Helen’s adventures in translation – Chapter 1

By Helen Ebylearn-64058

I started translating when I was 15, when I helped my mother with an IATA (International Air Transportation Association) contract. We each did half of it and reviewed each other’s work. That was back in 1976, with paper and pencil, in Argentina. I have continued translating and interpreting at different events, no matter what my official occupation was.

However, it was a side business for a long time. In 2001, I decided that after my children graduated from high school in 2011, I would make the switch from full-time homeschool mom to full-time translator/interpreter.

I made a plan. I would prepare to launch by their graduation. The following are some of the issues I dealt with to make myself marketable.


In the US, having an accepted credential is essential. It could be the ATA Certification exam or a college degree. Because I was raising children and a full degree program was not an option, I chose to go through the New York University certificate program. I thought it had advantages over the ATA exam:

  • I would know what my strengths and weaknesses were and have the opportunity to be mentored through them
  • I would have a clear understanding of the expectations and be able to make a plan to meet them
  • I would learn other issues surrounding translation, not just pass a test

However… it was more expensive. Seven courses at $700 each is $4,900. My husband and I looked at the ATA income survey. We found that the average income for a part-time translator was $15,000 per year. If in the first year I could make three times as much as the course cost, this was a good business deal.

I also got certified for court interpreting in Oregon and for medical interpreting by the National Board.


Dictionaries: As I took NYU courses, the professors always recommended dictionaries for their specialties. I bought them all first, and asked questions later. Over time, I spent a few thousand dollars and filled a bookcase. They have all been tremendously useful and I’m still collecting more. Today I occasionally get emails from colleagues asking me to check my resources for a term.

Software: I took an online course on how to use Wordfast, used Trados, and settled on Fluency as my favorite CAT tool. Knowing some other tools has helped me use them intelligently. Though I have spent money on tools I haven’t needed for any particular client, I considered it an investment in my education. I have invested several thousand dollars in software, and it was all useful.

Computer:  I started with a laptop and now I have a desktop computer with two extra large screens. The laptop was very useful when I was doing translations while I sat at my children’s piano, cello and viola lessons.

Smartphone: I resisted getting a Smartphone until it was unavoidable. When I got tired of not getting work because someone else responded to the project managers before I did, I bought an iPhone. It paid for itself in the first two weeks.


When I lived in Boston, I joined the New England Translators Association (NETA). There I made connections with clients, mentors, and other colleagues. It was a great place to ask my first “dumb questions” in a safe environment. Someone was always ready to give an honest answer to any question I had.

After that I joined ATA listservs (Espalista, and later on, Business Practices). I continued asking “dumb questions”.  It was wonderful to have colleagues reply with understanding and respect, always encouraging me to keep trying.

Now I am helping to launch a professional association in Oregon. I hope to help others launch their translation career through it.


Establishing these foundations took years. I got to know the business slowly, as an active participant with ideas worth testing.  Doing this while homeschooling, teaching Spanish at Gordon College, and dealing with other serious family issues meant I had to adjust my priorities. At that point, my main job was raising my children to be responsible adults. I had a transition plan and was working on it, chipping away at it slowly. I finally launched into full-time work in the fall of 2011, when my youngest started college. It was a 10 year plan, and it has worked well.

Of course there were times when I questioned whether this investment of time and money was ever going to pay off. There were years when I spent more than I made, and years when my total income for was enough to buy my husband a bicycle for his birthday (a nice one…). I knew that one way or another, all this would be worth it in the end. In any event, I was enjoying it!

At this point, I can say that every single thing I did in preparation for launching full-time was worth doing. Taking the classes, buying the dictionaries, buying the equipment, taking those first few jobs, and even having to turn down jobs because of other obligations. It has all been a good investment. Just a few days ago, my husband looked at me and said, “You really enjoy this! I mean the whole thing, every aspect of what you do in translation and interpreting!” He’s right. I do.

Next issue: The marketing side of preparing to launch.

About heleneby

Helen Eby grew up in Argentina, the land of the gauchos. She is certified as an English Spanish translator by ATA and as a Spanish interpreter by the Oregon Judicial Department and by the Oregon Health Authority. She co-founded The Savvy Newcomer and the ¡Al rescate del español! blogs, both of which are team efforts to provide resources for other language professionals. She is also a founding board member of the Spanish Editors Association.

6 thoughts on “Helen’s adventures in translation – Chapter 1

  1. I appreciate you speaking openly about how your children and family priorities shaped your translation endeavors. There are increasingly more studies out there on women preferring lower-salary jobs in order to have more flexibility. I think we’re in a great industry to balance work and family life. Thanks for your insight!

    • You are more than welcome! It was a challenge to balance work and family, but this was a choice I enjoyed. I just can’t live with just one language. This made it so that when I launched full time I already had very significant experience.

      And just for the record, the low pay for the year was not because I charged low rates. Many times it was because I had spent a lot of money on dictionaries, courses, a computer, or whatever else, and I had only made myself available on a limited basis. However, my clients liked me enough that when I got my NYU Certificate and said I was available full time, my business tripled in a month. It was a good, solid foundation.

  2. Thank you Helen for this inspiration…I’m into my third year as an interpreter after being a business owner for ten years, I am enjoying it a lot and learning on a daily basis
    Thank you for the information and encouragement !

    • You are welcome! It is a significant switch! Freelancing is very different from having an employee relationship. It requires a lot more self discipline than being an employee (in my opinion). It also gives you more flexibility to maintain your own work/life balance.

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