The Extraordinary Translator and Interpreter: A Mini-Survey from #ATA57

In just one week, nearly 2,000 translators and interpreters will convene at ATA’s 58th Annual Conference. Memories of last year’s event abound, and The Savvy Newcomer is pleased to present the results of a mini-survey we conducted at the 57th Annual Conference in San Francisco whose goal was to examine trends in the backgrounds of translators and interpreters, particularly those who have enjoyed long careers in the field.

Some of the aspects we looked at in the survey were: highest level of education, areas of study, how often translators and interpreters transition to these fields from a prior career, and for those who have transitioned, the ways in which their prior professional experience has influenced their careers as linguists.

The survey, and who responded

To conduct this survey, postcard questionnaires were handed out randomly to attendees at the Conference. We received a total of 35 completed postcards, which were processed by our team and evaluated for trends. What we found surprised us. To start, here is a breakdown of the basic demographics of our sample:

  • Translator, interpreter, or both?: 13 translators, 13 translator-interpreters, 4 interpreters, 5 no response
  • Length of T&I career: Average of 13.85 years (range: 1 to 44 years)
  • Language combinations: Overwhelmingly Spanish-English—in one direction or bidirectional (32 respondents, 91.4%); but French (2), German (2), Japanese (1), and Portuguese (1) were also listed in combination with either English or Spanish.
  • Number of language pairs: The majority had one working language pair (32, 91.4%), whereas only 3 (8.57%) had two or more language pairs.

Translators and interpreters appear to be highly educated—well beyond the general population

Some of the most compelling findings were in relation to prior studies completed by those surveyed. Of those who responded to the question “What is your highest level of educational achievement?”, 82.86% (29) had earned an associate’s degree or higher (the remaining 5 respondents had completed university courses, but 4 did not specify whether they had completed a degree). A striking 47.5% (16) reported having earned a master’s degree as their highest educational achievement, while approximately 25%* (9) held at least a bachelor’s. (*The responses of the 4 mentioned above who did not specify their highest university degree suggested they had earned at least a bachelor’s, which would bring the total of bachelor’s to 36.43%.) One respondent held a PhD (1), and another was a doctoral candidate (1) at the time of the survey.

Respondents had earned degrees in 16 different countries (with some overlap): Argentina, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, France, Germany, Mexico, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Prior studies: from A to T

There were a total 29 prior fields of study reported, including T&I. Seven (20%) reported having studied T&I, of whom one held a master’s in translation and another a bachelor’s, whereas the other 5 reported having participated in a certificate or other non-degree program. Most fascinating was the incredible variety of areas of study beyond T&I itself. There was truly a range from A to Z (well, to T for translation, to be precise!): from art history to social work, advertising to computer programming, finance to music, education to philosophy, and interior design to hotel management. We also saw journalism, linguistics, psychology, law, anthropology, and geography. Of the 29 fields reported, 9 had some overlap: engineering (4, 11.42%), business (3, 8.57%), education (8.57%), Spanish or English (8.57%), literature (8.57%), advertising (2, 5.71%), archaeology (5.71%), biology (5.71%), and political science (5.71%).

Getting a leg up from prior careers or studies

Most respondents shared stories of how past professional experience and academia had bolstered their careers in T&I. Below are just a few examples—some expected, and others less so:

  • Engineering and biology (master’s): Academic knowledge leveraged in medical translation
  • Political science, philosophy, economics, journalism (master’s): Benefit of strong research skills and experience reading foreign-language sources
  • Psychology (master’s): Communication and listening skills, understanding of human behavior
  • Chemical engineering, literature (master’s): Grasp of “implicit information” in source texts
  • Finance (bachelor’s): The ins and outs of working as an independent contractor
  • Social work, hotel management, law: Understanding international clients and medical content
  • Mechanical engineering: Context for technical translation
  • Social science, geography/geographic information systems (GIS), anthropology: Appreciation of the importance of language access after working with low-income, at-risk families and inmates
  • Advertising: Marketing one’s own business

Making the switch to T&I

The reasons respondents gave for switching from another career to T&I were varied: While some felt the need for a change and decided to intentionally put their language skills to use, others seemed to find themselves in the career inadvertently and never left.

Some found a need in the community (years translating or interpreting in parentheses; T=translator, I=interpreter, T-I=translator-interpreter):

  • “Somebody heard me at the hospital helping my mom” (13 years, I)
  • “The need of people who speak Spanish” (20 years, T-I)
  • “Increasing need in community where I worked” (3 years, T)

Others had “dabbled” in T&I as part of a past career and apparently discovered a passion for it:

  • “Already working as bilingual aide, I was hired as translator” (16 years, T-I)
  • “Part-time job interpreting, liked it a lot” (7 years, I; 4 years, T)
  • “Through my work as a Spanish instructor because I started proofing” (3 years, T)

Yet others saw an opportunity to make some extra cash, and for some, the work became a lifelong career:

  • “Needed money in grad school” (37 years, T)
  • “Became a freelancer because I quit my other job” (20 years, T)
  • “Plans for retirement” (2 years, T)
  • “At the suggestion of a friend, because I couldn’t find professional work in the US (and I wasn’t going to make coffee)” (14 years, I)

Considering the relatively small sample of 35 respondents, the variation in experiences observed was remarkable, leading us to conclude that the individuals behind the professions of T&I, the paths that led them there, and their specialized knowledge, are as diverse as the languages they speak and the countries they hail from. Aside from their current careers, the one thing they seemed to have in common was an impressive level of formal education.

To think that these 35 individuals make up only a tiny fraction of the attendees at the ATA Conference each year brings into perspective just how magnificent our colleagues are. Whether you have plans to attend a local conference or meet-up this fall, or plan to join the ATA Conference in Washington, DC, you can be sure you will be in extraordinary company.

Pursuing the Translation Dream: What to Know Before the Phone Rings

Have you ever asked yourself if you have what it takes to be a translator? You probably know it takes more than being bilingual, but did you know there is more to it than being a good translator? If you are curious to know what it takes to build a successful translation career, you may be pleased to learn of this hidden gem offered by the ATA: A Self-Evaluation Questionnaire for Translators. This comprehensive “checklist” for newcomers to the field is a juicy resource that answers the question of what it really takes to be a translator.

Let’s be honest: I would posit that few, if any, successful translators got to where they are today by methodically checking off boxes on a similar list. One example is Pilar Saslow, who writes in another article about what she learned from her follies: The Top Three Things I Wish Somebody Told Me When I First Started As a Freelance Translator. Entry into the profession is rarely a smooth and linear process. However, I do not doubt that many seasoned translators would have loved to have had such a list when they were starting out.

This post kicks off a new Savvy Newcomer series that will highlight questions from the ATA checklist for new translators. In each post, we will delve into several questions and offer additional insights. In today’s post, we explore the first section: “Professional Preparation (What I need to know before the phone rings).”

Am I willing to invest time, money, and physical and emotional energy to build a career?

There is no such thing as a career that does not require investment. However, most “traditional” careers follow a well-tread path towards success, whether that means obtaining a degree, earning a license, or getting hired at a company. On the contrary, most translators are self-employed, and this independence comes with added responsibilities, including self-motivation. A career in translation requires an ongoing commitment beyond the act of translating alone. But if you love the art itself, you will probably not hesitate to invest the time, money, and energy it takes to build a translation career. Alina Cincan elaborates on the first steps towards investing in your career in her post How (Not) to Be a Professional Translator and 6 Tips to Help You Become One.

Do I know the difference between an employee and an independent contractor in terms of tax law?

Not only are most translators self-employed; the majority are also independent contractors. Independent contractors provide services based on a verbal or written contract (hence the name) with another entity that is not their employer. Unlike the relationship between employer and employee, where the employer pays a portion of the employee’s taxes (in the US, usually 50%), independent contractors are responsible for paying the full amount of taxes owed each year.

Furthermore, it is the independent contractor’s responsibility to keep track of all payments received in exchange for work and to declare and pay taxes on this amount annually or quarterly. This means putting aside approximately 30% of all taxable earnings (i.e., after deductions such as costs, depreciation, etc.) If you live in the US, you can find more information on taxes for independent contractors via the Internal Revenue Service (IRS): Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center. Our own Jamie Hartz also offers tips on paying taxes in this review of The Money Book.

Is my resume up to date and appropriate?

If you plan to offer services as a translator, it is important to have a resume dedicated solely to translation. You may want to include experience in relevant subject areas, but the job you held at the local pet shop years ago probably does not qualify.

Once you have your ideal translation resume, make sure not to let it collect dust. There is nothing like getting a resume request from a prospective client and letting the email languish while you scramble to get your resume in order. Taking the time to update your resume periodically will save you the headache later, and might even land you the client.

Find more tips in Marta Stelmaszak’s guide to translator CVs.

Am I able to give a reasonably accurate word count (in source and/or target languages) and turnaround estimate relatively quickly after I have seen the document?

Some things you simply cannot know until you know them, and word count and turnaround estimates sometimes fall into this category. However, one way to gain control is by tracking word counts and time spent on each project.

Use a tool like Toggl to determine how long it takes you to complete an assignment based on project or document type. You can also keep track of word output per hour to get an idea of how long it takes you to translate certain documents. Once you have your numbers, continue to expect the unexpected and give yourself a buffer so you are able to submit your projects on time.

Have I prearranged quality control measures to guarantee a top-notch product (such as time to mull over my draft, proofing tools, time to proofread, a third reading by a colleague with source- or target-language background, a subject area expert to consult, etc.)?

Never underestimate the importance of quality control. Like many translators, I consider myself a perfectionist, but experience has taught me that even perfectionists make mistakes. There are some things only a second pair of eyes will catch, like the misspelling of epidural (“epdiural”) that I once accidentally added to my dictionary in Word, causing spell check to overlook the typo. Whenever possible, it is invaluable to have a subject-matter expert on hand (whose fees you can budget into your quote) and to allow for ample time to mull over your draft.

Now that we have taken a closer look at things to keep in mind when first deciding to pursue a career in translation, it is time to prepare for what to do when your first clients start trickling in. Stay tuned for the next post in the series: “What to Do When the Phone Rings” (or when the first email arrives, in today’s business world!). Can’t wait for more inspiration? Check out this post by Corinne McKay with tips for new translators and interpreters.

Image source: pixabay

Universidad de Alcalá: A Day in the Life

Cervantes AlcaláI went into my master’s program at Spain’s Universidad de Alcalá convinced I wanted to be an interpreter. A year later I was a passionate translator. Sitting on the edge of my seat in a conference booth interpreting for a Finnish researcher; sandwiched next to an African immigrant across from a Spanish social worker; carefully situated between a Spanish therapist and her American patient—all of these experiences were exhilarating. It’s just that somehow I took much greater pleasure in searching tediously for parallel texts as I translated a 50,000-word European Union bill.

The two internships I did as part of the master’s program couldn’t have been more different: half of my time was spent interpreting for a drug and alcohol abuse program through Madrid’s public health department, and the other half was spent working alongside two classmates to translate a lengthy bill for the Spanish Ministry of Justice on the exchange of criminal background data among EU member states.

Universidad de Alcalá logoInterpreting, though thrilling, made me nervous, while translating made me feel absolutely exuberant. One thing that good translators and good interpreters have in common is that both are perfectionists. I too am a perfectionist—for better or for worse. But studying translation and interpreting at the same time made me realize that I am the kind of perfectionist who cannot live with providing perfection on the spot. I’d much rather take my time finding the perfect solution—and that’s how I came to be a translator.

I began the Master’s in Intercultural Communication and Public Service Interpreting and Translation at Universidad de Alcalá (UAH) in 2013. The university, one of the oldest in Europe, is located in Alcalá de Henares, a small city in the autonomous community of Madrid. Among its claims to fame, Alcalá is the birthplace of Miguel de Cervantes and the location of the printing of the first polyglot Bible.

The university has offered a master’s in translation and interpreting (T&I) since 2006, and the program has belonged to the prestigious European Master’s in Translation network (EMT) since 2009. The EMT vets universities based on certain standards for translator education, with the aim of improving the quality of the incoming workforce.

European Master’s in Translation logoThe master’s at UAH is geared towards students with undergraduate degrees in T&I or those who are already working as translators or interpreters, though these are not strict requirements for admission (proof of language command is!). Some of my classmates were already sworn translators or practicing interpreters, while others were medical professionals or paralegals. One was even a teacher who won a popular game show on Spanish TV and decided to spend the prize money on taking his career in a new direction. I myself had been working in education and public services (at a library in the US and later as a cultural ambassador for the Spanish Ministry of Education in Madrid) for three years leading up to my discovery of the field of translation and interpreting.

In line with the program’s goal of improving the skills of existing translators and interpreters, the curriculum is more practical than theoretical. The first half of the program consisted mostly of interpreting role plays and independent translation assignments that we reviewed together in class. Our instructors were all talented translators and interpreters whose engagement in the profession allowed them to offer us relevant insights and anecdotes, giving us a taste of the world outside the classroom.

The program is organized in cohorts based on language pair, with a considerable offering (all in combination with Spanish):

  • Arabic
  • Bulgarian
  • Chinese
  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Polish
  • Portuguese
  • Romanian
  • Russian

Students with opposite A and B languages are placed together in each cohort (for example, there were native Spanish speakers as well as Americans and Brits in my cohort), and all students practice bidirectional translation. In my case, this meant translating not only from Spanish to my native English but also from English to Spanish. Translating in both directions allows students to offer better feedback and to benefit from one another’s strengths.  I found that translating into Spanish improved my Spanish writing skills and also deepened my knowledge of equivalent terms and concepts in both languages and cultures.

Some other noteworthy aspects of the program are:

  • An equal focus on translation and interpreting (T&I)
  • Separate units concentrating on the medical and legal-administrative settings, including classes on comparative law
  • Technology and research tool classes (CAT tools, corpora tools, glossaries and termbases)
  • Hands-on internships
  • A biennial conference on public service T&I with presentations by renowned researchers
  • A master’s thesis on the topic of each student’s choice
  • Visiting instructors, researchers, and trainers from other institutions: our class was lucky to host Marjory Bancroft of Cross-Cultural Communications, who gave a workshop on interpreting for trauma survivors, as well as Maribel del Pozo Triviño from Universidad de Vigo, who led sessions on interpreting for the police
  • Unique opportunities to collaborate with other university departments: we had the chance to interpret for a mock trial involving DNA evidence alongside law students
  • Optional intensive training in conference interpreting and the opportunity to interpret for the program’s biennial conference

And I could go on! But at the end of the day, one of the greatest values of the program was being humbled by my fellow students, many of whom have gone from classmates to lifelong colleagues and friends. I still collaborate with some of them on projects now that we are “real-life” translators and interpreters, even though we’re scattered across the globe!

If you live in or near Spain or have the ability to travel, I recommend checking out the university’s conference on public service T&I in early March 2017: 6th International Conference on Public Service Interpreting and Translating. The university is also hosting the 8th International Conference of the Iberian Association of Translation and Interpreting (AIETI8) that same week.

Images used with permission