What’s it like being a translator? Q and A with the professionals

Questions about becoming a freelance translator

On 7th March, I was invited to a translation round table at the University of Exeter, where I, along with two other translation professionals, took questions from the final-year Modern Languages students, who are currently in the middle of a translation business project.

In this project, the students have to team up, create their own translation business, and translate a text together – so they were keen to find out more about how translators work, especially as some of them were interested in pursuing translation as a career.

I was joined by Alison Exley, a German to English freelance translator, and Sarah Kearsey, who works as a Translation Project Manager at Sure Languages. Below are just a few of the questions that we were asked – I hope that you find it useful if you’re thinking about a career in translation!

I’m thinking of doing a Masters in medical translation. Is specialising a good idea, or will it limit the work I can do?

It won’t limit you at all – on the contrary, most translators have one or more specialist translation subjects. It means that you can more easily translate documents relating to that field, and you can build up a name for yourself as the “go-to” person for that subject. If you’re undecided about what subjects you’ll like, or you decide that you want to branch out your specialisms later, you can still continue to learn about translating in another field that you’re interested in.

How do clients find you?

There are lots of ways you can find translation work – you can apply to agencies, who will then send you work as the need arises, you can contact companies yourself via phone or email, or you can build up relationships with people via social media or through networking. Lots of translators also get work through word of mouth; if a client is happy with your work, they’re more likely to pass your name on.
I also believe it’s important to have an online presence nowadays, so build a website, update your LinkedIn profile, and connect with potential clients and fellow translators on social media too.

Why did you choose translation rather than interpreting?

I only briefly tried interpreting while I was at university, but I find that the very different skill set that interpreting requires – being able to listen to information in one language and relay it in another, sometimes simultaneously – is just not one of my strengths. However, other linguists prefer interpreting – it involves a lot more travelling, working with other people and teams in person, and speaking out loud!

What other skills do you need to be a professional translator, apart from the linguistic skills?

As mentioned above, specialism in a certain area is pretty much a requirement. Good administration and time-management skills are a must too, especially when there’s lots of email communication and when translations can be so deadline-driven.
When you’re a freelance translator, you also need some business skills – just because there’s only one of you, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t treat it like a business. That means customer service, marketing, and a little bit of financial knowledge can go a long way as well.

What do you do if you get too much work? How do you fit it all in?

The pressure to meet deadlines is all too real – but people often forget the “free” part of being a freelancer. It’s up to you to manage your clients’ expectations on how soon you can deliver the work – and good work too, that hasn’t been rushed. You are also allowed to turn down work! As you gain experience, you’ll get a better idea of how much work you can take on, and how many words you can translate in a day.

That said, lots of translators and freelancers tend to experience a “feast or famine” – either being swamped with work, or having eerily quiet periods. These are normal and may be caused by a number of reasons; maybe it’s the end of the tax year, maybe the entire population of France goes on holiday in August (ahem). It’s a good idea to build up cash reserves in case these situations arise, so you don’t panic too much about paying your bills.

Does it get boring, or repetitive?

Not for me! Even when I get repeat work from the same company, the documents are always so varied that it never feels like I’m translating the same things over and over again. Also, I never stop learning, and I feel like I’m always working on my skills and improving all the time. Translating is definitely not for everyone – there’s a lot of sitting, a lot of writing, and a lot of working alone. It’s important to motivate yourself, as well as including exercise and social activities into your week so you don’t end up feeling isolated. But if you’re into that kind of thing (and love languages), then it can be a very rewarding and enjoyable career!

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