30 March 2013

What next?

A good internship, in any walk of life, is one that teaches you lots about your trade in a short period of time and empowers you to move on, armed with (at least some of) the tools that will lead you to future professional success.

Time is of the essence. No matter how much money you earn in that learning process, it would make little sense for anyone, including a translator, to stay there. You need to test the waters, but after that surely you have to make decisions: are you going into the pool or perhaps would rather not go swimming at all?

A few months should be enough to picture one's place in the translation market. Any decision will of course be subject to future review, but after 2-3 months as a translator you should probably have worked out your strong points, including preferred language pairs and prospective fields of specialization, a sense of whether there is room in the market for you and whether you want to be there at all, and a list of things that you do not yet have and may come in handy for the future: CATs and other software, tools to market your services, certification and so on.

In translation, you can aim to make your internship a paid one and to get out of it as much money as you possibly can. However, you should not lose sight of the future, the reason you are there in the first place: it is the first step in a career, and should therefore not be an end in itself but rather just a gate of access to a hopefully very long and exciting road ahead.

If you have been a badly paid, ill-equipped and generally just reactive translator for years, you may be procrastinating on the key decision of whether you should be doing something else, or perhaps just on the option of adopting crucial improvements, including some invesment, that would allow you to move on to a higher professional plane.

28 March 2013

Where to start

Translation is like any job: you have to start somewhere. And the day you actually start you will probably find you do not have much of a clue of where you really stand. I was very confident on my language skills, had done a fair amount of Internet research and even had the leisure of knowing that I had another job to pay the bills no matter what. However, those first jobs were quite daunting, full of ad hoc decisions and lots of unknowns.

I opted to take this stage as a sort of internship, where I made little money (certainly a lot less than I had hoped for) but got to assess where I stood, map a route for what lay ahead and generally position myself with relation to a market that I knew little about and which knew even less about me.

My research showed that 0.20 dollars per word was a good rate and that 0.03 dollars per word was lousy. I chose a middle road, and when agencies got back to me asking, "How about half that?" I had to make tough choices. I intended to make a career in translation, and I decided that I was only as good as the jobs I managed to get. It would not help me to stay at home doing nothing, just waiting for a well-paid project. At the beginning, these were mostly cheap jobs, which was bad. But they brought me a bunch of interesting things beyond money.

When you are starting out, in translation as in any other freelance field, you need to make a name for yourself. On Proz, that is largely measured in Willingness to Work Again (WWA) points. My first jobs brought me a few of those: people who said I had done well and they would be happy to give me more work in the future.

Further, these jobs allowed me to assess certain market characteristics. I soon realized that there is a lot of demand for German-English technical translations, particularly cheap ones. I could get lots of work down that alley... but would not be able to make much out of it: I found it boring, was unproductive since I had to look up lots of concepts and probably did not deliver the kind of quality I would like to be known for.

I realized that, although I am fully bilingual in English and Spanish, it was not easy to convince potential clients of that. For some reason, many find where you were born more important than where you got your education, for example. I spent the most important part of my formative life in Britain - three years of secondary school and a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from Oxford - but for many I am still only a Spanish native, just like someone who got a degree in translation from Madrid or Buenos Aires. Mmm... Again, I was only as good as the work I could get.

Most importanly for the future, I realized that I would need to assess any potential project in terms of my own productivity rather than rates. I am a decent German translator, and I certainly have loads of experience at it, but I cannot translate much more than 500 words per hour from German. When I work with English, Spanish or French, my output is often close to 1,000 words per hour. So surely I would have to charge clients almost twice as much to translate from German as I could afford to charge in other languages.

The same went for fields of specialization: I was particularly good at the humanities, marketing, finance and business-related translations, and the day I got a choice I should probably stick to those.

That is the thing about internships: you usually do not make much money, but if you take them seriously you learn a lot.

27 March 2013

A newcomer, yes, but no improviser

Within a month of starting out in the world of translation, I was certain that I wanted to make that a career. So I approached it as a career. I was new in town, but I wanted to get to know the place, settle in, learn and contribute. I was standing before a profession, and I was determined to act professionally.

I believe this is a key concept. There are plenty of translators out there - good, bad and average. I am convinced that I am a good one, but there are other possible classifications where I want to do well too. There are professional translators and unreliable ones. There are those who are proactive, keep their eyes on the ball and are always keen to learn and those who treat translation as a mechanical, static job.

I knew the kind of translator I wanted to be, so I asked myself how to get there. This, I soon found out, would take a lot of hard work, plenty of reading, some investment, and generous time. It turned out that professional translation is broadly speaking about languages... but not only about that. There is technology, on-the-job training, bookkeeping and the ever-present search for clients. Fortunately, I found out all that and still felt fully prepared to do it.

26 March 2013

Professional freelance translator? Me?

Despite being a born linguist, it had never dawned on me that translation could become a full-time, "serious" job. When I started to get restless about my work as a journalist, after 13 years in the same news agency, one friend recommended that I pursue something I really love. I just shrugged and thought, "There's no money in languages, I cannot make a living out of that." Another friend said, "You don't have to look for a pre-existing job, start something of your own." I shook my head and replied, "I don't have what it takes to set up a business, I'm too scared of risks and too conservative to walk off the beaten path."

Within weeks, however, I had changed my mind. I could mitigate some of the fears by holding on to my old job. The price of that sense of security was burning some midnight oil, but it was probably a good idea. And it soon became apparent that there was room in the Market for the skills I had been keeping locked up for all these years. It turns out that not only am I a good translator - I knew that much! - but that people are actually prepared to pay for my services. Seriously!

I don't really know how it happened. I just bumped into things, put one foot in front of the other. And it all unravelled - fast. I found Proz, which I never knew existed. I opted to become a paying member, on the grounds that it was the only way to really test it. I also joined Translators Cafe, though I did not give them any money, and I signed up for just about anything I could find online. I went out into the world of translators with a very modest financial goal, just to make some pocket money. And on my first month I managed six times that amount. Add to that the fact that I was having a blast... and I was ready to keep going.

25 March 2013

The deep roots of a translation business

Word Assets is at once a dream come true and a work in process - a fantastic place to be and a magical ongoing ride. I started learning English when I was 8, French when I was 10, German when I was 14. I just loved languages as a tool and a gate to a million things I was passionate about: travelling, communication, culture in the broadest possible sense of the word.

The Spanish child who learnt languages became the teenager who travelled, and stayed a while. By age the of 25 I had spent periods of six months or more in five countries, including seven years in Britain and a year in France. I learnt a lot along the way, studied politics and economics, enjoyed writing, became a journalist, moved to Argentina... but I never stopped learning languages. I read, I listened, I translated.

Translation was a tool of my trade as a journalist, and it was also a challenging, fun hobby. I translated two books. And suddenly I was ready for more.