Weighing up translation degrees: two oft-overlooked tips

Professor LeviSome of the best translators I know don’t have a degree in translation, so they are certainly not a requirement to becoming a translator.

However, an  increasing number of newcomers to the profession are opting to pursue a formal (usually postgraduate) qualification in the field.

So when translator Lloyd Bingham put out the following call a few months back on Twitter, it set me thinking:

What should you keep in mind when weighing up whether a translation degree is for you? Continue reading “Weighing up translation degrees: two oft-overlooked tips”

Apprenticeships for translators

The topic of apprenticeships, work placements or internships for translators interests me for several reasons, not least because I believe on-the-ground learning alongside more experienced peers is a vital part of education in any field.

But it’s particularly interesting in translation because of the way in which our industry is organised. Most translators work freelance because unless you want to go the civil service route, there are very few inhouse positions for native English translators involving primarily translation work, as opposed to project management, terminology, or other translation-related tasks.

This makes it difficult for newcomers to the profession to find obvious opportunities to learn from their peers.

Yet professional associations and universities can and do already play an important role in plugging that gap, even if the options aren’t as formalised as they are in other industries. When the issue came up at the recent ITI / eCPD Virtual Coffee Morning on International Translation Day 2011, it struck me how unaware many of the participants were of these opportunities. Continue reading “Apprenticeships for translators”

Being a translator should be hard

Hard Work...One of the best perks in my former role as a Director of eCPD, the online training provider for translators, was that I got to attend some truly fantastic talks by the most interesting, inspiring and successful people in our profession.

So I was buzzed when I heard Judy Jenner, blogger at Translation Times and co-author of The Entrepreneurial Linguist, emphasise that building and growing a business is hard, and that freelance translators and interpreters need to expect it to be that way.

Yet not many translators (and dare I say it, even fewer interpreters I meet) seem to grasp this.

Continue reading “Being a translator should be hard”

Why language competence does not a translator make

The translation activities you carry out as a language student are a far cry from those carried out as a translation student. The objective of the former is to improve your language skills, the latter to refine your translation skills to a professionally acceptable level. When you join a translation degree at postgraduate level, for example, it is usually assumed that your language skills are already up to the job, or at the very least, that you have the ability to get them there – and keep them there – yourself.

The question of whether initial training for professional translators should take place at undergraduate or postgraduate level is an interesting one, with practice often informed by the realities of a country’s education system. But one advantage of a clear distinction between programmes for language learning learning and initial translator training is that it helps to re-enforce the difference between studying to learn a language and studying to become a professional translator.

In other words, translation competence is distinct from language competence. Researchers at Zürcher Hochschule für Angewandte Wissenschaften, Zurich’s University of Applied Sciences, describe it well below:

The translation process (and thus the training of future translators) is not only based upon the bilingual competence of the translator but also on his/her capacity to analyze the relations between the source text (ST) and target text (TT) in order to produce a translation which, on the one hand, is as close to the ST as possible and, on the other, meets all necessary linguistic and cultural conventions of the target-language community. Additionally, the translator must possess specialized knowledge concerning the subject or field covered by the ST itself (e.g. law, computational science, biology etc.).

Extract from: Susanne J. Jekat & Gary Massey. The Puzzle of Translation Skills. Towards an Integration of E-Learning and Special Concepts of Computational Linguistics into the Training of Future Translators. Linguistik online 17, 5/03. Accessed 6 July 2010.

If all language learners and teachers were to understand this difference, I’m sure it would go a long way towards raising the status of the profession. It would also ensure that students considering translation degrees would have a more realistic picture of the kind of activity they are likely to undertake, both as part of their degree and afterwards.

5Qs with Andrew Bell, AAA Scandinavian Translations

After working as a nurse in several countries, Andrew Bell set up AAA Scandinavian Translations in 2001 and now specialises in medical/pharmaceutical translation services. He also runs the popular translator-networking site Watercooler. Here Andrew tells us about how he became a translator, and offers a wealth of advice for new and experienced translators interested in moving into the highly specialised field of medical/ pharmaceutical translations.

Sarah Dillon: You have many years of experience in healthcare, and are in fact a Registered Nurse (RN). How difficult was it to make the conversion to being a medical translator? What preparation did you have to undertake to supplement your existing knowledge, and do you have any tips for aspiring medical translators who might not have this background? [Sorry, I know that’s really 3 questions but I couldn’t resist!] Continue reading “5Qs with Andrew Bell, AAA Scandinavian Translations”

5 Qs with Betti Moser

With a background in landscape planning and several years’ freelance experience as a copywriter, editor and desktop publisher, in 2001 Betti Moser decided to qualify as a German translator so she could work from home more often. Currently based in London, Betti talks to us about about setting up a freelance practice, finding clients and marketing yourself as a freelancer. Continue reading “5 Qs with Betti Moser”

5 Qs with Marc Prior

Based in Germany, Marc Prior is a freelance translator with over 20 years’ professional translation experience under his belt. By day, he translates from German, Italian and Dutch into English, specialising in occupational health and safety and environmental engineering. By night, he’s a mentor on the very popular ITI Professional Support Group and is also active on support forums for a range of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) tools. Read on for Marc’s take on life without Windows and getting started as a translator.

Naked Translator: Hi Marc. What is the one piece of advice you wish you’d had earlier in your career?

M: This is a very difficult one to answer, because looking back I’d say that there is very little that I would have done differently. I had already decided in my mid-teens that I wanted to go into translation, and I planned my moves accordingly. Combined with the fact that I was in the right place at just the right time on several occasions, things worked out well.

I sometimes wish I’d had the confidence to take certain steps earlier than I actually did: I’d been working as a translator for ten years before I joined ITI, for instance, because I doubted that I would satisfy the membership requirements. Like many other translators, I also seriously undersold myself in my early days as a freelancer. If I could summarize aspects like these, the advice would be to have more confidence in oneself as a business person. Not more confidence per se, though: I was without a doubt over-confident as a translator in the early years, and I think this is a common trait among fledgling freelance translators, and the reason for many problems: over-confidence in their translation ability, under-confidence in themselves as independent business people.

NT: Your website Linux for Translators is a really fantastic how-to guide. Could you give us a general overview of the IT tools you use in your day-to-day activities as a translator? How might this change in the future?

M: Office suite: OpenOffice.org, but I don’t do much translation work within the office suite itself. I also have Microsoft Office, running on Crossover Office so that it will run on Linux. I use both for more general housekeeping tasks, such as converting MS Office files to OpenOffice format for translation in OmegaT, and for tidying up the minor formatting glitches that result from the roundtripping process.

I’ve tried other word processors, notably Textmaker (nicer to look at and much faster than OpenOffice) and Applixware (which has a very powerful integral macro language), but neither comes close to OpenOffice’s conversion filters from/to Microsoft Office, which is by far the most important aspect.

CAT tool: OmegaT. This is the environment in which I do almost all my actual translation work. I’ve tried other CAT tools but at the moment, there is nothing available for Linux to match OmegaT‘s combination of functionality and ease of use.

I use Firefox as my browser and Thunderbird as my e-mail client. I have a range of utilities that I use less frequently for web-related tasks. One of these is Konquerer, the integral file manager/browser utility of the KDE desktop environment. I rarely use it as a browser but I find it very practical as an FTP client (e.g. for uploading new or modified files to my website). Then there are command-line utilities such as wget (which can be used to download an entire website, preserving the structure) and w3m (which is a text-based browser). These will sound very geeky to non-Linux users, but they are very simple and therefore – and this is something that is difficult to appreciate fully without having experienced Linux – they can be combined very easily with other tools for custom functions.

I use Adobe Reader (the Linux version of course) and Kpdf to view PDF files and extract the text from them; both have their strengths and weaknesses. There are also a range of other tools available for converting between different file formats (e.g. PDF to HTML).

The list goes on, with utilities that I use less and less frequently. There is a little program called Winston, for instance, that I use to submit my monthly VAT returns (German law requires them to be submitted electronically). I also have a number of utilities that I wrote myself in the tcl/tk scripting language. In saying this, I am probably also confirming preconceptions (or prejudices) about Linux users all being – and having to be – programmers. This is only one side of the story, though. Linux is a very programmer-friendly environment, and there is huge body of command-line tools, mostly free. It’s surprisingly easy to learn a little programming, especially using a scripting language such as tcl/tk or Python, sufficiently well to “glue” these tools together to perform certain tasks.

How might this change in the future? Well, I don’t anticipate any major changes in the near future. Firefox and Thunderbird are established applications, so their availability and continued development is fairly well assured; at the same time, my requirements are not particularly demanding, so I don’t envisage switching to different applications here. I would not be surprised if we were to see more CAT tools for Linux in the medium term; Swordfish, for instance, has been well received so far, and there is a standalone version of Wordfast on the horizon which will also run on Linux. Development of Anaphraseus, a Wordfast-style CAT tool that works from within OpenOffice, is also coming along nicely. However, my commitment to the OmegaT project means that I’m unlikely to switch to a different CAT tool, at least for routine work.

An area in which we might see some changes is that of office suites. Two interesting recent developments are that MS Office 2007 is now supported by Crossover Office, which translated for the benefit of Windows users means that it can be made to run on Linux; and that the default MS Office file format has now changed over to an accessible XML-based format. In other words, the latest version of MS Office runs on Linux, and quite separately from that, its native files are in a form that can be edited relatively easily independently of MS Office. Translators generally (perhaps reflecting the mood among their clients, as ever) seem to be resisting adoption of both the new version of MS Office and the associated file format, but these developments are a major step forward for Linux users, since MS Office texts can now be edited on Linux either in the native application (i.e. MS Office) or by working directly on the file in another application without conversion and the associated risks of formatting loss. It should also enable OpenOffice to improve its conversion filters. In the longer term, I would certainly expect this to shake up the market for CAT tools a little, though quite in what way, it’s probably too early to tell.

NT: Any advice for other translators who may be interested in dipping their toes into open-source software?

M: Try it! People quite often ask me for advice, and I describe the benefits as I see them but am also honest about the drawbacks. That, it seems, is usually sufficient for people to decide on the spot against even trying Linux. Linux has much higher visibility now than it used to have and my impression is that many people are worried that they might be missing out on some major development. When they hear that life isn’t all rosy for Linux users, either, the response often strikes me as one of relief! Then they go back to using Windows.
Linux doesn’t require any great commitment. It’s out there and can be downloaded free of charge, in dozens of different flavours. All you need is an old (but not ancient) PC, and you can try it out to your heart’s content at no cost.

Something else that I would recommend, now that they have become available, are the new netbook products that are supplied with Linux preinstalled. By these I mean the Asus Eee PC, MSI Wind, Acer Aspire One, and similar products – there are now something like forty different models to choose from, all of which have appeared within the 10 months since the product category was born with the introduction of the original Asus Eee PC. These mini-laptops typically cost between 200 and 400 euros and are excellent second (or more probably third) computers for those occasions when you want to be productive for an hour or two despite being on the move. With its lower cost and more efficient use of hardware resources, Linux is the operating system of choice, at least at the lower end (price and performance-wise) of this product category.

NT: You’ve been a mentor on the hugely successful ITI Professional Support Group for several years now. In your experience, what is the most common misconception held by inexperienced translators hoping to start up in the profession?

M: This one is easy! The mistake most new freelance translators make is to overlook that they are in fact setting up a new business. Some still think of translation as an academic exercise, but the more common mistake is to think of customers as “employers”, and to think that the business side, particularly the definition of their own services and the marketing of them, will take care of itself. Certain translators’ portals, which offer an all-inclusive service to translators including jobs apparently for the taking, exacerbate this impression.

NT: What do you read — in print and online — to keep up with developments in your field?

M: On a regular basis, I read the industry periodical International Environmental Technology, and VDSI Aktuell, the magazine of the VDSI (the society of German safety engineers), of which I am a member.
More generally, though, I keep in step with developments simply by going “the extra mile” when researching. If I face a terminology problem, I try to avoid the temptation of doing just enough research to resolve the particular term. Instead, I read up on the subject, in both source and target languages, which thanks to the Internet is now very easy. This is not only a more reliable way of finding exactly the right term, but also provides a better understanding of the subject as a whole, and therefore improves the quality of the whole text, besides enhancing background knowledge generally which may come in useful in future.

Thanks for sharing your experience with us, Marc – lots of tips and ideas for translators at all stages of their careers.

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5 Qs with Orla Ryan

Orla Ryan has hands-on experience of a range of different roles within the translation industry. She has set herself up as a successful French and German freelance translator and project manager, added Irish to her working languages and made a move back to inhouse work. Today she is based in Dublin with a major international translation company, working closely with Irish, European and other international government bodies. Read on for Orla’s take on managing your career, spotting gaps in the market and moving between the freelance and inhouse worlds.

Sarah Dillon: Could you tell us about your current job? What does this involve day-to-day?

Orla Ryan: Essentially, I am the point of contact and support for the translator and client for all linguistic issues (prepare translation memories / glossaries / translation guidelines for projects, as well as collating reference materials). My previous role as a translator has been an asset in helping me plan and organise translation support for a project because I can see it from a translator’s perspective (If I were a translator, what kind of support would I want for this project, would I need help with certain terms). I look after all requests dealing with Irish Gaelic, but I cover other EU languages where required.

Another important aspect is quality control – tracking feedback from customers and reviewers. I work side by side with the project manager in the pre- and post-production stages of a project. I also work with vendor managers in recruiting and testing potential translators for new projects. I also compile and check translation tests, support the sales team and project manager if they need stats or information about various language resources and vendors. I have a couple of other projects going on too. 🙂

SD: I’m always interested in hearing about how self-employed translators cope with moving back to the world of employment. Could you tell us a little about how you made this transition, and what advice you would have for others considering the same?

OR: I suppose I had a slightly different attitude to this compared to other freelance translators, because I never saw freelance translation as my “Job for Life”. My plan was to do it for about 4-5 years to get more industry experience and then move into a translation project co-ordination / management role. I didn’t just do translation though; I also worked as a freelance project manager for a client for about 3 years. I really enjoyed doing that, because I had a great camaraderie with them and it was a fantastic experience. I sometimes found it dull translating all day long, so doing PM work was a welcome diversion.

The transition to in-house work was very easy for me. I had worked in-house twice before, so it wasn’t a big culture shock. The “worst” part, if you could call it that, was updating my wardrobe for an office and learning everyone’s names! I’m still involved in the industry and I’m working with a similar client profile as before, but from another angle. It is the nature of the translation industry, of course, that many of us have freelanced at some point; it certainly hasn’t been a drawback for me.

If a translator wants to go back to the office, it depends on where they want to go – continue translating or move into doing something else. If they want to do something else, do they have the skills for that job or not? I think it also depends on the office culture as well and you should get a good feel for that when you are there for an interview. I think if you want to go back to the office, it shouldn’t just be for the money.

SD: I’d love to hear how you picked up your study of the Irish language again after studying French and German for your first degree. Any particular challenges with this?

OR: I found I had passively retained a lot of vocabulary from school and TV, but my grammar had become very rusty since the Leaving Cert! It is very difficult for English speakers to get their head around Irish syntax because we have no direct equivalents to lenition, noun mutations, prepositional pronouns or the copula.

Originally, I started off translating DE-EN technical/historical texts and was busy with that. After a while, I noticed that more and more clients were asking me if I could do Irish translation as well – “You’re Irish; you do speak Irish, right?” This was just after the Official Languages Act came into effect here in 2003. There was talk of Irish becoming a working EU language around that time as well, so it was clear that there was going to be a lot of action in this area in the next 2-3 years. Hard to believe, but there were very few people doing Irish translation work back then! I think only two universities offered Irish in their translation courses when I was in third-level. Irish translation was just seen as a nice little earner for retired teachers at the time.

In 2004, I did a refresher course with Conradh na Gaeilge and then I heard about the new two year part-time Dioplóma sa Ghaeilge course in NUI Maynooth. I applied for that and started the following year. At the time, I figured if I got my Irish up to speed and really worked on it, I would be able to get more work in that field by the time the legislation kicked in. I also visited the Rathcarn and Aran Gaeltacht areas as part of my studies.

People think it is strange, but the vast majority of EN-GA translators are not native Irish speakers (albeit with a high standard of fluency of course). Whenever I’ve spoken to native speakers about it, they say they wouldn’t go into translation because they think you need a fancy degree or loads of experience. Or they just don’t feel comfortable doing that kind of work, which I can understand – this kind of work isn’t for everybody. Foras na Gaeilge launched an accreditation scheme last year to encourage fluent Irish speakers to go into translation. There are also a number of new Irish-language translation and interpretation courses now, so I should expect supply will meet demand in the next year or two.

SD: Any advice for aspiring translators?

OR: When I started, I gave myself a year to make a go of it and if it didn’t work out, then I would go back to the recruitment agencies and sites and get some other job. I used to work as a project assistant in a small translation agency before I went freelance. Through that, I learned how to pitch my rates and present my services in such a way that I would soon get work. I picked up some fantastic customers within the first couple of months and was almost always booked for work in advance until the day I stopped. So what I would say is, if you’re going to do it, make a plan, work out your targets (professional, financial etc) and do it properly.

Do not say you can do all kind of jobs in all kinds of languages, because you can’t. Think about what you are good at; it doesn’t have to be legal, medical or whatever. If you enjoy sports, then why not highlight that? There is a nice niche market for sport translations, for example.

Keep regular hours. You don’t need to be a slave to your email or phone, but if you do want to take a couple of day-time hours off, set up an “out-of-office” message for your email. Get an email account that can handle large attachments.

I would recommend a newcomer to get an accountant or do some kind of basic business/entrepreneurship course so they learn how to price their time, create invoices etc. Many new translators have no idea how to charge for their services or are bashful about negotiating rates with customers. As regards general administration, I used Translation Office 3000 and I found that great for overall file management, reports and accounts. There are books and basic courses on Accounting & Taxation for self-employed people and I’m sure there is similar material available online. I have friends who are accountants and they were able to help me out with the basics when I started.

I wish translation courses had some kind of freelance business module. If I were teaching a translation class, I would get students to treat their homework like a real-life job. I would email them a job request and purchase order as their homework, they accept and translate it, then return the translation to me on time with an invoice. Maybe some courses do that now, I don’t know for sure. I really think translation students should be taught soft skills like time management, basic office administration, marketing and communication skills etc as part of their course. Too many graduates finish their translation degrees and they have no idea how to get started as a freelancer and they have little business-savvy.

While I was freelancing as a project manager, I used to receive unsolicited CVs from newbie translators and most of them were rubbish. If I had to outsource a German-English job, for example, I would receive plenty of emails from people who didn’t have this language pair. They would send me their CV on spec “Please consider me for future jobs if you ever have a job in my language pair”. What a waste of time – it just made them look desperate and I don’t think that was the impression they wanted to make! So if you are going to send your CV on spec, then put some thought into it and only send it to those who will definitely have work in your languages!

This may sound incredibly obvious, but do not use txtspk or a low register when approaching clients. You are selling your writing skills. You are supposed to be a professional language expert, so don’t let yourself down by leaving stupid spelling mistakes in your emails, invoices, application forms etc. I know I sound like an old fuddy-duddy saying this, but if you cannot write an e-mail to a client in an appropriate and professional manner, then how do you expect them to place a translation order with you? It is the simple things that will trip you up.

Specialisation is how you will make good money as a freelance translator. I originally trained in technical translation, where we had to take Physics for the first two years of the degree. I also gained specialist knowledge in various areas mainly through my practical work as a translator. A common problem with translation graduates is that they often don’t have enough real-life commercial/specialised experience. So where do you go from there? It is a vicious circle. You have to think long-term here, but a graduate could consider getting a job in a field that interests them, where they can also use their languages. It cannot fail to help when you do go freelance, because you’ll have real-life industry experience by then and you are in a better position to command higher rates. You’ve got to create your niche. For example, I worked for a computer company for two years after graduating, I had been involved with my University’s computer society and was one of the very few Irish Gaelic translators who could handle IT texts, who owned a CAT tool. I was almost certainly the only freelancer who could do small Gaelic voiceover jobs from home! 🙂

SD: Finally, can you recommend any other resources, websites, etc. for translators or advanced language learners?

OR: Proz.com for starters! They’ve really made an effort to become the top support site for language professionals. However, I notice that people join the likes of Proz and TranslatorsCafe.com and expect the site to do all the work for them. That is not how it works. Paying for a subscription is like taking a large boxed ad in the phone book. It makes stand out, but it doesn’t automatically mean you’ll pull more work in, if your presentation isn’t up to scratch. At the end of the day, these sites are just one method to help you build up your reputation and credentials. It worked for me; it may not work for someone else.

There are loads of ways you can get some free advertising for your business. For example: I participated regularly in the Proz forums, I used to organise translator meetings in Dublin and I mentored a second-year translation student as part of a University & Business programme. You should get involved in your local business community and go to associated events. You can never know too many people.

With regards to language learning, I read Gaelport.com every day, to keep up to speed with events in the Irish-language community. I also pop into www.beo.ie, which is a monthly online magazine in Irish. I also have the French channel TV5 at home and I speak French with native speakers at work.

Actually, I think podcasts are a brilliant way to learn languages. I subscribe to An tImeall and BBC Uladh’s “Blas” show for Irish. I also download ProSieben’s “Galileo” show for German.

I used to subscribe to the “Laura Speaks Dutch” podcast for a while. I would absolutely love to master Dutch. I can read it up to a point, thanks to knowing German, but putting sentences together is another story. I’m still at the stage where I recycle German vocabulary with an exaggerated Dutch accent 😉

Definitely lots of good tips and advice there, Orla. Thanks a lot!

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British translators: strike while the iron is hot!

Brussels in Belgium and the European Union

Good news for British translators working into their native English:

Brussels puts out English Mayday.

Competition is clearly weak. My advice? Strike while the iron is hot, get your application in now. Best of all, this isn’t something that can be rectified anytime soon. Who said the days of a job for life were gone?!

Of course, I’m not sure where that leaves Irish translators working into English. Probably busy trying to muster enough rusty Gaeilge to help plug the shortfall of EU translators into Irish. Mind you, they’ll need more than a bit of luck to find an up-to-date and/or in-print version of an official Irish grammar, or any kind of relevant language materials for that matter…

Hat tip to Percy over at Translating is an Art for the article link.

Image via Wikipedia

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There's dumb, and then there's dumber…

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 23:  Celebrity judge talk ...

I had a reaction to Rowan Manahan’s carefully crafted cop-out against the under 30s, but I don’t think it was the kind of reaction he was aiming for.

The following thoughts popped into my head as I scanned his post:

1. I can see straight through him. He’s doing that whole traffic-baiting thing, bandying about a bunch of tattered old clichés in an attempt to provoke reactions.

OK. If that’s what he wants that’s fine – I’m sure there are plenty out there who’ll oblige.


To be honest, this kind of stuff barely registers a blip on my radar. Much like daytime tv, trashy novels and the American Pie movies, I’m interested enough to want to know what’s going on but I can see it for the car-crash entertainment that it is.

2. He’s blatantly copped out – it’s obvious he’s not given the issue any serious thought.

He starts with the stance “these are the points that someone else has made”, then goes on to use his own rather random personal anecdotes to back them up. Only then does he pretend to offer his own opinion – he’s sad to admit it, of course, but in his considerable experience, there may be just a few grains of truth to the fact that the younger generations are getting dumber. Cue downcast eyes, slow-mo headshake, woebegone frown. You know the score.

I’m mildly surprised.

I usually like Rowan’s writing, even when I don’t agree with him. But if I may be so bold – illiterate, alliterate, deluded, cut-off-from-the-world twenty-something that I am – I’m going to take the time to express myself this balmy Saturday night:

Rowan, you can do better than this.

You say your degree gave you the ability to quickly assimilate and critically evaluate information. So where’s the critical analysis? And why on earth are you aligning yourself with a squeaky wheel, just another self-nominated Jerry Springer of social commentary?

You’re clearly spending too much time with the wrong kind of people, both above and below the magic 30-year mark. Let me know next time you’re in Brisbane and I’ll arrange some suitable introductions. Curmudgeonry allowed, but only if you promise to leave the willful ignorance at home 🙂

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