How to start a career in translation?

by Stefano Bernardi Stefano Bernardi 7 minutes to read

You might feel paralysed or lost. You might not know what are your next steps - it's completely normal.

Even after starting my own company quite successfully, I still feel the same way any time I start something important — even this post.

However, the difference between when I first started and now is that I've learned how to tackle big projects. And I am here to share my secrets with you.

Why do you feel lost?

In The War of Art, Steven Pressfield tells us that each of us has two lives: the life we live and the unlived life within, and in the middle there is Resistance.

This Resistance is created by fear. The fear of the unknown or failure.

Starting a career in translation is perhaps one of the biggest projects in your life right now. And it's normal to have lots of questions but little answers.

Fortunately though, we can overcome this with a plan and a bit of commitment (Steven calls it "being a professional" — if you don't want to read the entire book, check out this video for the key insights).

Break down the complexity into smaller projects

My secret to tackle complex, paralysing projects is to break them down into bits - bite-sized pieces if you may. Look at each piece as a single task, and write down all the steps you need to take to get each task done.

After this master plan is written, the Resistance (fear) that was blocking me is now gone, because I only need to execute.

How does this apply to you?

Let's break down the major task of "starting a career in translation" project together. Click on the links below to jump to each section:

What tools do you need to start?

In a recent European Language Industry Survey (ELIS), 96% of independent translators acknowledge the importance of Continuous Professional Development for furthering their career.

Being fluent or near-native in a foreign language (your source language) is the basic line to become a professional translator. But there are other skills you'll need to develop or refine over and over during your career.

To start you will need:

  • A solid understanding of the culture of your source and target language countries;
  • Excellent writing skills;
  • Organisational skills (you will need to deal with clients and deadlines constantly);
  • Communication skills (more on this later);

This might sound like a lot, but the good news is that in the same study "well over half the respondents reported they have achieved a good work-life balance."

So, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Answer the big question: freelance or employment?

Not all translators are created equally. In fact, 40% of translators interviewed in the same survey mentioned above switched over from a different career path.

Nevertheless, every translator will eventually wonder whether they should freelance or seek more stable employment arrangements.

Don't exclude immediately any of the possibilities.

  • Try to engage with other translators, listen to their stories, read their experiences. More importantly, ask questions. If you don't know anybody in real life, online communities like Things Translators Never Say and r/translationstudies are good places to start looking for answers.
  • Find a mentor. You can start by following a YouTube channel, and then step-up to a more active, more human collaboration once you meet an awesome professional through your job or at a conference (Covid made this harder, but one of my best experiences was at the TCWorld Conference where I was invited for a talk — you should consider going if you can).

Infographic about translators and interpreters in the world

Click on the link for more insights into the translation industry.

Find a niche

The first suggestion any experienced translator will tell you is to find your own niche.

What are your interests? Do you have an academic degree in a specific subject?

Use this knowledge to your advantage and offer your services in the domains you're interested in or qualified for.

Some translation niches that might work for you:

  • Engineering
  • Law
  • Medical
  • Video Games
  • Web comics and novels

One of the most common complaints I've heard from clients is "my translator doesn't know the correct terminology." Being an expert in the field you are translating for can help you avoid a similar situation. It will also give you the background to communicate confidently with your client if an issue ever occurs.

When you're starting out, it's better to specialize in one or two domains. Not only would you be in a better position to negotiate your rates, it also helps recruiters (who know what kind of translator they're looking for) to find you. You can always diversify your services later once you've become more familiar with the translation trade through your niche.

Whatever you choose to specialize in, translation is a field that demands lifelong learning. Languages are constantly changing and so do the cultures that shape them - and all the skills you need as translator must evolve with them. As such, you'll always need to study and keep up to date with the latest happenings related to your target languages.

Learn to communicate

Here is a lesson I read on Reddit and bookmarked some time ago:

The way to earn the trust is to be very communicative, answer emails, send queries, warn us of any delays. Own up to your mistake. Ask for feedback.

Think about how you would feel if you ordered a new iPhone from Amazon and you didn't get any feedback on it for days. You don't know if your payment was successful or whether the product was shipped or not. You have to reach out to customer service for updates and wait for an answer. How would you feel about that experience?

I imagine it wouldn't be a pleasant one.

That's why everyone keep saying: "Communication is key." Nobody likes to be in the dark.

How should you handle mistakes?

At this stage, you're probably worried about making mistakes and quite frankly... it's going to happen at one point or another. It's normal.

The difference is how you handle these mistakes. Own up to your mistakes, talk about them, and learn from them.

Create your brand

How can Elon Musk sell 20.000 useless flamethrowers in a few days?

Personal branding. People know his name. His followers amplify everything he does and expose him to a larger audience. He is visible.

What can you practically do to create your brand?

  • Start blogging. Trust me, this is probably the most powerful thing you can do.
  • Do guest posts (in blogs about translations or your niche). This very website accepts guest posts, as you can see.
  • Use Twitter — there are tons of guides like this one on how to use it correctly.
  • Use LinkedIn.

Can confirm. In the last 2 or 3 years, I received at least one message a month from someone looking for translators with my specialty to the point I'm able to choose who to work with

Being present online gives you a way to control how people view you.

"According to a 2018 CareerBuilder survey, 70% of employers use social media to screen candidates during the hiring process, and 43% of employers use social media to check on current employees."source.

Build experience

Translation is a very competitive market. You don't necessary need to fight for prices (especially if you position yourself correctly) but you will need to be competitive.

Start by choosing and learning a translation software. If you are a freelance, you'll be free to pick your own, but if you plan on collaborating with one or more translation agencies, you should check with them what tools they use.

If you haven't decided, yet, whether you prefer to work as a freelance or as an employee, now it's the best time to test.

  • You can look for an internship (start from Google "translation + internship" should give you some results).
  • You can find volunteering translation opportunities.
  • You can try freelancing on platforms like UpWork, Fiverr, etc.

Price yourself correctly

Many factors shape the price of a translation project - text complexity, type of media, delivery time, your certifications, language pair, volumes, relationship with the client and so on.

You can head here for a first idea of pricing but consider it a guide rather than the standard. Ultimately, you should price what you think is fair, not what you think will attract the most clients.

Of course, that's easier said than done when there's always another person who is ready to offer your potential client a lower rate.

That's why, in the negotiation stages, you should strive to communicate to your client about how your services differ from your competitors. From there, you can explain why your service is valuable and worthy.

Time for action

Open a new document in your favourite editor. Go to the beginning of this post and start writing down what you need to do to start your translation career.

Write down the questions you have, and find a way to answer them.

In the next hour, keep building your plan, and once it's completed, the only step left will be to execute.

Stefano

Stefano Bernardi
Stefano Bernardi

Stefano has worked on numerous mid to large–sized InDesign projects for Alstom, DeLonghi, Philips, and many others before starting Redokun in 2015.
As Redokun’s Co-Founder, Stefano spends most of his time helping customers to optimize their InDesign work-flow. He also holds in-house InDesign courses for companies in the Venice, Italy area.

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