Staying in or getting out

Staying in or getting out

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It’s time to go when…

In almost 20 years in translation now, I don’t think I can remember a time when so many people were getting out of the business. Lately it seems that hardly a day goes by when I don’t read a message from someone saying that they’re working on a plan B, or getting a part-time job, or packing up altogether. Sometimes it just doesn’t seem fair – people who seem to be doing all the right things get to a point where they can’t stand any more while others who, with the best will in the world, don’t deserve a place in the profession, seem indestructible.

The number of people leaving is hardly surprising, I suppose. With bulk market work being gobbled up by machine translation on one hand and the daunting degree of effort and commitment required to go upmarket (which I still believe is the best way to stay in the business) on the other, it’s no wonder many people find it easier simply to look elsewhere in order to earn a living. Some, of course, remain in the world of translation, selling courses, consultancy or coaching to translators. We all know who some of them are. Others go in a completely different direction.

Not long ago, a friend of mine decided to give up freelance translation, temporarily at least. This struck me as a terrible shame. She was someone who seemed set up to succeed: not only talented, but with a good business head too. She hadn’t “made it” yet, but she was well on the way. But the frustration of chasing late-payers so that she could pay her rent got her down. With that kind of pressure, she simply wasn’t enjoying her work any more.

On the other hand there are people who really ought to get out, and get out soon. I found an example of this category recently, in Lina Mounzer, the author of this article in the Paris Review. In it, she complains bitterly about the “garbage” she is asked to translate, about the clients she is forced to work for, and of her absolute horror of having to talk to the people who wrote the texts she has to deal with. The piece is a hymn to her utter hatred of what she does. It is hard to understand how, after writing that, anyone will give her any translation work. I certainly wouldn’t.

But her sour rant at least serves as a basis for talking about the translators who really ought to be thinking about that plan B. I can think of a few:

  • Those who take no pride in their work. Maybe it’s possible to survive by bashing out translations and not caring about the quality of the result, but in a world of shrinking opportunities in the bulk market it’s surely time for these people to think about another career. With that attitude they certainly won’t be moving upmarket, which requires, first and foremost, working to become a better translator. And, as their work is now probably no better than a machine, their days in the profession are numbered.
  • Those who, with the best will in the world, are simply no good. Recently, for my sins, I was asked by an agency client to revise a translation. It was appalling, full of mistranslations, poorly chosen words, phrases never before seen in English, no consistency of terminology, typos, etc. etc. I did the job the best I could and made it clear to my client that the translation was utterly inadequate. I only hope my message and my improved version were passed on to the translator to give them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Of course, I accept the possibility that the job had been done by a beginner with capacity to improve. If it was an experienced translator, however, there is no hope for them whatsoever. I think we all need to be realistic about our abilities and about the standard of our work. Anyone consistently producing the kind of rubbish I had to deal with that day should face it and get out now.
  • Those who can’t cope with the business side of freelancing. There’s no getting away from it, freelance translation means running a business. We have to find and deal with clients, send invoices, deal with tax and administrative requirements, chase up bad payers and all the other things that have to be done, as well as actual translation work. Although it’s possible to delegate some of the burden by hiring an accountant, for example, anyone who can’t manage all this really should be an employee and not a freelancer. There is no disgrace in this. My wife, for instance, would be unhappy and uncomfortable as a freelancer but it doesn’t make her a worse journalist. But if we do want to freelance we must be under no illusions – the job’s about a lot more than just translation.
  • Those who simply don’t enjoy it any more. This can happen to anyone, of course. The job you used to love now just seems like a chore. Sometimes it can be just a temporary state of affairs and you recover your enthusiasm after a time. If it goes on for months and years, though, it’s probably time to find a new way of making a living. Now, I’m not saying, as some might, that everyone has to be passionate about what they do. As I said in a very early blog post, I think passion is one of the most misused words in business and the world of work. But you do need a degree of enthusiasm and enjoyment to do a good job and if you’ve lost yours then it’s time to think again.

I wouldn’t want to say what people leaving translation should do. Although it’s never easy to change career, with a little thought the possibilities are endless and the final choice depends on an individual’s strengths, weaknesses, interests and willingness to retrain. Some, perhaps, can find jobs in areas they have specialised in as translators. Others could make use of the transferable skills translation has provided them with. I don’t, however, want to see them training translators. Others will disagree, but I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of people teaching others to do a job they themselves have not succeeded in, for whatever reason. I suppose it’s possible that someone who’s fallen out of love with translation might make a good teacher of it, but I still think the lack of enthusiasm would come through and undermine them. Far better to make a clean break, I would say, however much it might seem to be an easy option.

For myself, I’m sticking at it, although I wonder whether in ten years time there will be as many translators as there are now. My guess is that many, either willingly or unwillingly, will have drifted off into other careers. I just hope it’s the right ones who decide or feel obliged to go.




  1. Kevin Lossner

    Well, Simon, then there are those of us scaling back on the routine and teaching more, though the latter inevitably entails a loss of income in most of its instances compared to production work. With all the changes happening in the human and technical sides of the markets, good people and promising career entrants need more support than ever, and I would rather know that I helped half a dozen people pay rent, get better projects or feel better about their competencies this month than that I made yet another €1000 in an afternoon responding to some attorney’s self-created filing emergency.

    More often than not, it’s the people one works with who make the effort worthwhile, and when the business environment changes in such a way that the clients become more fickle and/or abusive in their business practices, translators looking down the barrel of longevity more than into the pouch of their wallets ought to consider priorities carefully. Stick with it and stick it to ’em as needed, but think about the ones who have to practice the craft under what may continue for a while to be unstable circumstances.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks for your comment Kevin. I should say that people expressing the attitude you show here are precisely the ones who SHOULD be training translators. There’s nothing wrong with teachers being paid but money shouldn’t be the main motivation for teaching, or at least I don’t think so.

      • Kevin Lossner

        Oh, I have no problem with people having money as a main motivation to teach as long as they do the teaching well. It’s the crappy instruction at any price (including free) that I take issue with, and most of what I see is either crap or simply off target, repackaged instructions more applicable to other tools and scenarios, etc.

  2. Nigel Wheatley

    I’m going to turn your argument on its head for a moment Simon. At no point in human history have there been more human translators than there are today. And at no point in human history has more money been spent on buying translation than is spent today – that’s without counting machine translation engines such as Google, which "translates" more words in a day than all the human translators on the globe translate in a year.

    Yes, there are people leaving the profession, and I completely agree with your categorisation of the people who maybe should never have joined the profession in the first place. But the same is true of every profession. I have worked as a research chemist, an academic, a schoolteacher and a literary agent before I became a translator; I also have a fairly good insight into the medical and legal professions through family and other personal contacts. I see the same sort of issue in all of them. About 10% of practitioners who are so bad they really shouldn’t be allowed to be doing the job; and another 25–30% who are not quite so bad as to deprive them of an income, but you’d never recommend them and you’d tell your friends to try to avoid them! Leaving a little less than two-thirds who are even just basically competent, let alone good. Translation is nothing special in this respect.

    • Simon Berrill

      Thanks, Nigel. I don’t think I said that translation was anything special, but it is my impression there are notably more people – some of them quite good people – considering leaving the profession than at any time since I joined it 20 years ago. Are there too many translators? Are market conditions changing so that it’s more difficult to make a living? Is the effort required to move upmarket proving daunting for a lot of people? All or any of those reasons, or others, may apply, as they may also to all sorts of other professions.

  3. Rana

    Hello there,
    I appreciate this post but I actually came across it while looking to learn more about the incisive writer, Lina Mounzer. I was so impressed by the article you mention in the Paris Review that I’ve been following her writing since, and am even seriously considering getting into translation myself. It did not deter me because I did not understand her critique as a rage against translation but really the invisible labours of the art world. I would encourage you to take a look again, since dismissing it as a “sour rant” really does injustice to a rich conversation on the complexities of language and labour.
    All best!

    • Simon Berrill

      Thank you for your comment, Rana. I’ve just read the article again and I have to say I can’t share your opinion. Frankly I’m amazed at how it can have inspired you to consider taking up translation. I think it is the utter contempt she shows for her clients and the other people she has to deal with that turns me off altogether. Of course we all have frustrations, of course we sometimes have to translate texts that are dull and badly written, but to some extent that’s a side of the job we all have to accept. And if we do want to write about it, far better to do so with humour than vicious disdain.


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