A column with practical tips for practicing translators.
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
I very occasionally pop into Flefo (remind me what we are calledglunkers, glinchers, slinkers?) and its "help" section, where translators post questions about texts they are working on.
I think the idea of mutual help is great, but I do occasionally wonder (a) why people take on texts in fields where they have absolutely no experience, which they obviously can't handle, and (b) if they ever pick up the phone and ask the customer what he/she meant before they post their questions on the forum. I can only judge in the technical field, but some of the questions make me wonder what the final text looks like.
Speaking for myself, I virtually always phone the customer (or, at the very least, add a translator's note) to point out ambiguities, suggest modifications for an international readership or admit I have no idea what they meaneven in industrial chemistry, where I have a PhD and 22 years' experience.
Usually my clients agree that the original text is not clear (or contained an error) and change it accordingly. In fact, I find the customer ALWAYS appreciates a frank discussion and exchange. Without the right context, and without knowing the background, you cannot be expected to know what the customer means at all times, and trying to pretend you do just damages your credibility. And yet I sometimes subcontract out work to experienced translators, encourage them to ask questions, phone up to check again if they have any doubts about anything, then get back crap with no comments. Why?
Which brings me back to my original questionwhy do translators seem so reluctant to ask their customers questions, yet so willing to post a list of queries on translator forums? Is the big wide world so scary? Am I being too judgmental? Or should I stop being a glunker and get involved?
Dear White Coat,
The link between (a) a readiness to translate anything that moves and (b) reluctance to interact directly with clients is not fortuitous. In fact, it explains a lot of translator twitchinessthe defensiveness that comes from knowing, deep down inside, that one is on pretty shaky ground much of the time. Symptoms include alternating bouts of belligerence and forelock-tugging, with regular time-outs. The only long-term treatment we know of involves taking a closer look at what clients really want and/or think they are getting, and acquiring the knowledge or skills to deliver just that.
In this respect, a willingness to ask questions of one's peers is surely a step in the right direction. For translators working in isolation, it can be immensely useful to run an idea past a group of fellow professionals. Questioners may be working on a text in their chosen field when a term (or paragraph, or page) from another domain pops up; help from a specialist colleague can be one way to move back onto familiar terrain pronto. Likewise, if initial searches on the web prove fruitless or confusing, why not seek confirmation in a supportive atmosphere before running options past the client?
But we suspect you are referring instead to the hapless souls who post a fresh round of questions every day, each time in a different technical field.
We know several specialized translators who supply non-judgmental responses to even the most hair-raisingly elementary questions on such forums. Reminding risk-takers just how complex the subject matter is can alert them to the danger of getting in over their head, says one. Someday the penny will drop. If you agree with this approach, you might consider leaving your lurking ways behind and joining in.
More generally, we have noticed a distinct difference in job satisfaction, self-esteem, andwait for itquality of output between translation suppliers who maintain the sort of easy back-and-forth with clients you describe, and those who clam up and/or limit their questions to exchanges with fellow translators.
When challenged, the latter often claim that customers would think less of them for "not knowing the answer." In a fit of orneriness, some will even argue that a translator should never consult a client on terminology and that to do otherwise betrays craven weakness. Sigh
In our experience, this group is at best misinformed, at worst trapped in the uncomfortable text in/text out/duck'n'cover/next job, please! segment of the market. (This applies to both translation companies/agencies and freelancers, incidentally).
Not until they jettison this mindset will they get a crack at the more attractive sections of the marketwhich, incidentally, pay at least three or four times more.
Ultimately, we see no better way for translators to win recognition for their expertise, and secure proper remuneration and working conditions than by reminding customers just how complex language issues are. Questions are an ideal way to do just that.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Young translators are often advised to look for internships to train and break into the profession. Yet in my experience the number of internships offered by big companies is relatively small compared to the number of candidates. It was suggested to me that experienced translators should stop relying on big companies to train new recruits and do it themselves. After all, most other professions have some form of compulsory on-the-job training provided by experienced professionals (e.g., lawyers, chartered accountants and doctors). Do you think that there is a way this could work? Isn't it something that translators' associations could look into?
Dear Young One,
Some already have. For more information on ITI's mentoring scheme in the UK visit iti.org.uk. In the US, ATA's mentoring program is primed to move up a gear shortly; if you are in Los Angeles in early November you might want to attend a special preconference seminar on this very subject [www.atanet.org/conf2001/seminar.htm].
And hallelujah, this seems to be one of those issues with broad appeal: most students and young graduates claim to be actively seeking internships, while nearly all experienced translators deplore the dearth of mentored in-house positions for junior staff membersa direct consequence of the downsizing of big in-house translation departments.
Unfortunately, even for practitioners dedicated to professional development, interns are often perceived as uneconomic. These people have a point: depending on the sector, it can take two or more years for young graduates' output to be marketable, and editing along the way is extraordinarily time-consuming. Interns themselves may be lukewarm on the prospect of providing input less noble than translation, which is not helpful.
One solution is for both sides to focus on interns' immediately useable skillsin terminology and technology, for example. They can be assigned to compiling glossaries or proofreading (not editing), data mining and more. And while a full-time intern might be impractical, freelancers (or translation companies) could consider banding together to "share" a promising candidate.
If FA&WB headed a student outplacement association in a translation school, we'd begin by kick-starting a few high-profile alliancescontacting prominent translators/companies and matching them up with outstanding candidates, then writing these experiences up in association magazines. There are a lot of well-disposed translation professionals out there, many of them vaguely guilty about not playing a more active role in shaping the industry's future. Successful case studies and a how-to fact sheet would lure more into mentoring, helping newcomers get off to a good start.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
For the past ten years I've been an engineer, but left my job in the UK in February to follow my husband and live in the US for a couple of years. Having worked for a German company for the last 5 years (and lived and worked in Munich for 6 months in 2000), I plan to use my time in the US to change my career path and become a technical translator.
I want to do some sort of formal translator training before embarking on the world of freelance translation, but find the options bewildering.
Institute of Linguistics Diploma courses in the UK only take candidates holding a 'degree in language or equivalent'. As an engineering graduate, I don't meet this criterion. Distance learning courses for BA German or equivalent are another option: the University of London runs a BA German by distance but it's very literature-based and as a 'techie' I'm not sure it is for me. The National Extension College in Cambridge also runs distance tuition for the IOL ELIC Diploma which I'm told is degree equivalent. But the ELIC is one-third oral basedgood practice, no doubt, but do I really need oral skills for translating German?
In the US, several universities offer distance learning courses for German but there is no qualification at the end. To get onto the NYU Translation certificate course, the administrator said that I didn't need a degree, just "be able to read a German newspaper."
What should I do? Take the UK structured approach and do the ELIC and then the IOL Diploma in Translation? Or just improve my German reading skills by courses and self-study, and then take the NYU course? Would the latter path disadvantage me when I return to the UK, since my CV would feature no language qualifications as such, or are you only judged by your experience?
Confused in New Mexico
Most professionals agree that subject-matter knowledge and writing skills in your native language are the keys to a successful career in technical translation. We agree, and recommend that you make them the core of your offerin the US, the UK, or anywhere else.
A former translation company manager who read your letter agrees: "In the early part of your career, your c.v. should stress your engineering background and the skills you have acquired in industry (appreciation of management methods, quality assurance programs, etc.). These give you a real edge over other new translators, who essentially have a degree in languages and lots of youthful enthusiasm, but little knowledge of the real world."
Rest assured that you will be judged primarily on the quality of your work, which means keeping abreast of developments in your specialist field and honing your writing skills. We know plenty of subject-matter experts who can't write their way out of a paper bag, so if you have any doubts on this score, you might consider taking a technical writing course in English.
That said, a distance course in translationwith or without a formal qualification at the endcan provide good feedback, raising both your confidence and your awareness of pitfalls. Although undue emphasis on oral skills seems a bit odd, don't worry too much about content: no course will ever meet your needs 100%. Keep in mind that all training ultimately depends on the skills, preparation and organization of your teacher, input from classmates, and your own efforts.
Why not start now by spending an hour or two a day at any of the following sites:
http://www.zeit.de (Die Zeit)
http://www.faz.net (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung)
http://www.nzz.ch (Neue Zürcher Zeitung)
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Here's a hot potatotranslating into non-native languages. We all know that a good professional should not do that. But in my neck of the woods, there are not many quality-conscious customers, and it is always cheaper to have an Ecuadorian translate into English than an American. Well, that's life. What amazes me is professional translators, even "model ones," bragging about it. What do you think?
Into the Fire
Dear Fire, |
Indeed it is a hot potato you've thrown our way, and Fire Ant & Worker Bee have decided we'll simply toss it back and forth between the two of us, which is why you see us reply in a split column.
Worker Bee says: |
You trying to stir up trouble here, sir?
Yes, we have read and heard articulate folk claiming, sometimes emphatically, that the Golden Ruletranslators work only into their own native languagedoes not apply in their case. Some base their argument on in-depth knowledge of a specialty subject or obscure dialect/language combination, or both. Others cite a shortage of native-speaker talent in their language combination/subject. Still others describe their output as "native-speaker equivalent", and point to a satisfied, loyal client base.
If these intrepid transgressors are prepared to sign their work, taking responsibility in publicin front of both native-speaker readers and peerswell, why not? Likewise, let's assume they regularly remind their clients of the risks involved: as we all know, translation buyers are particularly vulnerable in that they can rarely judge the quality of texts delivered to them.
But there is an acid test, and this is where things get a little touchier. 95 times out of a hundred Worker Bee can identifyimmediatelywork produced by non-native translators, through syntax, choice of prepositions, collocations, etc. Other reliable, non-twitchy sources confirm the same thing. This may or may not be important, depending on target readers and document type, but both translators and clients should keep it in mind.
There is clearly a shortage of qualified translation supplierspeople with the specialist subject knowledge, linguistic skills in the source language, and writing ability in the target language. Stir in tight deadlines and/or budget limitations, and many clients will quite naturally settle for a less-than-ideal solution. Again, fineas long as everything is out in the open. Transparency, please.
By the same token, non-native translators who opine (or brag) that their own work is just fine may be pushing it a little. Surely that judgment is for their native-speaker clients/readers/peers to make (blind spots are a terrible disease, sometimes fatal). Not to muddy the waters, but accepting on faith anybody's claim of producing excellent work is a recipe for trouble. This applies to established professionals, beginners, academics, you name it.
Samples, please. Make any claims you like, but play fair: put your signature where your mouth is.
Market conditions aside, one sign that a translator is heading down a slippery slope is a defensive (or earnest) "well, it's better than the junk that native speaker language teacher down at the local school produces/d" or variations thereupon. If you compare yourself with a non-professional producing substandard work, you are more than likely to end up with clients who pay non-professional prices. Which is OK, too, but rules out whining about exploitation, doesn't it?
Worker Bee far prefers to see suppliers aiming for the top end of the market. This means comparing yourself with the bestincluding texts written directly in your target language by professional copywriters, rocket scientists and other expertsinstead of claiming to be a notch or two above the more dubious suppliers.
Fire Ant says:|
If you like Mozart, do you like his music because he started composing operas as early as five? If you like Wagner or Verdi, does it matter to you that they did not start writing music of lasting significance until they were in their late twenties? Or where they acquired their skillsat their father's knee or in a conservatory?
Perhaps it does, if you habitually collect such information the way other people collect transformer plaques or 19th-century stock certificates. More likely, your appreciation of the music depends little on the circumstances of its creation, but instead on its qualities.
Just so with translation. Any translator who does not personally know at least one colleague producing top-notch work in a language acquired after childhood is either blinkered by prejudice or needs to get out more.
If there is no natural law prohibiting this empirical fact, then isn't it time to acknowledge that translators are not born, which is what advertisements touting "native speakers" imply, but made (and largely self-made, too)?
The emphasis on "native speakerhood" as a criterion of competence has the fatal effect of perpetuating the wrong idea of translators as globetrotting driftersindividuals who would lack marketable skills if not for the fact that the first language they learned happens to be in demand.
The ability to write well in the target language is only one of the many skills that translators must possess, and like all others it can be learned by talented adults. Translation, like music, is an art and a craft. Results count, not the history of how you acquired a particular set of skills. Good translators are identifiable not from first principles but by what they put on the page, one job at a time.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Last month I attended a translator workshop focused on fine points of electronic subassemblies for the automotive industry. I had been looking forward to the event, not least because it took place in one of the sunnier locales of the Iberian subcontinent. Good food, a pool and a civil starting time for the workshop after an evening sampling local viticulturewhat more could you ask for?
Yet when I joined my fellow participants for lunch, a polyphony of grievances began as soon as participants sat down around the table. To my right, a bearded gentleman began jabbing his finger in my face while recounting some unforgivable wrong another translator had done him. To my left, a heavyset lady shouting in my ear swore eternal vengeance to an absent colleague who had besmirched her reputation. And so on.
I am mystified. I didn't know any of these people at all. What made them think that I had nothing better to do than listen to their bitching and backbiting? They don't behave that way when they are around clients, or do they?
Bemused in Brussels
Maybe they do. Keep in mind that many translators never see a live client, preferring to e-mail their work to translation companies instead.
If they don't share an office, employ clerical help or train a junior translator they may not see anyone in their work setting. That leaves the family or the dog as counterparts for social interaction, and the family soon tire of hearing Daddy or Mommy talk shop. Some people lack even a dog. Where can they go then to let off steam? You guessed ita translator meeting!
Isolation breeds resentment, which eventually turns into a festering sore and undermines social skills. It's an occupational hazard, like black lung for coal miners.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
As an ex-pat Australian, living in Chile for the past 13 years, I have become proficient in Spanish. In fact, I worked for ten of those 13 years as a bilingual tour guide and interpreter and for the last three years have been working full time as a translator, English/Spanish/English.
I now have confidence in my abilities to translate a wide range of subjects in both directions and am interested in looking for more work outside of Chile, however it has been made clear to me that some sort of certification is frequently required.
Looking at the fees for this with both ATA and NAATI (Australia) I realize that these two at least are well above the economic possibilities of a Chile-based translator.
My question then is whether you have any knowledge of certifying bodies in countries with somewhat more affordable fees. Any advice you can offer on this would be greatly appreciated.
Ex-Pat in Australia
The American Translators Association (ATA) states, "The fee of $130 [for accreditation] includes all administrative and grading expenses". We were unable to obtain information on the cost of accreditation offered by the Australian counterpart NAATI.
As a business expense for a full-time professional translator, one hundred and thirty dollars is hardly exorbitant, even in Chile. But would certification with ATA or any other body be a wise investment?
We don't want to slight the efforts of the colleagues in translator associations around the world who have given countless hours of their time in efforts to establish recognized "brands of quality". But we are not aware of hard evidence that the market perceives accredited translators as superior to non-accredited ones, or that accredited translators earn more, on average, than non-accredited ones.
Perhaps the idea that certification is required comes from reading the application forms that some translation companies mail out to people seeking assignments. Forms chock full of questions in 6-point type, inquiring about your shoe size, the number of Albanian dwarves in your household, your social security number (especially if you are not a US citizen), and an appropriately fantastic number of words that you claim to have already translated.
But as others have already pointed out, filling out these forms generally does not appear to be the best avenue leading to well-paid work.
In our opinion, getting business has not changed much in the age of the Internet. Lucrative work continues to come mainly from direct clients in markets where demand outstrips supply (sellers' markets), through word-of-mouth referrals. Certification is not an issue because direct clients hardly ever ask for it. Of course, zeroing in on these assignments is like squeezing through the eye of a needle. Again in our opinion, and with the caveat that, as always, our perspective is a limited and personal one, you get such work if you:
- set up your business when you feel confident that you are as well prepared as you can be, and have a sizable nest egg in the bank
- acquire and maintain specialist knowledge in a small number of fields
- exploit existing knowledge from a previous career
- hone your writing skills continuously
- relocate to a sellers' market, or travel there regularly to call on prospects and clients
- don't wait for the work to find you
- use direct advertising and cold calls, visit trade shows, buttonhole people; be persistent!
- sign your name to work that will be published
- join translator associations, regularly attend workshops, maximize your exposure to increase the chances of getting referrals.
Again, there may be all sorts of good reasons for seeking accreditation by translator associations, but as a freelance translator hunting for business you should not expect too much from it.
FA & WB
Dear Fire Ant & Worker Bee,
Hello, I stumbled across your website by accident and I have a question. I am a 19 year old college student with no real direction. I have flip-flopped from business administration to carpentry to computer science to my present course of studies, languages, and am also taking an auto mechanics course for my own interest. I have above excellent control of my mother tongue, English, and I have an almost equal grasp of French because I was raised in both languages here in Quebec. I also have Spanish and German under my belt, but they are not as strong as my English and French.
I have received several odd jobs doing translating for friends and family who know that I have a knack for writing and languages. I've even done some subcontracting work for a major automotive company, albeit through several middlemen. To put it bluntly, my interest has been piqued by translating and I would like to know how to get started in the industry. Canada is an ideal location because of the official bilingualism, but I would like to know if there are opportunities abroad or in the United States, seeing as I also have dual US-Canada citizenship.
I still have three semesters remaining in languages at my CÉGEP (the Québec version of college) and I don't know what, or if, I will study at university. There are translation programs here in Montréal, but I would like to hear your suggestions or counsel.
Need a compass
The very diversity of paths taken by practicing translators into the field makes it hard to give career-starting advice to someone as young as you. It's great that your interests are diverse, for this indicates curiosity, and burning curiosity is an essential prerequisite for becoming a translator.
Should you go on to university directly after CÉGEP or not? If you are hell-bent on an academic career, our answer would be yes. But since you have already cut your teeth doing paid translation and enjoyed it, you may want to start working full time right after graduation. Become a translator? Before committing yourself, use your three remaining college semesters to look into your chances of finding "job satisfaction".
Pick a dozen French-English translators from the Yellow Pages and ask each one for an interview. Prepare a list of questions that interest youhow did they get started, how long have they been working in the field, do they work from home or rent an office, what subjects do they handle, how did they acquire specialist knowledge, what do they do to stay current, what equipment/software/books do they use, do they employ office help, what arrangements have they made for assuring quality (editing/proofreading/client review) and so on.
Not everybody will be immediately comfortable answering these questions; be sure to tell them that you will treat their information in strict confidence. Generally, though, people are flattered to be interviewed about their work. You should be able to get an idea of the diversity of translators and whether some of them lead the kind of life that you can imagine for yourself, too.
With some help from your academic adviser, you might even be able to turn this project into a for-credit paper, but make sure you preserve your respondents' confidentiality.
Whatever you decide, keep up the carpentry and car-repair work. Not only can you fix things for yourself, family and friends, but they provide an excellent counterbalance to a cerebral (and sometimes lonely) pursuit like translation!
FA & WB