Breaking into Translation: Three Tiny Tips for Newbies (and Maybe Even Some Not-So-Newbies)

Breaking into the TR business

Breaking into translation is not easy. I know, I’ve been there. We all have. Personally, I fell into translation by accident in my early twenties. But accidental or not, following the white rabbit was the best decision I ever made. As it turned out, I have a knack for it and love language and writing. Somehow, I found a way to make a comfortable living from translation. In fact, I was even able to pay my law school tuition with my translation earnings; and now that I am a lawyer-linguist, I make nearly three times what I used to make before law school. So breaking into translation is possible and so is making a decent living from translation. If you’re a newbie and you’re reading this: don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise. People who have to keep their day jobs have simply failed to take translation seriously enough to make it their full-time profession. And if Darwinism has taught us anything, it’s that natural selection has a way of weeding out the weaker links.

So you know you want to be a translator. You have excellent comprehension of your source language(s); you’re an exceptional writer in your target language (which should always be your mother tongue, by the way); hopefully you have a strong background in something else (prior profession or valuable experience in a different field); maybe you even have a degree in translation. Now what? Now you’re stuck in that vicious circle where you need experience to get clients, but clients don’t trust you because you have no experience.

The way I see it, you have two choices. You can take the blue pill and live the illusion of professional translation, applying for bottom feeding agencies who will be happy to hire you for peanuts and forever feed the Matrix with low-end pseudo translation. Or you can take the red pill and find your way to Wonderland, where professional translation is valued and that is reflected in your fees and quality of life. Like Morpheus, I cannot tell you which pill to take, but if you chose the red pill, here are some creative ways to break into translation:

1) Focus on getting referrals

Trust is an important part of the business world despite what Hollywood will have you believe. We are prone to hiring professionals that have been recommended to us by people we trust; and your best clients will come through referrals. Therefore, you need to build a network of people who trust you and your (proven) ability to translate; i.e. people who will recommend you when asked. Building a network takes time and your network should consist of both other translators as well as non-translators. For more on building networks, see my post on how I built my direct client base.

2) Build a portfolio

The fact that you don’t have many clients does not mean you can’t show off your translation skills. When you’re an experienced translator, your portfolio may consist of a list of cool stuff you’ve translated, but in the meantime, grab things, translate them, and put them on your portfolio. If you want to avoid copyright issues, make sure the stuff you grab for translation is in the public domain or that you did not take more than what can be construed as fair use. Then you’ll have something to show people that proves you can do the job. Consider using free online portfolio sites like Crevado, Portfoliobox, or Carbonmade to show off your work.

3) Find a mentor

If you’re an ATA member, look into ATA’s mentoring program. If not, find a translator who has already achieved the things you want to achieve, approach them, and ask them if they are willing to mentor you. If you find a good mentor, that person will not only teach you about translation, they will also teach you about making a career out of it. On the importance of finding a good mentor, among other things, check out this post on LinkedIn by Louis D. Lo Praeste.


Of course, these three tips are not a magical solution to your problem if you’re trying to break into the translation industry. But they’re a good place to start. The rest is up to you, your creativity, and your ability to think outside the box and leave your comfort zone.

ATA Copyright Webinar: Q&A


Right before leaving for the 56th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association in Miami, I facilitated a webinar for the ATA on Copyright. The webinar is available here. The purpose of the webinar was to help literary and non-literary translators understand copyright law and how to protect their rights. All in all it went pretty well. I managed to cover all the topics that I had anticipated, but could not get around to answering all the questions posed by participants. My original intention was to address the questions before ATA56, but then work and life happened and it was impossible to sit down to write an adequate response. Fortunately, most people are very reasonable and understanding and since I met a few attendees in person in Miami, I promised them I would take care of these questions as soon as I got back to Buenos Aires. So here goes.

1) If I am going to sign a literary translation contract, should I always think of hiring a copyright lawyer?

Absolutely not. However, at least once in our professional lives it wouldn’t kill us to consult with an expert and get some help developing a draft or model contract that we can then follow and apply on future projects. But that doesn’t mean we’ll need a lawyer for each individual transaction in the future.

2) I have independently translated lyrics to songs by a well-known composer, now deceased. Can I sell/ lease my translations to performers, or do I need permission from the composer’s estate?

If the composer was the owner of the work, did you get written permission from him or her before they passed away? If not, you need to find out who owns that copyright now: Their estate? The label? Are the lyrics in the public domain?

3) Membership in the Author’s Guild includes consultation with the Guild’s lawyers.

Though that’s not actually a question, this comment was totally worth sharing.

4) Are you saying to sell your copyright?? (the fee you receive for your literary translation)

No, that’s not what I was trying to say. What I was trying to say is that when figuring out what you can and cannot do with your copyright, it helps to think of it (in abstract terms) as a piece of land which you can sell, lease, divide, bequeath, etc. This should not be taken literally to mean sell your copyright all the time in every case.

5) For a literary translation, if the author is the only copyright entity on the title page of work, is it sufficient for the translator to get written permission from the author, or does the translator need permission from the publisher as well?

You should always get permission from whoever owns copyright. In this case, it is very likely that the author is the owner of the work, so starting with the author is a good idea. However, you should also bear in mind that author (in the sense of creator or writer) and owner are not necessarily the same person. If the author is not the copyright owner, they will be able to tell you who is if they have an interest in seeing their work translated.

6) When requesting permission to translate and seek publication for a poem or other piece of literature, sometimes I get the response that I have permission to translate, but not to sell, publish, or spread out in any way. May I still seek publication from journals for this translated work, and then they can work out the publishing agreement themselves? If not, how might I respond to the original publisher?

It seems like what you are getting is permission for fair use, which is a right you already have. That being said, journals are not likely to want to publish a translation of a work that was not authorized for publication by the copyright owner. Some journals also ask that the owner waive all copyright upon submission. So you might be setting yourself up for a fall. However, if the journal is interested enough in publishing that content and they have sufficient negotiating power, they might be willing to negotiate the copyright themselves, but that is not always the case. My recommendation is never to start translating anything before you have all necessary licenses and permissions from copyright owners. Take care of the legal aspect first and the translating last; otherwise you may end up working on something that may never get published.

7) Are you familiar with the Babelcube contract and if so can it be called fair for the translator?

Issues of fairness in business practices are very hard to assess because there is no single unequivocal way to determine what is and isn’t fair. However, I am familiar with the contract. In fact, I translated a book via Babelclub just to see what the fuzz was about and how it worked. I made a whole 0.50 cents! Based on that experiment, I think it’s not as much a question of fairness as it is a question of likelihood that the book will sell. If the book tanks, you will end up working for nothing. If the book soars, then the numbers stipulated in the contract are pretty reasonable. The problem is that you’re leaving far too much to chance and they have yet to get a single best seller on their platform. The way the platform is working now results in total loss to translators; meanwhile authors, who would otherwise have had to pay translators, are getting their work translated for free (or peanuts). After having tried the system for myself, I don’t support it at all.

8) Should translators forgo advance fees for royalties?

As a lawyer, I can’t really answer this question. There is no legal reason to go either way. However, as a translator, I would not forgo fees for royalties unless I was sure I was facing a best seller and the royalties were very high. The only time I tried that was (as indicated in the question above) part of an experiment to see if Babelclub worked and how, and the result was exactly as expected: the book tanked and I made no money! I was in a position where I could afford the risk, but that might not be the case for everybody. So I would advice a serious cost-benefit and risk assessment before foregoing fees.

9) I am not sure I heard the answer to the following questions: Who owns the copyright when machine translation is used? What if the translator and client or publisher are in different countries? What if someone obviously ripped off someone else’s translation? And, above all else, how can translators protect their intellectual property rights?

These questions pretty much sum up everything we talked about during the webinar. Last I checked, the MT issue had not yet been taken to court, so we still don’t know how courts are going to decide such cases. All we can do at this point is speculate. Most MT platforms have clauses saying they own copyright. So I would advise against using MT without client consent and knowledge of this potential issue.

If the translator, client and publisher are in different countries, you need to clearly establish in your contract who owns copyright; and it wouldn’t hurt to determine applicable law and conflict resolution beforehand to make things simpler if the deal goes sour.

Determining whether someone ripped off someone else’s translation in court is very difficult. However, if someone does rip off your translation and you can prove it, then you can exercise all your rights as the owner of the derivative work, provided you haven’t waived those rights already.

I talked extensively about protection and it comes down to a good contract. First, you need to be very clear about your intent when it comes to copyright. If a work is a “work for hire” then it should say so, if not, then that should also be clear. Protecting copyright comes down to the five big clauses we discussed at the end of the webinar: copyright clause, translation credits, royalties, governing law and jurisdiction, and conflict resolution.

I believe the rest of the questions were answered during the Q&A part of the webinar. If you attended the webinar, feel free to use the comment section for additional questions or clarifications. If your question was not answered, let me know, I’ll be happy to address it here. And, of course, thanks for attending and reading!

How ATA56 Rocked!

Marty ATA56

Pablo and I just got back from the 56th Annual Conference of the American Translators Association in sunny Miami, Florida. I know, the conference ended a few weeks ago, but it is not every day one flies all the way to the States for a conference. So we took a few extra days off to visit New York and indulge in the art, architecture, pizza, and cheesecake!

This was my first ATA conference and I have absolutely no point of comparison. Even so, I thought the conference was excellent! What I’ve learned about translation conferences is that the atmosphere is usually very positive. This held true for ATA56. The translation world is so diverse that our conferences are more about congeniality and mutual learning and cooperation than they are about competition. At every conference there’s always that rogue translator who just doesn’t get it. But for the most part, one comes across wonderful people with creative ideas, original views, and a lot to share.

Photo by Jeff Sanfacon, ATA staff photographer

Photo by Jeff Sanfacon, ATA staff photographer

My impression–and I could be wrong, of course, as I have only been a member for about one year– is that the ATA is going out of its way to provide support and guidance to newcomers. Some say the organization has done so in detriment of more experienced translators, but I don’t think that’s true. As an experienced translator, I felt right at home and learned a lot from my colleagues during the conference. I met and exchanged ideas with some of the big names in translation, for whom I feel profound respect, and witnessed for myself just how committed ATA staff and volunteers are to doing their absolute best. Does that mean the ATA is perfect? Of course not. There’s room for improvement, especially when it comes to certain ethical questions concerning agencies and freelancers. But the atmosphere throughout the conference was all about putting our heads together and working towards an organization that provides tools for translators to thrive in their areas of practice and I think that is ultimately what really matters.

Leadership Training:

The first event I attended was the leadership training, as I will be serving a two year term as Assistant Administrator of the Literary Division, alongside Jesse Tomlinson, our brand new super committed and enthusiastic Administrator. As a first time attendee, the training session was confusing to me for the first few minutes, but once we figured out how the roundtables worked it was as simple as walking up to the roundtable that seemed the most relevant to our division and then just learning from my colleagues and trying to make a positive contribution when I could. I attended that event with friend and former LitDiv Administrator, Mercedes Guhl, whose views and comments were extremely helpful in preparing for my new position. The Literary Division has so much to thank her and Josefina for and now Jesse and I have so much to honor and live up to! At the conference, I finally realized what a marvelous challenge and adventure Jesse and I have embarked ourselves on.

At that event, I think the other person I learned from the most other than Mercedes was Charo Welle from the Spanish Division. Charo is an expert in communication and her expertise really came through in her advice to other divisions. The Spanish division has an incredible blog (a must-read for all Spanish readers!) and their success story was truly inspiring. Who knows? Maybe the literary division will follow suit. But even if we ultimately decide not to start a literary blog, at least I learned several strategies for improving communication and social media within the division.

Buddies Meet Newbies:

Another thing I enjoyed was the buddies meet newbies program. My buddy, Catherine Christaki was the best. I know everyone will probably say that about their buddy, but when I say it, it’s actually true. She’s so great she even took on several stray newbies who’d lost their buddies or signed up too late. A highlight of the buddies meet newbies event was listening to Helen Eby, who I later got to chat with repeatedly throughout the conference. I believe Helen to be a sort of never ending source of wisdom and just plain good and reasonable advice. Helen talked about the Saavy Newcomer and invited all division leaders to encourage our division to submit content.

Book Splash:

The Book Splash was one of my absolute favorite events. Some of the biggest names in literary translation were there including, of course, Lisa Carter, who is just as cool in person as she is on her blog. I also got to meet our President-Elect Corinne McCay whose blog I’ve been following forever and which has tons of invaluable posts for translators that are looking to break into the direct client scene. And, last but not least, I got to chat with (and get my book signed by) Chris Durban, author of The Prosperous Translator among other admirable achievements you can read about here. My buddy Catherine described Chris as “an industry legend” and she wasn’t kidding. Chris is one of the most well respected translators I know. Everywhere I go in the world, her reputation precedes her and our colleagues have nothing but great things to say about her.


I did not attend as many presentations as I originally intended. Mainly for two reasons: 1) some of the presentations I was interested in overlapped with each other or with my own, and missing my own presentations just didn’t seem right; and 2) it was impossible to get from point A to point B without getting stopped by (and ending up having coffee with) people I found along the way. I am somewhat of a social butterfly and I love coffee, so whenever someone even remotely suggested the idea of grabbing a cup of Joe I was in! I will have to work on that for San Francisco. But I will be blogging about the sessions I did attend in individual posts.

Other Awesome People:

ATA staff and volunteers don’t always get the credit they deserve because most of their work happens behind the scenes. So another highlight of the event for me was meeting Mary David and Jamie Padula in person. A lot of what I like best about the ATA would not be possible without them.

Mentoring Program:

As if all that wasn’t enough, I was honored by an attendee who asked me to be her mentor this year. ATA’s mentoring program is a wonderful initiative that matches a limited amount of people each year. I will of course have a lot more to say about this initiative once the Class of 2016 starts.


As someone who lives all the way down in southernmost country of the American continent, ATA56 meant a huge investment in terms of time and money, but it was absolutely worth it. The conference was an invaluable learning and networking experience. I came back with many new ideas, prospects and opportunities and am extremely excited about the upcoming business year. I wouldn’t miss ATA57 in San Francisco next year for the world! Or any other ATA conference for that matter. I strongly encourage people to go to these conferences and give them a chance. Get to know the people behind the organization. It is an enriching experience on many different levels, even for us first time attendees.

Photo by Jeff Sanfacon, ATA staff photographer

Photo by Jeff Sanfacon, ATA staff photographer

My upcoming ATA webinar on copyright for translators: Everyone’s invited

Copyright Theif

I don’t usually promote anything on this blog, but this time I feel it’s for a good cause. As many of my readers may already know, I’m a member of the Leadership Council of the American Translators Association’s Literary Division and am currently running for Assistant Administrator. One of the priorities that I mentioned in my candidate statement is that I intend to “[m]ake the most of my legal training to help create informative and educational tools on copyright law and other issues affecting literary translators and to make them broadly and easily available to the entire division.” As luck would have it, long before I was even nominated, I had mentioned to Mercedes Guhl, our current administrator, that I wanted to facilitate a webinar on IP and copyright. Mercedes and a bunch of other lovely people at the ATA and eCPD worked really hard to make that happen and now that idea is about to see the light of day.

The reason I wanted to facilitate this webinar is that intellectual property law can be a bit fathoming. Copyright, which is an area of intellectual property law that affects both work for hire as well as literary translation, is even more enigmatic at times and even lawyers struggle to find answers to questions that arise over translation copyright: Who owns copyright when using Machine Translation (MT)? What if the translator and client/publisher are in different countries? What if someone obviously ripped off someone else’s translation but could have rendered a similar translation by their own merit? And, more importantly, how can translators protect their intellectual property rights?

The internet is bursting with information, some of which is quite helpful, but it’s also bursting with misinformation and translators don’t always know where to look or who to trust. Meanwhile, the “translation industry” seems to be undergoing profound changes. Language professionals are pushed to waive copyright in exchange for peanuts and without proper credits or acknowledgment of their work –let alone royalties!

So I now have an opportunity to bring a little bit of information to translators about this tricky (yet fascinating!) world of IP law, especially copyright. This is happening on Thursday, October 15th at 12 PM EDT, and you can register here. In this webinar I intend to cover:

1) How copyright affects work for hire vs. literary translation contracts

2) How translators should be credited for their work

3) Royalties

4) The five most important copyright-related clauses that should appear in all translation contracts

5) How to protect your rights

We only have an hour, so my webinar has been designed as an overview of the essentials, but I hope it will be helpful to everyone. Information is power, or so they say. Therefore, my idea is to provide participants with the most important information that translators need to know. Needless to say, you are all invited and I hope to see you there!

5 Ways in Which Translators Rock


Translators rock! They just do. Most of the translators I know are wonderful human beings; and I know a lot of translators. Good translators have many traits that relate to their particular kinship to language and culture. Doing a good translation job requires background knowledge, dedication, attention to detail, and patience. When you couple those traits with an excellent command of one or more foreign languages, you get a translator. But what makes translators so amazing, to me, goes far beyond their impressive professional skills. When I say that “translators rock,” what I have in mind are the admirable human qualities of the people I’m thinking of while I write this post.

5) Translators are Interesting People

Whether they are avid readers, poets, writers, painters, photographers, travelers, or athletes, translators are fascinating human beings with varied interests and hobbies.

4) Translators Care

They care about language and culture. They care about doing a good job. They care about their clients. They care about the world in general. Read our blogs and visit our forums, you’ll find thousands of people who pour their hearts and souls into their work, their communities, their families, their pets, and pretty much everything else that makes their hearts flutter.

3) Translators Work Hard

You know that “work hard, play hard” motto? Most translators stop at work hard. They work days, nights, and weekends with dignity and respect for their clients and the task at hand. Translators know the value of a job well done and take pride in their work.

2) Translators are Supportive

It seems to me translators are hardwired to be helpful and supportive. This is no surprise considering that translators help people communicate for a living in all sorts of different settings. But it doesn’t end there. Translators are generous human beings who are happy to share their knowledge and experience to help support others in their projects, ideas, and dreams.

1) Translators are Kind

“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see,” said Mark Twain. And translators are experts in kindness. In my 14 years as a translator I cannot count how many acts of kindness I’ve witnessed from my fellow translators. From helping stray dogs find homes to volunteering for human rights causes, there are translators all over the world who are brave enough to be kind.

This post is dedicated to all the wonderful people I’ll be seeing in Bordeaux this September and in Miami this November and to those I won’t be seeing, but wish I would. You know who you are. 😉