After a considerable hiatus – it’s been a couple of rather eclectic months of travels, events and projects – I’m back with a series of posts about starting out as a freelance translator. I don’t have the presumption of presenting myself as an expert, but I know how it feels when you have a passion and a bunch of confused (and mostly wrong) ideas on how to get started and succeed in your dream career. I have been there not long ago, so this series of posts wants mainly to share useful resources and describe a bit what I’ve been doing.
In my dialect we say that people are not born already taught, meaning that we have all been newbies once and we acquired our skills and expertise through hard work, experience, mistakes, sacrifices. Translators are no exception. I don’t know of anyone who became a successful translator overnight, earning thousands of dollars from day one, without linguistic and translation training and without ever making a single mistake. We all wished for it probably, but that’s just not how it works.
Therefore I’d like to start this series talking about SPECIALIZATIONS. Why? Because nobody told me to specialize when I was in school. When I graduated, I knew a good deal of things about translation theory and literary translation, but no one ever mentioned the need to specialize or to create my niche market. So out in the world I went, a super hero ready to translate whatever would come my way. One day I get a metrology system operation manual, thousands of words of highly-technical engineering terminology I didn’t understand a thing about. After long days and sleepless nights spent researching desperately and reading and re-reading and re-re-reading the text, I finally delivered the translation and promised myself that I would never accept something like that again. Lesson learned: I’m no super hero, I can’t translate everything, I need to specialize.
How I chose my specializations: the rule of three
In the process of looking for my identity as a translator, I came across Marta Stelmaszak’s YouTube Channel, Want Words TV. In one of her lessons, she talks about the “rule of three” when it comes to specializations. She says to pick three areas following these criteria:
1. Something not too exploited in your language combination, that brings money and a stable quantity of work, a safe bet able to pay your bills. [Possibly something that you find interesting as well. I would never be able to translate financial texts for example, I don’t understand the topic and find them way too far from my interests].
2. Something you know really well and you feel you are very good at translating.
3. Something you really enjoy translating and you are really passionate about.
I found these tips from Marta extremely illuminating and followed them to the letter. I sat down and analyzed my strengths and my weaknesses, my interests, my passions, my goals and my expectations. Surprisingly enough, it all came quite naturally and after a little while I had a clear plan in my mind about what I had to work towards.
How to build specializations: Platforms and Websites
Of course, practice makes perfect but we need a solid base of knowledge as a starting point. If I don’t understand the concepts a text is referring to, my translation is very likely to be mediocre at best. Today I won’t go in depth of specific areas, I just want to present some platforms I am using to build that knowledge.
1. Coursera: One of my favourite MOOC platforms. It offers a wide range of courses related to all kinds of subjects. Every course usually consists of video lessons, downloadable pdf notes for each lesson, a discussion forum where to meet and interact with other learners (especially for the more creative courses, feedback from other students is really important, I actually got a few contacts from those forums as well), exercises and assignments, and a further readings section with articles and additional materials to explore your topic of choice at a deeper level. Every course is on average 4-6 weeks long and you are required to complete weekly tests or assignments. Some courses, on the other hand, are self-paced, if you don’t want to worry about deadlines. Most courses are completely free, you pay only for the Certificate at the end, if you pass the course and wish to receive one.
2. eCPD webinars: It’s a platform that offers online webinars, courses and videos on different areas of specialization specifically for translators. The sessions are normally live, but everything is recorded and sent to the attendees afterwards, so that if you can’t make it on a specific day, you will still be able to watch the presentation and receive all the materials. The offer is quite varied and the presenters are always among the top-experts in their area of specialization.
3. Proz webinars: That’s what I started from. Proz is a platform for translators and agencies alike, that can be used to offer/find work, get in touch with colleagues, share expertise, ask and answer to questions and, of course, learn from each other. Proz offers a huge choice of webinars directed to translators and language professionals on a wide variety of topics (specific areas of specialization, marketing for translators, personal branding, CAT tools, etc…) at reasonable prices. Every year in occasion of Translation Day, Proz organizes two days of free webinars for everyone, so mark your calendars 😉
4. Translators’ Associations Websites: most of the professional associations around the world (ITI, ATA, IAPTI, AITI, etc…) offer webinars and events for members and non-members. It’s always a good idea to check out the ones you’re interested in or the ones in your area.
5. Colleagues’ blogs: We have the tendency to think that if it’s not a conventional lesson/course and we don’t get a certificate for it, it’s not really studying. That’s very untrue. Blogs and books written by expert colleagues can be wonderful resources to learn more about our topics of interest, even if we can’t put it on our CV. My greatest sources of inspiration and my best ideas for the business I’m trying to build have come from blogs so far.
6. The dear, old, reliable library: Last but not least, never underestimate the power of old-school libraries. Specializing in legal texts? Borrow a big dusty penal code from your local library and do some self-study. No exam, no certificate… in the end, it’s the knowledge that matters, gives you confidence and makes you a better translator.
Practice practice practice!
Finally, as mentioned above, a lot of practice is essential. You can borrow specialized books in your source language and translate excerpts into your target, find articles on the internet to translate for yourself, join the TED Open Translation Project as a volunteer and translate videos pertaining to your area of specialization. Ask someone expert in that field to read your translations (a friend, a family member, another translator): especially when starting out, feedback is really important to build solid grounds for improvement.
These are my go-to resources for professional development, but there is so much more out there! The ultimate key is to be curious, determined and work hard.
If I missed something or you want to help fellow translators and learners with some additional tips, feel free to post your favorite resources in the comments! 🙂