Linguist in the Spotlight: An Interview with Maryam Abdi

In this second installment of our “Linguist in the Spotlight” interview series, Maryam Abdi, Somali-English translator and interpreter specializing in law, reminisces about how and why she ultimately chose a career in translation and interpreting (T&I) over law school, the elements of successful entrepreneurship for translators and interpreters, why she encourages new translators to think beyond their passions when it comes to specializing, and the pros and cons of working in a language of lesser diffusion.

Law-school hopeful turned translator-interpreter

In my third year of university, I interned at the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office and I found myself—like many aspiring lawyers—stuck doing clerical work. I wanted to get a “taste” of the legal profession before making the big investment of attending law school. I figured the best way to get my feet wet was to work as a court interpreter and legal translator. I had an excellent grasp of my language pairs (I grew up bicultural and bilingual) and proceeded to research how to become a freelance translator and interpreter. To launch my translation career, I applied to translation agencies while simultaneously working on my translation and interpreting skills.

After several months of experience, I enrolled in the California Court Interpreters Program to take the exam and get registered as a court interpreter. The learning curve was steep, since I was building my interpreting skills from scratch. It was challenging, but I loved the process every step of the way, because I was determined to succeed. After I graduated from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) with a year of interpreting and translation experience under my belt, I came to the decision to not go to law school. At the time, the market was flooded with new law school graduates, and jobs for attorneys were on the decline. There was high demand for my skills as a Somali translator and interpreter, and the outlook of employment in the translation industry was very promising.

Two passions are better than one, and recognition for her pro bono work as a translator-interpreter

In primary and secondary school, I would spend hours teaching myself languages. In university, I decided early on to pursue a career in law. What I love about working as a court interpreter and legal translator is being able to combine my two passions: law and languages. Besides the perks of being location independent, I find the most gratifying part of my work is helping Somali speakers navigate the legal system and exercise their civil rights. I’m passionate about language access for persons with limited English proficiency. Since 2009, I’ve been volunteering my interpreting and translation services to pro bono attorneys representing victims of human rights abuses. One of my proudest moments was being awarded The State Bar of California Wiley W. Manuel Certificate for Pro Bono Legal Services for my interpreting and translation volunteer work. In one year, I volunteered over 100 hours in my spare time while running a full-time translation practice.

In hindsight, the importance of entrepreneurial skills for translators and interpreters

Instead of trying to figure things out on my own, I wish I would’ve reached out to more freelance translators in the beginning to learn from their experiences. Some of the biggest challenges I dealt with early on stemmed from my lack of entrepreneurial skills. Universities prepare students to become employees and don’t teach the skills necessary to run a business. The number of freelancers, contractors and temp workers is on the rise worldwide. According to the personal finance company Intuit, by 2020 more than 60 million members of the US workforce alone will be contingent workers; full-time jobs are on the decline. Translators who strive for success and longevity in their careers must aim for mastery in their profession and learn to negotiate, build a network, sell, and effectively communicate with clients.

Advice on how to avoid pitfalls in one’s early career and choose a specialization—wisely

Besides working on the mastery of translation and interpreting skills (which is a lifelong pursuit), my tip to newbies is to carve out a lucrative niche for themselves so they can find quality clients. On average, a lot of new translators spend too much time tweaking their website, designing business cards and agonizing over their rates; these are all important components of running a successful translation business, but they aren’t what should be focused on initially.

Instead, translators and interpreters should test their specialization to see if there’s sufficient demand for their language pairs in their specialization. This requires them to “listen to the market” by talking to others with the same language pairs, project managers or potential clients in order to gauge demand. Choosing a specialization haphazardly by following a passion is how many translators find themselves struggling to find clients. It’s difficult to create demand. Strategically selecting an area of expertise takes more work up front, but helps many translators avoid “dead-end” specializations and clients that don’t have the ability or the desire to pay for quality translation services.

The challenges and rewards of working in a language of lesser diffusion, and the growing competitiveness in T&I

I work in a niche language. Unlike widely spoken languages, there are limited resources available in the Somali language. For example, most of the dictionaries are outdated and haven’t kept up with modern Somali. This poses a challenge for many Somali interpreters and translators who want to improve their language skills. In the beginning of my career, I tried to enroll in interpreting and translation certificate programs, but realized they were all created for more prominent languages. I also noticed there was a limited number of online and offline courses available to translators and interpreters of languages of lesser diffusion. Although this may appear to be a disadvantage, working in a less common language has helped me think outside of the box when it comes to maintaining my interpreting and translation skills.

Over the years, I’ve created a number of glossaries for my specialization that I’ve shared with other Somali interpreters and translators. Creating glossaries and reference guides has significantly boosted my translation and interpreting skills. Collaborating and consulting with other Somali translators in my specialization and having my work reviewed by colleagues has also been tremendously helpful in refining my professional language skills.

I also try to learn from other industries as much as possible, especially from my target market. I do this by taking continuing legal education workshops, which have dramatically improved my background knowledge in my niche. The barrier to entry in the translation industry is low, and the profession is only going to get more and more competitive in the near future. I have found that high-value clients want to work with translators and interpreters who are experts in their industries. Simply being “good enough” as an interpreter or translator isn’t sufficient to break into the premium market. By taking continuing education courses created for my target market, I’ve not only positioned myself as an expert in my specialization, but I’ve improved my professional language skills.

Maryam Abdi is a registered Somali court interpreter and the owner of Expert Somali Translations, a boutique firm offering Somali > English translations and cultural consulting services to legal and government sectors. Maryam holds a bachelor’s degree in political science/international relations from the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). She is a recipient of the State Bar of California’s Wiley M. Manuel Award for Pro Bono Legal Services, for her volunteer work as an interpreter and translator for victims of human-rights abuses.

Linguist in the Spotlight: An Interview with Rosario Charo Welle

There is much to be learned from our colleagues, but it can be intimidating to strike up a conversation with the “pros.” For that reason, we at Savvy have done the work for you and are excited to announce our new interview series, “Linguist in the Spotlight,” where we pick the brains of experienced translators and interpreters and bring their stories right to your screen. We hope their stories and sound advice will inspire you and perhaps even encourage you to ditch the fear of introducing yourself at an upcoming event.

We kick off the series with an interview with Rosario Charo Welle, ATA Spanish Division Administrator and English-Spanish translator with more than 20 years of experience translating in the fields of education, marketing, public media and communications, and health care. Charo shares the story of how she pursued a career in translation despite (and in some cases, thanks to) some of life’s greatest obstacles; her favorite tool for reviewing her own work (you might be surprised!); her favorite project to date; and one thing she wishes she had known 25 years ago.

A serendipitous start: From a personal loss and an intercontinental move to future gains

What got me started in Translation and Interpreting (T&I) was my exposure to foreign languages and becoming bilingual while living in my native Dominican Republic. While I was in high school, I studied English as a second language at UNAPEC Academy of English. I remember how the passion for languages sparked as I found myself excelling at my English lessons. After high school, I pursued a degree in Modern Languages at the Universidad Tecnológica de Santiago. Two years later, a sudden personal loss forced me to put my career on hold. Meanwhile, I worked for an NGO where my duties included translating environmental documents. It was then that I fell in love with the intellectual challenge of taking a Spanish text and going through the process of conveying its meaning in English.

Hence, in 1993, I started my first translation business in partnership with my sister, who was also bilingual. However, we dissolved the business that same year, this time due to happier circumstances that brought me to the United States. In 2000, after a seven-year hiatus, I resumed my translation calling and accepted a job as the in-house translator for my local school district. There, I worked as a translator, community interpreter, and cultural liaison. I served as an interpreter trainer for the district’s Special Education department, and set the district’s standards and guidelines for translation, which included creating formal glossaries. I learned the ropes of translating and interpreting in the areas of education, communications, and marketing. Eight years later, I felt ready to become a freelancer again, and began translating for direct clients and collaborating with colleagues. From 2008 to 2012, I was a part of the language access department of Children’s Medical Center Dallas. I worked for them on an hourly basis and gained valuable experience through the translation, editing, and proofreading of health-care documents used primarily for patient education.

On her favorite project, and the underestimated challenges of translating for education

One advantage of specialization is that it gives translators and interpreters the freedom to choose projects they find meaningful. I am fortunate to work in fields oriented toward nurturing, empowering, informing, educating, and caring for audiences of all ages and backgrounds. Therefore, I have participated in many meaningful projects. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be the Sesame Workshop’s Little Children Big Challenges Community Guide. It gives me great satisfaction and a sense of pride to have contributed as a Spanish proofreader to the production of a resource that has reached and impacted a large segment of the communities in the United States.

Translators and interpreters working in education and community relations understand that, while texts in these fields may seem simple to an outsider, many are complex and challenging. That is, rendering the intended meaning within the appropriate context for the receiving audience is an involved process that entails a thorough understanding of and insight into the subtle differences between the source and target languages and cultures. This particular experience was rewarding in several aspects, including the opportunity to work on a diverse team of recognized professionals for a widely renowned nonprofit organization.

What keeps her invested, a common misconception, and the successful translator’s nature

My favorite aspect of translation is the intellectual and creative challenge of transforming the source text into meaning for the audience that will receive my translation. This leads me to touch on the common misconception that if one is bilingual or a polyglot, then one can automatically become a translator. This is far from the truth, since, in addition to the ability to speak more than one language proficiently, there are other attributes that, I dare say, should be second nature when performing our jobs. These include curiosity, perspective, creativity, critical thinking, research skills, and a passion for learning and for other cultures, to name a few. The combination of these elements facilitates the translated message in such a way that the author and the reader become inevitably engaged in the dialogue. Consequently, in my process, I involve analysis, research, critical thinking, creativity, and ethics to convey meaning accurately and without bias.

One of her favorite tools for reviewing translations

Translators and interpreters of the 21st century enjoy many advantages, thanks to the Digital Age. We can utilize software and applications that make us more productive and marketable. There are some that have become almost indispensable for my day-to-day work and help me deliver quality and accuracy. One of my favorites is the ReadAloud text-to-speech tool, which allows me to implement excellent quality control when editing and proofreading. Particularly when it comes to large volume of words, this app (which is compatible with Windows 10) relieves the tediousness of reading nonstop. For instance, it reads my English content to me aloud while I carefully and simultaneously read the Spanish translation in search of omissions, typos, redundancies, and conceptual and syntactical inconsistencies. I especially like that it reads the content directly from my clipboard without the need to paste it into the application. This app is functional and essential.

Advice for new translators, and her plans for the future

What I wish I had known when I started out (besides having the same level of proficiency in my two working languages), is that it was fundamental to invest time and effort from the very beginning in formal training. Whether it is majoring in T&I, completing a certificate of studies in T&I, or becoming certified, anyone who wants to start in the industry should consider seeking venues to acquire professional training. After I was already working as a translator in the United States, I realized the need to formalize my skills if I wanted to brand myself as a professional. I found the American Translators Association and its Spanish Language Division, whose many mentors led me to local T&I trainings and the translation program at New York University. Investing my time in formal training has made a big difference in my career. And, as a lifelong learner, I am already planning to pursue a graduate program that will further enhance my translation skills.

Image credit: Pixabay

Rosario Charo Welle is a freelance Spanish-English translator and editor, serving direct clients and partnering with colleagues. For the past 17 years, her working expertise has been concentrated in the fields of education (Pre-K-12), public media and communications, marketing, and health care.

A member of ATA since 2001, she is the current Administrator of its Spanish Language Division (SPD) and leader of its Leadership Council and committees. Charo graduated magna cum laude with a BA in Communications from the University of Denver and holds a Certificate in Translation Studies from New York University. Email: charowelle@veraswords.com.