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Directing the leap into a translation career

by Guest Blogger | January 5th, 2021



Stephen Rifkind



In beginning the journey of a professional translator, it is important to identify your strengths and build on them. The choice of direction depends on the answer to three basic questions:

  1. What language did you learn to write when you were a child?

For translators, the key is mastery of written, not spoken language. It is clearly not sufficient to have heard or even spoken the language at home because the rules of proper writing are generally different than those of speech and far more demanding. A professional translator must have an ear for the language and be certain that the chosen wording is the not only correct but the most appropriate. The sense of proper writing is learned from school and reading. By contrast, for the vast majority of people, a translator writing in a foreign language generally sounds like that regardless of how formally correct the language is. As a rule, with a few exceptions, it is neither effective nor efficient to write in a foreign language.

  1.  What language can you read and fully understand without using a dictionary?

Translators need to produce their work within a limited time, often ridiculously so. This requires that searches must be mainly aimed at looking for rare uses, subtleties and synonyms, not common or standard vocabulary. Otherwise, not only is it very difficult to meet the deadline, the translation will be poor. In other words, if you took two years of high school Spanish 20 years ago, it is insufficient, even with the help of Google Translate. By contrast, if you can read a text without stopping to think and can understand its meaning, even with an occasional guess of a word, you probably can work from that language.

  1. For which specific sub-language in your native language do you have an ear?

It is not the age of generalists, including for translators. Jobs and rates for simple texts are too few and too low. Specialization is the key for a successful career. It is vital to identify areas that you are naturally familiar with the lingo and sound in your native language, the language in which you will write. If you understand a pro talk about IT, car engines, stock market options or cosmetics, to name just a few, and can respond in the same language, you have identified an area of specialization. This knowledge can come from your home, education or work background. The key is the ability to transmit the ideas in the source text using the appropriate vocabulary and structure of the target language. Not only do customers seek experts, your translation is of much higher quality even without translating experience and far more efficient as you know how to express the ideas in that field.

Now that you know whither, go thither.