Switching from science to translation?

I often receive emails from aspiring translators who are switching from a career in the fields of science or healthcare and are seeking advice from someone with the same language combination who made a similar change, albeit several decades ago. This blog post is an expanded version of my response, in the hope that it will save me writing similar emails in the future, while reaching a potentially larger group of career switchers.

Here’s a five-point summary of translators’ core skills, so you can identify areas that you need to work on. Translators have:

  1. Excellent source-language understanding
  2. Sharp target-language writing skills
  3. In-depth subject knowledge
  4. A good command of the translation process
  5. Business know-how

1. Source language

Since you’re interested in becoming a translator, I imagine your source language is already good. The best way to improve is through immersion. Living for extended periods in your source-language country will give you a native-like understanding of your source texts. If moving countries is impossible, you can easily access foreign language resources online, through language courses, videos, podcasts, films, blogs, etc. Reading – fiction and non-fiction in your specialty – will improve your source language at every level. And remember, there’s always room for improvement.

2. Target language

You might think that your native target-language writing is good by definition. Unfortunately, scientists and healthcare professionals aren’t renowned for their writing skills. You may need to brush up on your grammar, refresh your punctuation and writing style, learn to write clearly or improve your technical writing.

3. Subject knowledge

Most translators agree that specialisation is the key to success. As a subject-matter expert, you’re ideally positioned at the start of your translation career. Your past experience will help you produce robust translations and reassure clients that their project is in the right hands. But bear in mind you will be applying your specialist knowledge to specific areas, such as clinical trials, patents, medical devices, regulatory affairs or research articles. Each genre has its own style, format and terminology and you’ll need to specialise further to adapt your knowledge to these genres. Learning about and working with corpora is a good way to solve linguistic problems in your specialty.

The AMA Manual of Style is a gold mine for medical writing and the online platform Cosnautas is the go-to place for Spanish medical abbreviations and tricky terminology.

4. Translation: theory and practice

If you have little translation experience, then an MA translation programme will give you a solid foundation. Nikki Graham’s blog reviews many master’s degree programmes in Europe. Other onsite and remote options include general courses at translation schools, such as The Translator’s Studio, Translator Training and WLS, and more specialised courses, such as those offered by Estudio Sampere and AulaSIC. If self-learning appeals more, then read up on general (In Other Words, The Translator’s Invisibility) and specialised translation techniques (Scientific and Technical Translation Explained, Scientific and Technical Translation, Medical Translation Step by Step).

Getting feedback on your translations is important for everyone at every stage of their career. If you decide to dive in now with little or no translation theory, feedback will be a lifesaver. Be sure to check out the networking tips below.

Computer skills are essential. You’ll need to be a competent MS Word user, know how to search for information on the internet and be familiar with specific software – CAT tools – for translators.

5. Business know-how

Business acumen is a soft skill to work on alongside the core competences mentioned above. From writing your CV and marketing yourself, to keeping track of your projects and invoicing, running your own business is no small feat.

The eight-week ITI SUFT (Setting Up as a Freelance Translator) course offers advice and hands-on practice for small groups of students, with ample opportunity for discussion and learning from your peers. One of the modules deals specifically with the thorny issue of overcoming the no-experience barrier and getting your first job. (Disclosure: I’m a tutor on this course.)

Take advantage of experienced practitioners’ books on the business side of translation. Recommended reading includes The Business Guide for Translators, The Prosperous Translator and 101 Things a Translator Needs to Know.

Last but not least: networking

The above points barely skim the surface of what you need to know about the world of freelance translation. Networking gives you a key to delving deeper. It opens the door to on-going contact with peers who can guide you through the first months and years of your new career. Here’s a list of networking ideas:

  • Get active on social media. Join conversations on Twitter and Facebook groups. Meeting and communicating with other translators virtually makes it much easier to connect at real-life events. On Twitter, check out #xl8 , #medxl8 and @translationtalk. On Facebook, join Standing Up, Traducción médica aplicada or Translators for Health.
  • Join a translation association and get involved. Associations offer training, forums for general discussion and terminology, member directories and specialised resources. Visit their websites to see what they offer: Asetrad, Institute of Translation and Interpreting, ITI Medical and Pharmaceutical Network, ITI Spanish Network, Mediterranean Editors and Translators, Tremédica.
  • Sign up for in-person translation training events. If you’re already active in social media groups and translation associations, meeting people for real will be the next step in learning and working with your colleagues. Referrals play a key role in a freelancer’s portfolio.
  • Go to industry events. As an expert yourself, you’ll be able to talk to potential direct clients on equal terms. And you’ll keep up with the latest changes in your field.
  • Try co-working with colleagues.
  • Attend social networking events in person. Going out for a meal or a walk is a great way of getting to know your colleagues.
  • Work with a mentor. Many translator associations organise mentoring schemes. Direct contact with an experienced colleague who gives you guidance and feedback on your work is invaluable.
  • Find a revision buddy. If you take networking seriously, you’ll be more likely to come across a colleague who can revise your work and have the confidence to approach them. New translators with strong linguistic training will be delighted to get subject-knowledge input from you, and you, in turn, will benefit from their translation expertise.

The translation sector benefits hugely from subject experts like you. I hope some of the above ideas will help you on your way to becoming a great translator. Good luck!

If you’ve already switched from science to translation and think I’ve missed any important resources or points, please mention them below. My perspective is limited to my personal experience, so there are big gaps, especially in US courses and associations, and other language combinations.

With thanks to Helen Oclee-Brown and Tomás Cano Binder for their contributions to the recommended reading lists.
Image attribution: Alex Kondratiev on Unsplash

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14 Responses to Switching from science to translation?

  1. pazgomezpolledo says:

    Excelente guía, como todo lo que publicas. Un abrazo, Paz

  2. thelexicons says:

    Emma as always, one STRONG resource. Thank you.

  3. For aspiring medical translators, I would recommend attending the Medical English Seminar every two years in Lyon. We had the chance to hear your precious advice there Emma!

  4. Eileen Cartoon says:

    Hi Emma,
    A wonderful resonse but under Subject knowledge I think you forgot to emphasize one thing. I have found that when someone who was an expert in a given field he/she often puts his/her own input into the “translation”. It should be emphasized that the person must be knowledgeable in the field but stick to the author’s text. In my experience many don’t.

    • Indeed, being faithful to the source text is sometimes harder when you know the subject inside out. That’s a useful insight that I’d forgotten about, Eileen. Thanks for your comment!

  5. EP says:

    Reading through this reminds me that translation is also a science! Interesting post, thanks.

  6. Anna Ward says:

    Wow, an amazingly thorough post, thank you!

  7. S says:

    Hi Emma! It’s really thrilling to read an article like this, as I used to be an engineer myself! Technically I cannot be qualified as an engineer, though I possess the membership of Engineering Australia. When I was studying engineering, I found myself lost. It was not my decision to major in engineering when I was doing my bachelor degree. Then I decided to discontinue with my engineering study and switched into translation studies. But somewhere deep in my mind I still believe that I am a ‘half-engineer’, and your article really motivated me, because I start to think about combining my former knowledge with translation. If I could have the chance, I would be very excited to be a translator in an Australian (as I am living in Australia) engineering company. If possible, I would even choose to be part of some localization projects, where I can represent my own country’s culture. When Pym(Pym) said that translation in localization is dehumanized, I was rather touched. He mentioned that communication will be taken away from the cultures. As Chinese, I am fully aware of the uniqueness of Chinese culture. Therefore, since I am determined to be a professional translator, who is supposed to be a bridge between two different cultures, I’d rather choose to be a ‘humanizing’ bridge. As we all clearly realize the importance of localization, which lies in the process internationalization, I feel that I am obliged to maintain as much original value of cultures as I can during translation which is only a small part of localization. What’s more, Localization in China started in around 1993 and it has made considerable progress in the last decade(QIAN Duoxiu & TENG Xiong). So I believe that localization does have a promising future, no matter in China or Australia. Your suggestions are really practical and helpful, among which I like the thoughts of interacting with social media and attending social networking events most. This is definitely the best way to get myself involved into such local culture and language, which can help me to build up the idea and thought of localization, as me myself will be ‘localized’. Such thought of immersion really helps. Anyway, I really hope that I can hold onto my belief in my future career. Thanks again for your fantastic article!

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  9. matsdlinder says:

    Lots of valuable advice! However, being a translator myself I’ve come to wonder WHY people choose this profession. There are lots of books and articles written about translation work and experiences but it is very difficult to find texts about the path leading to all that. I think it would be interesting to find out. (I’ve got a pretty good idea about my own motivation but it may not be the same as for other people.)

  10. Great article . If you are good in a language pair and understand both language with ease then anybody can take on the translation job . But that only applies to a particular segment i believe . I wonder if its really easy to become a translator based on a particular sector such as legal translation , medical translation , IT translation and so on .

    • If you are good in a language pair and understand both language with ease then anybody can take on the translation job.
      I disagree, Bidhan. Someone who understands two languages with ease fulfills only the first of the five skills mentioned in my post.

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