A few thoughts on our profession for translators just starting out

A few years ago an article ran in a popular Czech weekly magazine, claiming that “Translation Isn’t for the Young.” It caused quite a sensation in the Czech translation community. In the article, a young translator described a typical work day. She painted a highly candid, if naïve, picture of translation as a profession with terrible pay that practically anybody who speaks a foreign language can do. You just need an internet connection and the occasional help from Google Translate. You don’t need any specialized knowledge, and since competition is fierce, you take every job that (thank goodness!) comes along, regardless of whether you know anything about the topic. After toiling away all day, the author crawled into bed feeling that translation isn’t for the young, since she had slaved away all day and earned little more than peanuts for her efforts. If she had a family to feed, she mused, she’d never be able to afford the “luxury” of working as a translator.

Translator = slave or robot?

The article sparked heated discussion in the comments section, on Facebook and in a closed discussion group for JTP, the Czech translators’ association. Some applauded her for calling it like it is, while others protested that her article presented a deeply distorted view of translation as a profession and called on JTP to issue an official statement. Unfortunately, as I’ve found after years of membership in JTP, translators are a diverse bunch and rarely willing to band together. Other than one colleague , who argued tirelessly in the comments section on the original article, no one really spoke up to defend a more truthful image of translation done right.

So we can hardly be surprised that the general public has such serious misconceptions about our line of work. Recently I got a call from a certain gentleman (on a Thursday), and the conversation went roughly as follows:

– Hello, we’re bidding in a tender next Friday and we need our documentation translated from English.

– How long is it?

– About a hundred pages.

– Wow, that’s quite a lot. I’m fully booked, I’m afraid, but I can ask around. Though I’m not sure about a hundred pages in a week.

– No, you don’t understand, I need the translation by Monday. We have to submit everything on Friday!

– I see. Well, good luck, but I have to tell you that a hundred pages over the weekend is not realistic. Your only option is to give it to an agency, and they’ll split it up between several translators. But I can’t guarantee it will be high quality if you do that.

The caller wasn’t too enthusiastic about that idea. Maybe he had already contacted a few agencies and found out how much they charge. We talked for a minute longer as I tried to explain what a project like that involved, the recommended prices and the fact that translators set their own prices… Eventually we agreed that I would send out a message to JTP members to see if anyone was interested in the project. Then I asked, “And how much have you budgeted for the translation?” The caller fell silent for a moment and then blurted out, “About $200 I guess.” I held myself back from saying that he was bidding for a tender in an industry worth billions each year and apparently hadn’t mastered basic math. Instead, I explained that his suggested price was quite out of the question, and we ended the call. I have no idea if he ever found someone to take that job.

Don’t expect a Rolls-Royce for the price of a moped

This absolute disconnect from the real price of translation is prevalent not only in the general public, where it might be expected, but even in translation agencies. And agencies, sad to say, have learned from experience that you can always find someone who will take the job, with little to no regard for quality. A translation agency recently contacted me about a specialized translation from French to Czech. The price they were offering was extremely low. When I objected that they were offering barely more than I pay my cleaner, I was informed that the customer’s budget was limited and the agency had bills to pay too, you know. They didn’t seem to have considered that I have bills to pay as well. And what gave them the idea that a highly qualified professional should work for the same hourly rate as a cleaner?
How many industries allow the customer to dictate the price of the services they are purchasing? No one would walk into an auto repair shop and say, “That much for an hour of work? No way. I’ll give you half that.” No one would dare walk into a jewelry shop and try to buy a gold watch when they can barely afford the strap. But telling translators how much they can charge for their work? Totally fair game, apparently.
In the nearly 20 years I’ve been in business, prices have increased only very slightly. And that’s for commercial translations – prices for literary translation have been stagnating for years, and if it weren’t for translators who love literature and the authors and topics they translate, it would be impossible to publish literature in Czech translation. So it might appear at first glance that translators have no choice but to live like the young translator from the article, slaving away for 12 hours a day for peanuts just to pay the bills at the end of the month. And if you want to start a family, build a house or travel the world, then translation – when done this way – really isn’t for the young.

A good translator is both expert and entrepreneur

But that’s not the only way to do it. Most importantly, translation isn’t for everyone. Speaking a bit of a foreign language isn’t enough. Even speaking it really well isn’t enough. Above all else, translators must have an excellent command of their native language. They should be able to communicate effectively when speaking, but even more critically, they must be highly skilled writers capable of producing persuasive, compelling prose free of errors in grammar or spelling. They need to be fully conversant with the culture and context of their source language. They need a good understanding and working knowledge of their areas of specialization. Anyone who says they can translate any text is either lying or a rank amateur – either way you’d do best to steer clear. Translators work with computers and other technology, and should keep up with the times: new dictionaries, sources of information, specialized software and even social media. Being a translator means never standing still – always striving to improve, always learning new things. But if you do your work conscientiously and well, then it brings you a deep sense of satisfaction, not frustration, and a quite respectable income as well. Clients want to work with skilled professionals who deliver excellent, reliable results, and they are willing to pay extra for the privilege.

And that brings us to the second point: Translators are business owners, making them essentially entrepreneurs – which I think many translators do not fully realize. If a translator never puts herself out there, but just sends her CV to a few agencies and then sits around waiting for the phone to ring or her inbox to fill up with projects, all the while complaining about not having enough work, competition is fierce, prices are low… Then maybe that person really should look for a different line of work. Sure, there’s a lot of competition out there, but there’s also plenty of work. If you’re good at what you do, you’ll be able to find enough work for respectable prices. Of course, building a reputation and establishing your brand takes a lot of work, and it won’t happen overnight. But that’s true no matter what kind of work you do.

If you speak a foreign language, take a shot at translating something yourself, even if it’s just part of a newspaper article. You might find it’s not as easy as it appears, and maybe you won’t be surprised when your translator charges more than your cleaner.

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