The Profession

Who is a Translator?

A translator is a combination of writer and linguist, a person who takes written material such as newspaper or magazine articles, books, manuals or documents in one language and converts it into the equivalent in another language. In other words, a translator converts meaning from one language to another. By definition a translator knows two languages fluently, and often knows a third or even a fourth. Translators also by definition must have strong reading and writing skills, as well as a deep knowledge of the subject material they are working on.

Translators typically work into their native language, that is to say that they translate material that is in their second, acquired language into the language they were born into. There are exceptions, especially among people who are born and raised bilingually, but in general translators produce their best work when going into their mother tongue.

In the translation profession the translator’s native language is referred to as the "A language," and the non-native languages as a "B language" or "C language." A B language is one which the translator can speak, read, and write virtually as a native speaker does. A C language is one which the translator can read and understand almost like a native, but does not necessarily speak or write so well. Obviously we all have an A language, and equally evident, all translators have a B language. Many translators have more than one B language, and some also have C languages. What very few people have is two A languages, and even if you are one of those who do, take care in making the claim, as many people will be skeptical.

In practice, many organizations will only recognize one "A" or native language even if you can legitimately claim two. Online translation profiles now offered by many translation agencies for translators to use to register themselves to get work ,and job applications at translation companies only allow one language as the A or native language. If you have two A languages, in other words you were born, raised, and educated completely bilingually, you should still claim as your A language the one you have stronger writing skills or more reading experience in. This will probably be the language you did your university-level education in or in which you have worked professionally. Then introduce your other A language, which some people would consider a very strong B language, and go from there.

A good translator is by definition bilingual. The opposite is not necessarily true, however. A born and bred bilingual will still need two things to become a translator: first, the skills and experience necessary for translation; second, knowledge of the field in which he or she will translate. The skills and experience for translation include the ability to write well in the language the translator is working into, what is commonly called the target language, and the ability to read and understand the language being translated, what is known as the source language. Further, the bilingual who would be a translator must be able to work with the latest word processing software, machine-assisted translation tools, and typical Internet and email applications.

So does a born and bred bilingual makes a better translator than someone who learned the B language later in life? There is no definite answer, but the following issues are important. First, a born and bred bilingual often does not know any language well enough to translate, with some even suffering from what is known as alingualism, a state in which a person does lacks a full, fluent command of any language. Second, born and bred bilinguals often don’t know the culture of either of their languages well enough to provide top-quality translations, or cannot recognize what aspects of the source language and its culture need to be treated with particular care, as they are in a sense too close to the language. And last, they often lack the analytical linguistic skills developed through conscious study of a language and necessary to work through a text.

On the other hand, the acquired bilingual may not have the same in-depth knowledge of colloquialisms, slang, and dialect that the born bilingual has. As well, the acquired bilingual will not be able to translate as readily in both directions (from B to A language and A to B language). Finally, born bilinguals often have a greater appreciation of the subtleties and nuances of both their languages than someone who learns their B language later in life can ever hope to have.

Where Translators Come From

Translators come from all backgrounds. Some have graduate degrees, as offered at the Monterey Institute of International Studies or Kent State University, some have undergraduate degrees as are now available at several schools in the United States, and some have certificates in translation as can be earned at programs such as Bellevue Community College's Translation & Interpretation Institute. There are equivalent opportunities in Europe, with excellent schools in London, Paris, and Geneva, and in Asia, where Japan has Simu Academy in Tokyo. Also, many translators have undergraduate or graduate degrees, or at least coursework, in their languages, or the literature or history related to their language.

While a specialized degree in translation is useful, it is far from necessary. What counts more than anything else is ability. The translation profession is open to all entrants. There is currently no required accreditation or certification exam, no required academic background or particular degree, and only general expectations for how you learned your languages. So while there are no barriers to entry, there is one essential requirement: you must be able to translate. The profession is not especially tolerant or forgiving. Ability counts for everything.

So where does this ability come from? Perhaps it is nature, but I suspect that nurture helps immensely. Most translators are very well read in their languages, and have thoroughly developed their writing skills. Some are writers who use translation as a way to write for a living. Others are fascinated by language and use translation as a way to be close to their favorite subject. Still others are experts in certain fields and use their language skills to work in that field. But regardless, they have the language skills to translate.

Almost all professional translators in the United States have at least a college degree. Some even have advanced degrees either in translation or in the field they specialize in (a few even have both). Most translators have university-level language training in their B and C languages, and may have taken writing classes for their A language. Some started language study earlier, others later, but very few translators have no language training at all.

Translators have spent time, usually years, living in the countries where their languages are spoken. I know of translators who have spent seven or even ten years in the countries of their B language. Some translators have spent more time in the country of their B language than in the country of their A language. The notable exception to this is Spanish in the United States and English abroad. Because Spanish is used so widely and is as common as English in many parts of the U.S., some translators learn and then work in the language without ever leaving the U.S. As well, translators in other countries often work from English into their native language with just the language training they received in school.

Translators are analytical. They must develop the skills, through classroom training or experience, to dissect language for the purpose of extracting meaning and then representing that meaning in another language. Translators do not work word by word; rather they identify a meaning unit in the source language, sometimes through a non-conscious, apparently intuitive process, and then reproduce that meaning unit in the target language while making certain that terminology is correct, the style of the original is preserved, and the result sounds natural.

Above all, translators must have a deep interest and dedication to the languages they work with. This leads to what I call the maintenance problem. As any native speaker of English who has lived abroad knows, your English skills deteriorate while living abroad. When I came back to the United States after two years in Japan, where I hardly ever spoke, heard, or read English, I found watching the evening news difficult because the speech was too fast, and I read noticeably slowly compared to my friends. This of course faded within a month. But if you are a translator, you have to maintain your skills in all of your working languages, and so must listen, read, speak, and write on a regular basis. I watch hours of news and other programming in Japanese (my B language) every week, and regularly read articles and books in it, too. The Internet and cable television make maintaining one’s language skills easier than ever, but you still have to make the effort.

The knowledge of the field the translator is working in is often overlooked by translators and those that hire them. Translators are by definition language professionals, but they also have to cultivate knowledge of the areas they work in. Few translators claim to be able to translate anything written in their languages; this would imply that you are an expert on everything. A translator who says he can translate anything is a jack of all trades and a master of none. Clients and employers will not feel confident working with such a translator, so most translators have to specialize, working with one or a few related categories of material, for instance legal, financial, medical, computers, or electrical engineering, to name a few. Each field has its own vocabulary, syntax, and style; the translator has to work hard to develop the knowledge necessary to deal with such material.

The knowledge also includes two other important factors. First, the translator should have the background knowledge to work in the field. This does not mean that a medical translator should have an M.D. or that a translator of software manuals should be a programmer. But some background, experience, or education is essential. This can be obtained through coursework, on-the-job experience, or self-study. No one seems too concerned with exactly how translators develop their subject knowledge, unless that knowledge is very arcane or exotic. Claiming that you acquired a thorough knowledge of quantum field theory without ever having taken a single relevant course would be difficult to accept (and if you did, you should probably be a physicist). You will have to back up any claim you make by doing the work, and the profession can be harsh if your work is poor. In other words, you must have the specialized knowledge. And though some translators do have degrees in their specialization, most do not.

Second, the translator should have the necessary resources to deal with the material. This means dictionaries, glossaries, and any other terminology, language, or subject matter resources. Such resources can include Web sites devoted to translation or terminology, discussion groups concerning translation, friends or colleagues who work in the profession, and magazines and journals. And translators have to work tirelessly to improve their knowledge of the fields they work in by reading related material. They also have to invest the time and money in maintaining their reference library and taking courses or acquiring good textbooks.

In other words, professional translators are always learning. Becoming a translator is a lengthy process, and being a translator is also a process, not a state. You don’t just acquire a language in a few weeks or months from a book and then begin translating. Heinrich Schliemann may have learned to read each of his languages in six weeks, but he couldn’t write or speak them (nor did he need to). Moreover, at that time, languages had considerably more limited vocabularies than now. Most of all, reading and translating are two separate things.

So at what point are you ready to begin translating? Simple. When you feel that your abilities of expression and comprehension in your A and B languages are strong enough that you can do the job properly by the client’s deadline. The length of time to cultivate these abilities depends on the person and the language. Native speakers of English have an easier time with the Romance and Germanic languages because their grammars, syntax, and vocabulary are relatively familiar. A language like Chinese or Japanese takes a long time simply because you have to learn to read and understand thousands of characters, as well as deal with grammar, syntax, and structure wholly unrelated to what is found in English.

Your feelings about your ability may not be the best way to decide when you are ready to translate. Remember, the profession can be quite unforgiving, so you want your entrance to be successful. Taking courses, earning a degree or certificate, or passing a certification exam are ways to test your ability and acquire proof that you can translate. Experience living or studying in the country of your B language is another form of proof. Mentoring programs and related work experience are yet another. Whatever you do, make certain that you verify your sense of your ability.

What is a Translation

A turn-of-the-century Russian translator said: "Translation is like a woman, if she is beautiful, she is not faithful; if she is faithful, she is not beautiful." Setting aside for the moment the blatant sexism in this quote, we can see one of the core challenges in translation. Translators must strike a balance between fidelity to the source text and readability in the target language. We have all seen material that is so obviously translated as to sound awkward in our native languages, and in some cases as to bear enough hallmarks of the source language as to be readily identifiable as coming from it. The best translation is the one that no one recognizes as a translation. In other words, the document should read as though it were written in the target language originally. This implies, by extension, that the translator’s effort is transparent, and the translator ends up being invisible. In other words, you do your best work when no one realizes you have done anything.

Achieving this level of translation is challenging, to say the least. The trick is to let your clients decide what they want. Since they have to live with the results of your work, let them choose. Patiently explain to them the options they have, how long each might take, and how much each possible version will cost. They'll decide if they want a literal, if unreadable, translation or if they want a Pulitzer Prize-winning text.

If your client can't decide, doesn't know, or won't tell you, then strike a balance. This is easier with some languages and some subject areas than others. Although most people think that technical material is easiest for stylistic considerations, consider this. Academic style varies from nation to nation. For instance, in English, we generally present our thesis, then give the evidence, develop the argument, and then reach the conclusion. However, in Japanese, we usually present a vague thesis, give the evidence slowly with lots of discussion, and then reach some tentative statement about the thesis in the form of a conclusion. Other differences exist among other language pairs. Somehow you have to deal with these differences.

Another potential pitfall with technical translation is that often the client cannot let you see or touch the object in question. If you are translating a computer system manual, it’s very helpful to see and even work a little with the system. The same holds for a video game, home audio component, or for that matter a scanning electron microscope, which I realize is hardly something you want in your home, but I have translated manuals and technical specifications for such technology. Sometimes seeing the product in question is not possible, the system or software may still be in development. You might have to create terminology for the system, only to find that the client wants something else. You then have to go back and change everything.

The most difficult problem is when you encounter something in one language that doesn’t exist in the other. Financial instruments, legal procedures, and government and business structures vary from nation to nation and culture to culture. Although standard glossaries exist for the most commonplace of these, in other words those that you might hear about on Headline News, translators are usually dealing with new or specialized material and information, so you might be stuck having to christen something on your own, or leave it in the A language and put in a translator’s note explaining what the term means.

What is Translated

Most of the material people want translated is not high culture. I have translated materials ranging from articles in medical journals on deep vein thrombosis to bearer’s bonds, from family registers (the Japanese equivalent of a birth certificate) and university transcripts to engineering specifications for DVDs or toilet manufacturing processes. The longest translation project I ever did was a 65,000-word book; the shortest, a two-word phrase.

Outsiders to the profession generally see translation as a slow and expensive process which most businesses and organizations would rather avoid. They prefer not to go through the hassle of calling a translation company, sending over the material, waiting for a bid, bargaining and haggling over price and form and date of delivery, and then waiting to see if they get something they can use.

Very little of what businesses do is translated. So what they do translate has to be important to someone somewhere. Therefore, it has to be important to you to do it right, especially if you want to get more work from that client. What might seem trivial to you could be worth a lot to someone. I’ve translated lost traveler’s checks surveys, interoffice memos, and advertising copy for car care products. None of this is high culture. But someone wanted it, so I did my absolute best. Remember, the only way to survive as a translator is to do a good job. You will be judged primarily if not solely on your work.

That said, materials to be translated come in all sizes and shapes. Often you have to deal with hand-written material. Someone scrawled out some message to someone else and this twenty-five-word chit of paper is now Exhibit A in an international patent infringement lawsuit. You probably won’t know that, but it could happen. When I was working in-house as a translator for the City of Kawasaki in Japan, my supervisor plopped a short letter on my desk and I translated it. I later found out that Prime Minister Takeshita took this letter to President Reagan during the Summit meeting in 1988. You never know, so be prepared and do your best,

When translating, no problem is too small, no term too minor to be ignored. The people who read your translation don’t know the source language. If they did, they wouldn’t have hired you. It’s easy to see why an article describing a surgical procedure must be done very accurately. It might be harder to see why the comments of a Japanese teenager on an airline survey would be important, but they could affect future policy of that carrier. You have to take it all seriously if you want your clients to take you seriously.

The Role of the Translator

Translators are language professionals. They are applied linguists, competent writers, diplomats, and educated amateurs. Like linguists, translators have to be capable of analyzing the syntax and structures of their languages, researching terminology and colloquialisms, and handling new developments in their languages. Like writers, translators have to be accustomed to working long hours alone on a subject which interests few people and with a language that few people around them know. Like diplomats, translators have to be sensitive to the cultural and social differences which exist in their languages and be capable of addressing these issues when translating. And like educated amateurs, translators have to know the basics and some of the details about the subjects they deal with.

The above is an idealization of the translator, an image which professional translators aspire to and achieve with varying degrees of success. Not all translators need to overflow with these qualities. They must, however, have them in sufficient measure to be able to translate their material in a manner acceptable to their clients.

Somewhere in the process of translating, the translator will come across all these issues. When I work with technical or medical documents, I have to deal with the intricacies of technical writing in Japanese and English and research new or obscure terms (and sometimes invent my own). I struggle with my English to polish and hone it so that the client sees the material as natural, without the tell-tale signs that it was translated from Japanese. I have to research the subject matter using authoritative sources, expert associates, and current articles or books. Finally, I deal with the differences between Japanese and American culture, in particular when negotiating with clients or translating material with significant cultural content.

The fundamental rule when you’re not sure of something in your source text, the material that is to be translated, is to ask. When you have doubts or questions, call the client, ask your question, and then get the answer. If you’re still not sure, make a note of it in the final translation. Clients are surprisingly tolerant of such notes and often expect them. I’ve even heard that clients are sometimes suspicious when they don’t see these notes. After all, how much can a translator know about new surgical procedures to clear a pulmonary embolism?

In-House versus Freelance

Translators either work for themselves as independent contractors or for the translation department of a company or organization, or for translation agencies. The former are typically called freelance translators, or freelancers, and the latter, in-house translators.

If you are just entering the profession, or if you are considering translation as a career, you have to look closely at these two options to decide which is right for you. Although both involve translation itself, each also involves certain personality traits and individual characteristics. In addition, there are implications for the kind of work you will do, the technology you will use to do your work, and who you will work with.

As a freelance translator, you are a business owner. You will take care of marketing, invoicing, accounts payable and receivable, taxes, equipment purchases and maintenance, and benefits. Freelance translators may make more per year on average than in-house translators, but their income is far more variable, and they have to cover all their own expenses, including all taxes, retirement funds, medical and other forms of insurance, and business/operating costs.

As an in-house translator, you work for someone else. You go to your office in the morning, sit in your cubicle during the day translating whatever the company or organization needs, attend meetings to discuss large-scale translation projects, terminology, or equipment, go to training sessions to learn to use the new LAN system or MAT software, and then go home in the evening. Like most jobs, you get paid vacation, insurance, half of your Social Security and FICA taxes paid, and the other benefits that come with employment.

Although the remaining articles will discuss the above differences between freelance and in-house translation in detail, and even offer suggestions as to which people might be suited for, I will say here that often matters of personality and working style can be dismissed. The reason is money. Only if you are financially and personally in a position to assume the risks of starting a home business should you then inventory your personal strengths and preferences to see if you will be comfortable as an independent contractor. Furthermore, some languages offer more freelance work, while others offer more in-house work. For instance, since the start of the War on Terror in the U.S., the military and intelligence community have been hiring translators of Arabic, Korean, Farsi, and Davi among others, regularly. It is highly unlikely that a freelance Davi translator could make a significant amount of money.

So before you figure out which you might prefer, consider the financial and business realities of the languages you know. To start as a freelance translator, you will need a several thousand dollars to get the computer hardware and software you need, to do some marketing, and to wait out the first few months during which time you will likely have little work, and you will be patiently waiting for that first invoice to be paid. It may take several years for your work flow to stabilize at a level you are comfortable with. So if you are single with few financial responsibilities, some money saved, and don’t mind the risk, the answer to the money question is affirmative: you can have a go at freelance translation. If however you are married with a couple of children, have the usual expenses of a mortgage, medical costs, and so forth, then you should think very carefully before starting up as a freelance translator.

There is also a strong argument for getting your feet wet in the industry by working for someone else. You can think of it as paid on-the-job training. You will learn more about translation by translating than any other way. And you will also acquire not only all that secondary know-how, such as word processing, negotiating, or filing tax forms, but also lots of practical knowledge about the industry, such as rates, which language pairs or subject areas are in demand, or what technologies are likely to affect translation in the near future. You might even develop relationships that can be turned into clients for a freelance business. So consider starting off as an in-house translator, especially if you are uncomfortable with the financial aspects of working for yourself, have a language pair that is unlikely to yield a good freelance income, or are uncertain as to how you will feel about working at home alone.

The very qualities that seem to make a good translator, those of attention to detail, passion for languages and research, care and craft in writing, also seem to be those that make a poor negotiator or marketing person. How does one overcome this paradox? One, force yourself to market, even when you don’t want to. Make a commitment to yourself to send find and contact 100 potential clients this month; to call or email your top five clients for a brief exchange of information; to do submit a tax return before October 1, after having filed an extension on April 15. You are in business; as Donald Trump suggests, treat your business like a lover, with the passion and commitment necessary to make it thrive.

You should also show your clients that you are a business professional. Translators want to be treated as professionals, and therefore, they have to behave as professionals. Take the time to learn about your industry, about your languages, about your subject specializations, and about the technology you use to do the work you do. In any industry, there are always too many people wanting to do the work to be done, and too few people who can actually do the work properly. As a translator, you want to make clear to everyone that you are in the latter category.

Above all, as a translator, you are standing between two people or organizations, one which created the material and the other which wants to read it. You are their solution to this otherwise intractable problem. Remember, it's the information age, and there’s lots of information out there in lots of languages. Translators bring this precious commodity to the people who want it.

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