hen I was nine, I figured out that the people who call the shots are usually the ones who are better spoken, who speak more, or at least, those who speak most eloquently. For example, my mother wielded power over me because she spoke more and more effectively, as did my teachers, the mayor of my hometown... and in general, most of the people behind desks, counters or podiums were people who expressed themselves with great clarity and gave a lot of orders.
SoI admit itI wanted to master language so I could be a master of others.
Later, as a teenager, I realized that adults pay more attention to you when you speak correctly, and the broader your vocabulary and the better you use it, the more doors open to you both personally and professionally. But to reach this goal, I had to listen attentively and read a lot. Then, in school, I heard that this was called "getting cultured." So I figured that "getting cultured" was the key to success in life.
the single most important aspect of being a translator is not the aspiration to master both languages, but rather both cultures.
The idea of becoming a translator was half chance and half the combination of two passions: languages and culture.
So why have I opened this article with all this BS? Well, because now, as an adult, I no longer plan on being anyone's master, but I do believe the foundation of being a good translator is a passion for culture and languages. Translation is a profession that is half art, half craft, though I prefer to consider translators "artists." So that's why one day I told my mother, "Mom, I wanna be an artist!"
How I Became a Translator
The first thing I did as soon as I decided to get into translation was something that had nothing to do with languages: I took a step back and considered the significance of my role, conscious of the legacy left to me by many other translators, who, like me, took responsibility for transmitting words and culture in earlier times. Remember, most of what we know comes to us through translations.
Some translators see themselves as mere transmitters of news, clerks who know languages, simple transcribers of messages with greater or lesser importance, and that's why some translators, when they compare themselves to other professionals (doctors, lawyers, writers, etc.), consider their work a lesser profession. This doesn't get verbalized very often, but as they say, "it's the thought that counts."
So if you, dear reader, want to make a good living from translation, I can't stress enough that the first thing you should do is realize your relevance as a professional. This will have an impact on how you look for and find work, your own expectations in terms of income and, ultimately, your ability to either live comfortably from this profession or merely survive, with few avenues for improvement. And this has nothing to do with your work experience, academic degrees, or raw talent... those are completely separate issues.
In this profession, your attitude is almost as important as your aptitudeon many occasions even more so. As in other professions, ours has its share of successful incompetentsace marketers who translate miserablywhile some brilliant translators fall by the wayside for lack of business acumen.
In my view, the single most important aspect of being a translator is not the aspiration to master both languages (bilingualism), but rather both cultures. Only knowledge of both the source and target cultures can help us solve the puzzles that confront us when we sit down to translate.
An example: any waiter in any bar in Spain knows what a pulga is (literally, a "flea"), but a Spanish>English translator might not know what this means if he or she hasn't been to Spain, because it's not easy to find in dictionaries. Due to an ignorance of the source culture (rather than the language), many translators introduce incorrect and unnecessary foreign-sounding expressions into their texts or entirely miss certain turns of phrase or cultural references. A mediocre Spanish>English translator might decide that pulga is "untranslatable" and leave it in Spanish in italics (he ate a ham pulga), but a pulga, in Spain, is nothing more than a "small sandwich." The less we know about the culture we translate, the less we understand its expressions and the more fearful we are of translating them. Bad approach. Gotta change your method.
On top of this, we have to remain conscious of the boundaries of our idiolect, where our personal dialect ends and where the standard begins. In simple terms, we have to know which expressions are specific to our family, neighborhood, city or region, and keep them separate from the standard language or what we understand to be the standard language.
Sources of Knowledge
As translators we are "condemned" to read. First and foremost we are writers, and how and what we read informs how and what we write. In these days of fast food and instant gratification, reading has notable rivals offering us instant and continuous titillation: multimedia, television, Internet... On the Internet, we can surf around, opening thousands of pages, flitting from one topic to the next like children in a candy store, simply indulging our every whim. Reading isand should bea more deliberate and thoughtful endeavor.
The great pleasure of reading is that, although we may think we've forgotten the text of a novel, what we learn from reading it is inevitably stored in our brains, as neurologists like Oliver Sacks remind us. With an adequate external stimulus (a translation, for example), we can recover this knowledge from oblivion. Solid evidence of this is that as speakers of languages, we know tens of thousands of words... but how often can we remember the day or moment we learned them? Do you remember where and when you learned the word "table" or "love"? That's the magic of culture: we soak it up and barely even notice.
Though it goes almost without saying, the works we know as "The Classics," in any of the arts, are classics precisely because they have survived entire generations, social and economic changes, political regimes and styles. And they've done so because subsequent artists have taken them as models to create innovative, cutting-edge works that are really nothing more than reinterpretations of the classics. This is why half the world's children still know Aesop's fables, written about 2,600 years ago. And I can't help noting that they've survived all these centuries thanks to the work of translators.
There are also many words in our lexicon that have barely evolved over thousands of years. These should also be qualified as "classics," and we should consider their survival as carefully as we would if someone proposed removing the Quixote from library shelves. The point is this: you can't read a book without first learning the alphabet, and likewise, we can't be truly modern without first being trained in the classics: modernity is essentially the product of classical thought.
Looking for Work
Most translators are freelancers rather than employees. In my opinion, the major difference is that "employees look for a boss, while freelancers choose their clients." When looking for work, the freelance translator has to realize that he or she is a service providera walking, talking company for both tax and professional purposesand understand the importance of "doing business."
Working at rates below those considered fair will cause the freelance translator more than a few problems, and, in my view, failing any change or improvement, will gradually expose the translator to situations like these:
- The translator enters a vicious circle with agencies promising mountains of work in exchange for low rates;
- As a result, the translator has to work many more hours to earn a normal income;
- This limits his or her circle of clients to one or two of these agencies who impose tight deadlines, poor working conditions and lengthy payment terms;
- The lack of free time prevents the translator from finding new, better clients, but above all, prevents him or her from continuing their intellectual development as a translator, enjoying free time and relaxing;
- Lacking a comfortable income, the translator is unable to invest in work tools and reference materials, performs poorly and acquires bad habits that remain unchecked;
- The translator graduates from novice to merely second-rate status, unable to keep up with the market: new software, new knowledge, new reading. Often, apathy ends up superseding the desire for improvement, and the translator on this path grows frustrated and changes careers.
This is the professional path that some translators have chosen, choose and will continue to choose. It's a personal decision. There are plenty of options in the translation market and it's each translator's responsibility to find and select what works for them.
Conclusion: it's better to invest three months in finding a good client who pays you 100, than to find a bad client who pays you 50 tomorrow. You'll likely have to turn five mediocre clients away before finding one good one. Whether you're fishing for clients or codfish, remember the golden rule: be patient and choose your tackle carefully. The better the lure, the better the clients.
All professions have a medium and a set of tools. In our case, the medium is language and the tools are computers. A translator who doesn't have a solid command of computer basics (Windows, Office, Internet, etc.) is doomed to failure or, at least, to having far fewer opportunities to find clients and work than his or her colleagues. Information technology is a freight train that stops for no one. All aboard!
Dictionaries in electronic format offer a clear example of how to fully leverage new technologies. Some translators use dictionaries on CD-ROM as if they were their print counterparts: they limit themselves to looking up terms and meanings. Most well designed electronic dictionaries allow complex searches: to find terms based on their definitions, find words within definitions, etc.
The Cartesian Method
Descartes' Method was one of those required readings in high school that I wrestled with reluctantly at the time, and then later, as an adult, decided to reread to fully understand the value of his message. Descartes expressed the need to discover, question, and doubt beliefs and seek out their underlying foundations, and insisted, in particular, on questioning preconceived notions, not only the knowledge to be learned in the future, but also what has already been learned.
Cartesian doubt keeps us on guard against "canned" knowledge, baseless axioms and conventional "wisdom." Descartes often forces me to wonder: "Why do I say it this way? Why do I translate it like this? Why do I have blind faith in that? Why did I start using this pet expression? Why should I follow this rule if I don't agree with it for whatever reason?
As you see, dear reader, this article doesn't contain many instant formulas or strategies. In translation, as in all the intellectual professions, the translator-person cannot be separated from the translator-professional. What happens to one affects the other and so, if we improve professionally, we also improve as people, and vice versa.
That's the great fortune of having chosen this profession. And the great pleasure.