Lesson 36: What does it mean to be a successful translator?

Lesson 36: What does it mean to be a successful translator?

We had a lovely meeting with translation and interpreting colleagues in London yesterday. It was 15 of us, all coming from different backgrounds and doing different languages. Meeting so many happy and satisfied colleagues left me really warm-hearted and made me think with a lot of optimism about the profession.

It also made me think: what does it mean to be a successful translator? How do we measure and define our success?

Perhaps it is easier to measure professional success in other domains. Imagine a successful lawyer, or a doctor, or a business person, and you have a clear image of their lives. The definition of their success is clear. But I know a number of successful translators, and their success looks completely different from one person to another.

What is it then that makes someone a successful translator? What do we take into account when we talk about success, and how do we measure it?

1. Money

Money is important when talking about professional success. But I find it hard to determine the scale. Someone could work too long hours and make decent money – is that still a success? Or is there a certain cut-off point of income that helps us determine if someone is successful or not? Or should it rather be our per word/hourly rate? And how much money should we make to be successful compared to other professions?

2. Time

If we were considering time as one of the factors of success, what would we consider successful then? I’m not hiding the fact that I love my profession and I don’t mind committing and dedicating a lot of my time to work. My work is my passion and my life, and I end up working on Sundays, like today. But I know colleagues who decided that they will work only 8 hours a day and have weekends off – and they are still successful.

3. Types of texts

Maybe it is about what do we translate and interpret? If we get texts we like, we are successful then? But then, from time to time we all get our hands on texts we’d rather leave and we still do it. What if the ability to translate less exciting texts is one of the ingredients of success?

4. Recognition

Someone may suggest that recognition and approval among colleagues is the measure of success. Is it really? Is recognition necessary to deem someone successful? I think it’s the other way round: recognition comes after success.

5. Self-perception

This point is the most troublesome for me, and crucial to our profession. I know many translators who are simply miserable in their professional lives, complaining about poor rates, long hours, no weekends, and little respect from clients. This is the opposite of success.

It seems to me that success in translation depends on mind-set. Problems like market saturation, low rates, long payment terms, and astonishing discounts for repetitions are obstacles, but not excuses. It is always down to us whether we think of ourselves as successful translators and we do all we can to get there, or we just stand by and watch rates drop. Money, time, types of texts and recognition may help to measure one’s success from the outside. But I strongly believe they all are just effects of our success-thinking.

Now question over to you: What does it mean to be a successful translator to you?


  1. Jan Snauwaert , on Jul 1, 2012 at 13:30 Reply

    Success is indeed different for one person compared to another. Not so long ago, success was synonymous with financial success. Fortunately, many people have become smarter since then. This blog illustrates very well that success is indeed a lot more complex and depends on a number of parameters. Spontaneously, I agree with most that is said here, although I wouldn’t classify “type of texts” among success factors. But it’s true that a (freelance) translator should strive to get the majority of his texts as belonging to a type he/she prefers. This can mainly be done by making a good choice of one’s specialty domains as a translator. Of course, money and time continue to play a predominant role. Self-esteem also, of course, and also recognition which is intimately related to the money factor. All in all, I retain those 4 elements (time, money, recognition, self-esteem). Personally, I would add ‘freedom’, mainly freedom of choice (choice of client, type of text to some extent).

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 29, 2012 at 22:17 Reply

      Dear Jan,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. Now that I’m thinking about that, freedom seems to be a very relevant factor, indeed. I experienced a bit of it during my holidays, but that’s the topic for an upcoming post!


  2. Aldana Michelino , on Jul 1, 2012 at 15:52 Reply

    I agree with most that is said here. I guess that, it was presented up to now, sucess not only comes to making good money. I believe that one is sucessful when one does what one loves. Take for instance the case of novel translators. It may take some time to start receiving a constant workflow but meanwhile one has to be strong enough to feel sucessful because things are not easy when you begin walking this path. I guess that happiness is made out of little things, and those little things you achieve gradually as a professional will eventually shape your future idea of sucess.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 29, 2012 at 22:15 Reply

      Dear Aldana,

      Thank you very much for your comment. I like your idea of little things and growing to recognise our own ideas of success. I think you got it right: it’s our own idea of success that we need to have to make us successful, rather than trying to fit to generally accepted definitions of success.


  3. Carolyn Yohn , on Jul 2, 2012 at 02:05 Reply

    What an interesting question! I agree that success can mean different things to different people. Myself, I find success in my ability to perform my job as a translator. In other words, growth makes me feel successful. Satisfied clients also make me feel successful.

    I suppose those are the two reasons I translate in the first place! Personal growth and the desire to help people using my knack for language. Neither of these seem to be on your list yet (though maybe client satisfaction is a form of recognition?). Thanks for the food for thought!

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 29, 2012 at 22:13 Reply

      Dear Carolyn,

      I agree that client satisfaction is a relevant factor of success. I experienced it a few weeks ago, just before my holidays. One of my interpreting clients was very grateful and said: “one of the best interpreters I ever had”, making me feel very happy and fulfilled. And of course the aspect of helping others matters as well!


  4. Juliette S. , on Jul 11, 2012 at 15:09 Reply

    This is an excellent, really thoughtful and thought-provoking post Marta. Thank you!

    Probably is transferable to other professions too, especially those working freelance.

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 29, 2012 at 22:11 Reply

      Thanks for your comment, Juliette, and I’m glad you found it useful!

  5. Louise Péron , on Jul 13, 2012 at 09:26 Reply

    Thanks for this great post, Marta. Success is indeed hard to measure in our profession.

    I think that money can be a deceiving factor, as some translators do make a good living but sacrifice their social life or even their health to cram in lots of work in their week.

    So I think that the money/time ratio is a better indicator of success, i.e. getting paid good money without working oneself to death.

    And I agree with Jan’s idea above: freedom is such a great indicator of success. Being free to chose your projects out of personal interest, to chose your workhours (if your family life allows you), to decide to take the day off to fullfill your side projects…
    To me, this is the ultimate goal to a successful freelance carrier!


    • Marta , on Jul 29, 2012 at 22:10 Reply

      Dear Louise,

      Thank you very much for your comment! I agree that money/time ratio is a quite good indication. Also, earning to pay for everything you want and need is cool as well 🙂

      Freedom is wonderful, and I’m still trying to get there.


  6. Jan Snauwaert , on Jul 26, 2012 at 10:34 Reply

    And the rest is silence … Very quiet here since quite some time. What is happening?

    • Marta Stelmaszak , on Jul 28, 2012 at 13:09 Reply

      Dear Jan,

      I just came back from a rather long holiday today. Will be back on shortly!


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