10 Core Principles to Build a Lasting Translation Career

So, you’ve decided to become a translator. Congratulations — it is the best job in the world! It lets you learn new things every day. It gives you the power to connect worlds with words. And, last but not least, a translation career pays back well if you build it right. Now, how do you build it right?

Building Your Translation Career

Before you are off to writing a shiny résumé and signing up with all the job fairs out there, take a moment to think. Do you want to build a house from its roof? If you don’t, find some time to read through this list. It won’t give you precise blueprints to build a translation career. But it will show where to drive the piles so that it lasts and brings you joy for years to come.

1 — Find what you know about

Customers usually have a large pool of translators to choose from. The best way to stand out among dozens peers with greater experience and stronger credentials is by being good in the domain that you’re translating in. Over time you will learn many new fields, but for now it’s better to concentrate on what you are already knowledgeable of.

It doesn’t matter if you are a retired insurance broker or a freshman college student. We all have something we know better than 90% of our friends — whether it’s computing, bird watching, or warp knitting. Focus on this something and keep it in mind as “Stuff I Know” — it will bring you the most dividends early in your translation career.

2 — Find what you care about

The second most important thing to know (which will ultimately become the most important one) is what you are passionate about. You may have spent your whole life fixing other people’s broken laptops, but your real passion might still be kitesurfing, online gaming — or warp knitting.

Keep that in mind as “Stuff I Love.” You’ll need it more and more as you progress, for you won’t be able to spend your whole translation career translating things that don’t resonate with you. Granted, even our most-loved topic become tiresome when dealt with in a “deadline’s yesterday” mode. But deadlines pass; passions stay.

3 — Measure your speed

As Gert Van Assche has aptly put it, “the time you spend on a job is the only thing you need to measure.” To be able to predict this time, you need to know how fast you actually are. So spend some time (the more the better) measuring your actual results. You can use SmartCAT to count the words and Toggl to measure the time.

Repeat multiple times, with texts of various length and nature. If you end up in the ballpark of 500 source words per hour, you have a good start. If it’s higher than that, good for you — though it might make sense to slow it down a bit to concentrate on quality. If it’s lower, don’t be upset — the figures will improve as your translation career develops.

4 — Find out your “fair” rate

Taking your speed as an input, you can now determine a rate that you want to have. Now, it won’t be the one you will have right away, for the market plays against newcomers. But knowing it will set the right landmark to aim for, and, with enough persuasion and “thought materialization,” you can reach it in a couple of years.

Another two inputs you will need is how much you want to earn and work per month. I have a separate article on determining your “fair” rate, so I won’t put detailed explanations here. I’ll just share the screenshot of the “rate cheatsheet” and reiterate the importance of knowing this fair rate, however far it is from the real one:

The Rate Cheatsheet

5 — Be willing to invest in experience

You will have to “make concessions” in the beginning of your translation career. Customers will unlikely want to pay you the same money they do to your more experienced colleagues, even if they are less talented than you. So you may have to spend some time digging the ground before you reach gold.

I urge you not to think of this situation as demeaning or unfair. Instead, think of it as an investment. You are converting your labor into experience, which is the best investment at this stage. Once you are big and established (whatever that means), you will have much less chances and desire to experiment, so use this opportunity while you are still green.

6 — Get along with technology

Another way of minimizing your prices while keeping the hourly rate high enough is to take advantage of available technology. More mature translators are sometimes reluctant to use “all these bells and whistles.” They believe that their customers are paying them for quality not speed, so they can afford using antique word processors and paper dictionaries. You can’t.

Luckily, there is a lot of modern tools that are easy and free to use. From dictionaries to CAT tools to CRM systems (yes, dealing with customers is also part of being a translator), almost everything is available online and within arm’s reach. For starters you can refer to a list I compiled some time ago. As your translation career unfolds, you will gather your own “tech stack.” 

By the way, if you are reading this prior to Aug 7, 2016, you can sign up for our upcoming webinar called “CATs 101: A Very Basic Introduction to Computer-Aided Translation.” It will bring home to you the most important terms and concepts of present-day translation technology.

7 — Get feedback that matters

Let’s make it clear: customer feedback is overrated. Giving a fair rating of a translation requires at least being proficient in both languages of a given pair (note the emphases). Most of customers aren’t, and this might partially be the reason why a good translator is so hard to find (but that’s another story).

Still, there is one kind of feedback that really matters. This is feedback from your more experienced colleagues — translators and editors — people who know what good translation is. With enough persuasion you can even have them share this knowledge with you. Or you can just spend some $10 to have them edit a short fragment of your translation every now and then — this investment will pay back, too.

8 — See the human on the other side

There is one amazing fact that many translators forget about: Customers, too, are humans. Project managers are humans. Hell, even the “finance guys” who hold back your payments are usually humans, with their own weekend barbecues and warp-knittings.

In an age where the word “technology” is often used as an euphemism for “depersonalization,” this truth is easy to miss. When “Customer #29823” is talking to “Translator #64769,” it’s hard for both to see a human, not a chatbot, on the other side.

Still, straining one’s mind to remember it is absolutely worth the effort. Start talking to people as if they were just as human as you — which they are. You’ll instantly see a surge of customers returning to you and recommending you to others. Why? They want to deal with a human, too!

9 — Never stop learning having fun

I challenge you to never stop enjoying what you do. Granted, there will be dark stripes and dead seasons when you will pounce on any job. But, in the long run, if you feel that the work is taking its toll on you, you must be doing something wrong. It might be that you have forgotten the Stuff You Love. Or perhaps you simply need a short break. Or maybe — just maybe — translating isn’t what you should be doing in the first place?

A translation career is not everyone’s dream. Juggling words and meanings across languages is a craft that can almost literally drain your brain. It engages so much of your mind’s powers that continuously doing it for more than four hours a day can compromise your mental health. It is also underrated and under-recognized by the “industry” built around it.

And still, for someone who is a translator at heart, it pays back by giving a feeling that only a translator can understand. The feeling of creating water in stone, stone in bronze, or bronze in paper. The feeling of joining the unjoinable and combining the uncombinable. The feeling of opening the world to people who would have never seen it otherwise — bit by bit, brick by brick, word by word.

Will this feeling outbalance the chores and hurts a translation career brings? Only you can answer.

If the answer is “Yes”, my last piece of advice is to

10 — Translate!

Yes, no previous recommendation is as valuable as this one. I will even go as far as saying that you can forget the other nine if you internalize this one.

Translate each day, every day. Translate in trains and weekend getaways. Translate whatever you have at hand: a customer order, a book you’re reading, nutrition facts on a baby formula.

There will be good days with words flowing like water and bad days with each letter weighing a ton. But if you are consistent and persistent in your quest to become a translator, you will lift them all. You will carry them over across professional and language barriers and turn them into something this world has never seen.

Don’t look for excuses, look for new material.

Now that you have the foundation right, it’s about time to lay some bricks.

So what are you waiting for? Start building!


About the author

Vladimir "Vova" Zakharov
Hi, I’m Vladimir “Vova” Zakharov, the Head of Community at SmartCAT.

Translation is my profession and my passion, and I’m excited to be able to share it with the amazing SmartCAT community!

Questions? Suggestions? Our community forum is at your service!

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