Lately I’ve been getting a lot of emails from people who are interested in becoming translators or people freshly out of translation school who don’t really know how to go about getting started. If you visit any random translation forum or professional online group, you’ll find tons of threads asking more experienced translators how they got started. The truth is everyone gets started in a very different way. Some people studied for years to become translators and then moved on to work in-house before deciding to go freelance. Some try to build their own business right off the bat. Others, like myself, just sort of land in the industry by accident and have to work extra hard to learn the ropes and make a good name for themselves. Regardless of how or why you chose a career in translation, getting started is hard.
If you’re sensitive to your surroundings, the first thing you’ll notice about the industry is just how many great, qualified people you’re going to have to compete with. This is particularly scary when you’re new. When you get to know other linguists, you realize everyone else has a lot to offer and this can make you seriously doubt your own qualifications, but it shouldn’t. The good news is, you probably have a lot to offer as well and if you’re not sure what that is a good way of finding out is by studying other professionals. Visit their profiles, see how the best market themselves, see what courses they take, what interests they have, even what books they read and try to follow suit. When I first started I picked a handful of particularly successful translators who I knew personally, and for whom I felt a great deal of admiration and respect, and tried to learn as much as I could from them. I signed up to every class they taught and read every book they published until I was ready to start experimenting on my own. Honestly, the experimenting and learning never really ended. I still try to learn as much as I can from my colleagues, but it’s a give and take process and if you want others to help you, you have to be ready to help others in return.
In my attempt to help, here’s what I think every newbie should consider when starting out.
It is intellectually dishonest to claim to be able to translate everything. No one can handle every single topic out there accurately and efficiently. If you think about it, there is not a single profession that does not require a certain degree of specialization, doctors specialize, lawyers specialize, engineers specialize, and there’s a reason for that. If you plan on becoming a quality oriented professional, specializing might be a good idea. How to choose your specialization is a whole other story!
2. Don’t sell yourself short
Just because you’re new doesn’t mean you have to be extra cheap or sell yourself short. The only thing you accomplish by doing that is lowering the bar for everyone else in the industry. The more professionals willing to work for peanuts and let clients treat them like doormats, the harder it is for self-respecting professionals to get the rates and respect they deserve. You’re new and maybe a little young and/or inexperienced, but you’re a professional and you deserve to be treated as such. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
3. Stick to your mother tongue
There is a great deal of debate on whether or not translators should stick to their mother tongues only. Personally, I believe that in an ideal world linguists would pair up, a native speaker of the source language would provide insight on the source text while a native speaker of the target language would translate. But this is my personal view; overall the best of the best translate into their mother tongue. Can you have more than one mother tongue? Again, this is largely questioned in our industry. I believe you can, others believe you can’t. If you do have more than one mother tongue, find ways to prove it. Marketing yourself as a fully bilingual person is not easy and doing it right requires a lot of research.
4. Team up when you can
Two eyes are better than one. Most clients demand flawless work, to provide that, you may want to consider teaming up someone who is willing to edit your work before final delivery. As someone who does a lot of Quality Management for translation companies, I can really tell the difference when I’m looking at work that was reviewed before delivery, especially when it was reviewed by an objective third party. When you put your heart and soul into a translation, you can sometimes lose perspective. It’s almost like climbing a mountain, when you’re actually on the mountain you can’t see the whole thing. Sometimes you need distance to see things for what they really are. Another pair of eyes can help broaden your perspective and render better quality work.
5. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket
I recently received an email from a linguist who spent years working as a freelancer for the same large translation company. The company is currently undergoing many internal changes and is not outsourcing as much as it used to, and these internal changes are now seriously affecting this person’s income. If you’re thinking of working as a freelancer, try to get as many good clients as you can. In my experience, great things always happen when I move out of my comfort zone and go in search of new horizons.
6. Get a support group
Freelancing is amazing, it gives you total freedom to work for whoever you want, whenever you want, from wherever you want. But this freedom comes with a price: isolation. Most freelancers work alone from home or offices and have very little interaction with other people, especially with other freelancers with whom they can vent after a long day’s work. When you start working on your own, there’s always a chance of getting sucked in by your work. To prevent that, don’t forget to interact with other people. Join groups, try to participate in forums, meet people who share the same interests as you. Handling the setbacks of the freelance translation life is a lot easier when you’re in contact with other people who really understand what you’re talking about. Not that your friends and family won’t, but they may not understand you as well as a fellow linguist.
I could probably keep writing about this all night, however, if I did, I seriously doubt that that anyone would keep reading. So, for now, I’m just going to close with this: There is no big secret to getting started, nothing experienced translators aren’t already sharing all over the internet, and nothing you probably can’t figure out on your own. So good luck getting started and thanks for reading!