Some Advice from the American Translators Association

Having become quite ill over the past few days, I’ve taken to staying inside this weekend and reading whatever I can get from the library about translation and professional development. Luckily, my partner is willing to cart himself to the library to pick up books for me on demand!

Today I’ve been occupied with the American Translators Association‘s Getting Started: A Newcomer’s Guide to Translation and Interpretation, compiled by Sandra Burns Thomson. Although it’s not exactly an old publication – the edition I’m reading was published in 2001 – it’s interesting how dated much of the information appears at first reading. Manon Beregron’s and Susan Larsson’s article on Internet Search Strategies for Translators, as well as Susan C. RialsEvolving Internet Strategies: Working The Web (conference abstract can be found here), both give detailed instructions about multiple search engines, but don’t most of us just use Google nowadays? Granted, there are a number of specialist search engines that search “non-Google” material, but I think for most queries Google is the preferred option. Nor does one have to know anything fancy to do be a good Googler. Indeed once you master the power of quotation marks, pluses/minuses and query prefixes like “site:”, you’re pretty much set.

Another thing which seems strange to me is the publication’s focus on fax machines. I certainly haven’t done any kind research about this, but my assumption would be that the WWW would pretty much erase the need for it almost entirely. Even if you were looking at a handwritten document, I would presume most companies would merely scan it and send it as a PDF, right? Perhaps someone can clear this up for me.

Those inevitable signs of the ageing aside, I found it a riveting read. Despite it being an American publication, surprisingly most of the content applies equally to the Australian and global context as well.

I found Jonathan Hine‘s article about setting up a freelance business very interesting. In it he talks about the importance of setting up a “break-even point” in your business. In other words, determining how much money you need to earn and how much work it will take it earn it. Being an alien to accounting concepts, his “billable hours” breakdown and hourly/word rate quotients opened up a whole new world to me. Eventually I know I will have to come to terms with all this business jargon, but strangely enough, I find myself enjoying it!
But my favourite article of the lot would have to be the introduction by Japanese-English translator John F Bukacek. Here I will outline a few of the best parts that read like music to my ears.

“Over the years I have found that, rather than becoming easier, translation actually becomes more difficult, because as I gain more experience, my own standards and expectations keep rising, as do those of my clients.”

Not a comforting fact for a budding professional to hear, but a realistic one nonetheless! As I develop my specialised fields – whatever they end up being, as I haven’t chosen them yet! – no doubt my expertise will get to a certain point where I will be only too aware of the sheer number of things that must be taken into account in each translation. I can only imagine how easily one might feel overwhelmed by it all. But I also think that this is something to be proud of. If anything, I can’t wait to delve into technical translation, if anything for the chance to learn something exciting and new! (Yes – this could apply to instructional manuals! Why not?)

After talking about the process of translation – which he says involves more than just words (hurruh!) – Bukacek says:
“I frequently get calls from people who say they are interested in becoming translators, and who are asking how to get started. I always tell them that they must first do some soul-searching.”

This is the usual kind of hard-hitting pep talk that most mentors give to budding professionals in any field in an effort to make them realise the kind of thing they are getting themselves into. I went through my own soul-searching a few years ago when I graduated from my Arts degree and had to decide what to do with it. Convincing myself that I had the bare minimum of what it takes to become a translator was half the battle. The way I see it, one can liken the position of a translation student to that of a medical or law student. We don’t expect them to be able to perform surgery or practice law in the Supreme Court – we realise that it takes years of hard work to get to that position. Well, the same goes for the translation profession. I would say that I have the bare minimum of what it takes – bilingual competence, excellent writing skills and, even more importantly, a passion in the subject. If that’s not a good place to start, I don’t know what is.

And, lastly, a rather superb closing comment:

“One of the most beautiful aspects of our profession is that there is always more to learn. The intellectual stimulation provided by what we learn about our world and about ourselves through the process of translation can give us a great deal of pleasure, and we can gain considerable satisfaction in knowing that we are making a significant contribution to the advancement of knowledge and understanding between different cultures.”

Clearly, these are ideas I must photocopy and stick to my wall. It’s inspiring to learn more about the many complex dimensions of the profession, and I will post more of these gems as I get through the mountain of books that await me.

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