16 Truths About Being a Professional Translator

For Jessica

Last week, I happened upon this list titled “15 Truths about being a professional dancer”. It turns out the writer herself was inspired by yet another list titled “16 Harsh Truths that Make us Stronger”. I found the lists deeply honest and incredibly inspiring and just what I needed to give myself perspective and focus in a professional and personal environment in which we not always get the answers that we need, or even answers at all.

1. The life of a freelancer is not easy.
If you are like me and you decided to become a freelancer because you dislike being tied to a schedule and love not having to get up early in the morning, know that this freedom of movement and location comes with strings attached. It means that you will not get the perks that come with a paid position, such as benefits and a steady paycheck. You won’t get your taxes deducted for you. More than anything, being your own boss means you have many different bosses: your clients and project managers who get to decide that they no longer need you or that an editor’s bad review is reason enough to dispense with you.

2. You won’t always get it right. Sometimes you will make mistakes. Life isn’t only made of successes, otherwise growth and learning would be almost impossible. Mistakes are great opportunities, so don’t waste them. Use them to ask yourself why it happened and whether there was anything you could have done to avoid it. Sometimes mistakes happen out of ignorance, and as such are blessings in disguise, because then they mean you have learned something new.

worldhead3. You don’t know everything. Maybe you have a Master’s degree in philology or know your favorite grammar book from beginning to end by heart. Maybe you’ve been working in a particular field for fifteen years or even teach classes at university. It doesn’t matter how much you know, you still don’t know everything. Language is ever-evolving, but knowledge is too. There is always something you can learn, so keep your eyes and ears open.

4. There may not be a tomorrow. This is not directly related to the profession, but it is worth mentioning as an undeniable fact of life. The end need not only take the form of death: you could lose your eyesight or the use of your hands, without which you would be effectively unable to perform in this profession. Relish every project as if it were the last. That may sound silly, especially with projects that we find incredibly inane and a waste of our mental capabilities, but it can go a long way towards making you appreciate what you have.

5. There’s a lot you can’t control. Budget cuts, recessions, companies closing, shifts in markets… all of these can have an effect on your inflow of work. Your perfectly crafted translation may also fall into the hands of an overzealous legal reviewer, or someone who thought they knew better than you and errors and meaning mistakes were introduced. The internal politics of a company may dictate the vagaries of what parts of your translation eventually go untouched. Here there is not much you can do. You can fight and explain why your choice is better, but ultimately it is the client’s decision. Let it go.

pacman6. Information is not true knowledge. Only through experience can we become true masters. You may know your grammar back and forth, read ten thousand newspapers everyday in all your languages and keep in touch with what’s happening in the world, but until you actually translate, translate, translate you won’t be able to hone the skills necessary to be a good researcher, reader and reviewer. This also applies very much to interpreters: you can have all the Powerpoint slides for the conference and be well-read on the subject, but only experience interpreting will give you the edge that you need to be really good.

7. If you want to be successful, demonstrate your value. A lot of professionals spend a lot of time trying to grow their business and acquire new clients. While it is important to constantly be on the lookout for new business opportunities, it is also crucial not to neglect the ones we already have. Deliver quality work on time, ask questions that show you care and be professional, respectful and friendly in your business communications.

fatskinny8. Someone else will always have more than you. Envy can become an occupational hazard when you see others with your same amount of experience and expertise (or less) climbing quickly up the professional ladder, getting juicy contracts and interesting clients. Don’t let it get to you. If you work hard and focus on your own goals, your time will come. It would also serve to ask yourself when you see someone land an amazing job whether you would really be willing to do that kind of work.

9. You can’t change the past. You made a terrible mistake in a past translation or failed to catch an unbelievable gaffe while reviewing someone else’s work. Whether your expertise was put into question or not, you must take the lesson, examine it, learn from it, then move on. It will not do to torture yourself with something you can no longer change. Rather, focus on what you can change: the present and the future.

lombriz10. The only person who can make you happy is you. Making it professionally cannot make us happy. Even while you are living the life you dreamt of years ago and doing what you love you may be prey to occasional spells of sadness or general malaise. Thinking that “if only things were this or that other way then it’d be perfect” is the best way to make yourself miserable. Ask yourself whether the negative aspects are really that bad and whether there is something you can do to change them. If you are doing your best and the rest is out of your hands, then relax and enjoy.

11. There will always be people who don’t like you. When it comes to the language arts, everybody fancies themselves an expert and a critic. People are also not generally open to feedback, especially when it comes to how they speak, and some might resent you for your corrections or linguistic disagreements. Let them! Your job is to do your job to the best of your ability. If other people are incapable of receiving feedback in a civil way without mixing personal and professional aspects, then that is their problem.

12. You won’t always get what you want. About half the time, maybe more, you won’t get what you want. You will send cover letters and CV’s to hundreds of places. You will follow dozens of leads. You will talk to potential clients that look very promising until everything just flounders, often without you ever finding out what went wrong. You will fail that test. And that other one. You won’t get the rate you asked for. You won’t be given the time you think is ideal to complete your work. These things will happen. And it is easy to be discouraged in this profession that seems to prize low rates over any other consideration and with clients that seem hellbent on making you work twenty hours a day trying to complete a deadline. Keep working hard. Keep sending out letters and curriculums. It will pay off in the long run.

13. You will change your mind. Sometimes we make grand plans for the next few years or so, and forget to take into account that we change. Changes are sometimes imperceptible, but they do happen. Think back to when you were 21 (and if you are 21 think back to when you were 15). Do you still want the same things you wanted then? What makes you think that in five or six years you still will want the same things? It’s okay to shift our priorities as we grow and gain new experiences. It’s ok to let go of a dream that has only become a burden because you no longer want it. It’s ok to reinvent yourself every once in a while and reimagine the possibilities for your life.

14. If something isn’t working, try something new. While repetition is the basis of mastery, some things in life don’t quite work that way. If you continue knocking at the same doors and getting no response, then it’s perhaps time to knock on different doors. If you keep taking that test and failing, maybe it’s time to ask yourself whether you truly are prepared or if you really want it that badly. Sometimes we focus on certain goals and we get it through our heads that things will be better somehow if we achieve it, but are not interested in the least in the process of getting there. Goals are as much about the end result as about the road towards it.

15. You will never feel 100% ready. If you are considering a career change or have received a great opportunity but don’t feel quite ready yet, ask yourself why it is you’re not ready and when you think you might be ready. Will another opportunity present itself in the future? What do you think you need in order to be ready for career change (like going freelance after being in-house or switching from translation to interpretation)? Sometimes you just won’t know if you are ready until you go ahead and do it.

16. Not everybody knows what we do! It is difficult, I know, but be sympathetic with the public at large. Most people have never met a translator and have very little idea of what we do. It is our job to illuminate them and explain to them what our profession entails. Ask yourself: do you know exactly what server maintenance is all about and do you ever think about the people who made your toilet? Our profession is unfortunately not high-profile and while UN interpreters enjoy a lot of prestige, the people translating billboards and end user license agreements are not. Be open about your profession and be patient. Most of the time, people are very curious about what we do and appreciate any light you can shed on the profession.

Happy freelancing!


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