Saturday, December 09, 2006

Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Translator?

Here is a recent article, published online at, that explores reasons why few writers incorporate translation into their careers.

Do You Have What it Takes to Be a Translator?

Translation, just like writing, is a creative, challenging craft that requires excellent writing, analytic, and editing abilities, as well as a love and feel for language. The major differences between translating and writing, of course, are that translators must have near-native skills in at least two languages, and work with transferring words an author has written in one language into another language, whereas writers need only work with one language and with their own thoughts and texts.

Writers are the ideal people to work as translators because they generally already have excellent writing and language skills and an enthusiasm for words, yet not many attempt it. There are several possible reasons for why few writers make translation part of their business.

The first is a belief that translating is less creative or interesting than writing. As both a writer and a translator, I'd argue that translation is incredibly demanding and creative. The limits imposed by the fact that a translator has to understand what the author meant and be able to recreate it in another language for a different audience forces translators to work very hard to find just the right way to express the author's thoughts given the target language's vocabulary, grammar, melody, and culture. This process can be compared to how some poets prefer to write haikus or sonnets rather than free verse, or how some fiction writers create artificial rules for their work (they can't use a certain letter, for example, or they have to focus on a specific topic). The fact is that the restrictions imposed by the form compel translators to be creative in a new way.

The second reason is that writers don't think they can earn money by translating. It's true that literary translation generally does not pay well and that it can be difficult to find such work; most English-speaking countries publish few literary translations, in part because publishers don't see much importance or profit in foreign literature and thus aren't eager to pay for it. Nonfiction translation, however, is very lucrative. Literary translators report getting around $2000 per novel, while nonfiction translators can earn that in just a week or two. Rates vary quite a bit, depending on the location, customer, level of difficulty, and the languages involved, but 12¢ per word is about average. Large companies with customers in many countries need translators and are willing to pay for quality work. Although some writers fear that it would be boring to translate user manuals or articles, such work can be quite stimulating and demanding. Translating court documents, for example, can be like reading a thriller; working on annual reports can teach you something about finance; while translating advertisements requires not just an understanding of language, but an ability to subtly make the ads more appropriate for the new culture. Translators I have spoken to report just as much satisfaction from finding the right word for a translation of a website as they do for a poem.

The final reason why writers are reluctant to seek translation work is because many simply don't know where to begin. The easiest way to start is sign up with translation agencies and to join one or more of the many e-lists that focus on translation. It is generally more common for translators to work for agencies rather than directly with customers, especially when starting out. Though agencies usually pay less, many translators like working for agencies because then they don't have to try to market to, contact, and sell their services to customers and also because agencies edit all the translations before sending them to the end clients, which means that an extra pair of eyes always checks over the work.

E-lists are useful because they often have job announcements and one can also meet other translators through them; more experienced translators might have advice for new ones, and they also might have too much work on occasion and be willing to subcontract assignments. For people who are more serious about translation, joining a professional organization, such as the American Translators Association or the International Federation of Translators, is a good credential. Such associations often have databases of translators where potential customers can find you, as well as newsletters with information, and conferences to attend. It's not cheap to join professional organizations, but the investment is worthwhile. Finally, make sure you tell your family, friends, neighbors, bosses, writing clients, and everyone else that you work as a translator. You might be surprised by how many people know someone who needs a translator and how many jobs friends or colleagues can pass on to you. In any business, making contacts is important.

Translation is a creative and stimulating art and craft, it can be lucrative, and there are easy steps new translators can take to find business. Not least, many writers are uniquely suited to being translators. All that remains now is for writers to expand their writerly horizons and start translating!


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great article! I actually started out writing and doing what i love, then went on to doing so and teaching english at a language school. They also had a translation department and after about a year or so, i began translating.
Actually, translating takes a lot of patience and a lot of concentration.
It's not a difficult job but it still does have its requirements.

Thank you very much for this informative post!

B.J. Epstein said...

Thanks for your comment, Emily! Good luck with your translation work!

Best wishes,