One of the most popular posts on Howtogetfluent is my overview of a career in interpreting. I’m delighted that translator pro Karen Rutland has agreed to be interviewed for this new, companion piece offering advice for a career as a translator, which I think will be just as useful. This also follows on nicely from last week’s look at translation as a language learning method. Karen and I got to know each other at language learner meetups a few years ago. We both have German, Russian and Welsh as our main languages. We’ve both learned some Hungarian, too (with Karen quite a bit ahead of me).
As we got talking for this interview, Karen shared some of the story of how she got interested in languages and why she sees them as important for work and life. Then we get down to the meaty advice about translator training options, the importance of networking, in-house versus freelance or agency work, the value of specialisation and the impact of computer aided translations….
GP: What’s your current translation role?
KR: I have been working from home as a freelance translator now for 10 years. About 99% of my work is through agencies, and perhaps two-thirds of them are based in Germany or Austria. This is mainly because higher rates are more acceptable there, but I’m trying to change the balance slightly now, with Brexit approaching. My main working language is German, although I do occasionally work on small Russian projects. I tend to work on my own, but I have collaborated once or twice with other translators on larger projects (through an agency or agent). I’m currently participating in one of these with one other colleague to translate a German textbook.
GP: Before you went into translation, what was your language background?
KR: My grandparents were a great inspiration. My granddad spoke some German and Italian. My nan spoke French and Spanish. They did some language study as school children. There’s also a family legend the my grandad’s interest was sparked by some logbooks from a German U-Boot that his father is supposed to have helped capture. Both grandparents really got to grips with languages in retirement, though.
They used to travel to Europe each year on holiday. When I was 10, Granddad started teaching me some German. He would bring me back books from the Trödelmärkte (flea markets) that we would read together. In 1990, my grandparents went to explore the former German Democratic Republic (communist East Germany) and stayed in a Pension (B&B) run by a family who had a daughter two years older than me. Sandra and I became penfriends. We’ve been friends ever since. I was even her Trauzeugin (wedding witness/bridesmaid).
I studied German and French at secondary school (aged 11 to 16). By aged sixteen I had the language bug and I started teaching myself Russian. Aged 16 to 18 I studied German, Geography and Business Studies for the “A-Level” school leaving exams. I also did a Russian “GSCE” (less advanced exam), as I’d started teaching myself the language. There was a former Prisoner of War camp in my village. I became acquainted with one of the daughters of the former Hungarian PoWs who’d stayed on and she started to teach me Hungarian.
After my A-Levels I had no idea what I wanted to do. All I knew is that I wanted to do was use my languages and learn more. So I went to Warwick University to study German. As I knew I didn’t want to pull apart literature for several years, I did a combined German and Business degree. I’m very glad I chose this. The business studies have been a major help in running my own business.
For the second half of my degree “year abroad” in Germany, I did a placement as an assistant in the marketing department of a company in Germany that made medical support devices such as stockings and prosthetic limbs. The vocabulary that I picked up as a result certainly amused my friends. This period did the most for my German, as I also moved into a WG (shared flat) with four native speakers.
GP: What were your first steps after university?
KR: After university I still had no idea what I wanted to do, apart from use my languages. I tried various graduate schemes, but I’m not really the corporate type. So I went home and found a job at Lansing Linde. This was former British forklift truck manufacturer that had been taken over by a German company eight years previously. I worked as a Bilingual PA for nearly two years and used my German there occasionally.
My next job was a customer services administrator for a company that did backup solutions. I would log calls, order parts, arrange for engineers to go to site, etc. Occasionally I’d have to translate service reports and emails. Other times I had to help on phone calls as our engineers spoke no foreign languages and sometimes our German/Austrian/Swiss guys weren’t confident in their spoken English.
I travelled to Germany once to help liaise with the customer on a particularly tricky case. Another time I managed to go to Hungary for a week to help out when we moved our repair centre to the country. Things had gone a bit pear-shaped. My Hungarian wasn’t fluent, but the fact that I knew some and could interact a bit was helpful when all the rest of the team were monolingual Brits and Americans.
I wouldn’t say I was particularly good at languages. I think the main thing that has made the difference to me was the ability to see what the skill had given my grandparents, what it has given me (including my friend Sandra) and seeing that languages were a real thing and not just something in a textbook.
I’ve also seen the power of language learning in understanding other cultures and healing rifts.
On the course of their travels, my granddad even made friends with a German who had been firing on him during the Second World War when he was working as an aircraft mechanic somewhere in Italy. My nan was bombed out in the war and lost a lot of things. She should have been quite resentful of Germany, but she loved the place and the people.
GP: What attracted you to train as a translator?
KR: A career as a translator was never actually presented to me as an option. However, I always enjoyed translation classes at university. I enjoyed translating the commodity reports at Linde, and the other translation work in my second company.
While at Linde, I came across the Chartered Institute of Linguists and started going to many of their events. They have four divisions: education, translating, interpreting, and business/government/professional. If you’re not from the UK, be sure to check out equivalent bodies where you are. In the USA, for example, there’s the American Translators’ Association. There’s also an international body, the International Federation of Translators.
I found out about the Chartered Institute of Lingists’ Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) and took a distance learning preparation course for it at London’s City University.
At this point I had no specific plan to become a translator, but I thought the exam was interesting and would be useful whatever I decided to do.
Unfortunately it took me the full five years to pass it, possibly because I hadn’t really had enough experience at that point. It is a notoriously tough exam.
GP: Where did you train?
KR: I did look into doing a post graduate “master’s” degree (MA), as my networking at CIoL events showed that this was a common option. However, I’d had enough of academia. I did not want to write about translation theory, I wanted to translate! I also thought at the time that the MA was a far more expensive option, although after the various resits of the DipTrans, it probably worked out about the same.
There are various resources available (depending of course on the langauge combination). These include past papers, examiner reports and a handbook. You can train for it alone but I found the City Uni distance course very helpful. On that, you submit ten translations per trimester for review and discussion.
I actually never stop training. I learn new words and concepts every day at work. I’m always reading around my subjects in my source languages and in English, and taking webinars, going on training courses run by the ITI, CIoL, the Bunderverband der Dolmetscher und Übersetzer (the German equivalent) and courses and events in the industries I translate in.
Given that I work at home, networking is also important. Talking to others in the business is the equivalent of those “watercooler” moments in a corporate office, where you get top pick up tips and to let of steam.
Working with other translators is way to learn solutions to tricky language or business problems and can be an eye-opener to new techniques.
I also do editing jobs for some agency clients. This involves reviewing translations by other translators. It’s another way to learn how to improve your own technique. Rather than paying for training, you’re being paid!
GP: Did the qualification you took meet your expectations and what tips would you have for people chosing a course or a qualification?
KR: The Chartered Institute of Lingists’ Diploma in Translation does have a reputation for being difficult.
In some ways it is unrealistic. You are not allowed any internet connection at all. Yet, in real life, I could not do my job without it.
Still, I am planning on sitting the exam for Russian. It’ll be a real personal challenge and source of motivation and focus for my private study.
One thing I have heard about MAs – from various sources – is that they often have too much focus on the theory, and not enough on the practical side of working as a freelance translator. There often still seems to be very little in a typical MA on software, Computer Aided Translation (“CAT”) tools, translation memory, corpora software (text databases) or using machine translation and almost nothing on the practical business skills required.
However, there are different shades of MA and I hear that these days they are taking these things into consideration more. There are plenty of ways these days to supplement the course to make good anything missing from your MA if you want to.
Definitely get involved in the translation community, as well.
On proz.com there are various “powwows” (meetups) and translators are always happy to talk for hours about languages and translation (as you can tell!).
Go to events run by the professional bodies and software companies, and check out groups on Facebook and the discussion forums on proz.
There are also many blogs out there offering tips, trick and insights.
GP: What about the decision to set up your own translation business?
KR: I finally took the leap after eight years of working in non-translator roles offices. I’d been reading around the subject long enough, and now had enough commercial knowledge thanks to my previous jobs to go it alone with a career as a translator.
However, like most people, I needed the push rather than taking the leap myself.
After a company takeover, my role changed and I really hated my job. Nothing else appealed, as by this point I was so jaded by the whole corporate thing.
So I found a temporary contract for six months, editing reports at a marketing company (another useful experience), while I tried to set up and build up my business.
I went to various networking events for small businesses, and while no-one knows what a translator does, it was helpful for the support, encouragement and general business knowledge.
GP: Did it take long to get enough clients and do you still have to work hard at the business/marketing aspect?
KR: I had already been ‘on the scene’ for a while and had been networking quietly. So, when I mentioned to people what I was planning, I was given two or three referrals. That gave me a foot in the door at a couple of agencies.
My previous positions were also a help, because I was able to say I’d worked in industries X, Y and Z using both English German.
I registered on proz.com. This has a bad reputation among some in the community as a bottom-feeder environment, and if you participate in the bidding, it can be (the jobs going to the lowest bidder or the first to respond).
However, proz is a resource that even reputable agencies use to expand their database of translators, and a lot of my work has come from there.
I may also be lucky in my combination of languages and specialist subjects (supply chain and logistics, sustainability and renewables, production and operations management, automation technology, building technologies). There are fewer of us around for some combinations.
I think French/Italian/Spanish translators can have a harder job…and not many people enjoy translating technical texts or manuals.
When starting out, it is good to be prepared to work over weekends and holiday periods, when more experienced translators are away. Agencies are always pushed at these periods and it is a chance to make your mark.
However, don’t get into the trap of offering low rates because you are a beginner. This has a bad effect on the industry in general, because it pushes everyone’s rates down. It does you as an individual no good, either. It usually means you are taken on by the penny-pinchers who are not very enjoyable to work with. It is very difficult to up your rates over time (even for inflation sometimes), meaning you have to find new clients prepared to pay higher rates. When you start out, your rate will work out at less per hour anyway because you inexperience means you spend more time researching and checking everything. There is no need to make this worse.
Don’t forget, though, that from the beginning you should be charging higher rates for urgent work which you have to do urgently in the evening or over the weekend.
GP: Are there any pitfalls you’d want to flag for new translators wanting to go in-house/work freelance/set up a business?
KR: There are very few in-house translation departments today, so competition is fierce for jobs in them.
Working as a project manager in an agency would be a beneficial experience, as it would give you an insight into that part fo the chain. You could gain practical skills, such as software. Many who leave to go on to work freelance then have a ready-made client right from the beginning. It also looks good on your CV to other translators.
Business sense is essential as is the willingness to spend on training (you have to get away from the mentality that all your earnings from your work are you actual “take home” income, they aren’t).
You need to have a good command not only of your source language(s), but your mother tongue (in the UK the general rule is you only translate out of (and not into) your foreign languages).
You also need and a good grasp of your subject areas. Specialisation is key. This can be based on previous experience, but also subjects you are interested in.
There is a Facebook group called the Foodie Translators, for all those who love cooking and include menu and cookbook translations in their repertoire. There is another translator who comes to mind who is a qualified yoga teacher and specialises in health and fitness translations.
Working for direct clients is often promoted as the holy grail for translators. I do not subscribe to this.
A good translation agency is worth its weight in gold. They’ve often already done the hardest part of marketing (educating the end client how often understands nothing about the translation process), and they deal with the desktop publishing side of things and can help you with technology issues. They will also sometimes be able to pass the translation to another translator if you are on holiday or away for another reason.
GP: What do you most and least enjoy about your career choice and daily work?
KR: I most enjoy getting to use my languages every day, and the constant learning.
As an introvert, I quite enjoy working from my home office, although I have recently explored a co-working space should I want more human company and to cover any internet connection issues.
I can find the lack of predictability of projects stressful sometimes, because no matter how hard I try, there will always be something that crops up, or someone who decides they don’t want a translation after all, or who delivers their part late.
GP: Do you think that new technologies threaten the future of the profession?
KR: I don’t think it is the technologies that are the problem. It’s the lack of understanding and the way in which they are applied that causes the issues. Media hype leads the general public to believe that machine translation is the solution. It’s not, it is a tool.
Machine translation (Google Translate) and so on has its place. But, despite all the advancements, it is still incapable of replacing a human translator. Running a text through even the best machine translation software will still produce results that require checking and editing. In fact, sometimes the best results can be the most deceiving, because the final text is good English (or whatever your target language is) but it might not actually say exactly what the source says!
Computer Assisted Translation tools are something different. You don’t feed the text in in one language and get a translation out. It’s more about automatic checking and retrieving examples from your past work as you do the translation. When CAT tools first arrived, there was a panic about that, but now there are very few translators who don’t use them. The market has changed, but not necessarily for the worse. We need to change and adapt with the market.
GP: Where do you see yourself in five years time?
KR: Probably just where I am now but with better Russian and subject knowledge 🙂
I’ve considered developing my business to become an agency, but I enjoy the translation too much to go back into a project management role.
Many thanks to Karen for sharing her story and for all the practical tips. If you’re a translator and have things to add, let us know in the comments below. If you’re thinking of translation as a career, your questions are welcome.
Look out for a second interview with Karen soon, this time about her experience as a Welsh learner who recently passed an advanced Welsh exam.