On translation

I rarely mention my work on this blog, but I thought I would write a little post about my work as a freelance French to English translator.

First of all, what is a translator?

Many people confuse translation and interpretation. Translators work with written text and interpreters work orally. Most translators only work from a foreign language (the source text) into their native/mother tongue language (the target text). Some very gifted people can work in both directions. Although I speak and read French at a very high level, my writing is fairly atrocious — or at least, I doubt I will ever have the capacity to write well and at a high level in French. Interpreting, on the other hand, can have the interpreter working in just one direction or in both directions. The classic example of an interpreter is the UN General Assembly with all of the delegates wearing ear pieces so that they can hear the discourse in their native language, through an interpreter. I have been trained in both translation and interpretation, but so far, only have worked as a translator, although I would LOVE to gain experience as an interpreter.

How did I become a translator?

It started with my passion for the French language, which you can read in my guest post on Shannon Kennedy’s Eurolinguiste blog. I meant to mention it at the beginning of the month when Shannon published it, but I have lagged in my blog updates recently. Shannon has a lovely blog with lots of posts on language, and she gave me a great opportunity to write about my language learning experience.

While living in New York and working at a full time “real” job, I started taking translation classes at NYU through their School of Continuing Professional Studies program. After a few classes, I knew I wanted to eventually branch out and do translation more seriously, so I started taking on the occasional freelance job. About two years ago the work flow became more regular and I honed my skills not only with the art of translation, but using CAT tools (Computer Assisted Translation tools). I also completed the NYU French-English simultaneous interpretation program, which I loved.

What do I translate?

As a translator, I have translated a very wide variety of documents. Most people probably just think of translating novels (which I would jump at the chance to do) and instruction or product manuals. Pretty much anything that is written can wind up on a translator’s desk. I do a fair amount of legal translation which includes documents like judgments, contracts, service agreements, summonses, foreclosures, etc. Going along with legal documents, I had a whole slew of Internet gambling documents once which included everything from the technical IT side to the legislative/regulations side. Marketing documents always seem simple enough, but they are a challenge every time and I rely heavily on my thesaurus for those. When I have IT documents, I consult with my dear IT husband who has infinite patience explaining IT basics and not so basics to me.  I have done some rather odd translations for customer service chats, that have me translating little bits of phrases and and odd Internet shorthand like “thx 2 u” or, one from last week “la k7 é kc”. One of my “user guide” translations was on swimming pool heating pumps. And last year a spent four months working on a project about breast implants. So the work is varied, which is one of the things I love about translation. Sometimes I have to spend quite a lot of time researching something so that I can better understand the topic and sometimes I spend what seems like hours searching for a single perfect word.

Working as a translator

These days, I work fairly regularly, but regularly is a subjective word. In my experience, working as a freelance translator is really a question of feast or famine. I will have weeks where I am working literally 12-14 hours a day for one large project or multiple smaller projects that all end up on my plate at the same time. Other weeks I may have one eensy weensy job that takes just a few hours to complete. I think my experience is probably fairly representative of other freelance translators. NYU hosted occasional panel discussion inviting other translators to come speak about their experiences and many of them seemed to have the same work rhythm as what I am experiencing now. In any case, they all warned about not quitting your day job when starting out.

Most of my jobs come through the professional site Proz, or through translation agencies. Occasionally I have direct clients, but I think most companies in need of translation services go through a translation agency. One of the hardest things about being a freelancer, and this is probably true in any field, is having to chase after people for payment. I have always been paid by my clients, but on occasion I have had the misfortune of working with less than scrupulous clients who pay much later than the agreed upon date, sometimes 6 to 8 months late!

For the actual translation work, I use Trados Studio 2011, one of the most popular CAT tools. Unlike MS Office products, that are pretty much standard word processing products for everyone, there are a number of CAT tools on the market and none of them are compatible with one another. I was very reticent about investing in Trados as the sticker price for a débutante translator seems quite expensive. However, it has more than paid for itself and you can really ensure the quality of your translation as well as create translation memories that can be useful for future products.

I love working as a translator because I learn new things every day and I like being my own boss. I would love to hear comments from anyone else in the business, anyone who is curious about the field, and of course, I am available for projects!



  1. This is a really great post! Thanks for sharing about your experience as a translator.
    And thank you for the mention as well!

  2. Thank you so much for sharing about your experience! I would love to work as a translator, as a matter of fact, it has been my dream job since I was a child. I should maybe start looking into doing a course. How important is it to have proper qualifications when starting out? Thank you

    • As far as proper qualifications go, it depends. It is fairly rare that clients ask to see proof of credentials such as diplomas or prior work, although they might, and as a beginner it can improve how your CV is viewed. Often agencies will send a short translation test (300-500 words) and decide to work with you or not based on the test. If you are a “specialist” in a certain area, for example, you work as a lawyer or in marketing, you are a musician or have a background in biology, etc., and have a good command of the vocabulary and language structure in your target language, you may not need any special translation credentials at all. Two of the key rules of translation that I should have mentioned are 1) only accept work if you are comfortable with the subject matter and 2) only accept work if you can finish it within the deadlines. I hope that helps!

      • It does thank you. I work in IT so I thought I might try and do some work in that domain 🙂
        I have dome some translation at my previous job so I hope that might help too.

    • Replying to your reply. IT is a great translation field. I see ads on Proz all the time looking for IT translators. That would definitely be a great place for you to start!

  3. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a translator. Thanks for sharing.

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