A lot has changed for me since I first started thinking about becoming a translator. The skillset needed to make it as a professional translator turned out to be much more complex than I expected. As I continue to progress in my career as a freelance translator, I’ve been looking back over the challenges I had to wrestle with.
In this article, I’ll tell you about seven rites of passage you’ll probably face when you’re starting out as a translator. I’ll give you straightforward, practical solutions to help you work your way through them to become a successful translator.
Without further ado, let’s get to the first challenge. It’s possible you’ll meet this one at the very outset.
1. Realising your high level in your second language isn’t enough
Let’s start with my favourite: the realisation that your ability to fluently operate in your second language isn’t enough to be a proficient translator.
It may be the case that you’ve achieved an advanced level in your second language, and that’s a great start.
But it eventually turns out that a high level in that language is just one piece of the puzzle. To offer quality translation services, you also need writing skills and subject knowledge.
What’s more, you might understand the original text well, but do you understand it deeply enough to accurately translate it? Do you know the parlance of the subject area?
Beyond the understanding issues, do you actually know how to translate? Have you studied the professional translation process? Translation studies is a discipline in and of itself.
On the job, you’ll find texts that are dauntingly complex, others far outside your comfort zone, and even some that are downright poorly written. Successful professional translators know how to juggle all these balls, and only years of training, exposure and experience will make you proficient at it.
Solution to improving your source language skills
My solution to this is to continually work towards native-level competency in your source language. Only with that level of familiarity with the language do I feel able to represent the text effectively in English.
I see this more as an ideal than a real possibility, but with every step you take towards that imaginary destination, you become a better translator.
I’m a brute force kind of guy, so my solution is quite simple: expose yourself to the second language as much as possible over the course of years and decades.
In terms of learning how to translate, you have to study and qualify. I started with the training courses offered by The Translator’s Studio.
2. Identifying the need to become a professional writer
As I embarked on my translation journey some two years ago, I thought: I did A-level English. I went to university. I’ve done a little blog writing in my spare time. I can handle this. Piece of cake. Oh dear. The proverbial wake-up call.
All competent translators are, ipso facto, competent writers in their native language (the target language). They have the requisite skills and know-how.
Acquiring excellent writing skills is no mean feat. Punctuation, grammar, syntax and all the other elements of a writer’s craft have to become second nature for you.
But there’s an additional snag. Many people find translating a text into their target language more difficult than writing in it from scratch. This is true even if they’re competent writers.
What’s more, when you translate, you’re limited in your freedom and creativity. You’re a translator, after all. You’re supposed to be invisible, like a ghost-writer. Now I accept that this invisibility is part and parcel of the craft, but for a while I more or less overlooked it.
Solutions to becoming a professional writer
First and foremost, I recommend practice, practice and more practice.
Do writing courses, read books, identify your weak points, study excellent writers, and pay close attention to feedback from teachers, fellow professionals and clients. For starters, join the Translation Conversion Course offered by The Translator’s Studio. They’ll help you improve your written English enormously and set you on the right track to move forward.
The skills I’ve gained from working on my own writing projects have spilled over into my translation work and made me less hypnotisable.
I also recommend becoming obsessed with your native language, to the point where you’re looking for rogue apostrophes and grammar faux pas almost automatically. Daily life is like a playground for grammar geeks. Let me tell you, they don’t call it the Greengrocer’s Apostrophe for nothing.
3. Feeling Inadequate
This challenge is common to all new pursuits. But freelance translation brings a new dimension to it.
Not only are you trying to improve your skills, but you’re also navigating the translation industry and trying to find good projects at the same time.
In entry-level positions in companies, you get paid regardless of your incompetence. But this isn’t the case in freelance work. Your skills define the projects you can access, which limits your earnings.
What’s more, you look at the position of your LinkedIn contacts, teachers and peers, and your lot looks puny in comparison. That feeling of inadequacy begins to eat away at you.
There have been days I’ve thought I was lost in a vicious circle of insufficient qualifications and experience, meaning I wouldn’t get any projects or earn a living. But don’t get lost in that negativity. There are solutions!
Solutions to feelings of inadequacy
When I’m struggling, I always like to think back to other areas in my life that I once found really difficult but are now second nature for me. This helps me see that periods of doubt and struggle are inherent to any learning journey. It relaxes me.
Trust that something will give. Keep plugging away and focus on building skills, knowing your effort will be rewarded. The repetition and continual learning will build the habit of translation into you. This will give you valuable skills, which will lead to projects, and then to more skills, and so on.
Use your LinkedIn envy as a motivation to get better. Rather than thinking that seasoned translators are inherently better than you, realise that they all went through their own rite of passage. They worked hard for their competence and skills. Use their journey as a guide and as inspiration.
Watch Ross Edwards being interviewed by Gwenydd Jones on his experience of starting out as a translator.
4. Working alone
The next challenge is to do with the loneliness of being a freelance translator. On the surface, freelancing is the introvert’s dream. No commuting, no Monday morning small talk, no boring meetings.
It’s true that freelance translators can sidestep these unappealing social obligations. But you also don’t have colleagues to make friends with. It’s harder to build a good understanding with your bosses. When you need expert knowledge, there’s no specialist on hand to help you. You have to go the extra mile to make connections.
Yes, it can be plain old lonely sometimes. On those tough days, it’s often just me, myself and I having a panic attack over a phrase that patently detests the idea of being translated.
Solutions to the sense of loneliness
I like my alone days, but I mix them up with spaces where there are other people around, like libraries, universities and coffee shops.
Coworking spaces are a smart choice. They mean you’re surrounded by professionals in the same boat as you, bringing opportunities for socialising and friend-making. You might even find a client for your translation services.
You can also join translator associations, Facebook groups for freelance translators (like the one The Translator’s Studio runs for its students) and internet forums to connect with other translators and freelancers. They can help you with tricky translations, advise you on business problems and give you some good old social time.
While studying with The Translator’s Studio, I’ve also had the opportunity to work with study buddies, which is a great way to meet other translators.
5. Dealing with company politics and client relations
It’s tempting to assume that offering freelance translation services means you’ll avoid those niggly political issues that employees deal with each day. It’s particularly tempting if you find people tricky. But I’ve found out the hard way that this is untrue.
Think of it this way. Whether you have private clients or work with translation agencies, you’re a sort of temporary employee without a contract.
You never meet anyone at the translation agency in person, not even at an interview. And there are no weekly meetings to review your translation work. The people who pay you don’t know who you are, so they play the guessing game. In most other professional settings, this is completely unheard of.
This situation can be problematic.
Let’s take an example. If your project manager misinterprets a well-intentioned email of yours, they might jump to conclusions and think you’re being rude. One unfortunate misunderstanding could lose you a client.
It’s sad but true. Agencies have the power to cut communication with impunity.
My tendency for introversion, propensity for taking things literally and lack of experience of working in bureaucratical structures all mean I’ve struggled with the people aspect. I really wouldn’t be surprised if I found out it had lost me projects, even though my translation skills were up to scratch.
Solutions to improve translation client relations
In a sense, you have to be even more socially adept than the average professional. You need to understand people’s emotions, thoughts and intentions through nothing but the few emails you’ve received from them. I tend to think: wouldn’t it be easier if we all just said what we mean? For me it’s often akin to reading Morse code.
This isn’t a crash course in emotional intelligence or communication, so I’ll be brief.
- Pay attention to what you’re saying in emails.
- Know that your positive intentions could be completely misinterpreted.
- Present a good image through all your online channels and make sure you’re extremely good at what you do to counterbalance any social shortcomings.
- Do a little bit extra to build strong relationships with your peers, like adding them on LinkedIn or engaging them in small talk.
With project-based assignments, you typically have more freedom than the average worker. This means you have to discipline yourself.
How many projects do you say yes to? Do you do work extra to take advantage of a particularly busy period? Do you work the usual 9–5? When do you take breaks?
And then you have the quiet hours, days and weeks. What do you do with those?
If you find managing yourself easy, this freedom is a dream. But the flexibility could easily lead to overworking and stress. Or to getting distracted with other things during quiet periods.
Ways to ensure strong self-discipline
My solution is to use the extra freedom to develop self-mastery. I use it to optimise my schedule and give myself flexibility within reasonable limits. For example, I aim for six hours of timed work per day (breaks don’t count). I usually start at the same time every day. I don’t work during my hours of low output, and my productivity habits keep me on track.
During quiet times, I focus on improving my skills. I work on side projects, read, take courses and study my second language.
7. Learning to run a business
As a freelancer, you have to do more to ensure the money comes in and the legal side is taken care of. You have to keep track of your projects, do your books, send invoices, pay taxes and save for your pension.
That’s not to mention that you have to make sure you have projects. This means marketing, engaging on social media and networking. Eventually, you might even start your own website.
If you’re just starting out and have no experience with the business side, it can be daunting.
Solutions to building up your business skills
The solution is to start early and target the most essential elements first. To begin with, you won’t need a pension fund, a separate bank account and a website. You’d be best learning how to acquire clients and keep your books. And you’ll likely have more spare time at the beginning, which you can put towards the business side.
There’s a tonne of information out there on all these topics. The internet is your friend. You can even use it to outsource your web design, marketing or bookkeeping.
Over time, you develop routines and habits that streamline the process. A little goes a long way. For example, I have an Excel spreadsheet where I keep track of all my projects, income and expenditure, marketing strategy and so on.
I also have invoice templates for each of my translation agencies, meaning I spend hardly any time preparing them. I’ve even designed my own website. It’s quite simple, but it has led to a noticeable jump in my earnings.
And so the rites of passage continue …
I’ve learned a lot since I took my first steps into the world of translation. I know I still have a lot to learn but I hope this list of initial challenges and solutions will help you take action and start your journey towards your dream job as a translator.
Join our CertTrans and DipTrans translation courses
Ross Edwards started his translation journey by taking our translation conversion course (CertTrans). He’s now progressed to the advanced translation course and plans to take the DipTrans exam soon. Get started on your journey towards becoming a professional translator by doing your free level test.