Career Paths

First Steps

Translators translate, so if you are a translator, you are going to translate. For however long you are in the translation profession, you are going to translate. There are, however, a variety of other tasks in the translation process that translators can and do become involved in.

First, however, you have to get started. As hinted at briefly in the first three articles, not all languages and subject areas are equal in the translation industry at present. Your fate in the translation profession, particularly at the beginning, will depend in no small part on factors you have no control over. Unfortunate, perhaps, but true.

I've seen many fine, talented translators complete training programs or even degrees only to discover that their skills are not in demand in the translation marketplace because their language combination is too obscure or too well populated by competent, established people, their subject expertise is too limited for them to do anything but the most elementary work, or their skills with the software tools necessary for translators are insufficient.

Languages like Spanish and French are too commonly known in the United States for a newcomer to have an easy time getting work. Further, such languages don't pay well because of the law of supply and demand, which in terms of the translation profession states that if there is a given demand for translation in one language and the supply of translators rises, then the rates paid to the translators will fall. Conversely, languages like Japanese and Chinese are sufficiently rare and the demand for translation sufficiently high that if you have the requisite skills, you will do better in general than someone with Spanish or French.

I know this will disappoint those of you who have spent years mastering the language of Cervantes or Voltaire, but I would rather share this now than have you unprepared. By the time you are ready to consider being a translator you have already invested heavily in your languages. Although it is always possible to learn another one, you know well what it took to learn those you already know.

Consider instead developing secondary skills if you want to work in-house or offering ancillary services if you want to be an independent contractor. Translation agencies and those companies that hire translators full-time will be more inclined to hire you if you have strong computer skills, including with MAT (Machine-Assisted Translation) software like Trados, if  you have desktop publishing or graphic arts skills, or if you have editing skills. Freelance translators when first starting can gain experience and income by teaching or tutoring people in their languages, getting involved in home-based telephone interpreting, and even just temping through a temp agency like Parker, Kelly, or Manpower, all of which, by the way, I did during my first year as a freelance translator.

Also, don’t overlook other skills you have. I’ve heard of would-be Spanish/English translators who somehow forget they have a CPA (Certified Public Accountant). The combination of language skills and accounting can sell well. Further, some people start out doing both translation and interpretation, as have a number of colleagues of mine, and then the market determines whether they focus on translation, interpretation, or continue doing both.

The First Job

Where and how you start in the translation profession will depend on the languages you know, what if any training or certification you have, and what subject are you can handle. As stated in the earlier articles, some language pairs will prove very difficult to find good work in, while others will be easier. So don’t take personally a failure to find work; you may have to consider less apparent options or even a different career path altogether.

A search on major job sites on the Web using "translation," "localization," "bilingual," or the name of a particular language as keywords inevitably yields positions in localization, positions involving translation, project management positions in a translation agency or company that is active in several countries, software, hardware, and games testing, law enforcement and military positions, to mention just a few. Many of these positions are for work going from English into other languages, usually not the languages Americans study in high school or college.

The following statistics make this point nicely. According to the Education Life section (p. 21) of the New York Times (Nov. 11, 2001), in 1998 the eight percent of college students were studying foreign languages were mostly taking Spanish, French, or German (90%). This means that less than one percent of American college students were studying other languages. Also worth keeping in mind: few college students ever go beyond the second-year level.

In other words, although few Americans ever gain fluency in a second language, the majority of the translation positions require a native language other than English. When the position requires English as a native language, the second language is often one of those "one percenters," a language like Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Arabic. So competition may make your entry into the profession difficult.

What to do? There are many possibilities. First, you may be able to find a translation position for your language pair and in your subject area. However, because many employers prefer experience translators, you may have to start with a different type of work. Such work includes bilingual testing of computer hardware, software, or games, staff positions in companies in which translation is a part of your duties, or if you are attempting to become a full-time freelance translator, jobs that involve editing, proofreading, desktop publishing, or related work for translation agencies instead of translating itself.

Since many translators learn their trade on the job, an obvious question emerges: how do they get such a job without already having experience? The answer is that for entry-level positions, particularly outside of the United States, translation may be one of a variety of language-related tasks such people are hired for. For instance, I did my first translation work for the City of Kawasaki Board of Education when I was on the JET Program in Japan in 1987. Although hired as an Assistant English Teacher, my Japanese language skills resulted in occasional requests for translation from Japanese into English. In a similar fashion, many translators cut their teeth in the profession.

Career Paths

Once you have started in the translation profession, there are several possible career paths. The first and most common is to continue translating, often working at a higher level with more challenging material and at a higher salary. Eventually you may become a senior translator, the person in charge of a group of translators all working in the same languages or even in charge of all of the translators in an organization. People in such positions spend part of their time translating, and the rest of their time training and evaluating their staff, managing the ongoing projects, and dealing with the technology the group uses.

In larger companies the senior translator is distinct from a translation manager. While the senior translator will be the most experienced and competent member of the team, whose responsibilities may include hiring and training, working on translation technologies like MAT tools, and preparing terminology databases, the translation manager may be an individual with little if any translation or language skills but with the requisite business and management ability. On the other hand, often translators can become translation managers, particularly in organizations that want such managers to have a clear, complete understanding of translators and the work they do.

A project manager is an individual in a translation company or in the translation division of an organization who oversees the translation projects, assigning specific sections of material to individual translators, keeping track of productivity and progress in various jobs, evaluating technologies for use in the translation process, working with clients and vendors to prepare quotes for a translation project or deliver a completed job, and handling any and every problem that arises with the staff, outside vendors, or the technology. Such people must be able to multitask to an incredible degree, be cool and confident under pressure, and be willing to work often long hours. Although a background in translation or language is not required for such positions, it is obviously extremely helpful, and so not surprisingly this is a frequent preference, particularly in translation agencies.

A localization manager is similar to a project manager in terms of job duties and personality. The difference is that a localization manager works for a single firm, usually a high-tech firm, and is focused on the preparation of corporate materials in foreign languages. There are many levels of localization managers, with responsibility and the size and scope of projects increasing as one rises to higher levels. Knowledge of common localization tools and technologies (including, for instance, Trados, Catalyst, or Deja-Vu), as well as standard documentation management and project management tools (including, for instance, Microsoft Project, XML, and web site management software) is vital for such positions.

Another possibility is terminologist. Large-scale translation operations, particularly localization operations or any other situation in which MAT software is used regularly, require precise, ongoing management of the terminology used in the translations. This task usually falls to a full-time terminologist, an individual with a strong background in translation or linguistics and with the requisite subject knowledge to define precisely and accurately in two or more languages the terminology to be used in the translations. The terminologist typically works closely with both translators and translation managers, and must have a good command of common software tools for translation, along with database software.

There are, of course, other positions and other opportunities to use once translation skills, but they are sufficiently obscure and unusual that they will not be discussed here. Often, creativity and resourcefulness are invaluable when looking for a new, more challenging and lucrative position within the translation profession.

Foreseeable Forces and Factors

The dominant factor in the translation profession since the mid-1990s has been the Internet. The high-tech boom of the late 1990s created rapid growth in the localization industry, which became the tail that wagged the translation dog for several years. Although the dot-com boom is long over, the Internet continues to influence how and where translators do business.

The advent of online job site such as have introduced a new model for doing business in the translation profession. Translation agencies and businesses that need to have translations done can offer work directly to freelancers, who bid against each other to win the job. This is created considerable downward pressure on prices in the translation market, particularly for language pairs available in two or more countries in which the cost of living and the cost of doing business differ considerably.

Although such sites represent an interesting opportunity for new translators as well as a good way for freelance translators to find work, like auction sites there is little accountability for individuals or organizations that cheat, and little quality control, particularly in regards to the ability of an individual translator to do good work or the capacity of an organization to pay in a timely fashion for the work.

Nevertheless, such sites will continue to flourish and represent one common path by which translation work is done. When quality, reliability, or secrecy are paramount for a project, translation agencies still prefer to work directly with someone they know, and so such sites do not now and will not in the foreseeable future take over the industry.

The other critical factor influencing the translation profession is Machine Assisted Translation (MAT) and Machine Translation (MT) software. MAT provides a variety of forms of assistance to a translator, particularly when working on a large project, or a project that is similar to one the translator has done previously. MT ideally provides finished copy in the target language, though the reality at present varies from acceptable quality for certain purposes to garbled text.

More and more translators are required to use MAT software, and few find themselves in a position to do all of their work without it. As long as you have an electronic version of the source document, translation memory containing terminology or useful concurrences, and material that is redundant or repetitive, the software improves productivity, particularly in terms of accuracy and consistency with terminology and phraseology. The cost of such products, particularly Trados, remains prohibitive for many freelance translators, however. In translation agencies and companies, these products are so commonly used that job applicants must already be comfortable with them. Many freelance jobs, as can be seen by viewing the listings in Translators’ Café or Proz, also require such technologies. The translator who does not take the time to become well-versed with them will ultimately be without work.

Making the Most of It

Long-term success in the translation profession requires not only dedication to your languages, but also a willingness to continually improve your knowledge of translation technologies and maintain your expertise in the subject areas you work it. The ATA now requires continuing education credits to maintain certification, as is common in many other professions.

Successful translators will have to routinely attend classes, workshops, and seminars in order to stay on top of their profession and abreast of all new developments. Fortunately, the annual ATA conference, specialty conferences given around the year by the ATA and other organizations, classes and workshops held at local community colleges, and seminars given by chapter organizations of the ATA all represent good opportunities for translators to continue their education.

There is, however, a tendency for translators not to stay the profession for very long. Rare is the translator has 10 or more years of full-time, continuous experience in the field. Many move on to related professions, change careers entirely, or simply stop working to devote time to raising a family (this, of course, is more common for women translators). The reasons translators leave the profession vary considerably, though naturally income and job satisfaction are the primary motivations. There also seems to be a certain degree of burnout, particularly among translators who have to work very hard at low rates in order to earn enough to scrape by during the first couple of years in the freelance market. The amount of work coupled with the low income and little prospect for improvement has led to a number of disgruntled translators who have left the industry for greener pastures. Finally, some translators succumb to repetitive strain injuries (RSI) such as carpal tunnel syndrome or thoracic outlet syndrome. Although technologies such as voice input software can compensate, many people find it easier to change careers.

There does not seem to be an "old translators' home." I personally know several translators who retired in their 60s after a long and successful career, and I know translators who left the profession after 2, 5, or even 10 years of work. Ultimately, how your career evolves will depend on a variety of factors that you cannot anticipate until they happen. The important thing is to make the most of your career while you are working in the translation profession, and if the time to leave does come, then to do so gracefully and move onto something else.

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