I made almost every mistake in the book when I was starting out as a translator. However, I recently reflected on what I would have done differently if I knew then what I know now. This led me to come up with a specific self-practice process simulating real-world working conditions that I wish I had followed before selling my services. The system is also designed to provide valuable feedback and data. Now I would like to share this with readers in the hope it proves useful to others.
This post is inspired by one of my favorite Marta Stelmaszak posts, “A letter to my younger self as a translator,” and conversations I’ve had in my capacity as a mentor in the ATA Mentoring Program. So, here are the steps I would follow if I could go back in time.
Identify realistic source texts
Consider what types of businesses are a good fit for your skillset, meet your interest, and have a demand for your services. What industry or industries are you willing and able to specialize in? What types of texts need to be translated in those industries?
If you don’t know, find out. Ask colleagues with similar specializations what types of documents they usually translate. Or better yet, ask businesses in your field what types of documents they usually need translated into your language. Now go and find these texts online in your source language and save them as practice texts.
Identify good target-language texts in your field and compare
Next, find some high-quality, monolingual texts of the same type in your target language. Studying these will help you get a better feel for conventions and terminology in your field and avoid “translatorese.” Then compare these with source-language material to identify key differences and how some standard terms might be translated.
The source-language material should be as realistic as possible, which means it may not always be perfect or amazingly well written. For the target-language material, you should strive to find the best work possible. Look for well-written texts that you can aspire to and learn from. Good writers read a lot and take inspiration from what they read—the same can be said of translators.
Find someone who is willing and able to give constructive feedback
How will you know if you are making mistakes if nobody tells you? How will you know if your work is worth what you’re charging?
Working closely with revisers on direct-client projects has taught me a lot. The feedback from colleagues has been invaluable, and I regret not getting more of it earlier in my career.
It would be ideal to make an arrangement with someone before you start practicing so you can get feedback on your work as you practice. Here are a few suggestions on how to find someone (disclaimer: I haven’t tried these, but in hindsight, I would):
- Ask an experienced colleague with the right language combination and specialization if they would be willing to mentor you by providing feedback, at least on a few short practice translations.
- Find one or more other newbies with the same language combination and specialization to look over each other’s practice translations. It can be easier to spot room for improvement in others’ work, and this would be mutually beneficial.
- Join or a start a revision club for your language combination.
Set up a time-tracking app and a statistics template
Like most newbies, I struggled to determine what to charge when starting out. It can also be hard to estimate how long a job will take. Tracking how much time it takes you to translate various text types is a great way to solve this problem. This will allow you to more confidently set, accept, or reject a deadline, and determine which types of texts are most lucrative for you.
First, you need to choose a time tracking app. There are many to choose from, and I use TimeCamp. You can even track manually in an Excel file or on a piece of paper if you prefer. The important thing is that you record the time when you start and stop working.
Then you will need a template or method of compiling and comparing your statistics. I use a custom Excel file where I enter parameters such as text type, end client, editor, word count, fee, hours, and an hourly rate calculated by dividing the total project fee by the number of hours worked. If you aren’t an Excel nerd, you can use another method or fewer parameters. Just be sure to set up a system that works for you, so you can make use of your data.
Tracking time this way helps you determine which types of texts go faster or slower, which you’re better at, and which ones you might be better off avoiding. For example, if you spend four hours on a 500-word company presentation in PowerPoint and two hours on a 500-word press release, then you know that charging the same fee based on the number of words for both isn’t a great deal for you.
Start practicing and evaluate
Crack open your realistic source texts, start your time tracker, and get to work! When you’re done, send your translation for feedback and editing, and enter your hours into your spreadsheet. Now carefully evaluate the feedback and data.
Imagine this were a billable project and ask yourself the following questions:
- Would you and your client be satisfied?
- If not, what needs to change, or where can you improve?
- Do you need to brush up on your specialization, source-language comprehension, or target-language writing skills?
- How long did it take you?
- Would you be satisfied with your earning capacity translating at this speed?
Be sure to try a variety of different text types to get a feel for which ones you’re better at. Repeat similar text types to see whether the practice helps you improve and produce quality work faster.
When are you ready for the real thing?
I think a good way to measure when you’re ready to not only start on a basic level, but work effectively at a high level in the translation industry, would be when you’re confident in your ability to:
- Produce accurate translations suited to the client’s needs
- Be clear about your specialization(s) and the types of texts you’re proficient in (know your limits)
- Quote a rate that reflects the time and effort you expect to spend on the project based on your experience and data from similar work
- Quote a deadline that’s realistic based on your experience and that won’t jeopardize quality
Although this process may take time and effort, I believe that this type of rigorous practice regimen is better than attempting to learn on the job or winging it, not least because it can be stressful and time-consuming to accurately quote and sell your services as a newbie—you might end up either wasting precious time and energy trying to figure it out on the spot or accepting projects you live to regret.
One might argue that learning on the job means you get paid while you learn, but this could prove a risky gamble if you get in over your head. If you get stuck doing text types that have little to do with the type of work you actually want to be doing in the long term, you might not be learning the right things or might adopt practices and habits that take time to unlearn later, especially if you receive little or no feedback. Finding what direction you want your career to take early on and working hard to achieve your goals will surely give you a flying start.
Do you plan to try any of these methods or similar techniques or have you had positive experiences with a similar type of practice regimen? If you already have some experience under your belt, how would you have practiced in hindsight?
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