Starting out as a translator or interpreter?

I don’t normally post announcements about events and training courses here but I though I would make an exception just this once. You’ll figure out why soon enough! The Irish Translators’ & Interpreters’ Association is organising a full-day Continuing Professional Development event for anyone who is considering a career as a translator or interpreter. In addition to sessions on working as a freelancer, translation technology and starting out as an interpreter, I’ll be contributing two sessions: one on developing translation specialisms and the other on marketing your services online.

The event will take place on 12th November from 10.30-15.15 at the Irish Writers Centre in Dublin and admission is free to members and non-members alike. The organisers do ask that you send an email to give them an idea of numbers if you plan attending. For more details, go to the ITIA website.

A number of people asked me for a copy of the slides I used for this event. You can download them in PDF format here.


Those who can’t, teach…

George Bernard Shaw once said something along the lines of “He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches“. As a student I often chuckled at this thought as I sat in translation class wondering whether any of my lecturers had ever worked as translators and whether they really knew what translation was all about and I still chuckled several years later as a full-time professional translator. Now that I’m a lecturer, I’m not chuckling any more.

The view really isn't that good from up here

The view really isn't that good from up here.

The decision to go into academia was not one that I consciously made, it just kind of happened. Let’s just say that when you get a PhD you just tend to drift into university life because that’s just what people do. Why else would you devote three years to pursuing something that is essentially preparation for life as a researcher and lecturer? But having said that, it’s not a bad career choice once you get used to the idiosyncrasies of academia.  On the one hand, academic life is less fraught with the day-to-day financial worries of freelancing full-time and it means you can just take on those jobs that are interesting, not the mundane donkey-work jobs. There’s also the satisfaction and sense of reward from passing on your experiences and helping students realise their potential. But on the other hand, you do get the sense that you are missing out on the cut and thrust of full-time translating, that somehow you’re not really a translator, merely a dabbler or worse still, that having gone from industry into academia, you’re a sell-out.

Having said that, I do think that in order to be a decent lecturer you need to be an active translator (or at least have recent professional experience). If for no other reason, because translating professionally can give you a plentiful supply of texts (assuming of course your clients agree to their texts being used) and it keeps you up to date with what’s happening in industry. Too many lecturers that I know of either are not active translators or have never translated professionally. The latter is something that really annoys me – how can you teach translation properly if you have never earned a living from it? In various institutions, I have seen lecturers whose only experience of translating has been the odd poem or novel written by some obscure medieval nobody. I’m sorry but this type of hobby translation coupled with degree in whatever doesn’t give you the knowledge and expertise you need to train translators for industry. Maybe Shaw had a point after all.

But ranting aside, I can’t do just one job. I get bored and frustrated. I can’t just be a translator no more than I can just be a lecturer. I love the variety of combining the two and I like the fact that I can pass on my experiences to students and for the most part, they appreciate this. Sure I get the occasional weirdo who does a translation degree but who has no intention of ever working as a translator but by and large it’s nice working with students and watching them develop as translators. I also like the fact that by being a translator I am doing what I trained to do – something from which I still derive an enormous amount of pleasure and which exercises parts of my brain that teaching just doesn’t. Translating also gives you a strong work ethic which I don’t think is all that common among some academics for whom the basic unit of working time is the week and not the hour.

So ultimately, as a lecturer who takes the job seriously, I find myself caught between two stools. The professional translators who might think I’ve sold out or that by living in the Ivory Tower I have lost touch with the “real” world, and the academics who have seriously misguided notions of translation competence and who look down on professional translators and anyone who isn’t a “traditional” academic (i.e. someone who has spent their entire working lives in the comfort of academia, researching the obscure, the surreal and often the irrelevant and who has never had to translate 3000+ words a day).

But this raises some interesting questions. Should you be allowed to teach if you have never worked as a professional translator? Should all university appointments be contingent on the prospective lecturer having a minimum level of experience outside academia? Would you trust a mechanic to fix the brakes on your car if he only had theoretical knowledge and had never actually stripped an engine or gotten oil under his finger nails? Would you trust a surgeon who had only read books but never cut open a human body? So why would you trust a lecturer who had never actually done the job they are training you for?


Who makes the best translator?

It’s now June and in one of those rare moments of calm between supervision meetings for my dissertation students, marking essays and going to various other meetings I started doing some reflection on that age old question of who makes the best translator: the subject matter expert or the professional translator?

Of course most people will be biased towards their own particular background but realistically, is it easier to learn how to translate and write or to learn about science and technology (for example)? I once asked this same question on Proz and opinion seemed to tip in favour of the expert-turned-translator (ETT). This surprised me a little because the ETTs almost unanimously said that the only way to gain all of the specialist information necessary in order to translated technical texts, you needed to have a degree in it. But then they would though, wouldn’t they? I don’t have a degree in science or engineering yet I’ve been translating texts in these areas for years with nothing but praise from clients so obviously I think they’re wrong as wrong can be. Not only were the ETTs a little more dogmatic, dare I say even fundamentalist, but the fact that they seemed to be heavy users of Proz makes me wonder now, in light of my previous post on rates, whether they are part of the problem when it comes to the devaluation of the translation profession.

If people haven’t gone through formal training as a translator, but instead have taken a degree in engineering, for example, have they had a chance to develop a bond with translation as a profession and for many of us as a way of life? It’s obvious that they won’t have had the chance to develop at least some of the skills needed before they start taking real projects. It also occurred to me why would someone with a degree in something like science, business or whatever would decide to throw it all in and become a translator? Do they hate the work that much? Do they see translation as an easy way of making a quick buck or two? You could also argue that subject matter expertise is, by and large, “just” declarative knowledge and the main challenge is just remembering it. Translating and writing, are skills which require procedural knowledge and as such take time to develop and perfect.

Seriously! Do I really need to be a welder to translate a text about welding?

Seriously, do I really need to be a welder to translate a text about welding?

On the other hand, can you really expect people with degrees in translation or worse still, languages, and nothing else to have the sufficient expertise in a particular area to call themselves “specialised” translators? Few, if any, translator training programmes include tuition in specialised areas such as science, technology or economics so where to these translators get the knowledge to allow them to understand and translate complex texts? In my own case, my training at DCU did involve a couple of years of science and economics and in any case, I have always had a profound interest in technology and as a child invariably had my nose stuck in an encyclopaedia.

So how come professional, career translators still manage to provide high quality translations? My own feeling is that an interest in a subject combined with the excellent research skills you develop on a reputable translator training programme are more than a match for a qualification in some engineering or scientific field. In fact, I’d probably go as far as to say that professional translator training is probably the better approach because it gives you the flexibility to move into new areas and the linguistic and research skills which will allow you to deal with the new and ever-changing challenges that present themselves each day. Ultimately, I’m not saying that a professional translator is better than an ETT but I do know that proper training in translation makes the job a whole lot easier otherwise it will take many years of trial and error and numerous mistranslations before you get it right.

Feel free to comment, challenge or just share your thoughts…


Freelance Translation: Teaching Students to Create their Own Jobs

First published as: Byrne, Jody (2003) “Freelance Translation: Teaching Students to Create Their Own Jobs”. In: Daniel Gouadec & Daniel Toudic (eds) Traduction, Terminologie, Rédaction. Paris: La Maison du Dictionnaire,

Abstract: With the majority of translation graduates failing to find in-house translation positions, this paper asks the question of whether we should train students to create their own employment opportunities as freelance translators. This paper contains the results of student employment surveys and outlines the typical skills which need to be incorporated into translator training programmes.

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