7 Tips for Growing Up as a Professional Translator

crying baby

I don’t usually publish two posts on the same week, especially not just one day apart, but there is a rich debate going on in one of the many online forums I check out from time to time and the Professor in me simply cannot help commenting on it while it’s still a hot topic from which we can learn a thing or two.

These are the facts as I know them. A translator with a degree in translation applied to an agency specializing in technical translation, apparently in two very specific subject areas. The agency allegedly reviewed the translator’s application and –very politely in my opinion– thanked her for applying and explained that the nature of their work requires professionals with degrees in these two subject areas. They added that, although they don’t often receive much work that fits her profile, they will keep her on record in case anything comes up that matches her background.

In what to me was a very childlike reaction, the translator then posted the e-mail (including the name of the agency representative) on a blacklist group and then went on to whine about non-translators (i.e. those of us who don’t necessarily hold degrees in translation) who translate. This brings me to Tip #1: Learn to handle rejection.

As it turned out, the agency who claims to use professionals with degrees in these two technical fields also advertises very low rates on their site. Therefore, it is perhaps safe to assume that they, in turn, pay their translators with peanuts. THIS would have been a legitimate reason to blacklist the agency in question IF they had made this translator a ludicrous offer. But that simply wasn’t the case, the reason the translator was so outraged had nothing to do with rates and everything to do with her inability to handle rejection. Tip #2: Learn to focus on the big picture.

This sparked an endless and at some points even absurd debate on whether or not a degree in translation is a prerequisite for working as a translator. I’m not going to get into that debate itself because if you part from the premise that translation is not an undergraduate area of study in every country (just in some) and that there are international certification processes designed to compensate for that (which take into account academic background, experience in translation, and actual skill), the debate is rendered moot, which brings me to my third tip. Tip #3: Learn to zoom out and see the world from a broader perspective.

Although I don’t care much for the issue that sparked the debate, what I do want to get into is what the debate revealed to me about how some translators see translation. Here’s the gist of some of the comments in the discussion:

Nobody can teach me, as someone who has a degree in translation, about language or what I can and cannot translate.

In context, this was phrased a little differently and was in response to some very reasonable comments about specialization and knowing your own limitations. But, aside from the obvious appeal to authority fallacy, what this statement is also revealing is a complete lack of understanding of what an education in a specific field has to add to training/education in translation. If this person had a clue of the underlying sophistication or complexity of certain subject areas of translation, she would be more than willing to learn from field experts and to use that training and knowledge to add value to her degree in translation. Tip #4: Learn from others.

If lawyers, doctors, engineers, etc. can translate, then why can’t translators practice law, medicine, engineering, etc.?

This failed reductio ad absurdum is not even worth addressing directly; but the fact that so many people supported it reveals the massive lack of knowledge –even among some translators– of the limitations of education and training and just how much additional learning is required to do a good job as a translator. Tip #5: Learn your limitations (if you can’t even see them, you’ll never be able to overcome them).

There was also a certain level of animosity toward professionals from other areas, which revealed a total lack of self-esteem. What you say about others really says a lot more about you than it does about them. This animosity took several forms; from claims that lawyers, engineers, doctors, etc. think they are somehow “better” than people with degrees in translation to this:

Why would engineers, lawyers, doctors, etc. want to work as translators if they can make more money in their original field of study?

Well, not really. I make about the same as a lawyer-linguist as I would working at a law firm and I know for a fact (having done the actual math) that I make at least as much as a first instance judge with 10 years on the bench (in Argentina, which is where I live). I am not the exception to the rule; people with similar backgrounds make as much money from translation as I do. The question is what makes YOU (translator) believe you CAN’T make as much as an engineer, lawyer, doctor, etc.? Tip #6: Learn to respect your profession and value its worth.

These self-proclaimed translators without degrees in translation are stealing our jobs.

Of course we’re not. We work and thrive in different markets and the world is big enough for us both. If you are the kind of translator who works in a market where a translation degree is the sole prerequisite for translating (where experience, specialization, subject-matter training, etc. don’t count or can be replaced by a certificate that reads, “yes, this person sat through a few years of translation school”), then you can’t compete with me and you have a lot of catching up to do. If instead you are translator with a degree in translation PLUS the added value of subject-matter education, training, specialization, experience, etc. then perhaps I can’t compete with you and I have some catching up to do. However, given our respective positions in this debate, as things currently stand, we’re aiming at different target markets. Tip #6: Learn to identify what league you’re in and who you are really playing against.

It is no accident that all my tips begin with the word “learn.” Growing up professionally is a learning process. It can be at times painful (especially in the beginning) and at times incredibly rewarding. But we must all go through the process of growing up if we wish to succeed in any walk of life. This leads me to my last tip, lucky #7: If you feel you have nothing left to learn, then there is no doubt you have failed.

28 thoughts on “7 Tips for Growing Up as a Professional Translator

  1. Thanks Paula. I’ve not read the thread, but this is an old debate I’m trying to handle, as a graduate-but-not-a-linguist translator. I think your post is a balanced way to settle the issue.


  2. Thanks for this “learning” tips. Graduated as a linguist-translator, I was discriminated a lot by colleagues from psychological field, it could sound weird enough (I was trying to change my domaine into social psychology). I think everything today is mostly about human beings, personality and behaviour. And, yes, learning and tolerant rebelling.


  3. abktranslate2012 says:

    Excellent post (and I’m going to make sure I get notifications about your blog more often – really great!), and as a translator without a translation degree ;)! I got my MBA and ‘ended up’ in translation which is where I initially started – changed programs at the Monterey Institute after being told upon arrival and after being accepted to the T&I program that I would never ‘make it’ as a translator or interpreter, and enrolled in the International MBA program instead. I am able to apply my business (specifically marketing) educational background and experience in my translations. In other words (sorry for rant!), your post struck a chord with me, thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comment… not a rant at all. Your story is yet another testimony that helps us gain a broader perspective of how this professional works. In that vein, I appreciate that you took the time to share and hope to read more from you in the future!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Paula, you have so eloquently and elegantly pinpointed and summarized what I like to call “why translators are their own worst enemies” (mostly due to business ignorance and immaturity), which just helps others divide and conquer them.

    I suspect that most of these issues stem from the fact that so many translators (at least from my experience) find their way into the profession for all the wrong reasons (‘last resort”), or straight out of school, not equipped with the knowledge and tools that should help them navigate the market, with its complexities, and steer clear of common pitfalls.

    I especially liked Tip #7: Learn to identify what league you’re in and who you are really playing against. So important to understand that there are in fact multiple leagues, and the little sliver of reality one is currently experiencing is far from being the entire world.

    And one comment about ‘Tip #6: Learn to respect yourself and value your worth’ in relation to ‘Tip #1: Learn to handle rejection’. I understand what you are saying and fully support the sentiment. However, from my humble experience I also noticed that some seem to take this advice almost by the letter, and associate their value as a person and professional with the reactions they get fro, clients, and this could become dangerous. For example, when being rejected (due to price, or simply because there isn’t a good fit with that client), some take it as a personal comment about their value as human beings and professionals, instead of just a one in a million business opportunity that ended up not being a good fit.
    Therefore, nowadays I usually prefer to phrase this tip as ‘Learn to respect yourself as a professional practitioner and understand the value the results of your services bring to the client”. After-all, we don’t sell ourselves, we don’t even sell our time – we sell results for the client(s).

    Thank you again for presenting this roadmap for professional maturity. I think everyone would be wise to revisit this roadmap once in a while to regain focus on what is really important.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Shai. As usual, you’ve hit the nail on the head.

      I totally agree that translators often take rejection at a professional level far too personally. In fact, I would argue that what sparked the entire debate was just that. I think your rephrasing of these two tips adds a lot of value to the message I was trying to convey. I hope readers visiting this post also take the time to read your comment. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • From witnessing (and foolishly participating ) in similar debates, I tend to agree with you Paula.
        People start these debates because they treat their experience and journey as the true and only way to become a “professional”, whereas in reality things are much more complicated. What surprised me was the apparent inferiority complex, because only very few valid arguments were made in these discussions, and they seem to take an unnecessary personal direction. This is ridicouls, because if you strip all the personal nonsense, both parties argue pretty much the same thing when it comes to the skills required to work as a translator.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Pinaki Talukdar says:

    I have come accross many such articles, but your article is best, because: 1. It is written from a practising translator’s perspective, 2. Has the magic word “Learning” in it.

    I read your entire piece in one breath and must say I am awestruck at your dexterity of putting simple things simply.

    May I ask your permission to translate your article in Bangla (Language of Bangladesh and parts of India) so that many many translators of my native language can benefit from your wisdom?


    • Thank you for kind comment, Pinaki. I really appreciate it. I started this blog with the hope that some of my experience after 14 years in the business might be useful to someone else out there. So I’m happy to know you liked it and I’m honored and thrilled at your offer to translate my post into Bangla!!!!

      All the contents of this blog are under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license, which means my readers are free to build on my content, remix, tweak, derive, translate, etc. provided it is for non-commercial use and that they simply acknowledge the original work. So please, feel free to take and create!!! 🙂


  6. This was a great read. I got a Master’s degree in English translation quite a few years ago and I’ve been working as an in-house translator (among other things) for 9 years already, translating stuff I’m not really familiar with, so I need to ask my workmates (technicians, not translators) for help quite frequently. I’ve also worked with some people who didn’t have any translation degrees but were great translators in their fields of expertise. One of my teachers in the Master once told me, “a translator is not made, but born; and you were born for this”. I think this applies to a lot of people who don’t have translation degrees, and maybe not so much to other who do have one.

    Since I got my degree I noticed some contempt from a certain amount of translators towards teachers (I’m one myself, too) and towards the work of other colleagues who may not have as much experience or who had graduated only recently. Most of this guys were too full of themselves to acknowledge others’ work as good and, as some of the people you quoted here, fancied themselves better than any other translator who didn’t have a degree in the specific field. Yesterday i was watching an episode of a TV series, dubbed into Spanish, and they used the false friend “actualmente” in a sentence in which I identified the word as a clear “actually” in English… I’ll have to check if the original quote said “actually”, but I’d bet the house it did. This is English 1.0, the kind of stuff I teach 6 y.o. children here in Spain… and the person who translated this is due to be a professional translator!

    I, for once, am always learning and trying to improve as a professional. This is something one should never stop doing, and your tips will be very useful to me on this regard.

    Thanks for your post and sorry about my long rant.


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