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Questions about a career in translation

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On the contrary, a government-approved translation qualification is the last thing the international profession needs.

I'm not saying that this is what the profession needs, I'm just saying that an HSK 11 serves as proof for intermediate-level translation abilities, at least according to the makers of the test.

At the end of the day, though, it's a language test (and a very good one), and not a translation test.

But if you enjoy doing the HSK and you think it is of some benefit for you, by all means do it, but it can only be used as a starting point.

We completely agree on this point.

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Thanks again for the answers, guys, especially the detailed one from Roddy. My degree is in German and Philosophy, and I'm teaching myself Chinese, but am getting increasingly interested in the prospect of translation C->E. I gather from the comments so far, that pursuing a postgraduate diploma in translation studies - which will be available after I complete my B.A. hopefully in 2011 - is probably not worth the cost and time, though possibly useful for getting some first jobs.

Just three more questions if nobody minds:

1. How do you become a specialist in a certain subject or area? I'm not sure how I'd go translating philosophy, since the degree is quite general and it can be pretty dense and close to unreadable at times, meaning it can be widely open to interpretation. But this seems to be about all I have to show for myself! I'm comfortable with computers and general IT stuff, so if I were to start attempting to translate, say, user manuals for printers and televisions and the like, would that be enough to eventually call my area of speciality "technical translation", and then quantify that with "manuals and documents for appliances, computers, televisions and the like"?

2. Since I know German thoroughly, and my French is creeping up gradually behind it in terms of proficiency, I'm quite confident I could handle a job in translating something from either of those languages that isn't beyond my knowledge completely, like a medical journal or something (I'd be utterly lost with the terminology and wouldn't know what the hell I'd be translating!). Are one's job prospects increased the more languages you can translate from, or is one strong language pair more attractive? If I really want to translate Chinese, should I ignore my skills in German and French and advertise exclusively as a C->E translator?

3. What are the routes you most often take in looking for work? I took a look at proz.com, and see people can get jobs reasonably easily online, but I imagine there is a lot of competition for what appears to be only a handful of job listings for a particular language pair, and often over a hundred members capable for the job. It seems a newbie such as myself would be drowned out by more experienced, highly rated and recommended members. Do you sign up to as many sites as possible and check them every day, hoping to "strike gold" as it were, or do you also search for jobs in other ways? Is the Internet your main source for finding work?

Thanks again for all the helpful advice; the whole business of working in translation is becoming a little clearer. I now have some idea of what to do and what it's like!

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FYI, the members above have already provided some great advice. Also, here's a link which you may find interesting. Basically, you can look at how an organization (in this case a health care organization in the US) might go about selecting a professional translator (Page 11 has some useful information regarding characteristics of a good translator).



side note: For those of you interested in health care translation, behold California's SB853

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1. How do you become a specialist in a certain subject or area?

Start with a Masters degree in your field of interest. Then just work in that field for, say, four years at a sufficiently qualified level. If you can handle the target language really well and have sufficient reading comprehension in the source language, you will look interesting enough to get a few test translations.

If you don't have such specialist knowledge, you should prepare for a hard fight among a multitude of peers for interesting jobs like tourist brochures, hair dryer manuals and declarations of contents for jam. And many of those competitors will undersell you...

Srsly, I had the qualifications I suggested, and it took several years before I rose from quorn recipes to marketing authorisation applications for pharmaceuticals.

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I've heard that a career specialising in just interpreting/translation is really hard to find and that most interpreters are employed on contract with interpreting firms and are called in when needed. However, I think it should be a bit easier to find if you want to work for the government, but up until now I still haven't found or heard of any position like that. Some people say it's best to combine your skills in translation with a particular field, e.g. economics, law etc. I sort of feel that the only way to get a stable, well-paid job in translation would be to work for the UN or EU etc.

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Fair comments doraemon, but let's not forget that the I/T profession is extremely complex market-wise, so it varies considerably depending on a number of factors, such as level of professionalisation in the country, language direction(s), area of speciality, etc. For example, Australia is an extremely multicultural society, so opportunities for community translating and interpreting are certainly out there - and in many cases specialist knowledge is not required (though adequate transfer skills certainly are!). I guess my advice would be to do your research, and see what kind of projects are really out there. So much translation work is passed around behind closed doors, so it seems a bit of 關係 really is needed at times if you want to get a steady income.

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I've heard that a career specialising in just interpreting/translation is really hard to find and that most interpreters are employed on contract with interpreting firms and are called in when needed. However, I think it should be a bit easier to find if you want to work for the government, but up until now I still haven't found or heard of any position like that. Some people say it's best to combine your skills in translation with a particular field, e.g. economics, law etc. I sort of feel that the only way to get a stable, well-paid job in translation would be to work for the UN or EU etc.

Again, translating and interpreting are very different jobs. Swedish interpreters normally are on stand-by for agencies. For some languages, they have to accept lack of expertise. Also, there have been cases where assigned interpreters don't know the intended dialect.

Some energetic translators make a good living from direct customers. I think I've mentioned that I generally prefer working via agencies. They find the customers, take care of much paperwork and take the financial risk of any non-payments (but will try to negotiate with you in such cases).

There are exceptions to "only ... UN or EU". I'm a freelance translator and do quite well. Stability can be discussed, but as long as I not too unfrequently have to turn down jobs because of my workload and those customers return later, I feel reasonably secure.

EU jobs are very well paid, but there's an extremely challenging multi-stage competition to get them. Personally, I wouldn't stand translating boring legal stuff all day. I have had my share of things like Traffic rules for vessels on Lake Constance or regulations on rear warning lights on Danish farm vehicles. Their tech stuff is outsourced, as they can't have full time specialists on everything.

I should perhaps add that in addition to my medical/chemical/technology expertise, I translate from seven European languages into Swedish, so I'm a fair choice for a wide variety of assignments. The last six or so years, however, I'm practically only doing medical from English and German. But it of course took time to arrive at that level.

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animal world

Roddy brought up an important point when he said that as a freelancer some months he makes X and other months this may be 5X pending on the requirements of his clients. So, you need to have good discipline over money to prevent a feast or famine lifestyle. You also must have confidence in yourself and your ability to prevent thinking that the world is coming to an end during the slow months. Instead of fretting yourself sick, you should have the ability to use that time to enhance your skills and your marketing efforts.

Specialization in something like the medical field, as mentioned by Lugubert, might be extremely useful. Pretty soon, all of GDP in the developed nations will be derived from health care instead of manufacturing/producing much (i'm exaggerating :wink: but still...)

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  • 2 years later...
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Tanya 谭雅

Hi, I'm an Australian electrical engineer with a heavy industry background who has been studying Mandarin/Simplified Chinese. I want to make a career change to Engineering Technical Liaison (Mandarin Chinese) and be the liaison between English-speaking engineers and Mandarin-speaking engineers on large industrial projects. Does anyone have any advice on how to make the career jump? My spoken Chinese is not strong enough to become a NAATI-accredited interpreter. I have started translating technical drawings from Simplified Chinese to English, which I really enjoy, but I don't know how to make a career out of it.

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  • 9 years later...

Do you have any specific questions? I see that I posted in this thread, already a translator 12 years ago. I've gained some more years of experience since and am happy to help.

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Thanks Lu, well... same questions really, although I suppose the tech tools have progressed enormously over the past 10 years.

- Need for training and/or certification? Do clients pay attention to these?

- Is there any benefit to doing an MA or do most people dive in and just start doing it?


It would be a few years yet before I'd be ready to consider it yet I think, but I'm at a point where I'm trying to work out options for working in semi-retirement and/or some kind of tech-nomad mode (if COVID ever lets us get back to that), so any up-to-date advice would be great. 


I'm also rather curious about the role of translation tools in general... I'm currently teaching design to Chinese college students (in English), and have seen them relying very heavily on online translation tools for "reading" all of their coursework briefs. Given that I also have a tech background, I'd be interested to explore the current state of the art in machine translation tech and how it might be better applied to both translation and language learning (or at least scaffolding). 


Edit: I just re-read the last paragraph and even I'm not sure what I mean, so feel free to ignore it completely. :)





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I think if you're getting into it at this stage, especially if you're young, rather than a career changer, you need to give some serious thought to what machine translation is doing. Some of the MT engines are light years ahead of what they used to be (I fed a paragraph into DeepL, formerly Linguee, the other day and was seriously impressed) and there's an increasing amount of MT post-editing (MTPE) work around.


That said, distinguish the machine translation providers (DeepL, Google, Baidu, probably Amazon I imagine) and the CAT tools (Trados and MemoQ being the main ones, I think). I've been using MemoQ recently and for repetitive content it's very valuable. For non-repetitive content it's still useful for term management, and I'm enjoying set up regexes to automatically translate Chinese dates, but there are probably cheaper options. Agencies like you to have CAT tool experience, though. 


Games localisation is BIG right now, and you could probably do an MA in that alone. Barcelona is a bit of a centre I think, and perhaps somewhere in Italy. But all those games which are no longer one-off purchases, but subscriptions with new content constantly coming online? That all needs translated. Not always interesting, though. Dwarf Ax. Dwarf Sword. Dwarf Bow. Etc.


Localisation engineering might suit if you have a tech background.


If you can afford an MA, it's probably as good a way as any to spend what will likely be a quiet first year of work-gathering, and you'll get experience with different fields and tools. Subtitling software's a useful skill to have. Not that I have it.

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Certification: You need to convince clients that you're capable. Certification can be helpful, but it's not necessary. (Unless you want to be a certified translator of course, and translate official documents, contracts, passports etc. Then you need certification. Look this up for your specific country.) Some form of keeping up with the field is useful, but this can take all kinds of shapes.


MA or just get started: I never had any official training (for Chinese to Dutch it doesn't even exist, to my knowledge). But other translators I know found a lot of value in their schooling. So YMMV when it comes to that. But whether an actual MA is useful, I'm not so sure. In my view, translation is a skill, or a craft, to be practiced and honed, and not so much a subject to be studied, so I think that an MA in translation studies is not necessarily useful if you want to become a translator. An MA in something else can be, of course, especially if you want to specialise. And a specialisation is useful if you want to compete on quality (see below).


Translation tools:

- CAT Tools: Roddy already mentioned CAT tools, like MemoQ and Trados. These are very useful and I'd recommend you buy one, if you decide to become a translator. ProZ has group buy deals a few times a year, with sizeable discounts.

- Machine translation: Very useful if you want to get an idea of what a text is about. But quality really depends on the language combination. Western European languages to English are good (and vice versa probably as well). Chinese-English is probably also pretty good, as long as the Chinese text is straightforward and doesn't use any flowery language or semi-wenyan. So for reading design textbooks, yes, I can see that work, although I'd still be wary. For some other languages (Arabic, Belarussian), it's mostly useless. For translation between languages that aren't English, quality drops quickly the further from English they both are.


Something you didn't ask about is income. For Chinese to English, the field is pretty crowded and you need to compete with lots of Chinese speakers who will be cheaper than whatever price you set. You cannot compete with them on price, so you need to compete on quality and you need to find the clients who are willing to pay for that. It's possible (Roddy is still alive, after all), but not easy.

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