencies are a great choice for many colleagues.

We will look into the captcha. We think our techie added it for a reason (spam?), but it certainly is true that it's annoying to have to type the letters, which are sometimes hard to read.

Kenny Cargill on October 27, 2012 at 11:54 AM said...

While all of this is sound advice, it is important that you as a freelancer never enter into unreasonable working relationships. It is much easier to keep deadlines and perform quality work when you know the maximum number of words per day that you can translate or proofread. Never accept more than this capacity. On the contrary, when possible, I even try to negotiate deadlines that are more generous than what I strictly need. This means that if a personal emergency comes up I still have time to complete the assignment. In other words, it is smart to plan to finish before your deadline, so that you have a natural built-in buffer. And if it turns out that you do not need the extra time, it always looks smart to turn work in early.

It is also important never to accept an assignment until you have reviewed it in its entirety. I have made the mistake in the past of accepting a project in advance, only to eventually receive a file that is much larger than the projected volume and which is still due by originally agreed deadline. This is a terrible pickle to be put into.

All business relationships are two-way streets, and I have noticed that if you act as an equal partner towards your client (and not as someone willing to accept any assignment on any terms), you will ultimately be treated better.

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 29, 2012 at 10:03 AM said...

@Kenny: thanks for reading and for commenting, Kenny. This is fantastic advice here; we really appreciate it. And yes: reviewing a project before accepting is is one of the most important things you need to do in our profession!

Unknown on October 29, 2012 at 1:21 PM said...

Thanks for the tips! I met you both briefly at the ATA conference this past weekend and heard a few of these during Judy's "10 Habits of Highly Successful Translators and Interpreters" session. It's always great to get advice, and this is exactly what I need right now.

~Jamie (the one with the nail polish!)

HJChapman on October 31, 2012 at 12:03 AM said...

Totally agree with Kenny Cargill, and make one more point not on the list….

Don't lose self-confidence and accept rubbish and diminishing rates of pay that leave you with less take-home than a moderately devoted toilet cleaner. The number of examples of that happening in Central Europe right now is very sad to see.

Great translators are hard to come by, in any jurisdiction, they invest hugely in their education, skill, and professional development - It has to be sustainable, which means that it is fair to ask for and expect a decent per word rate that allows an appropriate quality of life for the long term.

With best wishes

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on October 31, 2012 at 12:10 PM said...

@HJ Chapman: Thanks so much for your valuable comment. We could not agree more. Setting professional rates for our professional work is, without doubt, or favorite topic, and it's essential that all T&I around the world start thinking that way! Too many beginners underprice their services.

Cindy Alimorong on May 16, 2013 at 9:52 PM said...

Your tips are really spot on! When I first started learning about interpreting and translating, the best advise that I receive was to be open-minded and passionate about other culture. If you've come to love another culture, it's pretty easy to adapt to their language and be more comfortable and natural in using it. :D

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