It was 20 years ago…

It was 20 years ago…

At some point during 2021, it will be my 20th anniversary as a translator. I only wish I could be more specific, but I can’t honestly remember when I did my first translation or who the client was. All I can say with any degree of certainty was that it is unlikely to have been very good and it probably wasn’t very well paid. I had no language degree, no training or experience in translation and no CAT tool. Yes, I realise that doesn’t look very good, but that’s how it was and there’s no point in disguising it. In my defence I can say that I wasn’t the first and I won’t be the last to begin that way.

By 2001, I’d been living in Badalona, near Barcelona, for a couple of years and my command of the two local languages – Spanish and Catalan – was reasonably good, immersed as I was in television, films, radio, newspapers and books in both languages, not to mention the company of my Catalan wife and her family and friends. I was also a professional writer in my own language, having been a journalist for 15 years before moving to Catalonia.

Why, you may wonder, was I not working as a journalist? It’s true that was my original intention when I moved. But my hopes of being able to make a living freelancing soon faded when I realised that commissions for work were going to be few and far between, and that they would require me to drop everything and race off to almost anywhere at a moment’s notice. They were also not for the kind of subject matter I wanted to write about, or at least not the kind of angle I wanted to take on stories. I really didn’t want to feed the British tabloid monster and particularly its xenophobic side.


Anyway, what I needed was steady work, even if it didn’t pay a great deal of money, not the occasional gig that was going to cause massive upheaval. So it was that I found myself teaching English, first at the language school where my wife had gone for lessons years before and then at other language schools as well. I managed to build up a set of compatible classes that earned me a rather meagre but adequate living, except for the month of August, when all English teachers were more or less laid off without pay, having to start compiling a new set of classes again in September and October. On top of the poor pay and rather uncertain conditions, there was one other problem – I hated it. I’m just not cut out to be a teacher, particularly of children. I found it an exhausting and almost entirely unrewarding grind.

I supplemented my income with one or two side projects which fortunately began to come my way. These involved writing educational materials, something I had to learn how to do from scratch. The opportunities arose because of a tremendous boom in language schools going on at the time in Catalonia. The new chains of school were always a bubble waiting to burst, springing up like mushrooms on a franchise basis in what, even at the time, looked like rather dubious pyramid schemes involving selling loans to students to finance their lessons. They were also reluctant to pay for already published books, looking to people like myself, with some writing and teaching experience, to produce cheap non-copyright materials.

It was at a meeting to discuss one of those writing projects that I met a friendly American who, over a coffee, told me that his “day job” was as an interpreter and translator. When I expressed an interest, he asked me “Do you want some contacts? I can give you some.” It was this unselfish act that set me on the road to becoming a translator myself. I went through the list, wrote e-mails to most of them, and, miraculously considering my lack of experience, some of them came back to me with work.


As I’ve already said, I shudder to think at how poor some of my early translations probably were, although, as I had little idea what to charge, they were also very cheap. Even at those rates, though, translation paid immeasurably better than teaching. It took me a while to work this out, but, after doing quite a few jobs during my first summer as a translator for a university in Catalonia, I realised that if I could continue to attract that amount of work I would soon be able to dump my classes. I decided to go to see the head of the university’s translation service to find out if I could expect to maintain a similar volume of work in future. The response was a sharp “no”, and when I asked why I was given a response which, looking back, was probably the best thing that could have happened to me at that stage: “Your work just isn’t good enough. The only reason we’ve kept on using you this summer is because our intern kept giving you work”.

This made me think a little. It also made sure I didn’t give up my teaching “day job”, which might have been disastrous at that stage. I kept up my classes but I also carried on doing translations on the side, now realising that what I was doing wasn’t some kind of easy option. I thought more about the work I was doing, learned to do internet research (despite the old-fashioned dial-up connections of the time) and gained experience. Few, if any, of my clients from those days are still with me now. I eventually dumped some of them. There was the agency that told me I was taking “too much” holiday when I went home to England for a couple of weeks and the other one that tried to impose discounts on my rate if I translated more than a certain number of words in a month (it was none too keen to pay my bills on time either). In those very early days, though, the very idea of dumping a client was unthinkable. I would go to all kinds of trouble – mostly involving working out ways of receiving and sending faxes for those who had texts in hard-copy format to translate – to accept any job.

By working hard and looking for new clients online, in places like ProZ and Translators Café, I soon began to earn more money from my translations and I noticed that my teaching hours were getting in the way of my ability to accept jobs. On these sites, I also began to see that there were translators all over the place, and that there were such things as professional standards and ethics. Gradually, I reduced my teaching until I was just working on Saturday mornings. It was a tremendous relief when I was finally able to give these classes up too and become a full-time translator, only a couple of years or so after I started.


Of course, as I’ve admitted here, I made a lot of mistakes when starting out. I should have got some proper training – that came later when I decided to take the DipTrans examination – and I should have done much more research into rates. I would also have been a lot better off not working in a vacuum, because it was a long time before I tried to join any kind of translators’ association or even have much to do with colleagues. Some long-term thinking would also have been a good idea. Maybe my best path would have been to do some additional study so that I could eventally move into a well-paying specialisation.

But the way I started also gave me some advantages. Necessity and lack of knowledge made me brave. I would take on anything and give it my best shot. This may not always have been the best thing for my clients in the early days but it was a great way to learn what I could and couldn’t do. Without training, I also had no preconceived ideas about things like the number of words I could translate in a day. I worked that out for myself without pressure from others, just as I worked out that I ought to be raising my rates from time to time, that I didn’t have to settle for any old treatment from clients, and that there were certain kinds of work I simply shouldn’t be doing because I didn’t have good enough knowledge of the field. I was always very clear that the point being a translator, for me, was to make money, which I believe to be a very healthy attitude to any job or career. I would compare this to my time as a journalist when, largely as a result of my training, I happily worked long hours for very little pay out of a misplaced sense of duty.

I have no regrets about becoming a translator. As well as earning more than I ever did as a journalist (or ever could have done in a profession which has virtually died in the time since I left it), I have an enjoyable job with flexible working hours which even allowed me to do my share of caring for my son when he was a baby while still managing to work more or less full time. My wife and I have bought a flat and I have decent holidays (or I did before coronavirus struck) and savings for my old age, none of which I could have managed if I’d stayed in teaching. Do not, whatever you do, let anyone lead you to believe these things are unthinkable if you are a freelancer. I have also – and this is no small consideration – not had to put up with the kind of bosses who often used to make my life a misery in my previous career. In short, translation has been good to me, and I’ll be working to make sure it still is for a few years yet!


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