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Lesson 139: What can a professional translator learn from translation students?

If you think that I nearly became a teacher, some of the elements of my career may make more sense. I present or blog because there must be a bit of a teacher in me. This is also the reason why I called my blog and course the Business School for Translators. So when a couple of years ago I was offered the opportunity to teach a handful of translation and interpreting students, it was a challenge I definitely saw myself stepping up to. With my background as a professional, I also believed I could bring the much sought-after practical insights into the profession to the classroom. Of course I knew I would learn a lot myself in the process, but reflecting on this experience a few days ago, I was surprised by how much a professional translator can learn from teaching the craft to others.

Teaching just an odd hour or two on average, I had to rejig my professional life quite a lot. First of all, committing to being in one place at the same time every week, even if only in the late afternoon, turned out to be quite a challenge for a freelancer. Second, I got to experience the dreaded commute. And of course, I was faced with the amount of admin work that my freelance experience can’t really compare to. So what did I learn?

1. Translation is a rational decision-making process

And if it isn’t for you yet, teaching will force you to be much more organised and thorough in your processes. You know, telling your students “it has to be this solution because it just sounds better” doesn’t quite cut it. Time and time again, I had to justify my decisions and rationalise my choices. And believe me, it’s useful, only if to coherently explain to clients why this way of translating is better than what their internal editor suggested.

2. Translation research is useful

Not that I didn’t know that before, having done my BA in translation, but revisiting translation theories and progress in translation research now, with a bit of experience under my belt, I appreciated the academic side of our profession even more. Reading academic articles may not be your favourite, but there’s actually a fair bit of insights and solutions to a range of problems that the academics have looked at. While this won’t eradicate the divide between the academia and industry, I can heartily recommend looking into academic publications on translation and interpreting.

3. Success in translation is ultimately about the skill

Students like asking what to do to be successful. I thought to myself that if I ever get asked this question, I have a wealth of resources to point students to, and that I know which skills to emphasise. But when it got to it, I surprised myself a bit telling my students that to be a successful translator or interpreter they have to practise at least 250 words, a 5-minute speech, even 20-30 minutes a day. This is an important lesson for professional translators as well. It’s easy to think that we all need to spice up our websites, get better at business skills, or go to a yet another conference. Truth be told, honing our core skills should always come first.

4. Despite what they say, translation is alive and kicking

Professional translators seem to be often surrounded by gloomy ideas about the future of the profession and prophecies of impending doom. If you hear it one time too many, you may just start believing it. There’s no better antidote than being around a group of translation or interpreting students. They’re enthusiastic, gifted, passionate. They find jobs, they get their careers off the ground, they carve their niches, as if the translation industry was far from extinction. Perhaps this unspoiled attitude is also something professional translators could take away and adopt.

5. Professional translators have more responsibility than they think

Perhaps the most important conclusion from my teaching experience is that professional translators hold a lot of responsibility over the profession as a whole. Students’ experiences are shaped by encounters with professionalism and skill. It’s not only about meeting and greeting them at professional events or sharing tips, but also displaying excellent quality of work. Showing your own work to anyone may make you feel exposed and examined, and this also holds true when you present your own translations or interpreting skills to a group of ever-questioning students. It’s a lot of responsibility, but it also makes you look at your own work with a more critical eye.

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying that those who can, do, those who can’t, teach. Give teaching – in any form – a try, and you’ll be surprised how much you can learn. I’d like to think that perhaps those who can, do, those who can’t teach, find it harder to do.

Anything you’ve learned while trying to explain translation?

Lesson 138: A letter to my younger self as a translator

I recently gave a talk at my Alma Mater to a group of translation students. Seeing my lecturers, the building I knew so well, hearing questions I swear I had when I was on the other side… All this made me reflect and go back in time to the days when I was a student. I put all these thoughts together in a letter to my younger self as a translator. This is what I’d say to myself. What would you want your younger translator self to know?


Dear Marta,

Thank you so much for your message. It’s wonderful to see a young and dedicated student working hard with the aim of ultimately entering and succeeding in the translation and interpreting profession.

You asked me for some advice and I’m glad to share my experience. I think it’s great that you approached a more established translator for their insights – we all benefit from learning from our peers and those with more experience. Thanks for also outlining your background, as that makes it much easier for me to respond. Now to get to your main question: “Which things do I wish I knew or did back when I was starting my career?”

First, I wish I had translated more from day one. I read somewhere that if you are a writer you write, and I think the same applies to translation. You are a translator if you translate, and I wish I was stubborn and persistent enough to translate a short text, any text, of around 200 to 300 hundred words, every day, even at the start. This is an excellent exercise that grants you experience and exposure to a variety of texts, while also helping to improve your confidence. Better still, I’d have tried to find people to join me in this, and regularly meet up to discuss our respective translations and opinion of the text. Not only is this fun (I chose translation for a reason – I do enjoy it!), but it helps to establish good practices and improve your skills, even before you’ve “gone professional”.

Second, and somewhat related, remember that you should be striving to get better every day, with every job. Don’t settle once you’ve finished your degree and think that’s it, and you don’t need to keep working on your skills. Quite the contrary, you should be working more and more to get better over time. This is necessary if you want to move upmarket.

There is no course, no webinar, no book, no professional association, and certainly no Facebook group that will turn you into an established translator overnight. No level of business or marketing expertise can ever make up for deficiencies in core skills. By all means, work on getting better at the business side of things, but never ever stop working on becoming a better translator.

The other thing I wish I’d known from the very beginning is the value of my work as a translator. You will get belittled by big business people, you will be asked to work at borderline offensive rates, and you will see surprised faces when you say that yes, you entered this profession intentionally and it wasn’t an unfortunate accident. Don’t let any of this affect you in any way other than making you stronger and more determined. Translation plays an important role in the world of business and it’s up to all of us to make this clear – to ourselves, our clients, and the economy at large.

Don’t be afraid if you are not a perfect fit to the “ideal” profile of a translator, if there is such a thing. Make the most out of your passions and talents, and if you have a related skill and are in a position to offer this service professionally to your clients, go out there and see if there are any potential clients looking for this service combined with translation. Don’t feel that there is a rigid job description that you have to fit. There isn’t one, and this is part of the beauty of this profession… But at the same time, don’t ever promise you can do something that you can’t, and don’t ever stop asking for feedback. Accept your limitations, admit mistakes, and most of all – keep learning.

One thing I acknowledged from the very beginning was that it is hard work starting out and getting established. But it’s a different kind of hard work to the work we did at university, or in any standard 9-5 position. There are no grades, no promotions, and (usually!) no bonuses if you do a good job. You work very hard and your reward is your freedom. First, the freedom to leave commuting and the office environment behind. Then, the freedom to travel and live wherever you like. And the more established you get, the more time you win back, having freedom to do what and when you choose. But yes, you have to put the work in.

Finally, listen to your colleagues, but listen to your clients even more. They’re the ultimate indicator of how good you are – or not – and whether your educational efforts, marketing, branding, website, attitude and so on are really working for you.

I hope you’ll find this feedback useful, and good luck! This is an exciting time to enter the translation and interpreting industry. I wish you all the best – and let me know how you get on!



Thank you to Rose Newell for the brainstorming session.

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