Growing as a translator
This series might have finished where I left it, with me becoming a translator after having the good fortune to receive encouragement, help and advice from the interpreter and translator Pat Bones, who I met by chance while working on writing educational materials. But over the last few weeks I’ve realised that I’d left a whole chapter of the story untold: the tale of a change in my attitude that has brought me to where I am today. So this post is an attempt to fill that gap.
Various people I met at METM14 a couple of weeks ago reacted with surprise when I told them it was the first conference I had attended. I suppose it was only to be expected. A translator of my age might have been expected to be a conference regular. But the truth is that when I started I didn’t even know such things existed. For the first few years I was amazed that it was possible to have a job that would give me absolute freedom while still earning me enough money to pay a mortgage. I don’t know how good my translations were then, and I suppose my rates were low compared with many other professionals, but the living I could earn was still far better than I’d been managing from teaching English. Soon my wife and I were able to buy our own flat, something that had seemed an impossible dream before.
I had certain advantages which made me a good enough translator for customers to keep coming back. My experience in journalism meant I could at least write reasonably well in my own language, something I sincerely believe is equally important for translators as a command of the foreign language they are translating from. As I mentioned in last week’s post on productivity, I am also a fast typist, which meant I could work quickly, and a final hangover from journalism was my absolute respect for deadlines, an aspect that is equally important in the translation industry as it is in newspapers. Finally, I was quick to catch on to the potential of the Internet for research, improving my search techniques all the time.
Probably the first turning point was buying my first CAT tool, which I did in about 2004. This was Déjà Vu and it allowed me to produce better translations faster. I continued with it for about seven years, before switching to MemoQ in 2011. The real significance of Déjà Vu was that it was my first real investment in improving my business, beyond the absolute basic tool of a computer. Now I was consciously trying to do things better, but I was still working in a bubble of my own, with little contact with other translators and little access to ideas and tips that might help me improve.
Despite membership of one or two mailing lists, which I largely saw as ways of getting help with terminology, that isolation didn’t really begin to change until 2010, when I was invited to a meeting of translators and editors working for the University of Barcelona. I went in the hope of securing a new customer I’d worked for just a couple of times, but the meeting itself was something of a red herring because, as it turned out, I’d been invited along only to make up the numbers and the language service had already decided it preferred another style of translator. However, one of the speakers there gave a talk on the many uses of Gmail and from it I picked up some of the most useful organisational tips I’d ever had. Although I now use a Gmail address with my own domain, I still work through g-mail, especially using the function that turns e-mails into tasks, with which I can create a quick, useful to-do list and keep track of the work I have accepted and the deadlines. I had begun to see that there were things to be learned from looking into the outside world.
I’d never joined a translators’ association before, but soon after this I decided to become a member of APTIC, the Association of Professional Translators and Translators of Catalonia. I think I hoped membership would add a little weight and credibility to my CV. What I hadn’t reckoned with was that it would be such a good source of contacts and training. From my membership of APTIC, apart from the right to go to their excellent Christmas parties, have come some extremely good customers and referrers, some very interesting work and, most importantly for this story, a one-day marketing course that really got me thinking. The website you are looking at now is a direct result of it, although it took me some time to get that far.
The final piece of the jigsaw that set me off to reaching where I am today came when my journalist wife was under threat of losing her job. When this happened, I started thinking about what we might do together if she did lose it – a business in which translation might have been just one component. But I soon realised something very important: not everyone is cut out for the adventure of freelancing or self-employment. Instead of being pleased and excited at the plans I was making on her behalf, she was horrified. She simply didn’t want to go into business with me. It was a hard lesson. For a time I felt hurt and rejected, but then I realised that in fact I’d been freed. I’d put on hold most of the lessons I’d learned on the marketing course because I was waiting to see whether I’d soon have to launch a whole new business. Now I could go ahead with all of them.
And that’s exactly what I did. I wanted business cards, a website and other promotional materials. Which was when I realised that, in this new world I was entering, not everything could be done at once. I had to plan a strategy and do everything step by step. First, a logo, because without that none of the other things I wanted were possible. Then the business cards, then the website, which puts me in a position to launch campaigns to seek customers who are prepared to pay more for their translations. All of it has taken time and effort, which was another reason for planning and prioritising. In fact, I’m still working through my plans. I doubt I’ll ever get to the end of the list, because I keep adding to it, but I now have the items on it classified as immediate, short, medium and long-term. I try to get through at least one task every week and be satisfied with that. Keeping moving – making a little constant progress – is the most important thing.
There was one element of my plan that stood out as important to me. I’d come to realise that, although I’d done well as a self-taught translator, I could only go so far without any language-based qualification. Certain potential customers would never take me seriously if I told them my degree was in history and I’d simply learned two of my working languages simply by living in the country where they are spoken. I looked around and found that the Chartered Institute of Linguists in London ran a widely respected examination called the Diploma in Translation and that International House in Barcelona ran a course to prepare for it, and I decided to put myself in for an exam for the first time since I qualified as a journalist in 1986. Once again, it was a step-by-step process, as it is only possible to take the exam once a year. It was also a considerably financial investment, but earlier this year I sat the DipTrans and passed, with two merits and a distinction in the three papers. I was finally a qualified translator.
Am I a better translator for all this training and marketing effort? It’s hard to say. If the question was whether I could have gone on doing a decent job without any of it, the truth is I probably could. But now I feel much more confident and professional and that’s going to help me stay away from the bottom end of the market, where I’m convinced it’s going to become increasingly difficult to make a living. I’ve met a lot of people and made many useful contacts, which has brought me all kinds of work. And now I’m a member of the CIoL too, and that’s also starting to bring me work too. Now my attention’s turning to ways of marketing myself in my specialist areas and looking for training in the areas where I feel my knowledge needs strengthening. The whole process has been, and is, an organic one. I’ve moved forward naturally, as I’ve felt the need to do so, and I think that’s important in a world so full of generally well-intentioned but sometimes confusing advice. If there’s anyhing I would tell any less experienced translator, it wouldn’t be to do this course or adopt that marketing strategy, it would be simply “Follow your instincts, use your common sense and do what’s right for you!”