Becoming a Translator: My Story

Fresh-faced, bushy-tailed translators ready to blaze their translation trail often ask experienced translators how they did it. Their accounts vary wildly (as seen in the Translation Journal’s Translator Profiles).

This is mine:

I was sixteen and studying abroad in the Netherlands with AFS Intercultural Programs when I first considered translation as a career. For my own entertainment, I tried back-translating an interview from Dutch (well, Flemish) to English with my favorite British god, Morrissey, from an interview that had appeared in a Belgian magazine. I even went so far as to send my version (by real mail; it was 1991) to the author of the article to see how I’d done at guessing Morrissey’s original words. The author responded saying I’d done a great job, though Morrissey had compared himself to an “old, beaten shoe” not a “worn-out shoe.”  I remember my host mother saying I should become a translator and my agreeing.

Years on, I’d abandoned Dutch for Italian and was studying in Florence. I remember the pleasure and absorption of the intellectual challenge of translation exercises and again thought it could be for me. After having spent more time in Italy, I was living in New York, had a lot of downtime at work and the Internet in the early years of its proliferation. I started emailing small hotels in Italy and offering my translation services for a pittance (e.g., $20 to correct (re-translate) a couple web site pages). As I gained skills, resources, contacts, and confidence, I started working for agencies, then publishing houses and other direct clients.

My story is unusual among translators in that it was an intentionally chosen path and my first career, whereas many translators stumbled onto the path and then realized it was for them.

Contact with more experienced colleagues through groups like Yahoo IT-EN was essential for my learning process. For instance, my Pesky Words list originated when I was stewing on a new way to translate “punto di riferimento,” and I realized that my more experienced colleagues would have translated it thousands of times. The support of serious translators was also vital for learning the craft and understanding the many levels of the marketplace.

Early in my career, I went to an American Translators Association conference where I sat for a proctored, hand-written exam to be accredited to translate from Italian to English.  I also took a course at NYU in Italian-to-English translation, which was not at all useful.

I tell aspiring translators that their first priority should be to gain practice because translation is a skill, not just a knowledge set that can be acquired passively. Early on, this experience could be gained by volunteering (such as with Translators without Borders or contacting NGOs in your language combination, translating articles on Wikipedia in your areas of interest, translating at the Standard level for Gengo (which pays $0.03 a word and requires passing a test), or volunteering to help an experienced translator in exchange for revising your translations.

Experience, research and colleagues will teach you what you like doing, what you hate, what you need to learn, what tools will help you, and how to keep on growing.

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Glimmer of hope for IT>EN quality?

Most Italian>English translations are terrible, ranging from machine translated hilarity to shoddy, non-professional, native-tongue translations, as gleefully, ruefully documented at ProvenWrite. When you come across well-translated English in Italy, it’s a pleasant surprise. When the translator is credited, it is usually a colleague I know, as recently happened when I saw a well-translated exhibition catalogue  and was pleased to see it was translated by Catherine Bolton.

But, just maybe, things are changing. Almost every new client I’ve had this year has come to me through a similar path. Almost all already had an English “translation.” Then, someone along the way, occasionally in-house, but more often an Anglophone affiliate (as international partnerships grow more common in proportion to funds in Italy growing scarcer) reads the bad translation and spills the beans. Realizing they’ve been sold a false bill of goods, the clients ask around for a serious translator and are directed to me, usually by other clients. They write that they’ve been told there were, um, “inconsistencies” in the translation and might I “proofread” it. I generally read two sentences, “move to trash” and start fresh.

Most clients really want good translations. Perhaps, at least in the IT>EN market, the shysters selling boxes of garbage marked “English” on the outside are finally being exposed.

The needless challenges of searching for a quality translator

Clients and friends often ask me to suggest translators. When the translator needed is in my language combination (IT>EN) or vice versa (EN>IT), I have direct experience with quality translators whom I can suggest without reserve. If you need top-of-the-line wine translations from Italian to English, go to Giles Watson (www.watson.it); if you need great IT>EN medical translations, see Marie-Hélène Hayles (hayles-translations.com). But when it’s in other combinations, the search is more difficult than it ought to be.

When it’s for a friend or trusted client, I like to do them a favor and search myself, so they don’t get lost, or hoodwinked by the hordes of eager pretenders offering translations in every language combination possible, with all possible specializations, at low, low prices, lightening speed, and a gummy worm included for free. My good friend who made a fabulous documentary about children from Angola in Catalonia needed a Catalan-to-English translator to translate the glowing reviews of her documentary that appeared in Catalan papers. She had, indeed, already been hoodwinked, having gotten a free “translation” from a native Catalan speaker. Like most people outside of the translation field, she didn’t realize that well-nigh no one can translate well into his or her second language. I searched Google, the ATA Directory and Proz.com  (where one has to be on particular guard against “imitation translators”). The advantage of Proz in this case (as the target language was my native language) was the inclusion of samples. I was able to give her a few suggestions of likely good translators (likely, as you can’t be sure without first-hand experience).

Recently, a client asked me to recommend an Italian-to-French translator specialized in architecture. I went to the AITI‘s database, which gave me one option. I looked through my contacts and contacts of contacts on LinkedIn, but most profiles had too little information. Many of the job descriptions just said “translator” without specifying the language combination. Though I read French very well, it can still be difficult to judge quality in languages other than your own. At any rate, I found no translation samples from the handful of apparently qualified translators I found after much search. I ended up suggesting two translators with the caveat that I only suspected they would be good.

I wish my colleagues would be more visible, offering the World Wide Web easy-to-find information replete with samples, portfolios, specializations, and credentials so I could recommend them with confidence.