10 pieces of advice I give to young translators & students (in random order)

Greater than 2 minutes

  1. Don’t be afraid to spend time on testing new tools. Learn to trust yourself on testing new tools on (small) projects. Share your feedback with your peers: maybe they have other or similar experience.
  2. Don’t become “a” translator; Try to become “the” translator specialized in a narrow domain. Stick to one or two domains and be an expert in those. Choose your domain(s) carefully: it is very hard to focus on stuff that you’re not interested in. Understand some niche domains pay better than others. Take this into consideration as well.
  3. Understand how the business works: translating literature is not the same as translating medical instructions; working as a freelancer is not the same as working as an employee for a translation company. Understand how much risk appetite you have and adjust your professional setup to this.
  4. Update the hardware and the software you’re using frequently. Slow machines slow you down. Old software makes you less competitive.
  5. Network wisely: everybody likes to give work to people they know and people they trust, whom they met in person. Sometimes it is better to attend a new year’s drink than to spend your breath on Facebook. A handshake and a smile are worth thousand tweets and likes.
  6. The time you spend on a job is the only thing you need to measure. You can quote per character, per word, per line, per page or whatever, but make sure you know at the end of the job how much time you spent on it. Calculate back to the unit price and see if it was worth it.
  7. Quality is a rainbow. Make sure you understand what your customer expects and deliver just that. Too high and too low quality are both bad for business. If you get feedback from your customer, don’t start a fight. Learn from it.
  8. Don’t work for customers who don’t pay you on time. Full stop. If you deliver on time, you should be paid on time as well.
  9. Don’t believe machine translation is bad or good. It can be both. Just figure out if it is helping you on the job you need to do. Every job is different, so try to become an expert in judging on how helpful MT is on every job. If you don’t like to post-edit, be happy and stick to translation from scratch. However, know others may work faster when they use it, so don’t reject it too quickly. Give yourself a couple of months to get used to the work.
  10. Nobody’s brain is made for working 10 hours a day. Don’t accept too many jobs where you need to do this often. If you have too much work, outsource to someone you trust. And check his/her work before you deliver to your customer. Never deliver anything without having checked it. Oh… and always use a spell checker 😉


Gert Van Assche

About Gert Van Assche

At Datamundi we're paying a fair price to linguists and translators evaluating (label/score/tag) human translations and machine translations for large scale NLP research projects.

30 thoughts on “10 pieces of advice I give to young translators & students (in random order)

  1. Thank you so much for sharing your first Open Mic story, Gert! High-five! I really love all 10 pieces! Your students should be really proud to have you as their teacher and mentor 😉 Every single advice is absolutely invaluable for newcomers to our awesome profession.

    I’m going to make it our post of the day and feature it on our home page! Thank you so much for writing and sharing it with our little community! I’m sure a lot of people will find this incredibly useful.

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    1. Would just add something from my own experience If you are included in a huge project with tight delivery dates (in general through an agency) and you are working on a server license which means that your client can see your progress and the 52 other translators have still translated at least 3000 words and you nothing, so the project manager is in a "oh my god it s not true why did I choose him/her" Confirm that you would complete the job in time and of course do a good job in time he will remember you

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        1. Quick tip: I often add Skype of the PM to keep the flow of the communication quick and summarise the conversation in the e-mail, though, it doesn’t apply to all PMs.

      1. Yep, just like Gert said. Effective and professional communication are essential. It is important to let your PM know that you’re working on a project and you’re committed to delivering on time and with great quality.

        After all, many of us multi-tasking. There are a whole bunch of other things that we do besides translation. I don’t normally jump right at it, for example. I’m taking my time to read the original, maybe even build a glossary first or create a list of questions to the client before proceeding to actual translation. I think it’s a way better customer service, then just trying to deliver it as fast as possible. Just my 2 cents 🙂

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  2. I especially liked how some of your advices can be applied to many other sectors besides translation; like becoming an expert on something, using up-to-date hardware and software, and investing time and energy in networking.
    Thank you for the post Gert!

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    1. Absolutely agree with you, Hüseyin! I think Gert’s advice is universal and his students a lucky to have him as a teacher because this kind of advice will help them in life no matter if they decide to connect their lives with translation or not. Very well-written!

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  3. Great help. I will certainly read them again and again, as a reminder, or, at least to feel young. Thanks a lot.
    By the way, is there any tip how to ‘help’ clients to ‘brush’ their instructions and translation requests?

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  4. They might not be The Ten Commandments of translation. They are certainly 10 very helpful rules for budding, as well as, experienced translators.

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    1. Khaldun, one of these weeks I plan to write a longer topic about this. The country and the language do play a role, but there are many (too many!) other reasons why there is a pressure on the price of translations, and why for some translators prices are dropping indeed. Nevertheless, I still believe that when a translator is business-wise, when he makes the right strategic decisions early on in his career, and when he has a little bit of luck as well, he can make a good living out of his job. What I find most scary is this: it is normal that junior people find it hard to ask a good price for the work they do — this happens in many jobs; but these days some senior translators also feel the pressure on price! That is a sign we should not ignore.

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  5. Invaluable pieces of advice, most of which seem to be paving the way to becoming a seasoned translator-interpreter. Notably the advice on domain preference and specialization is of paramount importance for a career in translation-interpretation. A whole host of thanks…

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  6. Excellent pieces of advices, Gert !
    I’ve never used Machine Translation. I don’t see why I should. Computers are just machines. Dumb and stupid machines.
    I would add : use a GOOD spellchecker. MS Word’s sucks. Trados Studio’s sucks (the 2014 at least).

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    1. Jean-Louis, I plan to write a new topic on MT with things I feel translators should know about. Even those who never use it.
      I agree that the MS spell checker is not great, but it does come with a dictionary and a customisable dictionary, and it can do some grammar checking as well. For some languages, at least that is what translators are telling me, there is nothing better than the MS spell checker.
      When I’m building custom tools I’m building in HunSpell and Aspell, but those are also not waterproof and bulletproof. Of course, it all depends on the language.
      What spell checker are you happy about? And for what language?

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  7. As a person who is 41 years old and choosing the translation route via higher education for the first time in my life (currently finishing community college, transferring this Fall to an undergraduate program), I have been given SO many negative views about it, especially in terms of low expectation of pay for high quality. It’s a daunting concern of mine. May I ask, where do you teach, and what? Does anyone here have recommendation of pitfalls to avoid while still traversing the education terrain? Thank you! Also, I really enjoyed the article. Am signing up for future posts.

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    1. Hi Karryn, I will write a topic on translator income. Stay tuned.

      In the past 15 years I gave guest lectures at several universities and university colleges, and I also had my own course, but that was on ERP (enterprise resource planning). In the past 3 years I have only been giving trainings for and in translation companies.

      I read a lot of negative stuff as well about and from translators. I regret that because I think that translating is a humble thing to do, yet also quite complicated if you want to do it right. It is like many jobs, something we take for granted, and that is always helping people in need; translators are helping people who don’t speak another language. That’s probably half the planet or more.

      You choose a good profession, and I’m sure you’ll find a way to make a living out of this. Just don’t start to work for peanuts. Select your customers and the jobs you take, wisely.

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  8. Thank you very much, Gert, for your tips! It is important for people like me, who are just beginning their path as freelance translators, to learn from experienced colleagues. I just have one big but simple question. I do believe it’s important to not work for peanuts, as you wrote in one of the comments, but indeed is also important to build your knowledge and experience. How should we manage to improve our skills, become experts in one or two fields and train ourselves, without accepting not well-paid jobs? I mean, every client looks for experienced translators, and may not pay a “full” rate to a newbie. How to find a compromise? Thank you in advance!

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    1. Paolo, what I would do is this: list all domains that are within your interest-zone. Next figure out how many translators are already working in that domain; if there are too many, the prices might be a bit lower. I would also check that there are no very good trained MT engines, especially of you don’t like to edit MT output. For some language pairs and for some narrow domains, I’ve seen engines making less than 1 mistake in 100 sentences. Don’t specialize in their domain.
      One thing I always appreciated when working with junior translators was if they asked if their work would be reviewed and if they would get a copy of the reviewed translation. I never rejected those juniors and I always sent them a copy of their reviewed work. If you work for an agency that is serious about building a good, long term relationship with you, they will also do this. Not to blame you for mistakes and not to renegotiate your word price. I also allowed junior translators to be in direct contact with reviewers or seniors. These ladies (or guys) could often point to helpful resources like terminology books (that are not yet put online) or trustworthy memories that you can use to build your own autosuggest dictionary (if you’re using Studio). If you can find a customer like this, you’re set to go!
      Newbies cannot expect to make the same money as people with 10 years of experience, but they will never make the same money when they work for job brokers (I don’t want to list them here, but if you want to know some of them, just ping me on skype or so). You can use brokers to find your niche, and then, find good agencies of direct customers. As I said in another blog, I think, is: probably the best would be a good mix. Just make sure that in a couple of years you get a nice balance between job brokers (for discovering new markets), translation agencies (who’ll keep you up to speed with technology) and direct customers (who should pay best).

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