was born in Helsinki, Finland, into a bilingual family with a Finnish mother and a Swedish father. I used to listen to the radio (we had no television when I was a small child), and I especially loved foreign-language programs. My family wondered why I listened to French when I didn't understand a word of it. I answered, "Because I like the sound of it, and when I grow up I shall learn French." Well, in a way it came trueI did learn some French later in life. Although it is not a language I earn my living in, I still like the sound of it.
I am the membership chair for MICATA (Mid-America Chapter of ATA) and young people often call and ask me, "What do I need to do to become a translator?" My standard first answer is, "Work hard at school with a special emphasis on English." I can hear the hesitation in their voices when they say, "English? But that is my mother tongue... I have taken three years of Spanish and I'd really like to become a translator. I already know English." I don't need to tell my experienced colleagues why knowing one's mother tongue is so important. When Gabe Bokor called me and asked me to be the featured translator in this issue, he asked me particularly to give some advice to newcomersto share my experience on what it takes to become a successful freelance translator. This is written for newcomers to the profession and aspiring translators. And since my experience does not include literary translation, I am not giving advice to prospective literary translators.
You must refuse a job if you feel that it is beyond your capabilities.
If you are a language major in a college or university, take a few courses in something else than your major (e.g., business, medical terminology, biology, chemistry, legal terminology). It will become extremely useful in your career as a translator. If you already have your degree, it is still worth taking some courses. Do not forget to mention these extra courses when looking for work.
If you can afford it, do consider at least taking some summer courses at a university in a country where your major language is spoken, or try to get a job in that country for a few months. You'll be amazed how much more you learn about another culture if you experience it first-hand rather than as a mere tourist visiting for a week or two.
You have so many advantages compared to what I had when I was listening to the radio and deciding to study languages. You have television and the Internet. You really have no excuse not to become a language professional, if you are serious about it. We need you!
Get involved in translators' associations!
Become a member of a translators' group, such as an ATA chapter, and with the ATA at the national level. You can do this even before you have started seriously working as a translator. We welcome newcomers, we are friendly (most of us do not bite...), and we share our knowledge; ATA has even a mentoring program for newcomers. There is more detailed information about it on the ATA website. If you think that you can do it alone, it will be a lonesome road. It is vital for a translator to have contact with colleagues. They may be able to help you to find work, and they will give you advice on how to tell a bad translation company from a good one. (I shall give some general advice here, too, but they can tell about their own experiences.)
Should you take the ATA certification exam right now? If you want to try it, nothing prevents you if you have the required bachelor's degree or equivalent. But why not wait a year and learn a little more about translation, so you can pass it on the first try? Use the money you would have spent on the exam fee toward participating in a translation workshop, conference, etc. That way you learn a lot more about the profession, get work contacts, meet experienced colleagues, and can distribute your resumes and business cards.
Now you are ready to look for a job. Where should you start? This may sound awfully old-fashioned, but I'd say the Yellow Pages. Prepare a nice-looking resume (no typos!) and send it to all the local translation companies. (Later on, contact other translation companies elsewhere.) Do not send your resume by e-mail unless the company requests it. Translation companies get hundreds of resumes by e-mail; for big companies, it would take a special person to save or print them. If you send a short resume on good paper summarizing your education, talents, and experience, it may catch someone's eye, and if they think they may be able to use you, they will save it. You may want to call them in a week or two, inquiring whether they are interested in talking to you in person. Do not show up without an appointment, most people do not want to interrupt their work just to talk to you. If the company offers you proofreading jobs or other minor translation-related jobs, don't look down on them! Those small jobs will help you get a foot in the door.
Some Internet sites mediate jobs between potential buyers and translators. Unfortunately, some of them are offered at such low rates that you could not make a living that way.
What about direct clients? If you are truly a newcomer into the profession, you are not ready for that unless you are a medical doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer looking for translations in your own field. Work first with translation companies. A respectable company will have an editor to work with you. Another pair of eyes will catch your mistakes (yes, we all make them!), correct your terminology, and improve your style. In an ideal situation, the translator and the editor form a team and work together, and that produces the best translations. Some larger companies have in-house editors into English, often subject specialists. Some have even foreign-language editors in-house.
OK, I promised to tell you about translation companies.
A bad company calls you late at night and wants an urgent translation next day. Run if you hear the following:
"I'll e-mail you the job now, but it is the end of the day and I have to catch my train, you'll get the work order tomorrow afternoon. Please have the job here by 11 o'clock a.m."
(The work order must come before you accept the job. It must include the agreed pay rate, due date, payment conditions, and special instructions, if any. In addition, it must include the company's complete mailing address and phone number.)
"We don't have time to do any editing. Read it through carefully a couple of times and run it through a spell-check." (Read: We never "have time" to do editingwe just collect the money.)
"We have this big job and we have to divide it between six translators since we have to deliver it so fast." When you get a request like this, ask who is going to coordinate the terminology between the translations done by different translators and whether this person will be available to answer terminology questions. If the answer is: "Just do the best you can and try to use the correct terms." (Run really fast. This company has no intention of delivering quality work.)
If the original text is ambiguous, and you are unsure what the writer means, call the translation company and ask them to explain. If they say: "I can't reach the client, do the best you can," this is a warning sign. There are companies who never want to ask questions because they are afraid that the client will think that they are ignorant in the subject matter. If you don't understand what a sentence says, it could mean that something was a) written wrong, b) a word was omitted by mistake, c) the context is too difficult for you to comprehend and you definitely need a good explanation what it means, otherwise your translation will not make any sense either.
A good translation company does not call you late at night, they call or e-mail during business hours. If you agree to do the job, the work order will come immediately. They will always see that your job is edited. They don't like to divide jobs unless they have time enough to have an editor to coordinate the translations. They welcome your questions. They would rather have you ask questions than make guesses. They are not afraid to present the question to their client. They can often explain it to you themselves.
As a translator, you have certain responsibilities:
You must refuse a job if you feel that it is beyond your capabilities. Dictionaries cannot select the correct term. You must have a basic understanding of what the term means in order to choose between several terms. The Internet can be helpful, but it cannot do your translation.
You must refuse a job if you are not sure that you can deliver on time. If you think you need an extra day or two, say so while you are negotiating. A due date means that you deliver on that date, not the next day. If you run into real difficulties (such as illness, text that is too difficult, etc.) during the course of the translation, call the company immediately. They may be able to allow more time or get another translator to help you. If this happens often, you should consider always adding an extra day to your estimate. The company will be happy to get the job a day early if you finish ahead of schedule.