In this second article of the 3-part mini-series, I share some thoughts and personal anecdotes about languages, specialisation and career path. If you missed the first one (about the freelancing journey and success), you can read it here.
Working (and not working) languages
Choose your working languages wisely
People learn languages for the most varied reasons. If you plan to make a living as a translator, make sure you choose your working language(s) well. You will need language proficiency coupled with the cultural knowledge you only acquire after years living in the country where the language is spoken. When choosing a language you intend to work with, ask yourself what you are willing to do to really master it. Would you move to the country? Do you think you could fit in with the locals? Can you see yourself with a partner from that country?
Example: My original plan was to work with Russian. I studied language and translation modules at university; I took Russian language modules during my year abroad in Estonia; I spent a semester in Saint Petersburg; I did a language course in Dublin; I spoke Russian quite often during the year I lived in Latvia, where I also attended private lessons; I completed an advanced level course in London (and half of the advanced+ level course, which was later cancelled due to lack of students); I completed two other language seminars; I volunteered as a translator and consecutive interpreter in Sochi during the 2014 Paralympic Winter Games… I tried for a decade, yet it was not enough. My real level of Russian must be about a strong B1 or a weak B2 – not good enough for translating anything other than general information, news articles and the like.
You do not need to work with all the languages you studied
Languages are like specialisations – the less you work with, the deeper you can go. I think that it is best to focus on one or two source languages, truly master them, and specialise in a field.
Example: I studied English, Russian, and French at university, yet now I work ‘only’ with English and Spanish. It took me years to give up on Russian and French as working languages, especially Russian. One day, I simply realised that I was not willing to do what it was required (moving to Russia for several years and fully immersing myself in the culture) to master the language. It was hard to accept it but, once I did, I stopped feeling frustrated and unaccomplished; I then focused on English and getting specialised. Despite English-Spanish being an infamously undervalued language combination, I have managed to live off it. Go deeper, not wider.
Put your other languages to new use
Not working with a language does not mean completely giving up on it. Do not think of your forgotten C language as a waste of time. Find a new purpose for it instead, be it reading books, listening to podcasts, watching films, talking to friends, or travelling.
A master’s is not needed, despite what we are often told at university
There is not a single career path to follow to become a freelance translator, so be as flexible and open as you can when considering your next move after graduating. A master’s is a huge investment in terms of time and money, so think carefully whether you need it, or whether you want to do it just for the sake of having a master’s. Without work experience you may not even know which field you would like to specialise; if that is the case, acquiring experience will help you find a field you enjoy and will point out the right direction to follow to advance your career.
Example: I do not have a master’s. A year after graduating in Translation and Interpreting, I started toying with doing a master’s. Despite enjoying the legal, business, and commercial modules best during my degree, I decided to apply for a master’s in technical translation to ‘cover more fields’. My application was rejected (and I am so glad that I was not!). Looking back now I think it would have been a waste of time and money. I do not even like technical translation!
During the first years of freelancing we tend to accept anything coming our way. This is a good test to find out which things you enjoy translating and which things you swear to never take on again. Then you can start being more and more selective about clients and projects and, once you have a clearer idea about which field or fields you want to focus on, you can decide how to deepen your knowledge and skills to become a specialist; it may be a master’s, or a specialist course, or taking on a temporary job in the field, or something else.
Specialising does not mean closing doors
Many translators are afraid of narrowing down their working fields because they think that specialising will reduce the amount of work they would get. I strongly disagree. I think specialising is the best thing a translator can do to advance their career. Here is why:
- You get to truly know what you are translating about. The more you know about a topic, the better job you can do; and the better job you can do, the more you can charge, the more satisfied you feel, and the more selective you can be with who you work with.
- Direct clients like subject specialists. You will never be as specialised as your client, but they will appreciate your effort. They will be more likely to work with you than with a generalist translator willing to take on anything and everything. You become a trusted professional.
- It is easier to sell your services and get referrals. You may not like labels, but people are more likely to remember you if you have a specialisation than if you do not.
- Specialising helps opening doors. It helps you sell your services in a more efficient way, but it does not stop there. You may start working with a company’s finance department and after a while be referred to their marketing company, for example. One door opens another one!
Learn to be patient and flexible
The freelance translation career path is never straight. Barely anyone I know went straight from graduating at university to freelance translation, so be patient. Things rarely go to plan, whatever your plan is.
Example: My plan was to work at a translation agency after graduating and then become a full-time freelancer. It did not work. I had non-translation jobs during my first four years as a freelancer (from 2010 to 2014). Translation was an ad-hoc activity. I only jumped to full-time freelancing when combining my day job and an increasing volume of translation work became unsustainable. By then, I had built a nice network of colleagues and a financial cushion to support my first 6 months as a full-time freelancer, too.
Do not underestimate your ‘other jobs’
Any job will provide you with skills which will come in handy when you go freelance, so do not underestimate those temporary jobs you only take to pay the bills. Make the most of each experience and focus on two things: skills and contacts.
Transferable skills will help with the non-translation aspects of your freelancing business. Keep a list of every skill you learn (it is particularly useful for brand creation and positioning) and do not burn any bridges when leaving a company. People are more likely to work with people they like, and you never know who will think of you in future when they need a translation! Some of my long-term regular clients, for example, are former colleagues or people they referred me to.
The information included in this article is correct at the time of publication/last update. This article is for informational purposes only, does not constitute legal advice and should not be relied upon as such. Any reliance you place on such information is strictly at your own risk. ICR Translations will not be liable for any loss or damage arising from loss of data or profits as a result of, or in connection with, the use of this website.
IRENE CORCHADO RESMELLA is a Spanish translator based in Edinburgh. A Chartered Linguist and member of the CIOL, she is also an English-Spanish sworn translator appointed by the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Irene specialises in sworn and legal translation (particularly in wills and succession) and is an Affiliate member of STEP. ICR Translations is registered with the Information Commissioner's Office and has professional indemnity insurance.