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Monday, June 02, 2008

Entering the Translation Market

A reader of the TJ Blog has recently suggested that I should post some pointers for those who are considering translation as a career. While I'm not a marketing expert, 30 years in the translation business have taught me a few things about what to do and, especially, what not to do in order to achieve success as a translator.

First of all, do some research to find out if there is a need for your services and to what extent this need is being covered by other translators. Are most translations in your language combination(s) being outsourced to India and China? Can you rely on your local area for potential customers? While in this Internet age you may have customers anywhere in the world, nothing beats personal, eye-to-eye contact. What quality can your potential customers purchase from their current providers and at what price? Can you match either or possibly both?

It goes without saying that you shouldn't consider translation as a career unless you have mastery of one language (your target language) and excellent understanding of the language(s) from which you intend to translate (your source language(s)). Most successful translators I know also have some formal education or practical experience in a field such as engineering, medicine, or law. Remember that most translations are technical in nature, although "technical" should be understood here in a very broad sense to include any area of human endeavor from nuclear physics to basketball. And all these fields have their own jargons where guesswork immediately betrays the amateur. There are times when synonyms or almost-synonyms just won't work. You cannot use "kidney insufficiency" where the physician uses "kidney failure," or "control device" where the automotive engineer uses "control unit." By the way, the incorrect terms in the above example are literal translations of the correct Spanish and German terms, respectively.

Most beginning translators cannot afford to limit themselves to a single specialty; they must accept work in fields where their expertise is at a less than professional level. This is why a translator must have a broad range of knowledge in many fields, i.e., must be well-read and have a good general culture.

Have a colleague or a spouse review your work; proofreading your own translations is not a reliable method for finding mistakes.

So you have a promising potential market and all the prerequisites of a good translator; what next? You must equip yourself with the tools of the profession: a computer preferably with high-speed Internet connection, a good collection of general and specialized dictionaries and other reference books in your source and target languages, as well as a good translation memory tool to enhance your productivity. Software for desktop publishing and presentations has become a necessity for translators. Learn how to use your computer and your software to maximize your productivity and to present your work in a form that attests to our professionalism.

Having a website with your own domain name is a must in this day and age, even if you're an individual translator. Make sure it prominently shows your special expertise and makes a potential client want to contact you. You can find books and websites that teach you how to enhance the visibility of your site to search engines. Of course, you should also have some printed promotional material to send to potential clients, distribute at trade shows, or mail to addresses you can purchase from specialized companies. Yes, e-mail is cheaper, but most unsolicited e-mail ends up in the trash can even before it is seen by the intended prospect.

You should also decide whether you want to enter the freelance market or establish yourself as a translation company. Your chance of success as a freelancer is greater if you have solid mastery of your target language at the level of an educated native speaker, and excellent understanding of your source language(s). A translation company must handle a variety of languages and subject matters, but not necessarily all at a high professional level, since it has freelance translators to rely on. You should also consider if you wish to handle the expense and hassle of payroll, taxes, and a dedicated office that a translation company must have.

If you're a freelancer at the beginning of your career, you're well advised to market yourself to translation companies. The universe of translation companies is smaller than that of potential direct clients, and a reputable translation company will give you feedback on your work, helping you to perfect your skills as a translator. Errors that would make you lose a direct client will be corrected by the translation company, which will thus act as a buffer between you and the end user. You may look for direct clients when you're confident of your ability to provide professional-level work.

Another advantage of working with translation companies is that you can find them in the same place where you can find colleagues with whom you'll want to network: in your professional translators' association. Being a member of such an association and participating in its activities is a valuable tool for honing your skills and knowledge as a translator. You'll be surprised at the generosity of your colleagues who, while being your competitors, are often willing to share their knowledge and experience. You may also be able to establish a network of translators for mutual referrals.

Consider membership in other associations related to your specialty. These associations, as well as chambers of commerce, can provide you with opportunities to meet prospective clients and to learn or perfect the jargon of a specialized field.

Being a translator is not easy these days, since you must compete with the whole world, including translators from low-rate countries. You must have the initial prerequisites for entering the market and invest time, money, and energy to develop a client base and perfect your skills. Only if you're willing to make that investment can you expect to be successful as a translator.


Blogger Catherine said...

Having been a translator for decades, I still find it extremely helpful to edit the work of excellent translators - my husband among them. No matter how good you are, you can always learn new tricks, appreciate a good solution to a particularly trying phrase, consider another idea.

Cathy Bokor

1:41 PM  
Blogger glenn said...


Excellent primer for new translators, especially starting general and develeping a strong specialty as you go along.

As an agency owner and having worked at large agencies for years, I can say that strong generalists are always in need but we often go looking for the specialist when an out-of-the-ordinary project comes in.

I cover the importance of specializing in a recent post on my own blog.

It's obvious that with the internet people can specialize more than ever before. It's normally my older translators who started pre-internet the do 5 or 6 languages and several specialties.

Thanks for the great post!

11:06 AM  
Blogger Corinne said...

Gabe, thanks for this post with such insightful and practical information! It's good advice both for beginners and for those of us who have been in business for a while but need to keep our marketing skills sharp.

9:27 PM  
Blogger Vincent said...

Thanks very much again, Gabe, for posting this information. It has helped me to get much clearer on next steps for entering the market.

To all... which translation companies are good to work with, especially ones that generate plenty of work?

6:16 AM  
Blogger glenn said...


As for agencies that generate a lot of work, it's hard to say. All of them generate a lot of work for some translators, but won't generate lot's of work for you until you become a trusted resource. No trustworthy agency (it's also worth doing some research on payment practices of various agencies) will send you an enormous amount of work without knowing your work first.

As Gabe suggests, it's best to get to know other translators through associations (ATA or your local chapter), especially translators in your specialty. They will be able to tell you what agencies they like and, if those translators know you're good, they'll even recommend you to the agency when they can't take more work.

One caution on Gabe's post: an agency will provide some amount of buffer for a new translator with regard to errors and mistakes. However, agencies get busy and their patience wears thin if they have to spend too much time or money fixing a translation.

If you are unsure of your skills, you might ask other translators if they'll review some of your practice translations and give you pointers. Or, you could offer proofreading skills to busy translators at a penny a word -- it will give you the chance to see how seasoned pros handle a variety of different texts.

Good luck! It's a great profession.

Glenn Cain

7:44 AM  
Blogger john said...

I must say your blog is having all the entire things which are required for becoming the most successful translator in the market. If someone is looking to make a career in this field then your blog is very much helpful. I must say that you have done a very precise research regarding translation field I want to congratulate you for the nice job you have done and hoping that you would continue your best work.

4:40 AM  
Blogger Judy and Dagmar Jenner said...

Great advice, thank you so much for sharing this information. As translators who have worked exclusively with direct clients (which of course takes up quite a bit of time), it is interesting to hear the benefits of working with agencies, which we had not considered before because of the low pay. We really like your blog!

4:20 PM  
Blogger Marianne said...

Thank you for this great post!

Having done my marketing as a legal translator for 5 year now, I have to start all over again since I´m moving to Miami.


Marianne Sucre

1:42 PM  
Blogger Amitabh said...

Thanks for this useful article !

We would be happy to know if you also post as how to grab the outsourced work to India as we are India based leading translation agency but we want to become global service provider.

Amitabh Kumar

3:38 PM  
Blogger Low said...

Thanks for the article!

Translators who are looking to purchase a translation memory tool, here's a good article about translator's experience with TM tools.


2:23 AM  

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