Starting at square one as a translator or interpreter: What does it take?

From time to time we at The Savvy Newcomer receive questions from our readers that make for great blog post topics. This is one of them! Here’s a question from one of our readers who’s just starting to pursue an interest in languages and wants to know how to get started.

Q: Is there any advice you could give for someone who is starting out at square one, wanting to learn another language, with the end goal of interpreting? This may be a wild question, but I have always had an interest in other languages, and cultures, so interpreting and translation work are very attractive vocations to me. How would you recommend someone starting to make that career shift?  And do you happen to know what languages are in demand, or the most useful to know?  Are there any language schools you would recommend?

A: Thanks for asking! The Savvy Newcomer has a couple of posts that may be of interest (How to become a translator or interpreter, Translation/interpreting schools, Interview with student interpreters) but it sounds like you need a bit more direction on the front end as you consider learning a language and go about getting started.

One of the key requirements is a very strong language background. Interpreting and translation, based on quite a few testing results I have seen, require skills beyond the minimum requirements of Advanced High on the ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) scale.

To reach that level, people usually have to get far beyond what can be accomplished in the institutional setting in the US. It generally involves at least a year in a foreign country, immersed in the language, not spending their time with the other US students who are there doing immersion programs but going to local choirs, doing some kind of local volunteer work, etc. beyond their academic work to get into the community.

However, even a very high ACTFL score is not a guarantee of translational action skills (the ability to convert the message from one language to another, whether orally or in writing). Interpreting and translation both require congruency judgment, which is an extra skill on top of that. It goes beyond being a walking dictionary. Asking any of us translators what a word means would leave us flummoxed. However, when we are given a problem to solve in context, our brains start clicking and we can be helpful.

Language proficiency is an essential prerequisite. Without language proficiency, there is not much basis for cultural understanding, according to the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) guidelines, and culture is part of the written code. For example, Americans have a tendency to sign a business letter “Pete”, but that would never fly in Argentina. It would be “Mr. Peter Brown,” and the letter would be in the formal usted (you). Anything else would just not go. So you need to understand the culture it is going to as well.

Interpreting and translating, though they purport to leave the person who does the language transfer invisible and not change the message at all, by necessity have to make these minimal adjustments so the message reaches the audience the way the original speaker or writer intended it to get there. Otherwise, it is disrespectful to the speaker or writer. We understand that and generally are doing what I would call “transcreation very light” invisibly. Clients do not like translations where this does not happen.

For example, if a client were to accidentally write “the ocean is full of fresh water,” they would call me out if I translated it that way. They would say I made a mistake in my translation. So I translate it as “the ocean is full of salt water.” I also send them a note, saying I translated it this way, and if they want it to say “fresh water” I can put it back but I would like them to be aware of the issue in the source text.

Of course, this does not apply to some translations submitted to the court as evidence. But even then, we translate so the courts can understand the writing. We typically do not reproduce grammatical mistakes to make the text illegible. It’s very hard to do, and we run the risk of overdoing it and making it a caricature… and getting sued.

So translation is more complicated than it looks. We have to consider a lot of things when you look under the hood, and we carry a lot of responsibility in the language transfer. We take it seriously. These are the opinions I’ve formed from years of experience and from conversations about these topics with my clients.

Readers, what questions do you have about getting started?

Image source: Pixabay

How I got off to a fast start as a freelance translator

How I got off to a fast start as a freelance translator

By Linda Kramer

After being employed for over ten years, I longed for more freedom in my life. During my maternity leave (which here in Sweden is a whopping 18 months) I decided to take the plunge and become a freelance translator. And I’m not going to lie, it was scary. Thoughts of how I would survive without the security of a steady paycheck kept me awake at night. But I longed for something more. I longed for freedom—the freedom to choose where, when and who I work for, the freedom to say yes or no to a project, and the freedom to decide how much or how little I want to work.

Now I have been translating for one year and I have a steady stream of work I enjoy in my area of expertise, I have a strong network, and I have a solid foundation and potential to continue building my translation career. Upon reflection, there are some specific things I did that I felt made a big difference in getting off to a good start and helping me to find my niche in this diverse industry. I’ll share some of my thoughts with you and hope you will find them useful.

Build a network

Although you might find some jobs bidding on online job boards like Proz without leaving the house, I suggest you start working on expanding your network and find someone who can serve as a mentor. Before I even landed my first client, I was lucky enough to be introduced to David Friedman. He was kind enough to sit down with me and answer the numerous questions I had about being a freelance translator. He also introduced me to other local translators so I could get more support, input, constructive criticism and encouragement as I started out. This definitely made me feel more confident as I dove into the translation world. David and the other established translators I met shared some of the mistakes they made in their early days, in the hopes I would not have to make the same mistakes. I still made some, but I definitely got the feeling that I managed to avoid several potential mistakes and establish myself fairly quickly.

I joined my local translators association, the Swedish Association of Professional Translators (SFÖ), as soon as possible and immediately started volunteering to help organize events such as the International Translation Day event in Lund. I realized that being a part of an industry association and getting involved in its activities is a great way to build your network for several reasons.

First of all, you meet other people who know your business, who can answer questions and who might even serve as a mentor. Secondly, established translators inevitably get requests for projects they cannot do on their own, either because they are too busy or because they are unable to (if it falls outside their area of expertise or is for a different language combination). A lot of times, these translators prefer to recommend a suitable translator to their client, as making a good referral builds their own credibility and reliability. So the more translators that know you and what you are good at, the greater the chance you will get useful referrals.

Know your strengths

I went into the translation business with the mindset that I could translate anything. Just give me a text and I will sort it out, being a resourceful gal that knows how to do online research. However, I quickly discovered that I’m not really cut out to handle all texts. My test translations for translation agencies were either hit or miss depending on the type of source text. And I really did not enjoy translating legal or technical texts one bit. But I aced all my marketing tests. I could draw on my own professional marketing background, and they were fun to do! So know your strengths and what specializations you should emphasize to your clients. Face it, nobody wants an all-round handyman to renovate their kitchen – everybody wants the kitchen specialist.

Establish an online presence

Before I even started my freelance business last year, the first thing I thought was “I need to get a website”. More and more people look for products and services online than ever before and most people have come to expect that any professionally run business will have a website. You don’t necessarily have to spend a lot of money to get a fancy website. I created my own for free by just spending a couple of days learning how to create my own WordPress site from a free template. And the time I spent on it has paid off, as I can see from the statistics that a lot of new clients visit my website before they contact me.

Not only does having a website signal to potential clients that you are a professional, it is helpful in other ways too. It is an advertisement for your business that is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And it can answer a lot of the questions that clients might have regarding your language combinations and areas of specializations. A short simple website can serve you well in the meantime, even if you would like to have a fancy website with lots of bells and whistles in the long term.

This has been an exciting first year and I still can’t believe I’m fortunate enough to be able to do this for a living. I hope that you will find my thoughts on starting out useful and wish you the best of luck.

Header image credit: Picjumbo
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Author bio

Linda KramerLinda Kramer is an English to Swedish translator specialized in marketing and e-commerce. In the past she has worked as a marketing coordinator and a project manager for online companies in the fashion industry. She has an M.A. in marketing from Växjö University. She is currently based in southern Sweden, but she has lived in both Irvine, California and Liverpool, UK. You can visit her website at: Twitter: @lindakkramer

My Transition from College to Professional Life: A whole new kind of juggling act

by Cynthia Eby

From College to Professional LifeJust a little under six months ago, on June 13 of this year, I graduated from college at Seattle Pacific University, with a major in Linguistics and Cultural Studies and a minor in Spanish. Over those months my life has changed in many ways, some of which were quite unexpected and difficult to handle.

Before graduation, I remember one conversation I had when I was chatting with the Area Coordinator for the campus apartments where I lived. As we talked, he compared life in college and after graduation to a juggling act. In college, he said, you’re juggling a whole bunch of tennis balls at the same time, but they’re small and light. After college you aren’t juggling as many items, but each one is bigger and heavier. I didn’t really think too much about that conversation until long afterward, but I remembered it recently and I think he may have had a point.

The specific items I’ve been juggling over the past few months have certainly changed, and in many ways that I had not predicted. The main change that I did expect was the change from school to work, although I didn’t expect it to be so hard or take so long to figure out. After I graduated and the insanity of college subsided, however, I was able to slow down and notice that there are other important juggling balls I need to pay attention to. These were almost counter-intuitive to the transition to work that I wanted to do after graduation: taking a break to just rest, and then dealing with some health issues that I had been ignoring for too long. But even though it was frustrating at times, I had to deal with them before I could even hope to begin working with a regular frequency.


The item I most expected to be thrown into my juggling routine, although it took the most time to materialize fully, was work. In July, I started working part-time for my mom, Helen Eby, as her administrative assistant. Although the other things I was juggling interfered significantly, I have worked for her at some level almost every month since then—gaining exposure to various things I could pursue further and being given time to think about what I really want to do. It’s a gift to be able to have this time with her as my boss, since dealing with my health would have made working for anyone else nearly impossible.


This item was thrown into the juggling mix in such a normal way that I didn’t really think about it much before or even during the process, but it was important nonetheless. I came home from college so exhausted that all I could do for the first few months was crash. I did some things in the meantime—reading, talking to friends, a little bit of work, trying to reorganize my room so that it felt like my own space again—but I mostly rested and recovered from the insanity of college life. However, because I had done this every summer after working my tail off during the school year, it just seemed like the natural thing to do at the time.


Finally, a much heavier item landed in my routine, pushing some of the smaller items I have not mentioned out of the way and even pushing work almost entirely out: treating health problems which I had ignored through most of college. I had known that they were there and had intended to deal with them after graduation, but I hadn’t realized how much they got in the way of my everyday life before I fixed them. Dealing with these issues took time and large amounts of patience. I waited months to have appointments with doctors and then to schedule tests afterwards—followed by a few more weeks of experimentation before we could get effective medication. Finally, as I grew most tired of waiting at the beginning of November, I finished with this process and had a system of medicines that worked.

What I Learned

By the end of November, my patience had worn thin as I continued to juggle these few—but heavy—items. I was frustrated that I had not been able to do as I wished and work steadily, especially as I watched some of my friends appear to be much more successful in their post-graduation lives. It was difficult to make myself take a step back some days, breathe, and remember that it doesn’t matter if this is normal, what matters is that I need it. And it must not be too uncommon, since student loans come with a six-month grace period—which I have needed—with no questions asked.

Taking a step back from the less immediately pressing item—work—for a few months does not mean that I am weak or incapable, I have learned, it means that I am strong enough to know what I need. It means that I will be more prepared to really step in and work more when I can. It’s not easy to take time to care for my health, but it is important to start my adult life on the most firm footing possible.

It’s the same way juggling physical objects: If you don’t start simply, adding just one tennis ball at a time, you’ll never be able to juggle five bowling pins with ease.

Header image credit: Stokpic
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The story of a U.S. Intern in France

By Kimberley Hunt

Paris stamp for Kim postI’m Kimberley, currently living in Paris as an intern at a translation agency. I’m also a French translation student at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. In Paris, I translate and proofread for the company’s finance division, which means I spend a lot of time reading annual reports and frantically searching glossaries for investment fund terminology with my colleagues. While translation remains my favorite task, it is always fascinating to proofread an excellent translator and see exactly how a tricky turn of phrase was expertly transformed into English.

My roommates, two other Middlebury Institute students, and I have a rule: speak only French. Why? Because at the moment, we are in France, and we can always speak English when we go back to the US. Speaking only French at home has quickly become second nature, and everyone at work is always surprised to learn that we really do speak French with each other. A scribbled list of new words and expressions is tacked up in the kitchen, covered in post-it notes. I do find it difficult to hold a breakfast conversation en français, sleepily sipping coffee and staring into my cereal bowl, but I’m a terrible early morning conversationalist in English, too.

Plus, speaking only French is a wonderful excuse to watch really terrible French reality TV for the sake of “language learning.” For one, we are instantly connected to French people discussing it on the metro, in cafés, and at dinner parties. Integrating into a foreign culture can be a tricky business, but it is made much simpler when I can chime in, “Did you see last night’s episode?” and poke fun at the contestants. We also learn myriads of new vocabulary, including words that don’t come up at work or in a language textbook, and some that maybe shouldn’t be repeated in polite company.

I could write an entire blog about French reality TV, but back to work, where our apartment rules no longer apply. At work, I never know what language I should be speaking. Sometimes I feel like I can’t speak any language anymore – French and English have both flown out the window and into the Seine and the only thing I have left is a whimsical mélange of invented words, ridiculous portmanteaux of French and English. I am constantly applying Helen Eby’s wisdom from her post a few months ago, especially given that once, I invented a fourteen-letter word in French during a sight translation class (récompensation, in case anyone’s curious).

I can say without a doubt that language switching is definitely heightened while working in France. As a member of the team that translates into English, so I speak English with my colleagues every day. This goes beyond shoptalk; we often play the game “Bizarre or British?” to determine whether a word is an unfamiliar but common British English term, or is it just a bad translation?

I am constantly going back and forth between French, American English and British English, and my brain is in overdrive to keep up. But unlike me, all the project managers at my company have no problem juggling many things at once. They are masters at their jobs, expertly balancing deadlines and clients and translators without breaking a sweat. I, however, sweat profusely.

Where I really panic is every time the phone rings at my desk at work. The phone ringing could mean a multitude of things, and all of them challenging.

  1. “For some reason, the translator couldn’t get Trados to work, so you can just figure that out for her, right? Perfect, thanks!” Cue the hour-long battle trying to generate target files and decode error messages written in part English, part French, part long strings of error codes that I Google desperately hoping to find a solution before the deadline.
  2. “The translator said whatever he had trouble understanding, he left in French and marked in red.” Naively, I open the document with optimism, only to be greeted with something far more similar to a Picasso painting—highlights in every color of the rainbow, formatting all over the place—than a translated document.
  3. “Do you have time to translate this teeny tiny text in the next twenty minutes? It’s only a few lines… and by a few I mean a few hundred…”

(Disclaimer: these three scenarios usually happen to me at least once a day, and sometimes all before lunch.)

While I am trying to understand the project manager’s requests and deciding how to respond, things only get worse when I answer in French and they respond in English with “Okay, thanks, bye!” It throws me for a loop every time. Once I spent five minutes trying to figure out why a project manager sent me a one word email— “Nice!” —Fancy city in the south of France? Subject of a new translation? Upcoming vacation destination? Or is that where I’m going to end up if I don’t meet this deadline? Doesn’t seem too terrible to me, unless he’s going to throw me in the Mediterranean… until I realize that he wrote to me in English. Whoops.

Working in an environment where language is fluid and always changing can be a challenge, but the linguistic gymnastics gives me an entirely new perspective on translation. Making judgment calls is much more natural because I make them all day, playing with both languages on an intrinsic level in everyday communication rather than just in translation.  But possibly the most important thing I’ve learned while my brain is humming away in both languages is that meaning and clarity can always be gleaned from even the most linguistically complicated, confusing beginning.

Feeling lazy? A sure-fire way not to get work

By Riccardo Schiaffino
Reblogged from About Translation blog with permission from the author

Feeling lazy? A sure-fire way not to get workNovice translators often get advice on how to get work and how to successfully conduct their freelance business. Several leading translators, in fact, have published books aimed at less experienced colleagues (among these books, I especially recommend those by Corinne McKay, the Jenner twins and Chris Durban).

However, what if you feel lazy, don’t really want to receive work, but, for some reason, you have to make a show of looking for it? Maybe your significant other has been nagging you to send your résumé to your prospects, and when you temporized by saying “I need to research them first”, she answered by providing you with a list of 7,600 translation agencies and a paid subscription to Payment Practices.

What then: Are you doomed to the drudgery of toil? Not to worry: Here you’ll find a 10-point proven strategy to make sure no translation company in their right mind will ever send projects your way (and it works for direct customers, too):

  1. Be full of it: Write a bombastic cover message for your résumé. Feel free to add implausible claims (“…I am a Vogon native speaker, but can also easily translate into Klingon, as I spent two weeks on vacation there once, and I specialize in all subjects…”). A patronizing and condescending tone is also very helpful in turning prospects away (“…as you should know, language translation is a profession only a selected few can undertake…”).
  2. Deliberately misspell your cover message, and add some egregious error of grammar, syntax, punctuation and usage (very effective, for instance, is to claim “I have challenges to provide high-quality service and meeting deadlines,” as in an application I received some time ago).

Bonus material: If you don’t know how to write a thoroughly off-putting cover message, take heart: Here is a real masterpiece I received (with a few details changed to protect the sender) that you can use as a template:

“Good morning!
I hereby request the following question, I saw this email and you were recruiting freelance translators, I wonder if that offer is still open?
I am a young Portuguese who have a graduation in Portuguese and Dutch by the faculty of letters of Coimbra. And for three years I teached English in Portugal. Over these three years, at home, I did a translation of various texts, literary and non-literary, for example: user guides , how to apply a product; how to put a machine to work in a factory; the warning letters and simple letters; poems; short stories; emails with requests; cookery recipes; medical prescription; college and University diplomas and etc.
I´m available and able to make in these three languages translation. I can also translate from Italian to Portuguese and Spanish to Portuguese, because I had a year of Italian and Spanish in University.
I am currently living in Burma.
My work as a translator will be done at home in the computer and then I send my translations through my email for your company.
If you are interested in my services as a freelance translator, could you tell me what email can I send my CV?
Please contact me at (address) for any further information.
Best regards,
Jane A. Translator”

  1. Don’t mention your language pair in the title of your message. Let your prospects guess.
  2. Don’t mention your language pair in the header of your résumé, either. If you really feel compelled to add it, the bottom of page three (possibly under “other information and personal interests”) should do nicely. If they finally get there, your prospects will be happy to discover you don’t translate in a language they are interested in.
  3. If you have worked as a translator in the past, do include every detail of all projects you ever did (in fact, list all language assignments you did since middle school, for good measure). Remember: Your goal is to bore your prospect, and a seven-page single-spaced résumé should easily do the trick.
  4. Wide margins and a legible layout are for chumps. Use the narrowest margins your word processor lets you get away with, don’t indent between paragraphs, and don’t use any font other than Arial Narrow (8 points maximum). If your prospects cannot read your résumé, they will not be tempted to hire you.
  5. If (as you should) you are writing your résumé in a language which is not your own, make sure not to have it revised by a native speaker: She could accidentally correct all the errors you have worked so hard to add.
  6. In the unfortunate case that a prospect, despite your efforts, answers your message and asks you to take a short translation test, be original: don’t just say you don’t do free tests (they might respect you for that), and certainly don’t accept to translate the test and do your best on it. Instead, accept the test, use Gurgle Translate, don’t spell-check, and send the test late (if they gave you a deadline), or not at all (if they didn’t).
  7. If you decide to take a test, ignore any instructions that come with it: following them would waste your time, and you might unfortunately find in them some suggestion of how your prospect would like you to proceed. You want to show you are an independent spirit, not someone who meekly accepts to do what he is tasked to do.
  8. And finally: Now that we live in a Web 2.0 world, with plenty of social media available to show what you really think to all and sundry, let your personality shine under your real name. Badmouth translation companies and belittle other translators on AmateurZ and BabbleBook. Suggest plenty of erroneous terms in online translation fora (in fact, suggest them in at least three different languages you don’t know). Display a righteous attitude (better yet, a paranoid one), and let everybody know that all translation companies (and all direct customers, for that matter), are out to get you to work for free, that all other translators are infinitely worse than you, that of course translators can and should translate from their second language into their third one, and that the sole reason for university translation departments the whole word over is to churn out plenty of lemmings ready to jump off a cliff and take all the work away from you.

P.S. This will be the subject for another article, but learn to be very rude on the phone, especially if some project manager calls you.

NOTE: This article, together with many others from several prominent translators, was written for Mox II: What they don’t tell you about translation, the new collection of Mox cartoons by Alejandro Moreno-Ramos. Mox II was published today: go and order it – it is the perfect gift for any translator.