How and why do people become translators? I’ve been asked this question dozens of times before – by everyone from my closest friends to random strangers, I’ve got chatting to at the bar while at concerts!
Becoming a translator: lots of reasons and backgrounds
To be honest, there’s no single reason why people become translators. I have friends who have wanted to be translators since they were young (before starting university, even), others who were ‘streamlined’ into the profession through work: these are normally multilingual people working in an office setting, whose tasks grew from ‘giving emails and press releases a quick check’ to becoming bonafide in-house translators for their company, while I know some people who do it as a part-time ‘gig economy’ job, simply to make a bit of extra money alongside a full-time job in an unrelated field (one such friend works as a network administrator in a university, while another is a charity worker).
My path to becoming a full-time translator
My path was slightly more unorthodox: my background is in archaeology and architectural conservation, with the nature of the work (and my geographical focus) having meant that I commonly worked in a multilingual environment, although for a long time I’d never have imagined that I’d become a translator. I used three languages (English, German and Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian) on a daily basis, for everything from checking reference material and legislation, to communicating with colleagues. Now and again, I’d be asked to do little bits of translation or to check the consistency of terms in a translated document.
As my career progressed, I began to take on larger quantities of work relating to proofreading and editing, alongside small translation tasks. These translation pieces steadily grew in size and frequency, until I decided that this was what I wanted to do on a full-time basis. After a few years of freelancing, I signed up to Text United. Because of my background, I largely deal with texts relating to engineering and architecture, but I also work on projects involving retail products and e-commerce (when I’m certain that I’m familiar with the product and related terminology).
Challenging, yet fulfilling
What I enjoy about the job is the fact that you can monitor your progress and deadlines, and you know that once your work is done, it’s done. I often work in tandem with proofreaders (who provide the final quality check) from the USA, meaning that while I sleep, they work, and vice-versa, allowing projects to be delivered faster, and by two native speakers of English. I also enjoy the background research – looking at a product or service and finding the best way to convey what is being said about it, and the challenge of being able to find a phrase or description that may never have been used before (sometimes through discussion with the client).
CAT tools make the job much easier, faster and more consistent (especially when it comes to chapter titles, headings, and sub-headings), and I think this has fuelled the growth in the number of people from varied backgrounds who choose to become translators, while the ability to edit and add to a glossary further ensures that you can adapt phrasing to the client’s wishes more easily. The variety of the job is also highly attractive – while sometimes I’ll work on a big project for weeks on end, other times I’ll just be asked to translate just a few sentences, to reflect modifications or additions to a client’s website.
With both types of work, I’ll know from the very start the workload involved and the deadline to be met. If I think the deadline is unfeasible, I’m able to let the client know this (and the reasons for me believing so), and we’re often able to reach a compromise: this can be the client deciding to opt for machine translation + human review (which speeds up turnaround time but leads to a slightly lower quality finished product) or an extension to the deadline, which I will 100% guarantee that I will be able to meet. In all my years of translation, I’ve never let a client down in this regard, and this is something I’m quite proud of.
What does the future hold?
Of course, the translation industry is changing rapidly, with online AI-driven translation tools such as Google Translate constantly improving, but for the time being these still lag way behind the quality offered by a human translator. By my estimates, I’d say we’re still another 5-6 years away from machine translation being able to consistently translate single-line instructions, and even longer away from translating blocks of text, such as press releases or promotional material.
One thing about becoming a translator that you should know: Within the job, there are certain events and times of the year that significantly affect the workflow. Over time, I’ve become used to receiving larger projects over the summer months and Christmas/New Year period, as clients have a tendency to ship out work for translation in bulk while they’re away, and expect it back once their holidays are over. This can be considered one of the downsides to the job.
Additionally, some global events can massively increase the amount of work coming your way – one recent example of this was the introduction of the EU’s GDPR legislation, which resulted in me translating privacy policies for well over 100 companies and subsidiaries in a three-month blizzard of work.
It’s a great business to be in, with plenty of challenges and a varied workload. I’m really glad I made the shift to becoming a translator as a full-time career. So, next time you’re out for a night on the town and get chatting to someone who tells you that they’re in my line of work, you don’t need to ask all the hows and whys of them becoming a translator!
Andrew Lawler is a professional translator based in Belgrade, Serbia. Born in Manchester, UK, he studied Archaeology & Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, before undertaking postgraduate studies in monument and landscape conservation at KU Leuven, Belgium, and then working in the field of architectural conservation. He has been working as a translator for Text United since early 2015. In his spare time, as well as spending time with his children, he devotes himself to mapping and recording Second World War memorials across the former Yugoslavia, and Bosnia & Herzegovina in particular. You can read some of this work here.