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:
- Excellent source-language understanding
- Sharp target-language writing skills
- In-depth subject knowledge
- A good command of the translation process
- 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.
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 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.