The True Professional

Professional translators are applied linguists whose ability to work with language, write well, and for freelancers, to operate a business, represents their source of income. Professional translators are people dedicated to their languages and the nations, societies, and cultures which come with them. They are devoted to improving their ability to understand their source language and write in their target language. They recognize that translation is both an art and a skill, and so are committed to deepening their knowledge of the fields they translate in, and to cultivating greater facility for writing about such matters. They also have nurtured a deep respect for business ethics, aware that they are in many instances the communications conduit for a product or service, for information or opinion, and so must consider the consequences of their linguistic decisions. Finally, professional translators know that they can always improve and polish their translation ability.

Unlike the medical or legal professions, there are no precise academic or professional prerequisites to be a translator. This is a boon for talented individuals who want to get started in the translation industry and a bane for people trying to identify true professionals.

Virtually all professional translators in the United States have at least a Bachelor's degree. Often these degrees are in language studies, or some related field. However, some translators have degrees in their field of specialization and have academic language training as a college minor. Others have advanced degrees in translation itself. Still others have little if any formal academic language training, instead having learned their languages either in the home or while living abroad.

Though translators must be able to write well, few have academic training or professional experience as writers. Few translators seem to love writing; to most it is merely an inevitable aspect of translation. This is undoubtedly a cultural issue in the United States; Americans rarely respect or admire great writers, and often confuse them with great storytellers. Public school and even universities here pay little attention to the mechanics of writing, and give little time to rhetoric in written or oral form. Nevertheless, translators must be able to produce well-written material, and so professionals hone their ability throughout their lives.

Also important is that translators have a well developed knowledge of one or more specialized fields, such as finance, law, including patent and corporate law, computer science, medicine, or pharmaceuticals. Translators are not necessarily experts in their fields, but they do have enough knowledge to read, understand, and then translate common material. And very few translators will ever develop such in-depth knowledge in more than a few fields.


There are ethical considerations in translation, including decisions on how to charge clients, when to refuse to do a translation, or how to respond when clients treat you poorly. In recognition of the importance of ethics in the industry, the ATA now requires ethics coursework for members to receive certification.

Ethics begin with privacy. Translators are often privy to secret information: the financial plans of a company, a pharmaceutical patent, or the specifications for a new computer chip. Such information can easily be exploited for profit in corporate espionage, allowing a company to save millions in R&D costs, position or price its products strategically, or avoid losses in the stock market. Translators have to keep this kind of information to themselves, regardless of whether or not they are asked to sign a nondisclosure or confidentiality agreement.

Occasionally the need for secrecy requires the translator not to talk about the job at all. I have at least two larger jobs like this per year, and while doing such work I say nothing to anyone about it other than that I currently have work. Many agencies have translators sign Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs) for all work, or just for some work. If you sign such an agreement, you are legally bound to abide by its contents, and you should.

The translation industry is very tightly knit and communicative; it is composed of people who know how to spread information in many languages and are used to doing so via the Web, and of people who generally like to talk about work if only because they tend to work alone. So anything you say could end up being mentioned in a chat room, at which point it would be public knowledge. And if you can’t figure out why leaking the preparation for a major, multi-billion dollar lawsuit six months before it becomes public would be a problem, then you don't have the business sense to be a translator.

Next comes honoring agreements. If you agree to do a job, then you have to do it. You can't just farm out your work and take a percentage without telling your clients. They have a right to know who is actually doing the work. If they decide to hire you, then they want you, not someone you know, to do the job. Moreover, you have to do the job the way you say you will, which often means doing what the client asks. If the client provides a glossary or style sheet, follow it, regardless of your personal opinion of their word choice or formatting ideas. If they request a particular file format, provide it. If you really think something is wrong with their terminology or format choices, tell them. The client always has the final word on such matters, but at the same time will usually appreciate your observations or suggestions.

Furthermore, translators should not accept assignments they don't have the time or qualifications to do. I regularly turn down work because I am too busy with other jobs or because I don't have the expertise to do the job justice. Remember, the easiest way to lose a client is to do a bad job.

Real-World Ethics

Why should you bother with such ethical behavior? What's the point? Isn't it easier, not to mention more profitable, to take advantage of opportunity regardless of legal or ethical matters? Generally, no, and here's why.

The translation industry is a small, tightly-integrated industry in which people tend to talk a lot. Whatever reputation you develop will rapidly become known throughout the industry, andif you pay attention, you will rapidly find out the reputation of not only many other translators, but also a variety of agencies and organizations. So if you behave badly by delivering work late or doing a poor job, that will be reputation, and no one will be willing to work with you. Similarly, an agency organization that pays poorly or treats translators badly will quickly find itself ignored. The converse also holds: good behavior, whether it is a translator doing quality work and delivering it on time or a client offering respectable rates and paying promptly, is recognized and rewarded.

Remember, you will be dealing with the same people again and again. Unless you as a translator can figure a way to make a living without working for the same agency organization twice, you will have to do good work and deliver it on time. Furthermore, if people learn that you have abused relationship with an agency or broken an agreement, you are far less likely to get more work. This system is automatic; all you as a participant have to do is pay attention and keep track. This all probably sounds familiar, and it is. This approach is known as the Tit-for-Tat Strategy in the Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma from Game Theory. It is a simple strategy that goes like this.

Always start off nice. Goodwill generally begets goodwill, and you know that you will be interacting with these individuals in the future, so there is no sense in making enemies right away. Then, be nice only if the others are nice to you. In other words, reward good behavior and encourage it to continue, and punish bad behavior and discourage it in the future. The only requirement for this strategy to work is that you keep track of what others are doing to you. Fortunately, the human brain is well-designed for this task, and there is computer software, such as Personal Information Managers (PIMs) to further simplify the task.

To be specific about the translation industry: Always start off with a nice, polite, cooperative attitude toward any new client. Trust, but verify. You can find out a lot about a potential new client by asking colleagues and doing Web searches. Unless there is sound reason to reject work from the new client, do the work properly (your form of cooperation), then monitor what happens. If you are treated well, paid promptly, and offered more work (the client's form of cooperation), of course you accept it. You cooperated, the client reciprocated, everyone is happy. If the client screws you, screw them back (so to speak) by not accepting any more work and by reporting their behavior to everyone else in the group. Cheats cannot succeed in the long run unless the group in question is infinitely large; since there is a finite number of translators, no client can screw translators forever. Conversely, no translator can translate for very long while screwing clients, because there is a finite number of clients available. Cheats may be able to succeed in the short run, but only if the rest of the group lets them. We can talk to each other about bad client experiences, just as clients talk amongst themselves about bad experiences with particular translators. We can post accurate, precise information regarding bad behavior from clients on Web sites dedicated to such matters. In essence, we can help each other keep track of everyone's behavior, encouraging good behavior and punishing bad behavior. A translator will not last any longer without clients than a translation vendor will last without translators.

Handling Clients

The true professional knows how to conduct business, including the art of negotiation. You won't impress anyone if you hem and haw when asked questions about price or terms of delivery. Know your rates by heart, know your hardware and software by heart, and know what you can do. Give this information freely and confidently, and then watch and wait. Remember, the heart of negotiation is compromise; if the client doesn't like your terms, they'll make a counter offer. Then it's up to you to accept or make yet another counter offer.

Dickering and bickering is not the way to cultivate clients. Often a slightly lower rate in the short run leads to more work and higher rates in the future. I have started at slightly lower rates with agencies and then found in short order that they were feeding me large assignments regularly. Conversely, I've turned down rates which I thought were too low and then found that the agency later offered me work at a higher rate. If you provide quality work at a fair price, you will have clients.

Providing information is an essential part of being a professional translator. Clients have to know who you are, where you work, what you can do, and what you charge. When you receive a request for information from a client, be it a new client who has sent you a contractor's employment form or an old client requesting updated information, give it willingly and in detail.

You also have to be accessible. Make sure you are in your office, or at least near your phone, during the workday. Just because no one calls you in the morning doesn't mean you have the afternoon off. You should still be in your office. Sure, but I can still go out and do things. Yes, you can. But remember that if a client can't reach you they'll send the job to someone else. At the very least, get an answering machine which lets you call in and collect your messages from another phone. Or get a cell phone for business. Also, check your email at least once an hour. Some clients are now sending out job offers via email and expect prompt responses. In particular, if you participate in any of the Web-based translation exchanges, such as Proz or Aquarius, then you should check regularly to see if someone is soliciting your services, or if your bid for a job has been successful.


A translation job does not ends the moment you push the Send File button in your email software, fire off the fax, deposit the papers in an envelope, or complete the upload of the translated file to an FTP site. To think otherwise is both unprofessional and irresponsible. Don't leave your home for the beach right after you finish a translation assignment; numerous things can go wrong after you send the job.

For instance, the agency's fax machine doesn't print your transmission clearly enough (this happens often when sending hand-written work, such as an editing job); the email doesn't arrive or the attached file is lost; the agency can't open or convert your file; the agency opens your file but gets mere gibberish (affectionately known among hackers as baud barf); the agency loses your file; or the agency has questions about what you did.

You have to stick around after you send the job, just in case. I've sent jobs in to agencies on the East Coast on Friday morning and then received calls at 6:00 p.m. my time. If you know you are going out or away for the weekend, tell the agency beforehand, preferably when you deliver the job. Make sure they know you won't be around after a particular hour and ask them to confirm that the file you sent was received and can be processed. It takes a little more effort but is well worth it; the agency will love you.

Professionals solve problems. This also means that you should try to help your clients with problems. I have helped numerous clients troubleshoot a computer network, Web site, or software incompatibility over the phone while negotiating or discussing a job. Always be useful and helpful; it will make them remember you and think well of you.

Translators must stand by their work. Eventually, a client will call you and tell you that your translation sucks, that their bilingual five-year-old niece could have done a better job, that a lemur has superior spelling skills. Regardless of how offended or angered you are, work through the problem with the client. Ask for specific comments, such as where the errors are, what kind they are, and how many there are. If the errors are in fact your responsibility, offer to fix them immediately at no extra charge. If the errors fall into that nebulous area of style or proofreading, offer to participate in the clean-up process but stand by your work if you did what you were told. The most important thing is to service the client. They have the work and the money, so it behooves you to make a positive impression no matter how negative the situation might be.

Even after the job is finished and the agency confirms receipt of it, keep the file on your hard drive. I have all the work I've ever done on my hard drive, with additional copies backed up to optical media. This may seem excessive, but I've worked with translation agencies that lost my translated file some five weeks after I submitted it. They were in a panic and called me, praying that I had kept the file. To their delight, I said I had it and would send it immediately. Of course, this won't happen five years later, but data storage is so cheap, and old files do sometimes have other uses, including as reference material, for translation memories, or potentially for training a machine translation system. Moreover, on rare occasions translations are subpoenaed. So keep everything, and remember to deduct the cost of the disks and the space used to store them.

Upon finishing a large job such as a book or computer manual, I usually send the agency a letter along with the finished translation and keep in contact with them as they edit my work and prepare it for publication. I also make clear that I am willing to remain involved in the process, that the agency may call me for clarifications on my work, such as choices about style or terminology, and that I am genuinely interested in the final outcome. It's always good business to be involved in the entire process, not just the small part of it which represents your work.

The Suit Does Not Make the Translator

Translators are among those fortunate few who do not have to dress up for work. Conversely, translators have to sound professional at all times, regardless of the situation. In many businesses, a visual impression is the most important. A good suit, a proper haircut, a clean shave (of the legs or face), and the other professional amenities are essential to success. Translators don't have to do this unless they work in-house or meet with their clients in person. Instead, we have to rely much more on what we say, how we say it, and how we sound in order to create and maintain business relations. So good spoken language is vital, along with a confident, polished manner, and a strong sense of professionalism in what you say.

You literally cannot afford to have one of those bored, dull voices that telemarketing firms inflict on the average American daily. You can't afford to sneeze and cough throughout your business negotiations, unless desperately ill, in which case you might consider not working. Few people translate well while suffering from the flu and using powerful decongestants. You can't afford the cries of children, the yelping or chirping of pets, or the complaints of roommates in the background. Your home office has to sound like an office. Make sure it is in a quiet part of your home, away from the noise of a kitchen, garage, playroom, or workroom, and can be closed off from the rest of the house by a door. If you live alone, just keep the stereo or TV down, or have a remote with a mute button handy to turn off the volume when the phone rings.

A Nice Neat Package

So a professional translator is something of a package, combining a strong linguistic background with an interest in writing, as well as polished business skills. A sense of pride in your work combined with a commitment to your craft and the profession will bring a higher level of professionalism and prestige to reputation as a translator, which will help advance your career, and in addition, the profession itself.


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